Hitchhiking Through Pakistan

From Iran Through Pakistan to IndiaHitchhiking Through Pakistan Flying carpets on wheels. A tête-à-tête with dons. Despair and elation. Morten Hübbe and Rochssare Neromand-Soma on their hitchhiking adventure through Pakistan. Thick beads of sweat are rolling down my forehead, getting caught in my brows and finding their way down my temples. When we cross the border between Iran and Pakistan, we are already scarred by our journey. A heavy storm is raging around us. Tiny grains of sand whip against our bodies. All our attempts to shield ourselves against them are in vain. The sand is too fine, permeates every small opening, makes it hard to breath, crunches between our teeth. We are in the midst of Balochistan. For decades, this region has been marked by riots, rebellion, independence movements and terrorism. Safety is a rare good here. Wild West Balochistan According to the Department of Foreign Affairs, we are entering a terrorist region. But the Pakistani border officials seem very laid-back. For being at threat of getting kidnapped, the mood is pretty relaxed. We go through the entry procedure and are sent to the police station of a border town called Taftan which is 500 meters away, off road.Nobody accompanies us, nobody cares about our safety. Are things not all that bad after all?         Taftan in the Dark In the police station we sit in the dark. Taftan, which is hooked up with the Iranian electricity grid, has been crippled by the raging sandstorm which damaged several power poles somewhere in the neighboring country. A little light falls through the open door into the dark office of the commanding officer on duty. We have to sign a thick registry book. It is covered with a fine layer of sand, just like the rest of the room.     This is it for today, we won’t get any further. An escort, for those traveling through Balochistan a precondition, is not available today and so we spend the rest of the day at the police station. The power outage has significant consequences for us. The computer network of the only bank in town is down. We don’t have money for lodging or food. Instead, we spend the night, candlelit, at the office of the police station and eat dinner with the commanding officer. He tries his best to keep up our high spirits. So he prepares us for his country. Yes, we are in Pakistan. No, other than in Iran, it’s no longer mandatory to wear a headscarf. Yes, there’s been kidnapping and lethal attacks in Balochistan. No, we need not worry – tonight, we can go to sleep, untroubled. We are safe. Outside, in the courtyard of the police station, a few men gather – policemen and villagers. Lively talks, and once in awhile open-hearted laughter, reach us through the darkness.   The Caravan Continues: With the Levies Through Balochistan The next morning, we get into a rusty jeep – the first of many Pakistani military- and police vehicles on our way through Balochistan. We are escorted by three armed levies: members of a paramilitary unit of local conscripts, officers, soldiers and policemen. Just a few kilometers separate us from the territory of the Taliban in Afghanistan. The levies patrol along the only asphalted street. Always keeping an eye on the desert and anything that moves out there. Our three guards have served in this area for a long time. White stubbles sprout on their weather-beaten faces, their eyes are hollow. The men’s whole appearance hints at the hard life here in Pakistan. Time and again, conflicts have been smoldering in Balochistan since Pakistan’s formation in 1947. Although the region is against a fusion with the new state, the Pakistani military annexes the area in 1948. Ever since, riots and violent rows between separatists and the military have become a part of life for those who live in the country’s poorest and underdeveloped province.         The first of about six hundred kilometers through the desert are a disaster. The street is peppered with holes which are so deep that every few meters, our vehicle starts to jump. The jeep is too small for us and our escort, so that the levy in the trunk suffers the most from the bumps which we are subject to. We travel for about one hour through Balochistan’s wilderness before we stop at a small hut. In the middle of nowhere, surrounded by sand, dust and wind, little shacks, huts and shelters appear again and again along the roadside. Everywhere, it’s the same layout: a room, a cot, a chair, a heavy machine gun and a thick register. From here, they monitor the road that goes across Balochistan. One guard post follows the next and each time we have to show our passports and sign the registry. Our journey is carefully documented. We often change vehicles during these controls, so that over time, we get to meet more and more levies. Their profession: soldiers, but not: professional soldiers. Instead of a uniform, the levies wear their shalwar kameez, Balochistan’s traditional attire: harem pants and a long-sleeved top that reaches down to the knees. They wrap blankets and scarves around their heads and bodies to protect themselves against the wind and sand.         