Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

In Dyer’s footsteps

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If it were not for the copper mines, Saindak, way out in the backwaters of Balochistan, would never have appeared on the ordinary Pakistani’s mental map of the country. The old town with its collection of scattered huts looks little different from any other Baloch village. But the industrial part is new-fangled with plenty of concrete and metal, clanking lorries and huge dump trucks, the hum of machinery and chimneys with their plumes of ash-white smoke that marks a factory.

Colonel Reginald Dyer’s bungalow, Saindak
Over six hundred kilometres west of Quetta by the railway called the ‘Lonely Line’ by British engineers who laid it, and about twenty north of Koh e Taftan, the last station in Pakistan before the line enters Iran, Saindak lies virtually on the edge of the country. All around it in an arc from the northeast through to the southwest there spreads a desert of wind-sculpted crescents-shaped sand dunes and rocky wastes devoid of all but the lowliest vegetation. In this wilderness there stand isolated cones of extinct volcanoes and jagged peaks burnt to sterility by sulphurous deposits. The bleak grey-brown hills that loom to the west of Saindak are the southern end of the Kacha Koh range which stretches a full one hundred kilometres to the northwest.

In the closing years of the 19th century, Henry McMahon led a Boundary Commission to delineate the borders between Iran, Afghanistan and British Balochistan. It took the Commission a good few years to mark out with border posts this frontier of over three thousand kilometres. This story is told by one of the surveyors with the Commission, G. P. Tate, in his rather interesting account The Frontiers of Baluchistan (sic). Among so many other black and white photos interspersed through the book, there is one of McMahon, Tate and a couple of others lounging by a tall cairn. The caption to the photo: ‘Boundary Pillar 186, Kuh-i-Malik Siah, 1896.’ This pillar, Tate tells us, is situated at the very precise apex where the three countries meet: then British Balochistan, Afghanistan and Iran – now Pakistan and the other two.[Left - Rock graffiti recalling the visit of 106 Pioneers’ Battalion in 1915]

For anyone who has a fetish for maps (like yours truly), the topographical sheets that in the pre-metric days used to be called one-inch maps (because each square represented one mile by one mile) and have since been changed into one-kilometre maps, are the perfect turn-on. Sadly these being meant for military use, they are not easily accessible to lesser mortals. But, thanks to friends in the army, I managed to sneak a peak at the relevant map sheets and saw that the border posts were numbered to No 186 with the count starting somewhere in distant Zhob district. The map also showed that these hills in the apex were detached from the main Kacha Koh and did indeed go by the name of Koh e Malik Siah – as Tate noted. Downward to the southeast of No 186, the pillars counted all over again from No 1.

Geographically speaking, this part of Pakistan is where one can get as far west as possible and yet remain within the country. In fact, this triangle is a full minute of longitude farther west than the one Pakistan makes near Jivani on the seaboard. Any farther west and one can be sent to one’s Maker by an Iranian bullet. But of this later. The dream, then, was to stand where Tate and the others had stood: Boundary Pillar No 186.

That was one, but another thing that drew me to this remote corner of the country was Rabat (incorrectly Ribat in the Atlas of Pakistan), the village that is the most westerly human habitation of Pakistan. This Arabic word corresponds to the Persian sarai and signifies an inn where passing caravans could stop overnight. The habitation growing up around the inn would over time take the name and there are a number of towns in Afghanistan and Central Asia called Rabat. I was attracted to our Baloch Rabat by the possibility of finding a ruined caravanserai or two. [Right - Entrance to the Kharan Rifles fort at Saindak, built 1903]

There is another Rabat up in the Karumber River valley north of the village of Ishkoman in the Hindu Kush Mountains west of Gilgit. But that Rabat is properly marked as Sokhta Rabat – Burnt-out Inn – on early Survey of India maps. The few explorers’ accounts I have read do not recall anyone seeing the blackened hulk of the inn, but surely it must have stood there for a pretty long time, for the name Sokhta Rabat to enter common usage. In one of his trashy books, an ignorant and self-styled Urdu travel writer has corrupted the name to Sokhtarabad and thereby destroyed a little bit of history. Because most people read trash in this country, by and by the real name that holds the memory of the inn’s burning down will be forgotten. A tiny but not insignificant aspect of history will have been destroyed by one ignorant person.

