It’s over a month since I left Balochistan. But since then I’ve been receiving more and more emails from people who are thinking of cycling that way themselves, and wondering what to expect.
And, as I discovered when trying to research this leg of the journey, it’s curiously difficult to find reliable, up-to-date information on the safety situation, and on what will actually happen when a hapless Western tourist attempts to navigate what is reputed to be one of the most dangerous border areas in the world. My appeals to the Lonely Planet forum were met with dismissal and scaremongering by self-appointed experts who had never been to Balochistan, and wouldn’t (or couldn’t) give any evidence to back up their advice. (“Avoid Balochistan like the plague!” cautioned one gentleman, and refused to elaborate on this.) The archives of news sites like the BBC are disappointingly sparse, and the FCO advises against all travel to Northern and Western Balochistan, but doesn’t go into very much detail about why. I found it difficult to get in touch with anyone who actually lived there (in the end I was given a contact via a journalist friend in Islamabad), and even harder to find recent accounts by people who had travelled through the area. (This article, by a Scottish couple who cycled that way in 2006, proved invaluable – especially when researching the detailed itinerary the Pakistan High Commission insisted I submit before they granted my visa.)
All along, throughout the year I spent preparing and the six months I spent riding towards Balochistan, I wondered whether it deserved its reputation. The scarcity of good quality information on this area suggests that few journalists, travellers and diplomats are willing to spend long enough there to conduct a reliable assessment of the situation, which might mean that Balochistan really is dangerous, but might also mean that it’s just a victim of its own bad press. I’d already been warned against riding through Kosovo and Iran, and both had been fine. And I was well aware that, no matter how dangerous an area is, most people will emerge unscathed – as I did from three years on the roads of London, which claim several cyclists every year – and we’ll only hear the stories of those who come to grief.
So, because I want to put some up-to-date information about travelling in Balochistan in the public domain – and because I’ve already copy/pasted it all several times in emails to several different travellers, I’ve indulged myself in this very long and detailed write-up (which will probably be spread across two or three posts). Hopefully some people will find this useful. And if there are any details I haven’t included that you wish I had, please get in touch, and I’ll amend accordingly.
It’s only about 80km from Zahedan to the Pakistan border, but we knew that, with the combined bureaucracy of two paranoid countries policing one of the most notorious drug smuggling areas in the world, crossing it was likely to take a lot longer than it ought to. So, after taking full and gluttonous advantage of the hotel buffet (I loved the Iranian breakfasts of fresh, warm flatbread, feta cheese and various exotic jams, and wondered wistfully what I might end up eating for breakfast the following morning), waiting for our police escort and making sure he picked up our passports from the receptionist, Michael, Anna and I set off shortly after 8am.
We had hoped optimistically that travelling in convoy might make it easier for the police to justify a proper escort (and therefore cut down on time spent hanging around arguing with people), but since two members of the convoy were in a motorized vehicle (top speed 120mph), and one was on a bicycle (top speed 30mph), they actually ended up even more confused. For over an hour we stood around outside a police station on the outskirts of town, while they debated what to do with us. Having realized that there was little we could do to help or hasten the process, we left them to it, and stood around chatting while they stood around arguing. Michael opened the back door of the Landcruiser, folded down an ingenious little camping stove, and brewed us all a cup of tea. I was liking this vehicle more and more. Its gadgetry – and Michael’s evident pride and affection for it – was highly reminiscent of many conversations I’ve had with other cycle tourists about their lovingly designed steeds.
When our escort finally arrived, he turned out to be just a man with a gun, and no vehicle at all. Evidently he was expecting to ride as a passenger in the Landcruiser, but I and my bicycle posed a problem – which was swiftly solved by flagging down a family who were heading to Mirjaveh in their pick-up truck, and installing me, the escort and the bicycle in the back, from which we took photos and pulled faces at Michael and Anna as they followed us to the border. At long last we were given back our passports.
It took us several hours to go through all the formalities before we were allowed to cross into Pakistan, and I began to get a taste of what it must be like for a woman travelling with a man in the Middle East. Since I’m usually on my own, policemen and other officials have no choice but to deal with me directly, but as soon as there’s a man to talk to, woman are completely ignored. Anna had long ago decided not to worry about this, and just treated it as an opportunity to relax and get out her Kindle while Michael, who was anyway the control freak of the couple, argued, bargained, haggled and dealt with all the paperwork – of which there is, of course, far more if you’re travelling with a vehicle. So she and I sat on plastic airport seats in the cool, tiled waiting rooms and laughed about it all, while Michael got stuck into the stress and frustration of Iranian bureaucracy with evident relish. As I had found with the Iranian police yesterday, it was rather pleasant just to sit around and let someone else do the worrying for once.
