Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Motorcycle Diaries, July 2015

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PIA did it again. There is an insidious design within the national airline to force a collapse. Alternatively, the plan is to make it continue to live on governmental largesse in the shape of huge injections of funds with the aim of ultimately making the airline die an unnatural death.

Hazara landscape
Back in September 2010, I needed to fly to Chitral. Now, September is off-season for tourists and planes fly in and out virtually empty. But the Edgerton Road PIA office informed me that no seats were to be had until the end of October. That meant my deadline would be missed. In desperation I turned to the only very powerful friend I had and someone I could always rely upon. General Khalid Shameem Wynne was then Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee and to him did I turn.

Shortly after our conversation his Staff Officer called to give me a PNR and said that this seat had been procured after a very hectic effort and had come from the special quota of the Ministry of Defence. On 20 September 2010, I boarded the plane at Islamabad (had we converted to ATR 42 by then?) and found the plane nearly empty. There were, and I counted, eight adults and two children in a plane that could carry forty plus passengers.

No seats until end of October, eh?

Recently a friend working in Islamabad told me how travel agents are charging Rs 3000 ‘commission’ above the cost of the ticket to Gilgit. Word has it that a large part of this goes to the ticketing bloke at PIA. You wish not to pay this bribe and you cannot get on the plane. And damn the airline if the plane flies empty as it flew to Chitral five years ago.

Back in 2010, rumour had it that with Zardari’s Air Indus in the offing, the plan was to force a collapse on PIA. The venality of our political class being an open secret, this was quite understandable. But what was it now in July 2015 that PIA refused to give me a seat to Skardu on the pretext that all seats were taken for a very, very long time this season. Later in Skardu, a friend whose business is to meet tourists off the planes told me that there were daily several free seats coming in!

Since my assignment for Pakistan Petroleum Limited could not be delayed, I said phooey to PIA and resolved to just get on by motorcycle. Now, Gilgit and Skardu are a very long way off for a 150 cc Suzuki street bike and a man heading for his sixty-fourth birthday in a few months. Every friend who heard what I was planning to do had wordy, wordy, wordy advice that could have filled reams of paper. And it all boiled down to one thing: don’t bloody well do it!

So, I just went ahead and just did it.

I left Lahore at 6:00 AM on 2 July. Except for the city where the sun shone somewhat weakly, the rest of the way was under clouds. And that was just as well. Between Kharian and Sarai Alamgir a stout shower of rain forced me into the veranda of a roadside eatery closed because of the enforced moratorium on eating during Ramzan. At Dina I found a restaurant with curtains drawn around its exterior meaning they were serving travellers. Since I could not have kept an eye on my motorcycle and feared I’d come out to find my panniers and sleeping bag disappeared into thick monsoon air, I purchased some drinking water, guzzled it down and got going again.

This was the boring part of the journey. At Taxila I had the choice of reaching Haripur with by the somewhat scenic way through Khanpur or the crowded road via the industrial area of Hattar. I took the former. I paused at the roadside by the ruins of Bhir where Alexander tarried in the spring of 326 BCE as Raja Ambhi of Taxila feted him and filled him up with concocted stories of the evil of the great Raja Paurava.

In my mind’s eye I saw again Onesicritos heading out to seek out the gymnosophists – naked philosophers – of Taxila. I did not go to Dharmarajika stupa for that would have meant a delay of an hour or two. But for more than twenty years, I have somehow always known that the philosophers lived in the area where the great Asoka later built this fabulous stupa around which a monastery developed.

But even as I stood there a little off the ruined foundations of Bhir, the Taxila of Alexander’s time, I could see Onesicritos being rebuked by a nameless young philosopher: ‘You come with three interpreters and expect to comprehend my philosophy? This is like forcing pure, clean water through mud and expecting it to come out clean on the other side!’

But the senior most of the sages, Mandanis, did not approve of this unkind behaviour. He called Onesicritos over. Now, the sailor, a native of Cos, then representing Alexander, was himself a disciple of Diogenes, the great cynic thinker of that same coastal town. And so Onesicritos and Mandanis held discourse on the nature of pleasure and grief. In the end Mandanis approved for he found the Greeks to entertain similar views.

But on the question of presenting himself to the Macedonian conqueror, Mandanis remained adamant. There was no way he was going into royal presence. Onesicritos incited Mandanis with the lure of gifts should he accept the invitation and painful death if he rejected it. But Mandanis was scornful. The earth, said he, was like a mother that fed him and he had need for nothing else. And so, if Alexander were to cut off his head, his soul would yet continue to live leaving his body ‘like a torn garment upon the earth’ and ascend to his Maker.

‘Go, then, and tell Alexander this: “Mandanis has no need for aught that is yours, and therefore will not go to you, but if you want anything from Mandanis come you to him!”’

What a man Mandanis was! A great sage, a man of character and principle, unmoved even by threat of death. But that was centuries before we began to swagger and brag about being followers of the ‘one and only true religion’.

