Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

The Fort of Rannikot

Tanvir Ahmad Khan, with whom I share this page, emailed to say that at a dinner with the French ambassador and his wife, the subject of a fort called Rani Khet came up. The fort, it was reported, lay somewhere near Dadu. Other than that no one knew anything about it. The fort of Rannikot (pronounced Runny Coat and not, repeat not, Ranikot or Rani Khet) lies thirty-two kilometres southwest of Sann (the ancestral village of the venerated late G M Syed), eighty kilometres north of Hyderabad in the Lakhi hills of the great Khirthar Range. Between Sann and the fort there stretches a sandy desert that I have seen transformed into farmland over the past thirty years. In the late 1970s, there being no road, one had to either walk (as a friend and I did) or ride a jeep. Today a blacktop road connects Rannikot with the Indus Highway outside Sann.

The walls of the fort become visible from a distance of about four kilometres, snaking over the golden-brown ridges and the first views strike one as being starkly similar to the Great Wall of China. Entry into the fort, if one is on a jeep, is through the dry bed of the Ranni River (whence the name of the fort) or through Sann Gate if on foot. The gateway, on the right bank of the stream, is a classic example of defensive architecture with two staggered turrets that form a dogleg in order to break the gallop of an attacking horseman.
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Thousand Treasures

Some 20 kilometres south of Quetta, past Dasht-e-Bedaulat (‘Wretched Plain” — a misnomer now because electricity and tube wells have turned this once barren land fertile) there rises an imposing purple loom west of the road. Rising to 3,308 metres (10,850 feet) above the sea, this, in common parlance, is Chiltan. Ask any Brahui who lives in its shadow and he will call it Chehel Tan — Forty Souls. He will also tell you that the valleys below are called Hazarganji — Possessor of a Thousand Treasures.

Aside: Balochistan is a country rife with tales of hidden treasures left behind by passing hordes through the long and creative years of history. From the arid wastes of Makran through the juniper-scented valleys of Kalat to the sun-baked hills of the Marri-Bugti area, echo tales of hidden riches.
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It could have been worse!

The first weekend of April was a disaster.

I left Lahore on Saturday to overnight in Jhelum where, on the following morning, I was being joined by three young and very bright people (two girls and a young man) from Lahore. We shall withhold the names of the guilty party for reasons they and I know. Together we were to drive to the foot of Tilla Jogian to trek up to the two thousand year-old monastery on the top.

I am thankful to the Army Corps of Engineers for putting up a two-bit vagabond like me in first-class accommodation. All seemed well at about 9:00 pm when I last went outside to look up into a glorious starry sky and a crescent moon the colour of strong cheddar cheese. At 3:00 am, the sound of thunder roused me. I knew the prediction for rain in Jhelum was coming right.

As I shaved and showered, the rain pattered outside. At a little before 6:00, I called my friend and told him of the situation and that we would have to abort. They were just leaving Ring Road to get onto the Grand Trunk at Kala Shah Kaku and the dejection in AS’s voice was palpable.
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Baltistan Geography

Baltistan lies in the extreme northeast of Pakistan between the 35th and 36th parallel of latitude north of the equator and the 75th and 77th parallel of longitude. The Sindhu River enters it from Ladakh in the east via Kharmang sub-division and cuts across the country on a north-westerly bearing dividing Baltistan from, first, Kargil in India and then the Deosai Plateau to the south. The swathe cut by the Sindhu in its traversing of Baltistan varies in height from 2750 metres at its entry in the east to just about 1700 metres near Shengus as it exits into Gilgit district.

The two major tributaries of the Sindhu in Baltistan are the Shyok, only marginally less significant than the Sindhu, and the Shigar. While the former drains the elongated Nubra Valley (held by India) leading up to the Karakoram Pass, an ancient crossing place on the Asiatic Divide, the latter drains the Haramosh Range to the north and to the northeast the great mass of K-2 and its satellite mountains. Besides these, a few dozen minor streams also run into the Sindhu all draining the scores of peaks that tower well above the 6000-metre mark. The distinction of being home to the highest peak in Pakistan together with its complement of lesser mountains makes Baltistan foremost in the entire country in terms of average height above sea level.
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Souvenirs Collection

My collection of souvenirs is peculiar. No models of cars, trains or ships; or paintings or matchbooks from hotels around the world for me. I have a small collection of fossils picked up from the deserts and mountains of Sindh.

My first find was a pair of starfish fossils from just off Super Highway, about 70 km out of Karachi. The two were lying quite close to each other, undisturbed for a period of time that I could not comprehend at that time. Much later, I got a book on minerals, rocks and fossils and learned that every time I handled my fossils, I held in my hands a life form that lived in a very distant past: they, both Echinolampas, were from the Eocene period dating from 55.8 to 33.9 million years ago. These are no longer with me, having been gifted to my grand-niece and nephew in Canada.
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Fish in the water

When Alexander’s General Krateros started off with the ten thousand-strong contingent of aging veterans back for Macedonia, he had parted from his commander at Patala (Hyderabad). Three hundred and fifty kilometres northwest of Patala and some two weeks after the contingent of aging veterans bid farewell to Alexander, to head for Macedonia in the year 325 BCE, blasé veterans from years of hard travelling and even harder fighting, would have looked up in awe. There, spread out in front, was a large irregular splash of green, offsetting the bleak ochre of the mountains in the background.

As they neared, birdsong bursting out of the thickets would have been more than welcoming. Nearer still, the tinkle of rushing waters would have soothed the tired marchers. But Krateros would not have tarried long here for he had the Moola Pass to negotiate to the Baloch uplands before he could reach Alexandria in Arachosia (Kandahar). Neither Krateros nor any of his veterans left behind a record of what they saw and how they felt upon reaching this lovely oasis. Nor, too, did they tell us what it was called. But one thing that cannot be denied is that this army would have passed through Chhattal Shah, for there was no other way of ascending the Moola if you came from the low country of Sindh.
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On the Indian Frontier

Five years before he rose to be the viceroy of India in 1899, George Nathaniel Curzon undertook a daring and perhaps even perilous journey through the Karakoram-Hindu Kush region. At that time he was a member of parliament and clearly on his way to the highest office in India.

The purpose of his journey of late 1894, he informs the reader, (pompously, it must be noted), was to see firsthand the Indian borderland between the Karakoram Range and Chitral, bordering on Badakhshan. This was the land through which many conquerors over the ages had entered the subcontinent, he writes. While this may not have been exactly true for the past, in Curzon’s time Czarist Russia was vying with Victorian Britain in the Great Game of imperial ascendancy. The region of Curzon’s concern was a flashpoint with plenty of cloak and dagger activity afoot. With his eye on the viceregal office, Curzon looked upon this dramatic journey as the foundation on which he would base his frontier policies in the future.
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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