Thursday, January 28, 2010

A bridge almost too far

Salman Rashid

P.S.A. Berridge, a Bridge Superintendent with whom my father worked as a young assistant engineer on the North Western Railway in pre-partition India, wrote a readable account of this railway. The book is titled 'Couplings to the Khyber' and it has long been my bible. Unfortunately, out of print in Britain, there are only a few copies of this book to be found in Pakistan -- one in the Railway Headquarters of Lahore and the other in the library of the Department of Archaeology at Karachi.

Berridge notes that the story of the construction of the line to Quetta has "no parallel in the whole of the history of the railways in India". Among other things, he tells us, it was the exemplary courage and fortitude of the engineers and ordinary labourers against not just the elements but recalcitrant and depredatory Marri tribesmen, that was most admirable and which made the laying of line possible.

Today as trains haul passengers up through the sharp gradients of the Bolan Gorge, few realise that the first train to reach Quetta in March 1887 did not follow the Bolan route. Instead, that train went north from Sibi into the Nari River gorge through Babar Kach into the blistering hot shingle wastes of Gandakindaff and into the winding Kuchali defile to climb up to cool heights of Nakus and Shahreg.

Beyond the lonely little station of Khost, the line entered the dramatic and breath-taking Chappar Rift to eventually make its way into the Zhob river valley near Khanozai and so southwest to Quetta. But the Rift, a dramatic crack across a synclinal hill caused by a prehistoric earthquake, was a tale of tribulation and sheer hard work. Geologically unstable as it is, it took constant patrolling and repair to prevent accidents from taking place because flash flood frequently washed out the line in the Rift.

In the end it was a flood that went bounding down the chasm during the night of July 11, 1942 that cut the line forever. By then the Bolan Gorge connection, known to railway engineers as the Bolan-Mushkaf line, was already commissioned and there was no threat to Quetta being cut off from the rest of the country. And so the line in the Rift was dismantled. Even today, forlorn looking bridge piers, the raised line bed, tunnels and at least two abandoned stations -- these latter put to other use -- stand as reminders of the long ago line.

After the line in the Rift was taken down, the passenger train from Sibi ran only as far as Khost. About ten kilometres farther on lay the last serviceable station of Zardalu. While regular passenger trains ran up from Sibi to Khost, a number of coal trains per week went up as far as Zardalu to ferry the yield from nearby mines to the main line at Sibi.

In April 1987, exactly a hundred years since the first train had steamed up from Sibi, I rode the train (called the Q-489) to Khost. The Station Master there, a Mansehra man, offered to commandeer a friend's jeep to take me up to the Rift. But if we were to do that, I would have missed the return train and would have had to wait until the following morning to return to Sibi. It was not until February 1993, 51 years after the last train had struggled through that a friend drove me from Quetta to the Rift.

Of all the sights I have seen in Pakistan, this was one of the very few that actually took my breath away: the yawning gape of the Rift with the languid stream at its bottom, the bridge piers like accusing fingers raised to the sky, the tunnel openings, the majestic sweep of the line bed in the wild and desolate valley floor and snow on the distant peaks was something surreal; it was beyond my imagination. I ran amok like an excited child -- much to the amusement of my friend Shahjehan Panezai.

I made friends on this line. Idrees Chaudhri, the quiet, well-groomed Station Master at Harnai who had spent all his professional life in Balochistan. He was the only master I always, always saw smartly turned out in uniform. I have several times mentioned his name to slovenly masters of the new generation -- now they only are slovenly -- that I have met in remote stations across the country. And there was the gregarious engine driver Abdul Qadeer who spun yarns to shame The Cassandra Crossing.

Some years after the first trip I rode the footplate from Kolpur to Mach in the Bolan when he was hauling the Bolan Mail to Karachi and he told me what could happen if the brakes of an engine failed on the downward slope: "We would storm through Mach at over a hundred miles an hour tearing up the track behind us and carry on as far as the slope lasted!"

