Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Travel in Pakistan

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In Dyer’s footsteps

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If it were not for the copper mines, Saindak, way out in the backwaters of Balochistan, would never have appeared on the ordinary Pakistani’s mental map of the country. The old town with its collection of scattered huts looks little different from any other Baloch village. But the industrial part is new-fangled with plenty of concrete and metal, clanking lorries and huge dump trucks, the hum of machinery and chimneys with their plumes of ash-white smoke that marks a factory.

Colonel Reginald Dyer’s bungalow, Saindak
Over six hundred kilometres west of Quetta by the railway called the ‘Lonely Line’ by British engineers who laid it, and about twenty north of Koh e Taftan, the last station in Pakistan before the line enters Iran, Saindak lies virtually on the edge of the country. All around it in an arc from the northeast through to the southwest there spreads a desert of wind-sculpted crescents-shaped sand dunes and rocky wastes devoid of all but the lowliest vegetation. In this wilderness there stand isolated cones of extinct volcanoes and jagged peaks burnt to sterility by sulphurous deposits. The bleak grey-brown hills that loom to the west of Saindak are the southern end of the Kacha Koh range which stretches a full one hundred kilometres to the northwest.
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Fine art of travel writing

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The great master Confucius once said, 'Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.' I have followed this precept for a long time and in that way, neither the research nor the journeys I undertake, nor too the writing is hard work. In fact, it is not even work for me. This is a life of my choice and for me everything comes easy.
In the West, travel writing is a recognised genre with a large following and travel writers make money - not as much as fiction writers, though. There are also prizes to be won (the annual Thomas Cook Award for the best travel book, for example). Though travel writing prizes are paltry as compared to those given out for fiction, there is nevertheless an incentive.

In Pakistan, there is no money to be made from travel writing. There are no awards to be won and little recognition. It really is a labour of love. Or as I sometimes say, this is the only thing I can do which is appreciated by a few people. That keeps me going.
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The north face of Chhogho Ri

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On the left, Chhogho Ri (K-2) the Great Mountain of the Baltis (that is what the name means), Chogar of the Uighur and Kirghiz people of Xinjiang and Chogoli of Chinese. At a little before eleven when I became the first Pakistani to see its north face, the mountain was blue clad. This image was only for the record.

From The Apricot Road to Yarkand - Book is available at Sang e Meel (042-3722-0100), Lahore

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Riding Steam

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On the eleventh day this past April, a train steamed out of Lahore Cantonment railway station after thirty-four years. No, I have not taken leave of my senses, as you may suppose when several trains go this way and that every day. A train literally, physically, steamed out of the station, as in being powered by steam, Not by diesel.


The West values its steam heritage. In Pakistan we have been unkind to it. On a trip to Britain in December 1997, friends took me to Loughborough to see steam locomotive No. 71000, known as the Duke of Gloucester, undergoing maintenance. It was told that only a few years earlier, this magnificent locomotive was spotted in a junkyard by a railway buff. Word got around, steam buffs came together, raised the money and purchased the machine before the cutter’s torch could destroy it.
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Sri Mata Hinglaj

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The setting is idyllic. A narrow gorge with walls of contorted rock rising up to heights of several hundred feet. The streambed, all of fifty metres wide, with a trickle of water richly endowed with trees of all sorts where white-cheeked bulbuls sing with abandon. Overheard, the tawny eagle quarters the peaks on broad wings with splayed primaries and, if you are lucky, you may espy a wolf warily eyeing you from a thicket of reeds before melting away as if it was never there in the first place.

Here and there, the dun-coloured walls of the gorge have been eaten away by eons of flowing water to create dramatic overhangs. And occasionally the streambed, gouged out by the infrequent flash floods sweeping down it, forms a deep pond of liquid emerald. One of these overhangs is the shrine of Durga and right below it is the sacred pond. Considered unfathomable, it is the recipient of coconuts thrown in with full force by pilgrims. The quantum of bubbles that escape tells the thrower of impending happiness or misery: the greater the fizz, the happier the person. Fast bowlers, take note.
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Necropolis with a View

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The direct road from Mardan to Swabi in the Northwest Frontier Province [Khyber-Pukhtunkhwa] passes through the heart of Yusufzai country: great stretches of well-worked farmland cut across by the occasional canal or punctuated by a few low hills and populace villages. As one drives eastward to Swabi the craggy ridge of Kharamar (Rearing Snake) hill blocks the view to the north. Twenty-seven kilometres from Mardan, under the highest point of the ridge, lies the village of Adina.


