Pakistan is a major fork in the road for overlanders. There are three international border crossing points: 1) India via Lahore, Punjab Province; 2) China via the scenic Karakoram Mountains, Gilgit-Baltistan Province; and 3) Iran via Taftan under police escort through sketchy Baluchistan Province. Our original Brisbane to Europe one-year-plan had a November departure, which allows for a Himalayan Spring, Pamirs Summer (Pakistan – China – Kyrgyzstan – Tajikistan) and European Autumn. Unfortunately we needed to keep working to save more funds and left in March, which means no Karakorams or Pamirs… passes close and it’s just too cold. Baluchistan was our only option. We will return.
The only thing we’d been exposed to from the media on Pakistan are issues of Taliban, terrorism and cricket. So I would like to say right off the bat, the greatest hospitality we have experienced to date is from the Pakistani people in Punjab Province. It all started with a warm welcome at the border and very helpful Pakistani Rangers.
On the hospitality front I’m not just talking about being welcomed into people’s homes. On the first morning I was smashing many masala chais at a run-down street cart having a broken English conversation with the cart operator. Come time to leave I went to pay and was told, “Please no. You are a guest in my country.” I persevered trying to argue that this is a poor business strategy but he wouldn’t have a bar of it. I went to find an adapter in the markets… the only one I could find was one already plugged into a market owner’s wall. “How much for that one?” I asked. “It’s yours,” replied the bloke. Again, couldn’t pay for it… I’m a guest in his country. People everywhere were always wanting to help… help with directions would also include a lift on the back of a motorbike. Unlike most touristic parts of the world, nothing was expected in return let alone accepted when offered. These might sound like silly little things but it’s the sum of silly little experiences that develop a lasting impression.
Ultimately the Pakistani people are concerned about what the rest of the world think of their country and people… they all genuinely wanted to know our opinion of the place. Pakistan used to be an integral part of the Hippie Trail, which was an overland route and form of alternative tourism linking Europe with South Asia. Unfortunately things have blown up a bit since events surrounding 9/11 and the western traveler tends to bypass Pakistan nowadays… instead linking Nepal – Tibet with Central Asia.
On the touristic front there’s only so much to be impressed by around Lahore. The touristic regions are around Islamabad and the mountain valleys to the north. Unfortunately we were waiting to receive our InReach satellite communications device, which had been confiscated by Customs. Our budget accommodation was shabby to say the least but the owner happened to run a law practice… and offered free legal services to his guests. I’ve never heard of such an arrangement but we were lucky to have him… we never would have received our device without him.
No one I know has guts of steel quite like Laws’s… he hadn’t fallen sick once in the trip but the water from our accommodation’s filter got him. At first it was funny but the sound of someone’s exploding asshole gets a bit much after a week. Thank goodness he got over it.
Pakistan was created in 1947 as an independent nation for Muslims when the British divided up the Indian subcontinent… and became The Islamic Republic of Pakistan after adopting a new constitution in 1956. Population is 200 million. The overwhelming majority ~85% are Sunni Muslim and ~10% are Shia Muslim. Pakistan has been called “the global centre for political Islam”.
Every person we spoke to in India perceive Pakistan as a dangerous place. Every Pakistani person we spoke to perceive India as their enemy. Pakistan’s water security is dependent on India given that Pakistan is the lower riparian. The Indus Waters Treaty was brokered by the World Bank in 1960 but India take advantage of what is a lot of grey area. Laws touches on the India-Pakistan relationship in his blog on riding through Kashmir.
LAHORE TO LAL SUHANRA NATIONAL PARK
We decided to follow a farmland route south from Lahore, an always worthwhile option anywhere in the world. It was incredible to see farmlands thriving on the fringe of desert due to irrigation practices implemented a century ago. Agriculture contributes 24% of GDP, accounts for half of the employed labour force and therefore constitutes the largest sector of Pakistan’s economy. The farmlands are sustained by the Indus Basin Irrigation System (IBIS), the largest contiguous irrigation system in the world. Irrigation practices were once regarded as state-of-the-art but are very inefficient by modern standards. Large scale investment has been underway for some time to modernize irrigation practices, including the formation of farming cooperatives.
Taking a farmland route meant we unwittingly missed the check points north of Bahawalpur, which is where you get placed under police escort. We instead ended up camping in Lal Suhanra National Park and then rode to Derawar Fort in the heart of the Cholistan Desert. We stumbled across police at the fort, who asked, “What the heck are you doing here without an escort?” The information we had was that we were sweet to Sukkur… incorrect apparently. Calls were made and we were ordered to ride to Bahawalpur without delay.
TO RAHIM YAR KHAN
The blokes in our first escort were dumbfounded as to how we made it to Derawar Fort without protection. It pretty much means tourism over once you’re under police escort. This is not due to any animosity, more so that you’re a hot potato. Escorts are of course responsible for your safety while you’re under their care PLUS they have better things to be doing like actual police work… so no one is keen on escorting you to some site you want to see. Escorts do a rolling exchange from one district to the next… or you wait on the side of the road for your next escort to arrive. Movement with individual escorts is direct… overall movement is SLOW.
Crossing the Indus River to Sukkur represented a change in reception to 50/50. People were still generally very friendly but there was some, “What the heck are you doing here?” attitude. The bloke responsible for the organisation of our escorts for the coming days was very confusing but we got there in the end.
TO QUETTA (stay at Bloom Star)
The operating budgets for security and policing forces in Baluchistan Province must be quite a bit different from Punjab Province. Might have something to do with the 8 million vs 100 million population thing? Some police escorts were all over it – some were not. We appreciate the security that the police provided and the fact that they have better things to be doing… but some of the escort coordinators really need to apply some common sense. It took us TWO HOURS to cover the last 10km into Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan… we went through FOUR exchanges in that 10km… waiting between exchanges at busy intersections. They use an armour plated vehicle up front that can’t move through traffic (we were riding the clutch in 1st gear) and said vehicle has sirens going full noise. The blokes in the back waved their weapons at anyone who came close to us… we felt like d^ck VIP westerners. The four cops on their two bikes could have covered the 10km in 15 minutes… one bike at our front and one bike at our rear… quick and quiet with no fuss. Short of fireworks, I don’t think it was possible to advertise our presence more.
TO DALBANDIN (stay at Al-Dawood)
Half a day is consumed in Quetta acquiring some rubbish permission slip… it is not possible to leave on the Quetta – Taftan Highway without this paperwork. The Quetta – Taftan Highway is offset ~50km from the border with Afghanistan… not a super safe place for the western traveler. We met a telecommunications engineer in Dalbandin… he spends a lot of time in the neighbouring mountains servicing towers. He reckons the area use to be safe for families to go on picnics but since 9/11 it’s all gone pear shaped.
We got to experience our first sand storm. As Murphy would have it, a businessman in Lahore had generously given us premium chain lube from Germany… a more tacky lube suited to performance sports motorcycles. We looked at each other after one glance at our chains at the end of the day: “Idiots.”
Hot tip: don’t line up border crossing days with a Friday in Islamic countries. This day was a LONG day.