Balochistan was the greatest railway adventure there was in Pakistan. It drubbed the much-flaunted Khyber Pass train by miles. I wish I could talk of it in the present tense, but sadly that is not the case. It was once a great railway adventure.
There was, for example, the magnificent line that ran north of Sibi through Harnai, into the Chappar Rift and on to Quetta. The marvel of engineering on this line was the Louise Margaret Bridge that stitched the gaping crack of the Rift. The line died back in July 1942 after it was washed out by a massive torrent during a rainstorm. This wasn't the first time such a thing had happened. The Chappar Rift was famous for recurrent maintenance problems and the question of dismantling it had been considered before. The war was on, steel was needed for munitions and in any case the Bolan route was in service. And so the line in the Rift was uprooted. Today all that remains of this glorious piece of railway engineering are bridge piers, line bed and abandoned railway stations.
The other great one was the Zhob Valley Railway (ZVR), so named for following the course of the Zhob River. While the Chappar Rift line was Broad Gauge (5'-6”), this one was the tiny Narrow Gauge (2'-6”). It ran northeast from Bostan on the Quetta-Chaman route to Zhob – or Fort Sandeman as it had been renamed by the British. Its length of three hundred kilometres made it the longest Narrow Gauge line in the Subcontinent. I had once thought that at 2224 metres above the sea, Kan Mehtarzai station was the highest Narrow Gauge railway station in the world. But I now know that it is Ghum on the line to Darjeeling in India. The latter being thirty-five metres higher than our Kan Mehtarzai.
The ZVR was laid during the First World War. But then it ran up only as far as the chrome mines of Hindubagh (renamed Muslimbagh in the 1960s) that was used in the manufacture of munitions. In the 1920s the line was extended to Zhob with dreams of it going across to connect with Bannu in the North West Frontier Province, KPK now. But that dream became a victim of the uncertainty of the 1930s and the Second World War. What Pakistan inherited at independence, few thought it was the sacred duty of her sons to undo. And so barely forty years down the line, ZVR has been successfully closed. The first time I travelled the length of the line in 1992, it was not by train but by car: the line had been dead for some six years or so. Whereas India draws train buffs from all over the world to its various railway lines, we have been great ones for shutting down our best showpieces. And so this line became a victim of part apathy and mostly inefficiency and corruption. Half-hearted attempts to revamp the line were made and the locomotives that rest and rust in the sheds at Bostan were overhauled some years ago. But no work was done on the civil works of the disintegrating line. For some time the refurbished locomotives were periodically fired to keep them work. Bye and bye all was forgotten and the last time I saw them in 1999, they were beginning to lose their shine once again.
As I stood on the platform at Kan Mehtarzai on that blustery November morning in 1992, I imagined myself in the First Class Sleeper on the NG-10 pulling in, enroute from Zhob to Bostan. And I had imagined myself making ready for the bearer to pop into the carriage with his stack of breakfast trays. The idea of toast and eggs at the highest Narrow Gauge station in the country (the world, as I then believed) had tickled me. I found myself wondering if, when the line worked, travellers had paused to consider the uniqueness of their situation.
In Bostan in 1992, Mirza Tahir, the Station Master remembered the glorious days of the ZVR. Winters were pretty hard on the tiny Narrow Gauge locomotives, he had told me, and it was not uncommon for trains to be caught in snowdrifts. Tahir remembered the great snowstorms of the winter of 1970. So deep was the snow that the snowplough in front of the locomotive just could not make way. The train foundered. The fireman built up steam while the driver tried again and again to nose through. But the snow was too deep – nearly two metres – it was said, and they had to give up. They dropped fire and waited.
While the passengers walked to the highroad that runs parallel to the line and got away as best as they could, the telegraph wires buzzed. Bostan was informed of the snow-bound train and requested for a rescue locomotive. Out came one steaming and puffing through the wintry landscape only to be caught in the snow a few hundred metres short of the stranded train. Bostan sent out yet another one and even that could not make it. Tahir said it took them a few days to clear the line and get it going again.
