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Published: August 25th 2006
The already rough road gets rougher on our first day in Pakistan. a sandstorm has left the road buried under metres of dunes.
It is now 11am and already unbearably hot. We have just left the border village of Mirjave after stopping for a cold juice and failing to find a money changer. We have no police escort as we decided to ignore the commands of the Iranian army at the checkpoint as we left Zahedan earlier this morning. We have cycled nearly 100km through the desert, thankfully without encountering any of the “terrorists” the soldiers seemed so paranoid about. As we reach the main road again for the last short haul to the Pakistan border we perceive an almighty commotion on the road ahead. As we get nearer we realise that the mass of revving, battered Toyota pick-ups full of Baluch and Pathan tribesmen actually has an army checkpoint in the middle of it.
We try to negotiate our way through the bedlam but nearly get crushed between the pick-ups which are actually ramming each other in an attempt to reach the single, narrow entry through the checkpoint. On the backs of the trucks wild looking tribesmen with huge beards and equally huge turbans sit astride cargos of god-knows-what and are angrily yelling at each other and the soldiers. The air is thick
Check out the wonderful embroidered dress - typical Baluchi style. This was in Iran, you just dont see females at all on the Pakistani side.
with fumes and dust. Whenever a gap appears the pick-ups surge forward (from both sides of the checkpoint) in an attempt to race through before it becomes blocked again. Traffic coming in the opposite direction is also trying to get through the same narrow gap and so it is mostly blocked with the trucks unable to reverse due to the mass of revving, horn-blaring traffic ramming them from behind.
A soldier spots us and guides us out of the chaos towards the booth at the side of the checkpoint, while a line of half a dozen or so pick-ups charge their way through without stopping, even when spikes are raised in the road this does not stop the final truck, which miraculously speeds over them and off towards the border without any sign of a puncture. The soldier asks for our passports and we duly hand them over, thinking this is the start of the customs checks or something. He takes them, turns and walks off. Shit. I guard our bikes from the growing crowd of boys while Erika chases him in an attempt to keep the passports in sight. While she is gone I get the chance to survey
Definitely the most beautiful in the world, even if not the most reliable. Most seem to need to stop for repairs every couple of hours....
the scene more fully. There are about 10 soldiers here with Kalashnikovs. The several hundred tribesmen are not visibly armed but I’m not so stupid to realise that under the baggy shalwars there are probably a lot of concealed weapons. It is incredibly obvious who is really in charge here and it’s not the Iranian soldiers……
They are not even attempting to check ID cards, much less actually search any of the trucks. Why are we the only ones who have had to show ID? Behind me a line of motorbikes cuts across a well worn dust track through the desert that bypasses the checkpoint. It is only 15-20m away the soldiers can see them but pretend not to. There is also a big porter business going here - people are unloading enormous bundles of cargo from those pickups well back in the chaos (its not really a queue) and blatantly carrying them on their backs right past the customs post and then piling them up on the other side while waiting for the truck to get through. A lot of people stare at us menacingly, I’m not taking it personally, they are doing it to everyone, but this is
easily the dodgiest place I have ever been. I don’t want to stay here any longer than necessary. What the hell are they doing with our passports? The soldiers are yelling at Erika, “why are you standing here, go over there”. She tells them she is not going anywhere without the passports. It is now obvious that this is not part of the border control, in fact there is no control here at all. A pickup slams into the side of the soldier’s hut I am standing beside. I gesture at the chaos and a soldier shrugs and says “normal”.
Eventually we are told that they are holding our passports until an armed escort arrives to take us to the border. Evidently they have heard about our trick earlier this morning of just cycling off from the other checkpoint instead of waiting hours for an escort to appear. We decide that no matter how dangerous the remaining 8km are they cannot be more dangerous than standing here. I decide that if the locals have no respect for the soldiers, why should I? I walk right up to the soldier with our passports, who is holding them in his hand.
