Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Makran Coastal Highway

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Frontier Works Organisation (FWO) have done a lot of good work in the country. But their work mostly goes unacknowledged. But then they got a good man in Lahore as their Public Relations Officer. Major (retired) Husain Qazi has sound notions on what needs to be done and he was fortunate to have Major General Javed Bukhari as head of FWO (currently GOC Swat). Consequently when Husain suggested a coffee table book be written about the Markan Coast Highway (MCH) the project was approved and I was asked to undertake the job.

Now, MCH takes off westward from the old RCD Highway near Uthal which sits about 100 km north of Karachi and stretches almost as straight as an arrow all the way to the Iranian frontier north of Jivani. It thus connects Karachi with Ormara, Pasni, Gwadar and Jivani – coastal towns that were once accessible only by air. Of course you could take the hard bus ride that lasted nearly forty-eight hours from Karachi to Gwadar. But for that you had to be a sucker for punishment.

I was that back in 1987: I rode a lorry from Lasbela to Gwadar. The journey was forty hours and painfully slow. We stopped at two places en route to sleep for the night (or was it one?). I arrived in Gwadar about midmorning on the third day dog tired and with more sand on my person that in the desert around me.

A year earlier, in February 1986, I had ridden another lorry. That time it was a military vehicle ferrying a concrete mixer to an army engineers' camp near the Phor River. That journey of about one hundred and eighty kilometres had lasted fifteen hours. I write all this to underline that in the absence of any roads whatsoever, travel between Karachi and the coastal towns was like being in purgatory to cleanse the soul in a desolate wilderness.

As we set out on the now completed MCH, the mud volcano sacred to the Hindu worshippers of Sri Mata Hinglaj was made sooner than I could imagine. We climbed up to see its caldera (about 12 metres across) brimming with goo and bubbling mildly. This is a complex of three cones within a radius of a hundred odd metres. The one to the south of the largest is dead with an empty caldera about fifteen metres deep. The third to the northeast is a nightmare with a maw about forty metres across with the dark bubbling mud ten metres below the rim of the caldera.

If one were to fall into the thick brew, one would slowly sink in with plenty of time to scream for help without being heard and to consider death in slow motion. An appropriate enough end for many of the enemies of Pakistan who now disgrace the parliament!

Again, even before I knew it, we were at Agore. Back in 1986, Agore had seemed like the far side of the galaxy. It took me some time to reconcile with the new reality: that Agore was no longer at the far edge of the Universe and that you could reach it from Karachi within four hours. Our side trips included an outing to the Hinglaj temple and to Kund Malir.

The temple has grown since my first visit in 1986. It now has pilgrims’ hostels and an office building too. The Maharaj had fantastic stories to tell: Hinglaj was established two hundred thousand years ago! Ormara is so called because the Arabs called their fleet Urmur!

The road through Buzi Pass is a marvel of engineering. Kudos to the officers and men of the Corps of Engineers who toiled in this parched, barren land in the worst possible weather conditions to make it possible. The clay mountains throw all sorts of fantastic shapes at the traveller and it seems quite a wonderland. But only when one is driving through in air conditioned comfort.

In Ormara Husain and I were hosted by the Pakistan Navy. Now, if FWO built the highway, the navy wasted no time in utilising it to full benefit. With the ease of access offered by the road, the navy quickly established a first-class school, college and a cadet college. They also have a modern 50-bed hospital in a country that had neither medical nor educational facilities for sixty-four years of Pakistan’s existence.

Time was when young people from Ormara left home to attend high school in Gwadar or Turbat. College was as far away as Karachi. Time also was when a patient was put on a fishing launch to be taken to the facility at Karachi. On many such occasions, the boat travelled a few hours and without reaching Karachi turned around to bring the dead body home for burial.

I just cannot stop being thankful to the Pakistan Navy for this service to the marginalised people of Makran. And I am not even a Baloch from that area. Imagine the gratitude of the thousands who avail these facilities. The navy knows how to win hearts and minds and it is doing just that.

There is another thing about the navy. Their behaviour with civilians is entirely unlike that of the army, FC militia and Coast Guard. I saw neither officer nor sailor treat local people as if the navy was an occupation army. I have bitter memories of the army’s behaviour in Sindh during the troubles of the 1980s and I have seen it even now in Gwadar. Though we did not meet with any Coast Guard or FC, I heard they are the worst offenders.

