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Pakistan First impressions
Friday, 12 January 2007
The Iranian road to the Pakistan border in Iran was long and uneventful. Endless stretches of perfect road trough desert like terrain with subtle ascents and descents up to 2485 meters. We stayed for 2 days in Bam at the parking of the Bam Tourist Inn – a good place for Indra to roam a little after hours and hours in the truck and to clean out our big sand collector on wheels. We were touched by the earthquake devastation we’ve seen in Bam. The rich cultural and historic site of bam in ruins but the suffering of the local people is heartbreaking. Families wiped out completely, houses, shops and factories destroyed. Our taxi chauffeur showed us his family pictures – 7 people, only he and a daughter survived the quake – our hearts sank deep. It felt inappropriate to come to see old ancient Bam – while the real suffering & devastation was all around us.

People try to make a living by selling stuff from sea containers placed in the rubble of the quake. To us it seemed the quake struck just a year ago, in fact it was December 2003.
Only a few buildings really seem to be restored or untouched like the Bam Tourist Inn.
Walking through ancient Bam in a sea of devastation restoration efforts where ongoing. Somehow it felt strange to spend any money on restoring a tourist site while the citizens of Bam still need all the help they can get.

From Bam we moved straight on to Zahedan. The same dull road – nothing to see or do. Again huge line of trucks at the petrol stations just outside Bam. Fuel smuggling for these incredible 165 rials / litre diesel is big business. But we got lucky, in a small town just after Bam we could fill up our diesel tank to the max without any queuing. They even tried to refuse our 30.000 Rials (about 3 US$) for ‘just’ 181 litres.

Arriving at Zahedan round 13:00 we decided to head for the Pakistan border in stead of looking for a place to stay in this smuggler city. After two police roadblocks and one we had to register with our names, passport and vehicle we could continue to Pakistan.
Due to the time difference the Pakistan border was closed already when we arrived, so we camped inside the Iranian border area. Not at all a bad place to stay – highly recommended compared to spending a nite out in smuggler city – despite the noise from a huge Pakistani junk yard and the nice fumes from burning plastic bags.

The border crossing was the usual paper shovelling stuff. Iranian customs & immigration was pretty relaxed but took about 2 hours without any vehicle checks. Pakistani immigration was more high tech – computerized immigration procedures with webcam mugshots! This while the Pakistani border area at first glance is a chaos of people and sun battered buildings. Customs though was again ole fashioned paper shovelling and without any vehicle check. The people at the Pakistani customs office were very friendly and helpful – it’s a treat to be there – also a good place to spend the night when it’s too late to cross the desert.

We drove into the desert around midday heading for Dalbandin. Till Nok kundi the road was average to bad. Max speed for round 50-60 Km/hr. From Nok kundi and a detour through dessert sand - the road was new and in excellent state – Iranian asphalt quality and almost no traffic at all. What a surprise!

We reached Dalbandin late in the afternoon at the busiest time. We stayed at Hotel Al Alaman after a we could just make the turn into the parking area behind the Hotel.
Later we heard there is a far better place to stay with a truck at some state operated tourist guesthouse . (N28°53,159 E064°24,487 - the Lonely Planet – Istanbul to Kathmandu mentions the place)  

The next day the excellent road went on till the first railway crossing. From there the road got real narrow with pretty bad spots at some point. Here we got our first police escorts – a police ambulance, a 125 cc Honda with 2 guards and a pickup truck upto Quetta. And  before Quetta they left us, just when we needed them the most!
After 1,5 hour we found Hotel Bloomstar with the help of locals. We could narrowly enter the hotel gate with our 3,30 meters in height and find a place on the rather small parking. Hotel Bloomstar has a real garden for Indra inside, but unfortunately not allowed for dogs anymore after the owner saw it. Also no electricity because of some accident in 1999 where a fire started in a camper due to a short circuit. Not really surprising though after the bad roads of Pakistan – loosely connected wiring can easily get loose or be damaged.

Quetta is really quite an experience after Iran. With just Dalbandin and Taftan in our minds this is a big rural city with real dense and superbly chaotic streetlife. Passing through the streets is an attack on your senses – maximum overload – with practically everyone taking a good look at you in a 50 meter radius. Men shouting “Hello Mister”, “Welcome” mixed with screams, whistling and of course the cultural staring. Amazing one gets used to all this in just a few hours. Most of the people are friendly, helpful and hospitable – which makes the Pakistan experience quite special. Although the vocal interactions tend to progress in a haze of confusion, broken English and funny faces, it’s a treat to experience Pakistani people and their way of doing things.

After a few days of Quetta we moved on taking the road through Sibi and Jacobabad. The owner of Hotel Bloomstar recommended to go this way. It’s longer but in better shape and faster, they say. The last we doubted – it’s simply a real real long haul up to Lahore.

