I Crossed One of the Most Dangerous Borders in the World, and I Did it Twice
I crossed one of the most dangerous borders in the world, and I did it twice. This is the story of how I crossed from India into Pakistan and back.
Saying that the countries of India and Pakistan don’t like each other would be an understatement. Once all part of British India, these two modern day nuclear powers were separated at birth with the creation of Pakistan and India in 1947. Divided by an arbitrary line on a map by a man named Sir Cyril Radcliffe, a man who had never been further east than Paris, Muslims moved west into Pakistan while Hindus and Sikhs moved east into India.
This set off one of the largest human migration events in history as well as one of the largest occurrences of sectarian violence. Fifteen million were displaced and by the end of it all, one to two million people had died.
Today the 1,800 mile India-Pakistan border is littered with barbed wire fences, troops and lights. So many lights in fact that the illuminated border can be seen from space at night.
So after knowing off of this, why in the world would I want to cross this border? Well, because life’s an adventure.
The plan was supposed to be simple. Fly from Philadelphia to Delhi. Hop a plane from Delhi to Amritsar (closest airport to the border crossing). Take a cab to the border and cross on foot. Stay in Pakistan for a week and come back doing the reverse. Well, things didn’t quite work out to be that simple.
It’s late on a Sunday evening. I land in Delhi and it’s June 17th (2018). The World Cup is going on and I resign myself to the fact that even though the Brazil vs. Switzerland match is going on, I’ll miss it due to the line at immigration.
After making it out of the airport my intention is to get a few hours sleep at a cheap airport hotel, get some food and a shower and then hop on a plane the next day to Amritsar. From there I’d head to the border.
I make my flight the next day with no issues. It’s a quick up and down that takes about 45 minutes. Surprisingly, the fine folks at Vistara (a domestic Indian airline) even feed us. It’s a lunch with a boxed chicken sandwich, cookies and a bottle of water.
The Amritsar airport is small. We get towed in and have to walk from the tarmac to the one and only terminal.
Once outside the airport, my plan is to call an Uber. Even though India has the second largest population of English speakers in the world, it’s still very hit or miss that you can find one given that only about 10% of the population speak it. I don’t want to chance it with a cab driver. Much to my surprise when I open up the Uber app there are no cars anywhere around. This is in stark contrast to Delhi where calling an Uber was not a problem.
With few options I start getting prices from the 20 or so guys I see standing around who I assume are all cab drivers. Prices vary from ₹650 (just a little over $9) to ₹2,000 Indian rupees (about $28.50). I go with the ₹650 guy.
He tells me to follow him to his “car.” We end up walking a fair distance past the gate of the airport where I see a line of tuk tuks. Given the border is about 22 miles from the airport and about a 45 minute journey, I tell him that this won’t work.
I return to the line of taxi drivers and continue negotiating until I find a man who is willing to take me for ₹800 ($11.41). He walks me up to the taxi stand that is marked “Prepaid Taxi.” Here I have to prepay my fare. However, the man at the stand taking the money asks where I am going. I explain to him the India/Pakistan border. He informs me that I won’t make it in time before the border closes. The border closing was not something I had considered.
It’s around 3:35 PM. I do a quick google search and cannot find a definitive time of closure for the border as answers seem to vary from 4:30 PM to 5:00 PM. I chance it and pay for the cab. The driver saunters to his cab, a small white Suzuki, as I try to coax him to go faster. Finally I breakdown and pull out google translate. I tell him I’ll pay him an extra ₹200 cash if he gets me there by 4:00 PM. With that he picks up the pace and we tear out of the airport at a high rate of speed.
The journey from Amritsar to the border town of Wagah is not a simple highway trip. The roads are a mix of finished two-lane asphalt roads, gravel roads and dirt roads. Along the way we pass tuk tuks filled with what seems like too many people, donkeys with carts in tow as well as cars and commercial trucks. We are making good time as the driver is going about 80 MPH when he can, overtaking many other cars.
4:05PM. We arrive at the border. We pull up to the gate and the car becomes surrounded by Indian military personnel. As the driver converses with a guard he explains that I am trying to cross the border. We are then informed the border is closed for the day and to come back at 10:00 AM tomorrow.
I think to myself, “there’s got to be a way.” I speak with the guard directly and ask if there is any way to cross today. He again exclaims to come back at 10:00 AM. I pull out my wallet and offer him ₹2,000 ($28.54). I figure it’s cheaper than having to book a hotel for the night. Keep in mind that most of the guys in the Indian Army make between ₹5,000 to ₹20,000 per month.
The guard calls over his supervisor. The supervisor comes to the car window. I again ask if I can cross today and offer the ₹2,000. He gives me a look of indignation and tells me even if I was the President of India, I couldn’t cross the border today and to return at 10:00 AM. Great, I found the only unbribable person in India and he’s in charge of this checkpoint.