Once it was just a quiet Pakhtun village; then in early 1993 it hit the news. The discovery was a group of ancient graves high above the village under the hooded peak of Kharamar. The man behind this discovery was the tall, hawk-faced Professor Farid Khan, fiftyish yet bursting with youthful energy. The professor has devoted his entire life to archeology and knows everything there is to know about NWFP prehistory. It was therefore entirely my good fortune to be driving to Adina with him.
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Deosai Sky

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

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Khwas Khan

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Just inside the Khwas Khani or north gate of Rohtas, as one enters, there is a rather smallish grave with a green-domed roof. The sign on the wall says, ‘Hazrat Syed Sakhi Khwas Khan Shah’. Legend has it, this holy man, known never to have refused whatever was demanded of him (hence ‘sakhi’), struggled against the Sikhs. When finally overcome, he got into some silly wager with his antagonists. “Ask and you shall have your demand”, he is said to have challenged.

The Sikh was craftier. He said he wanted the sakhi’s head. And so the reputedly large-hearted saint chopped off his own head and handed it to the Sikh. Then his headless torso, so the story goes, went airborne and disappeared into the wild blue yonder. The version I heard did not have the Sikhs converting en masse to the ‘one and only true faith’, but we do have someone burying the head just inside the gateway which became a shrine for the superstitious. The northern entrance to Rohtas thence came to be known after this man of god.
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Lovelorn Poet

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We met him on our way up the Ajri Kandao. He sat by the path whittling away on a tiny piece of wood with an ungainly adze. Taj Mohammed said he was making a needle to apply antimony to the eyes and paused to greet him. The man looked up abstractedly, shook hands, mumbled a few words in Pukhtu and returned to his work. The faraway almost vacant look in his eyes gave the unmistakable impression that he was mentally deficient, but as we walked away, Taj Mohammed said, the man had ‘two cupboards full of books’ in his home in village Rashung. He was also a poet, he added.

As we lounged over tea in the little inn below Ajri Kandao, the poet caught up with us again. The haunting, faraway look was still there as he quietly came in and sat to one side of the single room inn. Wordlessly cradling his cup of tea in both hands he started to sip without looking up at anyone. Wazir Mohammed who sports the nom de plume of Sha’ir Wazir Mohammed Zakhmi, had to be coaxed into speaking.
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Deosai Life

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Excerpt: Land of the Giant, Review - Deosai Romance, The Little Long tailed Marmot

Book is available at Sang e Meel (042-3722-0100), Lahore

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‘Problem with the Backbone’

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My all-time favourite movie is Scent of a Woman, the movie that won Al Pacino his first ‘best actor’ Oscar award. And what a win it was! Pacino plays the abrasive, overbearing retired Lieutenant Colonel Frank Slade. And he is blind too. I have to admit I have watched this film no fewer than three dozen times. And that should be a cautious estimate!

Slade hires young Charlie Simms (Chris O’Donnell) as guardian for a Thanksgiving Weekend and ends up defending him in front of a school disciplinary committee. One of the things Slade says in favour of young Simms is: ‘Well, gentlemen, when the shit hits the fan, some guys run and some guys stay ....’

The upshot of Slade’s spirited defence of Simms’ silence on the question of an indiscipline he saw occurring in school is simple: integrity and moral character.
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So Long, Excalibur

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Legend has it that Alexander, having crossed the river, fought his epic battle against Raja Paurava and made peace with the Punjabi king, paused to inspect the state of his army’s weaponry. Finding most of it much the worse for wear and in urgent need of repair, he sought the nearest armourer. Such an establishment, he was informed, was at Wazirabad. Thence his quartermaster went and had the armament refurbished.

Fantasy knives such as these are manufactured specifically for movies like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings

But that is only legend. When Alexander entered this part of the country there was no township worthy of notice on the site of modern Wazirabad. Also, we must remember that in his train Alexander had a full complement of armourers, as well as other artisans. However, what seems likely is that when Wazirabad was founded in the 1640s by Emperor Shah Jehan’s courtier, Wazir Khan, families of cutlers and armourers may have been established in the new township to cater to the requirements of the army in camp.
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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