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Overland through Afghanistan


“Seat 26, Bogy 9, Shalimar Express, this way”, said the railway-officer in snow-white uniform after checking my ticket. I made my way muscling & steering through passengers and porters. In red uniforms with silver-badges, the porters were carrying large boxes over their turbaned heads. “Four Rupee per trip”, the on-going rate was written on their chests. Bogy 9 was a lower-class compartment with bare wooden benches. Seat 26 was luckily on the window-side. A tall man soon occupied the next one. He was dressed in a shirt worn over a long wrap called a dhoti. First, he stacked his boxes and a hookah (hubble-bubble). Second, he greeted me with a smile. Meanwhile, other seats were occupied – four on each bench, facing each other. With shoulders rubbing, knees touching, eyeballs to eyeballs, it was difficult to conceal destinations. I was an odd man out in a leather jacket, jeans and joggers. All eyes darted at me to set the ball rolling. I disclosed my plan to go to Turkey by land.

“I’m Rezi Shah. Please place these coins on Roza Imam Reza as my humble offerings”, said a fellow passenger. He had his hand stretched, containing three shining coins. Surely I was passing through Iran but the holy shrine was in the city of Mushhad, not on my route. I showed some hesitation. This brought a stunned look at his face. He thrusted the coins in my hand and said, “When you go to Iran, the Imam would call you.” Surely he did. On return from Turkey, I stayed in Tehran. I learnt that the Pak-Iran rail-link had been washed away by the heavy rains. The alternate was to go via Afghanistan. Mushhad was on the way. The high minarets of the shrine were visible miles before. Its golden dome with inscription from Holy Quran mesmerized me. I was drawn towards it in a trance.

With a long and a short whistle the train hauled out of the platform. Though it was early morning, the city was hemming with horse-drawn carriages, buses, and motor cycles with four or five school-going kids perched on them. In month of April, the city was lush-green with lofty trees and spacious parks. A lovely cannal flowed throughout its length. The train passed by beautiful old buildings and teeming bazaars. Lahore had indeed retained its sense of history.

The train was moving fast. It had a short stop at Raiwind, 60 km away. I saw a lone mosque in the midst of thriving crops. Come November, the winter harvest would be over. The land will be paved and marked for erecting tents, canopies and marquees. Over two million Muslims would gather for a three-day refresher course in teaching of Islam. In fact, after Haj in Mecca, it is the biggest gathering of Muslims anywhere. Known as Tablighees, the visitors are backpackers in real sense. They have a few worldly things: a stick of acacia for teeth cleaning, two handfuls of roasted wheat as emergency ration and some bare essentials. Placing them on a prayer rug, they would roll it and tie it with a plastic cord. They would haul it up on their right shoulders and set out in all cardinal directions to explain Islam in a most simple way to their own kith and kin.

I was lost in my thought when I heard “Bismillah”. I looked around and found that a fellow traveller was inviting all to share what he had for breakfast: paratha (bread without yeast fried in butter) and omelette with green chillies and onion. Everyone tore off a small chunk with right hand not to hurt his feelings. Meanwhile, the train had entered the most fertile land of Punjab, which means “Five Rivers”. This was peak season for wheat, barley, gram and oilseeds. Fairly strong and steady winds were assisting in threshing and winnowing of the harvested wheat. The entire trip was scenically rewarding. Orchards of citrus were in abundance where the oranges and kinnoo were glowing in glossy dark. Camels were pulling carts loaded with grains. Because of good pastureland at some places, buffaloes and cows were grazing in large numbers. At about 12:00, the training pulled into Multan covering 290 km in about six hours.

MULTAN, 11th April 97

He, who travels light, travels far. Fetching the strap of my bag, I just walked out of the station and went straight to Hotel Silver Sand. For $ 12 equivalent, I got a spacious room with attached bath. It was midday. I had a long hot shower, ate some biscuits and slept like a log.

In the evening, I changed into national dress, Shalwar Kamis (wide trouser and shirt) and went to the bazaar. There was an aroma of kebab being grilled over charcoal. I gulped a tikka, barbecued chicken-piece, and nan washing them down with a soft drink. This was my standard filler, easy on pocket and low in cholesterol. It was a well-crowded area. Milk scented with pistachio was being sold in rickety stands lining the street. In smoky teahouses, people were mulling over state of the nation. In the dim interior of adjacent shops, cobblers, taxidermists, bookbinders and embroiderers plied their ancient crafts. Clip-clop of horse drawn tongas mixed well with the razzle-dazzle of the bazaar.

