March 10, 2003 GMT
The journey begins

We set out early one morning from Delhi towards home, with 6702km to go as the crow flies but rather further as the Bullet thumps.

The last days in Delhi were notable for the immense excitement of the Indians at their cricket world cup match against Pakistan, which as far as they were concerned was the only one that mattered. Even as a vehement non-fan of sports, I have to admit that the atmosphere during the match was infectious, and the place went wild when they won - spontaneous parades formed in the streets with drumming, dancing and fireworks, from which we retreated when things became just a bit over-exuberant.

Captivated by cricket

Captivated by cricket

A couple of days of riding brought us to Amritsar with its serene Golden Temple, the centre of Sikhism that shines in gilded splendour in the centre of a pool. We saw also the square where the British shot dead hundreds of unarmed protesters in 1919, as described in Midnight's Children and Gandhi. Sometimes the apparent affection of Indians for the British is baffling.

No holding back on the gold

No holding back on the gold

From there it was a short and nervous ride to the border, which we knew would be the first major hurdle we had to overcome, coincidentally on my birthday. The problem is that we're trying the trip without carnets (something like passports for the bikes), which have recently become next to impossible to obtain for this particular journey. In principle, there shouldn't be any way for us to enter Pakistan or Iran without them, so we were expecting trouble. The Indians were a bit puzzled at first, but were fine when they realised we had bought the bikes in India and plied us with tea and coffee.

When we eventually extricated ourselves from their hospitality, we came face to face with the Weasel. This was the name given to a Pakistani customs officer by Oeyvind, an Enfield-owning Norwegian we met in Delhi who had briefed us on his recent crossing of the border (with carnet). It is an apt moniker, since this man was the most unpleasant I've met for a considerable time. We were initially told, as expected, that we couldn't cross. However, we were soon called aside for him to whisper a suggestion that we could pay an unspecified fee to take the bikes on the train through Pakistan. Partly as a bargaining ploy, and partly in the hope of proceeding to an offer of crossing under our own steam, we declined.

This was nearly our undoing, since for the next two or three hours, he and all the other officials insisted that we must go back to India, and he wouldn't return to his original suggestion. We stubbornly but calmly refused to go, but the entire crowd of border post workers became rather aggressive as the time for closure of the border approached. They had crossed out our entry stamps for Pakistan and the situation was looking hopeless. We were just about to mount our bikes in a state of dejection when we managed to re-open discussion on the train idea. A deal rapidly ensued in which we bargained the bribe down to 35 dollars, after which the Weasel feigned friendship. Bizarrely, he later refunded about five dollars of the bribe. His insincerity was astonishing, as was his volatility. That night we slept in a staff room of the customs post, in dubious anticipation of completion of the paperwork the next day. Our bikes went into an office, and we wondered as the door was locked whether we would ever see them again, seeing the rusting hulks of overland vehicles that had been confiscated or abandoned there.

In the morning, we tried to establish exactly what the procedure was going to be, and protested at the parts that weren't acceptable. Twice more, The Weasel became angry and told us to go back whence we came, but eventually we managed to roll on towards Lahore, or rather to wobble, since we each carried a customs official perched on the rucksacks on the back of our bikes. Mine bore more than a passing resemblance to Jabba the Hutt, which raised the centre of gravity to precarious heights. Jabba and his mate were actually rather helpful, and by dusk we were set for a train journey to Quetta the following day (full details at the end of this post for those who are planning this approach themselves).

We managed to meet up with Oeyvind in the evening, eating in the buzzing atmosphere of an outdoor restaurant in Anarkali Bazaar. Pakistan feels distinctly more middle-Eastern than India. The language is essentially the same but now written in Arabic, mosques, minarets and prayer calls abound, men with worry beads wander around in skull caps or head scarves, and grilled meat is prominent on the menus (and in our choices). We had time for a quick bit of sightseeing in the morning before loading our bikes on the train and settling down for the twenty-six hour trip. The landscape became progressively more barren as we left the river valleys and entered the Baluchistan desert, where brown, rocky hills rose from a brown, rocky plain dotted occasionally with brown, rocky villages.

The bikes try train travel

The bikes try train travel

Quetta feels that bit wilder. We're only about 50km away from the Afghan border here, and the small city is an ethnic mix with many Pakistani and Afghan tribespeople, most of whom look as though they could be smuggling weapons or opium, or both. Here the Persian influence is felt; tonight we had a fantastic meal of kebabs and a chicken curry, with phenomenal naan breads that must have been half a metre long, all in a place with carpets hanging on the wall, mujahadeen types eating cross-legged on the floor at low tables, and sweet tea poured from brass teapots.

Tomorrow we must try to persuade the customs officials here to allow the railway to release our bikes, so that we can proceed with the two day desert ride to the Iranian border post. Just to the north of this road, in the mountains along the border with Afghanistan, the hunt for Osama and his cronies is being intensively pursued. We're going to keep an eye out for him to scoop the story. Baluchistan is fairly bandit-infested, but it seems to have been quiet enough recently.

