Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society


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Gods, they say, live on mountaintops. They have Olympus for Greek deities and Kailas for our very own subcontinental ones. But when you roam this great and wonderful land of the subcontinent (even if you have to rely on maps because a border keeps you out of places) you find all sorts of lesser gods shivering in the snowy cold of high mountains.

On Takht-i-Suleman (3,447 metres) and Preghal (3,515 metres) in South Waziristan, I have seen altars where ancient believers of the Earth Goddess (Dharti Ma) would have sacrificed their black goats. So too on Sikaram (4,761 metres) in Parachinar and Musa ka Musalla (4,055 metres) in Kaghan. All have duly been converted to Islam and given proper names. On the Takht, the seven-metre square altar is said to be the grave of Kais Rashid, the supposed original Muslim Pakhtun — whatever ‘original’ might be in this case. Preghal is where Hazrat Ismail allegedly prayed for his progeny to grow. Sikaram is the burial of a fictitious Karam and the Musalla is where Gujjars bring their livestock for salaam so that the animals may bear many more offspring.
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posted by Salman Rashid @ 10:03 AM, , links to this post

Poisoning the earth

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Shabbir Ahmad Rana, the Central Zone chief conservator of forests, has got his facts all wrong. This is evident from a letter of October 2017 duly signed by him and sent to the Gymkhana Golf Club management committee in response to a letter written by the committee seeking his ‘expert’ advice on their proposed elimination of eucalyptus trees blighting the green.

Paragraph 2 of the letter reads: “I would also like to clarify that large sized trees do not eat up all water given to grassy lawns but they use only that which leaches down to the deep soil. Therefore, the hoax created by vested interests mafia or those with no scientific knowledge is baseless and highly detrimental to the environment. The reason for water level going down is not the trees but it is due to the shrinkage of water catchment areas in the uphills and foothills and resultantly depth of turbines in plans (sic) has to be increased throughout the province and removal of even all the trees from the province will not subside this problem. The recommendations of the Agriculture University are not, therefore, scientifically based.”
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posted by Salman Rashid @ 8:45 AM, , links to this post

Once Upon a Line

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Time was that I went around the country riding steam trains. From the narrow-gauge toy train connecting Bannu with Mari Indus to the metre-gauge trains of Sindh and the magnificent broad-gauge workhorses of what was once the North Western Railway, I rode quite a few. The last one I ever rode was the steam-hauled passenger train R-474 from Malakwal to Gharibwal. That was August 1994.

Gharibwal Railway Station

On that trip I met Iqbal Ghauri, foreman at the steam shed at Malakwal. Speaking only sparingly, and then unhurriedly, he kept his voice low, but exuded the air of a man who knew his job and was proud of it. All his life he had worked on steam locomotives and even as Pakistan Railway was phasing out steam, he was hopeful of keeping his engines going. It was clear he was terribly in love with those dark beauties. His commitment and dedication was remarkable and one could not but like the man.
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posted by Salman Rashid @ 1:09 PM, , links to this post

A Memoir of Partition

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On the twentieth day of March 2008, I headed home for the first time in my life. I was fifty-six years and a month old. Walking east across the border gates at Wagah I was on my way to the fulfilment of a family pietas of very long standing. I was going to a home I had never known; a home in a foreign land, a land that state propaganda wanted me to believe was enemy territory. But I knew it as a country where my ancestors had lived and died over countless generations. That was the home where the hearth kept the warmth of a fire first kindled by a matriarch many hundred years, nay, a few thousand years, ago and which all of a sudden had been extinguished in a cataclysm in 1947.

In that great upheaval, in a singular moment in time, that home ceased to be home. One part of the family made it across the border to become a tiny part of a huge data: they were among the nearly two million people uprooted from their homes. Another part of the family also became a statistic—a grim and ghastly one: they were part of the more than one million unfortunate souls who paid with their blood for the division of India and foundation of the new country of Pakistan for Muslims. They who died were not just Muslims who lived east of the new line drawn by Cyril Radcliffe. They were Sikhs, Hindus and even Jains who had homes thousands of years old, west of this line in the land that became Pakistan.
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posted by Salman Rashid @ 10:56 AM, , links to this post

Where’ll the new year take you?

