1st August 2017

Dalbandin, Pakistan


My alarm woke me at 6am.  I took a quick shower in my small, plain hotel room, with water that hadn’t yet been heated up for the day.  I packed my bag, walked downstairs to the dusty, concrete lobby, and had to wake the receptionist up from a sofa, for him to open the front door to let me out onto the street.

 

Shortly before 7am I arrived at the huddle of unmarked cars on the roundabout near the train station.  Like yesterday, the drivers saw me coming from far off, and raced to meet me.  I spoke to the first man to reach me.

“Hello.  Taxi?  Pakistan?  How much?  Toman?”

He wrote ‘50’ on his calculator (around €13).  I probably could have haggled a bit, but wasn’t in the mood right now, so hopped in.

 

The drive from Zahedan to the Pakistani border was supposed to take under an hour.  After thirty minutes of speeding along the wide, flat highway, through the vast, dirt desert, my driver pulled over.  He opened up his bonnet, and unscrewed the cap to the cooling fluid intake.  Hot, dirty liquid and steam exploded out, causing the man to leap back.  Over the next few minutes he waved down two passing cars, asking for water to pour into the intake.  He then asked me for water.  I surrendered my only bottle, which I had hoped would see me through most of today’s police escort.  He poured it all into the engine, closed the bonnet, and we set off.

 

Twice more on our way to the border, the man saw the engine temperature dial on his dashboard skyrocket, and pulled over to pour water into the cooling fluid chamber.  The first time he stopped at a small oasis, where a spring kept a few trees alive in the middle of the desolate desert.  The plastic bottles he filled up here were enough to refill the engine the second time he pulled over, just outside the small town of Mirjaveh.

 

I asked my driver to stop outside the bank in Mirjaveh, for me to attempt to change money.  Not fully trusting the man, I took my backpack with me inside.

“Hello,” I said to the teller behind one of the desks in the bank.  “Iran Toman.  Pakistan Rupee.  Change.”

I made an over-and-back ‘exchange’ motion with my hands.  The teller looked at me, then over to his colleague.  They spoke to each other in Farsi for a moment.  I heard them using the words ‘Toman’ and ‘Rupee’, suggesting that they understood what I was asking for at least.  The teller looked back to me, and shook his head.  I walked out of the bank.

 

We drove through the tiny, one-story, mud-brick town of Mirjaveh for a minute, before my driver pulled over his old, decrepit saloon car, outside a mechanic’s workshop.  He pointed at his wrist, and gestured ‘five’ to me, predicting how long this would take.  I sat inside the car, as the elderly mechanic opened up the bonnet, jacked up the car, and began using a wrench and hammer to pull apart the engine.  Five minutes passed, then ten, then fifteen.

 

I got out of the car.  Again, the driver told me we’d just be another five minutes.  I stood by the entrance to the mechanic’s near-empty, one-room workshop, quietly furious that my driver couldn’t have made his car struggle on for the final ten minute drive to the border, and then bring it to be fixed.  The whole reason I’d woken up before dawn was to arrive to the border early enough to skip the queues, and make sure my escort left today rather than tomorrow.

 

Five minutes passed.  Ten.  Fifteen.  The old man was still pulling parts out of the engine, laying them on the dusty concrete.  I was about to grab my bag and walk off to find another way to the border, when my driver pulled over a passing car.  He spoke to this new driver for a minute, then gestured for me to get into his car.  The three of us drove to the border, passing through several layers of light security and checkpoints, before they dropped me right outside the passport-check building itself.  I handed over fifty Toman, as agreed; despite the fact I was an hour late.  My driver didn’t say anything to me as he took the cash.  He didn’t even look me in the eye.  He just counted it, and got back into the car.  It was a poor note to leave this incredibly hospitable country on.

