To the sand buried ruins of Dandan Uliq and Niya
By Salman Rashid
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.
Among the ruins, Stein found wooden writing tablets very like the takhti we use in the Indian subcontinent to improve children’s calligraphic skills. From decrees of nobility to everyday business transactions to letters of ordinary people, these tablets gave insight into those ancient lives from a couple of hundred years before the advent of the Common Era. The point of the greatest interest is that the script on the tablets was Kharoshthi as used in northern India and the language was the Prakrit of upper Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.
Rewind to circa 644 CE when the great Chinese Buddhist monk Xuanzang having spent 13 years in India was returning home to his monastery at Chang’an (modern Xian). As he tarried in Khotan, the master wrote of the Indian people who lived in the city and who spoke an Indian tongue.
Xuanzang wrote that Asoka’s son Kunal, governor of Taxila, was intrigued against and blinded by his courtiers. As a result, a furious Asoka ordered the banishment of the involved persons “to the north of snowy mountains”, where they were “to establish themselves in the midst of a desert valley”.
Stein showed that the takhtis were proof of that ancient intrigue in Taxila and expulsion of a large number of people. They established the cities of Dandan Uliq and Niya on the southern fringes of the Takla Makan Desert where they maintained their separate Punjabi identity and language even after the passage of 1800 years.
I have been within half a day’s journey of Takla Makan and its ruined cities. But in that journey the focus lay elsewhere. If I have the time and the resources, it is to Dandan Uliq and Niya that I will go. There to walk among the ruined timber walls that were first put up by workmen whose blood I may or may not share; but they did speak my language in its
ancient form. There I will try to discover their spirit and why they rebelled against Kunal, the philosopher prince of Taxila.
Ode to a father’s wanderlust
By Adnan Rehmat
In 2018 I plan to visit eight countries. These include five in Europe and one each in North Africa, South America and the Far Pacific. The five European countries I’m dying to troop out to are probably some of the least well known of the continent. These include Andorra, Kosovo, Macedonia, Moldova and Montenegro. Why these five? They are the only states in Europe I haven’t visited! Even though by 2012 I had visited all five continents — Asia, the Americas, Europe, Africa and Australia — the UK was the only European country I had been to by that time. I then made a vow to myself — I would fulfill the dream of my late peripatetic father Rehmat Ullah Khan to see all of Europe.
He managed to scour the regions of Asia, Africa, Arabia and the Adriatic but sadly not into the heart of Europe.
Fulfilling this dream of his was easier said than done. It would mean meandering through 50 countries in five years at the rate of 10 a year! It was hard but I’m almost there now, having traipsed through 45 countries in Europe in under five years.
For the last lap, I’ll probably start with the world’s second smallest microstate Andorra — on the border where north Spain and south France meet amiably. I’ll pick up my son Miran from Barcelona where he’s pursuing his Master’s in political science and hitch a train to Andorra, a rather happy transfer of wanderlust from a footloose man to his grandchild, if I may say so!
After the last of Europe, I would like to train my sights on new continents, beginning with South America. I have been up to Central America to Costa Rica, Honduras and Panama but not deeper into the scintillating south so it’s as good a time to start with Chile as any.
I would also like to explore northern Africa, having already experienced the continent’s verdant east and south. So it’ll probably begin with Tunisia. Pacific-ward, I’ll try and start with Papua New Guinea, which has always fascinated me via its postage stamps from my childhood collection.
I continue my father’s journey. So many countries, so little time…
On the wings of the wind
By Enum Naseer
I have a recurring image in my head: I imagine cycling through the empty roads of a moonlit city, dotted with beautiful lamp posts while it drizzles ever so lightly, listening to Hemant Kumar croon, “Yeh raat yeh chandni phir kahan… Sun ja dil ki daastan…” (What are the chances that we will be together in this moonlit night again? Listen to the story that my heart has to tell as you go along).
I picture myself stretching my arms wide, steering as smoothly as Hemant Kumar’s voice flows with the music.
I don’t know where this city is. I don’t know if it exists. I often wonder if this is just a moment that can ostensibly be recreated in any place in the world under certain conditions.
Last weekend, late in the night, my friend and I were on a bus in London that terminated abruptly at Paddington Station. The next bus to the station closest to where we live would take 20 minutes to get to us. We played Frank Sinatra and Doris Day as we danced through an empty city. I stretched my arms and pretended to be in the city of my imagination, cycling across nonchalantly.
When I travel, I travel with the image of myself on that bicycle in my mind. But, it is an image that doesn’t entertain petulant demands for detail and directness.
With the New Year approaching, I end up in situations where whosoever I am talking to shares a list of places that they are planning to go to next year and details of why they would like to go there. I smile and ask all the right questions. Then the same question is asked of me. Thankfully, quite a few lyricists and poets have come up with witticisms that I can always resort to. This year I followed up ‘who knows?’ with “Hawa ke paron pe mera ashiyana” (I have built my home on the wings of the travelling wind).
Until I figure out direct answers, I can bask in the glory of having flamboyant quotations ready.
Tropics of Africa or Moscow
The most uncertain thing about your life is the day of your death. You may die right now, or you may die many decades later. What kind of smile would you like to have on your face when you die? At that moment, wouldn’t it be nice to feel assured you did not die before your death, that you lived life to its fullest till your last breath?
As we inch towards the end of the year, I entertain these thoughts.
How would I make 2018, the second last teen year of the new century, a memorable one? I am used to hanging countries on my calendars — Malawi on the 1992 calendar, Mexico on the 2002 calendar, Cambodia on the 2012 calendar, and so on. This world is a big place — there is so much to see.
