India was great, but it starts to wear on you and I needed to break free. The good parts begin to get overshadowed by the pure madness of the place. The blaring horns were taking me to the edge of insanity. Pakistan was the next country to take me in. The Wagha border, just to the west of Amritsar, is the only border crossing between India and Pakistan. The relationship between the two countries is rotten ever since the partition in 1947, which saw Pakistan separate from India. The British drew the lines and these are still hotly contested. The Kashmir region was supposed to have a vote in the future for which country they would like to join, but it has never happened. The area was majority Muslim, but has become closer to even with Hindus. Many of the people living in Indian Kashmir consider themselves Pakistanis and the Indian military presence is huge. The tension is high and both sides have little hope for peace in the near future. I won’t get into that whole mess. I expected the Indian side to be easy, but they were mostly a bunch of turds. At immigration/customs the security guys told me to park in a specific spot. After waiting in the immigration line for twenty minutes while the officer diddled with another guys paperwork, I was retrieved by a couple of guys. I got out to me bike and was yelled at by a pencil-neck dude showing off his authority. I was apparently blocking the ramp for the non-existent people trying to get in. I probably need to learn how to bite my tongue and take shit sometimes, but I’m terrible at it. I really hate being talked down on like a kid. He agreed that his officers told me to park there, but kept on yelling at me about random stuff. From that point on, the immigration and military security guys had it out for me. Probably partly because I was going to Pakistan, which most of them hate. I returned to Immigration and finished up getting stamped out of India while the security guys scowled and laughed at me. Next was customs, which were much more friendly. They felt bad about how the rest of the people at the border were treating me and it felt like they took me under their wing a bit. They had milk tea and cokes brought out to us. They searched the hell out of my bike. Other people I’ve talked to didn’t have the same experience. Something about the way I look always leads to heavy searches. A couple of guys went through all my camping gear, clothes, and every pocket they could find. I’m not sure what they were looking for, but I was glad I tossed the rest of my smoke into a ditch on the way to the border. Usually it’s the country you’re entering that is worried about you bringing stuff in. I didn’t know what they would say about my little wooden pipe that a guy on the side of the road in Myanmar gave me, so I slipped it out when nobody was looking and disposed of it. At one point the scrawny head guy showed back up and marched up to me asking my name. He asked three times and each time I told him, “Ryan”. I didn’t understand why his anger grew each time I told him. It was like my name sent him into a fury. I figured it out though, and remembered how a lot of Indians hear the r as a w. He thought I was saying “why” to him. At customs, the guys were trying to calm the immigration guys down and help me get out of there, but the asshole boss wanted me to come to his office. He had sent a couple of his muscles to get me and wouldn’t take no for an answer. It put me on edge, and didn’t help to see the customs guys concerned faces. I’m not into torture. The head customs official made a couple of phone calls, obviously trying to get me out of the situation, but it didn’t work. He guaranteed me though that nothing bad would happen to me. The military guys led me to his dimly lit, dirty walled, miniature office. While the security watched with goofy looks on their faces, the twig laid into me for fifteen minutes. He continued to talk to me like I was his twelve-year-old son. At that point I had resigned myself to bite my tongue and get out of there as soon as he finished the verbal diarrhea. He loved warning me about the police in Pakistan and how they wouldn’t care about me one bit. This wasn’t a western country and he apparently thought I hadn’t figured that out yet over the past few months and wanted to beat it into my skull. Between Indian and Pakistan immigration, there were a few checkpoints where they happily checked my passport and sent me on my way. Riding through the Wagha border was pretty awesome. I’d been to the ceremony a couple of years ago.
This time the only other person around was the towering wide shouldered Pakistani soldier guarding the gate. He reminded me of The Undertaker, a famous wrestler.
