Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Pir Balanosh, the dragon-slayer of Chaghi

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Urdu article about Pir Balanosh, the dragon-slayer of Chaghi district, Balochistan. A classic study in anthropology where ancient legend alters with changing modern reality [double click the image to enlarge].
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Trek record

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Trekking, as we know it, is actually a spin-off of the work of the early 19th century European explorers, surveyors and map-makers. Hiring local hunters and shepherds as guides, they followed the barely marked trails plied by earlier natives. The first adventurers, in the true sense, were mountaineers who had little to do with exploration and map-making, but were obsessed with climbing the virgin snows of the  system.


By the 1920s, yet another breed of adventurer was roaming this great knot of high peaks and glaciers. This bunch did not climb per se. Driven by curiosity, they simply walked the trails. Their purpose was largely historical and sociological studies and they worked on shoestring budgets. There was, of course, another sub-caste: wealthy, highly educated, cultured persons of the world. Theirs was the best written record.
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To the Shrine of the Invisible Saint

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The hills – as gold-brown as sun-dried chaff, or dark grey like fire-scoured lead, rise sharply on either side of the narrow gorge. Rarely is their burnished starkness broken by vegetation; rarely, save during a downpour, does one see a trickle of water on these slopes. Desiccated, harsh and barren, the slopes run down to the pebbly bed of the Bolan River where the water flows in a narrow channel. Rarely does the entire riverbed know the feel of water sluicing over it – and that again only during a downpour.


Long, long before Alexander the Macedonian was born; long before the Aryan hordes swept into the plains of the Sindhu-Ganga river system to give rise to a new religion and a new culture; even before the great tragic hero Gilgamesh, the king of Uruk (lower Mesopotamia), disturbed by the demise of his dearest friend, undertook his epic quest for immortality; the Bolan Gorge had resounded to the tramp of marching feet, to the clink of armoury and the jangle of camels’ bells. For this was the highroad leading west from the plains of Sindh where one of the great civilisations of prehistory flourished. The discovery of the ruins at Mehrgarh near Sibi at the lower end of the Pass and the verification that this ancient city had flourished as far back as the eighth millennium BCE testifies that the Bolan route has certainly been used as long as that.
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Walking into the unknown

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Funny thing is that I get lost driving my car around in some cities. I have never lost in a serious major sort of way in the wild places of Pakistan except one time on a solo trek when I blundered off the trail in Chitral and ended up on a dangerous rock face. Got out without any damage, though.

Another time, leading a group of Asian Study Group folks including the elderly and wonderful Dr Lois Mervyn of the then American Centre, I lost the way from Ara rest house to Nandna because I was too busy yakking away with my dear friend Rhona Atkinson. Lost face very much because only a few minutes earlier I had been telling young Brad, an American kid, 'only a fool would lose the way here.' Brad did not miss a chance to rag me to death after that.
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The last post

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

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The Men of Hunza

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In August 1861, the explorer Godwin-Austen was camped on the Panmah Glacier when he met four travellers coming down the icy slopes of the glacier above. They were Balti men returning home from Yarkand to meet friends and relatives. Godwin-Austen noted that they were very well-clothed and equipped and guessed that living in Yarkand had done them well in economic terms.


Though the explorer already knew of the depredations of the men of Hunza, he got first-hand information on the subject from his Balti visitors: the robbers from whom no one was safe were all over the place. The road across the glaciated Great Asiatic Divide to Raskam and beyond was within their reach. As well as that, they also prowled along the great trunk road from Leh that we today sometimes know as the Karakoram Route over the pass of the same name.
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شاہ دولہ کا پل

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The old man of Ghund

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When he was finally himself again, Baba Ghundi told the woman that under no circumstances was she to leave her home because he was bringing down a flood of mud and stones to destroy the evil folk of Chapursan. For her kindness, she alone was to be spared.


Chapursan is a right picturesque valley that stretches from the Karakoram Highway at Sost a full sixty kilometres westward to the watershed of the 5185 metre-high Chilinji Pass. Well-watered by many silvery streams and fertilised by the fine loam left behind by a glacier that melted perhaps about four hundred years ago, Chapursan has rich farmlands and orchards. The people, of old Kirghiz stock who speak Wakhi, a language that descends from archaic Persian, are notable for their extreme hardihood and cheerfulness.
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The Bull and the Boulder

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Through the night the gusting wind kept at it. At sometime after five the sun broke through the shackling layers of gray haze and appeared as a pale yellow disc levitating just above the horizon. It was time to take the short walk to the crest of the ridge of Bail Pathar.


