Entering Pakistan from Iran! The 7th “stan” (opium, guns and smiles)
Day 1,899 since October 10th 2013: 167 countries out of 203. No flight, no return home and min 24 hrs in each country.
(The opinions expressed on this site are my own, and do not reflect the position or policies of the Danish Red Cross)
Pakistanis are the fourth most intelligent people in the world
It was just a few weeks ago that I was eating horse meat in Mongolia. A week ago I enjoyed a camel meat hamburger in the southeast of Iran. Now I am in Islamabad in the north of Pakistan. And I have not taken a flight in over five years. Wrap your brain around that!! ;)
Yeah! I’m pretty happy to announce that plan D paid off!!! I crossed the border from Iran to Balochistan in Pakistan on December 14th. It’s a little hard to stay humble when you pull something like that off. I’ll do my best though. In just 14 days we crossed over 11,919 km (7,449 mi) of land and sea. I say “we” because your support has been nothing but glorious!! We are talking about 4 trains, a ferry, 2 minibuses, a bus, 5 taxis, 3 metros and 2 visas. I slept in 2 regular beds during those 14 days. The other 12 days I slept on a variety of transportation. We reached seven countries throughout this madness: Mongolia, Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, Iran and Pakistan! The overall average speed has been 35.47 kph (22.16 mph) and the average distance per day was 851 km (532 mi) by public transportation!! Yeah! I pushed hard. But I was pretty angry!! ;)
Well, they say that people show their true colors when they are angry. I guess this wasn’t the worst that could have happened ;)
Kerman, Iran. Navid took this photo. We contemplated upon how come Starbucks, KFC, Gillette, Coca Cola and DHL all continue to operate within Iran durring the hardline policies of the USA?
I left you all as I was getting last week’s entry online in Navid’s home. Do you remember him? We met on the train from Tehran to Kerman (Iran). Navid works at the frontline of technology with a focus on artificial intelligence (AI). No wonder he had a great WiFi connection ;) Navid is a really great guy. He took good care of me for the day I spent in Kerman and showed me around a bit before dropping me off at the train station. Kerman is yet another historical city in Iran. Around this part of the world every city seems to be historical. I happened to visit Kerman for the first time in 2010 when I was on a four month motorcycle adventure with my Australian mate Cam. You’ll meet him when we get down under next year ;)
Navid and I chose a cool burger joint for our dinner. And of course I had to try the camel burger which was juicy and tender. Then he escorted me to the train station where we picked up my ticket for the overnight train to Zahedan near the Pakistani border. I introduced Navid to a popular card game in Denmark and before we knew of it it was time to leave and say farewell. Just a few hours before departing Kerman I learned that these days you can get a high quality Persian carpet for just €100 euro!! Times have changed. It was a quiet night across to Zahedan. I do sleep on these trains but it’s the kind of sleep where I wake up when it gets to painful and I need to lay on my other side. The kind of sleep which keeps you unrested.
A chunk of opium and a pipe behind it.
My friend in Taybad (Iran) had hooked me up with a contact in Zahedan. The train arrived early morning and I took a taxi as soon as I could to meet with Ahmed. Once I reached our meeting point I texted him and he came down on the street to greet me. Ahmed has apparently hosted a lot of travelers who were on their way to Pakistan. I was obviously interested in learning whatever I could in the 11th hour. I have a friend who is well wandered in matters of security and safety. That friend gave me the entire rundown of what I could expect across the border and for the first few days in Pakistan. In great detail and he was almost right about everything. Now I was with Ahmed in his apartment and he told me to feel at home. He sat down on the floor and continued smoking opium - something I knew very little about at the time. He offered! I politely declined. No problem. According to Ahmed opium gives you the ability to focus on one task in great detail. It also looked like it was very relaxing. Ahmed told me that Zahedan was all about three things: opium, guns and money. Welcome to the Wild West of Iran. I was curious about the opium and asked to the cost, the long term effects, how it is harvested, how it is smoked, could it be absorbed in other ways and I even got to hold a huge lump of opium and smelled it. Ahmed gave me detailed instructions on how to prepare the pipe and smoke it. He told me that kings had smoked opium for many years. I was intrigued about learning about something I was never taught in school. But I also wanted to reach the border ASAP.
