Baluchistan: fear and kindness in the desert

It was a boiling hot morning already when we left Islamabad. The road following the Great Trunk road was clear thanks to it being early but the same craziness awaited us outside Lahore. It seemed to take us an inordinate amount of time to pass the traffic and constant people of Lahore but once we passed, it was like a cork in a champagne bottle, we zoomed past, whistling towards Multan. We tried to combine what was usually two days’ worth of riding into one by heading straight for Multan which would then make it easier to get to Sukkur. The road from Islamabad to Quetta direct (N50 route) was deemed too dangerous by all we spoke to- locals, freighters and government officials all agreed the road was being used be drug traffickers, terrorists and bandits and that the only route worth considering meant heading down south to Sukkur and then making our way to the infamous Quetta with a police escort.

Curiously enough, should you enter Pakistan from Iran you are assigned an escort from the border all the way to Multan. However, if you travel to Baluchistan with a view to cross over to Iran, you are not assigned an escort until Sukkur. Multan to Sukkur is still considered relatively problematic and we hadn’t appreciated how much discussion this would provoke. We stopped for petrol soon after passing Lahore and picked a relatively modern looking station. After filling up and parking in the shade, we bought a cold drink and stood drinking. The shop keeper hurried out and offered us chairs to sit on, we thanked him and enjoyed a little rest as it was 45 degrees by now and we were both dusty and hot. Then his boy hurried out and invited us into the office, we agreed as it was marginally cooler indoors but without breeze which soon had us beading with sweat as we sat and enjoyed the cool mango juice they’d offered. After the cursory introduction they asked with curiosity what we were doing on this road. We explained we were on our way to Multan in order to go to Iran and then back to Europe and they warned us not to trust anyone further up the road as many people are affiliated to “bad men”. They mentioned the Taliban and said they operate in the area as well as ISIS and bandits. We finished our juice after talking to their son who spoke pretty good English considering he was only 10 and they waved us off with a final warning “Watch out for the Taliban!”

Expecting a potential terrorist ambush every time we passed a 4×4 we were wary of anyone who looked at us too long. A car behind us waved from his window and we groaned with the impossibility of telling goodie from baddie in this land. The car kept insisting on thumbs up from the window and happy waves every time we crossed (we were locked in an overtaking game) to the point where we decided to slow down and let him race off but he slowed down too. Eventually he pulled up to Simon and shook his hand and had a happy chat with him about where we were from, where we are going and don’t we know it’s dangerous here? He insisted on taking us to his place of work. We followed him in to a sandstone surrounded courtyard with a low rise building inside looking very rundown. We rode in and hid from the road.

“This is the hospital” he beamed, “I am working here to help local mothers and families.” He was so warm and effusive that our anxiety melted and being that it was about a million degrees outside agreed to come indoors and have a chai with the doctor. We sat in the main consultation room and removed our helmets. Simon removed his jacket but Alex kept hers on despite the heat. The doctor and our original host were loquacious but two men sat in the corner of the room in almost total silence, one of them looked at Alex with slight disdain. Chai was brought and some biscuits which, although it was far too hot for biscuits, we still appreciated as it had been a long time since our last snack. At that point, a woman in a full burqa arrived at the door which was the first time either of us had seen a lady completely covered up in Pakistan. Clearly the region is very different to Islamabad.

Soon it was time to rejoin the road as we still had a little way to go before hitting Multan and neither of us fancied Pakistani roads at night.  Leaving the surgery, the lady in the Burqa touched Alex’s arm and another lady who was almost fully covered apart from her eyes, gave Alex a light hug and her eyes smiled as she said goodbye. Alex was relieved from this show of friendship as she thought by exposing her hair she’d offended everyone as the only other women were so covered up. Everyone from the surgery followed us out to wave us off as we mounted the bikes (now partly sunk into the sand) and maneuvered out of the courtyard.  The ladies waved us off and the doctor and our original friend shouted goodbye.

