20 February, 2008

Riding Around Afghanistan

The border crossing wasn't nearly as time consuming as I had been led to believe. The Indians and the Pakistanis are not usually the greatest of friends, so I had expected a few difficulties. This is the border post where they have the most huffy and petulant Border Closing Ceremony in the world each and every evening. The border can close without warning at almost any time, but the Ceremony always takes place at the same time each day, regardless of that. During this bizarre show (there are seats for an audience to watch it) grown up men in spotless army dress uniforms and the shiniest of shiny boots stomp about like John Cleese and shout unfriendly nonsense at one another before slamming big gates and stomping off. My experience of the Indian side was efficient and trouble-free. On the Pakistani side, a new building had recently opened with air-conditioning and other mod-cons. The border guards there were helpful and friendly. Neither border post was overly busy.

After being treated, as traveller and guest in Pakistan, to some free internet access at the first iCaff I came to, I found Teus-Jan in exactly the same Lahore hostel he said he'd be in. We quickly renewed our acquaintance. Scary stories of snow, closed roads and suicide bombers from the other backpackers in the hostel (mainly freelance journalists and photographers hoping for a 'story' - by which they undoubtedly meant some photogenic but chaotic violence) made us immediately explore the possibilities of train travel. This, we were told at the massive railway station, would be difficult presently as everyone had to go home to vote in the upcoming elections and there were no bookable seats on any of the trains. We decided to take our chances with the local population and the weather and see just how far we could get on the bikes.It was funny though, I had received several e-mails from home asking; "are you mad? What are you doing planning to ride through Afghanistan?" These made me grin quite a bit because, well, no, I am not quite so insane as to ride an unprotected motorbike with UK number plates on a UK passport through a land where the UK powers-that-be have decided to send in troops and have a proper shooting war. So, without very much at all in the way of any sort of thought, Teus-Jan and I planned to ride around Afghanistan, south from Lahore through Multan. Turn right at Sukkur to Quetta and then west through the chilly Baluchistani desert, over the next border into the stable safety of Iran. This, of course, being the only practical option.

But first we had to get our Iranian visas sorted out. Teus-Jan had applied for his weeks before me, but had heard nothing. I had been told that mine was waiting at the Iranian Consulate in Quetta.

The road south from Lahore was good, if a wee bit slippery. Drivers were no less mad here than in India but they were far fewer and so a little more easily evaded and dealt with. Everyone was excited about the elections but there was not the slightest hint of any trouble for us, quite the opposite. There had been some few bombs in the North West Frontier Province which borders Afghanistan and isn't really ruled by anyone properly, least of all the Pakistani government. But we weren't going anywhere near there.

The land here was far greener than in India, although I was only riding down the western, Pakistani side of the border I'd just ridden up the eastern, Indian side of. Were the Pakistanis more fortunate in the land they had gained, or were they more skillful in irrigating it? Our first night was spent in a fairly scummy roadside hotel. I was in no mood to eat the food, much less listen to the unpleasant stories of the two owning brothers who said they had previously studied in Russia, where (they said) they had wooed many ladies. In the squat toilet of the room we were offered lay a fairly fresh, unflushed human poo. It smelled quite badly but was just laughed at by our 'hosts'. They turned the water on and flushed it away. There was no hot water and so, no shower. Tired, I crawled into my sleeping bag and sought sleep.

Before we left in the morning, after having no breakfast, I managed to smash my right mirror while wiggling the bike trying to sort out my luggage. Still, I'd only need it till I reached Iran, the first country where they drive on the right since the US. This was Election Day and there was some mild tension in the air as we rode through town after town of smiling policemen politely ushering us through. None of this was directed at us. Whenever we stopped for directions, or to ask about the road ahead we were treated with utmost courtesy and always given accurate, reliable information. At lunchtime we were pleasantly surprised to find that the cafe owner would only have Teus-Jan pay for his cup of tea. The food we had eaten (a spicy rice dish that tasted a lot like haggis) was on the house for intrepid travellers and guests to Pakistan such as we! Teus-Jan and I smiled contentedly at one another as, with full tummies, we climbed back aboard the bikes for the last leg, into the mountains towards Quetta, where we had been assured all along the way that there was no snow. You can be sure of Shell (to pollute nearby ponds!)

I had wondered whether to fill up with fuel but we decided I'd probably make it and anyway Teus-Jan had this massive fuel tank he'd never been able to justify since leaving the Netherlands nine months previously. He had originally intended to go as far as Australia, but having reached India, taken his time and enjoyed the journey, he was ready to retrace his route home. He rode a 600cc Honda TransAlp onto which he had managed to organise the 750cc Africa Twin's far larger fuel tank.

