Day 28: Zahedan to Quetta
Saturday 18th October
My PDA lit the coal black bedroom at 4.00am as its alarm started to do an impersonation of a dog barking. Anne wasn’t impressed, not so much with the barking but the unearthly hour. Within a couple of a minutes the Imam was calling everyone to prayer and with it Anne lost the point of her anger. A very early start was needed to give us some chance of making it to a Quetta. Firstly there was the matter of getting our passports back which, along with a very basic breakfast, took us to 5.50am. All we needed was our escort. At 6.15am it arrived to safely deliver us exactly one kilomotre nearer the border and stopped to waite for relief escort. I arrived at 7.15am making a mockery of our early start.
After stops and starts we made it to the Pakistan border and duely queued up to have our passports checked. The actual administrative part didn’t take too long, about and hour and half but it was so hot and the terraine a complete mess that it seemed longer. We have followed a constant strip of discarded rubbish since Romania and it seems it is all blowing into the border crossing area between Iran and Pakistan. It looked like the rubbish dump of the world with scapped cars, tyres, rusting pipe and gurders, tin cans and all wallowing in a sea of plastic and papers. An absolute shit hole is a fair description and sitting a few hundred yards away stood a square boxed mud township happily making a living from the mess but God knows how. Once we left the border behind, the scenery quickly flattened out as though the mountains new they belonged to Iran and had no right on the otherside of the border.
Our new guide Bilal introduced himself to the coach saying Marco Polo would have been proud of you and the land you’re now travelling has little changed since. The scenery was quite interesting and the mountains looked quite high in the distance but when I asked Bilal what they were called he referred to them as hills, not being higher than 3000 feet . After a while we made our first stop in Pakistan and it caused quite a stir. All we did was cross the road to a hotel which had two toilets and a sign outside saying we were on London Rd and within a few minutes we drew a largish crowd. The toilets, both ladies and gents, were inside two seperate bedrooms and because there was no running water it was suggested that we use the bottle on the table between the single beds outside the gents. When I got back down stairs the large crow had now attracted a snake charmer who’d seen an opportunity. As soon as everyone had paid he grabbed the Cobra and stuffed it back in its bag.
Things began to deteriorate from this point onwards. The temperature outside was now 35 degrees centigrade and the road took a significant turn for the worse. The road was surfaced one minute and the next the bus would come to a sudden stop before crashing onto a surface of dust, stone and large holes. Things became even worse has the light gave way to a starry sky: every severe bump, drop into a hole, sudden unexpected movement was met by a series of expleteves and huhs and hahs. We had a total of 600 kilometres to cover, 300 on decent road and the final 300 on what Bilal called poor road. This was a conservative estimate, appalling would be nearer and the reality was somewhere between this and non existant. If we had been covering these latter miles in the daylight I think there would have been a census to wait and start again the next day but we couldn’t see and so it went ahead. Just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse the road began to rise and twist and turn with large gaily coloured trucks coming the opposite way which brought our progress to a complete stop. The only good thing about the trucks was you could see them coming down the mountainside looking like Trafelgar Squares christmas decorations on wheels. Bilal explained that the tradition of decorating the trucks stems from the way they decorated their camels.
The hotel at Quetta was a colonial building just two floors high rectangular set around a central garden area. When we arrived it was 11.50pm and the hotel had prepared a meal of veg and chicken curry with naan breads and bottle beer. I have never had Pakistani beer before and it’s quite good: made by Murrees, since the 1860s, it’s a typical IPA with good flavour and 5.5 percent strength. What was surprising about it was the price: 150 rupees in the hotel and to buy in bulk 130; Pakistan has the q £1 pint. I’d spent a few days thinking about beer in the sobriety of Iran but never imagined it would be expensive in a country where 100 rupees gets a 20 minute sim card for your phone or two veg curries and naan breads and if interested a 15 minute scary ride in a rickshaw.
Day 29 : Quetta
Sunday 21st October
After the seventeen hour drive from Iran through the desert, the mountains and the night we had earned a day’s rest. We could stay in bed until breakfast between 9.00 and 11.00am. I didn’t want to get on the bus to go anywhere but joined most of the group to the Geological Museum which was well worth the visit. The second destination sounded better – a lake in the mountains that’s very popular with Quettans at weekends. I have my doubts, it took nearly an hour to get there through a maize of military roads and. When we got there we queued up for a couple of samosas and the sweetest cup of tea I have ever tasted.
