Mongolia – Intimate Conversations of Foreign Souls
A heart the size of a fist and a white sponge of lungs. A bloody liver lies beside a large stomach. Next to it,...
‘Why are you sitting here?”, a loud, commanding voice booms from above our heads. We look up, only to meet the stern eyes of a portly, moustached man. The uniform studded with police badges clearly announces the high rank of the owner. “Well?”, the man demands an answer.
We have no chance to explain that we only want to send emails to our family, that it is the third day since we are being escorted and they have no sign of life from us. The man leans over the monitors, notices the inept pseudo-hacker attempts and roars:
“It is outrageous!”
Beads of sweat appear on our foreheads. Wet, trembling palms glide over the keyboard. We want to disappear, fall under the ground before the man arrests us. Meanwhile, the policeman continues roaring:
“Not only this network is very slow, but you are also freezing in the corridor. Please, immediately go to my office. I am leaving now, but my assistant will give you my WiFi password and will be at your service. Have a nice evening.”
Before we can realise what has just happened, the assistant appears – a young lad in a brown, traditional shalwar kameez – wide cotton pants and a long, knee-length tunic. He leads us to a beautiful, spacious office with a large mahogany desk and sits us on puffy, elegant sofas. After turning on the English-language channel on a plasma TV, the assistant disappears. After several minutes, he comes back with the password for a private WiFi network and a steaming jug of milk tea.
Between Iran and Pakistan, the only land border accessible to tourists is in the Balochistan province. The area historically harassed by the Taliban terrorist organisation “Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan” is becoming safer year by year. Terrorist attacks, kidnapping for ransom (also tourists) – the intensity of which fell in 2007-2015 – now have almost completely disappeared. Many years of anti-terrorist actions led by the Pakistani army and police have brought evident results. However, there are still occasional attacks. Most often, their targets are the outposts of those who fight terrorists – soldiers and police. Due to the still unstable situation, each tourist crossing the Iran-Pakistan land border is assigned an armed escort. Completely free protection, accompanies the traveller for about three days, up to the border of the Balochistan province. After crossing it, one can travel freely around the rest of the country.
For the first time, we entered Pakistan in February 2019. The accounts of travellers who previously covered the same route were filled with superlatives: amazing adventure, fantastic people, escort is fun in itself, the hospitality of soldiers and police knows no boundaries. We looked at them in disbelief and with more than a pinch of pessimism.
Then, immediately after crossing the border, the first bodyguard joined us in our campervan. A moustached gentleman, up to the bushy eyebrows wrapped in a headscarf. Adjusting the Kalashnikov gun on his lap, he immediately began to teach us Urdu. Thirty kilometres later, the jurisdiction of military posts changed, and the bodyguard changed as well. This time, a younger version of the previous one began to familiarise us with Pakistani rap. Another 30-40 kilometres, and another change of the escort. Sometimes in the language of gestures, sometimes in broken English, we got to know one after another. Warm, cheerful men who were genuinely happy that guests came to Pakistan.
Each stop at the check post required registration. The soldiers put down our details, passport numbers, visas and car registration numbers. At each stop, they gave us chai and fed us with all the local delights. There was no way to leave the post without refreshments, endless handshakes and photo sessions.
Sometimes, the escort rode in front of us on a motorcycle or in an armed jeep. The conversation continued despite everything. Pointing with their hands to the left and right, the soldiers proudly showed us parts of their country: beautiful rivers, rocky mountains, and shepherds leading a flock of sheep to a green spot on an otherwise sun-dried hill slope. Sometimes, especially in densely built-up villages or towns, we entered the scene straight from a movie set. Black motorbikes. Masked soldiers. Kalashnikovs at ready. Armed cars with rifles on the roof. Barking orders to pave the way between traffic and pedestrians. In the middle of it – us and our campervan. Completely surreal situation.
And this is how we got to Quetta, to the police inspector’s office, where we sip chai and listen to the stories of the assistant-cadet – Mohamed Asghar.
