Both in my head and in the country we are in, there is a current code red. Alarm bells ringing. For this country my governments advices: don’t travel. And my head, well, it exploded from the new impressions I’ve been given. And it couldn’t handle the freedom that was taken from us just to keep us safe. As you might know, if there is one thing you shouldn’t do, it is to limit me in my freedom. Though this all sounds very severe, I shouldn’t overall complain so much. Because this country has, once more, so much to offer. Such beauty we encountered in the last weeks, both in Pakistan and Iran. So many things and people we regretted to leave behind. But that is part of a journey as well. Not just seeing the new, also closing doors behind you, never to return, as a quote in one of my travel journals once wisely said. It is one of the things I’m very bad at. Saying goodbye, accepting a possibly permanent ending. But of course the good outweighs the bad. Though we’ve left Iran behind it has showed us so much of what it has to offer. We had the luck of spending a whole month in this country, yet it was still far too little. And now it’s Pakistan’s turn to exceed all our expectations.
In Iran we entered desert area. Though we already survived a near-sandstorm in the north, it wasn’t really in an endless sand filled area. When we gazed at the map to decide on which route we would take it frightened us a bit to see immensely big stretches of yellow nothingness. It basically filled up the biggest part of Iran. How would we ever be able to survive this heat, sand, sun?! Well, before we crossed we decided to visit some “real” desert first. One like you expect them you know, with sand dunes and hopefully without scorpions. As getting our bikes stuck in the deep and hot sand didn’t sound too appealing we decided to take our first tour. And the moment I entered our guide’s big old 4×4 Nissan I remembered why I don’t like tours. Those typical tour guides… Too many big stories of which at least half can’t possibly be true, too much oh-let-me-be-the-best-friend-of-everyone, too much hitting on every female creature, too much insecureness hidden under a huge macho mask. Not the type I can handle well. Luckily I got some backup, a lovely Taiwanese girl with flawless American accent joined us. We visited typical touristy places, where a sad 40 year old camel walked around blindfolded on a circle of Ø5m to make a mill work, a bull walked up and down a lane when his owner was singing for him to drag water out of a well, we had tea inside an old pigeon-tower and where I eventually ended up being most happy just cuddling a baby donkey. At the end of the afternoon the time was there, we got to enter Verzaneh dessert. We attempted to sandboard down some dunes, but believe me, it’s much harder than snowboarding. And I really missed the ski-lift. When the night fell, the Milky Way and endless amounts of stars revealed themselves I found a way up to a dune to oversee it all. Uting came with me, and it was so lovely to spend some time in her calm, wise and inspiring company. It felt like I was with a girl-friend again, and sometimes I miss that so.
Ruben and I, a little frightened by our previous experience in the sand, decided to sleep on top of the 4×4. Ruben even drove in it, that afternoon. It wasn’t too long before this that I told Ruben about a new idea that slowly found it’s way to my heart. A little plan for the future. If we are ever going to get kids I’d love to show them the world, to let them witness all this magnificent beauty, taste the love people have to share. And I’ve seen it, family’s in big cars traveling the globe. Having a family and settling down always scared me, as it seems to limit people so much. But nothing is impossible, you know. And when Ruben drove that 4×4 he told me, this is something I can get used to. My heart melted. It is not longer my dream, it is ours. And this is something we both can get used to. A big old car, buffering us through every landscape, providing shelter and infinite star hotel on it’s top. So maybe, maybe that will be a next big thing 🙂 The funny thing is, living a dream doesn’t mean that I can simply check that one off, one less to go. Mostly it means that there is only a 100 new ideas popping up in my head, and some get stuck, waiting for me to turn them into reality.
