Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Pakistan International Mountain Film Festival

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Hassan Karrar, is thin as a rail, stands six and a half feet tall and teaches history at LUMS. He walks with a long step and is known in Baltistan as ‘lumbi tango walla’ – long-legged man. At Pakistan International Mountain Film Festival he and I talked of the philosophy of mountaineering and the question of ‘conquering’ peaks.

First things first. No one conquers peaks. We conquer enemies; not peaks. The only thing anyone has ever conquered attempting a summit is their own fears. That’s all.

Second thing: I’m no mountaineer. I am just a mountain walker. Though I have been up to 5700 metres (18700 feet) on Lukpe La, all the peaks I have climbed are walking peaks. But the bottom line is anyone who ventures out into Nature does not go there to conquer either Nature or wilderness or peak. They go out there to be one with them. To make their acquaintance, to cherish them as gifts of creation and even perhaps to worship them. But never to conquer them.

Hassan and I talked of my early travelling days. That was time when Pakistani backpackers were unknown. From the wilds of Balochistan to the Salt Range and through the Hindu Kush and Karakorams into Kashmir I was singled out: I was dark, I was solo and yet I humped a backpack. I had to be a spy. QED.

I quickly realised that the few Pakistanis who travelled always went as family or groups of friends. Solo travel and that also of the rough kind was something we did not do. I was placed under open arrest in upper Chitral and sent back under escort and was hauled to the police stations in more places than I can remember. There was no dearth of do-gooders who came up and ominously intone, ‘Prooob yar aduntity!’ It was never in Urdu.

Proving my identity never had such a frightful proposition as when accosted by retired army subedars or serving havildars. In the Soon Valley, one hot July afternoon as I sat under a tree waiting for the sun to wester and give me good light, a man almost came to fisticuffs with me. Thankfully my friends from the army still kept in touch and when I discovered the moron was from 10 Medium Regiment Artillery, I haughtily informed him that I was Major Riazullah Chib’s course-mate. The game changed.

Walking in 1988 in Kashmir, ‘proobing’ my identity to everyone from the village idiot to the village numberdar was too much. I had barely got from Mirpur to Kotli (or was it Bagh?) when I bolted. I got on a bus and escaped to Kaghan via Rawalpindi.

Hassan was interested in knowing what inspired me to undertake these journeys. Since I had started in Sindh and Balochistan I was reading the works of explorers such as the naval lieutenants Hart, Carless and James. I also read Richard Burton, Alexander Burnes and every other Victorian traveller exploring that part of what is now Pakistan.

The true inspiration however came from Eric Shipton when I read Blank on the Map. This is a classic of mountaineering and exploration that tells the story of the Shaksgam Expedition of 1937 with such endearing passion and simplicity that no reader can escape its contagion. That was back in 1982 or thereabout and I was bitten. I dreamed of the time when I would trek in Shipton’s footsteps. This dream was to come true partially in 1990 when I did my first real mountain walking expedition (told in the now out-of-print Between Two Burrs on the Map). Then again when I went re-exploring the abandoned route over the Muztagh Pass to Yarkand (The Apricot Road to Yarkand).

Hassan asked if things had changed in the four decades of my freewheeling. Frankly, people haven’t changed at all. The warmth, generosity and hospitality persist as ever. The kindness of people met on the road is legendary and remains the same. Only we have become a little more mindless of our true culture and heritage. Though there was not time to expound on this during that fifty-minute talk, but state-run ideology has befooled us into thinking religion is culture.

The questions at the end were about things that can be read in any treatise on mountaineering and exploration. Sadly, either young people today are not members of libraries or they have no clue where to turn for knowledge. One person was adamant that I write a travel guide. I said my work was a guide. If one read my work, they could visit places by it. But the man insisted on a guide and I felt we are in the 21st century a kind of people who wish only to be spoon-fed.

Related: Travel is not going to die, ever

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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