Small Acts of Kindness: Baluchistan, Ramadan and the Road to Iran.

Our sojourn in Quetta was uneventful and offered us a much needed rest. Quetta, for all its press, boasts a perfect climate and as we rode in the back of an armoured police van to the offices of tribal affairs, we were offered a glimpse of Quettan city living. The police scooter followed us with an armed pillion scouting the area, waving people off if they veered too close to them or to our car. Intrigued passers-by peered into the darkness of the back of the van, trying to catch a glimpse of the people being taken very good care of. They dropped us off at a complex of buildings which had started to empty thanks to Ramadan (people wake before sunrise to pray and have a meal and go back to sleep before facing the day anew. The officers dropped us off at a room filled with stacks of documents, desks and three fat armchairs under a slow fan. We were waved in and invited to sit on the leather armchairs. The widest seat was occupied by two young men, one with a cloud of ginger whiskers and the other with black hair and black t-shirt giving him a 90s emo feel. We squinted at the names on their completed documents and Simon, being a super-sleuth determined they were Polish! He chatted away with them, indulging in the language after being forced to speak only in English for the last few months. They were back-packers from Poland, making their way to Northern Pakistan to see Gilgit and the rest of the region famed for it beauty.

They’d been waiting a lot longer for their NOC and they were headed in the opposite direction. We sat patiently amongst the piles of papers and an officer kindly offered us a tea. Aware that it was Ramadan (the very beginnings of it) we turned down his offer. Eventually, we were escorted to a smaller office, stuffed with a single humongous desk and yet more files of papers. A largely silent man surveyed us from the other side of the banqueting table he was sat at and a second man was squeezed into a tiny chair next to us, he spoke to us at length about Pakistan, what he was studying and his dreams of travel, animated and warm. All the while the Strong Silent one was staring at us openly from across the expanse of wood. A soldier marched into the bizarre office, dressed in official uniform, complete with a colourful belt, black shalwar kameez and a feathered cap. Unsmiling he sat right across from Simon, knees touching as he bored into Simon’s eyes. He smiled slightly and asked him in perfect Russian if he could understand him, Simon replied back in Russian and the soldier smiled slightly wider, relaxed a fraction and chatted away, explaining how he’d been posted with the Russin army for a while so now he spoke pretty well. Meanwhile, Alex continued to be almost invisible, with the glaring man staring at Simon and the soldier whilst apparently occupying the post of Sitting At Desk.

Suddenly the soldier stood up and it signaled our turn to go back to the original office, and return to the plush armchairs. Within moments, the NOCs were produced with a flourish and we were free to go! We stumbled back out into the sunshine with the two Poles who’d been granted theirs at a similar moment. We were escorted through security gates with metal detectors and then dumped in front of the building. Clearly Quetta hardly ever gets foreign visitors because moments later, we were waiting on the road (filled with very slow moving traffic, complete with rubber necking drivers and passengers alike) and being hustled into selfies and photographs with various men. Alex, tired of being manhandled (literally) grabbed Simon’s hand and tried to stand as close to him as the heat would allow as the photographing men were inching closer and closer with every shot.

Another day, another checkpoint. En route to Dalbandin

It soon turned out that there were no armoured vehicles available to escort us back to the hotel so we crammed into a tiny tuktuk and, followed by a gun on a scooter, we were duly delivered back to our hotel, NOC procured and escort booked for 7am, we relaxed on our final day in Quetta, sneaking lunch into our room and making sure to rest before the final two day leg across to Iran.

Our Police escort turned up an hour late the next morning. With it being Ramadan, everyone was asleep at different times to us so the receptionist at the hotel was away from their desk and no police officers were present to ensure a speedy departure. Eventually we managed to leave once a sleek, uniformed officer turned up with our favourite ninja back in action at the back of the car.

We left the city, taking small roads which were deserted at that time in the morning, clearly even potential terrorists respect the sleep of Ramadan. We were soon en route out of the town, flanked by curiously rocky mountains in a heavy, hot haze. We whizzed fast past low rise buildings made of sand and mud, half walled up with fortified mud ramparts. Tiny black holes were windows and most of the buildings we passed were semi demolished, perhaps the victims of rain or simply abandoned if nothing more sinister. Today’s escorts were so fast, sweeping us at 80kph from one changeover to the next with only one long pause under a makeshift shaded spot, carpeted with carpet cut offs and plastic and fenced with Pakistani and Balochi flags. We sat and had a stilted conversation with the soldiers who regarded us warily and asked over and over why we didn’t speak Balochi. The conversation had run as dry as the climate by the time our next escort came, an ancient wizened man with a neat cap and few teeth grinned at us and motioned we ought to follow. His Toyota was tied together with string (literally) and all the parts didn’t quite join as expected but, rattling away, he flew down the highway which cut a dull grey line through the desert. He was a levy and clearly proud of his position! He waved just as eagerly once he handed us to the next escort and we almost missed the rumble and shake of his old truck once he’d gone!

