Escorted to the Iranian border

The British government’s FCO (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) advises “against all travel to Balochistan province including the city of Quetta.” Since we needed to get an NOC (No Objection Certificate) from Quetta to allow us crossing over to Iran through Balochistan, this dangerous zone was exactly where we were heading. The tales we heard from several overlanders we encountered in Pakistan made us both nervous and excited for our own border crossing experience.

Balochistan is the largest province in Pakistan (in land area) and it felt quite different to the rest of the country. It was a real shame that this part of the country was not open for exploration because from what we saw of the boundless arid plains, it was wild and beautiful. A dream for a campervanning. However, I cannot say the same about the city of Quetta.

We chose to arrive in Quetta at night because we heard the escort service was already in place from Khairpur (400km southeast of Quetta) and we wanted to avoid them. It turned out to be a good decision as the police checkpoints were mostly unmanned or with only one or two men standing guard at night. Only the last 20km or so were we stopped and had to follow a pick-up loaded with sleepy guards.

After overnighting at the heavily littered backyard of the police station in Quetta we went to apply for our NOC the next morning. The whole process was slow and involved a lot of waiting around and going to different ‘commissioners’ for signatures but thankfully we got our NOC at the end of the day. I should not complain because what was a day’s work for us was for some, like a Turkish traveller we met, three to four days. He arrived on a Friday and since the police station has the weekends off it meant he stayed there for three nights. He seemed to be pretty amused by the unhygienic condition of his sleeping quarters in the station, showing us photos of the dirty kitchen and telling us stories of policemen spitting on the floor of the room, centimetres away from his feet. That was the right spirit to be in for a border crossing of this obscurity.

Quetta to Taftan has a stretch of around 620km of good tarmac between them. It took us two days and over 26(!) escort changeovers. The first day was more frustrating than the second, as we had to follow escorts in their own vehicles. There was a lot of waiting around, refuelling on their part and tea drinking. Every 10-20km we had to stop and follow a different vehicle. Sometimes it was an old pick-up with armed guards sat in the back and a coal-fired oven between their feet inside the vehicle; other times it was a small compact car with the guards awkwardly getting into it with their AK47s; and then there was the odd little scooter that we tottered behind at 20km/h. The day ended in frustration and wearisome of the next day. In addition, we were not impressed when the police told us in Dalbandin (halfway point between Quetta and Taftan) that we could not stay the night at their station because it was not safe. We were forced to pay to camp at a disreputable hotel.

On the second day, to our surprise and relief, the escorts jumped into our vehicle, which meant we could make headway to Taftan. We were the fastest yak (horn acquired from Hunza Valley mounted on our bull bar) on the N40 doing 140km/h. Having the escorts in Toyotoro gave us opportunities for some interesting exchanges. We learnt that the large parties of Saudi-licensed expedition trucks and their Land Cruisers, that we kept bumping into trailed by an entourage of Pakistani army, were on the hunt for an indigenous bird called Houbara Bustards. One of our escort promptly showed us a photo of this bird on his phone, we did not know what all the fuss was about. We also learnt that the Pakistani army was there to guard certain operations, such as gold mining and transporting it to China. At which point the Baloch escort turned and looked deep into my eyes or maybe I imagined it.

We concluded; this escort business made us feel less safe because the Baloch insurgents wanted to take down the Punjab government than tourists. They felt or feel the government took their country and is looting their resources to sell to foreign countries like China. We felt we were more like a tourist shields rather than important people for protection. However, it is easy to talk in such trivial way with hindsight on our side because not long after we crossed over to Iran there was a bomb blast in Quetta killing several people.

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