Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Without Libraries there is no past, no future

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The first library I actually got to know was the Station Library, Kharian. As a young lieutenant I had plenty of time to read – despite all the evil young officers got into in those far off 1970s. I remember the only other officer in the library used to be one we all know as Tumble (24 Cavalry) – and I can bet my life he doesn’t remember I was there too. I left the army after seven years; Tumble retired as a lieutenant general and our friendship continues to this day.

I used to read rubbish in those days. War novels, James Hadley Chase mysteries and all sorts of other stuff. But I read with unmatched avidity, sometimes running through one JHC novel in a single day.

After I left the army and moved to Karachi in 1979, I joined my first real library: the British Council Library. And that was the start of my real education. I will never forget that the first book I borrowed was a hardback copy of Peter Fleming’s News from Tartary – have since read this book twice again. There followed Wilfred Thesiger’s Arabian Sands and I was hooked to travel writing. Over the next two or three years, I must have read the entire travel section at the library.
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Standing ovation for Saba

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“When I ended my speech, everyone clapped.” The lovely doe-eyed Saba Mallah said with such beautiful simplicity. “They stood up to clap for me,” she added. I asked her if she knew that a standing ovation was better than just an ordinary applause. She hadn’t on this past Women’s Day but soon after she learned what a standing ovation meant.


I asked her how she felt for the applause and she said looking at those nearly 400 delegates clapping for her she broke into tears. “I was so happy for myself that I wept.” They were clapping for her in New York where she had spoken for 10 minutes on the rights of the girl child in her native Sindh, 10,000 km east of the venue. As the hall rose and the applause resounded, Saba thought of the time when she will be grown up and will have done what she wants to do.
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Rannikot - enigmatic, inscrutable, inviting

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One thing is certain about Rannikot: it is ancient. The most tangible proof its great age is the remains of the bridge at Sann Gate. A bridge is necessary on a flowing river, but this part of Sindh is arid, its rivers flowing only during the largely unpredictable rains. This has been the case for most of its recorded history, but there was a time when Sindh had a much wetter climate and when all its mountain streams flowed. As an aside, Moen jo Daro and other prehistoric sites were all built of kiln-baked bricks, that is, there was sufficient timber to fire those kilns to bake virtually hundreds of millions of bricks. And timber comes from forests which thrive in a wet climate.


This comparatively wetter climate persisted until about the beginning of our era. Then the Ranni River was a perennial stream turning into a goodly torrent with the coming of the seasonal rains. That is when the bridge at Sann Gate was first built to connect the battlements on either bank of the river. Even earlier however, there would have been a fortress in this area, perhaps near present day Mohan Gate, to oversee the passing of trading caravans between Bhambor and Kandahar along the ancient route that lies just outside the western walls of Rannikot. And it was this ancient fortification that was enlarged several fold to create the Rannikot of today.
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Khir Thar Mountains

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They rise modestly at Cape Monze, west of Karachi, and run in a great jagged line 450 kilometres northward into the somewhat higher Central Brahui Mountains of Kalat. On the east, they look down into the flood plain of the great Sindhu River; on the west, lie the burnished gold and brown valleys and peaks of the various minor ranges of the Jhalawan uplands of Balochistan.


The highest peak, curiously unnamed, rises to 2,171 metres while the second highest (2,096 metres) is known as Kutte ji Qabar (The Dog’s Grave). A much lower peak, Gorakh, at 1,735 metres is touted as the summer resort of Sindh. However, it seems to be going nowhere because of the non-availability of water and the difficulty of piping it in from afar. The higher peaks have occasional snow that runs before the sun when it re-emerges from the clouds.
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Place for the disorderly

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I have to admit I am a rather disorderly person. To assert this quality, I have a little plaque hanging right by the computer monitor. It reads, ‘In an orderly world, there’s always a place for the disorderly.’ For a long time after I acquired this from my dear friend Hus Sain (as he writes his name) Mahmud of Jamaldinwali, Karachi, Islamabad and Lahore, I added a postscript to it: ‘And you’ve reached it.’


No surprise then that my desk is usually a cluttered place. (And you should see the little cabinet where I keep the tools!) I clear the desk once every few months. It then lasts in some state of order for several weeks before reverting to its usual condition. Years ago friend Mike Boardman, when he and Carole lived in Lahore, would marvel at what he thought was singular and unique: ‘A desk measuring three feet by six feet which you have to clear to create a space as small as six inches to work on!’
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Communities: With or Againts DNP?

