Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Pilgrimage to Ilam

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My friend Feica, the cartoonist, climbed it in 1987 and had since recounted his experience many times; with each narration adding vigour to my own formless dream of climbing it one day. Hiuen Tsiang, the celebrated Chinese Buddhist pilgrim also visited it – but that was in AD 630, and he came here because Mount Ilam was sacred to Buddhism. My own dream to see sacred Ilam was born several years ago when I read the Chinese pilgrim’s Records of the Western Regions, a book not only intriguing for its exactness of information but also delightful for the charming and naive piety of the writer and the sense of wonder with which he meets the world as it comes to him. My visit, therefore, had spiritual connotations: it was a pilgrimage of sorts.


Hiuen Tsiang wrote: ‘To the south of the town of Mungali 400 li or so we come to Mount Hilo. The water flowing through the valley here turns to west, and then flowing again eastward remounts (to the source). Various fruits and flowers skirt the banks of the stream and face the sides of the mountains. There are high crags and deeps caverns, and placid steams winding through the valleys: sometimes we heard the sounds of people’s voices, and sometimes the reverberations of musical notes. There are, moreover, square stones here like long narrow bedsteads, perfected as if by the hand of men; they stretch in continuous lines from the mountain side down the valley.’ Ever since my first reading of the of the book in the early 80s my imagination had been caught by the stone bedsteads. The stream flowing upward to its source, I knew, was wild fancy.
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Pakistan International Mountain Film Festival

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Hassan Karrar, is thin as a rail, stands six and a half feet tall and teaches history at LUMS. He walks with a long step and is known in Baltistan as ‘lumbi tango walla’ – long-legged man. At Pakistan International Mountain Film Festival he and I talked of the philosophy of mountaineering and the question of ‘conquering’ peaks.


First things first. No one conquers peaks. We conquer enemies; not peaks. The only thing anyone has ever conquered attempting a summit is their own fears. That’s all.
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The dying Delta

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Ali Mohammad Shah sells candy, cigarettes and some dry fruit out of a tiny wooden shack a short way from the houses that go by the name of Goth Ali Mohammad Shah after him. The village is part of the precinct of Deh Bumbto of Thatta district and sits in the delta of the Sindhu River. In the hour or so we spend together Shah attracts no more than a couple of customers for this is a very poor country.

Salman Rashid

‘Why did I have to be so unfortunate that Nature deprived me of the sweet water that was my wealth and my life and blighted my land with bitter water instead?’ he says with genuine anguish when I press him to tell me of the days gone by.
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The Silk Road

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Notwithstanding the lies we believe in about the Silk Road passing through Hunza and Gilgit, there was one ancient road that also brought silk to India. Having left Karghalik (south of Yarkand), it came due south by way of Sanju, crossed the pass of the same name to the high altitude camp ground of Shahidula. At Sanju, incidentally, the road was joined by another coming in from Khotan in the east. Of Khotan we know that it sat on the southernmost branch of the three-branch Silk Road.


From Shahidula, the road made the Karakoram Pass, 5,200 metres high. Then down it was into the valley of the Shyok River to Leh, the capital of Ladakh. Thence onward, it was nice and easy to the caravanserais of Srinagar.
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Crocodile the Demigod

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Third time around, and I finally got to see the crocodiles being fed.

In February 1987, my friend Maqbool Abbas and I trekked up the Hub River from the seaboard to its source. En route, we had an overnight at Ari Pir, north of Dureji in Lasbela district of Balochistan. It was then not known who this saint was except that he lived in a time ‘long before the grandfathers’. The burial was an unpretentious whitewashed sepulchre with a swaddling of greens sheets forming a sort of turban for the headstone. There was no dome above.

View of the general area of the shrine (far background) and pilgrims’ rest house (foreground)

Here the Saruna River coming down from the northwest meets the bigger Hub. As it breaks out of its tight rocky gorge, the Saruna broadens out to form a lovely emerald tarn which, so I was told, was more than twenty metres deep and alive with crocodiles. On that long ago February afternoon, after we had watched the reptiles sunning themselves on a sandbank, Ahmed the inn keeper told us the story: those accused of thievery were pitched into the lake. And such was the divinity of the crocs that only the thief was attacked and devoured by the crocs. The innocent could thrash around all they wanted and yet remain unmolested by the brutes. This beastly prescience was attributed to the power of Ari Pir.
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A kind of Life

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People get the impression I am rich. I am not.

I was commissioned in the army (Air Defence, then called Anti Aircraft Artillery) in April 1972. I wasn’t the classic heroic soldier. Being the first ever in the entire family to have joined the profession of arms, I had no idea how it worked. But that’s not the point.


The point is that I have been broke all my life. When someone – I don’t now recall where it was, but it must have been in the last week in the military academy – advised us cadets on how much Defence Services Officers Provident (DSOP) fund it would be useful to have deducted every month from our salaries, I was quite averse to the idea. Why save, I argued, when by the time you were ready to use it, it was devalued way below what you were so diligently putting away. Consequently, I opted for the minimum deduction of Rs 25 per month. This too I made because by army rules I simply had to contribute a DSOP.
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Remembers that flood of 2010?

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On Sunday 16 June, I flew to Karachi where I was picked up by a young man from Sindh Agriculture and Forestry Workers Coordinating Organization. The story of this NGO (established late 1980s) is remarkable. Starting in a small room of the family home of Suleman Abro with a staff of three, it now employs several hundred workers. Its work is spread across Sindh and, being friends with Suleman, I have had the good fortune of studying their work and writing about it.

Most of the writing was for their official use. But many times I used stories that were published in Herald or The News on Sunday [read one of them here]. The work of the NGO is humanitarian and the stories are terribly moving.
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Upper Swat Canal, Defying Mountains

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The Yusufzai Plain stretches from the Mahaban Mountains in the north to the line of the Grand Trunk Road, passing through Nowshera and from the Indus in the east just west of Mardan. Of all the districts of the North West Frontier, now called Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, this is agriculturally the richest and most prosperous.

The weir
Across this rough rectangle of sub-montane country, there flow a number of perennial streams. Though their ebb and flow depends on seasonal rains, the streams seldom run dry. Augmenting this flow is the Kabul River and its tributaries, all of which keep the aquifer recharged. With subsoil water not very far from the surface, the country was naturally dotted with virtually tens of thousands of wells to meet domestic and agricultural needs. For the latter, husbandmen also employed Persian wheels on the district’s many rivers.
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Paradise regained?

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When they first saw this beautiful land they called it Shubhavastu — the Good (or Fertile) Land. Stand atop the hill of Brikot just after you have descended into the Swat Valley from Malakand Pass and gaze northward. There, spreading below you is a broad flood plain with the Swat River braided across it in two or three streams with islands between them and on either bank neatly parcelled squares of cultivation, and you know that the Sanskrit speakers were on the ball. Fertilised by the perennial river, this is the Good Land.


In the vernacular, Shubhavastu became Suvastu with the initial ‘su’ meaning ‘good’. When Alexander and his legions came hither in the latter part of the 4th century BCE, they altered the name according to their own usage. The Shubhavastu of the learned man and the Suvastu of the farmer who worked its fertile breast became Soastos on Western tongues. Thence it was a short journey for the valley and its river to be called Swat.
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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