Train to the Afghan border. The big adventure, the first of 1985, began the next day, on Weds 2nd. We’d had the idea to go to Chaman, a small village about 70 miles away, very close to the Afghan border.
Podcast version here -see also written content of Bob’s story
We’d heard various exciting stories, including one from a young man we met in the shami kebab stall, about Afghan rebels, all kinds of guns, pistols, rifles, stenguns at very cheap prices, smugglers and thieves !
There were, according to the PTDC office, no hotels there, save perhaps cheap and nasty rooms in houses cum hostels where the chances were that we’d be mugged and slain.
So, thinking it would be a dangerous place to arrive at evening time, we got Mr Akhbar at the PTDC onto the job of finding some accommodation. He went to the station master at Quetta railway station and asked about the Railways Rest House in Chaman. All, it seemed, would be well; we could stay there. Mr Tahrir, the Chaman station master would arrange it all.
Off we went, 10.55am – after a struggle to get tickets, and a mild panic when it looked as if the train was leaving – thro’ some quite desolate countryside, lots of erosion and very dry. There was no rain here last winter, and this year doesn’t seem too hopeful either, so far, and everywhere is cracked and parched. The train, a steam engine went incredibly slowly (6½ hours to travel the 70 miles), and stopped often and for lengthy periods at small stations. People got on and off, bought nuts and sweets from small boys with baskets of goodies; the driver got off for a chat, then eventually whistles would blow, the green flag would wave and off we’d go again
Being in 1st Class we had cushioned seats and quite a bit of space, me especially since none of the men (soldiers) will sit next to a woman without leaving at least enough space for another person in between. How we would have managed if we’d been crammed in 2nd Class on wooden benches I can’t imagine. It was worth the Rs18.50 versus Rs6.20 for the comfort.
The bus would have been far worse, roof rack jammed full of blanketed people who couldn’t fit inside. for a bumpy 6-7 hour drive over a bad road in freezing conditions – that seemed very extreme. Definitely not for me !
In fact, despite the very considerable delights, (in comparison), of 1st Class rail, we got very stiff and cold on the journey.At one point we had another engine put on the back to puff its way up the incline, but the speed was quickened by extra power on level ground. The return trip was as bad, 2 engines and a downward slope and still it took 8 hours to get back.
As we got closer to Chaman,the countryside became more mountainous with lots of snow about. Quite an impressive view at points, despite the cold. This view on the ride to Chaman was almost all that made the trip worthwhile. On arriving we enquired as to the whereabouts of Mr Tahrir and sat awaiting his arrival, huddled over a coal fire in the Asst Stn Masters office, where purely by chance we were in the right place at the right time when some tea arrived. As for the accommodation, it all turned out to be a horrible mistake.
Mr Tahrir, a fairly elderly and grumpy man eventually arrived after ½ hour or so, only to say he didn’t really know anything about any arrangements. He said, true or not, that he was not empowered to give us any accommodation in the Rest House. It was apparently the province of the Engineering department in Quetta, and of course the office would be closed at 6.30pm ! He could only accommodate us in the waiting room, already occupied by two railway maintenance staff.
Then some alternative arrangements could be made the next day – plenty of hotels in the bazaar etc ! Not satisfactory at all, but for that night we had no choice but to stop in the waiting room.[ In Mr Tahrir’s opinion it was too dangerous for us to go into town, and he could not allow us to leave his care – BobC ] So, there we were, frozen, hungry and the waiting room had no fire and we had no food save the customary bananas.
All seemed doomed, but every cloud has a silver lining, in this instance, the railway maintenance men. They put their gas ring on for us to warm up, made tea for us, and gave us half their dal and bread to eat as well. Despite their not speaking much English, we managed a fair bit of conversation and plenty of laughter and things seemed a little better. They moved onto the floor to sleep so we could use the cane chairs; we’d been given three blankets at the beginning, but at 10.30pm two men came and demanded them back, so i spent a cold and virtually sleepless night, despite being fully dressed in my sleeping bag.
After an age, 6.30 came and we got up and packed away. A definite decision to return to Quetta as soon as possible had been made. We wouldn’t see the bazaar, reputedly full of cheap Afghan bargains, but at least we’d have a warm room to stop in that night. So, off we chugged again at 7am on what became a very tedious journey. Still stiff, cold and hungry, the slow speed became almost unbearable. Worst of all was a 50 minute stop at Bostun, apparently so the soldiers could search for arms, smugglers and the like from Chaman. We finally reached Quetta at 3pm, me nearly too numb in the knees to walk, so we jumped in a rickshaw back to the Al-Muazzam. And here we are, ensconced in front of the fire, eating walnuts, sultanas and coconut from a nearby stall. Its such a relief to be warm again !