I stand right in his face as if squaring up to him, adrenalin pumping, and say “my passport” in Farsi. He looks alarmed and confused. I seize the moment, wrench the passports from his hand, turn and walk calmly away back to the bikes, and make a very fast exit towards the border, trying not to picture the Kalashnikov slung over his shoulder……
This is Balochistan, the craziest country-that’s-not-a-country I have been to. When we set out on this trip a friend of ours who used to drive overland trucks had only one piece of advice on the overland route from Europe to India - “get from Bam to Quetta as fast as possible”. All western governments advise against all travel to this area, and for once I was actually concerned that things might be a bit dangerous. Nearly every other cyclist we have met or heard about ends up bussing or taking lifts on this section, most don’t even attempt to cycle it. In 2003 a group of 3 cyclists were kidnapped on the Iranian side. We had been constantly warned by every Iranian we met that there was no security beyond Bam, and even that Bam itself
Mr Jalil and his new trainee.
probably wasn’t that safe. Most had stressed that we either shouldn’t go there at all (“why not fly from Iran to Pakistan?”) or that we should certainly take a bus from Bam onwards. “Sistan & Balochistan is not safe for you, Al Qaeda and the Taliban are there….”
For those who have never heard of Balochistan (and I guess that’s most people!) it is an enormous expanse of mountains and desert in the south east of Iran, along with an even bigger area of Pakistan - basically the bit that lies immediately south of Afghanistan. The Baluchi people are tribal and have little respect for the authority of either state, speak their own language and are predominantly self-employed as smugglers. Their country (Balochistan really is its own country) spans 2 states but the border is a bit if a farce, also they have a huge and equally ‘porous’ border with southern Afghanistan, the stronghold of the Taliban.
When the “Britishers” left India, Balochistan declared its Independence. After a short war it was annexed as part of Pakistan, although around a quarter of it remains on the Iranian side of the border. Baluchi’s are Sunni’s, and as such have
On the road
Frankly its so hot and boring its not even worth stopping to take photos
ideological and religious issues with the Iranian government, on top of a desire for political independence. They are among the poorest people in Iran and are renowned as smugglers and thieves, a claim which is somewhat unfair but far from unfounded. Iran’s religious government is very strict on drugs, and is waging a huge ‘war on drugs’ against the opium, hashish and heroin smugglers coming from Afghanistan and Pakistan. As this is the mainstay of the Balochistan economy there is an even greater conflict between the Baluchi’s and the Iranian state.
Pakistani Balochistan is also the least developed part of Pakistan, and has an even stronger, well more obvious anyways, independence movement. There is no religious issue on this side of the border though, and despite what the govt. may claim there appears to be little attempt to control the blatant smuggling on the Pakistani side, so things are slightly more peaceful here, if rather more lawless.
For us Balochistan is characterised by heat, endless sand, bearded tribesmen that look straight out of a news clip about the Taliban, heat, endless sand, opium, heat, charas/hashish, endless sand, smugglers, oh and did I mention the heat and all that sand?
The Baluch desert
For three days this is about as interesting as it gets.
Despite all the warnings, and often our own first impressions, the people here are really friendly and hospitable too. The only real problems with cycling across Balochistan are the heat, the enormous expanses of desert between the oasis villages and over-zealous soldiers/police on the Iranian side.
When we arrived in Bam we were unsure if we would manage to cycle the rest of the way to the border. It was some 400km east across the desert and every other cyclist we knew of who had actually attempted to cycle it recently had either been forced into a police convoy and then onto the back of a pickup, or else had been kept waiting for so long by the police that they had just taken a bus instead. The heat, the desert and the distance were enough of an obstacle, but my main fear was that the police would not even let us attempt it. By the time we had arrived in Bam we had started to meet people who actually lived in Zahedan and the area and they had all told us the road was safe during the day, so we were no longer too concerned about the security
Our very nice hosts, though the guy on the right has possibly been at it for a bit too long....
They are both teachers apparently, thankfully its not a schoolday....
side of things.
