Crossing the border: from Iran to Pakistan

David Hielkema

10 Januari 2017

“What about the Taliban”, I asked. “Are they still active in this area?”. The Levies officer, holding an AK-47, gave me a big smile: “No Taliban here. No Taliban. Taliban is in Afghanistan. Maybe northern Pakistan. Not here. It is safe here.” I looked puzzled at him, although at the same time relieved, while he kept on talking: “Even the prince of United Arab Emirates comes here to hunt special birds. Russian birds! It is very safe!” Well, if even the prince of UAE comes here to hunt…

The night before we left
We arrived in our last city of Iran, Zahedan, on a Monday evening. It was freezing cold outside, so we either had to sleep inside our car (in the tent it would be too cold) or at a hotel. But hotels here are expensive and it would also mean that we got escort from the hotel to the border by the police the next morning. We didn’t feel like that, mostly because it is very time-consuming. Recently there have not been any attacks or bombings in Zahedan and though it is not regarded entirely safe, we judged it as safe enough to park our car at a service station to stay for the night.

We filled up our tank to get the last bit of cheap Iranian diesel and had a quick dinner. The next morning we were going to wake up early to go to the border, so we tried to sleep as soon as possible. But I couldn’t fall asleep, I was a bit restless and thoughts were spinning through my mind. Was this the smartest thing to do? Why do this border crossing? Stubbornness? Why risk our life? To calm myself I had to write these thoughts down before falling asleep:

“Until 5 days ago we weren’t even 100% sure yet that we would cross the border, but here we are. Are we sure now?

I know we are taking a risk. When I think about what we are going to do, adrenaline starts pumping through my veins. It scares me. And it is not the adrenaline that gives me a good feeling. There are some less pleasant feelings. My stomach is turning and my hands are sweating. I am even experiencing some shortness of breath when I think about what is to come.

And then ratio enters. The conversations we had, the research we did, the risk calculations we made… It should be fine. It should be.
But then again, what do we gain by taking this route and what are our alternatives?

There are some serious risks here. Every government advices not to go to this part of Pakistan, unless it is strictly necessary. This is Taliban’s playground. Iranians and Pakistani authorities are continuously arguing and fighting with the Taliban. What have we gotten ourselves into?”

A bit more relaxed after writing this down, I fall asleep. Tomorrow it is happening.

A week of border crossing: the start
The whole border crossing process between Iran and Pakistan can take up to a week and it is about 1000kms long. Quite a bit of border crossing, isn’t it? First some general information about Pakistan and the area.

The province we entered is called Baluchistan. It is the biggest province of Pakistan and it is mostly made up of desert. For a long time the Taliban was active here. The Pakistani army is fighting them and the mission seems to be on the right track. These days most parts of the province is under the control of the army, but there are still some hazards. Mostly this is because the whole border between Pakistan and Afghanistan is “open”. No wall built here yet! The Taliban can travel easily from one place to the other and in Afghanistan they are relatively safe. Especially when you realize that we almost touched the Afghani border, you understand that safety for tourists isn’t always guaranteed.

Pakistan is working hard on getting a better image, and partly because of that they have taken serious measures to make it safer, especially for foreigners. Since 2013 every foreigner that goes overland from Iran to Pakistan gets police escort. And there are more travelers going here than we had expected: about 5 foreigners a week. Some go by car, some hitchhike, some take busses up to the border and some cycle. In any case you will be escorted. Either the police drives in front of you, or you will join them in their car. If you don’t like this, if you really want to go by yourself, they will simply say you are not welcome. Simple as that.

The first city every foreigner has to go to is Quetta. Here we needed to get a NOC (No Objection Certificate). But before arriving in Quetta, we would first have to travel about 700km on bad roads through the desert.

On the road
We woke up at 6AM (Iranian time), so we hoped to arrived at the passport check within an hour (8:30AM Pakistani time). We didn’t get escort and the Iranian army men waved happily at us at the few check-points we passed.

The Iranian and the Pakistani side of the passport and Carnet de Passage check went smoothly. It is easy for the authorities to recognize the few foreigners that travel here and they took good care of us. We didn’t really know what was going on, we followed some officers and got the right stamps easily. The car-check in Pakistan was done properly as well: One of the authorities, checking our passports and plans for Pakistan, really showcased his authority to us and his staff, amongst others ordering one guy to inspect our car for drugs, alcohol, cameras, guns and other explosives. Off I went with him, just outside the building, to unlock the doors. He ushered me towards a spot where his boss could not see us. As I unlocked the doors he explained to me in sign language that I need not to worry. We just had to slam some doors and pretend to be busy. I had to laugh, and the officials laughed with me. Thus we stood there for a few minutes, enjoying the sunshine, before going inside again. The big boss, unaware of our little scheme, continued his act of stern authority and eventually let us go.