I drove on past Sirkap. The Greek city that was established in about 184 BCE, a hundred and forty years after Alexander’s demise. The founder was Euthydemus from the line of Alexander’s general Seleucus Nikator. Neatly laid in a grid, the city decayed and renewed itself through the centuries. In 44 CE, twenty-five years after an earthquake had flattened it and when it was being rebuilt, Taxila was visited by the Greek philosopher Apollonious who, much like Alexander, sought the learned company of its philosophers.

Here Apollonious visited two temples; one outside the city, the other within. Both of red marble and both adorned on the outside walls with copper murals that, he was told, were ordered by Raja Paurava. The murals showed a defeated Raja and a victorious Alexander. And they were raised, so too Apollonious learned, when news arrived from Babylon that Alexander had died.

It is noteworthy that upon receiving word, the Greek governor and his garrison deserted this Indian outpost and hurried away to take part in the War of the Successors. Raja Paurava was now the master of the entire Punjabi country between the Sindhu and Ravi and had the power to rewrite history any which way he desired. But admire the character of this towering figure of Punjabi history: he chose to tell the truth, unsavoury as it may have been, so that history as it had unfolded may never be forgotten.

He was a man lofty not only in physical stature for we hear from Greek chroniclers that he stood well over seven feet tall, but he was a man of soaring character. He was a man of unblemished soul. And we who chose not to celebrate him as the greatest hero of Punjabi history take nothing away from him. We are too puny, mere pygmies in Paurava’s presence to be able to take anything from him. Only we stand to lose. Today we have not one, simply not even one, person in this sorry country that possess the strength of character of Raja Paurava.

Past Khanpur I rode past the open gate of the bungalow where I had partaken of tea and cupcakes. Twenty years ago I had come calling on Raja George Sikander Zaman, the Sarangal Gakkhar. I had come to lament the selling to Wapda of the priceless mansion built about the turn of the 20th century by his illustrious forbear Jahandad Khan. The beautiful structure stood on the edge of the artificial Khanpur Lake and though part of its roof had collapsed, it could still have been restored with some expense.

Raja Sikander Zaman said it being Wapda property now; he had nothing to do with it anymore. Not many years later, this priceless piece of our built heritage, by law a protected monument, was needlessly pulled down by Wapda. In another country, among a different people who had more pride in who they actually were, this building would have been restored to its full splendour. It could then have gainfully been used as a hotel overlooking a lovely emerald lake.

Today, less than two decades after its demolition, the mansion has faded from collective local memory. Its only images survive in the pages of my book Prisoner on a Bus – a priceless piece of our heritage lost forever.

This was not my planned route, however. The original idea was to stop at Wah at the home of Kamran Shafi. There I was to be dined on mahasher done in the K Shafi way. And of course there would have been dainty beverages to wash the fish down. But the day before I was due to leave Lahore, I got a call from Kamran saying he was wanted for a meeting with the Chief Minister in Lahore and he had to leave this way just when I was going in his direction.

That messed up everything. I resolved to simply carry on either to Haripur or Abbottabad. Past Khanpur Dam and the lake the road was under extensive works, turning into a slush bed. In just over seven hours since leaving home I fetched up at the guest house in Abbottabad where I’ve stayed several times in the past.

There was no lunch to be had. Not even for a long distance traveller. It seems Pakhtuns and these Hazarawals (who pretend to be more Pakhtun than real Pakhtuns for which they are roundly ridiculed by red-blooded Pakhtuns) say phooey to God’s injunctions. They have their own version of Islam that supersedes the one in force since the 8th century.

In the older version, it is divinely ordained for travellers to be exempt from fasting. In this new one, you bloody well fast in their land even if you are a traveller. And damn you if you happen to be a non-Muslim. Then you simply ought to be killed. So many years since the death of that ogre, that ugly hellbound demon Shar ul Iblis (Gloom of Satan) mistakenly referred to as Zia ul Haq (Radiance of the True God), things had started to ease off. Of late restaurants, especially along highroads, would operate behind curtained fronts. Elsewhere, you could purchase snacks after 1:00 PM.

Surely the only Pakistani admits who or what he is. Near Gujranwala
But not in this accursed land of Hazara. Here these idiots give a damn for divine injunction. You cannot purchase cooked edibles until two hours before the breaking of the fast. I wonder when someone wakes up to this great sacrilege, this mocking of divine order by these moronic over-baked Muslims. Surely this open flouting of God’s will is the ultimate blasphemy. But who will shout the word that will have these apostates stoned to death by maddened crowds of tens of thousands of ignorant Muslims who gather to see blood even before the last syllable of ‘blasphemy’ can be uttered. 

And so, dusty, dog-tired and famished I brewed my cup of tea with the equipment I never leave home without. It was early bedtime for the morrow was a long way up mountain roads to Naran via a longish stopover at Jared.

Part two next week

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At 13 July 2015 at 10:10, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I had same concerns as your friends had for a bike tour. I did it with a friend for Skrdu-Deosai autumn tour. My friend is an experienced person on motorbike tour to northern areas. But due to me he booked bike in a big coaster's lower luggage area. We emptied Honda 125cc petrol and laid it in lower luggage area upto Pindi. Than Pindi to Jaglot on the roof of bus and than the journey began. Jaglot to skrdu to deosai, chillam and back till Mansehra. We booked bike again from Mansehra to Lahore. There is nothing like visiting these areas on bike.


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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