Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

The Royal Geographical Society

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The Royal Geographical Society sits in the corner of Kensington and Exhibition roads. It is neighbours with the Royal Albert Hall and across Kensington Road spreads the verdure of Hyde Park. I was elected a Fellow in June 1991. That was the first time I had ever stepped inside its hallowed corridors. You entered from Kensington Road side into a foyer. Right in front was the, I forget what they call it, but I think it is, the Tea Room where you can also eat a great lunch and sometimes dinner. The food is premium always and in contrast to a comparable restaurant anywhere in London surprisingly low priced. If you turn left in the corridor the Map Room, oh, the MAP ROOM, is on the right. And what a Map Room it is! There must be thousands of charts of every manner to be found there. On the many occasions I took time off from reading to consult the charts, I was like a child in a toy shop, my attention wandering from map to map.

But if you don’t go into the map room and follow the corridor to the end, a staircase leads to the first floor. As you pass along the corridor, you cannot but notice the artefacts on display along the walls. There is something from Ernest Shackleton’s polar expedition, Eric Shipton’s sextant, another explorer’s theodolite, something from Robert Scott or Kenneth Mason, or Ranulph Fiennes. There was a kayak too whose claim to fame I do not now recall.

As you climb the stairs to the first floor, the Library is to the left. The furniture in this room that smells of old books is oak: the desks and chairs, the sideboards and cupboards holding the books is all ancient and weathered oak: the Society was founded in 1830 to which time some of the furniture would surely date. And the shelves are lined with books and books and books. There is nothing about exploration and geography all over the world that you would like to learn and not find in those shelves.

The placing of the racks creates small cubicles where researchers could work. When they finish for the day, they can simply leave the material on the desk and come back to resume the next day. This is paradise.

But even here at RGS, someone played dirty. The Journal of the Royal Geographical Society (also known as Geographical Journal or simply GJ) for the year 1840 (or is it 1841?) is missing. I believe it was there in 1991 and again in 1997. But when I returned in 2000, it was gone. I asked and the young librarian hedged. I persisted and it turned out it had been pilfered by a reader. I tell you! But fortunately, before it was lost, it had been scanned and preserved at JSTOR (short for Journal Storage) and is digitally available to all seekers.

When I returned in December 2006 – my last visit – the old Library was no longer accessible to researchers. This was such a pity. I remember the freedom of my earlier visits when I sat at the desk reading and suddenly needed to check a reference. All I had to do was turn around and grab the relevant book from the shelf behind (or in front). But now a new library, called Foyle Reading Room, has been built in the garden behind the nearly two hundred-year old building. It’s a spanking new place with modern furniture and computer screens and what have you. But the books are no longer directly accessible. You check the catalogue, give the name to the librarian and get the book in less than five minutes. But the freedom of being with the books in the old Library is gone. It survived for no less than a hundred and seventy years until some modern thief forced everything to be changed.

In the old Library, the thing that really grabbed me was the feeling of being at the same desk as, say, my hero Eric Shipton. But it was the eeriest when I sat there, all by myself in the library, reading the last letters of explorer George Whitaker Hayward who was foully murdered in July 1870 outside village Darkot near Yasin (Gilgit-Baltistan). As I read his words, I imagined before leaving on his last fateful mission of exploration this tragic hero, who was also a Fellow of RGS, may indeed have occupied the very desk where I was working fully one hundred and twenty years after him. I got goose bumps.

This feeling thereafter never left me. I imagined the books, journals and manuscripts that I consulted carried the fingerprints of men like Shipton and his lifelong friend and climbing partner William Tilman – both heroes that I greatly admire. I started out a bit late in life and by the time I became acquainted with them, these great men were already gone, but my connection with them lived through the books that we shared. It was a great feeling. This emotion was magnified when I read their diaries and other manuscripts, all faithfully preserved by the Society. It was as if I was actually hobnobbing with these remarkable men of the past.

In 1991, though I was researching early explorers in what is now our Gilgit-Baltistan region, I stumbled upon a book I had not known of until then. Ser India by Aurel Stein, a huge three-volume set, was a mine of knowledge coming to us from Stein’s years of exploration in Chinese Turkestan at the beginning of the 20th century. It was from a very breathless, excited reading of this mind-boggling treatise that I learned, among other things, of the discovery of wooden writing boards from the ruined cities on the southern fringe of the Takla Makan Desert and that the script on these was Kharoshthi and the language archaic Punjabi. This prompted the first stirring of the idea that culminated in Salt Range and Potohar Plateau.

