The One-way Trip

After flying from Tehran to Zahedan, early in the morning of 12/12/82, I walked out the Zahedan airport, on foot (not sure why that was a good idea, but it wasn’t mine) and took a right at the first major street. After half a mile, a pickup truck passed me, turned around, passed by again, did another u-turn, and picked me up. I could barely understand his dialect, and I was hopeful that he was was part of the plan. The drive was circuitous and repetitive, I could tell I wasn’t supposed to figure out where we were headed and we also did not want to be followed. In one neighborhood, the car made a sharp turn, right into an open garage door, which quickly closed behind us.There, I eventually met the rest of group I was to travel with. Besides the guide leader and the guides, there was another boy a year older, who was trying this for a second time, a young couple and their six month-old, leaving because the husband was wanted for his ties to the Islamo-Marxists, and an older man and woman who didn’t say much.
A day later, we embarked along the roads outlined on this map, except for the part between point A and B; that we did by going on a more scenic, and less road-y route not depicted on this map. We had left Zahedan on the road, but immediately outside of the city limits, we drove off the road and stopped behind a small ridge, where we met some more of our guides and left the comfortable suburban car and mounted motorcycles. Each of us “travelers” were assigned a guide/driver and a motorcycle. We rode those motorcycles in a more easterly direction into the rocky desert, up a mountain ridge, back down to a vast sandy desert, over a huge sand dune built up around and cradling a railroad track, and back into the mountains. When not in the desert, the route we took was only wide enough to be a mule path.
The Trip

On the first day, after lunch, we rode out to the vast desert and then dismounted the motorcycles and lay low to the ground. In the far distance we could see a series of tall watchtowers, spaced miles apart. One of the guides rode his motorcycle out to see who was manning one watchtower and to grease some palms. We waited a few hours until his return, and he assured us that all was taken care of. We rode across the desert quickly, to the sand dune on one side of the train tracks. We accelerated, climbed the dune and flew over the tracks, landing beautifully and softly on the other side, while others either got stuck in the sand or fell as they landed on the other side. After regrouping, we then headed up into the mountains, until it was too dark to ride. Needless to say, we had to keep our lights off, and being December, we had to call it a day early and find a place to wait and sleep.

We spent the first night in a cave, built out with river rock, guests to a darvish – a spiritual man living a hermetic life – who had welcomed us and shared his feast of bread, a bland form of feta or goat cheese, dates and black tea. The next day we had more of the same. Again, we rode around the mountains, and then would stop and wait while a guide or two went ahead to “pave the way” with any border patrols.

Despite having left early that day, it wasn’t until after dark that we crested the bigger ridge. As we entered a flat open area, strong lights suddenly illuminated us. My heart skipped a beat or ten. We had been caught, I thought.

We had crossed into Pakistan! These were the headlights of the small pickup trucks which would take us the rest of the way. The short, bare, cold, hard, heaving and quaking bed of these trucks initially looked so much more beckoning than the back half of the motorcycle saddle had felt. Hours later, anything seemed more comfortable than being in the pickups – even the cold hard gravel road shoulder that I wished I could stretch out on on to sleep.

We were now en-route to C from point B.

We stopped for our first real meal a few hours later, at a large caravansara (caravanserai) where hundreds of Afghan refugees escaping the Soviets from the north had sought shelter (most were clothed the way you picture Bin Ladin). The soupy, plain, rice bowl we ate with our bare hands, to me, tasted like a great risotto or a savory rice pudding (since we left Zahedan two days earlier, we hadn’t had a real meal and had snacked on bread, stale feta, raisins, dates and tea).

Soon we clambered back into the back of the pickups. By now, it was becoming clear that while fall clothes had been adequate for the other side of the ridges we passed, here, the temperature was closer to freezing, and the truck bed did not make for an enjoyable ride. The road was another issue. Not wide enough to allow cars to travel in both directions at once, we were constantly pulling off the road, into the loose gravel, to let buses get by. Which sometimes meant having to get out and push the pickup back on to the road.

Twelve hours, many “security” checkpoints and bribes later (you could call it a toll road), we arrived in Quetta. Dinner: Chicken(?) curry and rice! Another memorable meal.

We flew from Quetta to Karachi, where my aunt and my cousins, who themselves had come the same way and were awaiting my uncle’s departure from Iran, were immensely helpful in cutting through the bureaucracy and the palm-greasing. Within a few days, I was dropped off at the airport, where I boarded a plane destined for Paris.

I think I held my breath while we flew over my old homeland’s airspace. I couldn’t imagine what would happen if the plane had to divert there.

I have not been back since. I used to think that the world would change, things would calm down, and I’d be able to make the same trip in reverse, with my family, reminiscing about the trip, and laughing about how different it things were. Alas, thirty years later and the area is more unrestful today.

I was very fortunate for my story to have a happy ending, with little sacrifice¹. There were many like me who were not fortunate. Some were detained at the Tehran airport, some in Zahedan, and they were usually imprisoned in Iran, and some politically tainted ones were never heard from again. There were also some who were lost or imprisoned in Pakistan, usually because they could not, or did not, bribe the right person or did so at the wrong moment.

For every story you hear like this one, there are probably hundreds or more that had a more painful account, some ending badly, and some that eventually turned out as well as mine did. And there are those who did not have the means or situation to make such a monumental journey.
Life isn’t easy. I’ve been fortunate.
¹My parents were the ones who made the big sacrifice, for which I will forever be grateful.

~ by mz on January 17, 2013.

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