The underground wedding reception hall was pitch black as I opened my eyes and lifted my head. I gathered my belongings and followed Dan (my new travel companion; a Kiwi who had just spent six months cycling the silk road through Central Asia) into the breaking day. It was 0600. We would begin our journey to Quetta, the capital of Balouchistan.
We had been put up by a couchsurfing host the previous night. It was a great way to enjoy a final cultural exchange in Iran and to avoid arousing the curiosity of the border town police.
We taxied to the Pakistan border-bound savari (shared taxi) stand. Our new driver knew the drill. He roped my pack to the top and shoved Dan’s bag in the trunk. It was 96 km to the border. Within only twenty kilometres the prevailing patience that we would require for the duration of our journey was first tested. We exited the cab and followed an Iranian checkpost policeman, currently holding our passports hostage, to a nearby trailer. He told us to wait outside the closed door. It felt a stark contrast to the local hospitality I had to come expect while traveling Iran. The persistent dichotomy was personaified. In his uniform, this man was of The State and not The People. Minutes later another man emerged and surrendered our passports. We were back on the road.
We unloaded at the border and paid our fare. There was a decent line up waiting to exit Iran – all men. We joined them, but were soon ushered through a vacant immigration station. I paused at the TV screen showing regional news in the waiting room. No reports of violence overnight in Pakistan.
We slung our bags and were directed to Pakistan immigration. There was a line, but we were lead inside, this time, immediately.
Although the office certainly had a different feel from the Iranian equivalent, it was not the chaotic shitshow that it could have been. Our passports stamped with entry, we were lead through a back door and into an adjacent building. One middle-aged man sat behind a desk. He instructed us to sit facing. The cigarette smoke lazily floated around his smug smile. It mirrored his disposition. He proceeded to ask a series of pointless questions directed at each of us in turn. I kept each answer as monosyllabic as possible. I did my best to look boring. Soon he concluded that he had wasted enough of our time (or more likely that his was too precious to humor us any longer). He handed over our passports and we left. Our next priority was to stock up on snacks and water and to rid ourselves of our remaining Iranian currency. Unsure of our next opportunity we went on a spree at the border convenience store. We haggled with a money changer and settled on an acceptable rate for our outstanding tomans.
The next step in the process was not obvious. We both would have liked to walk into town and found a bus out, but instead volunteered to pay Pakistan Customs a visit. It seemed like a safer bet in the long run. We entered another office, with another man behind another desk. He was on the landline. We sat on the defunct sofa to his left. Minutes passed. Eventually he addressed us with a smile. He asked questions. Some were genuine. A few were a blantant attempt to demonstrate his general knowledge of the world. He had an MBA he said. He was unsure whether Canada shared a land border with the US. Overall though he was very pleasant and we accepted his offer of our first Pakistani chai. It was delicious. We thanked him and were led to a pile of sandbags that served as a police checkpost. We sat in plastic chairs and again offered our passports. The policeman laboured to transcribe our passport details into a ledger. He simultaneously completed makeshift waivers that removed all liability from the Pakistan government for our upcoming journey across the desolate province. This task took 25 minutes, 3 of which were spent explaining and spelling my Father’s name. Jeffery must not be common I these parts :p
Once complete, the same man summoned a police officer. He walked us 500 m to the local police station.
We entered the iron gates of the police station. A group of thirty sickly looking men were huddled in the shade. I never found out why they were there, but it was easy to get that they were held against their will and that food/water would not flow readily to them.
We were sat at a plastic table. The next step in the process was unclear, but we were pretty sure we would be assigned a police escort before finding a bus out of town. We patiently waited as the hot sun rose prominently. One administrator ran a pencil along a straight piece of shelf metal. He was drawing tables on blank sheets of paper. Microsoft Excel was worlds away. Another, wearing dark sunglasses, a big gold watch, and a mischievous grin juggled two cell phones and a landline with a pristine air of self-importance. Seriously, who could be calling him?
