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Thursday, 24 December 2009


After we complete the border formalities to exit Iran we can’t find the way out. I joke to Maartin that this is just a border theme park, Borderland where the rides are in offices with ledgers and stamps. Of course the queue for the most popular rides are the longest. Perversely if there was a Borderland, I think I would go. A week later, as I am leaving Pakistan I discover Borderland really exists.

After the visual austerity of Iran, Pakistan is a treat; barren mountains melt into the lush Punjab plains. Women and men wear colours. After 12 weeks in Muslim countries, I’m keen for some alternative thinking. I’m very familiar with the variety of Islams in North Africa and during even long trips there I’ve never found it oppressive or frustrating (apart from those endless prayer tapes played to wow and flutter destruction). But after the false totalitarianism of Iran my Muslim love tank is close to empty, so psychologically Pakistan has just been a hurdle to get through before I can unwind.

That feeling is cemented in Shikapur by Javed, the son of a wealthy clan leader. He approaches me while I am trying to photograph a cricket match, and I am won over by his well spoken accent, and his government number plate. He invites me back to meet his father, a bed ridden fat man who summons servants by clicking on his battery powered doorbell. By the time we part company at the end of the evening I’ve had enough of Javed, Pakistan and Islam. Apart from waving me over a speed bumps which for the second time in Pakistan destroy the exhaust system, and telling me the bus is safely parked in his street where the stereo’s USB stick is deftly swiped through a sliver of open roof hatch within 10 minute, it’s his pious self-righteous crap about how land owners should govern, and how it’s right to have indentured servants that make him so odious. The naive rich kid with no concept of how lucky his privileged birth was, has a government job spending UN funds to encourage farmers to send their kids to school. I imagine he got the job because of his family connection. In Pakistan you are either a farmer or a policeman, but if you are well connected, the government pay you to pretend to do a job. That’s what the Baloch separatists are fighting against. Not the nepotism itself, but nepotism that excludes them.

It’s Javed’s medieval Koranic interpretation that women are impure because they bleed, right before asking me for a list of porn website recommendations that makes me want to swing at him. Luckily I am too stoned on the Whiskey we’ve been drinking to try fighting. Instead I give him a few gay sites to spoil his evening me-time.

From the border I’ve been escorted through Balochistan, which feels lawless and dangerous, and the protection offered by the geriatric police officers I am entrusted to, doesn’t reassure. I have to help one of them up and down the steps of the bus each time we stop. He may well predate the Raj.

On the road I pass a convoy of local 44,000 litre tankers coming the other way, taking NATO diesel to Afghanistan. Two miles further on, I see the first of two burnt out tanker carcasses. My granddad body guard explains that Taliban fighters come from Afghanistan and shoot out the wheels making them crash and explode. In both trucks the drivers and drivers’ mates died in the in inferno. One of the drivers I speak to tells me they don’t get any danger money, they just have lots of work. Shell’s tankers delivering to Pakistani towns are brightly liveried, so they won’t be mistaken for the NATO supply trucks. Conversely the foreign fighters also stand out in the rural communities, so one attack team had already been caught. If diesel be the fuel of life, let’s burn it.

The route to Sukkur is a 400km detour because the direct road is dangerous. By this I assume they mean more dangerous than Constable Methuselah can deal with. Once out of Balochistan and into the Punjab it’s clear that neither Baloch separatists nor Taliban jihadists cause much concern. None the less the Punjab police insist on giving me a blue light escort for 1000 miles across the whole country to Lahore. While insisting there is no danger, they explain they are there for my protection. Near Multan, the site of a recent surprise bombing, the cops think the escort is as much of a joke as I do. They point to bearded friends in the town giggling “Taliban, Taliban!”, and everyone fall about laughing.

The biggest danger is crashing into their erratic braking Toyota pickups. They are like my own personalised traffic jam. It’s hard to claim eco credentials when you are preceded at all times by a police 4x4.

The escort is not optional, but following them means I am exempt from motorway tolls and I can camp at their police stations, getting an insight into Pakistani law enforcement inaction. [No, that’s not a typo]. But mainly I hide in the bus and recover from a bout of food poisoning that is about as bad as they come. I know in London people pay good money to have a hose stuck up their arse till the water comes gushing out. For less than a euro in Sukkur you can recreate the same effect with a lovely meat stew. I eat only fruit, bananas mainly, while I am recovering and squirt pooh juice into the compost toilet. When the wind backs against the toilet vent, the bus smells of like I have a newborn baby onboard, presumably is the smell of fast digested bananas.

The roads have been the worse yet, but I am surprised how well everything has stood up. The bus is a combination of Mercedes manufactured base vehicle, Reeves Burges fast dissolving metal coachwork (largely replaced before leaving), and finally my Biotruck transformation of the living space and the veg oil conversion. The vibrations haven’t affected any of the Merc stuff. The Reeve Burges stuff looks to be holding up well too, although it would be hard to see the cracks until the sides of the bus suddenly fall off completely. The big letdown has been my stuff. Hose clips not done up tightly enough, or too tightly, a bowl pump that sucks itself shut at altitude, and a mystery lack of power (injector hose leaking or blocked fuel filter?). The old fridge has also found yet another way in which not to work, the fourth since I left the UK.

I’m still in love with the road freight here. For miles I travel along with Benazir Bhutto smiling back at me from the mural of the truck in front. I’m captivated by her faded face and her motherly bosom, and in no rush to overtake. I’m surprised at how slow the trucks are. I haven’t seen a lorry going over 50kmh probably due to the weight of the rainforest used to build the wooden backs. Some even have wooden doors that extend around the old Bedford cabs and look like the rear end of a 15th century Spanish galleon. Often they drive in the fast lane because the left lane is so potholed, so if you want to get by you have to undertake on the broken tarmac.

I forget my hazard lights on for a few miles and no other motorist points out my mistake, then as dusk settles I put on my headlights and every one flashes their lights at me to warn me my lights are on.

In my mind the road leads inexorably to India and finally I’m camped at the border, having missed the early closing time. Another frustrating night to spend in Pakistan. But thankfully I’ve discovered Borderland. There is a big entrance gate, a motel, you can take pictures and the daily show starts at 4pm in the auditorium every day. It could be Vegas or Disneyworld. People travel 30km just to visit, not cross. The fun looks funnier on the Indian side, a much bigger crowd and less Allah. The ceremonial guards puff their chest and high kick at each other, chant for as long as their breath lasts, and blast patriotic songs out of massive sound systems to their respective crowds. The Indians do it all a little better. On the Pakistani side we get a couple of podgy blokes twirling flags, but from the volume of their cheers it sounds like the Indians are getting much more.

On the Iran Turkey border they’d each erected massive posters of their political leaders facing each other on opposite hills. This is the sort of tribal jingoism I’ve never been able to take seriously the reason I couldn’t give a monkey’s about football teams. But I’m curious how this ceremony first started after Pakistan and India’s violent separation in 1947 and how it persists in light of an ongoing nuclear arms race and the recent Mumbai attacks. The ceremony seems like a mutual provocation rather than a way to vent tension. The performers take it very seriously, as do their crowds. The only one giggling at the whole contest is me, despite sitting next to the customs officer who has to stamp my carnet tomorrow. It’s so funny that national pride can rest on who can kick the highest or chant longest. If only COP15 could have been worked out this way.

Afterwards I retrace my steps through Pakistan in miniature and stop a couple as they are about to step across into what would be Afghanistan. “Taliban, Taliban!”. They don’t take my advice and beeline for their car which would be parked somewhere in Uzbekistan. I don’t know what happened to them after that, but I think they made it.

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