Quetta’s a bit of an anomaly compared to the other provincial capitals (and Islamabad). Embedded deep within a valley, it’s surrounded on all sides by elements of the Hindu Kush mountain range. The mountains are, for some, hideous. Devoid of any foliage, they’re the primary reason why it takes a grand total of ten seconds for your hair to find itself a new hue due to all the dust floating around.
Yet, for me, personally, they’re remarkably beautiful. There’s this starkness prevalent in a city surrounded by mountains of that nature – a wonderful, bleak starkness. I can’t imagine living there, as I’m certain it would drive me insane, but a weekend in Quetta taking in those sights is a must.
Moreover, there’s a lake just outside of Quetta called Hanna Lake. When you drive up to it (past the Army checkpoints and bases – seriously) you’re initially faced with this vast expanse that has not a single drop of water in it. And once you get past that, there’s something far more austere lying in wait. Dotted all around Hanna Lake are buildings (this was, and perhaps still is a fairly well walked tourist attraction, even though when we went there it was as empty as a girl’s school in Taliban Afghanistan) with cracked or shattered windows and plastered walls falling apart. The colour/graffiti on them falls off by the minute. And then for the final punch, you’ve got children’s swings that haven’t been used in god knows how many months. You have to ignore the fact that they’re decrepit and probably unsafe – what’s harrowing is that they’re barely moving. Despite a gutsy wind circling (seemingly) us, those swings don’t even budge an inch. It’s frightening and it’s probably the most post-apocalyptic image I’ve ever witnessed in real life.
Quetta itself is an odd city – in some places it’s brimming with life and in others it seems desolate and resembles more a village than a provincial capital. Even then Quetta still has surprises up its sleeve. It is, for example, a far less conservative city than Peshawar. There are booze shops smack in the middle of busy bazaars, while women walk around you without hijabs and burqas (it’s perhaps telling that the women who were wearing burqas were also pushto speaking).
For someone who expected Quetta to be as conservative (if not more) than Peshawar, that was quite a shock. Moreover, you rarely saw these women being ogled to death the way they would’ve been in Peshawar. I even saw a fair few women drivers – another sight not often witnessed of late in Peshawar.
I keep comparing Quetta to Peshawar and it’s unfortunately just one of the many slights against Quetta and Balochistan that I’m guilty of. For pretty much every minute I spent outside the hotel where I was staying, I felt as if I was in some foreign land. Most of Pakistan’s substantial urban centres are in close enough proximity to each other (Peshawar, Islamabad, Lahore, Faisalabad, Karachi, Hyderabad), but Quetta is in a way off the charts. Moreover, with Balochistan and the Baloch peoples always having to sit out on the sidelines, it was intriguing to note that in my own subconscious I’d somehow, embarrassingly, done the same.
I felt like I was in a new place amongst new people – a people distinct from ‘Pakistanis’ that I’d known. And I sit here ashamed that I felt like that in any way, shape or form.