Sometimes an adventurous two-day visit to some far-flung area in the mountains is all one needs to get life back on track
On the morning of June 17, I woke up at 5:30am, unusually early for somebody who works late into the night. After a light breakfast, I packed up my small travel bag for the two days of travel ahead. At 7:30am we, a group of three besides a driver, left Quetta for our trip to Shinghar (Green Mountain), in the Sherani district of Balochistan. Apart from a group member’s official commitment of a couple of hours in the Sherani district, it was purely an adventurous leisure trip.
The journey was pleasant on the Quetta-Zhob road as there were few vehicles on the highway. Some three hours into the journey as we were crossing Qila Saifullah, we had to stop as the road ahead was blocked by some protestors. We learnt that a passenger bus had collided with another vehicle. Luckily, there were no causalities. The passengers were angry at being stuck in the middle of nowhere as the bus was in no shape to go anywhere. They were demanding an alternative vehicle to take them to Quetta. Unfortunately, this is not a rare sight on the single carriageway. After waiting for 10 minutes and some negotiation with the protestors we were allowed to pass through.
Before entering the historic city of Zhob, formerly known as Fort Sandeman, we stopped for a cup of tea. The four-hour journey had been tiring. Our next stop was Manikhawa town in the Sherani district. It took us five hours to reach this town. It is situated at a distance of 376 kilometres from Quetta. One can reach Dera Ismail Khan in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) from here by travelling another 181 kilometres. The town was our base camp for the adventurous uphill journey to Shinghar later in the day.
Sherani is the northernmost district of Balochistan sharing a border with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. According to the 2017 census, it has a population of a little over 150,000. The district was carved out of Zhob in June 2006. Maulana Muhammad Khan Sherani, a former stalwart of the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (Fazl) and an MNA, was instrumental in the promulgation of the new district. Some Manikhawa residents said Maulana Sherani had proposed that the sparsely populated town of Mir Ali Khel be made the district headquarters rather than Manikhawa. Maulana Sherani’s own village lies closer to Mir Ali Khel. According to Hafeezullah Sherani, a journalist in Quetta, a group of tribal elders requested Maulana Sherani to support the proposal to move the district headquarters from Mir Ali Khel to Manikhawa. However, the Maulana refused.
In Manikhawa we met a group of locals for lunch. We learnt some startling facts about the place during our conversation. I was surprised to learn that all land in this district is unsettled. This means that the land registry records do not recognise an owner for any of the lands that have historically been owned by local tribes.
There is no electricity supply in the entire district except for Mir Ali Khel. Thus no more than 10 percent of the district population is served. According to Ejaz Ahmad Jafar, the Sherani deputy commissioner, some electricity pylons were uprooted during highway construction in 2016. Since then the Quetta Electricity Supply Company (QESCO) has not restored electricity supply to the district because it has not received funds for the purpose from the provincial government. Meanwhile, much of the wire, cable, poles and pylons have been stolen making the restoration process even harder and costlier.
Hafeezullah Sherani confirmed that his district had been without electricity for five years. “Some of the people do not even know why there is no electricity. They think it’s due to load shedding,” he told The News on Sunday (TNS). Sherani said that due to the thin population and a lack of awareness of civic rights there had been no strong protest by the locals on this account.
In February this year, Chief Minister Jam Kamal visited the Sherani district. During his speech, he said that the previous government had set up the district headquarters without adequate planning and that a huge amount of funds were spent on low-yield development schemes. The locals have been apprehensive ever since that the government might be planning to undo the establishment of the district. “Every year almost 20 people from Sherani get selected to various representative forums. That is where the hope for development resides. If the district is merged with Zhob, we will lose the potential opportunities,” says Hafeez Ullah Sherani.
After taking lunch and having detailed conversations about the problems in Sherani, we started our adventurous journey from Manikhawa to Shinghar. We got off the Zhob-DI Khan highway to an off-road mud-and-rock track. We were accompanied by some local guides. The journey began at around 3pm. We crossed several water channels and dirt roads surrounded by trees.
After a 30-minute drive, the path started ascending. The view was breathtakingly picturesque. We were driving around the mountains and getting closer to the top. There were many scenic locations on the way and I wanted to get off from the vehicle and take pictures. However, we were advised not to stop the as this tends to increase the risk of falling off the mountain. As we proceeded upwards the track became more and more dangerous. A couple of turns were particularly sharp as the road there was dangerously narrow. At one spot the road had been blocked by a landslide. Our guides removed the rocks to clear the way. After an adventurous drive for almost two hours, we reached the Shinghar forest lodge, our final destination.
The Shinghar forest lodge is located at a height of 8,600 feet above sea level. It is at a distance of 50 kilometres from Zhob city. The lodge was envisaged as a summer camp office by the British administration of First Sandmen, the modern-day Zhob, in the 1890s as Fort Sandeman was unpleasantly warm during the summer months. In order to avoid that prickling heat, the political administration built Shinghar lodge as the summer camp office of the political agent of Fort Sandeman. The political Agent used to control the affairs of Fort Sandeman from the comfort of this lodge from 1895 till 1947. Apart from the main lodge, there are only a few buildings on the mountain top. These were used for the residence of the political agent’s guards and servants.
