Quetta, train to Chaman, – Bob’s story. The following day, Jan 2nd brought us to the start of a minor adventure from Quetta, viz. a journey by train up to the Afghan border town of Chaman. The journey started promisingly enough despite us thinking we’d miss the train with the ticket office crush.
Podcast version here – see also written content of Ceri’s story
It actually left about 25 minutes late, but went along nicely, starting at about 11.20am. We reached Chaman at 6pm, after 70 miles which covered a lot of very stark and desolate bare earth plain – at 5500ft a high plateau which had here and there walnut orchards or irrigated areas for hardy grain crops like barley or oats. For the most part absolutely barren with severe water erosion in gullies and small ravines everywhere.
How the animals, few though they were, survive, let alone the scattered population, was (is) beyond me. At every turn the vast plain was skirted by jagged and snow scattered hills becoming ever higher as we went chugging north. After about 45 miles, I guess, the steam engine pulling our small train was joined by a second, to push from behind, up the long incline (about 1 in 40, pretty steep for a train), to Shela Bagh which was at 1939 metres, almost 7000ft. The railway was, of course, built by the British – it takes Pakistan Railways all its time to run trains at all, let alone cleaned, maintained trains and track.
Nevertheless we got there, feeling increasingly cold in the unheated train, which was also very full, about half of them soldiers of one sort or another. The views were really amazing (unquote) from one high spot across a misty valley to distant sunlit snowy peaks, with a nice sight of both engines, chugging sluggishly but remorselessly up the hills, especially on a bend where you could see all the train.
We were freezing, but quite a few people were standing and chatting as if it were merely a spring outing, on a flatbed wagon at the rear of the coaches. Several times we crossed the road over the Kojak Pass and thanked our stars we’d chosen the train, rough as it was. What do we expect at £1.03 first class?
Well, I dunno, but the views were certainly worth the relatively brief hardship. On our way we spied one or two photographers, taking pictures of the train on the hill, who we later discovered were British railway enthusiasts, come specifically to get pictures of Pakistan’s ancient steam locomotive stock. They certainly date back 50 years of so, judging by their designs.
The real jaw-dropper came on arrival at Chaman, which had looked so unreal and alluring from the Kojak Pass; shrouded in pink mist in the lowering sunlight, with occasional black ridges, like the backs of prehistoric monsters jutting above the valleys glow.
According to Mr Akhbar [Quetta office of PTDC], the stationmaster at Chaman could be contacted and would give the railway’s rest house for the two nights we were there – at modest charge, presumably. However, Mr Tahrir, the bad tempered old stationmaster at Chaman said he knew nothing about it, and anyway it wasn’t in his power, since it belonged to the engineering department of the railway. I suspect that he’d got his family, or some lodgers there, or something, but he really didn’t want to know about us.
However, he eventually decided that as a favour we could stop in the waiting room, which was also occupied by some maintenance staff. Big deal. No heating, no food to be had, shit splattered all over the toilet. It was freezing [it had been -3C to -11C in Quetta –BC]; the only heat came when the two nice maintenance men made us some tea on their primus, and also offered us half of their own dal and nan.
It was a very kind thing for them to do for us, since we had no intention of walking around the bazaar at night in Chaman. Especially in view of what we’d previously been told, and because we are open and obvious targets for interest, welcome or otherwise, wherever we go. Merely being on the train, you would have thought we’d come from Mars, the attention we attracted.
However, things looked up a bit at 7pm when three blankets arrived for us to sleep in. [We warmed ourselves for 20 minutes at a time, by sitting in the four cane chairs, each of us holding an edge of a blanket stretched above the primus stove, which warmed our legs really well, then ended abruptly – BC] By 8pm we’d eaten and drunk, exhausted the limited conversation we could manage with the workmen, and decided to get into our sleeping bags to escape the freezing cold.
In Quetta it was cold, but here it was ridiculous. Even with the blankets we just couldn’t warm up at all, and to cap it all, someone appeared at 11pm waking us all up from our fitful dozing to take the bloody blankets away again. I’ve had some rough nights but that was a belter – its sole redeeming feature was the kindness of the two maintenance men.
Today started with a fight at the ticket office between people trying to get to the window – oh, I forgot to mention that tickets, except for sleepers, can only be bought on the day of travel, which, when a train leaves at 7am means a lot of people who have not had a lot of sleep jostling each other vigorously for the privilege of buying a ticket.
There is only one train a day out, too. So there I was in the midst of it too. Quite unpleasant, so I eventually got someone from the office staff to climb over the partition and buy the tickets, otherwise we wouldn’t have got on.
The journey back took 8 hours, absolutely pathetic, for 70 miles, half hour stops, 10 miles an hour on the flat – Jesus ! it’s enough to drive you mad ! But again there were nice moments; – soldiers eating snow and snowballing at Shela Bagh, – shepherd children ambling about barefoot and waving, in temperatures that had us shivering all the way back. This despite, believe it or not, 3 jerseys 1 shirt, t-shirt, gloves, hat, cagoule, 2 pairs of socks and boots. God, they must be tough; I’m not surprised the Khyber Pass was never taken.
There was a man, reading aloud from a short story book to a rapt audience of tribesmen swathed in turbans, blankets and beards, just like to a primary school class, he commanded their attention for every second. Memorable bits. Now we’re toasting again in front of a tiny gas fire in Quetta, feeling better at last, thinking about nipping out for a tikka kebab. . . . .