We were now back on the road to Multan and by 5pm it was starting to get a little dusky. Alex was wary about continuing on as we passed a hotel optimistically called “Dream Hotel”. We decided to see what sort of rooms they had on offer and hadn’t realised they were still constructing the hotel. Both tired, we only noticed that Simon had pulled up and parked in the wet cement in front of the hotel when he put his foot down to park. Quickly reversing and apologising to the security guard, he left a few tyre tracks to mark his visit! If you ever stay at the middle-of-nowhere Dream Hotel, you will know who messed up the cement job. Parking round the back, we made our way through the semi-construction site of the ground floor up to a barely completed bedroom. workers footprints still adorned the floor and paint pots were hidden on the shelves with the bathroom still covered in paint splatters and dirt. while we waited outside, a hotel worker quickly changed the sheets and gave us 1 towel and 1 soap. We’d quickly come to learn that 1 towel per couple was standard issue.

Exhausted and hot from the long day’s ride, we barely saw the dirt and forgotten tools. An indulgent dinner of succulent marinated chicken and freshly baked naan later, we were both sound asleep in the slightly air conditioned room. The AC was working (i.e. the light was on and air was coming out) but it was only a degree or so cooler than the soupy heavy air in the corridor.

Waking early to reach Sukkur in definite daylight, we got ready quickly and packed the bikes, finishing the naan with the leftover dhal for breakfast. The hotel was devoid of anyone at 7am- we made some noise as we descended the stairs, hoping someone would let us out (all the doors were padlocked) and the security guard saw us and opened up the back door with a salute. The air was so nice and cool at 30 degrees that we relished the breeze which had been missing for most of the previous day. There was hardly anyone on the road apart from huge, overloaded trucks, each more colourful and extravagant than the last. One was completely covered in reflective red panels (like on the back on a bicycle) so that when the headlight caught the surface, it scintillated in the sun with a red glow.

It soon heated up and eventually we had to stop for a cold drink. Stopping at a petrol station we kept one eye open for potential Talibani threats. No women were around- we hadn’t seen any women since the doctors surgery and none alone in public since Lahore. Alex desperately wanted to cool down and take off her jacket but there was no space to do so. Eventually she found a ladies toilet cubicle behind the station which stank pretty revoltingly in the heat but offered bearable privacy if the door was open and Alex could remove her jacket for 5 minutes and let the skin cool. By dusk we were entering Sukkur, a long highway winds round into the city. Alex was starting to overheat after being caught in traffic with little shade and all Simon could hear on the intercom was heavy breathing as she began to hyperventilate. We pulled over again at a station which had a secluded children’s park to let Alex take off her jacket in private and try to cool down. The heat made her almost dizzy and confused and it took a while before she felt well enough to stand back up and get onto the bike again for the final 10km. Entering Sukkur was interesting, the traffic was immediately squeezed onto small potholed roads with throngs of people on both sides. We stopped at an ATM and elected that Simon should go to the machine and Alex should hide fully clothed by the bikes.   First two men stopped by the bikes eyeing Alex suspiciously, more men started to flock. One brave soul said hello to Alex and welcomed her, he looked genuinely happy and pressed dates and apples into her hands.  A younger man came over and spoke to her (even after realising Alex was female) which knowing it was taboo made it worse. Lots of people were asking questions but a few were just standing and staring, a little too close. Soon both bikes were completely swarmed with men and Alex felt pretty vulnerable until Simon reappeared and the crowd parted to let him through to his bike. With a few waved goodbyes, we rode off, followed by two smaller motorbikes who’d formed part of the exhibition committee on the street. They rode really close to us and both of us were nervous about their intent. One in particular, with a young man as pillion kept looking over to us and saying things to his friend. They undertook Alex and then tried to squeeze in on Simon’s left with a car on his left already and they ended up riding into the back of the car and falling off!

