Half way back, and the shittiest piece-of-crap car I have ever seen in my life pulled up and two men who looked like Hezbollah mercenaries leapt out and informed me that I had now missed customs. 'Damn', I thought to myself, 'that must have been the flooded field full of abandoned tyres next to the immigration shed. Back to the border once again where the customs official belched loudly, spat, and waved me back through the quagmire.
There is no problem finding buses in Pakistan- they are all equipped with ridiculously loud horns that play a variety of tunes, along with machine-gun sound effects, police sirens, and could probably whistle Dixie if they took a mind to. There were three buses to Quetta, two of which looked like they had fallen down one too many mountains- missing windows, the works. The third was a 2007 (or so it claimed) air-con job that looked just dandy so I ponied up my 300 Rupees (about $5)- they asked for 500- and jumped aboard.
Found a nice comfy seat at the back of the bus with a convenient little alcove for my backpack and settled in, watching with some alarm as my fellow passengers spat on the floor and smoked like chimneys; I had wondered why there was no carpet... About an hour later when 3000 more people and 200 tons of assorted junk- none of which was goats thankfully- were loaded we headed off with a cacophany of every ear-splitting sound effect the coach could muster.
By now the whole coach had heard that I was from Canada and people were leaping across the snoring bodies littering the gangway to say hello or just to stare at me as if I was a bug-eyed alien. I had expected Pakistan to be more used to foreigners than Iran but clearly I was mistaken. As usual, I shared around some seeds and nuts, and was rewarded with a large glass of tea- the glass even appeared to be fairly clean, unlike the shared glass that was used by every single person on the bus to drink the supplied water.
At this stage I should probably mention that at the back of the coach and around the seats is a rock-hard structural arch. As we rumbled off over a pothole that would be better described as a crater, I was launched from my seat and my head smashed into it with a brain-jarring thud. Upon landing I was bounced to the left smacking my shoulder. I sighed deeply and thought darkly to myself that it was going to be a long 15 hours. I hate coach journeys at the best of times!
A few hours later we stopped at an army checkpoint where my passport was checked and I was politely welcomed to Pakistan. About six other people were dragged off the bus- one literally and quite roughly- never to be seen again. It seemed like we would be there for some time so I asked the driver if there was a toilet nearby- this is a stupid and pointless question in Pakistan for reasons I shall come to later. The driver- a lazy, rude, pointless blob of flesh- growled loudly at me and waved his arms aggressively babboon-style. What with all the army chaos going on outside I clambered back over the seething mass of humanity to my seat and cursed that cup of tea.
Bus lurched off once again with a triumphant black cloud of smoke and suddenly the road was fine; I rubbed the developing eggs on my head and decided that the worst was probably over. Right. I later found out that this stage of road was Iranian built. Just as I was dozing off I realised that the air-conditioning was showering me with icy-cold droplets of water. Personally I found this quite refreshing, and certainly a step up from the toxic air freshener they insisted on spraying in the intake every few minutes. The driver clearly didn't think so, and turned it off- and you can't open the windows on an air-con bus. Happy Happy! Joy Joy!
At about midnight we stopped in some... place... somewhere... basically a muddy field with a few filthy carpets underneath a corrugated iron "roof". By this stage I had at least worked out where the toilet is- wherever you want it to be! The driver was curled up on a carpet snoring like a donkey with bronchitis which seemed to be his natural state of being- he certainly preferred it to driving the bus!
After about four hours in this miserable hell-hole in the pissing rain most of the passengers were crowded around him shouting and he finally got up off his lazy backside and we were off again. I still don't understand the problem as there was a relief driver on board, but Sleepy Curmudgeon Driver wouldn't let him drive for some reason. One of the English speakers on the bus explained to me that he was a "very bad man" which I believe is Pakistani English for "useless sack of shit".
During our time at this dump I had noticed a Chinese girl standing in the corner looking extremely out of place with about 20 men staring longingly at her. Out of four coachloads of people she was the only woman- seems that Pakistani women stay home and make babies (frickin' loads of 'em!) and bake pie. I decided to do the decent thing and try to rescue her but she was (as, yet again, I will come to later) an idiot, and preferred to wander off around the wilderness on her own.
So finally we are back on the coach which thankfully had had time to air out a bit and was no longer thick with sweat and foul breath. My own cleanliness at this point was nothing to write home about having not had a shower in two days because there is no water pressure in Bam at night and I had left at 5am for Zahedan. The driver starts the engine- and the lights go out for about ten seconds. Some bloke had obviously been trying to grope the Chinese girl in the dark and had been caught red handed- he got a full-on punch in the face from one of the other passengers followed by a good hard slap from her. Banzai!