Having lost the war of wills I have my driver take me back to Amritsar. I book a hotel on my phone during ride. A ride that costs me another ₹800. The driver doesn’t speak english but when he drops me off I understand he is asking if I will be returning to the border again tomorrow. I tell him “yes” and get his WhatsApp, the unofficial, official means of communication in India.
The next morning as I am checking out of the hotel I ask them how much for a car to the border. They quote me a price of ₹3,000 which I easily pass on.
I text the cab driver from yesterday and tell him I’m ready to go. He text me back 2:00 PM. I’m not waiting 5 hours for him so I call him. We have a fun conversation of, “I don’t know what you’re saying.” I end up handing the phone to the receptionist at the hotel and explain I want to leave now. When she hangs up she says he’ll be 20 minutes.
Forty-five minutes later he shows up. Off we go to Wagah again.
We arrive at Wagah and drive up to the same gate. After a lengthy discussion between my driver and the guard I surmise that my cab driver doesn’t have the correct paperwork to drive me through the gate. I’m told by the guard to get out of the car and get into a van by the gate. I ask how much and the guards tell me I don’t pay him.
I get in the van and we go through the gate. On the other side we reach a desk. It’s outside with guards and two military men doing paperwork. They ask for my passport. After inspecting it they ask if I was there yesterday. I tell them yes. He says something in Hindi and all the guards start laughing. I’m assuming the tale of my previous day’s attempt to cross the border had spread throughout the ranks of the Indian army. They write my information down on a list and then it’s back in the van.
In the van we drive through a maze of access roads that are fenced in and covered with barbed wire. Up ahead I see a building and there are many men in front of the building. The van stops and the driver tells me to get out.
As soon as I get out several of the men standing outside come up to the van to grab my luggage. One of them wins and puts my luggage on his cart.
Together we walk up to the building where there are guards with automatic rifles. There is a small queue. A line for women and a line for men. The line for men is the longer of the two and has about five people ahead of me. When I reach the front of the line I walk through a metal detector. I then get patted down, wanded over with a hand held metal detector. The backpack I’m wearing is then emptied out and I’m questioned about my portable power charger.
The luggage man has gone up ahead with my wheeled luggage. After I get through the security screening I join him. He motions for me to go over to a group of cubicles. Here I am met by an older man who appears to be an immigration officer. He hands me a form that has questions about my my travel itinerary, reason for travel and what cash or valuables I have with me. He takes my picture and again afterwards I follow the luggage man.
We walk down the hall to an area with a TSA style luggage screening machine. He puts my luggage on the belt and I wait for it on the other side. The screening takes all but 30 seconds as there is no one else around me going through security at the moment.
I again follow the luggage man down a hall to another screening area. Here I fill out more paperwork about my travel plans and my valuables. After I fill out the paperwork I’m told to put my luggage through the screening machine back from where I just came. The luggage man does his best to explain we just came from there to no avail and I rescreen my luggage.
Upon returning back to the desk where I filled out my second form, a more thorough luggage screening is conducted. The officer opens up my wheeled luggage and backpack. She roots around in both taking out items as she goes. I have a neck pillow in my wheeled luggage that receives special attention. She calls over a second officer. I explain in english what it is, however, they don’t understand. I ask for the pillow and put it around my neck. They officers laugh and tell me I can go.
I follow the luggage man out of the building. I think to myself that this border crossing was a hassle but not that bad. Little did I know, things were just beginning.
I exit the building. Outside there are many guards standing around. I’m instructed to get on a commercial sized bus that’s parked a short distance from the building. The luggage man has already started putting my bag in the luggage area of the bus. When he’s done he hands me a scrap of paper with a hand written number on it. I have no idea what this is for. I ask him and he motions and explains something in Hindi. Having no idea what he means I tell him “okay” and he leaves.
I get on the bus. There’s no one else on it, not even a driver. Its hot. The bus is not on. Every window has curtains drawn so its semi dark inside. There are fans hanging from the ceiling at every seat but none of them work. I take a seat near the front.
After about ten minutes another man gets on. He’s an Indian national about my age. I saw him inside the building I just came from. He was speaking english with the screeners so I start up a conversation with him. I ask him what the whole bus thing was about. He tells me it drives us to the next checkpoint. He also tells me we have to wait until the bus is full before we go.
It’s about 110 degrees outside so it’s sweltering in the bus. We are still the only two people aboard. I ask him if we can just walk to the next checkpoint. He responds in a very forceful fashion that they will, “shoot you” if you try to walk up to the next checkpoint. Well that settles that.
I also ask him about the scrap of paper the luggage man handed me. I tells me that another guy at the next checkpoint will start carrying my luggage and I need to pay him. He says I should just carry my own luggage.
