An extension of Rajasthan’s Thar Desert, the largest desert on the Indian subcontinent, Cholistan covers over 20, 000 sq km of southeast Pakistani Punjab and at its nearest point is some 30km from Bahawalpur. At one time it was a fertile area watered by the Hakra River – long since dry – which flowed to the Arabian Sea.
At least 400 settlements along its banks were continuously inhabited from the 4th millennium BC, long before the Indus Valley civilisation, to the beginning of the Islamic era. The remains of some 40 forts from the early days of the caliphate cross the desert like a string of pearls.
In reference to the nomadic habits of its people, the region’s name derives from cholna, meaning ‘moving’; to the locals, however, it’s known as Rohi. The population of over 100, 000 spend their lives in constant search for pasture and water. The dress and handicrafts of Cholistan – examples of which can be bought in Bahawalpur – are unique.
Except after the early autumn rains, when some vegetation blooms, Cholistan is a sandy wasteland with clumps of hardy shrubs passing for oases. These give shelter to many species of wildlife including ratcatcher, sparrowhawk, black buck, desert fox, Houbara bustard, imperial sandgrouse and partridge.
If you’d like to spend a night in the desert you must first obtain a permit from the Bahawalpur District Coordination Officer (DCO); apply through the PTDC in Bahawalpur, which can also arrange desert safaris.