Privy To Pakistan – My Private Border Skirmish

 

The Indo/Pakistan border is described as one of the most hostile demarcation lines in the world. Not a tourist destination, not a holiday spot and most definitely not a haven of happy feelings and goodwill. What would make me want to visit such an unstable environment? What possible explanation could there be to warrant leaning your bike on to the National Highway 123 exit and pushing north? Why even begin that journey? What would entice me to enter the Thar desert, an unwelcoming, barren and clearly restricted military area in north west Rajasthan? The outcome of this little expedition at best would end with us being turned around at a check point and sent back to the safety of tourist packed Jaisalmer or at worst, would end with me in jail being interrogated.

On the surface it seemed like a waste of fuel to even attempt the 122 km trek, considering the inside pocket of my leather jacket was conspicuously devoid of the compulsory permits or travel documents required to even enter this heavily patrolled wasteland. Some may say to even consider the attempt was reckless and stupid. The truth of it all is somewhat anti climatic.

I have crossed the border into North Korea in the DMZ, I have nosed the front wheel of my bike up against the China border barricade in Chitkul and I have tip toed down the entire length of NH1 through the Kashmir Valley; all without a scratch; although in Srinagar, my hair was tucked up under my helmet and I was wearing very dark sunglasses behind my visor. This adventure was nothing more than the deep seated adrenaline junkie in my guts taunting me into action. Simply put, I wanted to see how far I could get…

The morning of December 18, 2017 was atypically chilly. In Jaisalmer, the desert can be somewhat aloof to the comfort of its inhabitants at most times of the year. In the winter, it’s just rude. With highs reaching 30 degrees Celsius through the day; then plummeting to 8 or 9 at night, the badlands seem to take pleasure in playing havoc with bikers. I was comfortable enough. Leather jacket, leather vest and a black, long sleeve t-shirt proudly displaying a skull kept the wind off my chest. Padded riding jeans with leather chaps kept my legs just this side of numb, but I knew I would be sweating like a pig later in the day.

Through the morning haze and light fog of my visor I could see Sandeep riding a few metres in front of me and I was catching the glint of Vineet’s headlamp in my right hand mirror from time to time. We were navigating through the outskirts of the city, heading for Tanot. The low lying stone dwellings of Jaisalmer soon fell away and were replaced by the scrub and desolate sands of the Royal desert. Sandeep or Sandy, who we call Stock Tire for reasons I would just as soon not get into, was quite animated; his left hand extending out into space as his head bobbed from side to side. He was speaking to Vineet, Vinny Tails as we call him, on our helmet communicators. Once again I will forgo the nickname explanation to protect the innocent. My communicator had seen fit to give up the ghost just outside of Bikaner the day before, leaving me in quarantine for the balance of this ride. That was okay. They tend to babble in Hindi anyway, and with my Hindi being somewhat lacking, I rarely join the conversation.

Sandy is a young, good looking enthusiastic type who literally bleeds motorcycle oil, and Vinny T while slightly more seasoned, is also a biker to his core. Me you know, the crusty old Outlaw, Wandering Hippy, call me what you will. They affectionately call me Gora Bhai (White Brother) and keep me around for laughs and war stories. There is a bond among us, deep and unwavering, as there is with all the brothers in my MC. A bond, unknown to us at that moment, we would rely on heavily on today.

Sandy was gobbling up the pavement stretched out in front of us at a rate of approximately 115 kph. The chilled morning air was whistling around the cheek guards of my helmet, the sun was creeping up over my right shoulder and the black ribbon of tarmac cutting though the golden sand was beckoning us forward. All was as it should be as we hurled recklessly forward towards the border.

Being members of the New Delhi Chapter of our MC, we have grown accustomed to riding through the twists and turns of the Himalayas. With them being little more than a day’s ride away, it takes minimal effort to reach them. Therefore the general feeling about the plains and deserts of Rajasthan is that they are a mundane, bromidic torture of sorts. Untrue! We very quickly realized riding the village roads of this state was every bit as thrilling and challenging as riding the mountain paths of Himachal Pradesh.