In order to combat the heat and hopefully avoid the police we were up well before dawn on the morning we left Bam, and cycling soon after first light. We were weighed down with 3 days of food and about 7 litres of water each, but it was cool (our bodies now regard 30 degrees as cool…..) and we even had a mild tailwind. We sped past the unmanned checkpoint on the way out of town and hoped that would mean we were off the police radar for a while at least. But where was the desert? The first 60km to Fahraj was mostly villages and date palms, and was some of the greenest stuff we had cycled through for weeks. But immediately upon leaving Fahraj the road turned, the temperature seemed to change up several gears and the wind shifted to be either in our faces or across us. And now we were truly in the desert - sand and grey gravel stretched off to a shimmering and hazy horizon. It was 8.30am and it was hot. Our pace slowed. We got more water from a truck in a lay-by and then our Dutch friends
A 3-D view!!
Finally the view gets a bit interesting after Dalbandin.
in their van caught us up and stopped to give us a feast of delicious Bam dates and even more water. We now had about 10 litres each.
After plodding on for hours we reached a military checkpoint near the edge of Baluchistan province. I wanted to shoot past it to avoid getting a police convoy, but the nearby shady trees were too tempting so we stopped for lunch hoping not to be noticed. Immediately a group of men appeared from a nearby building, they invited us to come over as they had water, ice and a “cooler” (air-con). We decided to stay under the tree as we felt if we sat down in a air-con room we would never leave it again….. We asked if they were soldiers and they told us they were Hezbollah! I actually think they were labourers for the construction of the railway line to Zahedan. After 10 minutes we looked up to see them coming back, carrying huge blocks of ice in their bare hands across the scorching desert! They also brought us some rice. Once we had eaten this they again came back with more ice and a big cooler box that
The mountains behind the 3 hut village at sunset.
they wanted us to strap to the bike so we could carry iced water with us! It took a bit of effort but eventually we managed to demonstrate that there was no way we could attach a 10 litre barrel to the back of our already overloaded bikes. We tried to sleep but discovered an important lesson - don’t sit under a shady tree in the middle of the desert. It may seem really inviting but then you realise that every camel for hundreds of miles has had the same idea before you, and the place is crawling with enormous camel ticks………
We set off again into the heat, hoping that we might make it half way to Zahedan and thus reach the town in 2 days instead of 3. The desert is relentless and incredibly boring. We stopped at a mosque/prayer platform to sit in the shade. Most of the trucks and pickups also stopped here so it was a good place to scrounge water and ice, as the water we had already was close to boiling point. There was a water tank for prayer ablutions (not drinking water) but mostly people seemed to use it to douse
Another freindly face forces us to stop for a drink.
their overheating engines. The pickups were all heavily loaded with jerry cans full of petrol. Most cars going our way also had ludicrously jacked-up rear suspension. We concluded this must be so that when they are full of contraband on their way back they look as if they are unloaded…..
We pushed on and on and arrived at another checkpoint at sunset, 100 miles out of Bam. We passed it and then spotted a wadi and thought this would be a good place to camp for the night, well out of sight of the road. As we dropped into it we were amazed to see it even had some water - great! We could wash etc. without wasting valuable drinking water. This was mistake number 2. There was no breeze in the wadi and so it was swelteringly hot all night, especially in the tent. We had to use the tent because of the enormous plagues of mosquitoes. Lesson number 2 - don’t go anywhere near water in a desert, it will be full of very, very hungry mosquitoes…….
After a sleepless and sweaty night we set off at dawn the next morning feeling just as exhausted as we
Nationalist Graffitti, Noshki
The Baloch Students Organisation (BSO) maybe need to spend more time studying their english grammar.....
had the night before. There was no air movement and it was incredibly hot, and the sun had only just come up….. I was beginning to wonder if we would make it and if it was really worth the effort. We reached another prayer platform and fell asleep in the shade. We forced ourselves on towards the town of Nosrat Abad, as hopefully here we could rest for the day. But then there was a mountain range to cross first. The mountains were beautiful and a welcome change from the flat expanse of sand and gravel, but we were crawling up them despite there finally being a breeze and some cooler air. I glanced behind me to see a pickup crawling along behind us. On the back I could see a man brandishing a Kalashnikov with a turban wrapped across his face. Shit, maybe we have found Al Qaeda after all…… As it drew alongside I was actually relieved to see they were the police! But we had now got an escort whether we wanted it or not. They kept telling us to put the bikes on the back of the pickup but we pretended not to understand. After 20km
The world's second highest peak seems to be suffering somewhat from the effects of global warming....