It was well into the afternoon by the time we crossed the border, and suddenly Iran was behind us – still visible through the gates, but now out of our reach. It was so strange, we reflected, that we were still within walking distance of Iranian soil, and yet, because of our single-entry visas, we couldn’t go back. And now we were on the threshold of a brand new country – my first for a month. (Bear in mind that, back in Europe, I’d sometimes been crossing into a new country every couple of days.)
Pakistan was a bit of a landmark for me. I’ve been here before (admittedly only for a week), and for the last few years have had a growing fascination with its literature and history and politics and people. I speak a bit of Urdu, and have more friends and contacts here than in any other country I’ve passed through. Although I’d never set foot in this distant corner of the country before, arriving here felt a little like coming home. There was a familiarity to the hordes of curious men in grubby white salwar kameez hanging around the dark little offices where we filled in our forms, and the dogeared exercise books where we listed our names, nationalities and passport numbers over and over again reminded me of all the reams of paperwork I had to fill in when I lived in India, certain that it would be filed away carefully on a shelf and never looked again, but knowing nonetheless that it was vital that procedure be followed.
Our final stop was the Custom House, a large colonial building with a veranda and a small green lawn, which must have been someone’s pride and joy. A crowd of curious men met us and hustled Michael off to drink tea and fill in forms, while Anna and I retreated to the veranda, chattering about the absurdity of border crossings, travel in general, and the lives of everyone back at home, with all their babies and weddings. A week or two previously I had woken up in a darkened room in the middle of Iran, and experienced the curious sensation, not of not knowing where I was, but of no longer needing to know. After five months of constant travelling, it was as if I had finally detached myself sufficiently from the world that I was able to look upon every part of it with the eyes of a stranger – my old life back at home as much as the new people and places I was constantly encountering. To Anna and I, the fact that one of her friends had started selling overpriced little bracelets made out of scraps of cloth after she had her first child, and was now somehow a respected jewellery designer seemed just as crazy as the fact that we were now sitting in a busy border compound in the middle of one of the world’s most lawless regions, watching an ancient and fabulously bearded old man approaching us with a tray of tea.
The tea was shortly followed by a plate of chickpea curry, and we both exclaimed over how delicious it was and guiltily picked away at the portion we’d left for Michael, for whenever he emerged from the clutches of bureaucracy. By the time everything had been signed and stamped and sealed it was late afternoon, and the sun was shimmering softly through a light haze of cloud. Although we were still only a couple of minutes’ walk from the border, the light already felt different to me, and had that gentle glowing quality that I’d enjoyed on long drives across the Punjab when I was struggling through the Delhi summer and escaping north to hill stations whenever I got the chance.
The gentlemen of the Custom House clucked unhurriedly around, assuring us that our escort would arrive at any moment, and debating whether to strap my bike to the roof of the Landcruiser (since I wouldn’t be allowed to cycle for the next few miles) or to put me on a bus for Quetta. The escort turned out to be a good-natured man with a beard, a kalashnikov and long yellow-and-brown teeth that stuck straight out from under his moustache whenever he smiled, which was most of the time. He didn’t have his own transport, and there was no room for him in the Landcruiser, unless he squeezed into the passenger seat next to Anna, which no one was very happy about. The Custom House staff watched with great interest as Michael laboriously unpacked and repacked the contents of the vehicle to create a tiny hollow among the luggage where the man could sit, and then informed him that this was nowhere near enough space. Our enquiries as to whether an escort vehicle could be provided were met with evasion and conjecture, and we eventually realized that the men were just fillibustering – throwing more and more obstacles in our path so that we would be forced to stay exactly where we were.
