The story of the crossing between Iran to Quetta, the mysterious stretch of mineral rich desert – Balochistan.
A wonderful Christmas in Tehran came and went, which afterwards landed Trumpet and I in Kerman, another city on the silk road, in south east Iran. Located 370km from the desert city of Yazd, Kerman is known for its Zoroastrian fire temples and feels much more relaxed compared to the ever bubbling giant of Tehran.
Fishing about looking for the Akhavan hotel proved troublesome, the heavy traffic bonus at peak hour ate up the last of the sunlight. Sweat trickled down my back as I tried to mastermind the way to Akhavan hotel… surely it’s not this difficult! As it turns out, I’d ridden past the hotel twice already!
After the usual bargaining and dropping my gear in the hotel room, it was time to plaster my riding sticker on the already heavily bashed path of overlanding heros. It felt comforting somehow, seeing those stickers of previous overlanders stuck all over the wall. A rite of passage if you will.
Leaving early the next day, I headed north on a 280km detour to see the Kaluts – a curious arrangement of weather carved rocks situated in a sun drenched Dasht-e-Luk desert. The first 60km brought steadily rising mountains and uncharacteristic strange curves in the road, a pleasant change from the straight line drudgery between cities.
Earth coloured hues of brown and purple changed to dry rocky reds going north, wind blowing hard on Trumpet and I as we flew down the black top. As the road began to lay flat, a grey topped sea of orange spread across the horizon. Mysterious rocky shapes carved out from natures hand, speared out from the Dasht-e-Luk.
An abandoned caravenserai lay half buried in the raw desert wastes, a past glory slowly fading way. Quad tracks scored the dunes, evidence that there was much fun to be had in such a beautiful, desolate place. On the horizon the mountains twinkled at me knowingly. Not a bad spot for a relaxing wee.
Akbar’s Tourist hotel was easy to find, and again, covered in messages from previous overlanders. As I rode through the fairly new streets of Bam (most of the city was destroyed 13 years ago in an earthquake), young blokes shouted things at me and drivers passing by waved hello. Within an hour of arriving, Akbar had asked me to make an appearance at the english tourism class.
“Yeah, give me 15 mins mate…”
With an introduction like I was Alexander the great, Akbar introduced me proudly to the room of young people studying tourism. It was virtually a ‘question and answer’ class – which was full of personal questions such as “why did you decide to travel”, which was fun, and got me thinking on a deeper,mpersonal level. The class was quite animated to meet me, which I found a little unnerving, but I wanted to repay the amazing hospitality I’d been privy to.
That evening Anni (gods love these germans!) made her way to Bam as she was also crossing the border towards Pakistan. 1.30AM ticked over and then she appeared, smelling of feet, but a welcome sight nonetheless. Managing to bring the room charges down with a second head for sleeping was a nice bonus.
A second day in Bam resulted in nothing more then sleeping and a sunset visit to Bam citadel. Unfortunately much of the original citadel was destroyed by the earthquake, thirteen years ago. Currently the renovated section at the main towers of the old castle are the main atraction. Unless one is totally into old ruins, Bam citadel would feel like a fairly run of the mill place. I managed to make it a little more immersive by standing on a loose bench and falling headfirst into a wall – smashing a lens and rearranging my features.
Another desert run (definetly not the last) led towards some low poo coloured mountains, and surprise surprise, another semi twisty road! Well, twisty is relative. Huge trucks grumbled up the inclines while Trumpet zipped me past quickly.
The transition to Pakistan had slowly begun – the Shalwar Kahmeez was adamantly more evident on the way to Zahedan, and women had disappeared completely. Beards were also much more apparent over this part of Iran, even moreso once falling into the surprisingly busy traffic of Zahedan. It was as if the province of Sistan-Beluchistan was a country of its own.
“Hello Mister” called out a young man in his token white Iranian Saida.
“Where you from?”
“Where are you going?”
“Ok I will show you the way!”
So with that, I followed my knight in shining armour. What a great bloke was because I had no inkling as to how to get to my hotel for the evening. I managed to stop for some hand shakes with the smiling local kids who hung hands out car windows their eyes shone and mouths smiled at the sight of this weird dirty foreigner.
