Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

The Transformation

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In 1980, I worked in Karachi for a German multi-national engineering firm. This was just when the Soviet Russians had foolishly walked into Afghanistan to destroy not just one country (Afghanistan) and unhinge USSR, but set the entire world on the path of perdition. I know minds much better than mine could see into the future and know where Pakistan would be headed in the changing scenario, but I confess I thought the Soviets’ Afghan adventure would soon be over leaving the rest of us none the worse for wear.

In those days in Karachi, we would from time to time have a couple of young German interns. Since I also managed the company’s guest house, I made friends with these chaps and we used to hang out. One of those interns one day said, ‘Why does the singing man begin so early in the morning?’
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Palace on the Rock

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It is a handsome complex of stone-and-timber buildings virtually smothered with various fruit trees and grapevines. Here and there willows, their branches drooping narcissistically over water, are dwarfed by towering poplars where golden orioles sing and magpies engage in noisy arguments. Outside its boundary wall a tumultuous river crashes over rounded boulders on its way to pay tribute to the glacier-born stream that is here known as the Shigar. Not many miles to the southward, right outside Skardu the capital city of Baltistan in the Northern Areas, the Shigar River in turn yields its waters to the great Sindhu.


Outsiders simply know it as Shigar Fort, but for the people of Baltistan it is Fong Khar – Palace on the Rock. An apt enough name for the main wing of the building straddles a huge rock. Admittedly although the rock could not be moved, there being ample space, the palace could have been designed differently to avoid building around its protuberance. One wonders, therefore, why the builders incorporated the rocky mass into the design for it serves no apparent purpose other than giving the place its name.

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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 Shaksgam River

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Shaksgam River valley - the view is to the east in the direction of the Shaksgam headwaters

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

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Gut Bela: the Lost Valley

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Ashraf Ali, my friend who was taking me from Saidu Sharif to Gut Bela said he called it the lost valley. Even though it is less than seven kilometres from the Khwazakhela-Malam Jabba road, separated as it is from the latter by a high ridge, it is yet remote, said Ashraf. It’s a beautiful valley with friendly people but one where no tourists ever go.


Having picked up Ehsanullah Khan, a most likeable friend I had never met until this day, a man who grows quality fruit and lives in a beautiful little cottage amid apple, peach and pear trees we went up the winding road to Malam Jabba. Ehsanullah Khan, sixty-three, clean cut, good looking and suave is the archetypal Khan as they once made them. Well-bred, cultured and educated he, a right proper gentleman, yet prefers to live in his village and mind his orchard. In fact, even in the dark Night of the Terrorists, he stayed put. He says he was periodically stopped at the terrorists’ check post but always let off without any trouble.
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Philosophers of Taxila

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Read in Urdu about Philosophers of Taxila who astounded Alexander with their wisdom [double click the image below to enlarge and read].
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The blessed Punjabi landscape

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Back in the mid-1990s when M-2 was being built by Snowy Mountains Engineering Company, they had Geoff Gowers as the Chief Resident Engineer. He and his wife Andrea became good friends with the two of us, and together we travelled the not-yet-ready motorway several times.


Now as so many people zoom up and down the motorway, few remark on the raised road bed the tarmac rests on. Fewer still perhaps take their eyes off the drudgery unfolding straight ahead on the gray tarmac. But back then Geoff and I used to frequently talk of how the raised road will once again make the magical Punjabi countryside visible to road users.
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Mystery on an Ancient Highway

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‘Bamaar’s blow was so violent that it clean struck off Sultan Mohammed’s head, and sent it rolling down the hill,’ said the old man that my friend Abbas Ali had enlisted to show us the purported jailhouse and the palace on the crest of the low eminence of Bamurg Kandao just two kilometres due east of Parachinar town.


The jailhouse was no more than a natural cutting in the limestone hill and the palace was simply the foundation of three or four rooms whose antiquity I could not guess. Whoever had lived here in whichever period of time, enjoyed an indisputably magnificent view along the Zeeran stream, a tributary of the Kurram. Below us lay neatly parcelled squares of cultivation, across the river were the houses of Yusufkhel village and far away to the north the dark line of the Safed Koh range dissolved into storm clouds that sparkled with lightening every now and again. Parachinar was sprinkled in the middle ground to the west; a range of low hills blocked the view to the east. And to the south the Zeeran cut through more farmland.
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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