The upcoming book Forever Off Track chronicles Karin-Marijke and Coen’s remarkable 3.5-year overland journey from Europe to Southeast Asia in a rugged Land Cruiser. Join them as they step out of their comfort zones, deal with fears, explore the beauty of the world, and embrace a life of full-time nomadism.
This story is a sample of their journey through Pakistan.
After three hundred miles by bus on the Friendship Highway from Kashgar to the border, we were excited to be driving our Land Cruiser again. But something had changed. South of Sost, the Karakoram Highway was strewn with pebbles and stones. The Land Cruiser has high ground clearance and most of the rocks passed underneath us, but as we approached the town of Gilgit, Coen was forced to slalom around the boulders.
Every village was swarming with people. Kids in school uniforms were blocking the road in order to be near a megaphone, from which a fanatic voice was screaming. What was going on? What was happening in the tranquil Hunza Valley where we had gone hiking so peacefully only weeks earlier? Although the atmosphere wasn’t hostile and most certainly not unkind towards us personally, something was clearly going on.
At our home base of Madina Guesthouse we received Pakistan’s typical offer of welcome, a cup of milk-tea, and the staff updated us on the latest news. The students were on strike, an annually recurring affair in June, when the new textbooks were printed. The Shiite Muslims, the majority in the Hunza, protested against the teachings in schools that were in accordance with the Sunni beliefs (the majority of Pakistanis is Sunni). This year the situation was aggravated by upcoming elections and the politicians were using the students to achieve their own personal goals.
The situation quickly worsened. A polo match was canceled after people started throwing stones in the streets. Stores rolled down their shutters and stayed closed. Black smoke from burning tires filled the air. The streets were teeming with police and military tanks were stationed at strategic points.
A bombing in Karachi killed a lot of citizens, among whom two inhabitants from Gilgit, where we were staying. When the bodies were brought home, a curfew was imposed to avoid an insurgency. The army blocked all roads and nobody was allowed to enter or leave town. With seventeen other travelers we were confined in Madina Guesthouse.
There were worse places to be cooped up. The flowery garden offered enough space to read a book or to play a board game and the staff went out of their way to prepare meals from their meager supplies. We heard shooting in the distance and sometimes our eyes burned from tear gas in the air; however, there were no extreme clashes. The situation seemed under control.
However, three days later the staff told us to pack our bags and be ready in half an hour to leave for Islamabad. Even though the capital was in the wrong direction for most of us, boredom had set in and travelers were itching to get out.
We wanted to take the Land Cruiser with us and negotiated with the leader of the evacuation team.
“Your truck will be safe here.”
“Then it will be safe enough for us as well,” Coen replied.
“No, it won’t. I will allow a police officer to drive your car, but you go on the bus,” he said.
Coen’s eyes gave him his reply. Nobody else was driving our home on wheels. Strangely enough, considering the circumstances, the official seemed to understand this. As a compromise I would take the bus and Coen would be escorted by a soldier. By the time we were ready to go, the official allowed me to ride in the Land Cruiser after all. I climbed in the rear and a soldier rode shotgun with a menacing-looking firearm in his lap. Following the bus packed with foreigners, we zigzagged through eerie, deserted streets with soldiers stationed in makeshift sand emplacements at the street corners.
At the police station a soldier told us to wait inside for a Mr. Important. Did we need somebody else’s permission? In an aircon room, maps were spread out on a desk. The Shiite and Sunni neighborhoods were marked, and the locations of secret meetings and sensitive quarters were circled.
The message was clear. They were going to sweep the area and didn’t want any prying eyes around, nor would they take the risk of foreigners getting wounded or killed. After 9/11 Pakistan had lost a substantial portion of its tourist industry and they didn’t need any more problems than they already had.
How does this all end…?
You can read it in our our book: Forever Off Track, about our 3,5-year-long overland journey to Southeast Asia.
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