The longest border crossing in the world

5 days, 733 kilometers, 26 vehicles, 12 checkpoints, and a whole lot of dust. Our experience crossing overland from Iran to Pakistan, possibly the longest border crossing in the world. If you’re interested in the practical details of the journey, check out our Iran – Pakistan border crossing report.

 

The Iran - Pakistan border crossing route, the longest border crossing in the world

Day 1 – 102 kilometers

Zahedan, Iran to Taftan, Pakistan

5 cars, 1 police station, 3 military bases, 1 Levies station, 2 checkpoints

We’re riding in the back of a police car in Zahedan, Iran. The two officers in front are armed with pistols. Neither is wearing a seatbelt, of course. One is shouting out the window to men on the street, the other is engrossed in leading armed forces in a battle of life and death… on his mobile. Two more officers ride behind us on a motorbike. One of them has an AK-47 strapped to his back. A true motorcade. Sebastiaan and I giggle–we’re feeling a bit like the POTUS.

Two minutes later, we transfer to a new police car to throw off our purely theoretical terroristic stalkers and/or potential kidnappers, then we are deposited in a police station. The two-hour registration process consists of two minutes of writing, one hour of men giggling about my hijab-less passport photo, and a combined 58 minutes of waffling and table tennis.

Waiting in the police station in Zahedan, iran

The intrepid explorers – 1. We took photos with the police, but then Big Bad Boss came and made us delete them all, and retake them minus the officers.

The intensity is kicked up a notch when our military pickup arrives. It’s an image straight out of a wartime news report–the whole squad is outfitted with AKs, and two of the men’s faces are hidden behind keffiyeh wraps. Our bags are tossed into the back of their armored pick up and we clamber in, treading carefully so as not to step on the AK-47 in the back seat, and noting with amusement that the driver’s AK fits perfectly into the side compartment of his door. Now that’s good design!

An armed escort on the Iran - Pakistan border crossing, the longest border crossing in the world.

One of our escorts guarding our vehicle while the driver takes quick prayer stop along the way. Don’t tell Iran I took this.

We leap frog from military base to military base, pickup to pickup, our passport details noted down every step of the way. Luckily, the police were thoughtful enough to delay everything so this all occurs at the hottest point in the day–nothing like a little bit of 45°C desert sunshine to brighten your border crossing. But it’s no problem–our oceans of sweat help our backpacks stick to our bodies more snugly.

Waiting for the police for the Iran - Pakistan border crossing.

“I love sitting outside at noon in 45 degrees weather!” said no one ever. At least the sun kept our plastic bags of food nice and overly toasty.

Many hours, 5 cars, and much dust later, we are at the Iran-Pakistan border, and cross without hassle. We are now officially in Balochistan province, the wild west of Pakistan.

Waiting in the office at the Levies station in Balochistan, Pakistan

(Mother, if you’re reading this, skip the next part.)

Balochistan is a smorgasbord of danger: Taliban leaders are based in its capital, Quetta, it is the main route for drug smugglers running heroin and opium out of Afghanistan, and there are warring tribes amongst the native Baluchi people. Multiple buses have recently been bombed, and the drug smugglers have occasionally kidnapped foreigners to use as leverage when dealing with the police.

(You can open your eyes now, mother.)

As a foreigner, one does not simply walk onto a bus in Balochistan. To ensure safety, an armed escort is required for the entirety of the 600+ kilometer journey out of the province. The Levies, the paramilitary officers of Balochistan, are our hot escorts for this party, but we must wait at their station until our departure tomorrow.

Watching TV in the Levies station common room in Taftan, Pakistan

The Levies station is a run down concrete compound comprised of jail cells and equally decrepit common rooms–our home for the day. We while away the hours with a variety of off-duty characters. One has exactly three very rotten teeth, and an affinity for watching Discovery Channel animal documentaries on the tiny old television in the common room. Another has a rich flared moustache, and proudly shows off his AK-47–“the best gun there is.” One of the men speaks a smidge of English, and walks us through the backstories of the rusty confiscated cars in the courtyard of the compound.

“That one, drug smugglers. That one filled with refugees. There, more drug smugglers. They had many guns.” He points out the multitude of bullet holes through several of the cars.

