It’s funny really how time passes without you even realising it. Our travels has kept us on the move so much and under such circumstances we have had no opportunity really to write an update until now.
As we sit and write this entry we are in Amritsar in the North East of India and it has been several weeks of travelling without knowing how the days have passed by. In the time since the last entry we travelled back across Turkey nearly a thousand miles. We have arranged the air freight for ourselves and the bike over Iran, landed in Karachi (Pakistan), huffed and puffed our way through customs procedures to get the bike out of the customs shed at the air port and then travelled through the whole of Pakistan before crossing the Indian border at Wagha. The trip through Pakistan will take a chapter in itself in the eventual book as we had armed guards outside our bedroom through the nights after they discovered us on the road quite by accident travelling through the country without an armed escort (after the Embassy told us we did not need ‘security’ on the road). From that point onwards we had escorts from anti-terrorist teams who bashed traffic out of the way while verbally and physically abusing people who would not move.
We have broken the golden rules of motorcycle travel (Rule 1. Don’t drive at night; Rule 2. Don’t arrive in a strange city at night) on numerous occasions and so we arrived in Amritsar definitely the worse for wear. We both coughed for many days and nights from the road dust and pollution. Physically the Pakistan leg has been very, very tiring but the people we met were fantastic on all levels. The traffic conditions, driving standards and road conditions have been very difficult and it took a lot out of us but Bertha is running exceptionally well. So we decided the safest thing to do was to sit still in Amritsar taking some time to get physically ready for the next stage through India – which will be even more difficult. Bernard is nearly ready again and I had my first full nights – cough free – sleep last for many weeks. We move onwards on Sunday 16th towards Delhi.
Back over time from 12th October onwards….
If you read the Iranian Visa Saga you will know it was obvious the left hand and the right hand were not talking to each other in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. From within the Ministry there was little communication with their consul in Erzurum which meant that the ‘yes, no’ lottery of the Visa application process ticked on as we nervously watched the weather conditions and felt the temperature dropping. The mountain passes from Turkey to Iran was our concern. During our nervous wait we ended up teaching English at a local tourism school and being invited to visit various teaching staff homes to meet family members – although Bernard was not allowed to meet their wives!
Eventually we made the decision we could wait no more and packed everything and covered the 1000 miles back across Turkey to Istanbul in three hard days of driving often on ‘no road’.
We arrived in Istanbul and tried to make contact with somebody in Air Freight who could understand our Lancashire accents before eventually ringing a company at Heathrow Airport! They very kindly put us in touch with a company in Istanbul and things happened very quickly from that point onwards. The company in Istanbul were tremendously helpful (Genel Transport) and they could not do enough for us; running us between customs, flight offices and our hotel. The bike was classed as ‘dangerous cargo’ by all the air lines which meant certain preparations had be done before it could be crated for transport.
We ended up – after a very long form filling day – in a cargo deport with the petrol being siphoned out, the oils dropped, battery disconnected and the whole physical package being made as small as possible to reduce the freight costs (calculated by crate size). We left the bike dismantled and made as small as possible (thank you IranianVisa.com) and headed back to the hotel very tired and hungry late in the night.
The next day we headed back to check the crating and to complete the paperwork for exporting only to find the carpenter had built a garden shed; it was enormous and, subsequently, the freighting costs had increased 33%! The customs had already sealed the crate for export and the bike was already booked onto a flight to Dubai for that night (then onwards to Karachi) and we had our own flight tickets for the next day. To get the bike out of customs and have the carpenter remake the crate to a more appropriate size would have entailed at least a three day delay (it was public holidays in Turkey). So another decision had to be made quickly – do we let it go and shoulder the extra cost? In the end we decided with all the delays we would go ahead and ship and get moving again. We were not happy about it but there was little we could do really. We have sent the bill to Iran but we are not very hopeful!
So it was we found ourselves on an evening flight to Karachi leaving Istanbul with the bike already somewhere in Dubai.
