Ziarat: Ecotourists’s Paradise
By Salman Rashid
Sang-e-Meel Publications
ISBN: 978-9693534313
120pp.

Tourist traffic in Pakistan has routinely headed north. The southerners here, while fighting the summer heat and humidity, still find respite in the now-overcrowded, trash-littered, ill-planned mountain hideouts that the locals there have cashed in upon with random construction, using precious wood from their forest trees.

The foreigners, too, are drawn to the snow-clad heights and the panoramic spread of our glaciers with their mystique and charm.

Gwadar, the rugged beauty of the Makran Coastal Highway, and even Sindh’s Gorakh Hill, with due respect to their majesty, are either grossly overrated or underdeveloped due to the sheer lack of concern of the authorities.

Hence Salman Rashid’s Ziarat: Ecotourist’s Paradise can justifiably be termed a page-turner in terms of a possible diversion of tourist traffic to a different locale and towards a more exciting and adventurous end: ecotourism.

Salman Rashid’s latest book could well be used as a travel guidebook as well as an absorbing bedtime read

Ziarat, with its amazing ecology, located some 125km north-east of Quetta at an elevation of 2,543 metres above sea level, is today all set to become ‘the new kid on the block’, courtesy its potential as an ecotourist attraction. It remains undiscovered (and thus happily a little less unlittered) just because people have not as yet developed the zest and taste for this new form of environmentally sustainable tourism.

Rashid’s book, a little over 100 pages of text, alternated with the most amazingly aesthetic photography, focuses on highlighting the vast Ziarat valley, covered by the gnarled juniper trees that have stood witness to hundreds of years of history and culture.

Among the oldest junipers in Ziarat, this magnificent specimen rises to about 30 metres in height | Photo from the book
Among the oldest junipers in Ziarat, this magnificent specimen rises to about 30 metres in height | Photo from the book

It hones in on the untrodden wilderness as a trekker’s delight, on the population of the hill fox and stone martens romping in the thickets, on the area’s viability as a year-round tourist destination by virtue of its lower altitudes, on the presence of myriad migratory and resident birds, and on the wealth of wild flora and their fragrances.

Himself an avid trekker of the boondocks, Rashid writes with his signature ease and simplifies meaningful words, as he adds personal encounters, folklore and human stories to pique the readers’ (and the potential ecotourists’) interest. This raises this publication from being mere recorded fact to the level of high literature.

This book is not only a record of eco-facts but a documentation of fascinating stories, such as that of the late 19th century romantic liaison of Penton, a British ‘Lord’, and Mehmura, a doe-eyed shepherd girl. Penton, a mere lance corporal in the British forces, was later dubbed a ‘lord’ because tribal sensibility would have been sorely hurt if blue-collar workers were to fall for tribal women.

Before ultimately returning to Britain with his wife, Penton built three properties for his love. Locals recall Mehmura returning decades later, a deranged old woman laying claim to her properties lost to the ravages of time, only to die in 1955. Her unclaimed bungalows are now a bone of ancestral contention for her great-nephews, at least till, by some miracle, her two sons return to claim them. Mehmura’s sons are, for all practical purposes, lost to history and folklore!

At the other end of this real-life romantic Ziarat story is Rashid’s engrossing, though slightly eerie, account of the folk-concocted reason for naming the dense Juniper forest beyond Ziarat as the Sher Bano Zungle (jungle). Given the author’s penchant for tracking folklore on his trekking expeditions, his unearthing of the ghostly tale behind the naming of the forest is no surprise.

Rashid is a raconteur beyond doubt but it is his knack of conversing with locals wherever he goes and exhuming long-forgotten tales that brings a distinctive flavour to his travel pieces.

The British Residency in Ziarat, later known for it being the place where the Quaid-i-Azam spent the last days of his life, has been the most famous tourist spot to date, but Rashid’s treks off the beaten track around the area take the reader far beyond, revealing little known geo-cultural facts and traditions. For example, it was ancient seismic action and aeons of running water that have created the dramatic clefts (local name: tangis) in the limestone ridges that dot the area.

Fascinating, alluring and amazing in word (read Salman Rashid’s words) and imagery (courtesy the author’s camera art) the book adds an aesthetic to an otherwise barren land.

At the cultural end of the rainbow, the book presents the ageing junipers of the Ziarat environs as an almost-sacred, life-protecting forest specie, jealously protected by the locals and yet used for thatching their houses, since its wood is extremely slow to catch fire.

Enviously placed as a part of a unique ecosystem unparalleled by any other part of the Subcontinent, Ziarat is described as “no ordinary place.” This is because, due to its geographical location as well as its alpine setting, the area hosts three distinctly separate types of wildlife. Converging here and sharing a common habitat are species of Irano-Turania, Paleo-Arctic and Indo-Malay small mammals and flora.

Ziarat receives only 283mm of annual rainfall on average. Nevertheless, it has immense potential to make a visit a rewarding experience for biologists and bird-watchers. And just by way of appeasing security concerns, record has it that, in the first 70 years since Independence, the local police station recorded only one murder case.

Packing information (there are detailed notes at the end of chapters about boarding and lodging , food, requirements of travel, and even the type of shoes one needs to wear), entertainment (snippets of engrossing conversations with locals over shared cups of tea in the wilderness) and pages of excellently printed pictorial delights (the finest details of geography) between its covers, Ziarat: Ecotourist’s Paradise is a book to be savoured.

The best part is that it could be, by any assessment, a travel guide as well as an absorbing bedtime read. It makes ecotourism the new mantra.

The reviewer is a freelance journalist, translator and creative content/report writer who has taught in the LUMS Lifetime Learning Programme.

X: @daudnyla

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 24, 2023

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