When I returned to RGS in December 1997, I was not on a particular search. I just trawled the shelves and read, trawled and read anything that caught my fancy. Again, an idea took shape: the names of the mountain ranges, their peaks, valleys, passes and indeed every little feature all had local names, yet men, even generous men like Shipton and Tilman (leave alone discriminatory men like Reginald Schomberg) accused local people, Baltis especially, of being terrified of the mountains and glaciers.

The next trip was April 2000 and in ten working days, I crammed and crammed everything I could find on exploration and mapping in the Karakoram Mountains. As well as that, I read up the works of experts like the British missionary A.C.F Read, Italian Professor Tucci and the German Wilhelm Kick, to name a few, who have delved in Balti linguistics and place names.

Though I was aware of the old route between Baltistan and Yarkand over the Muztagh Pass from my 1991 research, the idea of The Apricot Road to Yarkand solidified in this time. In those days, Fellows could borrow books from the Society and on the weekend I would take a volume to read on the way home and over the next two days. I don’t know if they still lend books at RGS.

Besides the Library and the Map Room, there is a Photo Library in the basement. In 1991, I made friends with Rachel Duncan who was in charge there. Together we spent hours sorting through the pictures of our part of the world (there were thousands from all over the world). I got to see several of Shipton and Tilman that I had not known until then.

Rachel too turned out to be a huge Shipton fan. She invited me to an evening with others of the following and I remember this pub somewhere near Hampstead Heath where we eight or nine women and men sat talking Shipton and Tilman and getting all misty-eyed.

The first librarian I knew at RGS was Janet Dunlop, in 1991 about twenty-two or something years of age. I had arrived in London a week before my election as Fellow, but I was permitted to use the library on speculation that I will be elected. On election day I was clearly nervous as I paced up and down in the Library. Janet assured me again and again that I should not worry because she knew I had a good case.

What I did not know at that time was that the Library closed for readers annually for four weeks between June and July. So when Janet one Friday announced that I would not be able to carry on from Monday, I was virtually in tears. I had limited money and what was I going to do in London if not read at RGS, I wailed. Janet looked at me evenly and said, ‘All right Mr Rashid, let me see what I can do about you.’

She soon came back to tell me that I had been permitted to use the Library as a very special case. For the next four weeks, I had free run of the Library and the Map Room as well as the Photo Library – all to myself.

Again, Janet said, I would have to leave the Library at lunch because her colleague having gone on vacation she had to lock up while she went to eat. One day I let her do that as I strolled in Hyde Park and ate my sandwich. But you finish a sandwich in five minutes. So what was I to do for the next forty minutes or so? I asked Janet to lock me in the library while she was gone. She looked at me hard for a couple of seconds. ‘All right,’ she said. ‘but let me show you the fire escape, just in case you have to run for your life while I am gone!’

Can we imagine someone letting a two-bit writer get away with such laxity here in our country? Two utterly out of the ordinary requests made by a desperate researcher on a shoestring budget were approved without getting sanction from the Queen of Great Britain. In Pakistan, they would read out to you the various laws if you made such requests. They would also tell you that permission would have to be sought from the highest office in the Universe and that being God, was not possible for fifteen thousand years. You would never be entertained. End of story.

I met Janet Dunlop again after all these years in December 2006. Not that I expected her to, but to her credit, she vaguely remembered permitting someone in the Library when it was closed.

For anyone who lays any value by geographical research and learning, the Royal Geographical Society is the place to be. It is about time I returned there again because now there is another thing to read about: The Northern Route. But I’m not telling where this begins and where it ends.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 3 June 2013 at 14:14, Anonymous Norbert Pintsch said...

What a conducive atmosphere for learning and exploring the annals of history. I was there once for my own research. Very useful resource.

At 3 June 2013 at 15:04, Blogger rockankor said...

Congratulations Salman. We must meet soon, where are you these days.

At 3 June 2013 at 15:07, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

You said it, Norbert. There really is no other place anywhere in the world like RGS. And the staff is so very helpful always. For someone like me from Pakistan, it is uncanny.
Perhaps one day in contrast I should tell the story of the Punjab Archives. Just a sampling: the idiots who man this wonderful resource are convinced that the 160 year-old documents maintained there are secret and to be kept from public scrutiny.

At 3 June 2013 at 15:21, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Rockankor? Rock Anchor? If you know me, you know where I am.

At 3 June 2013 at 20:56, Blogger Nayyar Julian said...

Amazing. How RGS has preserved the history. Not only there own but of the world. Great.

At 4 June 2013 at 17:41, Anonymous Sadia Noor said...

Inspiring. My subject is not Geography but I will still go there one day.

At 5 June 2013 at 13:48, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Visitors are welcome at RGS, Sadia. But I don't suppose you can use the facility as a Fellow can.

At 6 June 2013 at 19:19, Anonymous Saima Ashraf said...

Simply jealous......I wish to be there:(


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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