It didn’t start well, but it ended well so all is well that ends well… The bus ride back from Gilgit (to Rawalpind) in the north of Pakistan along the Karakorum Highway was advertised as “18 hours in duration”, but when you add the 21 hour delay enroute it ended up being closer to 39 hours! So, I would have plenty of time to admire some of the truck decorations adorning EVERY truck here in the Subcontinent as it’s somewhat of a tradition for the drivers to decorate their trucks with images and colours of their region of origin.
Once back in Islamabad (I doubt Bagdad has more security checkpoints) I would catch up again with Ahmad and Nazir (who I met and joined for our recent trip to Fair Meadows) and be treated to a day of sightseeing around Islamabad. I can only really speak for the men I have met (as you don’t have a lot of opportunity to see, let alone interact with women), but I have found the Pakistani’s nothing short amazingly friendly and hospitable as Muslims really respect and are honoured to look after their “guests”.
After the brief interlude of my ten day trip to the north of the country, I returned to my original plan of heading to Taftan near the Iranian border, but first I would have to cross the Indus River where some of the first human civilizations emerged. I would take the train from Lahore to Quetta which covers another 1000km and can take anywhere from 20 to 30hrs. My travel companions for the 24 hour train journey were a group of Pathan religious teachers (Pathan people commonly from Afghanistan), returning to Quetta from teaching in Islamabad. These gentlemen who never spoke any English, are the most devout Muslims I met in Pakistan and again the communication barrier was frustrating as we were both trying hard to learn about each other.
Technically Muslim states, such as Pakistan, are “dry countries” and I’m not sure whether it’s related, but their male culture is distinctly less macho than ours in the West. It is funny, I have always thought we don’t really have much of a ‘culture’, but it’s in a place like this that you really see your own. For example, the men greet their regular friends by exchanging a handshake, but it’s more of a soft grab, actually grab is too strong a word, it’s more like a soft touching of hands. Good friends greet each other with a slow embrace (which always lead me to hear “Man love moment”, play in my head), there’s an enviable tenderness about it all...but I digress.
As you leave the flat agricultural lands of the Indus River behind, the terrain becomes increasingly desert like and mountainous as you approach Quetta. Quetta is somewhat of a frontier town that is not particularly safe for foreigners as there are real safety concerns due to its proximity to Afghanistan and Balochistan. I personality didn’t have any trouble and wasn’t particularly worried as I wasn’t so aware of the risks. There’s not a lot to see in Quetta, it was merely a transit point for me enroute to Iran.
Further west across Balochistan (the western desert state of Pakistan that actually stretches into Eastern Iran and Southern Afghanistan) by bus I would be accompanied by an armed guard on both sides of the Iranian border. Apparently there have been some foreigners kidnapped in these parts in recent years, most recently a few weeks ago I hear. Funny enough though, everyone reassures you the region is safe and you don’t feel at risk; however Kalashnikov armed guard lends you to at least wonder… In short, I’m told the people of Balochistan want to separate from Pakistan so the odd foreigner is kidnapped to highlight their cause - it’s nothing personal. As I crossed into Iran I said goodbye to nearly five months in the Subcontinent and hello again to the Middle East. Before you travel to this area, check whether the border is actually open as sometimes its closed.
Regarding Pakistan, unfortunately from what I can see the politics, corruption and a lack of unity of this diverse land will probably limit Pakistan’s success in the near future. The government really needs to get in a position where it is less corrupt, spends less on its military, and more on books and schools, before parts of this nation can develop and move forward in a more unified way. Many Balochistan people won’t agree, but as the popular slogan says: “Long Live Pakistan”.
I ended up getting my Pakistan visa, while I was in New Delhi, from the Pakistan Embassy. Before though, I needed a letter from my embassy saying that my passport was an original and I was indeed a citizen of New Zealand. The NZ High Commission in New Delhi only charge me a mere $60 NZD for the one A4 sized letter!! Outrageous, but what do you do – you either take it or leave it. It can be a bureaucratic nightmare applying for visas at the best of times, let along while in India, so if at all possible get it while at home or a more developed nation before leaving for the subcontinent.