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Through Punjab and Sindh ... by train ...

 

The road from Wagah to Lahore (25 kilometers) goes through Jallo

village and there is work underway, relaying and multi-laning the

road, making for a bumpy ride on the otherwise comfortable and air-

conditioned bus.  A forgettable Hindi song-and-dance video (or is

it a movie?) that I don't recognize, blares at us.  The passing

countryside is exactly the same, of course - crop fields, sarson,

buffaloes - but the villages and population centers, en route, strike

me  as resembling some towns and villages in eastern UP and Bihar

that I have traveled through only a few months earlier. Wide dusty

shoulders on either side of the paved road before the shacks and

shops take over, stagnant water, grease and oil from tractor &

truck repair shops, samosa and chai shops.  Only the Persian script

makes a break with Devanagari here, but even that is still seen

in some UP and Bihar towns and I am reminded instantly of the

town of Biharsharif, close to Nalanda. Reopen your eyes and

you could be in either place.  But the countryside and the fields are

unmistakably Punjab.

 

As we enter Lahore, we pass through what are the older sections of

town and then swing around a large traffic circle in front of the

Lahore Railway Station.  A few minutes of attention grabbing follows,

as we stream out and wait to gather our luggage from the bus.

Passers-by crowd around and pick up conversations.  I wonder if

it is the presence of turbans among us, and the sarees, that mark us

out as a slightly different, and, potentially Indian, bunch.  I am, at

this point, a little surprised that we are so evident.  But the con-

versations are so convivial that the attention is only enjoyable.

 

The Karachi Express, is waiting for us on Platform 1. We find our

seats; tickets are PRs 765, from Karachi to Lahore, about 1300 kms

apart, and the folks from PILER have reserved our tickets for us. The

train rolls out at exactly the scheduled 6pm.  Little details about

the structure of the train strike us.  The 3-tier sleeper coach we

are in feels brighter on the inside - the walls are a lighter shade

and the coupes don't have a full partition separating them.  So

the upper berths of two adjacent coupes are only separated by a

short 6-inch grille.  The berths are narrower - leaving more legroom

when you sit - and there are no side-berths, only two seats facing

each other, which makes it all feel a little more open. The common

lineage of both railway systems is otherwise very apparent in

the layout of the railway station, organization of platforms, stalls,

offices, signage and even terminology ('superintendent',

'station master', 'cloak room' ...).

 

As we pass through the southbound rail corridor of Lahore - the

back views of buildings and life outside is quite similar to anywhere

in northern India - unplastered brick and mortar, multi-storeyed

structures, packed wall to wall, mazes of electrical wiring and

cable crossing narrow gullies and nallahs overflowing with garbage

and plastic, interrupted suddenly by the wealthier enclaves, with

their neatly paved streets and shiny cars, then a large, very lush

golf course just south of a well equipped sports complex.

 

Soon we are out of the big city and into the Punjab countryside. 

The villages we pass, in the remaining hour of daylight, could be

anywhere in northern India and all the litter has disappeared now. 

Almost every habitation we pass is electrified and there is a tidy,

though 'basic', feel to the villages.  Our travelling companion and

inadvertently-attention-grabbing, monk-in-robes, points out to

me, the next morning, that there is almost no graffiti.  I notice

that this is true.  There are very few ads on inviting,  vacant walls,

unlike along the railways in India which provide prime

advertising space for second rung products and services that

couldn't afford the more expensive highway hoardings or are

just targeting a different 'rail-traveler' segment of the

population ('Sablok Clinic - for Sex Disorders', 'A-One Cycles',

'Zandu Balm', 'Zalim Lotion', etc).   Periodically, we run

alongside the main highway. It is wide, four-laned and carrying

reasonably fast moving traffic.   The long-haul trucks are less

ornate, multi-axle affairs - perhaps also made by Hino - and

seem to be hauling their payloads quite rapidly along. Large,

modern gas-stations pass by owned by companies such as

Caltex and PSO (the state owned oil company) and the

occasional restaurant-motel complex.

 

The Lahore-Karachi rail line runs through Raiwind, Okara,

Sahiwal, Harappa (just a small station enroute, but I'll mention

it for its fame), Khanewal, Lodhran, Bhawalpur, Khanpur,

all in Punjab Province, and then crosses into Sindh Province

passing through Rohri, Khairpur, Nawabshah, Tando Adam

and Hyderabad. It then crosses the great Indus and enters the

sprawling Karachi metropolitan area, after Jungshahi.  The

scheduled  time of arrival in Karachi, we are told, is 10am - which

would mean the train is supposed to do over 1300 kms in 16

hours.  This is very quick by Indian Railway standards.  The

train does run pretty fast on sections of the journey - but very

soon, early the next morning, we realize we are several hours

late.  A storm blows through the Punjab, overnight, and

that slows things down, for us.  It is quite evident looking

out of the window that crop fields over vast tracts have been

flattened by the gale and there are bunds that have broken

as well.  I get the feeling that the original train schedule is way

too aggressive, in any case.  Pakistan and Indian Railways, it

strikes me, use opposite approaches.  In India, the train

ride from Bangalore to Mumbai takes a totally unreasonable

24 hours - for a 1000 kilometer journey.  Even the bad road

is faster, though much less comfortable.  The train is

usually on time, as a result, and has enough headroom to

make up even several lost hours, en route.

 

Once we enter Sindh, and get further south, the landscape

dries up rapidly and transforms from the lush fields

of Punjab to the spare beauty of rocky, sandy hills.  The

landscape matches my imagination of the present day site

of the great Indus city of Mohenjodaro which is not far

to the west of where the rail line runs.  Wish we could go

visit - but our "Karachi-only" visa tells me that that is for

a future occasion.

 

Karachi and the WSF