Driving towards Pakistan (Afghanistan is slightly of to the left in this photo).
I bought some snacks and water for the upcoming ride into Pakistan's desert. Then I had a taxi take me to the roundabout where all the taxis go to Taftan...the border post. It’s a little weird driving towards Pakistan. The media is very one sided on what it reports about Pakistan. I’ve been wanting to go for many years. Balochistan is the westernmost province (state) and it borders Afghanistan, Iran and the Arabian Sea. Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran are not three countries which get along famously which is a real shame. There are some issues in Balochistan which might have been dealt with if the three countries could cooperate. More about such issues in a bit. The taxi got me to the border and I had to walk across. Nothing new in that. Everyone was friendly at the border and they all wanted to see my motorcycle? As I did not bring one they wanted to know which car I was driving? I came with a train, then a few taxis and now I was on foot. The landscape around us was dry and mountainous. “On foot?” I replied I was technically with public transportation. “Welcome!” Everyone was smiles.
Pakistan Police. They wanted photos with me so I took one with them.
Out of Iran and into Pakistan. My Pakistani visa was valid until December 19th but valid for 15 days from entry. I entered before the 19th so all was well. I knew this but we would try to twist this information a few days later. We? Yes, as I reached Pakistan I was greeted by an official who told me that the vehicle was ready for me. I approached the Suzuki Grand Vitara. It was a 4WD with French license plates but I did not notice that. The back door was opened for me and I hopped in next to a lot of luggage. The steering wheel was on the right hand side and a muscular guy who looked local sat there in an army green t-shirt. “The driver?” I thought to myself. I reached out to shake hands with the man in the front seat, a European looking fellow in his fifties who did not speak much English. But I did understand that he was French and that his name was Fabrice. I do speak some basic French and who would have known that it would come in handy in Pakistan? The driver reached out to shake my hand. His name was Aamir and he was not an assigned driver. This got interesting really fast! Fabrice is Aamir’s father-in-law and they both live in France. Aamir was however born and raised in Pakistan where he worked as a policeman for several years. Aamir eventually joined the French Foreign Legion and moved to France where he met his wife (Fabrice’s daughter), got married and started a family. Fabrice is a mechanic by profession and Aamir is now working within the finalizing stage of completing houses and buildings. Together they decided to drive that Suzuki from France to Aamir’s village in Pakistan. And in nine days they had made it from border to border while leaving enough time to take photos, stop for meals and sleep in hotels. YES! From France to Pakistan: 8,500 km (5,300 mi). Did your world just become a little smaller?
Aamir to the left, Fabrice in the center and the Suzuki in the back! :)
By luggage went into the Toyota 4WD ahead of us. It was marked “Levies”. The Levies are an authority on their own in Pakistan. Somewhat like police or the military. Their role is delegated to local areas where they live and have knowledge in depth. It’s a remnant from the British Empire. Fabrice and Aamir had reached the border earlier in the morning but it takes time to clear a vehicle. Good for me as I now had a seat in a comfortable vehicle with good company.