After several minutes he goes outside and asks one of the guards if we can go yet. The answer was clearly a no.
After about ten more minutes a family gets on. They are carrying many of their things in cloth and plastic bags. They immediately start fanning themselves and trying to get the fans to work. They are clearly hot, join the club.
A few more minutes go by and the english speaking guy tells me I should go ask the guard how long until we can leave. There are still about 15 empty seats on the bus. Wanting to get moving I oblige and go ask. Outside the bus the sun burns my eyes after having been sitting in the dark bus for so long. I go up to who I think is in charge. I ask how long until we can leave. He looks at his watch and tells me five minutes.
A few minutes later some more passengers get on followed by the guard I just spoke to, another guard and a bus driver. The bus starts and the air conditioning comes on. It’s probably blowing air that 85 degrees but it feels amazing.
The bus starts moving. We wind through a maze of fenced in road. We pass what looks to be empty food vendor stands. After what seems like less than a mile we pull up to a large building with an archway that the bus pulls into.
We exit the bus. Outside there are about ten guards. They are all chatting. There is also a table with two guards behind it checking papers. I retrieve my luggage and check-in at the table. The men write down my passport info and tell me I can go. A few other people on the bus are already walking down a road so I follow them. The road leads into a stadium-like complex. There are seats in a circular formation and they rise up for what looks like four or five stories.
At the end of this stadium-like complex I see a very large gate. Over the gate there’s a portrait of a man, a sign that says “Pakistan” and on top of the gate is the Pakistani flag. As I walk through this complex there’s an Indian guard about every 50 feet who checks my passport.
I finally reach the gate. There’s an Indian guard station there there I show my passport. They wave me through. On the other side of the gate there’s a Pakistani guard station. They check my passport and also wave me through. I’ve finally reached Pakistan.
Having arrived now in Pakistan all I can see is fencing on the left and right side of me. The two lane road I’ve been walking on seems to go on forever as does the fencing. I can see the heat radiating off the pavement. There’s not a bit of shade anywhere.
I walk about ¼ of a mile down the fenced in road to another guard station. They check my passport and tell me to go to a building a little ways down the road on the right.
I keep walking down the road until I reach the building. I enter the building. It’s dark as all the lights are off and all the doors and windows are open. There’s a desk at the front. I go up to it and they hand me paperwork to fill out about my personal information, where I’m going and for how long.
After I fill out the paperwork they take my picture and tell me to go to another desk that’s just a few feet away. At this desk the man checks my passport and tells me I can go.
I walk through the building not knowing where to go. I pass another TSA type screening machine but no one is there so I walk past it. I’m about to exit the building when someone starts yelling at me. I come back and screen my luggage. I’m then instructed to go to another desk. At this desk there’s a man there who is actually in civilian clothing. He speaks almost perfect english and starts asking me many questions. Questions include information about me, my family. Where I had been in the past. Where I was going in Pakistan and why I was there. This didn’t seem to be an everyday security guard.
The man writes down notes of what I’m telling him in a little notebook. After he seems satisfied he tells me I can go.
I exit the building. Outside I find myself in a fenced in parking lot. There’s around 20 to 25 men looking to carry luggage or to exchange my money. I ignore them and continue walking down the two-lane paved road I had been on. It still goes for as far as I can see.
Along the way I see some cages next to the road. They have different types of birds in them. One cage has a few peacocks.
I reach another checkpoint. They have barriers across the road. Of course they check my passport. Once through, there is a tram that looks like a train on the other side. I get in. Almost immediately he starts driving.
We go a short distance and have to get check at another checkpoint. Once back on the tram we drive for about ½ a mile. We pull into a parking lot next to a building. There are taxis and cars all around. Many taxi drivers come offer me rides before I can even get off the tram.
I had arranged for a friend to pick me up at the border. I assume he is here somewhere in this parking lot. I look around and don’t see him. I try to call him but there is no signal. I’m not sure what to do.
After thinking about it for a few minutes I figure I’ll keep walking down the road until I can get cell service.
Back on the fenced in two-lane highway. I’m the only person in site. Out in the distance I see a car coming towards me. As it pulls up one of the tinted windows goes down. From inside my friend yells, “hey need a ride,” and with that I had made it into Pakistan.
A week later I returned to the same border crossing and did the crossing in reverse. It wasn’t easier the second time, though I did know what to expect. The part that stands out to me as the most difficult is waiting in the transport bus. With temperatures well over 100 degrees outside, waiting on the bus with no air conditioning and no fans made the sweat just pour off my head and through my shirt. This after having walked a long distance on foot through many checkpoints.
This wasn’t the most fun I’ve had traveling but crossing one of the most dangerous borders in the world was certainly one of the most memorable experiences I’ll ever have.