After the paperwork was done, we were allowed to go. Normally the first night stop for foreigners on this journey is at the Pakistani side of the border, but because we arrived early enough, the paperwork was done quickly, and escorts were available, we were “free” to go to the village of Dalbandin. We would spend the night there, before continuing towards Quetta.

Our first Levies officer escorting us asked how fast we can drive. I answered him that we go about 90km/h. He said ‘Okay’ and off he went with 120km/h on bad roads. So much for an escort! He soon noticed that we stayed behind too much and slowed down. On these first kilometers, it also took us at least 10 minutes before we realized we drove on the other side of the road. At first we thought he drove on the left side because of the bad road conditions, but after encountering some oncoming traffic, we realized that we actually had to drive here. There were lots of things we thought of before going to Pakistan, but the fact that they drive on the left side had not crossed our minds.

After one hour of driving we stopped at a checkpoint. Stopping at a checkpoint, we soon realized, would also mean that our escort would change. The officer who had asked me earlier about our maximum speed, could not refrain from telling me ‘that I drive really slow’. At least he smiled!

Welcome in Pakistan.

More escorts followed. One after the other. Some drove slow, some drove fast, but we were happy they where there. We were both still pretty nervous. Nothing around us escaped our attention and the adrenaline was rushing through our veins. We were in Pakistan, driving our own car, in the middle of nowhere, with our own police escort? Can you imagine how that feels?!

When the sun was about to set, we arrived at a mosque. Apart from some deserted buildings, it was the only thing we could see for miles. One of the Levies officers wanted to pray here, the other one stayed with us while we talked about the Taliban. When I looked around, I felt that the Taliban could arrive at any moment from everywhere around us. This thought is in the mind quite often while driving as well. What if? But then again, the prince of the United Arab Emirates comes here too. What can really happen? 

Our nightstop in Dalbandin
We arrived in Dalbandin after the sunset and we were confined to our room in the hotel we had to stay at. We decided not to sleep in the car, it was too cold and we were tired. The hotel was dirty and we had to pay 1500 rupees (about 15 euro) for a room. The room was ironically named “the VIP room”. It must have been a long time ago when the sheets had been last washed, there was no hot water, the toilet wasn’t too clean either, there was a clearly sensible draft and basically everything was dirty, broken or uncomfortable. But why complain? We were safe, there was a lot of police around for our protection, one of them was on guard in the room next to ours, and this is part of the whole trip, isn’t it?

Later we heard that some people didn’t pay anything for this hotel, not even for parking the car there while they slept in it. Or just 800 for the room: the same “VIP” room that every tourists sleeps in. We could have negotiated the price down more, but then again, we don’t know if it would have been worth the trouble. We were happy to sit on the bed, play some backgammon, sent our family an email that we were safe and rest after the long day.

Endless changing of Levies escort
The winter had started in Baluchistan and I have to admit that it was cold in the morning. We thought we would travel to Asia, with sub-Saharan climates, so we didn’t bring any jackets. Obviously a big mistake. Any way, the cold was the main reason for our Levies officer not to leave before 10AM. Leaving earlier would have been too cold. At this point we were still happy to get all this attention and help, but soon our mood would shift a bit.

We left half an hour later than planned and the officer drove very slow on good roads. We don’t know what they know and what is all around us, so we can’t really judge, but we did get annoyed with it. We drove for about 30 minutes before he stopped. We went to sit down in a village to drink some tea. We just had breakfast and felt like driving, so we were not really happy about stopping for tea. There was still at least 350km to go with loads of changing of escorts. But his wish was our command, so we had to have tea here. He also asked for a present.

After the tea, when we went back to our car, he asked again for some presents. We laughed it off and I said that I wanted some presents too, but I didn’t like that he asked for it. It just doesn’t feel right when people abuse their power. But even this we could accept and understand. It happened only once and that is not a lot, considering we had more than 40 different cars and more than 100 different police men escorting us. What really annoyed us, is that as soon as we drove for another 5 minutes, our new escort was waiting there. He really used his position to make us join him wherever he wanted us to go.

The day continued. We had fun, but it was tiring too sometimes. Driving for a bit, changing Levies escort, waiting for them up to half an hour and driving again. The system they have is pretty good and well organized, only the waiting part is a bit bothering sometimes. The different districts are all responsible for their part of the route, dropping you off at the police station in the next district. And of course waiting isn’t a big problem, but if there are only 4 cars and every time you have to wait 15 minutes… well, you do the calculation.

All the time the same questions, same stories, same tea, taking selfies (while we are not allowed to take photos, but we did it anyway!) and awkwardly looking at each other while waiting for new escort. What a tough life we have, don’t we?

