Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Deosai Truths

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F. S. Aijazuddin

Try finding Deosai on an early map of the Himalayan region. It should lie somewhere above Kashmir and east of Astor. The one I consulted was dated 30 March 1846. It had been published by the East India Company, based on information provided by G. T. Vigne, Captain C.Wade, Lieut. J. Anderson, H.M. Durand, and W. Moorcroft [1]. The map shows a largely blank space, and above it the inscription: ‘Elevated plains of Deosih, Deotsuh, or Gherrutsuh, about 12,000 feet, with peaks of Granite & Gnessis. Barren and mountaineous.’ Barely discernible, south of the confluence of River Indus and a river flowing from Shigur, is marked a village identified as ‘Gamba Iskardo’ (the forerunner to today’s Skardu.)


Such was the desolation at Deosai that travelers using the map were warned that the road westwards to Burzil would take ‘6 days on foot’ because there was ‘no horse road’.

Today, in an age of satellites and Google maps, one forgets there was once a breed of explorers who spent (and often surrendered) their lives discovering areas that today are accessible at the flick of a cursor. What was remarkable about these intrepid men was their extra-curricular commitment. Vigne qualified as a lawyer; Wade rose within the military of the East India Company to lead the British forces into Kabul during the First Afghan war of 1839-40; Anderson started his career as an engineer; and the most famous of all of them – William Moorcroft – was one of the Britain’s’ first veterinarians. He became a veterinary surgeon to the Bengal Army and Inspector of military studs, and using this position, he was able to explore Kashmir, Ladakh, and Leh. He died at Balkh in 1825 and was buried there.

Salman Rashid shares their distinctive sort of DNA. Intrepid, inquisitive and informed, Salman, ever since his first foray outdoors in 1979, has explored so many areas of Pakistan that it would shame the Surveyor-General’s office.

He began sharing his research first through magazine articles in the early 1980s and later consolidated them into his first book Riders on the Wind (1991). His latest book Deosai: Land of the Giant differs from the others in that it is augmented by many spectacular photographs taken by the talented Nadeem Khawar.

A marriage between the word and the image can sometimes be difficult to manage. In the case of this book, so supportive are they of each other, that it would be hard to imagine one without the other. In his photographs of marmots, for example, Khawar brings to life Salman’s reference (and dismissal) of Herodotus’ fanciful legend of ‘gold-digging ants’.

Salman provides his own legends, such as the one of the cruel king who so tyrannized his subjects that they invoked the wrath of God on him, at which his winter hoard of precious grain store petrified into stone. Or the cairns set up by a Balti raja which on side of the road represented the number of soldiers who accompanied him into battle in Kashmir. ‘On his way back,’ Salman tell us, ‘the survivors were each told to take one stone from the pile and place it on the opposite side. The smaller pile… indicates the men lost in battle’.

Salman’s sympathies are less with human beings than with God’s creatures, in this book the Himalayan bear. He lauds the efforts made by local conservationists such as the courageous Mohammed Ibrahim, a native of Karabos village, who has worked for almost a decade with Himalayan Wildlife Foundation. Ibrahim, in Salman’s words, ‘attracts miscreants as flowers do bees’. He fights an often lonely battle against poachers determined on making a dishonest living from trapping falcons or from peddling the body parts of ibex and bears.

The population of Himalayan brown bears, according to Salman, has increased gradually from 32 (2003) to 65 (2011). That is pitifully small, compared to the millions of humans born in the country during those eight years, but it is a beginning. The monitoring of the bear population is more scientific now than it was in the 1980s. Then, enthusiasm overpowered common-sense as a young engineer named Vaqar Zakaria discovered when he went to Deosai full of purpose with a television crew to film bears emerging from their winter hibernation. He arrived at the wrong time, the crew had to set up their cameras fruitlessly in the freezing wind, while the bears decided to remain curled up and snug in their lairs just a little longer.

Today, climate change has forced the bears to adapt their cyclical life-styles to a new regimen of longer summers and shorter winters. While they are still vulnerable to the determined poacher, they have however the protection of the Government which has declared Deosai as well as three other natural sites (Khunjerab, Handarap and the Central Karakorams) as National Parks.


