Pakistan - Part 1
اسلامی جمہوریۂ پاکستان
1/5 It takes only two hours to get through the border, but with Pak being 1 1/2 h ahead it is already close to lunch time. In the customs building I meet Kiwis Moira and her son Liam, who is carrying a snowboard! Apparently he made good use of it in Tehran. The first challenge is to find my way out of Taftan. I can see the spot where I unloaded my bike from the train in 1989, having gotten stuck in the desert sand and having been rescued by the Medecins sans Frontieres. An uneventful ride to Dalbandin, where at the entrance to the village there are dozens of stalls selling Iranian petrol from jerry cans and other assorted containers. I fill up here, too. In fact, half the traffic on the excellent highway are Iranian Zamyan pickups, loaded with plastic petrol containers. Heading East the containers are bloated from the petrol, pressurised by the heat, whereas going West I can see that they are empty. I have made such good progress that I wonder whether I can get to Quetta today, cruising at 100 km/h. However, there are the infamous Balochi road works: the road is blocked and traffic just diverts through the desert, making up tracks where possible. I drop the bike in a sand pit and have to unload partially to get it up again. Alas, shortly I stop for an old and a young man with a small bike by the side of the road, out of petrol and the rear tyre out of air. I give them 2l of petrol and we set to fix the tyre, when a storm blows up, covering all my tools in sand. I fix a long split in their tube. Now the sun is getting rather low. Soon the road narrows to one lane with sand and gravel either side and the surface seriously deteriorates. I don't think the road was that bad in '89, so I guess all the money was spent on the other section. At a police checkpoint the cops wave me over and drag out a bed frame for me to sleep on. I get fed and we all sleep in the open.
2/5 The trucks don't budge and I have to overtake or even pass them in the dirt, which is not difficult, but the going is slow. The pickups are a problem, because they are faster and more difficult to overtake, but staying behind is not a good idea, as they whip up large amounts of dust every time they meet another vehicle. Surprisingly, the scenery gets a lot greener all of a sudden and the farmers are harvesting grain and hay. It's also a lot cooler now. I try not to stop for the pesky checkpoints any more. Road and railway climb over a scenic pass. I can see that they have rebuilt the road at the top, but the new highway here is so badly built it is worse than the old road. At the final pass they are building a tunnel, the surface is gravel all the way up to the top, traffic is heavy and the driving absolutely mad. Trucks and buses in the middle, everybody else anywhere else, driving and weaving to the left or right, werever there is room. And the dust...
At the entrance to Quetta I stop for neither ceckpoint nor a cop car, the road splits, but the GPS says go straight. I make a split second decision and turn left. After a few km of mad city traffic the cops actually catch up with me and stop me on a roundabout. The officer is hopping mad. Sorry mate, I don't understand Urdu even when spoken politely. Another cop is friendly, though, shakes my hand and explains that this side of town is dangerous. Hmmm, I hadn't noticed any difference in the driving, seems very dangerous anywhere. A few minutes later, what can they do? They let me go. At a railway crossing there is another delay, the barriers come down. I'm not prepared for the comical performance that follows. If you have broadband internet you can watch it here: Movie1 Movie2 Movie3 Movie4 Movie5 Using Lars' waypoint I arrive at the Bloomstar Hotel, a real oasis in this bustling city, with a courtyard with a real lawn and birds flitting around. Moira and Liam are in the hotel next door. Liam is a real globetrotter: he works as a software developer using his laptop on the road. Working about 14h/week he earns about half of what he used to get, but as living is cheap in the Third World, he can go on like this indefinitely. In the hotel on the other side I discover a Spanish van and meet Arantza and Yoseba, a young Basque couple from Vitoria. They are trying to get a permit to go North towards the Himalaya. I check with the tourist office and it doesn't look good: we won't be allowed to go anywhere but SE to Sukkur, then turn North along the Indus river valley, but it's 47C all the way. The town DI Khan, through which I was planning to pass, was apparently under curfew. According to a newspaper there has been a gunfight between two tribes with a hundred dead and several hundred injured. In the Bloomstar there are a couple of young German cyclists heading for Iran. Only, they made the mistake of applying for a visa in Delhi. The man in charge there is notorious. He took their applications, but never processed them.
3/5 I organise an extension of my visa, should be ready tomorrow.
5/5 We leave for Urak, a pleasant valley, but the road ends there and there is nothing much to see, apart from rose bushes lining the road that we can smell while riding along. Finding Hana Lake is a mission, the sign has been re-used as an election billboard. We backtrack to Quetta to head for Ziarat, but where my GPS says we should turn people repeatedly send us in a different direction onto the main highway. We intended to camp there, but just before the town police intecept us and we end up staying at the police station. They say that there are no problems in the area, but won't let us go anywhere on our own. We feel like prisoners.
