Stage 13 – Pakistan & Iran: Thar Desert And The Makran Coast [1/2]
After six months spent mostly in the mountains, I’m looking forward to spending some time in the balmy winter warmth of the Arabian Sea coast. The next stage in my journey will take me west to the Persian Gulf port of Bandar Abbas, where I plan to cross to the UAE and return to Europe on an undefined path through Africa. In between, I wish to explore one of the region’s least-visited areas: the long, waterless stretch of coastal Baluchistan known as the Makran. In between however I wish to spend a few days with the Bossins in Hyderabad, whom I had left nine months earlier.
I arrive in Hyderabad on the 3rd December 2008, and it’s wonderful to return to Aly and Shahana’s house, to meet old friends once again and feel at home. After the fierce summer heat, the mild winter temperatures mean it’s travelling season, and on the first weekend after my arrival we head off east into the Thar desert, towards the Indian border. The area is technically off-limits to foreigners on account of its proximity to India, but travelling in Aly’s venerable and seemingly indestructible Nissan Sunny, we hope to keep a low profile and avoid any trouble.
We drive south-east through watered agricultural lands which spread roughly 150 km from the Indus, through the muddy chaos of the small Sindhi towns of Tando Muhammad Khan, Tando Ghulam Ali, Digri and Jhudo to the desert’s edge at Naukot. Here a Talpur-era fort marks the transition from irrigated farmland to the sandy Thar Desert which stretches from here east across the Indian border and up to the Deccan in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. The fort stands sentinel on this boundary, desert to the east and farmland to the west.
Past Naukot the road empties and undulates around sandy ridges peppered with small trees which shade primitive thatch-roofed rondavels, making the scene look far more African than anything I’ve yet encountered in South Asia. Hindu tribes inhabit these tiny villages, and the brightly-clad women, carrying jugs of water on their heads, contrast sharply with the greys and browns of the desert. In the afternoon we reach the sandy streets of the small desert town of Islamkot which ironically, is approximately 90% Hindu.
Islamkot feels exactly like India, with winding streets of pastel walls and open sewers, temples and colourfully clad women adorned with bangles and floral nose-studs. It feels so identical to India (albeit far more tranquil and friendly) that I begin to suspect that Sir Cyril Radcliffe may have made a slight error in putting it this side of the border. That so many Hindus remain in Sindh is testament however to the tolerance of its inhabitants, in stark contrast to Punjab where hundreds of thousands were butchered during the ugly process of partition.
We spend the night at the Saint Nenuram Ashram, where we are invited to join the langar or communal serving of food. Shahana enjoys the company of the temple fakir, another one of her holy-man acquaintances, while I wander the grounds enjoying the dry desert air, in which incense smoke wafts, further adding to the impression of being in India.
In the morning we head further east, passing the ruins of a Jain temple near the village of Gori. Jainism is an ancient religion of India, and whilst I have never met a Jain in Pakistan, the non-Vedic origins of their beliefs (as opposed to the ancient Vedic beliefs which evolved into Hinduism), are intriguing. Some compare Jain iconography to seals found in Indus Valley sites, which would mean that the religion may have been influenced by the mysterious ancient civilisation which grew in this area, in the vicinity of the Indus. The temple is ruined, but still intact overall, sitting forlornly out in the desert, perhaps visited by nothing more than the occasional goat.
Low hills of eroded sandstone boulders, reminiscent of India’s Western Ghats mark the end of the road and the town of Nagar Parkar, in the very far south-eastern corner of Pakistan just next to the Rann of Kutch. The town is on a highly sensitive border, and after looking around some of the local Jain and Hindu temple ruins which dot the scrubby hills, we are approached by a man who is obviously an army informant, and it is suggested we should leave. We do so with little argument, but when the Punjabi soldier at the edge of town (who didn’t notice us driving in) stops us and starts shouting, Shahana can no longer hold her tongue: ‘Don’t you tell me where I can go in my own country!’ she bellows. The soldier has no idea what to say or do, and we drive off.
I spend the following week in Hyderabad enjoying the warm days and cool nights, and put my first new set of tyres on the truck; the used set I had brought from the UK are almost ruined, one had in fact exploded whilst driving to Taxila. I begin to ponder my next move; is it really feasible to head through Arabia into Africa? I am extremely fond of Pakistan, and don’t feel overly inclined to leave. There’s also the matter of not having visited Afghanistan, which has been technically off limits since the Khyber Pass was closed to foreigners in March. I’m certainly in no rush to return to the UK – the mere thought is in fact highly repellent – but I’m not sure if the time is right to go to Africa. Regardless, my Pakistani visa is due to expire, and I must go west for now, into Iran.
