Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Stitching the Crack

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Seh ghwari?’ says the man sitting at the mouth of the tunnel: ‘What are you looking for?’

‘I am looking for the old railway,’ I reply in broken Pashto as I huff up the hill. The man does not smile, and he is not even trying to be funny when he asks if I don’t think I am a trifle late to be looking for the railway – the last train on this line had run exactly fifty-one years and eight months earlier. I smile and pass on and he tells my friend following behind that I must be mad. Three hundred metres away lies the yawning maw of the Chappar Rift that has brought me on this journey; a journey that I had dreamt of for the last seven years.

When, around the early years of the 19th century, the Raj became paranoid with the fear of a Russian invasion of India there was, among other things, a great flurry of railway building to reach Afghanistan and eventually Central Asia in order to pre-empt Russian influence in those countries. And as Russian railways inched across trans Caspian desert regions, subcontinental railways reached on the one side into the Khyber Pass and on the other across the treeless Kachhi desert on the border between Sindh and Balochistan on its way to Sibi at the foot of the Bolan Pass en route to Quetta. Simultaneously another line went north from Sibi to Harnai and Khost where it turned west to reach Quetta via Bostan. This was the Kandahar State Railway (KSR), for that is where it hoped to reach before skirting the mountainous regions of Afghanistan to Herat and head north for Merv in modern Turkmenistan.
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The K2 Man (And his Molluscs): The Extraordinary Life of Haversham Godwin-Austen

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Henry Haversham Godwin-Austen
If early Victorian map-makers and explorers in northern Indian and high Asia were mysterious, shadowy figures, Henry Haversham Godwin-Austen was rather unlike them. Not that his work was any less significant than that of, say, William Moorcroft or George Hayward (both died tragically in remote regions); indeed, the quality and quantum of Godwin-Austen’s work is phenomenal. But unlike others, Godwin-Austen was fortunate to brave all and come home to retirement — unfortunately not as glorious as one would wish for a man of his accomplishments.

This current biography, the first-ever of this great mountaineer explorer, by Catherine Moorehead, is a much belated but useful piece of work. It is useful because outside the circle of mountaineers and students of the history of exploration and mapping in the Himalaya-Karakoram-Hindu Kush region, Godwin-Austen is all but unknown. Now for the first time we know there is much more to this name than it being appended to the mountain K2.

Born in 1834, Godwin-Austen was commissioned from the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst as a subaltern in 1851 before moving out to India. At Sandhurst, Godwin-Austen, the artist of remarkable exactitude, had come into notice and it took only six years of service — most of it in Burma — before the young man was seconded to the Kashmir Survey at Srinagar. There began a quarter century of the most meritorious service to unravelling the geography and topography of the greatest knot of mountains on Earth.
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Happy Birthday to Me

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This is what I wrote On My 2362nd Birthday!

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Open Letter to Two Important Persons

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Syed Abu Ahmad Akif
Federal Secretary
Ministry of Climate Change

6 February 2017

Subject: The Looming Water Scarcity and our Choice of Thirsty Trees

Dear Akif,

Today’s (6 Feb) Dawn carries a report of a conference on the water scarcity that is now a certainty for Pakistan. It is one thing that we are completely mindless of the millions of gallons of clean water wasted every day in official and private bathrooms with leaky WCs. I see it all the time and I can point out at least a few dozen in the building you occupy in Islamabad.

Then there are those educated ignorant who daily have their driveways and cars washed with running garden hoses. Tell them about the upcoming water scarcity and hear, ‘Water is Allah’s gift, it can never run out.’

The government has no scheme to address this wastage. I assure you; simply holding seminars is not going to save our water.

To top it all, since 1960 when Ayub ordered ‘forestation’ in Pakistan we have made only incorrect choices so far as tree species are concerned. First we had eucalyptus, 6 sub-species of it imported from Australia, planted wholesale across Pakistan. In the 1990s Nuclear Institute for Agriculture and Biology (NIAB, Faisalabad) told us that each eucalyptus was a tube well drawing upward of 100 litres in every 24-hour cycle. We had millions upon millions of tube wells sucking away our precious water.

But no one was listening. Punjab had to thrice – yes THRICE – ban eucalyptus. Even today, thirteen years after the third banning, I see nurseries across this sorry province and the rest of this sorrier country with billions of eucalyptus saplings.

But soon an idiot called Mustafa Kamal (ex mayor Karachi) saw conocarpus in Dubai and imported it wholesale to blight this entire country with this ultra-thirsty bane. Imported from Central South America and Oceania, this tree is a very, very, very thirsty species. In Makran – a water scarce part – where it grows in the tens of thousands, this accursed tree is called Mustafa Kamal! Folks plant it because ‘it grows fast’. I have never figured out why we are in such a hurry to get to a green desert hell.

Incidentally, retired foresters who were at the forefront of the eucalyptus invasion back in the 1960s also said that tree grew fast. This is patent rubbish. Our collective inferiority complex forces us to choose imported trees.

