THE LOST JEWEL
In my early teens when romanticism was at its peak, there was a famous song which was my favorite and I used to sing it over and over again. I had not seen the movie ARADHNA with its "Mere Sapno Ki Rani", which was composed by Sachin Dev Burman and performed by Kishore Kumar.
But when I saw the movie in 1970 and its romantic picturization the beautiful scenery and the back ground plantation fascinated me.
Most of you must have seen the famous narrow gauge Darjeeling railway track which has been the epitome of many romantic Indian movies featuring the top Indian stars. Down the memory lane is the nostalgic reminder of MERE SAPNOO KI RANI which shows RAJEESH KHANA riding in a jeep and serenading to Sharmeela Tagore sitting on the window side of the Darjeeling Express pretending to read a book but her ears are listening to the serenade sung by RAJEESH KHANNA.
Similarly in the latest award winning movie BURFI it also shows many glimpse of the narrow gauge railway track of Darjeeling from which India is earning multi million dollars as a result of tourism and as a hill station which is a tourist attraction.
India is still maintaining its Darjeeling Railway track in a superb condition so as to attract people to this highly elevated tourist resort.
At the time of partition in 1947 Pakistan inherited many tourist attractions in which the Z.V.R better known as the ZHOB valley railways has been a magnetic attraction and has great historical significance.
The nearest I came to see this magnificent railway tract was in 1964 when I was at that time a student of Cantonment Public school Quetta and went on a scouting trip to Lora lai and Zhob little knowing that in future my restless and adventurous spirit will make me fall in love with these places.
The year 1986 may be marked as a black year for Z.V.R when the last railway engine plied on this narrow gauge railway track never to be used again and the dismantling of this line began. What remains now are the up rooted railway track beds, the dismantled bridges with their piers sticking out like sore thumbs and the dilapidated railway stations en-route from Bostan to Zhob. There were eleven railway stations on the Z.V.R and amongst them was KAN MAHTERZAI, which is the highest railway station in Pakistan located at the height of 2224 meters (7295 feet) above sea level even higher than Murree. The Gumm railway station on the Darjeeling line is about 35 feet higher and thus is the highest narrow gauge railway station in the world.
During First World War, a Railway line was laid from a place called Khanai (30 km north of Quetta) to a place called Hindubagh (renamed as Muslimbagh in 1960s).
The work started on Khanai-Hindubagh line in 1916 and was opened for rail traffic in 1921. In 1927, the Hindubagh to Qila Saifullah section was opened and finally the section up to Zhob was opened in 1929.
For a long part of its journey, the railway track followed the Zhob River and thus it was called the Zhob Valley Railway.
The British interest in this area grew when chromate was discovered between KAN MAHTERZAI & Hindu Bagh in 1901 & mining on a massive scale was undertaken as this chromate was used in production of munitions during the First World War.
KAN MAHTERZAI situated between Kuchlag and Muslim bagh became an important stopover point for the British war effort because of this discovery which made the British to lay a railway line between Quetta and Muslimbagh for the transportation of chromate.
ZVR was a tiny Narrow Gauge (2’-6”) railway track as it ran northeast from Bostan on the Quetta-Chaman route to Zhob. Its length of three hundred kilometres made it the longest Narrow Gauge line in the subcontinent.
Today nothing much is left of the desolate and abandoned KAN MAHTERZAI railway station as it is in a state of decrepitude and ruin. It is now a rather quiet place, as no longer those small narrow gauge engines haul passengers and good bogies on this once very active railway of the Indo-Pak subcontinent. No more is there the hustle and bustle of miners, British soldiers and traders and the locals. Nor there is the aroma of typical Balochi cuisines like sajji the karak chai stalls that was once sold there.
Finally the days of narrow gauge came to an end due to wearing out of the narrow gauge engines and bogies. The narrow gauge railway track had a common nemesis the People of Pakistan as they must undo what has already been done as most of it became a prey of pilferage vandalism and theft.
This line became a victim of neglect callousness coupled with inefficiency and corruption. Some times in the late eighties (80’s) a half-hearted attempt was made to revamp the line and the resting locomotives that were gathering rust and dust in the sheds at Bostan were overhauled. But no effort was made to re do the civil works of the disintegrating line. From time to time the refurbished locomotives were periodically fired to keep them at work. By and by all was forgotten and the last time it was heard that they were beginning to lose their shine once again.
Many people of that area still remember the magnificence, splendor and grandeur days of the Z.V.R. Winters were very harsh on the tiny Narrow Gauge locomotives, and it was not uncommon for trains to be caught in heavy snowdrifts. There was a great snow storm in 1970 that the railway line was covered in deep snow up to the height of the Cow catcher of the steam locomotives which just could not make their way forward. The engine driver and the fireman kept the fire alive waiting for the rescue train to come which also bogged about 5 kilometers away.
From the tourism point of view KAN MAHTERZAI was a winter attraction as the whole treeless area around the station was covered with snow as far as the eye could see with the orchards of apricot and almond and the mounds of Bostan in the background giving it an added attraction.
There was a ticket window but only for those who cared to pay as most of the travelers on this line considered it their moral duty not to pay. Indeed, that was one of the reasons for the line’s untimely demise.
I as a social activist and an ecologist long for the day when this great jewel in the tourist Map of Pakistan will be fully restored to its former zenith and grandeur when the writ of the government will be fully implemented in these areas and the chug chug of the steam engines will be heard heading on the ZVR line and early in the morning the bearer will bring in my English breakfast telling me that KAN MAHTERZAI will be the next stop.
Dr. Babur Zahiruddin