Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

On a track less travelled

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On the twenty-fourth day of May 1883, the Sindhu River was bridged at Attock. The magnificent new steel structure stood within sight of the medieval fort built by Akbar the Great and over this bridge, the first through train from Lahore rolled on to Peshawar. Within the next two decades, new bridges spanned the mighty river again at Khushalgarh, Sukkur and Kotri and most of the railway network that Pakistan inherited at the time of independence was complete.


There is the ‘main line’ that most of us know of that runs from Peshawar to Karachi through Lahore. And there are other lines that only the most ardent railway enthusiast has ever heard of. There is one line that I had long known from hearsay for its very fine railway architecture deemed to be well worth travelling along. This is the railway connection between the towns of Attock up on the Potohar Plateau and Daudkhel in the foothills of the southwestern part of the Salt Range near the more famous Kalabagh.

Laid in the 1890s, the line passes through low hills traversing a number of tunnels, crossing several seasonal streams, some of which meander along the bottom of deep gorges spanned by handsome bridges. It had been said that this line has a full complement of some very fine examples of railway architecture. The most magnificent and dramatic among these was the Soan River railway bridge. Having spent a good part of my life hunting railway heritage, I had harboured the dream of seeing this bridge. And so when young Ashfaq Tabassam of the railways offered to take me for a ride in the guard’s brake on a Daudkhel-bound freight train, I had no reason to pretend being caught up in more pressing business.

We joined the train at the outer signal of Attock station and I got to ride in the locomotive with the hugely bearded Hameed Shah and his unshaven sidekick Hamid Nawaz. Hameed was a third generation railwayman and a veteran of thirty-two years on the line. His years in the service had been spent piloting trains in the Peshawar railway division where he said boys still routinely stone passing trains.

The most harrowing experience of his entire career came the day after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. He was marshalling a freight train at Taru Jabba railway station between Peshawar and Nowshera when an angry mob approached the yard. They meant business because they came armed with clubs and burning brands. Already behind them, Hameed Shah saw columns of smoke rising from their arson.

He had a rake full of transit trade goods on their way to Afghanistan and if the mob were to have its way, Pakistan would suffer not only a bad name, but heavy fiscal loss as well. The signal had only just gone down when a rock came crashing through the glass window of the locomotive. With a bleeding forehead and several cuts on his face and hands from splintered glass, Hameed Shah shifted the throttle lever from notch 1 to 4. The engine roared and surged ahead.

Even as the mob rushed forward brandishing lighted faggots and clubs, the train had picked up enough speed to deny them boarding. Some miscreants flung their lighted brands but none came into the cabin from the shattered window and no damage was done. Hameed Shah brought his train safely into Peshawar. Had some of the crowd managed to get on board, it is certain that the driver and his assistant would have at best got the beating of their lives. And it could have been worse. Better still, our man had heroically saved a full train worth millions of dollars. Yet there was no appreciation, no recognition of the service done by the conscientious man.

We rolled over the Shakardara Bridge. In March last year when I went over it in a motor trolley with Ashfaq, the river was like an elongated lake. The previous summer had seen good rains and the dammed river was full. This time around, it was drained with dry, cracked mud along the thin line of water at the bottom.

Since we had ‘done trolley’ (to use railway parlance) as far as Besal, all this was déjà vu. Ahead of Besal was uncharted railway territory for me. Jand railway station with its landmark water tank of red walls, red pitched roof, sitting atop the brilliantly whitewashed square base that served as the Light Room was unusual. I do not recall a water tank sitting on the platform on any other station.

Makhad Road Station was a treat, however. It still keeps its old world charm. And I say this because it is shaded by two blessed ber trees, two shishams, and a date palm that Kamran Lashari has nothing to do with. These are the trees we, the people of this good land, planted before the eucalyptus was foisted upon us. Of course, the date palms and other imported species that fetch venal horticulturists of the government huge kickbacks came much later.

The station at Makhad is a single blockhouse with a shallow veranda on three sides. The front is draped with jasmine, which was in full bloom when we passed through. Behind the station are some ruinous buildings. Meant for station masters and passing railway officers, they are now mere hulks, disused and aggressively forgotten by those who should have been using them. Yet they refuse to crumble to dust. No one pauses to admire their archways with the keystones, the corbelling beneath the ventilators, the stylised arches above them and the solid pillars that hold up the verandas. This was architecture built to last, yet we did not care for it. But sooner than later, they will be replaced with new structures built by crooked contractors to last only two decades.

A few kilometres south of Makhad Road sits the Soan Bridge Station on the left bank of the Soan. For some curious reason the British spelled the name ‘Sohan’ and so while the river, its valley, its other bridges and everything else connecting with it is spelled Soan (pronounced Swan with a nasal ending), the station continues to be Sohan here.

The whitewashed station is a beauty with a central block flanked by two wings and a veranda curving in a half circle around the front. Its frontage has nevertheless been blighted by seven or eight eucalyptus. No one ever thought of planting the beautiful Acacia modesta (phulai) indigenous to the area, which grows so well here because corrupt forest officials have taught us to believe that eucalyptus is the only tree that will grow in Pakistan. My non-stop wheedling got the Station Master to promise to replace them with phulai and shisham. We shall see if the man keeps his promise.