Where would 2018 take me? I would love to land in Georgetown, Guyana, travel overland to Suriname and then onward to French Guiana. But what if Suriname does not let me go? What if I am too mesmerised by the Sarnami Hindustani spoken there? Or, would it be West Africa this time? I can spend several months travelling from Senegal to Gabon, studying the ugly legacy of the slave trade. Or, would it be better to stay away from the tropics, and land in Moscow, and then travel south through all the Central Asian countries. And that trip has to start from Moscow because what London is to the 20th century British Empire, Moscow is to the former Soviet Union.
Which one of these trips would it be? I don’t know. But one thing is certain: this restless soul will not let 2018 pass by without exploring some exotic part of this world. The greatest exercise of freedom is in movement, in travelling, in exploring the world that truly belongs to each one of us.
Return to Gojal
By Hasan Karrar
In June, we shall return to Gojal, or north Hunza. Gojal begins at the former Attabad village that was swept away by a landslide on January 4, 2010, a preventable disaster in which some 20 locals lost their lives. Although a short distance beyond Karimabad — the tourist hub in central Hunza — the number of visitors drops sharply in Gojal. There are frequent glimpses of village life in Hussaini, Gulmit and Passu that lie on the Karakoram Highway; more so in Zood Khon, Misgar, and Shimshal that are accessible only by jeep.
I have been visiting this region since 1990 — stumbling along the Batura and Passu glaciers; doing treks out of Shimshal; and, learning about the transnational histories that intersect in Chapursan and Misgar. On every trip, I have been shown kindness and hospitality by locals, who, over repeated visits, became close friends.
This year, my spouse and I shall do a short trek in one of the side valleys, with my twins travelling on donkeys as they have been doing yearly since the age of two, their parents panting behind them.
I am also drawn to Gojal because of how quickly the region is changing. Gone are days when telephone lines were down for days; today I speak to friends in Shimshal by cell phone or communicate by WhatsApp. An upgraded Karakoram Highway has halved travel times, making it easier for Gojalis to travel down-country for education and employment, thus transforming earlier ideas about remoteness.
Outside of Shimshal, pastoralism — the grazing of goats, sheep, and yaks at high altitudes — has declined or disappeared, altering age-old patterns of land usage and transhumance. New connectivity with China — under the ambit of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor — is manifesting in ways significantly more complex than the “win-win” trope that we are told to believe, and leading to important conversations at the grassroots about the new winners, as well as the new losers.
Glut of ideas
By Omar Mukhtar Khan
2017 was great for me. I was able to travel widely, localy and internationaly. I was able to explore Deosai plains, Shigar and Khaplu in the North and strolled leisurely in Darussalam, Paris, Frankfurt and London.
Whether heritage in Paris or Khaplu or jungle safaris in Tanzania, these short escapades are liberating, a good time for soul searching. And, while talking of soul searching, how can I miss my pilgrimage to Mecca.
With 2018 upon us, I’m already overloaded with ideas…
I intend to focus on Pakistan this year. The historic Khyber Pass is privy to successes and frustrations of many conquerors that mostly descended from central Asia or Afghanistan to conquer India — but at times invaded Afghanistan from India as well. In the 19th century, the British raised Khyber Rifles, a militia that comprised local tribes and was led by the British to control the unruly Wild West. Over the last century, the Khyber Rifles mess has become a place to dine and drink for all visiting dignitaries due to its strategic and historic location.
The Khyber Rifles Mess has been on my itinerary for a long time, as is Shabqadar Fort near Peshawar where Winston Churchill stayed and where an Italian General punished the fort’s wooden gate for treason. The same gate could not stop the tribal onslaught and was chained for dereliction of duties for a hundred years. The punishment continues to date.
I recently read an article in Urdu by Naeem Dhakko about the Belgium High School near Dulmial in Chakwal. What a fascinating story of a school that was sponsored by Belgians in the early 20th century, its funding crisis when Germans took over Belgium during WWII and the case of missing statues from the school. So a visit to this school is a must in 2018.
New people, new jokes
By Kamil Chima
For over a year now, I have had this day-dream. It usually interrupts me during a warm shower, and ends up being the cause behind a lot of wasted water. It always starts with a point-of-view shot, so to speak, of my hands holding on to motorbike handlebars and an open road ahead. The milestones on the road are in Spanish.
After carefully examining these imagined images I have understood the setting to be Argentina. Each new episode in this mental journey is a new town up the South Atlantic coast, a journey that finally culminates, or perhaps starts anew at the border of Brazil. The last time I checked, I was at the Iguazu Falls on a two-lane highway crossing over from one country to another.
But since moving from Lahore to Karachi these dreams have dried up. Maybe the perpetual summer that is Karachi makes for short cold showers.
Busy schedules not withstanding, I think my body has been telling me to travel to South America. But I don’t have the time, nor the ability to ride a motorbike. So I will give the body what it wants. Only I don’t need to travel half-way across the world to do so.
Hidden in all these reveries is really a different story. You see the open road I see before me is always empty. Away from prying eyes, open to experimentation. And the towns I visit are always populated with strangers. Where ‘na koi saadi zaat pechaane, na koi saanoon mannay’ (Nobody knows our name, nor do they follow us).
So in 2018, I don’t need to go to South America. I think what my body has been telling me is that it needs to keep meeting new people. To invent, only to reinvent. To try out new jokes. And perhaps lock eyes with a stranger across a crowded room.
Oh and none of that has to wait till 2018!