Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

The Loneliest Places in Pakistan

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I suppose it is natural to feel an overwhelming sense of isolation in a particular remote and unpopulated place. I have also heard that a sense of dread overcomes folks in lonely places. I have a different feeling, however. Lonely, isolated place do things to me. My imagination goes into overdrive and I begin to perceive things that I wouldn’t anywhere else.

Shuwert on the Central Asiatic side of the Great Asiatic Divide

In those early years of travelling after I left the army and lived in Karachi, I went alone. In 1979, along the Malir River, about sixteen kilometres upstream of Super Highway, I got my first taste of real solitude. Having left the highway, I had not seen a single soul en route. When I slept that night on a flat rock, the only sound was the soughing of the thorn bushes all around me. Occasionally there was a yelp of some unidentified animal. Once or twice I heard the mewing and coughing of what I later learned could have been sand cats.

Other than that, there was blissful silence and unbeatable solitude. The only thing to keep me company was the stars overhead. Millions, nay billions, of them in pristine, unmarred splendour because there were no city lights to burn them out. In the course of a single night of sleep and wakefulness I was spectator to a celestial pageant: I saw Scorpio chasing Boötes the Herdsman for the goddess Hera had placed them apart from each other in the sky that the man may not be bitten again. I saw Orion the Hunter following Taurus the Bull while the hunter’s faithful dog came right behind. I watched the teapot of Sagittarius tilting over as if to pour out its contents as Cygnus the Swan danced with the stars of the Milky Way.

That was my introduction to solitude and lonely places. And that particular spot on the Malir River became a favoured haunt where I returned several times.

But by the winter of 1979, I was beginning to discover other places. Bund Murad Khan on the Hub River was another place, just an hour north of Karachi and yet seemingly on the far side of the moon. Rannikot Fort in the Khirthar Mountains became another favourite escape. But here I was always accompanied by my late friend Tariq Saeed. He quickly recognised my need to be by myself when we were in that vast fortified place and left me alone when I wandered off.

So far I never felt that ‘overwhelming sense of isolation’. The first time it happened was in August 1990 when I trekked up from Askole into the Biafo Glacier and, at its head, turned east into the Sim Gang ice pan to reach Lukpe La. Though I was with three porters this was the first time ever – as well as the last – that I was overcome with that sense of isolation I had heard some people speak of.

There on that ice pan with its horrifying open-mawed crevasses in which ten-metre long blue-green icicles hung link the fangs of some unknown prehistoric monster, it began with a feeling of dread, of fear for my own safety. But that was soon replaced by a strange sense of removal. It was as if I was outside my body watching myself from a distance and not really caring what was to become of anyone of us in the event of an accident.

I have since wondered many times if mountaineers on high slopes also feel this same sense of removal. If Ranulph Fiennes and Mike Stroud felt it in Antarctica (Mind over Matter, Ranulph Fiennes). In those ten days after leaving Baintha camp ground (where we met some American climbers) and fetching up in the summer pasture of Shuwert on the far side of the Great Asiatic Divide, the four of us had not seen another human being.

My favourite lonely place – if I may call it that – is Shuwert. Two days of hard (very hard) trek east of Shimshal village in Gojal, Shuwert is a wind-swept clump of stone huts where rosy-cheeked Shimshali girls herd yaks and milk them in the afternoon as their mothers pound away on their ancient churns to process the milk into buttermilk, yogurt and finally the hard cheese they call qurut.

Shuwert is as remote and as lonely as it can get. The last time I was there (July 2010) I was harried by one thought: what if I have an attack of appendicitis? The thought of a burst appendix, the resultant peritonitis and the inability to walk two days up and down scree slopes back to Shimshal and then the jeep to Passu filled me with dread. Though nothing happened in my three days in Shuwert, the thought kept returning to me time and time again.

Of all the places in Pakistan, Balochistan is the rightful champion of offering the most profound sense of isolation. Imagine Rabat in the apex between Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. As you drive northwest from Saindak along the utterly barren and contorted contours of Kacha Koh the only humans you meet are at the few FC encampments. Otherwise, you are in a lunar landscape of utter and overpowering desolation.

Rabat with its ruins of an early medieval caravanserai (Rabat is the Arabic cognate for inn) could be the edge of the known world. Any farther and one would fall over into empty space. That is how it feels. Except, here too we have an FC fortress. I have been there twice. The first time (November 2007) I was just soaking the whole thing into my soul. The second time (March 2009), I was left to myself as I photographed the panorama from a low hill north of the ruins. In the clean crisp air of late winter, I could see for miles and miles and miles all around. Nowhere other than at the FC fort was there a sign of human intervention.

Of a sudden I was transported to the time when the jangle of camel bells from afar announced the arrival of another caravan and more takers of the facility Rabat had to offer. I even saw the innkeeper in her finery (in the Middle Ages innkeepers were mostly women) hurrying to get things ready. Orders were shouted for the boys to stoke the fireplaces, straighten the carpets and get the pitchers and cups in place. Someone ran to check if the Shiraz flowed right; if it had not been infected by the vinegar fly and turned tart. The clang of the ladles in the cauldrons steaming with meat and rice rang out of the smoky kitchen. It was all bustle in the wide enceinte of the inn.

My day in March 2009 was a particularly fortunate one. It had been raining and now, shortly before sunset, the ruins of the caravanserai were bathed in ethereal storm lighting. It was a place magical as magical can ever be. It simply did not belong to the realm of the human world. Done with my photography I sat on a rock at my vantage gazing out across the breathtakingly beautiful Balochistan landscape. That was when I was transported a couple of centuries forward to the time when the inn had been in ruins for a few years.

