Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Little Tibet

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"Baltistan consists exclusively of rocks, streams and dried apricots" wrote Crowley, the mountaineer-magician. What he somehow missed was the curious juxtaposition of jagged snow peaks towering above the rippled sand dunes that march along the Indus River. The only other spot on the globe where this unusual combination of sand dunes and snow peaks can be found is the Chinese province of Xinjiang.


To mediaeval Tibetans the Indus was the Lion River for they believed it rose in Singhi ka Bab, the Mouth of the Lion, somewhere on the western shores of Lake Mansarowar at the foot of sacred Mount Kailas in Western Tibet. And it truly is a lion of a river as it thunders northwest through Ladakh and Baltistan, roiling, crashing, pounding rock into sand, spewing forth clouds of mist, occasionally claiming the odd human or animal sacrifice as it cuts, ever so imperceptibly, deeper into the chasm it has carved for itself over the eons.

Then, as it approaches Skardu, the capital of Baltistan, it suddenly changes complexion -- as though in deference to the city. From the rowdy torrent straining to break forth from a narrow gorge it becomes a broad and placid stream braided across a wide, sandy flood plain whose sides are lined with groves of narcissistic willows and poplars. And so it languidly washes past the rock of Skardu, perched on the eastern extremity of which is the eagle's eyrie of a castle, while below the town is sprinkled amid sand dunes and fruit orchards.

Skardu is a magical place. Its very air exudes a sense of anticipation; as though something is on the verge of happening. Whether it is this expedition with its dreams of conquest and glory departing for the mountains in the northeast or that returning in triumph or tragedy; whether it is the foreign expeditions' Liaison Officers screaming blue murder at the hordes of recalcitrant porters or the pot bellied Punjabi businessmen tourists griping about the indigence of the bazaars as compared to those in Lahore is difficult to decide, but the aura of the town is always tangibly electrified. To me it seems to be one of those few places on earth where they still create history -- mountaineering history, because less than fifty kilometres in a straight line to the northeast lies the greatest tangle of the world's highest peaks.

The bazaar is a long straggle that begins at the stone obelisk in memory of those who died in 1948 so that this part of Kashmir could be Pakistan and ends under the aqueduct. Its entire length is flanked by pillared verandas with dank hovels in the back that serve as shops. But the interesting part lies in the back lanes off this main street. In those dusty alleys one can still see grizzled Baltis from far off villages in their open collar shirts and knee length trousers made of off white home spun wool complete with their woolen skull caps, the n'hting, as opposed to the wide brimmed Tudor type hat that is becoming increasingly popular in the country. They come with their loads of apricot kernels, dried apricots and wicker baskets stuffed with yak butter with a goodly part of the yak's fur sticking in it to trade for tea, sugar and boulders of rock salt. As they haggle over terms they wash, with total sang froid, their apricots and butter in the filthy drain that runs through the bazaar.

The Balti race has been termed "a living anthropological museum" for not only are they a mix of Aryan and Tibetan blood, but their language too is an archaic form of Tibetan. Once land of the Shins, the Aryan tribe that inhabits the valleys of the Indus and Gilgit rivers, Baltistan was invaded by the Tibetans early in the eighth century AD. This influence, although short lived, was so powerful that even the original language was supplanted by that of the invaders, something that could only have happened in the event of the new comers being culturally far superior to the natives. They called it Little Tibet while Chinese geographers of that age referred to Baltistan as Tibet of the Apricots -- a reference, no doubt, to the many varieties of superb apricots that still grow there.

Like every other fair skinned Pakistani the Baltis also have a story to tell of their Greek origin: Skardu, pronounced Askardu, is a corruption of Sikandria, or Alexandria, as Alexander the Great named the city after founding it and the Baltis are the descendants of the Greek garrison left behind. Vigne was fed the same story and almost ended up believing that the rock of Skardu was the famed rock of Aornos whence the tribes had fled after their defeat at the hands of the Macedonian conqueror. Unfortunately for those who believe this tale, Alexander never came this far north; and all but lost in the amorphous haze of folklore and history is the name of a legendary hero, Askar Gyalpo, who could just as well have been the eponymous founder of the town.