I didn’t really care. I was hungry. Dan and I devoured a packet of strawberry-vanilla biscuits. Edible. I started to feel a bit impatient. I inquired as to when our gun-toting chaperon would arrive. The answer was always twenty minutes. Towards 12:30 a policeman arrived with his rifle and told us to follow him. We thanked our temporary captors and confirmed that we were responsible only for our personal costs incurred en route to Quetta and not also those of our supposed protector.
The pickup that might have brought us to the bazaar was ‘no diesel’. We were fine to walk. We passed groups of truck drivers picnicking on the leeward sides of their fantastically decorated coaches. Stares galore. We return the gaze. I’m sure I flinched first. They were professionals…
The bazaar wasn’t too far and we were sat down in a bus ticket office. The bus was scheduled to leave at 1500, it was 1300. The man demanded inflated prices and required us to pay for the guard. We were not impressed. We knew that the police had every interest in getting us out of town and so we leveraged this. To protest we acted on our threats by picking up our bags and walking back to the police station. Our escort, offered only a weak attempt at mutiny before exalting a sigh and trudged along behind, now a few metres in tow.
Back inside the compound our arrival was unexpected. We communicated our issue and after a quick phone call to the bus company had agreed on a much more reasonable price. We loaded into the pickup that had ‘no diesel’ and were deposited at the baazar. Tickets were purchased. Dan changed 50 USD so we could pay for the tickets and have some local currency for the journey.
Finally, our priority shifted to filling our bellies. Our first meal of the day and first in the new land was chicken curry in a small restaurant. It was very tasty, and overpriced. Oh well, it always takes a couple of days in a new country to get a sense of prices, cultural norms, etc.
The bus was loaded to the teeth. We found our seats towards the back. It was much nicer than I had anticipated. After a few merciless tugs on the exceeding obnoxious horn (maybe Taliban attacked buses simply to silent their drivers??), we pulled out of the bazaar at 15:30. Our escort sat across the aisle. I preferred him at the front. Based on his actions thus far we had concluded that he would be a greater liability than asset if any bad shit were to go down. As he settled in, he pulled back the window curtains to reveal a shitty patch job on the broken window panel. It was quite obviously a bullet hole – reassuring…
We cruised along. The road was better than I had expected.
Only 10 minutes out of town, Dan and I were hurried off the bus to divulge our passport details. Having learned from the marathon transcription session earlier in the day, we volunteered to copy down our own info. We strode back past a housing a pretty bad ass stationery machine gun before leaping onto the rolling bus.
Hours passed. The young kid in front of me had a soul-piercing stare. I engaged ‘crazy-eyes’ in a few staring contests. We both lost.
We snacked on some of the supplies we had purchased, rationing slightly as we had no idea when to expect the next meal.
The bus paused for a bathroom break. The surrounding forms of humanity were crude. Iran is western compared to Pakistan. I forgot how fucking dirty this part of the world is. That said I was pumped to be here.
The road got worse. Reading was a challenge. I made multiple attempts to doze – none successful.
The bus, already packed by Western standards, filled up Pakistani style during one of our infrequent stops. There were sacks of produce in the aisles. When seats were no longer available, they were improvised with crates.
During my research earlier in the month, I learned that foreigners are usually pulled off the bus in the middle of the night, made to sleep in a police checkpoint and then shipped to Quetta during the next day in the back of pickups.
Our trip was going beautifully smooth at this point and so I was optimistic that we would be allowed to continue to Quetta on the bus.
Towards 23:30 we pulled into a roadside stop. Our group of human cargo blended into the mob of other travelers - Dan and I being the only exception. I was pleased that I had bought a scarf in Iran days earlier. Covering my head and partially wrapping my face provided a sense of privacy or at least reduced vulnerability.
I reloaded our water supply and slammed an apple juice. Dan and I had a pee behind the stands before returning to idle in front of the buses. We ate a fresh roti each and fielded questions from a man who spoke decent English. A group of curious men gathered. There were close to 25 by the time the bus driver harped on his Taliban bird whistle. We clambered back on and retook our seats. We noticed that our bodyguard friend was no longer with us. Good riddance, but what a waste of money.
