Five weeks away and I think we're starting to get the hang of this travelling lark. We're getting used to the large crowds that form every time we stop to look at a map. Developing techniques for getting rooms for $4 instead of $5 is of course essential for any one on the road. But when you start to get a little too cocky, certain aspects of a different culture, such as what may be considered a normal introduction, can always pop up and leave you damn well speechless. "Hey mister, where your hair gone?" was certainly one of those moments.
Meeting up with Cliff, Jenny and Andreas to cross the Baluchistan desert from Iran to Pakistan changed our travelling experience to a small extent. Whilst we all felt more 'secure' in a group crossing such a difficult region, there was no doubt that everything took more time - from loading the bikes in the morning, to getting fuel from oil drums at the side of the road, to finding safe parking at night, most things take more time and progress slows. Of course, everybody travels for different reasons and it has made us appreciate even more, if there had been any doubt, that our schedule is a tight one and we don't have much slack for taking things easy.
The guest house at Bam was clean and cheap so we spent two nights getting organised, changing oil and so on before making our break for the border. During this short stay, Jenny and I became better acquainted than I would have preferred when, due to a faulty lock, she 'interrupted' me in the lavatory. Weakly disgusing her horror, she apologised and made her retreat without realising that she had now locked me in the loo. Some time later when I had only partially dismantled the door, her husband heard my pathetic pleas for help and released me from my by now rather pungent prison.
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Leaving the guest house at 6:30 would in theory allow us plenty of time to reach the Pakistan border in daylight - and we knew there was a government run guesthouse just over the border in Taftan that would make an ideal stop for the night. As the day and miles progressed, it became pretty hot, the water carried on the back of the bikes heated so much that it could easily have been used to make tea. And although we are now well accustomed to the beasts, our first wild camels were spotted so we of course stopped to take photos. Even more exotic were the dead ones. For some reason that remains unexplained, dead camels at the side of the road are turned into a sort of peculiar monument to the beast's own supercillious stupidity. Stones are piled up high around the rotted, parched carcases and bushes or foliage placed in their mouths. A custom that is unlikely to catch on in the UK. Headless dogs remain a perverse source of amusement and discussion on our now operational bike-to-bike intercoms.
The border crossing into Pakistan went smoothly and, although it was now dark, we found our way to the guest house without problems. As both generators had failed, by the light of gas lamps we ate some sort of prehistoric creature that must have had seven necks, three lungs and one kidney. Chicken it was not, and if we couldn't see to eat it, how the hell did he see what to cook? The morning after we declined to pay $6 for our coffees and headed for a planned stopover in the desert town of Dalbandin 200 miles further into the desert. Now this was a town, and the first time that we really felt that we were somewhere 'different'. The streets were full with people from different tribes and the noise, heat, dust, smells, sights and sounds were like nowhere else we had been. We really felt like adventurous explorers, as did the retired couple staying in the suprisingly decent hotel who had just cycled there from the South of England.
The day after saw a difficult ride to Quetta. It was one of those days when we just couldn't get it together and it seemed that every lorry wanted to force us of the road and every police checkpoint wanted us to stop and say hello. Even finding and negotiating for fuel proved tedious and laborious in the noon-day heat. However, at the checkpoints it is often necessary to sign in with passport and visa details so we noticed that a Dutch motorcyclist, Maarten, was only one week ahead of us. Maarten and I have often communicated via email during the run up to our own trips and I couldn't believe it when we finally discovered that he was in a hotel less than 1km away in Quetta. Maarten had just recovered after being holed up in his hotel room for 3 days with food poisoning, so obviously we all went out for a rather superb Pakistani curry and some blackmarket beers.
Loralai was the next destination for the now not-so-magnificent six and we made good progress until the road finished. Jenny was leading the pack and I started to doubt her navigation skills when we found ourselves riding along a dry river bed. This section turned out to be a 10 mile stretch of road being built almost entirely by hand. Gangs of workers sat at the side of the road breaking up road stone with hammers. In a country with 80% unemployment, I guess labour is cheap. But the scenery was beautiful with, astonishingly, trees and grass providing some relief from the monontony of the desert landscape of the last few days.
On reaching the small town of Loralai, we were immediately swamped by people, causing a fairly serious traffic jam in the narrow dusty main street. The atmosphere was not particularly friendly so we were glad to park the bikes and retreat to the guest house to get cleaned up. Shortly afterwards whilst I was in a tea shop discussing the Iraqi threat with a rather intense Afghan, Adrian popped by to let me know that there was now a policeman in our hotel who had politely informed him that this was a tribal region and our 'lives were in danger'. To the obvious delight of the hotel staff, the solution to this threat (whether real or imaginary) was to provide us with a small chap carrying a big gun. He was a sweetheart, clearly incapable of guarding anything but ours for the duration of our stay. So we took him out to eat, took him for a stroll around the town and joined in as his machine gun was passed between us and the hotel staff for photos.
Following an unremarkable overnight stay in Fort Munro and after discovering our most unpleasant lavatory yet in a Khoshab hotel bedroom, we arrived filthy and tired in the Pakistani capital city of Islamabad. One aluminium pannier had been damaged when Adrian embarassingly toppled gently from his BMW (in full view of the entire population of a small town) and this, in combination with a lot of hot miles and a horrendous sand storm in the Thall desert, meant that that a blow out was clearly in order. All six of us were really pleased to check into a decent hotel for a couple of days 'r and r', laundry and essential maintenance. Only $20 a night is affordable, even on our limited budget and Islamabad is a rather nice place where we can pass virtually un-noticed in the streets. Although restaurants as such are fairly limited, the food available from street stalls can be cheap and delicious and so I am rather worried to observe that I have actually put on some weight over the last five weeks!
Tomorrow, our group of six will split, as Adrian and I wish to spend less time than the others exploring the Karakorum Highway that leads over 600 km towards the Chinese border. This road is said to be incredibly beautiful and one of the wonders of the modern world, climbing to something like 5000m at our first stop at Gilgit. After this climb, we turn back, head for Lahore and then into India...
Posted by Sean Kelly at October 15, 2002 04:44 PM GMT
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