The lucky pen

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Flag of Pakistan  , Sindh,
Friday, November 11, 2011

So today we went from Quetta, a toilet to Sukkor, a dustbowl. Along the way a lot of things changed and among them was my opinon.

So we got ripped off at the hotel, that's hardly a new experience but we took it on the chin like the seasoned travellers we are. This morning we arranged for security to meet us at 8am and went to a better hotel to have breakfast at 7am. Technically we weren’t allowed to leave the hotel, especially by bike but we did anyway because, well, fuck them. This morning we were blessed by the lucky pen. I’m not normally a superstitious person but in the pen we can trust. It’s a long story but I call it my lucky pen because it got me out of trouble while in Europe. My GPS didn’t work even slightly so I had to write directions every morning and stick them to my bike screen with tape. It worked nicely but I had to be very careful not to lose my pen or else I was stuffed. I came by it just outside of Mulhouse in a petrol station. I needed a pen and asked to borrow one. The young guy working there took one out of a pot of pens on his desk, all advertising his brand of petrol and gave it to me. He then charged me 4 euros for it so in fact it’s not lucky at all and the interesting story by which i came to own it is that I simply paid many times more than it was worth for something that was probably intended to be given away free.

So the pen brings me good luck on my travels. This morning I heard the familiar tapping of rain but when I threw back the door to face the world in only my underpants I was relieved that there was, in fact no rain and a blue, cloudless sky for us to ride under. Of course this was around 6.30 in the morning so there was staggering around, swearing, bad breath and comments I wouldn’t want my mother to hear. We woke up the man on hotel reception who slept on the floor of hotel reception which was weird but did make him easy to find. He made no objection to us performing an act which was punishable by death so we rode out into the streets. The roads were unpleasant and so was the smell but there was no flooding, no open sewers spilling into the streets and, in fact no people. More or less the ideal ingredients for a town in Pakistan. The hotel was close and security let us in with no problems. We went through the metal detector which went off but that seemed to be no problem as apparently nobody knew how it works.

Breakfast was the same as yesterday but spicier and with more coffee. I had to wake up and the only proper substitute for sleep is good coffee, at least when i don’t have any class-A narcotics. So we headed back to the hotel half an hour late and the police still hadn’t arrived but we were hardly surprised. I adjusted my chain quickly, loaded my gear and then they arrived to lead us out of town. It wasn't far but then it wasn’t much of a town. The septic backlog had cleared but the buildings were of the worst possible kind. People lived in conditions the RSPCA would prosecute you for if you exposed a dog to them. Donkeys walked though the streets dragging decaying wooden carts, ramshackle sheds were collapsing all around, concrete slaps were arranged into squares to form makeshift houses with no plumbing or heating of any kind. More worryingly the people seemed oblivious to the abject poverty, the appalling conditions in which they were forced to eke out a subsistence lifestyle. There was a sense of hopelessness between the army checkpoints, no education and no hope of escape until they were eventually freed by death. Some people we have spoken to are desperate to get to England in the vague hope of a new life but with the additional cost of living there there’s not much hope for them making it. Most people don’t even seem to have a dream, they just wander around in meek acceptance of the grim finality of their fate.

We were relayed out from the town and the cars swapped a number of times. We rode on through winding roads into a tiny village where people waved and the buildings looked cleaner. The poverty was still blindingly apparent, small children were standing by the road side holding out an egg in the hope, I assume, of selling it. We had to stop for paperwork and to change our escort at one point and the children were sitting cramped into a hole in the rock for the day with a few eggs to sell and a bottle of something to drink. They didn’t seem to have anything to eat.

Marcin seemed to have lost his money meaning I had to stretch out what I had until we can get to a town and draw out some cash. Hotels here are expensive but a necessary evil in towns where people will steal the paint off of your car if you turn your back for a second.

Our driver and the person who carries the AK47 left the safety of the most battered Toyota van i have ever seen. Without any hint of a joke I have come to respect the mighty Toyota Hilux. The abuse they upon these machines is incredible and they clearly seem to absorb and deal with it without consequence. I only wish that Toyota made a Hilux adventure bike. Out two escorts got onto a 70cc Chinese bike, at first I assumed they were heading back but sadly not, they beckoned us to follow. We did through some very impressive winding roads which I enjoyed immensely. In fact the little bike made a good pace but the riders skills were on the wrong side of dangerous. The road had a sheer drop to the side, not high really but around 100 metres it was still a lethal fall. He rode where he liked, snaking around the road into the path of oncoming trucks. At one point we came to a puddle that had to be 2 or 3 feet deep with lorries and cars fighting to get into it on the single lane under a bridge. After that we were waved on and free to go on our own.

