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May 21, 2002
The Iranian/Pakistani border: Something is better than nothing
The next border was at a place called Taftan. Taftan is on the Pakistani side of the border, and it does look recognisably like a small town of some kind. On the Iranian side is desert. This area isn't important enough to Iran to bother with building anything. Even with the deprivations of the Khomeini years, Iran is still far wealthier than Pakistan. So Taftan hangs like a barnacle on Iran's gilded sailing ship.
I had a terrible time in Taftan. I think I'd rather go back to school than come back here. One of the guidebooks describes it as a "depressing, fly-blown den of smugglers," which is putting it very, very mildly.
To my great embarrassment, Taftan tops my list of "places that I often think about." Despite having been to many of the world's most beautiful and fascinating places, it's this depressing dump in Pakistan that most occupies my thoughts. I loved the Taj Mahal, and Oxford, and Paris, and New York, and I'm lucky enough to have very fond memories of all these places. But a memory of Taftan is like malaria: once you get it, you never truly get rid of it.
I arrived there on foot, having walked across the border from Iran. I carried all my worldly possessions in two backpacks. Every step I took kicked up a tiny cloud of dust. None of my friends and family knew that I was there. I felt, for the first time in my life, totally alone. If I'd gotten sick there, no help was available. If something had gone wrong, I could've died there, and no one I ever cared about would ever find out. I couldn't wait to leave.
I asked about onward travel, and there was one option. Once a day, a lone bus would trundle across the Baluchistan desert to Quetta, the closest city. It left in four hours. I couldn't wait to leave, so ... I waited to leave. And waited, and waited. It was the longest four hours of my life.
Taftan: dream of death
There's only one thing to do in Taftan, and that's wonder why you're there. The answer I came up scared the hell out of me. I realised that I'd been running away from things for a long, long time. At some point in my teenage years I'd started running, and then I'd kept on running, and eventually I'd ended up in the most miserable little town in the most miserable desert on Earth.
So I did some penance: I thought about all the relationships I'd ever left, all the jobs that I'd spontaneously quit, all the situations that I'd ever run away from. I realised that I had, as the Americans put it, "a problem with responsibility." And that problem had led me, in time, to Taftan. To my surprise, I wasn't enjoying myself very much. All it took to end my romantic attachment to a lifestyle of running was an anxious stroll around a frightening town.
After four hours of fervently hoping that I didn't get sick, robbed, or shot at, the bus arrived.
I'd love to report that it was a charming bus. That would be stretching the truth so far as to challenge the laws of physics. But on it I was surprised to meet a highly educated man who was working in the area as an engineer. I asked him if the journey we were taking was safe, as there had been many recent reports of hijacking, kidnapping and killings. My question had a hidden agenda: I was looking for was overwhelming reassurance that all would be well, and that we would be whisked across the Baluchistan desert with maximum comfort, safety and speed.
Having asked if the bus was safe, there was an incredibly long pause.
"Well," he eventually said, "something is better than nothing."
There was another incredibly long pause, but this time from me. He meant that yes, the bus could be hijacked and yes, we could all be shot. But in the middle of this bleak landscape, there was some good news. At least there was a bus.
Pakistan is not a great place to look for overwhelming reassurance that all will be well.
And it's not a great place to look for comfortable bus rides. It was an awful bus. It was cramped and crowded and very, very cold.
I had to spend the next fifteen hours on it. I tried to cheer myself up by smiling and thinking happy thoughts. This didn't work, and I suspected that this was because I was in Pakistan. Who was I kidding? This was a dangerous place. All around me were angry people with guns. It seemed a safer plan to just lie low and look inconspicuous. So I tried being miserable, and that worked a treat. I had the feeling that I'd really achieved something, and that I'd found a way to immerse myself into the Pakistani lifestyle.
The Baluchistan desert of misery
This bus ride permanently embedded the phrase "the Baluchistan desert of ... " into my mind. When I saw Titanic, which bored me to tears, I naturally described it as "the Baluchistan desert of entertainment." I've also had the misfortune of being in the Baluchistan desert of relationships, but that was another time and another kind of Taftan.
