Steam Over The Indus & The Bolan Pass
Broad gauge steam in Pakistan: November 24th December 5th 2023
Quetta and the Bolan Pass: December 4th December 9th 2023
At the end of November and early December we will visit Pakistan again. To see amongst other things, the quite amazing lines, bridges and tunnels that surround Attock. All set against the incredible backdrop of an infrastructure that dates back to the golden age of Pakistani steam. (The photos are from the very successful 2021 trip).
The railways of Pakistan have gone through hard times. Not ever recovering from bankruptcy, the competition on the road is fierce and destructive. It is only thanks to the scarcity of financial resources that the infrastructure has survived to this day and that it largely dates back to colonial times. British semaphores, riveted steel lattice bridges, brick tunnel portals, station buildings, mechanical signal boxes, depots and even the tracks are classic relics of a railway era long gone elsewhere. This railway has not yet experienced a modernisation push, with the emphasis on the word "still". Pakistan has long become the focus of China's geostrategic and power-political interests. China is planning to build a railway link from Ürümqi and Lhasa to the ports of Karachi. Similarly, China has declared Gwadar, in the far west of Pakistan, as a development zone. On June 6th, 2020, the modernisation of the main line Peshawar - (Attock) - Rawalpindi - Lahore - Multan - Karachi was announced, double-tracked, crossing-free and designed for 160 km/h running. China wants this project; they want to secure access to the port on the Arabian Sea and thus the Indian Ocean. In the second phase, the parallel line will be modernised, and finally, the connection to Quetta will be completely rebuilt. If the Chinese had been able to implement their plans as intended, Attock would have been completely renewed as early as 2017.
The railway facilities in Attock and all the lines leading to Attock are still completely British and allow wonderful photo opportunities with the imposing Indus Bridge, the mountains and tunnels. The railway facilities are very well maintained and kept in working order, thanks to the numerous railway workers still employed on the railways. Pakistan Railways still uses two-axle freight wagons, which are perfect for a photo goods train.
We have had 5 coaches and around 30 freight wagons restored to pre their 1995 condition perfect for authentic looking trains!
We will be using two HG/S class 2-8-0 locomotives. These locomotives were widely used in Pakistan and could be found in front of both, freight and passenger trains. They spent their last years in shunting service, which is why some of them have survived.
The detailed tour documents with the itinerary will be sent to the registered participants before the trip. The trip will start on 25th of November in Rawalpindi, where participants will be picked up from the Benazir Bhutto International Airport, Islamabad.
Those who can arrive by 1 pm can come along for our first contact with Pakistan's railways as we will visit the Rawalpindi depot. There is a parked HG/S, and the operational boiler of an SP/S. Those arriving later will be picked up at the airport and taken to our hotel.
From 26.11. to 2.12.2023 we will photograph the beautiful bridges, the historic stations, the numerous semaphore signals and the tunnels around Attock City. A trip to the famous Khyber Pass is also planned, but we will have to travel there by bus because the railway has been impassable for over a decade. It is nevertheless very impressive. We are probably only allowed to stop in the military-secured forts because the area is classified as sensitive and therefore tourists are considered an attractive target, although no incidents have been reported in recent years.
Finally, we will drive to Lahore and visit the Changa Manga narrow-gauge forestry railway to the south.
The focus of the trip lies around the small railway junction Attock City, known until 1978 as Campbellpur. The main line to Peshawar is on the list of the first new lines to be built, so we will put a special focus on the particularly photogenic section between Attock City and Jehangira and travel on this section in different lighting conditions.
The extension of the trip to Quetta via the famous Bolan Pass will take us into a sensitive area where extremists sometimes run riot. The final approval to carry out this excursion is still pending. We plan to travel by night express from Lahore to Quetta. We will also try to get to some photographs. The line sees hardly any traffic, so we have to concentrate on the two regular trains, the Jaffar Express, to Quetta for the shots.