We landed at Karachi Airport at 3.30am and quickly found a hotel near the airport as we needed to be close to the customs to simplify the release procedures. Even with all the correct paperwork in place it took three days of thumb twiddling sitting around waiting to get the bike back (with another set of costs attached). The bike eventually arrived days later at 1am in the morning on the back of a very small truck which was instantly surrounded by armed guards all cocking their weapons as they anxiously inspected what they thought – we later found out – was a car bomber approaching the gates! We did not realise it was coming to the hotel at this time as we thought we would be going to the customs compound to put it all back together. So it was we found ourselves with a 700kg crate on a flatbed with no lifting equipment to get it off. “No problem, no problem” rang in the air as all the guards (apart from one) put their automatic rifles and machine guns down going to work getting the most enormous crate off using pure muscle power. After much grunting and groaning and with a lot of laughing (Bernard) the job was done and the crate pulled apart to show Bertha still covered in all the dust and muck of the Turkish roads. We were relieved to have her back as we have felt trapped without her. We fell into bed after many, many handshakes and with much back slapping and laughing at 3am; tired but very content.
The next day was spent tracking down oil, petrol and getting air for the tyres (which had to be let down for the flight). In the middle of all the ‘dirty hand’ work a film crew turned up from ARY television (Pakistan, England and New York) to interview us about the journey and after about two hours of interviews we ended up riding the bike around the car park in big circles time after time after time! Added to this we did interviews for the Pakistan Tourist (!) board paper about the journey. The owner of the hotel and the managers all turned up as we were being interviewed in the car park complete with a large bunch of flowers for me. It’s surprising what a difference a TV crew makes to your reception and subsequent treatment!
All through our wait during these days (in a Hotel compound with armed guards on every entrance) with the newspapers talking of suicide bombings in Karachi and the Americans firing missiles into Pakistan we got just a little bit nervous. In many ways this nervousness was amplified by everybody we spoke to (Newspapers, TV and everyday people) who said we would need ‘security’ to travel in the country. We were convinced to make contact with the British Embassy in Islamabad and the consul in Karachi. Eventually, we did get through to somebody in the Karachi consul who was not on lunch who assured us we did not need security and so we left Karachi and set out into the traffic and dust.
The guards on the compound and the whole hotel staff could not believe we were pulling out through the gates with no armed escort waiting for us. Alone we set off into Pakistan with our hopes and a big smile on our face and little else in terms of protection. The smile soon stopped as we hit bad roads and horrendous traffic churning up dust as we ploughed through metal mayhem. People stopped and stared at us as we trundled through the traffic and beggars descended on us whenever we came to a halt and pulled at our arms and the bike. People would stop their cars and watch us with inquisitive looks on their faces. When we smiled back the most enormous smile would appear on everybody’s face and they would wave happily in response to our gestures of ‘hello’.
We cleared Karachi (eventually) and got lost trying to find the ‘superhighway’ which everybody told us was an excellent road. We did find it after some time and it was somewhat less than we expected. People had told us it was three lane ‘motorway’ and so, naively, we had anticipated something like a European Highway but it was not at all like this. Corrugated folds caused the bike to skip along and often there were holes in the road filled in with branches and soft dirt which blew constantly in the air. The road passed through the middle of villages where people would saunter out into the traffic like lemmings seeking to commit suicide. It had camels, or donkeys pulling carts in the ‘fast’ lane. Pushbikes with several people on them wobbled up the road and rode straight across the traffic. Vehicles come at you on the wrong side and badly overloaded wagons would pull out without looking. Actually it was not that they did not look, it was that they could not look as the loads covered their wing mirrors – if they had wing mirrors.
We arrived in a place called Sukkur in the dark and it had taken far, far longer than the mileage should have as the road conditions and driving was so tough. The dark had fallen and we eventually seen a ‘Motel’ sign which turned out to be not a motel but a BBQ eating house! Fortunately one of the staff jumped on a 50cc bike and guided us through the traffic to a ‘Hotel’ and we gratefully climbed off the bike. By the time we had unloaded the bike the police had arrived and there was some confusion about what was happening. Our photographs were taken (for security) and little did we know when we woke up in the morning what was going to happen from this point onwards. Truly exhausted we fell asleep.
