Pakistan 1: Through the wild Belochistan

Pakistan – what do we know about it in Europe? What is the first thing that comes to our mind? Right, I don’t even have to mention it – probably most western people have the same view. These upcoming posts might hopefully change your misconceptions.

We did a lot of research about the border crossing Iran to Pakistan, but it is difficult to find out, how everything will work out exactly. The way to the east leads inevitably through Balochistan, the “Wild West” of Pakistan, and the crisis area that feeds our western media reporting.
It is shortly before 4 p.m. and the border closes immediately after our entry. We have chosen our arrival time wisely, so that we could spend the night in the border town of Taftan. If you arrive too early, you may be escorted further towards Dalbandin. From there it is only one more day to Quetta. In order to be allowed to travel on after Quetta, you need an NOC (permit). However, you can’t get this document on the weekends. In case you still arrive in Quetta on a weekend, you have to wait until Monday or even Tuesday to be able to continue. Quetta is one of the more dangerous places in Pakistan. You will be constantly escorted and you are not able to do anything there, but wait to continue your journey. So you want to leave the city as soon as possible, unless you don’t want to sit in a hotel for days.

The border guards are very friendly and the whole procedure is done quickly. Taftan is a dusty border village and there isn’t really anything here, except a police station and a few run-down houses. A Levi (the police officers responsible for the rural districts are called Levis) leads us to the police station and to an administration building afterwards, where we have to register. They finally bring us to a small room in the police station, where another couple from Germany is already staying. These two are hitchhiking. Apart from that there are a few prison cells, a toilet and a lounge for the Levis. Our two mopeds are in the small courtyard of the building. The Levis are very friendly guys and provide us with dal (lentil soup),bread and chai (tea) for free. It feels like in a Spaghetti Western Movie, only the guys here are armed with Kalashnikovs instead of revolvers. They are always with them, only when they sit down, they are occasionally leaned against the wall.

A bit later we suddenly hear a lot of noise at the entrance to the district. It doesn’t take long and ~150 people are pushed through the gate and have to crouch down in the inner courtyard. The whole yard is full of men, women and children. On request, someone explains to us, that they are refugees who illegally wanted to cross the border to Iran. The turmoil calms down after a while and people are even provided with food. At first it seemed more like the night would end in an absolute chaos. We let a couple of kids come into our room, so that they can have a bit of a nicer time at least.

The next morning we wait for our escort. The refugees have already been packed into buses and hopefully driven back towards civilization. The German couple takes a seat in the back of a pickup with some armed Levis and we follow them towards Dalbandin. The landscape looks like on the Iranian side. Barren desert and mountains in the distance on both sides. The road is actually quite good, except that you sometimes have to watch out for deeper sand drifts. We are handed over to other escort vehicles every once in a while. The process is usually the same every time – register and have a nice cup of tea with the Levis. Everyone is very relaxed in this area. There isn’t that much to do anyway and the Levis seem to be happy, that the tourists bring some variety. Of course, there are plenty of selfies to take and Kalashnikov-Rambo-Style posing is also an important part of it. What feels a bit strange for us at first, but is quite normal for the people here. A machine gun seems to be basic equipment – pretty much like a smart phone for us.

The later the day, the more strenuous the journey becomes, because our bladders need to be emptied constantly due to the enormous consumption of chais (teas) all the time. The bumpy road doesn’t make the whole thing more pleasant. So we are always happy, when it is time to register and have another tea break. We feel like two coyotes marking the entire 300 kilometers to Dalbandin.

They finally bring us to a hotel in Dalbandin, because we are supposedly not allowed to sleep in the police station. The hotel is quite expensive and after some discussion, we can stay in a small shed in the courtyard. At night time they bring us to the hotel’s roof top to see the city. We were refused to do that during daylight, because they didn’t want us to be seen. When we are finally sitting in the courtyard with a few people, three strange figures come by and take a seat. After a short time it becomes clear, that they are somehow from the local police and want to ask us some questions. It feels like a hearing and they also leave again, as soon as they seemed to be satisfied with our answers.

The next day the escorts continue towards Quetta. The policemen are nowhere near as relaxed as they were the day before. They seem tensed and we don’t take any tea breaks at all. After a while we ask whether it is dangerous here. We are told, that street bombs sometimes happen on this route, so the journey is not entirely safe. That probably explains the reason, why we are driving much faster and without longer breaks. Another 300 kilometers and many escort replacements later, we are brought to a small house on the roadside and have tea. We wait about half an hour while two police officers are talking to us.

Then comes the next escort. When we step out of the house we are a bit surprised to see an armoured car with a huge machine gun on top in front of us. The police officers are no longer police officers, but an anti-terrorism special unit. The two other Germans finally sit down in the armoured vehicle and we are told to follow and never stop by no means. It suddenly feels like in a James Bond movie.