We then got back on the bus and headed back into town to visit the bazaar. After a few moments walking from the bus towards the market it became apparent that there were serious problems. Within no time at all we were surrounded by 40 to 60 local men all wanting to touch, shake hands and speak to us. Eventually the crowd brought the traffic to a stop and things were only brought back to order by two armed police officers dispersing them and allowing us to proceed. The trip to the bazaar was abruptly scrapped and we beat a quick retreat to a restaurant for dinner. Food was very good and somewhat similar to restaurants in England with chicken tikka, lamb curry, fried rice and naan breads and rusmali to finish.
Walked back to the hotel after the meal with no incidents. I think it is the sheer number of people all turning out on the streets together that causes so much attention. I don’t think they mean any harm but it is worrying trying to hold on to your passport and money while shaking hands surrounded. Anne quite liked being a celebrity.
Back at the hotel we enjoyed just sitting in the garden and drinking beer, even though it was expensive, after our moment of fame. Went to bed late, a little merry, with just four hours to go before hitting the road again.
Monday 22nd October: Quetta – Sukkur
Started early after our day’s rest yesterday. The coach was very cool and fresh as the bus’s air condition got a helping hand from the fresh mountain air that makes Quetta such a pleasant town. We hadn’t been driving very long when Bilal announced we were entering the Bolan Pass. John informed me that a Scottish regiment marched through the pass to enter India by an alternative route to the Khyber Pass in the 19th Century. Unfortunately same result, 15,000 were slaughtered and it wasn’t very long before I new how. The pass is over thirty miles long and doesn’t rise as you would expect but cuts its way through the most amazing rock formations. These stretch down the mountainside and enclose the road in a menacingly way that no previous road has done. Anyone wanting to ambush us could very easily jumped from the rocks onto the bus roof or roll large boulders down at any number of points. High on the top of enormous rock stood two very large boulders that only needed a slight push to wipe-out the entire road. Our escort disappeared as we entered the pass. We didn’t really need them because there were army posts of riflemen and machine guns every few hundred yards above the road and stretching all way through the pass. Although their presence was comforting it was however strange to think that not a great deal’s changed since the poor Scots made their attempt all those years ago. Bilal remarked it is just as much a strategic route today as ever it was.
Once out of the pass the valley widened out to accommodate a very large river bed strewn with large boulders. In the rainy season this must be a very impressive and somewhat dangerous river. We made a wee stop at a large modern looking concrete bridge which had buckled and v shape. Down in the bottom of the river bed miniature trucks and ant like figures made their way to the road at the far side. This surely is only possible in the dry period and even then fraught with danger. The broken bridge was not totally redundant as motorbikes and bicycles made their way across and down and back up the V section and a makeshift ramp made of stones. If this was an example of Pakistani road engineering then they could do worse than learn something else from the Irish.
The journey from here onwards was continued through some stunning scenery that became more green as the dried up river bed supported a steady stream of clear water that became more and more significant as we got closer to the Indus. Before long the hot driy desert gave way to green fields and crops.
Sukkur is a city of four million, surrounded by green arable fields and filled with the most appalling poverty. Our hotel sits by the mighty river Indus at the entrance to a very long barrier which spans it, was built by the British in 1921 and is the source of the amazing irrigation system that feeds all the fields around. Bilal considered it to be a piece of engineering brilliance. The barrier is as it was built over 80 years ago. A group of us led by Bilal set off across to the other side which according to him is nearly two kilometres long. It is indeed a major construction but I doubt it is that long. It was long enough for the young ones to get tired and Bilal comandeered a donkey and cart for them to finish the journey. We were given the chance to use it but declined. As we were crossing Ben ran into the middle of the road to rescue a large Leather Neck turtle from the oncoming traffic. The poor thing refused to be stopped and set of at quite a fast pace. Ian however was having none of this and picked it up and took it to drop it back in the water. As the poor thing belly flopped back in to the river we noticed many more dead ones floating against the enormous steel barrier blades which are raised in the wet season. Bilal admitted that there is a serious problem with the turtles and river Dolphins in the area but didn’t blame the barrier.
