May 26th-June 1st: Bureaucratic Nonsense in Rawalpindi, North Pakistan
May 26th: Back in 'Pindi, North Pakistan
The red flag of China flies high over the leafy embassy-world of Islamabad. A throng of Pakistanis and Afghanis clutch reams of paperwork - each nervous hopeful approaches the glass cubicle. 'No, this document is fake!' retorts the tannoy to a large bearded man. We're luckier. A cheery 'Have a good day!' accompanies the return of our passports, as a large lady in full chador elbows her way into the queue. Next stop, Kashgar...
45 degrees. Hot as Hades. No volume of mango milkshakes can temper the stifling 'Pindi air. Sampling classic Pakistani business acumen, we enter a camera shop, strangely devoid of cameras; with a lazy yarn, the information we seek is presented: four days to develop slide film. Unconvinced, we track down the laboratory used to carry out this laborious process, just a few blocks away. Our 10 rolls of slides are ready in an hour and a half... Only in Asia can a half a week be extrapolated from a five minute walk.
Awaiting the arrival of a parcel from the UK - a new rear wheel, a Psion 5 mx, and guide books for Central Asia. I track down the local company concerned, whose noncommittal concern to a delivery date worries me.
Lingering in this hot, empty city is like impatiently watching sand flow through an hourglass. We meet up with Australian cyclist Peter, our riding companion in North Pakistan. In the hot breezy afternoon we taste a refreshingly cool noodle-nut-shake, a local speciality. The streets are peaceful as shopkeepers renew their strike against a sales tax, money siphoned to a Swiss bank account, they claim.
Thanks to a faulty Sigma camera lens, I solemnly discover most of my eagerly awaited slides are underexposed. The strikes limit shopping potential, but we chance upon Ali's Happy Smile, who lets us in through a gap in the shutter - the unions are scouring the streets to ensure everyone is closed to business. Over cups of tea and phone calls, I negotiate a second hand replacement lens. Minions are secretly sent off across town on lens gathering missions. Owner Tariq, an ex merchant-navy sailor, swears by his manual Minolta. 'Once, in Greece, men pulled knives on my friend and I. His plastic camera broke when he swung it at them. My Minolta was stronger. They ran, the camera remained as new..!'
In the higher echelons of our new abode, Al Azam Hotel, we're not alone. I watch the cockroaches patrol the bathroom floor in their high speed, mechanical chases around the toilet. By night, it comes alive with their scurrying, a realism David Cronemberg would have appreciated. The joys of a three dollar room... My mother has kindly offered £20 to treat myself to a couple of night of Air Con. Would there be such sideshows?!
The wait for the wheel goes on. Once more I ring the local courier company. The usual series of phone passing, the usual reply: please phone back tomorrow. But what about the tracking number, I plead. Surely you can at least tell me where it is? A pause over the phone, some confused mumblings to a colleague. Please phone back tomorrow...
As I am discovering, sending electronic items to Pakistan is a logistical nightmare of strict import policies dreamt up by the government. The parcel lies within the confines of Karachi customs, while the necessary paperwork for its clearance are rustled up. But, as Paris from Security Despatch says, 'Customs are a world unto themselves...'
Rosal celebrates her 25th birthday in a 45 degree centigrade cockroach infested room, in a strike plagued city and as a 'second' citizen in a Muslim republic. Hmm.
Still hot. The waiting drives us stir crazy. Customs continue to deny access to the parcel, despite charity ride explanations and pleas. The friendly local courier and I concoct a list of values. Will this be ok? I ask hopefully. 'Enshallah,' comes the standard response. Allah has a lot on his hands!
Moping round town and cooling off in the hotel room is a little discouraging. Every journey has these moments. Moments when life seems to cast a resolute shadow over our attempts to get motivated, and we fall into a lull of inaction. But it can only last so long, and I'll be more focused once the light at the end of the tunnel is clear again. It will only be a matter of days.
A storm brews and swirls across town. For the first time on this long and convoluted road, I cannot help but be concerned by what effect each day that trickles by, will have on the weeks ahead. But the freshness in the air clears my mind and I decide to conjure up a new plan of attack for Central Asia.
The facts: we are locked into this area for at least another week. The visa web: The Kazakhstan Embassy in Islamabad seems loathe to issue Kyrgyzstan visas. We know China's underhand tactics at supplying the Kyrgyzstan visa in Kashgar - the $30 US fee comes 'included' with jeep transfer over the pass and hotel accommodation for a cool $250 US. The decision: return once more to the 'other side' on a furtive visa spree into India, and contact a more accommodating Kyrgyzstan Embassy there - other travellers recount tales of friendly staff who deliver visas. This will mean one last confrontation with my nemesis - Delhi - easing the bureaucratic hurdles later, we hope.
This, to those a little lost by the sudden twists and turns of recent weeks, will then leave us free to ride to Kashgar, China, cross the Turugart Pass into Kyrgyzstan and cycle around Ysyk-Kol Lake. In Bishkek, we'll pick up a visa for Uzbekistan and continue homewards...in theory.
But life is never as simple as all that. First things first. I'll need a re-entry stamp on my Pakistani visa, and a transit visa for India. This will keep us busy for a couple of days. I think we deserve a break. Let's see if the embassy-world agrees...
After whiling away a morning at the Indian Embassy, shunted from one queue to another, we find a transit visa is only available upon proof of a flight in and out of Delhi... That puts payed to that plan. The Kazakhstan Embassy is currently closed, while its ambassador visits Abu Dabi. No Kyrgyzstan visa there...The parcel has still not arrived - 'Tomorrow, Enshallah'... What a day. But, I guess you never know till you've tried!
Trapesing back to Rawalpindi, we're back to square one: cycle to Kashgar and re-evaluate the visa situation for Central Asia from there. We'll make it home somehow!