The double-track line is extremely photogenic, especially in the lower section of the climb up to the Quetta plateau and around the pass itself. It runs at a steady gradient and passes through numerous tunnels with grandiose tunnel portals. See
https://lh5.googleusercontent.com/p/AF1QipOSABc1mB43kqRVJMzsoyPxxJmZJUYmFs46HxKg=h1440 or https://lh5.googleusercontent.com/p/AF1QipMy6MXQAiCsNOg7NcnL3iSqxMCeeP_OXlkMEoe9=h1440
In Quetta we have a good hotel at our disposal. We will also see the city. If we are allowed, we also plan an excursion to the former starting point of the famous Bostan Zhob narrow-gauge railway. There have been and still are plans to reactivate or convert it to broad gauge, but the likelihood of such plans being implemented in this sparsely populated area is extremely low.
Historic Cities alongh the route
Peshawar, the capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, is strategically situated at the entrance of the Khyber Pass. Known as the oldest living city of Central Asia, Peshawar is a blend of many tribes, traditions, cultures and secrets. The city has seen countless invaders, conquerors and emperors. The inhabitants of this city the legendary Pathans are known as a daring and fearless race. Qissa Khawani (Story Tellers) bazaar is the original bazaar in the Old City where caravans from diverse geographic and cultural background traveling mostly from Russia and China into Persia would meet and exchange stories and brag about their exploits.
The old city was enclosed by sixteen gates. On the Eastern approach to the city lays the mighty Bala Hisar fort, built by Babar, the first of the Mughals. To the West is Jamrud Fort, still used as part of the defenses perimeter. In the heart of the city lies the Mahabat Khan mosque, built in 1680. The architect attempted to copy the mighty Badshahi Mosque of Lahore, and has six small minarets in between two huge minarets each towering 110 feet into the air.
The famous Khyber Pass has been a silent witness to the countless number of invaders, pleasure seekers, and adventurers that have filtered through its narrow gateway over the centuries. The road winds through a tribal area, passing the Jamrud fort, and continues for 50 kms to Torkham, witnessing the stark and severe beauty of this passage hewn through great rocks. The pass ends at the Torkham Border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, passing the smugglers’ bazaar, Landi Kotal, which at a height of 3518 feet straddles the top of this historical passageway. The journey beyond Baab-e-Khyber is subject to permission from Government authorities.
Lahore is a 11 million city, after Karachi the second largest of Pakistan and the 26th largest in the world. It has an ancient history and changed rulers quite often over the millenniums. It’s the economical stronghold and cultural capital of the Punjub. Many impressive buildings outlasted the centuries and are open to the today’s visitor.
All the lines we plan to use are still equipped with semaphores, which are also still in operation. Although the installations are well maintained, the same cannot always be said about the track. This is mostly with concrete sleepers, which often disappear in the ballast or are overgrown by grass, but sometimes still laid on wooden or old steel sleepers. The new type of construction with concrete blocks kept at a distance by a steel brace is rarely used on the sections we’re using.
The journey begins on the non-electrified, double-tracked main line from Rawalpindi to the northwest. This main line is the focus of modernisation efforts, but should not be a construction site by the time we start our journey. At present, semaphores and partly wired telegraph poles can still be photographed.
The three lines converging on Attock still look almost exactly as they did around 1940. The new Indus Bridge was inaugurated in 1929, and that was good British workmanship, for it still stands today. The facilities are aged but well maintained and in good working order. The grass between the tracks is kept short by biological lawnmowers, the sliding parts of the points are lubricated with used oil and the rods for the points and signals still stretch across the entire station. On the north-south line Peshawar - Attock - Basal Jn. two mountain ranges and several photogenic riveted steel lattice bridges are crossed. The largest and most imposing bridge is the bridge over the Indus at Attock Khurd, newly built 1929, but the bridge over the tributary to the Indus via the Haro river is also impressive. The bridges over the tributaries of the Haro over the Nandana Kas and the partly dammed Shakadara also lead over scenic river valleys.
The route profile is partly quite demanding. The highest point we cover is over 600 metres, the lowest below 300 metres above sea level. However, there are often flatter sections in agricultural surroundings with the typical small fields and villages.
Even though we will partly drive through deserted mountain landscapes Pakistan is a densely populated country. This will allow motifs with people and local colour.
