Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

An expedition that refused to die

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The Rawalpindi-bound bus pulled up outside Satpara Inn in Skardu and honked for me. It had been arranged that the driver would pick me up at the hotel and he was only ten minutes behind his promised time. For me this had been a bit of a flop of an outing. Up on Deosai Plateau, south of Skardu, I had only one good day. It was all right to expect a couple of bad days in the last week of July, but a full week of rain and then finally about three centimetres of snow was a bit too much. With no chance of the weather clearing, I had bolted. The two days in Skardu struggling to get on the plane out to Islamabad also did not work out and it was not with any enthusiasm that I looked forward to this overland journey.


I was packed and ready and as I lugged my rucksack to the vehicle, I noticed the good-looking face in the window: square with high cheek bones, rugged hollow cheeks and an indifferent moustache. He regarded me with just a shadow of a smile; I nodded and he nodded back. From his complexion and the auburn highlights in his hair I guessed he was a Spaniard. Probably a mountaineer who, like me, had either failed to get on the flight out of Skardu to Islamabad at short notice or whose flight had been cancelled because of the several days of horrid weather. As I brushed past him inside the bus I noted his somewhat large build and congratulated myself for my judgement being spot on from just a face in the window.
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Balti Travellers

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Long before the first Balti travellers took it into their heads to cross the glaciated Muztagh Pass, the area was well known to local shepherds and hunters. Indeed, it was these two groups of adventurers who were the explorers of an era when exploration and map making had not yet come of age, at least in this part of the world. The shepherd with his herds forever seeking newer pastures and the hunter chasing the hard-to-get Himalayan ibex or blue sheep forged ever farther into the icy vice of the Karakoram glacial system. Perhaps it was one particularly doughty hunter, eyes and mind tied to the fleeing ibex as if with an invisible thread, who crested the saddle that was eventually to be called Muztagh Pass.

On the other side, across a large ice pan, he saw the gentle slope of a glacier winding downward through a chasm of black and brown rock topped by snowy peaks. It was not on the first sighting of this glacier that the hunter went on. But later, back by the warmth of a hearth that had first been kindled centuries earlier, he would have told the tale of the journey and the abundant bag of ibex or blue sheep.
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Thandiani to Nathiagali

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It was a totally aimless journey. And that was the best thing about it, for there were no schedules to keep and nowhere particular to go. And so around sun up on a June day that promised to be the kind when you can fry a cat on the sidewalk I rode a rattling pick up truck from Abbottabad to the well known summer resort of Thandiani (about 2700 metres). The idea was to walk to Nathiagali about thirty-five kilometres away along the curving ridge whose highest points offered breathtaking views of Nanga Parbat, the last great bastion of the Himalayas.


Past the straggle of shops and the rest house of the Forest Department the path to Biran Gali took off to the right through a forested hillside. It was a busy day with a steady stream of men coming up towards Thandiani to ride to work at Abbottabad or nearby towns. A solitary trekker is still a rare sight and I was stopped several times to be asked where I was headed. This was followed by three repetitions of instructions about getting to Biran Gali. The fourth was always hurled at me as I walked away; the more helpful kind kept up the banter as long as I was in sight.
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Epilogue - The Apricot Road to Yarkand

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Back in Pakistan, I went to see Lieutenant General Zarrar Azim, who I had first met when he was the Lahore Corps Commander. An armoured corps officer with mischief in his eyes who still kept the verve of boyishness; he was the kind of person who would appreciate my endeavour. Since he knew and appreciated my work and was close to the president, he would gladly speak with the man, I thought. Having retired since our meeting in Lahore, he now headed Army Welfare Trust, an army-run commercial-industrial complex headquartered in Rawalpindi.

The Panmah Glacier in its middle reach. In 1861 Godwin-Austen had reported an ice stream here; we found a roiling grey river. The scouring mark left by glacial ice on the rock wall along the left bank is a hundred metres deep. This was the depth at which the glacier once flowed here. If global warming is not halted now, another journeyer following in the footsteps of bygone travellers will probably find seasonal rivers where we had trodden on several hundred metre-deep ice

In his top floor office overlooking the Saddar Bazaar of Rawalpindi cantonment, I had his ear. But I did not even get a chance to ask the general for the helicopter. Having briefly told him of the journey I had barely finished my sentence about the missing thirty kilometres of the trek when he held up a hand.
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Mir Chakar Khan Rind

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Mir Chakar Khan Rind, the heroic Baloch leader of the 16th century, is among my favourite stars. For the Baloch he is a demigod, almost to be worshipped. If it were within my province, I would follow him from his exploits upon arriving in Makran, across the vast and wonderful land of Balochistan, to his final resting place in Satghara near Okara. But that cannot be done, at least not in the current setting with the Baloch out for the blood of any Punjabi. My Baloch friends tell me that the man behind the gun that kills me will not be bothered that I am struggling to glorify that great ancestor they all worship.


