2 Wheel Vagabond

2 Wheel Vagabond


Tuesday 14 February 2017

Pakistan to Iran - Baluchistan crossing

I’d been warned by other travellers that crossing the Balochistan area with police escort was going to be a challenge for my patience. To be honest whenever I heard or read this I just assumed that these travellers were a little bit spoilt, they didn’t appreciate the security risks and were rushing their trip, it’s taken you this long to get to Pakistan, surely you can suck it up and deal with a few days of escorts without complaining. I guess from the other perspective it’s easy to judge when you’re sitting across the table listening to a story or sitting in your armchair reading a post, well, here I was and it was time to experience the Balochistan crossing for myself.

My Pakistan trip thus far had been fantastic, I’d experienced nothing but generosity from the people and I approached Baluchistan in high spirits. My visa was expiring in 6 days and I had been told to allow 2 days in Quetta for paperwork and 2 days to get to the border, if I included the day of travel from Sukkur to Quetta I had an extra day up my sleeve in reserve. I left Sukkur quite early in the morning, it was only 380 km to Quetta which I knew had recently had some snowfall so I wanted to give myself plenty of time to reach the city in daylight. Things started off quite well, I was on the highway and making good time, at this rate I’d reach Quetta by lunch time, then I met the first of the Levies (this is what the escorts are called), from what I was told I wasn’t expecting them until Quetta but here we were . After stopping several times along the highway to change escort, which I knew was quite standard and didn’t bother me I was taken to a police station, this was new however. I was told that there were “security concerns” on the highway (which I later found to be a standard answer to explain any delay) and I had to wait at the police station for a few minutes while they confirmed that it was safe to proceed. 4 hours later, which included a nap in one of the rooms, I was told that the issue was that the road had been closed due to snow fall but it was now open and I could go ahead. I questioned the police officer whether I would make the 170km stretch to Quetta before night, as it was already close to 4pm and I didn’t want to ride on the icy roads in the dark, “Sure, the escorts will drive quickly and you will reach there in time”.  I was a bit dubious about this, based on the speed of the levies so far I didn’t think it was possible, I asked to stay at the police station that night but was told no. It turned out that the escorts couldn’t have been slower if they tried, at one stage they stopped half way through their 15 minute shift to grab a bite to eat, normally this wouldn’t have bothered me but we were losing daylight, I tried to explain this to the levies but they just waved me off. I was sitting on my bike outside the roadside restaurant for 20 minutes surrounded by onlookers asking where I was from and what my religion was, I decided to take matters into my own hands and slowly start riding until they caught up. The levies would change with the crew from the next station every 15 – 20 minutes, each changeover would usually result in at least a few minutes of waiting, and it would depend on each driver whether you would be sitting on 80 km/h or 40 km/h for the next stretch.  At times the escorts changed over at random points on the highway which at one point meant a 20 minute wait on the side of the road with a single Levy who looked to be 60 years old on a motorcycle, he had an AK but let’s face it if security was a genuine concern this was not what I would call safe. I’d spent 4 years as an infantry soldier and had also been deployed to Afghanistan, although I didn’t feel my security here was genuinely at risk it kept running through my head that the 2 worst thing you could possibly do is spend prolonged amounts of time on an exposed road and attract unnecessary attention to ourselves we seemed to be doing both at every opportunity.

As we neared Quetta the sun slowly descended behind the mountains and it almost seemed like perfect timing that as darkness fell we hit the first of the snow on the ascent up to Quetta. I’ve got to admit this was the most scared I’d ever been on a bike, the roads hadn’t been salted and ice completely covered much of the highway, I slowed to a walking pace and struggled to keep the heavy bike upright. At one stage the road had a gradual decline and even with my brakes on and both feet on the ground the bike slowly slid down the hill, controlling the bike had my full attention but I still heard the sound of brakes locking up behind me. I looked in my mirrors and saw the approaching head lights of a car that had no control heading straight toward me, I pulled as far left as quickly as I could but I wasn’t really in a position to manoeuvre, with its brakes locked the car skidded past me missing my panniers by centimeters as it crossed into the oncoming lane and came to a stop in a pile of snow. My predicament was that if I rode too slow I ran the risk of being rear ended by the cars behind me who seemed obsessed with tailgating me and if I went too fast I would potentially skid into one of the oncoming trucks that had no chance of pulling off an evasive braking manoeuvre on the icy roads. Interestingly the levies who had previously driven so slowly seemed to think it was race time and well and truly left me behind, I played it safe and didn’t try to keep up, I made my way up the mountain road very slowly.