We hobbled over the last of the potholes and rubble into a quiet street which seemed to contain most of the hotels and hostels. We stopped in one we’d heard good reviews about and were offered a huge room with A/C! Alex was still slightly hyperventilating and couldn’t physically do anything other than sit and try to get her heart rate down. Simon had to help remove her bike gear as all movement was causing her to be dizzy and on the verge of blacking out. Obviously the A/C didn’t work and it was supposedly being switched on at 8pm, the fan worked at least so the room felt cooler than outside.

By 9:30pm the A/C still wasn’t working but apparently Sukkur is susceptible to power cuts as the A/C systems run on mains and the lights on a separate grid powered by a generator. It was clear that it was too late to change hotel but we negotiated a slight discount as the price we’d paid included A/C. Having drunk about 3 litres of water and some salt, Alex was now feeling a little more human and was capable of speech and movement again. We confirmed our security pick up in the morning at 7am in order to escort us to the Baluchi border.

At 7am obviously no one came to pick us up, a few calls from the hotel and they couldn’t ascertain what the problem was. By 8am it was beginning to get hot so we decided to risk it and go alone to the border. The short road was uneventful and before long we came upon a road barrier with a tiny mud hut attached. A police officer wearing black waved us down to stop and we were taken into the cool inside of the hut to complete our paperwork. That’s where we made friends with our first of many Pakistani police officers. The Sargent and his men were so accommodating, offering us chai whilst we did our paperwork, a seat and a fan made of palm fronds.

Hanging with the border police

They were really interested in us, why we were traveling, if we were married, why we hadn’t had kids yet, why we’re in Pakistan and what jobs we do. These were all borne from genuine interest and we answered patiently and asked them the same back. They told Alex to be comfortable and for once she removed her jacket so as not to overheat again. We filled out all the paperwork and waited for our first escort towards Quetta. While we waited, we spoke of the terrorist threat, how much problem they receive in this area, how many other bikers they’d seen recently etc… Simon even had the chance to wear the bullet proof jacket and a police cap to look like the real deal!

Simon kitting up with Sergeant Ali Nawaaz

Traffic had reduced hugely and only the occasional truck and car went through the checkpoint, all diligently signing in and out of the region. Kids had gathered around the bikes but as the sun was starting to heat up, they soon retreated to the tiny scrap of shade offered by the road blocks.

About an hour after we’d arrived, our armed escort came to pick us up. Waving goodbye to Ali Nawaaz and his team and thanking them for their hospitality, we jumped back on the bikes to follow the car which had turned up with AK-47s bristling from the back. The car leapt off and we raced to follow, savouring the fast pace just in case any gunmen were looking for tourists to take pot shots at. Every 20km or so the escort would change out, sometimes we were spoilt, with a car carrying two gunmen, and sometimes it was simply a levy on a scooter going at a dead speed of 50km/hr which feels excruciatingly slow when the air is 45+ degrees and your only hope of cooling down is to create a breeze by going fast.

Nicer trucks in Pakistan

Eventually we’d swapped out a dozen times and been offered shade a handful of times between to wait. Usually the escorts were ready on arrival but occasionally the meeting escort would be late and we’d have to wait in the pulsing sunshine conversing in stilted English and explaining why we don’t have children even though we’re married and that yes, Alex is Simon’s only wife and yes it was a “Love match” as opposed to an arranged marriage. Soon we were riding through the barren mountains of Sidi and Dhadar, strangely blocky stone mountains, surrounded by swirls of shallow rivers where men and boys were bathing as we sped past. By this point it was 52degC and Alex was really starting to overheat. We had stopped back in Bellpat for  a cold drink but it felt like hours ago. The escort was on a scooter and quite fast compared to others but Alex really needed to stop as she was beginning to get tunnel vision, the heat oppressing vision, almost weighing down from all directions. Simon could hear Alex hyperventilating and unable to respond, breathing was difficult for Alex at this stage and the bike levers felt impossibly hot to touch and the bike itself radiating excruciating heat from the engine as it struggled to keep cool. Pulling over from necessity, the escort looked nervous and said it wasn’t a good place to stop, a car dawdled past us, the tinted windows and lack of numberplate a tell-tale sign. Alex reluctantly eased the bike back into gear, blistering fingertips through the gloves. Huffing and sighing all the way to the next army post, she immediately pulled into the post, parked the bike and almost fainted off the bike in her search for shade and cool. tearing off the helmet Alex found a wall to hide behind and removed her jacket in the shade of a small tree, unable to control her heart rate or breath. Simon ran over and brought water and then somehow managed to organise the army barracks to let her sit in a the only air conditioned room in the post. Alex’s vision was still restricted and still confused, Simon removed her boots and lay her directly in front of the A/C draft.