Quite often in the mountains of HP, you encounter Nalas (water crossings) that swallow up the road in front of you without warning; on some occasions up to a couple of metres deep, with an accompanying waterfall. We soon discovered that Rajasthan has its own brand of Nalas –  windswept sand burring the road and making it every bit as treacherous as the obstacles in the Himalayas.

Hazards aside, the scenery itself was exquisite. I have never ridden The Mother Road of Route 66 (stay tuned, plans are underway), but I imagine New Mexico and Nevada must swell the same feelings of wonderment within you.
Desert riding has climbed very high on my list of preferred excursions after this tour. Winding through golden sand dunes spotted with twisted cacti is an experience like no other. Wild camels roam the landscape as the harsh wind splay crystalline granules of taupe and tan soot through the water-like mirages of the dessert floor. The dark silhouettes of spotted eagles and Indian Bustards soar across the pale azure of the endless sky and Chinkaras lazing at the side of the road suddenly scamper away with the Spiny Tailed lizards in tow at the approaching rumble of our bikes. How can one look out across this pageant, this theater, and not be inspired?

That is how I was feeling as we pulled over to the side of the road just outside the small village of Ranao, inspired. When in reality, I should have been terrified. To be clear on the matter, I am an Indian citizen; I have my OCI and Aadhaar card, both indisputable documents proving my citizenship. However , I am not above playing the role of stupid tourist when the mood strikes me and just at that moment, it did. I stomped my steed Mina into first gear and shot down the steep rocky bank on the side of the road onto the desert floor.

Always on a quest for the perfect picture of me and my bike, I navigated through the sand and craggy rocks towards the ominous dune roughly 500 metres off the left hand side of the road. I could see my two companions shaking their heads at me in disbelief and exasperation through my mirror. Their dismay was short lived. I reached a point where the sand was too deep to continue, and put down my mid-stand. That was an exercise in futility, the bike would have stood on its own I’m sure, she was almost rim deep.

Nonetheless, after some frantic hand waving to beckon them, they relented and followed me out into the abyss. Removing their helmets, I was immediately showered with good natured jibing and abuse, asking what the hell I was doing, and what in fact was wrong with me. It was not the first time I had executed this type of maneuver. The fact is, it was far from the first time for either of them as well. I grinned my stupid tourist grin at them; we laughed and set about clicking some pictures. That’s when things started to turn a little sour.

I had finished taking pictures and was walking back to the bike, my helmet and buff were off and my flaxen mane, in all its glory, was flowing in the desert breeze. That is what the policemen in the jeep speeding down the highway saw. It wasn’t a screeching halt exactly, but the jeep went from 100+ to zero in a very short span, it dipped through the culvert and rapidly regained its speed heading directly towards us. ‘Gentlemen’ I grumbled ‘I do believe we are in deep shit.’

My theory that the police were not here for a nice afternoon picnic was confirmed as the vehicle skidded to a halt and five of them poured out in an aggressive and ill tempered manner. They beelined directly towards us. The jeep had not ventured into the deeper sand as we had, so there was roughly 15 metres between us but they were coming quick. I donned my innocent firangi face and started walking towards them. I heard Vineet whisper my name in caution just before I called out ‘Namaste’ in the most non threatening voice I could muster. It was wavering slightly and tinged with fear I admit, but I maintained a huge smile and extended my hand.

Men on a mission, they blew right past me and straight to Vineet. The conversation that followed sounded agitated and threatening, more so that it was being conducted in Hindi. Hindi always sounds like you are arguing. The little of it I understood was clear, and Sandy and Vineet filled in the blanks later. This was not a gentle reprimand; complete with harsh and foul language we were confronted.

‘What are you doing here?’
‘Who is he?’
‘This is a restricted area!’
‘Who gave you permission to photograph?’
‘He is a foreigner!!’

Vineet pleaded in vain I was a citizen and had documentation to prove it. I meekly held out my OCI for inspection. The cop didn’t want to see it, he had zero interest. Just my luck to have drawn the vehicle that had a Superintendent in it.