Now, there was no clang of approaching bells. No boys running around the compound getting things in order under the eagle eye of the landlady. If any caravans still passed by this ancient trade route, they now skirted Rabat. All was quiet. Except, amid the sere grass and thistles rock chats sang their quiet, tinny songs and overhead hawks soared. Far away in the west, the sun broke through grey clouds to shine a brilliant red before dipping down behind misty hills.

The pride of place for the most nerve-destroying, soul-searing terrifying wilderness in all Pakistan is taken by the salt flat (Hamun in Balochi) of Mashkel in Chagai district. Sitting in the great M formed by the border of Balochistan with Iran, this is a piece of the most lifeless, desolate, sterile and unliveable bit of land. Here, everywhere you let the gaze wander, stretches a glittering white expanse of salt that dazzles the eye nearly to blindness.

The well-known British archaeologist Stuart Piggott called such salt wastes ‘a demonic mockery of snow.’ And Piggott had not even been to Hamun e Mashkel, yet how right he was. He had seen only small stretches of salt wastes. Though there are other salt flats in Balochistan Hamun e Mashkel beats them by its sheer immensity: sixty-five kilometres at its widest measure, it covers no fewer than 2800 square kilometres.

In May 1987, as the beat up old pick-up truck drove me (with several other passengers) from Nok Kundi south to Mashkel I couldn’t help but wonder what were to become of us in the event of a breakdown. Surely with no water to drink, the May heat meant certain painful death. Water lay just a metre below the soft, mushy salt-encrusted surface and one could reach it by digging with the bare hands. The only caveat was that it was a bitter, unpalatable saline brew. A virtual poison for a thirsty traveller.

This was one surface where not an insect or a reptile crawled. It was so utterly sterile that it could support no life whatsoever. This was also one across whose sky no birds flew. It was as if even the birds of the wing were terrified of its desolation.

In the FC fortress on the far side of the Hamun, my course-mate and friend Major Haider Abbas Rizvi (Air Defence) told me a horrifying tale. Just the year before, three Punjabi enlisted men not having been sanctioned Eid leave (someone had to stay back) got it into their silly heads to desert and be with the families in Lyallpur (Faisalabad) for the festival. One night they stole away from camp with a view to walking across the great wilderness of the Hamun to the railhead at Nok Kundi. Three days later their bodies were discovered in the salt waste.

Desperate with dehydration, they had dug shallow holes on the salt-encrusted surface to reach the water. Having imbibed deeply of the brine, they soon succumbed to an excess of salt in the system. On my way back, two days later, I simply could not get the last moments of those foolish young men out of my head.

In thirty-five years of wandering, first solo and then with friends, guides or porters, I have developed a healthy respect for our wild and desolate places. For one thing, I can never speak out loud in such a place. It has always to be softly. Fifteen years ago while making documentaries for PTV; I was exasperated by the habit of the moronic crew who began shouting and screaming when out in the wilderness. I soon realised that as city-bound men not imbued with the teeniest sense of adventure and never having left home, they were trying to overcome a sudden terror of being alone. (I have met many more of this sissy kind in the years that followed.) I remember also that the minute one of them lost sight of their companions, they became terribly frenetic, hysterically calling out to the others.

I always tried to tell them to enjoy the wonderful, soothing sounds of silence. The whispers of the wind, the soft music of birdsong broken by the staccato cackle of the woodpecker, the soughing of wind in the foliage, the almost unheard sound of tiny scurrying feet in the vegetation. But nothing. They were unmindful of all these sounds of silence. They heard nothing. Only their own terrified screaming was what they wanted to hear.

Ruins of Rabat where the jangle of camel bells from an approaching
caravan has not been heard for centuries

I have seen similar behaviour by many yahoos who walk the pipeline route in Dunga Gali. They set up an insane chorus of howls and screams whose reason and purpose I have never been able to understand. These people do not belong there. They cannot appreciate nature or solitude or wilderness.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 26 October 2015 at 10:52, Blogger Ravi Kahani said...

Beautiful piece of writing

At 26 October 2015 at 12:12, Anonymous mehr said...

I can almost feel the solitude of those places....and yes the howlers fail to understand it. This one is a sure masterpiece Sir.....

At 26 October 2015 at 14:26, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you, Khayyam. And thank you to you too, Mehr. So glad you enjoyed it.

At 26 October 2015 at 18:26, Anonymous Muhammad Athar said...

During deployment at high altitude this one aspect was killing. Well discrived article

At 26 October 2015 at 20:55, Blogger Unknown said...

cheerful writing.I hope one day we will develop tourist places all across Balochistan just like we have here in Australia....

At 2 April 2019 at 19:54, Blogger Hannan said...

Just got my hands on you book about the Potohar and thank you for writing it. Sir what are most isolated places near around Attock?

At 3 April 2019 at 09:31, Blogger Salman Rashid said...

If you go south from Bagh Nilab along the Sindhu River to the end of the road and walk all the way through Sojhanda and the deserted village of Bata you walk through the most isolated area of Attock. Ahead of Bata is Nara where you can again get on a car.

At 29 June 2020 at 08:35, Blogger Mohammed Rafiq Sethi said...

"Silence is the language of God, all else is poor translation."....Rumi
I loved reading this. You are a gem for Pakistan. Stay well.

At 30 June 2020 at 11:59, Blogger Salman Rashid said...

Rafiq Sethi, I thank you for your interest. And for this beautiful Rumi quote.


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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