Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Malakwal to Gharibwal

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At five minutes after eight every morning the R-474 steams out of Malakwal railway station for Gharibwal nestling under the most easterly escarpments of the Salt Range across the Jhelum river. It is a journey of twenty-two kilometres but the train takes an epic one hour and ten minutes – and that that when it is not delayed en route.
Though there is no First Class on the R-474, Geoff, Andrea, Shabnam and I are getting an even better deal: we are riding with the Assistant Transportation Officer, Zubair Ghouri, in his official saloon car. The fat and jovial Ghouri seems one of those few who are in the right line of work. With a penchant for travelling coupled with an insatiable curiosity he is doing well gallivanting around the country and being paid for it. He seems to have been everywhere that is worth going to and has an inexhaustible repertoire of traveller’s tales. The saloon is a veritable home on wheels with an attendant’s room, a kitchen and a toilet.
The latter is equipped with a folding wash basin and a ceramic WC with the legend, ‘John Levis, Birmingham. Commode No: 1A.’ The main room with its sofa, desk and couch doubles as a working-cum-sitting-cum-bedroom. The couch has a clean, white spread and on the windows printed curtains flutter in the breeze.

The elderly Ticket Examiner and Guard puts his head in to ask if we are ready to go. He is a picture in his crisp white uniform and polished brass badges. This, Geoff says later, is a sure sign of the pride the man takes in his job. Ghouri nods and we trundle out of Malakwal with Ghouri telling Geoff how he refers to some of the current lot of officers as ‘Kale sahibs’ for their pompous affectations. The irony of him saying this as he reclines in regal elegance on his couch is not lost on us.

Past the station of Chak Nina the steel mesh of Victoria Bridge spans the Jhelum. Opened in May 1887 this bridge had to be completely re-girdered on the old piers in 1939 when it proved incapable of taking increased traffic. Now almost sixty years on it looks as good as new. Haranpur just across the river and nine kilometres from Malakwal is made by eight thirty. Here the line splits into three; the one going on to Gharibwal, another to Khewra and the third south to Khushab and Sargodha. Ghouri shouts for his orderly to fetch cold drinks and says that the name Haranpur comes from a time when the surrounding countryside teemed with deer.

I ride in the locomotive and the fireman asks where our friends come from. To him Australia rings of the exotic and he wants to know if the sun ever shines in that strange and esoteric country. He is totally floored upon learning that although the sun does shine in Australia the seasons are in direct opposition to ours. He quizzes me for a while and then gives up with a smile that says he doesn’t trust me.

The bulkhead is a mess of levers and tubes and only one of the several gauges seems to be working. The small windows on either side meant to give forward vision are grimy and the driver and fireman lean out of the doors to watch the line ahead. Outside, cultivation has given way to a great stretch of fallow land through which the track stretches into the distance in a pair of wavy lines. The driver says this is perhaps the original track laid towards the end of the last century and has never been up graded. He may be right about the line never having been upgraded, but he did not know that it was not laid until the 1930s. We roll along the squiggly line at a crawl and the driver laughs and says that any faster and the intense vibration would surely break the locomotive into two.

Gharibwal is indeed picturesque. The station is a wide grassy field with a red water tower and a low building to one side, but there are no platforms. In the background a purple ridge rises to meet the stacked cumulus. We sit in the shade of a banyan tree and chat until we are called into the Station Master’s office for tea.

To one side of the door is an antiquated Morse key caked with dirt but still working and in use. Above it, on the wall, is a clock with the legend ‘Gillett & Johnston, Croydon, 1912.’ And in the back is a sunken safe with a rusty catch and even rustier hinges – disused now for years. Outside in the verandah lies a red scale with a plaque saying that it was rebuilt in the Loco Workshop at Moghulpura (Lahore) back in 1949 when Pakistan Railways still went by the name of North Western Railways.

Across the wide grassy field on the far side of the station rusting and neglected lie a number of wagons and a steam engine that looks like a partly eaten cadaver of some ancient animal. The legend on the side of each one of these tells us that they belong to the Irrigation Department. Fazil, the Traffic Inspector who has accompanied us from Malakwal, says that the Irrigation Department used this rolling stock to cart material from the Gharibwal quarry when they were building Rasul Barrage in the early sixties. With the barrage finished and no more use for the machinery, it was forgotten and allowed to rot. Gharibwal railway station seems to be a place forgotten by time.

Malakwal twenty-two kilometers and over an hour away seems a long way off. The rest of the world even farther away.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 15 August 2013 at 11:39, Anonymous Ayesha N Ali said...

Malakaan tay ghriban da ki mail?

At 15 August 2013 at 11:41, Anonymous Mahwish Shaukat said...

I looked out of the train,
And I suddenly saw the empty station
As we hurtled through, with a hollow roar .....

At 15 August 2013 at 11:56, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The images here reminded me of lovely song, "Ne tut jaen rail gadiye, toon rook liya chan mera."

At 15 August 2013 at 14:21, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is my second trip on this railways that the writer has benevolently taken me along presenting detailed description of this picturesque area. Earlier it was in 70s that I just wanted to see this area nearby my native historical village Mong near Rasul Barrage. If truth be told there has been no change as there is no change in my nation’s attitude for decades except embarrassing reverse progress in every field. The Bridge is well built and really durable since decades from a Civil Engineer’s eye, absolutely.

At 15 August 2013 at 14:25, Blogger Unknown said...

Loved it n looking forward to it soon

At 15 August 2013 at 15:33, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sadly, Pakistan Railways sees to be the story of the past. What are you talking here is a branch line but I see rail service on main line in shambles. Lost hope. Nice to find your blog. Noor

At 17 August 2013 at 00:03, Blogger Lahoremassagist said...

Very romantic. Love the image that is already a rarity.

At 18 August 2013 at 19:18, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, it is that "ne tuut jaen rail gadiye, toon rook liya chan mera."

At 19 August 2013 at 14:07, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Ayesha N Ali, you get a prize for the smartest comment. Well done.

At 3 January 2014 at 04:54, Blogger SAQIB RAHIM said...

Rafiqwal railway station Gharibwal village

At 4 May 2016 at 17:36, Blogger Unknown said...

I just joined the party and going through the previous articles. I am also in love with Railway since my father served Pakistan Railway from 1954 to 1987 as a railway station master and we were almost all the with him during his service. Great work Mr. Rashid. I lived in USA and Canada for 12 years and now I am in Lahore. love to but the books on this subject.
Mubashir at engineer dot com

At 4 May 2016 at 17:37, Blogger Unknown said...

I will suggest if possible short railway map should also be included in it.

At 5 May 2016 at 09:25, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Mubashir, I wrote these stories during the good days of the Pak Rail. We have now closed all lines except three main lines. From some 1240 functioning railway stations at Partition, we are down to only 400. It is only a matter of time that the road transport mafia wins and we lose even these few remaining ones.

At 30 November 2016 at 16:19, Blogger Unknown said...

I am sure Butt Sahibaan will be closing down the left-overs too. Very Romantic Past with a pathetic present and dark future unfortunately.


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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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