Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

‘half of what I have seen’

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In January 1986, I rode a Corps of Engineers truck loaded with a concrete mixer to Agore. My objective was the famed temple of Sri Mata Hinglaj in the valley of the Hingol River not far upstream from the river’s delta. Other than a journey of thirty-six hours by a beat-up pilgrim bus that I had already missed, this was the only available transport.

We had left Karachi in cold, pre-dawn darkness – at 2.30 AM to be precise. Near Uthal we gave off the old RCD Highway and swung west into a great desolation of sand and stunted grass. Thereafter we trundled along at about ten to fifteen kilometres an hour – for fourteen hours. That brought us to the banks of the Hingol River and the Engineers camp.

In 2002, I returned with my friend Marvin Pervez and we made the river so fast I thought it was not the Hingol but the Phor stream which we had passed unnoticed. (The story appeared in this newspaper in September that year.) This was a time when the Makran Coastal Highway (MCH), N-10 in the National Highways network, was being built. Part of it was then black top and the rest a shingle surface on a compact roadbed.

My trip back to Makran in late January was the second in a period of four months. I was now well-acquainted with the first class road built between 2000 and 2012 by Frontier Works Organisation. First stop was, of course, the complex of three mud volcanoes. Here in this utterly flat landscape where no tree grows and where the sand pimples are miniature replicas of real dunes, the tallest of the three cones is visible from ten kilometres away.

The landscape is surreal, unnervingly other-worldly. But it is when one climbs to the rim of the largest volcano that one gets the true measure of the surrounding. High above the barren landscape, on the lip of the cone, with a lazy surf breaking noiselessly on a beach a kilometre to the south, no sign of human intervention and the wind soughing in the ears as it holds up a quartering eagle – the only bird to be seen, the eeriness redoubles. Then, as if to deepen its effect, the oozy mud in the perfectly round caldera burps as a small jet shoots up to catch you by surprise.

The highest of this trio, rising a full hundred metres above the plain, is about eight to ten metres across and brims with a chocolaty goo that flows over the rim to mark long, cracked clayey trails: scars running down the sides, scars whose scab is cracked and peeling.

A hundred metres to one side is a smaller cone with an empty caldera. It seems to have collapsed many centuries ago. And about six hundred metres to the north is yet another one with wide maw gaping across forty or so metres. Its bottom too ripples with a brown belching, heaving goo. Capt Hart of the Bombay Native Infantry stopped here on his way to Hinglaj in 1840 and found the three mud vents in the same condition as we saw them now.

Confession: every time – and this was the third – I stand on the rim of the highest vent, I wonder what it would be like to fall into that thick gooey soup. There would be no way of escape. You would be sucked in to be crushed by the pressure of the mud even before one hit the bottom which, incidentally, would take several hours. And I also think of the many persons who deserve to be sunk in this mud so that no trace of them can ever be recovered!

Leaving the volcanoes and getting back on the road, we were in Agore in less than forty minutes. And to think that before this road was built, one would trundle on and one for the better part of the day to accomplish this same journey. Agore has a bunch of carved sandstone graves that date to about three hundred years ago. But some moron, who believes Mohammad bin Qasim came this way, has put up a large sign by the road proclaiming these to be the burials of his soldiers!

Why is it that idiots of every hue will never ask anyone who knows but instead rely on their own foolish ignorance to spread darkness in the world? I should have taken the can of spray paint I had pledged on my last trip to mask this misleading message to all who pass on the highway.

On the right bank of the Hingol River, right by the abutments of the bridge there is now a restaurant run by Soomar Palari, a very cordial smiley-faced man. I dubbed his outfit the Hingol Sheraton. Long distance truckers, mostly jovial and friendly Pakhtuns from far off places on the Yusufzai Plain and Kohat, driving their multi-axle rigs were pausing here with their huge loads of fertiliser from Gwadar to Karachi. The Pakhtuns engaged us with the call of ‘Vo, yara!’ and in stark contrast the few Brahuis kept to themselves.

They were, one and all, in love with their machines and posed to be photographed with them. It seemed the machines all belonged to the feminine gender and the feeling for them was some sort of sensuous love. Some of the men were heading empty for Gwadar to bring back their loads and two days later as we drove west, they were returning loaded. Recognising us, they waved heartily as we passed.

