Tuesday, 30 November 2010
Tuesday, 23 November 2010
Getting into India proved an awful lot easier than getting into Pakistan. I cadged a lift with Mike, Tanja and Ipi in the 33 year old Mercedes van that they'd driven all the way from Austria. Crossed over the border at Wagah-Attari but managed to miss the border closing ceremony due to combination of pain-in-the-ass border officials and enjoying our first beers for a month. 15,000 people go to watch it on the Indian side alone and it felt like being at a football match with crowds streaming towards the border. The beers tasted good though. Well, the Tigers were good but the Hayward's 5000 which we picked up later was vile. Sounds like engine oil, tastes like engine oil, and about 9% to boot.
From the border we headed off to look for somewhere to park the van up for the night. Ended up on the side of a farmer's field. Beautiful place. The local farmers were very interested in who we were, and we paid them an extended visit in the morning, although not quite as extended as they wanted and they were very disappointed when we finally took off. I think they'd invited all the neighbours to come and meet their new guests. I did get to drive their tractor before we went though.
From there we headed up country towards Dharamsala, stopping off en route in Nurpur for the night. Nice temple, lots of monkeys, quite a few annoying kids and an early morning wake up call from a guy from the Indian Archaeological Survey to encourage us to move on.
We were parked right next to the fortress/temple complex. It was also at this point that I remembered my 'when I get to India' cigar that Karima had bought me, which I'd been carrying since home. So I sparked that bad boy up to celebrate.
From Nurpur it was a short hop to Dharamsala/McLeod-Ganj so we stopped off at some hot springs. Hiked a few kms as the bridge was still being built. Acquired some dogs that did their best to spook all the farm animals along the way. Local farmers were not impressed and I'm not sure our attempts to tell them that the dogs weren't ours were completely understood. Also met a bunch of Tibetan bikers from McLeod whose cafe we went along to when we got into town.
McLeod-Ganj is an old hill station which is now the home of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile. A very traveller-heavy place and it was weird seeing lots of tourists for the first time in ages. The scenery is spectacular. The town rambles up the side of a steep hill with mountains in the background and loads of pine forests.
While in McLeod I thought I'd get down and spiritual by signing up to a course on Buddhism. 6 days of silence, abstinence and meditation at the Tushita Meditation Centre, at the top of the hill above McLeod.
Actually very interesting. While I might not really buy into any form of religion in a big way, I certainly found the meditation to be a worthwhile thing and I may well carry on doing it. While meditating you have to avoid two elements: dullness (i.e. thinking about nothing) and agitation (i.e. thinking about lots of random things). I'm simplifying massively here. I was almost totally devoid of dullness. Insert your own joke here please.
After 6 days all of us on the course were ready for a bit of fun so all met up at a bar back in McLeod for drinking, singing and (most importantly) TALKING!!! A great bunch of folks and a good night, so a lot of us did the same thing again the following night.
Today I'm off to Shimla Hill Station on the overnight bus. After almost 10 days in McLeod it feels a bit weird to be back on the road again.
Saturday, 13 November 2010
So now to bring you up to date...
After crossing the border into Pakistan at Taftan I was immediately whisked off to the Baluchistan Levies station. They told me there were no buses that day and I would need to spend the night at the station. Quite a fun 24 hours actually. It's a bit like the wild west in Taftan and staying at the station was a cross between Assault on Precinct 13 and Rio Bravo (movie buffs will be able to tell me why that's unsurprising). They fed and watered me and all in all it was a good time. Although I couldn't actually leave the station. One slightly unnerving moment was when I was chatting to some people inside the station. I asked if they were police and they said no and made a gesture of putting their wrists together. So they were all prisoners. Altogether there were 83 prisoners in the station, and it wasn't a big one. Fortunately all of them were there for passport and visa violations in Iran, from whence they'd just been evicted. After 24 hours I was ready to move on, but sadly when I went off (armed bodyguard in tow) to catch the bus it turned out that there was a strike. So no buses that day.
I'd resigned myself to another (and possibly another and another) night at the Taftan Hilton when Ali and Daniyal turned up. They'd been driving overland from the UK to Pakistan, initially in 2 cars and now in 1 car following a crash in Turkey. So I squeezed myself into the back of their 3-series BMW, very grateful to be getting out of Taftan, and off we went. As a bit of background info the road between Taftan and Quetta is VERY DANGEROUS and shouldn't be driven in the night or without armed escort. Initially we had a guy with a gun in the car but about half way to Quetta they decided we didn't need it any more. A little further on, thanks largely to terrible roads and lorries constantly using main beams, we had a crash. No-one hurt, but the radiator was knackered. We managed to limp on to some vestige of civilisation in the form of a cluster of houses, where several people tried to fix it, all to no avail. Since that hadn't worked, we decided to wait it out, hiding in a hut by the side of the road in the middle of the night. Kidnappings and tribal violence are quite common along that road so we decided it was best to keep our heads down. After a couple of hours the police turned up. We'd been checking in at police checkpoints all the way along the route and when we didn't arrive at the next one they eventually sent out a search party.
