Pakistan 1978: Encounter with robbers

 

 

Asien 1977-78
In the town of Kot Sabzal, Sind, we changed money in this well-guarded bank. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

At the tiny border post between Iran and Pakistan, my companion Arne Koch Christoffersen and I get permission from the border police to park here and spend the night in our Volkswagen van. Throughout the night, numerous dogs bark and howl, and the guard in front of the bank – a somewhat over-dimensioned construction in this desolate place – suffers from a penetrating cough, probably acquired by inhaling huge amounts of dust, raised by the large trucks which zoom along the dirt road through the village, their drivers not even considering to slow down.

The following morning, we get entry stamps in our passports and other documents. Before we are permitted to leave, a soldier must control our passports, disappearing into a fort-like building with them. We then have to leave by the ‘entrance’ (marked by rolls of barbwire), drive around a huge area, enclosed by barbwire, and then proceed by another road into Pakistan. Once again, we are stopped by a soldier, armed with a pair of sunglasses, who also wants to control our passports. He informs us that the distance to the border town proper, Nokkundi, is 150 kilometres, and wants to know if we have enough petrol.

 

 

Asien 1977-78
Our Volkswagen van, negotiating a sandy desert road near Nokkundi, Baluchistan. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Asien 1977-78
Camels, loaded with firewood, passing through the border post of Nokkundi. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Baluchistan – land of bandits
The border landscape is a grey-brown, stony plain, flat as a table and completely devoid of vegetation. It seems to continue endlessly, interrupted here and there by small knolls of rock. The dirt road is terrible, either loose sand, or hardened sand, the surface of which has become like a washboard, threatening to shake our kidneys loose. In other places, the road is gravel, but with countless potholes, into which sharp rocks have been poured helter-skelter. Bird life here mainly comprises small, drab passerines, whose colours blend well with the landscape, such as hoopoe lark (Alaemon alaudipes), crested lark (Galerida cristata), and desert lark (Ammomanes deserti).

It takes us almost all day to drive the 150 kilometres to Nokkundi. Late in the afternoon, we arrive at the customs office, a tiny collection of adobe buildings, clustered around a railway station. The paper work in the customs office is quickly done, despite an overwhelming number of documents that have to be filled in. It appears, however, that the customs officer isn’t overloaded with work. No other foreign car has entered the country for four days!

We park in front of the tourist office to spend the night here. The following morning the young man, who works in the office, kindly invites us for tea in his tiny kitchen. He has been living here for a year, alone, and a servant has only recently been provided. Over the village, a flock of brown-necked ravens (Corvus ruficollis) fly about, making a racket.

Further east, around the town of Dalbandin, we encounter beautiful, golden sand dunes, the highest of them about a hundred metres tall. In this area lives a variety of wildlife, e.g. different species of sandgrouse (Pterocles), Macqueen’s bustard (Chlamydotis macqueeni), jeeber gazelle (Gazella fuscifrons), golden jackal (Canis aureus), and grey wolf (Canis lupus). Here and there are small groves, or tiny settlements of adobe huts with thatched roofs. The locals are tall and handsome, the bearded men wearing a long cloth, wrapped around their head as a turban.

This is Baluchistan – famous for its proud and independent population – and also for its gangs of bandits. Time and again, we have been warned against robbers, but until now we have met only friendly and helpful people. For this reason, we park our car for the night without fear at a beautiful spot between two high sand dunes. Two men pass by with their camels – one of them approaches us to ask for water. By using sign language, he informs us that he and his companion are on their way into the desert to collect firewood. The night is silent, and the sky is dotted with countless stars, as clear as they can only be in a desert sky.

The road is tarred, but full of pot-holes, so our progress is very slow. Nomads walk along the road with their camels and donkeys, loaded with tents, kitchenware, children, puppies, and chickens. Flocks of goats and sheep roam the area to find a tuft of grass, or an inviting twig, and boys are busy trying to keep the flocks moving.