We drive down in two cars the following weekend to visit a friend of the family, Abdul Rehman, a fisherman who lives to the south-west of Karachi, very close to the borders of Baluchistan. We take the Super Highway south-west towards Karachi, whose shabby outer suburbs sprawl tens of kilometres from the city centre. The city authorities have very conveniently just completed the Lyari Expressway, a perfectly sealed, elevated road which literally cuts a swathe through the fetid slums. Peoples’ houses lie half demolished – literally left with rooms open to the elements – where the bulldozers have cleared a path for the road, which hovers mostly just above the rooftops, a most unusual driving experience. Wretched lives unfold in the ripped-open slum below; people living in filth and squalor next to the stinking Lyari river; a toxic greeny-black body of sewage and garbage. Children pick around in the muck, whilst dhobi wallahs (laundry men) pound the city’s dirty washing in the filthy water, leaving it out to dry in the acrid morning air.
With the exception of the grinding poverty immediately below, the Lyari Expressway is a magnificent road, though it is completely empty. It seems that either nobody has a need for it, or nobody has informed the general public of its existence. Eventually we are deposited out in the scrubby south-eastern fringes of the city, and drive through the industrial sprawl towards the Hub River, where we turn south. Here, the very final ridge of the Kirthar Range comes down to the Arabian Sea, a knife’s edge of eroded limestone which marks the western extreme of the plains of the Indian Subcontinent, and delineates both a cultural and physical boundary. Beyond the Kirthars the rich lowland agriculture gives way to low, scrubby mountains and dry riverbeds, which merge after hundreds of kilometres with the Iranian Plateau, and rich farming villages of the plains give way to sparse nomadic settlements and fly-blown fishing communities clinging to the desert coast.
Reaching the village of Mubarak Goth, we are welcomed by Abdul Rehman into his simple wooden home built a few hundred metres from a wide, magnificent sandy beach. In the afternoon we are taken out on-board his small fishing boat, which is a lifeboat which he has purchased from the nearby ship-breaking yards at Gaddani and converted for fishing with an old diesel engine. We motor around the barren rocky mass of Charna Island, whose brilliant buttermilk-coloured rock contrasts vividly with the azure water of the Arabian Sea. Just thirty kilometres from the squalor of central Karachi, the area seems almost pristine. Way off to the west the Makran Range disappears into the haze of infinity, marking the beginning of a wild and barren coastline which spreads as far as Iraq.
We enjoy the evening in Abdul Rehman’s home, whose wooden plank walls allow a wonderful cool, fresh ocean breeze to permeate. He cooks for us at least four varieties of fish, fried in oil and sprinkled with salt and ground chilli, and I’ve never tasted better; delicious meaty white fish, straight out of the sea. Abdul Rehman is one of the nicest people I can ever remember meeting; despite being economically poor, he is unfalteringly kind, accommodating five of us, taking us out for the day, and feeding us a fantastic meal. He does this out of pure decency and hospitality, and we are all touched by his kindness.
I part with Aly and family the following day; they return to Hyderabad whilst I push further west, hoping to drive the length of the Balochistan coast, and possibly find an alternative border crossing into Iran from the usual point at Taftan, much further to the north.
The Makran coast is an intriguing area; officially off-limits to foreigners due to a perceived security risk, there is rumoured to be a brand-new Chinese-funded road running most of the way to the Iranian border. The area is almost complete wilderness, save for a few fishing villages and an ancient Hindu pilgrimage site, tucked away in the mountains. It is also historically notorious; for the loss of Cyrus the Great’s army in the 6th Century BCE, when the area was known as the Persian satrapy of Maka (from which the name Makran derives), and then again in 325 BCE when Alexander the Great, who new the place by the Greek name Gedrosia lost tens of thousands of men attempting to succeed where Cyrus had failed.