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To the sand buried ruins of Dandan Uliq and Niya

A hundred and seventeen years ago, Aurel Stein, the Hungarian-British archaeologist then working in India, led an expedition to the Takla Makan Desert of Xinjiang in China. He sought to unravel the mystery of the ‘Sand-Buried Ruins of Khotan’, as his book is titled. This is the much-abridged non-technical version for general public. For the specialist, he wrote a huge, three-volume set complete with a large number of black and white images. This technical version is titled Ser India (or Upper India).

I first became acquainted with this treasure house of history in 1991 while researching at the Royal Geographical Society in London.

Among others, two of the ‘sand-buried’ ruins are the ancient cities of Dandan Uliq and Niya, in the vicinity of the city of Khotan, that were, even at the time of his visit in 1901, completely ruined and abandoned. However, the ultra-dry desert air of high Asia had preserved much of the organic material used by the natives in that bygone age.
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posted by Salman Rashid @ 10:50 AM, , links to this post

Debunking the Myth of the Silk Road

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Eos on December 3 carried an article on the journey of some people along the Silk Road. Some parts of this series were printed earlier and I admit I did not read any. In fact, I do not read anything written on the Silk Road by the average Pakistani. The simple fact is we have no clue about the geography and history of the classic Silk Road.

The old trade route dubbed the ‘Silk Road’ by 19th century German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen
One of the accompanying images in the mentioned article has a man and a woman standing in front of a sign saying ‘Old Silk Road’. The location of this sign is somewhere between Gilgit and Hunza. That the classic Silk Road ever entered what is now Pakistan by way of Hunza is patent rubbish. But if people repeat the same falsehood a few times, let alone over decades, it becomes established truth.
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posted by Salman Rashid @ 10:29 AM, , links to this post

The Tree of Life

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I first saw the tree in May 1992 just after I had walked from Thandiani to Dagri en route to Nathiagali. Standing right by the trail, it was impossible to miss the green sign nailed to its massive trunk. ‘Monomental (sic) Tree’, it announced. Below the misspelled line were the scientific and local names Quercus semecarpifolia and Brungi. The sign also noted that the girth of the massive tree was 252 inches, or 21 feet, height 140 feet and age approximately 1,500 years.

The Dagri rest house looks pristine but its ceilings collapsed in the October 2005 earthquake
Three years later, my friend Kashif Noon and I retraced my earlier path and we stood in awed reverence below the towering monument. Shortly, when Kashif was ensconced in the nearby Dagri rest house reading, I returned to the tree to fill our water bag from a spring by it.
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posted by Salman Rashid @ 10:25 AM, , links to this post

Our invisible trains

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Accidents between trains and motor vehicles trying to run across approaching trains are very commonplace nowadays. Decades ago when we had horse drawn rehras and tongas to transport people and goods and bicyclists instead of crazed moped riders, one read of fewer chance meetings between road transport and speeding trains.

The thing was that a bicyclist or a rehra driver knew their respective limitations and they never crossed speeding trains. But by the mid-1990s, motor vehicles and drivers had grown exponentially. In fact, their numbers grew so fast that our industrious traffic police being unable to cope with the rush of applicants simply dispensed with the driver’s licence formality.

Men who earlier had to pedal hard to get around or trundle along slowly as their emaciated, ill-fed nags towed their carts were now capable of speed with the twist of the handle bar or a little pressure of the right foot. With the help of the phrase ‘Allah malik hai’ – God is my Preserver – our trains suddenly became invisible to fatalistic man who relies equally on God as on the power of his rickety machine.
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posted by Salman Rashid @ 10:32 AM, , links to this post

The Search For Hathi Khan

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"Hati is the bad man round-about; he it is robs on the roads; he it is brings them to ruin; he ought either to be driven out from these parts, or to be severely punished.” So said Malik Asad, the leader of the Salt Range Janjuas, to Babur after peace had been made between the two.

The dam abutment which once ran right across the Chanel seen in the center of the image 

The year was 1519. Hati (sic) was Hathi Khan Gakkhar, ensconced in the hill fortress of Pharwala outside modern Islamabad. From there he made sorties to harry the surrounding country.

Babur had returned to India, won battles and was enjoying the beauty of Kallar Kahar — where he laid out a lakeside garden — when the Janjua chieftain petitioned him against the Gakkhar. Babur learned that Hathi had, only shortly — earlier treacherously poisoned his cousin Tatar Khan — to assume the mantle of leadership. Besides that, Hathi had arrested the dead chief’s sons Sarang and Adam.
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posted by Salman Rashid @ 10:48 AM, , links to this post

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