After 4 nights in Quetta I finally managed to drag myself away from my cosy niche, I was headed across the breadth of Pakistan to the small city of Sukkur, pronounced as in "Hey sucker!", a place I had scant information on but which served as a convenient waypoint. Not wholly unexpectedly, the Baluchistan Express was reported to be running 3 hours late, an example of the ruthless inefficiency I would no doubt have to get used to from now on. Upon trying and failing to change my ticket to a more amenable hour, another lesson was to book well in advance, that would deny me flexibility but it was one more price to be paid for travel in Pakistan. We eventually rattled out of Quetta more than 4 hours late a little after 6pm, predictably to find my seat occupied by a sizeable family in one of the 6 seat compartments (read 12!) but a ticket swap soon found me a separate single seat the other side of the aisle. With the light fading fast on departure, another long held plan lay in ruins however, the imminently approaching and famous Bolan Pass would flash by unseen in the dark. With Quetta at nearly 1700 metres, we would descend to only 230 before squeezing through the 87K long gorge to an altitude of over 2700 metres, not seeing it was a major disappointment on the overland route.
It was during the waiting at Quetta that I met my first local who had spent time in Blighty, not a shop owner as it turned out but Saood from Karachi who had completed his PhD in Manchester and was amiable enough. His travel partner however, though unusually dressed in western atire, was a rather more ardent muslim who was quick to seize the chance to indulge in thinly veiled western bashing. He compared the Iraq situation to the Crusades, denigrated the British Imperial legacy and cited trouble spots as far apart as Kosovo, Chechnya and Kashmir as examples of western complicity in a war against Islam and regional stability. I was little consoled by their testimony that Pakistan was not even safe enough for them, I tried my best to respect their honesty at least. In an act of appeasement and not for the first time I produced my Koran, hoping they would not notice my contentious border annotation, it provoked a further anti-Christian and anti-Israeli diatribe however and I committed a cultural faux pas by returning the book to my bag on the floor. They promptly elevated it to a table, what a pile o shite. Upon wider political enquiry I asked them what hope there was for Pakistan in the future, and devoid of optimism I had to secretly agree with them on current form! The atmosphere had also been set by the local English rag the Baluchistan Times which reported that the railway I was currently travelling on had been bombed, apparently with little success, only 2 nights beforehand, rockets had been fired at the town and the police had seized 3 Taliban suspects in Quetta too. It aint Saline! 4 hours out and we stopped at Sibi, the second city of Baluchistan and a spot I had thought about visiting before later curbing my ambitions. I half thought about getting off here nonetheless on the spur of the moment, it would assure me of a bed for the night rather than being stuck on the street again, but with the likely problem of securing an onward ticket I decided to forget it after all. Probably it was tiredness but the chay walla's cry here together with the friendly attentions of a young Pashto speaking Afghan really brought home the utter foreignness of my situation, I was glad for once for the onboard armed guards.
There seemed to be a pattern forming as I arrived at Sukkur's notably grand railway station at 3.30am, it struck me that if I intentionally left at some godawful hour I might actually arrive for once at a civilised time. Another forced march to instill some heat revealed Sukkur's streets to be a rabbits warren of alleyways in the main, so riddled with awnings, advertising hoardings and power and telegraphy lines that you could imagine walking across them one storey up. What a mess. For all its squalor, Sukkur at least had a very nice tall clocktower at its heart and another brekkie of egg and paratha introduced me to some friendly locals, including my first Hindu. Being in Sindh province now they naturally spoke Sindhi, but as ever the lingua francas were English (at least a little) and Urdu (even less!). I also said my first "Namaste", the ubiquitous Hindi greeting for both coming and going. Another notable point as I dodged the tetchy street dogs was the number of autorickshaws parked up around town, and with just the odd one or 2 still active they were already deafening. Once the town woke up and got going I was going to get my baptism of notorious subcontinental noise pollution, that was plain.