As the night grows late, we attempt to settle into home sweet home, an unused office with 0 ventilation. A fan turns above our heads, mocking our existence as it buffets hot air into our faces. Bullet hole Bill offers an alternative: an empty jail cell filled with old wrappers and smelling faintly of piss. I thank him for taking our well being into account, and assure him we’ll be fine–our room isn’t that sweltering.

 

Day 2 – 291 kilometers

Taftan to Dalbandin

3 cars, 3 Levies stations, 6 checkpoints

We’re alone in the back of a pickup truck, our armed escorts in the front cabin. As we are driven out of town, I ponder a comparison between us and cattle being shipped off to slaughter:

Similarities

  1. We have no idea what is actually going on.
  2. We are covered in filth.
  3. We are being driven against our will.

Differences

  1. Our slaughter is (hopefully) not guaranteed.
  2. We are marginally less hairy.
  3. Farmers don’t carry automatic weapons.

Sandy dunes and barren wastelands speed by, and hair is whipped into a frenzied mess. Our necks begin to ache from all of the skidding and swerving as the driver dodges potholes at light speed. We try to shrink ourselves to fit the minute amount of shade available, while discussing the ways in which sitting exposed in the back of an open truck bed could possibly be more safe than riding inside a bus. The phrase “shooting fish in a barrel” comes to mind.

Vulnerable during the longest border crossing in the world, from Iran to Pakistan

Every so often, we must stop and register at Levies checkpoints along the road. A uniformed man of varying humor comes out to meet us at each stop, carrying a thick, handwritten logbook of all the foreigners that have passed this way.

(No, mother, we are not the only ones. I told you so.)

They have us scribble down our information, and sometimes take our photos with their old Nokia phones. At times they take one too many photos of just me, and I wonder if it’s for administrative purposes, or masturbatory material later on. Thanks to a plethora of creepy old men with mobiles, I’m practically a porn star in Iran–why not add Pakistan to my resume as well?

A decorated truck driving through Balochistan province, Pakistan.

On the bright side, the trucks in Pakistan look like they’ve all taken a serious dosage of acid before getting on their way, so at least we have something to break the monotony along the way!

We drive on for hours. Our appreciation for outdated governmental systems increases as we pass through more and more checkpoints, and realize that there is not a single computer in sight. One can only fantasize about how much time we would save if our information could be entered into a computer. Never again will we mock organizations running Windows 98–at least they are running any system at all.

Approximately two seconds before our stomachs implode from hunger, the truck swerves to a stop at a small, concrete Levies shack for a break. There is absolutely nothing to see, as far as our eyes can see. We are fed a light lunch of curried something or another as one of the Levies tells us about life hunting the Taliban.

“Taliban in Afghanistan: America’s problem. Taliban in Pakistan… Pakistan’s problem.” He fingers the trigger of his AK, pupils dilated as he stares out at the harsh desert.

Chatting with the Levies on the longest border crossing in the world

Like many in Pakistan, the Levies hate the Taliban. Since the attacks of 9/11, Pakistan has been involuntarily absorbed into the War on Terror. Taliban activity regularly spills over the border from Afghanistan. Bombs are detonated on buses, cities are often ravaged by suicide bombers. The Taliban is also used as a scapegoat to cover up drug-related violence in the north, further tainting Pakistan’s international reputation. Tourism to Pakistan has halted since it joined the ranks of Terrorist Countries Not To Be Visited. The Levies are the primary force for catching and dealing with Taliban activity within Balochistan. It’s easy to see why they, of all people, hate the Taliban.

Despite the dark subject, the mood lightens. They show us videos of camping while on Taliban patrol. The person setting up the tent is cursing, others are singing, and one is barbecuing. They’re no different from any other videos of a guy’s getaway… aside from the assault rifles scattered in the background.

Posing with the Levies on the way to Dalbadin, Pakistan

Seven hours after our departure, we arrive in the small town of Dalbandin. Our bodies are coated in a deliciously thick layer of paste made from dust and sweat. We’re dumped in a hotel room for the night, and it is equally as scorching as the previous night. More police with more guns have arrived, and they close the door of our room to get the message across–we are under house (hotel?) arrest, and we are not to leave the building.

The police eventually allow us to get some fresh air on the roof of the building, following us like armed shadows: always present, but never in our faces. We feel a bit like mafia bosses as we survey the town below us, lords above the fray with our hired muscle to protect us from the masses.

Dalbandin, Pakistan

Surveying Dalbadin, Pakistan with the Levies from the roof.

