Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

People of Northern Areas

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Back in 1990 when I wrote for (and also read) The Frontier Post, a reporter did a little piece on a shoeshine boy in Lahore. This piece was ill-informed tripe and ended, ‘After all, he is a Pathan from Gilgit.’ This was probably meant to indicate the young man’s ghairat, something that most ignorant people attribute only to the Pathans.

But then, I suppose, we could not blame a common journalist who read nothing and only watched Zee TV in the press club lobby for not knowing better. Domestic tourism to Peshawar and Swat is dead, but in its heyday I have seen yahoos from Lahore and sundry other places addressing every male they met north of Jhelum as ‘Khan sahib’. In Peshawar and Swat they just went over board with the Khan sahib without knowing that a red-blooded Khan does not approve of this mode of address — even for himself.
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The city across the Gulf

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If I have to be anywhere this summer, it will be Nagarparkar in the Thar Desert. Centuries ago when trading caravans from Kathiawar and Cutch routinely passed through this wonderful little way station en route to Shikarpur in Upper Sindh, travellers called it the Nagar (city) across the Gulf of Cutch (paar). And so time made it Nagarparkar.


When the monsoon builds up in the month of Bhadon (mid-August to mid-September), Nagar transforms into that wondrous place where the sky is piled up with thunderheads, where a brisk wind whips around the streets, cool and wet, and where unexpected showers of misty drizzle remind you of mountain villages in Tuscany. Peacocks, totally unafraid of humans, cut across your path and frolic in the thickets of neem and acacia rending the air with their cries of ‘pfau, pfau!’ (which is probably where they get their German name).
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Ishkoman Valley

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The jeep ride from Imit to Chatorkhand took two hours, where the last jeep for Ishkoman had left "five minutes ago". I found the fly blown tea shop and drank my tea with about two dozen men staring at me while they diligently scratched their crotches and between squirts of spit told each other that I was an Angrez. Then one of them ventured a tentative query (in English) to which I replied in Punjabi, which of course was not understood by anyone but which told them that I was not what they had imagined.
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Evening falls on a Begari Wah

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Evening falls on a Begari distributary. Without such minor canals, a large swathe of Shikarpur and Jacobabad districts would have remained desert and scrub forest [Image from Book of Days 2015].

Odysseus Lahori one year ago: The funny side of… monkey business

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Fort Oblivion, Ramkot

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A solitary shoveller, alarmed by our fast approaching speed-boat, scudded the still blue waters of Mangla Reservoir on strong, fast wings with my gaze tied to its tail. And even as we gained on it, it was clear of the water and winging swiftly away from us in graceful flight. I, the conservationist, could even feel the surge of thebird’s adrenalin extend itself to my body as I marvelled at the sheer beauty and power of its take-off and the elegance of its flight angling off to the right.


We had left the Mangla Water Sports Club a mere ten minutes earlier and the speed-boat had shot us across the blue sheet of the artificial lake to its northern extremity. Here, before they built the dam, the Poonch River coming down from the northeast met with the bigger Jhelum coming straight down from the north. Smack on the confluence of the two waters, the fort of Ramkot sat on a high eminence with the south and southwest sides falling sheer into the Jhelum.
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Alexander in Multan

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Back in 2001, when I was making the PTV documentary Sindhia mein Sikander (on Alexander’s Indian campaign), I discovered a large body of local myth. One was the ridiculous pride that everyone took in the fact that Alexander of Macedonia tarried in their village for ‘six months’ — always six, never more, nor less. The other, a Multan-centric one, was about how the people of that city killed the conqueror.


Having sailed down the Jhelum from the vicinity of Mandi Bahauddin, to its junction with the Chenab near Jhang, Alexander made forced marches across what was then sand desert, through modern Toba Tek Singh to Kamalia, Tulumba and eventually Multan — “the principal town of the Mallian people”, as the historian Arrian tells us.
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Between Two Burrs on the Map - Travels in Northern Pakistan

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Salim Mushtaq, working for a tour operator in Islamabad, had a load of what he called "soft tourists" from Germany to drop off at the check post and his sobriquet for them was as apposite as any. The girls all had manicured and freshly polished nails and prim hairdos, while the men were all meticulously shaven. Their neatly pressed clothes advertised the best fashion designers of Europe and the interior of the coach reeked with a profusion of Yves Saint Laurent, Gucci and Cartier. I, with my shorn head, frayed collar and discoloured patch covering the tear on the seat of my only pair of trousers, certainly did not belong with this lot.


They stared dumbly out of the windows, occasionally ordering the coach to be stopped in order to scramble outside to show off their expensive still and video cameras. The lot went absolutely bananas as we came abreast with the white tongue of the Passu Glacier, ending about five hundred metres short of the road. The coach was stopped and the cameras clicked and whirred long and hard amid a babble of excitement. Seated once more they were as grim faced as before and I could not help thinking that they probably felt as wretched as I did on the scree slopes of Shimshal.
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The man and the ‘naseeb’

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I met Rehmat Khan Buzdar in 2003. He was playing host on the trek to the peak of Bail Pathar (2,328 metres) in the Suleman Mountains of Dera Ghazi Khan district. Despite being forewarned of our vegetarianism, he had prepared lamb sajji for my friend Raheal and me. And he was duly indignant when Raheal produced a bag of fresh okra to be cooked for us.

