Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

It could have been worse!

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The first weekend of April was a disaster.

I left Lahore on Saturday to overnight in Jhelum where, on the following morning, I was being joined by three young and very bright people (two girls and a young man) from Lahore. We shall withhold the names of the guilty party for reasons they and I know. Together we were to drive to the foot of Tilla Jogian to trek up to the two thousand year-old monastery on the top.

I am thankful to the Army Corps of Engineers for putting up a two-bit vagabond like me in first-class accommodation. All seemed well at about 9:00 pm when I last went outside to look up into a glorious starry sky and a crescent moon the colour of strong cheddar cheese. At 3:00 am, the sound of thunder roused me. I knew the prediction for rain in Jhelum was coming right.

As I shaved and showered, the rain pattered outside. At a little before 6:00, I called my friend and told him of the situation and that we would have to abort. They were just leaving Ring Road to get onto the Grand Trunk Road at Kala Shah Kaku and the dejection in AS’s voice was palpable.

As for me, I had been looking forward to this trip for the past week. Work wearies my soul. But I have to work for a living. From time to time, I have to get away and go somewhere to repair the wounds of the soul; to rebuilt and rejuvenate it. In my younger days three or four trips to the high mountains every year did the trick. If work was for a living, escaping to the hills was for a life.

Not having been anywhere high in the past year, I had looked forward to this ramble to the Tilla Jogian peak. But now with the rain and the bunch turning around at Kala Shah Kaku, the whole thing was shot to pieces. I sat around a bit and then drove to Rawalpindi to spend some time with my army mate, Manzar Rashid, who is seriously unwell.

He, the gymnast and fencing expert of youth who ran the mile in five minutes in the military academy, is now reduced to a bag of bones. I sat by his bed and talked of days gone by bringing occasional smiles to his stubble-covered face. (I told his wife to get a barber and have him cleaned up.) He even laughed when I reminded him of one particular caper I routinely pulled in Kharian and on which he was once my partner in crime.

When he slept, I took off for Islamabad. A friend I had hoped to spend some time with said she had slept in and was not up to cleaning up and brewing coffee at such short notice. I don’t like being in Islamabad and I have no clue about what to find where in that otherwise ordered city. So I ended up in Jinnah Supermarket looking for old book shops. Midmorning on a Sunday was hardly the time to be expecting anyone to be up and businesses to be open.

At least got a decent espresso at The Second Cup. Decent!

The plan for the two days in Islamabad was a meeting at Frontier Works Organisation early Monday. And a subsequent one with National Highways Authority after lunch. Later Monday evening I was meeting my dear friend Murtaza Solangi for a few hours of conviviality.

Tuesday was for a trip to Taxila and the monastery of Mohra Moradu. This place I discovered nearly twenty years ago while working on my book The Salt Range and the Potohar Plateau. Of all the monasteries, this was the most peaceful and inspirational. I returned to it again and again during my period of research and sat under the acacia tree shading the refectory to read and reflect.

In my mind’s eye I soon began to see life as it unfolded within the walls of this place nearly two thousand years ago. I saw the monks, the masters, the visitors. I saw it all happening. I saw too my guide and mentor Xuanzang, the Chinese pilgrim, who passed through here in 631, just a hundred years after the Huns of Mehr Gul had run fire and sword through Taxila. Having travelled so many times with my long-dead guide, I lived his grief and I wept with him.

To Mohra Moradu I had taken my sister Rauha when she visited from Canada. I said it was the most peace inspiring place in all Taxila. Together we two siblings had spent a quiet hour under the shade of the acacia tree and sis agreed that this was indeed a remarkable place.

Shortly before this planned trip, I got to know young Khushbakht Khan from Twitter. She, a rambler who goes walking around Taxila, said exactly the same things about Mohra Moradu that I felt. It was resolved that she, her brother and I would go there where I’ll show them what I have seen and KK will show me a nearby cave that I had not known of.

But these, the best laid plans of mice and men, went the way such plans have the habit of going.

On Sunday evening at about 7:00, at the home of my friend Atta ur Rehman Shaikh, I got a phone call from the staff at home: all neighbouring homes had electric power except ours. The house was locked because Shabnam had travelled that afternoon for work in Islamabad.

To cut a long and tedious story short, I learned that the change-over switch in the main distribution board had been left in the wrong position. I wasn’t going back for another two days; Shabnam was to remain in Islamabad for a further two days which meant everything in the freezer would be dead rats. Thankfully we were both at different places and could only argue by telephone!

In the end, I had to cancel everything and drive back on Monday morning. I might venture to add that after a spiritually uplifting beginning to the evening, I still could not sleep because of being so completely worked up. Got sleeping pills from Atta and then too, with 10 mg of Lexotanil in my blood, fell into a disturbed drowse about 1:30 AM.

The idea of leaving at 5:00 to get home, turn the switch around and drive right back to Islamabad for the second meeting was shot when I overslept. What else could I expect with all the crap in my blood?

There was, however, some redemption in all this useless up and down driving. On the way out, as I drove over the raised Gujrat by-pass the sun was low on the horizon and the wheat, just turning gold, lay in beautifully parcelled squares at the bottom of a vast landscape dotted with trees and a few houses. The sky, mostly a vitreous blue because of rain the day before, was hugely crowded with thunderheads through which shafts of sunlight slanted down to the ground as if to keep the sky from falling. It was a perfect image.

I considered pausing to take a picture, but the act of putting up the tripod and camera would have dimmed the cerebral photograph already imprinted on my mind. I slowed down and took it all in and it remains in my inner eye far better than any image my camera could have preserved.

Later, as I went over Jhelum bridge and glanced in the direction of Tilla Jogian I saw yet more magic. Tilla, with the bristle of trees clearly discernible on the crest, was sharply outlined against a crimson sky. And right above the elongated hill sat a huge cloud. It had two horns and seemed to come out of some monster movie. But even this apparition in the sky only added to the freshly washed glory of the panorama.

On the way back I took M-2. Somewhere near Bhera, fully reconciled with the total loss of an outing, I began to notice the landscape. Once again, the expanse of wheat fields washed only minutes before by a sharp fall of rain simply bore into my mind. Though the light was hardly premium with the sun at about forty degrees, the sight was yet incredibly beautiful: the sky, again blue as blue could be, was mottled with storm clouds, and the landscape stretched to the limit where sky and wheat fields merged.

I was reminded of something our Australian friend Geoff Gower, Chief Resident Engineer of Snowy Mountain Engineering Company working on the then under-construction motorway, had said. He said with the raised roadbed, travel on the motorway will be an altogether different experience. That we who had travelled along the trunk highways of the country in the 1960s and seen the landscape slowly begin to hide behind unplanned ribbon development will once again be able to see the countryside. Geoff was so right.

And the landscape on the way out and back was the only redemption to this utterly unaccomplished outing.

Related: When there is nothing to write about


posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 16 April 2014 at 16:05, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you can make this out of no situation, you can do any thing. Loved to read this. Best.

At 16 April 2014 at 18:55, Blogger Unknown said...

Lot was accomplished in the so called unaccomplished outing.

At 16 April 2014 at 20:51, Anonymous Anonymous said...

LOL. Great read.

At 17 April 2014 at 12:53, Anonymous Muhammad Athar said...

I enjoyed reading the articale and learned about the place at Till


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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