Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

The Tree of Life

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I first saw the tree in May 1992 just after I had walked from Thandiani to Dagri en route to Nathiagali. Standing right by the trail, it was impossible to miss the green sign nailed to its massive trunk. ‘Monomental (sic) Tree’, it announced. Below the misspelled line were the scientific and local names Quercus semecarpifolia and Brungi. The sign also noted that the girth of the massive tree was 252 inches, or 21 feet, height 140 feet and age approximately 1,500 years.

The Dagri rest house looks pristine but its ceilings collapsed in the October 2005 earthquake
Three years later, my friend Kashif Noon and I retraced my earlier path and we stood in awed reverence below the towering monument. Shortly, when Kashif was ensconced in the nearby Dagri rest house reading, I returned to the tree to fill our water bag from a spring by it.
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posted by Salman Rashid @ 10:25 AM, , links to this post

Our invisible trains

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Accidents between trains and motor vehicles trying to run across approaching trains are very commonplace nowadays. Decades ago when we had horse drawn rehras and tongas to transport people and goods and bicyclists instead of crazed moped riders, one read of fewer chance meetings between road transport and speeding trains.

The thing was that a bicyclist or a rehra driver knew their respective limitations and they never crossed speeding trains. But by the mid-1990s, motor vehicles and drivers had grown exponentially. In fact, their numbers grew so fast that our industrious traffic police being unable to cope with the rush of applicants simply dispensed with the driver’s licence formality.

Men who earlier had to pedal hard to get around or trundle along slowly as their emaciated, ill-fed nags towed their carts were now capable of speed with the twist of the handle bar or a little pressure of the right foot. With the help of the phrase ‘Allah malik hai’ – God is my Preserver – our trains suddenly became invisible to fatalistic man who relies equally on God as on the power of his rickety machine.
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posted by Salman Rashid @ 10:32 AM, , links to this post

The Search For Hathi Khan

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"Hati is the bad man round-about; he it is robs on the roads; he it is brings them to ruin; he ought either to be driven out from these parts, or to be severely punished.” So said Malik Asad, the leader of the Salt Range Janjuas, to Babur after peace had been made between the two.

The dam abutment which once ran right across the Chanel seen in the center of the image 

The year was 1519. Hati (sic) was Hathi Khan Gakkhar, ensconced in the hill fortress of Pharwala outside modern Islamabad. From there he made sorties to harry the surrounding country.

Babur had returned to India, won battles and was enjoying the beauty of Kallar Kahar — where he laid out a lakeside garden — when the Janjua chieftain petitioned him against the Gakkhar. Babur learned that Hathi had, only shortly — earlier treacherously poisoned his cousin Tatar Khan — to assume the mantle of leadership. Besides that, Hathi had arrested the dead chief’s sons Sarang and Adam.
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posted by Salman Rashid @ 10:48 AM, , links to this post

Traffic tribulations: clamp down on violators!

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Dawn Metro (Oct 26, 2017) reported that Punjab Inspector General (IG) Arif Nawaz Khan has given the go-ahead for another, yes another, police force to ‘address chronic traffic problems in the city’.

The City Traffic Police established by the government of erstwhile chief minister Pervaiz Elahi started out extremely well. The grey-uniformed officers were well-spoken and very business-like. And for a while people began to obey traffic rules. Along came the government of CM Shahbaz Sharif and what the ‘enemy’ had established had to be done away with.

Friends in Rescue 1122 allege that CM Sharif made serious attempts to abolish this first-class public service (also set up by the ‘enemy’). He failed because of public pressure. However, friends who served in traffic police tell me that the tacit order was to simply lay off violators.

By about 2010, it was common that a driver running through a red light and consequently stopped by a traffic warden would whip out his mobile phone and after a word or two with someone on the line hand it over to the officer. My informant told me that nearly always the person on the other end was some insignificant underling or someone connected in an indirect way to the police. Once he even got to speak with the gardener from the IG’s office!

On one occasion when a traffic officer gave a ticket to a motorcycle rickshaw driver for recklessness near Babu Sabu, the driver promptly shinnied up a power pylon and threatened to jump. TV cameras homed in and since every government office has a TV set perpetually playing, the ‘errant’ traffic warden was at once suspended.

That, according to my friend in the force, was the turning point. He said the late Masud Hasan was spot on calling his colleagues ‘grey cardboard dummies’. Traffic officers in the entire province knew they were to simply ignore violators, especially those from the lower social stratus such as rickshaw drivers.

In July, Metro (July 23, 2017) reported: Man “sets his rickshaw on fire” over challan. A rickshaw driver had an exchange of harsh words with a warden for being pulled over. The warden persisted in his duty and the driver set his motor alight. A friend who witnessed this entire episode relates that the rickshaw veered onto The Mall from Fane Road and very nearly caused a speeding motorcycle to crash into a car running parallel.

