. . . LAND ROVER OVERLAND EXPEDITION

. . . AROUND THE WORLD 2001/02
     
Home
Africa 1999
Around-the-World 2001/02
 

The Team

Jeff Willner
1. Start: Recipe for Adventure
2. Zimbabwe: Hyperinflation
3. Namibia: Southern Circuit
4. South Africa: Circuit 2
5. Zambia/Malawi: Sketches
7. Kenya: Bandit Country
8. Ethiopia: Diary
9. Ethiopia: Border Run
10. Sudan: Across the Sahara
11. Egypt: Cape to Cairo
12. Jordan/Syria: Sept. 11th
13. Turkey: Hospitality
14. Bulgaria/Romania/ Hungary
15. Slovakia/Austria/Poland
16. The Baltics & Russia
17. Scandinavia
18. Western Europe
19. Brazil: Clearning Customs
20. Argentina: Revolution
21. Argentina: To Ushuaia
22. Patagonia Disaster
23. Buenos Aires Beautiful
24. Uruguay: Beaches
25. Chile: Expedition Life
26. Bolivia: Atacama
27. Peru: Transit
28. Galapagos: Gorgeous
29. Ecuador: Jungle Run
30. Knifepoint
31. Dubai: Lay over
32. Singapore/Malaysia
33. Thailand: Hospitality
34. Cambodia: Ankor Wat
35. Vietnam: Hanoi & Halong
36. Laos: Back to Basics
37. China: Beijing Tour
38. China: Shanxi
39. China: Western Province
40. China: Tibet
41: Nepal: Mountains
42. India: Driving Struggle
43. Pakistan: Dodging War
44. Iran: Overcharging
45. End: One Last Laugh

Sally DeFina
1. Cape Town: Robben Island
2. Zanzibar: Mike & I
3. Kenya: African Driving School
4. Sudan: Mud Crossing
5. Patagonia: Goodbye Max
6. Malaysia: Mike Update
7. Thailand: Ko Phangan
8. Cambodia: Phnom Penh
9. Vietnam: By Train
10. Laos: Vang Vieng
11. China: Meet Mr. Chen

Jody Finver
1. Start: Surreal Solipse
2. Great Zimbabwe
3. Brokedown in Kenyan Desert
4. Egypt: So Should I Hyphenate
5. Poland: Home is Where the Truck Is

Gulin Akoz
1. Start: Bits and Pieces
2. Zambia: Diaries
3. Egypt: Africa Memories
4. Turkey: For Your Information
5. The Team and The Bean
6. Somebody Else's Child
7. On My Own
8. Long Lost Memories of Childhood
9. The Tree and the Boy
10. Jealous
11. The Aftermath

 

Panamerican 2003
Various Trips
Planning an Expedition

 

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#43 - A Dangerous Drive through Pakistan
Jeff Willner - 3 June 2002

(Quetta, PAKISTAN)  "Are you mental?!" That was one of the more charitable comments I got back when I told a select few friends and family about our plans to drive from India through Pakistan at the height of the nuclear war crisis. "Jeffrey!" my mom said (and she only calls me Jeffrey when I'm in trouble), "having you safe and alive is more important than some daft goal of driving around the world." Ok she didn't say "daft" but that's what she meant.

But the bottom line was that we were stuck. From research and other expeditions we had heard about the infamous Customs officials at Indian ports. Budget at least two weeks and expect to shell out a lot of "facilitation fees" a friend confided. He entered India with his Land Rover at the same time as a fellow adventurer with a motorcycle. After weeks of hassle the guy with the motorcycle finally lost it in a Customs office. "Keep the bloody motorcycle. I've had it! I'm going back to England you bunch of ..." With only three weeks left before I had to start work the prospect of spending days and weeks in sweltering dusty offices waiting out the bureaucracy was was as attractive as a kidney transplant. Besides, a quick transit of Pakistan would only take a few days. What could happen in a few days?

"United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom withdraw all diplomatic personnel from Pakistan." The US is infamous in travelling circles for its fatuous warnings against travel. If a bomb goes off anywhere, or there is some random threat, the State Department will post aggressive warnings against travel on its website. It could be a result of a litigious society but the feeling in Washington is that if there is the tiniest chance that something could happen then the State Department should absolve itself of all responsibility. The Third World harbours disease and poverty, one risks exposure to drugs in Asia, Europe might be ok if it wasn't for the pickpockets. In fact you get the sense that they wish they could extend their travel advisories inside the US just to be safe... "Though the southern states are picturesque, travellers should be on the alert for potentially dangerous rednecks. These indigenous peoples have been known to be violent, sometimes crushing beer cans on their heads or eating unwholesome pork rinds for days on end while bass fishing on overpowered speedboats. Caution is advised. In fact you shouldn't really travel at all. Just stay at home and watch C-SPAN."

