Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Odysseus Lahori one year ago

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My name is Salman Rashid and I am 2300 years old!

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India the fertile

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Just to refresh the readers’ memory: In antiquity, the land of India was essentially the valley of the Sindhu River. That is, it was what is today Pakistan. The Aryans were overwhelmed by its great rivers and sang hymns to them. The Rig Veda, truly the most beautiful composition of poetry ever composed by humans and one which loses none of its magnificence even in translation, celebrates the rivers.

We read of the Sindhu to which its tributaries flow “Like mothers to their calves, like milch-kine with their milk, so, Sindhu, unto you the roaring rivers run/You lead as a warrior king your army’s wings what time you come in the van of these swift streams.” (Rig Veda, Hymn No. 75).
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Sarai Chhimba

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Modern roads all over the world follow alignments that go back thousands of years. Likewise, between Lahore and Multan, National Highway 5 (N-5), follows an ancient line along which humans travelled, certainly as far back as the time when Harappa flourished 6,000 years ago. On this road, so far as I know, there are no notable remains going back any more than 500 years. But surely, lying under the cultivated fields and the foundations of modern housing, there would be some remarkable finds waiting to be uncovered. On this road, one monument dating to the reign of Akbar the Great, is Sarai Chhimba.

Now, in the 16th century, Multan and Lahore were both capitals of important provinces of the Empire. In order to facilitate the frequent traffic of important officials passing between the two cities, the emperor ordered caravanserais at a distance of roughly every 35 km — the length of an easy day’s journey. Sarai Chhimba, lying about 25 km south of Thokar Niaz Beg in south Lahore, was one.
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Pakhtuns

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My article titled “Aornos” elicited an email from Canada. Its gist: that there were no Pakhtuns at the time of Alexander; that Yusufzais moved into Mardan and Swat in the 16th century (that is, they did not exist prior to that time!); that the people defeated by Alexander were not Pakhtuns but Buddhists. The mind boggles at the idiocy of a nation brought up on manufactured history.


First of all, the title Pathan. Pakhtun pseudo-historians claim that the word derives from bataan, which in Arabic denotes rudder and was given to the (fictitious) Qais Abdur Rashid when he converted to Islam. Be it known that the Pakhtuns never called themselves Pathans; that this was a Punjabi and central Indian mispronunciation of Pakhtana, the singular for Pakhtun. That having been decided, we can now reach back into history.
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The Lonely Line

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When they laid it back in 1916, British railway engineers called it ‘The Lonely Line.’ The reason was the immense distances between stations. Whereas elsewhere in India stations were sometimes as close as ten kilometres, here one could travel ten times as much before making a railway station. In between there stretched a desert of rock, wind-sculpted sand dunes and sere grass. However, the official title for this line was Nushki Extension Railway or NWR.

Salman Rashid
The abandoned station of Alam Reg. Forlorn and forgotten

From Quetta via Spezand, the line winds through the low, bleak hills of Nushki to descend into the desert beyond. Then there is one great wilderness interspersed with a few dusty little towns all the way to the border village of Koh e Taftan. Beyond, the line runs another hundred and fourteen kilometres across Iranian territory to its terminus at Zahedan.
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Mazar-e-Nikodar

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The case of Mazar-e-Nikodar is complicated. Some historians were fooled by the architectural style of the tombs and assigned them a date as early as the 2nd or 3rd century CE. Such a deduction would now be easily acceptable when the only dating element contained in the terracotta decorative tablets has been vandalised. But I am surprised at how all previous investigators missed the one tablet that now exists only as a picture in my custody. This tablet gave these mysterious tombs the unmistakable date of the late 16th century. But now with it gone, investigators can drum up whatever conclusions they want.

