Khojak Pass with Longest Tunnel in Pakistan
Pakistan has a very long border belt with Afghanistan with two main border posts at Landi Kotal and Chaman. Before the border posts at both places, we have to negotiate with legendary passes known since ages as Khyber and Khojak. Khyber has been the primary route of most of the invaders, traders and travelers approaching from north-west, while Chaman has been used by travelers approaching to Qandhar or vice versa. Khyber Pass is situated in the lower Hindu Raj belt of mountains while Khojak lies in Suleman range. Since Khyber Pass has been the choice of more people and being an easier route, remained in limelight since ages, while Khojak Pass has been described a little as it deserved.
Its strategic location, rugged landscape and possession of one of the longest tunnel used for railway track, makes it equally interesting rather more dramatic with wild panoramic views around, as compared to Khyber Pass.
A four hours drive to cover 153 kms from Quetta to Chaman border on an average road ( as we usually have in Pakistan ) is a trip beyond time. It proves worthy to make the hassle of this journey as the scenery is captivating and on an open day with clear sky, the views of the Chaman Plain and distant Afghan areas are rewarding.
We follow the route to Chaman crossing the places like Jungle Pir Ali Zai, Qila Abdullah and Shela Bagh etc. My host Capt. Naveed gave me a very interesting introduction of the route and told that at Jungle Pir Ali Zai, there is no forest, Qila Abdullah is without a fort, at Shela Bagh no garden is there and at Chaman, off course, one should not expect an Eden garden, as the name describes. However apart from his correct definition, the route and journey was incredible and as interesting as anything.
In the winter season and due to a severe drought of years to follow against years, the land is completely barren and the apple trees, once the main attraction of the region, are without a single leave on them. It looks like that they will never become fruit laden as the water table is lowering at an alarming speed. The vale of Quetta is facing its hardest times and this is the need of time to make some concrete efforts to resolve the water availability for the region. In general, chances are very thin and we can just expect a natural change to improve the drastic conditions of rainfall.
On a nice sunny day with some clouds on sky, we made this epic journey and had luck to have superb panorama from the top of Khojak Pass.
Just before the Khojak Pass there is a small dwelling called as Shela Bagh. This place might have been developed as a base camp for workers building the road and rail track through the pass, now serves as a post by authorities to fulfill the loose measure for anti smuggling.
Beyond Shela Bagh, the road rises to the top of pass and the rail track enters into the tunnel to emerge on the other side after covering a distance of 3.9 kms and leads towards the last railway station of Chaman. Both options, to use the surface route and going through the tunnel to enter the vast plains of Chaman, are equally interesting.
Shela Bagh at a distance of 112 kms from Quetta is the starting point of Khojak Tunnel. At the time of its construction i.e. 1891, this was at number four in the world for its length. However after the construction of other tunnels, using modern technology, now it stands at number eight but still the longest in Pakistan ( and in sub-continent as well, according to some sources ).
In the records of Pakistan Railway, Khojak Tunnel has been described as follows,
“ Khojak Tunnel, which is unquestionably one of the most prized possessions of Pakistan Railway, is the longest in Pakistan and the 8th. Longest in the world, the tunnel is 3.9 kms in length. It is located at Shela Bagh – the last station before Chaman on Quetta Chaman Section, 112 kms from Quetta. In 1891 when it was passes for traffic, it was the fourth longest in the world.
The tunnel is straight but has a few rising and falling grades, the highest being reached at the center, which is almost a hump. As the train reaches this spot, an automatic device rings a bell warning the engine driver that he is starting the downgrade. To light the tunnel for the gang men who regularly work there or the occasional inspections and visits, mirrors are used at both ends, which reflect sunlight into it. The employees deployed for this purpose so position the life – side mirrors that the entire passage of the straight tunnel is illuminated, which slide out of their slits when they are operated through the special mechanism devised to this end “.
According to famous travel writer Isobel Shaw, “ the tunnel, the longest in the subcontinent, was drilled from each end, and apparently when the engineer discovered that it was not meeting in the center he attempted suicide. By means of a hill and a corner the situation was redeemed and the tunnel completed in 1892 ”.
Another important feature to mention about Khojak Tunnel is this, which the entrance of the tunnel ( at Shela Bagh side ) appears on the backside of Five Rupees currency note of Pakistan.
