He’d just locked the keys inside his truck. What a plonker! And what a hopeless position: parked as it was in front of the gate – which the guard had just unlocked and now the truck totally blocked the access point between Iran and Pakistan … cornered near Afghanistan. A high fence defined the frontier, mesh and barbed-wire running out and into the barren hills and cramped against the wire were Afghani refugees living in a dusty, iron-sheet, canvas and timber squalor.
The German had offered me a lift. But now, with his truck stuck, I was sure I would be catching the train to Quetta. (The capital of Baluchistan: the vast desert region of western Pakistan. Baluchistan is a rugged, arid land bordered by Iran in the west, Afghanistan to the north, the Arabian Sea in the south and the greener Sind province of Pakistan in the east.) I’d rushed to make the once-a-week train; I didn’t fancy waiting for the next departure. Or one of the old, agonizing and infrequent buses which left the border.
I strolled through the gate and into Pakistan – the truck still blocking it. Other vehicles couldn’t pass. Fortunately, there were none waiting this early in the morning. I greeted the Pakistani police. They were friendly, smiling, asking questions as they shaded on the veranda of the customs hut.
Surrounded by dark-skinned police, in black uniforms and black berets (with red insigna), I felt elated to have reached the Subcontinent. Historically, I’d now entered India. But politically Hindustan, or land of the Hindus, was still 1500 km east. For the last two days dark-skinned people had been prevalent in Iran as I’d neared Pakistan. In Kerman, I’d given a woman – begging with her child – 1000 rials. However, this brought another woman with child, screeching and shrieking at my feet. These women made me wonder about the immense poverty I would encounter in India: What would I do when everyone wanted money?
Now, stamped into Pakistan, I wandered back into the glaring sunlight. And no sooner had I, when the money changers rushed me–shouting and arguing for my attention.
“Change! Change!” “Dollar. You ‘ave dollar?” “Iran rial, I change.” “Good rate, I give best.” “No mista, do not listen to this man – ” ” – How much, you say?” “I give more!”
I changed the last of my rials for Pakistani rupees. Meanwhile the truck remained stuck in Iran, inches from Pakistan. Still the German cursed. Confused Iranian guards ran round with wire and other objects that might open the door. The German pulled at the rubber lining the window. I offered my Swiss army knife. And suggested: Smash the window with a rock. But he wouldn’t hear of it. Eventually he stripped the rubber, opened the small triangular window, then pushed his arm through and unlocked the door. The border guards were impressed – and I suspect, a little relieved to have the gate clear as other vehicles had arrived.
I had a lift, again. We drove past the immigration shack to the custom’s building round the corner and stopped. Inside, they inspected my pack briefly. Then with our passports checked and stamped again, the official followed us back the to truck.
During the next hour customs checked the truck’s contents with the descriptions on the carnet, while scores of dust-coated cars (Ex-Kuwait like I’d seen at the Turkish/ Iranian border) arrived. A Mercedes 180 came strapped onto the roof of an old bus!
Returning guest-workers and their families waited for clearance. Customs took awhile. Killing time, doing essentials, young adults and children gathered with jerry cans and plastic bottles on the soaked soil round the water pump. One guy washed dust and grime from his arms, face and feet. Another scrubbed his sandals; others cleaned windscreens, checked tyres, ate and relaxed before the drive across the desert. A happy vibe bounced around the vehicle park. It said: We’re relieved to have nearly reached home.
I watched the activity while the customs man inspected the truck. First, everything inside the rear living-unit. One stove. Two fridges. Three spare wheels. A second engine, tool box … And then inside the cab.
The flat-nosed Mercedes freight truck had a green cab and the rear was dark-blue, with a flower painted and circling a lone plastic porthole. A black panther – like those kitsch 70s bedroom posters, sparkling eyes, mouth open and stalking – gazed from above the cab’s roof.
The driver, Kris, said he’d painted both pictures. He was a solid guy who tended to waddle, rather than walk; being top-heavy, like a body builder who’d neglected his lower half; his muscles were obvious in his faded black singlet. He looked like someone I’d met before: shaggy brown hair touching the his lower neck, blue eyes, sharp nose, whiskery face and moustache.