In 1994, I got to travel to a place called Tadri Tal in the outback of Kohlu district. It is a place so beautiful that it brings tears to your eyes: The hills, low, broken, folded and contorted without any vegetation to speak of, are coloured as if from the palette of a master. They come in dark chocolate browns, mauves, pastel pinks and creamy yellows; they seem little like barren rocks, more like huge dollops of icing from a giant’s cake.
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Politicians!

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My old chum Patrick Smethurst, he originally of Tumbridge Wells, once-upon-a-time teacher at Beaconhouse Schools in Lahore where he tried to get some sense of geography into a nation that cares naught for this wonderfully intriguing and edifying subject, has today sent me word on ‘Post Tortoises’.

Paddy (as we call him) says that is the way British parliamentarians are. If they are like that, ours can only be far worse. I once thought that the best description for politicians is: ‘Politicians are like a bunch of bananas. They hang together, they’re all yellow and there’s not a straight one amongst them.’

But what Paddy sends is far more appropriate for politicians anywhere in the world – evermore for ours. Read and look around and you’ll find this country crawling with post tortoises. For this enlightenment, don’t forget to say thank you to the good man Patrick Smethurst in old Blighty.
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Sindhu unrestrained, dappled mare!

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Five thousand years ago they came singing their hymns to the earth they discovered for the first time as they wandered across its great face. From the frigid wastes of northern Asia’s steppe land where summers are short, where few trees grow and where the rivers are but piddling streams they came into the subcontinent that was eventually to be called India. They were overwhelmed by what they saw. The swaying forests of lofty trees, the land fertile beyond their wildest imagination and rivers the likes of which they had never imagined. In their ecstasy of discovery, the poets among these early travellers sang hymns — hymns to their gods, to the forests, the good earth and the mighty rivers. This poetry is preserved to this day as the Rig Veda.

Hymn number seventy-five in this vast collection of the most exquisite poetry ever contrived by humans, sings praise to the rivers. There is a frenzy of joyousness and of wonder that words cannot restrain. What shines clearly through is the way these outsiders embraced the land: they were not conquerors; they were homesteaders. But that is a digression. In the main, the star of all the rivers of the subcontinent, so the hymn goes, is the Maha Sapta Sindhu — the Great Seven-fold River: ‘His roar is lifted up to heaven above the earth: he puts forth endless vigour with a flash of light, like floods of rain that fall in thunder from the cloud, so Sindhu rushes on bellowing like a bull.’
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Land of the Giant

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Excerpt from Deosai: Land of the Giant

Wide open stretches of undulating grassland separated one from the other by elongated ridges with rounded summits, vast patches of wild flowers in beds of mauve, yellow, pink and blue. Moors with luxurious grasses rising above the knee and dotted with tarns, some over four metres deep, with crystal-clear water where snow carp glide lazily, reflect fleecy grey-white thunderheads in an azure backdrop. Snow loiters in the corries even in late July; nowhere, as far as the eye roves, can a tree be seen: only flowers, sedge and sallow. Nor too does any sign of human habitation break the ever-changing and unsullied monotony of the panorama.

 Deo nau Thuk – Peak of the Giant
Cutting across this fantasy of a landscape is a number of fast-flowing streams, frigid and clear as clear can be that teem with the sluggish snow carp. To render this dreamscape consummate, nature rimmed it with even higher crags many of which remain snow-bound throughout the year. While the plateau itself averages at 4000 metres above the sea, some of the surrounding peaks rise to 5500 metres. Snaking across it are several footpaths used by locals and trekkers and one unpaved jeep road. The latter connects Skardu in the northeast with Astore west of the plateau making Deosai a common part of the ancient lands of Bolor and Balti.
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The State Fails

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A state fails when its institutions stop functioning. If we go by the non-functioning of most state organs, it seems that Pakistan has indeed failed. Consider the following.

About three years ago, a traffic warden gave a ticket for a traffic violation to a Qingqi rickshaw driver near the Babu Sabu interchange. But before we go on to what transpired, be it known to all that these accursed machines that operate without silencers are manned by drivers who have never taken a driving class, who have absolutely no clue about traffic regulations and, as illiterate yahoos (some as young as eight or nine) have no courtesy either. Worse, none of them, not a single one, has a driver’s license!

After the ticket was awarded, the offending lout climbed up a few metres on a power pylon and threatened to jump off to his death. It is another matter, that the man would not have jumped and even if he did, he would at most have suffered a fracture or two. And that would only have served to teach him a lesson.
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Romance of the Railway

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The greatest adventure ever devised by mankind is, without any doubt, the railway. Aircraft might get us from one place to another in much less time but that’s no way to travel. With the landscape spread out like a map below the traveller never gets to know the lands being traversed. The landscape, the people, the colours of life, all remains unknowable and unseen from that high vantage. But trains are another story.