The day went on with a gazillion handovers from Levies to Levies. It was all very polite and we would shake hands with everyone everytime. “Salaam Alaikum”. “Alaikum Salaam”. Pakistan is an Islamic country and Salaam Alaikum means: peace be upon you. The correct response is: “Alaikum Saalam” which means the same. Lots of desert. Lots of driving behind Levies. Limited speed. On and off lost time at one Levies border post while we waited for the Levies from the other side to arrive. We were on our way to Quetta which is the state capital of Balochistan. Little did I know that there would be 16 different regions for the Levies between Taftan and Quetta and therefore 16 stops along the way to say farewell to the former armed guards and hello to the new. We also had to sign in with name, country and passport number almost every time and often they would need photos of us, the car, our passports and the license plate. You get the picture…it was slow. We spent the night in Dalbandin having covered only 309 km (192 mi). The road was good enough to have done that in less than three hours. Oh well…
So, Pakistan is the first country in which the government has handed me free merchandise! Here you see Fabrice getting his Pakistan cap, Pakistan pen, Pakistan wristband and Pakistan key-chain :)
The next day was more of the same. Fabrice, Aamir and I got to know more about each other and my bags were now in the Suzuki to make the transitions between Levies faster. 16 transitions between various Levies? I believe it! We reached Quetta in the evening on Saturday Dec. 15th. A busy city with a lot of traffic. A patrol of policemen wanted to know if we were heading to the hotel or the police station. None of us wanted to spend the night in Quetta. We wanted to push on now that we only had 311 km (193 mi) to reach the state border. Especially Aamir who is Pakistani believed that he had a shot at keeping on throughout the night. I knew that it would require a No Objection Certificate (NOC) for me to continue but I was hoping that Aamir could fix something for us. I had also been told that the homeland department does not issue NOC’s over the weekend and furthermore that we would need to wait an additional day after receiving the NOC’s before we could leave. Since Aamir was a former policeman I trusted that he might be able to make some special arrangements for us. A handful of armed policemen on motorcycles escorted us to a hotel where we learned that the price per night was 4,000 Pakistani rupees. That is $29 USD per night compared with only $7 USD the night before in Dalbandin. Only the best for us foreigners!! Given that the monthly wages are around $110 – 144 USD for many people in Pakistan we found the costs somewhat steep. However I could have paid that for a few nights. The thing was that we wanted to move forward and not lose three nights “imprisoned” in Quetta. Aamir came up with the plan to use my visa for a reason why we could not stay. The visa clearly read that it was “good for journey upto 19-12-2018”. Now in reality that did not matter as I crossed the border before December 19th but the authorities we were dealing with most likely did not know that. Therefore our story went that I had to get to Karachi asap in order to apply for the Indian visa so I could leave before the visa expired. It was worth a shot. A side story of ours was that we did not have enough money to hang around in Quetta and certainly not for the 4,000 rupee hotel.
The last checkpoint before Quetta...
My first meal in Quetta. Tasted great. Was supplied by Aamir :)
We stuck with that story for days. That night Aamir debated with a bunch of people in Urdu for several hours until they began fighting internally. Some saw our side of the situation and also found that if the government found that we needed security, armed escorts and selected accommodation, then the government should go all the way and pay for accommodation and meals as well. Aamir found that I had to stick to my story about not having enough money for the hotel until at least the next day as we had a shot of driving out of there Sunday. So we were eventually escorted to the police compound where Fabrice and Aamir slept in their Suzuki on the protected parking lot and I was shown to a room with a few beds, concrete walls and concrete floors. Policemen would on and off come to that room to change into or out of their uniforms. Only a few beds were in use during the night as most policemen would head home. No food, no access to buy a simcard, no permission to leave the premises. That was a cold uncomfortable night! Fortunately Aamir left the compound and brought us some dinner which we shared before ending the day.
My home for three nights. That's my bed in the back.
The next day was Sunday and Aamir was unfortunately not getting anywhere with his debating. I most of all wanted to go to the hotel where I could have had a warm shower, a decent meal and a real bed to sleep in. I would even have had wifi so I could get some work done. However we were still sticking with the “no money and expiring visa” story. I take it that the policemen guarding the compound were not used to having someone like me there. They took their job a bit too serious and wouldn’t even allow me out to the parking lot. I pretty much had to stay in the room. I couldn’t get any food when I wanted to. I couldn’t communicate with the outside world. I wasn’t free to move about. Eventually I managed to sneak out to the parking lot under the excuse that I needed to wash my hands. I quickly made it to the Suzuki and told Aamir what was going on. He then spoke with the commander and explained that they couldn’t treat me like that. That I was a tourist and not a prisoner. Things changed a bit after that. However I was still there and dressed a little warmer for my second night.
I have grown used to toilets like these over the years. They are a common sight around the world. However I also want water and soap! ;)
Monday arrived and the puddles outside were frozen solid. No wonder I was freezing at night. We were promised an escort to the homeland department at 08:00am. At 09:23am we were on our way to the office. At 10:45am the employees had arrived and began processing our paperwork. At 11:14 we were waiting. At 12:57pm we were still waiting. At 14:28 we received our NOC’s. Aamir had been working on a special agreement which would allow us to leave Quetta on the same day but after hours of anticipation that evaporated into thin air. We were in Quetta for a third night.