Pakistan Independance day, Quetta.
of blissful, cool downhill we reached Nosrat Abad.
The police would not leave us alone here though, and posted a soldier in the café to make sure we ate our lunch in safety. When we tried to have a siesta in the shade we also had an armed guard standing watch….. Realising that we were exhausted and the police were never going to let us camp in the desert as we had planned to do, we asked them where we could spend the night. They told us to camp in the park opposite the police station. This seemed ludicrous, it is the most insecure place we have ever camped and all evening we had the entire town riding past to have a look at us. A woman did invite us to her house and although this would have been much safer the police were not having it. In the end we had 2 armed guards patrolling the park all night!!!
The police seemed horrified by our plan to set off at 5am and in the end we left without them. They caught us up though and we had a sort of escort all the way to Zahedan the
The road, or is it a river?, outside our hotel in Quetta. The water is filthy, full of sewage and rubbish and is really fast flowing.
next day. After a decent nights sleep we made it there in one go and arrived in the capital of Iranian Baluchistan just before midday. In order to get rid of the police we told them we had friends there but they still insisted on escorting us through the town to the office of the NGO we had been told about by our Dutch friends. Fortunately they were still in town and the staff were happy to put us up too - in fact we arrived just in time for lunch!
We didn’t see much of Zahedan, but it was a bit of an untidy mess after the rest of Iran. Zahedan means “ascetics” in Persian and was renamed by the Shah around 50years ago. It used to be called Dostan which means ‘thieves’ but apparently he thought this was unfair after he visited it and stated that it was “no more full of thieves than anywhere else in the area”!
The main employment is smuggling - petrol is smuggled to Pakistan and drugs are brought back. The most curious thing about Zahedan is the petrol situation - to curb smuggling people can only buy 50 litres a day, so
Once the road has half a foot of water on it the potholes and ditches are not so obvious.
everybody does. There are enormous queues at the petrol stations, and then as soon as they get out you see people siphoning it out of their tanks into plastic jerry-cans. Most of this will go across the border but some is sold at an inflated price right there on the roadside to those who can't be bothered to queue for an hour to get it from the pumps.
We set off a little later than planned the next day, but it was our last day on our visa so we had to reach Pakistan. We were pulled over at a checkpoint on the edge of the city and told we would need an escort. It would take 15 minutes to arrive. We wanted to cycle on and let it catch us up but they weren’t having this at all. After half an hour it was getting late and hot and there as still no sign of any escort. Locals were cycling through no problem. I wanted to just cycle off as the only thing they could do to stop us would be to shoot us, and I didn’t think this was too likely. When they told us the border would close early we decided to go for it, jumped on the bikes and cycled off with the soldiers yelling and shouting at us from behind. The road was fine though and we sped along to Mirjave, at first the road passed by wave after wave of beautiful black rocky mountains but then returned to flat sandy plain before the border.
After escaping the mental checkpoint at Mirjave the last 5-10km seemed completely lawless. Loaded pickups sped along the road, swerving all over the road as if they owned the place. Well they do. In every sense we had already left Iran behind, this was tribal Baluchistan and they make their own rules. A pickup passed us and a loud bang sounded. It could have backfired, but I really suspect we were shot at, or rather that he shot in the air as he passed us. Bizzarely this amused me more than anything else, maybe the scene back at the checkpoint was making me go crazy……
Then the road crested a rise and in front of us was a big wall with an arched gateway leading into the customs post. None of the pickups were going through here though, they all drove right up to it, and then peeled off onto a well used track that ran parallel to the border fence and disappeared into their own dust clouds. The soldier at the gate told me they were going to a bazaar, yeah right……….
As I waited outside the immigration building while Erika went to get us stamped out of Iran a huge line of pickups sped straight through, no stopping at immigration or customs! This border is a joke…. Some gunshots rang out but seemingly this is all normal here. The only people who actually go through customs etc. are the big lorries who have registered cargo and papers, and us foreigners.
