The journey across Pakistan’s Balochistan to Iran, from the region of foreigner kidnappings, drive-by shootings and tribal law leading to the Golden Triangle of the Middle East’s drug smuggling proved to be the tension point of our 12 month adventure.
The crossing of Pakistan, from East to West, had always been the road block to our overland journey from Australia to London. Travellers before us share their stories of fear, danger, kidnappings,sexual harassment, gun-wielding and arrogant military juxtaposed with tales of hospitality, grand desert scenery and exhilarating adventure.
Yet another place to fear, yet another travel warning.
However, this route is a well-worn section of the overlanding trail from Asia to The Middle East and many, many people do it without being kidnapped.
The only thing we knew for certain was that at some point in Pakistan we would arrive at one of the many police check points and so the ‘escorted’ journey would begin to Iran and beyond its borders. The police escorts ‘pick you up’ and accompany you in vehicles ranging from armed tanks to utility trucks and even motorcycles, all sporting men armed with semi-automatic weapons, ready for trouble.
We had a deadline to meet in Dubai and for that to occur there was only one ‘ferry’ we could catch from Bandar E Lengeh in Iran and that was on a Wednesday. All of our planning from the time we left Lahore, Pakistan was based around catching the Wednesday ferry across the Persian Gulf to Dubai.
Reaching the Persian Gulf was going to mark a significant point in our psyche; from 11 months in Asia into the exotic, but troubled Middle East.
Northern Pakistan was a beautiful surprise of hospitality, raw culture, majestic mountains and more. My pre-conceived notions about the country were proved wrong. Yet again, I had learnt the lesson that people the world over are not reflective of their country’s politics.
We were sad to leave our explorations of this amazing country for the journey cross-country into Iran; a journey where we would be ‘managed’ and escorted in the hands of police and the military.
The train line to Quetta offered us a compromise, where we could load our bikes on the 24 hour train for the journey into Balochistan. It would mean fast tracking the trip and by passing the many tedious police check points. The red tape of these check points had long ago become so tiresome and constantly delayed our travel time. “What is your father’s name? What is your mother’s maiden name?” “Where have you been and where are you going?” Form filling, boom gates, armed police…….so many times a day.
So train travel it was. We were joined by Rob, another fellow Aussie, with whom we had travelled in North Pakistan
The loading of our bikes onto the train was chaotic. The lack of language meant we just kept ahead of what was happening. Firstly, we could ride our bikes across the tracks to the platform, but then we had to push our 100 kg load to the next platform through the staring crowds, just in time for the train arrival.
At one point, dressed in all my gear, after a hot and thirsty struggle to push my heavy bike up to our next platform, a young man lurched from the crowd, rushing towards me enthusiastically.He looked like he was going to push me and my load over the platform edge. Con, seeing this from a distance, rushed into protect me from this meddling crazy man.
Fortunately, I had already realised the meddler was somewhat ‘special’ and probably autistic, as evident in his interest in my reflectors, lights and shiny bike parts. However, Con, also flustered and hot, had not seen these cues and was ready for a conflict. It is so important in these situations to remain calm and not inflate any situation, especially where martial law prevails. Caught in the middle, tired and very hot, I vented some hot words myself. Amazingly, a little small-holder selling cool drinks on the platform just pointed a small fan towards us and the crowd amassing around us and instantly we cooled down and began some rational thinking.
The train was pulling up and we had to be ready to load the bikes.
At times like this, we become an oddity and crowds gather around us. Some of them want to touch the bikes or even get on them. Everybody wants a ‘selfie’ with us. On one occasion in Pakistan, we had gathered a crowd so large the road was blocked and we were relieved when the police intervened and moved us on. Sweltering in riding gear on a sweltering platform, our patience was being stretched to the point of breaking.
Loading the bikes on the train meant man-handling them onto the carriage and ensuring they were secured. We didn’t feel totally confident in their stability especially as all sorts of ‘stuff’ was loaded on top of them to fill the carriage. We demanded that the ‘stuff’ be removed, but they were determined to fill all available space in that carriage.