THIS is a part of why everything was so slow. Play solitaire on your own time matey!!
One of my favorite photos! Aamir wearing his chadar, working his smartphone with mountains of paperwork behind him. That is Pakistan! ;)
That afternoon I managed to arrange an armed guard for me so that I could exchange some money and buy a simcard. From that point on I was connected to the outside world again. We were even permitted to leave the police compound for dinner (with an armed conflict). Now was it really that dangerous? I would say no. I would say that the Pakistani authorities were playing it safe. Aamir certainly didn’t find all of this necessary and was clearly frustrated with it all. So was I. I mean…we could travel by armed escort for two days, 646 km (401 mi) from Taftan to Quetta, along the Afghan border, without an NOC. But we had to have that NOC before we could be escorted the final 311 km (193 mi) out of Balochistan and into Sindh state, where armed escort is not required? And who had made the arrangements with those hotels? Then again…six Pakistani ministers were kidnapped by Taliban near the Iran border on the evening of the day we entered Pakistan. They were all killed. And the way I have come to know Pakistani’s they really want the best for their guests. So that includes safety and good hotels?
Quetta, Balochistan, Pakistan.
I will tell you what I like about Pakistani’s! It is really easy to get a smile out of them!! They generally seem kind and hospitable. Lots of handshakes and lots of greetings. Those first days were a roller-coaster of emotion. Frustration about the situation and loss of time. However delighted about discovering the kindness among police officers. From my bed I would observe them come back to the compound and be greeted like long lost friends…every morning and every evening. They are a loud bunch of people those Pakistani’s!! There is no sneaking around and whispering. Its lights on in the middle of the night, singing, shouting, laughing, smiling. I wonder if it is even possible to speak Urdu without smiling? It seems to me that in order to get the right sound you need to smile while speaking :)
Tuesday came and we left in a convoy of four vehicles plus a vehicle for security. Over the weekend Fabrice, Aamir and I had made a few friends of overland travelers who reached Quetta a day or two after us. There was Pawel and Joanna from Poland who are in the process of making world history by circumnavigating our planet in a classical polish car!! Seriously!! Check their webpage because it is WAY better than mine. And you can join them on Instagram, Facebook and YouTube too!
That is Laucas' German van ready to take a turn.
This is the classical Polish car. Super cool! :)
In the convoy we also had Alenka from the Czech Republic and Aumary from France who were part of some really cool overland realization voyage called Unexpected Frequencies. Alenka and Aumary were trailing behind a bunch friends who they were hoping to meet with in Nepal for a grand New Years party. Aumary might be one of the coolest guys I’ve met for a while. Really down to earth and friendly but highly capable at the same time. Alenka was on her way to South East Asia where she will work with animals.
Unexpected Frequencies Project (Alenka, Aumary and friends)
Some tunnels were named and marked with year of completion. All of the ones I saw were from the 1890s.
Finally out of Balochistan!!
These are some massive overland journeys in the vicinity of 10-20,000 km (6-12,000 mi) from Europe to the Far East. Lucas from Germany was also there in his van. He is from Berlin and I don’t think he has any grand public project. He is just in it for his own pleasure and the adventure. I’m not sure where the heck he is going with that van but so far it has made it from Berlin in Germany to Pakistan. Lucas has specialized in AI (Artificial Intelligence) and is a bright cookie. The eight of us were in a convoy towards Jacobabad in Sindh just across the border of Balochistan. Honestly I was dreaming of joining an old fashioned caravan like in the olden days with camels and donkeys. In the modern sense of course with many truck, 4x4’s, military, police etc…but reality was Fabrice, Aamir and me from Taftan to Quetta. And then Pawel, Joanna, Alenka, Aumary, Fabrice, Aamir and me along with a single armed vehicle from Quetta to Jacobabad at which point we parted. The police drove me into Jacobabad so I could catch the train and I’m unsure if the rest continued to have an escort or if they were free?
