#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
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
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
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)
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.
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."
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.
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
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.
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.