Dubai has learned its lesson: they have eradicated the curse of the conocarpus. But they learned their lesson only when its roots burrowed into and damaged water mains and sewers. We, sadly, will not learn ours even then. Couple the tree’s thirst with the very high release of allergens. If paper mulberry (imported from China circa 1960s) was not enough to put sense into our puny heads, neither will conocarpus. God willing, we shall all die of asthma!

Last year, NHA removed thousands of eucalyptus; I was very happy and hoped the empty space will be taken up by indigenous species. Perish the thought, however. Hundreds of thousands of conocarpus have taken up that space! Not only that, those who cut the eucalyptus did not know that the stumps left behind coppice wildly. Like the Hydra, each stump erupts into a dozen new trees.

Now, we have millions of more eucalyptus along M-2 that will be sucking up hundreds of times more water from our dwindling aquifer. And in between these forests of eucalyptus are rows of conocarpus. I will needlessly reiterate: both trees draw heavily from the water table. They are in a great way guilty of depleting our sub-soil water.

My question is: why are we so stupid?

Will I be asking for too much if I request you and Shahid Tarar, under whose sway the Motorways fall, to order an immediate eradication of conocarpus and eucalyptus? The space must be given over to indigenous species. That way, you will also give respite to our birdlife which, with the wholesale destruction of habitat, has been pushed into small pockets.

There are other things we need to talk about. Mainly our infatuation with palm trees and dwarf species. I can only tell you that arresting climate change will forever remain elusive: all your initiatives are self-defeating if you at the same time blight this land with alien and thirsty species. To play a positive and telling part in arresting climate change, you need trees of large bio-mass. Trees like our pipal, banyan etc.

Yours sincerely,

PS: Email address given below is defunct. Current address:

Shahid Ashraf Tarar
Chairman National Highways Authority

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کیا آپ نے کبھی دیوسائی کے بارے میں سنا ہے؟

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آپ پا کستان کے شمال میں واقع فلک بوس پہاڑی چوٹیوں کے بارے میں تو ضرور جانتے ہوں گے۔ کیا آپ نے کبھی دیوسائی کے بارے میں سنا ہے؟ یہ پاکستان کے شمالی علاقے سکردو کے قریب ایک بلند چوٹی پر واقع ایک مقام ہے۔ سفر نامے ویو سائی: ’لینڈ آف جائینمس‘ دیوسائی اور اس میں بسنے والے جائینس کے بارے میں ہے۔ یہ کون سی مخلوق ہے، اور دیوسائی کیسی جگہ ہے، اس بارے میں سنیے سفرنامے کے مصنف سلمان رشید سے بی بی سی اردو کی ماہ پارہ صفدر کی خصوصی گفتگو۔

Click here to listen on BBC


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Punjab­i resistance to the Mughal­s

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Aali of the tribe Ghanjera was a shepherd from village Vijhara under the southern shadow of the Sakesar peak in the Salt Range. One day, he came across a pair of horse dealers with a very spirited filly. Knowing a good horse when he saw it, Aali purchased the animal to feed and train and make it the best in the Lahnda — the country where the sun sets.

And so, within the year, fed on the choicest fodder, almonds and butter, the animal grew into a handsome mare fit for a king. Even more, the mare could out-pace the best horses in the area and soon its fame spread far. Buyers came to Aali’s door, but the man was not selling for the mare was as a part of his own body and soul.

Over time, word of this priceless animal reached the court at Delhi and the ear of Emperor Akbar the Great. A posse was sent out to procure the mare at whatever price the owner demanded. And if he was not willing to sell, it was to be taken away by force. And so it was. Aali refused to be parted from his beloved mare and the emperor’s men simply deprived him, a mere shepherd, of it.
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Bunni Bungla - a rest house and a memory

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The magic of the narrow Grand Trunk Road as it wound through the acacia and shisham-covered slopes of the Pabbi Hills between Jhelum and Kharian has been lost to progress. The highway has been widened and straightened and zooming through one hardly notices the clayey vegetation-covered hills.

Lost too is a lovely old rest house that was about eighty years old when I first knew it back in the early 1970s. Bunni Bungla, as it was called, was the property of the Forest Department, if I remember correctly. It was a bulky looking brick building with a pillared veranda on three sides, one large drawing room and two or three other rooms. It sat, unseen from the main road, on a knoll amid tall grass and trees all but forgotten and scarcely visited.
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The pleasure house

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The baradari — literally, twelve-door building — stands on a raised brick plinth in the middle of a saline waste. Locals know it as Dera Chaubara. The subcontinent has a long tradition of such buildings that served as getaways where the rich whiled away the pleasant hours of day. They did not serve as residences, however.

The country where the baradari stands was once very picturesque with the Beas River flowing by through a thickly wooded tract near the present town of Chunian. That was when Raja Todar Mal built his pleasure house sometime in the early 17th century. A native of Lahore, the Raja’s family owned large properties around Chunian. It was this man’s admirable acumen as finance manager and administrator that won him place among the Nine Jewels of Akbar the Great.
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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