Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Hundred Flags

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For a sleepy little village with a population no more than four hundred – and that also tucked away in a remote corner of Punjab, Sojhanda – ‘Hundred Flags,’ is an evocative name. Lying in a bowl smack on the Sindhu River about twenty-five kilometres due west of the town of Attock, the village is surrounded by the dark sanatha (Dodonea viscosa) covered slopes of the Kala Chitta hills on three sides. To the west flows the mighty Sindhu. Though locals have no tradition regarding the name, I imagine it was here in some forgotten age that a renegade chieftain or a freebooter on the run might have staked out a claim, very likely for a brief while. In my imagination I see him marking out his claim with a profusion of flags on the surrounding slopes and giving rise to the name.


What we know for a certainty is that the year 1221 saw a great flurry of activity as Jalal ud Din Khwarazm found refuge in these hills. The epic battle, in which Chengez Khan the Mongol defeated the Khwarazmian, was fought near the village of Nizampur across the river in Nowshera district. There the defeated Muslim king shamefully abandoned his family to the savagery of the Mongols and fled across the river to hide in the gorges of the Kala Chitta waiting for stragglers from the battlefield to join him. Thereafter he took another ancient road that follows the river southward.
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Philosopher Poet of Vehowa

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I learned of Jehanzeb Jehangir Raz from his poem in the Inspection Book of the Vehowa BMP Post. Written in response to the PA’s observation that the post be abolished, the four couplet poem showed not only the poet’s excellent command over the Urdu language, but also a shade of Allama Iqbal.
 
Born to a Khetran family in the small village of Vehowa in Dera Ghazi Khan district, Jehanzeb Jehangir remembers an easy childhood. The family had a medium-sized land holding managed by his father (himself a poet of Seraiki, Persian, Urdu, Hindi and Punjabi) and life was good. The Land Reforms of Mr Bhutto, however, deprived the family of a great part of their holding and now on the verge of old age Raz faces pecuniary problems.

By his own admission he used to get ‘strange notions’ in his head from a very early age. He looked up into the sky and contemplated the reality of the blue welkin, the starry night got him thinking about the universe: how would it have started and how it must end, its vastness and man’s place in it. Not yet tutored in philosophy, when he was in the 8th grade in school, he one day gathered his classmates and lectured them on the universe. They looked at him as if he had gone barmy for they had never bothered about the things this loony was now talking of. That was the first realisation that not everyone was concerned with the notions that rankled him. That in the village he was alone in his interest in the natural world.
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To Makran

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The Frontier Works Organisation has done some remarkable work in Pakistan. One of them is the Makran Coastal Highway. Time was, and I speak from first hand personal experience, that getting from Karachi to Gwadar by road entailed a nearly forty-eight hour-long, bone-jarring, nerve-wracking journey. And if you were a finicky eater who wanted the lentils or vegetables properly stewed, you can add hunger to the foregoing discomfort.

There was no direct connection between Karachi and Gwadar. You travelled up north to Lasbela, thought the desiccated Jhao Pass to Awaran (oh, so beautiful and picturesque) and then across 250 km of the most anxiety-making desert to Turbat where you arrived with much of the desert deposited upon your person. In between you spent the night sleeping on the sandy floor of an inn fearing some scorpion or centipede will get into your ears or, worse, your pants.
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The Giant’s Tomb revisited

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Book is available at Sang e Meel (042-3722-0100), Lahore

A few of kilometres outside the village of Gharibwal (famous for the cement factory) at the foot of the eastern escarpments of the Salt Range in Jhelum district, there lies, in a lovely grove of tall trees, a cement plastered grave. It is a saint’s tomb, or so they say. In normal circumstances that would have been fine, but this oddity is over 18 metres long. Some people, notable among whom is a local school master, assert that this is the tomb of Ham Alai Salaam, the son of the prophet Noah. And because in those days there were giants on earth, thus the eighteen-metre long grave.

Ask any illiterate bumpkin in the village near the grave and they will swear that every supplication here bears fruit. Surprisingly however, even in neighbouring Gharibwal it is difficult to get directions, for no one seems to know of this marvellous site. Consequently it is no surprise that as little as a dozen kilometres away, the tomb of Ham completely fades out of human knowledge. However, it is clear that someone is taking a lot of interest in this supposed prophet’s tomb, for it has a brand new brick wall surrounding it. Two years ago, when I first visited it, there was only a rough stone wall.
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Deosai: Land of the Giant

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Book is available at Sang e Meel (042-3722-0100), Lahore


Deosai has long kept an aura of mystery. Long before the first European explorers ventured into this high altitude plateau, vague knowledge of its existence was current in the plains of the Indian subcontinent. Thence the word had been carried by the nomadic Gujjar cow herders who fattened their animals on the rich summer grasses of this vast uninhabited tableland. The Gujjar accounts wafted from person to person to become a confused tale of a plateau stretching flat, unbroken and treeless from the mountains north of the capital of Kashmir all the way to the deserts of Tartary. The myth was finally broken in the 1830s.
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Untimely deaths and other oxymorons