How cool to walk into a trainstation under these circumstances?!?!
I did not want this selfie. THEY did :) They came to me and said: "selfie, selfie". When I got ready more quickly joined in! :)
After a night on the train from Jacobabad to Karachi I was ready for a shower!! But no time for that yet! I was picked up at the station by Arslan Khan who is the Managing Director for Maersk in Pakistan. He is a solid friend whom I’ve been in touch with for months before we shook hands for the first time in Karachi. Arslan brought me back to his office where I made my 75th Saga presentation and had a few laughs with his staff. Good people who delivered some good questions! On that topic I might just let you know that I have updated the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) here on the website ;)
A small part of Karachi.
Speaking about logistics, strategy, tactics, culture, media, perception and the Saga ;)
This became the 33rd Maersk office I had the pleasure of visiting. Can't you just tell how great these people are!! :)
Karachi looked amazing to me!! It was the capital of Pakistan from independence in 1947 until 1958 when the capital was temporarily moved to Rawalpindi (today it is Islamabad). Karachi has around 20 MILLION citizens which is almost four times as many Danes we have in all of Denmark. However Pakistan is a country with 200 MILLION people on par with e.g. Brazil and Nigeria. That’s still a BILLION less than their neighbor to the east. Mindboggling?!? Arslan invited me for dinner afterwards and filled me up with some delicious sushi before dropping me at the train station for my Lahore departure. Pakistan is well connected with trains and they have all been revamped lately under Pakistan’s continues path of improvements. A former very famous cricketer named Imran Khan is now leading Pakistan as the new Prime Minister and there are great hopes for him and the country. In my experience a man can only do so much while Pakistan likely needs 200 million people to make some real change. However it all starts somewhere and as I said: hopes are high.
I couldn’t buy less than a first class ticket which was kind of okay as I just wanted the progress and a good night’s sleep. The Pakistani trains are super cool and look old fashioned. They are comfortable and run on time so it’s a real win-win for visitors and Pakistani’s alike. I had to pay $47 USD for that pleasure but to heck with it. I didn’t spend any money for the first three to four days in Pakistan. Aamir would pay for the food I got and transport and accommodation was taken care of. Aamir even spotted me a little of his wifi once in while so I could receive emails and tell my fiancée that all was well. My first class cabin was the largest cabin I’ve ever seen on a train. I shared it with a lovely couple and their two young children. My sleep wasn’t of the best kind. It was again of the sort where you wake up when you are in too much pain to stay on that side so you turn around and try to go back to sleep. I’m not getting any younger…
On the road from Lahore to Islamabad.
The train was due to reach Lahore Thursday morning but we had suffered some delay during the night due to heavy fog. No worries though. The train pulled in at Lahore station around 1pm and I had to stop and pause on the platform for a moment and marble in awe of the station. Had I traveled back in time? It was so cool!! A taxi got me through Lahore to a bus company I had been recommended and off we went towards Islamabad. I was pretty tired but curious too. Make a note of that Lahore is both significant and historical. However I plan to revisit on my way to India so I’ll cover more about that next week. The very comfortable bus took off on time and according to the schedule they leave every hour. Once out of Lahore’s heavy traffic we came on to the highway which was just magnificent and almost empty. Green fields left and right and an endless smooth surface ahead of us. Was I in Pakistan? That has come to be my realization about Pakistan: it is a country with everything!! Mountains in the north and ocean in the south. Minerals and other resources are plentiful. A kind population in which smiles come easy. More history than most countries can dream of. An abundance of culture and manpower. Are they the fourth most intelligent population on earth? They are according to one survey I read. In another Pakistanis rank in as number two. In a third survey Pakistan did not appear on top ten. Who’s to say – they seem bright enough to me ;)
Near Islamabad zoo.