Trains have come a long way from the time they chugged along at a sedate fifty kilometres or so to where some of the newest lines in Europe and America can shoot you along at a dizzying two hundred and fifty kilometres an hour (even faster in Japan), but if you ask me, I would prefer the former. And the journey of my dreams is a slow train around the world. In a way, Pakistan Railways remain rooted in the past when it comes to speed and so, until about eight years ago, I did most of my long distance travelling within the country by rail. But then with endless delays and trains running up to five or six hours behind schedule between, say, Karachi and Lahore, I gave up. Gross mismanagement and what seems to have been an evilly advertent plot to destroy a fine establishment, put paid to a great system that the country had inherited from the British.
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Upstarts

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Most of what we Pakistanis do screams to the world that we are upstarts. Consider: several years ago a friend while picking his son from school was introduced to the father of the boy’s classmate. On discovering that the two families lived very near each other, my friend suggested to the father that they form a car pool for the boys’ trip to school and back. The man said, ‘Why do you imagine that I cannot afford for my son to be sent to school in his own car?’

The Punjabi words: ‘Meray puttar nu gadiyan da ghata a?’ This showed not just the upstart mentality but an utterly uncultured ignorance of the need to conserve fuel not just for one’s own economy but for the environment. No surprise then that in any given school, every child, other than siblings, arrives in his/her own car clogging streets for upward of an hour morning and afternoon. Fuel burns, horns honk and tempers fray. But not one parent will consider suggesting the establishment of a car pool or school bus for fear of being taken to be unprosperous.
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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’.
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Salman Rashid, CCW and Bar

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Yes, this is me
Responding to my story about driving the truck on the Shorkot Air Base runway, Faisal Sherjan who tweets at @fsherjan had this to say about Cecil Chaudhry: ‘That probably meant, “I enjoyed it too but you pongo be smart next time, remove the governor so you hit 80 on the first run.”’

This makes me think I should have asked Cecil years later if he thought that was the right kind of caper for a young lieutenant to pull. But I never did. Faisal now makes me suspect that the make-believe wrath on his face and everything else was just something to put me in place and that perhaps even when my misdemeanour was reported to him, Cecil probably had a laugh – at least to himself.

So that brings me to another story from the first few months of my misadventure in the army. I was selected for 49 PMA Long Course, but with the 1971 war right on us, I received a letter in August 1971 telling me that the course had been abridged and that we would pass out in six months. I had a choice: I could take short service commission or wait until the regular courses resumed after the war.
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Driving a Truck on a Runway

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After leaving the army, for many years I did not tell people that I had ever been in service. But as time passed, I realised that that too was a part of my life and started to talk about it. In the late 1990s, twenty years out of uniform, I realised there were young friends who had never known of my background and were stunned to hear that I was ex-army. Everyone always noted, ‘But you’re so unlike army.’

And I would tell them that was the very reason, I did not get along.

There is a story that I never told until the last school reunion when its protagonist had shortly before passed away. Today I have a tweet from Dr Aamer Iqbal (@DrAamer) asking if I had narrated a certain antic about driving a truck on a runway. That’s a great story from my ‘criminal’ past and I think it needs a re-telling.
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Between Two Burrs on the Map

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Between two burrs on the map
Was a hollow-headed snake
The burrs were hills, the snake was a stream
And the hollow was a lake

The first line of this poem by Robert Frost became the title of a book of mine published in 1995. This was the story of a journey I undertook in the summer of 1990 in the footsteps of some of the great explorers who had opened up what is now Gilgit-Baltistan to the reading public of the world. Having read the works of men like Robert Shaw (Visits to High Tartary, Yarkand and Kashgar), his nephew Francis Younghusband (The Heart of a Continent) and Eric Shipton (Blank on the Map), I was inspired to see what these remarkable men had seen decades before I was even born. Though the list of men who aroused an interest in seeing my world is long, these three names suffice.

These men (and many others I have not mentioned for the list would be interminable) had explored the Himalayas, Karakorams and the Hindu Kush. Of these three ranges, I had access to the western edge of the first, the Karakorams in full and much of the Hindu Kush because they lie within the geographical bounds of Pakistan. And so, in 1990, I devised what a rather fancifully called The Western Himalaya Karakoram Hindu Kush Expedition that would take me some 1100 kilometres across the mountains of which 800 would be on foot. At that time such a one-man expedition cost about Rs 80,000.

But having lost all my meagre wealth in a foolish investment only a couple of years earlier, I did not have the means to do what I ached to do. My childhood friend Parvaiz Saleh who was then in politics single-handedly raised the money and sent me off in May 1990.
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Taxilian Minds

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Defeated in his attempt to conquer India by Chandragupta Maurya, Seleucus Nicator, one of Alexander’s successors, made peace and exchanged embassies with the Mauryan. And so, in the year 300 BC, Megasthenes came to India as the ambassador from the Greek court in Syria. He remained here a full fifteen years, travelled across the length and breadth of India and went home to write his Indica which survives to this day, albeit in fragments.

His book is a collection of tales wondrous as well as items of real history. One among the latter is the story of the philosophers of Taxila. Now, Megasthenes was in Taxila, a mere twenty-five years after Alexander’s departure while those who had witnessed the passage of the westerners were still alive and talking of the event. Consequently, the items concerning this city in the Indica can largely be relied upon for their veracity.
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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