The Debacle

A little story about a big problem. I didn’t take any photos during this period so I’ve just included a few snaps from China and Pakistan to brighten the mood.

After resting up for a few days and watching England beat India in the final test, we were excited to cross into India. Being only 20 miles from the border, this was to be the last country riding with my Dad – it felt momentous. We cycled out of the horrible Lahore traffic, laughing at the craziness of finally completing our plan. A plan hatched on frosty winter’s mornings over cups of tea back home – a world away from stinking streets of Pakistan we now faced.

We soon crossed the Pakistan border, exchanged money and bid what we thought would be our final farewell to a country that had given us more than its fair share of some unforgettable moments. Everything was going smoothly until we handed over our visas to the Indian immigration officer. When he first said these weren’t valid for this border crossing it didn’t properly register, after all, these were the visas that the Indian Consulate had made us get back in London. We’d filled out a form requesting the normal visa to be informed that we didn’t need it, even though we were crossing a land border. An enthusiastic young man had instead filled us out an e-visa form, to which we were soon proud owners.

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Of course the head of immigration at the border flat-out denied this could have possibly been the case, instead taking great pleasure in informing us there was no way we could get through this border. The temperature was notching up a few degrees above the sweltering sun outside at this point. We weren’t about to go down without a fight. All requests to talk to his manager, to have us escorted to the airport (only 10 miles away) where they could stamp us in no problem were just laughed off – he wasn’t about to help us. Instead the intimidation tactics came into play, having the army surround us, pick up our bikes whilst screaming at us that we had to leave. I was determined to be as much of a pain in the arse as possible, returning fire with raised voices in attempt to not show how nervous I was. In the moment I called the British embassy in Dehli, now there were three soldiers right around me whilst I explained our problem. My main concern was we had been stamped out of Pakistan, so we couldn’t go back there and we weren’t getting into India. We would be stuck between countries at what is one of the most dangerous borders in the world.

Then the horrible sound *click*, my phone went dead – the credit had run out. The army were still around us and I continued pretending the conversation was still going a while longer. Eventually I tried my luck, telling the officer that the embassy had told us to stay here and we were his problem to sort out in India. He flew into a fit of rage, telling us if we resisted now we were to be blacklisted from the country and barred from entering. I wasn’t sure if he could actually do this here, but had no intention of finding out. We had tried absolutely everything, yet it was obvious there was no way through for us today.

The army chucked our stuff onto a truck before coercing us too. Back across the border we went, where thankfully the Pakistani border officials void our exit stamp, leaving us 10 days to remain in the country.

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After 20 miles of miserable cycling back into dirty metropolis, we were completely exhausted and deflated. Despite the countries bordering each other, there were no available direct flights from Pakistan to India. Our only option would be to take three flights: starting with Saudi Arabia, then onto Oman before heading to Delhi. Three last-minute flights with two bikes and many panniers was sure to cost a bomb, instead we opted to bus to Islamabad – hoping to exchange our visas for normal ones.

Of course that would have been far too easy, at the consulate we were told we had to reapply from scratch. What’s more, they refused to take our applications directly here, despite this being the building where the postal visa service brings them! They said they could only take them if the British embassy said it was an emergency. We knew our situation didn’t fall into this bracket, but we visited the British embassy all the same – picking up a phone number for the commissioner there. In an attempt to try escalate the situation to one of his superiors who could actually do something, we returned to the Indian embassy with the commissioners number. Unfortunately, the guy decided to take on the call himself, this unsurprisingly didn’t get us any further beside signalling our intentions of kicking up a fuss and making his life difficult.

Maybe that was enough, after another hour of arguing his boss accepted our visa application, telling us it should be fast tracked and complete in two working days – we were delighted. After a brutal day consisting of five hours on a bus, running across Islamabad to print off application forms before negotiating a laborious high-protection shuttle bus service to reach stubborn embassy staff; it seemed we had made progress. We treated ourselves to a weary Nandos, yet our mood was upbeat. The day being Friday, we should be able to cross into India by Tuesday leaving the weekend to explore the area. All we had to do was hand in the cash the following morning.

