Across the roof of the world: From Uttarakhand to Siberia

This write up is dedicated to Lt Percy Thomas Etherton F.R.G.S, F.Z.S & Rfn Gyan Singh Pharswan (Gyani) -both of 2nd Battalion 39 Garhwal Rifles.

By Dr. Mohan Bhandari  Published on  14 July 2021 9:30 AM GMT
Across the roof of the world: From Uttarakhand to Siberia

This write up is dedicated to Lt Percy Thomas Etherton F.R.G.S, F.Z.S & Rfn Gyan Singh Pharswan (Gyani) -both of 2nd Battalion 39 Garhwal Rifles. These two created a world record of over 6000 Miles of Trans Asiatic journey & tracking from Lansdowne to Kashmir, Gilgit, Hunza, Pamir Mountains, China, Turkistan, Mongolia & Siberia. Etherton's book 'ACROSS THE ROOF OF THE WORLD', Constable & Company, London-1911, is today not only a testimonial to this unprecedented feat but a geographical document. Our salute to these two great GARHWALIS! Let us emulate & resolve to follow their courageous deeds & the great tradition.

I would define Tian Shan Wapiti a bit later because it is bound to maintain some curiosity in your mind. It was 1906-1907. I was posted in Chitral- the foremost Post on the Northernmost corner of India. The idea of undertaking these 6400 Kilometers of the journey came in my mind at that time. I had a passion to accomplish this mission & I do not know the reason behind it. Maybe that it was the feeling of adventure in a Garhwali's mind! I used to sit for hours & make an outline of this thought. I was curious to know as to what lay across the mountains beyond Chitral where my unit stayed for about 12 months. This fascination was central to my passion. Of course; it was also the kick of hunting! My mother, oh my mother, you inspired me to undertake this mission - you always remained a solid pillar behind my expedition. Alas, she was not to see the completion of my expedition. Telegrams of her illness & death were received by me together at one of the railway stations of Siberia.

My Commanding Officer Lt Col JT Evatt, DSO (Later Brig General & first Colonel of the Regiment who guided the Regiment for full 25 years), & my entire Regiment supported me & took great interest in my expedition. As a result, I commenced this expedition from Lansdowne. A word about my buddy.

My company that was called Double Company was totally excited about my expedition & more than 40 hands were raised by Bhulas (Younger Brother) to accompany me all through! A big problem arose here. I was in a dilemma to select my Buddy out of these forty hands raised! I explained in detail the impending challenges, dangers & difficulties that were to be confronted but not a single hand went down. Well, I had to finally make a decision. Our Hero selected was Rfn Gyan Singh Pharswan.

I always called him Gyani out of love & affection. He was like my shadow right from the beginning till the end of my journey sharing my pain, sorrows, difficulties & happiness. After all, he was a GARHWALI! As I am writing about him, I fondly recall his beaming face while wading through the crowded streets of London, walking along seaside & the Tube Railway as we completed our journey lasting eleven & half months - undertaken through extremely difficult, dangerous, forlorn & desolate frontiers.

It was 8 March 1909 – a bright & beautiful day in Lansdowne nurtured by the Hoary-headed Himalayas when I handed over my belongings to Gyani & instructed him to await my arrival at Srinagar (J & K).On 15 March, I checked tyre pressures of my bicycle & having satisfied myself with its overall mechanical condition & serviceability rode off to Kotwara whistling all the way. It was a feeling of ecstasy with boyish alacrity. The Regimental Pundit Ji had put a big tika on my forehead & chanted hymns in praise of Lord Badri Vishal- our Presiding Deity WHO was always with me & Gyani. I was triple blessed!!

Let me now end your curiosity. Let us walk inside the Garhwali Mess at Lansdowne. Are you not mesmerized & dumbfounded? How are you feeling? A feeling of utter disbelief! – Totally surprised & wonderstruck! Watch the grandeur of Garhwal Rifles Regiment's greatest Institution! What an emotionally rallying point! Look at the unique & priceless game trophies. Now, look at TIAN SHAN WAPITIs.

Let me introduce these to you. The biological name of TIAN SHAN WAPITI is 'Cervus Elaphus Songaricus'. It is the most beautiful & elegant species of the deer family. Its horns are unmatched, exquisite, inestimable, and beyond compare. It makes an above par & unmatched game trophy. These rarest of the rare representatives of the deer family have their abode in dense Oak & Deodar forests of high altitude areas of Tian Shan Mountains where stiff rock faces, narrow valleys & untrodden jungle paths abound. Their call resembles a weird 'shout' that forewarns other animals of its arrival. So sure-footed & sensitive is this species that mere shuffling of dry leaves or even a low whisper is enough for it to flee & disappear from sight. This is WAPITI (Word of Chinese Turkistan). Remember; it is extremely difficult to chase it.

Here I recall Namgoon – my Chinese Turkistan friend who had joined me after crossing Kashmir. He once told me that if a WAPITI dies a natural death, its life span spreads over five hundred years. Alongside where it lives, the Oaks, Pine & Deodar trees survive for a thousand years. This natural life cycle of birth & death of WAPITI & the trees is a spectacular phenomenon- something like this he had said!

I just talked of the WAPITIs & let me now acquaint you with TIAN SHAN & what does it stand for. Let me take you to the environment of 1909.

There is one mountain range between Mongolia & the Chinese Turkistan stretches from West to East. Well, this range is TIAN SHAN. Now you must have understood the full name TIAN SHAN WAPITI, that is, the WAPITI that lives in TIAN SHAN. Wapiti's home spreads from the Valleys of Agias River, Kokteric River, Tekis River & Yuldus River. All these rivers flow in the valleys of TIAN SHAN. Our principal actor of the story the WAPITI lived here- at a distance of approximately 2700 km from Lansdowne. I along with Gyani had traveled all the way from Lansdowne to Dehradun, Jalandhar, Rawalpindi, Srinagar, Gilgit, Yarkund, Kashgar, Akshu & Kuchar towards the end of August 1909.

