Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The harsh realities of travelling in Pakistan and Iran

While staying in Pakistan had been made pleasant and memorable by the extremely generous and hospitable people in spite of the country's complex security situations, leaving Pakistan itself is a complicated process. With the inability to cycle most of the way across Pakistan from Multan to cross the border at Taftan , we headed back to Lahore where our Pakistan adventure began to board the train and headed for Ouetta in Balochistan where much violence had taken place since 9/11. Although Balochistan constitutes about half the land area of Pakistan, the population is less than 10 million, people who feel that they should not be part of Pakistan. The land is largely unpopulated with large areas of barren and mountainous hostile regions that stretch for hundreds of kilometers. It is really not clear if the government in Islamabad and the military have real control of the province.
After a three-hour delay we finally boarded the train at Lahore in what was supposed to be a journey of 24 hours. All the 'sleepers' were taken and we were left with window seats. The deplorable state of the coaches, the slow speed and the countless numbers of stops add to the extreme discomfort we had to endure. Hordes of hawkers peddling all kinds of goods from food and drinks to mobile telephone chargers would swarm the train trying to sell their wares making it impossible to even have 40 winks. The stops could be from five to ten minutes at the stations and at some stations the train would stop for up to 30 minutes to allow the train coming from the opposite direction to pass. At one station we stopped for five hours because the train before us was attacked by insurgents ( bandits?) and the workers staged an instant strike. The train only started moving again only when the negotiations were successful.
We actually spent two nights on the train and finally arrived in Quetta after 38 long hours. It was freezing cold in Quetta and after retrieving our bicycles from the luggage coach we cycled to town looking for a guesthouse/hotel. Quetta looked like a war zone with armed security personnels at road junctions and 'sensitive' buildings. After making some inquiries we found a hotel that suited our budget, relieved to finally be able to take a much needed rest. We did not venture out to explore the place because before we came here we were told that we (Malays) look like the Hazzaras, enemy of the Balochistans, and they have been known to attack and kill the Hazzaras without provocations. It was cold and in some places snow were still present. With temperatures in the negatives we were not at all eager to venture out anyway.
During our brief stay in Quetta we were able to interact with some of the locals and understand the mood. Of the town, Quetta, it is teeming with people of many ethnic groups including Afghans and foreign relief workers working for foreign medical centers. We are told that some of the Afghans here are undergoing psychiatric treatment, a direct result of the Afghan conflict. An entire mall is devoted to house medical clinics and pharmacies located near our hotel. A large number of ambulances are also evident in town.
From Quetta to Taftan (at the border with Iran) we again had to take the coach (bus) as we were advised against cycling for our own safety. The journey took 12 hours with half a dozen stops for security checks where our passports were checked and particulars recorded. An armed policeman was also on the bus throughout the journey. Much of the landscape is harsh and barren with little human activity. Unless you are very tough and ready to face all hardships now is not the time to travel in Pakistan, just stay home. While the distance from Lahore to Taftan is about 2,000 kilometers the actual distance we cycled in Pakistan is only about 700 kilometers
The process of getting a 14-day entry visa into Iran at the Immigration post took about one and a half hours and once we left the border post we again faced conditions not dissimilar to that in Pakistan. Security seemed to be the same concern with the presence of security personnels ( police or military) were evident. Travelling from the border post to Zahedan we had to be escorted and go through several checks along the way and on reaching Zahedan we had to report to the local police before we were allowed to board the coach heading for Tehran. A thorough check of our luggage was made before it went into the luggage compartment. The 12-hour ride from Zahedan to Tehran involved at least 10 police checks. At one checkpoint all passengers had to disembark and all luggage inspected while at another a 'sniffer' dog was used to frisk passengers and luggage. This process was to ensure that no drugs were present on board.
The landscape in Iran is similar to that of Quetta to Taftan, where much of the land is barren with some snow-capped mountains in the distance. The cities and towns are however much cleaner and more orderly. While city traffic is as chaotic no donkey carts or the three-wheel motor rickshaws are present.
Tehran is a huge city said to be the 27th or 30th largest city in the world. It has a population of more than 17 million. The traffic is no less chaotic than say in Hanoi or Kolkata. You don't see many luxury vehicles like the Mercs or the BMWs on the road.They are mostly Peugeots especially locally produced Peugeot 405 and the Japanese models. Most evident is the Paykan you can see everywhere you go. It is the replica of the 1966 Hillman Hunter that was produced in Iran. There are more than 2 million of these vehicles produced and production only stopped in 2005. Iranians have a passion for speed and all drivers drive fast even in the busiest streets. While we complain about the nuisance of ' Mat Rempits'on our roads, here in Iran all motorcyclists are 'Mat Rempits'. More on Iran in my next blog.

Hundreds of graves on the way to Quetta

He ain't heavy he's my brother

Never alone

Snow capped mountains in Quetta

At the Taftan border

Terrain in Iran

My young friends in Tehran

With Milad Iran's top DH rider

Riding in Tehran


Joe said...

With all this sabre rattling going on, I hope you both take precautions while you are in Iran. It is supposed to be a beautiful country!

Anonymous said...

Hi Adnan, your ride to London seems to be taking a few unexpected turns.Your easy adaptation to the changing conditions is the way to go!
Keeping tabs of your progress with keen interest and wishing you all the best.
Dr Lee

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Catherine Tramell said...
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