'Give me back my sandals'

by Richard Meros / 26 February, 2011
All aboard for a trip through Pakistan on the Quetta Express -and possible conversion to Islam en route.
Sunday, 4.55pm. I settle into the only seat I could book at short notice: an economy berth with no sleeping bunk. Eight sweaty men occupy our booth; seven are dressed in the traditional tunics, and then there's me, a pale bearded chap doing his best to imitate their style with a backpacker's kit. One of the seven, after a one-sided conversation in Urdu, appropriates my sandals. I defer to his seniority as a way to celebrate this day, my father's birthday.

Around the time my brother added to his collection of facial scars with a crash on the set of a Mighty Morphin Power Rangers film, I was being mugged at gunpoint in Guatemala. Has cultivating grey hairs on my mother's and father's heads become a contest? No, that contest was over long ago. Then why do we do launch ourselves into danger? For me, it is simple: other forms of self-destruction seem so gaudy. This is the story, then, of something many would consider unthinkable without an armed escort: a journey through Pakistan. This is the story of 27 hours on the Quetta Express, departing from Lahore and scheduled to arrive in the capital of the Balochistan Province, Quetta.

8.55pm: A roaming vendor's torch projects a high-quality colour image of a saluting Saddam Hussein onto the wall opposite me. The torch is kitsch, but not ironic. There is no common language in which I can ask where I might buy one, and before I can offer him an extravagant wad of rupees, he and his cold drinks leave our carriage.

11.00pm: Still no sign of the ticket collector who, I was assured by other travellers, likes to upgrade hapless foreigners from their last-minute seats to a spot beside the train's armed guards in the canteen carriage.

Two years ago, the Quetta Express was attacked by gunmen (and/or gunwomen) who wounded 16 people. Six months later, local police interrupted a plot to blow up the same train. Further down the trail, between Quetta and the Iran border, a Frenchman was kidnapped. After 10 weeks in captivity, he was finally released. Four years ago, 15 passengers sitting on top of the carriage died after an 1100kV overhead line snapped and struck them.

Monday, 2.15am: With the help of a kindly translator, I experience my first attempt by a fellow passenger to convert me to Islam. I agree to study Islam before deciding whether to convert. After some explanation, all begrudgingly agree that I ought to know something more about the Koran before accepting it as gospel. I am told that many New Zealanders come to Lahore to convert and that Jermaine and Michael Jackson are Muslim. I decide it's best not to mention the death of the latter Jackson. The ­conversation has resolved some of the curiosity of my cabin-mates and about 15 other intrigued souls. An hour into the conversion attempt I fake a yawn, ask the time and assure my friends that it is past my bedtime. Fifteen minutes later I slip on my headphones, turn to my MP3 player and contemplate the gospel according to one of my more preferred theologians, Nick Cave.

7.05am: The rising sun wrenches me from solitary pondering, and so while everyone else sleeps, I draft my last will and testament just for curiosity's sake.

When US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and then President Barack Obama awarded Pakistan the title of most dangerous place on Earth, they were referring as much to the bearded Baloch and tribal groups who make up the triple frontier of Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan as to the Pakistani Taliban and the inhabitants of the Swat Valley.

9.05am: Over a cup of tea, the trans­lator from last night's conversion attempts tells me that Pepsi stands for "Pay Every Penny to Save Israel". "Well," I concede, "they certainly start with the same letters." After a pleasant chat and chai, I accept an invitation to even more tea at this translator's house once I arrive in Quetta.

1.00pm: By now I am hosting visitors from carriages either side of ours. The gadflies gather and their generosity flows. I am filled with Coca-Cola products (which are apparently non-Zionist). A single yawn elicits a fanatical display of generosity; a makeshift bed is produced out of backpacks and two previously occupied seats.

2.15pm: As I stroll through a train station, my sandal-less feet and unkempt beard and hair attract the attention of the local law enforcement. My previous night's translator intercepts an officer as he tries to accost me, telling him, "You have one eye open, but one eye is closed. This man is not crazy, he is an educated gentleman." We are then treated to the use of the locked latrines designated for upper-class gents. I return to my assigned seat, passing the police with dignified airs, and diplomatically reclaim my sandals.

The first half of the train journey is to pass safely over comparatively law-abiding Pakistani-controlled terrain. The second half of the journey enters the desert that Alexander the Great's India-bound army found so harrowing in 331BC. Significant among the tribal areas that the train is to pass over is Akbar Bugti's area, a sweltering flatland preceding a climb to the relatively temperate mountains of eastern Balochistan. Bugti was a local warlord with a penchant for ambushing trains and using his substantial militia to extort taxes from the local peasantry, although the area, at least in summer, is almost completely barren. The Pakistan Army killed him in the summer of 2006. His grandson is the new Mr Bugti, officially titled the 20th Tumandar of the Bugti Tribe. Little has changed.

4.05pm: The second attempt at converting me to Islam begins. This time my interlocutors, two men from Lahore, speak passable English. They are off to Quetta for "40 days and 40 nights" to spread the Prophet's word. "More power to you," I offer.

7.00pm: An hour before our train arrives, as the sun sets over the stark desert mountains east of Quetta, I meet two Hazara. The Hazara people are of Mongol descent and live in villages near Quetta. They pride themselves on their tolerance and ability to survive Balochistan's constant conflicts. In a hushed voice, one warns that I should not go anywhere with the Baloch, that they are killers and that he is endangering himself by telling me this and so cannot say more. By the time the train arrives, his warning has undermined my confidence in my new friends. I go straight to my hotel.

Afterword (Tuesday): The following night's bus trip to the border is comparatively sane. I skip through five passport checks, some of which are heavily barricaded, and arrive in darkness. Three hours must pass before the border opens. As I leave the bus, an armed guard keeps by me and I understand he is there for my protection. My guard is my father's age, and with a long beard. He looks dapper in his blue uniform; a well-greased automatic weapon is slung lackadaisically over his shoulder. After three cups of tea, the sporadic sound of distant gunfire and an almost painless conversion of rupees to rials, I wave my bodyguard farewell and enter the Islamic Republic of Iran.

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