In Pakistan those who do not descend from Alexander find it fashionable to claim direct and unpolluted lineage to Ali, the cousin and son in law of Mohammed, the prophet of Islam (pbuh). Therefore, those Baltis who reject the theory of Greek origin have invented an Egyptian freebooter by the name of Ibrahim Shah who was in some way connected to Ali. This man converted Baltistan to the "one and only true faith" sometime in the 13th century and in passing usurped the throne. Traditionally, however, all converts to Islam in the sub continent faithfully took Arabic or Persian names whereas the genealogy shows seven generations of the illustrious Egyptian's descendants with starkly autochthonous names, suffixed either with Singeh or Gowrithum. Then abruptly around the beginning of the 16th century they started to name themselves in Arabic or Persian.

While Singeh is the same as the modern "Singh" and was in vogue with the original Shin inhabitants of Baltistan, Gowrithum comes from Brushaski, the language of Hunza in the northwest. This clearly shows that sometime around 1400 AD the Singehs were displaced by an adventurer from Hunza whose descendants eventually converted to Islam; not at the hand of some Ibrahim Shah but one of those many nameless missionaries who had devoted their lives to the service of Islam. Years later when the genealogy was compiled by some eager to please courtier Singehs and Gowrithums were lumped together and were appropriately assigned descent from the fictitious Egyptian.

If there was anything that could have perhaps dispelled all this fanciful fabrication it was that ancient Tibetan chronicle in the possession of the Rajas of Skardu. But when the Dogras of Kashmir annexed Baltistan to their kingdom in 1839 this document was burnt; forever bestowing delitescence upon a very interesting chapter of the history of the country. Even at the time of its destruction, however, this document had not been read for more than two centuries.

Around the end of the 16th century Raja Ali Sher Khan surnamed Anchan -- the Great, broke the long standing cultural links of his country with Tibet and established ties with the Moghuls of India. With this new connection Persian became the court language replacing the ancient Tibetan. Gradually the script too was changed and Balti, so closely related to Tibetan, was reduced to the status of merely a spoken language. Since the ancient chronicle was in Tibetan, a language in which the Rajas of Baltistan were now illiterate, it was not consulted when the new genealogy was invented with Ibrahim Shah at its head. And so a legend was born. But today the chronicle is no more and the legend lives on.

I installed myself in the fancy K-2 Motel which all foreign expeditions briefly make their home at the beginning and end of every climbing season, mainly to be able to rub shoulders with what I call the royalty of mountaineering. The other reason was that Shabnam, my wife, had joined me, bringing with her the much needed cash and my high altitude gear that I was going to need on my projected glacial traverse. The money and the equipment were merely an excuse, in reality we had promised ourselves a second honeymoon in the middle of my expedition .

From early in the morning a ragtag group of unkempt, dishevelled men would assemble outside the motel gate. There was a wide variety of dresses to choose from: sweat suits emblazoned with impressive names, faded blue jeans and tee shirts, tattered dress trousers or the traditional shalwar-kameez of Pakistan. They ranged in age from under twenty, to well over fifty, and would all either be squatting in the shade or sitting on their buttocks with their knees tucked under their noses and their arms folded around their shins. Every single one of them would be shooting wads of spittle with clockwork regularity, regardless of where they landed. In between they fingered their noses and heartily scratched their groins. There would be buttery Tibetan faces with dark eyes and hair and clean cut Aryan faces with pale eyes and, occasionally, fair hair. In every pair of eyes belonging to this lot there would invariably be a look of hopeful expectancy. These were men, mostly from all over Baltistan and sometimes from as far away as Gilgit and Shimshal, who came here every summer in the hope of being hired as high altitude porters or guides.

The first morning I walked into that knot of men and rather pompously announced that I needed a couple of porters. That was the end of sanity: the mass of men rose as one, at the same time erupting in a babble of voices, each trying to out shout the other, and soon I had fifty pairs of hands trying to tear me to pieces. It was just like arriving at Lahore airport. I lost my head and at the top of my lungs roared, "Shut up!".

They did. It was like a switch being turned off. They looked at me thunderstruck, with jaws hanging limply while a few backed off as though in trepidation.
"Now, only those of you will speak who are addressed." I said as authoritatively as I could. "I do not want a word out of anyone else. Understand?" If such a thing could work for the captains acting as liaison officers for the climbing expeditions, it could work for me. Heads nodded and I felt extremely pleased with myself.
"Now then, I need two porters," I began again.