After the Baluchistan desert of bus rides, I finally made it, alive, to Quetta. The bus pulled in around 6:30am, in the pre-dawn darkness, the very coldest time of day. The marathon bus ride meant that my circulation had stopped some time before. Getting off that bus and walking into the bracing sub-sub-sub zero temperature was ... interesting. As soon as I reclaimed my rucksack from the roof of the bus I immediately put on every single item of clothing I owned. I had a fairly strong feeling that if I didn't do that immediately, I would die.
It was cold. I was cold. I was very, very miserable.
And then, as I stood there in the bitterly cold darkness feeling very, very sorry for myself, a young boy casually strolled past. He was barefoot. This is not the wealthiest country in the world, but the people here are pretty tough. Even through my misery, I had to admire that.
Because it was still dark, and below freezing, I decided that it would be foolishness itself to try and find a hotel. I figured the sun would be up in an hour or so, so I decided to warm up by going for a walk around Quetta.
I set off in a random direction, and was happily lost within a few moments. Undeterred, I kept walking, and walking, and walking. Slowly, very slowly, the sun started to rise, and I discovered that I was walking along the railway tracks at just the time of day when the hundreds of people who lived next to them were waking up. There are very few public toilets in Pakistan, and none around that area. "About time to find a hotel," I thought, and left them to it.
The security blanket
After the marathon bus ride, I realised that I needed to vary my travelling itinerary. So I took a marathon train ride.
Pakistan worried me, and I wanted to get out of it as fast as possible. It seemed to have all of India's problems, and none of India's benefits. India has a working democracy, a culture of non-violence, and not very many guns. Pakistan is different in every way. I'd only been there a few days, and that was an adequate sufficiency.
So I booked a seat on the twenty-eight and a half hour ride to Lahore, close to the border with India. The first-class tickets had sold out months ago, but I managed to get one of the last available seats in the economy section. I got to the station an hour ahead of time, found my seat, and sat down.
The seat looked like a wooden bench, but this was some kind of optical illusion. It had obviously been carved out of a piece of living rock. It was the hardest thing I'd ever encountered. In the event of a nuclear war, even one which razed this country to the ground, this seat would survive unscathed. It was designed to last thousands of years, and it probably already had. It was hard and uncomfortable and I raced out of the station to buy myself a beautiful Persian blanket from a vendor just outside.
I got back to the train with a few minutes to spare. I sat down on my warm, fuzzy Persian blanket and immediately felt far more comfortable. Just at that moment the train made a very satisfying whistling sound. It was right on departure time.
What happened next was a bit more depressing, because nothing happened next. The train didn't move, and the whistle didn't blow again. But, I thought, at least there was a whistle.
And eventually the train did start moving, and ten minutes later it reached the end of the platform. I realised that at this rate of travel, we would be spending a lot more than twenty-eight and a half hours on the train. I was suddenly absurdly pleased that I'd had the foresight to buy myself a beautiful blanket. And to take my mind off the possibility of spending the rest of my life on this train, I suggested to my travel companions that we pass the time with a game of chess.
This turned out to be the kind of silly mistake that only tourists of our calibre were capable of making. Within a few moves of the game we were surrounded by several hundred Pakistanis offering wild support and encouragement to whichever player had the next move. This was pretty amusing for the first few seconds, then we realised that (a) it was getting difficult to breathe, and (b) westerners have a very different concept of "personal space" and "privacy" than Pakistanis. The main difference is that we have these concepts.
So it was a very long and very uncomfortable ride, but we kept encouraging each other with comments like "at least the train is moving" and "at least we haven't been taken hostage yet" and "something is better than nothing" and then I sat down and read War and Peace and Moby Dick and got a few days' uncomfortable sleep and counted to 47,713,531,084,381 and then we eventually arrived in Lahore.
I don't really remember much about Lahore, though this may have been the town where I lapsed into a coma. I did discover that Lahore has a very good museum which you should visit if you're ever in town. Otherwise, my advice is not to go to Lahore. The museum is worth seeing, but as Samuel Johnson said about a place far more desirable than Lahore, it isn't worth going to see.
The next day we crossed the border into India, and I found myself looking at this from the perspective of a cow.Posted by Sean Hegarty at 01:27 PM in the Dog Biscuit category | Comments (0)
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