Balochistan by road

May 28, 2017

Covering over 3,000 kilometres in five days, to experience the calm but uneasy peace of this isolated province

Balochistan by road

While travelling across Balochistan, I can so easily relate Lt. Henry Pottinger’s luscious descriptions in his book, Travels in Beloochistan and Sinde, published in 1816. Apart from the rare additions to the landscape that clearly stand out, everything from the blowing sands, distant hills and rugged ravines to the local tribesmen seem to be stuck in the past.

My five-day-long road journey from Mastung to Karachi begins on April 17, 2017 and ends at noon on April 22, 2017, and takes me through many districts of Balochistan.

My two friends and I depart for Dera Ghazi Khan on Tuesday night around 10pm from Lahore on a Daewoo, and enter Balochistan on Wednesday around noon, from there we proceed on a friend’s vehicle.

On the way to Mastung, we pass the vast plains of Jhal Magsi and Dhadar, which are parched and wrecked, and utterly unproductive owing to the aridity. This is just the beginning of our journey inside the province. A herd of sheep passes by our car as we move further along the road, and I can spot the wretched herdsman -- the quintessential representation of a life so beautifully vivified by classical Baloch folklore.

We can also see the grandeur of our colonial legacy, the North Western Railways. Despite our joy and the desire to explore the relic further, we have to keep on moving due to shortage of time.

Mastung, which we reach with about a half hour to spare before dusk, is a charming little desert town. It is spring in this mountain valley, and the sandy expanse between the rugged hills is covered with colourful blossoming plants and blooming wildflowers. Fruit orchards along the road and pine trees lining the gardens speak well of the fertility of the soil. But the air is sombre, for violent memories of the past still linger. There is an uneasy calm in the city making the evening rather bleak.

We stay with the District Police Officer Mastung, for the night. Despite the fatigue of the previous day’s road journey from Lahore to Mastung, we quickly start moving down south next morning at 10am, after a sumptuous breakfast offered by our host.

There are colonies of single-room mud houses surprisingly without any boundary walls. This freedom and openness may be a sign of Baloch tradition or it could be a disturbing reflection of abject poverty. Whatever the case, it certainly is strange yet uniquely pleasant.

By mid-day, we are at Kalat, the princely town and former seat of the throne of the Baloch confederation. Despite its glory narrated by history, Kalat hardly catches the eye. It is only in the evening that I am informed of ruins of the old palace here. It would have been a delight to explore more, but much like in Mastung, our time limitations force us leave lots to be discovered during our next visit.

Proceeding onward, the valley gradually broadens out. From Sorab we take the newly carpeted CPEC route, cutting straight through the Nag valley. Miles on end are unpopulated and twisters are frequently observed in the distance. There are colonies of single-room mud houses surprisingly without any boundary walls. This freedom and openness may be a sign of Baloch tradition or it could be a disturbing reflection of abject poverty. Whatever the case, it certainly is strange yet uniquely pleasant.

Nag Valley with its broad dusty plains is hardly attractive, although its importance as a breeding ground for Pakistan’s rare Houbara Bustard is noteworthy. Still, not everything appears to be in tatters. The business for Iranian petroleum products is booming, and we realise that we are travelling on one of its primary routes. The number of pickup trucks on the road loaded with jerrycans point to a booming trade, or a lively smuggle, whichever the eye of the beholder may view it as.

A desperate search for fuel pushes us off the track multiple times, resulting in the loss of daylight. Finally, some brawling with the umpteenth pickup owner helps us get a few litres of Iranian diesel, enough to safely reach Panjgur, where we can refuel and take a short break.

We enjoy a wondrous view of date orchards against the arid backdrop in Panjgur. This is a land of date palms, and produces some of the most delicious cultivars of dates in Pakistan. Sadly though, these dates never reach mainland Pakistan and so nobody knows about them.

As the sun slowly slides down the horizon we move further down south towards Turbat. The sky soon grows dark. We quickly pass by dark outlines of the Central Makran Range, where the complete absence of traffic renders the night ghostly. A bone chilling loneliness and frightfulness is written all over the road; broken only by isolated law enforcement pickets.

Reaching Turbat at night, however, the view is suddenly and pleasantly overhauled. Despite the hot weather, the lights in the city can be seen from afar. The electricity comes from Iran, as does the honey we consume for breakfast, and the chocolates I purchase for the remaining journey.

