Stage 13 – Pakistan & Iran: Thar Desert And The Makran Coast [1/2]
Having spent much of the last six months slowly traversing the arc of mountains from the foothills of Burma to the Afghan frontier, I’m looking forward to the balmy winter warmth of Pakistan’s lowlands and the arid coastline of the Arabian Sea. This stage of my journey will take me from the desert of Sindh to the Persian Gulf port of Bandar Abbas, from where I intend to cross to Arabia and return to Europe on an as-yet unidentified path through Africa. On the way, I will explore one of the region’s least-visited areas, the long, infamous coastline of waterless Balochistan known as the Makran Coast.
I arrive in Hyderabad on the 3rd December 2008, very happy to return to the family home of Aly and Shahana, where I had been so warmly welcomed and invited to spend a month at the beginning of the year. It’s great to meet old friends once again and feel at home in Civil Lines, just beyond the edge of the city’s frenetic centre. The fierce summer heat has abated and with the mild winter temperatures comes the perfect opportunity to travel comfortably in the lowlands of Sindh. On my first weekend I’m excited to hear that Aly plans to make an overnight journey into the Thar Desert and I’m invited to join. The region, known locally simply as Thar, reaches to Pakistan’s tense border with India, making it off-limits to foreigners without special permission. Knowing that such permission will not be forthcoming, we elect to travel in one car; Aly’s venerable and seemingly indestructible Nissan Sunny, Rajkumari, which should help us keep a low profile and hopefully avoid trouble with the army.
Taking the wheel of Rajkumari myself, we drive south-east through watered agricultural land which spreads roughly one hundred kilometres from the Indus, through the muddy chaos of small Sindhi towns such as Tando Ghulam Ali, Digri and Jhudo; places where men gather from the villages of the interior to lie and chat on charpais (rope beds) in the bazaar drinking sweet, milky tea and chewing paan (betel nut). In Naukot we cross the last of the irrigation canals and, where their influence ends, the desert begins abruptly. Just beyond the town, a deserted nineteenth century Talpur fort stands sentinel on the desert’s edge, overlooking a low landscape of sand and acacia scrub. This is the Thar Desert, which stretches east across the Indian border and up to the Deccan in the state of Madhya Pradesh. We enter this landscape with a sense of excitement, pleased to find a good, paved road devoid of traffic which undulates over the sandy ridges. Passing through Mithi, we reach the sandy streets of the small desert town of Islamkot which, despite its name, has a population which is approximately ninety percent Hindu.
Islamkot feels very much 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 to me so similar to India (albeit far more tranquil and friendly) that I at first suspect that Cyril Radcliffe, the English lawyer who had never set eyes upon the Indian Subcontinent yet was responsible for drawing the India – Pakistan border, may have made a slight error in setting it east of Islamkot. On further thought however, I realise that the pluralistic communities of Thar are more of an island; a glimpse of pre-1947 Sindh. That so many Hindus remain in Sindh is testament to the intrinsic tolerance and gentleness of the Sindhis, in stark contrast to Punjab where hundreds of thousands were butchered during the ugly process of partition, and where very few remain today.
We spend the night at the ashram (sanctuary) of Sant Nenuram, a Hindu philanthropist who built the ashram in the early twentieth century as a haven for local life, feeding the poor, and even the local desert wildlife. The guardian of the ashram, a grey and bearded, smiling gentleman who radiates good-naturedness, invites us to join the twice-daily bhandhara or communal serving of food in an arcaded room open to the desert. Shahana as ever leads conversation with the old guardian, and I remember other journeys I have made with her meeting the various sages of Sindh, for me a fascinating insight into the syncretic local Sufi culture. In the dark after dinner I wander the grounds of the ashram enjoying the dry desert air in which I get small wafts of incense, further adding to the to the flavour of being in India.
Beyond Islamkot the road continues eastwards, deeper into the desert. Out among the sandy hills, in the shade of spiny acacias are tiny villages of simple thatch-roofed rondavels, unlike anything I’ve yet encountered in South Asia. These villages are home to Hindu tribes whose women, arms wrapped in white bangles, wear vividly coloured saris. We spot a group tribal women carrying decorated jugs of water on their heads, their elegant, coloured forms a striking sight against the greys and browns of the desert.