In complete contrast, travel advisories on the UK Foreign Office site are equally famous for their brevity. If you are English a piddling war should not stop you from visiting the former colonies. What, what. During the expedition we only ever checked the Foreign Office website if we were uncertain about going into a particular country. For example, it was refreshingly frank about Sudan. "While armed conflict continues in the southern part of the country, most areas are safe for travel provided some caution is exercised. There is no travel warning against this country. Do watch out for landmines and have a lovely trip." That's my kind of advisory. 

Our expedition insurance was from a UK company and had a provision that if we traveled into an area where there was an explicit Foreign Office warning against travel, the insurance would not be valid. In all our adventures through riots, war zones, and "terrorist" labelled nations it had never been a problem. But while doing our research I checked on Pakistan. The warning was quite clear. Don't go. Our insurance co-ordinator emailed me while we were still debating our choice, "Please be advised that you will have no coverage if you enter Pakistan - we cannot and will not be responsible." The US embassy advised its citizens that if they did go in and got into trouble they should not bother to call for help. You are on your own.

But inertia can be a powerful thing. We had already driven over 60,000 kilometers through 51 countries, we were so close to circling the globe. All we needed to do was drive across Pakistan and Iran and we would be done! Only one week. One short week of driving and we would be in the delights of Turkey, the laid back Mediterranean coast with its great food and gorgeous weather and ridiculously cheap prices. We decided to try getting visas, if we were denied then the issue would be decided for us. But not only were we not denied, the Pakistan embassy very nicely offered driving suggestions and encouraged us to go. "We don't get many tourists in Pakistan these days." Yeah, duh. So we decided, what the heck, you only live once. (insert James Bond theme here)

The border crossing from India into Pakistan wasn't encouraging. We were the only people in the cavernous processing hall (though it still took two hours for the Indian Customs officials to finish our paperwork - I shudder to think of crossing during normal traffic). I chatted briefly with the Pakistan border guards on the other side. "I hope there isn't a war, that would be tragic." "What do you mean?" the lieutenant replied puzzledly, "we are ready for war, we want war, we will win great victory!" I wanted to shake him. Nobody wins at war! It is a strategy of madmen with short-term vision. Think of the conflicts of this century, what was the ultimate fate of the aggressor? Even the heroic independence struggles of the former colonies yielded a crop of mostly rapacious leaders who economically enslaved their own people. But he was a very large man with a Commando badge on his uniform so I just wished him well with the carnage and bloodshed.

Sally and Stacey were pissing me off. We had several conversations about the travel plan and I had been pretty adamant. First of all I would have preferred it if they had just flown to Turkey and I would meet them there - but they refused (which I secretly had to respect). So I offered a compromise. "When we get to Pakistan let's just drive hard, find a good hotel with guarded parking so nobody messes with the Land Rover, and stay inside." "What? Don't be a idiot! We aren't going to sit inside a hot truck all day and then sit inside a hotel room all night. We want to see the sights and meet the people." "The 'people' just exploded a bomb outside the Sheraton in Karachi!!" I shot back exasperated. They shrugged, "Whatever." Women: can't live with them, pass the beer nuts.

So shortly after arriving in Lahore and finding a hotel we set off by scooter taxi to see the "sights". Despite one incident of rock throwing by some kids, we actually didn't feel uncomfortable at all. When we arrived at the Lahore Fort gate and paid for our tickets to see the fort, a young man sprang off a stool and offered to be our guide. Normally we would never pay for a guide, between our Lonely Planet guide and posted tourist signs it was easy enough to figure things out. But he was so dejected when we said no, "Please, please, I have not led a tourist group since September 11, nine months ago!" Fair enough, we can afford the two bucks.

He was an excellent guide who had clearly been doing it for awhile but during the course of our tour confided that he would probably have to go back to school and get another degree so he could do something else. For three years the tourism trade had been almost non-existent and with all the troubles he didn't know how much longer things would stay bad. I asked him about the looming war, did he think there would be trouble. "Inshallah (god willing) no. But maybe there would be. A bad business. War is not a good thing." I felt sorry for him and felt a bit better about his comment. Maybe the country wasn't chock full of warmongers and radicals.

