The Green Line: From Islamabad to Karachi

Daud Khan met some wonderful people during his recent travels

The Green Line: From Islamabad to Karachi
For those of the older generation, travelling by train was really the only way to see the country. It was cheap and easy. Air travel was beyond the reach of most people, and travel by road was slow and dangerous.

And so it was that we were regular clients of what used to be called the Pakistan Western Railways (PWR). At that time, most trains, including the Tezgam which we often used, had four classes of travel – First, Second, Inter and Third. Most young people – and we were young then – used to travel Inter. First and second class were too expensive. The Third Class was for the hoi polloi and our parents would have apprehensions about us travelling “Third.” Inter gave some sort of respectability without being too expensive. My memories include green rexine covered seats and red-shirted porters who at the time we called coolies. But above all, I recall the food. One would order from the waiters who would pass by regularly. Food would mysteriously appear at the agreed time on expertly handled steel trays. I vividly recall the smells and taste of the PWR Aaloo-Ghosht for lunch or dinner, and of the omelettes served at breakfast, with tea which was hot, milky and very sweet.

Wishing to relive some of these old memories, during a recent business trip to Islamabad, I decided to travel back to Karachi by train. Being old and creaky, I opted for the more luxurious Business Class on the Green Line. Departure was from Islamabad’s Margalla Station. Most people don’t know Islamabad has a railway station – I certainly did not. It is a tiny three-room affair. The platforms and public areas are clean and very well maintained. There is a small tea shop in the compound teeming with young students from the different colleges and universities nearby.

It was fascinating to eavesdrop on the conversations of these youngsters while enjoying the excellent tea and samosas prepared in the tiny shack. The topic of romance appeared to be most popular with the young clientele. Discussions about teachers and national politics followed a close second and third. All this was so similar to what we used to talk about when we were young students almost 50 years ago. At the time we thought ourselves so “Hip”. I am increasingly realizing that young people today have the same interests, aspirations and anxieties are we had. And they as certainly better informed than we ever were, thanks to the internet and social-media. Only outward appearances have changed. Instead of our bell-bottom trousers, flowered shirts and long hair, the young kids prefer the hijab and beards.

This journey on the Green Line was long, almost 24 hours, but comfortable and uneventful. The compartments were clean, with six bunks in each; freshly washed linen; a passable toilet in each carriage; and well heated against the cold Punjab winter.  We stopped at relatively few stations but these, as well as the ones we did not stop at, were generally very run down. Some of the smaller ones were quite literally crumbling to the ground. The exception was Lahore which was magnificently restored with brand new platforms, bright lighting and lots of very nice eating places. Reassuringly for the anxious traveller concerned about security and terrorism, there was a very nice latticed doorway on the main platform with a brightly illuminated sign saying “Bomb Disposal Unit.”

What was also nice on the Green Line was the food. The Aaloo-Gosht of yore was no longer on offer, but the chicken biryani was excellent.  The waiters passed by regularly with offers of tea, coffee, fries and whatever. Where all this was prepared remains a mystery. There was no restaurant car, so it could not be cooked on board. Nor could it have been from the stations en-route as the Green Line made very few stops.

But what made this trip really interesting were the people.

During the initial part of the journey, two young ladies in niqab joined me in my compartment. They spent almost all their time texting on their mobile phones. They occasionally spoke to each other showing each other their phone screens. From these exchanges it was obvious that the texting was with their men friends. I must say I found myself a bit shocked and scandalized. Most likely it is simply my prejudice that young ladies who have heads and faces covered should be having more noble thoughts.

Next was a lovely family with two small children who were heading back home after a family holiday in the Bhurban. It was very nice to see how well brought up the children were and how certain values, such as politeness and not wasting food were being transmitted. What was less nice was to see how much time the children, as well as their parents, spend on their smartphones. Even the two and a half year old, who could still not speak very well, was very adept at handling the phone!

I also met a number of people in the corridors of the train. Zafar Sahib was from Karachi. Short, plump, and with a splendid beard and prayer mark on his forehead, he organized walking trips to Gilgit Baltistan for local groups from Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad, as well as for foreign tourists. He was quite clear that these did not include serious trekking or climbing which he considered too complex and not particularly remunerative. With a goofy smile on his face, he also told us that his offerings included trips for middle-aged and elderly Japanese ladies and for their “temporary marriages” with young local young men. These trips typically lasted a few weeks and were highly profitable for him and the young men involved.

Naseem, dressed in a rather scruffy grey shalwar-kameez, looked like any young student heading to the big city of Karachi from some small village in the Punjab. A bit shy and out of place. However, after some initial reticence he opened up. Having failed his matric exams twice, he decided that academics were not for him. So two years back he set up a business to supply spare parts to electronic repair workshops. He now employs 50 motorcycle riders who deliver orders to 500 workshops with a guarantee of getting the spare parts to them within 90 minutes. Payments are made in cash but he said he has never had any problems with riders disappearing with the money. Apparently he provides blue-ribbon treatment to his riders and other staff with a good salary, medical insurance and meals, as well as short term loans when needed, for example at times of marriages, births and deaths. He was headed to Karachi to get customs clearance for three container loads of goods worth over Rs15 crore. He said this would require some tough negotiations with custom officials who normally demand Rs5 lakh per container but usually agree for a cash payment of Rs1-2 lakh. From there he was headed to China as he wanted to place some additional orders in case supply chains are disrupted by the Corona outbreak. He was just 22 years old.

Of course there were also lots of other stories – some sad, some amusing, all of which deserve to be retold. One particularly funny story, both in terms of content, but more so how it was told, was by a group of students. Apparently, they did not manage to sleep a wink the whole night because of an old man snoring. “It seemed as if the locomotive was in our compartment.” But this was not quite true another of the group added. Apparently, the old fellow did take breaks from snoring, but only when he had to “fire from the other end.”

For those with a day to spare, please do take the train. And travel alone, you meet so many new people, each with their own stories to tell. Pakistan is such an amazing place with amazing people.

Editor’s Note: All names mentioned in the article have been changed for reasons of privacy.

The writer is a retired UN officer who lives between Rome and Pakistan

The writer is a retired UN staff member who lives partly in Italy and partly in Pakistan