 

I queued up inside the building, waiting to be stamped out of the country.  Most of those around me seemed to be Pakistanis on bus tours.  After half an hour of slowly shuffling my way up to two passport inspection booths, I presented my documents to one of them.  As expected, the officer was clearly surprised to be dealing with a European.  He called over his supervisor, who took my passport to his office for an extra examination.  Within a few minutes through, he handed my stamped passport back, and directed me to the exit door.  I walked out of Iran, and into Pakistan.

 

An officer with good English met me outside the Pakistani customs building, and directed me past a mass of locals inside, up to the counter at the top of the queue.  I handed over my documents, got my picture taken, and filled out a short form stating who I was, and when, where, and why I was entering the country.  Considering this border was by far the least touristic I’d passed through on my travels, it was also one of the most painless.

 

A few men sprang at me as soon as I was outside the customs building, offering to sell Pakistani Rupees, of which I currently had none.  Their exchange rates were terrible, as expected.  I sold 375,000 Iranian Rial (around €10) for 970 Rupees (around €8).  After our transaction, a policeman took me, and led me out of the border complex, into a car, and off to the local Levies station.

 

The Levies are a paramilitary force tasked with policing the rural areas of Pakistan’s dangerous Balochistan province.  One of their roles is to escort foreigners from one end of the province to the other.  This force, combined with the police who administer Balochistan’s town and cities, would be my constant companions for the next few days to come.

 

The man who’d driven the car for thirty seconds, from the border to the station, asked me for money when I got out.

“Private car,” he said.  “You pay.  One hundred Rupee.”

I looked to the police, trying to determine if there was actually meant to be a charge, or if the man was just trying his luck.  They all walked away from the car, into their gated complex.  I followed.

“Mister!  Pay!  One hundred Rupee!” he called after me, without making any attempt to follow.

 

Inside the station, there were more checks and paperwork.  My passport was taken several times, for my details to be recorded again and again.  My picture was taken, and my plans for my Pakistani trip were thoroughly discussed.  I sat on a plastic chair outside the offices, which backed onto the dusty yard the men parked their motorbikes in, waiting for the escort to be ready.

 

I had expected to be the only foreigner crossing the border that day.  I was surprised to see another tourist walk through the solid metal gates, into the yard.  I was especially surprised to see that tourist being a young, female, solo-traveller.  Zuzana, a twenty year old Slovakian medical student, wasn’t the kind of person I would have expected to come across in these parts.  She was more quiet, and less assertive.  When the driver had asked her for one hundred Rupees, she had handed it over.

“I tried to bargain for less,” she told me.  “But he wouldn’t give me a discount.  So I had to give him one hundred.”

 

Zuzana and I were introduced to the Levies Police Chief, who’s small office also backed onto the yard.  From what I could understand from his thick accent, this man administered the policing in all of rural Balochistan; a very serious job, given the amount of Taliban influence in the small villages.  He clearly didn’t find me very easy to understand either.  When he told me he had travelled to Saudi Arabia a few years ago, I asked him if it had been for ‘The Hajj’ (the holy pilgrimage to Mecca).  He thought I said ‘Daesh’ (the Islamic State terrorist group).

“You went to fight for ISIS?” he thought I was asking.

“Do most Pakistanis attempt to go join ISIS?”

“Does the Pakistani government encourage their citizens to go fight for ISIS?”

By the time I realised the misunderstanding, the chief had grown quite frustrated.  I used my clearest, most enunciated voice to explain each of my previous questions had been about Mecca, not murder.

 

Around midday, a more junior policeman entered the chief’s office, to pass on a report.

“There are two more tourists crossing the border,” he told Zuzana and I.  “Bikers.  But they are too slow.  It will be too late when they get here.  You will sleep here tonight.  The escort will leave tomorrow.”

My stomach lurched.  We were going to be sent to some tiny, crude, overpriced hotel, somewhere in this desolate village of mud-brick sheds.  We would effectively be kept under house arrest, unable to leave our rooms, which I doubted would have WiFi.  Without a book, or any movies on my laptop, I would be stuck inside this prison for some twenty hours or so, before the escort would begin tomorrow morning.