We reached Jabobabad round sunset on reasonable roads without escorts. This town has the chaos of Quetta but again different. It’s more tropical and the people have a more similar background it seems. (Quetta is a big rough melting pot.)
Here we had some trouble finding a spot to park. None of the police checkposts wanted us to park – they all directed us to stay in the city centre. On the busiest hour and after a full day of driving? Please – hello Pakistan!. So after an hour we came back at the first outside police checkpoint and just parked. It was Ok after all.

The next day was a full 4 lane highway day with the usual chaotic road scenery. This is seriously dangerous driving – with speed differences between horse and wagon, cyclist and a modern western ranging upto 120 Km/hr. We drove the right lane as much as possible with speeds of 90 up to 100 Km/hr. To us this was the safest option while blasting our TGV train horn. This 120+ dB accessory is an absolutely lifesaver – mounted at earlevel inside our right wheelcase to make it go far beyond unbearable. (best is to have 2 sets of horns – one for each side) And it seriously helps – all the slow traffic ahead reacts instantly and moves to the left shoulder of the road. The cars passing on the right, pass quicker after being treated with a little honk.

With the sun low at the horizon we reached Bahawalpur at the busiest hour of the day.
It’s the ‘desert’ of a full day of driving - extreme road chaos in the city centre – no trucks like us allowed – with us looking for the PTDC hotel. Surprisingly without too much trouble we found it and parked in a lush green garden all for ourselves - although a bit expensive. With Indra in a super happy state we stayed a few days.

The Bazaar of Bahawalpur is worth quite a stroll – and practically the only place to shop.
At the busiest hour it’s packed with people and rickshaws vomiting blue smoke in your face. Everything is there – but you have to look for it and take your time. Very friendly people – most of them willing to help instantly.

Here we got our first Pakistani butcher experience. We can’t make more of it, it simply is an extreme eye-soar. We call them the toe-knife artists. In a few minutes they disassemble a chicken with a knife clamped between their toes while sitting on a high plateau in front of the shop so you can see every tiny detail.  Welcome to your bio-Hazard – fly invested – extreme non-HACP – E-Coli – Salmonella and toe-nail meat shop.
Can we take your order please?

The thick dominant smell in the butcher area is impossible to describe although the familiar blue smoke of the rickshaws somehow take off the real sharp edges. It’s a hard confrontation, but again it’s amazing how quickly one gets used to this. Janine managed to order chicken meat for Indra – that’s as far as we dared to go. Anyhow this is how the average Pakistani buys meat, and there is a real big demand so seemingly people come back again and again. If this is how self regulation works – who are we to judge this situation with our sterile western butcher shops where any trace of where meat comes from is meticulously removed?

From Bahawalpur we decided to move straight on to Islamabad although it would be a long long drive. We skipped Lahore because we felt we needed a break from entering busy cities at the end of a full day of driving. So after many hours of intense driving in the usual chaos we reached the impressive M2 highway. A strange relief to get to drive 3 lane asphalt in such serene quietness!  It was unreal, we had to pinch our arm if this was really happening. Is this Pakistan?  We decided to spend the night at the 3rd big service area with restaurant, gas station, police and clean toilets. It was strange to see there was no trace of locals selling stuff on the curbs – something which is really normal in Pakistan. Probably these place are off limits to the small business men.

After a quiet night we moved on to Islamabad and arrived at the campsite for foreigners somewhere round 2 pm. We felt drained and exhausted – we reached this small oasis after 5,5 days of driving and 2056 Km from the Pakistan border. We also crossed our first 10.000 Km after starting our journey from Oisterwijk in the Netherlands.  

For Indra it’s not easy to be in Pakistan. On the road there is hardly any place where she can roam freely. The roadsides are incredibly messy, huge crowds pile up quickly and the traffic is dangerous. Not much fun when you’re used to roam freely and play a little between these long hauls in the truck. The tourist campsite in Islamabad is simply paradise for Indra. People play with her, the area is secluded and there is green lush grass.

Islamabad is a city area unique in Pakistan, it’s the most developed with a strong western life-style influence. This is the place in Pakistan to stock up, meet other travellers, look for spare parts receive ‘poste restante’ mail or get your Indian or Iranian visa. With the ‘other’ Pakistan’s in mind it’s almost unlike Pakistan. However a small trip to Rawalpindi quickly brings you back to the Pakistan experienced elsewhere.

Looking back on our first days of Pakistan, it’s an unique country with it’s own distince identity. It’s also quite astonishing how quickly one adjusts to the many faces of Pakistan. The Baluchistan desert, tribal Quetta, the densely populated area’s and the highway scenery upto Islamabad. With Turkey and Iran on the background, Pakistan surely is a big change for any first time traveller. This country is certainly worth the visit in every aspect. For 2007 the Pakistan government has also announced to be a special tourism year.
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