And as if someone was listening somewhere, the engine died: no power, no brakes. I thought Qadeer wanted to see how I reacted. Without the steady thrum of the huge diesel, the quickening clack-clack-clack of the wheels became very pronounced -- it was quickening because without brakes and with its huge mass the train immediately began to gather speed. Qadeer tried the starter button on the console. Nothing happened. I then saw the cloud pass across his face and realised something was amiss. He spoke to his fireman, who opened a door in the bulkhead aft of the cabin and went into the engine compartment. There I saw him punch a red button. Nothing. A second time and the engine roared to life and Qadeer hit the brakes.

With Qadeer too I had once ridden from Khost to Sibi. It was November, night fell early and as we slowly trundled southward, an owl, attracted by the locomotive headlamp, flew straight in from the open front window. Unhurt it flapped about the cabin as the fireman and I tried to show it the way out. That was the most exciting part of that journey. But that was the past.

Recently in Quetta, I was dissuaded from going into the Chappar Rift for fear of the rampaging Marri tribesmen. But I could go up the Nari Gorge from Sibi, not as far as Nakus, the highest point on this line which I wanted to visit, but only as far as Babar Kach. The journey was truncated because, so I was told, the Marris had blown up the bridges across the Nari. That was news to me. I had imagined the line was still running and that I would be able to ride the train all the way out to Khost.

Sometime after the dastardly slaying of Nawab Akbar Bugti, resentment broke out, once again, among Baloch peoples across the province the brunt of which was borne by poor Punjabis. But the destruction of this line was the saddest and cruellest act committed by ignorant tribesmen. The landscape this line passes through, its remote and picturesque loneliness and the heroic endeavour that went into its laying make it a prime attraction for railway buffs.

Years from now when the borders of this land may or may not be re-drawn, when peace and the rule of law prevails, it would have been the Marris who would have stood to benefit from the undamaged existence of the line through the Nari Gorge. The Marris, through whose lands the line passes, would have been hotel-owners, restaurateurs, handicraft-sellers, what have you. But now, misguided and exploited, they have laid low their own asset.

The Sibi Scouts outfit stationed at Sibi of necessity maintains a line of communication with its units strung out along the old railway line and there being no reasonable road link, continues to use the line. The standard procedure is to get to Nari railway station, 12 kilometres north of Sibi and connected with it by a good metalled road, ride trolley to the destroyed bridge and wade across the stream. Since word is already out, a second trolley awaits on the far side which ferries them to the next destroyed bridge and so on.

The overnight fall of rain had left Sibi blissfully cool as we drove out to Nari. But for the small guard of the militia, the railway station was deserted; not very different from the time in 1987 when I first rode the train to Khost. The train itself was crowded with Baloch and Pushtun folks, however. As it worked its way up, and they got off the train at their stations, the former always walked eastward, the latter to the west. It was as if the Nari River and the railway that followed it formed the border between the two ethnic groups.

Neither from the window of a passenger carriage nor from inside the locomotive driver's cab can one enjoy the panorama as from the open trolley. Yet the memory from that journey of two decades ago was etched on my mind: the rugged brown hills with their sparse cover of verdure, the gravelly bed of the Nari with its braids of water, and the lazy sweep of the track between the hills and the river where nary a soul moved. This was the kind of landscape that would send the Lahori artist Khalid Iqbal into over-drive.

We reached the first bridge. Of its six spans, only two remained intact. The rest lay tilted into the river. Hundreds of men had toiled thousands of man-hours in blistering summer heat to raise this structure but when it came time to lay it low, a handful of miscreants with a load of explosive destroyed their very own asset that could one day have made life somewhat better for them. Back in the 1880s, the Marris had resisted the laying of the line and their depredations were a constant bother. Now they had committed the ultimate mischief.

We waded across the muddy river to the trolley waiting on the other side and puttered along to the railway station of Tanduri -- deserted but for the militiamen. The name Tanduri refers to the infernal heat of the Nari Gorge here. Back in 1987 our train, the Q-489, had paused here to deliver water and perishable rations to the men of the Sibi Scouts. Even at that time this station had been closed for many years for reasons that no one could tell me.