I am no mountaineer and though I’ve been in some high places, I have never actually climbed a real peak. But one thing I know: even insignificant peaks, simply by their very nature of being peaks and therefore higher than the surrounding ground, offer something more than just great views. It was here where long before the dawn of history primitive man placed his gods. Peaks were sacred. Whether it be the puny Miranjani near Nathiagali; or the 4800 metre Deo nau Thuk (Peak of the Jinn) on Deosai; or Musa ka Musallah in Kaghan; or Ilam in Swat; or Kutte ji Qabar (The Dog’s Grave) in the Khirthar Mountains; or Takht e Suleman, they, one and all, were revered places. Those were places for man to approach in worshipful and reverent state of mind, perhaps with an offering or two for whatever gods man believed in.
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Boat Business

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‘My family never gave up building boats since they built the ark of Hazrat Nuh!’ Ghulam Arabi did not so much as bat an eyelid making this startling disclosure. Then he went on to tell me that before the time of the prophet who saved mankind from the Deluge, ship-building was unknown. As irrefutable finality of that statement, Ghulam Arabi cited the Quran. 


For added authenticity he said even his great-grandfather was a boatwright. I did not point out that between his great-grandfather and Hazrat Nuh there must have been several thousand years. Quick to see the doubt in my eyes, he said that since his family knows only this craft, it has long been suspected that they go back to those biblical times. That was arithmetic at its simplest, and I could hardly quarrel with it. At forty Ghulam Arabi, having learned the trade at his late father’s knee, himself had twenty-five years of boat-building experience.
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Deosai: Land of the Giant

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From DEOSAI: THE LAND OF THE GIANT - available at Sang-e-Meel Publications (042-3722-0100), Lahore 

Related excerpts: Land of the GiantDeosai National Park and Book Review - Deosai Romance

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Grand Canyon of Sindh

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It was in 1996 that my friend Wali Mohammad Manganhar of Shahdadkot arranged for us to travel to the most fascinating natural sight in all of Sindh: Toshangi. HT Lambrick, Deputy Commissioner, Larkana in the 1940s called it the Grand Canyon of Sindh. He was right on the ball.

Here is a rift in the Kirthar Mountains west of Ghaibi Dero (seat of the Chandio Nawab) with walls 200 metres high and a blue-green stream of considerable depth at the bottom. Where the rift opens up at the southern end, the stream, too, fans out to form a lovely tarn. In this placid sheet of water, there lives a colony of gavials. The whole place is straight out of the wildest imagination of a designer of film sets.

Our guide and mentor was the unbeatable Hasil Chandio of the tiny settlement of Rahu jo Aitho. It was a goodly walk from his village to Toshangi and we had to stay overnight in Lohira with Hasil’s kinsfolk. Early on that March morning, we climbed up a large knob of rock to marvel at this remarkable chasm. Created first, perhaps, by an earthquake and then enlarged by millions of years of flowing water, it was indeed a grand canyon.
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Kot Diji

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Town with Seven Lives

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Having pushed his way up through Bajaur, Alexander turned downstream as he reached the Punjkora River. Where Punjkora meets the Swat River, he wheeled north to take the fortified town of Ora, which was reportedly getting reinforcements from neighbouring areas. January 326 BCE, would have made for a bleak setting of leafless trees, barren ground and grey skies in the Swat lowlands, rendered the gloomier in the face of imminent invasion.


History records that the siege of Ora “gave Alexander very little trouble”. In fact, he is said to have taken the town at first assault, winning, among other spoils, a number of elephants from its fort.
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Sarai Chhimba

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If one travels southbound along National Highway 5, one passes by villages their names prefixed by the word ‘sarai’. If these villages do not sit exactly by the highway, they are some ways off. Dr Saifur Rahman Dar, the famous archaeologist, once told me that all these villages are set at the distance one could travel in the course of a day. That is, thirty kilometres give or take a few.


A couple of years ago, I went looking for Sarai Chhimba and found an impressive building from the time of Akbar the Great. But the walled caravanserai had been taken over by local people who are now living in it. The sad part was that every one of these residents was tearing up the place as they saw fit. The worst victim of this historical insensitivity was the destruction of the lovely, bulbous structures on the roof.
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Tomb of Kamaro

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Back in 1987, in my freewheeling days in Sindh, I one day found myself in village Kamaro nearly midway between Mirpur Khas and Tando Allahyar. Otherwise unremarkable, the village was known for a shrine and its adjacent mosque. But not being a believer in miracles attributed to shrines, I was there only because I had heard of the beauty of both buildings.