“It is not easy. The training itself is very hard. Especially in the first months. It is known that they want to sift those who are not fit. Then it’s easier. At school. Because when the service starts, you do not know whether you will come back home in one piece.”
“So, it means it is still dangerous out there?”, we ask concerned.
“No. Not so much now. Although a few days ago, my colleague died in an attack. We were together at the cadet school. He was assigned to a patrol, and the patrol got attacked. But it was not here. Further up in the mountains.”
“Why did you decide to join the police, then?”
“What other option do I have? In the army or the police, we get very good money. Even if I die, my family will be cared for. And if not this, then what can I do? Become a shepherd? The Taliban can also kill the shepherd, but then the family will be left with nothing. And as I say. Now it’s getting better. Anyway, see for yourself.”
Mohamed Asghar turns towards the desk and shows a brass plaque hanging above it. Carved in it are three rows of names with corresponding dates. The first decade of the 21st century shines in red. The colour of further years is turning more and more black, and after 2015 it completely takes over the plaque.
“Names engraved in red are the commanders of this post who died during actions or terrorist attacks.”
“Ah, OK. But there is a very high turnover. The names sometimes change after a month only”, we keep asking.
“Rotation helps safety. Commanders are very often shifted from place to place, from one post to another. This way, terrorists do not have time to prepare an attack. And you know – the higher the rank, the bigger the target on the commander’s chest. But I’m babbling here, and you don’t have tea any more. I’ll be back in a minute with a special one. Camomile. It is best for digestion.”
In the morning, we move on towards the final border of Balochistan. In Sukkur, we say goodbye to our escort. Now the whole of Pakistan is open to us. Almost.
Near Multan, there is a settlement of truck painters. Pakistani trucks are works of art on wheels. Beautifully colourful floral motifs coat them entirely. Sometimes the paintings cover the windshield, leaving only narrow visors for the drivers. The back of the truck is the most valuable “canvas” left for the most important paintings. Sometimes it is a powerful eagle with its wings spread, a mountain landscape, and sometimes the image of a national hero or beloved grandson of the driver. Everything is hand-painted by people who improve their art skill for decades and then pass it onto students.
The search for the artists’ settlement leads us between the villages. Their inhabitants, at first speechless with surprise, return our greetings with smiles. In such circumstances, we reach the river, and the bridge thrown over it. On the bridge, there are military posts and turrets made of sandbags. This view is already quite ordinary for us. As it turns out, this time, it is us, who are not the usual sight.
Without realising it, we reach Dera Ghasi Khan, the province on the outskirts of Balochistan. It is – as the border zone – banned for tourists. The soldiers tell us to turn back. As we are about to set off on the return journey, the commander appears and sends us down to the parking lot. Not knowing English himself, he instructs his subordinates to explain what is going on. And of course, it is all about having tea together. The steaming jug of milk tea arrives together with some cookies and endless questions: where are we from, how do we like Pakistan, what do we think about Pakistani people, and so on. It‘s just a few minutes when all the military staff surrounds us. During one of the compulsory photo sessions, a nervous soldier appears from behind the gendarmerie building. He explains something politely but firmly to the commander while constantly gesturing towards the bridge. The commander listens carefully, nods thoughtfully and asks his subordinates to translate:
“The captain says he is pleased about your visit, but now we have to say our goodbyes. The whole post is here with you, and there is no one to guard the bridge.”
After some time, taught by experience, we start to look for military or police stations ourselves. They turn out to be the most hospitable camping sites. When the night and the closed parking lot greet us in the Khewra Salt Mine, we head to the nearest police station in search of accommodation. After the standard registration, the police assign us a place in the parking lot. Right next to a substantial number of tractors with trailers filled with piles of sand.
“These are confiscated vehicles. The drivers were loading illegal sand, and we stopped them. Tomorrow they will pay tax, and we will let them go”, explains Raja, the policeman who is to look after us. “What do you need? Tea, maybe? Maybe something to eat?”, he asks before we depart for the night.
