Saturday, January 10, 2009

Pakistan - the Dark Days

The region spanning eastern Iran and western Pakistan is totally lawless. The few roads in the area are the main transport arteries for the booming Afghan drugs trade, and this is where the heroin and opium make their way westwards. The region is populated by Afghani refugees, drug runners, bandits waiting for drug runners, and overzealous, trigger happy cops and soldiers waiting to attack drug runners and bandits.

Not, perhaps, the best region for BiRT to travel through. We're hardly inconspicuous,

It's hot, dusty, turbulent and dangerous. The governments of most western countries consider it as out of bounds for tourists. But we were in western Iran and wanted to get to eastern Pakistan. As independent travellers maybe we could have bimbled through and enjoyed the experience, but as official 'tour operators' that option wasn't open. All insurances would be invalidated the moment we ignored government warnings which meant we were up for a massive transit. Get through it as fast as possible. No luxuries. No stopping. No nothing. Just driving.

24/7 driving until we were through the 'danger zone.'

It took us 6 days. It was hot. It was dusty, sandy, hot. So incredibly hot. Constantly moving, driving, bumping along on poor roads. And the dust got everywhere. Dust in our mouths, noses, hair, clothes, food. And it was hot. 40 degrees, 45 degrees, 50 degrees, I don't know how hot but hot. The height of summer, early July. In the desert. Fully clothed. Islamic territory. Long trousers. Long sleeves. Head scarf for the girls. We couldn't eat, we couldn't sleep, we couldn't think. All we could do was keep driving and try to drink. Drink the dusty boiling water.

All along we had a police escort. Joyful grinning maniacs who liked to show off their guns, pull over innocent cars and commandeer their water and food. Fire off a few rounds at west-bound vehicles. Just in case they were carrying drugs, guns or illegal people. Just to show off. They loved us. Novelty. Tourists. Tourists travelling through their hot and dusty fuedal no-mans land. In a giant crazy big red truck.

Poor truck. Couldn't cope with the heat. She was thirsty, needed feeding a constant diet of water and oil. Over heated time and again. Steamed. Bubbled. Boiled. The dust clogged all her filters, she had to work hard. But she made it. Trooped on slowly, through the dust.

The exhaustion set in. Daytimes no sleep because we were moving, bouncing and hot. Nighttimes no sleep because we were running the show and had to stay awake. Keep the drivers awake. Henry and Scottie driving. Round the clock the two of them. I don't know how they did it but they did. Amazing.

Three times in six days we tried to pull over to sleep. On the first, our Iranian police escort escorted us all round town, Zahedan on the border, until they decided we weren't allowed to check into any cheap hotels (for our own protection you understand) so we slept for 3 hours on the side of the road, in the truck, on the truck, on any flat bit of space. Dust and exhaust being blown into our nostrils all night as we sweated, sweated the hours away. No sleep.

On the second we stopped in Dalbandin. Our first town in Pakistan. We checked into a hotel and the police confined us to it. Not allowed out. For our own protection you understand. Most slept on the hotel roof to try and catch some breeze. We slept in the room to guard the bags. Up every 15 minutes to shower off, lie under the fan for 3 minutes, lie cool until the cool water was gone, then hot. Too too hot. Drenched in sweat within 5 minutes. Get up and have another shower. Hot. Crazy hot. Dunc couldn't breathe it was so hot. He had to go and sit outside. Sweating all night. Strangers started banging on the door at 2am demanding we leave the rooms. The hotel had sold our room to us and to others. Gun shots going off regularly through the dark night. Who knows what lives were being disrupted, ended, that night. No sleep. Just 5 hours of sweating and listening to the crack and report, the turbulence.

On the third, our escort made us park in a police station in Loralai. Had to park on uneven ground, for our own protection you understand. Arrived late. 2am. Left early. 6am. All night surrounded by police coming and going. Police have a busy life in Loralai. Shouting, guns, sirens. Music, laughter, noise. No more dust though. We were in a small patch of green in slightly higher land. Still hot. Stupidly sweatily hot. But no dust. Instead, mosquitoes. Hundreds upon thousands of mosquitoes. No sleep. Just 4 hours of sweating and swatting.

The other nights we just drove. Through the heat. Through the dust. No street lights. Dark days and dark dark nights. Backlit trucks, silhouetted by the head lights of other trucks. Kicking up dust as they drove. Dirt roads, dust roads. Donkey carts. Ox carts. Tuk tuks, cars and sweating kameez-clad men pulling trailers and hauling hessian dacks full of who knows what. All eerily backlit in clouds of dust. Shapes loom out of the dark. Most without lights. Driving was more than ever, an exercise in not hitting anything.

On the road we see a donkey. Hit by a passing truck. Desperately trying to get up but it can't. It only has three legs now. Dark days.

Sleep deprivation. Exhaustion. A tinge of madness. Heat. Sweat. Dust. Sandstorms. Dehydration. Filth. Dark days.

But it didn't feel dangerous. We never felt threatened. People smiled a lot. Lots of grinning and vigorous hand shakes. I'd go back. Maybe I'd travel more slowly. And sleep a little.

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