Pakistan emerged from the partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947 and has been an Islamic Republic since 1956. The country has been marked by serious and long-lasting conflicts, such as the bloody population exchange right after its foundation, the conflict with India over Kashmir or the secession of East Pakistan in 1971 (today Bangladesh). Despite all the problems, the vast majority of Pakistanis are extremely hospitable. Visitors are always treated with the greatest interest and respect, ignorance of religious and social customs is readily forgiven, drinks and food are served even during Ramadan, so that the worldly traveller is almost embarrassed. On the one hand, it is difficult to refuse, but on the other hand, one knows that certain things are not proper in Islam. However, should one turn out not to be a guest but a proponent of imperial great power politics or a religious zealot, it turns into the opposite.
On my three visits between 2019 and 2021, I found a peaceful and positively developing Pakistan. But that might have to do with the perspective from my visits in the 1990s. The Western visitor who has never travelled to countries like Nepal, India or Bangladesh might find the country very stressful. Medical care, environmental protection, education levels and transport are at a low level of development compared to Europe, America and most parts of Asia. And yet, when asked what my interlocutor was most concerned about, the answer kept coming back: global warming with all its consequences! Terrorism or epidemics such as malaria and polio, which almost only occurs here and in Afghanistan In other words, things that the classic, little-travelled citizen of the Western hemisphere is most concerned about were never mentioned. But in fact, here as in many other countries of the world, terrorism is almost negligible, whereas road traffic is the number one cause of unnatural death. For the common European, Pakistan's road traffic is a lively, honking, dangerous mess. People like to drive fast wherever conditions permit. However, the danger of getting hurt in traffic can be greatly minimised if one behaves sensibly. In any case, we are hardly at risk in a coach, when compared to a moped rider. Most people tend to greatly exaggerate risks anyway. Malaria prophylaxis is not necessary in our travel area in November/December from our point of view. On the other hand, vaccinations against hepatitis A, polio, typhoid and sometimes cholera are often recommended. However, the transmission routes are almost exclusively contaminated food and drinking water. So you can protect yourself.
You should make sure you have clean water and food, which means drinking water, not the water from the tap. Beer is also available in Pakistan, but it is difficult to obtain, may not be consumed in public and is only famous for its rarity, but definitely not for its taste. Nevertheless, we will always carry a supply of beer in a cooler. The can, however, costs around 4 Euros! The rarity value just has to be paid for. Pakistani cuisine offers many rice and vegetable dishes and is sometimes spicy. Vegetable (often lentils or peas) and meat curry dishes are just as popular as flat breads mostly made from wheat, the naan (baked with yeast), roti (without yeast) and especially chapatti.
We will make sure on the trip that we do not have any problems with the food and have a cook with us who is familiar with tourists and who will look after our well-being.
Energy supply in Pakistan is difficult and depends very much on oil imports. There can be power cuts. However, the hotels have an emergency generator.
The hotels are a chapter in themselves. Good hotels with western standards can usually only be found in tourist strongholds or in the big cities. But Attock is not a big city. The nearest really good hotels near Attock City are in Peshawar. The drive from Peshawar via the motorway to Attock City, however, takes about two hours, and to Rawalpindi you’ll not save time either. There are hotels in Attock City itself, but except for one, they can only be classified as unreasonable. But due to security concerns of the officials we are not allowed to use the one viable hotel. The local police say that they can only guarantee our safety between 4 am and 10 pm. Therefore, we will not stay in Attock itself, but offer another solution: When staying in Attock will sleep in sleeper coaches (A/C sleeper, Pakistan's best sleeper class) and in saloon cars (at extra charge) We will board the sleeper cars in the evening and then have dinner on the way to a quiet drop-off point. There are several shower facilities available. We will also stay in a five-star hotel every now and then. The sleeping cars, however, have quite good beds in which you can sleep quite well. Since there is not much going on the railway at night, there is not much noise to worry about. We buy the bedding ourselves to make sure it is spotlessly clean.
Our charter bus will often follow our train, but road and rail are sometimes far apart, especially in the mountains. We therefore travel by train most of the time, using goods wagons as well as passenger coaches. A ladder and benches are provided.
