At 6:30 a.m. the day is already hot. Alex and Nicco, our new riding companions, are ready to ride. As I strap down the last of the bags, a young and slightly awkward Iranian soldier grabs my attention as he runs into the hotel yard, clearly out of breath. “How is he meant to escort us to the border? What’s he going to do?” asks Alex. “No car, no bike.” I swap around my bags, and my waterproof carryall quickly becomes a makeshift pillion seat as our young escort climbs aboard and finds his perch. Two miles later our small group is safely delivered at the Iran-Pakistan frontier.
Past the gates, the old and weatherworn board reads, “Islamic Republic of Pakistan.” The smiling face of the customs officer inside the squat, whitewashed shack is a welcome change from the stonelike scowls of his Iranian counterpart.
“Have you had lunch?” the officer asks as he thumps the last heavy stamp into the largest ledger any of us have ever seen.
Ten minutes later, Nicco, Alex, Lisa, and I are sitting at a heavy and worn table, each wearing the same bemused grin. “I think I’m going to love Pakistan!” I mumble as I swallow a mouthful of thick, delicious curry. “Welcome to my country, welcome to Pakistan,” states our new benefactor, popping his head around the door. Our offers of cash payment for lunch are forcefully declined.
We are aware of the potential dangers of riding into Pakistan; for westerners, the risk of kidnapping is all too real. This year alone seven aid workers have been snatched and still remain held by their captors. We ride smooth asphalt a short four miles to the meeting point with the mandatory military convoy that will escort us throughout Pakistan. Warm handshakes and smiles are easily exchanged; our passports are checked and promptly and politely handed back (which wasn’t always the case when we were in Iran). With the bikes rumbling happily beneath us, we pull in behind the small military 4×4, where two rifle-carrying guards hang their legs over the tailgate. Ahead of us, a long ribbon of sun-bleached asphalt cuts through an otherwise flat desert landscape. I’m in my element. I love deserts.
As the last squint of a blood red sunset flickers out of sight, we pull into the tiny town of Yakmack. We are tired and dusty from the day’s efforts. We’ve swapped escorts four times today. Just a few miles from the Afghan border, our guards are visibly on edge. With rifles at the ready, they recon the small derelict building to our right; we have no idea why until it’s made clear we are to sleep there for the night. A fit of good-natured laughter erupts from our small group as we inspect the two dirt-encrusted rooms, both barely visible under heavy layers of dust and insect dung. We thank the owner but offer to camp on the rock-strewn ground up front and pay him the same rate.
Lisa sleeps beside me as I peer out from the tent. We have a lone guard, an older man, posted as a sentry; he’d watched silently from the shadows earlier as we pitched our tents, his demeanor giving away the seriousness in which he took his new role as our protector. I feel lucky to have him here but equally unworthy for taking up his time.
The shrill horn of a 4×4 has me whipping my head toward the gate as a single bright lamp is swung in our direction. Lisa’s look of concern mirrors my own: “This could be it: We’re about to be kidnapped and our poor old guard is going to be helpless.” A camouflaged 4×4 pulls aggressively into the yard, sending dust into the air. I’m on my feet and out of the tent in seconds and can make out the menacing shape of a 50-caliber machine gun mounted to the chassis. I use the word mounted loosely: Two stout tree branches and a plank form the brace that holds this formidable weapon.
“Hello, hello, everything is good?” asks the energetic sergeant. “We heard that you are here and we come to see you are OK!” Our fears are quickly settled.
“Things are OK, you are good?” he asks again, until happy with our reply. Our visitors speed off into the night, gone as quickly as they’d arrived. Slowly we all settle back down. What a day. Welcome to Pakistan!