Alex and the Levys

Hostile territory

The landscape was becoming more barren then further south we went. Quetta, although in a desert, benefits from being at a good altitude to enjoy some greenery. By now, nearing Dalbandin, the landscape was just grey, yellow and brown. The lack of colour made the ride pretty meditative and it stopped short of being boring because the textures of the landscape were so beautiful. Crumpled rock-face nestled next to smooth sand flow and the road cut through all of it.

Less and less houses could be spotted anywhere now and the traffic had almost all disappeared. At times we were the only vehicles on the road, the truck riding ahead, then Alex and then Simon bringing up the rear. The heat caused the haze to collect and sit stubbornly around us. The mountains emerged from the haze like shy animals, only to disappear again in our rear view mirrors once we’d passed. The checkpoints were getting smaller and more remote as we rode. Offering the only point of colour in an otherwise bleak landscape. However remote the station, the guards became friendlier again, delighted to have company to talk to. We spotted the names of incoming motorbikers on the registry before singing our names- some Germans, a French and two Poles.

The road to Iran

Funnily enough we’d been in touch with all the signatories already apart from the three Chinese who were traveling in the same direction as us!

Even though about eight foreigners had passed through recently, the guards greeted us warmly and with interest. Alex was repeatedly asked if she was a boy or a girl, the confusion was palpable as they looked from Simon to Alex and back to Simon when he calmly explained Alex was his wife. To be fair to them, once they figured it out they were fine with it and grinned at Alex and asked if she was Chinese.

This prompted a whole other set of explanations!!

There were a few long waiting times and the guards explained it’s because sometimes there are hot-spots along the road and they have to call ahead to make sure it’s safe to send us down, even with an escort it may necessarily endanger lives not to pre-check.

Another army checkpost, another warm welcome

We eventually pulled into a tiny town which looked like it was made form the very sand it rose from. The haze was unbearably heavy by now and the town felt deserted and exposed. We pulled into a side road which lead into a grubby courtyard at the back of a huge concrete building with barred windows and a very closed looking door. It was only 2pm by now but the guard explained that we had to stay the night here, in Dalbandin’s finest hotel. We had no choice in the matter as it was a requirement of our NOC however, being that we were a couple, we were offered the best room in the hotel, a wide three bedded palatial room, with ceiling fans and windows and an ensuite! The chief of police came in and sat down on the chair in the room to tell us the rules: It was Ramadan, we would be assigned a guard 24/7 but he had to go home for his evening meal and prayers so we would be unguarded from 8pm to midnight. We were not to leave the room at those times and never to leave the hotel. This caused much consternation as it meant we couldn’t buy any food to eat either and after a day on the road with only a tiny pack of biscuits to eat, we’d been looking forward to a meal but this was apparently impossible in Dalbandin. He also informed us the electricity was cut at 10pm so the concrete box (our room) which was already baking hot with the hardy little fans swirling the soupy air around would be even hotter once they stopped working.

Our Dalbandin bodyguard

Our guard would otherwise, when not eating elsewhere, be sleeping the room along the corridor from ours although it soon dawned on us that this was just a cover up because everyone in the know could foresee that the rooms would be unbearably hot so the standard was to sleep on the roof! Alex was promptly dissuaded from sleeping on the roof as it was due to be “cloudy” which caused the hotel owner some problem. Alex suspects that she was told this in order to not cause anxiety to the guards who wanted to sleep on the roof and would no doubt be offended at having to share the roof with a female.

 

Already boiling, we ate a feast of tinned beans and white bread followed by a tinned sour cherry compote washed down with 3l of water. True to the policeman’s word, the electricity cut out at 10pm. Lit only by the enthusiastic street lighting through the window slats, we packed up our sheets and pillows and made our way to the roof, carefully locking the door behind us.

The roof already had foam mattresses piled up by the entrance, clearly ready to be used for some open topped snoozing. Dragging two out and hiding behind the water tower, we set up our little nest for the night. Other than the call for prayer, a few ardent mosquitoes (in a DESERT! I ask you, where is the stagnant water that they need to breed?) and the decorative lights which pulsed out light pollution all hours of the night, we slept pretty well. It was certainly cooler than the room by about 15 degrees.