We stopped at a check point in the middle of nowhere, there was nowhere to park the bike except on the side of the road and even with the hazard lights on I refused to go inside and leave it for fear that a truck would rear end it. I waited at the checkpoint for 2 hours with no answer as to why we weren’t going anywhere, it was already well below zero and the longer we waited the more ice would be on the road. I felt that I was kind of screwed, The road back down was dangerously icy and going downhill on the icy seemed much more precarious than going up, on the other hand I had no idea what the road ahead held in store but I assumed it was only icier, I was told staying at the little checkpoint for the night wasn’t an option either so I just waited outside in the cold. I finally convinced the levies to call their English speaking boss and was told that a new team would be coming soon, “don’t worry, we will provide security” I was told. I explained that security wasn’t my concern (let’s face it, an insurgent isn’t going to be waiting on the side of the road in below freezing temperatures in the hope of taking a random shot at a western tourist that may or may not be coming past) I was worried about the ice on the roads, his answer made me laugh and frustrated me even more “It’s ok, you ride in the warm car and my officer will ride your bike”, this guy had no idea. We didn’t reach Quetta until 11 pm, the temperature reading on the bike was minus 8 degrees Celsius and it was a miracle that I stayed upright as this was the first time I’d ever had to deal with serious ice on the roads. Just to add insult to injury as I rode into Quetta some local street dogs decided to take offence to me and tried to take a bite out my leg, thank goodness I had sturdy enduro boots on. I did my best to control the bike while at the same time outrunning the street dogs at a snail’s pace to avoid ending up on the tarmac, luckily I avoided being bitten and didn’t have to head to the hospital for a rabies shot.

I spent the next 2 days at the Bloom Star hotel, you aren’t allowed to leave the hotel while you are in Quetta other than with police escort to organise your paperwork to cross Balochistan, which takes most of a day. The Bloom Star was a nice place to stay, it’s a favourite with overlanders and they had good food, heating, WiFi and an English movie channel, what more could you want when you’re stuck in a room for 2 days? The weather heated up while I was in Quetta and it looked like I would be able to get out of town before the next snowfall, the first 50km to Mustang was all I had to worry about and after that snow wasn’t an issue. I was told to be ready for the police at 8 am but they arrived at 12 noon, I was actually quite happy that they were running late, the longer we waited on this sunny day the less ice on the roads. After a few random stops at the side of the road in the middle of town and a stop at a police station the levies finally arrived and by 2 pm we were headed out of town. The delay was great, there were only a few small pockets of ice on the road by the time we got on the highway and we were soon at lower altitude with no snow to be seen. Normally we would have gone from Quetta to Dalbandin on the first day but the delay meant that I had to stay at a police station in the town of Nushki, just a few km from the Afghan border. The guys in the police station were quite nice and after joining them for a quick hit of cricket they offered me some dinner, I even got to watch a few locals being locked in the cells for a few hours, the result of a domestic argument from what I could gather. I slept on the floor of a meeting room, luckily I had my blow up Exped sleeping mat and a nice warm sleeping bag so I was toasty warm for the evening.

The next day started off reasonably smoothly, we were on the road by 10:00, however it was 500km to the Taftan border and we made very slow progress, it took us 6 hours to travel the 200km to Dalbandin. We stopped for a late lunch at the local hotel and my English speaking escort assured me that we would reach the border later that day. I’d learnt not to trust the promises of the levies when it came to time frames, the last 200km had taken us 6 hours so I couldn’t see how we’d manage the next 300 before it got dark. “How long do you think it will take us to get to Taftan?’ I enquired, “It will take 2 hours, the road is good” was the reply. This guy was off his head, there was no way we were going to average 150km/h for the next 300km, I suggested we spend the night at this hotel and get an early start tomorrow. The hotel was decent, the food was simple but good however there was no Wi Fi so I decided to kill some time by watching a movie on my laptop, I didn’t have much selection so here I was lying in bed in the Badlands of Pakistan watching the animated movie Frozen, it was actually pretty good. It was an oversight on my behalf but I had forgotten to lock the door, just as I was at the good part where Princess Elsa runs off to her ice castle  ;)  the door burst open and someone I had never seen before came rushing in shouting something and waving a piece of paper at me. I jumped up half defensively half angrily, as I stood face to face with the guy in my room I could see my English speaking escort sheepishly standing at the door. “What the hell is going on?’ I asked. The guy in my room started waving the paper and shouting “Bill, Bill!!!” I looked at my guide who could see how pissed off I was “Get the hell out of my room, next time you can knock”. I slammed the door on what was a group of four men, slowly put on my shoes, calmed myself down and headed downstairs to sort out the bill, which I organised to pay the next morning as I wanted breakfast before I left, the manager didn’t have a problem with this. It turned out the guy who took it upon himself to aggressively deliver the bill was a local cop and the look on his face made it clear that he had lost face when I stood up to his power trip and kicked him out of the room. I found this kind of attitude relatively common with some of the levies and police, especially when you were staying somewhere overnight under their protection, they knew they had you by the balls so they would try to intimidate you a little. My concern that night was that this guy had access to an automatic weapon and I didn’t want him carrying an AK the next time he tried to barge through the door, that night I locked my door and dragged two  heavy chairs in front of it just in case.