On reaching home, I turned on my mobile internet to find many work-related emails and messages. While going through those I vowed to make trips like the one to Shinghar more often. They are a natural anti-depressant.
While reading about the history of this lodge, I was amazed at how the British had built this lodge and made it usable in 1895. In 2021, it takes a two-hour drive in an SUV to reach this lodge. There is hardly any cellphone coverage on the mountain top. And yet, 126 years ago, the British were running the entire Fort Sandeman district from here using horses and mules. This speaks volumes about the administrative efficiency of the British Raj. The comparison with the current administration is stark.
Soon after the British left, the government officers abandoned this lodge. The lack of maintenance reduced the lodge to a heap of rubble. In 2013, the then deputy commissioner, Saeed Umrani, undertook the task of restoring it. It is now a Forest Department lodge called Qila DC Sherani.
The main attraction of Shinghar lodge is that it sits in the middle of the largest chilghoza pine (pinus gerardiana) forest in Pakistan. Chilghoza trees can be as high as 25 metres. The leaves of these trees are needle-like. Chilghoza seeds are found in the small cones (10-18 cm long and 9-11 cm wide) the tree carries on its many branches. The seeds are baked and can be a staple food.
Currently, the baked chilghoza seeds are the most expensive dry fruit in the country. The chilghoza trees in Shinghar forest are owned by the residents of the nearby villages. The villagers sell the seed to make a living. When the retail price of chilghoza stood at Rs 16,000 per kilogram, the middlemen bought it from the villagers at Rs 6,000 per kilogram, the levies personnel said.
After settling down in the lodge and sipping a cup of traditional green tea, we decided to take a stroll downstream to a lower peak. Our guides were three levies personnel from the Harifal tribe. They told us that on a sunny day one can see the current residence of Zhob deputy commissioner from Shinghar forest lodge. They said the British had deliberately built the Shinghar lodge in direct line of sight from the winter office and residence of the political agent. From the lower peak, we had a clear view of the nearby villages of Brankhel and Dazai, which were further downhill. We could also see the top of the Shinghar forest. Our guides told us that the peak is visible from South Waziristan.
On our way back to the Shinghar lodge, we saw a small settlement made of rock and woods. This was the home of Mira Khan, the round-the-clock watchman and caretaker of the Shinghar forest lodge. Mira Khan sports a beard and is in his late 30s. His family have been the guardians of this lodge ever since it was built. He told us that drinking water for the lodge is still brought on mules.
Mira Khan said that apart from chilghoza trees there is plenty of wood available in the forest. He said he uses it as fuel in the winter when it snows and it is unbearably cold. “I buy household rations and supplies from the nearby villages. It takes me 20 minutes to reach there on a bike,” he said. Seeing that we were finding it difficult even to walk, I found this impressive.
hen we reached the lodge it had grown surprisingly colder. The temperature had fallen to 20 degrees Celsius. We sat down in the verandah of the lodge. We took tea to try to stay warm but it was not enough. We than wrapped ourselves in blankets to resist the cold as we sat waiting for dinner.
Arbab Saab, 68, was the senior-most member of our group. He is a life-long traveller who carries the essential kits for traveling and camping. He took out his radio from his kit. For a while it was the only entertainment available to us in the absence of internet and electricity. Later, the staff of the lodge turned on a generator to light a few bulbs so that we could have dinner. While having dinner and drinking salted lassi we discussed how relaxing it was to be cut off from the work-related stress.
Next morning, we woke up at around 6am. The plan was to view the sunrise from the Shinghar lodge, which we’d been told was amazing. I discovered that there had been some confusion and I had missed the sunrise by 15 minutes. On our morning stroll, we came across the former residence of the political agent. It is an abandoned building now. Walking a few hundred metres towards Manikhawa from the mountain top, we had a clear view of Takht-i-Sulaiman, so named by the famous traveller Ibn Battuta.
When we returned to the lodge the staff was still asleep. Without waiting for them to wake up, Arbab Saab opened his kit to make some tea for us. He took out a small petrol-fuelled stove to boil water. His kit held not only tea bags and sugar but also several coffee blends. We opted for the familiar black tea. We had another round of tea later, when the staff got up. The milk was brought by Mira Khan from one of downhill villages.
Before starting our return journey, we had a final chat with Mira Khan. We consulted him about the terrain and on plans for future travel to Shinghar. After saying our goodbyes to Mira Khan and the other staff at the lodge, we left at around 8:30am. On our return, we wanted to take a different route, one that would take us to Zhob quickly. On the advice of a levies man, we took a right from the asphalt road to get on a shorter route. This route was also relatively easier to travel as it had no dangerous hairpin turns like the route from Manikhawa.
For the most part we were following the water channels. During the journey, we lost our way and came upon a small village. A man driving a tractor came to our rescue. He guided us to the correct route. At around 9:45am, we reached the main bridge on Zhob-Wana road and turned left towards Zhob.
At about 10:00am we were in Zhob city where we stopped for a while before embarking on our journey back to Quetta. On the way, we stopped at Qila Saifullah and Khanozai, reaching Quetta at night. On reaching home, I turned on my mobile internet to find many work-related emails and messages. While going through those I vowed to make trips like the one to Shinghar more often. They are a natural anti-depressant.
The writer is a journalist and researcher. He can be reached on Twitter @iAdnanAamir