UK to Nepal: Travels With Our Sherpa - Part 3
by Cindy Thompson
Pakistan, Stuck In The Baluchistan
Pakistan was by far our favorite country. It came top of our list for hospitality, adventure, value for money and stunning scenery. All the negative things that were told about Pakistan by the West, just didn’t happen to us or other travellers we met. That we would get robbed, shot and that the men would have little respect for me as a western woman. It wasn’t true. Every Pakistani we met, (except one) couldn’t do enough to help us and make our visit a happy one. My only disappointment was that I didn’t meet many women. Women led a very traditional life, staying at home looking after the family. In some rural areas, women only ventured outside when wearing a Burqa, a sort of complete covering of a huge round table cloth, with a material mesh window for the face. Burqas were not so common in the cities, where women, held jobs and dressed in a more relaxed manner. I adopted the traditional Shalwar Khamese, baggy long trousers, covered by a long dress, and had no problems.
Pakistan is not for the faint hearted. But for the rough and ready seasoned traveller who know to expect the unexpected. If you are open-minded, down-to-earth and dress conservatively, you’ll have a wonderful time.
Our first impression of Pakistan at the Iranian/Pakistan border was how filthy it looked. Rubbish, mostly plastic was strewn all over the streets, piled high in some places and men urinated on the rubbish piles, adding to the unsavory odours of rotting rubbish and dead dogs. On top of that the border town looked run down, dingy and had a very healthy population of flies.
As we sat in the overcrowded customs room, in the sweltering heat, I couldn’t help noticing a rather fancy arrangement of twigs and pieces of moss covering the entire and only window.
‘What on earth is that?' I asked the official stamping my passport.
‘Oh, that’s our air-conditioning unit.’ He proudly exclaimed.
‘Well you’d better get it turned up then.’ Quipped Alan as he mopped his brow. The official then ordered one of the office minions to turn it up. This was achieved by flicking water on the arrangement, allowing it to evaporate, so cooling, if only feebly, the temperature of the office.
From the border we had to cross the potentially dangerous Baluchistan Desert, the only road through which, was a rough broken tarmac track, of roughly 300 miles. Having made sure we had a full tank and plenty of water, we set off. The Baluchistan was just miles of semi-desert scrub land. In parts, desert storms had covered the track, making driving in a non-4X4 difficult. In the event of a break down, RAC recovery didn’t stretch this far! The route was quite well frequented by Iranian truckers carrying fuel and other provisions into Pakistan. We had met up with two travellers, a Brit called Lorraine and her partner from New Zealand, Shane. They were in a Land Rover and agreed to travel with us for the crossing. Also traveling at the same time were a German couple with two cats. They had got held up at the border due to their suspicious cargo. Religious statues rapped up in bandages! They were on a religious mission for the Catholic Bishop of Madras. They told us that they had done the same trip 4 years ago, in search of the meaning of life, but didn’t find it!
Our desert crossing was going well until we decided to try and drive from the old road to the new road, which had just been built but not officially opened. In between the two was an area of soft, deep sand, which didn’t look good. We watched Shane and Lorraine make it to the new road in their 4X4 Land Rover, then we (Alan) tried. I knew what was coming, that we were going to get stuck, but my predictions were falling on deaf ears. All I could do was grip my seat and wait for us to grind to a halt. We did get stuck, being unable to move backwards or forwards. I was informed that my quip, ‘I told you so.’ Was typically female and that I couldn’t have possibly have predicted the results of momentum, speed and weights involved, in such a difficult manoeuvre! Shane tried to pull us free, but couldn’t do it, mumbling something about his clutch. A huge 6X6 Volvo construction truck coming the other way tried, but our super duper heavy duty towing rope from a well known car accessory shop, snapped 4 times. The German couple eventually caught us up and pulled us back with their multi stranded, metal tug boat rope.
At the Sind/Punjab border we were stopped and asked to wait for an escort. Apparently a military coup was looming and there was civil unrest, and as visitors we were to be kept safe at all times. As we waited at the state border Zafar, a very friendly policeman insisted that we partake of refreshments. A tea slurping, biscuit eating, uniform swapping, photo session ensued and we were so busy enjoying ourselves, that we didn’t notice a Toyota Jeep with a sub-machine gun mounted on top, underneath which sat six more armed police.
‘Your escort has arrived.’ Proclaimed Zafar.
Our escort lasted three days and took us to Lahore. It travelled in front of us with the sub-machine gun being pointed in all directions and the other armed police hanging out of the back of the jeep, guns in hand, ready to stop anyone who dared to come between us. So that we were not held up in towns, road blocks had been set up and the public held back by more armed police, who saluted us as we passed. We were being treated like royalty. The most impressive manoeuvres were the rolling change-overs. Every few hours a blockade had been set up with the next escort waiting to take over, all executed with military precision. We were impressed. We parted with our escort at the YWCA, Lahore and parked up in their gardens. Lahore was a very dusty, dirty, polluted, crowded, chaotic and smelly city, but the people were most friendly.
We decided to drive the Karakorum Highway, the high road to China. The road grips the valley walls through the Karakorum Mountain range, the most famous of which is K2. The KKH was originally built in 1959, to link Gilgit, some 840 kms away, to the rest of Pakistan. Later it was extended from Gilgit to Sust and into China. At the peak of construction 25,000 men were employed to build the road, which included; 24 bridges, 70 smaller bridges, 1,708 high class culverts, using; 8 million tons of dynamite to move 30 million tons of earth and rock. After the addition of 80 million tons of cement the KKH was finally completed in 1978. The chief engineer is said to have stated that, ‘No road has been more difficult.’ Whilst the construction was an incredible achievement, it also had a dark side. It left 400 dead and 314 seriously injured, though many of those involved would argue that the figures were appreciably higher. Due to weather damage and seismic activity, repairing and keeping open the KKH, is an ongoing process. Certain parts of the road are closed or impassable during the winter months. We had to drive over numerous landsides and negotiate rough tracks to avoid sliding glaciers. The scenery was awesome and we were made most welcome, wherever we stopped.
Half way up the KKH, our clutch got stuck in 2nd gear. We managed to crawl still in 2nd gear to the next village, where the local tailor took control. He summoned a small garage into action, with the remainder of the village coming to watch. With a flurry of activity a couple of young lads instantly took the gearbox out, mended the clutch and had us ready to roll again within 1½ hours, even though they had probably never seen a Sherpa before. The job cost a mere $10 and the gearbox didn’t give us a moment’s trouble, all the way home.
Pakistani trucks and buses must be some of the most highly decorated in the world. The hours invested to painstakingly decorate with painted pictures, attachments of chains, baubles and dangly bits, is mind-boggling! The vast majority of truckers would blow their fancy horns as they passed by, at the same time giving us a heart felt smile and wave, to welcome us to Pakistan.
Pakistan made our hearts smile. They were proud of their country and accepted us as we were. Whilst they might appear to be living in the past, their acts of concern and hospitality are far superior to ours in the West. Never would they ignore one of their own or a foreigner who needed help. What a pity I am unable to say the same for the English!