Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Oh, Pushkalavati!

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The most beautiful lowlands anywhere in the Land of the Pakhtuns are, without doubt, those around the present day district of Charsadda: great stands of shisham and poplar; the occasional pipal and sometimes a wide-spreading banyan above endless stretches of sugar cane fields provide welcome shade in the humid July heat. Through this virtual sea of green several tributaries of the Swat and the Kabul rivers meander to provide the land its picture postcard beauty. Muddy and languid, they are a fine contrast to intemperate Punjabi rivers during the monsoons.
 
 
We left the Peshawar-Charsadda highway five kilometres outside the latter and turned north on a dirt track leading into this picturesque country to the village of Sheikhan Dheri: Mound of the Sheikhs. Professor Farid Khan of the Department of Archeology, charged with irrepressible energy despite his fifty odd years, was at the wheel and as we went across one of the streams he pointed out the large mound that loomed to our right. That, he said, was Bala Hissar, the Peukelaotis of Alexander’s historians.
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Takshasila: Rock of the Takkas

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'The Gymnosophists' fame had spread far beyond their town by the Murree hills, and all because a pupil of Aristotle had crossed the Hindu Kush in search of the eastern Ocean and a pupil of Diogenes had left the boats on his native island of Cos, joined the expedition and agreed, in India, to go out in the midday sun.' Thus writes Robin Lane Fox on the subject of the naked philosophers of Taxila in Alexander the Great, his definitive work on the life and times of the greatest Macedonian ever to have lived.
 
 
Indeed, the name of the rich and flourishing city of Taxila was frequently mentioned in the streets of distant Babylon and Athens in the latter years of the 4th century BC. The fact that the information was by and large accurate was entirely due to Alexander the Great, that most illustrious of Aristotle's pupils; although the Macedonian's secretaries and diarists certainly were not the first Westerners to have written about the trans-Sindhu territories. In the year 512 BC, the Greek admiral Scylax sailed down the Sindhu on a mission of reconnaissance on behalf of Darius Hystaspes, the Achaemenian king of Persia. Soon afterwards Darius annexed Gandhara, Sindh and parts of the Punjab. Herodotus, the Father of History (born 484 BC), tells us that Indian tribute to the Persian court was gold dug from some 'sandy desert' in the vicinity of the city of Caspatyrus (identified as Peshawar), by the fabulous 'gold digging ants'.
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The spirit dwells

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“My papers are ready,” said Nawaz Ali Khoso without a shade of misgiving. “I will be recalled any day now.” The simple delivery I first heard from my friend in 1999 was full of the joy of a life well and usefully lived. I heard it again every time I met him thereafter.
 
Now when I next go to Nagarparker, Nawaz Ali Khoso will no longer be there to talk of the old days. I will have to go to his grave to have my last words with him.I met this wonderful teller of the most esoteric and interesting tales back in August 1998.

Nagarparker, Nawaz Ali’s home, resounded with the calls of peacocks as thick dark storm clouds raced overhead leaving a cool dampness and a welcome chill in the air — a chill even in August. I went seeking him because my friend Raheal Siddiqui had told me of him.
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Ignorance is Bliss

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My neighbour in the upstart residential society where we built our home several years ago is a seventy-three year old man. His initials are NAT, but we can safely call him Nut – an entirely apt title as will be seen presently. Last year when he was building his house during the summer, he would park his Suzuki in the shade of the shisham we had planted back in 2000 and which today stands well over eight metres tall.


Full of himself, the man was forever blowing his own trumpet, but one day he paused in his spree of self-praise to tell me how much he appreciated the trees and creepers in our one-kanal (500 yards) home. Knowing well enough what people like him generally thought of trees in Pakistan, I half jokingly said, ‘See that you don’t plant any in your own garden.’ That was cue enough for him. ‘When I worked for Anjuman Himayat e Islam,’ he trumpeted, ‘I had all those hundred year-old trees chopped down.’ Before he could finish his sentence I completed it for him, ‘And you had them replaced with shrubbery.’
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The ‘Bumba Mail’ called here

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Once upon a time, before the new border was drawn and Pakistan came into being, through trains from Karachi to Calcutta via Delhi left what we now call our ‘main line’ at Bahawalpur, turned northeast to chug through the desert to Bahawalnagar and on to the junction of Mandi Sadiqganj. From here they either carried on through Amruka to Fazilka and onward, or turned due east to Bhatinda, one of the busiest railway junctions in this part of pre-partition India. From Bhatinda travellers could go in any direction on any number of trains.

