Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Ghost Town!

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Wind soughing through mesquite bushes. Somewhere an unseen door creaking and rattling in the breeze. The crunch of our two pairs of feet on the gravel path. Otherwise all is silent amid the unpeopled buildings. The quiet is broken only when a pick-up truck loaded with people goes breezing along the unpaved road that passes through the rows of derelict structures.

As we had driven in the open gateway, Kashif and I had half expected to be challenged by a watchman. But none came. Not even from the walled-in lodging just inside of the gateway that showed some signs of habitation. Kashif had his driver carry on right across the built-up area and turn left towards the river. There, a hundred metres short of the bank, by a couple of dilapidated rooms, we found a motorised cabin slung over steel wire ropes with two pairs of eight-wheeled trolleys. The ropes, going over a two-legged pylon, were stretched clear across the river to a similar arrangement on the far bank.

We climbed in. Other than the dust, the Leyland engine that powered the cabin looked pretty nifty. I imagined all one had to do was open up the injectors, pour in some lubrication in the cylinders, let it stand a day or so, fit in a new battery, hit the starter and the engine would go. Kashif’s driver fiddled with the gear lever, which refused to budge, and declared that the machine was dead. Leyland diesel lorries were passé so far as Kashif was concerned. But that was all right, for boys (girls never cared for such things) start noticing brand names on lorries when they are about seven or eight and by the time Kashif arrived, Leyland lorries in Pakistan had indeed all been junked. We had moved on to Japanese makes. I remembered them however from the sixties – especially the snub-nosed Leylands.

The chassis below the cabin had three hooks. It was then we realised that the boxcar in almost new silver paint parked some fifty metres away was hitched below the cabin and when the Leyland-powered contraption was not hauling equipment across the river, it ferried people in that neat little car. But these would not have been ordinary commuters going back and forth; these would have been people with a specific purpose. These would all have been engineers, geologists, soil experts, electricians, and mechanics. You name the trade, they would all have been there, for these were the men required to build Kalabagh Dam.

The winches that took the ropes were in the pit behind the ramp for the motorised cabin. These too were in prime shape with the paint still looking new. Only the grease on the spools and ropes had set to a hard rock-like consistency. The legend on the axle of the winch told us the machinery came from Butterfields of London and Halifax. It also said that it could life eight tons.

When Kashif Noon, who works for the Postal Department, was transferred to Mianwali recently, he said the most exciting item he had seen in his district was the abandoned colony established for the staff the Kalabagh Dam Project. His description made it sound like something out of film and that was enough to betake me out to Mianwali which is, from Lahore, harder to reach than Timbuktu.

The colony lies north of Kalabagh town, by a road that was specifically built for it. As one travels this winding black ribbon now falling to pieces through the brown hills anticipation builds up: to reach a ghost town, a road that passes through several miles of unpopulated and wild country. En route we passed a smaller walled-in colony also built for the same purpose, also abandoned, but with a padlocked gate. We paused briefly and contemplated climbing over the wall, but gave up and carried on.

Another few miles and we were inside the gateway of our colony where buildings bordered the gravelly road. To our left were family quarters and to the right the offices and bachelors’ quarters. All ruinous with broken doors, missing panes and empty, littered rooms.

If the cross-river cable car had looked new, the yellow crane behind the two Core Box Sheds was even newer. Only its tyres were completey deflated and perhaps rotten. It seemed to have been in service only sparingly. Nearby the tarpaulin-covered air conditioning plant of the padlocked laboratory was equally prim. From the dusty windows we could see shiny new gadgets that appeared to be weighing scales and shelves lined with all sorts of beakers and dishes they use in chemistry labs. The Core Box Sheds captivated us: their roofs had caved in and their large sliding doors were padlocked. From a chink in the door we could see shelf after shelf in rows and tiers all lined with wooden crates each holding several cylinders filled with samples of earth that had been bored deep out of the crust.

Kashif said if they could have so many thousands of core samples, a good deal of preliminary work must already have been done on the building of Kalabagh Dam. I couldn’t have agreed more. I wondered how many of those thousands of samples stored there were tested in the lab before work was abandoned years ago. Kashif suggested I ought to go back and find out from the concerned WAPDA department when work was stopped and the colony abandoned. I agreed, but later gave it up as a futile exercise. All that matters, so far as I am concerned, is that a good deal of the nation’s money was used up and then nothing came of it.