The police turned up a little more en masse this time and they towed us to a second levies station where we spent the rest of the night. Again, all a bit wild-west.
In the morning we got a tow to the nearest big town where we sat and waited for Ali's friends to come out from Quetta to pick us up. At that point we stuck the car on the back of a cattle lorry and sent it off towards Quetta and we piled into the Toyota pick-up (in hindsight a much more sensible vehicle for these roads!).
Pic below is of our various rescuers...
After the fun and games on the road, Quetta was a relative haven of calm, so I kicked back for a couple of days and then got the Jaffer 'Express' to Lahore, a 30 hour train journey in standard class (no first class available), which was made easier by all the friendly folks on the train, including Waqas, below...
In Lahore I've spent about 4 days at the Regale Internet Inn, a relative haven of peace and calm in a crazy town. Visited all the sights: the old town, the fort, Jehangir's tomb etc.
Spent a fun day with Javed, who I recommend as a guide if you come to Lahore (firstname.lastname@example.org, +92 300 4350 693, photo below, Javed's on the left). Also I've enjoyed a lot of local music at various venues including a great band playing on the roof here at the Regale.
Thursday, 11 November 2010
Since it's been nearly a month since I last posted, this is going to be a rather brief whip through Iran. So having been joined by Ian in Shiraz we proceeded on a whistle-stop tour of the big 3 in Iran: Shiraz (for Persepolis), Esfahan and Yazd.
Persepolis was impressive but they've made a few weird decisions with how they look after the sight and I wasn't quite as wowed with it as I thought I would be. We also headed over to Pasargardae which wasn't much to write home about at all. Mind you, all these sites are 2500 years old so you can't expect too much.
Esfahan was spectacular, particularly the Imam Square.
A very religious town with lots of impressive mosques. Also a lively bazaar in which we splurged on various things. I took the opportunity of having Ian around to pick up a carpet (a Qashqai bread kilim from Mr Ackbar, below, to be precise) and some camel-bone carvings which I sent home with him.
Chatted to a lot of people here including one young mullah and lots of english teachers (although I suspect some of them might not have been english teachers at all, one for instance, under questioning couldn't name a single english novel). Nice bridge in Esfahan too. Also in Esfahan we went to see Zerhaneh ("house of strength") which had been billed a an Iranian martial art. In reality it consisted mostly of lots of men doing splits press-ups and then twirling huge wooden clubs around. You have to see the pictures. Also met my second air force colonel.
For Yazd I had two aims: ride on a camel and eat camel. I achieved both objectives. Also went on a trip out into the desert to visit Meybod (an old castle), Chak Chak (the holiest Zoroastrian site perched on the side of a mountain - really picturesque - piccie of the inside of the temple below) and Kharanaq (a run down old town).
Ian and I also assumed to roles of retail consultants for the evening as we were dragged off by the owners of the local "mall" (think Somerfield in the 1970s) to advise them on how to attract more customers. Not exactly either of our fields but hey, it was different.
After bidding Ian a fond farewell I headed down to Kerman with Dallas and Mary who I'd met in Yazd. The next day we headed into the Kaluts with Mahmoud our guide in his old BMW. The Kaluts are an amazing place. Check out pics on the internet. I'll post if I can. A sandy desert with huge rock mesas. We were visited by some wild foxes during the night. Photo of us hunting foxes is below...
I decided to sleep out in wilds under the stars, despite the foxes. A very cool experience. I was undisturbed by the foxes but at one point I heard a rustling and shone my torch in the direction, to see lots of little lights shining back (like eyes reflected in the dark). Turned out to be a crisp bag. My home for the night is in the photo below...
After Kerman I headed on alone to Bam, where they're rebuilding the old adobe citadel which was previously spectacular but was pretty much destroyed in the earthquake of 2003. Rebuilding is coming along. No other tourists there, although the Iranian Minister of Transport was, bizarrely. Tourism has dried up, according to Mr Ackbar who runs the guesthouse, by the security fears. A japanese guy was kidnapped in 2007. To be fair, they might have a point and Mr A was very careful to ensure that he knew where I was at all times and gave me a lift to a lot of places himself.
From Bam I headed to the border. Police escort in Bam but nothing after that. I'd been told that the cops would be all over me as soon as I got to Zahedan, the next town, but there were none around. So I jumped in a cab and headed for the border. At one checkpoint the police were quite surprised that I had no escort but hey. Made it to the border in the early afternoon and crossed without any problems. Then Pakistan...but that story will have to wait for another day.
I've skipped over quite a bit here: some massively flirty Iranian ladies on the bus (I may be developing a headscarf fetish), Mustapha the wizened bellboy at the hotel in Esfahan, dozens of interesting people who stopped to chat, lots of old buildings, some really cool restaurants and a bunch of other stuff. Should have tried to keep this more up to date as I went but there just wasn't time.