The seats sat empty with none of the nationalistic noise filling the air. The Pakistan immigration building was virtually empty except for the officers smiling and chatting with each other. A much better vibe than the Indian side. I loved their sign above the desk, “We Respect and Suspect All”. I definitely felt the respect, even being an American, but if they suspected anything I didn’t feel it. An easy fifteen minutes taking care of immigration formalities and filling out the carnet, and I was free’d into Pakistan.
A country that you hear so much negative about and a place where friends beg you not to go. You come in trying not to let these outside influences contaminate your view and to keep your mind open. I want my own feeling from everywhere I go and not what someone else thinks I should feel. All I know is that as soon as I was riding down the empty highway towards Lahore, I felt a weight lifted off my shoulders. I had made it out of India. A great time, but happy to be out alive with my body in pretty much one piece. I Stayed in Lahore for three nights. It’d been a while since I’d stopped somewhere. I felt like I had just been going and going forever and it felt awesome to not touch the motorcycle for a couple of days. I liked Lahore, even though the temperature was about three hundred degrees twenty-four hours a day. Home was Lahore Backpackers run by the super friendly Sajjad.
Up a few flights of stairs on the top floor of an old building is reception, some rooms, a kitchen, and a big rooftop looking over the city. Definitely nothing fancy, if a bit run-down, but a cozy place to call home. Lahore is more liberal than many other parts of Pakistan. Many people imagine Pakistan as a place where all the women are fully veiled, but in Lahore it’s not this way. People are friendly everywhere you go and love to have a chat, especially the young people. There’s lots of delicious food well into the night.
It was hard to do much during the day because of the knock you down heat. On the roof-top under cover enjoying the breeze was the best place to be. It was a strange crew living there. Harley, another rider who is in the group to cross China, showed up. After all that time in India, we headed for food-street and gorged on new, but similar foods. We left together to head north towards Islamabad. A brutally hot day on an excellent highway. Before getting there we cut off the highway towards an old fort.
A rough road led us out and delivered us to an entrance where a guy wanted five bucks each to get in. We went off and explored on our own instead and found a neat little spot down a trail off the road.
People had obviously lived inside, but all we found were nice views and a spooky looking goat.
We made it into Rawalpindi, basically Islamabad, just before dusk and found ourselves a pretty crummy hotel room that felt a bit safe. Everything was fine during the daylight, but as soon as the streets went dark the vibe changed. In the restaurant down the street, not everyone gave us warm looks anymore. Walking on the street, some people had a strange look of suspicion when they peered our way. We both got back to the room feeling a bit strange, but not uneasy. Then Harley had the great idea to read the Pakistan travel warnings off of the Australia embassy’s website. Basically their advice was to flee the country and that our lives were in danger.
Not the best thing to read about when you’re already sketched out in a place. Of course they had to mention bomb attacks from recent years around where we were. To add to the irrational fear we felt, the door handle was broken. During daylight the area was fine, but felt strange after dark. The area closed down early, unlike Lahore.