Details on the carnet-less border crossing:
There really doesn't seem to be any possibility of them letting you ride through Pakistan. Even Jabba and sidekick were fed up with the run-around we were given at the railway station, and they may not be overly keen to repeat the whole train idea, so I'd recommend accepting the Weasel's offer sooner rather than later. You will need to write a letter of application to the customs superintendent asking the bikes to be 'booked' until Quetta (or Taftan on the Iranian border, but we opted for Quetta since the train from Quetta to Taftan only runs twice a month, and we hope to be allowed to ride this section). We were told to copy one they had, written by a French bloke who did this in April 2002. A letter then needs to be typed to the customs office at Quetta. Since no one turned up to type the letter, we were just starting to do it ourselves on their ancient typewriter when the clerk arrived. They keep a copy, give you a copy, and send a copy to Quetta. Also sent are photocopies of your passport and registration book, and the original loading receipt for the bike going on the train. These are all couriered using a company called TCS, which is the last thing you do with the customs officials in Lahore before you're finally free of them.

For the train, with the customs officials we were sent through every office of Lahore station several times, bought tickets for the daily Quetta Express from Lahore (departure 1545), and paid 3.6 rupees per kilo for the bikes to go on, which had to be (largely) emptied of petrol. We insisted that we travel on the same train as the bikes, which meant delaying the bikes for a day since there were no seats or sleepers available until the following day. Even then, there were only tickets for a/c sleeper for about 35 dollars - expensive, but a secure two-person cabin with private loo! Bikes appear to have arrived dusty but undamaged. The railway staff in Quetta won't release the bikes without the original loading receipt, which we have verified has now been delivered to Quetta customs. More news later on what happens with them.

Posted by James Whyte at 04:38 PM GMT
March 24, 2003 GMT

We made it across the Baluchistan desert without being robbed, kidnapped, shot or even breaking down, which altogether was quite a bonus.

Much to our surprise, customs in Quetta proved to be a pleasure, thanks to Mr Raza (Assistant Collection, Car Section). He is a very urbane and well-informed man, with whom we discussed cloning, the limits of scientific knowledge, and Bertrand Russell's views on religion, before we even turned to the issue of bikes. We later talked very frankly about the political situation in Pakistan and the region, and its wider implications for sovereignty and multilateralism.

Our bikes were still required to travel under the auspices of customs. This either meant waiting several days for a train to the border, or proceeding with an escort. We explored the possibilities of putting the bikes on a bus or truck, but in the end Mr Raza came up with the admirably creative solution of sending the escort on ahead by bus while we travelled independently on the bikes.

A rare patch of sand in the desert

A rare patch of sand in the desert

In addition to the frisson of excitement provided by the potential hazards, the ride across the desert was enjoyable in its own right. The first day was quite varied, riding through and beside the stark hills, with the landscape varying from a dusty, rock-strewn vista to the sand dunes of popular imagination. Despite the extremely inhospitable surroundings, there were occasional sparse settlements, from which little children came running as we approached, gesturing for school pens. Whether they do this to all passing vehicles, or whether they've become adept at recognising the sound of a Bullet across the desert, I can't say. Another mystery to me is where the flies come from in the desert. You can stop a hundred kilometres from anywhere in any direction, and within minutes there will be a crowd of them buzzing around your head. At one fly-strewn shack we stopped for a cup of tea, and heard murmurings of 'America' among the obligatory crowd, so we became French. Usually we're Scottish, as a compromise.

Keeping an eye out for Osama in the hills

Keeping an eye out for Osama in the hills

We kept a low profile when we stopped for the night in the outpost of Dalbandin, since it has a reputation as being a den of thieves, and proceeded early in the morning to the border after filling up with contraband fuel. This stretch was almost completely barren, with literally nothing to see in any direction for hour after hour. The occasional slight turn in the otherwise perfectly straight road was signposted, presumably to guard against the numbing effects of the monotonous surroundings.

Not much variety around here

Not much variety around here

Raza's letter had indeed preceded us to Pakistani customs at the border, and had the desired effect. At Iranian customs, however, we broke our previous record by enduring a full 48 hour wait in the middle of nowhere. Nevertheless, they were civil about it all, and never once told us that we had to go back to Pakistan. It took several hours before they came up with their proposed solution, which was that we would have to buy insurance to cross Iran and have details of the bikes written in our passports to ensure that we re-exported them.

To their credit, it would all have been sorted out more quickly had we not arrived on the first day of a two day holiday. In any case, progress would have been difficult since a hot sand storm raged around us throughout the wait. It wasn't until half way through the third day that the insurance document was drawn up and they came up with the non-negotiable figure of two hundred dollars each. Smarting from the financial blow, we rode on into Iranian side of the desert, gradually becoming more elated at overcoming the major administrative hurdles to our journey.

Posted by James Whyte at 02:09 PM GMT
Southern Iran

The first town we came to proved just what a change Iran would be from the subcontinent.

