Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Wish I was there

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In September 2006, travelling south from Yarkand to the village of Raskam in the northern fringe of the Aghil Mountains, we stopped at Karghalik. This, a remote corner of Xinjiang province of China, was where caravans from India rested after breaking out of the mountains on their long trek over the Karakoram Pass. We too rested for a couple of days, but only because my trekking permit was taking forever to be granted.

We eventually did leave Karghalik but rather late in the day and were benighted at a place called Mazar. It was midnight when we arrived and the village was asleep. In the light of the full moon I could see about two dozen lorries parked in an open lot and my guide told me they were all heading for Tibet. The road forked at Mazar; ours went straight down southward and the Tibet road veered off to the east. My guide also said that his company ran tours from Karghalik to Lhasa.

That night as I lay in my sleeping bag in the shack that called itself a hotel, I could not get the idea out of my head of one day taking this road. Following a southerly bearing the road passes through Shahidulla, the ancient staging post on the high road from Ladakh over the Karakoram Pass. Situated in the bleak high altitude desert of Aksai Chin, it must be one of the most god-forsaken places on the planet. From the descriptions of Victorian explorers, I know it sits in a wide-open sand and saltpetre waste whose surface is broken by tufts of grass hardly edible for animals.

I suspect the Chinese would have built some sort of overnight facilities and today's Shahidulla will be considerably different from that of the 19th century. Thence the road veers almost due east and climbs steadily onto the Tibetan plateau to wind its way between high peaks, frozen lakes and glaciers. This is the road of a singular distinction: it is the only road at the immense height of well above 4000 metres for such a great distance -- over 1500 kilometres.

The road passes under the majestic Mount Kailas, sacred to Hindus and Buddhists. Surely, the companies that offer the motoring expedition would make a side trip to the base of the mountain. From the maps showing white and grey areas of high peaks and glacier, I have the image of frozen tundra to pass through. Ideally, if I were younger and had the resources, the journey should have been with a camel train. It would be two months of a slow trudge across some of this breathtaking landscape with a population so sparse that we would be mostly by ourselves. What a journey that would have been!

Even by jeep, the thrill would still be there. My guide had said it took three nights in between to drive from Karghalik to Lhasa. What if we have a break down en route? How far would one of us need to go looking for help in that case? What other adventures await travellers on this lonely road? That can only be known if I one day make the journey.

There are two other journeys, much shorter and both in Pakistan that I am just dying to undertake. For years within my reach, it was always one thing or the other that kept me away from the journeys. Both are in Balochistan and now, the State of Pakistan having angered the Baloch so much, these adventures just might kill me for the Baloch no longer accept Punjabis gadding about their country.

One is a journey with a camel and a guide from the village of Nal, the native place of the late and good Mir Ghous Buksh Bizenjo, down the river that is called Nal in its upper reach. As it meander southwest of the Bela-Turbat highroad near Awaran, the river takes the name Hingol and is thus known all the way to its mouth.

From somewhere near the village of Jhal Jhao a Greek named Thoas travelled with a small force along the river to the seaboard on the express order of his king. It was October in the year 325 BCE. Thoas returned with a report about the wretched condition of the people living along the coast and the general scarcity of food and potable water. The king was Alexander of Macedon who had sent the man to see how the Greek fleet coasting homeward was faring. Other than Thoas' brief report preserved in the work of the historian Arrian, we know nothing of his exploratory sally. It would be worthwhile to see everything that the long ago Greek soldier had seen.

Just north of the twenty-sixth parallel, the Hingol gains sufficient water from other tributaries to be navigable for a small boat. From then on, my journey will be in an inflatable raft. The river now enters Hingol National Park and passes through some of the most dramatic mountain scenery in all Balochistan. The stark, arid hills are home to dozens of species of wild animals and medicinal plants.

South of the national park boundary, the Hingol River breaks out of its confining rocky gorge to spread majestically in a somewhat wider bed. Five kilometres west of the river and now accessible by a good blacktop road, a side trip to the venerated temple of Hinglaj will be very much in order. In 1984, this holy site was marred only by a concrete cubicle under the rock overhang where worshippers pray. Sixteen years later, it was a mess of badly constructed quarters to house visiting pilgrims. I wonder what farther degradation has taken place in the past decade.

Here the river is infested with alligators that sun themselves along its tamarisk-shaded banks. Having twice crossed the Hingol laterally, once twenty-six years ago and then again in 2000 when a concrete bridge was thrown across its languid waters, I know what a beautiful sight it presents here in its lower reach.

The journey south of the bridge will be in the company of alligators and plenty of fish for food. The Hingol pours itself into the ocean on a pristine silver beach within sight of two dramatic peaks about two hundred metres high to the west. The 300 kilometre-long trek would take about a month and nothing could beat a single day of it getting to know the Brahui and Balochi names of the peaks, subsidiary streams, strangely shaped rocks, birds, and animals.

The third journey is in this same region. Back in 2001 when I was making a television documentary on Alexander's Indian Campaign, the crew and I spent a night in Awaran where we were the guests of the Assistant Commissioner. The gentleman was a native of a village in the Mashkai Valley that runs northward of Awaran all the way up into the hills of Besima.

The good man gave me a description of his home: a valley watered well enough by the Mashkai River to make for good farms for its sparse population. The pristine river teems with mahasher and along its banks, rugged hills rise above two thousand metres where wild sheep, ibex, wolf, and bear roam. I did not know whether to believe or not the claim that leopards too were not unheard of.

The offer was to arrive in Awaran where the good man, whose name I now forget, would lend me transport. The journey of 220 kilometres would normally take a day in motor transport, but even if I were to adopt that and not camels, I could turn it into a leisurely drive of three or four days staying in villages en route. Years ago, when Balochistan was another country I did just that and enjoyed some of my greatest adventures with kind, hospitable hosts. I did it again last March in Moola Valley with friends from the area and had a grand time.

I may never return to Xinjiang, but when a Baloch friend assures me I can venture into Mashkai and Hingol without being shot for being a Punjabi, you will most assuredly find me there.

Odysseus Lahori one year ago: Romance of the Railway

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 12:00 AM,

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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