The rules, regulations and laws of India are very clear on paper, but most cases, such as standing in a restricted area in the middle of a desert without a permit, are largely open to interpretation by the attending officer. To the letter of the law, as an Indian citizen I was allowed to be here, with a permit, which we didn’t have, and reasonably on the road, which we were not. Yes, we did deserve a good scolding, but this was escalating beyond a chewing out very quickly.

Even as an overseas citizen, I still do not possess an Indian passport and this creates a gray area in matters of national security. It was apparent to this particular officer; it was not gray at all, it was black. We were told plainly, turn around now, go back to Jaisalmer now or I would be arrested, interrogated and otherwise have a very unpleasant evening. With one final salvo of abusive language fired our way, they returned to the jeep and sped off back to the highway.

My heart was thumping and the late afternoon sweat I was expecting from the weather arrived early and drenched me with fear. We had no option; dejectedly we mounted our bikes and slowly sulked back to the road and trundled towards the safety of Jaisalmer.

Sandy was pissed. I could tell by the way he was riding; slow, drifting back and forth into the oncoming lane with only one hand on the handlebars. There was no traffic of course, we were still deep in the heart of isolation, and about a kilometre from the scene of the crime, we happened across an SUV parked on the side of the road.

There was a family pulled over there and taking pictures, much the same as we had been. Sandy stopped and got off his bike. He chatted to them while Vinny and I watched. The content of the conversation was obvious. Sandy was confirming that we had every right to travel this road, to travel up to Tanot.

‘I think they are just trying to scare us’ he said as he walked back across the road. Abuse of power is not uncommon at all in India, especially against ex-pats.                        ‘Showing off’ Vineet agreed, ‘What do you think?’ he asked me.

Even as I write this, I have no idea where the sudden flash of bravado came from, but the moment is very clear in my head. The sheared copper taste of fear flooded my mouth, my pulse quickened instantly and my heart was pounding in my chest like Lucifer’s hammer. I had that that dull ringing mute in my ears that plugs them in instances of sheer panic.

Yet through it all I heard my voice say ‘Fuck em, they are only cops.’ I looked at Sandy; he gave me the typical sideways nod of Indian approval. ‘Fuck em.’ Vineet repeated slowly. With that, we spun the bikes around with defiant determination and headed back towards the border.

***

It was not my imagination. The sky had turned ashen, like a muted silver, and the wind had a foreboding sharpness to it. We had slowed our pace considerably, being only 12 kilometres or so from Tanot, we had no desire to overtake the policemen that has so severely warned us not to continue. We were calm and collected on the outside, riding in a perfect staggered formation, dripping with cum screw you coolness like three horsemen of the apocalypse.

But inside I was a mess. Truth be told here, I was oscillating between tough outlaw biker and frightened soldier at an alarming rate. But there was a swelling torrent of self-glorification burning inside me too. Defiance, push back, rebellion, call it what you will, none of us adhere well to rules, none of us take kindly to being told what to do. So we tend to buck authority, that’s why we are bikers.

Still, biker or no, the common sense of it all was gnawing at my guts with steel jaws. And as was unavoidable, we crested a dune, and there they were. At a check point in the valley of the dune sat the jeep with all five officers standing around it. Sandy told me later his first instinct was to twist the wick and pass them as quickly as possible. I think I may have even seen his bike jump forward slightly, but he held his speed. I myself decelerated like a bug into a windshield, Vinny behind me followed suit. It was fruitless, no matter the speed, they had seen us.

In my mind’s eye I saw a mushroom cloud explode over their jeep as our disobedience dawned on them. The body gestures said it all as they violently signaled for us to pull over. We came to a halt in single file to their rear, the screaming began before we had even shut off the bikes. Again it was all translated for me later, but basically we were being asked if we were deaf? Stupid? Did we want to go to jail?

Someone who had cause to know such things once told me, in a desperate confrontation, charge a gun, run from a knife. Whatever was said in that first flurry of abuse lit Vineet’s fuse and he did just that! How in the hell he got off his bike so quickly is still a mystery to me, but he shot past me and was in the Superintendent’s face in a flash. It was very apparent to me we were all off to jail for a very long time.