A while later Alex came-to and the medic gave her a quick check- blood pressure and pulse, made her drink an electrolyte drink and posed for the customary selfies. Feeling much much better, we set back off towards Quetta. The road was much more different now with more cars. Our escort was on a small scooter and racing around the cars. Two cars in particular kept slowing down just in front, letting us overtake, then overtaking, all whilst filming us with their mobile. They continued this for the whole route to the edge of the mountains where a right angled turn created a jam. The scooter took off from the road and pelted down the gravel bank towards the river, we were expected to follow so also drove off the road and rode down the gravel and under a bridge and then back up the otherside of the gully to rejoin the traffic at the front of the queue. Luckily we shook off our filmer and we carried on racing with the scooter escort. He dropped us off at a massive shopping centre just outside Quetta. WE parked up next to a truck to get some shade but they left before our guard exchange arrived. Alex was left guarding the bikes in the sun while Simon fetched cold drinks. Opting to keep her helmet on as once again, there were only men in sight, she was soon approached by a couple of men. They weren’t outwardly unfriendly but they were certainly less warm than all the kind police dealt with so far. Once they discovered that Alex was female and a wife they wanted nothing more to do with her and just stood a little to the side glaring until Simon reappeared with drinks. For what seemed  like an eternity later, the replacement guard turned up in a car with an ancient turbanned officer in the front and two AK-47’s in the back. Rejoining the well built road, we moved swiftly to the final police outpost just outside Quetta. There, we were instructed to wait after parking the bikes out of sight of the main road.

Awaiting entry to Quetta, our armed friends

The army and anti-terrorist commandos occupying this post were warm and friendly and a delight to relax with. Grateful for some shade, we were invited to sit inside. No sooner had we sat down on the woven cot but one of the commandos produced two ice cold red bulls and a melon!! It was so random to be offered a full melon but we couldn’t wait to eat it later. However, we were filthy and the melon was warm so we put it in the pannier for chilling later.

We had the usual questions but one of the army officers spoke pretty good English and told us about all the training that they must do in Baluchistan, explaining that they have a number of problematic groups to protect the public from. Each group requires a different handling and it all seemed quite political. At one point, we were shown a marketing video in support of the Pakistan army who are flat out trying to protect a wild border between Pakistan and Afghanistan from Al Qaeda, the Taliban, ISIS and the Baloch Liberation Army.

Alex needs less protection because she is scary already

The video showed a recreation of the terrorist attack on a school in Peshawar, Pakistan a few years ago where mostly children were killed by the Taliban. The video showed the retaliation of the Pakistani army and what heroism means in a country so beleaguered by terrorism and conflict. The video was totally overdone and almost like a cheesy trailer for a Hollywood action movie but the officers were all bursting with pride when the final scene showed the last Taliban member being riddled with bullets in slo-mo and all the surviving children racing out to thank the soldiers.

Clearly national pride is important here with another video showing the beauty of the northern parts of the country accompanied by wistful music and depicting an older man being invited to people’s homes for food and hospitality. It did pretty much sum up the generosity and warmth of the nation as we’d felt it and all in technicolour and blurred fade-outs.