Shela Bagh is a small but quite interesting place at a height of 1939 meters above sea level. According to the local legend, there was a British officer incharge of the tunnel project, fell in love with a dancer girl Shela. Some people say that Shela was a famous film star or dancer of Indian film industry of that time. So the sahib, on a tough assignment in a god forsaken place used to recall her beloved thus giving the same name to the place. Since then the place is being called as Shela Bagh.
Again an interesting accounts, which has been published by Pakistan Railway is worth mentioning,
“ A popular legend has it that Shela Bagh was named after Shela, an Indian dancer who used to divert the tried workers. Like many other legends, this one about the origin of the name may be purely fictional but the tunnel itself, which stands as a living monument of the Britishers’ engineering skill, industry and commitment, is a fact – undoubted enchanting and inspiring. One just can’t help marveling at this masterpiece. Cool calm & majestic, the place is a must – see for tourists and those occasional travelers who want to feast their eyes upon a combination of natural beauty and human enterprise. But, then, only seeing is believing or so they say “.
At Shela Bagh, we had a unique and very interesting experience to go inside the tunnel, riding a manually driven rather pushed cart, normally called as “ Thaila “. In the honour of the distinguished guests, which we were, the seat of Thaila was made more comfortable by putting a blanket on the wooden bench. Two men started pushing the cart while running on the rail track. Suddenly we got a good speed and both men stopped pushing the cart and jump on. Now our cart, without any machine, was running due to the momentum. Here we experienced the use of the mirror used to reflect sunlight in the tunnel. The mirror lit the whole tunnel and it was a great idea to produce light without any fuel, machine or other source. This light was so good that I had to request them to stop reflecting light to make some pictures, in which I wanted to had black back ground, to show the inside of the tunnel.
Back on the road, we made a stop at a vintage point offering the vast barren and rugged plains in front of us. The whole view was dominated by gray and light red shade, which was being reflected all around. An antenna of TV booster marks the highest point of the pass before descending down to Chaman.
The construction of this road and rail track is without any doubt is a marvel of engineering and a feat to be praised. In the most unfavorable circumstances, about eleven decades ago, this man made crossing is definitely a task of bravery and a piece of mastery. . It is definitely a landmark of British history of sub-continent and should be proudly followed in modern age. The people of the region were as savage as the terrain is and they kept on posing every hindrance and obstacle to stop to the work being done by the then government. Hats off for the people who took this daring assignment and completed it for the development of the area and to provide an easy and a safe traveling route for the local people. After visiting the place and witnessing their great job, I believe that they deserve to have a Shela and name the place for their love.
We resumed driving down and the mountain started loosing its height and after a sharp descent from the top of the mountain, we reached in the town of Chaman, which is a small place with hardly marked boundary with Afghanistan. A small old gate was insufficient to control the heavy traffic from both sides so a new concrete building has been constructed to serve as a proper international border entry/exit point. The new gate is given the name as Bab-e-Doasti.
Chaman is known for its local market of smuggled items from Afghanistan. Once it has been an attraction of visitors but now it is strong notion that most of the merchandise is preferred to be purchased from Quetta rather than buying it from Chaman, where price, quality and guarantee of any item is more trust worthy. Various government agencies take care to control the illegal import of various items, which ranges from house hold items to brand new cars and from arms & ammunition to narcotics. However, due to the worst conditions of boundary line, which is mostly un-guarded and poor law & order situation, it is quite a difficult job to perform.
As Chaman, the line marking the border between two countries is hard to define and local people from both sides easily travel and trade , without any proper formalities usually observed on international borders. Most of the people shift the smuggled items in wheel barrows and donkey carts. And near the border, there is a great hustle and bustle and recognition or distinction among Pakistani or Afghans is quite difficult. Smuggling is a part of their culture, daily life and is almost the lone source of their income. Most of the people don’t consider it as smuggling and for them this is routine business, which they have and which they are doing since decades.
Considering the importance of a border post and witnessing the heavy traffic on Quetta-Chaman route, it is strongly recommended that a well surfaced asphalt road is the urgent necessity of the region. As everywhere telecommunication means and infra structure can change the fate of an area similarly by providing basic facilities to the visitors, this could be an interesting tourist spot and can generate some beneficial business for local inhabitants.
From Chaman, the closest town of Afghanistan is Spin Boldak while Qandhar is situated at a distance of 125 kms. At Chaman, there is hardly any facility for tourists and due to current political situation of Afghanistan; foreigners are not allowed to travel on this route without a permit.
Text & Photography by
Tahir Imran Khan – 0333-5128519