After a brief and unsuccessful attempt at obtaining a permit to visit the Makran, I decide to simply try and enter unannounced, hoping to take by surprise any police waiting at roadblocks. Crossing the Hub River into Baluchistan, I enter the chaotic industrial centre of Hub Chowki, home to much of the industry attached to Karachi, but soon enter the scrubby desert beyond, heading north towards the interior. The land is far poorer than the irrigated fields of Sindh; nothing but the occasional pomegranate farm and impoverished-looking Baluchis herding camels and goats. I find the turning onto the Makran Coastal Highway, encounter no problems with the police at the roadblock, and find myself on an arrow straight, perfect asphalt road. The landscape is utterly barren; a table-flat wasteland of thorny bushes, with the occasional camel’s footprint constituting the only signs of life. The sun is lowering in the sky, the road empty but for the occasional truck, and I have made my way into one of Pakistan’s more enigmatic destinations; conditions really couldn’t be better.
Soon, out of the hazy distance, the razor-sharp profile of the coastal range comes into focus a magnificent sight of twisted and gnarled rock, sliced into sharp erosional forms by freak rainstorms, and then preserved by the general aridity of the local climate. I turn off the road into the Hingol Valley, aiming to reach the ancient pilgrimage site of Hinglaj, but sadly the road has been washed away by a recent flash-flood, and Hinglaj is in accessible. It’s easy to see however why the site has been revered for so long; set in a sanctuary of wall-like hills, with a freshwater source which creates a haven for wildlife such as urial and crocodiles. It’s fascinating to think that this is the most westerly site of Hinduism, the spiritual backbone of so many millions in the subcontinent, and that no truly orthodox Hindu would ever venture west from here.
I spend the night in the tent on the back of the truck at a small roadside restaurant in the town of Aghor, pushing on early the next morning. The road soon starts to climb through a knot of dry mountains, truly other-worldly in their sharp, tortured forms. At one point the road draws level to the beach, and I stop to take a look. The beach is probably the best I’ve ever seen; kilometre after kilometre of perfect, clean golden sand dotted with the occasional piece of driftwood, and not a soul in sight. It’s mid December but the temperature is balmy and the water warm. It’s hard to believe one can find such perfection and have it all to one’s self.
The road again enters more spectacularly eroded valleys, crossing the lunar Buzi Pass, and then dropping down onto barren plains once more. I stop for lunch in the small coastal town of Ormara, a hideaway for the Pakistani Navy, and a number of Zikris; a maligned Baluchi Islamic sect who have adapted their Islam to encompass and additional – Baluchi – holy site of pilgrimage, and in doing so encounter the ire of some Sunnis. Ormara is a delightfully slow-paced place, but there’s little aside from the glorious beaches to detain a traveller, and I continue east towards Iran.
Later in the afternoon I reach the town of Pasni, and just as start to poke around in the bazaar, I’m intercepted by two uniformed police on a motorcycle, who escort me to the tana (police station). Initially brusque, the police soon become friendly once they are satisfied that I am nothing more than an interested traveller, and offer me accommodation for the night. The faces here are an amazing mix of genes from all the nearby coastlines; some have typical Baluchi features, but more common are those which are mixed, and there are clearly plenty of African and Semitic genes present; many look Yemeni or Eritrean, and wear flowing white gowns perfumed with frankincense.
In the evening I get speaking to the guy in the prison cell who tells me proudly that he is a gunman who fired at a government official (but missed). I tell him I’m heading to Iran, a country he is very keen to extol the virtues of, shouting ‘Iran zabardast!’, and asking if he can join me. The police are actually extremely friendly, and I’m given a bed for the night, and spend the evening drinking their whisky.
Reluctantly, I have to take a gunman along with me the following day for the drive to Gwadar, but it’s a better alternative than being sent back to Karachi. It rains heavily for the duration of the journey, stopping just before Gwadar, whose streets are nevertheless ankle-deep in water when I arrive. Once again, I stay at the tana, and I’m escorted by two gunmen throughout the city. The town, which was leased by Oman until the 1970s has a clear Omani influence, and retains a residence owned by the Sultan. Wonderful spices and fragrances give the bazaar a more Middle Eastern flavour than others in the country, and the faces are once again fascinating with so much mixed ancestry.