There didn’t turn out to be any other issues at the hotel and by 9:30 the next morning we were on our way, staying at Dalbandin turned out to be the right decision, we didn’t arrive in Taftan until 3 pm that afternoon. Another short stay at one of the police stations and I was escorted to customs, which went very smoothly, we were done in 20 minutes but the customs officer told me I needed to hurry because the border was only open for another 45 minutes. I managed to make it through the Pakistan side with a few minutes to spare on the day that my visa expired, talk about cutting it fine. I wish crossing the border into Iran meant the end of escorts but the province of Balochistan continues on into Iran and I still had 450km of escorts until I arrived at Bam and was free to travel on my own.

The Iranian side of Balochistan was a little more organised, I was a little frustrated that they insisted on holding onto my passport but at least me were moving relatively quickly. The Iranian escorts would also stop on the side of the road in between checkpoints and wait for the next escort. When I was in Nepal I had been given an “Om” sticker as a gift that I had placed on my windshield, I was warned at the border to cover it up and placed a 2 Wheel Vagabond sticker over it. At one of our changeover stops I attracted the attention of a truck driver who had stopped to pray on the roadside, he walked over to me and the escorts and after talking to them came to have a look at the bike. He saw that I had some bracelets hanging on the fairing, I assume he thought they were religious and took offence, he immediately reached out and tried to rip one off. I was sitting on the bike and before he had a chance to yank off one of the trinkets I grabbed his forearm and gave his wrist a bit of a twist, he quickly let go and was told to move along by the levies who had just stood there watching. I didn’t have any trouble after this but the incident must have been passed down the line from escort to escort because later that day as I was once again waiting on the side of the road one of the officers strutted over to me, looking somewhat like a rooster. He walked over to the bike, nodded, smiled and ran his hands over all the trinkets while his over hand was on his gun. I just smiled and nodded, in my head thinking “congratulations, you’re a big man”, that’s all he did, he walked off with his rooster like strut looking back at me, I couldn’t help but quietly laugh to myself.

I didn’t get through the border until it was late so I had to stay in the city of Zahedan, I was met there by the Tourism officer that had earlier helped me at the border, this ended up being another bizarre situation. At the border he had promised to help me find a hotel, I wasn’t sure how legitimate this guy was but he had an office at the border so I thought I’d accept his offer of help. When we met up in town he told me that he wanted me to meet his boss who was a doctor, strange but fine, it was already dark and I followed him to what turned out to be a museum, the museum was already closed and empty but there was a security guard at the gate so I wasn’t concerned, we waited in an empty foyer for an hour for the tourism boss/doctor to arrive, after a brief introduction I was told to jump in the car so we could do a quick tour of the city and have a meal. I explained that there was no way I was leaving my bike and I wasn’t going for dinner in my riding gear, I just wanted to find a hotel and get changed. They reluctantly agreed and showed me to a budget hotel where I changed my clothes and locked up the bike, from there I joined them on their tour. We went to a few random sights where I was asked to pose for photos, the doctor and myself would pretend to point at something while his offsider took pictures with his camera phone. I was tired from a long day of riding and being taken on a whirlwind tour of the cities less interesting attractions at night wasn’t exactly fun, these guys were blatantly using me for their tourist scheme but they helped me get a hotel so I politely went along with it. After our quick tour and photo shoot we went for dinner where the conversation was half explanation of their plan for tourism in Balochistan and half sales spiel. It turned out that part of their master tourism plan was to convince me to bring 40 Australian tourists to Zahadan for a month long tour of the province. I felt a bit bad for these guys, maybe they thought I had money and influence because I rode a BMW but the reality was that I could barely organise getting myself here let alone 40 Australians tourists, I was just a broke traveller who spent all his money on his bike. These guys had paid for dinner so I patiently listened to what they had to say and offered what advice I could. Balochistan is a province that has much to offer in the way of tourism but with security issues and escorts required for tourists they were fighting an uphill battle bringing the few western tourists that visited Iran away from the more well known destinations. After a very long day I was very happy to finally get back to the hotel and a night of sleep.

 The next day I rode to the desert city of Bam, it was a hassle free day as far as escorts were concerned, I wasn’t in a rush and they weren’t rushing. The police escorted me to Akbar’s guesthouse where I gladly said good bye for the last time. For the most part the Levies and escorts were decent guys, when you’re dealing with that many people you are always going to get a few bad eggs but other than getting stuck on the icy roads to Quetta I really didn’t have any major issues. The Pakistan Levies run on a very low budget and they do the best they can with the resources they have, which really isn’t that much. The escort service is free, nobody wants to pay but perhaps they should consider charging a fee to have one escort vehicle for the trip from Taftan to Quetta, these guys could have a copy of your paperwork and you would get through the checkpoints much quicker. Doing this would turn the 2 -3 day trip into a single day, even if you are not in a rush less time on the road equals improved security and better safety which is what they say is their main concern.  The Balochistan crossing was definitely an experience to remember, obviously not the most enjoyable part of my journey so far but definitely memorable, I think I’ll be happy to avoid countries that require escorts for a while.

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