 

Back in Europe, if the police chief says the escort leaves tomorrow, it leaves tomorrow.  In these parts of the world, however, decisions tend to be based less on strict policy, and more on the inclinations of the men in charge.  And everything is negotiable.

“Can we leave today?” I asked the chief.  “My Pakistani visa lasts for only thirty days.  I want to explore as much of your country as possible.  I want to meet as many Pakistanis as I can.  If I’m stuck here I’ll lose a day.  I want to get through Balochistan as quickly as possible, so that I can spend more time in Karachi, and Islamabad, and the mountains up in the north.”

I pleaded and pleaded until I ran out of steam, trying to convince the man that it would be in the best interest of all of Pakistan if the escort left today.

“Ok,” he said to me once I’d stopped.  “Let’s go.”

 

Over the next eight hours, Zuzana and I were passed from escort to escort, as we sped through the empty desert, eastwards towards Quetta.  We drove in four different pickup trucks, usually crammed into the front two seats, along with two policemen, plus their AK-47s.  We passed through a dozen or so Levies and army stations and checkpoints, where we wrote our details down into logbooks for foreign travellers.  These stations were often small, mud-brick huts, surrounded by miles and miles of dry dirt.  Previous entries in the logbooks showed that one or two tourists passed through per day on average, usually Germans, or Polish, or English, or Australians.  Never Americans or Canadians, I noticed.

 

The Levies and soldiers were always very friendly.  They greeted Zuzana and I warmly at each station, and happily posed with me when I asked for photos.  Sometimes, especially when changing escorts, we would stay longer at the stations.  The men, who rarely spoke more than a few words of English, would invite us inside their huts, to lounge with them on the carpeted floors, and drink tea from metal cups.

 

The Levies approach to gun safety wasn’t exactly the kind I was used to.  They left their rifles lying around their stations.  Once, Zuzana and I were left inside a pickup truck with a loaded AK-47 resting between us, while the policemen stepped out to talk to their colleagues.

 

The road we followed, one of the very few running through the enormous province, varied in quality drastically.  Sometimes we would cruise over wide, flat sections of smooth tarmac.  Sometimes we would tediously navigate our way around boulders and potholes, on narrow dirt tracks meandering through hills.  Considering the many trucks using this road, moving products from Zahedan to Quetta and vice-versa, would have to use the entirety of it, I didn’t understand why some sections seemed so much better kept than others.

 

At the beginning of our journey through Balochistan, I felt nervous.  The purpose of our guards was to protect us against Taliban militia, after all.  As the day wound on, however, nerves turned to boredom.  The ride was tedious and uncomfortable.  I could only derive so much entertainment from speaking with Levies in fractured English.  By the time we reached the small town of Dalbandin, shortly after sunset, I was ready for a rest.  The Levies drove us inside the gated complex of Al-Dawood Hotel, introduced us to the policeman who was assigned to us for the night, and drove off.

 

Zuzana and I were shown to our twin room by the receptionist, a young college student, conversational in English.  I had expected us to be given a double bed, since all locals seemed to assume that Zuzana and I were married.  It was an awkward conversation I was glad to avoid.  With our armed guard never leaving our side, we ate dinner in the hotel yard with the receptionist and manager.  At 11pm sharp electricity was cut off to the entire town.  This wasn’t an accidental power cut; the receptionist told us it wouldn’t be restored until 8am.  Since the fans and air conditioning units were all turned off, every room inside the hotel became unbearably hot, and the guests migrated to the roof.

 

A dozen or so of us slept on the hotel’s large, flat roof.  We were given thick blankets to lie upon, which made the concrete comfortable enough for sleep.  A few domestic tourists were asked to move aside from the most sheltered corner of the rooftop, for Zuzana and I to get the best rest.  Without electricity, the small town, surrounded on all sides by miles upon miles of desert, was peaceful that night.  I could stare up at the entire Milky Way as I lay on top of the three-story hotel, drifting off to sleep, with Zuzana to one side, and my guard and his trusty rifle to the other.