But get this: “Chief Traffic Officer Rai Ijaz Ahmad took notice of the incident... The CTO also issued a generalised warning to wardens not to issue challans and only give warning to citizens over minor violations or mistakes.”

What, I ask, is a minor violation on roads with traffic as unruly and dangerous as ours? Whenever anyone runs through a red light, they endanger lives of other road users. Likewise, when moped riders without rearview mirrors drive in the middle of the road or meander all over the tarmac totally unmindful of other road users. And what of the driver who abruptly stops in the middle of a busy road to ask directions from someone on the other side of the road? Or the one who nonchalantly drives on the wrong side of the road?

And now we have the IG telling us the new traffic enforcers -- to be named Shaheen Force -- will be equipped with 600 motorcycles. But with a deadwood CTO who only wants brownie points with erring citizens to oversee the mayhem on our road, no Force – not even the one that characters in Star Wars wish upon each other – can do anything to make things better.

The worthy IG and his underling Rai Ijaz should understand the traffic situation will never improve if officers in situ do not come down hard on violators. Warnings will not work for we must remember we are ‘demons who understand only the language of the kick’ (from the old Urdu adage). Phones handed over to officers should be smashed on the road or at least confiscated; tickets should be awarded for the most minor traffic violation.

While the IG is at it, he could perhaps cast a critical eye on the innumerable ‘driving schools’. Themselves untrained and without a clue of driving regulations, those so-called instructors only emphasise blowing the horn the minute anything moves on the road ahead. As well as that they teach that the rear view mirror be ignored. From one learner I heard that a woman instructor told her to forget the mirror because the driver behind should be mindful of the car in the front!

But this is Pakistan. The IG will never know how traffic can get better. The same way as CM Shahbaz Sharif still does not know that widening of roads will never ever ease traffic.

Also in Dawn

posted by Salman Rashid @ 12:35 PM, , links to this post

Haji Machhli

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It was in 1989, the month was October. I had attempted to climb Takht e Suleman outside Zhob but lying in South Waziristan. But I failed. I failed because I did not believe that a mountain can be without springs of fresh water. Takht e Suleman is just such a mountain and I aborted halfway up dehydrated.

With a day and a half for the flight to Dera Ismail Khan, I was wandering about the bazaar having green tea and conversations at every tea shop when I heard of Haji Machhli. My informant said he had a treasure trove of artefacts from the time of ‘Sikander e Azam’. I asked directions and walked through streets dusty as they can be only in autumn and was soon standing outside a rather beat two-storeyed building that in the dark of the evening seemed mud-plastered.

Haji Machhli lived in the upstairs portion, said the man who was lounging around in a ground floor room. He pointed to the stairs and said I should go up and knock the door. The door, opened by a fifty something man of rather unkempt appearance, looked into a dusty room glowing yellow in the light of the single light bulb hanging from the ceiling.

I asked to see Haji Machhli and the man said it was he. He took me into the room and all I remember of him is an unshaven, shabby person. We sat down on ramshackle furniture and I heard how his passion for fishing and the time he spent on it in nearby rivers earned him the sobriquet he was commonly known by. He told me his real name which I now forget and which may or may not be in the frayed pages of a diary from that year which may or may not have survived the several moves in the last three decades.

I brought up the ancient artefacts the man in the bazaar had said Haji Machhli held. It was surely a sign of his total lack of guilt that he at once opened a cupboard and began to take out all sorts of material. His forthcoming guilelessness resulted from the fact that he had not stolen the artefacts, merely collected them from the surface of ancient mounds that the Department of Archaeology did not care about. There were terracotta figurines, utensils, toys, metal objects and, last of all, coins.

Back in 1989, I had no knowledge of coins and could not even tell Haji Machhli what he had. But like him I was completely taken by one gold coin that, two millenniums after it was minted, glittered as if new. Of the figurines, I could only recognise the goddess of fertility with her fancy head dress, heavy breasts and heavier buttocks.

Haji Machhli said he had found these from the various cultural mounds scattered between Zhob and Qila Saifullah. All these places he had stumbled upon quite by accident in the course of his gallivanting around from river to river for fish.

It was only after this meeting that I read up on the unexplored mounds of Zhob that were believed to pre-date even Mehrgarh which had been discovered only a few years earlier. What Haji Machhli had showed me was a very treasure house of the early history of the Sindhu Valley: his collection harked back on the earliest of the great cities of this wondrous civilisation.

Now, in those days I did not carry a tripod and we used film cameras. In that dim yellow light, I tried every which way to take some hand held pictures of his coins. Then I steadied my camera against various objects to prevent shake but there was no way of knowing then what the images would come out like. In the event, they all came out blurry and were of no use.