Stacey had quite a fright at our next stop. After an evening meal at the Holiday Inn in expensive but very refreshing air- conditioned luxury we drove six hours to Bahawalpur. The roads in Pakistan were a big improvement over India. The main highways are four-lanes and light traffic makes for easy relaxed driving. Niiice. We found a mid-market hotel, ordered up a room service dinner, showered off the road dirt and Sally took off to check her email. After about an hour there was a knock at the door so Stacey bounced up to let Sally back in wearing her shorts and t-shirt (not appropriate attire in Pakistan). "Heeyy Sal....." she swung open the door, shrieked, paused briefly and slammed it closed. "Jeff, there are a bunch of guys outside in the dark, some of them have machine guns, they said they are police??" We waited awhile and I went out to find Sally, the hall was clear but there were some uniformed men in the lobby. When Sally and I got back the hotel owner asked us to come into his office. "I am so sorry to disturb you, these men are secret police (non-uniformed) and local soldiers (machine guns). Pakistan is very concerned that nothing bad happens to our foreign visitors, we can't afford another international incident, so your progress has been tracked as you drive across the country. My clerk was asked for photocopies of your passports but we neglected to get them when you checked in. Could you please come with me to a copier shop so we can do this."

I rounded up the passports and got in the hotel owner's car. A secret police agent and one of the machine gun toting soldiers followed on motorcycle. The hotel manager spoke pretty frankly about the situation in Kashmir. "You know Mr. Willner, tourism was the number two revenue earner for Pakistan and it is now dead. Hotels are hurting. I am the regional tourism manager for this area and we are all in very bad shape. There used to be many tour groups from Germany and the rest of Europe to see the beautiful deserts and Silk Route mosques, but now no more. Ninety nine percent, maybe that's too high, ok say Ninety percent of Pakistanis are just normal people who don't give a goddam about Kashmir. In fact the Kashmiris want their own homeland anyway they don't even want to join Pakistan! So why are we about to go to war with India over Kashmir! My god, most of us just want peace and we want stability. We want to work, we want to eat!" He was sincere and compelling. And I think it was in his car that my feelings changed about Pakistan from fear to concern. Concern that they would dodge the war, that the radicals could be curbed, that business could get better, and that the decent folks would be able to get on with things.

We woke up early the next morning for the long drive up the Quetta in northern Pakistan, near the Afghanistan border. Of all the places on our itinerary, Quetta posed the most danger. After the end of the war in Afghanistan many of the remaining Taliban fighters melted into the rocky hills in that region to shelter amongst their fellow Pashtun clansmen. It was a blisteringly hot day and the air-conditioning in the truck couldn't keep up with the heat. Despite the good roads, intersections were not very well marked and I lost the main road twice. The first time we went down a nastly little two lane county road for over an hour before realizing there we were running parallel to a fast-running highway. So the second time I wouldn't leave the nice road for love or money, it was supposed to be the main road north, it should be the major thoroughfare right? Sally got more and more nervous, the sun was directly ahead of us and it should be on our left. "Do you think we are going a bit too far west?" she asked several times. "Ah we will turn north soon." Then the road abruptly stopped and I realized we were screwed. Fortunately an English speaking man stopped in his Land Cruiser and offered his help. "Are you lost?" I paused. "YES," Sally blurted. "Are you going to Karachi?" he asked (that would be the opposite direction we were headed).  Sally, visibly triumphant that she was so completely right about our bad direction said slowly and with emphasis, "No... we are trying to go to... Quetta." "Oh dear, you are going the wrong way!"  he said sympathetically.

This may be a good time to point out that we were doing the trip with a grossly inaccurate atlas that I had been given free prior to the trip, and our Lonely Planet guidebook maps. No GPS, no Pakistan map, not even a compass. I did get sponsored by a GPS company and they gave us a free unit but it was crap. It only worked with a functioning laptop and gave you very accurate co-ordinates... but had no map software. Nice huh. What good is knowing your latitude and longitude down to several decimal places if there is no reference to anything else. There is no logical reason why I didn't just buy a functioning GPS unit during one of the breaks in the trip when I was back in the US, but I didn't. Call it pride. Call it frugality. Call it bone-headed stupidity. Anyway, there we were in Pakistan with no real map, relying on the tried and true method of stopping to ask every couple dozen kilometers whether we were on the right road. It turned out that local custom is to agree with whatever you say. "Is this the right road to Quetta?" "Yes." We got smart after some bad answers and changed the question. "Where is the road to Quetta?" A bit of a pause. "That way!" We didn't realize that it was also very impolite to say "I don't know", much more accommodating to just guess. Perfect. 

