Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

God on a mountain

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Nazir Sabir, Pakistan’s foremost mountaineer and the first Pakistani Everest summiteer, says as a young man he was driven by the desire to climb peaks to see what lay on the far side. Shahid Zaidi, first-class rock climber, mountaineer and unmatchable mountainscape photographer climbed for the joy of it, for the feeling of freedom on a rock face or atop a summit. Elsewhere, someone is believed to have said they climbed the mountain ‘because it was there’.


High, snow-draped peaks are the ultimate wilderness of the world. To enter their realm is to know the true anxiety-making adventure. On those pristine white slopes where the climber is alone against the elements, he is a hair’s breadth from life-threatening perils. There a false step that can send him plummeting thousands of metres is not the only danger; the piles of avalanche-ready snow and ice are an equal and endless dread. The unseen crevasse, deceitfully lying in wait under its thin cover is the killer; and the unpredictable and sudden wind, sleet and snow, a very real threat.
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Bearer of the Balti footprint

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Even today Raskam is just a collection of stone and mud huts, about 20 in all, sitting a couple of hundred metres above the rocky bed of a young Yarkand River. In those early days when the first Balti hunters approached it, Raskam would only have been a few felt yurts where the Kirghiz shepherds sheltered from the dry, freezing cold.


The name, we are told, is a corruption of Rast Kan — the Good Mine. Early Victorian explorers wrote of good copper to be mined in the region. There were, they recorded, dozens of smelting furnaces around Raskam. The copper would have been exported to Yarkand, the nearest trading centre. Surely the Baltis would have asked about reaching this unknown place that sounded almost like an El Dorado.
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A gutsy crusader

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A lesser woman in remote Seejbun in Swat’s Matta sub-division would have given up. In fact, she would have been born resigned to the usual fate of domestic confinement and a long, inconsequential life. That, so she was always told, was Pakhtun culture. Part of this baggage was also to be wedded as soon as she attained puberty. That was the way for the young women in Seejbun.


But Gul Khandana was born different. After she finished primary school in the only girls’ school miles away from her village, the pressure from uncles and older cousins was for her to be restricted to the home. Fortunately, she had a brother younger than her and unable to exert pressure. She also enjoyed her father’s support and was thus able to join the local boys’ high school to complete her middle level education at age 17. Still a long way to being educated, Gul resolved to become a teacher.
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The Apricot Road to Yarkand

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On The Apricot Road to Yarkand - Book is available at Sang e Meel (042-3722-0100), Lahore

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The great highway of history

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Semiramis, the legendary queen of Mesopotamia, is said to have invaded India late in the 9th century BCE. After the adventure, she left the country by way of Makran in whose waterless and desolate wastes she lost her entire force, save 20 men. Three hundred years later, Cyrus the Great, the Achaemenian king of Persia, duplicated the same feat. He was even less fortunate being able to lead away just seven of his great army to safety.


In 325 BCE, Alexander’s choice of exit from India was guided by word of the disastrous marches of these two earlier monarchs. Hoping to go one better on these illustrious predecessors, Alexander resolved to reach Persia by land through Makran. Though he lost some 20,000 souls, and considerable treasure, either to the intense autumn heat of the parched land or to the fury of a flash flood in one of the rivers, he and his army did make it to safety more or less intact.
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The Bull and the Boulder

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Through the night the gusting wind kept at it. At sometime after five the sun broke through the shackling layers of gray haze and appeared as a pale yellow disc levitating just above the horizon. It was time to take the short walk to the crest of the ridge of Bail Pathar.


I am no mountaineer and though I’ve been in some high places, I have never actually climbed a real peak. But one thing I know: even insignificant peaks, simply by their very nature of being peaks and therefore higher than the surrounding ground, offer something more than just great views. It was here where long before the dawn of history primitive man placed his gods. Peaks were sacred. Whether it be the puny Miranjani near Nathiagali; or the 4800 metre Deo nau Thuk (Peak of the Jinn) on Deosai; or Musa ka Musallah in Kaghan; or Ilam in Swat; or Kutte ji Qabar (The Dog’s Grave) in the Khirthar Mountains; or Takht e Suleman, they, one and all, were revered places. Those were places for man to approach in worshipful and reverent state of mind, perhaps with an offering or two for whatever gods man believed in.
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Thalle La - the pass I couldn’t make

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In the 1977 obituary of Eric Shipton, his lifelong friend and climbing partner Bill Tilman wrote of having suffered from “mountaineer’s foot” on the expedition to climb Muztagh Ata in 1947. At that time, Tilman was 50 and his mate ten years younger — and he explained that the disease was the “inability to place one foot in front of the other."

Both Tilman and Shipton were however supermen. They carried on mountain climbing and adventuring until the very ends of their lives. I am a far lesser mortal and after having quietly celebrated my sixtieth in February, I was still looking forward to a few more years of hill walking. However, the sobering memory of my 2009 trek to Mintaka when blistered feet caused me to ride a donkey took the spunk out of me.
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Trek record

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Trekking, as we know it, is actually a spin-off of the work of the early 19th century European explorers, surveyors and map-makers. Hiring local hunters and shepherds as guides, they followed the barely marked trails plied by earlier natives. The first adventurers, in the true sense, were mountaineers who had little to do with exploration and map-making, but were obsessed with climbing the virgin snows of the  system.


By the 1920s, yet another breed of adventurer was roaming this great knot of high peaks and glaciers. This bunch did not climb per se. Driven by curiosity, they simply walked the trails. Their purpose was largely historical and sociological studies and they worked on shoestring budgets. There was, of course, another sub-caste: wealthy, highly educated, cultured persons of the world. Theirs was the best written record.
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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