1120 km. The woman at the counter told me 20 hours, the people on the train said 24 hours – at the end it took 27 hours to reach Quetta, Balochistan from Lahore. What a train ride! Balochistan is a province of southwestern Pakistan bordering Afghanistan and Iran.
I felt a bit like an alien amongst all the Pakistani men, many of them starring at me as if I was one;-) It seemed that they haven’t seen any Western woman in this train before. Hardly anyone spoke English … one old gentleman spoke a few words and he became “my guide” for this journey. He really took good care of me. He gave me food (home cooked Punjabi chicken) and something to drink, he provided a warm blanket for me for the night. In Indian trains they provide pillows, sheets and blankets at the night trains but in Pakistan – as it turned out – they don’t. So I was very happy to get his blanket since it became really cold at night. Lucky me;-)
After a “warm-up” curiosity won and a conversation started. They asked questions like what I do and what I am up to. It was quite surprising to them that someone would travel all alone to Quetta, Balochistan, a place they love but consider as very dangerous and insecure. “My guide” explained me about the main challenges between the people living in Balochistan …. a region full of tribal people, many of them with hardly any contact to the outside world. They live in structures and societies which haven’t changed for the last couple of hundreds years. These tribes don’t care about government structures and especially not about those set up all the way in the north of Pakistan, in Islamabad. They follow their own laws. This doesn’t mean that they are bad people – they simply live in their own world – so to speak. So whenever government – in the case of Balochistan government very often means military or police or special security forces – “act”, these tribes might fight back! That’s one layer of the conflict. Another one is that the Baloch, Pashtuns and Brahuis – the main ethnic groups in Baluchistan – aren’t very friendly among themselves. They are only unified in the fact that they don’t like (many of them use the word “hate”) the Pakistani. And on top of that there is a lot of Indian and American money in this region – and both countries have NO interest in peace in Pakistan. For India peace in Pakistan would mean that the conflict regarding Kashmir would raise again, and the US might loose an important ally in its “fight for democracy” (currently the Aghanistan-Taliban conflict zones) in this region.
Quetta is the capital of Balochistan. It’s known as a place where money is made through smuggling; mainly arms and drugs (heroine and opium). And oil coming in from Iran. It spreads on a plateau 1600 m high, in which three valleys end: one coming in from Iran, one from Afghanistan and one from the Urak Valley, Pakistan. Quetta has been a strategic point since the early days of trade … The magnificent Bolan Pass route was once the only gateway from Central Asia to South Asia.
Bolan Pass is a bottleneck. At Sibi a smaller town a few km away from Quetta the train enters the plateau. The Brahui of the Baluchi ethnic group are in charge of the law and order situation through the Pass area. But these days you see many Frontier Corps (FC) soldiers securing the train along the tracks but also inside the train. FC is a federal auxiliary military force under the command of the paramilitary command of Pakistan. In our coach alone every 2-5 minutes a FC guy, heavily armed, walked through the coach and at every stop all doors were secured. In recent weeks the train came under gunfire frequently. After my train rde 10 days ago two major attacks happened. 20 people were killed, many injured. The latest was just today … I was lucky. I arrived safe.