Travel tips if you want to see a different Pakistan
For nearly thirty years, Arif Hasan has been studying Thar, a desert in Sindh. He initially went to investigate reports of animal and human deaths being blamed on drought. The report he produced became a bible on the region, and is even today considered the first mandatory piece of reading for anyone who wishes to understand Thar.
I recently had the immense good fortune to drive to Thar and be introduced to the many aspects of change that are taking place there because of the steady leaden march of the coal project. I learnt that the Thari women still can sing the poems of Mira Bai, a Hindu mystic from the 1500s but if their families are scattered to make way for these new capitalist ventures, this intangible heritage will be lost.
I saw multinational branded butter in tikki packs in the main bazaar’s grocery stores. This is a crying shame because Tharis always made their own butter, ghee and yogurt. They never used flour but only grew and ate bajray ki roti. When the roads were built to connect Thar to the rest of the world, it opened up jobs and commerce, but it also brought in mass-produced consumer goods.
I met Yousaf, a blind Muslim musician who sings the verse of 15th Century mystic Kabir in a 400-year-old Rama Pir Mandir in Kasbo. Hundreds of peacocks are fed grain here every morning. When you ask the caretaker who is the mysterious donor who leaves what he claims are 40kg of grain for the birds every morning, he points to the heavens. I was forced to wonder what will happen to this beautiful space and people with time.
Visiting Thar: some short notes
If anyone wishes to visit Thar, February is an excellent time to go and then I hear in the monsoon. It is a four-hour drive from Karachi, which I undertook myself, on an excellent road, with Google maps amply providing a route. (Be prepared to carry your CNICs as there are check posts further into the desert and you cannot carry video equipment or laptops beyond certain points.)
Just a word of caution, Thar isn’t necessarily a trip to undertake with sullen teenagers who are not able to appreciate Hindu culture and spaces. Spoiled pre-teens might also not fare well if the expectation is to be entertained because this is place to unwind and be open to Thar’s energy changing your own. Younger children will, however, likely enjoy the open spaces and running around in fresh air. Mentally prep the family to experiment and be open with the special local vegetarian fare. If it is in season ask for the mushrooms and wild melon or chibhri. (Do visit Cafe Thar. See their menu here).
You can stay a night in Mithi to break journey and enjoy some splendid vegetarian fare. Mithi has simple guest houses in town. The Shahi bazaar is low-rise and fun to walk around in. I had the most fun at a hardware store where we found brass mandir bells, scythes, clothes irons you heat up with glowing coals, and lots of fun kitchen utensils that you’ll never find in cities. This bazaar has many silver smiths as well. And I’d highly recommend going to see and perhaps buy semi-antique Thakur handkerchiefs or handwoven sheep’s wool vegetable dyed Katha shawls. (Ask for Lov Raj who is Nathu Ram’s son. They run the family business called Nathu Ram Khatri Block Print in Mithi. WhatsApp orders: 0335 371 5514).
Further into the desert, I’d recommend staying at the TRDP cottages (see photos here). They were designed by Arif Hasan and are puritanically beautiful. Each cottage has a small kitchen, a lounge and a bedroom with one bathroom. Every cottage has a verandah that looks out on to the mountains. At night, as the staff to turn off the boundary wall lights and you can spend hours just staring at a star-spangled sky.
Ask for fresh butter and yogurt and take home some cactus honey.
There are many temples, some of which have been restored, to visit in Islamkot and beyond. I fell in love with old Islamkot bazaar because of the small shops with their roofs pulled over their ears like hats.
Mercifully, 3G doesn’t always work here, but this is a good thing because when you go to Thar, you should really want to just switch off. I can’t explain it properly, but given how stressful my job is as editor in a digital newsroom, that was important. In fact, I think Thar changed me in ways I’m only slowly beginning to discover.
Some contact numbers:
Thardeep Head Office, Mithi: 0232 261 661
To book TRFP cottages Taswar Husain: +92 341 3161153
Off season rates now ~Rs7,000 a night and busy season ~Rs10,000 (not including food, which you should discuss ahead of time so kitchen can prepare).
Nathu Ram’s block prints and Thari textiles isn’t on FB: 0335 371 55 14 & 0334 212 6270
Kamal in Mithi arranges guides and has six guesthouses: 0333 2971676
Cafe Thar Piyaro Shivani: 0333 250 0252