Like all other tablets showing animal and human forms, this crucial tablet was also rather crudely rendered. But even in that crudity, it depicted a scene that could not be mistaken for anything else: it showed a man with a long-barrelled jazail in pursuit of three fleeing ibex. Such a rifle as our man carried on this lost tablet was not known in this part of the world before the late 16th century. The other thing this tablet showed, was that those who built and embellished these tombs were not local people but came from a hill country: because the ibex lives in arid highlands, not in flat deserts.
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Naushervani tombs

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Way out in the backyard of Balochistan, smack by the Iranian frontier, not far from the little town of Gwalisthap (G Stop on paramilitary signposts), there sit seven mysterious domed monuments. In May 1987, my first visit, there were eight and according to the Gazetteer of Kharan (1906), there were nine.

In that great wide, treeless wilderness, they are visible from afar. Built of burnt bricks on square plans, most of them are double-storeyed. The largest among these buildings, no more than ten metres square, has three graves on the first floor. These are built like brick caskets and until November 1996, my last visit, they had not been disturbed.
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Tibetans in Baltistan

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Until the beginning of the 8th century CE, Baltistan was a country inhabited by the Indo-European Shin tribe. This was a time when the superpowers of the region were China and Tibet, both vying for supremacy in High Asia. Only shortly before, the Chinese had ousted the Tibetans from what is now the Chinese province of Xinjiang. But then the T’ang Dynasty was briefly interrupted by the New Zhou Dynasty (690-705) and Chinese imperial aspirations were laid low for the time being.


Emboldened by the situation, the Tibetans began to expand westward. They annexed Ladakh and following the Sindhu River reached Baltistan. For the next five decades this country remained under their firm control. Intermarriages between the new comers and the original tribes were common to such an extent in the next fifty years that there arose a race of a fine mix of Aryan and Tibetan blood — the current people of Baltistan. It was for this reason that an anthropologist of the mid-twentieth century called Baltistan ‘a living anthropological museum’.
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Deosai: Land of the Giant

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Excerpt from Deosai: Land of the Giant: Some Came Looking 

Book is available at Sang e Meel (042-3722-0100), Lahore

Odysseus Lahori one year ago: Ramkot Fort

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In the Pamirs

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Late in the summer of 747, the population of Baltistan, then busily engaged in bringing in their ripe apricots and fodder for the long, harsh winter ahead, would have been surprised by the flurry of activity taking place in the fort of Skardu. They would have made little sense of the clamour, the gathering together of everything the garrison owned, and the worried, even frantic looks on the faces of the Tibetan soldiery. Something drastic was afoot; but the common folks had no idea what it was.


Even as September rolled up, a great flood of soldiers seemed to burst forth from the west. The very same Tibetan soldiers, who the elders remembered had marched west, defiantly singing their battle songs only four decades earlier, limped up along the gorge of the Sindhu River. Battered men, wounded in battle, bleeding to death from arrow or sword wounds, they came as if some floodgates had opened somewhere in the west. In the absence of Balti chronicles we do not know if these people knew what had happened. But the court of the T’ang emperor in Chang’an recorded history as it unfolded. From those documents we learn that the ten thousand strong cavalry led by the Korean general Kao Hsin-Chih having set out of Chang’an in March 747, had its first engagement against the Tibetans in Wakhan in August.
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Of Tunno and his Bijnot

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The sun set and the blue welkin above turned a nameless colour – the same as the dunes around us. The lowing of cattle and the dong-dong of their bells died down. And so too the bleating of the goats. Only the occasional harsh bray of an ass broke the silence. But even an hour after sundown, it did not go completely dark for the stars above shone with a passion as though this was the last night they were ever going to shine. In the flat, featureless (low dunes are hardly features) desert the stars became visible just as they cleared the eastern horizon. And if one had the patience, one could sit through the night to chart each star’s arc clear across the velvet dome above.