Although this all probably sounds quite awful, my policy of "embrace the chaos" worked wonders and apart from standing in a muddy field for hours on end I was enjoying myself immensely. Iran is an extremely civilised and ordered society and I yearned for some mayhem to spice up my life.
So, we sit for about 10 minutes waiting in the bus- and then everybody gets out again. For some reason it had been decided to unload most of the approximately 15,000 metric tonnes of sopping wet who-knows-what from the roof and stash it inside the coach, which was now muddier than the field outside. Only 8 or so hours to go I though to myself. Finally we set off and by some miracle I managed to fall asleep despite being richocheted into the roof like a pinball every few minutes. The Iranians had given up on the road for some reason and we were back to Pakistani engineering. Oh, and despite the man next to me's head resting on my shoulder and snoring loudly. Personal space is not a widely understood concept in this part of the world.
At about 6AM, 5AM, Wednesday, Friday, who knows? I woke up to find the coach at a standstill yet again- and hot and humid as a sauna. I wiped the condensed sweat from the window and ascertained that we had parked in a surging river for some reason. The rain had died down so once again I made the trek from the back to the front of the bus- not a light undertaking by any means- and escaped into the cool, refreshing drizzle.
The surging river was, in fact, the road. In front of us was another bus, and in front of that was a huge hole with a jack-knifed truck sitting in it. Ropes were attached to the truck and about 30 people were busily trying to pull it upright. I foolishly decided to join the fun, and within 10 minutes was saturated from head to toe with mud. Good team building exercise though- IBM pay a small fortune for their managers to do this stuff! Soon had lots of new friends from my coach and eventually- with about 30 people pulling and double that pushing, the truck was finally righted.
It was one of those great moments, and a huge cheer went up. Then the fucking thing slid back down into the hole and we had to do it all again!
So, with the truck righted and reloaded, Offroad-Freestyle (Coach Class) was begun and the bus was revved and pushed back onto the other half of the road. In the time it had taken the coach in front of us to achieve this all of the Pakistanis had mystifyingly become spotlessly clean again while I still looked like a mudman. Perhaps there was a Kwik-e-Laundry behind one of the larger rocks, probably with a Burger King and pristine bathroom. Who knows?
The offroading was repeated many times over the next few hours- the coach was manhandled and cajoled up muddy banks at angles no coach should ever be at; at one stage it looked like it was going to take off and head for the stars- I wish it had!
A few hours later we arrived at the Village of the Damned with clear roads and clear skies. The driver immediately crashed out on a carpet and refused to move on again. There was a restaurant- and I use that term in the loosest possible sense- serving what looked like camel dung in sewage sauce. The Chinese girl informed me that the food- allegedly mutton- was free- "No money! No money!". Even a fool like me immediately knew this to be complete bollocks. I tried explaining to her that dirt-poor Pakistani villages in the arse-end of nowhere are extremely unlikely to be serving free food to all the passing coaches, but... well, she was an idiot.
Having just watched them washing the dishes in a muddy trench about 3 feet away from where the rest of the passengers were relieving themselves I decided to forgo the mutton and wandered off around the corner where to my delight I found a bakery- 2 extra-large chapatis for me mate! By this time I was dog-tired and completely unprepared when he fished one from a subterranean oven and with a flick of his pole launched the searing hot bread straight in my face! Ah well, it woke me up, gave everybody a chuckle, and I was ready for the next one.
The bread was absolutely delicious- soft, puffy, and cooked to perfection. I happily paid something slightly more than nothing and wandered back towards the coach. The Chinese girl was now on her third plate of camel dung and still telling me it was "No money! No money!". I skulked off with some of my fellow truck-pullers to find some tea and decided I would watch the train-wreck unfold from a safe distance.
Of course by "No money!" the woman serving had just meant that she didn't personally take the money. As we were all getting back on the coach for the billionth time a man who looked a little like Godzilla, only Pakistani, came over and demanded the princely sum of 300 Rupees ($5 US). Apparently this wasn't even a tourist price- the Village of the Damned makes its living fleecing everybody as it is about the only food stop on the whole route.
With that finally sorted out (no idea what happened) we finally set off again. Oh wait, no we didn't, we sat in the swelteringly hot coach for about an hour and then all got off again! The weather's fine, there's traffic coming from Quetta reporting all-clear, and our erstwhile driver- Captain Dimbulb as he shall henceforth be known- had decided he needed to sleep some more, again refusing to let the relief driver do his job. He and the Chinese girl would make a great couple.
So, we sat in the Village of the Damned for hours, and hours, and hours. During this time we amused ourselves by occasionally all getting on the bus long enough for it to become unbearably hot and then all getting off again. The Chinese girl provided some entertainment by marching off stating that she was going to find a "hot shower"- this in a village that didn't have running water! If I sound heartless it's because most of the passengers were trying their best to keep her as safe and comfortable as possible but she would just go out of her way to cause problems. It's a very dodgy place for a lone woman at the best of times, but particularly a clueless twit like her, and particularly as she was not dressed even remotely appropriately.