Just beyond Tanduri we made the second bridge. Of its four spans the one nearest us lay in the river with the track still festooned dramatically between the stone piers. We waded across the Nari once again and scarcely had we made the far bank when a shout went up from the militiamen: "The river is rising!"

It had been raining overnight and even as we were making our way northward, we could see dark storm clouds roiling above the hills in that direction. The rain that fell in the hills during the night was now due to flow down the river here. If we carried on to Babar Kach, as far as I had planned to go that day, there would be no coming back -- not the same day at least. And so the militiamen guarding the destroyed bridge told us to hurry back.

I was sorely disappointed when authorities in Sibi had earlier said I could not get as far as Nakus on the trolley. Now the rising river had prevented me from getting even as far as Babar Kach. There were yet two more bridges that they said were 'partially damaged' that I was denied. It was not with little regret that I turned my back on Babar Kach.

As we puttered back to Tanduri, the trolleyman said that every rainstorm makes travel in the Nari Gorge next to impossible for local people. When the bridges were intact, trains went back and forth the full 130 kilometres between Sibi and Khost, but now only pick-up trucks plied. The train ticket, which so few ever purchased, cost a paltry 50 rupees while the pick-up charges 200 per person for the 90-kilometre journey from Harnai to Sibi. When rainstorms make it impossible for pick-up trucks to ply tractors with trailers are used. Then the fare goes up to 800 rupees per person.

There are folks that need to get to Sibi urgently for business or for medical attention and this includes Marris whose kinsmen blew up the bridges. I wonder what those poor misguided souls had in their minds when in the dark of a night they stole onto the bridges, planted their explosives and committed this act of sabotage upon themselves. If the potential of their line as a tourist destination was far from their thoughts, they could at least have considered the facility it had provided four generations before them and continued to do so until that night in the summer of 2008.

In Quetta my friend Lieutenant General Khalid Shamim Wynne told me plans were afoot to repair the bridges and get the Nari Gorge line up and running again. Indeed, said he, even the defunct Zhob Valley Railway may also be up-graded and extended to Dera Ismail Khan and the rest of the railway network. If this were to happen, there will be some great railway journeys to take. And great yarns to swap with drivers like Abdul Qadeer as we trundle through new-fangled stations where master of the Idrees Chaudhri school run a nifty unit.

Postscript: The crossing which we had waded earlier in the morning at only knee-deep had risen to midriff level when we returned. Had we carried on to Babar Kach or even tarried after being warned about the rising waters, we might indeed have gone one bridge too far.

Fellow of Royal Geographical Society, Salam Rashid is author of eight books including jhelum: City of the Vitasta and The Apricot Road to Yarkans

Salman Rashid's travel writing appears regularly in leading English language journals.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Pervaiz Munir Alvi

Pervaiz Munir Alvi was born and raised in Pakistan. After graduating from Government College, Lahore (now Government College University) with a Bachelor of Science (B.Sc.) degree Mr. Alvi proceeded to the United States  of America for further studies where he received his Bachelor of Science (B.S.) in Civil Engineering and Master of Science (M.S.) in Geo Technical Engineering from the University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Mr. Alvi resides and works in the USA as a consulting GeoTechnical Engineer.

He could be reached at  P.O.Box 386, Elizabeth, PA, 15037, USA (Phone: 724-379-6300) and E-Mail: 

Monday, January 4, 2010

FATA and Northern Areas

Salman Rashid 

Back in 1990 when I wrote for (and also read) The Frontier Post, a reporter did a little piece on a shoeshine boy in Lahore. This piece was ill-informed tripe and ended, ‘After all, he is a Pathan from Gilgit.’ This was probably meant to indicate the young man’s ghairat, something that most ignorant people attribute only to the Pathans.