Pakistan Railways suffer from delays for all sorts of reasons beyond our control. We have to give priority to the regular trains. Due to the hopelessly outdated train reporting system, it can happen that we have to wait a long time in a station for the delayed train, and no one can say when it will arrive. So we have to expect longer waiting times for operational reasons. In addition, there are technical shortcomings. Our locomotives running on their last legs and it is not foreseeable whether there will be enough time and resources to improve this situation so that we achieve a certain reliability of the locomotives. In addition, the braking system is vulnerable. It can take time to find a leak. Injectors, superheater elements, boiler tubes and flues, stuffing boxes, even the regulator can cause problems. We may have to cut the program to what is feasible on some days or wait for a replacement locomotive. So, as usual, nothing is promised except that we will do everything we can to get some nice shots each day and otherwise have a good time. Again we ask for real understanding. For technical as well as operational/other reasons, it is possible that certain parts of the itinerary cannot be carried out or cannot be carried out as planned .We always try our best but I am sure you understand that partial refunds are a non-option.
Charter buses (Coasters with 22 seats), planes, trains, accommodation etc. correspond to the standard of our host country and may differ significantly from Central European, Australian or North American expectations. We try to avoid long walks, but sometimes these are the only way to get to a viewpoint or a photo motif. The trip is especially tailored for photographers and videographers; achieving good photographic results takes precedence over an extensive breakfast at the hotel. Breakfast can be packed, lunch omitted if necessary or replaced with some nuts, bananas or oranges. Meal times are based around our trains. With the exception of drinking water, drinks are not included in the tour price.
Please note that the hotels, buses, train, in fact everything we will encounter is not at all EU/US/UK-compliant and this is exactly why we are travelling there. We will be travelling to a country where environmental and accident concerns are almost unknown. We don’t really need to point out the dangers that can arise from the railways or from road traffic. Always use common sense when crossing roads and railway tracks. If you cannot find your way around dark roads at night, take a powerful torch with you. Taking out foreign accident insurance and the always important foreign health insurance is recommended. Neither Pakistan Railways, the local tour operator nor FarRail Tours are liable in any case for accidents of any kind, damages, losses or inconveniences, additional costs etc., which may arise e.g. from necessary rebooking or delays of individual modes of transport.
We will hardly need the local currency (Pakistani rupee) on the trip. We advise against buying food from local traders and street restaurants (from our own painful experience). We will have enough food for the hungry among us.
Please also take winter clothing with you. It may well get below zero degrees at night. However, we can also experience well over 20 degrees plus in the afternoon, at least in Lahore and south of it. Only on rainy days does the temperature rarely stay below 15 degrees.
We will have two security guards with us. Not because Pakistan is so dangerous, but because people in rural Pakistan are incredibly keen to be photographed and to take photographs themselves. The guards can then kindly compliment train photographers holding mobile phones in their hands out of our photo area. Wildly shouting "Hey - out of the picture" will trigger exactly the opposite of the desired reaction.
Our tour operator has a total of eight staff for our group, so that everything runs to our satisfaction and (almost) no wish remains unfulfilled. Of course, this has its price, but we want to make sure that everyone feels comfortable in a country that may be foreign to them.
|Broad Gauge Steam and Semaphores
||22 to 31 participants
|| Single room surcharge
|Registration Deadline: 03.07.2021 |
|Ancient Cities and the Himalaya
||9 to 18 participants
||3 to 8 participants
Single room surcharge
|Registration Deadline: 03.07.2021 |
Tour dates: 30.11. - 02.12. and 11.12. - 17.12.2021
The price includes:
- All transfers in Pakistan
- All hotels
- Charter trains
- Full board with drinking water and tee
- Pakistani and European tour guides (flights are without guide)
- Permit fees
- Photo permit for selected Pakistan Railways stations and depots
- Security guards
- Cook for our provisions
- Entrance fees
Not included are:
- International flights
- Personal expenses such as telephone costs, minibars in hotels, laundry service etc.
- Tips, please calculate with approx. £15 per day