6/5 We leave Ziarat with police escort. These soon become a pain, as I normally ride faster than the van, but they want me to stay behind them, where I eat their dust. And every patrol wants us to fill in the same stupid forms. Then something funny happens: the escort stops in the middle of nowhere at a police sign and they wave us on. It probably demarcates district boundaries and for a while we are on our own. I resolve to only stop at checkpoints when it's unavoidable. The problem here is that the van has to cross the speed bumps slowly and they get stopped. When they catch up with me at a drink stop the cop is not amused. Off to the cop shop again for lots more form filling. We then get a guided tour of the Loralai bazaar by the very same cop, but he is unarmed. Then, on a lonely stretch of road I wish I wasn't alone. I stop to take some pictures and a pickup pulls up. After the usual questions the driver seems to want to say that he wants to go to NZ to work and he wants me to give him a passport. I don't like the look of the two guys and when the van arrives they soon leave. Just on dusk we arrive in Zhob, the first substantial town for a while. Memories of India come back when we stop in front of a hotel and a huge crowd gathers to stare at us. Traffic stops and cops arive to angrily attempt to disperse the crowd, which doesn't budge. My bike goes into the hotel, but the van gets parked at the cop shop. An endless paper trail commences. They just about get me out of the shower and a large number of plain clothes officials want me to fill their forms. There is police, CIS (?), Army Intelligence and god knows who else. They seem unable to copy any more than my first names from my passport. They then proceed to copy everything by hand on at least 3 more similar forms and make two photocopies. My father's name is always asked for, as are passport and visa numbers. They explain that this is all for our safety, but then they disappear and leave us alone. Does this mean that the more times they write down our details the safer we are? As for the locals, all Pashtun, they couldn't be more friendly. The restaurant owner refuses to accept payment from us: we are guests in his country.
People actually live in here.
Typical motorcycle rickshaw in Loralai
Nomads on the move
Bazaar in Zhob
The Basques leaving Zhob
7/5 We continue towards DI Khan on what passes for a National Highway here. Single lane and broken surface in places. There must have been some very strong rains and flooding some months ago. In every single wadi crossing the road is washed away and every bridge is gone. They are busy rebuilding the bridges, but we have to cross the river beds. The scenery is just great, with mountains all around. I'm glad we are still rather high up and I dread the last part in the Indus valley. My stomach has been giving a little trouble since the morning, as has Yoseba's. Must be something we ate last night. However, I start to feel weaker all the time and at one stop I realise that I have fever. Malaria again? We ride through a spectacular gorge and then the country opens up. As we slowly descend it gets hotter and hotter. There is also a lot more greenery and water in the rivers. At one point an entire hillside has slipped away and the road is being rebuilt. We have to go through the river bed and several water crossings. At least I get cooled down that way. We get into the plains and the road improves and we make good progress. I was expecting lots of checkpoints and escorts in DI Khan, but not so. When we finally find the hotel by the river side I'm ready to fall off my bike. Now I have a migraine to boot. Imagine my relief when I get into my room: a real comfy bed with a soft pillow and air con. Just bliss. My friends sleep in their van, as they think the rooms are too dear. I'm beyond caring about that.
8/5 A visit to the Army Hospital and there is no malaria. The others leave towards Peshawar. They want to visit Darra, Pakistan's Wild West town. In this heat I think I'm going to give it a miss, as I've been there before. We agree to meet again in Peshawar. Pushed under the door I find a note from another biker who has just arrived. It is Ahmad, aka Ross from Malaysia on an old BMW GS on a ride with a mission. Over dinner we exchange infos, as we ride in opposite directions.
9/5 As agreed I wake up Ahmad at 4:30, but I still feel unwell, decide to stay put another day in this comfy hotel and so go back to bed. Today I have an accident. I have to climb onto a chair to adjust the aircon, the chair tips and I fall backwards, hitting the corner of the small table with my tailbone. Amazingly, after the initial agony and my fear of having broken my tailbone there is no pain at all, just a numbness. Even later, when a lump develops, I can ride. I was really stupid stepping onto the chair like this, on the edge, but also very lucky. It could have been my head or neck on the corner of the table...