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Culture grows from the earth. The ancient societies of Bolor and Dardistan, cognisant of the dearth of natural resources and agricultural land, practiced polyandry – a single wife for all the brothers. That kept human population in check. The advent of Islam in this area in the 14th century altered everything. Polyandry became taboo. One husband to a woman became the rule and where the man could afford, he was permitted to take up to four wives. Population exploded multiplying the pressure on the good earth. Food requirements increased, forests were felled – both for fuel and to make way for agriculture, more and more land came under the primitive plough and farmed terraces went marching ever higher up the slopes from the villages. On the other hand, increasing livestock forced shepherds to seek summer pastures in areas too remote for their forefathers.


The Settlement Record of 1919 states, for instance, that the villagers of Dhappa and Katicho on the east fringe of Deosai pastured their livestock during the summer months in the valleys leading up to the plateau. The record is unequivocal about them remaining out of the bounds of the plateau itself. Between that time and today, as populations, both human and livestock, expanded, these communities are known to have encroached upon the plateau.
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Thousand Treasures

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Some 20 kilometres south of Quetta, past Dasht-e-Bedaulat (‘Wretched Plain” — a misnomer now because electricity and tube wells have turned this once barren land fertile) there rises an imposing purple loom west of the road. Rising to 3,308 metres (10,850 feet) above the sea, this, in common parlance, is Chiltan. Ask any Brahui who lives in its shadow and he will call it Chehel Tan — Forty Souls. He will also tell you that the valleys below are called Hazarganji — Possessor of a Thousand Treasures.

Aside: Balochistan is a country rife with tales of hidden treasures left behind by passing hordes through the long and creative years of history. From the arid wastes of Makran through the juniper-scented valleys of Kalat to the sun-baked hills of the Marri-Bugti area, echo tales of hidden riches.
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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 accuweather.com 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.
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Baltistan Geography

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Baltistan lies in the extreme northeast of Pakistan between the 35th and 36th parallel of latitude north of the equator and the 75th and 77th parallel of longitude. The Sindhu River enters it from Ladakh in the east via Kharmang sub-division and cuts across the country on a north-westerly bearing dividing Baltistan from, first, Kargil in India and then the Deosai Plateau to the south. The swathe cut by the Sindhu in its traversing of Baltistan varies in height from 2750 metres at its entry in the east to just about 1700 metres near Shengus as it exits into Gilgit district.


The two major tributaries of the Sindhu in Baltistan are the Shyok, only marginally less significant than the Sindhu, and the Shigar. While the former drains the elongated Nubra Valley (held by India) leading up to the Karakoram Pass, an ancient crossing place on the Asiatic Divide, the latter drains the Haramosh Range to the north and to the northeast the great mass of K-2 and its satellite mountains. Besides these, a few dozen minor streams also run into the Sindhu all draining the scores of peaks that tower well above the 6000-metre mark. The distinction of being home to the highest peak in Pakistan together with its complement of lesser mountains makes Baltistan foremost in the entire country in terms of average height above sea level.
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Souvenirs Collection

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My collection of souvenirs is peculiar. No models of cars, trains or ships; or paintings or matchbooks from hotels around the world for me. I have a small collection of fossils picked up from the deserts and mountains of Sindh.


My first find was a pair of starfish fossils from just off Super Highway, about 70 km out of Karachi. The two were lying quite close to each other, undisturbed for a period of time that I could not comprehend at that time. Much later, I got a book on minerals, rocks and fossils and learned that every time I handled my fossils, I held in my hands a life form that lived in a very distant past: they, both Echinolampas, were from the Eocene period dating from 55.8 to 33.9 million years ago. These are no longer with me, having been gifted to my grand-niece and nephew in Canada.
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On the Indian Frontier

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Five years before he rose to be the viceroy of India in 1899, George Nathaniel Curzon undertook a daring and perhaps even perilous journey through the Karakoram-Hindu Kush region. At that time he was a member of parliament and clearly on his way to the highest office in India.


The purpose of his journey of late 1894, he informs the reader, (pompously, it must be noted), was to see firsthand the Indian borderland between the Karakoram Range and Chitral, bordering on Badakhshan. This was the land through which many conquerors over the ages had entered the subcontinent, he writes. While this may not have been exactly true for the past, in Curzon’s time Czarist Russia was vying with Victorian Britain in the Great Game of imperial ascendancy. The region of Curzon’s concern was a flashpoint with plenty of cloak and dagger activity afoot. With his eye on the viceregal office, Curzon looked upon this dramatic journey as the foundation on which he would base his frontier policies in the future.
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Bread and Beyond

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Back in 1981, when I lived in a Karachi that was a totally different country, the German firm that I worked for sometimes got student interns from Germany. One such was Günther. About four years my junior, he soon became my friend because of our common interest in the outdoors.