Harley needed an extra day to get his Chinese visa from the embassy so I decided to start heading up north. I’d read about a lake by the village of Naran. It would be a perfect place along the way to stop for a day or two. I found what I thought was the quickest and best route on the map, which led to Muzaffarabad and up towards Naran. I excitedly made my way up to Murree in the drizzly fog, found my way around a couple landslides, and then arrived at a police checkpoint in Kohala. I went into the shack and gave them my passport as usual and then was told I couldn’t go. No foreigners on that road north of Kohala. The road gets close to the Indian border and I’m sure that’s why. The large cop in charge told me the reason was, “the enemy Indians are close by”. Whatever the reason was, I was bummed after riding close to a hundred km and being turned back. He told me to back track to Murree and then catch the mountain road over to Abottabad, last known home of Osama Bin Laden, and then head up from there. At this point it was afternoon and I wasn’t sure of any of this new route. I rode back towards Murree debating what to do. I could either try it out or head back to Islamabad and try again the next day with Harley. I was leaning towards just heading back when the decision was made easy. On the way back to Murree, I had two roads to choose from that looked the same distance on the map. Fate led me to choose door number two and ended up on the upper road where a car came around a corner right in my lane and hit me head on. I had nowhere to go and could only slow down. He obviously wasn’t paying attention and didn’t even make an effort to miss me. Luckily it was way lower speed than my India crash. He hit my front-fork and cowling around the headlight. Somehow the only real damage to my bike was the left side of the handlebar bent straight up into the air and a small piece of plastic broken off. His car on the other hand was messed up. The entire bumper was torn off and there was serious damage to the front corner. A lot of fluids were leaking out of his engine and it wouldn’t start. When I went down, something dug into my ankle all the way up my shin. While it was happening all I could think was, “no way I just broke my other leg”. I could feel it was fine once I was on the ground and wiggled it around. I jumped straight up in anger and went towards his car yelling, and of course he tried blaming me. The marks in the road clearly showed he hit me on the outside of my lane almost on the shoulder. In a way I was happy about his car having all the damage. Hopefully it will teach him a lesson. Probably not. The kids in the car had a good story to tell their friends about hitting a foreigner. It was probably their first encounter. I could ride the bike, but it was tough using the clutch on the jacked up handlebar. A bunch of my stuff had been strewn around and some bystanders helped me pick it all up. Now I had a Pakistan tattoo to go with my Indian one.
Just down the road, a couple of police officers stopped me. They wanted to take me to the hospital, but there’s nothing a doctor was going to tell me except that I had a scrapped up leg. Tetanus must be a big thing over here because I’ve had multiple people tell me I needed to get the shot for it. The officers were amazingly friendly and really wanted to help in any way they could, but there wasn’t anything they could do so I headed back down towards Islamabad with half chopper half regular bar. I managed to get myself back to the hotel and rejoin Harley in our lovely hotel room. Round one trying to go north, fail. Having another day in Rawalpindi gave me the opportunity to see another side of the place, the friendliness. I was riding by some shops to look for someone who could heat and bend my handlebar back when a guy pulled up to me on his little Honda moto with son on back. He immediately went about helping me find someone. I followed him and squeezed into the bazaar down a packed narrow street to a tiny shop about big enough for three people to stand in. The two brothers running the shop welcomed me with giant smiles and then went back to bickering with each other over how a small job should be done. My friend that led me to the shop explained to them what needed to be done and wished me a farewell and added, “no pay, you’re our guest”. I don’t know if he paid or was just letting me know that I didn’t have to, but after they re-bent the handlebar and spray painted it a matching silver they wanted nothing. One of the brothers yelled something at one of the kids who had grouped around my bike and a couple of minutes later he showed up with a Mountain Dew for me. Everywhere I went was like this. I needed to get my tank bag sewed up because it had started to fall apart. The second guy I asked on the street had me follow him down a few side streets to a hunched over old man on the corner. He sat under his makeshift office of sticks holding up a ripped blue tarp. Old leather sandals, sports shoes, laces, needles, thread, and random soles were all around him as he fixed a shoe with absolutely no urgency looking half asleep. The young guy that brought me explained to him what had to be done before saying his goodbye and saying to me, “no pay, you’re our guest”. While the wrinkled up old soul under the tarp fixed the bag, a few young teachers from across the street brought me milk teas. At dinner after this I met some guys working on the new metro around Islamabad and ate with them. When I got out my wallet to pay I was stopped in my tracks. He told me, “you’re our guest, when I come to America you pay for me”. All these people knew I was American and it didn’t matter one bit to them. They understand the difference between government and citizen.
