October 25, 2021
Exploring the salt mines at Khewra is like crawling through the fatty bowels of some giant creature: the walls of the mine, pink and slick with moisture, look like great hunks of marbled meat. An electric tram trundles through a mile-long tunnel into the mine, carrying tourists and giggling students. Others — like us — choose to enter on foot, trailing their fingers along damp walls, dodging saltwater puddles and dripping stalactites. A man catches up to us, a tour guide for hire peddling his services: Khewra is home to the world’s second-largest reserves of salt, he tells us. The mines have 19 levels; this is just the first. Everything around us is salt. There are 6 billion tons of it here, possibly 10.
Each year, Pakistan exports a tiny fraction of these reserves, some 400,000 tons. They will eventually end up as bath salts, as food seasoning, or a prop for wellness influencers on YouTube and Instagram. In the past few years, this pretty pink rock has made a cameo in some of the world’s thorniest, most headline-grabbing news: COVID-19 misinformation, the faltering global supply chain, deteriorating relations between India and Pakistan, and the empty aesthetics of self-care.
“Breathe deeply,” the guide says brightly. “It’s very good for you.” Is it, though? We’re in the middle of a pandemic and gulping air in a dank cave feels somewhat ill-advised. An unmasked little boy toddles over to a wall, pats it, then gives it a lick. His family laughs.
Himalayan salt isn’t actually from the Himalayas. Khewra is roughly 100 miles south of Islamabad and just above the Jhelum River; the Himalayan mountains are much farther north. But describing the salt as Himalayan has proven to be effective marketing: it carries a whiff of exotica for the global consumer, an aura of mountain purity. In a world overrun by the Instagram aesthetic, that distinct pinkish hue — the result of trace minerals such as magnesium, potassium, and calcium in the salt — helps, too. These marketing costs, on the other hand, and the consequent positioning of the salt’s premium quality, is one reason Himalayan pink salt can be up to 20 times more expensive than table salt or sea salt.
That kid plastering his tongue on the walls of Khewra didn’t know it, but he was enacting an ancient legend. In 326 B.C., Alexander the Great and his army were plodding across the Jhelum region when his horses stopped and began licking the stones. A soldier, watching in bemusement, decided to follow suit. And so, legend goes, they discovered the world’s second largest salt reserves, the 200-million-year-old remains of a receding sea.