The roads were lousy, gravel and rocks, potholed, unsurfaced and uneven and winding through mountains, deserts and half-finished archways. We loved it, we kicked up the speeds to a decent safe but quick pace and I led on. Our bikes ripped up the roads like they were paper and we had a real blast. There was only two stop checks along the way and I was riding so fast I overshot one of them. It was the best riding we’ve seen so far, magnificent scenery and roads that felt truly adventurous.

Sadly after that it went a bit wrong.

I was still riding high from the awesome ride we were having as I led us into a mountain pass with holes cut into rocks and a drop to the side down to a lake. The weather was brilliant by now and people had gathered to swim and enjoy the sun. We snaked around and Marcin flashed me to stop, I didn’t notice, the sun glinted off his boxes a lot this morning and often all I could see was glare in my mirrors. Then I saw he wasn’t there so I went back. He had stopped for pictures and I also took out my camera. A couple of lads came over and started inviting us for tea. I was up for a break, I needed some water in any case. Then a truck stopped and a dozen or so lads came out, all wanting to shake hands and say hi. I took pictures, they posed, it will all very friendly. The van left and then the two lads started trying to steal our gear. They grabbed my camera and said it was a gift to them. Then they started opening Marcin’s luggage and rooting through. It was the kind of behaviour I expect of animals or at worst children. There was no respect, no boundaries. At first we thought it was a joke and we firmly played it down but it started to get apparent that it wasn’t and they really were trying to take our stuff. We firmly put them back and left, no harm done but after that I was left with a feeling I couldn’t shake. It put a gloom over the rest of the ride. No longer was making speed and heading onwards a thrill, now it was just about putting miles on the gauge before the clock counted us out for the day and to just get as far as possible towards India.

We passed the scene of an accident and stopped for a look. A car had hit a bus, that had overturned in a ditch. The police greeted our curiosity warmly as they always do. I asked if anyone was hurt and apparently people had died. The bus proably had children on board but the driving here is so bad it came as no surprise. We moved on again.

I couldn’t shift my bad mood. We had to stop for petrol later on. In the morning I had filled up with Super and the pinking was massively reduced. There was none where we stopped so back to the usual junk fuel and my problems came back. I was a bit snappy with Marcin, I think but not sure he even noticed. We had a checkpoint and I tried using my satnav but the screen was completely frozen. There were forks in the road up ahead so i told him he would have to lead again. He rode a bit too fast and I had trouble keeping up, in fact I didn’t even feel like trying and when we stopped for fuel I told him to slow it down and he did. No problem. I still couldn’t shake the bad mood, Pakistan was definitely beginning to get to me.

So after this I started to let my mind wander. Eventually we picked up a police escort and had to follow them at silly speeds. Before we had been making 65, even a little higher but suddenly we were restrained to 19. The heat was rising, it was getting very hot. With no mountain winds to cool us the temperature was getting uncomfortable. In the mountains 25 was cold, now 20 was hot and it rose to 35 degrees and we were wearing full bike gear. Marcin was still wearing two jackets.

I noticed the colour of people changing, the looks of the faces, the clothes and the buildings. People were getting darker as we rode along and things were increasingly undeveloped. Then I saw a few small pockets of much lighter people wearing tatty but bright coloured clothes. They stood out vividly against the background and then I realised. These were refugees, I checked the map and we had entered the edge of the part of Pakistan that was flooded. I looked around and it fell into place. My dull mood had left my mind working over the social implications and dealing with the matters of riding and I had blindly forgot where we now were. Lakes replaced fields, endless pools of completely stagnant, motionless water stretched out on both sides of the damaged roads with the brilliant sun flickering across the even surface. Buildings lay around the edges of the new waterlogged scenery, wrecked by the flooding. We weren’t just being escorted, we were being slowed down as the roads got increasingly bad. I saw a shelter, a community made from white metal boxes like the backs of cheap trucks with military green tents between them, spread around unevenly, people sitting at the edge of the roads, broken and lost. We passed a field with a proud banner that said the aid was supplied by UK relief. There was less than 30 white tents, each maybe large enough for a few people.

In fact the area seems to have recovered well. People were smiling and looked like they meant it. These people have so little in their lives that even the loss of their homes can’t take much away from them. The poverty here is so grim, so overwhelming. People seemed so desperate, huddled together in dusty, broken little communities trying to claw an existence from the land, a land that had treated them all so badly. It was a humbling thing to see this, a place that I had only seen on the news. Relief of sorts had not managed to find its way here yet, these people were not rebuilding, not creating new lives, just getting on with it, living in home built tents or shacks and just trying to survive.