Although I wasn’t sleepy I had entered a deeply relaxed state.
Only thirty minutes after we regained the road, the bus boy beckoned Dan and I. My optimism was drowned, in full. We were being taken off the bus. Dan followed quickly and I was slow to react. Navigating the aisle was like a high-stakes game of grounders. It was impossible to know what the sacks and bags the littering the bus floor contained and thus impossible to know where was safe to step. Yes, I planted a timid foot square on a man’s face. The gasps of the passengers soon erupted into laughter. My gasp transitioned only to a weak smile. Who the fuck sleeps in the aisle totally hidden under a blanket?!
Off the bus we were tossed our bags and led by police levis to a guard hut. The stars were bright enough to see my breath.
We assessed our friendly captors. They offered chai. Four men played a board game in the corner. One communicated that we would sleep the night here before continuing our journey at 0600. The trip was going to script.
We were shown our sleeping quarters. One man was already snuggled in – corpse style - in the hut across the highway. A blanket was laid for each of us to buffer the cold concrete floor. Dan tucked in.
Although there were no cleaning facilities available, I bathed in the full moon. I recited as much of ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas as I could remember while I scrubbed my teeth. With once last glimpse of the heavens-lit mountain pass, I entered the hut, layered on all of my warm clothes and curled up.
I awoke at 0500 the next morning. I was cold. I managed to doze for another hour before succumbing to the need for warmth.
I joined the guards huddled around the wood stove in the main hut. They shared chai and a small piece of fresh roti with me. Just before Dan joined us, the leader radioed for our ride. Fifteen minutes later a pickup appeared and we hopped in the back. Dan and I were so pleased with the reception we had received while at the hut. It would have been just as easy for them to be unfriendly and unaccommodating. We agreed to give the guards our prized jar of mango masala. They happily received it.
And so our Christmas Day police pickup marathon began.
Through chattering teeth we munched chocolate covered digestive biscuits and crunched stale bread. It wasn’t quite the fresh homemade raisin bread that I normally associated with Christmas morning at home, but it went down well under the circumstances.
After only a short distance the truck pulled over and we jumped out. There was a group of levis eagerly waiting to usher us further down the highway. Two guards found seats under the sea of blankets and stowed their rifles before motioning for me to join them. I laughed at the prospect of cuddling up two armed Pakistani dudes as I kicked off my boots and nestled into the blanket cave. I used to snuggle with the family golden retriever while anticipating the hour of Christmas Day gift opening. My how times change…
The truck pulled onto the bumpy highway. We answered the usual set of questions: What your country? Are you married? Age you? Cricket playing?
Again after ~25 km we switched pickups. We snapped some pictures with our new cohort before repeating the Q&A routine.
The next phase of farnar hot potato permitted a short break for chai and travel ledger detailing. We paid for the cuppas. It didn’t break the bank.
By mid-morning, Dan and I had deduced the pattern that would define our day. The levi patrol squads have ~25km stretch of highway to monitor. When foreigners roll through, they are responsible to transport them the distance of their section. With radios, they typically call ahead to the next patrol group to signal our arrival. On most occasions the patrol team drives their section of road to meet us. We load into their pickup (normally with a driver + 1 gunman in the cab + 1-2 gunman with us in the back). They drive us ~25km to the next waiting pickup.
As we pulled into the next police hut, the sun was high. This would be our last smooth hand off for several hours.
After our third ride, the remarkably efficient system stalled. We started waiting at checkpoints for the next chariot to fetch us. It took ~90 minutes on multiple occasions.
But there was nothing we could do. We were zen. Faint smiles and shoulder shrugs were my religion (unless I was directly asked, in which case I was Christian, much safer and understandable than answering ‘agnostic’, the truth).
At the prolonged checkpoint waits, we weren’t the only ones who became bored. As the desert clock dragged, the levis took turns taking the piss out of us. On most occasions one of us played along (my bust out of ‘the funky chicken’ to traditional Urdu music is a fond example). However, the demands of ‘do you have gift?’ became tiresome quickly and patience for their giggles waned at times.