When the wind finally settles, we get a full view of the wide desert. Sand and grey rock all the way to the horizon where a grey cloudy sky awaits the end of nothingness. Huge sand dunes block our way, so we can only swerve from one side to the other, dipsy-doodling along. Just a few meters from the road, a couple of dromedaries wobble through the desert. On the truck bed, a levy in a corduroy coat throws me a smile. In broken English, he asks me how I’m doing before he points to the right to a mountain ridge in the distance. Over there, that’s Afghanistan. Behind the ridge, no fifty kilometers away, the Taliban rule. The Taliban, who again and again, also invade Pakistani territory. We talk about family, women and children. Terror and daily life live side by side in Balochistan, the levies themselves frequently becoming victims of terrorist attacks. Last, six levies died in an exchange of fire in January 2014, when a Spanish bike rider was escorted through Balochistan. Five more levies and the Spaniard himself were wounded. Still, I’m surprised at how carefree and friendly the levies approach us. Our minds are ever preoccupied with all the terror that could happen to us. But our companions are happy about our visit and we instantly become friends on Facebook.         Hospitality in the Desert This is how we travel for two more days through the desert towards Quetta, Balochistan’s capital. After the sandstorm, dark clouds of rain accompany us. In one of the mud huts three levies are already waiting for us. Sitting on a blanket on the dusty floor, they serve us chai in small glasses and share their food with us. Saif, one of the levies, proudly presents us the salad he just prepared. Cucumbers, tomatoes, chickpeas, potatoes and onions. Together, we dig in until the sound of metal scratching against the bowl declares the end of our meal. We are full and content. Then Saif digs out his cellphone. With a big grin he shows us pictures of his two-year old son and tells us about his first attempts to speak. The rough guardian of the desert has suddenly transformed into a friendly family man. But Saif is not the only levy who we’ll keep in good memory: we are escorted by Baba Saeed. His whole being radiates a boisterous cheerfulness. He complements each of his words with a warm smile. When, soaked to the bone, we take a break in a little shack to wait for our next escort while drinking hot chai, Baba Saeed tips over a carafe, thrums a few beats on its metal bottom and starts to sing love songs in Urdu and Baloch for us. In the midst of Balochistan’s rainy desert and far away from everything that is familiar to us, we suddenly feel at home. If it weren’t for the many arms and the patrol in front of the door, we wouldn’t know of the difficult situation around us. Then, finally, we reach Quetta. From here, we take the train down south – this time we are escorted by the Pakistani police. Our designation: the mega-metropolis Karachi.   Second Chapter / KarachiPakistan’s Very Own Art Form The kings of the road are polished to the brim, ring, rattle and whoosh by with their hundreds of little bells and chains – and are their owner’s pride and joy. Karachi is a monster, a megacity. 23 million people live in the city by the Arabian Sea – that’s more than on the entire Australian continent. Karachi is Pakistan’s center of commerce and trade and also the playground of the rich and beautiful. But to us, Karachi most notably means that we are allowed to move around freely, without police protection. So, we smile at the sight of the Moloch. As crucial as Karachi is for Pakistan, as mediocre is the city’s reputation. On reaching the city limits by train, we notice the many bedraggled tent camps along the tracks. At the same time, Karachi always occupies one of the first positions in the rankings of the world’s most dangerous cities. It is said that there’s no other city where so many people have been murdered. But we learn all this after we have already left Karachi. However, our time in Karachi is a blast. We drink whiskey with friends at the beach of Hawks Bay, behold lavishly decorated camels at Clifton Beach, meet musicians, filmmakers and journalists and learn more about Pakistan every day. We are fascinated by Karachi’s diversity – poverty and violence next to chic cafés and gigantic shopping malls where the country’s high society frequently run into each other. A first-class oldtimer fair in the middle of the city is our most surprising highlight of this glamour world. Outside, in the streets of Karachi, chaos rules. Pedestrians, donkey carts, camels, motorbikes, auto rickshaws, cars and mini buses push through a shabby colonial setting. Itinerant fruit and vegetable vendors confine the already overcrowded streets. Air pollution is high, the emissions are toxic. Still we enjoy being here. At every corner we are greeted by friendly smiles. Multiple times we are invited to a chai while passing by, simply because people want to talk to us. Many are happy about our visit without ever getting pushy. Not a trace of tricksters and smugglers.         