Later on, there’s some unofficial in-house entertainment. A phenomenally drunk man is dancing around the courtyard, toppling over every once in a while as he chain smokes packs of cigarettes and cackles gleefully at us in Baluchi, the local dialect. He’s accompanied by a retarded teenager– “Alien” according to the hotel boys–who himself alternates between chain smoking and chugging Mountain Dew. At one point, the drunk steals a cigarette from Alien, who promptly pulls a switchblade from his pocket and lunges to retaliate. Some of the hotel staff grab him as our police officer bursts into hysterical laughter. Interestingly enough, the police are more concerned with the happy drunk than the angry retard with knife. Maybe he’s, like, Taliban or something.

 

Day 3 – 340 kilometers

Dalbandin to Quetta

14 cars, 3 Levies stations, 4 checkpoints

Our longest day begins at the earliest hour. They say we’re leaving at 8, which actually meant 6:15. They are banging on the door, saying it’s “already” 6 in the morning and we need to move. Sir yes sir! We have no choice, sir!

Riding in the back of the truck on the way to Quetta, Pakistan

At least this very holey truck cover will protect us from the sun and dust. Oh wait.

The day is an endless cycle of climb into the truck, climb out of the truck. Forget frequent flyer miles–we should get frequent transfer miles. The day is even hotter and dustier than the one before. I compose a little ditty to the tune of “Country Road” to pass the time.

Escort us,

Levies man,

to the place

where we’re goin’:

West Pakistan,

Balochistan,

Escort us

Levies man.

Alone on the side of the road on the way from Dalbandin to Quetta, Pakistan

We’re also periodically left alone on the side of the road because, y’know, safety.

The Levies periodically ride in the back with us. Some are curious, and make whatever small talk their English skills allow. Some are less charming, leaving us to roast in the truck bed while they have tea and cigarettes with friends along the way. One offers to let us shoot his AK-47, but as he bangs on the back window, asking his friend to pull over for a shooting stop, the driver proves to be woefully responsible.

Posing with an AK on the way to Quetta, Pakistan

On the bright side, they let us fondle their guns try their weapons on for size.

Posing with an AK on the way to Quetta, Pakistan

P.S. NSA, I know you’re watching. I swear I’m not secretly joining the Taliban.

Around 13:00, we enter mountains particularly close to the Afghanistan border. The officer riding looks at us grimly.

“This is dangerous area.”

We notice that his gun’s safety is off, and he rides with his finger on the trigger. He makes some small talk, but his eyes are constantly surveying the land behind us. Instead of changing cars hourly, we begin to change every 10 kilometers.

At this point, I’m too tired to care. Terrorists, you can have me. Just don’t make me change cars anymore. And get me a glass of cold water.

Getting close to the border with Afghanistan in Pakistan at Nushki

Nushki, the city city to the border of Afghanistan.

A billion and one transfers later, our limp, dusty bodies are finally placed into the custody of the Quetta police. We’ve made it to shining Quetta, home of the Taliban Toppers and the place to be for police officers looking to be killed in a suicide bombing. Remind me why we’re being escorted by police, again?

The police drive us into town in a covered truck, accompanied by armed men on motorcycles. We peer through the back awning, and the third world stares back. There’s trash strewn everywhere, donkey carts clopping through the streets, and wall-to-wall rickshaws and cars, all attempting to out honk each other as they swerve through the streets in a kind of organized chaos.

Wide-eyed stares penetrate the chaos. At us? No, we realize they’re staring at the police… and running away. Um.

Like Moses parting the seas, the traffic in front of us clears as rickshaws and food carts hasten to avoid the police truck. The officers get out to enforce the message. One rickshaw driver ventures dangerously close to our motorcade. The rickshaw driver shouts at the police man. The police man kicks in the tail light of the rickshaw driver. The law has spoken.

We are deposited into our hotel-cum-prison, reportedly the only one to accept foreigners. It takes two days to get permission to leave the city, and in that time we’re not allowed outside unless accompanied by police. Reception informs us that the police will only come once, to drive us to the Home and Tribal Affair Office, so don’t get our hopes up about day trips any time soon. The hotel is overpriced and out of our budget, but on the bright side, it has a courtyard. At least we’ll have fresh air during our house arrest.

The Bloom Star hotel in Quetta, Pakistan

Home sweet house arrest.