As evening progressed, spotted owls began to sound their churring calls as they swooped about after the various kinds of insects that prowl the desert at night. Still later, the little yelps of foxes, muted by the distance, could also be heard. Earlier, on the drive through the desert, we had surprised a couple of sand-coloured foxes en route. But without my Roberts’ book of mammals, I was unable to identify them. Above us, the wind soughed through the kundi tree under which our charpoys lay. The crisp evening turned even cooler and due east the horizon glowed with the lights of some Indian town across the border.
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Lady Wives

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This piece appears in the August 2014 issue of Herald

Many years ago, I was at a military function where I heard an army wife, and the wife of a senior officer at that, say to some less fortunate wives, ‘When we were commanding the Gujranwala Corps ...’ That was when I lost her, being too open-mouthed (unable to hear anything when my mouth gapes) and trying to hide my stare, her words were simply lost in space.

Obviously, she was referring to herself and her husband as the joint commanders of the unfortunate corps. This was a true, one hundred percent marriage where the spouses had accomplished what the Bollywood number says: tum mujh mein sama jao, mein tum mein sama jaon. I wondered what would have happened in the event of actual war.
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Politics, shmoliticks!

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It all started with a tweet by a very sharp-witted and very secretive friend we all know as @tweeep_. She wrote: ‘Maybe TUQ would feel better if he takes his cap off’. I retweeted and friend Simin responded with ‘shh... he needs it to hide his horns’. That set me off. But first a flashback.

The early nineties of the last century (gosh, I am ancient!) I was travel writing for The Frontier Post. Those were pre-email days and I had to personally take in my 5.5 inch floppy (drive, and don’t get obscene notions) to the paper. There we had Anita Mir, Naurin Ahmed, Anisa Mustafa, Amina Sharif and Beena Sarwar and I would carry on endlessly with my version and very meagre understanding of Pakistani politics. Beena was the only one who told me to shut up and get out. The other girls suggested instead of wasting what they thought was hilarious commentary on politics should be published.
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Messing up our Ecology

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A much abbreviated version of this article appears in the August 2014 issue of WWF’s Natura  

The messing up of the forest cover of Pakistan began back in the 1960s when the military dictator of the day ordered the Forest Department to increase the tree cover of the country. Now, that is hard work. In those days it meant planting any one of the dozens of indigenous species, putting the steel mesh cage around the sapling to protect it from grazing animals and tending it to ensure it survived. However, survival was as low as fifteen to twenty percent only.


Then some wiseacre discovered that a eucalyptus (already known to the subcontinent since the 1890s) sapling stuck in the ground had a hundred percent chance of growing into a tall tree. And so, sometime in the 1960s a certain Dr Prior was invited over from Australia. The man, an expert eucalyptologist, suggested six of the six hundred or so species of this alien tree as suitable to be planted in Pakistan.
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Dreams may come true

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In March 2010, eleven year-old Shahdad Marri could not comprehend the question regarding what he wanted to be when he grew up. I rephrased and asked what work he would like to do as a man. “I will do whatever work I can get,” he said.

Surely, there was something he would like to do. Like being a doctor or an engineer, I pressed. Shahdad silently shook his head staring straight at me with his pellucid brown eyes. “Surely, you have a dream of being someone when you grow up?” I tried again. What he said is a stab into the soul of all of us who call ourselves Pakistani. It is enough to make us hang our heads in shame.

“I have no dream so far,” Shahdad said with heart-wrenching simplicity. “I have no dream so far.” His exact words: “Abhi tuk koi khwab nahi hai.”
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At Khost railway station

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Khost railway station sits in a remote region of Balochistan, northwest of Sibi. Once, when the twice-a-day train ran to it from Sibi, Khost was easily reachable. But since the destruction of the bridges over the Nari River in 2007, trains no longer run and Khost seems far away.


It used to be — and still is (my last visit being March 2011) — a place that belongs in films where Indiana Jones-type heroes search for ancient treasures. It is a place that smells of high adventure; there is a palpable air of some anxiety-making reality about it that Khost does not wish to divulge readily. The difficult access, the distant line of snow-streaked mountains (if the season is right), the sky of vitreous blue, the dusty hills and the turbaned Pashtuns strolling in the bazaar are all other-worldly.
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Manufactured stories

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After reading Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy’s “How to spot the crackpot”, I simply could not resist telling this story. He writes of some nutter publishing a paper to the effect that experiments carried out by someone (presumably the CIA-Mossad-Raw nexus) in northern Alaska have triggered earthquakes and floods in Pakistan! The burden of Dr Hoodbhoy’s article lies on our ‘understanding’ of science.