These WAPITIS which are also called Asiatic WAPITIS are extremely hard to find. Chinese make powder out of their horns for medicinal purposes & are prepared to pay any cost for it. I cannot say whether this powder provides any medicinal benefit but Chinese are Chinese; they use such powders extensively.

We had entered the Thian Shan Ranges on the evening of 20 September 1909.What a majestic sight it was. Near inaccessible high altitude peaks (Tianshan Rocks formed in the Paleozoic Era 543 to 248 M Years) with narrow valleys full of Pines & Deodars. Lush green with crystal clear water in the rivers & rivulets. In the early morning of 23 September, Gyani & my second Chinese Turkistani friend Kazak had gone to the Kokiteric Valley to fetch some eatables. On the same evening, they had brought enough to eat & we literally had a feast that evening.

At about three in the early morning of 24 September, I along with Gyani had reached the Western end of Kokteric Valley when we were received by a strange sound of WAPITI. It was still pretty dark. We halted & were waiting for some more light. After some time, we could see a little bit. My local guide Kazak started blowing a hollow wooden tube that was generating almost similar sound like the call of WAPITI. I was wonderstruck & was watching the whole activity totally mesmerized. Kazac later told me that the locals attract WAPITIS in a similar fashion by blowing wooden hollow pipes. I forgot to tell you earlier that Kazak had tried to create a similar sound three days ago by blowing through the barrels of my 12 Bore Gun.

By the time the visibility was reasonably good, the WAPITI had disappeared. The next day at about three-thirty in the early morning, Gyani & Kazak again saw the WAPITI. I missed it as I was a little away. WAPITI had disappeared again!

As I had said earlier that it was possible to attract a WAPITI by blowing a hollow bamboo/wooden pipe. Somehow, my local guides did not seem very expert in this art. However, we were extremely lucky on the early morning of 26 September when we suddenly heard a WAPITI calling just next to our camp. What a miracle to happen & we hastened to move to that side taking cover of thick undergrowth. Kazak started his trick again. I thought that he won't be able to perform any better. Lo & Behold, it worked perfectly as the WAPITI mistook this sound like that of his fellow WAPITIS & within a short span of two minutes three WAPITIS appeared in front of us.

Yes, they were WAPITIS but a little away moving in between the rocks & deodar trees. I could see them. It was necessary to move closer so that aimed shots could be taken. It was our good luck that wind was blowing towards us & they were responding to our calls. Suddenly I saw a WAPITI at about 200 yards right in front of me. Seeing its majestic appearance & huge antlers, I felt that our efforts to track so many miles away from India had finally borne fruits. I slowly picked up my .404 Jeffery Mouser Rifle & made a perfect shot. Wow, we had our first WAPITI! After this successful expedition, we returned to our camp.

On 26 September evening, we changed our camp, left Agias Valley & proceeded towards Muntai Valley. Here again, we walked through dense Pines & Deodars. The terrain configuration resembled a net of interwoven nallahs & rivulets - surrounded by high rocks all around. Somehow, my local guide had now become expert in his blowing art of calling the WAPITIS. It was indeed a miracle again when we heard a WAPITI calling very close. I observed that it was about 400 feet down below standing on the rocks. We moved down with great caution step by step. We were inching towards the calling WAPITI. Suddenly, there appeared an opening in the dense forest & I hid behind a fallen tree. My wait was well rewarded. To my good luck, the WAPITI suddenly appeared right in front at a distance of about 100 yards. This was a God-sent opportunity for me & my Jeffery Mouser did the rest. This was my second WAPITI.

The story of WAPITIS did not end here. We continued moving towards our destination & Trans Asiatic Expedition ended on 16 Feb 1910 on a great evening at a Siberian Post of Bannaul. This was the formal end of our expedition but this expedition of TIAN SHAN WAPITI carried on until it reached the home of GARHWALIS- Lansdowne –the final resting place of WAPITIs.

I first met the WAPITIS at the GARHWALI Mess at Lansdowne in Aug 1968 when I was posted at the Regimental Centre recuperating from injuries sustained in a helicopter crash at Khillanmarg, Gulmarg. All of us the dining in members, without dropping our eyelids watched the beauty & elegance of the huge & magnificent antlers of the WAPITIS. Whenever we talked of the greatness & grandeur of things, we used to say, 'Be bestowed with the crowning & unsurpassed glory that of WAPITI'.WAPITI had become a synonym of supremacy, bravery, chivalry & preponderance.

Etherton & Gyani shall ever remain IMMORTAL MORTALS as true GARHWALIS. Their remembrances are fondly preserved as WAPITIS Trophies bearing Numbers 220 & 221 in the Garhwali Mess, Lansdowne. These are unique, priceless & unmatched in the entire world. You cannot but admire these WAPITIS. They have finally found a most befitting & resting environment in Lansdowne amidst Oaks, Pines, Deodars & Rhodos. These remind us & shall continue reminding the posterity of the spirit of courage, adventure, camaraderie, passion to win & professionalism of the illustrious Garhwal Rifles. We in the Regiment pray that the WAPITIS stay with us forever & continue to inspire the present & future generations of GARHWALIS.

Before I wrap up, I am of the opinion that Uttarakhand needs hundreds of GYANIS who are true sons of the soil & are examples of HARD WORK, COURAGE, BRAVERY, DETERMINATION, RESOLUTENESS, CHARACTER, LOYALTY & DUTY- the traits UTTARAKHANDIS are known for -the world over.

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