During our lunch break, we are paid a visit by two Germans, on their way towards Iran. We wonder whether they are smuggling hash, as they are very concerned about the strict border control in Afghanistan. When they learn that we sleep in our car at the edge of the road, one of them says earnestly: “Es gibt hier Banditen!” – Oh yes, we think, they are everywhere.

 

 

 

Asien 1977-78
Asien 1977-78
Wandering dunes near Dalbandin, Baluchistan. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Asien 1977-78
Parts of the Baluchistan desert are dotted with rocky outcrops, here east of Dalbandin. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Asien 1977-78
This tribal from Baluchistan, wearing a typical head cloth, approached us to ask for water. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Asien 1977-78
In desert areas of Baluchistan, the widespread common raven (Corvus corax) is replaced by the slightly smaller brown-necked raven (C. ruficollis). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Ancient culture of Sind
Quetta is a large trading post near the border to Afghanistan, known for its fruit orchards. As we move south, the landscape gradually becomes greener. Narrow strips of false tamarisks (Myricaria) and other bushes line the rivers, in which the water level is very low. Along the road, a couple of boys are selling jujube berries (Ziziphus mauritiana). Their taste is somewhat insipid, but nevertheless they are considered a delicacy by the locals. In the evening, a storm approaches, filling the air with dust. The wind blows all night long, and some of the morning as well.

Finally, we enter a large plain, criss-crossed by channels, which irrigate fields of rice and sugarcane. Groups of huge banyan trees (Ficus benghalensis) provide shade along the road, where squeaking ox-carts move at a snail’s pace. Slender camels appear to be moving in slow-motion, but due to their long gait they advance surprisingly quickly. In small puddles along the road, little egrets (Egretta garzetta), black-winged stilts (Himantopus himantopus) and many other birds are feeding.

We have no Pakistani Rupees, so we make a stop in one of the numerous towns to change. Until now, the banks have not been willing to accept our German Marks traveller’s cheques. We drive through narrow lanes, packed with horse carts, cyclists, taxi-schooters, pedestrians, and tradesmen, carrying long poles across the shoulder, onto which large burdens have been tied. Progress is very slow. At one point, the road is blocked by a thick iron bar, to prevent trucks from using this particular road. We are convinced that we can pass beneath safely, but our roof rack is a bit taller than we thought. It hits the bar and is bent a little, but otherwise no damage is done. Finally, we are able to find a bank where we can change our cheques.

The harsh environment of Baluchistan and its bandits are now behind us. This is Sind, the fertile land along the Indus River – one of the cradles of civilization. In the 1920s, ruins of two Dravidian towns, Mohenjodaro and Harappa, were excavated here. During the peak of a sophisticated civilization, c. 2500 B.C., the towns of this area were supplied with streets, sewage systems, baths, and storehouses for grain. The society was hierarchic. People had a pictorial alphabet, which has not yet been deciphered. Human-like gods, and possibly trees, were worshipped. Craftmanship and trade were prosperous. But as early as 1700 B.C., this civilization began to crumble, probably due to ecological disasters, such as flooding or increased desertification. When, around 1500 B.C., Aryan horsemen from the Iranian steppes invaded the Indus Valley, they only encountered poor remnants of the former glory. The Aryans had no difficulty subduing the local Dravidians and make them their slaves.

Today, this landscape is inhabited by small, brown, stooping people, labouring in the fields. Late in the afternoon, we stop for the night at a small truck stop along the road. From a group of trees, two white-backed vultures (Gyps bengalensis) take off, proceeding to soar over the landscape. Birds like house crows (Corvus splendens), common mynas (Acridotheres tristis), and Indian rollers (Coracias benghalensis) fly about over the fields. A small Asian mongoose (Herpestes javanicus) spurts along a canal, but stops abruptly to investigate us, standing on its hindlegs and staring at us with small, ruby-red eyes. “Rikki-tikki-tisj,” it hisses and moves on, gone in a blur. This call caused Rudyard Kipling, in his Jungle Book, to use the name Rikki-tikki-tavi for the mongoose.

While we are cooking, a couple of young men approach us to talk, most of the ‘conversation’ done by sign language, as none of them speak any English. Like most people we have met on our journey, they are deeply interested in our belongings, commenting on everything: binoculars, cameras, books, kitchenware etc. They stay in the area, but this is of no concern for us. We suppose they have their business to attend to.