Our tour came to an end, and we also left our host in Isfahan. We expected a lot of the Couchsurf community in Iran, but having expectations isn’t a good thing, as it turned out once more. Our host was working a lot, so we barely had spend any time with her. We doubted to do this again, but we gave it one more try. Luckily. From Isfahan we found our way to the city famous of a wine it’s not allowed to serve: Shiraz. There we met our new host, Mahan. She is a delight. She and her boyfriend took us immediately into town, showing a fancy rooftop bar. It was beautiful to oversee the city and to see how the bar and restaurant were carved out of bare rock. We decided to stay a day longer, visited the jaw-dropping grand bazaar of the city, went to the blue mosque and, yes yes, obtained, completely illegally, like we were purchasing drugs via a dealer, a plastic bottle of home brew Shiraz wine. It appeared to be the most expensive bottle I’ve ever bought but it was really, really good. It’s fascinating I think to see how loosely rules are followed in this country. Hijabs are worn like scarfs around the neck, sometimes to be put up like an actual headscarf but often women don’t really care. A fellow traveler mentioned about a hitchhike from an Iranian heroine-junky, who’s driving skills majorly improved after he got his much needed shot. We got offered hashes several times. And that all while the penalties are severe, sometimes it might even lead you to death. But we heard from all sides that these rules are just government rules. The people most often do think so differently from that what their leaders implement. The strict islamic state seems a facade. It wasn’t limited to one time we heard about the expectations of a revolution. I truly hope that one day these amazing and smart people do not have to have two faces, one in public and a completely different one in private. I hope they will be able to act and say whatever they feel, wherever they are. I hope they will be free.
Iran had a little gem hidden for us at the end of our journey through this country. We’ve been advised to visit Hormuz, but no one knew if we could take the bikes. At the harbor in Bandar Abbas we asked around and just when it seemed impossible and we wanted to leave for a hotel in the city a guy came running to us, yes yes, you can take bikes! We found our way to a passenger boat, clearly not made to transport anything apart from people and some goods to the island. We waited until everyone was on board, took our panniers off and prayed that it would fit. The KTM went first, and Ruben maneuvered the vehicle quite effortless through the small passage. It JUST fitted. Riding my bike up a gangway wasn’t on the bucket list, and as I have the tendency to drop it in more difficult situations I was completely focused on keeping that throttle going. I basically flew on it, without hitting anything on the way, luckily. Hormuz was wild and amazingly beautiful. I could breath the relaxed island-atmosphere the moment I set foot, well, tire, on it. A little sad that also here, in 40+ degrees, I still had to be completely covered we decided that airconditioning might do the job. In a nice hotel we found our hide-away. Early next morning we did our own tour around the island. With a little help of google Ruben found I think all the highlights of the island. The colors were astonishing, the beaches glittery with red and black and yellow sand. At night we found out that a unicorn must have been around, as the beaches reflected the stars a thousand times. I’ve never seen anything like it, and though I really don’t fancy diamonds, this sparkling beach couldn’t get my eyes off of it.
Slowly but steady our time in Iran came to an end. To find our way to the border we had to cross immensely big desserts, found camels and oasis full of palmtrees on our way. The orient. Such beauty. Though Ruben didn’t appreciate the sand and wind that teased us, we both found it fascinating to see such new landscapes. The first time I saw wild camels I was jumping up and down on my bike, yelling Ruben Ruben camels!! But unfortunately we don’t have a communication set, and we’re still working on our telepathy skills so he didn’t hear me and drove happily past them. When we saw them next it was absolutely too hot to stop. For the first time this trip even my head was covered in sweat, bleh. The only comfort you get at such a point is when you pull the throttle. So it took until Pakistan before I was able to get one of these magnificent creatures in one photograph with me. Nonetheless, I managed!!
On an early morning we left Zahedan, the last city of Iran to ride to Pakistan. Once more we filled up our tanks with this crazy cheap fuel and off we went, into the absolute chaos of the middle-eastern border crossing. Apparently there was some religious event happening in Iraq these days, so that’s why half of the country decided to travel to it. All these people were walking in our opposite direction. There even was a complete festival at the border, no less than an actual Dutch festival, only the music was a little crappy to our ears and probably there wasn’t so much intoxicants involved. Being send from one police officer back to the other again and again we eventually even had to drive exactly through this crowd to find our way to the actual exit of Iran. So well arranged 😉 Entering a new country is fascinating I think. Though borders are only man-made you most often feel an immediate change. And that is weird. But culture shifts, people change, even the smell can be different. I always loved the first taxi, bus or walk-trip into a new country. I tried to take up as much as I could, comparing that what is new to the things I already have seen. This first bits and pieces were always precious to me. And now we witness those first bits from our bike. I saw how colors changed, where many of the traditional Iranian women were covered by their black ‘chador’ (it means tent, and it is quite accurate when you see it) here in Pakistan it bursted of color. Women covered with every imaginable color, gold and silver jewelries in their ears and noses, on their fingers and arms. Big eyes in all different shades that kept on staring at us, and I stared back at them. So many beautiful people.