The morning brought the fact we were not allowed to leave the hotel until a police escort arrived and so the morning passed waiting. Eventually one arrived and we had thought it was only to guide us out of the town back to the ‘not-so-super-highway’.
We left the hotel following a police truck complete with armed officers and they barged their way through the traffic to the outskirts where, we were handed over to another team and instructed to follow them. So began a 10 hour journey following armed team after armed team across several hundred miles. Each team would take us for about 50 miles before we would be waved past only to find another team waiting for us. At one point (in the really ‘dangerous’ area) the Junjab Elite Anti-Terrorist Squad took over who guided us for about 100 miles towards the north of the country and a place called Multan. The side of their truck bristled with weapons as we sirened our way through traffic and they waved them at people in front to get out of the way. It was a very sobering realisation this was to be our way of crossing Pakistan. Petrol stops took on a new meaning as a cordon would be set up around us and people would now stare nervously when we arrived. This was so unlike the previous day where inquisitive people would suddenly appear from all directions and smiles would break the distance between people. Now it was harder but we still smiled and shook hands with everybody in sight and this still worked with everybody we met.
The road from Sukkur to Lahore involved three stops overnight and mad road conditions constantly following police trucks with armed police (on one night) sleeping outside our room.
As we entered Multan on the third night the traffic closed around us and the police became extremely nervous as the old maxim ‘safety in movement’ became impossible with the traffic density. Even with sirens wailing and forcing a route up the wrong side of the road we became hopelessly snarled up in traffic. All the time they waved to Bernard from the back of the truck to ‘close up, close up’ until we travelled about 6-8 foot off the vehicle at up to 50 miles per hour (where we could). Bernard says it was the scariest riding he has ever done travelling this close to a vehicle but the police insisted it was done this way. It was caused by the fact that if ANY GAP at all appeared between the bike and the police something would get into that gap (car, bike, tractor, donkey cart).
The traffic was flowing in all directions and all around us with seemingly no rules. People just stepped off the pavements, cattle would saunter across the road in the middle of the town, people pulled out of side roads without looking and so it went on. There was a major shift in Bernard’s riding style from this point as he stared through the tiny window in the back of the truck to see through the police trucks windshield. He also came to understand the police truck was actually acting as a cushion for him in the traffic and, with some concentration, it was possible to ride this close and stay relatively safe; in fact it was safer than getting swallowed up by the traffic which swarmed around us.
We arrived at the Hotel Ramada in Multan with relief and absolutely worn out covered in dust. The bike was put to bed in the underground car park – down the steepest ramp ever experienced but managed without any mishap! Bertha was put to rest under the hotel once the staff had moved several of the prayer mats facing Mecca to make room for her! This truly tickled us.
The next morning the police turned up one hour late and the staff, again, would not let us leave until they had appeared. Little did we know how the ride from Multan to Lahore would turn out! As with the other days we followed the armed police trucks for mile after mile constantly escorted and then handed over to the next vehicle. It went on for hours without any stops at all.
The dust clung to us and the coughing was getting worse and worse from the two of us.
All through the escorted experience a hand would appear through the side window and wave us past and we thought nothing of it as we approached the outskirts of Lahore when the same thing happened. The light was fading as we entered the outskirts and passed the police vehicle fully expecting to see the next one on the road ahead. Completely puzzled we noted there was no vehicle to follow. We travelled several kilometres expecting to see the familiar sight any second. Nothing. The light is falling and the sun is disappearing as we realise something has gone wrong. The only time we really needed an escort would have been through Lahore to find a Hotel recommended by a Pakistani Supreme Court Judge who wanted us to visit him and the hotel was ‘reasonably priced’ and close to his house. It came as a shock after several days of constant protection to find we were on our own and with no directions written down to get us to the Hotel (not even the hotel address as the police had always found the way).
We drove around Lahore in the darkness for three hours through the worst traffic and conditions we have experienced so far. The beeping of horns filled the air and traffic clung to us on all sides as we tried to find a hotel, any hotel by this point. Stopping to ponder our options attracted crowds within seconds making us feel very vulnerable in the darkness on our Christmas Tree bike which stood out wherever we stopped.
