The Wagah border crossing from India to Pakistan is famous. Firstly, it’s the only crossing foreigners can use and secondly it’s the scene to a traditional ceremony every closing time sourced from tensions between the countries (the “dance” is almost one-upmanship in action). It also has strict opening and closing times as it is such a contentious crossing.
From Delhi we headed for Amritsar and once out of the craziness of Delhi the traffic calmed down and there were less lane jumpers.
It had started to warm up in the outskirts of Delhi and it was boiling hot in Punjab. The heat was merciless and microwaved us through the clouds, locking in the heat and the dust. We spied a MacDonalds on the highway and made an executive decision to pull over and wait in the air conditioned room, sipping a cold coke. The place was barely cooler than outside but it helped a great deal, the marginal difference meant we stopped feeling sick from heat and the ice cold drinks cooled us from the inside out. The thermostat was reading 45degC by lunchtime so we hid a bit longer in the second MacDonalds until we felt brave enough to exit.
By the late afternoon we were still parched and came across a stall selling sugar cane juice squashed with green lemon and mint leaves. Ignoring the obvious gastro-intenstinal hazards, we pulled over for a drink. The seller started up the diesel engine and the truck shook with every chug of the engine. This powered the vice like rollers which the cane was pushed through with the lemon and mint folded in. Every cup of iced juice was delicious and we slaked our thirst pretty quickly with these virgin mojitos. Reaching Amritsar in the evening, we were struck by how kind everyone was. The hotel had no secure parking but the guard from the business across the road simply opened the garage to his property and let us park in there instead.
It was yet another hot day when we headed over to cross. We started in Amritsa which lead with a eucalyptus lined road all the way to the border. Accompanied by a biker friend from Amristar, he escorted us the short way to Wagah. Then started the complex process of leaving India. He wasn’t allowed in with us as it’s such a controlled crossing, leaving us at the main gate, we said our goodbyes. A long queue of Indians snaked out from the main gate, he explained that they were farmers who worked the land in the no-mans land between India and Pakistan and every morning they had to register at the gate to be granted access to the land they were cultivating.
After a short check with the ultra serious guard on the gate, our details, bike details and colour of pants registered in his book, we were finally allowed to go through the the processing building. Parking up at the front gate we entered a huge hall, empty save for us, to be stamped out of India by a couple of friendly officers. Then we went to customs and submitted our paperwork, received a glass of water and waited for 30 minutes. Nothing much was happening and eventually we perked up as we asked to move the bikes to the back for inspection. Another short 20 minute wait and an official came out and looked at the chassis number, the number plate and yet again asked to see the engine number. We tried to explain that it would be pretty hard to do on the bike and that some dismantling would be involved but she was having none of it. After a great many pursings of lips and head shaking she finally conceded that it would be pretty difficult to change out an engine in India just for the sake of pulling the wool over her eyes.
Another hour’s wait. We sat back in the cooled customs check hall and watched buses unload a sea of people dressed in all types of turbans and carrying mounds of canvas wrapped bags and packages. It felt very foreign at that point as the people looked definitely like they’d been transported from a remote nomadic tribe in the Afghan mountains with their long robes, complex turban arrangements and colourfully dressed women. A dog was brought out to sniff them all with nonchalance. He got really excited by us (he must have smelt friendliness) and came bounding over to give a lick and wag his tail. Worried that the official might think we’re carrying drugs thanks to the dog’s attention we acted as coolly as possible but it seemed to arouse zero suspicion and we were left unmolested save for a carpet of golden Labrador fur and slobber on our trousers.
Finally we were called back to pick up our papers, all stamped and signed and offered a cup of chai. We had a new record of 2.5 hours to clear only customs. Picking up our bikes, we set off for Pakistan! We went through the gate and it lead us through a tiny fenced corridor past a guard who checked our paperwork and then through the iconic gate where the ceremony happens. The seats were all empty on our way in but we felt like gladiators walking into the ring. What would Pakistan hold?
The paperwork was easy, a small complex of really kind officials who were terribly excited about our trip and very concerned that we did not bring alcohol into the country. After a blessing from almost everyone in the immigration and customs office we set off towards Islamabad. Thirsty already from the continuing heat and the stress of India we were pleased to see that in Lahore the shops had fridges full of drinks by the road. Downing a fruit malt and being only stared at rather than crowded and touched, we felt immediately much better. Lahore was pretty crazy for driving and our attempted access to the new Expressway was hampered by officials doing their job over-zealously. We couldn’t access as we were on motorbikes and they insisted we take the GT road. Allegedly motorbikes were banned because the new road had a dangerous christening when all the superbikes would collect to race along it, thus putting others at risk. So as a preventative measure, the government decided to ban all two wheeled transport along the toll road to stop racing. We tried to negotiate with whoever would listen, the thought of sharing a road with the likes we’d seen in Lahore (packed roads with trucks, tuktuks, scooters, donkeys etc.. all wrestling to get to their destination, but it was a no-go. We turned back the way we’d come, escorted by police who wanted to make sure we got onto the correct GT road, and found ourselves on a slightly less busy version of the Lahore exit road.
Tired, thirsty and annoyed at having to rethink our journey to Islamabad, we pulled into a supermarket hoping for a cold drink. We found the supermarket to be incredibly well stocked and we were soon happily drinking ice cold fruit malt and sitting in the draft from the air-con. Sweating profusely from the 45deg heat, Alex was trying to rest against stacked boxes near the entrance. Before long an employee of the shop had rushed out with a stool and a fan and made us more comfortable. The manage then came down to chat to us and we discovered that he’d studied at Edinburgh University (Alex’s Alma mater) and had now come back to Pakistan to try and make a go of business. We complimented him on his supermarket (it was really super, particularly as it had every non-alcoholic cold drink imaginable in a room filled with chillers) and he offered us lunch on the house! We couldn’t refuse as despite the heat, we were hungry (Alex particularly as she feels faint if not hydrated and salted up). He very kindly organised chicken burgers and some takeaway shawarmas so that we’d not be hungry later on the road. All rounded off with some free lemon drinks! WE were so touched by his generosity we almost didn’t want to leave the cool of the shop but the time came to move on if we were going to make it to Islamabad before dark.
