Posts Tagged ‘bus convoys in Paksistan’

An early 90’s Toyota corolla arrives at the front gate of our guesthouse in Gilgit. It’s six in the morning.  A man opens the passenger door and slaps the front seat with a rag. The car is here to take us to Islamabad, 560km to the south. We are both in pensive but determined mood.Two days ago while doing preliminary investigations on getting an Indian visa in Pakistan we discover disturbing news. The consulate is advising that due to the current security situation the average time for a visa to be processed is 35 days! It is also made very clear that payment of visa fees does not ensure a visa will be granted.

Once establishing what prefixes to use, we try to call the embassy, but each time we speak English the phone hangs up. We scan the website looking for alternative numbers. Eventually a promising lead presents itself. We speak with Dr Acquino Vimal +92 51 282 8370. He confirms that the application will on average take 3-4 weeks! This is a disaster. Our plan had been to continue our tour of the north before heading down to Islamabad and onto Lahore and India. I should point out that the 560km normally takes 24 bone jarring hours in a bus each way. The thought of having to make a trip down and then back up again just to lodge a visa is sickening!

We consider other options. Rather than take the risk of applying in Pakistan and travelling over 48 unnecessary hours, we explore the possibility of returning our passports back to Australia by international courier and lodge them in Sydney. A visit to the DHL office kills the idea. They are not able to courier passports as Pakistan customs won’t allow it. Another blow.

A few weeks ago it seemed like all our visa issues were behind us and now they are back with vengeance. Could coming to Pakistan have painted us into a bureaucratic corner?

To further complicate matters all visa applications must be typed into a PDF and printed. Hand written applications will be rejected. We spend the next 5 hours trying to fill in an application that has over 60 questions, including fathers place of birth, your last visa number which we don’t have and mothers profession! Each time we go back to retrieve the PDF the code is invalid. Our laptop also keeps switching off for no apparent reason?!

Police Escort on Karakoram Highway

Our police escort on the way down from Chillas to Besham

We find a thread that reports applicants should not go to the actual embassy. The best way to lodge is to go to the TCS office in Islamabad. The visatronox section www.visatronix.com/index.aspx will handle applications. Our laptop flickers off. There seems no other way but to travel down to Islamabad, lodge the application and return to the mountains up north while our visa is considered and pondered over at the embassy.

The issue with the Karakoram Highway is complex. In the last couple of years several attacks on busses have meant that travel in convoys is required. The convoys have slowed what was an already long journey. The other options are to fly… which is out of the question, or to take a car. The car can travel faster and avoid the dangerous sections before nightfall. As such they are not required to travel by convoy so the total time to reach Islamabad is shaved down to a mere 16 hours! The only issue being that they are expensive. The bus is about 1500-2000 PKR, the car will cost 6000 PKR each or about $120.00 USD in total.

The thought of back to back journeys on a bus is too much. We weaken and take the car; at least for one leg. The first two hours are comfortable until you reach the Raikot Bridge. This is also where you turn off the KKH for Fairy Meadows, but I digress. This is as far as the Chinese road builders have reached. Smooth communist bitumen gives way to neglected and broken south Asian asphalt.

Karakoram Highway

Karakoram Highway

Our driver speaks English well and even manages a few expletives about the condition of the international highway.  The corolla sweeps around the multitude of bends. Swerving from side to side, we are rattled by the many bumps. The journey becomes both mentally and physically sickening. Despite the poor state of the road we clear the so called dangerous area (Chillas to Besham) by 2pm, but there is still a long way to go. The KKH departs the Indus river and heads south through Abbottabad; notorious now as the city where Osama Bin Laden was executed. In reality it is just another small city, but oddly it has an abundance of Eucalyptus trees. Upon seeing them I think of home. It’s a warm sunset as we descend to lower altitudes. The humidity has crept up, all that is missing are the cicadas.

By the time we reach Islamabad it’s just after 10pm. Our driver despite his tiredness takes us to the area where the visatronox office is located. An odd address I and T centre, block 11, G-6/1. We come across the Crown Palace Inn and not much else. Its horrendous value at 3500 PKR but weariness and a need for sleep help to cover up the mouldy walls and stained carpets.

Hotel Crown Palace Islamabad

Hotel Crown Palace Islamabad

The next morning we (after a small struggle) locate the visatronox office. It is pouring with rain and any shelter provided is occupied with motorbikes forcing you to walk in the downpour. We are directed around the corner to a translation agency who can type the applications and print them. The cost is 750 PKR each. A kind and elderly man types the applications as I dictate. The progress is slow and the mistakes are many. I ask if it is at all possible for me to type as I can’t keep explaining the difference between a G and a J. This is not possible! We continue slowly. Upon finishing there is an error in the spelling of Emma Jane. She is now Emma Jan. We take no risks and ask for it to be corrected. I look in horror as he opens a new PDF. The old one can’t be edited??!! All 60 questions are again filled in with a new round of mistakes and corrections made.

