When the first train pulled into Quetta in March 1887, it did not roll the way they do today up the stony bends of the Bolan Pass. Instead, the line struck north from Sibi into the 160-kilometre-long meandering gorge of the Nari River through the sulphur-stained badlands of Gandakeen Aaf (sulphur water in Balochi) past such evocative names as Tanduri that is still famous for its furnace summer heat and into the cool highlands of Harnai and Shahrag. In those days when the Great Game had reached a frenzied pitch, the line that dreamed of reaching Kandahar was called the Kandahar State Railway.
Northwest of Harnai lay Khost and beyond it the dramatic yawning maw of the Chhappar Rift. But the rift is a tale of glorious achievement and woe so far as railway engineers of that time were concerned. Suffice it to say that it was put out of service by a summer rainstorm in July 1942. By then the line through the Bolan Pass was in place and passenger trains entering the Nari Gorge went only as far as Khost while coal trains trundled on another 15 kilometres to the mines of Zardalu.
When Pakistan Railway had not yet fallen into the paws of political worthies who believed railways could be easily replaced by road transport, we were still operating most of the 1,400 railway stations the country had inherited from the British Raj. Then there was a daily train service out from Sibi in the morning and back in from Khost in the evening.
I first rode this line in 1986. I had no business being on the train or anywhere it was going except that, having read a very interesting book, Couplings to the Khyber by P S A Berridge I merely wanted to see the line. From Sibi to somewhere near Kuchali, the country belonged to Marri Baloch tribespeople: silent and grim, the men with jet-black hair and whiskers cradled their well cared for rifles and preened themselves, curling up their dark moustaches to sharp points. As one of them and his wife got off at some station, I asked where he lived. Wordlessly, he waved an expansive hand in the direction of the sombre, coffee-coloured hills in the east. I watched him and his young wife stride off into the thicket of acacia trees and before the train set off again, they had disappeared from view.
Thereafter, it was Pashtun country: boisterous and garrulous, they had endless questions. Their everlasting surprise was that I had come all the way from Karachi only to ride the train to the end of the line and return the same way before sundown. They threw their heads back and laughed at me, “Levanai sarrhay de” – mad man – they told each other between guffaws.
After the outbreak of the Second Afghan War in 1879, the British did not want the secret out concerning their strategic railway link between Chaman and Kandahar so, even as they carried on building it, they named it as The Harnai Road Improvement Scheme. Secrets have the bad habit of becoming known and the enemy to thwart was Tsarist Russia that was fast expanding into Central Asia. And so to speed up the construction without the cover of secrecy, the new name given to the project was The Sind Peshin State Railway.
When Raj engineers were building this line in the 1880s, summer heat and fear of imperial Russia were not their only enemies. The Marris routinely raided the building parties to kill and plunder.
Leaving Sibi, the line crossed the meandering Nari River six times to reach Babar Kach. On my 1986 outing, we clattered along at a leisurely pace to cover the 83-kilometre distance to Khost in eight hours. That was just as well for I got the feel of the country and, as we halted at one of the stations, I saw a team of surveyors resting in the shade of the building. What gave me goosebumps and transported me back to that heroic age of exploration was their equipment: theodolite and plane table. That was long before satellite imagery became commonplace and killed all the excitement of the wild, uncharted places of our planet and the thrill of putting them on the map.
Khost station at the end of the line was another world: a pitched roof mud plastered building, decrepit and uncared for. In the background, another smaller but similar building stood forlorn. And way back below the cloudless sky were stark brown hills. Two regulation signs, one at either end of the platform, carried the name of the station in Urdu and English together with its height above sea: 1,255 metres. Everything was covered with a miasma of coal dust from the endless handling of coal coming from the mines of Zardalu.
The station master was a Mansehra native caught in Balochistan from the time of One Unit, he said. There were no paved roads here, he pointed out. Below Harnai, it was camel country if there were no trains. If ever a railway line was a lifeline, it was this connecting Sibi with Khost, he said with visible pride. Over tea, he pointed out of his window to the little knoll across the coal-blackened siding and suggested I should check out the graveyard before leaving.
“Take your time,” he said as I was leaving, “I’ll hold the train for you.”
There were several graves, mostly of soldiers. Two caught my attention: Sarah Nicholas and her brother Stefan. Neither child crossed their fourth birthday and both died within a few months of each other in 1898. The gravestones had English, Urdu and another writing that I had then erroneously taken to be Cyrillic (which it wasn’t). Over the years, I have tried to learn more about these children and their unfortunate parents but no railway literature has anything on them.
On the return journey to Sibi, I made friends with the locomotive driver and rode the footplate all the way back to get a good look at the bridges. Painted the prescription liver red, they were magnificent spans of steel. Thereafter I took several trips up and down this line, always just for the heck of being there.
In 1999, I took four European railway enthusiasts by road to Khost. I was shocked to see the graveyard vandalised. The soldiers’ tombstones lay smashed. Little Stefan’s steel sarcophagus had been stolen for its weight while the marble plaque on Sarah’s upright brick monument was partially broken. America had won the jihad against Soviet Russia and in its aftermath a new Islam was born in Afghanistan and Pakistan that was soon to spread across the world.
After 1999, came a long hiatus. In 2007, word came that a military dictator’s folly had been matched in equal measure by Baloch tribesmen. For the dastardly murder of Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti, his followers blew up the bridges of the Nari Gorge. If the graveyard vandalism had left me heartbroken, now I was utterly devastated.
On a stormy evening in March 2009, I was in Sibi to take a railway trolley up the line to see how far I could get across the destroyed bridges. We put-putted out under storm lighting with the sun low in the east. In all my outings, I had never seen the Nari in such glorious pastel colours. As we came up to the first destroyed bridge, the railway gang operating the trolley said it had rained very heavily earlier in the morning in the headwaters of the Nari and we would be well advised to retreat before the river rose. Failing that, we would be stranded in the middle of the great outback with nowhere to go.
Wading across the knee-deep river, we hurriedly marched across the other side to reach the next bridge. More heartbreak. Beyond the third damaged bridge lay the deserted station of Tanduri. As we pottered about the place, I wondered why Italian film-maker Sergio Leone had never thought of making his spaghetti westerns here. And then the shout came: “The river is rising.”
We ran to the first crossing which was fine. At the second, I asked if the escorting militiaman could order the river to flow backward. At the third, we were chest deep in milk-coffee water. I held my camera bag aloft as we carefully threaded our way to the far side where the trolley waited. Thankfully, the whole episode passed uneventfully.
Later in Sibi, I met an elderly Marri Baloch and I asked him why would they destroy such beautiful pieces of engineering and architecture. The man was livid. He said they were all thankless people. They rode the train from end to end for negligible fare. Mostly they did not even pay that. Now they shell out a 100 rupees apiece to get a ride on a tractor trolley. And then they have to walk for hours to Sibi.
Recently, I caught the rumour about the Nari bridges having been repaired. They indeed have, confirm my railway friends and, though the line is up, it is not running. “Too much insecurity,” I was informed.
Of all the railway journeys in Pakistan it was the Sibi-Khost section that raised goosebumps as the train thundered over the Nari bridges and through the pastel hills of the gorge. On a June afternoon in Tanduri one was swamped with anxiety: what if the locomotive broke down? Where and how would one find succour? And in midwinter, the dry chill of Harnai ran through one’s bones as one espied the distant hills show off their mantles of new snow. This was not a line to travel on to get anywhere; it was and may one day again be a line to take you places that exist in wild imaginations even without going anywhere.
The author is a travel writer and photographer.
The article was published in the Herald's April 2019 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.