We had planned to get to sleep early and arrive at the border by 7am, but after chatting until 2am, waking at 5.30am and being delayed by four armed escorts, we got to the border incredibly tired at 11am. Amusingly, Richard also managed to drive for about 10 miles with the handbrake on which resulted in an amazingly pungent burning smell and a non-working handbrake.
As soon as we got to the Pakistan side of the border 3 hours later we were pointed in the direction of a local hotel as the hazardous and hot journey across 580km of desert to the veritable safe haven of Quetta had become even more hazardous. Only two days before, the Pakistan Army assassinated Akbar Bugti, the tribal leader of the largely lawless Baluchistan province and there had been gunfire and unrest in the area the last two days. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/international/story/0,,1859623,00.html)
Fortunately for us, we met a few other like-minded European overlanders – A French couple, a Spanish father and daughter and a Dutchman on a motorbike. One of them had been assured a police escort through the province. Strangely this came about purely because they had not purchased the necessary carnet to travel to Pakistan – so if it weren’t for them we would have been out on our ear fending for ourselves amongst the Balochis! As we soon found out however, the border town of Taftan was given a bit of a bad rap. This desolate town in the most remote part of the country is a melting-pot of different peoples and cultures. Afghans, Pashtuns, Punjabi and Balochis amoungst others are represented here and after they got over the initial shock of seeing a group of clearly naive Europeans wandering around they proved very hospitable and friendly. Not the gun-toting maniacs reports would have us believe.
Tuesday morning we left Taftan at 6am. In between the checkpoints, the unremarkable desert helped us to catch up on some well-needed sleep whilst the other drove. Further armed guards were added to the convoy throughout the day as we approached Quetta, which was of some consolation as we discovered half way through the day that our escort didn’t actually have a gun! Despite travelling fairly slowly, we were bloody glad he was with us, as some of the mountains en route didn’t look too inviting! Although in complete contradiction, we were welcomed at every local village en route and we didn’t see any trouble at all. In fact, we’d go so far as to say it was mundane. The sparse sightings of local, or not as is their habit, dromedaries have kept us amused along the highway but really offered scant relief from the baking hot sun.
11 hours of driving left us exhausted and finally at 7pm we pulled into the troubled town of Nushki, a stones-throw from the Afghan border and a slightly larger 120km throw from Quetta. We were immediately ushered to the local police encampment and an hour later we were introduced to the Major of the Pakistan Army – they had taken control of the area. The Major informed us that following the killing of a civilian earlier that day, we were to be carted off to their army barracks and the Officers Mess. Despite some of our fellow overlanders being a little skittish at this mass armed control, we really had little choice. Not that it mattered to us anyway – as soon as the offer of a safe haven was made we were backing our Landy into their drive asking “where can we put this thing and what’s for dinner?”
We were treated excellently by the army and after spending Wednesday chilling out and relaxing we departed Thursday to make our slow way to Quetta (for some reason our escorts consistently refused to drive faster than 40 mph). We arrived at 2pm and were treated to some tea by a local Pashtun family only to be told the city wasn’t safe and we were to be escorted by another policeman to Sukkur starting immediately. This was 6pm. At 4am, yup, that’s a ‘4’ and an ‘AM’, we pulled into the impoverished town of Jacobabad for a refreshing 5hrs sleep in a dingy hotel before getting back in the sweat wagon to Sukkur.
Unfortunately for us some goons on the other side of the Indus River we’d just crossed had let off a few gun-shots, so we were to be escorted to Lahore. The chances of a rest were slimmer than a wafer thin biscuit, and we were making our way up to the half-way house of Multan – a mere 750km away from Lahore.
The monotony of driving to Multan on Friday was relieved only by Dwyer hitting a stray dog which had made a maniacal dash across the dual carriageway. We didn’t stop to witness the carnage but Marco who was behind us on his motorbike painted a fairly grisly picture. We arrived in Multan at 12:30am and enjoyed another short stay in a another grubby hotel.
Saturday and we are up again at 6am for the drive to Lahore where we can finally ditch the security escort. We eventually made it and, absolutely knackered, tried to check into the nearest hotel we could only to be told it was members only and they were full anyway. Wicked! We made our way across town to the cheap hotels to be confronted with 2 foot of water everywhere, and it was still raining. Oh yes, it was raining. Rain, rain, glorious rain!! We hadn’t seen any since that brief storm in Bulgaria. Lahore had had two days of it!
We got our paddles out and made it to the hotel despite having to tread on a few hapless rickshaws that broke down in our way, and we took a well-earned rest and some time to see the city.The great brass cannon Zamzama made famous in Kipling’s great novel Kim proved a bit disappointing - its not very big. The Lahore museum was good though - especially the stunning Fasting Buddha statue. The old fort of the city was as decayed as the old town which surrounds it. However, the mad crush of people which cram the rabbit warren streets give a vibrant buzz to the city and the intoxicating smells of cooking curry and compressed natural gas from the vast numbers of rickshaws combine to give an unnatural (and unhealthy) high. Proving that not all mechanics are crooks, we managed to get the handbrake fixed for free at the only Land Rover garage in town. We won’t say where they get the parts but it rhymes with snuggle.
On Monday we are leaving for Islamabad where we will visit the ActionAid offices and visit some of the project sites in the Northern Areas.
Richard and Dwyer