But then, I suppose, we could not blame a common journalist who read nothing and only watched Zee TV in the press club lobby for not knowing better. Domestic tourism to Peshawar and Swat is dead, but in its heyday I have seen yahoos from Lahore and sundry other places addressing every male they met north of Jhelum as ‘Khan sahib’. In Peshawar and Swat they just went over board with the Khan sahib without knowing that a red-blooded Khan does not approve of this mode of address — even for himself.

It was and still is commonly believed that everybody who lives in a mountainous area is an ethnic Pathan, a Khan sahib. This belief is widespread because we as a nation neither travel in the country nor read and we do not know that there are Khirthar in Sindh or the Suleman Mountains in Punjab that are populated by Sindhi, Brahui or Baloch peoples. Last year a friend seeking advice on where he should holiday with his family was told to go to Soon Valley in the heart of Punjab. He was horrified about being sent off to the land of the Pathans.

Besides not having read anything, the Average Joe is also not acquainted with the map. I am certain nine out of ten people cannot point to the general area of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) on a map of Pakistan. Similarly, they do not know where the Northern Areas lie. No surprise then that most news reports in every single English newspaper refers to the troubled FATA as the Northern Areas. I do not read Urdu papers, but I am certain they have the war going on in the shumali ilaqajat.

Now NWFP (which should actually be Pukhtunkhwa) is, as the name suggests, in the northwest part of Pakistan. And the Northern Areas, again according to the title, are in the north. While the former is peopled by Pukhtuns (or, as we wrongly call them, the Pathans), the Northern Areas are home to different ethnic groups. If there are Pathans in the Northern Areas, they are not natives but immigrant.

The Pathans may claim to be one of the lost tribes of Israel, but that is fiction. They speak a pure Indo-European tongue akin to archaic Persian and are therefore of Aryan stock. That having been said, the Pathans may contain a sprinkling of Semitic blood the same way as they have Greek blood. The other gene they possess is Mongol. Whatever they may say about themselves, when Chengez Khan rode rough-shod across Pathan lands, he and his soldiers raped. The next Mongol to run havoc through this country was Taimur the Lame. The capital of North Waziristan, Miran Shah, is not named after Taimur’s son without reason.

On this subject, bring to mind the face of the terrorist Abdullah Mehsud. Two years ago he blew himself up in Zhob to avoid arrest and we have lost his Mongol visage forever.

The Northern Areas are another story. Chitral being a part of NWFP, we can leave that out although Chitralis are also not Pathans, but beginning with Yasin and running through Ishkoman, Ghizer, Gilgit, up north to Hunza and Gojal and east to Baltistan we have one kind of country. But of this later.

As one goes up the Karakoram Highway, one passes through Besham, Pattan and Dassu, which are all part of Indus Kohistan. The people may look like Pathans, but they are of a different ethnicity. Their Kohistani language is closer to Punjabi than to Pushto. These people, whether they live in Tangir valley or in Palas, are given to a lawless life. They carry arms, life means little for them, women among them have no status and they lay no merit by education. It may be because of these characteristics that they are lumped together with the Pathans.

As an aside, it must be recorded here that the only, the only, Indus Kohistani to have done us prouder than the whole lot of the rest of us is that remarkable, uncanny superman called Razwal Kohistani. Hailing from Palas and with no formal education, this incredible person is a linguist respected across Europe as the leading expert in his field from Pakistan. He speaks over a dozen Pakistani languages besides his native Kohistani and English. We who do not know him or of him and who have not availed of his knowledge are the losers.

Driving up the KKH, you enter the Northern Areas between the villages Sazin and Harban, the latter lying about twenty kilometres west of Chilas. Now, as part of the Northern Areas, Chilas is really the odd man out because of its violence-prone population. Many years ago, it was in a tea shop in this town that I got talking to a young man who was very proud of an uncle of his for murdering five people. Generalisations are bad, but one that is true is that Chilasis are inveterate thieves and murderers.