After a wonderful starry night on the summit, as we walked down to his village, for the tenth time did Rehmat try to convince me that hospitality was not such a bad thing after all. And for the tenth time I returned that it was not such a hot idea to slaughter a sheep for vegetarians and that if he and his lot kept at killing their flocks the way they were doing it, their tribal name of Buzdar (‘buz’ for goat and ‘dar’ for owner or keeper) would soon be a misnomer. I said hospitality could just as easily be a nicely done dish of vegetables or lentils. But that, he argued, would not become Baloch hospitality. Then he told me the story.
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‘Bakistan’ zindabad

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Folks do not like the new film Zero Dark Thirty. This film is about the 10-year long hunt for the most evil terrorist the world has known since Hasan bin Sabah, the Old Man of the Mountain — the two having much in common.

I am not a movie fan and know little about films, but the gripe of most reviewers is that this film features Arabic being spoken on the streets of Pakistan in the year 2011. One reviewer even ridiculed the scene of a camel train somewhere in Abbottabad. This poor reviewer may actually never have left his TV lounge where he writes his reviews because we have camels aplenty in this country.
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Lonely at Shimshal

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We had barely finished breakfast at Azizullah's house when Khushal Khan arrived to lead us home to another breakfast, after which he presented us with a huge loaf of dildungi -- the oven baked leavened bread, for our journey to Passu. Then with the two of them at the head of a procession comprising the entire male population of Shimshal village (except the headman) we were lead out beyond the corn fields. A round of frenzied hand shakes and bear hugs and we were alone in the dusty landscape.


Dawar clomped sullenly along and I drowsily followed, trying not to think of the heat that was pouring out of the clear sky. Suddenly I stopped in my tracks, wide awake. There in the dust before us were the tracks of a bicycle! It was imbecility to bring this machine into Shimshal for it could not be ridden more than ten metres without the rider having to dismount to carry it over a ditch or a stone wall. But it was there. This was perhaps another sign of the times; a sign of the decay of Pakistani society, where acquisitions were made without any consideration whatsoever of functionability. This bicycle was as grand a status symbol in Shimshal as the fancy Japanese four wheel drive vehicles were in the bigger cities of the country -- and with as much use.
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Awaran: A meeting of the Rivers

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In a forgotten month of 1988, I met Shahid Tarar who now heads National Highway Authority. Then he was a sharp, young assistant commissioner at Lasbela. “Are you out of your mind?” he asked incredulously only some minutes into our first ever meeting.


At a loose end, arriving in Lasbela with my friend Syed Abu Akif, I had asked Shahid to arrange for me to be put on a lorry en route to Turbat. Now, there were buses and Shahid suggested I take one. I insisted on the lorry and he got serious doubts as to my mental health. But in the end he had his staff drive me out to the western edge of town where the dusty, unpaved trail snaked away into the hills and I was put on a lorry with a Pakhtun crew heading for Turbat.
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The Great Asiatic Watershed

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We did not notice the two yak caravan until it had sloshed into the frigid Braldu. Soon they were in mid stream, struggling to keep their footing against the strong current and then they hauled themselves out, their shaggy coats dripping in a thousand little streamlets. Azizullah, freshly shaven and dressed in a natty pink sweat suit rode the one in front while the dark Tibetan faced Zaman Khan brought up the rear. It was eight forty five in the morning; Azizullah was fifteen minutes ahead of schedule -- without doubt one of the few times in Pakistan that an appointment had been kept with punctuality in mind.


Dawar and I clambered atop the equipment after it had been properly secured while Azizullah and Zaman clung to the animals on the lee side. The river that had, from the banks, seemed languid and shallow was very fast and almost a metre and a half deep. The yaks grunted ominously as they strained against the current, with them Azizullah and his mate exerted equally, not only to maintain their hold against the pressure of the flow but also to guide them in the shortest line to the other side, for the ungainly beasts tended to head into the current.
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Begari Wah, Salam, Jekum Sahib Bahadur

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When the British annexed Sindh in 1843, they found a land criss-crossed by a multitude of canals, each with a name of its own. The names rang of former rulers, mainly the Kalhoras, who held Sindh from 1701 to 1784. In the country north of what was then known as district Chandka in upper Sindh, present-day Larkana, there was one canal that nurtured gardens, orchards and excellent farmland. It had a peculiar name: Begari Wah, the suffix meaning canal in Sindhi.


The Persian word begar denotes forced, unpaid labour. The long-established method was that village headmen were obliged to provide labour proportionate to the estimated benefit derived from the canal. This explains the name Beghari Wah. What is still not known is the period in which the canal was first excavated.
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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