The provincial capital of Balochistan, Quetta has a quite different air from almost anywhere else in Pakistan. It’s an atmosphere borne of its relative geographic isolation. Set in a mountainous amphitheatre and surrounded by stony deserts, the city seems to have its face turned away from the rest of the country, appearing more interested in nearby Afghanistan than the affairs of faraway Islamabad. This is a frontier town, pure and simple.
As befits its location, Quetta’s inhabitants are a diverse and fascinating mix. Around 70% are Pashtuns, with the balance made up by ethnic Balochis and Brahuis. Mohajirs and Punjabis are also surprisingly well represented, while since the 1980s the city has hosted a sizable Afghan refugee population (most notably the Shiite Hazaras, with their near-Mongolian features).
Quetta’s isolation means that it attracts relatively few travellers, and the majority of those use it as a staging post on the overland trail between Iran and India. Travelling in either direction, the city is an eye-opener. From relatively urbane Iran, Quetta abruptly announces the arrival of the subcontinent, with its turbaned Pashtun tribesmen, women in burkas, and honking rickshaws. Travelling in the other direction, Balochistan can seem a wild and dusty place after the humidity and greenery of Punjab.
At an altitude of almost 1700m, Quetta is cooler than most parts of Pakistan in summer but the road southwest to Taftan and Zahedan can still be hot and heavy going. In the thick of winter it’s bone-chillingly cold and it can snow in January.