Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Lunch from Spin Boldak

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The handsome Colonel Saifullah Khattak, commanding the militia that oversees the border at Chaman, is an old friend. (We served the same Air Defense regiment, though he joined many years after I had left the service.) I should have asked him what Boldak meant, but it slipped my mind. Now, spin is white in Pushto. So what is a white Boldak? As a native Pushto speaker, Saif should have been able to answer the question.

The border gate at Chaman
On the loose again after several weeks of work that wearies but keeps the bread buttered, I had ridden the foot plate from Quetta to Chaman. In railway parlance that means I rode in the engine. This was my second trip to Chaman, the first being in 1993, and both times I was fortunate to be permitted into the locomotive and as we trundled across the Balochistan landscape, the sights seemed to have changed little in the past eighteen years.

Card players in the veranda of Chaman Railway Station
Only the evening before, when I casually mentioned to two other army friends in Quetta that I was on my way to Chaman, I was told of Saif. I asked them to call ahead and when I left the train at the Chaman railway station, there was a man with a sign: Maj (retd) Suleman. Though I successfully made lieutenant from captain after once having made captain long after even two years my juniors were promoted, I never made it to major. I just wasn’t the stuff. And sure enough, Punjabis and Pushtuns simply do not hear my name. It is always Suleman. Oddly enough, Baloch and Sindhis do not suffer from this hearing problem.

Having breakfasted at six thirty, I was famished now seven hours later. Saif called his man and ordered lunch: all sorts of meat dishes. I winced, but did not tell him that I had gone vegetarian two decades ago. Then he asked if I had ever been to the border. I hadn’t. ‘Let me take you to the border and we can order lunch from Spin Boldak in Afghanistan,’ Saif said as he called for the man again to announce the change of plan. Food from Afghanistan without having to cross over would be a novelty and I happily succumbed to the projected orgy of meat-eating.

But first we climbed up the ancient ladder to view the scenery from the crenulated walls of the Chaman militia fort. A few kilometres to the westward, a cloud of dust marked some activity. That was the border crossing on the Durand Line as marked out by McMahon and his team in the closing years of the 19th century. My interest lay in the numbered border posts that carry on along this line. However, Saif said there were none of those old posts remaining.

A lofty gatehouse emblazoned with the words ‘Friendship Gate’ flying three Pakistani flags and a giant image of Mr Jinnah marked the crossing. A marble plaque recorded that the gatehouse was built in 2008. Saif and another officer led me up the stairs to the observation rooms in the gatehouse. On the far side, a couple of dozen Pakistani lorries waited. Afghan Transit Trade, said Saif. The men and the buildings were the same, only they drove on the wrong side of the border. In the background we could see the houses and few trees of Spin Boldak where our lunch was coming from.

Unlike our borders with Iran and India, there were no barbed wire fences; only a shallow ditch and a low wall of the earth turned up. There was no frenetic activity as I have seen on the three occasions I crossed into Afghanistan from Torkham. The mad hubbub of people scurrying back and forth with the border guards seeming not the mind them at Torkham, this was a rather quiet crossing. Only a few pre-teenage boys idly trundled their wheelbarrows this way and that. Older men with sacks on their shoulders too casually came and went.

A beat up old Suzuki Mehran, that apparently refused to run, was being pushed across the border into Afghanistan. Another equally battered car of the same make and colour followed under its own steam. No one seemed to be checking them for export papers or anything else. No one seemed bothered. In this respect at least, things were quite like Torkham.

Even as we reached Friendship Gate, I had noticed that the way through it was closed and barricaded. I presumed it being Friday; the officials were taking off for a post-prayer siesta. But then, everyone seemed very much at ease walking around the gatehouse. I must have looked confused and, smart of him, Saifullah solicited the information unasked. Since the Afghans did not accept the Durand Line, they refused to use the gateway preferring to cross over at any old place. That was sound Pushtun logic and the arrangement was respected by both sides. Witnessing this irregular set up at a regular, unrecognised border then was the highpoint of this visit.

Since local people casually crossed the border, I asked Saif if I could hop over and grab a ride to Kandahar. Only if I was suicidal, said he. But if I came with a visa duly stamped in my passport, he could hook me up with a native Kandahar man who could be my guide. That would not be a bad idea.
Moreover, from the walls of Chaman fort I had earlier seen the snow-capped peak of Khwaja Amran and Saif had mentioned the shrine on the summit. Having checked out some other mountain-top shrines, I was intrigued. Could this too be an ancient Dharti Mata shrine, converted to suit Muslim sensibilities?

Chaman Railway Station
The next trip out then will be to climb Khwaja Amran before the snow melts and then cross the border to Kandahar. I know it will never be like Herat, a city to die for. But even dusty old Kandahar will, I am sure, be every bit worth it.

Oh yes, the meat-eating orgy turned out just fine. After we were finished, I having polished off all the barbecued ribs that Saif piled on my plate, I told my friend how long I had been a vegetarian. But vegetarianism is something few Pushtuns approve of and Colonel Saifullah Khattak was suitably appalled.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 28 May 2014 at 19:05, Anonymous m said...

Sir i never visited Chaman however after going through the article , I have learnt a lot regarding Chaman and its geography

At 29 May 2014 at 08:54, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you, M.


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