On the Pakistan side we were asked about cricket before we had even got stamped into the country…. After spending an hour trying and failing to get a decent rate for our cash we left the customs compound to discover a bank in the dusty collection of huts that passes for the town/village of Taftan. We needed somewhere to stay and found a café that had a room above it we could stay in for the night. He wanted 300 rupees. I was about to argue when a guy turned up offering to help. I told him we wanted it for 100, we settled on 150 and then he thrust 300 rupees into my hand. I tried to give it back but he seemed really offended by this! We hauled our bikes up and sat down to drink tea with 2 guys on the balcony outside the room. We started to play our usual game of learning a new language, by pointing at stuff and saying its name in Persian, then asking for the Urdu equivalent. As Baluchi’s they spoke both languages, along with Baluchi, Bravi and Pashtun/Pathan - the tribal languages of the area. It got more interesting when one of them pulled out a lump of black stuff from his pocket: “Urdu charas, Farsi hashish - English?” Yeah, we call it hash too mate. He also produced a big lump of opium. We later learnt they go back and forth from Iran to Pakistan all the time. “Through customs?” Erika asks, they just laugh a lot at this idea. And so we met our first drug smugglers.
Another early morning start saw us on the road towards Quetta, still 650km away across the desert. The stretch of desert between Taftan and Dalbandin, halfway to Quetta, is some of the most uninspiring landscape I ever seen. Endless expanses of sand and gravel stretch off to blurred horizons. If we saw a camel Erika would get really excited, as there was nothing else to distract us from the heat and the endless, straight road ahead. The road was narrow and rough compared to Iranian roads, but for the first hour we rode in the shadow and slipstream of a convoy of three Pakistani trucks - heavily loaded and heavily decorated, they barely moved faster than us. Mostly they carry scrap metal it seems - the only legitimate import from Iran?
After some 80 miles we reached the village of Nok Kundi and found a resthouse to feast on daal and chapatti. At least the water here was not salty like in Taftan and Zahedan. It felt slightly discomforting at first as the place was full of men - women are a rare sight in the villages of Paki Balochistan - all turbaned and bearded and just staring at us, expressing no emotion whatsoever. I decided to break the ice and smiled and said Salaam Aleikum and the transformation was amazing. These guys look pretty scary when they are just staring but their smiles are the biggest and warmest anywhere. They evidently decided we were Ok once it was established were neither American, English or Israeli……
I then realised the stares were not necessarily hostile anyway, but probably just the result of the thick cloud of sweet-smelling charas smoke emanating from the darkest corner. Meanwhile the backroom was for serious opium smoking. We ended up sleeping the night in the courtyard out the back, through the opium den. The owner, Mr Jalil, was most amused that we were speaking Baluch (actually it was Persian but I guess our crap accents make it sound like Baluch…) and assured us that as we were his guests we need not worry about security, nobody would mess with us. We decided to have a rest the following day and spent it in the café, eating, drinking tea and soaking up the relaxed atmosphere. It soon became apparent that tea and daal were really a side business to the main trade in charas and opium that was going on…..
A wall across the street stated in bold graffiti “Down with Pakistan, We Want Freedom”.
Another long slog through the desert saw us reach the next oasis of Yakmach and a lunch stop in another opium den, sorry cafe. We had planned to stay the night here but after powering into a headwind all morning the wind switched and started to blow from the west. We were told this wind is called ‘Gorich’ and that it would push us all the way to Dalbandin, the next town and halfway to Quetta. It was too good an opportunity to miss and so we set off again at 5pm and easily reached Dalbandin by sunset, even though it was 70km away. We had just broken our record and covered 107 miles in the day. Dalbandin has a proper hotel so we checked in, hoping for a shower. No such luck, no shower, only “bucket system”. There was also no electricity after 11pm and it was so hot in the room without a fan we ended up sleeping on the roof of the shop nextdoor, which we could climb to from the balcony.
