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From Quetta to Taftan - Driving the RCD desert highway
Thursday, 29 November 2007
The N40 RCD desert highway links Iran with Pakistan - a 680 Km long partly single lane road from the Iran / Pakistan border town Taftan to the Baluchistan capital Quetta. This trade route is mainly used by Pakistani and Iranian truckers, bus companies, fuel smugglers and the occasional foreign traveller.

For many first time travellers The RCD desert highway is a big unknown – there’s little information to be found other than a line on a map. The Baluchistan province in Pakistan is a desolate area, but there’s a lot going on. We drove this route in October 2006 and in November 2007 – each journey taking about 2 days. Here you find a few bits and pieces about the RCD desert highway.

The N40 RCD desert highway is paved with asphalt in the past 20 years. Before that the road was nothing more than a bumpy track through a mainly stony desert. It took at least a week to reach Quetta according to Pakistani custom officials at the Taftan border. Many years ago Pakistani immigration and customs was located at Nok kundi. Now in 2007 Nok kundi still has a custom office. Before the asphalt road it took at least 1 day to reach Nok Kundi. Since 2007 it takes less than an hour by car or bus. A smooth new asphalt road has recently been completed.

In November 2007 the RCD desert highway has about 339 Km of excellent asphalt road. The remaining 341 Km is of average to bad quality. Road construction work has started already in Quetta and nearly finished near Nok kundi. It wouldn’t be surprising if in 1 year time another big chunk of good road has been added to the highway.

In 2007, starting early in the morning, one can now reach Quetta in a day. However it’s a long long day with the worst part in the 2nd half of the day. A local bus takes about 11 hours to reach Quetta including a few breaks. They drive at night arriving at about 7 am in the morning. These Hino busdrivers race the highway at neck breaking speeds – even at the worst sections.

The highway is mainly used by Pakistani truckers with seriously (over)loaded Hino trucks. According to customs an average weight of 50 Tons is quite normal. They weigh every truck when it comes in at the customs area in Taftan. Some are packed so high, a small tilt either way makes them topple over. Some truck drivers have already shifted to driving trailer trucks making a run of 100 Tons possible.

All this heavy hauling has it’s effect on the highway – some parts are no more than 1 meter wide with severely cracked edges. If it wasn’t for the steep climbs in the mountains near the town Nushki the trucks would be loaded even heavier. Close to Quetta there is  another steep climb, some of the overloaded trucks can’t make it up. A few Pakistani’s with tractors are there waiting to tow them over the hill. However this will be history somewhere in 2008/2009, a new less steep road is already in the making.

Iranian truckers with modern Volvo, Mercedes and Iveco trailer trucks are also on the rise on this route. But most just swap cargo in the Pakistani customs area and then head back to Iran. Not all are fit to drive this route. Specially some of the Iranian trucks with such huge fuel tanks there’s only 10 cm of clearance below the tanks.

The second largest group on the highway are the Pakistani fuel runners. Driving blue pickup trucks (originating from Iran) they haul about 1000 litres of Iranian diesel or petrol over the border to Pakistan. It’s hugely profitable business. 1 cubic meter diesel does about € 12,- in Iran. The same amount in Pakistan can easily be sold for about € 390,-. The official subsidised diesel price (2007) in Pakistan is about € 430,- for 1000 litres. All along the highway you find many diesel and petrol sellers. And we’ve never seen any of the fuel runners cross the official border…

The highway has many police and military checkposts. We counted about 15 of them. Some require foreigners to sign their logbook – also when travelling by local bus. Whenever something has happened in the area they will stop local traffic – sometimes even at the border. From the Padag Desert checkpost (a few Km’s after Padag) it’s likely you’ll get an escort all the way up to Quetta. In case you do, ask them to drive behind you so you’re in charge of your own speed.

The worst threat for your vehicle by far are the speed breakers. Every village or railroad crossing has at least 2, every checkpost at least 1. Chances are that at least one will get you – or worse your car. You won’t be the first who has been launched by a speed breaker an treated on a (few) day(s) of suspension repairs in the middle of nowhere. Fact is, the unmarked speed breakers are hard to see in full sunlight and usually your attention goes to what’s ahead of you. Like the checkpost or the approaching village.Some of the speed breakers are so high – normal passenger cars like a Toyota Carolla scratch their bellies.

A serious breakdown on the RCD desert highway will set you back many days. The road to Quetta is the first rigid test of your suspension, bearings, rims and tires when coming from Europe. With the good roads of Iran one can easily reach Taftan. The real state of your suspension will prove itself +30 Km after Dalbandin. If you can – check your car, truck or motorcycle in Esfahan or Kerman – or at least take a few spare parts like wheel bearings, tire tubes and the right tools. There are many small repair shops along the route – however exotic parts and the right skills are very likely far away.

Security and safety is still an issue in this area of Pakistan. The border with Afghanistan is long and porous with a stony desert floor making it quite easy to cross by any vehicle with enough clearance. The heavy build-up of military and police forces on the Iranian side of Baluchistan is a stark reminder of the serious crackdown on drug trafficking. It isn’t really surprising that everyone keeps driving on the RCD highway – only at checkposts, towns and roadside restaurants we’ve seen drivers stop and take a break. Besides security there isn’t much to be seen and in most part of the year it’s so hot you’ll fry instantly. In November 2007 the night temperature was about 10 degrees – day temperature round 30 degrees. Good travelling weather!

Overnight stays are possible at several points on the highway. The first is the Iranian or Pakistani customs area. Taftan also has a PTDC hotel. Next is the Al Aman Hotel in Dalbandin, the government resthouse or the police station. The Padag desert checkpost (130 Km after Dalbandin) is a more quieter stay with a nice view over the desert.

For landmarks and waypoint on the N40 Desert Highway have a look at

In 2008 we hope to drive this desert highway again - for now we're on our way to Esfahan and hopefully afterwards the UAE and Oman for a winter stay.
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