Strolling in the Multan City was like a dip in the spiritual world. Great Saints and Sufis had lived there. Mansur Hallaj, the famous martyr of mystical love, had visited the place to call people to God. He was later beheaded for just uttering one word: An-ul-haqq, “I am the creative Truth”. No where else, there was such a cluster of shrines and tombs. Their domes were visible from every direction. They were decorated with glazed tiles. Love for God was brought near via sublime words and versus. A good singer could hold his listeners spellbound with poetry and tune.

Next morning, I rang an old friend, Yunus, and asked him to accompany me to see the handicrafts. He reached in about fifteen minutes and embraced me three times, left, right and left. “You have not much changed”, said he looking at me from head to toe. Hand and hand, clinging together, pushing each other to left and right, we moved toward his car. This might give a wrong signal to Western but it was an acceptable norm for the two friends to move together. We went from one place to another to see craft centres. Artistic furniture was being made with both classic and folk motifs. Brass inlay on wood was specialty of the area turning raw wood into tea trolleys, cigar boxes and salad bowls. Worth seeing was lacquer-work. Once the wooden objects were lathe-turned and rounded, they were lac-layered in fast rotation and patterned by etching out one colour beneath another. Lastly, we went to a sweet shop famous for its Halwa, made with green flour, butter, pistachios and sugar, its recipe handed down from generation to generation. I tasted freely many varieties oblivious of warning by my doctors to keep the cholesterol low. Afterall, one has to die one day, why not die with a mouth full of sweet.

Meanwhile, we heard the wail of the muezzin, a call to prayer, long and passionate. Vehicles & camel-carts came to a screeching halt. Many people went to the nearby mosques; other spread their prayer mats on the ground facing Mecca.

Tibbi, Village of Yunus, 13th April 1997

In the evening, we headed for the village, about 145-km away. A good road, a new Corolla car, an experienced chauffeur made me feel as if time has stopped. After about an hour and a half, we turned to a side road. The sun had dipped behind the trees when we reached the village. There was no telephone, not even electricity wire was seen nearby. Yet many people and a donkey were waiting for us. “Do you come here every Monday,” I asked. “No but I did send a message through a friend, about 5 km away from here”. In a while, a middle-aged person, in tattered and dusty clothing saluted Yunus and told him, “I rushed on my donkey when asked to take the message of Bara Sahib (Big Boss).” Yunus puffed up with pride on being elevated and fished out some cash for the man. I thanked God, the donkey was not for my ride. In old days, the donkey was used to disgrace a thief. His face was blackened with charcoal and he was forced to sit on a donkey for parading throughout the town. Perhaps, one would prefer life imprisonment.

The village was small but houses were large and spacious, built with mud bricks and clay, just like they were made centuries ago. We were led to an open-courtyard of the house and offered wooden cots covered with embroidered bed sheets. An old lady took a brass pot to milk a buffalo tied in a corner. She brought two bowls full of foaming milk. It was delicious and I praised her. “I am milking buffaloes since I was knee high”, said she beaming with pleasure. We had dinner and slept on the same cots. Yunus rose early next morning and woke me up. “There are no toilets here, we have to go out in the fields”, he whispered. I knew it well; I was son of the same soil.

Carefully, tip-topping on the toe-path, we moved for high crops. On the way, Yunus remembered his childhood, “My mother used to get early and her first duty was to grind grain in the chakki (stone-mill). Its sound was very soothing. A poet had it well described: ‘Chakki is working, night is fading, and dawn is breaking’.”

After breakfast, Yunus asked me to stay on while he went back. The village was quite small, population in hundreds, engaged in land cultivation in age-old ways. There were no tractors nor tube-wells but bulls, wooden ploughs and Persian Wells. A villager led me to a back street where a cow was being given a bath. Young girls and ladies in their fanciful attire were singing songs. “This is a golden bath”, said an elderly lady. “Golden! This is ordinary water”, I showed my amazement. “No ordinary water, we have dipped our golden ornaments in it to welcome the new arrival”, a young girl chipped in. While in cities, women are rarely seen out, they roam here freely. They work un-veiled in the fields or stitch bits of cloth to make rilli in bright and dazzling colours.

