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Hotelnet: Sun 23:30

Sunday, 17 October, 2010 23:30

Currently at lat/long: n24 51.401 e67 1.830

Hotel Al Harmain Tower, Karachi, PK

PK trucks are famously elaborately decorated and their equivalent of long haul buses are lit up like Christmas trees with, amongst other things, animated LED displays replacing brake lights -- annoying but unlike in-town buses at least they have something to show they are stopping. Everything on the road has a potentially eardrum-piercing horn playing some squelchy note sequence (it's rather hard to describe and even harder to bear hearing). The bus drivers use this "horn" to remind passengers that it's time to get on the bus and go when they have had a comfort or food break -- they also use it with gay abandon as they're driving along but that's not relevant to this point. Passengers like to take their time as the driver will signal his impatience by blasting away with increasing frequency until all passengers are accounted for.

Imagine my delight, then, when I realised that the PTDC was used as a comfort/food stop until at least 2am...and started again sometime before 6.

Actually, I felt sorry for the staff, who had taken me into their midst from when I arrived even though only a couple of them spoke any English but they all seemed keen to listen to any insights I had especially if I managed to get a joke across through a combination of common words and mime. I toddled off to bed after the 11 o'clock bus had gone and left them outside gassing and smoking hashish not realising they would be serving the buses late into the night.

The one who did get up when it was time for me to go looked rather knackered. The manager brought his son back in the morning. It's not uncommon for men like him who've seen a little of the world (he had shown me his photos of his two month trip to Delhi and Bombay in the 90s) to have a son who spoke very good (if limited in depth) English with a clear view of what he wanted to do (design very fast cars). They recognise the value of a good education.

Anyway, I set off with jerry cans of fuel (it wasn't clear how many towns there would be en route let alone fuel stops) and reached the southern end of town before grinding to a halt at the police checkpoint. "It's a very dangerous road" the sergeant said. Repeatedly. I tried the "Is the (northern) road dangerous?" trick question (as I'd obviously come down that road unescorted yesterday) but didn't get a comprehensible reply.

A man in a beige getup (I've forgotten the name for the baggy trousers and knee-length over-shirt combo everyone (except the police squaddies) wears) and said the road was dangerous and got on the phone. A little later he handed the phone to me: "Hello?" (salutations etc.). The phone voice said "I'm worried about you riding your bike alone on this dangerous road," "I've done alright so far," I replied. "Please give the phone back to my colleague." Oh, OK. A minute later I was told I could go.

I was beginning to wonder if by "dangerous" they were meaning "difficult" as they might be thinking that they would find some sections of the road more difficult on a motorbike -- think CG125 rather than European/Western motorbikes, though in my experience, they will take those little bikes into places I wouldn't go with the XT -- and were concerned I might hurt myself rather than dangerous as in I might get kidnapped or shot or whatever. Whatever they meant by dangerous I was let loose on it alone and blasted away.

The first two or three hours were quite fun relatively speaking as I could go at my own pace. Through the mountains I came across one of the VIP escorts that had normally gone past in the other direction, two or three heavily armed pickups in front and behind. This one was only a single pickup fore and aft but I took the opportunity to give the surprised squaddies a wave as I blasted past over a bridge.

I was eventually flagged down at a checkpoint and sat in the sun having my picture taken by the juniors and hangers on (one a policeman from Sudan -- not sure how that worked -- perhaps Sudanese originally) waiting for the rather young (and therefore presumably keen) sergeant to phone ahead. In the end he called over the junior with the gun and they jumped on a motorcycle and we set off along what appeared to be a meandering levee through a flood plain. Eventually, we crossed paths with a police pickup who took over to just south of a town where he said his jurisdiction ended and I could go. He might have said something about the next CP a couple of km down the road but as I roared through at 100kph the policeman had barely turned round let alone have time to get me to stop.

I had another hour or so to myself. I did see a man in a beige getup walk out from a building and wave his hand as I motored through a town. I glanced to where he had walked from and there may have been some blue pickups (the preferred but not consistent choice of colour for police vehicles) but couldn't absolutely attest that it was the police (the beige wasn't ringing any bells) and the danger from other vehicles/road users (people/cows/goats/etc.) and the risk of a fake policeman scenario meant I kept on going. No-one followed (or caught up at any rate).

I was searching for a shady spot to re-fuel from the jerries when I saw a man stop his motorbike and flash his light and wave. He was against the sun and was mostly silhouette so I waved back then thought that he may have been a policeman -- there was a similarly dressed man on the back. A little further up the road there was a petrol station (possibly, diesel pumps are very common, petrol pumps considerably less so) and I pulled in and started re-fuelling. Sure enough I heard a motorcycle purr past and then come to a halt and I looked up to see a rather tubby sergeant and his skinny junior (with gun).

The usual salutations ensued -- in PK, even more than in IR, there is always a round of handshakes even for the briefest of meetings. I quite like it even if I wonder what some of the grease monkeys have been handling.

These guys took me at a steady 60kph down towards Hub. When I was in front (they sometimes like me in front of them where they can easily see me (they rarely have mirrors on motorcycles) then quite often, where they've caught up they'll put me behind as they're fed up of trying to keep up) I noticed the sergeant (driving) spent most of his time wiping bugs or grit from his eyes. When they were in front, there was still some wiping but I noticed the junior spent his time huddled behind the sergeant trying to avoid getting bugs/dust in his eyes in the first case. Yet more of: is this security if he's not looking/can't see?

Anyway, there was a couple more handovers for short distances until a final Toyota Hilux pickup with skinny wheels sent me ahead and then actually kept up, sometimes by blasting away with it's police siren to clear the way for me. A proper escort. The town of Hub though marked the start of some rotten roads for the locals. The middle of town was a potholed mess -- the sort of potholes that have become 50m long, carriageway-wide suspension killers -- which together with the ubiquitous speedbumps means just sheer misery for going down the high street. Infrastructure. Build a decent road, let people get their goods to market, economy grows. It's not hard!

The escorts left me just the other side of Hub and said I was in Karachi and it was safe to go. Safe security wise, not so safe road wise. That section of road was one where the tarmac has melted leaving deep ruts. There was a half completed roundabout and I guess I took the wrong turn as I went down a terrible road, potholes, speedbumps, bad driving, dust, the road dug up, etc. and to my right was a nice smooth bit of tarmac with flyovers and everything except any other way to get on it. Bugger. So I crashed my way through potholes and speedbumps dodging buses, tuk-tuks, taxis, pedestrians, road works all the way into Karachi proper.

Which is a tip. In some places literally a tip which piles of rubbish for central reservations etc.. Elsewhere it was simply run down dreadfully. I clearly failed to see any hint of the decent parts of town as I tried to avoid the usual suspects and now cricket matches being played everywhere while trying to follow the map on the GPS. I haven't seen a single street name sign. How do you know where you are? After roaming around for a while I finally stopped to guess where my target street was on the GPS which fortunately had the street names programmed in and I headed off. Two people I chatted to in queues or at the roadside had worked in England for two years or more!

My PK guidebook is ten years old -- a deliberate choice as the sights wouldn't change and the LP was generally reckoned to be hopeless -- however, the side effect of that is that hotels have come and gone. The first two I targeted had closed, another looked as though it had burnt down, and so I came to a halt outside another which looked plausible enough and booked in for a couple of nights. Partly to get more money tomorrow and hopefully to get some chain lube. After the dust the other day -- and having run out of chain lube in IR -- I think I need to act.

A nice prawn masala in the hotel restaurant which has been very popular with the locals. The one table next to me even coming in for what looked like sandwiches.

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