We are driving through Quetta during full rush hour. The streets are clogged and our escort meanders through the heavy traffic with crazy speed. Pakistan is also our first country with left-hand traffic, but luckily we had about 600 kilometers to get used to it. It is a complete chaos. Market places with donkey, horse and camel carts, pedestrians, motorcyclists, cars, dogs, cows, crazy bus drivers and completely overloaded trucks in typical Pakistani design.
In the city we are taken under a road bridge to wait for the next escort vehicle. There are about ten heavily armed anti-terrorism specialists for our protection. Some time later our next escort vehicle arrives. It is no longer a tank car, but the back is covered, that nobody can see the inside.

We have heard before, that tourists are brought to the dirty and completely overpriced Bloom Star Hotel these days. The price for a double room there is ~4000 Pakistani rupees, which is around 27 €. That doesn’t sound super pricey first, but the conditions must be more like in a 2€-shithole. For this reason, we continuously have been telling the last police escorts, that we want to be brought to a police station and not to a hotel. It is successful in the end and they really drive us to the police station. If you do not persevere at this point, you will inevitably end up in the hotel and once you have arrived there, you won’t be able to leave anymore, because the police refuses to take you anywhere else.

The police station is huge and heavily guarded. There is a building with a small courtyard, prison cells, kitchen, two bedrooms, toilets and a washroom for the ordinary police officers. We are allowed to park our bikes in the inner courtyard. Afterwards we have to go to the administration building to meet the superintendent-bod and ask for permission to spend the night here. The superintendent is little enthusiastic and after some back and forth, he finally says that only the other German couple is allowed to stay in the police station. After we have clarified to him, that we won’t pay 4000 rupees for a dirty hotel, he promises to call them to guarantee a reasonable price.

Back at the courtyard for the ordinary police men, we vainly wait for the confirmation for a while. In the meanwhile the escort is ready to guide us to the hotel. We ask the guys about the hotel price and get the answer: usually 4000 rupees. So we explain the escort guys, that we won’t follow them like that. We are only willing to pay a maximum of 1500 rupees, otherwise we won’t move at all. Suddenly one of the other police officers gently advises us, that we should simply stay here. As soon as we refuse to move, the administrative bods wouldn’t do anything about it.

We don’t need to be told twice and they offer us a room immediately, where we can put our stuff in. A large group of police lads is sitting there and smoking weed. Ah ok – welcome to the Wild West. They seem to be happy that a few tourists provide some variety or maybe they are just chilling?

The next day they bring us with a few more tourists to the place, where we should get our NOC. The NOC is a permit to travel through Balochistan. For whatever reason, you also have to apply for it coming from the west, although you are just about to leave Belochistan anyway. It would make sense to get it in Taftan directly at the border instead. Two Polish guys tell us some stories about the Bloom Star Hotel. They arrived before the weekend and, due to a public holiday, they have been spending the last 4 nights there. So they already wasted more than 100 US Dollars and are really pissed off.

To apply for the NOC, you have to visit several rooms and first and foremost, you need a lot of patience. In some rooms nothing really happens, but you still sit there for half an hour. People who know the story of Asterix and Obelix, where they have to get the permit no. 57 – this is roughly how the whole thing feels. The NOC is officially only valid from the next day. With a little friendly pressure and perseverance, you may get it for the same day though. You have to convince another superintendent to make that happen. In our case, he is a very friendly and cozy man. He casually asks for the reason and finally gives our whole group the NOC for the same day. The whole process has taken almost 3 hours, but finally we are back in the escort vehicle to return to the police station. Back at the bikes we quickly apply for an escort vehicle to continue our journey. We are lucky – it is not too late yet.

Our new route leads us southeast towards Sukkur. Tourists are currently not allowed to drive directly to Multan – we don’t know why.
On this trip south there are only us and the escort vehicle left. We drive the rest of the day until it becomes dark and we finally announce, that we feel tired. They probably would have kept us going all night. As we try to convince them to bring us to the nearest police station, we are accommodated there without any objection. The policemen are very friendly and we have nice conversations for the rest of the night. Some of them even come to the police station off-duty only to meet us.

On the fifth day with escort we leave the province Balochistan, pass Sukkur and drive north again towards Multan. The previous escorts were really good and always regulated the traffic professionally to supply us with an easy ride. When we finally leave the Sindh province to Punjab, the police already keeps telling us about the bad police in this region. It doesn’t take very long with the Punjab escort and we know why. They aren’t regulating anything and either drive at a hell of a pace or barely move.