10/5 My turn to get up early to beat the heat. It is a pleasant temperature and I make good progress, despite some very bad roads and some even worse driving. Just before Kohat the road splits. There is a sign about all the dangerous things being prohibited in the Kohat Tunnel, one of them being "powerful drugs"! Bikes are not mentioned, but Ahmad was barred from the tunnel, because he is on a bike. I prefer passes anyway, so I thread my way through the centre of Kohat and over the mildly interesting pass. At the top is an arched gate erected in the memory of some Indian officer, but I don't stop, because the army is there. They wave at me with a smile. Downhill I stop for a view of the famous Darra, where Chris and I test fired some guns 18 years ago. I don't feel the need to repeat this, so I don't stop this time. I can hear some gunfire, though. Arriving at the agreed hotel in Peshawar my friends aren't there and they haven't left a message. Nobody has seen them, so I just check in. I ring them, but they don't answer. Later, my phone rings twice, but it stops before I can answer it, I don't recognise the number and when I ring back it's engaged. I'm getting a little concerned, but then I get a written note and I meet them in their hotel. There have been a few mobile phone problems and it turns out that my Paki SIM card can't be rung from anything but another Paki mobile phone, apparently a misconfiguation of the public phone network. For that reason I didn't get the SMS they sent me, either. Over dinner they tell more harrowing tales of police harrassment. After crossing the same pass as me they stopped at the entrance to Darra, were sent back by police, then detained for 4 hours in Kohat police station for allegedly having entered a restricted area without a permit. Why then did all the checkpoints wave them through? Finally the station chief arrived and started verbally abusing them and threatening them with arrest. They were then escorted back over the pass to just outside Darra. There, at 21h in the dark their escort just left them. Now they were scared, with lots of armed men running around. All this "for their own safety". I discover that the crossbar on my topcase carrier is broken in the middle. On the way back from my friends' hotel my auto rickshaw gets stopped by police. I don't know why, but the driver tells me he has to pay 1000 Rs. The trip costs me 30 Rs...
11/5 I move into the same hotel as Arantza and Joseba, a decision made easier by the fact that this hotel is less than half the price for a similar room. I get the rack patched, but this is not going to be sufficient. Not much more that can be done on a Friday. We wander around the bazaar in the old city, which is lively and interesting, although many shops are closed. It should be said clearly here that the friendliness of the people here and in other Pakistani places is overwhelming. We found this particularly so in the tribal areas, from where the Pakistani govt. and our own warn us away. As we walk around from all sides we hear "welcome", "how are You?" and "Hello". Many people want to talk to us or invite us for tea, but we must disappoint most of them, or we would never get any further than a hundred metres into the bazaar, or any other street.
12/5 My friends have a permit to visit the Khyber Pass. Not relishing the thought of riding in the back of their van I give it a miss. They take me to the "smugglers' bazaar" at the edge of town, but this is only mildly interesting. Apparently, the gun bazaar is off limits to foreigners. I leave Arantza and Joseba to their trip and make my way back into town by bus. They have to go to Islamabad to attend some bureacratic problems. In the evening I can hear gun fire. "Product testing", most likely. There are gun shops around the corner from the hotel. I get a bolt put through the topcase rack. We shall see whether this will hold.
13/5 Upon leaving the hotel I can't find my gloves. They are not in the other hotel, either. Gone, most likely through my own brainlessness, as usual. This is a major blow, as my winter gloves are almost unusable in these temperatures and finding other gloves in this part of the world is most unlikely. My fingers will have to go unprotected. Next destination Chitral in the mountains. I find the way out of town OK, but at some point the road starts curving further and further to the left, in the opposite direction. I didn't see a turnoff, so stop for directions. Sure enough, I am sent back. I have barely turned when I see a bike with a bright headlight, then some more. They wave and pass. I recognise those plates: they are Kiwis! It turns out there are 6 of them, alhough they have currently lost two. They have missed the same turnoff and as they are heading for Chitral, too, we ride together. However, they have a Landcruiser and tour guide and we soon collect an escort as well, so the going gets very slow again. We finally get out of the hot plains and into the mountains, yeehaa. Wrong. Road works all along, crazy driving, the cops hold us up and we eat dust. Eventually I overtake the lot and take off. At a lunch stop I stumble across some people with UNHCR Landcruisers. There is a Scotsman who intoduces himself as their security advisor and he gives me some advice: all of Pakistan is unsafe. Extremism, fundamentalism, think of any "ism", he says, and they've got it. I need a permit to even be here. I didn't know that, and neither did the checkpoints, it seems. Anyhow, he makes an impression on me (I'm easily impressed) and I decide to rejoin the caravan. After he has left he actually stops the Kiwis and tells them where to collect me. He doesn't make a big impression on them. (Kiwis are not easily impressed.) At the next checkpoint I dutifully sign the book. No permit is asked for. The Kiwis' guide says we don't need one. Who and what am I supposed to believe? After continuous roadworks and eating dust for a few more hours we get to Dir at nightfall. The Kiwis have 2 big rooms, I camp.