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Sunday, 22 June 2008

DIA 232-233 - The Longest Train Trip Ever!

Lahore - Quetta*

Catching the train from Lahore to Quetta in Pakistan takes around 30 hours. This does not include the time it takes to ride to the train station because you're not entirely sure where you are supposed to get off the bus and you overshoot the station, nor the time it takes for extremely friendly Pakistanis to negotiate both your tickets and tickets for the bicycles. Oh, and sitting in the train for two hours because it is running late also needs to be taken into account.

We were lucky in the end because we had a sleeper compartment. Well, we thought it was a sleeper compartment. There were three bunk beds but there were eight people in the small space, including us. It took five or six hours for everyone to sort themselves out. Two Pakistani boys were in the compartment because they had become our firm friends. Without Hamid and Amir, we would never have made it onto the train. Hamid in particular displayed an impressive degree of initiative. He was shouted at by a number of officials for his audacity trying to get us tickets. Each time he took a deep breath, looked extremely uncomfortable, muttered under his breath, and then tried again with someone else. The problem, as usual, was our bicycles. Then, when we were finally allowed onto the train for double the price, Hamid and Amir came with us. They were university students studying in Lahore and travelling to their hometown four hours away. They wanted to practice their English. It was difficult to know whether they actually had tickets for our train, but they were definitely not supposed to be with us in our sleeper. Hamid was shouted at yet again, this time by the conductor. After that, they were like ghosts, appearing and disappearing at a moment's notice.

Hamid's and Amir's illicit presence in the sleeper did not put them in the minority. We had a steady stream of visitors. An old man with a wispy white beard and a stick came in and Amir stood up for him. The man, who no doubt thought that Amir was a valid passenger, was so determined that Amir should sit too that he pulled his arm sharply and caught him off-balance. Amir sprang up again, embarrassed. Other men came and went. Five women and a little girl all silently filed in at one stage, and sat squashed together on a seat staring at us until they too were booted out by the conductor. They fluttered out, their veils billowing behind them.

When we finally settled down to sleep we were left with two fellow passengers: an easygoing older man and a devout Moslem man equipped with a cardboard box to use as a prayer mat. When he prayed, we all had to rearrange ourselves because there was a lack of floor space. We felt guilty because our shoes were centimetres from his nose as he prayed. But, like a trooper, he did not complain. When he alighted from the train with still five hours to go until Quetta he ducked his head at us and put his hand on his heart.

The sleeper itself was relatively comfortable, but the heat was oppressive. There were fans on the ceiling which often stopped due to intermittent electricity. Everyone dripped with sweat: all of us smiling at each other in sympathy, offering each other biscuits and dates, the others laughing at us as we strapped on our head torches to read during the blackouts. The train cook for our section came in with our meals over the course of the journey. Greasy omelette for breakfast, and chicken korma for lunch and dinner. We ate all the meals and, although our stomachs were unsure about the incoming material, they did not rebel as much as expected.

It was a long journey. Thinking back on it is not as much a visual rather than visceral memory. Sticking to the vinyl bunk. Not wanting to move because movement caused me to become intensely aware of the pooling of my sweat. It was definitely the people who made the journey bearable. And not only the people in the train. When we stopped at stations, we had commercial breaks. The sleeper door opened, and all sorts of goods were offered to us; from relevant items such as mineral water, to more dubious items such as high-heeled shoes. People laughed, smiled, engaged with us. All in all, catching the train from Lahore to Quetta my impressions of Pakistan were of dirt, heat, poverty...and very friendly people.

*Cycling in Pakistan was a fairly unattractive proposition given the threat of kidnap or getting bombed over a morning chai. The Australian Government uses its DFAT website to good effect - frightening would-be cycle tourists. European Governments have now decided not to write the letter of approval tourists need to get a Pakistani visa (Angel just managed to get a letter before the rules changed). Both strategies are highly effective, although the Australian strategy does allow you to nip through on the train!

*Con Chiis y Sunis matandose unos a otrs por una pizca de poder y con embajadas volando por los aires la idea de pedalear por Pakistan no sonaba muy atractiva y tan solo pensar en coger un avion para sobrevolarlo nos ponia malos, asi que como Buda escogimos el camino medio: el tren. Arriba todos los detalles en ingles de la jornada de 30 horas.

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