Gilgit lies just below the 36th parallel of latitude. West, north and east of it sit the Northern Areas proper of Pakistan. This land is miles from FATA and even farther away from the violence. Kind, generous and hospitable (traits that other Pakistani ethnic groups including Pathans can also be admired for), these people are civilised to boot. Education features high on their list of ‘must-haves’, women are proper human beings and you never see a blusterer strutting about with an AK-47.

From Yasin in the west through Ishkoman and up into Hunza they speak Brushaski, a language with no known connection with any other language of the world. In Gojal (Chapursan and Shimshal), the major language is Wakhi, an ancient offshoot of Avestan. Gilgit is home to Shina akin to Kashmiri and Punjabi, while Baltistan has its Balti deriving from Tibetan. In Astore, south of Gilgit they speak either Shina or Balti.

The Shins of Gilgit and Astore are of Aryan stock and the Baltis a curious mix of Tibetan and Aryan blood that goes back to an historic event of the early 8th century. Hunza people, clearly a mix of Central Asiatic and Aryan blood, claim to be Alexander’s progeny. But then who doesn’t in Pakistan? The Wakhis of Shimshal say they are Kirghiz to which group the Chapursan population also very likely belongs.

Speak with the youngest child on the street and his manners and civility will bring tears to your eyes. The usage of the Urdu language among the educated, even children, in, say, Chapursan or Shimshal, leave alone cosmopolitan Hunza, is so delightfully quaint one would think one is on the streets of Lucknow a hundred years ago. And these places I mention are as remote as you can get in Pakistan.

So the next time you read that you can buy (actually buy) a suicide bomber from the Northern Areas, tar and feather the journalist. This happens in FATA and Swat and even in South Punjab. The gentle folks of the Northern Areas have better things to do with their lives.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

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Friday, January 1, 2010


About S A J Shirazi

S A J Shirazi is a Lahore based writer. His writing on diverse subjects appear in Dawn, the News, Nation, Spider, BootsnAll and other A list publications. Shirazi holds an MPA (University of the Punjab) and Linguistics (Russian Language from National University of Modern Languages) degrees and is working at one of the leading universities. He has authored two books (Izhar, Ret Pe Tehreer) and translated Din Mein Charagh by Abbas Khan into Light Within.

Okay, now that we've gotten that referring-to-myself-in-the-third-person part out of the way, here's the more human, less quantifiable description. I am trying to make sense of blogging and other, still new, forms of social media [Facebook, Twitter and more]. I'm always looking for friends. You can always contact me at I also blog at Doodh Patti and Logic is Variable

Updates: No, I am not trying to change the world. I am only changing myself!

About Doodh Patti

Traveling whirls you around, turns you upside down and stands everything you took for granted on its head. We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next, to find ourselves. We travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn more about the world than our newspapers will accommodate. We travel to bring what little we can, in our ignorance and knowledge, to those parts of the globe whose riches are differently dispersed. And we travel, in essence, to become young fools again — to slow time down and get taken in, and fall in love once more.

The beauty of this whole process was best described, perhaps, before people even took to frequent flying, by George Santayana in his lapidary essay, “The Philosophy of Travel.” We “need sometimes,” the Harvard philosopher wrote, “to escape into open solitudes, into aimlessness, into the moral holiday of running some pure hazard, in order to sharpen the edge of life, to taste hardship, and to be compelled to work desperately for a moment at no matter what.” Doodh Patti is about this philosophy.

I also get quires, mostly from my foreign friends, about what is Doodh Patti. The term Doodh Patti (doodh walli chai) is very well know all around in this part of the world we call home and even among those who have travelled as a backpacker to Pakistan, maybe it is new for some.

Here is my explanation, “Tea is taken in Pakistan more than any other drink. You get a cup of tea made by boiling teal  leafs (patti) in water and mixing with lots of milk (doodh) and sugar anywhere. Those who prefer more milk  ask to boil tea leafs in milk instead of water and call it doodhpatti.”

This is my cup of tea. How you make yours? Read more About Me or ask.

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