Khawar’s ineffably beautiful photographs capture the frugal innocence of Deosai’s wildlife and scenery – the birds, the flowers, the rippling streams, and the daunting mountainscapes. Occasionally, a Gujjar or his colourful family comes before the lens. In one unforgettable composition, Khawar catches a particularly poignant moment as a lonely, dispossessed Raja Aman Ali Shah of Kharmang, gazes wistfully out of a carved window. He seems as vulnerable as the bears themselves, and as much in need of official protection.

No one in Pakistan deserves the sobriquet of the doyen of Pakistani travel writers more than Salman, and yet he is much more than that. ‘A traveler simply records information about some far off world,’ Robin Hanbury-Tenison once wrote, ‘and reports back; but an explorer changes the world' [2].


Salman the explorer may not be able to change the world or even Pakistan with his book, but he has certainly filled the gap where Deosai should have been in the 1846 map, and where this precious natural treasure should be in our national consciousness.

DEOSAI: THE LAND OF THE GIANT by Salman Rashid, with photographs by Nadeem Khawar, (Sang-e-Meel Publications, Lahore, 2013), pp. 176. Price Rs 2,000 [Review appeared in Monthly Herald December 2013 issue].

References:

[1] Map of the Northern Part of the Punjab and of Kashmir, also on the Frontiers of Ladak & Little Tibet, compiled from the surveys of G. T Vigne, Captain C. Wade, Lieuts. J. Anderson, & H.M. Durand, Mr. Moorcroft , etc. by order of the Court of Directors of the East India Company, by John Walker. 30 March 1846.

[2] Quoted in Benedict Allen (Ed.), The Faber Book of Exploration (London,2002), xiii.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 12:00 AM,

15 Comments:

At December 9, 2013 at 12:45 PM, Anonymous M Behzad Jhatial said...

unbelievable beauty of both words and pictorial...

 
At December 9, 2013 at 1:14 PM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Fakir Syed Aijazuddin writes like no one else. Or is it the other way: no one writes like him.

 
At December 9, 2013 at 4:26 PM, Blogger Memoona Saqlain Rizvi said...

Incredible. So far best book review.

 
At December 9, 2013 at 4:26 PM, Blogger Memoona Saqlain Rizvi said...

Incredible. So far best book review.

 
At December 10, 2013 at 7:27 AM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

As I said, Memoona: F S Aijazuddin is THE master craftsman. Lucky that he agreed when Herald asked.

 
At December 11, 2013 at 5:26 PM, Blogger Memoona Saqlain Rizvi said...

Glad he did that.

 
At January 1, 2014 at 12:03 AM, Blogger Servant of Aulia Allah said...

الحمد لله...
The Deosai

 
At January 1, 2014 at 12:05 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Deosai must be thanking you sir... as I believe that these places have their own super consciousness.. I will definitely get this amazing books. best rgrds

 
At January 2, 2014 at 10:59 AM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Your words are very kind. This was only a small tribute by Nadeem Khawar and me.

 
At March 10, 2015 at 9:22 AM, Anonymous Muhammad Athar said...

Unbelievable beauty of the area discrived in the matching words . Thanks sir

 
At March 10, 2015 at 9:42 AM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you, Athar.

 
At January 26, 2016 at 11:07 AM, Blogger AHMED BAJWA said...

Very beautiful selections of words and language. So far I hardly recall any other review at par with.

 
At January 26, 2016 at 12:11 PM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Ahmed, Fakir Syed Aijazuddin is the master crafter of words. if you read his columns in Dawn, you'll understand that there is no greater mastery over the English language than his. Words turn to putty when Aijaz's fingers hit the keyboard.

 
At September 6, 2016 at 11:53 AM, Anonymous Amal Farhaan said...

I read this and was motivated to take out my copy of the book and once again marvel at the astoundingly beautiful photographs and of course the wonderful prose accompanying it.
Salman Sahib, Thankyou for publishing this and having Nadeem Khawar Sahib capture the essence of Deosai in his pictures. I salute both of you and thankyou both from the bottom of my heart.

 
At September 6, 2016 at 3:41 PM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Amal, you are very kind. I am gratified. Your feelings have been conveyed to Nadeem. He thanks you too.

 

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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