Herds of cattle are driven home towards the villages, raising dense clouds of dust. They are followed by the ubiquitous cattle egrets (Bubulcus coromandus) which eat grasshoppers and other small creatures, flushed by the cattle. The sun disappears in a yellow haze, and darkness quickly sets in. We arrange our cots for the night. Our old Volkswagen van has no inner lock in the cabin, so before leaving Denmark, Arne welded a hook and a big bolt on the inside of the sliding door and the door frame. This means that we can close the door from inside, but not lock it. From outside, only a tiny crack can be opened. The ‘cockpit’ and the cabin are separated by a grate, bolted onto the frame between the two sections.

 

 

Asien 1977-78
Muslim burial ground near Quetta. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Asien 1977-78
Boys along the road, selling jujube berries (Ziziphus mauritiana), Sibi, Baluchistan. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Asien 1977-78
I pat a tame bonnet macaque (Macaca radiata), belonging to a couple of fellow travelers, whom we met near Jacobabad. (Photo Arne Koch Christoffersen, copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Asien 1977-78
From a group of trees, two white-backed vultures (Gyps bengalensis) alighted, proceeding to soar over the landscape. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Visit by robbers
Maybe I have slept – maybe not. Under all circumstances, I hear a slight noise, when someone tries to open the sliding door. I rouse Arne and say: “I think we have uninvited guests!”

Looking through the rear window, we see three men with scarves tied around their face, illuminated by the light from a passing truck. When they hear that we are awake they forget everything about being cautious and proceed to hammer on the rear window and jerk at the sliding door. The hook creaks, but withstands the strain.

“What do we do? Can we unbolt the grate?”

“No, the spanner is stored under the front seat!”

We ransack our brains.

“Do you think we can scare them by showing them that we are armed?”

From our boxes, we dig out two large jambias, sharp and pointed daggers which we bought from bedouins in Jordan. Arne sticks out his dagger through the slit in the door, and there is a moment of silence out there. But then the noise resumes – it seems that they want our belongings, daggers or no daggers.

Now we are really in trouble – it can only be a matter of time before they get so desperate that they will smash the rear window. At this very moment, we hear the welcome sound of an approaching truck.

“Quick,” says Arne, “signal with the loft light!” I signal frantically, and the miracle happens – the truck comes to a stop! Arne opens the door, sprinting towards the truck and waving his arms wildly. The two men in the truck stare at him, horrorstricken. A mad foreigner with a large dagger in his hand! Arne realizes that he is still carrying it and tosses it on the ground, while he tries to explain what has happened. They don’t understand a word of it, shake their head and prepare to continue their journey.

“Okay,” shouts Arne, waving to them while running back towards our car. “Let’s get out of here!” Meanwhile, I have been sitting in the door opening, dagger in my hand, unable to do anything at all. But luckily, the robbers are long gone.

Like madmen, we now race along the road. Arne is so excited that he is driving on the right side of the road (which, incidentally, is the wrong side in Pakistan). Only when an approaching car signals frantically with its headlights, he jerks the steering wheel to the left.

“Let’s find a petrol station,” he says, “no more truck stops tonight!” I readily agree to this. At a service station, the friendly personnel are not at all mad to be woken at this hour, but kindly allow us to park our car behind the building. A barn owl (Tyto alba) flies over, uttering its ‘woman-in-distress’ scream – a suitable end to a hair-rising evening!

 

 

Asien 1977-78
Newly washed lengths of cloth, spread out to dry in the sun, Sukkur, Sind. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Asien 1977-78
Camel carts are still a common sight in Pakistan. These are laden with bricks. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Asien 1977-78
Alley in the town of Kot Sabzal, Sind. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Asien 1977-78
Asien 1977-78
Accompanied by a couple of bank clerks, we toured the neighbourhood of Kot Sabzal, visiting local farmers. Arne is in the centre (wearing blue jeans). (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

(Uploaded February 2016)

 

(Revised April 2017)