About fifty metres behind the station stand the auxiliary buildings. The quarters for the lower staff and the two bungalows, one for the Station Master and the other perhaps for visiting officers. The buildings are identical to those seen at Makhad and equally derelict.

The prize here is the bridge, however. Years ago when my dear friend Mian Mumtaz Ahmed was still in the railways, we had promised each other to travel by his saloon, unhitch at Soan Bridge and spent the night there sitting under the stars watching them trace their courses across the vault and savouring the distant yelp of the fox and the hoot of the owl. That never happened, but the bridge, of which I had only read somewhere, never left my imagination.

The river itself, which has for the past few decades sadly borne the effluent of Islamabad and Rawalpindi and perhaps a few more villages, is curiously coloured either sulphur yellow or a strange blue as it flows in a wide bed through a deeply cut gorge. But despite the poison its waters carry, its beauty remains untainted – even though the birds that would have haunted a pure waterway are no more. Would that, we as a nation had better sense and would let our streams run pristine so that one could swim in the Soan or angle for its once famed mahasher.

The seven steel spans of the ‘Sohan River Bridge’ sit on six massive brick piers that taper to the top. Oblong in shape, the piers rise no less than fifty metres above the foul water of the Soan. The tops of the piers are deeply notched for the reinforcing cantilevers of the line to sit in while the bottoms rest on heavy looking bases. This bridge is not just a pretty piece of civil engineering; it is the highest rail bridge in Pakistan today.

Years ago, this honour rested with one on the line north from Sibi. Beyond Khost, in the spectacular, yawning maw of the Chappar Rift, the Louise Margaret Bridge was among the most heroic feats of railway engineering in the entire subcontinent. When trains ran across it, they rumbled over the chasm sixty-five metres above the the valley floor. But early in July 1942, Louise Margaret was done in, closed forever by a massive rainstorm that washed away a length of line in the Rift.

Remote as it is, Soan Bridge Station keeps an eerie yarn in its solitude. Zafar Qureshi, the Station Master from Jand who had ridden with us, is the keeper of this tale. Many years ago, when he was still a young man, he was sent over to this station in an emergency to fill in for the sudden departure of the incumbent.

The night before the hapless man had been stabbed and killed in his sleep. When Qureshi arrived, the body lay on the charpoy as the murderer had left it. The perpetrator of this foul deed was never discovered, nor the reason for it known and the case was soon forgotten – as it still happens in this blighted land. Only, after a passage of nearly two decades, Qureshi cannot get the sight of the flies crawling in and out of the dead man’s nostrils. He took me around to the bungalow to show me where it had happened. But neither of us went in. We stood by the window, looking in, as he told me where the dead man had lain all those years ago.

We rolled on to Daudkhel past the Massan railway station. If ‘Sohan’ River Bridge station had seemed forlorn. Massan, south of it, was ever more so: just the whitewashed building gallantly sitting where it has for the past one hundred and twenty years without any sign of human habitation within sight. The Station Master stood on the platform his green flag outstretched and our train clattered through. We did not pause to savour the romance of Massan.


If young Ashfaq Tabassam can make things happen, this line will soon emerge from its ‘forgotten’ status. He has worked hard to run a train safari from Rawalpindi to Daudkhel and our ride with the freight train was a sort of reconnaissance. The first tourist train may not run before the end of summer, but there are ambitious plans for it. When that train goes, I will be on it. If only to spend some time at Massan.

Related: Wheels of Empire - Book of Days 2012 

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 12:00 AM,

6 Comments:

At October 5, 2015 at 4:25 PM, Blogger TARIQ said...

A brilliant narration of a journey along some of the remotest sections of the Pakistan railways. Romance of age old railway stations and bridges is captivating, but essentially it is a tribute to the courage, tenacity and outstanding technical skills of the British engineers who accomplished this challenging undertaking for their empire. A very interesting read indeed.

 
At October 5, 2015 at 5:19 PM, Blogger Naeem Akram said...

When I spend winter nights in my village(Gujrat) I love to sleep on roof top. The night sky is magical and stars look splendid. I believe it would look even more wonderful when seen from the Soan bridge.
On a side note: Can you please make an online Pakistani retailer sale your books? I often buy books from Liberty Books and Readings. None of the two shops sell your books online sadly.

 
At October 5, 2015 at 8:53 PM, Blogger Brahmanyan said...

I wonder why did we discard good old steam engine ? They are real beauties.

 
At October 6, 2015 at 11:48 AM, Blogger Salman Rashid said...

We have no sense of history here. That is why everything old is being discarded or scrapped.

 
At October 6, 2015 at 11:55 AM, Blogger Salman Rashid said...

Naeem, you can mail order my books from www.sangemeel.com. You can also call them at 042-3722-0100

 
At October 6, 2015 at 11:56 AM, Blogger Salman Rashid said...

Thank you, Tariq. Glad that you enjoyed.

 

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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