I had that familiar feeling of being dragged along into a situation which I was going to regret.
It was a relief to load the bikes and find some peace and privacy in our carriage, away from the throngs of staring eyes and hands.
Peering through the train windows, I was aware that if we had been still travelling independently, we would by now, almost certainly be under full police escort. No females could be seen at all and I felt like I should be covered completely, except it was very hot and uncomfortably dusty. Some days it is just too hard!
We had entered Balochistan where tribal law reigns over state law and where the various Muslim groups struggle to live alongside each other.
In my head scarf, I felt appropriate. Con felt when we stopped, the men on the platforms were staring at my bare arms. To me, bare arms could not possibly mean from elbows and below. Or could it?
The landscape changed quickly as we headed across Pakistan. Barren but enticing mountains lead to flat desert land and sparse population.
27 hours of a hot and dusty train trip and we arrived in Quetta where we expected to begin our dreaded regime of being under armed escort. By the time we had prised our bikes from the carriage, it was dark. Each bike had some damage, but the effort of dealing with the non-English speaking staffer who wanted us to sign some indecipherable form just didn’t seem worth the effort.
We expected to be pounced on by the first uniformed person to see us and to escort us to ‘the’ hotel all Overlanders find themselves in. Strangely, someone forgot to inform the one policeman on the platform that foreigners are not allowed to roam free in Quetta. He just told us to go to a hotel.
Eventually, a friendly local showed us the way to the Bloomstar hotel in Quetta. It was there we also met up with our pre-arranged travel companion Martina, who had amazingly driven across Pakistan with just her dog and her escorts. We had formed a group of four people to travel across the supposed dangerous areas ahead of us.
From arriving at the hotel compound in Quetta we were under lock down. The hotel staff informed the police of our presence and from then on the ‘escort’ agony began. We were not even permitted to stand outside the front of the hotel and if we wanted anything someone would go out to get it for us.
The next morning, the Police were waiting to escort the four of us to a Government Department to arrange a NOC; a No Objection Certificate, which gives us permission to travel across Balochistan to the border with Iran. Three of our group piled into a ‘Tuk Tuk’ and feeling somewhat exposed, I rode pillion behind an armed policeman.
The usual ritual of cups of tea and officialdom accompanied us as we followed our passports to many different offices. Somehow, it all flowed and in a couple of hours we had our NOCs.
Afterwards, we asked if we could buy some fruit at the local market, which they reluctantly allowed, but we were hurried along. There were quickly hurried along, as the escort, like a five-year old at play, made the shape of a pistol with his fingers and thumb. We were made to feel things were becoming serious here.
After two nights in Quetta, an entourage of escorts arrived early morning to begin our journey across western Pakistan. I began counting the number of change-overs, but after 16 in the first hour and a half, I stopped counting. The most memorable one was the armed tank which led us to the outskirts of the city. From then on, we alternated between 4WDs, motorbikes and utilities/pick-ups, carrying armed men whose job it was to face backwards, keeping watch over us as we followed in slow convoy.
The slow pace of our travel became increasingly frustrating. For half an hour, we might have a motorbike leading us at 60-70 km per hour and then we might have a vehicle which was even slower. Any attempt at hurrying them along was fruitless. At various stages, one of us would overtake the lead vehicle in an attempt to show them we could travel faster, but usually that just resulted in them coming to a stop in front of the rest of us and waiting for the errant bike to do a U-turn and return to fall in line. The escorts were in full control of us.
The landscape of this area of Pakistan was stunning. The mountains were biblical in their appearance, being carved by the wind, leaving caves and fascinating geological formations. Eventually however, the mountains gave way to flat and harsh desert.
