Racing for Security

Islamabad (Pakistan), 27.06.2013

At 04:30 the alarm rang, time to get up and drive to Islamabad. There was a security alert for the road after Gilgit, we had come as close as possible to the troubled area and wanted to cross it in a day. We were told that in 14-16 hours we should reach the capital city, and we hoped that the Evoque would take us there maybe even a little quicker and with no problems. At 06:00 we were ready to go, checked out in the hotel and had the car perfectly packed. We found a surprise gift in front of our door, an origami flower, that made our day start with a smile (thank you Hadia!). At the reception a police man with an automatic rifle over his shoulder was already waiting for us, someone (we didn’t clearly understand who) had arranged for this precautionary measure to make sure we travel safely.

DSC_0001As we got into the car to hit the road, the police man asked where he should sit. In the car? Nobody told us. So we started taking all things out and re-pack to accomodate one more person inside. We didn’t want to have any additional baggage on the roof, but although we’re getting lighter every day, if we have to take 1 more person inside the car is full until under the roof. Half an hour later we drove out of Gilgit. In the next hour we had to stop 4 times, to change the police man in our car. Each of them only escorted us from one checkpoint to the next. At this rhythm we drove for three hours, advancing just 120km, from checkpoint to checkpoint. Registering in the paper books they have became a routine, and I got used to writing down our info myself, as it went faster.

DSC_0009The road was pretty bad, baggage kept falling on the police men every time I had to brake for a pothole, stone road or one of these bumps they put on the road to avoid speeding. If they would only tell you about them, maybe by putting a road sign a little bit earlier on the road? But no chance. At one checkpoint we stopped and put the camping gear on the roof, to make space in the car. Driving was more comfortable now, but still slow, and diesel consumption went up right away. Silently we kept driving and driving, constantly scanning the road, the hills above us, checking the rear mirror, the sat phone always close. It is quite scary knowing that at any point there might be people coming out of nowhere to stop you with a gun in their hand. And I’m not talking about the police. The road lead us through this beautiful landscape that we barely managed to appreciate. There are also almost no pics from today, very few videos. We were so tense we didn’t have time for this.

DSC_0028At a bigger police checkpoint they stopped us and told us that from there on we would drive in a convoy. No info on how long, how fast, how far. 10 mins later the convoy started, we were the first car behind the police pickup. A policeman with his gun on the lap kept looking at us for hours. The convoy consisted of 5 or 6 buses, a minivan and us and drove painfully slow, at just 30-40 km/h. The road didn’t improve, the canyons were very steep for a long time, on one side of us the rocks went a couple of hundred meters down into the river and on the other side straight up or even over us. At every rock we passed it crossed my mind that one of them could fall down at any moment. There were enough on or besides the road that had already come down.

DSC_0024We stopped only once for a minute or two so that the police car could get some water from a waterfall. And then we had a short lunchbreak at 13:00, 15-20 mins to eat. We didn’t find any ATM to get cash so far in Pakistan and hadn’t been able to change any of our currency, so we couldn’t buy food. And we still had a lot to eat in the car. But during the stop, the police guys came to speak to us, and there were kids at the doors and windows of our car all the time, so that in the end we hadn’t eaten when the convoy finally started again. As we left, two of the buses battled for pole position in the convoy, we were third and had their diesel and dust clouds all over our car. Nice! At some point one bus overtook the other, with less then a hand’s length of space between them. He hit a pothole, and rammed the other bus, whose driver now got furious and started the race to overtake again. Both busses stopped in front of us in a cloud of dust, the drivers and other guys getting out and shouting. We managed to sneak through them and were now first again, behind the police pickup, that had changed teams. Again we drove on for hours, after the bus drivers had settled their dispute, at very slow speed. We reached the convoy’s final checkpoint at around 16:00, and had driven for 9,5h with the only interruption being the short lunchbreak without lunch. Dark clouds hang over the sky, we had read about monsoon rains approaching and here they were coming.

DSC_0042Also now we registered, and drove on. This time without any police escort, one of the few moments of freedom. We managed to speed up significantly and made good progress for 30-40 minutes, until we reached another checkpoint at a big bridge. We registered, drove over the bridge and were stopped again, to register another time. I started to get nervous, as the sun was close to disappearing behind the mountain and we had quite a long way to drive. We were told a “mobile” would drive with us, we should wait five minutes for it to arrive. We didn’t manage to find out if this meant a policeman in our car or in a separate vehicle or else. It somehow resulted very difficult to get clear answers from the police, yes or no, black or white, inside the car on in another vehicle, now or in 15 minutes. A lot of smiles, a lot of waiting. But no clear answers. Minutes passed, 5, 10, 15. After 20 minutes I freaked out and started to shout at the policeman. Nerves were blank after hours of driving, constant security paranoia, police and guns everywhere. We got into the car and just left. Screw the “mobile”, it is more dangerous to keep waiting and drive through the night with the crazy traffic “rules” around here.