Returned to the hotel to find it didn’t have a drinks licence and if we wanted booze we would have to go and fetch it from downtown Sukkur. Jim and myself were chosen to carry out this task because we were the most verbose in times of drought. This was a good opportunity to see the central shopping area of a large Pakistani city. After only a 15 minute rickshaw ride we arrived at the centre which if anything was more run down than the other areas we’d seen on entering earlier. I went to bank to use the ATM machine and it was surrounded by little mesters shops welding, fixing car parts etc. The actual beer wholeseller was just like the welding shops but had a grill to protect the drinks. Once we had ordered the 150 bottles we needed to transport it back. After a few words of negotiations with Bilal the company was quite happy to deliver. By the time we arrived back for dinner the bottles were reclining in a large bucket type container filled with iced water and protected by two amused hotel porters. The two not only protected but them but opened and disposed of the empties and refilled the cold vessel when needed. For this service they received the odd small tip and were overjoyed when I gave them four bottles to share. Our reward for masterminding this operation was to return to find most of the food had been eaten by those we were fetching beer for. But we did get our own back by refusing to share our stock with those who thought they’d drink without having to pay.
Day 32: Multan – Lahore
Wednesday 24th October:
My alarm worked perfectly this morning at 5.45am for the second time on this trip. Risked a slice of toast and marmalade for breakfast and a couple of sips of coffee. Todays journey another 400 kilometres but with a stop at Harrape, one of the oldest cities in the world. Over 5,000 years ago it consisted of 250,000 inhabitants. The museum was reasonably interesting but the actual site was seven kilometres away from the museum. A case of little figurines, over 5,000 years old, some rude put Wallace and Grummit to shame.
It was suddenly announced that after booking in to our hotel we were heading for the Wagga border crossing between Pakistan and India which is only 45 kilometres outside the city. The journey took nearly an hour and quarter because of the congestion: the first signs of driving around Lahore is seriously scary. When we arrived things were already hotting up. On either side of the main border gates two ampitheatres have been set up to seat an audience of about 1000 on each side. With the exception of us and a few more tourists the audience on our side, at least, consisted of school children all spanking clean in their uniforms and primed to explode. In front off them were cheer leaders all carrying the flag of Pakistan. One a very old man marched up and down shouting slogens that the kids responded to with the precission of a well rehearsed West End production of Oliver.
The old man looked and sounded like Albrert Steptoe (two front teeth only) and showed the same aggressive nature screaming at the top of his voice a famouse nationalistic song which simply says long live Pakistan:
Gva (pronounced Geeva) , Gva, Gva Pakistan.
Pakistan, Pakistan, Gva Pakistan
and then he rushed up to the railing seperating the stands and screamed ‘Pakistan’ and the kids responded in unison ‘Zindibad’ meaning up Pakistan. This was repeated over and over again to try and drown out the volume coming over the border gates from what I assume were Indian school children. By the end, the old man looked in some distress, swallowing heavily to try and regain some of his voice presumably in time to tell his wife later over a samosa how it had gone.
One of the things I like about this lovely country is at five foot five-ish I don’t feel out of place like back home. Indeed most of the men seem to spend their time squatting down on their heels either resting or having a number one but the guards performing here for their homeland are giants who were at the back of the queue when looks were handed out. All of them were about six foot five and with the extra thick soles on their boots and their silly hats with plumes, each stood over seven foot. It’s been said before but it is the best description by far, the antics that these dozen soldiers get up to are straight out of a Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks sketch. On the stroke of some unseen signal two guards from each side set off down the middle of the road towards the raised gates and their opponents. Each kicked their legs above head height and stamped them back down on road making as much noise as possible. Then just as suddenly as they started they stopped face to face, turned instantly away from each other at 90 degrees and then after a few more silly steps away from each other turned to face their oponents.
Suddenly the gates closed, the gruesome guards stood having their photos taken with visiting dignitaries and tourists and the old man with flag rolled up and resting on his shoulder followed the school kids back to their waiting vehicles to recoupe for tomorrow’s battle. Someone remarked that he also attends and performs at cricket matches: a full time supporter for his country.