We worked out way over to the Officers’ Hostel. The building makes a hollow square with an open grassy plot in the centre. Through broken doors we went in to check out the rooms. The switchboards were broken, but the lampshades on most walls were still intact. In the recesses between the two sides of the wardrobes many looking glasses still had the sticker that said that the glass was manufactured by Avon of Belgium. The dusty fittings in the toilet had no markings, but we were convinced that they two were imported.

As were pottering about one of the married officer’s quarters, the watchmen who we could hear loudly talking in their quarters came around to investigate. If it hadn’t been for Kashif with his civil servant’s demeanour I would surely have been marked as an Indian spy and my camera perhaps confiscated. But now the two men were talkative: the place was all right, one of them said, until the army and the militia moved in. I very nearly blurted out that even the country was in pretty good shape until the army got its hands on it, but sensing that the man was a retired soldier kept my mouth shut. When they left, the man continued, the place was in a shambles.

The erstwhile presence of the militia explained the graffiti in the kitchen of the accommodation we had been exploring: the phrasing and style of the Urdu film songs was clearly of a native Pukhtu speaker – which most of the soldiers of the militia are. Kashif gave perspective to the military presence. Many years ago Nawab Muzaffar Khan of the powerful Kalabagh family, he reminded me, was gunned down in cold blood not very far from this colony. Whatever the cause of that heartless and dastardly act, following it, this part of the country hastened to anarchy. The militia was called out and there being no other billets; they put up in the abandoned Kalabagh Dam colony.

The watchman then pointed out the tin parasol up on a hill to the southeast. If we climbed up there, said the man, we would be able to see where the dam would be – if it is ever built, and how the lake would stretch out. We drove up the winding road. The view was remarkable: the blue arc of the great Sindhu made a lazy curve to the left and disappeared behind the low hills. In the middle distance, a gash in the left bank marked the inflow of the Soan River. Distance lent the vile Soan a benign blue appearance. But the Soan is not toxic for some natural fault. It has been pumped full of the effluent of Islamabad and Rawalpindi by our unthinking municipal administrators. May the good God above never smile upon them! Once a living stream teeming with aquatic life, it is now a stinking, dead sewer. Even as we watched from the vantage of the high bank, we could sewage floating on the water near our bank.

Immediately below us was a small mound of whitewashed rocks, the first of a straight line of similarly washed boulders stretching to the river and across on the far bank as well. Kashif said this marked the line of the dam. This was where the giant dyke would go up whenever it did. Upstream of it the lake would stretch out for heaven knows how many miles. Makhad, that magical little village, smack on the left bank of the Sindhu would be drowned. As indeed a number of other habitations. I wondered if distant Sojhanda would go too. And what of that enchanted place called Bata with its deserted houses made of red sandstone blocks, where those magnificent shisham trees shade a bubbling spring of good clean water.

These are only places on the Punjab side of the river. There are equally interesting little villages across the river as well. Of them I only know Nizampur and Khushalgarh. But I lament the drowning of that magnificent span of the Khushalgarh railway bridge. No longer will the Kohat-bound train from Rawalpindi go thundering across its steel trusses. The next few generations will grow up without knowing there was a rail connection between these two towns.

As we viewed the surrounding from our vantage, Kashif pointed out that, given the kind of topography it is situated, in it would very nearly impossible for the best engineers in the world to take canals off the dam: all around is a country of low hills. Rolling here, jagged there, but hills everywhere in every direction. And yet politicians who have probably never left the comfort of their drawing rooms carp on about the possibility of the Sindhu downstream of the dam drying up in consequence of the water that the Punjabis will skim off at Kalabagh.

So far as the two of us, non-technical tourists, I must confess, could see there was no possibility of canals leaving Kalabagh Dam. And we had not gone out there to either vindicate or indict proponents or opponents of the dam. We were simply there to explore the ghost town. The dawning of this truth was purely incidental.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 25 July 2014 at 21:29, Blogger Nayyar Julian said...

Canals cant come out. Does this have a bearing on controversy of the Dam?

At 28 July 2014 at 16:46, Blogger Pat said...

Very evocative, Salman. It would be interesting to know what the village people think now that they have been saved the trauma of getting relocated.

At 29 July 2014 at 08:21, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you, Pat. Have considered going out to Makhad to speak with people on this subject. Haven't done so far. Perhaps in November. It would be a great two-day motorcycle trip.


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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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