Haji Machhli said I should come back the following morning, but that was out of the question because I needed to be at the airport early for the plane. I promised the good man that I would return to photograph his collection and interview him for the paper I then wrote for.

I returned to Lahore and time flew by. The next trip to Zhob was October 1994 when I successfully climbed Takht e Suleman but I do not remember if I went looking for Haji Machhli during this trip. I vaguely recall that in a now forgotten year on a wet, wintry afternoon I did go to the Haji’s home again.

I climbed up the stairs, excited that I had both a flash gun and a tripod and that there was time to photograph the collection and interview Haji Machhli in detail. The door was opened by a young man. I asked for Haji Machhli. The man looked at me strangely and began to ask me where I had come from and how I knew the man. Then he dropped the bombshell: ‘My father died in a road accident some months ago!’

I was completely deflated. I could not believe Haji Machhli was gone. I felt cheated. I just stood there dumbly making silly apologetic noises. The man did not ask me in, but standing right there in the doorway told me that the bus having set out of Rawalpindi met with a serious accident somewhere near Mianwali en route to Dera Ismail Khan and Zhob. The Haji’s lifeless body was extricated from the mangled ruins of the vehicle a couple of hours later.

I remember asking about the collection, but got only half answers. It was apparent the young man had no interest in his father’s collection and that it was only a likely source of wealth. I came away dejected never again to return to the street where Haji Machhli lived. I have no idea what became of his priceless collection of artefacts some of which were certainly eight or nine thousand years old.


posted by Salman Rashid @ 9:38 AM, , links to this post

The Jaleebi Maker of Jhelum

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Motorcyclists pause at the hut with the wattle roofing. Even cars make the hundred-metre detour from the Grand Trunk Road (N-5) at the sign that says ‘Domeli Mor’, where the road for Domeli branches off to the south-east. It is said that no gala at Jhelum, Dina and Sohawa — the three nearby urban centres — is gastronomically complete sans the jalebis of Shabir Butt.

It was about the time of his birth in 1964 that Shabir Butt’s father moved his jalebi business from Taraki, about eight kilometres to the north. Taraki, incidentally, is where the railway line forcing its way through the Nili (or Sohawa) Hills makes one dramatic loop along the contours to attain the height of the Potohar Plateau. Friends who know tell me that the Chinese, being what they are, will straighten out this scenic hitch to cut the distance between Jhelum and Rawalpindi by a few kilometres.
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posted by Salman Rashid @ 8:56 AM, , links to this post

The Forgotten Hamlet

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I knew Domeli from my few years in the army back in the 1970s when we did exercises (or as the Americans would say manoeuvres) in that area. I had no real memory of the town itself, located near Jhelum, but I recall seeing ravine deer in the hills not far outside the built up area. That past though is another country, for now we have successfully shot most of our wildlife.

Domeli Railway Station with 102 Down coming through; notice the raised platform on the left from where the signal, hidden behind a knoll, could be checked

Recently my friend Haris Kayani hailing from Domeli phoned to tell me of the several spreading graveyards around his hometown. What could they possibly signify, he had asked. Large graveyards meant either a populous, prosperous town of the past or a staging post where caravans routinely tarried. The latter then pointed to a busy highroad through the area. Haris said I simply had to return to check out the burials of Domeli.
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posted by Salman Rashid @ 12:00 AM, , links to this post

Salman Rashid - Odysseus of Pakistan's Travelogues

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By Fatima Arif

Salman Rashid is a renowned travel writer who has nine books under his belt. Although travelling was a childhood passion, this was not the future his father imagined for him. As any parent of the subcontinent, he wanted Salman to become an engineer and despite all indication he was persistent to the point that he pressured him to join Government College Lahore's BSc programme to study physics and mathematics. In his third year, Salman failed, dropped out and joined the army where he served for seven years. "I didn't have a mathematical mind and I was unable to grasp both these subjects." As a child when Salman Rashid could not travel, his alternative hobby was to look at maps in atlases. He was interested in seeing the world but his first attraction was to explore Pakistan and thus kept going back to the country's map.

After leaving the army in 1978, Salman Rashid worked for Siemens Pakistan in Karachi, where he stayed for six and a half years. He wanted to be a gentleman farmer and although his family had some 200 acres of land in Thal, his father didn't trust him to earn a profit from it. He believed that Salman would waste whatever money he had along with that of his uncle's (who had promised to invest in the land). So between the period of his resignation in February 1978 to his release from the army in September 1978, his father sold all the land the family owned for around PKR 60,000, a pittance even at that time. "I never had the idea that I was capable of writing. In 1983, Talat Rahim, Director Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation, pointed out that I have a skill and told me to write the stories that I tell of my travels. They had a magazine at that time for which I then wrote. My first piece was published as it was without any editorial work done on it!"