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We left the restaurant to fetch the money and finally rest up for the night. All we had to do was hand in our passports for the room to be ours, but where were our passports? Shit! Shit! We had them both in a leather pouch to deal with the embassies, which definitely was no longer with us. My heart was in my mouth, this just couldn’t be happening, not now. I sprinted back to the restaurant, the other hotel we visited and the ATM – nothing. The bank was closed with no pouch to be found by the cashpoint, it seemed someone must’ve made off with it. I couldn’t bare returning back to Dad at the hotel empty handed, instead retracing my steps yet to no avail. I hoped he had mysteriously found them lodged at the bottom of his bag, anything, but no. We reported them missing to the police before bedding down for a terrible night’s sleep.

Due to the sensitivity of being in Pakistan combined with my plans to travel to many countries, the only course of action appeared for me to fly home urgently. I would have to sort out visas and travel documents there, no passport here was a game-ender – I didn’t have enough time to apply for a whole new passport and an emergency document wouldn’t work. I had been snookered. Before heading to the British embassy we visited the bank to be certain. To our disbelief, the manager produced the passports. We had been saved, from being completely out on the ropes we were right back in the ring. After unequivocally thanking the manager for our incredible fortune, we went straight to the Indian embassy to hand in the money. Wow, we couldn’t believe our luck – now for that visa…

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The weekend was spent hiking in the surrounding mountains and exploring some further afield mountain roads on motorbikes. We made the most of our boring tenure in Islamabad, yet, we were itching to get moving again. Monday rolled round, Tuesday, then Wednesday became Thursday with no word of passports. Dad went to investigate, returning in horror at the embassies blunder – sending our applications to Birmingham instead of London. Friday was a national holiday and our Pakistani visas expired on the Wednesday. With it taking a day to get back to our bikes, we would be pushing it right to the limit now – things were getting serious.

There was no guarantee of our visas coming in on time anymore, so we decided to ‘jump ship’ whilst our feet were still above water. That morning we booked flights leaving Lahore for India (where our bikes were) for the following morning. When I say leaving for India, we would fly to Karachi (Pakistan) then to Sri Lanka, and then on to Delhi – quality… We boarded a bus which would have us reunited with our bikes in five hours, but we had no boxes to pack them in for the morning flight. Getting into a city at 8PM on a national holiday made for less than ideal conditions to scavenge two full-sized bike boxes for the following morning. We needed a helping hand. I started to join cycling facebook groups based in Lahore to get the message out to locals who may be able to help us. Just after they started to offer suggestions all the phone lines went dead; they shut down the whole phone network for fear of a militant attack on such a holiday. Brilliant.

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We arrived in the city darkness with no signal, meaning no prospect of finding any boxes. Stress levels were starting to rise. Thank goodness a mysterious ‘hand’ of the powers that be lifted the veil on the phone ban for just enough time to receive a message from a bikes hop owner who offered to reopen his shop at 10PM to give us two boxes. Relief was an understatement. For me this just sums up the generosity of the Pakistani people, they will genuinely do anything to help you out. The guy even drove us back to our hotel on the other side of the city to make sure we had no problems getting home (Lahore has a population of 10 million and is bigger than London).

We profusely thanked our cycling saviour before frantically packing our bikes up in these boxes with the meagre amount of duct tape we had left. By the time we had finished it was 2AM and we would be up in only four hours, fighting fit to wage verbal warfare with check-in workers over the weight of our bags. We’d got this far, we were going to make it work, somehow.

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The first check-in proceeded reasonably smoothly, just a little persuasion preceded a low denomination transaction that saw us swiftly on our flights. The second was a little more ‘interesting’. Where interesting is being flat-out told you can’t take these bikes on a flight immediately after trying to check in. The attendant just wasn’t having any of it, ‘these boxes are too big, they are too heavy, they aren’t packed professionally…’. The list goes on. Luckily I had a screenshot of his companies policy on bikes on my phone, which I showed to his manager who Dad was talking round, explaining our father son trip and the issues with the border. To our relief she quickly over-ruled her inferior, allowing our bikes on the plane with us having to pay for the excess weight over the norm. We were going to leave Pakistan! Thank goodness, this would soon all be over!

Every problem we faced trying to get to our hotel in Delhi, there were quite a few, would now be just an inconvenience, not a trip ender. We had dug ourselves out of the lowest point of the trip so far and just about survived without being jailed or sent home. We could breathe a sigh of relief and finally go about having that beer we had dreamed of for so long now. Dad would be leaving tomorrow but the memories of this debacle will forever live on in our minds.

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