Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Chhappar: born of an earthquake

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About a hundred and fifty kilometres north of Sibi, there sits on a roughly east-west axis an elongated hill the shape of a gigantic Swiss Roll. At some remote point in time, much beyond the span of human memory, a cataclysmic earthquake split this hill into two almost equal halves. Down this roughly hundred-metre wide crack known as the Chhappar Rift there now flows a small stream from the north to the south. Depending on the weather, this can either be a raging torrent during the rains or a mere trickle otherwise.
Throughout the long and creative passage of time, this great crack was part of a byroad from the plains of Sindh in the south to the valley of the Zhob River in the north. For an ancient traveller heading from a Sindhi town through Sibi for, say, Gardez or Ghazni, this was the shortest route. Closer to our times, we know that from about the middle of the 18th century, the Hindu merchants of Shikarpur, celebrated for their diligence and honesty, were trading as far away as Bokhara, Samarkand and Saint Petersburg. The Chhappar Rift, being the shortest connection between Sindh and those northern towns, was a frequent route.

Were the river in the Rift in spate, caravans took the longer, dusty and winding road up the contours of the mountains abutting the Rift. But when it was low, which was most of the time, the laden camels and horses easily sloshed along the clear stream.

The middle of the 19th century saw the outbreak of the Great Game, the imperial struggle between Russia and Britain for the control of Central Asia. Railway travel was just coming into its own and both powers recognised it as the fastest way of moving large bodies of troops across great distances. Consequently, both nations were in a frenzy of building the railways in their respective spheres of influence.

When the first railway steamed into Quetta in March 1887, it had chugged up from Sibi along the old caravan route. Past the picturesque orchards of Harnai and Shahreg, the line crossed the Rift by a dramatic bridge some sixty metres above the valley floor. British railway engineering has endowed the subcontinent with some remarkable pieces; this great stitch across the crack was certainly one of the more heroic among them.

The line was ostensibly laid for the greater public good, and while it did serve that purpose, it also transported troops to the borders of Balochistan and Afghanistan. Since centuries past, this had been a peaceful breach in the hills. It had remained the trader’s crossing and, because it lay far off the invader’s line of march, there is no record of armies coming down on Sindh this way. Now in the 1880s, for the first time Chhappar Rift was used for military purpose also.

The building of the railway through the Chhappar Rift put paid to the caravan traffic which took to using the faster, more convenient facility. But fortune did not favour this line. The hills through which it wended its lonely way were unstable and given to landslides during rains. Early in July 1942, a cloudburst caused a breach in the line. The line was abandoned and uprooted shortly afterward. No tears were shed because the railway through the Bolan Gorge to Quetta was already working.

How to get there: Connected with the rest of the country by air and surface, Quetta is a convenient base camp for an excursion to the Chhappar Rift. Though most of road is metalled, the few kilometres near the Rift warrant a 4x4 vehicle. Taking the road north to Ziarat, leave it at Kach and bear right or due east by the ruinous roadside watch tower. Thence the shingle road (in March 2010 it was being tarmacked) follows the old railway line bed with ruined bridges and tunnels all the way to the Swiss Roll hill. The crack of the Chhappar Rift cannot be missed as one descends on the south side. Owing to the uncertain situation in 2010, it is advisable to seek advice from the District Coordination Officer (DCO). A levies or FC guard may be necessary.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 08:00,


At 18 April 2013 at 13:52, Anonymous Samad Khan said...

Pleasure to read original and thought-provoking travel stories here. Even more glad the some people actually travel before hey write.

Every one else seems to be churning our old stuff we already know.

At 18 April 2013 at 17:36, Blogger Sajini Chandrasekera said...

Lovely read ,thanks


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Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

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