DSC_0055DSC_0045Halfway through the town after the bridge a police pickup came the other way and signalled us to stop. It was the “mobile”, that around here means a pickup with 3-4 armed policemen. They drove in front of us at medium speed for many hours. Every 30-60 minutes they would change the car, with another one already waiting at a checkpoint so we could just keep driving without further waiting. Still, progress was super slow. The roads got better, but we couldn’t drive fast due to traffic, plenty of curves, towns to cross. It was interesting to see how the mobiles differed, both in terms the amount of exhaust gases they blew onto our car (from none to black cloud we had everything), the driving style from relaxed and slow to siren and speed. Some opened the roads in front of us, others just waited in the traffic. Then as the landscape had converted from mountain to countryside we reached a hilly area that reminded us of the sierra in Madrid. In S-shapes the road went up into a pine forest, and for a moment we thought of Miraflores and Rascafria, where a frequent escape from Madrid’s hot and dry summer days, and we dreamed of a bottle of red wine and cochinillo.

DSC_0060Dreaming was over pretty quickly as we changed mobile again, and the view over the misty hills after the forest, in beautiful sunset light stole our attention. It started to get darker and darker as we approached Abottabad, a city that somehow wouldn’t get closer the more we drove. For almost an hour we thought we’re almost there, we’re almost there, but still no Abottabad at sight. “Sight” is a big word anyway, since there was little light on the road, traffic was quite intense, and I got tired of driving. We finally made it apparently, without seeing anything of the city. At the next mobile change we had to stop. The new pickup was waiting for something or somebody. There was also a civilian car waiting. The pickup suddenly turned around and disappeared in the traffic. A civilian knocked on our window, I lowered it. “They are going to pick up the prime minister, wait here.” We were not sure if we understood correctly, but the pickup did get back, followed by several cars with number plates different from the others we had seen, all with dark windows. We sneaked into the convoy and kept driving with them, the mobile ahead of everybody. This was one of the very slow type, who didn’t even think of opening up the street for a government convoy. Then they stopped. Everybody got out of the cars. Minutes passed. We didn’t understand, but waited, the windows closed and aircon on. It was still over 30 degrees outside and very humid. After 15-20 minutes everybody suddenly got into their cars again and we resumed driving. Another 30 mins later they stopped and everybody got out of the cars another time. Now we got out too, trying to understand what was going on. Apparently, there was a bus in the convoy that couldn’t catch up. Couldn’t catch up? At 20-30 km/h?? There was little we could do, stuck in the middle of nowhere and without a clue of our location, forced to follow a police escort due to security concerns, in the middle of the night in pitch dark, surrounded by crazy traffic. Finally we resumed driving, only to stop AGAIN 30-40 mins later. This time apparently someone had stomach problems. “The last stop, guaranteed. After this it is Islamabad. Promised.”

We had been on the road for over 16h, were tired, and had the feeling Islamabad was still hours away. We were beyond hungry and thirsty, music or no music, aircon or open windows, driving was just a pain, but happened routinely, mechanically. Trapped in the snail-speed convoy there was little we could do. Then they stopped again, in the middle of the road, in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the night. I got furious. I jumped out of the car and went to the guy that had told us there would be no stops, shouting at him. They had lost some people. “5 minutes, wait just 5 minutes.” It was clear this wouldn’t be 5 minutes, and it wouldn’t be the last stop. I told them we wanted to leave, by ourselves. The police didn’t like the idea. “Then get everybody into their f***ing cars and let’s go guys!!” “5 more minutes.” “This is BS, and you know it. We are leaving NOW!” “But sir, the security situation bla bla bla.”

I got back into the car, and we left. Screw security. Screw the mobile. We have found our way in strange places before. We’ll do it again. And indeed, we drove on quickly. Or better, we raced. I’m ashamed to admit that I adopted a combination of the worst of all Pakistani driving habits I had seen on the roads so far. But we needed to get to the hotel. We reached the motorway, then Islamabad, then the sector before our hotel, then a police checkpoint that explained us how to get there. We found the hotel, crossed the impressive security gates and checks, drove on the parking lot – and turned the engine off. 00:56, almost exactly 19 hours after we had left the hotel in Gilgit. The last time I had driven that long was 12-15 years ago, when I did Berlin-Rome in a night or the way back during a sunday. I would drive 1650km, here we did just 603. Strangely I was in a state of “I don’t care”. About anything. I was not even tired any more, just happy we had made it, without any incidents or security problems.

We want to thank all the police and security people that have made sure today nothing happened to us. Everybody was very friendly, not just to us. During this journey we have become more suspicious and averse to security forces then we already were back in Europe. In Pakistan we have had a completely different experience. A positive one, despite the difficult situation.

Trip data for the day

– Km driven: 603

– Hrs on the road: 19h

– Diesel l/100km: 11,1 (44l diesel for USD 47)

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4 responses to “Racing for Security

  1. I was in the mini bus that rammed the other on its way down the karakoram highway. 😉
    How far along is your road trip going? guys

  2. Hey Ahmed, we just started so to say 😉
    A third of the road is behind us, we’ll travel through Asia until we reach Vladivostok in the far east of Russia, and then head back home, to Spain.
    I hope you survived the bus drive!

  3. فراذ احمد

    Tough task driving from Gilgit to south till flat planes.. specially in current situation, I was in this area in 2004, without security problems that was best journey of my life, tracking and driving with local in open jeep. may be you can go back to this area after 2015 when this problem will be over..

  4. Pingback: Coast to Coast | Eurasia 2013

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