My friend Lars from back home in the Kingdom of Denmark in the High North of Europe booked me two nights at a guesthouse in Islamabad. Cheers Lars! I’m sure a lot of people appreciated that I got my first shower in six days and I am grateful for a good night’s sleep behind closed doors! Islamabad is something else!! It was built as a planned city in the 60s to take over from Karachi. The city's master-plan has been designed by Greek architect Constantinos Apostolou Doxiadis and now the place is full of Feta cheese and Ouzo. Just kidding ;) Constantinos has done a spectacular job and Islamabad is indeed a capital worth visiting. Islamabad is noted for its high standards of living, safety and abundant greenery. Now just because it is a designed city from the 60s doesn’t mean it doesn’t have history. The capital located on the Pothohar Plateau of the Punjab region and is considered one of the earliest sites of human settlement in Asia! Some of the earliest Stone Age artefacts in the world have been found on the plateau, dating from 100,000 to 500,000 years ago.
I worked until 03:00am that first night at the Guest House and then I crashed. The next morning at 08:00am I was up and out the door to chase the Indian visa. If you fly to India you can just do it online. I unfortunately do not have that luxury. The Indian High Commission in Pakistan does not accept visa applications. They have outsourced that to an agency so that is where I headed. Visatronix TCS Express Center offered impeccable service and made everything super easy for me. However I needed a Polio Certificate and had to make a quick visit at the Federal Government Polyclinic who offered a swift and professional service compliments of Uncle Khan ;)
Compliments of Uncle Khan ;)
Back at TCS they finished my application and sent me to the cashier’s desk. Unfortunately I didn’t have enough rupees on me and had to chase down an ATM. I struck out with the first five ATM’s with both my credit cards? Strange as I had no issues in Karachi with my card? However an Uber ride later and I was at a cash exchange office where I could trade some USD and return with another Uber to TCS. I made the payment. Collected my receipt and was told that they would submit it to the Indian High Commission on Monday after the weekend. Then another Uber got me to the Blue Area where I was told I could find a printing office. My good friend Parth Nilawar has used his genius and has on my request added a Danish flag to the Saga cards I hand out to those I meet. I found the print shop but also spotted a tailor. I dropped my jacket off at the tailor to see if they could fix a tear near the zipper and proceeded to the print shop. The print shop will make 1,000 of the new cards and I am confident that he will do a stellar job!! I collected my jacket from a smiling tailor who only asked for $1.40 USD. I wish Denmark was like that. Then I headed to the streets and hailed another Uber. Just as I got in my phone rang. It was a Danish radio channel (DR Syd) who wanted to know if I was ready? Darn it!! I completely forgot about that interview. Oh well, let’s go!! It was just a five minute radio interview and I did it from the Uber on my way to the Danish Embassy, which had invited me to stop by and say hello.
Man how I love that!!! I recently finished a spectacular book by Thorkild Hansen called: Arabia Felix – the Danish expedition of 1761-1767. It is certainly worth a read people! In the book the Danish expedition was sponsored by the Danish King and they were often greeted by Danish and other diplomats as they made their way around Arabia. I too have been greeted warmly by a few embassies but not nearly in the same sense. However here I was being invited and supported. It all came about as Maersk is a Danish company and always has good relationships with all Danish diplomatic missions. So Arslan connected me with Saleem who is the Communications Manager and Saleem introduced me to Bente who is the Deputy Head of Mission and an accomplished diplomat. We sat down and had a fruitful meeting of which you will learn more of later. However this baby is getting pretty long as it is so I’ll try to round it all up now.
I don’t know how it will go with the Indian visa? December 25th is a holiday in Pakistan as it commemorates the birthday of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who was a notable politician, founder of Pakistan and Pakistan's first Governor General. For a lot of you I imagine you’ve been dancing around a tree and might be contemplating which items to return to the store ;) In any case I might not get the visa until December 26th if then? And my fiancée is planning to visit me in India from December 28th. So it’s stressful as always. I also want to see my friend Steve Felder in Mumbai. We first met in Kenya a few years ago but now he is working in India. His schedule is however easier to deal with as he lives there. As I walked back from the Danish Embassy to my guest house I was taken by the beauty of the mountains which flank Islamabad and the nature which surrounds it. It indeed is a beautiful part of the world to place a capital.
Mr. Torbjørn C. Pedersen (Thor) - Yeah, yeah, yeah...I also turned forty this week...
"A stranger is a friend you've never met before"
Once Upon A Saga