The next morning, Harley picked up his visa and we headed north. We made it about 75 km and through a few police checkpoints when we were cruising through Haripur on the Karakoram Highway. A group of police on the side of the road stopped me and I got instructions to follow them. I figured we were going to catch Harley and then they would give us a security escort. We’d heard stories of other riders having to have them in certain areas. When we reached Harley, they checked our passports and then started making phone calls. They didn’t speak english and any attempt to find out what was going on was impossible. Eventually they motioned for us to follow them and flipped a u-turn heading back the opposite way. Over the next ten km they handed us off to another police vehicle to follow. We stopped them to try and get info and all we understood was “Islamabad”. They were taking us back towards Islamabad. Over the next twenty-five km we were handed off to a few different motorcycles with assault rifle wielding officers. Eventually they dropped us at a checkpoint. The guys there told us that we couldn’t go north towards Gilgit because it was unsafe and we needed paperwork from the Ministry of Home Affairs giving us permission as well as permission from our embassies. Our spirits were crushed. After trying our best to get them to let us through, we headed back to Islamabad defeated.
We split up and went to our embassies to find out what we needed. This proved a waste of time and all they did was fill my head with horror and fear. It was late afternoon and at first I was told that everyone had left. I knew this was bullshit since the place was as big as my home town. Finally I was able to convince them to get someone. I wasn’t taking no for an answer. One of the first guys they brought out was super friendly. He’d been working at the Embassy for two years and never seen an American tourist come in. He helped out a lot and put me in touch with the right people. I’m pretty sure the second guy with him was CIA. He dressed nicely and had aqua blue eyes that starred deep into me. He asked tons of questions and acted suspicious of all my answers as he jotted them down on a notepad. The other guy enjoyed hearing about my trip, but the agent only seemed to want to uncover some dirt on me. I was taken to the visa application building and told to wait. Finally, a tall lanky middle-aged lady called me over from behind the bullet proof glass. She looked as if working in Pakistan had stressed and aged her. I explained my dilemma and how the police told us we couldn’t go without the NOC (non objection certificate). She said these were only for diplomats and it would be impossible to get, which I’ve come to find as untrue. A couple of people chimed in to say that I didn’t need one for where I was trying to go and the police shouldn’t have stopped us. I was so confused. Then she started her scare tactics warning me about the police and how I didn’t want to go to prison in Pakistan. I’m not sure she had ever been out of the embassy. She talked as if an armageddon was going on and I needed to flee the country immediately. Pakistan is a very confusing place. One minute you have the locals telling you it’s the safest place on earth and the next you have police or my embassy friends speaking of it as the scariest place on earth. The police are really scared of anything happening to a foreigner so they er on the side of extreme caution. Locals would swear there were no terrorists where we were going, but police would swear they were waiting to kill us. I lean towards the locals view in the majority of Pakistan. Of course there are some bad areas, but most countries are the same. There are areas of America that I definitely wouldn’t go into after dark. A lot of the violence is between Sunnis and Shias, which is whipped up by people with agendas, but also has a long history behind it.
We met back at our trusty hotel only to find out they were full, or so they claimed. We upgraded to almost double the price at the nearby Grace Hotel. I’d had a few problems because of my visa, but the hotel was the worst. The Pakistan visa has a validity of three months to get in, and once you’re in you have thirty days. It doesn’t matter if you go in on the final day of validity, you still have thirty days. Mine says that it expires on July 28th and I came in on the 26th. I have thirty days from the 26th, but looking at it it appears to be expired after the 28th of July. The manager was convinced that I was in illegally or at least he acted like it. We went round and round for ten minutes until he conceded. He made strange comments about CIA agents coming in and trying to use expired visas. After striking out twice trying to ride north I was a bit disheartened.
The embassy visit had really screwed with my mind and I was freaking out wondering how to continue. According to them my chances of success were one in a zillion. I couldn’t take being turned back again and was trying to find any alternative, but there was only one choice. Our brainstorming left us with one plan. We would start at daybreak and drive as fast and hard as we could. Police checkpoints would have to be blown through as fast as we could with oblivious waves given if they tried to stop us. We would take a little different route so that we would come onto the Karakoram Highway north of Haripur. The only worry was getting stopped at gates. There is only one way to China and we had to get through. We went to sleep with nervous anticipation.