Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

On a mountain of the moon

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Out in the backwoods of Balochistan, on the old trade route connecting the Balochistan plateau with what was once called Siestan (in Iran), lies the dusty little town of Nok Kundi. The place became famous after the second decade of the 20th century when the government of India laid their ‘Lonely Line’ from Quetta to Zahedan – railway track of over seven hundred kilometres that passes through one of the most desolate areas of the country.

Over a century later, Nok Kundi is still hardly a destination; it is just a way station one passes through. And if on a clear day one pauses in the passing to glance around, one cannot miss the purple outline of a range on the distant northern horizon. This is the Koh e Sultan whose highest peak crests at 2332 metres (7650 feet) above the sea. The mountain commemorates a mythical character named Sultan e Pir Kaiser also known as Pir Sultan regarding whom no fabulous tales are told. And yet he is venerated as saint.

The one thing the Baloch honour the saint for is his power over snakes: snakes as a matter of course do not bite near his tomb. And to prevent snake bite as well as to ward them from one’s home, all one needs do is collect a pinch of soil from the tomb to keep on the premises.

In the 1890s Henry McMahon was assigned the task of delineating the border between British Balochistan on one side and Afghan and Iranian possessions on the other. In the course of this mission McMahon and his team spent a good few years in this region. McMahon later wrote that this pir was the patron saint of Baloch robbers and that this was the reason Koh e Sultan had ‘a very bad reputation as a robber resort.’ There might have been something to this accusation because a member of the survey team, G. P. Tate, also had a similar report to make in his book The Frontiers of Baluchistan (sic). Then as now, it is always blackguards that need patron saints!

But one wonders how that could be true, because there is not one source of palatable water in the entire range nor too in the miles and miles of sandy waste around its base. The mountain being composed largely of sulphur and other minerals, all its sources of water are tainted: espy a rill tumbling down the bright khaki slopes, the sparkling water glinting invitingly in the slanting rays of a rising sun, only to see at close quarters that the sides of the flowing water are thickly spiked with alum crystals. In McMahon’s time the alum was regularly harvested by Pushtun tribesmen coming down from what are now villages in Afghanistan, a day’s trek to the north. But now the alum harvest is fitful with some Baloch occasionally coming around from towns to the south of the mountain. This mineral might be handy for several things, but it fouls water badly enough to make it unpalatable: the water is acrid on the palate. Indeed, the McMahon expedition required a few hundred camels just to carry their drinking water.

As a volcanic range, Koh e Sultan may not be unique in Balochistan which boasts of a couple more, but Pakistan not being a land of volcanoes, it is a bit of a rarity. What makes it evermore curious is that the entire range, some forty kilometres in length from west to east and about one-fourth in width, had three separate centres of eruption. The last explosion took place so long ago that the event has passed from human memory and lore. In fact, in the centuries, perhaps even a millennium or two, since the eruption; erosion has completely denuded the calderas of traces of lava. And long ago when it did erupt, Koh e Sultan then known by a now forgotten title spewed forth lava and ash of sulphur, potassium and copper for the mountain is rich with these minerals.

Such an output would mean a caldera painted with the multi-colour signature tints of each mineral. There would be, I knew, yellow and brown for sulphur; reddish for copper and white for the potassium that constitutes alum. And so early one morning, when the horizon had not yet delivered the quivering sun, I was being driven north of Nok Kundi. With first light, Koh e Sultan became visible: a chiaroscuro strung out along the northern horizon, its ridges sharp as butchers’ knives honed by the sun’s rays and the dells mysterious in deep shadow.

There being no untainted water around the mountain, there are naturally no villages where an ordinary mountain walker could stop for the night. I had imagined a hard trek of two days with a camel carrying the party’s water and other supplies, but then I was informed by the Nazim at Nok Kundi that I could actually be driven right up to the lip of the caldera. In terms of size, the largest caldera lies near the western part of the range. That one, according to a geologist on the McMahon team, is fully seven kilometres in diameter and surrounded by an amphitheatre of heavily weathered spires. The one we were heading for has pride of place for its height: it nestles under Miri, at 2332 metres the highest peak of the range.