Day 33: Lahore
Thursday 25th October
Had a lay-in until 9.00am and then went to find an internet café which had a reputation for not being too bad and not far from the hotel. The good café was down some stairs from a much another one which was poor. First impressions were not good, five machines, two with flat screens and all towers older than my first Dell fifteen years ago. Started the machines to be confronted with Windows 98, no USB ports, no CD drive and my mini SD card caused the proprietor puzzlement. Took over five minutes to login into my email account and even longer to read them. After fifteen minutes I was on the point of smashing the monitor and Anne suggested we beat a retreat before I did damage to the shop or myself. I am just glad we didn’t go to the poor café.
We all met up at 2.00pm to go and see a Sufi meeting in the old part of town. The rickshaw ride was brilliant because the traffic was exceptionally bad and he weaved in and out and even left the ground once or twice as he hit large bumps and protruding manhole covers in his attempts to outrun the bikes and cars. Once again as soon as we congregate in public the locals surround us and this time they’re mostly the poor heading to the Sufi temple. After taking our shoes of once again we enter and sit down in the middle of the large hall. I quite enjoyed the singing, it was soporific. Very relaxing. However it wasn’t long before we were being stared at, told off for spreading our legs out in front of us and beckoned to the front, I think to contribute financially. Bilal eventually gave up saying no and signaled us to leave. Next stop the Royal Fort and mosque.
This was the best rickshaw ride of all usin 3 large ones holding six in each and setting off through the congestion and clouds of appalling polution like a chariot race to the death. Ours was the fastest and in no time at all we were leaving the others behind. Sitting in the back seat, facing the pursueing hordes, gave me a perfect viewpoint. It was great seeing the others fall back as we accelerated and then just as quickly catch up as we came to a set of lights or junction. When all three were level the fun really started as each tried to gain poll position by breaking all the rules but always stopping short of bumping each other and damaing their livelyhoods. Once the road cleared ours would set off again showing its superior power and the process started all over again. We were at the old part of the city a few minutes before the others and were captivated by a couple of five year old girls who Bilal explained were professional gypsy beggars. Like two little Madona’s they were charcoal black, incedibly grimey, nose studdered, with big, beautiful, deep brown sultary eyes that led you down to their outstrecthed cupped hands. <!–[endif]–>
The Royal Fort area was very impressive and the mosque covered an amazing square area which copletely fills for Friday prayers according to Bilal. I would like to see so many kneeling. Came back from the bazaar to hear that John had been taken to hospital with prostate problems and I thought this would be my fate. After yesterdays excellent meal on food street, tonights place, although the food was good, totally lacked any atmosphere and I was glad to leave. Most people went to see John in his private hospital and were amazed first by the standards, certainly better than our national health ones and secondly to find John in excellent spirits after having had his prostate removed. At 2.00am this morning he was laying on the bed drinking and talking with Anne and at 8.00am being rushed to hospital. On admission he was offered a free operation on Monday or a private one immediately. Having established a cost of €500 he settled for the instant treatment and will be meeting up with us in Delhi in two or three days time.
On saying our goodbyes to John we embarked on one of the strangest events so far on this trip. Bilal wanted to take us to a shrine to listen to ritual drumming. On arriving, down a very dark crowded lane we were met by Viv and Fe in an agitated state saying they had been manhandled. After some discussion it was decided to proceed all together with caution and not to the entrance where they had been touched but further down to an outside area. Suddenly we took our shoes off and joined a large crowd of young men up some stone steps in the dark. At the top of the steps four or five of us were immediately surrounded and pressed into a corner against our will. At the bottom of the steps I’d noticed quite a few men smoking cannabis and there was a strong order on the stairs. In the darkness and chaos I found myself trying to protect the three women from preying hands only to find out they were in actual fact they belonged Daz and Andy who were trying to get back to help out on hearing Fe screaming for help. As we made a retreat back down the stairs a hand started trying to unzip my trouser pocket containing credit cards and money and as I hit the hand away a young figure pushed past me and away. I think Bilal greatly fears that this will be our overall impression of this lovely country.
My overall impression will be the thousands of Kites circling the blue sky. There are more Kites in the sky than there are rickshaws on the roads. There are Kites on telegraph wires, sitting on buildings, circling above the traffic, shops and parks. These beautiful birds are to Lahore what Magpies are to Sheffield. I estimated thousands and Bilal says there are millions and although this probably is an exaggeration it’s not much of one.
After last night’s party, tonight’s return to the hotel was a very low key affair. I had too many beers to consume and couldn’t be bothered to carry them into India and so I gave them to two very appreciative hotel laundrymen.