Kris said the first 160 km of road was a trail of tyre-grooved dust. Old tracks, piled stones and the skeletons of buses kept us on route. Otherwise, it was the perfect place to get lost. Imagine a flat and empty landscape halved into two colours: dust-grey sand and stones – like rough sandpaper and pale-blue sky.
Driving this desolate stretch heading east, we crossed paths with six Baluchi’s going north. One man rode, while the others led laden camels–sacks and blankets. We stopped. They stopped. We smiled, shook hands and exchanged greetings. “Salaam akeikum” – ‘Peace be upon you.’ “Wa aleikum asalaam”, they replied. ‘And peace be upon
you.’ Beaming in the eyes of both parties: the surpise of having encountered each another. Here two worlds collided. Them with Allah’s time-tested transport and us, with our recent man-made machine.
These men wore traditional garments – of a style perhaps unchanged since man’s creation? The bearded chief resembled a biblical prophet. He dressed in clean white robes and in turban with flowing tail. He held a sturdy wooden staff. The rest wore knee-length mostly grey–shirts and baggy trousers, with round-flat caps or loose turbans. Only Allah knows where their leader led them, so much space, so much sky.
Speeding across the blank expanse our truck sent dust whirling. But the trail wasn’t good, and more often the pace was slow. Many ruts and holes. Kris had driven this route before and this was now his fourth time. And his last. He said, “I’m sick of it. Too much hassle and it is too lonely. When I saw you, I was very glad to see another foreigner–zat is why I ask if you want the ride.”
I asked Kris about the hassles involved with driving from Germany to Nepal. And he replied, “The police always stop me in Iran. Zey see a European truck and zey search for a long time and are always wanting things. I am sick of zis…”
In Germany Kris (a mechanic) and friends brought old trucks, loading them with second hand appliances and setting them up as campers – to avoid custom’s restrictions. Later they sold the lot in Kathmandu. But it had been Kris who’d done all the travelling.
“Once,” he said, “a friend took the truck across Turkey but when he reached the Iran border, zey turn him back. So I had to fly from Germany to drive the truck for him.” “Did he have a visa?” “Yes. He had a visa from the embassy in Germany.” “Why was he turned back then?” “Zey gave no reason. But there was a diplomatic problem at the time between Germany and Iran, maybe zis was the reason. It did not matter anyhow, zey let me in. But I think it was because I had been to Iran before…”
Parking off the road for the night, we later slept. By mid-morning we’d reached the asphalt. It was pocked with holes. The slow and bumpy road stretched before us, weaving as the landscape became rugged.
It was weird, startling, even spooky. A rock-strewn plain patched by scrub and yellowish weeds. And breaking this mustard-and-grey carpet were mountains; rocky, razored and near-vertical from their base, forming in a series of serrated ridges, curling the land like dragons. The road passed between two spikes and beyond the nearest ridges, the distant peaks were misted in a blue-grey haze.
Later, in a panorama of gravel and barren sand-swamped hills, we stopped alongside two camels chomping on green thorny bush. Watching over them were two boys. One about ten and the other in his early-teens, both dressed in dejembas (knee-length shirt; with loose trousers). Kris gave them some stickers, demonstrating what they were by peeling one and fastening it to the windscreen. They invited us for chai, pointing to a mud-and-stone flat-roofed house nestled beside a hill. Kris declined.
The landscape was silence and the road empty. But we did encounter the odd Kuwaiti car or Pakistani truck. The trucks were gypsy caravans on modern chassises. Some had cabins built of wood with ornate panels and tassles around the windscreen and doors. Heavily-decorated and brightly-painted Allah praises, murals and motifs ran around the high wagon-like cargo bins. Fairy lights, metallic stickers and chains clung from bumpers and tailboards. Signs were painted on the back of each truck: “Please use horn”. And like some warning, they thundered past us – we never overtook them. Their drivers drove fast and crazy. After several battles, it was always us who pulled over to let them pass. We stopped either for trucks or to stretch, or to refill our waterbottles from the rear tank.