When all the paperwork was done we could enter into Pakistan, but not freely. We knew that the first part we would be escorted. The armed police stays with you to protect you, wherever you go. The first day and night we’ve spend at the Pakistani Levies Station, right next to the border. The escort would leave the next morning around 8, so we got a long quiet and relaxed day in front of us. And as no other travelers, nor prisoners arrived we had it all to ourselves. Including the levies-babysitter that had to watch us. We had tea together, he even brought us food and with the limited English he mastered we were still able to have extensive conversations. He of course asked us if we were married, and was disappointed to hear that even after those two years we didn’t have kids yet. He openly started a discussion about birth control and asked calmly what we used, after which he explained that condoms saved them from having more than 7 kids. He also explained that here in Pakistan men are allowed to have more than one wife. Up to four is even possible. But he only had one, because his salary didn’t allow him to have more than that. Later on our journey we’ve met men that told us to have two, or even three wives. Unfortunately no one spoke English well enough to settle my curiosity. How on earth does something like that work? Do they have different houses for each wife, how do they divide their attention? Or would they be a big happy family, having orgies all around… This is probably a little too much of my dirty mind speaking, but its fascinating really that something striking me as so old fashioned and gender-unequal is still happening today. But this would not be the only thing that left me surprised here in Pakistan.
The days with the police were long, slow, full of mis- or no communication and long hours waiting for the SWAT-team of the next zone to pick us up. Sometimes we had to follow 70cc bikes, and sheep-like we let our monsters follow at the speed of 40km an hour. Some rode through the mountains like maniacs, overtaking every truck right at the corner where you couldn’t see anything. I was looking up to this part of the journey, it actually quite scared me. Such a ‘dangerous’ area, all the stories I read about how horrible the escort is. But up to Quetta everything was fine. The long hours waiting were filled with little chitchats with the policemen (who by the way work 7 days a week, shifts of 12 hours a day. And then I complained if I worked a week of 50 hours….), naps on the carpets or of course with tea. One time I saw a big board game of Ludo (mens-erger-je-niet) and joked about it. We ended up playing a severe, fast and ambitious game with two police guys and all the others served as spectators. It was way not by far as calm as I remembered it from the last time I played it, with my grandma easily 17 years back, but is was loads of fun.
Riding into Quetta was a little different. From two guys on a scooter or in a shabby car it changed to a real SWAT-like team. Two people in front of the pickup, two or three heavily armed men in the back, fingers on the trigger, waiving as much traffic out of the way as they could. Riding into the crazy traffic, nearly suffocating in the gasses and dust, being half blinded by all the people that didn’t give a shit and had their headlight on high beam, and of course following this tensed swat team from one section to the next. Though the escort has been fine to me up to that point here I really felt like it was more exciting than being on a rollercoaster. In our ridiculously overpriced hotel we were not allowed to leave without having the escort with us. So we were locked down. We were able to arrange the needed (but really not-needed) paperwork in the form of a NOC, get a sim card and had the police guiding us through some shops to do groceries. Yay!
I had the idea that after Quetta we would be released. But if only that were true. From Quetta our lock-down continued. While normally we travel around 200km in one part of the day, these days were filled with riding (SLOW!) and waiting and more of the same, really from early morning till long after dark. It’s exhausting, no breaks when we decided so, no time to take photo’s, no privacy, no real contact with people of the country we traveled through. But instead of being released we were forced to continue with them, in way other directions than we intended. Going where we wanted to go wouldn’t be safe, while all we hear from everyone is how safe Pakistan really is… One time, after much frustrations, an annoying persistent police officer stopped us. While everyone has been telling us we could go to Rajanpur this guy stopped us and said noooo, this route is not safe! This road is new, you need permission for it. Which of course we did not have. We’ve been discussing for over half an hour. And it’s really difficult to get me mad, but he managed. With his cocky attitude he absolute forbade us to continue our way and easily said that we just had to drive another 100km south, meaning that we would again arrive at our destination in the dark. It is a really funny thing to say to a man with a big gun: you can shoot me but I’m not going back. No really, I got so mad, yelled at him and eventually persuaded Ruben to make a run for it. While one guy was holding a little iron fence in front of me (I bet he knew all the while what I was up to), others were already closing the big fence in front of us. We looked at each other, started our bikes, pulled the throttle and when the officer tried to jump on me to stop me I only just passed him, and the other people that came running to us. My heart was racing