None of us minded very much. The staff were friendly, and assured us that we could eat and sleep at the Custom House that night and be on the road first thing in the morning. So we gave in, parked and locked the Landcruiser, and settled down to wait until they shut up shop at 9 o’clock. The sun, which had never properly emerged from its veil of clouds, disappeared entirely, and the same ancient bearded gentleman who had brought us the chickpeas lit a small fire next to the building and brought out three chairs. He had a nut-brown face, an enormous hooked nose, and spoke not a word, but he busily and attentively made sure we were comfortable, bringing out another tray of tea and a bag of oranges, each of which he carefully inspected, often rejecting two or three before deeming one worthy of being offered to us.
Usually my first few hours or days in a new country are a bit of a trial. The area near the border tends not to be the best a country has to offer anyway, and after leaving a country one has become familiar with over the last few days or weeks or months, the new people and language can seem alienating and unfriendly. For my first two days in Iran I rode through sparse and underpopulated mountains, and the only food I could find was the cheap, chemical-tasting cakes and biscuits sold in petrol stations and roadside kiosks. It wasn’t until I got to Tabriz that I discovered good Iranian food, warm Iranian hospitality and the addictive bustle and colour and friendliness of its cities.
But now, although I had only been in Pakistan a few hours, and was still less than a mile from the border, I felt the peacefulness I usually discover about two weeks into a country, once all my qualms and fears have been banished, and once whatever kind family I’m staying with has stopped interrogating me and settled down to get on with their evening, leaving me to relax and watch and listen, in happy uncomprehension. I first felt this years ago, on a school French exchange, sitting in the car with my host family after an impromptu late-night outing to drink hot chocolate in the main square of the next town. They were singing along loudly to a Spanish song that was playing (the father of the family was from Spain), and found that, although I couldn’t understand a word of what was going on, let alone join in, I was perfectly content just to sit among them and enjoy the experience. I didn’t want it to end. My usual anxiety about the past and the future temporarily ceased, and I found that I wanted to be nowhere else but there, with this family, in the car in the dark, a long way from anything I knew and knowing that, as the ignorant foreigner, very little was expected of me.
I didn’t manage to put a name to this feeling back then (I was only fourteen), and I still haven’t. But it came upon me again as I sat there in the dark beside the Custom House at Taftan, a crackling bonfire before me, a thousand glittering stars above me, Iran at my heels, Pakistan ahead of me, and Afghanistan hovering mysteriously just to the north. Having assured himself that we were comfortable and wanted for nothing, our bearded saviour collected a handful of dry sticks and crouched placidly next to the fire, breaking them into pieces and slowly feeding them into the flames. Anna and I took out our Kindles. Michael opened a notebook and started doing their accounts for the past couple of days. I suddenly realized that one of the reasons I liked these people so much might be their resemblance to my parents. On our family holidays my father would sit amongst us all totting up all our expenditures in a little notebook, occasionally breaking into the conversation to ask if anyone remembered what a particular receipt was for, or how much we’d paid for our ice creams that afternoon. My mother would let him get on with it and lose herself in a book.
I remarked on this, and on the gusto with which both Michael and my father seemed to treat their financial documentation.
“This isn’t fun” retorted Michael earnestly, “this is work!”
“Oh, he loves it” countered Anna, and we grinned at each other and went back to our books.
After a few minutes the man with the beard stopped feeding the fire, extricated a couple of almonds from within his voluminous shalwar kameez, shelled them, and offered them to us, eyes twinkling.
We drifted in and out of conversation and silence. Michael told me at length about the blighted financial firm where he’d worked prior to packing it all in, and I did my best to follow, fascinated, but also feeling much as I had when trying to hold onto my own tenuous career in finance, ever afraid that someone was about to call my bluff and expose my blagging for what it was. Michael said he was glad to be out of it, but I noticed a catch in his voice, which probably even he wasn’t aware of, and asked him if there were any parts he still missed. Sure enough, although he was glad to have washed his hands of the company, he was desperately sorry to have left behind the sparkling group of international colleagues he’d worked with, and the camaraderie they’d shared. He and Anna were going to stay with the family of one of them in Karachi, their next stop.
The next morning we set off early, my bike strapped to the roof of the Landcruiser and Anna and I sharing the passenger seat.
We didn’t wait for our escort, confident that one would find us along the way, which was exactly what happened. We had spent a comfortable night on the floor of someone’s living room in the Custom House, been fed two mouthwatering meals by its Bengali chef (how did he end up there?), and were struggling more and more to remember that this was Balochistan, and that kidnappers and drug smugglers were lurking behind every hill.
[To be continued.]