Vineet is a well spoken, rational and highly intelligent man. But in that moment, he was our Captain Ahab leading us squarely into the eye of the storm. I will never fully know the details of the melee, but at the height of it, a car passed with out of state plates on and Vineet screamed ‘We are not criminals (although being from Delhi, one could argue that statement), we are tourists! Look, there are tourists right there!’ It was a solid point. The crux of the matter was simply my white skin. But Vinny had tilted the scales in our favor. Arresting us would create a seemingly insurmountable pile of paperwork, and I just don’t think they could be bothered.

The conversation calmed, and Vineet very humbly requested they allow us to proceed and let the Border Security Force (BSF) make the call at the entry to Tanot. In typical Indian fashion, the police Superintendent did not give us permission, but instead said ‘ Do as you wish’ and told us to wait a minimum of 15 minutes before continuing as not to cause them discomfort later when the BSF stopped us and would undoubtedly want to know how the local police had let us slip through. With one final snide remark insisting they would see us again in an hour when BSF called for them to come and take us into custody for interrogation, they got in the jeep and left.

We looked at each other in silence. Now what? All the strong anti-establishment feelings drained from my body like a flushed toilet and were quickly replaced with doubt. This was real. Yanking the chain of the local police was one thing, but we were going to mess with the army. The Border Security Force, one of the most hard line, dedicated and professional military divisions in all of Asia. Were we crazy? The police had assured us I would be picked up, detained and interrogated. The thought of spending the night trying to explain to porcelain faced security personnel why exactly I wanted to view one of the world’s most sensitive border crossings suddenly seemed insane. Vineet and Sandy conferred quickly in Hindi, nodded at each other, then told me exactly what I wanted to hear, ‘Come on, it will be alright.’ What would be alright? An evening in a cold cell eating daal and rice? I hate daal! They knew that! ‘We have a plan.’ Sandy reassured me, and with that we started out to cover the last 2 km to Tanot.

The approach to Tanot was no different than the thousands of other small Indian villages I had rolled through over the years. People wandering around the small streets lined with Paan Walas and shops. With stray dogs looking up curiously at the low rumbling thunder of our bikes, we slowed as we came to the roundabout in the centre of town. To the right, the road to the border, to the left the road to Longewala, and in front of us the Tanot Mata Temple complete with a BSF check post, barracks, command centre and army personnel everywhere. Sandy peeled off to the left and motioned for me to follow, Vineet headed straight for the check point. We pulled up behind a large street sign and Sandy pulled off his helmet. ‘Leave yours on for now.’ He cautioned. Man, it was like Drass in Kashmir all over again, sitting nervously on my bike with helmet on and head down trying not to be noticed.

‘Vineet is going to talk to them first, see what the situation is.’ Sandy explained. The tension grew as we huddled behind the street sign; I peeked out occasionally and saw Vinny speaking with an army officer. I didn’t hear the story until later that evening; but the chain events according to Vinny were very lucky, and happened all by chance.

Vineet had approached the border guard sitting in the checkpoint and began to explain the situation, laying out the facts as they were. We were told in Jaisalmer we could obtain a permit here, one of us was a new Indian citizen with full documentation; we had traveled all the way from Delhi…the plea was met with a resounding No. Just as he was going to yield to what seemed an inevitable defeat, a superior officer interrupted the conversation to speak with the sentry. They moved away from the check point to talk.

During their conversation, Vinny T slid down the fence line a little and positioned himself in the direct line of sight of the superior officer, making it somewhat obvious he wished to have a word with him. At the conclusion of their conversation, the sentry returned to his post and the officer beckoned Vineet to come forward. ‘Yes?’ he queried.

Vineet retold the entire tale, omitting nothing. The long tedious ride, being lied to in Jaisalmer regarding permits,the harassing police, all my full colour glossy documentation, the burning desire of three very well behaved and basically good boys to see our glorious Border Security Force protecting our freedom and on and on…I believe more out of curiosity than anything else, the officer instructed Vineet to call me over. ‘Let me have a look at him.’ he said skeptically. Vinny waved at us to come, and we crossed the parking lot.