There were fuel stations nearer to Quetta - tens of them - all next door to one another, all without customers, all open, all selling nothing but diesel, none able to explain why there were so many or why none sold petrol. I stopped in a few to ask, wasting valuable fuel and eventually rolled to an undignified halt about 6miles short of Quetta. Getting fuel out of Teus-Jan's tank was only a little hassle, and we stood for a while in the silence of the desert watching birds flocking together over the mountains to the west as the sun set colourfully behind them.

We had neither of us been particularly well since Lahore, but on arrival in Quetta we both fell under some greater lurgy which led to frequent and unpleasant lavatorial visits, extreme lethargy and general physical unwellness. We were very sick.

We dragged ourselves around Quetta, chasing visas and changing money. The desert winds had covered the roads in a light dusting of Baluchistani talcum powder. Any little tug on the front brake lever would lead to an alarming skittering of the wheel. Luckily, we were never too far from the luxuries of our lavatory!

Teus-Jan had still not received the necessary code number that would allow the Iranian Consulate to issue his tourist visa. We were both concerned to learn, however, that this Consulate could very easily issue a ten-day Transit Visa in just one day. We’d both waited over a month for these Tourist Visas!! And paid a fortune for them. Also, since the government of the Netherlands has much better relations with Iran than the UK government currently enjoys, his visa was much cheaper than mine! The irony was that I had no intention of spending the 30 tourist days I had available in Iran, whereas Teus-Jan had made some good friends on the way through and was keen to spend some time with them going back.

Some better news came for me in the confirmation that one of those Sarahs - of Cusco and Quito memory so long ago - had decided she might have had enough of South America now, and felt much more like flying to Turkey and joining me on the homeward leg. This was the Sarah whose entire previous motorcycling experience had been 20minutes around Quito on the back of my bike. This was bravery far beyond the call of any duty! She had been teaching English in Cusco (something I'd done years ago in Portugal) and we had kept in fairly regular contact since Quito and had more recently been playing Scrabble on-line. I had been occasionally teasing her about coming to join me, never once thinking she'd take me up on the offer. I was tickled pink at the prospect of company, especially as it looked like Teus-Jan and I would split in Iran - at least for a while - he heading north towards Tehran leaving me to tackle the snowy mountains of conflict-torn Kurdistan alone. There were just eleven days to reach Adana in Turkey, in order to meet Sarah off the plane.

Teus-Jan and I spent one extra day of recuperating illness in the forlorn hope that we might get better. During this, I explored the scrappy, looking for electrical bits and hoping for a new mirror. A jovial gent almost grabbed the old bashed-in mirror (no glass, folded glass-holder), battered it back into shape and replaced the glass. It was better than new, and far less expensive! I also had the pannier racks welded (for the 5th time) free of charge ("you are our guest here in Pakistan") but all the relays I found were faulty. When it became clear to both of us that we could easily wait here another month before we might feel any better, we decided to go. Teus-Jan’s TransAlp needed 20 minutes in the sunshine to warm itself up before it would start, and then reluctantly, slowly and carefully we made our way out onto the desert road, heading west into the vast Baluchistani Desert.

This road was not so good. The air and wind were very cold and progress was slow. Every so often surly policemen would stop us. Clearly unhappy at being posted so coldly and remotely, they made us dismount, enter their wee huts and fill in lots of details into huge ledgers. This was "for our own safety" but if that was really true, they'd have taken only our number plates and not delayed us so long. Everything they needed to know was on the Pakistani Customs' computer system. There are only a very few places where we could safely and reasonably sleep in that desert and we needed to make miles. We were headed for Dalbandin, the only town of any size along the way that had a hotel. At some points we were less than 50kms from the Afghan border, and plenty of Taleban fighters are reputed to spend their leave here. We calculated that it was not worth their while to kidnap two daft motorcyclists and risk the wrath of the Pakistani government, thereby potentially alienating themselves from the locals and having nowhere else to go on leave. Also we guessed they were resting from the war, and so it would be unlikely they'd be looking for any trouble.

We arrived in Dalbandin tired, dusty and far later than we'd planned having covered only 200miles. The hotel was damp, dank and fairly unpleasant, especially given our increasingly delicate health situations. The only hotel for 200miles in any direction doesn't have to worry overly about attracting customers. After an expensive and limited meal, I lay awake most of the night, fitfully dozing in the clammy dampness. Alternately shivering and sweating, I listened to great trucksroaring past, rattling the windows which struggled to keep out the chilly desert wind.

Happily the following day presented us with warm sunshine and a fantastic road, the only difficulty was crossing the occasional deep sand drift. There was even a highly jovial gent at the Pakistani border post, and crossing into Iran was relatively simple and straightforward. There was a bit of banter necessary to move things along but we chuckled and giggled our way through the formalities without offending anyone. Soon we were welcomed and permitted entry into The Islamic Republic of Iran.