Stale cigarette smoke lingered, the mattress kept falling through the bed and the carpet looked as if it hadn’t been cleaned in the last 10 years. Still, the shower worked and had some warm water, the door did lock and it was quiet, so it wasn’t a sad story.
Anni arrived a few hours later after, wearing a traditional Balochistan dressdumped her bags on the bed opposite and sighed with relief. After hitching a ride with a carful of illegal Pakistanis who had to run around a police checkpoint, she’d been invited to tea with a Beluchi family. My day sounded tame in comparison!
“Can we eat now, I’m hungry?”
Wandering through the streets at night, again there was no women to be seen, but plenty of blokes wandering about. I found a phone shop to exchange some money, which was lined in the gutters by cow carcasses. The most interesting street I’ve ever walked down. 3 potato samosa’s and a tin of ‘eggplant dish’ later, Anni and I were dancing with the sandman.
Pakistan at last!
Ready at 9am, Anni and I stood outside waiting for our escort. We stood for a while, very excited at the prospect of finally entering Pakistan. Our excitement slowly to turned to frustration – it was going on 10.30am, and still no escort! The border closed at 2pm! I mooched inside and inspected the ceiling for 10 mins when a grinning Anni ran into the Lobby – the police were here!
Two squad cars with four heavily armed policeman plus drivers had turned up for the 30km escort to the military changeover point. Carrying AK47s, vests full of spare cartridges and pants tucked into their boots, it all felt a bit overdone. I wondered inwardly, were they protecting us from locals, militias or drug running operations? Maybe it was all three…
After a half hour wait for the military to turn up , when he did I laughed. One young cadet, unarmed, waved down a car for Anni, put her inside, he sat in the front and then motioned me to follow. Was that 30km the only dangerous section?… Another 5 checkpoints later, with lots of guns and toyota hiluxes, there we were at the border. We were almost in!
Curiously customs didn’t want to know about my carnet, so I wandered off on a small expedition, knocking on doors trying to get my carnet stamped. Explaining the situation to a few different people, I finally yielded a result and got the important piece of yellow paper stamped. Finally, it was time to enter Pakistan.
Pakistan – Taftan
“Hello mister, you want to exchange for some rupees? American, euros… I’ll give you the best price…”
“Let’s get down to business mate.”
For once, not one person made a comment about my beard. No age old unfunny jokes “are you daesh/ISIS”, thank the gods of beards for that. Everyone else had a good chunky beard, and one bloke was even combing his beard with a grubby comb. I felt right at home with my hairy brothers.
Paperwork was unexpectedly speedy which I’m sure was encouraged by a military levy from the Taftan 109 Rifles base. A quick half hour got all three of us inside the security compound, with a prison on one side and a few offices on the other. Anni and I were given a dusty old meeting room to sleep in, which saved me 10 mins of setting up the tent. I was finally here in Balochistan, Pakistan!
New years eve
So, Anni and I had a room inside the levies security compound, it was new years eve and we had just done our special ‘grocery shopping’ in the half shack, half hole in the wall market.
Loaded up with 4 eggs and a pretend Kitkat, Anni and I reclined in our broken plastic chairs on the front porch. A view of decrepit rusting cars sunbaking in the last of the days rays greeted us. I sipped on my green tea as I eyed the prison cells on the other side. Interesting.
A second dinner of ‘eggplant dish’ in a can with green chillies and bread warmed our bellies. As there was a large meeting in the compound, we were advised to stay in our room for the evening, so we did just that – with frequent visits from curious Pakistanis who walked in and shook and our hands and walked back out again! Limited privacy when you’re sharing a compound with 250 other people!
The levies celebrated their new year with some suspicious looking herbs apparently of Afghan origins. I grew rather infatuated with the colourful camel hair carpet we lazily lay back while watching Terminator 3 on a tiny television. To be fair, it was a legitimately outrageous looking carpet and I was more interested in watching the rusty old levy repair the carpet by hand.
“Tomorrow we leave at 9am, Ok?”
“Ok sweet mate, see you tomorrow!”
Off to bed it was.
