Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Celebration at Lukpe La

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"If you do not get underway before three in the morning the slog will be extremely difficult for the snow on Sim Gang turns to mush by mid morning." Mark had warned me. But I had found this a most unsavoury proposition, particularly when the night had been so dreadfully cold that even my companions, acclimatised as they were, found it difficult to get started. It was not before the sun had warmed up the camp site that Khushal Khan emerged from the tent to start breakfast.


Mark had been absolutely right. For the first three hours or so the going was good over firm snow then we ran into the mush. This was the snow that had fallen when we were confined to the shepherds' hut south of Skoro La, and it provided a deceptive covering to the crevasses of Sim Gang. I was at the end of the rope with Azizullah leading, and by the time I stepped on these frail snow bridges, most were ready to collapse. Twice I found myself hanging above a dark abyss with a deathly cold breeze wafting up from the unseen depths.
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Waters of Empire - Book of Days 2015

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Nature’s greatest gift to the Indian subcontinent is the multitude of perennial rivers. Every spring, they swell with glacial melt brought down from far off snow fields. And even as the first flood begins to ebb, there starts the great surge fed by the annual monsoons.


Our earliest ancestors, having given up their hunter-gatherer way of life and put down agrarian roots, were quick to realize the annual brown flood of high summer fertilized the soil. This knowledge, they put to good use.
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Top Posts 2014

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Bombay Fornicator

Who built the Grand Trunk Road?

The fall of Taxila

Lady Wives

Inventing history

Shiva weeps no more

On My 2362nd Birthday!

Nilofer’s Pakistan and mine

Bomb Blasts

Abbottabad: beauty and buried bounty

Related: Top Posts 2013

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Fit for Governor

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Forlorn and abandoned amid mango and citrus orchards, mehal (palace), as the locals call it, sits in an open dusty plain. This is the country of the Hiraj sub-clan of the Sials who left their native Jhang district to the northeast to settle here some two hundred years ago. The name of the village that this small group established to stake out its claim, gives away a sense of insecurity of those long ago times: they called their habitation Chowki Hiraj.


Some twenty kilometres north of Kabirwala (Khanewal district) and a mere kilometre from the Ravi River, the chowki, or defensive post, would have been a need of the time: the Sikhs under Maharaja Ranjit Singh were coming into their own and raiding the land in order to assert their dominance. Not long afterwards, their influence was to reach this area as well. Remnants of that old fortified chowki stand to this day together with its surrounding mud-brick wall. It is today home to the servants of the Hiraj family.
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Between Two Burrs on the Map

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Long before the first European ventured into the heart of the Karakorums these barren gorges and the high, wind swept passes connecting them were being traversed by the Indians and Chinese. Most of them were merchants plying their caravans of trade, some were Buddhist pilgrims from China seeking Nirvana by doing obeisance at the many sites in India connected with the great Buddha. And there were roving bands of brigands and freebooters from the states of Hunza and Nagar lying to the north west of Askole and separated from it by a system of glaciers.


These marauders and their ruthless depredatory raids kept the people of Askole in constant dread. In the middle ages when summer ice conditions permitted travel over the Hispar-Biafo glacial system connecting Askole with Nagar, these raids were very frequent with the looters periodically swarming out of the gorge of the Biafo to drive away cattle and slaves over the glaciers to their country.
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Deosai People

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Cheeks weathered by the icy wind, a pearly smile and the scarlet of a heavily sequined dress set to advantage against a Deosai sky dulled by storm clouds.

More images in Deosai: Land of the Giant - Book is available at Sang e Meel (042-3722-0100), Lahore

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Perspectives on the Art and Architecture of Sindh

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When the late Dr Salome Zajadacz-Hastenrath wrote her masterful book Chaukhandi Gräber in 1978, one would have thought that was the last word on this most elegant of funerary art forms to be found anywhere in Pakistan. Along came that utterly puerile work History on Tombstones by self-styled historian Ali Ahmed Brohi followed by the more significant work of archaeologist Khurshid Hasan. It was however Zajadacz-Hastenrath’s work that for long lit the Chaukhandi horizon bright, especially after a much abridged English translation of her original German appeared in 2003.