We turn off the paved road to the village of Gori, on whose northern edge we are surprised to find a large, multi-domed temple built on a raised platform from finely-carved white limestone, far more sophisticated than anything in the surrounding villages and towns. More intriguing is the fact that the temple is wholly abandoned; for it was constructed not by local Hindus, but by a now-vanished community of Jains.
Jainism is an ancient Indian religion whose origins are mythical, but whose recorded history begins with the figure Mahavira, the twenty-forth (and final) tirthankara, or spiritual teacher, of the faith. Mahavira was born to a noble family in the Gangetic Plain of India in around the sixth century BCE and, in a story similar to that of the Buddha, renounced all worldly temptations for an ascetic life of meditation, until he reached kevala janan, or omniscience. Like Buddhism, Jainism rejects the Vedic (Hindu) caste system, but emphasises ahimsa, non-violence, as its central tenet. Unlike Buddhism, Jainism has survived in modern India, though following partition very few Jains elected to remain in Pakistan. What is intriguing (and indeed speculative) are links between Jain iconography and seals found in sites of the Indus Valley Civilisation, which grew along the Indus and later a long-vanished river which once flowed through Thar, which some link to the mythical Sarasvati River. If true, this would link Jains to the earliest, pre-Vedic civilisation of the subcontinent, based here in what is now southern Pakistan.
Gori’s temple is dedicated to the twenty-third tirthankara, the semi-mythical Lord Parshwanath, and is said to have been constructed in the fourteenth century. Though a ruin, it remains largely intact with decoratively carved pillars and some vandalised carved figures. Most unusual however are the frescoes on the interior of the temple’s main dome depicting legends from Jain scripture, which are amongst the oldest Jain paintings still in existence. It’s rather sad to see this beautiful building sitting forlornly out in the desert, visited it seems, by nothing more than an occasional tourist or shade-seeking goat.
Continuing along the highway, as we near the last town of Nagarparkar we expect an army checkpoint and so Aly takes over driving while I sit in the back hoping not to be spotted. We pass the checkpoint without a problem and the road curves southward towards the ancient yellow granite of the Karunjar Hills, which look very much like India’s Western Ghats. Indeed, behind the hills, out of sight, lies the Indian frontier and the salt flats and marshes of the Rann of Kutch. We stop at the foot of the hills in the village of Bhodisar, where the region’s oldest Jain Temple can be found; a dry-stone structure sitting on a stepped plinth said to date from the ninth century. Part of the shikhara, a tower roof elaborately built up from small, carved subsidiary towers, remains, though neglect and theft are clearly taking their toll.
The paved road ends in Nagarparkar, a sensitive south-eastern salient of Pakistan surrounded on three sides by India. It’s a town of colourful sights; Hindu men wearing beautifully wound scarlet turbans remind me of Rajasthan, and large, exuberantly decorated kekras; ancient Diamond six-wheel-drive trucks built by the Americans during the Second World War, which carry goods and people out into the roadless desert. We drive on a track up into the Karunjar Hills, hoping for a glimpse of Kutch, but elect not to push our luck too far and return to town. Here, the so-called Bazaar Temple is the most intact of the Jain temples we see in Thar, complete with a finely carved stone gateway and decorative blind windows, crowned by an intact shikhara. The temple is thought to have been in use up until the time of partition, but is now derelict.
After having something to eat in the bazaar, we are approached by a man who is obviously an army informant who suggests to us that we should leave. We do so with little argument, thankful to have had a glimpse of this remote desert outpost, but when the Punjabi soldier at the checkpoint on the edge of town who failed to 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, referring to him as an outsider. The soldier has no idea what to say or do, and so we drive off. We enjoy our return drive through the desert, then pick up a terrible, potholed road along which Aly drives furiously, stopping to spend a calm evening with Saloma, a Canadian Mennonite friend of Aly’s in the town of Kunri.
I spend the following week in Hyderabad enjoying the warm days and cool nights at the family home. I also put the first new set of tyres on the truck; the used set which have been on since leaving the UK are almost ruined, with one having in fact exploded three weeks earlier on the Grand Trunk Road driving to Taxila. I begin to ponder my next move over which I have long been procrastinating; is it really feasible to head through Arabia into Africa? I am extremely fond of Pakistan, and don’t feel particularly 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 this year. 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.