We take our place at the visatronox office and wait to be called. Our papers are examined but there is a big error. Emma’s current nationality is British on the form but we are lodging with an Australian Passport. In the section for former nationality he has Australian. We go back and yes it must be typed all over again including more explanations regarding the difference between G and J…smiling inside I promise! He is far too nice to be angry at.

Finally the applications are lodged. It feels like they should be rolled into a bottle and thrown into the sea. Please find someone good.

We are weary and mentally drained. We are also starving and decide to go in search of authentic Italian cuisine…the Pizza Hut. Don’t judge us.

Jinnah Supermarket Islamabad

Jinnah Supermarket

After three taxi rides each one a few kilometres in distance and 200 PKR, we finally find the Holy Grail. The sign, the font, the familiarity, it’s all too much. Air conditioned bliss! We take a moment to lust over the choices and the glossy photos of food to come. Over by the salad bar locals are spooning food into their bowls and half way up their arms. We can only assume that return visits are not permitted.

In an attempt to sample some traditional food I order the Afghan Spicy Chicken Tikka Pizza. I’m feeling adventurous. Emma takes a tomato and chicken penne both of which are delicious. Not since leaving Cairo have we had the taste of home. It feels good to indulge. If you find yourself in Islamabad go to the Jinnah Supermarket.

colourful bus Pakistan

This was not our bus but I kind of wish it had been

We make plans for the return journey. Feeling rested we decide to save some money and take the bus back to Gilgit. It’s like the point of no return. The pain has not started yet, but you know what lies ahead.

All busses to the North depart from Rawalpindi a city located 20km to the south…a great start! Nasir has booked us a couple of seats near the front, an absolute must if you want to retain your lunch and dinner. The bus station is thriving with relics from the past, painted in psychedelic patterns. Some of the creations would have no doubt pleased the Beatles on their magical mystery tour. Our bus, Silk Route Ltd is by comparison sedate but comes with the dubious promise of Air Conditioning. It costs us 2000 PKR each almost $20.00 USD. We fight our way out of Rawalpindi through choked streets and choked air. The sun is a blood red disc above the dirty buildings. I feel a sense of satisfaction that at this moment there is no more I can do. The passports have been lodged we are back on a bus and travelling. After all… is this not an adventure.

Rawalpindi Bus Station

Rawalpindi Bus Station

My optimism and buoyancy start to wane after a few hours into the journey. The metal bar in the back of my seat has announced itself and my spine is not pleased. I shift so a new vertebrae can be acquainted. Outside cars and trucks flash past with musical horns and high beam lights. It reminds me of the night crossing from Kampala to Nairobi. Everything is the same, but the faces and clothes have changed. We reach Besham at 2am. It has taken us nine hours. A couple of guys sitting next to us translate that we will sit here for 3-4 hours until morning. The convoy is stopped. I am so tired I just curl up in a ball and wait as we make no progress, it’s heart breaking.

Rest stop in Abbottabad

Dinner stop in Abbottabad

I can hear a rooster somewhere. A shutter is opening and the sky is no longer black. My neck hurts and my mouth is dry. Then, like a pack of wild dogs the busses start howling musical tunes. I am convinced that Pakistan must have the world’s loudest horns and there have been some serious contenders. Silk Route Limited responds and roars into life. We are reversing back onto the KKH. The relief is overwhelming. One step at a time, I remind myself of where I am and what I am doing.

Karakoram Highway Northern Pakistan

Travelling along the Karakoram Highway ay high speed

Our driver is revitalised and demonstrates his skills on tight bends and sheer drops. Despite the need to travel in convoy he overtakes slower busses at any given opportunity. His definition of opportunity is questionable. I abandon western ideals of physics and necessity and embrace Inshallah or God willing.

Bus Ride Islamabad to Gilgit

Our fellow travelling partners Islamabad to Gilgit

He comes up the inside of his next victim. Ahead I can see the road narrows and a rock is jutting out. This will be interesting, good luck with that I say to myself. It’s like I am watching a movie, perhaps from latent fear my mind has detached me from my current situation. He threads the bus and rock with precision, never once breaking, but I wonder if its good luck or good management at work. Perhaps both and we certainly need it.

Karakoram Bus Convoy

The Convoy stops again

By the time we reach Gilgit its 5.30pm and we been travelling for just over 24 hours. We should be exhausted but the adrenaline from reaching the end is flowing strong. It’s been a crazy three days, but the pain is over, the job is done.

For now all we can do is wait and pray that someone in the Indian consulate finds a little bottle with two visa applications inside…

Rain along the KKH

Finally reaching Gilgit

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