After another rest day in Dalbandin we set off again for the final 3 days slog to Quetta. At least the scenery got more interesting after Dalbandin, there were always mountains in sight and usually quite close. The road was terrible though. From Nok Kundi to Dalbandin had been an excellent, smooth 2 lane road that felt like we were back in Iran (we later learnt it had been built by the Iranians….). Now we had a rutted, potholed narrow strip of ancient tarmac that was frequently covered in sand. If a truck or truck-bus came by we just had to get off the road as there was no space for all of us. We spent a night in the ‘school’ in Padag, a tiny village about halfway to Noshki. The resthouse had no room to sleep in so sent us there. It mostly seemed to serve as a place they dumped slumbering people who had had too much opium……
From Padag it was a long hard slog to Noshki, but there was actually a fair bit of greenery on the way. The road follows the edge of a mountain range so there were frequent villages, fields and even some running water! Noshki is possibly the dirtiest hole of a place I have ever been, worse than Africa by far. We found the only hotel but they were very keen to direct us to a nicer place that would be better for foreigners - it didn’t exist. Our room overlooked the poultry bazaar and I will not try to describe the smell. Our attempts at a siesta were interrupted by loud banging on the door and I opened it to find four guys dressed in shalwar kameez looking surprised to see me and then demanding to see our passports. No chance. “Who are you?” This went on for a bit before they told me they were police, special branch. Yeah right “got any ID to prove that?” They ignored this and kept asking for our passports, as they wanted our names and numbers. I told them to go to reception and get then from the register. They then asked what our business was in Noshki. After answering a few questions about what we were doing here (tourism) and how we had got there they gave up. One of them finally produced some ID but a five year old could make something better and it didn’t even say Police on it. When I pointed this out to them he explained that they were intelligence officers. Yeah right-he had asked if we had come by bus yet the entire town must have known that 2 cyclists had arrived!.
2 hours later we had a visit from another man, also claiming to be police/intelligence and asking for our passports. He had no knowledge of our previous visitors and had no ID at all, claiming that as “intelligence” he didn’t need it. Needless to say, he didn’t even get to see our passports.
In the evening the streets were eerily quiet as we went out for food - we have since learnt that Noshki is a pretty dangerous place, with regular shootings and explosions (there was one the day after we were there). We chatted to a couple of Baluchi nationalists over our daal and discovered that Noshki is the hotbed of radical Baluch nationalism. I wondered if one or more of our “intelligence officers” had actually been from one of the nationalist factions, keen to check out who the strangers in town were and what they were up to?
Leaving Noshki pretty fast the next morning we left the desert behind and entered the mountains, with a steep climb over 2 ranges and then a long hot slog across a high plateau area. There were few villages and the hills had slowed our pace so that we ended up cycling continuously through the day. A brief stop for Pakoras in a small village became longer when a sudden wind picked up and a ten minute sandstorm was followed by a torrential rain shower and thunder. The mud floor of the café became a puddle and the mud-plaster wall our bikes were propped against partially dissolved all over them, so that the bikes and luggage were covered in mud! It did cool the air down a bit and dampen the dust, for about half an hour anyway. After a final slog over the Lakh pass we reached Quetta, or at least thought we did. After miles of lush green apple orchards we entered the city, only it went on and on. For some reason I had pictured Quetta in my mind to be a like an Iranian city, and thought things would be nice and ordered for a change. What an idiot. After a 10km of shanty town and a scrum of cars, motorbikes, bicycles, donkeys and trucks we finally reached the city centre, only it looked just as shitty as the outskirts. Dust, fumes, rubbish everywhere, open sewers at the side of the road, welcome to the third world.
We have now been in Quetta for nearly 2 weeks. This was not planned but after drinking the water for a week and being surprised it had not made us sick we now both have dysentery and/or giarda! Reluctantly we are now buying plastic bottles and taking antibiotics and waiting for our strength to recover so we can get out of here. Sitting watching TV in the hotel room has started to get very boring……
We have also had some monsoonal rains that cause the streets to flood and the sewers to overflow, so that torrents of dirty water, sewage and litter rush down the street. It is kind of amusing to watch though. Hopefully we will be moving again in a couple of days, through the mountains towards the Indus and Punjab plains beyond.
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