Travel: Where macho passions ride high

Cricket is for eunuchs in Quetta; real men gorge on meat and play buzkashi. By Richard Naisby
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The Independent Culture
Once Quetta held the attention of the world. In 1935 this remote yet beguiling little city was hit by one of the most violent earthquakes of modern times. Most of the city was reduced to rubble and an estimated 30,000 people died - the worst natural disaster to befall the British Empire. Adolf Hitler even sent a message of sympathy to the King.

Quetta languished in relative obscurity for many years after that but, now, it is thriving once more. Deliverance came from an unlikely quarter: when the Soviet Army invaded Afghanistan in 1979 it cut the main road from Europe to India. The only remaining route lay through the deserts of Baluchistan, and Quetta became the new gateway to the subcontinent.

Curiously, despite the sometimes lurid headlines, Iran is a prosperous and Westernised country in which to travel. The efficient and somewhat clinical atmosphere of the Ayatollah's republic evaporates at the Iran/Pakistan border. The road to Quetta is a nightmare journey of blistering heat, choking dust clouds and outrageously rough roads. The welcoming charms of the city seem like an exotic Eden. Overland travellers get their first taste of the true East in the narrow alleys of the bazaars.

Quetta was founded to guard British India from Russian or Afghan attack. When the 12,000 British troops left in 1947 the Pakistan Army occupied the barracks and continued the vigil. The invasion, when it came, can hardly have been more different than envisaged. In 1979 thousands of Afghans began to pour across the border from the north. Not an invading army but refugees fleeing from the Russians. Afghans now make up nearly half of the population. The bazaars are full of fierce, bearded Pathan traders haggling over goods. Contraband is traded openly. Among the carpets and delicately wrought metalwork it is possible to purchase more illicit material - at a price. Opium, hashish and guns are sold in the smoky shade of teashops, and it is not unusual to see brigands lifting rocket-shaped bundles into grossly overloaded jeeps.

It is possible to fly to Quetta, via Karachi or Islamabad, but most visitors are in transit along the India trail. They tend to fall into two groups. Members of organised overland truck tours are largely self-sufficient, cook for themselves and prefer to camp in the leafy grounds of Lourdes Hotel. Their trucks are humbled by the glorious baroque designs of local lorries, bedecked with psychedelic patterns of every hue.

The buses that ply the road to the Iranian border are similarly covered in swirling Technicolor designs, flashing lights and acres of chrome. Backpackers, bruised and battered from the long journey, stagger into one of the cheap hotels that are clustered south of the bazaar.

Tourists are made to feel instantly welcome. For all the visual ferocity of the locals they are a friendly bunch, and travellers are frequently invited to share pots of chai, either the sweet milky tea beloved of most Pakistanis or the dark bitter tea favoured in Iran.

Quetta is an overwhelmingly macho city. Women are scarce on the streets and rarely venture out of the house. Only occasionally does one see a woman shopping, clad in the all-enveloping burqqa, a full-length, tent- like gown with a mesh panel to see through. Even the food is macho. Aside from the usual Pakistani staples of chapatti, naan bread and lentils, Quetta has an abundance of kebab stalls, where hawkish men fan charcoal embers under skewers of fat-dripping lamb. Carnivores delight in the delicious local speciality, sajji - a whole leg of lamb spitted over a wood fire.

Evidence of the 1935 earthquake is not hard to find. A large memorial tablet stands outside the station to record the railway dead. There is a small museum on Brewery Road full of period accounts and fading photographs (the brewery, sadly, is long gone). The only area to survive the cataclysm was the British military cantonment and the cool, tree-lined avenues are a welcome change from the bustle of the bazaar.

Another lasting British legacy is cricket, and the game is played on every piece of flat ground. Batsmen hold lumps of wood and hit balls made from rocks wrapped in masking tape. But even this is considered effete by the Afghans. They consider all ball games to be the preserve of eunuchs and Europeans. A true Afghan plays buzkashi.

Played on horseback, buzkashi uses a dead goat instead of a ball. The head is removed and used in another mounted sport (the ancestor to polo). The body is fought over on any large field by two teams who try to grab the carcass from the ground, thunder around a distant marker then return to ground it in a circle.

This must be the most violent game on earth. There are almost no rules, though it is considered bad form to knife an opponent. Legend has it that buzkashi was invented by Genghis Khan as a way of amusing his troops. The Mongols used the bodies of their captives, so in a way the modern game is quite refined.

In the close confines of the Quetta sports ground, buzkashi resembled pitched warfare. Spectators lined the pitch and had to scramble for cover when the pack of galloping horses threatened to mow them down. I was surrounded by bearded men, knowledgeable and vocal in their appreciation of a skilful move. Occasionally a player made a break, galloping at full speed for the marker. The other players abandoned any pretence of teamwork and in a collective bid for individual glory tried to wrest the carcass from him.

The rider managed to break through and ground the goat and the crowd went berserk. Behind me someone started pumping shots into the air and I was swept out of the stadium and on to the parties that continued late into the night.

Earlier this year there was an earthquake close to Quetta, though as a visitor you are unlikely to experience one. But standing in the middle of a buzkashi crowd it will feel like it.

Quetta Fact File

Flights: Pakistan International Airlines (0171-499 5500) offers regular flights to Quetta via Karachi. Fares are currently around pounds 490 and are likely to be lowest through a discount agency.

Overland: Several companies run overland truck tours via Quetta. These include Dragoman (01728 861133) and Encounter Overland (0171-370 6845).

Independent travellers can reach Quetta from Zahedan in Iran by bus (daily) or rail (twice a week), or from most major cities in Pakistan by road or rail (daily).

Visas: British passport holders require a visa, which must be obtained in advance from the High Commission of Pakistan at 35 Lowndes Square, London SW1X 9JN (0891 880880, a premium-rate number, for visa information).