When it gets dark again, we ask for a hotel or a police station. However they don’t care at all and rather bring us to the next escorts over and over, until we finally refuse to continue. They don’t seem to be very happy about that, but have no choice either. So they bring us to a hotel next to the highway. It is pricey, but the hotel owner is okay at least. One of the policemen takes Tobi aside and wants money, since they would have to wait in front of the hotel all night. He puts him off for a start. 5 Minutes later it knocks on the door and it is the same guy asking for his money. Miriam wrote to our police buddies in Balochistan in the meantime and they clarified immediately, that they are not allowed to ask for money and we shall not give them anything by no means. He is grumpy, but finally leaves us alone.

Day 6 is pretty much like the days before, but we start getting tired of the whole escort thing. When the police car starts crawling at a snail’s pace again, we simply overtake to show them, that they should follow us. We also try to find out how much longer we will be escorted through the country. None of the escort guys has a proper answer. One officer even explains to us, that we always will have escorts in Pakistan. Shortly before Multan we are grumpy and tell the police, that we are no longer in the mood anymore. After being chased across the country for 6 days, often no breakfast and no lunch and the statement of never being without an escort, we are about to leave the country to India. One of the policemen starts talking on the phone and suddenly agrees, that we can continue on our own after Multan. These police guys are very friendly and they even agree to bring us into town first, to help us buying a sim card. Afterwards they guide us to the main highway and let us go.

We don’t want to go directly to Lahore, but first to Islamabad and further north. Usually the tourists take a detour to Lahore, before they start driving north. But since we will pass Lahore on our route to India anyway, we explain to the police, that we are going to ride to Islamabad via Faisalabad. Seems to be okay for them.

Finally free and in a good mood again, we first follow the highway towards Lahore and then turn north. After a few kilometers it starts getting dark again and we stop at a small street restaurant. As we are eating, a posh limousine stops and a dressed-up guy starts chatting with us. He claims to be a police officer and was amazed to see tourists in this region. He wants us to dine with him and his two servants. Although we are already finnished with eating, we decide to join him out of courtesy. He invites us to spend the night at his place and we are happy to accept. He also insists on paying for our food.

When we are leaving, he suddenly suggests several times, that Miriam should sit in the car and his servant would ride her motorcycle instead. We point out, that she has been on the road for 30000 kilometers, she certainly can ride better than his strange servant and she will definitely not leave her motorcycle to someone else. After some back and forth, he suddenly wants us to put our luggage in his trunk at least. The whole thing suddenly seems rather strange to us. The luggage is fixed on the motorcycles and it makes no sense to take it off to drive to his property. He finally gives up and we shall just follow him. It is already completely dark.

First we zigzag through the little village, but he drives like an idiot. We talk briefly over our headsets and decide to leave to continue our way north. The whole situation was somehow extremely dubious.
As we drive past a small property, we turn into the dirt road and ask a field worker, if we can pitch our tent on one of the fields. He doesn’t understand very well and takes us to the opposite side of the main street, where a group of men is watching cricket on TV. Some of them can speak a little English and without further ado, they bring us the only two beds, that they have just used before to watch the cricket match. Now we have ended up on the dusty forecourt right next to the main road – not exactly a great place to stay – but what can we do?

We have just made ourselves comfortable, when suddenly one of the guy says we should come to his house. It would be much nicer than on this dusty parking lot. He lives in a nearby village. Adnan seems to be alright, so we reload our bikes and follow a group of men to the mentioned village. It is definitely better than being here on display.
The house is pretty and quite large with a secure courtyard for our motorbikes. Adnans father welcomes us and we also greet various sisters and mothers. A complete room shall be our night camp. When they start moving two of their beds into the room, we inform them, that we can sleep on our camping mattresses without any problems. Otherwise two family members would have certainly slept on the floor.

Although it is already dark, word gets around in the village quickly, that two strangers have arrived. Our small room becomes a village meeting place. After an hour, about 30 men are already sitting in the room. Most of them just look at us with big googly eyes – they probably don’t speak any English. Miriam is called to the ladies in the courtyard. They want to talk to her too, but are not allowed to come into the room.

Another half an hour later, four armed military guys and a high-ranking police officer with good English skills suddenly appear. Somebody must have informed them and they want to get an impression of the situation. We are quite tired in the meanwhile and – to be honest – what the heck is going on here by the way? Primarily we only wanted to pitch our tent on a field. They check our IDs and visas and ask us all sorts of things afterwards. Although they are friendly, it feels a bit like in a courtroom. The situation is quite similar to the one we had in Dalbandin, but with four times as many people in a small room. About an hour later they have heard enough and wish us a good night. They offer us to sleep in the police station, but also inform us, that this is a very good family and a safe place, too. Nevertheless one of the soldiers will stay the whole night in front of the house. Our room is gradually emptying and we apologise to our host. We didn’t expect to cause such a chaos. He takes it calmly and we are happy to have some rest after a very long day.

