The southwestern province of Balochistan is a hard place to make a living in – or travel through. It’s a place of contradictions, at once Pakistan’s largest and most sparsely inhabited region, rich in natural resources but with an economically marginalised population. Mostly stony desert and sharp mountains, its importance lies in its strategic location, sitting astride the trade routes (both ancient and modern) to Iran, Afghanistan and the Arabian Sea.
Balochistan’s capital is Quetta, a low-slung city with a dusty frontier ambience. Turbaned and thickly bearded Baloch and Pashtun tribesmen rub shoulders with Afghan refugees in its bazaars, and women dressed in billowing burkas are a common sight. For many visitors, Quetta is all they see of Balochistan, but there are several places worth exploring nearby, from the comparative green of Hazarganji-Chiltan National Park to the cool surrounds of Ziarat hill station, the beloved retreat of Pakistan’s founder Jinnah.
Further from Quetta and travel becomes tougher. The long distances and poor infrastructure put off many travellers, so few visitors make it to junction towns like Sibi near the Bolan Pass, famed for its cattle fair, let alone to the truly wild Makran Coast. Security also plays a part in keeping visitor numbers low, however. A low-level insurgency by Baloch nationalists pushes some places out of reach, while trouble from restive southern Afghanistan occasionally spills across the border. Taking trusted safety advice before planning a trip is essential. But for those able to make it here, the hospitality and generosity of the people of this region is a glowing feature of any visit.