Rahim Yar Khan and the Saraiki Belt
My friend Aehsun and I set off from Lahore early one morning, bound for Bahawalpur where we would pick up another friend, Umer, then continue on to the quietly important city of Rahim Yar Khan, almost halfway between Lahore and Karachi. The 10-hour long bus ride was appended by a half-hour transfer from the bus station at Chowk Bahadur to the city centre. Aehsun, who is not a fan of long bus journeys, looked suitably unimpressed with the extra leg of the journey.
Rahim Yar Khan is, on the surface, a scruffy-looking town without any major tourist sites. Scratch the surface to reveal a newly-wealthy but comparatively conservative town whose richest inhabitants live in walled compounds on the outskirts, and who have vast business interests in Karachi, Dubai and beyond. Rahim Yar Khan (RYK) is known for being a centre of business, and despite being home to only 350,000 people, hosts an outlet of the Karachi Stock Exchange and an international airport. The rulers of more than one Arab Gulf state spend their holidays around here, on desert safaris and falconry retreats. The region is dusty and semi-arid.
In 1881 the prince of Bahawalpur decided to rename the town of Naushera, and naturally, he did so after his first son, Rahim Yar Khan. Despite being saddled with an odd name, RYK is now one of Pakistan’s fastest growing cities, owing to its strategic location on the national highway, and in the southern agricultural region of Punjab. While it doesn’t have the allure of Bahawalpur (a former princely state) or the size of Multan (RYK is about the same size as Canberra), Rahim Yar Khan is a great jumping off point for some beautiful tourist sites.
Rahim Yar Khan’s most famous icon is the sublime Bhong Mosque. Located in the small village of Bhong, fifty kilometres southwest of Rahim Yar Khan, this mosque is a constant work in progress. A local legend says that if construction work was to halt, then members of a local family would start dying. While this is almost certainly a village myth, the result is an ornate construction that is perpetually being added to
and maintained. The outrageous colours of the Bhong Mosque are an arresting sight; magenta, turquoise, maroon and straw, the riot of hues continues around every corner. Highlights of this elaborate mosque are the giant tiled Qur’an in the fountain at the entrance, the page at the mihrab which contains every single word of the Qur’an written in miniature, and the door handles shaped to resemble the Arabic spelling of the name “Muhammad”.
The following day, Aehsun, Umer and I, and another very kind friend Shoaib, drove to Derawar Fort, on the edge of the Cholistan Desert. The desert is a sandy expanse which straddles the border of India and Pakistan, and in India’s Rajasthan is known as the Thar Desert, but in Pakistan is called Cholistan. Derawar Fort is usually associated with Bahawalpur, as it is only an hour and a half drive from that city. However Rahim Yar Khan is two and a half hours from
Derawar Fort, so is also well placed for day trips. One and a half kilometres in circumference and up to thirty metres tall, the fort’s walls are visible from kilometres away. Like so many places in Pakistan you won’t need to worry about tour groups messing up your pictures; in fact we parked right at the front gate of the fort! Once inside, you can spend an hour or maybe two wandering around and imagining how grand it once must have been; sadly, time has taken its toll on this grand building.
We got some great shots around the fort, especially one where Umer was pretending to push Aehsun over the edge, then took things a little too far. I also love the pic of me looking down the cannon barrel – so many metaphors there, I guess! The region of Punjab we were travelling in is known as the Saraiki belt; the locals are known as ethnic Saraikis, and the local language is a variant of Punjabi known as Saraiki. The Saraiki belt is known for its hardy inhabitants, on
the edge of the desert and experiencing stifling summer temperatures – even spring and autumn days regularly top 40 degrees celsius. The largely rural surroundings, isolated from the big-game politics in Islamabad, are often poor, and some villages appear to be frozen in time, with mud brick houses and livestock markets. As we left Derawar Fort, the dust swirled over one such village, and the place appeared to be trapped in an endless hourglass, barely surviving against the sand’s
onslaught. But tough conditions breed kind hearts, and the Saraiki people are known for their hospitality, warmth, and above all, a sweet tooth. Sohan Halva is a sweet available across the subcontinent and Iran, but is said to be at its best here – it’s a delicious delicacy of nuts, sugar, water and milk all cooked up into a toffee-like disc.
When to go
November to March is the best time to visit, as it’s not too hot. If you go in late February or early March the region around the Derawar Fort comes alive with the Cholistan jeep rally. April and October can be hot, but bearable, while from May to September the temperature often exceeds 50 degrees celsius.
Culture shock: 9/10 – it’s conservative, and not heavily touristed.
Language difficulty: 9/10 – Some basic command on Urdu or Punjabi is advisable, if only to fit in more easily. You could conceivably get by with a phrase book, but it wouldn’t be a walk in the park.
Quality of food: 6/10 – it can be really good, but if you’re doing things on your own, you might find yourself back at the same hotel restaurant or street eatery
Cost: 4/10 – cheap, until you hire a jeep to take your riding through the desert.
Physical demand: 6/10 – the summer temperatures, dusty desert drives, general lack of tourist facilities – it’s fun, but it’s not easy!
Advice and warnings
The Saraiki Belt is sometimes considered problematic from a security standpoint, with some analysts pointing to growing militancy in the region. At the time of our visit, things were stable, and one could travel around without a problem so long as they knew what they were doing (i.e. – an understanding of the local culture and society). This is not to say it has always been, or will always be like this. Check with local authorities before setting out from Lahore.
It is advisable to dress conservatively in Pakistan, and particularly in this rather conservative region.
Most nationalities need a visa to visit Pakistan. Australians pay $70 for a one, two or three month visa. Several documents are required; check the High Commission’s website for details. Melbournians must apply to the High Commission in Canberra, while Sydneysiders may apply to the Consulate-General in Sydney.
For Indians, the process is more complicated; contact the Pakistan High Commission in New Delhi via this website.
Getting there and around
Rahim Yar Khan is a 10 hours bus ride from Lahore. Bus tickets can be booked with Daewoo Express from PKR 1800 one way. Alternatively, Pakistan International Airlines fly from Lahore via Islamabad or Karachi.
From Melbourne and Sydney, Emirates fly to Lahore via Dubai.
Melbourne (from $1290 return)
Sydney (from $1304 return)
From Chennai, things are more complicated. Fly Jet Airways to Delhi from INR 9,012 return. From Delhi, take Pakistan International Airlines to Lahore from INR 21,302 return. Note that these two airlines don’t connect – you’ll need to collect your luggage and check-in again each time you transit Delhi.
To visit Derawar Fort, the desert or Bhong Mosuqe, you would most likely need to organise a car with a driver. Hotels or travel agencies in Rahim Yar Khan are able to arrange this.
The Desert Palm Hotel in Rahim Yar Khan is the best option in town, and has a restaurant serving up delicious Pakistani, Chinese and continental offerings.
For more information about travelling in Pakistan, visit Pakistan Traveller by UrbanDuniya and start planning your trip today!