 
In undivided India, the Bhatinda loop was also used by some mail trains running between Peshawar and Kolkata. Being a longer, more tedious route in comparison to the direct line through Lahore, Jullundher and on to Delhi, the term ‘via Bhatinda’ passed into common usage for long-winded verbosity or for a pointless and circuitous journey. The phrase remained in use until the 1970s before transiting unobtrusively into oblivion, perhaps a sign of the thinning of the generation that understood its import.
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Riddle in the Kech Hills

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The Chachnama, an early history of the Arab conquest of Sindh is a great repository of knowledge concerning the Arab invasion of Sindh. Among other things (like revealing the base character of some early Muslim heroes) it recounts how Hajjaj bin Yusuf, the governor of Iraq, famous for having sent his nephew and son in law Mohammed bin Qasim on the successful expedition against Sindh, earlier deputed a man called Saeed Kilabi to Makran.


On the borders of Makran, Kilabi met one Safahwi Hammami of the tribe of Alafi (we are not told who this man was) and asked him to join whatever expedition Kilabi was hastening to. It comes out of the words of the Chachnama that Hammami had some sort of gripe against Hajjaj and took offence at Kilabi’s presumption that he would join the man’s enterprise. There also appears to have been an altercation between the two when Hammami refused to join up. This cost him not only his head but his skin as well: Kilabi cut off the poor man’s top, and dispatched it to bin Yusuf. The Chachnama tells us that he also flayed the body, but does not say what the cruel man did with the skin. The book goes on to tell us that having then installed himself in Makran, Kilabi ‘succeeded in securing more wealth from Hindustan (than was ever secured before).’
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Cheers!

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The following story was told me by Tumble back in the 1970s on the evening of the day it occurred. He remembers it well for he narrated it in Mangla again some years ago

Year 1974, Tumble (Javed Alam Khan), the youngest of the Alam Khan brothers, was a captain with 24 Cavalry and Brigadier Zahir Alam, the eldest, was commanding a brigade in the same division, that is, 6 Armoured Division in Kharian. Tumble narrates that he was over for lunch with his brother and they are sitting down with the lady of the house eating when she narrated.

She had earlier that day been at the CMH for a urine analysis. There she met up with three other young army wives who were there for the same purpose. So they sat in the Ladies Waiting Room to be called in by the laboratory man. Now, for some peculiar reason, the way to the officers’ toilet was through the ladies’ waiting room. (It is no longer that way now).
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Celebrating Deosai: Land of the Giant

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Left to Right: Shabnam Rashid, Salman Rashid (Author), Raj, Nadeem Khawar (Photographer)

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Humour in Uniform

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My dear friend Ejaz Haider, like me ex-army, loved this story. He said my line to Capt Mirza was my finest ever

Back in Kharian in the year of the Lord 1975, when I was a newly demoted lieutenant, I lived in this building in room 1. On the far side, in room 20 (I think) lived Capt Mohtaram Mirza of 28 Cavalry which was our divisional reconnaissance regiment at 6 Armoured Division.

He of 42nd PMA (or was it 40th?) was a typical Karachi ka bhaiya and way too senior to me. His mates called him Mohtaram or Capt Mohtaram depending on whether they were senior or junior to him. On his door he had this nice wooden nameplate with the brazen lettering Capt A A H H B B Mohtaram Mirza. When I walked from my room to Artillery Mess or to my unit for games, his room lay on my route down the veranda. He knew me as serving in the same division and from the various TEWTs (Tactical Exercise Without Troops) and MDs (Sand Model Discussions) that we attended together. We were on quite cordial terms and in passing I would greet him.
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‘Guard knows Batter!’

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Four years ago I went looking for the ferry Shireen Pasha, the film maker, had used in her excellent documentary Before it is too Late. I found it plying between Mithankot and Chachran in southern Punjab. But when my story was published in Herald, a friend called to say (incorrectly) that Pasha’s ferry worked somewhere in Sindh. And so, in December 1994 when I was in Sanghar two friends and I decided one morning to go ferry hunting. That story was never written, but recently as friend Raheal Siddiqui drove me over the Moro bridge, it all came back. And since it is not time-barred it needs be told.
 
 
Leaving Sanghar we made for the National Highway so as to be as close to the Indus as possible. Driving north, we stopped at tea stalls to ask about the ferry. Nobody had ever heard of it. We drove through village after nondescript village, even side tracking towards the river. But blanks were all we turned up.
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Men, nine yards tall!