Here the streets were clean and pleasant, with a developed air that would not have seemed out of place in Europe. Still, pulling up on our bikes we attracted crowds as large as those in India, but here it felt more threatening due to the presence of soldiers waving semi-automatic weapons at the crowd to make them disperse, and asking us to move on for creating a disturbance!

After taking five days to cross 1000km of desert, we arrived the next day in Bam, which was an oasis in every sense of the word. Bam is essentially a large patch of date palms with an extraordinary ruined mud brick city, topped by a mud citadel. In many parts of the world, such a site would be packed with visitors, but here it was practically empty for us to enjoy. We also experienced the first of many atmospheric Persian tea houses, complete with date biscuits and hookahs (that's as in water pipes, not chador-shrouded Persian prostitutes). A rest day in Bam was great for winding down after the forced march through Pakistan and the uncertainties of the borders.

The Bam citadel, before its destruction in the earthquake at the end of 2003

The Bam citadel, before its destruction in the earthquake at the end of 2003

Our onward ride was interrupted by some mechanical troubles with Bernard's bike, which suffered a complete loss of compression. We were quite proud of ourselves for taking apart the top end of the engine at the side of the road to replace the piston rings, but of course this proved to have been entirely unnecessary as the solution was much simpler! The problems also led to an enjoyable encounter with some jovial metal workers, who machined a new part to stem an oil leak and refused to accept payment.

The Iranian people are living up to their reputation for hospitality and generosity. We spent one night, when we failed to reach our intended destination by dusk, in the caretaker's room of an unfinished hotel. Again payment was refused (until we insisted). On the same day, when we did reach the next hotel, we were given breakfast by some other guests, and later were given biscuits when doing photocopying, then bread when asking directions. Today I was invited to join the extended family of an English teacher for a picnic lunch.

After three days we reached Shiraz. When I flew out to Delhi, the plane stopped in Muscat, so I see a pleasing theme developing. Shiraz is a deep ruby city with an aroma of dark fruit, eucalyptus, mint and American oak. Or at least it should be. In fact, it's a pleasant place with broad, tree-lined avenues. There we found a hamam, where I was scrubbed in the steam with a kitchen scourer and mauled by an old man with a fag hanging out of his mouth - the authentic hamam experience. This wasn't in a traditional old building, since most of these seem to have been converted to atmospheric tea houses. When the muezzin stops wailing and I've finished this, I'm off to another one for supper.

Spectacular scenery near Shiraz but no sign of grapevines

Spectacular scenery near Shiraz but no sign of grapevines

From Shiraz we visited the ruins of Persepolis. It would have been a stunning site in its prime, two and a half millenia ago, before it was sacked by Alexander the Great in 331BC. He certainly got around, that man - in thirteen years, he conquered almost everywhere that I'll have visited until I leave Turkey. The ruins are still impressive, particularly the bas reliefs that indicate that the Achaemenians were fond of receiving presents. They detail bountiful gifts being brought by all of their subject nations at the time of the Persian New Year, which coincidentally is happening at the moment. As usual, we were as much of a highlight to the Iranian tourists as were the ruins themselves.

On parting (for the amusement of those who know me)

On parting (for the amusement of those who know me)

Bernard and I parted company yesterday, since he has a more limited timescale. I came on to Yazd, breaking all speed records across the desert: with a good tail wind I touched 60mph, which is practically supersonic for a Bullet. The roads in Iran are excellent, so the lack of power of the Enfield starts to become an issue. Petrol costs aren't an issue, since it's laughably cheap at 4p per litre and therefore impossible to use more than a pound's worth in a day. Hills reduce us to a crawl, and much of the region we have covered so far has been quite high. Most days we have peaked above 2500m, where it's decidedly chilly when the sun's not out, and downright unpleasant if it starts raining. The vegetation at this altitude is sparse scrub, the hills are covered with patchy snow, and the beauty is very much of the rugged variety. Parts of it remind me of Snowdonia, only at twice the scale.

Iran seems generally far less frantic than India, and Yazd is no exception. Its old mud city is still inhabited, so it's fascinating to wander around the peaceful alleyways after seeing the ruins in Bam. It's also the one remaining centre in Iran for Zoroastrianism, the religion superceded here by Islam. This afternoon I visited the Towers of Silence where, like the Tibetans, Zoroastrians put out their dead to be picked apart by vultures. It would have been more serene had the hills not been used as a dirt bike course by teenagers on lawnmower-sized motorbikes. These are actually the biggest menace in Iran, since on entering a town it's all too easy to attract a swarm of youngsters on their pop-pops, who buzz and swerve around as you're riding. They're not malicious but they're incredibly annoying.

War broke out on the way to Shiraz, which is only a day's ride from the southern Iraqi city of Basarah and another from Baghdad. Handily I can follow the news on the same map that I'm currently using for navigation. All is peaceful in Iran, however, and there is no detectable hostility towards those from the belligerent West. The people don't approve of the war, but then who does?

Posted by James Whyte at 02:49 PM GMT

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