McMahon and his team had commented on the grotesque shapes they encountered in the folds of Koh e Sultan. And we were not disappointed. Here was a bearded man with crowned head and cowl flowing to one side of the face; a woman and child at the head of a family procession; tall pillars nicely fluted in Grecian style as if by the hand of the master stone-mason and not by whimsical erosion. And there were whole hillsides spiked with spires and serrations streaked by the flow of rainwater, carved by wind and painted in shades of reds, sienna, olive greens and pale pastels.

On a moonlit night march through the mountain, McMahon and his team heard what sounded like the incessant roll of kettle-drums. His Baloch guides told him it was the saint himself at it. We being there shortly after daybreak heard nothing. My guide, a local levies man, said he had never heard of the beating of drums. Time passes and even saints weary of monotonous activity. Either that or we had caught him slumbering.

Deeper into the mountain, the shrine of Pir Sultan lay just off to the left of our trail. Inside the narrow cleft, at the bottom of which potassium and sulphur-tainted water glinted in the sun, the shrine lay on a high ledge. It could only be attained by climbing a ladder and I could not help wondering what lunatic of a saint driven only by a morbid death wish would desire reparation in a place like this.

We paused only briefly to climb the ladder that sagged alarmingly under the combined weight of our team. The levies man said this might not actually be a grave, merely a tumulus to mark the spot where the saint had done penance before moving on. And then it occurred to me that it may not after all have been a death wish and that perhaps the mortification of the soul that saints real and phoney desire can only be fulfilled in places as wild and desolate as this gorge. The superstitious amongst us gathered their pinches of soil to keep the snakes away. I pretended I needed it for analysis.

We drove on until the bulldozed path petered out at the bottom of a ridge of pale cream colour. There were remnants of old brick buildings that the levies man said were from the British times when they mined for minerals. Earlier in Nok Kundi an octogenarian had told me that back in the mid-1940s he worked for a British company extracting copper in this area. He too had stories to tell of the water that had to be carted in from Nok Kundi.

The scramble to the top was over crumbly scree and took less than ten minutes to a view that I had never seen before: a perfect bowl hemmed by a pastel wall on the west, dark crags on the north that stretched in an arc through the east and south side to suddenly take on a startling pink shade at our feet. In the caldera to our right were large streaks of scarlet. Smack in the middle were the remnants of the last eruption: two cones, one larger than the other, that survived the collapse after the explosion. Beyond the mountain, to the north, lay a great mass of crescent-shaped wind-sculpted sand dunes through which the Pak-Afghan border ran.

Not a blade of grass grew anywhere, nor even the lowliest animal or insect stirred on the ground and the blue welkin above was utterly devoid of birds of the wing. It was like being on a mountain of the moon. If there was a country that could match the terrifying sterility of the salt flats of Mashkel only a hundred kilometres due south, it was Koh e Sultan. Even so, despite the desolation and remoteness, if school children need be taught what a volcanic caldera looks like, Koh e Sultan, thirty-five kilometres north of Nok Kundi, is the place they ought to be taken to.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 25 March 2013 at 12:57, Anonymous Saima Ashraf said...

What a lovely scene! Just love it. It brings my poet within out.

At 6 May 2013 at 17:43, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

the journey was even better than the scenery!

At 18 May 2014 at 00:25, Blogger Nusrat Afridi said...

Salman Sahib, a beautiful narration indeed. I am always saddened by the utter lack of knowledge about the strange land or riddle called Pakistan. It is only for the first time that I knew about this caldera in pakistan.

At 18 May 2014 at 21:37, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Nusrat, this is the largest extinct volcano. there are at least three more smaller and similarly extinct cones within 100 km radius - actually to the west of this mountain.
No one cares to explore or write about Pakistan which is why it remains a mystery.

At 20 July 2014 at 22:56, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What is the location of kundi? Is it in the starting of balochistan?

At 13 February 2015 at 11:01, Anonymous muhammad athar said...

Sir thnks for making me travel in this mountain land

At 14 February 2015 at 22:55, Blogger Memoona Saqlain Rizvi said...

An actual caldera!!! I am revising our geography course at Alba.

At 15 February 2015 at 09:58, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Very nice to know that, Memoona. Good show!

At 23 October 2017 at 10:13, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi there, just wanted to tell you, I loved this post.
It was helpful. Keep on posting!


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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

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