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This piece was written for a prestigious daily in 2008. They refused to carry it for reasons you will see when you finish reading

People die. That’s the way living beings have been designed. We are born, blunder through life creating some real imperial disasters – at least most of us who have power to influence the world do – grow old and senile, go completely gaga and then push off. George Junior and S. Palin being exceptions for having achieved senility before the age of thirty. Of course there are those rare creations like F. E. Chaudhry who just shy of a hundred years of age can still strike the fear of god in your heart with his clear eye, lucid thought and healthy body. Touch wood and thank heavens for him and his brotherhood.

After the respective passing of every single one of those who could have made the world any better but who unfailingly chose to remain ‘bystanders’, we hear that theirs was an ‘untimely’ death. Nobody ever says a condemnatory word about them getting fat salaries to twiddle their thumbs and stand by watching the country slide down the tube. These were men, mostly men, who, when they were in service, besides their huge salaries, responded to the privilege of office by amply adding to their kitty from illegal means and pretended all along to be well-meaning servants of the State.
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Oh no, not cricket again

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This article appeared in The News on Sunday 1 November 1998 when a world cup was about to start – or was already being played. Reproduced here for the reading displeasure of all cricket lovers

The number of people I exasperate with my utter illiteracy in matters of cricket is endless. But, it must be conceded, that I simply do not see the point of the game. How can I when they say it’s a ‘silly point’? If you ask me, it’s not just a point that’s silly; the whole caboodle is exasperatingly absurd. What’s the sense in a game with a couple of geriatrics in white coats and bunch of good for nothing loafers who, if they had any sense at all, would get in out of the midday sun?

On second thought, it is perhaps because of having been out in the sun rather too long that these men are the way they are. I mean, whoever in their right minds would get into clean white clothes and stand in the blazing sun the whole day long throwing a red ball a couple of times this way and that, while two other nutters saunter about between two sets of upright sticks. Meanwhile, for excitement the TV cameras pan the empty stands and show the grass growing (which grows faster than the runs come) and the vultures overhead. The vultures obviously waiting for the geriatrics to drop dead. Worse, I fear the vultures fooled by the aggressive inactivity on the ground, take the players to be a bunch of cadavers.
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Rediscovering a great builder

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The octagonal building with the bulbous dome should still have been visible from the Grand Trunk Road near the Shalimar Gardens because according to Kanhayalal, the author of Tarikh-e-Lahore (written 1884) it was the highest mausoleum in Lahore. But now the surrounding concrete monstrosities of modern urban architecture have all but swamped it.
 
Standing on a high plinth its arched alcoves afford entrance to a spacious octagonal chamber with two sarcophagi. Below the plinth, in the subterranean burial chamber whose entrances are now blocked by debris, are two graves that mark the mortal remains of a man called Ali Mardan Khan and his mother. Originally the building had a facing of marble and mosaic tiles which were stripped when the Sikhs used the building as a gunpowder magazine under command of General Gulab Singh Bhowandia. To the north is a beautiful gateway, still resplendent with colourful mosaics; barred and disused it is now the abode of innumerable bats. Entry to the mausoleum is through a corridor separating it from the surrounding Pakistan Railways Loco Shed at Mughalpura.
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Deosai: Land of the Giant

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I had dreamed of being on Deosai since 1984. Eventually got there in the summer of 1990. It was every bit like the descriptions I had read in 19th century travel and exploration literature: a vast open treeless expanse rolling in every direction until it ran into the rocky crags on its periphery. I was hooked. Thereafter I returned several times, mainly to be with the Himalayan Wildlife Foundation team working on the conservation of bears and other wildlife.

The text of this book was written in 2004. But never having considered myself a real photographer, I waited and waited and waited for the photography to materialise. Eventually my friend Nadeem Khawar, the well-known nature and wildlife photographer, who I call Guru, agreed to spend three months on Deosai. That was the summer of 2010 and Nadeem came back with the most priceless imagery ever.
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Railway Station Ruk Relegated to Oblivion

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Except for those who serve on the Sukker Division of Pakistan Railways, there will be few to whom the name Ruk would mean anything at all. And when friend Raheal Siddiqui asked me recently if I knew why this railway station had once been important, all I could remember was that it had featured prominently in the laying of the Kandahar State Railway (KSR) – the line that was to connect Quetta with the rest of the country. And that is a great story, for it is connected with the Great Game - the 19th century struggle between the imperial powers of England and Russian for control over Central Asia. So, allow me to quote myself from an article published in this same newspaper almost five years ago.