 

Day 4 – 0.02 kilometers

Quetta

1 car, 2 rickshaws, 1 processing station

2 hours and lots of woe for one piece of paper saying we’re allowed to leave Quetta. On the plus side: free chai. Free is good.

I spend the rest of the day being slowly killed by love and food by a 7-year-old Pakistani girl. While I read in the courtyard, she force-feeds me gifts of cherries and samosas she purchases on the streets outside. Prison life is acceptable.

 

Day 5 – Freedom, sweet freedom!

Quetta to Karachi

1 rickshaw, 1 train

We’re on a stuffy train leaving Quetta station. The Levies are waving goodbye to us, and I smile outwardly and wave back. Begone, and good riddance. A police officer is watching us, but he’s only marginally intrusive, and has the biggest gun we’ve seen so far. He will do.

Our armed escort on the train from Quetta to Karachi

As the train chugs along its merry way through Quetta, I sigh with relief, and breathe deeply. Coal fumes, old sweat, and the stench of garbage rotting in the sun tickle my nose.

Ah. This is what freedom smells like.

Looking out the window of the train from Quetta to Karachi, Pakistan

Free at last!

 

If you’re thinking of doing this border crossing yourself, you can find more practical information about it in our border crossing report.

 

5 days, 733 kilometers, 26 vehicles, 12 checkpoints, and a whole lot of dust. A story about what could very well be the longest border crossing process in the world.

 

What was the worst border crossing you’ve ever had to do? Share your stories with us!

 

Alex

American by birth, British by passport, Filipina by appearance. Addicted to ice cream. Enjoys climbing trees, dislikes falling out. Has great fondness for goats which is usually not reciprocated.

More about Alex

23 thoughts on “The longest border crossing in the world

    Antonio says:

    Wow, what and adventure! I hope you continue safe towards your destination. Are you crossing later into India or China?

    I will be doing this summer part of your itinerary in Armenia and Iran, and the site is being very useful for planning.

    Take care.

    Great to hear that the site is helpful! You’re going to have a great time this summer. Be sure to take your time in the north/west of Iran! If you have any questions, you know where to find us 🙂 And stay tuned — we haven’t finished posting all of our content for Iran.

    As for us, yep, we’ll be crossing into China in a bit over a month. We were originally planning on heading to India but… well, 45+C and humidity didn’t sound too appealing 😉 We’re going to put it off until October.

    ajay says:

    Would love to travel from the indian side (has been a dream since long) by motorcyle. however impossible for an indian to travel thro Pakistan. and from the other end China does not allow motorycycles

    maybe some day

    Hopefully it will be made easier in the future.

    Mansur Ahmad says:

    Wow … You seem to be full on negativity about lands foreign to you … Police escort was for your safety, the poor guys had to drive you to Quetta from the border .. Not in their job discription yet they did it I wonder how many countries do that for ungrateful visiting foreigners. And yes it’s a long drive Ive done it. Did you see any So called Taliban on the way dressed to kill or is it a figment of your imagination. You mock our hospitality when the police levies and the locals went out of their way to keep you comfortable. The hotel was out of your budget, really … What is your budget by the way.
    We are a very hospitable nation you will experience that on your way. Not anywhere near as the media portray us. Very proud of our culture and customs which may be very different to yours, we respect values of others even if they are different. Do write about the positives as well as you cross this rich land.
    Hope you have a great journey and enjoy the hospitality that is extended to you. This is going to be a life changing experience for you as you will see many different cultures absorb them with a smile.
    Regards
    A fellow adventurer

    We think you’re mistaking cheeky humor for negativity here. Nowhere in this piece are we negative about the people, or the country, both of which have proven to be brilliant thus far. Our criticism is reserved for the process: to us, traveling with an armed escort seems more dangerous because A) it paints a target on our backs (especially when sitting in the open bed of a truck) and B) most attacks in the region are carried out on law enforcement personnel. The list of attacks linked in the post are proof of that, for Quetta at least.

    And yes, 2,500 rupees for a small, hot, stuffy room is a lot of money for us. We try to travel as cheaply as possible, and 2,500 Rs. is expensive to us. We’re not the rich foreigners media portrays us to be.

    If we really thought the media’s portrayal of Pakistan was legitimate, would we visit? No, probably not. We came here because we do believe the people must be lovely and the country beautiful. That doesn’t mean we can’t criticize aspects of our journey.