At one point Bernard pulled the bike up and stopped on a corner as traffic came from everywhere and lit a cigarette and his voice came through the helmet speakers saying that he couldn’t do this. His voice betrayed his worry as he explained he was very shaken and didn’t think it was possible to ride the bike under these conditions; his confidence was gone. I sat quietly and waited as he worked through his own emotions as I felt this was the best course of option. He didn’t need to hear “You can do this” he needed to have some down time to work through his own fear and mental state as we were surrounded by traffic coming from everywhere (on the right side, on the wrong side, cars with no lights, pushbikes, rickshaws, horses, donkeys, camels, pedestrians).
After some time (and several cigarettes) he spoke again saying “I have no choice do I, it has to be done?” I very quietly said “Yes” and he pressed the starter and Bertha sang into life. Lots of sounds of deep breathing came through the speakers in my helmet and then the bike surged forward.
I was never so scared in all my life and I say this having been scared on many times through the years. We fought our way through traffic which gave no quarter. If you gave an inch then something would take that space from you. Where cars came through red lights without a thought causing hard and desperate braking. Where people stepped off the dust into the road in the dark without a care despite the traffic thundering along inches from the vehicle in front. Where unlit camel drawn carts would suddenly appear from the darkness and cars and bikes would pull out of side roads without looking to see if anything was coming. Where cars would pass and then pull in front just missing the front wheel. It was the worst I have ever experienced in terms of driving and I wondered how the roads were not full of bodies and crashes. I could start to see a rhythm, a style needed to survive. Give no quarter and imperiously assume everyone is going to get of your way. Do not let the wheels stop rolling, keep moving and don’t stop at all. Once this style was adapted then we made some progress and after asking many people for directions we ended up pulling up outside a hotel and gratefully pulling in through the security gates (and guards) and climbing off the bike.
We trudged into the hotel completely black faced – like two coal miners fresh from the pit – as the best dressed of Lahore paraded through the hotel reception while the white dust fell of the two of us with any movement at all. We looked completely destroyed after the day and we never worked out what happened regarding the police escort. It seemed strange they covered us for 800 miles and then left us at the gates of hell really!
As luck would have it (and we certainly needed some after everything that has gone wrong so far) we found the ONLY LEGAL bar in Pakistan was contained within the hotel. So it was that my first wine for nearly two weeks was consumed (shall we say I had two glasses?) After showering and eating we passed out and is not too hard to understand as I’m sure you’ll appreciate!
The next day dawned still exhausted and the two of us are coughing very badly as has happened all through the night. The fumes, pollution and dust has caused us a lot of problems and sleep is hard to come by as one of us would wake the other coughing. It feels like we have swallowed cotton wool and we try to cough it up to no avail. Our chests are sore and breathing comes hard after the bouts of coughing. It is obvious we cannot ride until we come out of this physical place we currently inhabit and so we decide to wait until we can breath properly before moving to cross the Pakistan-Indian border.
During our rest period we visited the famous Wagha border ceremony where Indian and Pakistani Rangers perform a ritual every night at the lowering of their respective flags and it is a fabulous mixture of martial preening and good humoured baiting of the opposite side’s soldiers. The crowd on both sides are wound up by flag waving cheer leaders who excite and encourage nationalistic fever as the troops high step and stamp their way through the ritualised performance to the delight of the crowds.
All in all we stayed three nights in Lahore and everybody talked to us and questioned us about our experiences. We told them that Pakistan was full of wonderful people (which it is) and we had encountered nothing but kindness and honest interest the whole time. This experience started from day one when we approached the Pakistan Embassy in Athens which now seems so long ago.
Many people we talk to comment on the American’s firing missiles into Pakistan and they wonder how the Americans would like it if Mexico did the same thing to them? We talk with people who shake their heads at our travels and the word ‘brave’ constantly appears in their thoughts on our route. We do not think this way as we believe that ‘people are people’ and a smile and a hand shake overcomes a lot of our own worries. There is a very old saying that “A stranger is just a friend you have not met yet” and it is very true.
Tomorrow we head to the border and the crossing into India.
The next stage is about to begin.