 
‘When railways came of age around the middle of the [19th] century both nations saw in it the means to easily and quickly cross the great desert expanses of Asia. And so it was that while the Russians struggled to span the blistering Kyzylkum Desert, east of the Caspian, England was inching its way forward across the desert and mountains lying between Sibi and the garrison town of Quetta. Fear of the Cossacks riding in through the vast openness of Balochistan, the subcontinent’s back door, rode high and the “Kandahar State Railway,” as it was called, was top priority.
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Seat of the Gods

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Safed Koh – White Mountain, once glistened with snow the whole year round. The mountain is so named, wrote Babur the Mughal, ‘because its snow never lessens.’ Having made himself master of the Kabul valley in 1504, Babur described the range as running south of Ningarhar (Afghanistan) dividing that province from the country of the Bangash Pukhtuns. There were, he wrote, no ‘riding roads’ across the mountain – only narrow, precarious footpaths. Little has changed since the time of the Mughals, except that global warming has put paid to the everlasting snow. In grim jest the educated of Parachinar, the quaint little town at the foot of the southern slopes of Safed Koh, now call it Siyah Koh in Persian or Torghar in Pukhtu – Black Mountain.


I arrived in Parachinar with hopes of climbing Sikaram, at 4761 metres (15,620 ft), the highest peak in the Safed Koh range. There on the peak, it was said, was a shrine and also great views not only into Paktiya province but also Ningarhar right up to Jalalabad. Friends in high places made arrangements that introduced me to Major Dil Nawaz Khan of the Kurram Militia. A full-blooded Yusufzai with a stern, hawkish face and small body, he had climbed the mountain only three weeks earlier and was meant to brief me on the route to be taken.
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A forgotten page from History

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In the northeast corner of the first quadrangle of the Shalamar Garden in Lahore, right next to the fountains, there is an unpretentious yellow washed rectangular room on a high plinth. Entrance to the ground floor is through a door in the east wall, while in the west is a door and staircase leading down to the basement. The remaining arched alcoves all around are closed by a masonry filigree. Until about five years ago this room served as a tea and cold drink stall. But since then both doors have remained permanently locked.
 
Even when hundreds of visitors would have passed through its doors or lounged on the patio around it sipping their drinks, few would have noticed the plaque on the west wall commemorating the sojourn in this room of the ‘famous traveller William Moorcroft’ in May 1820. Even fewer would have known who this person was. But for those who have any interest in the history of the Great Game, that epic struggle between Russia and England for the possession of Central Asia, Moorcroft’s name shines bright.
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‘I have seen Lahore!’

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Darshan Singh was eight years old in 1947. He was born in village Klasswala near Pasrur where his family was comfortably well off. His father ran a thriving restaurant I n Rawalpindi’s Gwalmandi and the family lived in a rented house near the restaurant. In 1944, Darshan joined Standard High School, not very far from Snatam Dharm High School. He remembers how he daily used to walk back and forth between his home and the school. He remembers the streets, the large pipal tree under which he and his mates played marbles, and the teachers who taught him.

The house on the left could possibly be Darshan’s childhood home

Then one day young Darshan’s world exploded in flames – an event whose cause and meaning his young mind failed to fathom. Though his immediate locality was untroubled, but from the roof of their home, he and his family could see the eerie glow of the fires raging in other areas. Presently his father, Varyam Singh, announced that they had to leave Rawalpindi.
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On Death and Dying

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On my next birthday in February, I’ll be 62. That’s in real time. My CNIC has me two years younger however because back in 1967 my father decided that I should not retire at age 60. Well, to begin with, I cheated my father and worked for only six and a half years (army) and another equal term for a multi-national firm. After that, it’s been a long holiday in which I have been very fortunate to make a sort of living as well.


In October 2000 my uncle, the only paternal uncle, died. We siblings called him Chan (our abbreviation for Chacha Jan) and some of my best childhood memories are associated with him. His death, naturally, had a very profound effect on me. That was the first time I actually thought of death and dying and that one day I too shall go into the long night. To be truthful, until then I had looked upon myself as indestructible and immortal.
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What the mullah wants

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In the local mosque (one of about 30 in a radius of 200 metres), the mullah makes full and unlawful use of his public address system (eight loudspeakers) to broadcast his dua following this Friday prayer. I wish I could get the local corrupt and inefficient police to register a case of blasphemy against the man.

My reason is simple: God assures us repeatedly in the Quran that He is Samee and Baseer – the Seer and the Hearer. So when He is aware of everything, isn’t the mullah committing the worst blasphemy by screaming at God? This daily screaming from the pulpit by the PA system is a plain and simple affront to the Almighty who knows your deepest thought without the amplifier. Who will wake up to this great blasphemy and put the beard behind bars and then have him extricated from the lock-up by an enraged crowd of 50,000 mostly drug addicts and thugs so that he can be beaten to death with bricks and clubs?
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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