The next morning our watchman has already disappeared. We were afraid to end up in an escort again. After breakfast they show us their little village and we have plenty of time to take selfies with the residents, the dogs, cows and goats. All the people are incredibly nice.

The village lads accompany us back to the main street. We stop to refuel and are invited for a Coke and a few selfies with all kinds of people. Then we should please come along to one of the guys’ shops for another hundred selfies. An hour later we are finally able to continue our journey. We feel like we have been taking selfies with every living being in this region in the last few hours. It was extremely nice though, to meet all these friendly people.

We reach Faisalabad at lunch time – a small Pakistani town with 3.2 million inhabitants and we drive right through the city centre. There is even more traffic here than in Quetta. We are completely stuck in traffic for a while and people are honking like crazy. After we have happily passed Faisalabad, we try to take the motorway towards Islamabad. Unfortunately motorbikes are not allowed there, even though some police officers previously told us, that we should use this specific motorway. So we have no choice but to continue on the country road.

In the next smaller town we stop at a street stall to eat some samosas (fried dumplings with a vegetable filling). A nice gentleman joins us and insists to pay the bill. Back at the motorcycles, some people are already waiting for us to take selfies. It takes less than five minutes until we are surrounded by ~100 people. Everybody wants to have a look at the strangers, have a chat or take some selfies. The people are friendly and the situation is unusual but not worrying. Suddenly the police appears, disbands the crowd and escorts us out of the little town.

Damn it – after two half days we are back in an escort. We have to follow two police officers on a slow 125cc motorcycle. They stop on a bridge outside the city and tell us to wait. It’s a strange place to wait, but maybe they call a real escort vehicle? 15 minutes later a rickshaw stops and a woman gets off to take selfies with us. It is the sister of one of the police officers. He probably called her to take a few photos quickly – really great police work *haha*! A few kilometers further we are taken over by a police car. Fuck – we are escorted again, but what can we do?

When it dawns we are close to Sargodha. It’s the dustiest town we have ever seen, which is probably due to the numerous quarries at the outskirts. With the headlights you can hardly see anything at night. That’s how dusty the air is in this region. We have already told our escort officers before Sargodha, that we want to go to a police station or a hotel there. They don’t seem to care and pass us on to the next escorts over and over. When we are suddenly about to leave Sargodha again, we are damn pissed off. Miriam just stops next to the road and waits for the escort to turn around and come back. She explains, that we told them to bring us to a hotel over an hour ago and there will be no hotel outside of Sargodha, for sure. She won’t move anymore, but to the next police station. Otherwise she will just settle right here and they can guard her for the rest of the night. The guys are a bit despaired. It is not their fault, since they just took us over, but it has become time to talk straight.
Finally we drive back to the police station in Sargodha.

Once there, Miriam speaks to the police chief. He tries to explain, that we are not allowed to stay here overnight. Miriam is still grumpy though and announces, that she doesn’t care anymore and will sleep right on the police station’s courtyard. The poor man promises to find a solution and orders a colleague to cool her down with some mango juice as a start. A few phone calls and completed documents later, he has organised a free accommodation for us.

When we arrive at our new lodging, it’s a palace. A gate with a huge garden and numerous servants. We suspect, that it is a diplomatic building and are advised to park our bikes between the pillars of the magnificent entrance area. Our bags are carried into the room for us. The floor is made of white marble. We are brought into a kind of waiting room and a man, obviously the master of the house, welcomes us and asks us to come to the dining room for a little snack in half an hour. Our “snack” is provided by two servants and full of delicacies, that would have been enough for a whole family. Miriam even gets her chicken filleted.

The next morning after breakfast we continue with an escort on partly tiny streets with potholes towards Gujrat. We are pretty annoyed again. However, one officer is so excited, that he absolutely wants to invite us for tea and cookies. He even applied for escorting us, when he heard that there are some foreign bikers around. They are all so friendly and “cute”, that our mood improves a bit. In Gujrat we finally reach the highway to Islamabad and things are going faster again.
Shortly before Islamabad, when the traffic is getting denser, our escort says goodbye and we are finally allowed to drive on our own again. We don’t know why we had escorts on the highway at all. Usually tourists do not need an escort on the highway between Lahore and Islamabad.

Islamabad is full of parks and green spaces. Sometimes you don’t even feel like you are in a big city and certainly not like in a capital. We find a room in a large building, where somebody has turned a private apartment into a kind of backpacker hostel. Glad that we finally arrived in Islamabad, we rest for two days.
The drive through western Pakistan was a busy week. However, next time we know, that it was mainly our fault – we were just too nice. If you feel hungry or you need to go to the toilet – just stop. The police will come back on their own. So you don’t have to drive through the desert for days without breakfast, lunch, toilet breaks, rests…

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