As we moved on the things got worse, we left our escort finally and were into the last leg of our journey before Sukkur. The roads just got worse and worse and then got busier. People drove like they lived, with no thought, no hope. People wandered across the road, aiming their cars and bikes at whatever they pleased. The roads were made of sand and then mud, rubble, rock and pitted tarmac. Buses, trucks, cars and bikes clambered together to drive faster ad more dangerously. Even Marcin held back, I’ve never seen him so cautious. There was no gap to pass a truck so he waited and then a car overtook us followed by two vanloads of people with more people hanging on outside. How they made it I don’t know, we couldn’t even see through the dust. It was crazy. Villages were turning into horrible blurs of yellow and grey concrete hovels at the side of the roads filled to the point of teeming with people and carts selling rotting fruit and other spoiled wares. If we stopped for a moment we were swamped. Bikes came up to ride with us and although they seemed to have good intentions they were too close to be anything but dangerous. The sides of the roads were littered with the carcasses of broken trucks, smashed in accidents and I wonder how many bikes lay beneath the water beside the road. People grouped around. If we stopped to check a map we had the usual mob of people grouping around and staring blankly in silence. Nobody spoke or interacted with us or each other. In the end you just learn to ignore them but it’s unnerving at first, the silent dead eyes just staring blankly forwards while you do the most mundane things.

The ride was pretty awful and then I heard a noise. A grinding noise every time I went over one of the sizable potholes. In the end I stopped. The spare fuel can had been lost. A bungie had snapped, it had falled into the wheel or chain and had been cut wide enough to have shed 5 litres of spare fuel cutting my range down to 120 miles if my auxiliary tank failed which it would probably do in this heat. I was annoyed at the loss but caught up and we carried on again. We battled through to the highway. We tried to talk but we stopped in a village and the noise was deafening and people started crowding us so I went back to a petrol station to fill up. Actually my secondary tank had worked increasing my range instantly so we headed into Sukkur. The town itself was not as bad as Quetta, cleaner and more vibrant with a hint of character. Again, people crowded us on the road, trying to say hi or just get a look but it made riding almost impossible. We got directions back to the only hotel in town where they lock the gates and have patrols by a man with a pump action Remington shotgun. After today I see why. Quetta is a militarised town. It’s an army base with shops in it but the truth is they’re not worried about terrorism or Iranians. The threat is internal, its own people are the threat. Pakistan is at its best when there are no Pakistani people about. The scenery is impressive and to ride it on an adventure bike is a real treat but to deal with these people is stressful and unpleasant. A lot of them are just trying to be friendly but there is an undercurrent here of malice. It’s not nice and we just don’t want to be here. There’s no beauty here, no art, no contribution to the world as a whole. We saw only one building that was decent and it was literally square and featureless apart from square windows and a door. Pakistan seems to be a country afflicted by its people and it would be a better place without them. Gone here are the warm welcomes we got on the road from Tabriz but even then we only met professionals and civil servants. Since then we’ve mixed with normal people and it’s been increasingly unpleasant. Certainly the place has its challenges but they don’t excuse everything. The villages and small towns are filled with donkeys dragging carts, buildings are mud and sticks. If it wasn’t for the input from the western world I wonder if this country would have socially evolved at all in the last few thousand years. There were places you could point a camera and travel back in time to a forgotten age which still lives on here. Iran and India are very careful not to let the borders remain open to these people and I’m starting to see why.

In the hotel we saw the unmistakable Velox. The Hungarians waved at us from the balcony and we met them later. Like us, they are trying to go as fast as they can to get away from here. We all want to make the border town tomorrow but it seems unlikely. Two days might be possible but tomorrow we’re resigned to an early start and a long ride until the light starts to fail. Anything to get out of here!
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Comments

thunderstick on

FTS about the petrol bottle, at least the auxiliary is holding. Maybe you should start the rumour that vital minerals have been found in abundance near there...in a few weeks there'll be the US army and a McDonalds on every corner. By the way -- during the late 1800's I think the Sindh province featured in the mutinies (or it was part of the regular wars between the English and natives/mughals). When it was relieved by a relief force of British after a much publicised siege, Punch magazine printed a cartoon of this with the joke attributed to the commander's despatch back to HQ: 'Peccavi', which is Latin for 'I have sinned' (Sindh - geddit?). Ok, I'm going back in my box.

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