A Tale of True Courage and Determination

 by Lt Gen Retd Javed Nasir, Retired

It was 29th of August 1967, I was supervising the work of my company of 101 Engineer Battalion on the famous Karakoram Highway, my camp was at Kuksil, just 4 miles from the Khunjrab Top (16500’ above mean sea level) where our Battalion Headquarters was located. I saw the DR (Despatch Rider) approaching me with a broad smile, there must be some good news but what could it be – the one about which I had been waiting so anxiously. The result of the entrance test to Staff College had already been announced and I had cleared it. ‘Mubarik Ho Sahib’ (congratulation Sir) said the D R as he handed over the signal to me. I quickly glanced over it, I had been called for the interview for foreign Staff Course. In those days top ten on merit in the entrance test to the Staff College used to be called for interview, out of which four used to be selected for the Staff Courses in UK (2) Canada (1) and Australia (1). The interview was at GHQ (General Headquarters) at Rawalpindi on 1st Sept. We had no road link with Pakistan, our force of 1,500 was airlifted by C-130s from Rawalpindi to Hotian (In Sinkiang Province of China) and from there transported by road to Khunjrab, 4 days extremely tenuous journey. except for the mainforce – the individuals could only be transported to Pakistan in absolute emergency via Urimachi – Peking – Pakistan, a minimum of 7 days journey.

I immediately contacted my Commanding Officer Lt. Col. Kidwai at the BHQ on telephone and requested him to allow me to go to GHQ on foot. He was a very tough guy (physically) and dissuaded me, saying it was next to impossible. I had only three days – the jeep head at Passu was 7 stages away nearly 90 miles from Khunjrab. The porter postman covered this journey from Passu to Khunjrab in 7 stages each of one day. The first habitation was at Sust a small village of about 50 hutments which was 5 days journey from Khunjrab and 2 days from Passu. Since I used to walk on foot to and from the work site at least twice a day it would make at least 25-30 miles each day. My muscles and stamina had been developed to give me the confidence to insist that I would accept the challenge. I could reach GHQ only if I did the foot journey of 7 days in 1-1/2 day and then was lucky to get a jeep from Passu and finally the plane from Gilgit. My Commanding Officer gave in. I picked up my batman whom I had selected for his physical toughness. Our Adjutant Capt Altaf (later Brig) had also been posted out, he also decided to join me. I selected a very tough nursing Assistant.

By 2’ 0 clock on 29th, we were all set to leave Kuksil. All Officers including the Commanding Officer and all ranks of my Company waived us off, some joined us for 1-2 miles. We had approximately 4-1/2 hours of daylight. The trail being too narrow and difficult and winding, I calculated that I could make it, if I could do at least 2-1/2 stages (approx. 32 miles.) on the first day.

I told my party that we would move on our individual speeds and break the journey for the night at Wadkhun (a place 3 stages from the top approx 36 miles but minus 4 miles upto Kuksil, it was about 30-32 miles. I was very excited and kept a very brisk pace, I was carrying a very light sleeping bag and a pair of uniform and some Chinese ladies silk that I had bought for my wife. The others were carrying at least 25-30 lbs.

By PM when I reached Wadkhun top from where I could see those following me down at the river bed, none had even reached the river bed. I had a clear lead of one hour plus. As the evening was approaching I saw a large brown bear walking on the opposite side of the river slope. I was a little scared, I had no weapons. We walked on our sides of the river, the bear on the left and me on the right slope, just before sunset the bear started moving downhill. Luckily on my side because of a gorge the track moved upwards. I could not see the bear anymore but I was scared that it might cross the river even though the current was very fast. About half an hour after sunset. I reached Wadkhun. I took my haversack meal and cleaned one of the caves which shepherds, from Hunza use at night when during summers they bring their livestock uphill for grazing. Wadkhun is at an altitude of approx 12000 AMSL and there is plenty of grass and other shrubs. I took planks from other caves and ensured that even if the bear reached it, it should not be able to push it. I was very tired and went off to sleep as soon as I hit the sack. Quite a few hours later, I heard shouts – Sir – Sir Major Nasir ——— It was Capt Altaf who along with other two reached Wadkhur a little after 10 PM Capt. Altaf had developed blisters and so had the nursing assistant – but they defied the pain and human endurance and finally made it to Wadkhun. The only signature which confirmed my presence was my walking stick which I forgot outside the Cave. This was my only weapon to fight the bear if it had followed me. It did not.