as fast as my engine. We just managed to manoeuvre our bikes past the closing fence and felt our speed increasing. Luckily our tanks were filled, so the only thing we did for the coming hour was pull the throttle. We haven’t been riding crazy like this before. I felt like I was James Bond, but then one that actually can get caught and put into jail. The more distance we covered the more insecure I became on our decision. We know that the Pakistani police is very soft towards tourists. They literally do everything to clear the bad name of the country. But this was defying fate and I knew it. The first five police stations we passed tried to stop us, of course. We nicely waived at them, pretending to not know why they were halfway the road and signing us to come to them. After 80 crazy kilometers, 15 kilometers away from Rajanpur, our destination, a more persistent police officer jumped in his car and blocked our passage. We had to stop. While one police guy was doing small talks to me, the other told Ruben that the other police forces were really, really mad at us, but that was it. No jail, luckily. We were told, once more, that we couldn’t go to Rajanpur at all. For god sake. It is SO frustrating to have people give you wrong information all the time. We had to drive 30 more kilometers, to find other police guys telling us we couldn’t stay in that village either. We insisted, otherwise we would set up a tent right there. And after all it was possible, we could get a long night sleep in the kingsize bed of the best hotel we’ve seen in Pakistan so far. And the police guys, they’ve been awake in front of our door, with their guns in their hands…
Just before Multan we got to escape from our (scooter) escort. And finally, we got to meet the real Pakistan. Via facebook I came in touch with a local biker, and he send us to his friend’s house where we could stay. A big family, grandparents, four sons, spouses and children living in the same house. We were welcomed so warmly, it was amazing. They showed me photo’s of their weddings and photos were taken of us with everyone. We talked about their lives, about what perspectives they had. And I loved the children, and I think they loved me. After half a day I was promoted to aunti, and that made me smile. It is lovely to feel like, for a little time, you are part of a family again. From Multan we rode directly to Lahore, as the KTM’s frontshock was leaking and everyone told us we had the most chance to get it fixed here. While we decided so, I opened my messenger and found a note from a fellow biker-girl. She lived in Lahore and was happy to host us. So often it feels like things are just supposed to go this way. It gave me a warm smile, and it makes me learn to trust that things will find their way. So there are we now, at a young couple’s place right in Lahore. It is wonderful to be among young people, to learn about their culture and how they fight against the common rules here. How different things are! We can live together without being married, ride bikes as girls without any problem, tell our family we’re in love, or to our friends that we think they make a wrong choice. While especially family is really close here, at the same time there is so much hidden, so much in-transparency. Gul and Haider, both our hosts are working on several projects and among other things, make documentaries in which she rides her bike and promotes equality for women on professional level. It inspires me limitless to see how she fights for equality in a world in which this is so uncommon.
It is hard, sometimes, to see what poverty this country suffers from. The streets are filled with horses and donkeys that break my young-girl-pony-lover heart. I know these people can barely take care of themselves, so I do not blame them. But seeing these animals suffering and knowing what is going wrong without the possibility to do much about it is hard. And we see countless children in dirty clothes, rooting through the trash. People living in tents along the roads. It is very common here for richer families to have servants, which is in essence not a bad thing. But these servants can be kids as well, taken away from their family to work and live in someone else’s house. How can a 7 year old work, miss out on education and not receive the love parents have to give? There is such a gab between rich and poor, and the chances are so unequal. It makes me realize only more how lucky I am to be born in the Netherlands, to have all the chances of the world, even without a rich family.
And here we are, about to discover the true beauty Pakistan hides in the north. To discover even more so that the country is certainly not filled with terrorists, but with the kindest people you can imagine. But in me, two worlds are combined. Yesterday I made a call to the homefront. It’s amazing to be able to stay in touch like we do, to even see each other. There was some great news: a baby is on the way. I am incredibly happy for them. But later that evening, when the news was settled a bit I realized how far away I am, and how far away I will be. I will miss out on a belly that is growing, I might not even see the baby soon after it will be born. I will not see how it grows up. It made me so sad to realize once more that the choices we make have consequences like this. Of course I knew, I am the one consciously choosing to go away. Unlike others, who pass away without any voluntary choice. It is the price we pay for chasing the life we dreamed of. And sometimes I just don’t know in how far I can handle that. But nothing is forever, and it’s time that will teach us to make the right decisions.