The recent work Perspectives on the Art and Architecture of Sindh by anthropologist Zulfiqar Ali Kalhoro of Quaid e Azam University is in the same league as Zajadacz-Hastenrath’s work. The earlier work traces the evolutionary path of the art of stone carving for funerary decoration in Sindh and southern Balochistan from the 14th century until the mid-19th century. It shows how the art spread from a rather simple form in 14th century Gujarat to Sindh where it blossomed into its exquisite fullness. Kalhoro’s work takes our existing knowledge several steps ahead.
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Circle of goodness

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It is a story of the goodness that sets humans apart from all other beings. It began some 80 years ago and came to fruition in 2009 and, yet, the accrual of benefit from the goodwill of a few good men continues for all comers.


Village Dhedano near Thari Mirwah in Khairpur district, Sindh, today sits amid the last residue of a sand desert slowly giving over to farmland. Once all this was desert even as the Nara Canal flowing 35 kilometres in the east slaked narrow strips of agriculture along its alignment. In Dhedano and other nearby villages, there were many who owned farmland on the Nara; others had familial connections or business interests.
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World's End

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Northeast of Skardu, on the right bank of a stream that flows with the colour of molten slate lies the small village of Askole. Here the seemingly interminable web of glaciers punctuated by a jumble of great, icy peaks takes over and spreads north and eastward as far away as the deserts of Tartary and the Tibetan plateau. Askole has been referred to as "World's End", for that is what it truly is -- the last village before an endless wilderness.

Entrance to Askole [Image from the Apricot Road to Yarkan]

Long before they built the jeep track through the Shigar Valley the shortest connection between Skardu and Askole was through the Skoro Lungma -- Valley of the Skoro River. This narrow and desolate gorge and the high pass at its head were usable only between the months of July and September and all early expeditions, whenever possible, passed through it. But now, as they speed through the Shigar Valley by jeep, the route lies abandoned and forgotten; crossed rarely even by local shepherds. Even fewer trekkers use it to satisfy their spirit of adventure. And this was the way I had planned for the Expedition to get to Askole.
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A Punjab odyssey

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Shabnam and I crossed the border on a cold winter morning to a warm reception on the far side of the gates at Wagah. We were not part of any delegation; this was a purely private trip, a follow-up of my March 2008 yatra. The earlier visit, my first ever to India, was an attempt to discover the fate of one part of a family I had never known.

One day about the fourteenth of August, 1947 my grandfather Dr Badaruddin who lived on Railway Road, Jalandhar and his wife, two daughters and father in law together with their servant, his wife and five children were lost to the world. They became part of the one million mostly Punjabi people, Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims, who died for the division of India. From living beings, these people suddenly became statistics.

This time around, I hoped to find cases among Sikhs and Punjabi Hindus whose families had migrated from what became Pakistan and whose stories were similar to mine. We found people, we heard their stories, and together we became misty-eyed putting on brave Punjabi faces to show that we did not cry. As I wept privately at night, I am sure others did too. The grief of that event 62 years ago continues to haunt those like Darshan Singh in Jalandhar who was just a child when his family migrated from Klasswala near Pasrur. Others like Mohinder Pratab Sehgal, then just in his teens, who remembered my grandfather and the slaying of the family, still feels the guilt of that terrible time.
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Drivers

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This piece appears in the December 2014 issue of Herald

Most semi-educated blockheads believe Darwin said we had evolved from monkeys. He didn’t. What he said was that we evolved from a lower form of life and going by the behaviour of our civil, military and mullah politicians, it can safely be deduced that monkeys can only be a higher form of life. However, looking at Pakistani male drivers you know that they very likely come from a long and unillustrious line of rats and mice. Not even monkeys would drive like them!

This is especially true if you are either a motorcyclist or a paid or underage driver (whose father is either a powerful politico or a bureaucrat). By the way, underage here means any man less than seventy years old because here men never grow up; they just grow old.
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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.
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Discoveries of Empire

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July 1798, the domes and minarets of Cairo rose shimmering amidst the heat waves before the eyes of Napoleon’s army as it marched south along the Nile River. Some ways away, the rock-strewn desert was home to the pyramids. The West was aware of their existence and knew too they were burial sites of kings past.