Since that journey along the ZVR thirteen years ago, I have passed through Kan Mehtarzai half a dozen times. Once or twice I detoured to the station just to check things out. But none of my trips had been in midwinter after a good fall of snow. Kan Mehtarzai station, as I knew it, was always dusty and wind-blown sitting in a treeless openness with a touch of a spaghetti western. I knew I was lucky when I got a chance recently to be there in the area in the grip of what many people would call bad weather: for several days there had been incessant rains and snow on higher altitudes. After years of drought, this was the best thing to happen to the Balochistan plateau and local farmers were joyous at the prospect of the harvest that the summer would eventually bring.
For me this was the chance to get to Kan Mehtarzai and imagine what it must have been like during the blizzards of 1970. The distant peaks and the rolling hills around the village were all nicely couched in deep snow and looked a darn sight better than their normal summer khaki. Snowmen being a Western partiality, there were none to be seen. Strange that when it snows, building a snowman does not come spontaneously to these people. Perhaps unprompted artistic expression is not part of our make-up. Or perhaps it is because we have not yet invented waterproof mittens that will keep the fingers from freezing while we attempt to flaunt our creativity. In town, business was shut and the few open doors showed shawl-wrapped men huddled around fires. Kan Mehtarzai seemed a bit of a ghost town.
Bordered by orchards where the apricot and almond trees were all undressed for the winter, the unpaved lane taking off to the south from the main highway was still unmistakable seven years after my last visit. The only difference was that it was under snow that a tractor gone before us had churned up into slush. We left the jeep short of the station and with snow crunching underfoot walked around a fencing, under the tall water tank and on to the platform.
I did not remember the set of three freight wagons, in their prescription reddish-brown, from my last visit. Surely they must have been abandoned there when the line worked. Only I had failed to register them. They were as bound in the snow as the trains in the winter of 1970. This time round, however, the snow was about a metre deep. On the ZVR, the cutest things on the entire pre-partition North Western Railway are the darling station buildings. I have not seen them duplicated anywhere else in Pakistan. They are, with only a couple of exceptions, all mud-plastered; they come with a pitched roof and, to one side, a neat octagonal tower-like structure with a conical roof. This was the ticket window. But only for those who cared to pay fare, for most travellers on this line considered it their birthright to go free. Indeed, that was one of the reasons for the line's untimely demise.
Icicles were draped along eaves that were shaded from the sun for most part of the day. Glass-less lamps that once lit up the platform at night emphasised the dereliction of the station. The mud plaster on the façade was beginning to crack and peel and the roof on the north side of the building had caved in. This portion, if I remember correctly, bore a sign in 1992 marking it as the Station Master's Office. The rest of the station had been taken over by a family for we could hear women and children behind the matting that shielded them from prying eyes. A young lad from this family came around to check out my friend Naeem and me. I wondered if others came around to photograph Kan Mehtarzai railway station or he thought we were a pair of loonies with nothing better to do than to have our ears fall off with cold.
Snow completely covered all signs of the platforms and the track. Years ago this is how it must have appeared to travellers on this line. And when in the winter of 1970 the train failed to show up, the Station Master must have sent out a patrol to see what had become of it. Now nothing happens at Kan Mehtarzai. They don't even build snowmen on the platform. Only the squatters bicker behind the matting.
I lament again the waste of a perfect showpiece of a railway line that could have helped Pakistan earn a few good tourist dollars. But that would have happened if the writ of the state held and if there were dedicated men in the railways. All those I had spoken to concerning the reopening of the ZVR as a tourist line had said it could not be done. There were too many problems and not enough finances. That I know to be untrue: we first permitted a working line to go to seed and now we complain of not enough funds to revitalise it.
India did much better with her Narrow Gauge show pieces in Simla and Darjeeling! If not emulation, then we should have preceded.
The writer is an avid tourist, has authored several books and contributes regularly for national and international media. [email protected]
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