The weekend after our trip into the Thar, we leave Hyderabad in two cars to visit a friend of the family, Abdul Rehman, a fisherman who lives on the coast south-west of Karachi, very close to the border with Balochistan. 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 foetid slums. Homes 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.
Aside from these shocking glimpses of grinding poverty immediately below, the Lyari Expressway is a magnificent road, though it is strangely 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-western 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 of Balochistan, which merge after hundreds of kilometres with the Iranian Plateau.
We follow a road between this low ridgeline and the Hub River, emerging at the village of Mubarak Goth on Soneri Bay, where 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, a former 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 indeed one of the most disarmingly kind people I can ever remember meeting; despite being economically poor, he is unfalteringly generous, 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, a kindness which touches us all.
The following day, we all drive together to a junction on the Karachi – Quetta Highway where I part ways with Aly, Shahana and Noé. They turn back eastwards to return to Hyderabad whilst I turn west, hoping to drive the length of Balochistan’s Makran Coast and possibly find an alternative border crossing into Iran from the usual point at Taftan, much further to the north. Despite the lure of more wild places to explore in a far corner of Pakistan, I’m sad to say goodbye to the family, having glimpsed yet more of the fascinating culture of Sindh; a place I am reluctant to leave.
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 small fishing towns 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 sixth 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 knew 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 Balochistan, I pass through the chaotic industrial centre of Hub, 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 Baloch herding camels and goats. With some trepidation, I take 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 cave sanctuary of Hinglaj, an ancient Hindu pilgrimage site, but sadly the road has been washed away by a recent flash-flood and the river remains a raging torrent of muddy water, making Hinglaj inaccessible. 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 holy site of Hinduism, the spiritual backbone of so many millions in the subcontinent.
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 then enters more spectacularly eroded valleys, crossing the lunar landscape of the Buzi Pass 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 Baloch Islamic sect who have adapted their Islam to encompass and additional – Baloch – 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 I start to investigate 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 Baloch 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 gentleman 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. “Iran zabardast!” he shouts, and asks me jokingly if he can join me. He’s hardly the stereotype of a terrorist. The policemen staffing the tana turn out to be extremely friendly and hospitable; I’m given a bed for the night, and spend the evening drinking their contraband whisky.
Reluctantly, I have to take a police 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 am escorted by two gunmen throughout the town. Gwadar was an overseas possession of Oman until 1958 and has a clear Omani influence, with the Sultan of Oman still retaining a large residence not far from the tana. Though little more than a large, fly-blown fishing village, Gwadar has a quite exotic air, with spices and fragrances giving the bazaar a more Middle Eastern flavour than others in the country, and faces which show a wide mixture of ancestry from South Asia, the Middle East and the east coast of Africa.
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 to meet the country’s ever-growing energy demand. 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 gentleman in jail, who the police chief tells me is there for reasons of a family dispute; the man has fallen out with his father, who refuses to disclose 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 for an impromptu smoke 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 murky and powerful national intelligence services who have various very murky dealings in surrounding countries, not least of all Afghanistan. The agent is a sincere and pleasant guy however, and for the first fifteen minutes 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 automatic weapons for the crossing of Balochistan, 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 kilometres away up desolate desert tracks. 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 kilometre 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 frankly glad of it. I stop for lunch at a road-side restaurant near Ormara, and happen to say ‘asalaam aleikum‘ to a Pashtun lorry driver on my way in, only to find upon leaving that he had 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 Balochistan 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; from the Pashtuns; big, ebullient, handsome people whom it’s hard to dislike, to the more reserved Hazara, the oriental-looking Uzbeks from northern Afghanistan, and some wiry Baloch, 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, and head off along the long, empty road to Taftan. This is now the third time I’ve been along this frontier road to the Iranian border, the first being in fearful summer heat and the second under leaden skies which lashed down rain almost continuously. This time the skies are a perfect ultramarine, and the drive is very pleasant, passing the jagged contours of the Ras Koh Range, where Pakistan conducts its nuclear tests, and the soft, sculpted dunes which run north to the Chagai Hills, beyond which lie the wildest parts of Afghanistan, tantalisingly out of reach.
I spend the night in a surprisingly comfortable hotel in the wild Baloch town of Dalbandin, completing the final few hundred kilometres of asphalt to Iran. Close to the border the enormous snowcapped bulk of Mt. Taftan shimmers in Iranian Balochistan. 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.