True to form the crowd erupted as energetically as it had the first time. They screamed, spit flew, they pulled at each other and at me and it seemed that all hell had truly broken loose. I waited a couple of minutes, drew a deep breath and as before screamed, "Shut up". Nothing happened; they seemed not to have heard me for they carried right on pulling, shoving, screaming and each man trying to climb over the other. I quietly disentangled myself and withdrew to the safety of my room. I knew how I would have to get around this one.

The next hour or so I spent watching this bunch from the safety of my bathroom window and when one of them broke loose and sauntered past my room I dashed outside, grabbed him and ducked behind a bush with him.
"Look, I need a couple of porters." I said as fast as I could, fearing that the mob he had left behind would soon be upon us.
"How many members in your expedition?" the man shot back equally hurriedly.
"I'm alone. There's no one else."
"What? Just one member?" the man asked incredulously and I thought I could just detect a shade of superciliousness in his brown eyes.
"Nothing wrong with that," I said.

The man looked at me from top to bottom and without saying anything started to walk away.

"Look, you can be the leader of the expedition," I tried a shot in the dark but that did not even break the man's stride. Thereafter I tried several different men both at the motel and in the bazaar but always the interview ended when they learned that mine was a one member expedition. And then I was also a Pakistani who was very likely nowhere as rich as the various foreign expeditions that were taking on men for their forays into the heart of the Karakorum. They were no fools to be misled that my expedition would bring them the same perks of high altitude equipment and the chance of pilfering rations that bigger expeditions offer. After the first couple of days I could even hear them snickering as I went past. So far as these men were concerned I was simply not an expedition.

"Moreover, they (the Baltis) had formed very definite ideas as to what an expedition should look like, and to them our Spartan outfit appeared laughable" lamented Eric Shipton in 1937. This was just after several expeditions run on bloated budgets had passed through Baltistan, and if a white man with slightly less resources at his disposal was "laughable" I, in an age when Baltistan is virtually plagued by wealthy expeditions, was outrageously ridiculous.

I did not fully realise my situation until one of the men I accosted, with what was increasingly becoming an air of guilty debauchery, informed me that no Balti would be willing to porter for me on what they considered a suicidal trek into the Braldu Glacier.
"No one has ever been on the Braldu and it is not known where it leads," he declared.

Until 1937 when Eric Shipton led the Shaksgam Expedition across the Muztagh Pass, one of the highest on the Asiatic Watershed, a vast area immediately to the north and east of the great Karakorum Mountains was a blank on the map with the bewitching word "Unsurveyed" stamped across it. This remarkable man accompanied by William Tilman, his friend and climbing partner, Michael Spender, the surveyor, and J.B Auden, the geologist, spent over four months in this unsurveyed wilderness to bring some perspicuity to the maps of the time. Towards the end of the expedition having made a minor miscalculation and finding themselves at the toe of the Braldu Glacier Shipton and Spender had to trek to its head in order to confirm Tilman's progress. Between 1937 and my expedition, as far as I could find out, only three small trekking parties of no more than two or three members each had been on the Braldu. All of them had comprised exclusively of Britons who, it appeared, had been lured there by a wish to follow Shipton. No Pakistanis, other than a few Shimshali porters, had ever been on the Braldu.

No amount of flaunting my precious U-502 series maps seemed to inspire any confidence. In any event, the man noted with disdain, a Punjabi was neither capable of doing this difficult traverse over the Biafo-Sim Gang-Braldu glacial system, nor could he possibly have the funds to defray the cost. It seemed that the great Western Himalaya-Karakorum-Hindu Kush Expedition had finally come to its ignominious end.