But there’s something else that always urges us back into the streets. It’s the lavishly decorated and impressively ornamented trucks thundering through the city. The kings of the road appear in their regal robes. Polished to the brim, they ring, rattle and whoosh by with their hundreds of little bells and chains. We’ve never seen anything like it: vibrant, bright colors, detailed motives, elaborate decorations. Pakistan’s trucks are by far the world’s most beautiful trucks. An entire art scene is dedicated to the ornamented heavy weights. “Phool Patti” – “flower and leaf”, so the name of Pakistan’s very own art form.         We are sitting on a cot in a small cemented room in a narrow alley somewhere in the 23 million metropolis and are sipping chai. Across from us sit Ali and Haider, two so-called truck artists, whose rolling works of art we’ve been admiring for days. Haider, 34 years old, has been decorating trucks since he was eight. At first, side by side with his father; today, he’s self-employed with about ten employees. When Ali and Haider speak of their work, they rhapsodize: Phool Patti is deeply embedded in Pakistani culture. It is Pakistan’s only original art form, with its own style, own designs, patterns and motives. It turns monstrous trucks and emission beasts into flying carpets on wheels. To their proud owners, the decorated trucks are status symbols. It is not unusual for the drivers to spend more money on decorations for their vehicles than on their houses and families. It is mainly folksy motifs of Pakistan that emblazon the trucks. Oversized petals and leaves play a significant role, as is already hinted at in the name Phool Patti. Furthermore, landscapes and landmarks of the driver’s hometowns are immortalized on the truck’s exterior. Haider explains that the drivers want to show where they come from. Also, calligraphy and animal sketches are omnipresent. In particular, the Bengal tiger crops up, a symbol of power and elegance. Heroic scenes of Pakistani mythology adorn some of the trucks, and quite often the heroes just happen to resemble the drivers themselves. With these depictions, the captains of the road ask for spiritual guidance on their long drives cross-country; from the Arabian Sea to the Himalaya. Religious, sentimental, emotional, local – those are the defining characteristics of Phool Patti. But Phool Patti is more than just strong colors and vivid motives. Ali and Haider tell us that the trucks are completely remodeled and rebuilt. We are curious and want to find out more. As we step out of the cemented room into the glistening sun, a narrow alley opens up, just a few hundred meters away. Every few steps, a door opens, a gate. Behind it, workers are welding, pounding, hammering and filing.     Metal is rolled into long tailpipes, threads are milled. All kinds of metalworks are piled up in dark halls with high ceilings. In a backyard, three men are working on something that’ll eventually become a tank for gas or oil. Somewhere else, two trucks are just being lacquered. Whatever the desired construction for the truck might be, all of them are manufactured in these shops– from to truck bed to driver’s cab. Karachi is the most important city for the art of Phool Patti. There are requests from all over the country for truck decorations and the manufacturing of customized body works. Some drivers travel several hundreds or thousands of kilometers just to give their old Redford trucks an entirely new look. The decorations of each truck are as diverse as are the styles of their designers. Karachi and the province of Sindh in the south of Pakistan are famous for their works of camel bone. The woodworks from Balochistan and from Peshawar in the south-west are especially impressive. Beautifully carved wood panelings adorn the driver’s cabs, solid wooden doors replace the original metal ones. Around Islamabad, plastic is the popular material of choice. After leaving the shop and as the memories of Haider and Ali begin to fade, Phool Patti still sticks with us. All over the country, we see the beautifully decorated trucks, mini buses, and rickshaws – in Karachi, on country roads, in Islamabad and on our way to the Himalaya. Everywhere, we encounter the flying carpets on wheels.         Third Chapter / IslamabadG-11/3 ST.110 #112 Fraternal twins: the capital city Islamabad and Rawalpindi, its ugly sister. We reach Islamabad after spending an inconvenient night. Escorted by the police, we change vehicles every twenty minutes. Sleeping is out of the question. At dawn, just a few kilometers from Islamabad, our vehicle runs out of gas. We are stranded in a suburb and after some helpless consulting, the officers get us a taxi and we dive into the country’s capital. In Islamabad it feels like we have left Pakistan. There’s not much left of the traffic chaos that has followed us to here. The streets are wide and clean, parks and lawns loosen up the concrete wasteland, marihuana grows wild on the roadside. The errant donkey carts have vanished. Instead, we find western cafés, fast-food chains and restaurants – clearly, an influence by the many foreign diplomats and expats. Order and regularity mark Islamabad. In the 50s, the Pakistani government decides to replace Karachi as the capital and a planned city is built overnight – Islamabad. The city from the drafting table is divided into sectors, straight lines, right angles. Broad alleys going one way for miles on end. The multi-lane Kashmir Highway intersects exactly in the middle of the city. Addresses are cryptic: you live in G-11/3 st.110 #112 or F-7/4 st. 28 #20. Every sector is arranged around its own market square where you can run all your important errands: shopping, eating, getting your hair cut. Islamabad is the country’s symmetrical pride.         