Now for the first time, these strange edifices came within the purview of scientists as Napoleon had brought along 175 “learned civilians” in his train. They came armed with scientific equipment and every book on Egypt found in France. In the three years they spent in Egypt, the French scientists uncovered a sizeable hoard of ancient artefacts and made replicas. This was just as well: in 1801, British forces defeated the French and expelled them from Egypt. The artefacts fell into British hands and the copies went to France, setting off a great intellectual foment in the two countries and pushing back Egyptian history to the 4th millennium BCE.
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Deosai Landscape

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[Image from Deosai: Land of the Giant - Book is available at Sang e Meel (042-3722-0100), Lahore]

Odysseus Lahori one year ago: Deosai Truths

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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.
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Walking in Waziristan

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In June 2003, I travelled in South Waziristan without let or hindrance and with the heart utterly free of the dread of being kidnapped to be gruesomely beheaded by some fifteen year-old lunatic or of being shot and killed. From Tank, I was driven to Jandola whose very name strikes terror in the stoutest Pakistani heart. And then through Ladda up into the higher mountains, perhaps passing the compound that sheltered bin Laden or the mad doctor Al Zawahiri or the one-eyed mullah of Kandahar.

At Larimai, we gave up the pick-up truck and walked. Our objective that day was the peak of Pir Ghal (or Ghar), 3515 metres above the sea and well inside the Mahsud heartland. Young Khalid Mahmood, the local tehsildar had organised a guide for me. Bearded Zahir Shah came with a grim set to his mouth, few words for he spoke only his native Pashto and a Kalashnikov rifle slung over his shoulder together with a holstered pistol and a wicked-looking knife in the waistband. Zahir Shah had also let the word out about the man visiting from Lahore and some fifteen of his friends tagged along as well. All of them, fine Mahsud lads, loaded down with enough weapons and ammo to start a major war in Waziristan.
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Moving the mountains

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The great mountaineers of the world stand on the summits of the highest places on the planet and win laurels. Their respective countries laud and sing them, shower them with awards, flash them around the world on television and cherish them as national heroes.

Nasser, Hasan Jan and Naeem dance to the accompaniment of Ghulam Hussain’s ‘drum’ and Balti singing

On that long upward grind over five-six days from base camp for a typical 8000-metre peak there struggles with the renown bound mountaineer a lonely figure shoulder to shoulder and in step, never lagging, sometimes leading and always there to lend a hand when needed. Unknown and unsung, this is the High Altitude Porter (HAP) whose labour, always harder than the mountaineer’s for he ferries heavy loads, remains forever unrequited.
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Wilderness of the Giant

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I had met Captain Mukhtar at Mount Balore Hotel where he had been waiting for someone and had got to talking with me. He had said the Deosai was still under snow, but he nevertheless offered to help: he would see what he could do to organise porters in case a horse was available neither at Astore nor at Chillam Chauki, the last habitation before the great wilderness of the plateau. Moreover, he offered accommodation both at Astore and at Chillam Chauki.


Jaglot was in the grip of a minor sandstorm when I arrived. It seemed to belong to some desert, but having incongruously been placed in that nameless land between the Himalaya and Karakorum Mountains, was living an uncertain life clenched within those brown and grey walls. The town itself was hidden away in a grove of trees but the army billets were arrogantly spread out on the sandy shelf bordering the Indus. I was warmly received, fed a lunch of stewed vegetables and put on a truck for Astore. We crossed the Indus on a skimpy looking suspension bridge and were soon in Shaitan Nala -- the Devil's Gorge. Neither the driver nor any of the soldiers could tell me if it got this appellation for its unbearable summer heat or the many rock slides that rake its dusty slopes.
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Mansura of the Arabs

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The ancient city marked by mounds spreads in an undulating square some kilometre and a half each way. The earth here is deep red with the colour of fired bricks and pottery. The bricks, some of the large pre-Arab size, others smaller, are eaten away by salinity which turns the terracotta brittle to the touch. This is the last remnant of Brahminabad, the heavily fortified city that was, according to Chachnama, the seat of government of middle Sindh.


From Chachnama we know that Brahminabad was an ancient city even at the time of the Arab conquest in 711 CE. One history records that it was established in about 450 BCE by the Achaemenian King Bahman, also known by the royal title of Ardesher Drazdast. This may well be correct as Sindh was a satrapy under the Achaemenians and Bahman did indeed found at least two other towns here. The city was initially called Bahmandabad after its patron but the name was altered over time, possibly due to the influence of the Brahmin class.
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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