Gwadar lies on a hammerhead promontory which pokes into the Arabian Sea, creating two long, pristine curving sandy coves which shelter a fleet of bobbing wooden fishing boats. On the west side of the headland comes the surprising sight of a deep-sea cargo port, fully constructed at an initial price of a quarter of a billion dollars by the Pakistani and Chinese government, freshly painted and ready to go, but starting to rust before the first ship has called in. The port was heavily funded by the Chinese government (and will be run by a Chinese corporation) as a warm-weather deep water port for receiving oil from the Persian Gulf, from where it can be driven the length of Pakistan and over the Karakoram Highway into China’s rapidly developing West. Despite the massive revenue-potential for Pakistan, due to some political machinations, objections perhaps from the UAE or India, or just local administrative corruption and incompetence, Gwadar remains nothing more than a fishing village and economic backwater.
The only person back at the tana who speaks English is once again the guy in jail, who the police chief tells me is there for reasons of a family dispute; the man has fallen out with his father for refusing to tell him the reason he left his biological mother. The chief of police then tells me he is also the man’s brother. The station master casually unlocks the inmate, who is perhaps in custody more for his own protection. Later, I am escorted by my gunmen out into the city, to a barber shop where I am able to take a much-needed shower (there are no facilities in the tana, even the drinking water comes from a rather unsavoury looking rainwater cistern). On the way back we stop to smoke some charras at a tyre repair shop where the owner burns a lump of opium stuck to a teacup with a hot metal rod, inhaling the vapours through a rolled up paper tube.
Back at the tana I am approached by a member of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the powerful national intelligence service who have various murky dealing in surrounding countries, not least of all in Afghanistan. The agent is a sincere and pleasant guy however, and for the first fifteen minutes tries to persuades me that I should carry a gun, and seems thoroughly bemused by my assertion that it would be highly illegal (It is not unknown for the ISI to ‘lend’ foreign drivers machine guns for the crossing of Baluchistan, where another agent collects them at the Iranian border). Steering the conversation away from firearms, I enquire about the border crossing into Iran at Mand, 250 km away up desolate desert tracks. The agent knows where I’m talking about, but my suspicions are confirmed; there are no customs facilities at Mand and the border is closed to everyone except local residents. The only alternative is a 1750 km round-trip via Quetta to the border crossing at Taftan, which is evidently the only Pakistan – Iran border crossing which foreigners may use.
I set off on the long journey the next morning, managing to persuade my gunman to be dropped off at the edge of town, so that I may enjoy the return journey in solitude. Ordinarily I would be disgruntled at back-tracking hundreds of kilometres, but it’s such a meditative, restorative joy to drive on smooth, empty desert roads that I am quite glad of it. I stop for lunch near Ormara, and happen to say ‘asalaam aleikum‘ to a Pashtun lorry driver on my way in, only to find upon leaving that he has paid for my meal, without even saying a word to me. The kindness of people in Pakistan never ceases to amaze me.
I spend the night again at the restaurant in Aghor, then push on north in the morning, climbing away from the warmth of the coastal plain into the heavy cold of the desolate Baluchistan mountains around Kalat. I arrive at night in friendly Quetta, which I decide is probably my favourite city in Pakistan with its incredibly friendly people; the big, ebullient, handsome Pashtuns whom it’s hard not to like, to the more reserved Hazara of the western Hindukush, the oriental-looking Uzbeks from northern Afghanistan, and some Baluchis, heavily outnumbered by Afghans in their own capital city.
I spend a day in Quetta buying spare parts for the truck from the city’s vast car-parts market,before heading off on the second morning along the long empty road to Taftan. It’s the third time that I’ve been along this road; once in fearful heat and once under leaden skies which lashed down rain almost continuously. This time the skies are a perfect ultramarine, and the low winter light picks out the barren mountain ranges perfectly as they hover on the northern horizon. To the south lie the Ras Koh Mountains, sharp, stacking outlines of jagged hills in which Pakistan carried out its first nuclear tests in 1998. To the north, beyond sensual rows of sand dunes which glow a rich gold in the late afternoon light are the Chaghai Hills, and beyond this Afghanistan, tantalisingly out of reach. How beautiful Afghanistan must be, and what a tragedy it is that I am leaving this region of the world without setting foot in the country.
I spend the night in a surprisingly comfortable hotel in the wild Baluchi town of Dalbandin, completing the final few hundred kilometres of asphalt to Iran the following day. Close to the border the enormous snowcapped bulk of volcanic Mt. Taftan shimmers in Iranian Baluchistan. The mountain gives its name to the squalid Pakistani border town, but it’s the first time the skies have been clear enough to see it from the road. I leave Pakistan with a nagging feeling of not having seen all I want, but it’s time to enter Iran and consider the future of my odyssey.