Together we haunted the Sandspit beach during the nights and early mornings to watch the turtles coming ashore to lay and sometimes to rescue emerging turtle hatchings from marauding feral dogs. We swam the delightful tarn of Bund Murad Khan, near Hub Dam and discovered a dozen little ponds of crystal water where we could dive to nearly six metres depth and watch the fish shimmering past us.

On his first visit to my flat he noticed I had a spare room and he said he could only just afford the company’s guest house and offered me a sum to take him in as a guest. By then we were pretty good friends so I took him in all right, but without the offered rent. Günther was not just an engineering student; he was a great cook and baker. From him I learned the craft of German baking and cooking.
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Back From the Brink

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Bears drew Zakaria and Rahman to Deosai. But Deosai is about a lot more than just bears. The wilderness is home to Himalayan Ibex (Capra ibex sibirica), red fox (Vulpes vulpes) and wolf (Canis lupus) – the most elusive of Deosai denizens – as well. There is indirect evidence of snow leopard (Panthera uncia) while the presence of golden marmots (Marmota caudata) is abundant. The streams are well-stocked with snow carp. Of all these, the bears and the fish are the most under threat.


In the first year of their presence on Deosai (1993) HWF counted a total of nineteen bears on Deosai that has the capacity to carry no fewer than four hundred of them. The checks put in place to pre-empt hunters and trappers showed dividends immediately when the following year the population was up with the birth of two cubs. Over the years the population grew, but very, very slowly indeed until the census of 2003 showed thirty-two bears. In late 2011, their number stood at sixty-five.
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Reconstructing Lives

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When the Indus River rose in August 2010, Wahid Buksh and his family fled their village Malhar Sheikh near Gambat (Sindh) for their lives. From the high ground of the raised bed of the road leading to the new Khairpur-Larkana bridge across the river, Wahid watched the fertile farmland around his village go under the swirling, brown eddies. But the water would not stop rising and by and by his poor mud brick home too was lost.

When, two months later, he returned from the displaced persons’ camp to what was his village, he found few homes standing and all of his four acres of sugar cane and two of cotton wiped off the face of the earth as if they had never existed. In his twenties, Wahid was no land owner, merely a sharecropper. Even so, his loss was great. As the summer drew to an end, he had little hope of raising enough funds to purchase wheat seed and fertiliser for the December sowing. But a man needs to win bread for the family and so Wahid Buksh resorted to daily wage labour in nearby Gambat.
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Bibi Nani

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Below a road bridge across a usually dry stream at the bottom end of the Bolan Pass there is a simple grave thickly draped with the prescription green satin of a holy burial. An untidy scrawl on a nearby rock tells visitors that this is Bibi Nani —Venerated Old Lady. For some peculiar reason, Bibi Nani never made it to the stardom of sainthood and remains a rather obscure sort of figure: there are no yarns of the miracles she wrought or the heathens she converted to the true faith.


There is just one, rather insipid, tale, however. It was in the time of the Fire Worshippers that Bibi Nani and her brother (whose name remains unknown) came to this country to spread the word of Islam. But the kafir king would have none of that and he sent out his soldiers to bring in the pair in chains. As the holy brother and sister saw the kafir army bearing down, they fled. But at one point, despairing of ever getting away, they decided to split up. The soldiers chased the brother into the Bolan Pass and then when he was but a sword's length from his pursuers, he calmly walked into the rock wall.
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Genuine people come around

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To freely acknowledge and salute those who have helped one attain one’s goals is a true measure of a human being. It is the mark of largesse of the spirit. And Darvesh Ali is one such young man. But he is much more than that.

When he was yet shy of his nineteenth birthday and working his way through the tenth grade at the boys’ school in Karimabad, Hunza, his father passed away. The second child of his parents and the only brother of four sisters, Darvesh Ali had feared just such an eventuality through his father’s long battle against blood cancer. This would mean pressure on him to take his father’s place as the family’s sole bread-winner.

Though the family had a reasonable land holding, but in Hunza in 1995 that meant just subsistence farming. Potato farming had not become the well paying business that it is these days, and the family only growing a little wheat and some vegetables desperately needed cash inflow. What little saving the family had was sunk in the desperate seeking of a cure for the father’s disease.
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Rendering in Dressed Stone - Taxila

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When Alexander of Macedonia tarried here, his historians sang Taxila as a city “most considerable between the Indus and the Hydaspes [Jhelum]”. But when it fell into decay sometime in the 11th century, it completely passed from human memory.


In the 1850s, Alexander Cunningham, well-versed in classical and early medieval texts, searching for the lost city, arrived at the site of a series of mounds that he believed could be Taxila. While the city’s name was forgotten, its much-storied glory refused to exit the collective consciousness: the locals still knew the hillocks as Dheri Shahan or Mound of Kings.
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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