However, there is no real city center. If you want to go out, you end up in the better-off sectors F-7 and F-6. The Khosar Market is kept firmly in foreign hand. Coffeeshop chains and expensive restaurants are side by side, a private security service and video surveillance watch the parking lot located in the front. Searching bags is a security measure to prevent terrorist attacks. It is even said that in one of the restaurants, Pakistanis are not welcome, they’d be bad for business. Instead, fair-skinned diplomats and suit-wearers sip their frapucchinos while a few steps away, beggars are hanging out on the streets.         But we don’t only encounter expats here. We meet students, graphic designers, web designers and communists. One evening we are sitting in a dark three-bed apartment. There’s an energy supply shortage in Pakistan. Electricity is only available for two hours in a row, then it is turned off for one hour by decree. Lights go out, displays, too, then the Wi-Fi signal disappears: time for talks. With Murad, a postgraduate in politics at the military academy, and Muhammad we talk politics. Both students are in their early thirties and don’t mince words. The government is ruled by the military, on all levels, the land is drowning in corruption, there are no authorities to exert control. Problems are solved with money. Those without money have problems. Inevitably, we address Pakistan’s image as a terror state and learn some sensitive information. For a long time, the state’s terrorism was part of the education policy. Sponsored by the aid organization USAID, millions of ideologically motivated textbooks that propagated the Jihad, the holy war, were distributed in the country in the 1980s. While German students were counting apples and pears, Pakistani students multiplied with bombs and machine guns. They were being prepared for a specific task: as young men, they would move to the nearby Soviet Union in order to destabilize the country as mujaheddins. From today’s point of view, this step really backfired on the western world. Even today, Murad and Muhammad still remember the assignments from back then: If you have ten bombs and ignite one… Meanwhile, they and many of their fellow students are disillusioned. Pakistan has nothing to offer. But they can’t leave the country either. The Pakistani passport isn’t worth much in the world – for many that seems to be the worst fate.         We meet Kamran, a businessman from Islamabad, for lunch. The passionate cyclist and VW Beetle fan shows us Islamabad’s sunny side of life. Following Kamran’s suggestion, we hike through the Margalla Hills. Several hiking trails run through the green ridge in the north of the city and promise a magnificent view of Islamabad. This is where the inhabitants of the capital spend their weekends, go for picnics with their families or keep their bodies in shape by going for a run. We’re here to enjoy nature. But midway, we are stopped by two soldiers. We are not allowed to move on. No explanation. Further inquiries not welcome. It is not the first time that, without any apparent reason, we are stopped by the authorities, always in the name of safety, of course. We assume that some general or politician is having lunch in some restaurant nearby. Such trivialities are often the reason. It’s the general arrogant airs of the security guards that makes these “security measures” particularly unpleasant for us. When we sit down on a bench in one of the better-off sectors, a guy suddenly approaches us. Without a comment and all smug, he starts searching our backpacks. Only after we are outraged, does he identify himself as an employee of a security service. But there’s no way one can tell from his appearance. There are security guards and check posts everywhere. There’re at least two security guards in front of every café and restaurant to thoroughly search us. Always emphasizing that it’s for our own safety – however, we feel like we’re potential suspects. Some foreign restaurants resemble a downright fort. Whoever wants to drive through McDrive has to have their vehicle checked for bombs. Even tracking dogs are employed.         