Sizzling afternoon sun in Baluchistan

Fear and Kindness in Baluchistan

We waited for over an hour in the end, plenty of time to get to know our hosts and their daily lives. They were fascinated by Simon and his camera and asked hundreds of questions of his daily life as well as the usual ones based on our marriage, love and childless present. They even asked Alex what she did for a living and found the differences between our lifestyle and theirs so funny. Endless baby and children photos followed, complete with photos of cars and houses and flowers seen in gardens- a portrayal of domesticity and a happy, contended routine of a father and head of household. There were zero photos of anyone’s wives, only their children and property.

After serving us Chai and adding us on facebook, we were finally face to face with a very grave and humourless older officer who simply asked our names, passport numbers and nationality, then where we intended to stay the night.

Chat and chai with Police whilst waiting for the all clear to cross to Quetta

He sipped his chai as a younger officer checked our paperwork and our papertrail into the check post. Satisfied that all was in order he explained that we were to follow his car and that he would take us to our hotel. We’d received excellent advice from the British Army in Islamabad that we ought to stay within the cantonment area and that only two hotels fell within that zone. The Serena and the Lourdes hotel. The police tried to insist on taking us to the usual hotel (Bloomstar) but apparently it is not as safe as the others. We were shocked at the price of the Serena (£250 per night) so opted for Lourdes which the police officer eventually found the address for.

We got onto the bikes and re-joined the main road to be confronted with a fully armoured mini tank and an anti-terrorist  commando braced in the open back door with a machine gun, only his eyes visible through his turban and balaclava. He was pretty intimidating motioning for us to stay right behind the truck as they moved at 20kph through Quetta and he would wave off any vehicle that came too close to us. We basically held our breath for the whole journey until the car pulled over on a busy intersection and motioned for us to pull over too. It seemed pretty counter productive to be waiting on the side of the road surrounded by traffic and people after they were so diligent about chasing other people away but we sat on the bikes waiting for the next car to be kick started into life. The driver looked about 100 years old in this car, he gave us a toothless grin and moved off, without a ninja in the back which we felt a bit nervous about.

The anti-terrorist squad got our backs

We drove through the town center and then ended up under a major intersection, in the shadow of a bridge. Soldiers patrolled the junction, fully protected in bullet proof vests and helmets. We waited there for our next escort, safe in the hands of the soldiers who kept us company until an American style police patrol car turned up to escort us to the hotel finally.

Waiting for our next armed escort to take us to the hotel

 

 

The patrol car turned up, gave us a cursory wave and then raced off, expecting us to follow contra-flow to get back onto the highway. Finally catching up with them, we passed through another army post and finally into the cantonment area, forcing traffic through two sets of baffles and bumps. After being grilled by a soldier on the post who was very suspicious of us and insisted that we park behind a wall and then almost immediately insisted we park at an impossible angle and then changed his mind again and let us through. We finally got through to the Lourdes hotel, escorted up to the gates, they squeaked open and we rode into a beautifully lush garden surrounding a low level building with a  gabled roof and covered patio. It seemed like paradise after the anxious dust and suspicion of the outside world we’d ridden through. The policeman shook Simon’s hand and took him to the receptionist who immediately accommodated us in a large room and promised to arrange a pick up for the NOC. However, this was Thursday and it was unlikely to be issued on Friday he warned. We were facing a whole weekend in Quetta which meant picking up the NOC on the second day of Ramadan and crossing the desert during Ramadan at a time when it had been proposed to pass a law making eating and drinking in the daytime during the period illegal regardless of your personal status.

Glad to finally be somewhere safe after such a hot and long day, we decided to worry about Ramadan and the NOC when we they happened. The room had high ceilings so was naturally quite cool and it felt wonderful to eat a now chilled melon in the dusk in “Little London” which is what Quetta was known as once. With its willow trees and neat lawn, we could very well believe that we were back in London, only the sound of the muezzin giving it away. Only a few weeks later from our stay there was a terrorist incident on the baffled checkpost we’d ridden through and a fortnight later, a bomb at the police headquarters we obtained our NOC from. Our condolences to all who lost their lives, particularly the personnel who make it their job to look after everyone. In this state of fear, we were met only with kindness.

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