I along with Sharif took a very early start, instructing Capt Altaf and the nursing Assistant to take their own time and not to follow us at our pace. I wanted to reach Passu, the jeep head, in the afternoon to take a chance to leave for Gilgit the same day, a distance of approx 50-55. miles. In order to make myself even more light I abandoned most of the things even the sleeping bag for Altaf’s party, as I was hoping to enter Passu before evening. Passu is a sort of small semi-Military Station. I felt no signs of fatigue due to the previous days journey I maintained an even brisker pace. My batman accompanied me for some distance but soon I outpaced him. I was feeling even more excited and was very optimistic that I would make for the interview. We had started at 5.00 AM (an hour before sunrise), by 8 O’clock I had reached the trolley site which was 10 miles short of Sust. It was far too good a progress to believe. In little over three hours I had done 20 miles. Next came the first shock, the trolley and the rope were tied on the far side (The postman who used to come once a week on his way back had tied the trolley and the rope on the far bank. He was not expecting anyone to come from Khunjrab side. There were no human beings in the area. I sat down completely frustrated, waiting and hoping against hope that some shepherd may appear on the far bank. The clock was ticking, I was hungry, had no food. I was hoping to be at Sust before lunch, I would have been there even before noon but for the ferry. I was still to cover about 35 miles upto Passu, in this frustration I dozed off. When I woke up it was 2.00 PM. I was alarmed. Sharif, my batman was still nowhere in sight, I later learnt at Rawalpindi that he sprained his foot. I took the most desperate and stupid decision – while at PMA (Pakistan Military Academy) we used to cross what was called the single rope Burma Bridge, hanging from the rope on our arms and legs making movements of alternate arm and leg – we used to cross it in less than a minute. That distance was only 20 feet and I was then 19 years old extra tough youth who used to score 60/60 in physical tests. I was now 31, still with strong legs but weak arms and the bridge was at least 150 feet if not more. I made a short prayer to Allah (God). The down slope half was covered without any problem, then came the up slope and my arms and legs started giving in. The rope had lot of grease and my thick Chinese cotton paded gloves were all full of grease – using my teeth while hanging I pulled off the glove. The sound of gushing water below was deafening as I pulled one of the glove and put my hand on the rope, the SWR (steel wire rope) was icy cold. I tried to put on the glove again but in this struggle, it fell from my teeth. My arms started giving in. I wasted lot of energy in the process. I built up all the determination and recited every prayer of the Quran that I could remember, I moved up four five motions when my legs could not remain on the rope any more and I was now hanging on my arms the last reserves of whose strength I had already consumed. For the first time, I had a feeling that, that was my end, The entire past of the 30 years, flashed through like a fraction of a second. I thought of my parents, my wife, my one year old son Kashif who would not even remember me, my brothers and sisters, what did not come to my mind was the interview for which I had put everything at stake. It was the last 10 feet or so but they appeared more distant than even 10 miles with one hand in glove and the other feeling the biting coldness of the steel. I could see I was quite close to the anchor rock I could not keep my bare hand on the SWR any longer. I put it on my other hand over the glove and started swinging my body to and fro along the rope, then reciting the words of the ‘Kalmia’ (the Muslim covenant with Allah) I put in every bit of my strength in the swing and released the grip on the SWR fearing that I would land somewhere on the bed of river to be found later by my batman Sharif with my bones crushed.