A Hitch-Hike, the 14th April 97

In about three hours I decided to leave for next destination, Sukkur. The highway was about three kms away. To reach the bus-point, I had three options: a donkey or a camel or a backseat of a cycle. I opted for the camel. In a moment, a camel was saddled and forced to sit before me. The cameleer was Masti Khan, a Baloch by decent and Turkish by look. He helped me to mount on. The camel lifted itself up with a jerk, oozing and gargling as if to protest. I became frightened and wanted to dismount. This brought a burst of laughers from kids. I waived them good bye and left the village.

With reins fastened to the camel’s nose peg, the steering seemed easy. We passed through a semi-desert filled with sand dunes, shrubs and tiny cultivated fields. Young boys & girls appeared from nowhere. They were herding sheep and goats. There were bells around the neck of the animals. The desert silence and occasional tinkle of bells were quite romantic. A camel ride was the best way to see a desert. A vehicle could be like a cell. The constant noise of engine would blur the solitude. Our speed was hardly 6 km/h, enough to appreciate the magnificent surroundings.

We hit the highway in about two hours. I boarded a waiting bus and saluted Masti Khan and his camel. I reached Khanpur covering 90 kms and contacted a near-by sugar mill over the phone. A bank, where I had worked for 30 years, had financed the plant. Soon a jeep arrived and I hopped on and was taken straight to the rest house. I was dead-tired, my legs were cramped and my back was aching by ride on a camel and jolts from a bus with weak suspensions. A hot bath and an aromatic tea relieved me to some extent.

This was off-season for the sugar mills. The chimney was cold and giant crushers were lying dead. Farooq, a young engineer from the mill, met me in the morning. I told him that I wanted to go to Sukkur, about 275 away. He said, “No problem, we have lot of jeeps. Bux, our Chemist, would accompany you”. “You mean a Chemist would drive the jeep,” I was startled. “No sir, he would just accompany you”, said he and added in a whispering tone, “He has his wife there.”

The road was excellent and shaded by trees. We drove through Indus Plains, formed of thick alluvial soil. When irrigated & fertilized, it became very productive. Many modern factories and well-populated towns were on the roadside. With a little detour, we saw a beautiful mosque with mosaics of tiny mirrors on the wall. In the adjacent bazaar, there was a grand display of pointed-toe leather sandals with beadwork . On the way, we crossed many sandy ranges. The dwellers were tall with sharp features, living in large round mud huts, usually atop sandhills. The landscape became luxuriant as we neared Sukkur. Bux dropped me at Inter-Pak Inn, near Indus River. Then he shouted at the driver to rush up and crush whosoever came in the way. It made sense. He was about to meet his young wife after abstinence of 3 months.

SUKKUR, 15th April 97

Next day, I got up early and walked along the River facing east. Soon a tip of sun appeared from water spreading its crimson shafts all over. The sun was rising, its red ball getting higher and higher. It was awesome but there were few on-lookers, some fishing and some jogging. Milkmen were peddling hard on their bikes fitted with large containers.

Donkeys were laden with vegetables, their backs bending with the load. Soon Indus Barrage was in sight stretching well over one thousand metres. I could count its spans, 46 in all. It fed seven canals. One of canals was wider and longer than the Suez or Panama canals. A little further away, a suspension bridge could be seen. It was extremely beautiful and linked Sukkur with a town on the other side, Rohri.

On return I was walked through a long strip of gardens running along the river. I had my breakfast on a roadside cafe: milked-tea (only milk, no water, no sugar) with freshly baked nan, heavy neither on pocket nor on heart. Afterwards, I resumed my stroll, getting away from the river and nearer to the city centre. Sukkur was sprawling town with beautiful mosques, gardens and shrines. A desert-oasis town, it could boast of many havelies (mansions), decorated with geometric & floral designs painted in variety of bright colours.

It was still early for the bazaar. A few shops were opened. Nevertheless, it was a rare opportunity to walk through the empty winding lanes. Wandering aimlessly, I reached Shrine of Ms’sum Shah Bokhari, a landmark of Sukkur, its high tower glittering in the morning sun. There were more women than men, a sharp contrast from the scenes in the streets. Men wore embroidered caps with tiny mirrors. A red cloth slung over their shoulders. It was hand-printed from vegetable dyes and cow-dung. Women were clad in richly patched and stitched dresses. Many were behind the veils having different pattern identifying their tribes. Dupatta was worn over the head and wrapped around the shoulders. As the day wore on, more and more devotees were entering the shrine. Many were barefooted in dusty clothing from traveling through desert, their faces squeezed with thirst. Inside, people were whispering their secret wishes to the saint. Desperate women, under threat of divorce, prayed for a son.