Driving into Dalbandin around dusk, we halted for chai. At the tea stall we met a teacher. He showed us to a basic restaurant. They served mutton curry with rice – or the reality, sticky bits with spicy soup and bones. Anyway, it seemed like a meal after two days of biscuits. Before leaving I visited the outhouse, where I flicked a lighter to see where I was stepping. Of course, the long-drop reeked something horrible but at least turds didn’t cover the dirt. Around the pit, hundreds of cockroaches – 2 inches long – scuttled for cover as I squatted.
Before we departed Dalbandin the teacher reappeared with a lump of charas (hash). After two hours we turned off the road, careful not to park where the sand was too soft. Then without papers, Kris carefully loosened and emptied a cigarette, mixing tobacco with pinches of charas before repacking the cylinder.
Now lying in our sleeping bags on the truck’s roof – accessible by a skylight – we smoked, gazing at the stars.
Silence, except my walkman playing softly … But alarmingly half-way through the first smoke we thought we heard someone shouting. Looking down, we saw an armed soldier walking around the truck. He asked what we were doing? We told him: Just parked for the night. He said okay, and bid us good night.
And not until the morning did we realize in this total emptiness that there was a police post just across the road! It had been invisible last night.
Kris had checked the ground but still we managed to get stuck in the sand as we left that next morning. The rear wheels spun and dug in. He revved-hard and we wound deeper. After scooping sand from the tyres and placing some wood beneath the rubber, we tried again. We jolted forward. The small plank snapped. Sand sunk around the axel. Kris told me he’d nearly lost a truck in the sand before – it seemed we were to repeat the lesson.
It was looking ugly … Fortunately, a man from the station offered help. Within minutes we had seven men armed with a spade and two lengths of wood. They dug us out. Free; we thanked them. Kris gave out Western cigarettes and matches (which he carried to give as gifts).
For hours the road coiled across rugged hills as we began climbing towards Quetta. Mountains of rock devoid of trees. As we twisted towards the top of another range of boulders, tussock grass amid reefs of jagged rock – the corner ahead came into view. A crashed bus. It lay on its side on the slope, having punched through the stone wall flanking the road. Surprisingly it had stuck – not tumbled into the gorge.
The road wound hills and later followed a river, through steep cliffs of layered wave-thrashed rock. Pebbles and reeds lined the river. But further, the water dried-up as we drove alongside a wide floodplain dotted by shrubs; red-brown and green blotches reaching to rounded, gentle hills a mile off. T
Throughout the journey the scenery was desolate and barren. Stunning landscapes. But nature aside, the only sights were rail bridges and tracks occasionally following the road. At times the line burrowed into cliffs, travelling through tunnels built by the British early this century, and bove the entrances small stone forts (with crenellated walls and turrets like a Medieval castle). A hint of the troubled times had by the Brits in this wild corner of Empire.
In Nushki (I think it was this place as it is only one of three towns on route to Quetta) we saw green trees and lush vegetation amid rundown brick and shanty buildings. Shoe-box-sized stalls and sack-and-timber shelters were crammed infront of old brick houses – looking half-finished or falling apart with paint fading and fragile timber lean-tos and awnings tacked on; rugs and clothes hanging from roofs and wires. Nuskhi was drying out. I think we’d missed a downpour. The roadside was muddy and swamped by large puddles, forming temporary lakes around houses, shops and cigarette stalls, causing donkeys and carts to circle round.
And when we stopped at a stall a crowd of 40-50 gathered. Males of all ages came to watch the foreigners and admire the truck. Men and boys. Some wore turbans. But most had round-flat caps with a wedge cut in the front, embroidered with motifs, flowers and studded with tiny mirrors.
After traveling 620 km – three days – across Baluchistan we entered Quetta that afternoon … The main street was thick with cars, trucks, packed buses, swerving bicycles, diesel-coughing rickshaws. The hustle and bustle like a photo I’d already pictured, like a scene I’d already visualized, and now finally India seemed within my reach …
For more info visit http://www.thecandytrail.com/crossing-baluchistan-pakistan/