Suddenly my feet landed on something and I fell to the front. I remained motionless for quite some time, I knew I was alive. How, I did not know, gradually I opened my eyes, I saw myself intact – I was on the edge of the boulder rock projection which was being used as an anchor. I had landed just inches from its edge, perhaps 6 inches short and I would have been 300 feet below on the rocky river bed. I recovered myself. It had taken me total of 5 minutes but it had looked as if it had taken 5 years. I went down to the river bed, did my ablutions and offered prayers, came back, unknotted the trolley rope and was on my mission again. Because of the trolley episode I reached Passu much after dark. I had covered 87 miles in 1-1/2 day over one of the most treacherous and difficult terrains, a winding steep goat track. (25 years later when I visited Passu by helicopter as a Lt. Gen and Engineer in Chief Pak. Army, many locals came to see me, they had made legendary stories about me. Now the 8th wonder of the World KKH (Karakoram Highway) links Gilgit – Passu – Khunjrab. Upon reaching Passu, the local Militia Commander broke another bad news. A glacier had washed away a bridge and as such no jeep would be able to go from Passu side, only jeeps coming from Gilgit side if agree to go back could take me in the afternoon the next day. Which would be very unusual. Night travel was avoided because of very narrow road.

Capt. Altaf and Sharif did not reach Passu that night. They reached two days later. I took an early start and decided to cover as much distance as possible hoping to get some other transport. In less than an hour I reached the bridge site. Where locals had put two spars across the span and were adjusting their distance in accordance with the wheel span of the jeep, after this had been done, two local drivers laid a bet of 100 Rupees as to who would cross over such a dangerous arrangement. To my utter delight the driver crossed the jeep keeping each tyre on the only spar underneath. It was the second miracle, the spars were no bigger than 6 inches in diameter. Even an inch this way or that way and the jeep would have fallen 100 feet below. My spirits were boosted again. My only problem now appeared to be the PIA and C-130 flight, both depended on clear weather which so far was very fine. By mid-day we were at Ali Abad (half way between Gilgit and Passu) this jeepable road is very narrow with very steep curves and slopes. The driver broke for lunch. We had finished the meals long ago but there was no sign of the driver who finally appeared at around 4.00 PM saying that there was a landslide approx 15 miles from Ali Abad and the working party could not close the breach, and had returned, as such the jeep would leave the next day in the afternoon. Because of weather problem during end August/early September, flights from Gilgit are possible only during early hours. As the sun rises, the valleys get blocked with clouds. My only chance lay in reaching Gilgit that night or latest by the early morning hours on the morrow. I approached all the three drivers who had jeeps, to at least take me upto the slide site – from where I could go on foot upto Chalet where one of our units was camped making the road stretch upto Gilgit. None obliged and there I set on the journey all by myself once again. Chalet was 28 miles from Ali Abad and compared to my performance of the previous two days, the target looked much easier. The area being habitated, I would come across an odd couple every 5-10 minutes but as the sun went down I was left all by myself. The weather being hot my progress was very slow. I reached at the slide site in about 4 hours time around tennish. The breach caused by the slide was nearly 200 feet wide of which half had been repaired, on the remaining half there was no sign of the road and road could not have been opened to traffic even by mid-day the next day. The moon was in the third quarter, as the night grew, the moonlight also became a little helpful. Since I was moving on a jeepable road, the travel was easy but being alone I was little scared and in order to overcome my fears I would recite the verses from Quran in loud voice, that provided a sense of security. Though arrival of small hutments/hamlets was welcome but not the greetings by the dogs who faithfully followed me and barked me out of every village premises that I crossed. By the Muslim time of morning prayer I reached Chalat. The ladies silk and the pair of uniform, I was carrying were drenched in my perspiration and had developed ugly maps.

Upon reaching Chalat, I learnt that military camp was another 4 miles away. For the first time I felt tired. Walking in cold weather was very different, the fatigue one felt walking for even 8 hours in cold weather was less than even one hour’s walk in humid weather of Chalet which even though it was 4500 AMSL, yet it was relatively hot being at the bed of the river.