ON WAY TO QUETTA, the 17th April 97

I got a wakeup call at 5:00 followed by a steaming hot tea. I went to railway station and occupied my reserved seat in an air-conditioned coupe. The scene inside was different from economy class of Shalimar Train. Young ladies had no cover and were oblivious of any stare at their faces. No one talked to me nor did I venture to. They belonged to high society, cocooned and wary of any contact. I felt suffocated and looked out through green glass window but it had already distorted true colour of the land.

After about two hours, the train stopped at Jocababad, hottest place in the world, temperature could rise much beyond 48 degree in July. I got down to see the real life. Men wore big, baggy trousers and shirts with or without a turban. Women were in kurtas decorated with delicate mirror embroidery bearing a testimony to their dexterity and skill. On the first whistle, I got back in and resumed my armchair travel. The train started and steadily went uphill. The area was scarcely populated, mostly by nomads chasing short-lived greenery followed by odd shower of rain. One could see their tents looking like big beetles in the oases. The landscape was brown and treeless except for needle-leafed tamarisk and the thorny bushes. The sun rose higher and higher burning all colours to half tones.

Into the compartment entered a ticket checker. Unexpectedly, he asked, “Any one for Iran?” When I nodded, he came towards me. “An old man wants to go to Tehran. He knows nothing. Be kind to him. God will protect you from the evil-eyes.” I had no choice. Soon he led an old man in who was stiff scared. “Consider me your slave. Here is all I have,” said he placing a passport and a fist full of dollars in my lap. By this gesture, he begged me to rob him here if I had such intentions. In tears, he beseeched me not to ditch him in a foreign land devoid of any near and dear. We reached Quetta at dusk. Situated 1,700-meters high, it was a pleasant escape from heat and dust.

QUETTA, the 17th April 97

We stayed in Railway Retiring Room for just two $ a day. Iran was 732 km away. A bus would take 24 hours while a train would take 36 hours. One more problem on rail, either you meet smugglers or nice people going for pilgrimage, two worlds pole-apart. Because of the old man, I decided to go by train which, being weekly, would leave on 19th April 1997, two days away. This afforded me an opportunity to move in and around Quetta. Being a transit for Iran and Afghanistan, the city was hemming with activities. The shops were loaded with fresh & dry fruits. Roads were lined with trees. Teashops alternated with stalls selling green onyx carvings. For lunch, I had sajji, barbecued lamb-leg. It takes a lot of preparation, Only well-fed, tender and plump lambs are chosen. Their meat is marinated in salt for two to three hours before roasting. The lamb leg is skewered and posted around slow burning firewood. It is turned clock-wise after short intervals. The process takes 2 to 3 hours making it so delicious that one would like to swallow the whole leg with bone, hook line and sinker. Green tea with cardamom is must after belly full of sajji.

In the evening I went to Hanna Lake on a local bus. It passed through low brown hills. There was an open-air restaurant beside the lake. I sat on a chair facing west. As sun sloped down, the lake water turned turquoise and then emerald green. A shrine on the small island in midst of the lake was cast in stark relief by the last light of the day.

TO IRAN, the 19th April 97

The train stated started at 8 a.m. Our compartment was full by people and bales of second hand clothing. We had to travel with a group of smugglers who consider the world as borderless. It was otherwise quite a spectacular trip. The desert was flat and vast with undulating sand dunes looking like water waves. The mountains, sky blue in colour, seemed very distant. A well-paved road was running along the railway line with lot of trucks and fish-eye buses. The train stopped in the afternoon at Naukundi. We had traditional lunch; a tasty spread of local bread, mutton and sauces. The train had to give long long whistles to bring back its passengers from open eateries. On the way, we saw modern nomads moving in group of 12 or more on tractors with everything in the trailers – wives, children, animals, firewood, tents and foods. They would look for grass and pitch their tents.

The train stopped about four kms before the border town, Taftan. It used to be caravansary (camel stopping place). There were no more camels and the town was almost deserted. We had to walk to reach there for immigration and customs. Soon we crossed into Iran. Though a neighboring country, I felt tense as I was no more among my own people.

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