But I haven’t had breakfast yet!
“Why not ready!!! We leave now!”
“But I haven’t had breakfast yet…”
“Quickly, quickly!!! Hurry!”
The levy escort had decided to arrive a half hour early on new years day, and I had just finished boiling the eggs for new years breakfast. “Don’t these blokes know that breakfast was the most important meal of the day?” I burst out in annoyance.. Anni burst out into laughter at my reaction. Chewing on some 2 day old bread, I mashed the egg into my mouth and wheeled Trumpet back into the sand. Time to ride!
Crossing Balochistan (day 1)
Filling up the tank at what appeared to be a bootleg petrol shack, the last of the red looking business filtered through an old potato sack into my tank. After paying the rather extortionate price of 100 rupees a litre (more on this later), the levies led the way through the never ending sands of Balochistan at a quick 150km/h. The reports of slow escorts were beaten – temporarily.
Tracking the 300km to Dalbandin (literally just a small town in the middle of the desert) quite quickly, we were turned off the road, to another levy base, again included with prison cells and prisoners to boot. More paperwork followed, fill this, passport number there, sign here, and so on and so forth… Ever curious questions flowed along, I imagined I’d be the same if I had been in their shoes.
“Where you from?”
“Where you going?”
“How much does that cost?”
“Not sure mate, I didn’t pay for it”
I find that sometimes, it’s just easier to lie a little bit and not forward so much information to people I don’t know, even if their intentions may appear to be of goodwill. Saying that all my stuff had already been paid for by a “sponsor” was kind of half true – some of it was paid for by sponsors, but alot of it wasn’t as well.
A nonsensical Pakistani officer
On and on the road went, sometimes travelling at 80km/h, sometimes 60km/h, and occasionally unbearably at 30km/h. Suddenly we were pulled over by a serious looking bloke in a white car with two armed military men and a driver.
“Why does she not sit with you?” He indicated at Anni, completely ignoring her ability to speak for herself.
I politely said “Well, she has no helmet, and no protective gear either mate. If we crash, who knows what’ll happen, but it won’t be good. Anni also doesn’t enjoy riding motorbikes.”
“She sits with you on the bike, not in car” he retorted angrily.
“Anni has no protective gear mate, it’s unsafe!”
“She sits on the bike and you follow the car”
Right, well there was no arguing… So with that, Anni hopped on the back of Trumpet, a scarf wrapped around her face as a helmet and sunglasses for eye protection and off we went, mailing a prayer off to the gods of the road.
At the next checkpoint, the levie driver requested Anni to sit back in the car with him, to our delight. Just a bit safer eh? Of course, our luck didn’t last long, we zoomed past another military escort toting assault rifles and heavy machine guns mounted on the back of toyota hiluxes. Our old nemesis waited for us in the middle of the road
“Why is she back in the car?” he fumed.
Anni and I exchanged glances.
“I explained this before, she has no protective gear and she doesn’t like riding motorcycles”
“She stays on bike with you. Not in car.”
Swearing inside my helmet at the stupidity of it all, Anni once again hopped on the back. Angrily, the officer began to give the nice old levie an earbashing, and then followed us most of the way into the town that is called Dalbandin.
“Hurry up, go down and inside. Small town, people talk”
I felt that was a ridiculous comment to make, half the town had already seen us enter and we were smack bang in the centre of town. Top it off with the police with us too… Well, whatever, we were here, and it was time for a beer.
Agreeing on a price for the room, we threw all our gear on the ground. Cigarette burns decorated the dusty carpet and the bedding looked colourful enough to be precariously hazardous. Flies were the bane of my existence as soon as I walked outside, which reminded me of southern Morocco 9 months ago. The windows however did open and the shower had warm water – which I declared as a victory.
While putting in our sneaky order for a warm 400 rupee beer (absolutely exorbitant, but we were thirsty for beer) our security guard came over and introduced himself as Mohammed, with an ak47 casually slung over his shoulder. Wearing a well maintained leather jacket and he casually brushed his fingers though some perfectly neat hair.