I was not disappointed. Compared to those humongous buildings that we generally see, these two were tiny. But the splendour of the predominantly blue tile work was exquisite. So exquisite was it, that it will not be wrong to rank the two buildings of Kamaro among the most beautiful of Sindh, so far as tile work was concerned.

Both buildings measured about seven or eight metres square and, not taking the minarets of the mosque into account, were of equal height. So far as I remember, the mausoleum did not have a dome. If it did, the flow of the patterns in blue was so smooth that one simply did not notice the dome. One was only lost in the melody of the ornamentation.
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On the Apricot Road to Yarkand

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Rainbow above our camp near Thungal  [image from The Apricot Road to Yarkand]

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

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The great bird chase

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Back in the early 1980s when I lived in Karachi, I spent my weekends wandering about the wild places of Sindh. While old ruins where a favourite haunt, my other preference was the hundreds of small lakes and canals of Thatta and Badin districts. There were birds, birds and birds that I had never seen before. If truth be told, that was when I learned that the pariah kite is not the only hawk-like bird!


Referring only to wildlife, my ten years in Sindh until December 1988 took me to the Khirthar Mountains on one side and to the lakes of lower Sindh on the other. Those wonderful years form a kaleidoscope of heart-warming images: upward of five hundred flamingos in a lake barely off a road somewhere in Badin, a golden eagle on the prowl above the Khirthar crags, a male Pallas’s fish eagle bringing food to its mate on eggs, a desert cat near Naukot Fort and leopard pug marks in the lower Khirthar Mountains. There are also memories of virtually hordes of marsh harriers, Brahminy kites, jacarandas, and migratory ducks of a dozen different species almost within arm’s length.
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On Mintaka

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Wonderland in Moola

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The Moola Gorge, for centuries a favoured route between the Kalat highlands and the fertile plains of Sindh, is a wide u-shaped, well-watered gorge. It cuts clear across the otherwise unbroken barrier of the rugged and barren Khirthar Mountains providing a travel route that could be used by ancient wheeled traffic. Keen to promote this beautiful valley as a tourist destination, a group of local young men have organised a Spartan rest house (N28°-08.754’, E 67°-08.434’) in the Keel hills.


Just behind and to the west of the rest house, the hills are riven by a narrow circuitous chasm, a feature that would be called a tungi in the Pushto-speaking parts of Balochistan. Here in Brahui-speaking Moola Valley, they call it Chuttok – The One that Drips. This is the site that the young men hope to promote.
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No longer a molehill

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It was back in the early 1980s when journalist Azmat Ansari first brought Gorakh into public notice. In those bygone days, the dacoit problem in the Sindhi outback was just breaking out and Ansari did well to have trekked in the troubled land from the old Gaj rest house to Gorakh hilltop. That was the only way to go for in those far off days, there were no roads leading up into the Khirthar Mountains (it is pronounced as kheer-thar in Sindhi, meaning milk and cream. The British mispronounced it and then misspelled it as Kirthar Mountains).


Gorakh thereafter remained in the news in an on again-off again manner with much hot air being expended about turning it into a summer resort. Ignorant journalists billed it the ‘highest spot in all Sindh’ that was ‘colder than Murree’. For one, at just 1734 metres (5688 feet), above the sea it is way lower than a number of other Khirthar peaks; the highest, a nameless elongated summit, standing at 2171 metres. With the evocative title of Kutte ji Qabar (Dog’s Grave), at 2096 metres, the second highest holds the romantic tale of a faithful, self-respecting dog. On the peak, there is indeed a dolmen of limestone nodules under which, so the legend goes, lie the mortal remains of that remarkable animal.
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Saruna Valley

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I first saw this magical place in 1987. The Saruna River (Lasbela district, Balochistan) breaks out of its narrow rocky gorge and, before going on to run into the Hub River, spreads out to form a tarn. Said to be very deep (so far as I know, no sounding has been done to determine its depth), the water is of a striking deep green shade. And the setting is so uncannily beautiful that it does cause a sharp intake of breath.


The lake teems with crocodiles. Local legend has it that one accused of theft or mendacity thrown into the water will either be taken or rejected: the guilty, so they say, will be eaten. The innocent can swim and gambol in the water even as the crocs look on unconcerned. In 1987, there was one grave said to be that of Ari Pir along with its ancillary burials of lesser saints and one little tea shop and eatery. Ari Pir, so I learned, was a staging post on the route from Sehwan to Lahut Valley that became active in the month of Ramazan when hundreds of bhang-quaffing malangs passed through from the former to the latter. But there was no story about Ari Pir.
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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