Dalbandin sunset

We woke up at 5:45am, ready to hit the road at 6:30am and try to make the Pak-Iranian border in enough time before the Iranian side closed. The Pakistani side of the border stays open until 16:30 but strangely enough, the Iranian side closes promptly at 16:00. We took the only road out of town, loading up on water and biscuits as there’d be no shops or towns until we hit Taftan. The road was more of the same, straight, narrow tarmac slicing through desert. The surface became more rough the further we pressed on with occasional unsurfaced sections which made the bikes judder as we rumbled along. The pick up truck ploughed on, oblivious to the plight of the bikes. The wind really picked up an hour later and as we were riding through desert, the fine sand picked up on the gusts and sandblasted us as we rode along. The sand traced fine lines across our visors and to this day, Alex’s miniature windshield is still opaque from the effects of sand blasting!!

The sand was blown across what little tarmac was left to delineate the road, leaving treacherous traps, sometimes deep enough to catch the tyre in a frictionless spin. The front would wobble before biting into tarmac again. The occasional sandy lumps were becoming more frequent until whole stubborn sand dunes were just sitting on the road, leaving only a tarmac gap of 30cm along one side. These were more difficult to miss, particularly the later dunes as we came up to a small mountain range where they met in the middle and stretched into low lying humps across the whole road. They’d been squashed in the middle, leaving an only mildly treacherous puddle of shallow sand to cross. We made it to the top of the road only to be confronted by a valley filling with fine sand! A truck coming form the opposite direction had over ambitiously attempted to cross the fine sand dunes only to get stuck and thus block the whole road in either direction.

The road, suffocated by sand saltation

We had a decision to make, either wait for the suffocated road to be cleared or to double back and go around the mountain by offroading across the sand itself. We turned back, following the pick up truck off the main road and into a deeply trenched sandy obstacle course. Trucks had been here before and some trenched were filled with loose sand and some were a little firmer. Part of the game became seeing which route was least likely to topple Alex over as she sank into the deep sand thanks to the weight on the back of the bike. Revving harder, we skimmed along the sand, throwing jets of fine spray behind us as we tried to keep up with the speeding truck ahead. Suddenly all the paths diverged into one huge mass of lumps, dunes, deep trenches and hills.

Every trench was deep with the result that stopping the bikes at all or halting the revs would cause them to dig in or topple. Or, as Alex did in Peru, rev so hard that she raced up a small hillock and almost achieved a loop the loop on her 700GS!! Exhausted, we finally made it through the deep sand and rejoined the road now with less migrating dunes than before and less wind. Our fortunes had turned and we made our way to the next checkpoint just before Taftan.

Delayed by sand dunes, we decided to turn back and offroad it to Taftan instead

Once again we were delayed by the Police double checking the road ahead and after what seemed like an eternity we were waved through into Taftan itself. Shown to a small office on a heavily guarded compound the officer, with extreme urgency rushed us through customs to get our papers stamped and processed. We sat, bewildered by the sudden rushing only to realise the time- we had only 30 minutes to clear both customs and immigration before being locked out of Iran!! The officer came back and pressed cold peach juices into our hands and said we had to be quick to go to immigration. WE were so hot and exhausted that the peach juice tasted like nectar of the Gods with real peach bits to chew on so we felt like we’d eaten a snack. Hurrying us through the gate, the officer pointed to a huge painted double landed gate, painted like the trucks of Pakistan. There we were motioned to sit with a soldier and he entered us into a huge paper ledger, meticulously checking our documents. We must have still looked pretty hot and sweaty because yet another police officer offered us ice cold sprites while we waited. They evaporated pretty quickly in the afternoon sun.

It was now twenty to four and it was a real rush against the clock to make it across the invisible line between Pakistan and Iran. The soldier waved us through and we raced to the immigration desk waving our passports. The officer behind the desk calmly took our passports and went through the process, taking our photograph, making us fill out the paper chit, festooned our visa with stamps and waved us out. Taking 30 seconds to change some currency (at a very poor exchange rate, much like central america’s deals) we triple jumped onto the bikes and weaved our way through the desperate mid-way people stuck between both borders, squatted by the road and surrounded by canvas bags of belongings.

We passed through the huge metal gate into Iran and collapsed into the cool interior of the police control. They checked our visas and our bikes and thinking that this was it, we relaxed but no, there were many more hoops to jump through! At least we made it into Iran without wasting an evening sleeping on the border.

1 Comment

  1. Francine on 24/09/2017 at 6:59 am

    Passionnant!

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