In late October 2005, I met a person who was clearly a reader only of Urdu newspapers. He was retiring the following year, since he was then 59, a supposedly mature age. After the preliminaries, he cast a suspicious look around his sitting room, leaned over and very conspiratorially with a sly smile on his face asked, “So, what do you think of the earthquake?” I promise you, for a second I thought this was a sadistic madman who took sick pleasure in the misery of others.
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Peshawar and back – in a Jiffy

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My friend Raheal Siddiqui who works for the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa government as Secretary Excise and Taxation was returning to work after the Eid break. I, ever the one who hates driving, thought I should tag along. And I had a reason: the ordinary journey between Lahore and Peshawar is now one of extreme tedium.

Consider: trains do not exist. Or if they exist they can be days behind schedule. So my one-time favourite of getting on Khyber Mail at night from Lahore and sleeping through in air conditioned comfort as you chugged northwest is now a distant dream. You woke at Peshawar cantonment railway station early morning and rested as you were could work through the day. But now, I’d be a fool to rely on the Khyber Mail. Originating in Karachi and travelling all of 1500 km with the average rate of going late being thirty minutes for each one hundred kilometres travelled, the train generally arrives half a day behind schedule.
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Monsoon!

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Whenever I say the rains just don’t come like they used to; that they have shrunk and that they fall in spots, never over the whole city and never wholesale like they once used to, young people (and sometimes old too) very sagaciously tell me that is because Lahore has grown so much.


There can be nothing more blatantly stupid.

Savan, the fifth month of the Nanakshahi calendar, lasts from 16 July to 15 August and is celebrated in sub-continental music, poetry and lore. There was the sizzling dry heat of Jeth (15 May-14 June) when the sweat on a man’s body dried even as it oozed out of the pores of the skin. Jeth was the month whose heat stunted the growth of every vegetation because of its aridity and it was a time when birds of the wing and animals sought the shade of trees with their mouths hanging open. It was when the colour of the landscape was burnt to a half tone: half green vegetation, half khaki dust and the sky a nameless colour, scarcely blue and not yet full grey.
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What defines us

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Most of what we Pakistanis do screams to the world that we are upstarts. Consider: several years ago a friend while picking his son from school was introduced to the father of the boy’s classmate. On discovering that the two families lived very near each other, my friend suggested to the father that they form a car pool for the boys’ trip to school and back. The man said, ‘Why do you imagine that I cannot afford for my son to be sent to school in his own car?’

The Punjabi words: ‘Meray puttar nu gadiyan da ghata a?’ This showed not just the upstart mentality but an utterly uncultured ignorance of the need to conserve fuel not just for one’s own economy but for the environment. No surprise then that in any given school, every child, other than siblings, arrives in his/her own car clogging streets for upward of an hour morning and afternoon. Fuel burns, horns honk and tempers fray. But not one parent will consider suggesting the establishment of a car pool or school bus for fear of being taken to be unprosperous.
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Ancient Emporium of Sindh

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In the 1st century BCE, an anonymous Greek sailor wrote a detailed and useful handbook titled Periplus Maris Erythraei or Circumnavigation of the Eastern Ocean. This was a gazetteer of sea lanes, ports, commerce and winds of the seaboard between Egypt and south India. The book tells us of an extremely busy port named Barbarikon, sitting in the Indus delta on a branch of the great river.


Barbarikon traded with most countries of the civilized world of its time, Periplus tells us, where ships called from as far away as Egypt and the ports of south India. Outgoing goods ranged from Sindhi indigo, ironware and cotton to lapis lazuli and chrysolite brought in from the mines of Afghanistan. Imports were as extravagant as Mediterranean wines, silver and glassware and high-end drinking vessels. A port as active as Barbarikon, accruing large sums in custom duties, could only have been immensely affluent.
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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