I stood in front of him, almost at attention. I was at least 15 years his senior, but he carried an air of authority that left absolutely no doubt who was in charge here. He eyeballed me from dirty riding boots to skull head earring and his face drew into a ‘You want me to let this long haired biker hippy freak into my border area?’ look. He held out his hand and I passed him my Aadhaar card. “How is it you’ve become an Indian?’ he asked while examining my ID. “I married a national sir.’ I explained. ‘A Director in Indian Railways.’ That statement usually got a smile and nod of approval. Not today. He held out his hand again. Slowly I handed him my OCI and stiffening slightly I exclaimed, perhaps a bit too enthusiastically, ‘I worked very hard to get that, I am proud to be an Indian, Sir!’ He fixed me with a bemused ‘Are you really trying to screw with a senior BSF officer’ smile and shook his head. He seemed to make up his mind in that instant.

Alright, off you go, straight to the border and straight back, with one condition.’ ‘Anything sir’ we said in unison. ‘No pictures.’ With a boat load of assurances we would take no photos, we grinned at each other like school boys and trundled over to the registration area. I had to conduct another small interview there, but eventually we were turned loose with BSF’s blessings. Sandy ducked quickly into the Mata Temple to view the unexploded shells dropped here in 1965, then we were back on the bikes and heading to the fence line!

After registering the bikes again at the heavily fortified check point one, they finally raised the barricade and let us pass. The road was cracked asphalt, narrow and covered with sand and rocks. We crept along and watched as all evidence of civilization melted away. Desolate is an urban center compared to what this was. Nothing! Kilometre after kilometre of nothing! Just desert, scrub brush and the small road we traveled on. We stopped briefly again at check point two, again registering the vehicles and pushed west.

The sky had darkened and twisted black clouds dotted the gunmetal gray panorama. I strained my eyes searching for a fence line on the seemingly endless and almost unseeable horizon. The terrain became a little more rugged as we continued deeper into the wasteland, and it wasn’t long before we noticed the machine gun nests embedded in the hillsides. No wildlife, no traffic, no aircraft, no movement, no noise…nothing.

A light drizzle began to fall and a cold wind pushed the droplets across my visor. In was filled with a menacing dread. After all this effort, after all the hardship to get here, I felt I didn’t belong. This was serious, an area filled with mistrust and conflict, an expanse of hair triggers and bad blood. What the hell was I doing here? I’m not even Indian really! Indian by marriage. Okay granted I live here, work here, pay taxes…but should I really be wandering around in one of the country’s most politically sensitive demarcation lines?

…Then I saw it.

First the watchtower sprung up from the earth like a missile. How had I not spotted it before? Then the floodlights. They stretched as far as the eye could see; I have since learned they can actually be seen from space. Then the fence came into focus. I flipped up my visor. We stopped in the very small parking area in front of the tower and I sat awestruck. A fence. A bloody massive fence just as you would picture it. An intimidating steel woven mesh adorned with gnashing metal teeth, drawn taut as a bowstring. There was no end to it. In both directions it simply went on and on and on. We stood tentatively at the gate until the border sentry called us forward. Then there we were, five metres off the fence line staring into Pakistan. The sentry was explaining the gate opening procedures and the general day to day operations of the post. I wasn’t paying attention; I was transfixed with the overwhelming power of the invisible demarcation line that existed just in front of me. I remember a similar feeling as I was facing the crumbling ruins of the Berlin Wall. Invisible lines. They create tension, foster mistrust, fuel hatred, but most deeply scaring, they separate. Just separate.

As we got back on our bikes, we noticed the senior officer standing in a group with other people dressed in civilian clothes. He was being spoken to quite sternly by an elderly gentleman who pointed directly at me. The translation later revealed he was being questioned as to how I managed to be here. He informed the obviously senior officer that he had checked my documents, interviewed me and allowed me through.

I can’t be sure, but I am fairly certain at that point he smiled at me as they all got in the SUV and left. Sandy, Vineet and I took one long last stare at the border. We wheeled the bikes back onto the worn military road leading to Tanot and started our trek to Longewala. God as my witness, at that very moment, the sun came out. I laughed and whispered to myself ‘I am the only white man in history (who was not in a British uniform) to have been here, to have seen this!’…Of course it’s not true, but right then, it sure as hell felt as if it was.

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A Canadian born Brit with a bad case of wanderlust

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