There was one man who I knew could help me: Ayaz Afridi, ex Major, now working as a Co-ordination Officer between the Ministry of Tourism and the many mountaineering expeditions. His ruddy face with a straight nose and clean cut jaw topped by a shock of jet black hair made him a picture for the cover of Sir Olaf Caroe's book The Pathans. Every inch an Afridi from the wild mountains of the Khyber Pass he appeared to be in his element, bridling contumacious porters at Skardu. He gave me a patient hearing and quizzed me about my mountaineering experience. I told him of my various treks and climbs all of which had been non technical, but conveniently neglected to disclose that until my recent crossing of the 4140 metre high Babusar Pass I had never been higher than 3800 metres.
"Do you have any glacier experience?" he asked.
"Oh yes." I lied brazen-facedly. "I have trekked up the Chhatboi Glacier in Chitral."

In reality the nearest I had been to this glacier (or any other glacier, for that matter) was in 1987 when I had stood on one side of the Yarkhun River and watched a pillar of ice detach itself from the blue green wall of the glacier's toe and crash into the river on the opposite bank. I had never actually been on a glacier and my only knowledge came from the accounts of other travellers. But if Francis Younghusband could cross the heavily glaciated Asiatic Watershed without any previous mountaineering experience, I could at least make an attempt.

Younghusband was in Yarkand in 1887, on his way from China to India, when he received instructions to give up his plans of entering the sub continent via Karakorum Pass on the ancient Leh-Yarkand trade route, and instead to investigate Muztagh Pass to the west. Until a few years prior to that the Muztagh had been a regular connection between Baltistan and Yarkand for the two thousand odd Balti immigrants living in that Chinese city, but an excessive accumulation of snow and ice, it was believed, had rendered it impassable causing it to be abandoned.

Ahmed Shah, the raja at the time of Vigne's visit, had initiated exploration for an alternate pass resulting in the discovery of the New Muztagh several kilometres to the west of the old one. It was at the foot of this pass in August 1860 that Godwin-Austen, one of the pioneers of Himalayan exploration, and his team thwarted by bad weather in their attempt to cross the watershed were surprised by travellers coming down from Yarkand. It had been a darkling afternoon with great besoms of storm cloud sweeping across the icy wilderness of Shinchakpi camp ground on Panmah Glacier when the four men emerged from the fog. They were Baltis who had migrated to Yarkand some years previously and were returning to visit friends and relatives. Assured that they were confronted with harmless men like themselves and not brigands the Baltis regaled Godwin-Austen with an account of a harrowing journey across the continental divide "having to travel by night, and hide away during the day, on account of the robber tribes".

In 1887 neither of the Muztaghs had been in use for several years, a fact that was not to daunt Younghusband. Hiring a Balti guide who had been living in Yarkand for thirty years and who knew the route, he set out along the river that Wali, his guide, said was the Shaksgam. A few days' march brought them to a tributary called the Sarpo Laggo which they ascended to a glacier of the same name under the north face of K-2. This glacier was to lead them to the top of their pass.

It was Younghusband's first encounter with a glacier and until then he had no idea "how huge and continuous a mass of ice" a glacier could be. With extraordinary courage that borders on foolhardiness this doughty adventurer and his team comprising of Baltis, Tibetan and Chinese attacked that broken, shattered mass of ice that was the toe of the glacier and for three arduous days from daybreak until long after nightfall they struggled to get their horses to the crest of the Muztagh. Eventually, realising that the animals would never make it and with supplies running critically short, Younghusband arranged for them to be brought around via Karakorum Pass while he and a few men pushed on.

It was no small wonder that cutting steps on sheer ice slopes with a pick axe, their only implement, augmenting their ropes with turbans and cummerbunds and spending freezing nights in the open without the comfort of tent or fire for fear of giving themselves away to roving bands of robbers from Hunza, these intrepid men made it across the 5800 metre high pass. Younghusband thus became the first European to cross it and it was not until 1928 that the Muztagh was crested again -- this time by an Italian team lead by the Duke of Spoleto. The only mishap was the smashing of Younghusband's last bottle of brandy that had been nursed all the way from Beijing cushioned in his sheepskin bedroll.

But this I did not relate to Afridi for fear of looking like a pretentious fool.

"Now look here," he said having heard me out, "you stop being stupid and forget this madness about the Braldu Glacier and like every other decent mountain walker go over the Biafo-Hispar system to Nagar."

He appreciated my endeavour, but apparently he saw right through my facade of the "experienced mountaineer" and was not impressed in the least. He added a couple of stories of trekkers dying under extremely tame conditions in these unforgiving mountains for no other reason but their own inexperience. This I requested him not to say in the presence of Shabnam.

