The early years of the 19th century saw the beginning of one of the greatest struggles of modern times: the tussle between the two imperial powers of Russia and England for ascendency in Central Asia. This epic struggle led many a good man either to death or to glory, and one such was the young Scotsman Arthur Conolly who was beheaded in the central square of Bokhara by Amir Nasrullah in 1842. It was this high spirited young man who gave the euphemism of "The Great Game" to this conflict.
When railways came of age around the middle of the century both nations saw in it the means to easily and quickly cross the great desert expanses of Asia. And so it was that while the Russians struggled to span the blistering Kyzylkum Desert, east of the Caspian, England was inching its way forward across the desert and mountains lying between Sibi and the garrison town of Quetta. Fear of the Cossacks riding in through the vast openness of Balochistan, the sub continent's back door, rode high and the "Kandhar State Railway", as it was called, was top priority.
First proposed in 1857, this railway hoped to reach Kandhar in Afghanistan and make its way across the southern part of that country to Herat and then to Merv in Central Asia. It was eventually to reach Bokhara which was to be swamped with English and Indian goods to counter the influence of Russian traders. Needless to say that the railway was also to help the army of British India maintain some sort of presence in Central Asia.
Work on the Kandhar State Railway, however was deferred for one reason or the other until the Second Afghan War broke out in 1878. Even then it took the government another two years to get their act together and when work actually began the following year it was in a state of frenzied desperation with a force of three thousand five hundred men. On the sixth day of October 1879, the first rails were laid in a northwesterly direction at the station of Ruk on the Larkana-Sukker section of "The Indus Valley State Railway "; and on January 14, 1880 a jubilant crowd celebrated the completion of the line to Sibi. In an extraordinary effort of engineering, two hundred and seventeen kilometres of line had been laid in a mere one hundred and one days!
But if the Kandhar State Railway had hoped to play its part in the Second Afghan War, it had come a little too late. One thing was clear: that long before the army in Afghanistan could benefit from the line the war would be over. And so the state of hysteria gave way to deliberate inactivity: it was time to take stock and wait out the long, harsh summer of the Sibi plains that was already beginning to make itself felt in the month of February.
Within a few months an event took place in Afghanistan that was to suspend the effort of reaching across the Afghan frontier by railway: in June 1880 on the dusty plain outside the village of Maiwand, west of Kandhar, a British garrison was to suffer one of the most humiliating defeats ever to be their lot in Asia. That and a pacifist government in London seemed to be the undoing of the ambitious plan conceived far away in Delhi in 1857.
Not long afterwards, in 1883, came the news that the Russian had taken Merv. Jogged out of their somnolence the British frantically set to work on the old plan again. But the railway which was to reach Quetta via Harnai, Khost and Bostan was to be a highly secret affair under the improbable title of "The Harnai Road Improvement Scheme". And when in March 1887 the first train ran this route to Quetta it was only for, according to my father, a railway man who served in this part of the country, the most heroic feat in the history of railway engineering: the line that stitched the great crack tearing the crust of the earth in the Chapper Rift. Simultaneously another line was traversing the length of the Bolan Pass and the two were to meet at Bostan, a few miles north of Quetta.
But the heroic endeavour in the Rift is another story. In the event, because of its endless mud slides, it was the Rift itself that defeated this section of the Harnai Road Improvement Scheme. Within a few years of recurrent washouts in the Rift, railway engineers were reconsidering upgrading the much steeper route through the Bolan Pass. And steep this route was: in the twenty six kilometres from Mach, at the eastern end of the pass, to Kolpur in its heart the line climbs a stupendous 801 metres or 2627 ft!
To get around the problems of expensive tunnel building the original track which was opened in August 1886 ran from Sibi to Hirok via Rindli along the bottom of the parallel and less steep Kundlani gorge to the south. And since the first two years after it was laid were virtually dry no damage was suffered. Eventually the rains came causing massive washouts and the new railway had to be designed a safe height above the torrents that swept through the canyon. Thus the present line was laid which we inherited at independence and today as your train, hauled by modern diesels, thunders through the Bolan gorge on its way to or from Quetta you are negotiating what they called the Mushkaf Bolan Route.
Kolpur is magic. The winding highway bisects the town and is overlooked by two and three storeyed houses with stores and tea shops at ground level. All around are stark, brown hills and to the south is the railway station. It is magic because it has the aura of places like Yarkand, Tashkurghan and Merv. Rehmatullah Brohi, the tea shop owner, was a very funny man and big time People's Party whose claim to leadership, he said, was his bald pate. Discovering my own affiliation he refused to accept payment for my cup of tea. He didn't care a fig about me being a travel writer; so far as he was concerned I was a numainda and a numainda at hand had to be favoured with an interview. The honour was therefore, duly bestowed upon me and I was instructed to see to it that it was perused by the Prime Minister.