Who are those people?
When changing districts, we quite often had to fill in some papers with our information. Name, nationality, number plate, passport number, etc. We regret we didn’t make a hundred copies of our passports and visas, as it would have made stopping at the checkpoints way faster. At one place where we had to fill in our papers, we went all the way into a small village to the police station. At that time, we had no idea where we were going, we just followed our escort. But arriving at the station, we saw over hundred men sitting on the ground. We were still not fully aware of the place we were at, so we had no idea what was going on. Men sitting in organized rows, one after the other. Other men with guns looking at them. And of course all of them looked at us. Some smiling officers walking around too. We filled in our details and left again. We really had no idea what was going on, but it all looked very peculiar and all of it seemed a bit grim.

At the next stop, a regular check-point, we asked our officer what all of it had meant. Who were these people sitting there? He told us that those men were Afghani refugees. Maybe Taliban, maybe traffickers, maybe true refugees, either way they crossed the border illegally. He couldn’t tell us what would happen to the men.

Listening to his explanation while the images of these men sitting together crossed our minds, we realized how privileged we were. We were being treated really well, with tea offered all the time, we had our own private security and we even had fun doing this trip. Some of these men sitting there search for freedom, but instead end up in jail. Or actually end up in an open field, with guards around them, while the sun is burning on their face all day. We can put it in perspective, why we are being treated the way we are, and Pakistani people are in generally very welcoming to Afghani refugees, but that’s not the point I’m trying to make. At these moments, despite everything having its reason, the unfairness in this world is too obvious not to see it. How is it possible I complain about changing and waiting for Levies escort?

Quetta – getting a NOC
We arrived in Quetta late in the evening. Here again, like every other overlander, we had to stay in a hotel selected by the police: Hotel Bloomberg, where we paid 3000 rupees a night after negotiating for 15 minutes. After a hot shower – how amazing, the existence of hot showers! – we had a good night of sleep.

The next day we were picked up by heavily armed police men, as we were still not allowed to go anywhere without them, and they brought us to the home department to get our NOC. After waiting for 4 hours, we went with new police men to change some money and we did some groceries.

The NOC seems just to be a piece of paper and it may look like a mere formality, but there is a whole system behind it. After getting the NOC, the home department in Quetta sends faxes to all the police departments in Baluchistan informing them that you are in the country and that you need to get escort. Most of the rules are not without a reason. We had to let go of our impatience and accept the situation as it was.

Regaining our freedom
By now we are used to the armed men and AK-47s around us, but we were looking forward to regain our freedom. Our last day of escort lay ahead of us: the police driving with us all the way out of Baluchistan! We drove through a beautiful pass, but couldn’t enjoy it too much yet since we weren’t allowed to stop anywhere. It was another full day of driving, 400 km in 10 hours, and we arrived in Sukkur long after the sun had set. Freedom at last! We found the perfect hotel, parked our car safely and finally had some Pakistani food.

Looking back at it
In a way it is amazing that Pakistan is arranging all these safety measures for foreigners, they put in a lot of effort and money and they could also simply say that we are not welcome in this part of the country.

It is a once in life time experience and I love to quote Josephine here, I think it catches much of this whole experience:

“Besides, can you say you have ever been escorted by your private policed vehicle including five armed guys, flashing lights and wailing sirens? Consider it a “once-in-a-lifetime” experience/VIP treatment. Watch in amazement how the AK-47 carrying guards wave everyone aside, putting the whole local market bustle on hold, while you and your escort drive through town. Ignore for a few moments that lingering feeling that this is somehow wrong and enjoy the moment while it lasts.”

Quote from ‘No more complaining about Pakistani police‘, don’t forget to read her article as well!

Essential tips for the readers traveling from Iran to Pakistan by land:

  • Change money in Iran. Border rates are terrible. We did it in Kerman and we got a very good exchange rate.
  • Do not stay in a hotel in Zahedan as they are obliged to call the police to inform them about you, meaning you will get an escort in Zahedan as well. In our opinion, the escort on the Iranian side of the border is unnecessary, but make up your own mind. Going without escort will save you a lot of time.
  • In Pakistan, if you want to change money, take big notes with you. They will give you more money for it than for the smaller 1, 5, 10 or 20 dollar notes. You can also just used an ATM, but check before hand which ones are cheaper, as some issue large transaction fees.
  • Don’t worry about the papers at the border. People will help you and won’t rip you off. Just make sure you find officials to help you, not “civilians”.
  • Go on a Monday or Friday, so you are not stuck in Quetta in the weekend, as the border crossing will take three days mostly, and the Home Office closes early on Fridays, meaning you will not be able to get your NOC in time.
  • The day you leave to go to the border, go early! It will most likely save you one day of travelling and you don’t have to sleep at the border.
  • Take copies of your passport and visa with you and write your license plate number on it, if applicable. Makes life way easier and faster. At every check-point you have to fill in your personal information, but you can also just give this piece of paper.
  • Try not to complain too much about the whole trip, the waiting, the bureaucracy and so on. It’s a great experience, looking back at it.