In all, our honeymoon got completely screwed up and I became very edgy, endlessly bickering with Shabnam and even asking her to return to Lahore. This she flatly refused to do and dragged me from one "tourist spot" in Skardu to the other. We explored the fort on the edge of the rock of Skardu, walked around Satpara Lake south of the town and spent a day at the two Kachura Lakes beyond the airport, bribing Balti girls to act as models for me to photograph.

Then, very early one morning, long before the motel lawns became crowded, I saw an oldish man moping around the premises. He was dressed in well worn climbing boots, faded blue jeans and a red tee shirt that screamed something about Hawaii. His jutting pelican jaw was unshaven and his bald pate had peeling skin. The eyebrows raised at the centre created sad furrows on his forehead giving him an overall look of moroseness. He was a porter looking for work and he was not a Balti. I did not have to think twice before jumping on him, metaphorically speaking, of course.

Ghulam Dawar was from Passu, north of Hunza, and though he had never been on the Braldu he was quite willing to come with me. But of course I had to understand that we would need at least one more man. I was ready to hire two, so he promised to come back the next day with another man from Shimshal. It took some effort to restrain myself from hugging the man because Shimshal was where I was heading and Shimshali porters were precisely what I had needed. To organise this would normally have been very tedious business: going up to Passu by bus via Gilgit, hiring a man to take a message into Shimshal Valley, two days away by foot and then returning to Skardu to resume the journey.

Suddenly everything seemed cheerful. I started to notice people and things I hadn't noticed earlier. There was Sorrel Wilby, the Australian writer, and her photographer husband Chris Ciantar on the first leg of their marathon trek through the length of the Himalaya. Having begun at the foot of Nanga Parbat they should have gone right through to Sikkim. But that was possible only in the past, when this was another country. Now they had to fly out to Islamabad to get to India in order to resume the journey from some point on the other side of a border drawn by two endlessly antagonistic nations. There were friendly young army officers who mistook me with my shorn head and walrus moustache to be one of them and gave me the title of Major; in view of my army past that is nothing to be proud of.

And of course there was the magic of summer evenings at Skardu. Late every afternoon a howling wind would sweep along the gorge of the Indus lifting a quantity of very fine sand into the atmosphere turning the mountains bordering the valley of Skardu into surrealistic paintings levitating above the rows of slender swaying poplars. Then, as the sun dipped lower, it would turn the sky into a blaze of colour; each day special in its own way. This was the time when anybody who had any claim to being a photographer would be lined up beyond the lawns to capture nature's artistry on film.
Dawar did not return the following day but the day after -- and without the promised Shimshali. He sadly announced that he had run out of money and his hotel owner had threatened to throw him out. With no money and nowhere to stay he would have to return to Passu. Could I, therefore, lend him a hundred rupees? This he made very clear was not to be adjusted in his wages, in case he was hired. The Shimshali, he said, had gone away to Gilgit and would be back in a couple of days.

The next day Dawar returned and asked for another fifty rupees which I doled out with such good grace that I even amazed myself. The third day he came back to ask for another hundred.
"Piss off you bloody crook. You bring the Shimshali or you get no money from me." To this were added a few choice Punjabi expletives -- the kind that I was sure he would not understand.

The man had sensed my urgency and had decided to use it to his fullest advantage, but in the intervening two days the advantage had shifted. The foreign expeditions had all finished hiring and were preparing to depart. Earlier it was I who was desperate not to forego Dawar, now he had perforce to come with me to make his sojourn at Skardu worthwhile. Sure enough the following day he returned with young Khushal Khan, the Shimshali.

Anyone in Skardu could have told them how resolutely I wished to follow my original plans of reaching Shimshal via the Braldu Glacier and Khushal had a relative to oblige. This "father-in-law" was a guide because four years ago he had trekked from Shimshal to Baltistan with two women "from Shipton's village" and knew the route well. I said a guide was unnecessary since I had excellent maps. Furthermore, I had no mind of hiring all three men from the same area because Afridi had warned me that in a delicate situation they usually ganged up and struck work. Therefore it would be wise, he had suggested, to have at least one man who would side with me in such an eventuality.