North of the bridge, a new road goes along the Hingol to a narrow side valley. There, shaded by lofty limestone walls and right by a tiny brook, sits one of the holiest Hindu sites in Pakistan. Sacred to the goddess Durga, Hinglaj Mata is visited for the annual festival in January. But unlike my first visit just after the festival in 1986 when it was deserted, it now has a resident priest who tells unsuspecting visitors that the temple was consecrated two million years ago! And then he adds that to make it more digestible he mostly adjusts this figure downward to two hundred thousand.

The roof of the rock overhang under which the ugly cement cubicle now houses the shrine is soot blackened. Some of this soot can surely be attributed to our Homo erectus ancestors when they first began to use fire one hundred and thirty thousand years ago. Even if those ancestors had created some primitive god, the priest’s notion of the temple’s longevity was way off the mark.

Much later, when trading ships from Moen jo Daro coasted west to the kingdoms of Mesopotamia, a goddess Nania was worshipped here whose name echoes in Bibi Nani, the vague saint-god worshipped by Muslims not just at Hinglaj but also in the Bolan Pass. The Hindus made this site sacred to the goddess Durga when, upon her death, one of her body parts fell in this gorge.

The image of Makran is of vast, flat desert; dry and arid where little grows. But Kund Malir is famous for its mango trees. Though ancient and all but doubled over by the stiff sea wind that blows eight months of the year, some of them still fruit. It goes to the credit of the good Baloch folk of the village who have not chopped them down for they come straight out of a painting.

The stereotype of a flat, uninteresting Makran landscape is dispelled as MCH winds into the clay hills of Buzi Pass. The name comes from the Persian buz for goat and I imagine time was when only wild ungulates roamed these burnished hills giving them their name. Hills sculpted by wind and water crowd around the road barely giving it room to pass. And one wonders why god would forbid sculpting of the human form when he has been so tastefully busy in Buzi Pass.

Ormara will one day be a fun city. But only after Gwadar makes it. Its lofty hammerhead – nearly 600 metres high is higher than the one at Gwadar – is wreathed in a dense fog in late summer. But in mid-winter it looked out westward to a beautiful calm sea in which the sun greedily drowned itself. Like I’ve known Gwadar, Pasni and Turbat for a quarter of a century, I am a stranger to Ormara because in those days this town was just too difficult to reach. But friends tell me that until the highway was laid out, there were few brick and mortar houses.

The highway also gave their fish the right price. Once hard put to transport it to the market in Karachi because it took forty-eight hours by road, they now sell their catch within twelve hours of bringing it up. Understandably they are no being offered a higher price.

Ormara gleans another bonus, partly because of the new highway and mainly because of Pakistan Navy. Twenty-five years ago, school teacher Jamil Ahmed could only finish middle school in Ormara and had to go leave home to complete his education. Today the navy runs a first class school, college as well as a cadet college. Not strangely, while the Baloch are repugnant to all other uniforms, the white of the navy is not just tolerated but appreciated. Verily, therein lies a lesson for the army to build upon.

Westward of Ormara we were in flat country with the rocky escarpments of the Makran Coastal Range running parallel to our alignment. Stark and forbidding, these hills were once known to be home to the black bear, hyena and a species of wild ungulate. But I am not certain if wildlife surveys have yielded any new information or if they have even been undertaken.

Word was that Pasni was unsafe and we had to give it a wide berth, heading straight for Gwadar. In the summer of 2007, I returned to Gwadar after eight years to find the bubble burst. Store fronts, dozens of them, with signs proclaiming them as offices of real estate developers were shuttered and forlorn. Thousands of investors had lost much money and Gwadar had relapsed into its easy somnolence that I had so loved for years. Only, up on the hammerhead there now rose the swanky Pearl Continental building overlooking the port and town.

No trip that far west could be done without a dash to the Iranian frontier. I once again sent up a silent prayer for the FWO engineers: it was unimaginable for a person from Karachi to cross the border here in the space of anything less than four days. Now, if one were to leave Karachi early, one can be across the border before dark. That having been said, it needs be qualified that this is not a regular border crossing. For the time being it is only for local residents with the rahdari or bill of passage issued by the deputy commissioner.

My space in this paper permits me to tell, like Marco Polo, only ‘half of what I have seen’. But one thing that must not go unsaid is the huge boon Makran Coastal Highway has brought to the communities of the seaboard. Once they lived on the edge of the country, as inaccessible as being marooned on a desert island. Today, thanks to MCH, they have the rest of the Pakistan a few hours away.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 23 February 2014 at 14:56, Blogger Nayyar Julian said...

True. True. Beautiful Makran is no longer on the edge.

At 23 February 2014 at 17:30, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Great title given by my TNS Editor Alefia Hussain. She is magic.


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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