Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Railway engineering

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One of the most fantastic railway journeys in Pakistan once used to be north from Sibi, through the Nari River gorge, over the cool heights of Harnai, Nakus and Shareg to the wild west town of Khost. The Nari Gorge is the country of the proud Marri and Bugti peoples of Balochistan. Somewhere near Harnai, the line enters Pashtun lands all the way to Quetta.

And Khost! Oh, what another world it still belongs to. My last outing there was in February 2011, and nothing seemed to have changed since my first visit in 1986. Except, the train no longer ran. Early in 2007, some misguided Baloch had blown up three bridges in the Nari Gorge putting an end to the train service up to Khost. This was mischievous because who, but the Baloch themselves, would have gained from bringing tourists to visit this, the greatest railway engineering feat in Pakistan.

Had they not done the line in, one day –– when peace will return to Balochistan, and if we got our act together –– the Marri and Bugti tribesman could have lived off good earnings from a tourist trade that they cannot even measure: there are thousands of railway buffs in the West who would give anything to experience the adventure of the line north from Sibi.

In 1994, I rode the footplate of the Q-489 that steamed out of Sibi at seven in the morning. For company, friends in high position in the railway had given me a young permanent way inspector (PWI). Now, a PWI (fancy name for line inspector) is a diploma holder either in Civil or Mechanical Engineering who is then trained by the Pakistan Railway at its own institutions before being assigned to the field. He is the man who should know everything about the laying of lines, their gradients and curves. He is the man who ensures that the line is in good fettle.

The PWI, whose name I no longer recall, was not the brightest spark the railway could have offered and I tell you, I have travelled with some stars in my time. Men from traffic inspectors to station masters to drivers who knew everything there was to know about the railway and its functioning.

Somewhere near the hill country northwest of Harnai, riding the contours of the scrub-covered hills, the line skirted a large bowl that sat at a much lower level. There, in the middle of the circular pan, was a small-domed shrine. The original design, according to the PWI, was to take the line down into the depression to save a few miles. But the holy man buried therein cursed the British railway engineers for disturbing his worship.

And so, as the line came abreast to the lip of the depression and work proceeded ahead, something always went wrong. There would be a derailment of equipment, or an accident claiming lives (always British). ‘There were also occasions,’ said my not-so-bright PWI, ‘that a portion of the line into the low ground was magically dismantled overnight.’ Railway authorities pleaded with the saint to let them take their line past his humble home, but the man was adamant: they had to go around, not past his home. Realising that this little demi-god meant what he said, the engineers gave up and the line came to pass along the contours above the bowl.

I asked the PWI if this was a joke or a serious tale. He was quite taken aback that I should distrust the power of the men of God. It was not that, I told him, but his ability as the professional he was supposed to be that I doubted.

Did he ever consider that the gradient from the alignment of the line into and out of the depth would be fifty per cent or more? This was something on which not even the most powerful steam engine of the great North Western Railway (as it was then known) could have hauled a train. The line hugged the contours not because of some non-existent saint’s malevolence. It did so because railway engineering is what it is.

I had the man utterly at sea. He, a PWI, had never thought of it. Logical reasoning, I suppose, does not rise out of in-breeding.

Odysseus Lahori one year ago: 'I have seen Lahore!'

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At 5 September 2014 at 17:21, Blogger Faisal said...

1. As a traveler/ writer Salman Rashid has distinguished himself in ranging far and wide almost all over Pakistan. He has rediscovered and given some hitherto little known places a nice touch of somewhat tarnished history and geography in his narratives. But some how a deeply ingrained contempt for natives mars his otherwise rich accounts. One wonders if he really likes what he is doing or it is just a whining crying descriptions of observing the negative side of people and places he comes across. He looks to be more of a western traveler than a native writer. His abhorrence for indigenous cultures and people mirrors the accounts of some western travelers, who wrote with the jaundiced ink and eye from the detached lofty perch of assumed superiority. Salman Rashid pounds along the native paths with much misery and dark wit, more like a forced march to fame, which he did complete at last. Through his Western monnocular he fails to see the soul of land and its peoples in their true native colors, thus really failing in the end.

2. I believe a native traveler/ writer is bound by loyalty to choose brighter paints to represent his countrymen than the somber and dismal colours for his country canvas. Or perhaps Salman Rashid also fell prey to the Sirens of the West, like so many others of our kind. The vain glory of setting sun has often robbed the sight of eastern eyes.

3. Having traveled to almost all of these places and people I found them to be humane, caring and hospitable, evenly matched to any group of people anywhere in the world. In fact the more you are off the beaten track the more you come across the pure heart of East….untarnished by the materialistic touch of West. My memories of them are not painted in gray colour but are lovely pictures I shall cherish the rest of my life.

At 6 September 2014 at 16:58, Blogger Asim Hafeezullah said...

@Faisal I doubt whether you personally know Salman sb. I do. No one is more widely travelled in Pakistan as he and that too in very humble, plebeian transport. I have not found him to be contemptuous of the land or its citizens. On the contrary he pokes fun at the folly of men.

He writes about humanity, all shades of it. The foolishness, the delusions, the generosity. Why he should temper his entertaining accounts and mold them to conform to some notion of your officially approved travelnama I don't know. If you are uncomfortable, simply don't read him.


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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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