17.07.2007 - 19.07.2007 50 °C
Taftan was my introduction to Pakistan; this small border town was on a featureless sandy plain. Over decorated trucks were parked everywhere on the dirty littered streets. I checked in with the army who surprised me with his up to date knowledge of the world cricket situation and then hopped in the back of the Toyota pick up which I had co hired with three other Pakistani guys to cut the 20 hour bus ride down to an 8 hour slog through the desert.
The driver thought he was a cross between Barry Crump and Possum Borne as he tore across the dessert at one of the two speeds that the pick up owned: stopped or flat out. Our only defence from wild camels running in front of us was the driver leaning on the horn.
He would mumble in Urdu at every check point as I slowed him down. I was the only one who had to fill in forms so the army could trace my progress if I failed to turn up somewhere along the drive.
The rocky flat landscape was only interrupted by the occasional mud brick fort or small oasis town with its lush palm trees giving shade to the occupants.
We stopped in one of these towns for lunch. I never thought that rice, lady finger and chapatti could taste so good when sitting on hard dirt floor in the middle this hostile place I had been so often warned against travelling through.
We were hurried back in to the pick up by the driver. He whipped along the single lane of tar seal, then pulled off at the last second to avoid on coming trucks. This move was performed all the time travelling at 120km per hour. Off to the side of the road huge dust twisters formed, maybe 100m in the air. We all looked at each other asking the same silent question, will these things do any damage if they cross our path?
Finally we wound down the hill into the city of Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan on the Pakistani side. At the bus station I was to find out that the bus had already left and that the next one was at 5pm the next evening. Great 22 hours in a town 150km from Kandahar with a large Al-Qaeda presence.
Now I would like to say that the whole trip across Boluchistan was rough and dangerous seat of your pants travelling. However a friend of a friend in Quetta picked me up and delivered me to the only hotel that had rooms and that foreigners were allowed to stay at. This consisted of a 5 star resort that was guarded by high walls and an army of armed police officers. You had to pass through a vehicle check point where your car was searched then before you could get inside you also had to walk through a metal detector.
This peace of mind came at $300US a night, however Ashid pulled some strings and got it at the budget crushing price of $150 US a night. So after giggling to myself and jumping on my king sized bed I had the first decent hot shower in weeks, got some washing done and helped myself to the minibar which I was shocked to find suffered from Prohibition. After gorging myself on the BBQ buffet I came back and watched two movies in English on HBO then fell sleep on down pillows with "you can't afford this" doing circles in my mind.
I went for a wander to stock up on some cash; I went into 4 different banks till I found one that changed traveller’s cheques. Every one of these banks was guarded by 4 or 5 armed officers and everywhere I went the situation seemed tense after the bombings in Islamabad the night before. With a pocket full of Rupees I was walking passed a bank when "BANG"......... I dove behind a concrete post as the bank guards all went to ground pointing their weapons every which way. The Pakistani guy who had been walking in the opposite direction and thought the concrete post also made a great safe haven looked me in the eye and we both started laughing at each other as we relished that it was just a tyre blowing out.
I was sitting on the cramped and dilapidated bus at 5pm, my back pack on the roof. There were another 20 Pakistanis ready for the 23 hour bus ride to Lahore. The road was rough and I must admit I was glad that this part of the drive was done at night due to the wash outs that had already claimed 5 different trucks and buses along the route. In the 23 hours we stopped five times in order to pray. Abdul, the young guy sitting next to me, took me under his wing and fed me spicy potatoes and chapatti from his own packed lunch and helped with the English barrier when it came to chatting with other curious bus members who basically wanted to know what a Gora was doing in this part of their country. At one point, while sitting eating spicy rice with my hands, I look around the restaurant and surveyed the other 60 or so people doing the same and feeling really at ease to be back in Asia.
I had arranged to meet with friends working in Lahore, Abdul lent me his cell phone to ring and arrange a meeting at the bus station. This proved a little harder than first thought as the bus station was a sprawling chaotic mess. In the end Abdul waited over an hour with me till Marks driver picked me up. It turned out that Abdul was not a student as he had told me at the beginning of our journey, he was actually a police officer and concerned for my safety.
Two hours later I was sipping my first beer in a month and enjoyed listening to Kiwi accents while being pretty happy with myself for still having all my fingers and toes.