So, evening comes around. It's getting dark, it's started raining again, and a Toyota truck has just informed us that the road to Quetta is impassable. So the driver decides we should leave!!!! If there had been ANY other option- hotel, park bench- I would have taken it, but nope, I was stuck with Captain Dimbulb and his Muddy Magic Wonderbus!
All was fine for a few hours- had to push the coach a few times and create a few makeshift roads, but at least we were moving. It is truly amazing how quickly a coachful of Pakistanis can turn a muddy swamp into a passable road- plenty of material from rockslides to do it as well. I tried not to think too hard about what would happen if another rockslide occurred- some of them were definite head-crackers...
After about six hours of fairly tricky going we reached the Valley of Watery Death, high up in the mountains, and about 140km from Quetta. The coach could not be coaxed over the shattered section of road so we joined the two trucks already marooned there. What was REALLY pissing me off at this stage was that all the other coaches- which had left the Village of the Damned many hours before us- had obviously got through. Thanks, Captain Dimbulb!
The rain had abated again so I perched myself on a mound with some of my fellow travellers. No food, no tea... One of them then solemnly informed me "You can hear the water. This is a very dangerous place". You COULD hear the water- raging torrents of the stuff. Given that this area had previously flooded and that the ground was completely saturated the words "Flash flood' started bouncing around my head. I was thinking to myself that if this was Canada somebody would have airlifted us out by now, just as one of the Pakistanis came over to me and said "I bet if this was Canada we would have been airlifted out by now". Gave me a good laugh but there was still no way I was getting back into the metal coffin that was the coach so I sat miserably on the mound all night with a few others. No flood.
The police showed up at some stage and wanted to take me to the army base halfway down the mountain but I don't think I should be getting special treatment and they sure as hell didn't care about anybody else. I opted to stay. Besides, the Valley of Watery Death actually seemed preferable to a night with the Pakistani police and army. My "Disrespect for Authority" syndrome is playing up again :)
Morning came, and with it a bunch of 4WDs who wanted 120 Rupees (under $2 US) for the 140km to Quetta. This seemed like the bargain of a lifetime to me, but not to the Chinese girl- oh no, she had paid for her bus ticket and she wanted the bus to get her to Quetta! Personally I would have just left her there but the Pakistanis are infinitely more patient and caring than me and finally got the stupid trout into one of the 4WDs- not mine, luckily.
I thought I was lucky scoring a seat in the cab- that was until the other 3 people plus driver got in. I ended up with my legs straddling the gearstick and emitted a high-pitched squeak every time he changed to 2nd or 4th. The back was a squirming mountain of at least 15 people plus baggage- they all seemed quite happy though- I guess it comes down to what you're used to.
The road to Quetta was- and still is- utterly destroyed in several places, and completely impassable to anything except a 4WD- even we had to completely unload on one occasion and nurse the vehicle around what was left of a bridge.
So... 55 hours and I was safe in Quetta! I was full of mud, my backpack was full of mud... and there is no hot water in my $2 hotel. I wanna go back to Iran!!! Quetta is also very wet and the stormwater drainage channel thingies overflow on a regular basis sending six inch deep streams of stinking water, litter, and who knows what else surging down the street. Lovely. Hotel has a nice garden to loaf around in when it is not raining and there are some French guys to chat with so I'll wait here for things to clear up before getting the train. Glad I got the very last bus through though- who knows how long I would have been stuck in Taftan?
It was only when I got to the internet in Quetta that I realised the true gravity of the situation- what had hit us was the tail end of Cyclone (Hurricane) Yemyin which has devastated large swathes of Balochistan province. Hundreds (at least) dead, millions completely cut off, and food riots in some towns.
Extremely glad I didn't know any of that at the time- to me it was just a series of obstacles, and quite fun at times, tourist that I am... I think it's my pampered Western attitude that when TSHTF somebody will be along soon enough to save me. Nobody coming to save you in Pakistan, and apparently it will be at least a month before anybody even thinks about fixing any of the damage.
Very sobering experience, particularly as it came straight after visiting Bam, which is still completely devastated 4 years after the earthquake. The Iranian government has apparently done absolutely nothing to help and the new construction is with rigid, welded, steel girders. The few building codes that exist are apparently routinely ignored and inspectors bribed. Even I can see that if somebody sneezes too hard the whole shebang will just collapse again. As one man explained to me with a sad smile- "We are too far from Tehran". Quite.
Ah well, it's all good experience- perhaps when I get back to Canada I will appreciate my cushy pampered lifestyle and not whine like a baby when the internet goes down for 10 minutes. Miracles do happen!