But back in the remote west of Pakistan, there was yet another historical item that led me to Saindak. Four years before he won notoriety by that savage massacre of innocent, unarmed civilians in Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar, Reginald Dyer had been here for eight months. As the First World War got underway, Germany covertly attempted to arm the Damani Baloch people straddling the border with Iran and to incite them to an uprising against the government of India. In August 1914, a small force was dispatched from the 4th Quetta Division to quell the rising nuisance. Within the year however it was expanded and named the East Persia Cordon. In March 1916 Dyer, then a lieutenant colonel, was sent out to command the Cordon.

 The caravanserai of Rabat
Over the next eight months he remained in this region struggling to bridle the untameable Damani tribesmen. Although he operated mostly around the Iranian towns of Khwash and Ladiz, his range extended all the way north to Rabat. But his exertions bore little fruit and with the Damanis refusing to submit, Dyer asked for transfer to Simla from this region of blistering summer heat. His petition records that he was ‘very near the end of [his] tether’ because he suffered from colitis. In plain speak that would mean he had the trots.

His getaway from Saindak in October 1916 was jinxed, however. As he drove out thinking he was looking back on the barren, uninviting loom of Kacha Koh for the last time in his life, he would have thought also of reaching the railhead at Nushki in two days’ time. Then Nushki was as far as the Lonely Line had reached and it was not to make it the Iranian border until 1918. Dyer did not get very far: his car (he had one in 1916!) broke down near Mashki Chah. The direct road from Saindak to this tiny village is unpaved to this day and winding as it does through a waste of sand and rock-strewn desert, it can only be negotiated by a modern four-wheel drive vehicle. Small wonder then that the car made it as far as it did. Dyer returned to Saindak waiting for the car to be repaired. When he set out a second time, it broke down again. This time Dyer was not returning and he completed the journey to Nushki by camel.

 Interior of the serai
Back in the present, I had arranged to travel with a Baloch acquaintance. But for some curious reason he backed out. The worst part being that he did his vanishing act after I arrived in Quetta. I have always maintained that among all the peoples in Pakistan, the Baloch are the most reliable and so this associate, to my mind the only exception to the rule, shall forever remain unnamed. Had it not been for a very good friend in a high place, I may never have made it to anywhere outside of Quetta and so there I was in first-class transport bowling down the newly re-surfaced road westward to the border.

The Kharan Rifles wing commander Lieutenant Colonel Rizwan, for his rank a rather boyish man, saw to it that I was comfy in Saindak. Did I know, he asked, that his office is housed in the bungalow used by Dyer? I had no clue that Dyer had been in Saindak long enough to need accommodation any more substantial than a tent. The pitched-roof house with verandas front and back and buttressed outside walls, sits in the shadow of Saindak Fort. Comprising of a bedroom (now the wing commander’s office) and a sitting room (clerks’ office) with a bathroom in the back and a kitchen that serves as a repository for the wing’s official record, the cottage (scarcely a bungalow) is a smart little structure.

There is no date of construction on the cottage, but the legend above the main entrance of the fort gives the year as 1903, that is, twelve years before the East Persia Cordon was established. Long before the Germans attempted anything, and just as McMahon’s Boundary Commission was completing its delineation, British authorities having established their presence in this remote part of the empire, raised the fort as a symbol of the Raj’s outreach. It naturally warranted an officer for the garrison, therefore I presume the house was also built about that time for the commandant and not later especially for Dyer. But surely in that bedroom this soon-to-be monster would have writhed groaning with the cramps while the cleaning man waited outside the toilet to empty the thunder-box for the umpteenth time and wishing the sahib would return to Ladiz.

It was just as well that Rizwan was heading out for Rabat (his jurisdiction) to inspect security arrangements and I got to travel with him. We drove northwest along the fringe of the Kacha Koh. In the early morning light, mountains that had only the evening before appeared dull grey in the shadows of a setting sun revealed what a wild palette they had been painted with. Here was an orgy of deep reds – the colour of liver pâté, slate greys, sienna and ochre each separated from the other as though by the brush-stroke of the maestro.

Every twenty odd kilometres we passed a Kharan Rifles fortress. Rizwan said these were essential along this much favoured route for Afghan smugglers to move goods into Iran and then through that country further west. The ‘goods’ were uneducated, jobless young Afghans bound for the Middle East job market or for Europe – a darn sight better than being a suicide bomber – and drugs. Though they had to cross a narrow strip of Pakistani territory, the smugglers preferred this route over the more northern routes that pass through flat, open country where it is easier for the Iranian border guards to spot them. Here the harsh terrain of arid mountains and desert make it difficult for the militia to apprehend the smugglers and their merchandise. As well as that, this is the shortest route from Afghanistan to the railhead of Zahedan from where the goods can easily be spirited away.