Had they known that today was Christmas and therefore that gifts were an unusually reasonable request uniquely on this day, it might have been cute. But because they were bored, underpaid cops just fishing for extras from foreigners it got old real fast.
As the day wore our self-imposed attitudes of impenetrable inner peace were involuntarily deepened by hunger. Biscuits had been the foundation of our diet for over 24 hours. It was starting to show.
The God in which I falsely professed belief must have taken mercy because the transfer time between pickups improved. We moved some kilometres. Hunger is easier to ignore when progress is being made.
Before we reached the outskirts of Quetta we were taken into a final checkpoint. We sat in the shaded hut. I was starving. I only answered questions that were asked of me multiple times. I did my best to maintain an air of patience but continued to ask about the arrival of an ongoing truck.
And then, I just didn’t care anymore.
A boy (read: saint) had entered the hut. He handed out hard boiled eggs to everyone. I felt like a street urchin accepting a gift of scraps from an oligarch. I peeled the protein and swallowed it. Seeing how I devoured the first morsel the guard barked for him to give me another. I expressed my gratitude.
It wasn’t until we finally reached Quetta that I was certain of the mileage to the border. My best guess was ~ 600 km total. With that estimation we couldn’t be far. As we got closer to the city, evidence of unrest became more difficult to ignore. We now had 2 gunmen in the back at all times, there were old bulletproof vests and helmets on the chairs and we were sternly instructed to sit immediately behind the truck cab shielded from all view by canvas sidings.
With our final hand-off my heart rate doubled.
We dodged auto-rickshaws, taxis, bicycles and horse-drawn carts as the levis led us to an armoured car parked at the side of the road. Instinct had taught me to stay away from such vehicles. They invited attention and violence.
We waited behind the car while the army dudes argued with the driver. Eventually the back door was opened and we obediently entered. Dan and I sat in the back. My mind jumped between thoughts of ‘Holy shit’, ‘This is kinda cool’, ‘Is this really necessary?’ and ‘What does this lever do?’ The car didn’t move. It was unclear why. I waited a bit longer before inquiring. The guy in fatigues in the front seat said ‘no diesel’. He indicated that if we gave him 500 rupees ($5 USD) he could get diesel and we could go. ‘No man’ was our retorted. We knew he was just looking for cash. Testing his bluff we offered to hop a tuk-tuk into town. ‘No, wait’ was his response. I will admit here that I was internally torn. Dan was convinced. 500 rupees was a tiny price to pay to finish a long, potentially dangerous journey, safely. But pandering to this guy’s bullshit only propagated a culture of corruption. After a couple more minutes I followed Dan out of the bullet proof glass and steel bars to the side of the highway. I trusted Dan. Within 60 seconds we were in the back of an auto rickshaw cruising towards a hotel on Jinnah Rd for 100 rupees.
We landed in a hotel in time for a Christmas dinner of hot chana (chickpea curry) and the 18:30 start of the Pakistan-India Twenty20 cricket match. Awesome.
Final Notes: The trip took a total 36 hours from start to finish (26 hours in transit on the Pakistan side). Having Dan to laugh and shrug off both figurative and literal bumps along the way made it much more enjoyable than it otherwise would have been. Being from NZ, it also gave me a bit more street cred when the topic of cricket inevitably came up. Together, we would spend two nights in Quetta. We did explore the city, eat in the street, and shop in the bazaar, but were conscious to minimize our excursions after dark. I was totally wrapped up whenever we went out and Dan only a tiny bit less so. Handguns of all types were abundant and there were sand bag bunkers established on some alleys. By the time we arrived in Quetta however, I was pretty at ease with the proliferation of weaponry endemic to the area. Only once, when we noticed a procession of peaceful protesters in approaching in the distance on the main Jinnah Rd. did we feel the need to take refuge in the side streets. Indeed, the town had a very frontier feel and would be really interesting to spend a few days in during more peaceful times.
Photo credit to Dan for a handful of the pics below.