We stopped again further down the road for a drink and were approached by a family from Derby, then another from Leeds and finally by a guy from New York, everyone was drawn to us as tourists on motorbikes! Everyone was so friendly, it made us really feel welcome. By the time we reached Islamabad, it was nearing sunset and the traffic on the motorway into town was filled with cars despite it being a 12 lane highway. We managed to keep flowing through slowly and found the turn off we wanted for the appropriate sector, marveling at how well the city had been designed to decrease traffic and zone areas properly so that every sector had a commercial zone, residential and own schools. It was so clean and smart and a million miles away what we’d expected that we were surprised to find our hosts’ home so easily.
Whilst in Islamabad we had to receive our Iranian visa. Having applied a month before through an agency and told that all we had to do was to present ourselves and our pre-approved application forms to the embassy, we felt confident that there would be no problem. However, this was not the case…
We turned up at the embassy and they had no record of our application and after waiting 3 hours, we were told to come back the next day. The next day we turned up and had a meeting about our planned trip to Iran and we were informed that tourist agencies are a waste of money, we’d have to apply again. With the elections looming, we despaired at the delay that would inevitably be caused by this. Submitting our passports we’d now be locked in- unable to travel outside Islamabad and also cutting short our time in Iran.
Whilst waiting, we visited Islamabad which has an outstanding art gallery, beautiful parks (including Daman-E-Koh) and plenty of great places to eat. Having developed a sensitive stomach from the last few weeks in India, we enjoyed some less spicy food for the week.
Finally, after a week of speculating, worry and stress, we received our visas! After all the effort Alex went to to secure a hijab-toting passport photo, it wasn’t used in the visa. Irritating, as the photographer in the market had abused his position to take his opportunity to touch Alex, not only on the waist but lightly on the bottom, both actions completely disallowed in Pakistan.
Thankfully, this was the only such occasion of its sort. Everyone else was professional and respectful. We used the time to try to find an alternative route to Europe as we’d heard from all the embassies in Islamabad that Baluchistan was an area where travel was strongly advised against as it is a troubled region. Not only does it have movement across the Afghan border from the likes of the Taliban, Al-Quaeda and Daesh but it suffers from its own internal strife of the BLA (Baloch Liberation Army) who desire Baluchistan to be independent from Pakistan. The frontier control police are very busy with constant illegal movement across the border and the state police and army are busy protecting from all hostile persons. Many helpful people had met us and tried to brainstorm options as riding through Baluchistan required an NOC (non-objection certificate which also puts 24hr security escorts in place) and a constant armed escort from police or levies which may draw attention to us and has, in the past, lead to the death of the protectors or to the kidnap of the protected depending on the attackers. Going north wasn’t an option as the visa and guide bookings have to be made over a month in advance. Additionally, the guides themselves offer a very expensive service so a traveler benefits from being organised and traveling with a bigger group to share the cost. Travel to Iran from Pakistan via the sea was considered but the ferry service promised to pilgrims was yet to be up and running and all contact with the Karachi port went nowhere. A shipping company stepped in to help and the CEO was so helpful (being a biker himself) and we mooted several options including a truck to take the bikes to Taftan. However, all options were dissolving for various reasons- private boats to take the bikes across with us was impossible, due to them not being passenger boats (we’d be stowaways at best, trafficked at worst), the truck still required a secure escort so we’d be just as obvious to passing kidnappers, the train made us more of a sitting duck than hidden away as there’d been instances of the train being held up and targeted by terrorists. We had to avoid freighting as the point of the adventure was to follow a land route or to use a frequent ferry and to not interrupt the journey with air travel. On the day we were due to decide on our final route, a Chinese teaching couple were kidnapped in Quetta by men posing as police officers. When challenged by a local (one teacher was crying and saying she didn’t want to get in the car) the “officer” shot him in the leg before making off with the two teachers in their unmarked car. The Chinese have been targeted in Pakistan as they are investing billions into developing a road and a port enabling access to the Arabian sea through Pakistan. The week before, many Chinese construction workers had been shot down in the port of Gwadar. We reasoned that the kidnappings were made more likely by the fact that the Chinese couple lived in Quetta so their movements and presence was known and easy to track. Additionally, they were on foot, making them easy targets. However, we’d heard that kidnappings often went sour, as it did for the Chinese teachers in question.
Despite the recent events, we decided we would follow the road route through Baluchistan. We’d spoken to a few bikers who’d recently done the route themselves, one in the same direction as us and three in the opposite direction. All of them could attest to feeling safe on the road and that the main challenge was the temperature. With that in mind, we put the wheels in motion for the crossing. After a week’s rest waiting for the visas, we were ready to set off for Iran. The next stage would be to get to Quetta in Baluchistan in order to apply for our NOC (non objection certificate) to allow us to cross to Iran. With little pre-conception of what to expect, we made sure to stock up on food and water in Islamabad before our departure because this was May, and Ramadan was in full swing by the time we left for Quetta. One of the embassies had told us of a couple who were planning the same route as us and got as far as Quetta only to turn back as it felt so dangerous. Knowing that, we felt uneasy about what the next few days would hold but we pressed on regardless. These would be the longest days of our journey, not physically but from sheer anxiety at the risk being taken.