Saturday, 12 February 2011

Fables of Pakistan’s Tezgam Express and the suspension of time

It is said that nobody walks in LA, unless they are compelled by circumstance. In Pakistan, few travel by train, unless they too are compelled by circumstances.  
So when I insisted on taking a train journey from Karachi to Multan, it seemed to most that I had lost my mind. Why would anyone wish to substitute a 90 minutes flight with a fifteen hour train journey?
Enter one of Pakistan Railways most well known trains, the Tezgam Express (loosely translated as the 'Rapid Express'), which travels from Karachi to Lahore. (In Pakistan, the better known 'inter-city' trains have names, e.g. the Khyber Mail, the Karakoram Express, the Moejodaro Express, etc.)
Pakistan Railways insignia
There is nothing rapid about the Tezgam. The approximately 966 kilometres Karachi to Multan journey took fifteen hours to complete at an average speed of 64 kilometres per hour. Surely, France's TGV or Japan's shinkansen with average speeds above 300 kilometres per hour put Pakistan Railways to shame.

However, despite the swanky swish of a modern bullet train or Swiss Rail punctuality, I would not give up the Tezgam for either system!

Train travel the way it was meant to be: lazily relaxed. Walking down train carriage corridors, as in 1960s mystery movies; feeling the strain on the locomotive as it pulled Tezgam's nineteen bogeys; being gently rocked to sleep in a swaying sleeper berth pulled by a decades old diesel electric engine. The adventure of buying dinner from the platform during a fifteen minutes halt at Hyderabad Station platform, drinking tea served by waiters darting in and out of carriages during a halt at smaller cities.
The final exploit: purchasing breakfast in Bahawalpur early in the morning in order to gulp it down during the remaining one hour before the Tezgam rolls into Multan. The charm of the 'Old' beats the efficiency of the 'New' in most things. Trains are no exception.
There are many ways to enjoy Pakistan, but all of them require the suspension of time. Pakistan cannot be enjoyed in a rush. Racing through Pakistan is like asking a short distance sprinter to run a long distance marathon. It is impossible.
And so it is with Pakistan Railways. The only way to enjoy being in this overtly Muslim nation is by adopting a Zen attitude. Embrace the chaos and stop searching for logic. Everyone plays a part within Pakistan's rational, hierarchical anarchy: the military, militants, politicians, mullahs, secularists, bureaucrats and common citizens.
Pakistan is full of stories found only in books or in one's imagination. Me, I hope to read more of her stories during my next epic train journey, from Lahore to Karachi by the Karakoram Express.

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