On our return journey from Rabat, we stopped for a late lunch at the militia post of Kachao in the village of the same name. The militia had invited three elders for me to swap yarns with. The elders were a total disappointment. They had no stories to tell, neither of ancient lovers nor wily angrez officers nor too of heroes who defeated vast armies single-handedly. I tried several angles and they always said there were no tales in their country. This was obviously not true and surely these men must have looked upon me, the Punjabi, with a degree of suspicion. Though heaven knows how I could damage whatever cause they stood for by hearing a tale that has been retold for hundreds of years. My mind flew to the men I know in the Khirthar Mountains of Sindh: perfect fountainheads of timeless stories.

Besides the elders there was another man also. Fortyish Mohammad Khan, I had been earlier told, was a guide for the smugglers. As a local man, he knows the country, every track, every sandpit and each boulder extremely well. And so as the smugglers wait in their vehicles on their side of the border, he rides out on his motorcycle according to a previously arranged timetable. In the gloaming, he leads their small convoy across the desert and onto the narrow trails of the Kacha Koh. At the invisible line where Pakistan ends and Iran begins, Mohammad Khan, collects his wad of payment, waves the smugglers on and putters home to sleep the satisfied sleep of a man who knows he can never be caught.

The trick to staying one step ahead of the law is to lead the smugglers’ convoy from a safe distance of a few hundred metres. If the militia gets wind of his passage and lays an ambush to grab him, a pre-arranged light signal warns the smugglers and they turn around and hightail it back to Afghanistan. But Mohammad Khan has nothing incriminating on his person and he pretends to be on a lonely evening drive through the desert. Meanwhile, as the smugglers turn tail and speed away, the militia, having lost vital minutes because of Mohammad Khan, cannot catch up with the fleeing party.

It’s a bad day for the smugglers in case the militia ambush is not noticed by Mohammad Khan and he putters through without being able to warn his followers. The smugglers are apprehended, but their guide enjoying his evening ride simply goes home to bed. This time there is no wad of money to collect and the man takes it as just one of the hazards of his line of work. No heroics for Mohammad Khan and no need to endanger his life by pleading with the militiamen to free his clients. Soon enough there will be another batch of smugglers requiring his services.

The best part of all this is that right down from the commandant of Kharan Rifles to the common sepoy everyone knows what there is to know about Mohammad Khan. Indeed, he is said to openly confess that he acts as the smugglers’ guide, yet he has never been arrested for he has never ever been caught in the act. He is always out there simply enjoying the ride or looking for a lost camel or sheep. When I asked if I could take his picture, he demurred with a sly smile.

Meanwhile, hurrying on to Rabat we drove in a dry ravine caught between two barren and low ridges. Rizwan said the one on our right belonged to Afghanistan and that we were going smack along the border. Around a bend, he pointed to the chunky building sitting on the ridge in Afghanistan. The two men on the roof, he said, were Taliban for this was their country. No Afghan army soldiers, just plain Taliban like the bad old times. The good Mr Karzai with his fancy shawls and gowns really is no more than the mayor of Kabul.

Indeed, back in Dalbandin I had made inquiries about reaching Boundary Pillar No 186 and the Nazim had said it was difficult of approach from Rabat. The best would be to contact Idu, the Taliban commander, drive through their country in his protection and reach the pillar from the other side. And Idu, I was told, lived either in Afghanistan or anywhere in Pakistan from the town of Koh e Taftan to Rabat. But in the end, the man was not traceable.

The Taliban had never been any trouble, said Rizwan. How could they, I thought, we had midwifed this incubus and this is not where they will unnecessarily raise Cain. With their foreign cohorts they now only look forward to taking over Pakistan and sending us back to the 7th century as they did their own country. In the bargain they hoped to gain control of the country’s nukes and gainfully employing them to put the world, preferably US of A, a few notches back as well. Despite my aversion for those savages, I waved as we passed under their post. Both men waved back.

And then we were in Rabat: an irregular bowl hemmed by utterly barren ridges of dull grey blotched with red and ochre markings. The landscape was dominated by the militia fort sitting on a low knoll and irregularly sprinkled around it were five dust-coloured ruined hulks. The only vegetation, besides the tufts of grass, was two date palms and another pair of trees that I could not identify. There was also a tiny vegetable patch that the militiamen nursed with great care in this arid setting. In the entire prospect of sun-dried mud brick ruins, the militia fort was the only brick and mortar structure.