“No, no, thank you very much. We have everything”, we decline politely not wanting to cause any more trouble. Somewhat saddened Raja wishes us goodnight and disappears at the station.
In the morning, during our breakfast, there is a knock on the door. Raja stands in our doorway.
“I have been feeling horrible since yesterday. I feel guilty about not taking proper care of you. You didn’t take any tea nor food. How do I look before Allah? The guest is as if He himself entered my thresholds. Please, have some tea at least.”
Oh, but of course! If this is the deal, we will have tea, meal and whatever Raja offers us. The mood improves immediately, and Raja straight away plays the role of an ideal host. He shows us around the station.
“It’s a new building, only a year old. Here are the offices of our commanders, and here are the rooms of the policemen”. From the corridors filled with smaller and larger rooms, still smelling of paint, Raja leads us to the open yard. A giant tree grows in the middle of the square. Its sight pleases the men sitting behind bars and sipping tea.
“It is our jail. It’s almost empty now. We only have a few thieves currently”, Raja calmly explains and leads us through the yard towards the stairs to the second floor. “See here? It is a piece of evidence in the murder case. This brown stain there is the victim’s blood.”
Eyes wide open in disbelief follow Raja’s hand, which points to two wooden beds leaning against the wall of the police station. A moment later, we climb the roof of the building. It offers a view of the entire village and the surrounding hills. A garden stretching at the foot of the post completes a pleasant sight.
“I planted every tree myself. There you can see apples, peaches, and there under the wall – mango trees”, under bushy moustache of the policeman a smile full of pride appears.
A moment later, over a glass of tea, we exchange phone numbers. We stay in touch until this day. Just like with all the other soldiers and police officers who looked after our safety.
Eight months after our first visit to Pakistan, we were able to repay them just a little bit.
After visiting India and Nepal, we return to Iran via Pakistan. The same way, just in the opposite direction. The last kilometres before the border, we follow an armed car again. The road leads through the desert: nothing but sun-baked sand on the right and left. Suddenly our escort car pulls over. The driver jumps out of the car, opens the hood and starts to fix something underneath. Andrzej’s curious nature takes over. He gets out of the van and joins the soldier under the hood.
“They run out of fuel”, he announces, coming back after a while. “I think we still have a litre of petrol for this burner, from Kazakh mechanics. I’ll give it to the soldiers. They will do a drip out of it and will be able to get to the petrol station. It is just nearby. One litre will do.”
Ah, OK. From my comfy seat, I can see how the guys connect the entire bottle with a rubber pipe directly to the fuel pump. The escort car starts again. Andrzej rushes back to our van. We drive 200 meters and stop again. A large wet spot appears under the soldiers’ car.
“They didn’t tighten the pipe. The whole petrol went into the sand”, says Andrzej.
“If this gas station is just a few kilometres away, then ask one of the soldiers to go with us. He will fill the spare canister, and we are good to go.”
Indeed, the soldier gets into our van and directs us to the supposed “station”, which turns out to be a small warehouse full of fuel smuggled from Iran. The soldier greets the owners politely and explains what the issue is. A moment later, a truck with a gallon of gasoline rushes to the grounded soldier’s vehicle. When the tank is full of illegal petrol, the honest soldier wants to pay. Even more honest smuggler does not want to take the money.
“Oh, no, no! I will not take the payment from the border defenders!”
Someone may argue that the attitude of the military, as well as police, is forced by the progressive policy of the new Prime Minister of Pakistan. Imran Khan, a former cricket star, really focuses on tourism. He relaxed the visa process, invested in tourist infrastructure, abolished entry permits to regions where, until recently, paperwork was a nightmare. But the truth is, even without Prime Minister’s orders, the behaviour of the army and police would be the same. Pakistani people are just like that: hospitable, open, and delighted when someone visits their country. They open their arms, homes and hearts to the guests. The hospitality of uniformed services in Balochistan is barely a pre-taste of what one will experience later on in Pakistan. In the country that is largely misunderstood and underestimated, where natural beauty is surpassed only by the wonderful hospitality of its people.
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