Impressively though, and despite the frustrating slow progress, the change over of escorts was smooth and efficient. We rarely had to wait for the next vehicle which would be waiting for us in what seemed to be remote desert outposts where just a small building and a speed bump could be seen. Sadly, as we approached theses speed bumps there would often be a lonely figure standing under the fierce sun; out stretched hand waiting for passing motorists to give him money. All of these desperate figures were blind and some with multiple disabilities. The image of one poor man unable to walk, sitting in the middle of the unbearably hot desert on the side of the road with not a house to be seen still haunts me.
Miming to our escorts that we were hungry, we were led to a roadside establishment where we were served a bountiful lunch of meat, bread and other tasty dishes. The young boys served our food and seemed excited by our presence. One boy, in particular, squeezed in between us to have his photo taken. His close proximity began to make me feel uncomfortable, but I told myself that I was just being too guarded. After all I was probably the same age as his grandmother!
Our escorts again hurried us to finish, so we paid the bill and got up to leave. The room was empty except for me and the young boy who was clearing our plates. He smiled enthusiastically and shook my hand, placing his other hand on his heart. I was returning the gesture when he made his move.
He reached out and grabbed my breast, still smiling enthusiastically. With that, Con returned and in disbelief, I told him what had happened. The boy then wanted to shake Con’s hand and seemed oblivious to the issue. I then yelled at him, ‘No. Bad. Bad.”
Impulsively, I decided to tell the escorts about the incident and they showed genuine concern, but by then the boy had disappeared and I could not point out who he was. Then I remembered stories of these tribal areas where victims of rape are jailed as the perpetrators, so I dropped the issue and made a quick exit. A reminder that we really knew very little about this area.
The next night stop was at Dalbandin where we were once again under lockdown. However, there were locals there lounging around the back yard eager to talk to us and practise their English. The police escorts stayed the night at the hotel, one of which was posted at the front door. Strangely, someone knocked on our door as we were going to bed. Yelling through the door, I asked who it was but he just kept replying in his own language. Con went to report it to the guard in the front of the hotel, but they decided it was a hotel worker who had gone to the wrong room. It left us feeling somewhat nervous though. Looking out the window of this hotel, where not one woman could be seen, I wondered what dangers there were for us lurking in this city.
The following day we insisted on an early start as it was to be our last in Pakistan and we wanted to reach the border into Iran before it closed. We were assured the border closed at 4.00 pm and that we had plenty of time.
The day was uneventful, but this time we did not stop for lunch, but kept moving along. The road surface seemed to match the surrounding harsh environment; patchy, drifts of sand and unmaintained.
Finally, we arrived in Taftan, the border town with Iran. Knowing that petrol was cheap In Iran, but that the escorts on that side of the border could be problematic, we put only eight litres of fuel in each of the bikes, just to ward off any problems in the border area.
After all, we were now in the triangle of borders between the three infamous countries, Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan. This area is also now synonymous with Golden Triangle of SE Asia; it is the drug running pathway from Afghanistan into Europe. 80% of Europe’s drugs are trafficked from Afghanistan through Iran. We knew our escorts in Iran would be wanting us to move as quickly as possible through this hot spot. We weren’t too keen on meeting any drug runners from Afghanistan.
Con and I bid good-bye to our convoy partners who were crossing the border the next morning, whereas we had a ferry to catch.
We understood from other traveller reports that the Iranian Levies (escorts) would take us approximately 300 kms away from the border to Bam. We also knew the Iranian escorts had a different Modus Operandi, as we were soon to find out.
Being incorrectly advised about the border closing time we arrived with only five minutes to spare. It was then that we made a decision which was to haunt us for the next three days. Running to the Immigration Office, we ignored the Money Changer who was in No Man’s Land.
Knowing that no international cash or credit cards function within Iran, we entered with US dollars and Euros believing theses currencies were accepted widely,
We thought the most difficult part of our trip was over when the Immigration official grabbed our passports and Carnets. These guys seemed to know what they were doing. They were friendly, efficient and knew the procedures. For once a border post where everything is efficient!
We barely had time to reflect on our last few days across Pakistan as our passports and carnets were taken from us and we were expedited through Customs and Immigration into Iran where things got a whole lot worse.