Rabat was what I had imagined it to be: a caravan stop. The high wall of the largest ruin enclosed an enceinte measuring about a hundred metres square – large enough to hold at least a couple of hundred camels and horses together with their loads. The three walls that still remained were all lined with oblong cubicles whose longer side measured about two and a half metres. It was this caravanserai that gave Rabat its name and when it did business, it would have maintained some sixty of these travellers’ rooms.

In this land of extreme temperatures where winter wind chill can be as low as minus twenty Celsius, the rooms were equipped with rather pretty fireplaces. To hold the searing fifty-five-degree blast of high summer at bay the thick mud brick walls came in right handy. I could not but wonder though where in this harsh landscape would the inn-keeper procure fuel for the hearths.

In the middle of the broad compound was a one-room structure with a partially ruined roof which yet showed it was once a dome. I imagined this to be where the guests would lounge over cups of Shiraz wines as some sweet-voiced young eunuch sang from Omar Khayyam before food was laid out. And here, after the day’s business was done, the guests had retired groggily to their assigned cubicles and the main gate closed and barred, the inn-keeper and his (or perhaps her) helpers dossed down for the night. Then the clang of camel bells and the stamping of horse hoofs would lull the weary travellers to sleep.

A little way off to the east was a smaller structure again with a walled-in compound and a few rooms along one wall. This was very likely a private residence, perhaps even where the inn-keeper’s family resided. On the other side, across from the militia fort, was a structure with the patent Raj veranda with arched openings. The corniced fireplaces inside were also typically European. This, then, would be where the commanding officer of the East Persia Cordon stayed when he visited; and after him whoever came to command the fort of Rabat. Next to this hulk was another that looked like a smaller caravanserai and over to the south was what the subedar of Rabat said had been a church. And beyond the broad, dry river bed, about six hundred metres to the west, nicely blending in with the grey-brown surrounding was the Iranian border fortress.

The Iranians, our subedar said, were an unfriendly lot. They kept to themselves and unlike our men did not even make themselves very obvious. Worst of all, they were a rather trigger-happy bunch. Any movement even on our side of the border, and they let loose with all they had. But they had a black-top road all the way to their fort and twenty-four hours of electricity. This last was recited with just a shade of envy.

When I delivered my little spiel about Boundary Pillar No 186, the subedar said we could get there. And so we walked. Through totally desiccated gorges Rizwan and I followed behind the subedar and his posse of armed men. At one point he pointed to the ridge in front and atop it the whitewashed little pillar stark against the blue sky. That, he said, was No 1. And if we went up there, the Iranians were right likely to open up. But I had no wish to check out our friendly neighbours’ standard of marksmanship and asked about No 186 again.

That was some four kilometres away and we would have to negotiate some pretty steep shingle slopes in order to keep out of Iranian gun sights. It was past two in the afternoon. It would take an hour and a half to reach No 186 and the same time back and we had a meeting with the elders at Kachao. There was not time enough for Boundary Pillar No 186. And so without having taken those magical few steps to cross from Afghanistan into Pakistan into Iran that I had so dreamed about, we turned back.

Taking a different route back to the fort we passed a boulder with graffiti. There were a couple of local names in the Urdu-Persian script, but there was also a bit of history. On top it said ‘106’ with the date ‘15-4-15’ given below. That was when a small force from the 2nd Quetta Brigade had been patrolling this region since the start of WW I in August 1914. It was yet to be expanded to become the East Persia Cordon, but among the units that were part of this brigade was the 106 Pioneers, a battalion of engineers. Besides other tasks, the Pioneers might have been sent to construct the fort and in an hour or so of idleness some good fellow from distant shores and cooler climates would have chipped away at the boulder to preserve just a tiny bit of history. Too bad he did not leave behind a name like his compatriots did on the walls of far off Attock fort.

The English-style stone and clay building presumably built for the commander of the East Persia Cordon. Dyer would have stayed in this bungalow too
The walk of a few steps over the soil of three different countries did not come to pass. But I had been as far west as I could get and still remained in Pakistan. The unfinished part of this journey will be the lure to return to this remote corner of Balochistan.


posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 11 May 2017 at 15:54, Blogger Romana Brohi Shaikh said...

Wow! This is a very well documented experience and the geographical references are helpful. Enjoyed reading it.

At 12 May 2017 at 14:12, Blogger Salman Rashid said...

Thank you, Romana. So glad to know you enjoyed the journey. Stay with the blog.


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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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