    If you look throughout our other posts, you’ll see than we always write positively about the countries we visit. If Pakistan treats us well, which it has so far, we will write more about the positive aspects of Pakistan, too! It’s a shame that our first piece about the country was about security and potential threats, but that was our first experience in the country. Hopefully we won’t have any repeats of the experience!

    Thank you for welcoming us, and are sorry if this piece offended you. We don’t mean to offend, just entertain and speak our minds. Please wait for some of our other posts about Pakistan before you judge us top harshly.

    DevGill says:

    I agree mansur when I read it, it is full of cheeky humour and both Sebastian and Alex including us here in the USA see the service of men who took it upon themselves to to make sure this foreigners were safe. We thank them from the bottom of our heart. Iranians and Pakistanis are beautiful people.

    Ghulam hussain says:

    Nice blog. Waiting for your next episode obout your visit to my native town thatta sindh.

    🙂 Thanks again for helping us along, and introducing us to your friends! We will never forget your kindness, and we hope to see you again soon.

    Ghulam hussain says:

    We culturely believe in truth and hospitality . We too felt proud of meeting with you and your friend. When ever you may like you can come and find us same friendly. I and my friends pray fro your comfortable journey.hope to see you again.
    My contact is +92 300 7031715
    And
    +92 333 7031715
    Email. [email protected]

    DevGill says:

    You are indeed a star in my eye. Thank you for your hospitality to strangers yoiu met. Ghulam you are not a Ghulam ( but of Allah ) but men of very high stature.

    PS In hindi Ghulam means a server a servant ( of God )

    Danni Lawson says:

    What an insanely awesome crossing! Love your detailed and humorous approach. Where to next on your travels? I’ve bookmarked your blog and will check back for more 🙂 livein10countries.com

    Insanely dusty, mostly! Glad you liked. We’re traveling around Pakistan for 6 weeks, then heading up north to China!

    DevGill says:

    I had a small tear in my eye and at the same time a huge smile. Met your mum and Ian ( her dad ) yesterday at Amans. They miss you Dad is so proud although he never says it mum is beaming from ear to ear talking about her “dutiful” daughter ( thought you will become one after Iran and now Pakistan ). Alex love your travel and hope the travel bug bites hard on those reading your blog OR at least living vicariously thru your adventure.

    It has been a long time since I was there and how time has stood still in some of those places.

    Hopefully you will be somewhere in South East Asia in Feb 2017 and we can have your fave Ice cream.

    IIIIIIICE CREEEEEAAAAMMM! (translates to: Yes, superb idea! Let’s meet up!)

    I have not yet become a dutiful daughter, despite meeting so many other daughters like so, though I do make sure to Whatsapp my mother regularly. Father I may have stopped messaging because he was less than enthusiastic about my travel plans and the fact that I was ignoring his advice… 😉

    I think we will be somewhere around India or Pakistan or Bangladesh in February, though perhaps we could be convinced to hop elsewhere if you’re in the neighborhood. It would be my pleasure! -A

    phamductri says:

    I’m delighted to run into your blog. This is one of the most unconventional travel blog I have ever seen. It makes my day to read your blog for the witty humor and offbeat energy that you both radiate. I can’t repeat what you have done though. I have a family and the trips you’re describing are certainly not for the faint-hearted, or families with kids. Pakistan, Iran, or all the *stan in central Asia certainly are wonderful countries that deserve a spot on the traveller’s maps. My family will visit when their tourist infrastructure can accommodate families with kids. For now, I can’t take the wife or the kid on a pickup truck with AK-47 guards. Wish I have done it myself when I was younger :D. Wish you the best in the coming trips ahead :D.

    Thank you for all the compliments. To be honest, Iran and the Stans in Central Asia are definitely doable with children, depending how old they are. Especially Iran has a great tourist infrastructure. I wouldn’t advice Pakistan with young children though ?

    Liliia Sokotun says:

    we just traveled all the stan countries and Iran with our now 17 months old daughter. we entered Kazakhstan she has just turned one year old. what can i say, it was great ? the limits you set are just in your head!

    Salu says:

    Hi!
    Really enjoyable read 🙂
    Only one addition I’d reccomend: one of my favourite aspects of Pakistan is the linguistic diversity. Perhaps you can use this great platform to highlight it. For example, calling baluchi a dialect rather than a language would be inaccurate. I apologise if there is such a post which I’ve just overlooked 😅
    Looking forward to more posts from you!

    Regards

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