We by-passed Pasni for two reasons. One, the day we were leaving Ormara, the weather turned foul. Very high humidity with hot, dusty winds obscuring every physical feature. Secondly, we had wanted to sail to Astola Island, but the sea was way too rough for a small boat. We drove through a brownish haze to Gwadar.

I am no stranger to Gwadar where I have many dear friends. This time I got to know Lieutenant Commander Shakir Baloch (PN) with his sharp sense of humour and we got along famously. The next day we drove to Jivani and Gunz. This latter was a breathtakingly picturesque village in 1987. But progress in the third World probably means taking beauty away. It is now a jumble of brick and cement houses that came up too quickly. In any case, the weather being a bitch, I took no photographs.

The Iranian frontier, now just 700 km and ten hours from Karachi is something that became possible only because of MCH. It is not a regular passport and visa crossing point. Here coals from either side of the border get the rahdari from their respective district administration and can spend a fortnight in the other country. The crossing point was crowded with Iranian Baloch families waiting to cross back. Incidentally, the men we spoke to all spoke Urdu with the Baloch accent and you could hardly tell them apart from Baloch on our side.

The road is up and running and as Rear Admiral Arifullah Hussaini said in Karachi, there is a large and steady traffic of pilgrims heading for shrines in Iran. They have to travel the hazardous RCD Highway through Manguchar and Mastung where anti-Shia terrorists lie in wait to kill. And the bus journey is 650 km and twelve hours to Quetta and then 740 km and fifteen hours to Zahedan. However, if the border at the end of MCH is declared an international crossing, travellers from Karachi will be able to leave home at dawn and have dinner at Chah Bahar.

So what is everyone waiting for?

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 8 October 2013 at 14:57, Anonymous Saima Ashraf said...

Today I am just seeing photoes:)
Lovely picture of the visit. Astola island is really beautiful if the flow of waters allows you.

At 8 October 2013 at 22:52, Anonymous Anonymous said...

useful and interesting story

At 9 October 2013 at 11:03, Anonymous Ramla said...

A little color in drab desert makes it so much colorful. What is the upper image showing? A darbar!

At 9 October 2013 at 11:36, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

The image shows the temple of Sri Mata HInglaj. In Vedic belief it is sacred to Durga, in Muslim to Nani.

At 11 October 2013 at 14:35, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good travel always surprises me. You teach us new things, you change our opinions, and help us see the world in a new way. Thanks.


At 11 October 2013 at 15:22, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you, Jamshed.

At 13 October 2013 at 20:08, Blogger Nayyar Julian said...

That means another book. How soon sir?

At 14 October 2013 at 08:41, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Nayyar, there are several variables in the coming of this book. I finish the manuscript in December, then we see what happens.

At 12 December 2013 at 15:05, Anonymous Hasan Siddiqui said...

Hi. Just wanted to ask how is the security situation througout the MCH till Gawadar, especially if you are a Punjabi. I am from Lahore but just shifted to Karachi and desperately want to travel on MCH but so far have received a mixed travel advice from the ones who have travelled on MCH recently. There are two issues i wanted your advice on 1) I'd be travelling alone (and I am quite experienced at it) and, 2) My car has Punjab number plates so is my CNIC. Thanks a lot in advance

At 12 December 2013 at 15:39, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Punjab registration plates, Punjab CNIC! Man, that's like being in Harlem (NYC), walking up to a 6 foot 6 black man and spitting in his face! No Hasan I would not do it. We had to travel with protection.

At 18 April 2014 at 22:04, Anonymous Awais said...

how is the security situation from karachi to gawadar port...?? for urdu speaking...? and is there any hotels for night stay? or agr hum raste me her point pe thora stay krte hwe jayen to koi prob hogi?

At 19 April 2014 at 06:13, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Awais, the only hotels are in Gwadar. In between there are no facilities. But if you have connections with the army/navy you could stay at Coast guard posts and the navy mess at Ormara. For Sindh CNIC no problem.

At 4 July 2014 at 16:17, Blogger Ilham Bint Sirin said...

Thanks, this is the shit


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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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