So we were hours behind schedule, hot, very tired, and really really hoping to get into Quetta and into a hotel before dark when the road abruptly climbed out of the desert into the rugged cliffs. No more 120kph driving, we wouldn't make it before dark, but I still pressed hard on the corners hoping to minimize our time on the road at night. "You know," said Stacey, "before we came out here I had these visions of Taliban snipers hiding in desolate mountain passes, and this scenery is exactly what I had imagined." Then literally seconds later as we rounded a corner there was a metallic pop, grinding, and the truck stopped moving. We had broken down in the worst possible place.

I tried slipping the clutch but there was only a harsh rasp from the rear. Almost immediately a couple of lorries inching down the hill pulled over, the drivers jumped out and ran over. The best we could do was crude sign language but after ten minutes or so they were able to spot the problem. It wasn't the transmission as I had feared, it was more likely the rear transfer case. They offered us a tow back to Sibi, a town we had just passed about twenty kilometers back, but realizing it was only the transfer case I was able to engage the differential lock. We could move, but only with power from the front wheels, and only at 30kph. I turned to the truck drivers who had managed to scrounge a tow rope from the back of their truck. We will drive on to Quetta, a bigger town with more mechanics, but 85km away. Solemnly the lead driver put his hand on my shoulder, touched his heart, and shook my hand. A touching gesture of comradeship. 'Go with God' he was saying. 

It was a nerve wracking slow drive for the rest of the night. Slowly, too slowly, we inched through the mountain pass. Near the summit I noticed double flashes coming from the slope. Bandits? Terrorists? Sally noticed the lights after awhile. "Oh my gosh, what is that." I tried to be breezy, no worries, just soldiers, no big deal. Even so, I felt a dark vice tighten around my gut. Too fast for the machinery but too slow for comfort, we sped down the backside of the mountain into Quetta. After an hour of searching we managed to find a good hotel. The night guard ran a mirror underneath the truck twice checking for bombs. Welcome to the northern frontier.

How will we be able to repair a rear transfer case in northern Pakistan? "No problem Mr. Jeff," I was assured by the hotel chauffer the next morning, "I will show you are good garage." "No, no, not a good garage, I want a Land Rover dealer. You understand, an experienced mechanic!" Visions of a bad patch repair coming undone in the middle of the vast Baluchistan desert swam through my head. "No problem, good garage, very good mechanics!" We wound past the main bazaar into the narrow alleys lined with crumbling shops. My heart sank. Turn here, yes, this is it. "No I want an experienced mechanic!" "Yes, very good mechanic" he smiled. They swept the dirt off a peeling bench. I waved it away, no thanks I would like to watch the work. Within seconds they had the rear wheel caps off, the dripping axles pulled out, then the cover off the transfer case. Tea came and I settled down, they seemed to know their stuff. Sure enough they spotted a stripped gear. Together with the chauffer and mechanic, I prowled the scrap yards hoping against hope that we could find a replacement. And we did. All in, it took a couple hours and less than $50 to make a complete repair. That's the beauty of a Land Rover, spare parts and decent mechanics all over the world. 

Sure enough the women disappeared into the bazaar in town to boost the local economy, returning a couple hours later loaded down with souvenirs. At least the hotel manager had forced them to take a local guide along. It was great weather, Quetta is a holiday spot in Pakistan renowned for it's gorgeous scenery and temperate climate. So all in all a nice way to spend an unplanned down day. From our courteous tour guide to the careful secret service agents, warm-hearted truck drivers to kind mechanics, Pakistan was proving to be a lot different than we had expected.

It was a quick drive the next day. Decently paved road through the western desert, a nice meal at a small town hotel, and a leisurely transit through customs and immigration at the border over several cups of tea. I crossed into Iran with mixed feelings. Happy to be back under insurance cover, pleased that we had dodged serious trouble, but a bit sad that I hadn't had the opportunity to see more of the country. With some good statesmanship I hope that Pakistan will be able to defuse the crisis with India. Would that they find peace and stability. It would be nice to be able to visit without risking life and limb, not many folks are willing to take the chance. But mark it down for future reference. Pakistan is worth a visit. 

 

Copyright January 1999-2011
All rights reserved - Jeff Willner
Contact: jeffwillner@yahoo.com