My arrival at Kolpur was the fulfillment of a family pietas. In 1945 my father, as Assistant Engineer at Mach, had, to use railways jargon, "done" trolley in the Bolan Pass. Now, forty eight years later, I was following him. As their predecessors too must have done, Nazir and his assistant, the trolley men from Mach, had brought up the dinky looking cart in a Quetta bound train. It was simply a wooden platform on four wheels with a brake lever and a rickety bench, so beat up and ancient I half believed it to be the very same trolley that my father would have used almost five decades ago. The axles were oiled, the bench was placed in the housing and the lot was heaved onto the tracks; we were ready to follow in my father's footsteps.
"Sit tight," said Nazir as he gave the trolly a gentle push and jumped on. Soon the bare walls of the gorge were rushing past at more than forty kilometres an hour as we hurtled along the sharp descent. Unaccustomed to be sitting without the protection of a windshield I felt vaguely unsafe but Nazir assured me that the brakes were fine. I pointed out that there was no lining and it was metallic shoes against iron wheels which didn't seem to be such a good idea. "Don't worry," said the man, "If the brakes fail the catch siding doesn't." Ignorance certainly is bliss, for it was after the adventure that friend Sarwat Ali, who had something to do with this journey, told me that accidents with the trolley are known to have happened.
We swept into the cavernous womb of Mary Jane, the tunnel. The thoughts of Irishman F. L. O'Callaghan, who first pushed the railway through the Bolan, must not have been far from home and family for him to have immortalised his wife in the name of a tunnel. Windy Corner and Cascade were indications more of the nostalgia felt by the pioneers for their native Scottish highlands or the Lake District. And local colour was taken care of by the tunnels Pir Panjeh, from a nearby shrine, and Sir-i-Bolan. The only colour in the brown landscape were the trucks and busses labouring along the road never far from us and the several encampments of Brohi nomads where the children jumped up and down and screamed as we sped past.
From a couple of hundred metres away I could see the junction as the track veered to the right and a white painted line shot up the slope on the left to disappear behind the knoll. The brakes squealed, a shower of sparks flew as we slowed to a crawl and Nazir's assistant jumped off to act as pointsman. This was the catch siding where runaway trains shot up the sharp incline and burnt out their kinetic energy before any serious accident could take place. The standard operating procedure was for the point to remain switched to the catch siding and was changed by the pointsman only when the train had slowed to a virtual crawl and he had ascertained that nothing was amiss.
I asked if the catch siding had ever come in useful. "It happened the day Benazir was installed Prime Minister for the first time," said Nazir. But he only grinned when I asked if the driver had been drunk with happiness or so dejected as to have some sort of a death wish on the installation of a woman Prime Minister.
Past the tiny station of Dozan where a solitary man sat waving languidly at us, we sped through the gorge to Hirok, a small brick building as bleak as the barren, stoney gorge it was stuck in. Long before the standard broad gauge line was laid the original section between Hirok and Kolpur was metre gauge. That was perhaps the only moment in the sun for unexciting Hirok as travellers switched from the larger trains to the smaller and as we swept through the station I could not but wonder if modern travellers would take such an irritating routine with the same equanimity as their earlier counterparts. The station of Sir-i-Bolan was aggressively abandoned with gaping holes for doors and windows and several pairs of rock pigeons strutting about the parapet. Nazir said he was not even sure why, in the first place, this station was ever built and did not remember how long ago it had been abandoned.
The bustle of Mach was a sharp contrast from the bleak desolation of Dozan and Hirok. The babble of languages on the platform, in the bazaar and from the mosques (for it was Friday) comprised of Pushto, Brohi, Balochi, Persian and Punjabi. Mach was cosmopolitan.
Nazir walked me out of the station and up a narrow path to the Assistant Engineer's office. It was too new to be the place where my father would have worked in 1945, but past the stone wall was the house that looked old enough. The chowkidar let us in but the sahib was away at Dalbandin and I had to satisfy myself peering through the windows into the interior that had once been my parents' home. Unlike Mohammed Sharif at Dalbandin, there was, unhappily, no one in Mach who remembered my father. They said locals did not join the railways in those days and the staff was nearly always Punjabi and Sindhi who had since retirement left the place.
Within the year my father was transferred yet again; this time to Dharampur on the Kalka-Simla section (India) where he had the distinction of being the first Muslim AEN. Of all the narrow gauge railways in the sub continent the Kalka-Simla section is one of the few that still survives. In Pakistan the last of these toy trains ran some five years ago before they finally got the axe, victims either of improved road transportation or official inefficiency. If there is another pilgrimage to be made it will be to Dharampur. For the time being Mohammed Sharif had made the journey worthwhile. The pilgrimage, for the time being at least, was done. I was ready to go home.
Salman Rashid is author of eight travel books including The Apricot Road to Yarkand