Mohammed was adept in keeping everyone away from our table – including beggars that wandered into the hotel and the street children selling tiny bags of seeds and nuts. Wondering silently to myself, I felt quite sad to see these kids no older then five years old trying to make a few pennies. This ride has been a constant reminder of how lucky I am.
Everytime either one of us travelled downstairs, Mohammed would appear next to us, resting a ginger hand on his gun. No leaving the hotel and eating only out the back. No freedom around here it seems. He was quite a nice bloke, quietly spoken but curious to shoot a few questions over cups of tea and that amazing pakistani sugar (which tastes exactly like treacle)
Crossing Balochistan (day 2)
The second half of crossing Balochistan was much more draining, but also more scenic on the way through. Shipping out from Dalbandin following the levy car, managing to get Anni back into the car again. A quick stop for petrol at a sand covered shack on the side of the road ensued, before we got started on the first 120km of the journey.
Once out of Dalbandin, the now yellow desert crept up yet again, this time with large jagged mountains off in the distance and the occasional camel herd wandering about.
Sand littered with green bushes began to pour over the ‘asphalt’. Any place where there was visible ashphalt came with it a multitude of potholes and gravel. It was a hell of a time getting through! Anni did manage to work her charm on the levies and get them to stop – so we could actually snap a few pictures of the Balochistan scenery for once!
Lunchtime came (oranges) and we were again in some desert town surrounded by grey mountains and the unrelenting sands. Alot of fuss was kicked up over Anni’s Iranian Balochistan dress, which she had been given as a gift back in Zahedan. It was hilarious to watch, as soon as my back was turned they’d whisk Anni off for a more personal chat.
As the desert road continued, the ashphalt had all but disappeared, and been traded for sand traps and wet muddy holes. Somehow, I managed to ride through the whole mess without dropping Trumpet, albeit covered in sweat by the time we struck ashphalt again.
Somewhere around the 13th checkpoint and changeover of the day, we were lucky enough to stop for long enough to have time for a smoke and a few cups of tea. While all this went on, Anni was convinced into having countless more photos with all the levies (note that this was my third day in Pakistan and I still hadn’t seen any women). I happily ignored all the excitement and sipped on my tea, staring into space in the warm Balochistan sun.
The mountain range itself was raw and rural, coloured in earthy oranges and rusty browns. With no vegetation around, I could have really been riding through mars! A dead giveaway that I was not on another planet was the outrageously colourful ‘Jingle’ trucks that would roar by, chimes singing in the wind. Covered in bells and chimes at the base and top of the trucks, colourful and intricate designs were painted all over the mechanical orange ‘dragons’.
Halfway into the mountains we neared Quetta and the changeovers began to get extremely regular. Every fifteen minutes we’d swap for a new escort and even though I knew it was all for our own safety patience was starting to wear thin. We’d chopped through over 20 checkpoints and still had more to go!
Entering Quetta was quite interesting – a chaotic mess of scooters, tuktuks and cars, people wandering across the road, annoying horns and lots of rubbish. To be frank, Quetta was quite unattractive on entry – probably the worst city I’d entered on the journey so far. Everywhere I looked there was a rubbish here and other magical items there. It was burning holes in my eyes!
Military troops stood around directing traffic with one arm while holding assault rifles in the other as the chaotic ‘do whatever you want’ traffic zipped around them. I think I was a bit mesmerised by it all, and thought that perhaps Iran had been a little organised by comparison.
Our police escort was an armored vehicle, which needed a push start to fire up. Changing escorts twice, the last escort was very quick, literally shoving Anni into a police car with four heavily armed policeman as the police riders shouted at me from their motorcycles –
“Quickly quickly”, “stay close” and “hurry up!”
Everything just became a blur after that. There was definetly an urgency in their voices, so I just followed along – sirens screaming amidst the traffic. We made good progress all the way to the gas station (60 rupee a litre – remember what I said about the 100 rupee a litre thing in the Balochistan desert) before finally turning into the Bloomstar hotel, large gates locked behind us. 13 hours later, we were here.
Big props to Anni for being my photographer on the way through Balochistan. I hope you find an amazing Pakistani Levie husband who can shoot two ak47s with one hand and carry all your children in other.