Khushal Khan, however, had other ideas. Either he was coming with his father-in-law or he was not coming at all. And father-in-law who, in the end, turned out to be an uncle, thrice removed, of Khushal Khan's wife, was at that moment harvesting wheat in Shimshal. It was two days' journey by bus to Passu and a day's forced march to Shimshal, so it would not be less than six days before the lad would return with his idolised father-in-law. I, of course, was required to dole out four hundred rupees for the to and fro fare and an additional hundred rupees to that incorrigible scrounger, Dawar.

The tedium of our long wait was broken only briefly when Afridi announced one evening that Doug Scott was returning to Skardu after a not very good climbing season. We trooped off to meet with what a friend had called "the royalty of mountaineering". But Scott was nothing like that -- almost to my disappointment. There was this bespectacled man with thinning hair and a wild beard hiding his features and nothing about him except his sinuous arms and legs that gave him away as one of the foremost climbers of the world. But he was a beautiful human being, untainted with the air of complacent superiority that one would normally associate with a man of his stature. He had come to Baltistan to climb Latok I on the left bank of the Biafo Glacier but having been defied by unfavourable ice conditions there he had instead done some climbing in Hushe valley.

He was rather reluctant to talk of his exploits on the great mountains of the world but was full of risque stories about the controversial Aliester Crowley, the mountaineer-magician of the early 20th century. Interspersed with Scott's explosive laughter these stories, I had felt, were being related to check my degree of gullibility. Most of those however, I have since found were true. One of the stories (which still remains unsubstantiated) was about the time Crowley defecated on the dining table at an Alpine Club annual dinner simply because he did not like the pompous speech the President of the Club had made.

On the morning that Scott departed Khushal Khan made an appearance with his father-in-law -- a good looking red faced man with a balding head and an air of cold arrogance. While Khushal Khan introduced us Azizullah regarded me haughtily and informed me that he was a "high altitude guide" and that he had been at over 7000 metres on Nanga Parbat. He was also one of the few guides who knew the Braldu Glacier and with all these exploits under his hat he expected to be treated the same way as he would by a foreign expedition.

Even before Khushal Khan had departed I had made it very clear that I had neither the intention, nor the means, to offer them anything like the major climbing expeditions. Apparently that had not been understood for Azizullah listed out all the equipment he would need before we could set out. The man had conveniently left home with only his rucksack and sleeping bag and expected me to buy him everything else that he needed -- including shoes for he was wearing plastic moccasins.

I knew if I gave in I would be exploited in the most ruthless manner, so I handed him two hundred rupees making it very clear that it was all he was getting from me. The duo returned an hour later with a pair of trainers and a cheap looking plastic jacket lined with artificial fur. They harangued me with long winded demands for another six hundred rupees to meet the discrepancy in cost. I refused. Azizullah tried to educate me about the conditions on a glacier and the impossibility of going over one in plastic moccasins. I returned that he should have acted sensibly and come properly equipped. He hinted that he and Khushal Khan could very well return to Shimshal and the investment I had made so far would go waste. I remained implacable.

I knew I could afford inflexibility. They had come this far, albeit without any expense on their part, and would be loath to go back without being hired. And now, in the middle of July, with the climbing season nearing its end this was their only chance of making a little extra money. Eventually they gave in. Azizullah returned the jacket and paid the discrepant amount for the trainers amid opprobrious observations about how difficult it would be for us to transport his corpse from the upper reaches of the Braldu to his village and how I was quite likely to be branded a murderer and languish in jail for the rest of my life. Whatever turn of events was coming, I had scored at least one small victory: there was a tangible dent in Azizullah's arrogance.

Then another very appropriate thing happened. Ayaz Afridi who surely would have seen to it that I did not get into any folly was called away to Islamabad. I hurriedly did some shopping in company with Azizullah, put Shabnam on the flight to Islamabad and decided to get away the same day, apprehensive, till the last moment, of Afridi returning and bringing to an end our trek over the Biafo-Sim Gang-Braldu glacial system even before it began.

Previous: Between Two Burrs on the MapEpilogueHorse Trading, Wilderness of the Giant 

Another Adventure: The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Odysseus Lahori one year ago: Sri Mata Hinglaj

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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