Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

The railroad to Quetta

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As modern trains labour up the gradients of the Bolan Pass en route to Quetta, few travellers on-board would know that the first train to reach that city had not come up this way. In March 1887, the first ever train to reach Quetta had turned north at Sibi, passed through the Nari river gorge to reach the cool heights of Harnai, traversed that dramatic crack of Chappar Rift, veered west to Khanai and thence turned south to Bostan in order to make it to Quetta.


Chappar hill is shaped like a Swiss roll – a convex semicircular structure – at its western end. To the east, it turns into a fat mass of rock, deeply furrowed by rainwater that has washed down its contours for eons. Near the western end, the hill is cut asunder by a gaping chasm — a rift wrought by an earthquake that hit very long ago. At the bottom of the gash flows a stream which, depending on the weather, can either be a foaming torrent or a mere puddle.
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posted by Salman Rashid @ 13:28, ,

ON THE RIGHT TRACKS

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Paul Theroux, the American travel writer, began the madness. In 1979 he wrote that masterpiece, The Old Patagonian Express, that took readers from North America across the equator into the deep south of the continent. He bested himself a few years later with The Great Railway Bazaar and, finally, in the 1980s coaxed communist China to improve her railway system with Riding the Iron Rooster.

Any railway buff reading those three delightful works would have thought the last word on great railway journeys around the world had been delivered. But more was to come.

Reading Monisha Rajesh’s recent Around the World in 80 Trains: A 45,000 Mile Adventure, I discovered a kindred soul. She loathes air travel and laments that so many believe the age of railway journeys is a thing of the past. It is not. She notes — and so rightly — the disdain loaded in phrases such as ‘the middle of nowhere’ and ‘lost tribes’. Even ‘nowhere’ has hamlets sprinkled across it and lost tribes are well established in their respective niches, only outsiders are unaware of them.
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posted by Salman Rashid @ 13:38, ,

Pakistan through the eyes of a train traveller

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When the first train pulled into Quetta in March 1887, it did not roll the way they do today up the stony bends of the Bolan Pass. Instead, the line struck north from Sibi into the 160-kilometre-long meandering gorge of the Nari River through the sulphur-stained badlands of Gandakeen Aaf (sulphur water in Balochi) past such evocative names as Tanduri that is still famous for its furnace summer heat and into the cool highlands of Harnai and Shahrag. In those days when the Great Game had reached a frenzied pitch, the line that dreamed of reaching Kandahar was called the Kandahar State Railway.


Northwest of Harnai lay Khost and beyond it the dramatic yawning maw of the Chhappar Rift. But the rift is a tale of glorious achievement and woe so far as railway engineers of that time were concerned. Suffice it to say that it was put out of service by a summer rainstorm in July 1942. By then the line through the Bolan Pass was in place and passenger trains entering the Nari Gorge went only as far as Khost while coal trains trundled on another 15 kilometres to the mines of Zardalu.
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posted by Salman Rashid @ 16:13, ,

THE SOUL OF MOUNTAINEERING

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Mountaineers are a special breed. A breed entirely apart from the rest of us who follow an esoteric way of thinking. Eric Shipton got it right when he wrote approvingly in Upon That Mountain of the “philosophy which aims at living a full life while the opportunity offers. There are few treasures of more lasting worth than the experience of a way of life that is in itself wholly satisfying. Such, after all, are the only possessions of which no fate, no cosmic catastrophe can deprive us; nothing can alter the fact if for one moment in eternity we have really lived.”

Shipton would know, because he and his lifelong friend William Tilman made the greatest duo of mountaineer-explorers of the 20th century with a huge quantum of pioneering work to their credit.
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posted by Salman Rashid @ 13:02, ,

THE CULT OF THE EARTH MOTHER

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Grasses, sere and brown in late September, sway and bend in the stiff cold breeze, their movement frenzied as if trying to escape the chill and only failing. The solitary green is a lone bush that looks like buckthorn but its leaves are all but gone and identification is impossible for a layman. Other than that, the wind-scoured whaleback peak, 2,710 metres above the sea, is strewn with nodules of limestone.


Stretching north-south, Khawaja Amran lies some 25 kilometres due south of Chaman town in Balochistan and has long been a site of pilgrimage. There, they say, a saint of old is buried who answers prayers of childless parents to bequeath upon them progeny to their heart’s desire. In Chaman, about two decades ago, I asked about the provenance of the saint, but the man who said he periodically went up the hill to offer gratitude, because his own children were the saint’s gift, had no idea.
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posted by Salman Rashid @ 10:35, ,

Legend of a Traveller

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 11:14, ,

THE CHILD WITHOUT DREAMS

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L first met Shahdad Marri in March 2010. It was his third or fourth day in kindergarten school. He had still not received his uniform, but that was understandable. Stranger yet was that Shahdad of Kohlu town was then 11 years old.


The eldest of seven siblings whose father worked as a daily wage earning labourer, Shahdad had never been to school. In Kohlu, virtually a one-horse town then cut off from the rest of the country because of very poor, unpaved road connections, there were few opportunities for his father to employ himself gainfully. He daily went to the town square and waited to be hired to help either at a building site or on a farm. What he made at the end of a 12-hour day — if he was hired — was a pittance.
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posted by Salman Rashid @ 10:16, ,

Symbols in Stone: The Rock Art of Sindh

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"The Kirthar Mountain Range, which separates Sindh from Balochistan, is rich in ancient petroglyphs.” Thus anthropologist Zulfiqar Ali Kalhoro opens his latest book Symbols in Stone: The Rock Art of Sindh. If anything, this is an understatement, because in Sindh, virtually thousands of examples of man’s artistic expression can be found. In two earlier works, Kalhoro discussed memorial stones and funerary architecture and its art in the province. In this book, as indeed in his earlier works, the author unravels aspects of anthropology and history that had always been right in front of our eyes and of which we knew nothing.

Until the book on memorial stones in Tharparkar, even the informed traveller coming upon them was utterly uninformed of their provenance and meaning. The Brahmi script on the oldest memorials, and Gujarati on later ones, was unknown to visitors and so these stelae — whose exact number was not known — sprinkled around the Thar Desert were just stones with nice carvings of horse riders. End of story.
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posted by Salman Rashid @ 10:05, ,

THE MAGICALLY MYSTERIOUS GERH BUST

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Balochistan is a land of extraordinary geological and topographical surprises. For the time being we can leave its archaeology alone because, one day when they bring their brushes and scalpels for its myriad mounds dating from 7000 BCE and surely even older, archaeologists will spend the next 200 years just uncovering the secrets of ages gone by. In only the physical splendour of Balochistan — from the dramatic mud volcanoes of the coastal region and Awaran to the fairyland of Moola Pass in Kalat district, to the deserts of Nushki and the immense salt wildernesses of Kharan — there is enough to overwhelm the curious traveller.


My friend Aziz Jamali knew of another marvel: Gerh Bust. Now, in Balochi, Gerh (with a palatal r) means ‘boundary’, while ‘bust’ is the ‘act of making it fast’. That is, the Well-Established or Fast Boundary. He said east of Manguchar town in the wilderness of the Central Brahui Mountains was this remarkable rock formation cut by millions of years of flowing water.
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posted by Salman Rashid @ 12:02, ,




My Books

Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand


Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

Books at Sang-e-Meel

Books of Days