Taking the train from Zāhedān in Iran to Quetta in Pakistan

Zāhedān is the capital of Iran’s southeast Sistan and Baluchistan province and is located near the tri-point of the borders between Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The city is hot, dusty and practically lawless and the only reason to go there is because it is the closest place to the only legal crossing point between Iran and Pakistan at Mirjaveh/Taftan.

I arrived in Zāhedān with my then-girlfriend in May 1995 in order to catch the twice-monthly train to Quetta in Pakistan. Not that many years ago, Zāhedān was called Dozda, which translates as Thieves, and having spent the afternoon of our arrival wandering through its streets, I can tell you it is not the sort of place you want to spend any time in unless you absolutely have to. It was like a scene out of Arabian Nights with shady characters on every street corner watching our every move. It was horrible and we couldn’t wait to leave.

In the morning we made our way to the railway station and boarded the carriage that was to be our home for at least the next 30 hours. Lonely Planet, on their website, describes the train journey from Zāhedān to Quetta as follows:

The long, remote, dusty, sometimes cold and often uncomfortable train trip between Zahedan and Quetta, in Pakistan, is guaranteed to be a story you’ll tell until you die. If you’re someone who enjoys meeting people, isn’t fussed by hardship (carriages are simple with wooden seats and no sleepers) and has plenty of time, you’ll probably enjoy it. If not, take the bus.

I don’t remember there being a bus option but I do remember the train journey being exactly as Lonely Planet described it. Our train carriage was beaten-up at best, there was nowhere to lay down and get some sleep and during the night the temperature dropped and it was freezing cold.

Quetta (Mar 1995)The train to Quetta in Pakistan in March 1995

I also remember making friends, albeit not in the conventional manner. The train was making one of its frequent stops in the middle of nowhere and for no apparent reason (we weren’t near a station) and so I decided to get off for a bit. As I was about to climb the steps and re-board the train, a Pakistani man stuck his head out of the door and spat a mouthful of phlegm right square into my face. I was a little taken back and a tad pissed off but he was totally mortified by what he had done. It was, after all, an accident and for the rest of the journey, he and his family treated us both like royalty, giving us blankets, food, cups of tea and all sorts of other treats.

The train to Quetta in Pakistan | Train to PakistanFellow passengers including the one who spat in my face by accident (squatting) on the train to Quetta in Pakistan

As an aside, as soon as we crossed the border into Pakistan, my then-girlfriend liberated herself of her black chador and headscarf that she hadn’t taken off for two weeks and much to the amusement of our fellow passengers threw them both out of the train window.

Leaving Zāhedān didn’t mean that the security issues were behind us. Prior to boarding the train, we had heard rumours, confirmed by our fellow passengers, that this route across the Baluchestan desert was notorious for being targeted by bandits. I took the usual precautions (hiding cash in my shoes, stuffing money-belts where the sun don’t shine and that sort of thing) but there was little that could be done if our particular train was raided.

And raided we were but thankfully not by bandits but instead by the Pakistani police. It was like being in a scene from a Western movie. The train was rattling along at its customary 20-30km per hour when out of the blue (well the desert actually), we caught sight of about ten black pickup trucks which sidled up beside us and kept up with us on both sides of the train. It took a while for the train to come to a standstill (why, doing that speed?) and during this interim period, everyone bar the two of us went into a frantic panic and started jabbering in Urdu. Then a couple of guys asked us if we would mind saying that we owned the four blue water containers that were on the rack above our head.

We looked up simultaneously. It was only at this point that I first noticed not just the four blue water containers above our heads but dozens more like it crammed into every nook and cranny of the carriage. Even though we had just come from what was probably the drug ‘capital’ of the region, we didn’t give it a moment’s thought and said OK to their request. Looking back, that was an incredibly naive thing to do and I have never done it since but we had become friends with these people and they were asking us to help them out.

As it turned out, the water containers were empty and just, well, water containers and the Pakistani police had instigated their raid because the train was a known means of smuggling water containers from Iran to Pakistan!

Confiscating blue water containers on the train to Quetta in PakistanConfiscating blue water containers on the train to Quetta in Pakistan

I got talking to one of the police officers, who told me there was a shortage of water containers in Pakistan and good money could be made by smuggling (smuggling – how do you smuggle a water container!) them across the border and selling them on the black market. The police officer didn’t believe for one moment that the four water containers that we dutifully said were ours did, in fact, belong to us. He did find it amusing though.

The whole raid became farcical. The police would go from one carriage to the next starting at the back of the train and throw the water containers out onto the side of the track to await collection from the pickup trucks. But before the pickup trucks had time to collect them, the passengers would run down, pick up the water containers and take them back onto the train. When they reached the front of the train, the police would then return to the back of the train, board the last carriage and throw the water containers out onto the side of the track once more. The passengers would then … well, you get the picture. This went on for hours and if I didn’t have the photos to prove it, I would be convinced that my memory had started playing tricks on me over the past twenty years and that I had made up the whole story!

The train to Pakistan eventually got going again and we travelled the rest of the way to Quetta without incident, arriving some 40 hours later. Quetta was heaven compared to the train journey and after a hot shower, we went to the best hotel in town, the Serena Inn, and gorged on the all-you-can-eat-buffet.

Until we have the opportunity to return to Iran and Pakistan, all I can do is reminisce about my travels there. Read more: Pakistan and Iran.