On the Shalimar Express

The trip was 2 hours quicker than by bus, ticket prices were the same as for the bus and food was immeasurably better

Chris Cork December 03, 2014

Battling our way through the pre-dawn chaos at Cantt Station in Karachi, fighting off feral porters, trying to make sure that everything that was in our pockets 30 seconds ago was still in our pockets and not legging it for an exit — it was time to catch the Shalimar Express. It was leaving from the old Raj-era platform and the Parlour Class coach immediately looked familiar — as in unchanged since I last travelled by rail seven years ago — 15 since me and the Missus took the train together. Shabby, unwashed and looking distinctly unloved the carriage was decades overdue for an overhaul, and we were beginning to regret our decision to give the Iron Horse our custom.

Settling into our seats we took in the full horror. The TV monitors of yore were gone, as were the revolving seats and the seats themselves were fixed in a permanent ‘recline’ position. The toilets, and this before we had turned a wheel, were straight out of your nightmares and the newspaper man did not sell English newspapers because nobody was interested in buying them. Yes, we did ask. The ticket collector at least looked smartly turned out to say nothing of mildly astonished to find a gora on his train and, to my considerable surprise, the Shalimar Express ‘UP’ rolled out of the station at two minutes past six, or a whole two minutes late.

Matters improved. One of the joys of travelling Parlour Class for me was the grub. Quite simply the best I have ever eaten on a train anywhere in the world. The breakfast was never much to write home about but the lunches were sometimes of majestic proportions, and ours arrived spread across two trays and would have fed an entire infantry division. We rolled across Sindh and up into Punjab, no major delays and no dramas (my last trip by train was somewhat marred by a low-speed derailment) and we pulled into Bahawalpur at 6pm. The trip was two hours quicker than by bus, the ticket prices were the same as for the bus and the food was immeasurably better. The Corks will travel by train again, hopefully in a carriage that has been cleaned at some point in the last 20 years.

Which brings me to the point of this week’s musings. I came across an article by Peter Oborne writing in The Daily Telegraph, a UK newspaper, entitled “Are we wrong about Pakistan?” The article details a visit Oborne made to Pakistan and specifically how the country failed to conform to the stereotypes that he had expected to find fulfilled. He found himself welcomed, travelled freely and without hassle, and concluded that, so long as due caution was exercised and sound advice heeded, Pakistan was for the most part safe for tourists to visit. Oborne did not pull his punches and was realistic about some of the real dangers that exist here — but his point was well made and it is a perspective rarely voiced, certainly in the media outside the Land of the Pure.

This of course conflicts with the travel advice given by the majority of foreign missions, most of whom take a very dim view of their nationals wandering about un-chaperoned, and some even advise against coming here at all.

The Oborne article and a reflection on my own experience of living and working here for over 20 years led me to a similar conclusion. To be sure there are places you really really do not want to be going in Pakistan, but viewed in terms of the totality of the geography they add up to a relatively small area. The no-go areas are well-enough known and what dangers there are tend to be from natural events rather than being in the wrong place at the wrong time when things start to go bang.

Us who scribble for a living thrive on a diet of bad news. It sells newspapers and feeds a drama-hungry population — and completely masks the fact that there is good news, as in nothing much happening beyond ordinary life, going on all day 24/7. We travelled by train. Nothing happened. End of story.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 4th, 2014.

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Np | 7 years ago | Reply

@nadeem: "The list of ‘Don’t go there’ is longer in Pakistan, but not that much longer."

Elsewhere in the world people are not kidnapped from their homes as happened to the Jewish NGO worker or for that matter kidnapped from their cars in broad daylight as happened to the Former PM's son or target of suicide bombers while they are praying as frequently happens in Pakistan,.

"Couples should not get on a Delhi bus late at night, remember last year?"

That happened in 2012 not last year. It seems much more recent because the issue has been kept alive by - Indian civil society who is keeping up pressure on government to imprve safety for women (the law has already been changed and several cities have implemented processes to facilitate safety for women traveling alone at night but more needs to be done). - by Indian media who is using this to change mindsets : blame the aggressor instead of blame and shame the victim.

You do not see civil society In Pakistan coming out to protest social evils such as abuse of blasphemy law or media providing unrelenting persistent coverage either though of course they are quite willing to come out in droves for political rallies.

saleem | 7 years ago | Reply

I agree with Mr. cork, the filth in shalimar exp was unimaginable. Never travel by it again!

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