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All over Pakistan, from Cape Monze (near Karachi) to the farthest north latitude, there are Muslim burials that are some nine yards long. Every large city has one (if not more) and you come upon them in the boondocks as well. These are the nau gaza pirs – nine yard-tall saints. Most of these gentlemen of the soaring body (forget the mind) are said to be early Muslims who brought the light of Islam to our heathen land.

Adherents who worship these tombs actually believe that those interred within were men of exceptional physical stature because, ‘in those days, giants roamed the earth.’ It is surprising that among the vast coterie of believers of these giant saints, there are many who have seen the world and have never found similar graves anywhere else but still foolishly believe in giants who are saints to boot exclusive to the subcontinent.
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Makran Coastal Highway

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Frontier Works Organisation (FWO) have done a lot of good work in the country. But their work mostly goes unacknowledged. But then they got a good man in Lahore as their Public Relations Officer. Major (retired) Husain Qazi has sound notions on what needs to be done and he was fortunate to have Major General Javed Bukhari as head of FWO (currently GOC Swat). Consequently when Husain suggested a coffee table book be written about the Markan Coast Highway (MCH) the project was approved and I was asked to undertake the job.


Now, MCH takes off westward from the old RCD Highway near Uthal which sits about 100 km north of Karachi and stretches almost as straight as an arrow all the way to the Iranian frontier north of Jivani. It thus connects Karachi with Ormara, Pasni, Gwadar and Jivani – coastal towns that were once accessible only by air. Of course you could take the hard bus ride that lasted nearly forty-eight hours from Karachi to Gwadar. But for that you had to be a sucker for punishment.
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Deosai: Land of the Giant

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Deosai: Land of the Giant is out and available at Sang e Meel (042-3722-0100) Lahore.

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Canal Journey

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Talking of the Upper Jhelum Canal (UJC) friend Suleman Ghani who is currently Secretary Irrigation, Punjab said that that the taking off of the canal at Mangla from the Jhelum River was a truly masterful feat on the part of some angrez engineer. Since the canal branches off at Mangla I had always imagined it was built after the damming of the river at that point and had everything to do with Pakistani engineers not with pre-independence angrez engineers. What a misimpression that was.


Long before Mangla Dam was conceived in the 1950s, indeed even before the very idea of Pakistan was born, great engineering minds were at work to devise an irrigation system for the vast plains of the rivers Sindhu and Ganga. One such scheme formulated as early as 1902 was called the Triple Canal System, Punjab.
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Travels with a superannuated Guerilla

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When S said her office was sending her to Mawand in the heart of Marri tribal country in Balochistan, I simply knew I had to go with her. Years ago riding a train from Sibi to Khost I had passed along the western fringe of this wild territory and had seen just about enough of the Marris to whet my appetite for a journey through their country.
 
 
What had then intrigued me the most was the way these hirsute Baloch tribesmen kept strictly to themselves. Travel in a train with Punjabis or Pathans and within the hour you will have a professed friend slapping you on the back and wishing you to get off with him at his station or at least offering an address for you to stay in the future. But here were very private people who kept to themselves, preened their immaculately curled beards with deliberate care and carried themselves with a pride and grace that I had seen in few people. Any attempt to start a conversation had been stymied by my illiteracy in Balochi and, what appeared to me, a polite rejection of my intrusion into their privacy.
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Life Beyond Dreams

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‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ I asked young Shahdad Marri. But the child did not understand my question so I rephrased it to ask him what he wanted to do after his education. ‘I’ll do whatever work I can get,’ he replied.
 
 
Surely, there was something he would like to do. Like being a doctor or an engineer, I pressed. Shahdad silently shook his head staring straight at me with his pellucid brown eyes.
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Been Gah: the 20,000 Foot Mountain

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The mullah who ran the mosque school in the village of Patra looked me over, head cocked to one side, eyes loaded with scepticism and an almost waggish, incredulous half-smile on his lips. ‘This man cannot get up the mountain,’ he said with finality. ‘He is too old.’

 
Fully aware of my bald pate and silver temples, I never try to defend such pejorative proclamations regarding my abilities, but this time, like a fool, I took offence. ‘I’ve been on mountains higher than your piddling little hill,’ I said fighting hard the urge to end my challenge with an appropriately vicious ‘You stupid, ignorant and uncivil fool.’
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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