Roaming the wilderness was where it all started for Salman Rashid along with an auxiliary interest in exploring monuments, which later became a passion. "People ask me where I did my PhD in history from! My knowledge base has developed through self study and exploring places first hand." Walking on foot for hours on the Karachi Super Highway, going upstream along the Malir River and camping in the area alone is an experience that, in Salman Rashid's words, taught him to appreciate nature as it is, without getting revolted by any part of it, be it lizards or snakes.

His travels are also what led to his interest in environment and ecology. For someone who doesn't take up things at a superficial level, Salman Rashid started reading about various subjects, combining what he learned with ground realities. When he was first invited to write he knew that he had to conduct extensive research. Not a lot of studies were available on Ranikot Fort and as a result Salman Rashid had to do his own research and learnt the process. He discovered the library of the Department of Archeology and by the end the staff was fed up with him because of all the time he spent there. During the same period he found the book, Blank on the Map by Eric Earle Shipton, which has been the biggest inspiration of his life. In the 1990s, Rashid used to visit WWF-Pakistan's office on his bicycle just to consult one book or the other!

"The majority of people have no understanding of ecology. Environment they do, to some extent, but no one understands the word ecology. Since we don't understand these things as a nation we are completely insensitive towards them."

In his lifetime, Rashid has seen a consistent deterioration of the environment and what saddens him the most is the insensitivity of the majority of Pakistan's citizens - be it individuals, officials or institutions. Despite the obvious degradation of places like Lake Saif-ul-Maluq, Narran, Shogran, and Head Sulemanki to name a few, people simply turn a blind eye. Places that were once pristine have deteriorated for one reason or the other, often for economic development. For locals who are otherwise financially strapped, they are willing to compromise on the sustainable and environment-friendly use of Pakistan's tourist areas.

It is a mammoth task to make adults unlearn and then relearn concepts and ideas. However, in order to save the future it is important that the next generation be taught from the very onset about our environment and the need to conserve it. They will be the changen makers as they are the future and have the ability to monitor their elders' behaviour, as well. The same can be said about eco-tourism - if practiced in a sustainable manner, it can help the local economy and also contribute towards the preservation of our cultural and natural heritage.

"Our issue is that we are confused about our identity and are not proud of it the way we should be." Salman Rashid is of the opinion that brainwashing plays a key role in this identity crisis. Our disconnect with our heritage was started by the system under Zia-ul-Haq's dictatorship and continues to this day. If the state decides to take on a counter narrative, it is capable of inculcating a sense of ownership of our diverse heritage in the country's people.

Talking about travelogues and a declining interest in them, Salman Rashid points out that in his experience there is a language barrier. A very small percentage of the local population reads English for the love of it. Urdu is still comparatively more widely read but there is no quality content available in it. What is available misleads people and does not fit the definition of what a travelogue is supposed to be. In Pakistan people in general visit tourist spots for two reasons: to get away from the heat or to go on a picnic. They are not interested in history, culture or architecture. Some of Salman Rashid's work is in the process of being translated and he hopes that people will develop an interest and appreciate the value of knowledge in his writing. However, he also fears that people might reject his work because it lacks the frivolity that they are accustomed to.

"A travel writer educates. He has to be a historian, geographer, geologist, anthropologist, sociologist and at the end maybe even a biographer."

As the only Pakistani who has seen the North Face of K2, Salman Rashid's trip, although inspired by Western explorers, ended up in his book and was a celebration of the people of Baltistan. "When you know your history, you also get to know your culture. Baltis have lost their language, which was a part of their identity some hundreds of years ago and they are known to be scared of these high altitudes. However, the fact is that the glaciers of the area are named in their language (Drand-mang, Khojolinsa, Chogoree etc), bearing testimony to the fact that Baltis travelled along this area well before any Western explorer."

Intellectually unspoiled folk wisdom has an inbuilt mechanism, where stories with nature preservation as their theme, are passed down from generation to generation. Preserving them and promoting local and international tourism, with a focus on environment and nature conservation needs to be promoted, while on-ground arrangements to accommodate the resulting influx of visitors also needs to be to ensured.

Though he does despair at times, Salman Rashid feels that there is still hope. A beacon of light, from individuals and organizations that are committed to the cause, will eventually guide us along the right path.

Also at Natura

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 5:52 PM, , links to this post

Why trees matter

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Our relationship with trees is disharmonious. We simply have no understanding of what trees do for us, for the environment and for global ecology on the whole. And then trees are divided between Hindu and Muslim trees. Either that, or some trees are paindu — uncool — and others not.

A few years ago, a bright, educated young woman in Karachi asked to be advised on which tree to plant in her family’s garden.
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posted by Salman Rashid @ 12:52 PM, , links to this post

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