Turbat, where we stay for the night with Sarmad Saleem, Deputy Commissioner Turbat, has its fair share of sites for geographical inspection. With this in mind, we head for Koh-e-Murad, the site of holy relics for Balochistan’s Zikri population. Perched on a hillside, the boundary wall enclosing the compound and the stringent faced guards at the entrance are both reflections of our collective intolerance. That Zikris are still surviving here is music to the ears, although we are informed that their numbers are now in decline.

Diversity was once a hallmark of Baloch culture. Sadly, it is now threatened by increasing religiosity. How these Zikris will fare over time, and how they will manage to preserve their culture, only time will tell.

The ruinous mound we visit on the riverbed in Turbat is both appalling and intriguing -- appalling because Ari Jam’s castle is in ruins and intriguing because I am sure in the rocks, under the Salvadora bushes, in the markings on the sides, there are so many stories that will unfortunately never be unearthed.

We spend our remaining time in Turbat exploring Koh-e-Murad and Ari Jam’s castle, and next, we head to Gwadar, to see the enchanted land of opportunities.

The hills south of Turbat slowly recede into the background. We now move though beautiful yet frightening desert. The cliffs in the distance appear to be worthy of exploring, except that they are largely shrouded in a cloud of dust. It is only then that the sea reveals itself on our left, and we are awestruck.

Reaching Gwadar after about two hours on the road, I am treated to a pleasant sight in the sky. It is a raptor with white under-wings soaring in the hot updrafts of air currents. Closer inspection reveals it to be an Egyptian Vulture. Now this species may not be as affected from the use of diclofenac as a medicine for cattle as the slender-billed and the oriental white-backed vulture, but it has nevertheless suffered greatly in the last two decades. While the last two species are barely avoiding extinction, the former has greatly declined in numbers and is virtually extinct from a greater part of the country.

While the eyes were treated to a fair view in the sky, the views on the ground were disappointing -- there was litter everywhere. And Gwadar is not the only place I get to see this despicable sight. I see more waste dumped along the coastal highway the next day.

It has been suggested to us to witness the sunset at Jiwani. Before that though, I added a detour to the west to catch a glimpse of the trigger-happy world of border guards on a man-made boundary that would prevent me from going forward into Iran.

The road to the Iranian border and back is beautifully lined with ponds of various sizes, occasionally a complete estuary too. Against the arid, stark grey backdrop these sights are refreshing, till finally we reach the sea view point beside the Coast Guard establishment in Jiwani. Here, perched on a wooden frame, are the remains of a whale. Over 20 feet in length, it is awe-inspiring. Even this, we are told, is just part of the whale’s structure. The whole creature is too big to be propped up in the limited confines of this place.

After a few hurried photos, most people rush to get tea. I decide to enjoy the view of the sea and observe the composition of the rocks. Each and every bit of them are fossilised remains of life existing beneath the waves. It signified hope. Perhaps our sea is not dead after all. In spite of our propensity to destroy ecosystems, life still thrives in its deep recesses.

Back at Gwadar that night, we tried to use our remaining time to explore the area in the dark, but unfortunately fatigue from three days of continuous travel had completely worn us out.

The next morning, we make our way back to Karachi through the Makran Coastal Highway which despite its name offers a view of the sea only when you are close to Ormara. Here, we park near a police checkpoint, and head out to feel the rush of the waves. The setting is picture perfect -- a golden sandy beach, an endless body of emerald green water ahead, a strong breeze caressing the body, light waves massaging the feet and hills rising in the distance.

The journey onward to Karachi is more or less mundane. Except for the statue of the Princess of Hope and strange landforms of Hingol National Park, and the littered beaches around Kund Malir, there is but little to notice. Fatigue has probably affected our powers of observation, but we could not find much to visually enjoy, except for the obvious footprint of the littering species that we humans are.

The journey ends the next day as we dispersed on our own separate ways from Karachi. In the last five days, we have explored a great part of Balochistan, travelling over 3,000 kilometres, and witnessing the majesty of its unique land and seascapes taking with us enchanting memories of the calm but uneasy peace of Mastung, the frightful road from Panjgur to Turbat and the variety of sights along all the roads.

Balochistan by road