Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Peshawar and back – in a Jiffy

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My friend Raheal Siddiqui who works for the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa government as Secretary Excise and Taxation was returning to work after the Eid break. I, ever the one who hates driving, thought I should tag along. And I had a reason: the ordinary journey between Lahore and Peshawar is now one of extreme tedium.

Consider: trains do not exist. Or if they exist they can be days behind schedule. So my one-time favourite of getting on Khyber Mail at night from Lahore and sleeping through in air conditioned comfort as you chugged northwest is now a distant dream. You woke at Peshawar cantonment railway station early morning and rested as you were could work through the day. But now, I’d be a fool to rely on the Khyber Mail. Originating in Karachi and travelling all of 1500 km with the average rate of going late being thirty minutes for each one hundred kilometres travelled, the train generally arrives half a day behind schedule.

The other thing was PIA. In my army days at Peshawar (1977-78), there was a daily evening flight between Peshawar and Lahore. Then they cut down to four a week and until last reports there was only a Monday afternoon flight from Lahore to Peshawar. Now, there is no air connection.

As for Daewoo, this otherwise fine service considers travellers between Peshawar and Lahore children of a lesser god. There is no direct service between the two cities. You get on at Lahore and stop at Rawalpindi for thirty minutes. Then you leave the motorway and stop at Nowshera for thirty minutes and eventually arrive Peshawar about eight hours after leaving Lahore.

My only option was driving myself to Peshawar. But if there is anything I hate more than driving it is driving. So, I considered myself lucky Raheal was there to give me a ride.

The mission is to photograph the Malakand Canal which is a marvel of Raj canal engineering. It takes off near the confluence of the Swat-Panjkora rivers and near Battkhela is driven under the mountains to emerge south of the tortuous Malakand Pass. On this side of the divide it turns vast areas of the Yusufzai Plain into the most fertile farmland.

What a marvellous, admirable and ingenious piece of engineering this was: to take a canal under a mountain. It is this I am on my way to photograph for next year’s PPL Book of Days on the subject of the irrigation system built by Raj engineers.

Raheal said he’d collect me at 5:30 AM and since we travelled together before more times than both of us can count, I thought he would be on time. Raheal arrive fifty minutes late. I should have taken that as a sign from high on and refused to go. But we went. Raheal is a story teller and there were yarns galore. Of course much was said about our common chum Rizwan Mehboob who was, for a short while in 2013, the DCO of Lahore. His ears much have been singed.

A short break at Bhera and then we were off again. I have no recollection of Raheal manoeuvring the Salt Range curves and sometime after that, I reclined the seat and told him I had to take a nap. The strong, black large mug of caffeine at 5:15 in the morning was now beginning to wear off. Several times I was roused by my own snoring, but the caffeine slump was so strong that I could not even get myself upright. And I hate the Styrofoam cup of tea so I didn’t ask Raheal to stop. Moreover, Raheal is a total non tea drinker. The man does not ever drink tea or coffee. (Is that some kind of life?)

At one point Raheal said we were almost in Peshawar and I raised myself enough to see the sign post say, ‘Peshawar 44’. I went right back to sleep waking up twice more in the next twenty minutes to my own snoring. We drove straight to the government Mehman Khana to Raheal's lodgings. Knowing my friend’s aversion to tea or coffee, I had my own heating rod and tea and coffee. After a very strong mug of coffee we went to the secretariat.

In Lahore the monsoon moisture in the air tempers even mid-afternoon sunshine. In Peshawar, the sun was fierce as fierce can be. It actually burned right through skin and bones. Peshawar is now only a winter and spring city. The latter when the roses bloom is a time that you’d think you were in heaven.

Akbar Khan, the secretary Irrigation is a fine gentleman, very helpful and kind. But it turned out I would have to wait three days in Peshawar before I could meet with the concerned engineers to actually understand how the Malakand Canal worked. Even as the good man was talking to me, my mind was crazy with schemes of what I would do over the next three days. But when I travel in K-P, I go in shalwar-kameez. This time around I was in pants and didn’t want to go loitering around the Meha Sanda ruins in Swabi and be taken as a very dark angrez. This, by the way, is known to have happened more times than I care to remember.

If I just stayed in Raheal’s room, I’d simply go crazy with too much time on my hands. Also, the book I was reading was nearing the end and though Raheal has a goodly collection and our reading interests quite overlap, I knew the worry of wasting three days would not keep me long in reading mode.

I bolted. Raheal’s driver got me to the Daewoo terminal where I learned there was little chance of getting on the 3:30 PM service. The next was three hours after that. And if I could not get on that, I was doomed. I hired a car and came to the Daewoo terminal at Rawalpindi where the coaches for Lahore leave more than once an hour.

There are times when I think I may not be the brightest light on the roads of Pakistan. And the afternoon of 4 August 2014 was one. I reached the Rawalpindi Daewoo terminal at 3:45 PM and waited to board on chance. At 5:30 it suddenly occurred to me that I could try PIA. I called and learned that the 5:30 flight being delayed for over an hour; I could get on it because of some cancellations. Now the driving time by taxi from the Daewoo terminal to the airport is about an hour. And so it did not work for me.

In that over-crowded basement waiting room of Daewoo where the air conditioning did not work, I wanted to kick myself in the butt. And hard. I was even tempted to ask someone to do it for me. Why on earth did I not think of PIA as I was drawing into Rawalpindi?

I eventually got on the 6:00 PM coach and reached home at about 11:30. And if you did not know that you can get a busted arse from sitting down all day, I assure you, you can. And in a pretty bad way too.

Odysseus Lahori one year ago: Foreign Invaders Through Afghanistan

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 10:46,


At 5 August 2014 at 11:41, Blogger Faisal said...

Dear Salman,
Nice writeup.You have started looking like a lemur.Regards.

At 5 August 2014 at 14:54, Blogger Rehan Afzal said...

If only I had known you were in town....

At 5 August 2014 at 15:13, Blogger Memoona Saqlain Rizvi said...

A terrible journey...,"Sometimes shit happens"(Forest Gump)

At 5 August 2014 at 19:48, Blogger Nayyar Julian said...

But you carved a beautiful story out of this journey too. That is a writer sir. Well done. Love this.

At 6 August 2014 at 13:19, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Yes, Memoona. This was another one of those Shit Happens situations.

At 6 August 2014 at 13:19, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

I'll be back next Monday, Rehan.

At 6 August 2014 at 13:19, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thanks, Nayyar. Appreciate your support always.

At 7 August 2014 at 18:17, Anonymous Amardeep Singh said...

Is it that hard to get to Peshawar?

At 9 August 2014 at 08:33, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Less than 500 km, Amardeep. It is difficult because of a totally collapsed railway system. Otherwise the Khyber Mail was a fine and reliable train. PIA has discontinued service between Lahore and Peshawar and no other airline provides this connection. By own car and Motorway, it takes about 5 hours. But the best coach service takes six and a half. I hate driving - even by Motorway and so it is difficult for me.


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My Books

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

Books at Sang-e-Meel

Books of Days