By 6 pm I was at the Military Camp. To my utter disappointment I found all the Officers missing. Fatal casualty had taken place as a result of a slide and all officers had gone to offer funeral prayers. Using the camp toilet of an officer, I did a quick shave and had a bath. It meant an hour more delay and put on my uniform which was all crumpled with wrinkles and perspiration maps. I was provided a jeep, Gilgit was roughly 20 miles from the Camp site. The road is along the river bed. As one approached Gilgit the airfield being on an elevated base. One can see the planes taking off. While we were still 4-5 miles short of Gilgit. I saw the PIA Fokker take off as the plane gained height my heart sank further. I was so close to it, yet so far away. I became dejected and melancholy. The thought that came repeatedly to my mind was that if I were to be stranded at Gilgit, why Allah helped me at the ferry site – the washed away bridge site and finally at the slide site, may be there is some airforce C-130 still to take off. As we came up the Gilgit plateau my excitement knew no bounds when I saw one C-130 parked on the runway. We had to cross the bridge which was another 2 miles upstream to reach the airport. Breaking all regulations I dashed straight to the tarmac, the doors of C-130 were being closed. Looking at my totally sun burnt dark face, rumbled and wrinkled uniform and unpolished shoes, the Chief Petty Officer let me speak to the Captain of the aircraft some Squadron Leader. I told him I had walked all the way from Khunjrab Top for Foreign Staff College interview which was to be held at GHQ that day at 9.30 AM. I had no documents. The Captain looked at his watch it was 8.30 AM. Do you have any baggage? Hearing such a positive response, I made a drill square salute banging my foot on the Cockpits delicate floor and said ‘No Sir’.

There are no seats downstairs. you sit down in the cockpit with us.

The plane landed at Chaklala (Rawalpindi) airport and by the time the doors were opened it was 0945.

The Captain looked at me. Do you have any transport? No sir. Any cash with you – None Sir – He gave me a 10 Rupee note – Wish you the best of luck – that was enough for the taxi in those days.

I arrived at the GHQ at 1015 AM. There was a famous character by the name of Shahjee who was the security officer at the GHQ gate. When I told him that I had come for interview, he looked at my appearance and said, the interview is over. Where are you coming from? After listening to my explanation he did an unusual favour that he never did before to anyone;- he put me through to the Staff Officer to the Chief of General Staff. Luckily he turned out to be two courses, senior and from my Khalid Company at PMA, Major Zaidi told me that the interview was over and the Selection Board had dispersed. My unit had sent a signal to GHQ that I would not be able to reach for the interview and my case may be decided on documents. Major Zaidi being an old senior, a very nice gentleman and friend, ‘you have been placed as reserve therefore, you will not lose anything if I tell the CGS (Chief of General Staff) that you have arrived. The CGS Lt. Gen. Sahibzada Yaqub ordered that the board be assembled again. I had hardly finished my cup of tea offered by Major Zaidi that I was ushered in. Looking at my appearance, the sun burnt features badly shaven face – ruffled and wrinkled uniform and unpolished shoes. The CGS asked me, How did you make it? The ball was in my court and by the time my interview finished, the CGS called Major Zaidi directing him to finalize his visit programme to my unit at Khunjrab the very next day on 2 Sept 67. He was to leave on an official visit to UK on 3 Sept 67. Such was the class of General Officers at the time. The next day he flew over to Khunjrab by helicopter and while addressing troops of my unit he disclosed that he ‘did not believe that Major Nasir left this place on the 29th AN and having flown over this area. I still do not believe – I just came to say hello to the men he commanded here, we are proud of him and you.’ We have selected him for Australian Staff Course. His pilot (now deceased) may Allah rest his soul in heavenly peace was the first to break the news the next day that I had been selected for Australian Staff College at Queens Cliff. Allah be praised.

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