Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

On the first train to the border

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As you read this, the first train originating in Karachi and passing through Hyderabad and Mirpur Khas will have already steamed across the frontier into Munabao station in Rajasthan. Indeed, the first return train will be just about now pounding across the sand dunes en route to Karachi. ‘Steaming’ here being a figure of speech, for the trains are no more worked by those grand old machines of yore, those coal-burning (later furnace oil), smoke-belching steam locomotives. Today a modern diesel juggernaut will haul the train.

Again, now the journey will not require the tedious change of trains at Mirpur Khas, where in the old days the broad gauge line ended. From here onward it was a metre gauge line and this section was known as the Jodhpur Railway (JR). Time was when many of those lovely old workhorses wore little badges above the pony wheels in front that said JBR – Jodhpur Bikaner Railway.
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The shade that scorches

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An ignorant military dictator and his equally misguided ministers first forced the Forest Department to increase forest cover in the advent of the 1960s. Since the survival rates of local saplings were as low as 15 per cent, the eucalyptus – imported from Australia and not fed upon by any subcontinental animal – was favoured; thus starting the practice of destroying forest cover with wholesale plantations of water-guzzling eucalyptuses. 

Trees being felled from Gulberg Main Boulevard to make way for the signal-free corridor project

Towns expanded, chewing up what was once forest and farmland. Large tracts of well-forested land were cleared of trees hundreds of years old, and were replaced by new roads and newly laid out parks. Hills that were once clad with pine trees, but had since been denuded due to erosion control post-Partition, were generously carpeted with eucalyptuses. When the old intercity road, once passing under tunnels of acacia, neem, pipal and shisham, was widened, the old trees were cut and replaced with eucalyptus trees. By the late 1970s, eucalyptus was seen from Sost, on the Chinese border, to Jiwani on the Balochistan seaboard, and from Nagarparkar in Sindh to the hills of Bajaur and Swat. Yet, no one connected the drying up of springs to the introduction of the ever-thirsty tree.
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The Transformation

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In 1980, I worked in Karachi for a German multi-national engineering firm. This was just when the Soviet Russians had foolishly walked into Afghanistan to destroy not just one country (Afghanistan) and unhinge USSR, but set the entire world on the path of perdition. I know minds much better than mine could see into the future and know where Pakistan would be headed in the changing scenario, but I confess I thought the Soviets’ Afghan adventure would soon be over leaving the rest of us none the worse for wear.

In those days in Karachi, we would from time to time have a couple of young German interns. Since I also managed the company’s guest house, I made friends with these chaps and we used to hang out. One of those interns one day said, ‘Why does the singing man begin so early in the morning?’
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Making the Tenor

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The sun has just dipped beneath the dunes, setting the western horizon ablaze. Overhead, a copper-toned waxing moon hangs against the first stars of night. The sand, already beginning to cool, tempers the desert air soughing through the branches of the kundi tree where four or five owlets engage in a nattering argument. The day done for him, Allah Vasaya leans back against the bolster on his charpoy under the kundi.

Ready bells of the three different sizes and tenors
From the direction of the toba – the pond that slakes man and beast alike – he hears the clangour of livestock bells and he recognises the deep, resonant bhoongan sound of the one his prized bull wears. The animals are drinking for the night and soon the bull will lead the rest of Allah Vasaya’s livestock home. Minutes later, the ringing becomes a medley of sounds from the bells of his cows and the smaller ones worn by sheep and goats.
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Peace!

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More images in Deosai: Land of the Giant  - available at Sang e Meel (042-3722-0100), Lahore

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Water Shortage

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Many years ago my guru Sardar Naseer Tareen of Pishin, resident of Quetta, told me an interesting story. Some relatives of his from Qila Saifullah phoned him to seek his help in getting a teenage son admitted in the mental asylum at Lahore. Without going into detail, Sardar sahib invited the family to visit him in Quetta together with the boy.

When the family arrived, the preliminary conversation with the ‘insane’ boy showed a very bright young man who was doing rather well in school. He read a great deal and was quite well informed on the world.

Sardar sahib took the parents aside to ask what really was the matter, for to him nothing seemed amiss. The boy was starkly unhinged; totally off his trolley, said the parents in unison. Sardar sahib demanded to know the ground they had for this unseemly assertion.
‘Why, the boy is always carrying on about the country running out of clean drinking water!’ said the father.
‘You fools,’ Sardar sahib exploded, ‘it’s not this young man who has lost his beans. It’s you who have no bloody sense at all. We are running out of water. And Quetta before any other city.’
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From Timber to Tenor

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Every year when the flow in the Hunza River rises with the summer thaw, Qudratullah Baig prowls its banks below his native village of Nasirabad in Hunza. He seeks timber washed down from orchards and forests higher up the valley. In his mid fifties, he can tell the difference between mulberry, the preferred timber, and apricot or almond – all hardwoods good for the stringed musical instruments he crafts in his living room.

A very fine rasp as seen here is used to give the smooth finish to the instruments and their fittings
A naturally gifted singer and musician, Qudratullah taught himself to play the chharda (local version of the rubab) at an early age. Unable to afford the purchase of his own, he played borrowed instruments until the day at a family function where he was asked to perform. Thinking the chharda was being gifted him, he was devastated when, at the end of his performance, it was taken away. He resolved never again to play another man’s musical instrument.
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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