The diplomatic enclave in the eastern part of the city, where almost all embassies and consulates are located behind a high security fence, sticks out like a sore thumb. You can only get there by going through several check posts and security checks. For each visit to the enclave, one is only granted one permit for one embassy. A shuttle service takes the visitors to their desired embassy and also picks them up from there. If someone wants to visit a second embassy, they have to get themselves another permit. A stroll through the city of diplomats? No chance! On our way to the Indian embassy where we have to apply for our visa to continue our trip, we see different flags blowing in the wind: China, Kuwait, Saudi-Arabia, Finland. On a plot that’s the size of 21 soccer fields, the USA are currently building their new embassy. From what is being developed here, this will obviously serve for more than just consular matters. Down the street, we discover an older diplomat in a light blue t-shirt and neon green sweats going for a run – followed by a black limousine with tinted windows at walking speed. Cafés and cash machines pass our view. There’s almost no reason for the diplomats to leave their fort. There’re even parties here. The Canadian and French embassies each have their own club where there’s live music and they serve alcohol – entrance for foreigners only. Islamabad is comfortable, perfect to recharge for a few days, to do nothing but eat and sleep. But the city also lacks something special. To us, Islamabad is no place that we’ll long remember. With Rawalpindi, also lovingly called Pindi, it’s a whole new ball game. Rawalpindi borders to the south of Islamabad and is also called the capital’s ugly sister. And, indeed, Islamabad and Rawalpindi appear to be twins: fraternal twins, from different fathers. They are so close together that a sheet of paper will fit between them. Where one city ends, the other one starts. It’s dusty and loud in Rawalpindi. The honking traffic squeezes through the city’s crowded streets. Small alleys and dilapidated houses dominate the picture. Itinerant vendors sell fruits and vegetables from gigantic, improvised, cobbled-together wood carts. Entire streets are hemmed with vendors selling socks and flower binders. You can find anything here, from laxatives to dentures. Chai wallahs hurry from one side of the street to the other to make sure their customers get to enjoy their product while it’s still hot. To us, the ugly sister is more much charismatic than its fraternal twin. Everyone here can do business. In Rawalpindi, we quickly realize that Pakistan is a country where anything is possible. There are no restrictions, no limitations, as long as one knows how to deal with the given circumstances.         We meet Babar; a man with a friendly demeanor and a thick moustache under his nose. He insists on showing us his very own Rawalpindi – and that is deep down in the shady underworld. Until recently, Babar worked as a real-estate agent but ever since he’s been a child he’s dreamt of mafia stories. While children his age wanted to become a fireman or policeman, Barbar only had one wish: to be a godfather. But over time, Babar realizes that his career in the family business does not suit his nature. Babar is no criminal, just a sympathizer. He withdraws from the business, but the mafia remains loyal to him. He still meets up with godfathers and heads of the clan. During our time with Babar, we also have the opportunity to get drunk with one of Rawalpindi’s dons. Our acquaintance pays off: suddenly, the tailor works much faster and at the fruit vendor we only pay half the price. But it doesn’t stay our only contact to the underworld. It seems Babar knows everything and everyone. Corruption in construction projects? Over there! Illegal sales of contraband? This way! Drugs and prostitutes? Two blocks down! The mafia is above all, but it also knows how to take care of the population’s concerns. There’s rarely anyone in Pakistan who trusts the police and the state authorities. Instead, the mafia helps with its parallel law.         On one of our walks we stop in front of a huge wall and a crowd of people that are pressed against an embellished iron gate. A dozen men have gathered here. Some are in fancy suits, others in the traditional shalwar kameez. They are carrying flower chains and boxes laden with candy. In the middle, two white horses are curried and spruced up. We join the crowd and within a few seconds, Babar is also given a flower wreath. A new senator was appointed and we’re at his public reception. The heavy iron gate opens and allows for a view over the huge property. Rose garden, fountains, alleys – and at the end of the long, drawn-out driveway, an impressive villa surrounded by pillars. The crowd pours in onto the property, there’s music and the horses start to dance, it’s raining confetti and an elderly man with dark-dyed hair and hollow brown eyes is adorned with flower chains from all directions. He shakes hands, smiles to the left, smiles to the right. The new senator. Babar explains: when a senator is appointed in Pakistan he’s rarely had a strong political career. Instead, big bucks were paid. A senator position in the governing party (naturally, it’s cheaper for the opposition) costs about 11 million US dollars. A respectable sum that cannot be provided by just one person. So, if someone wants to become a senator, they go look for sponsors. And they also go look in the shady corners. The public reception isn’t so much a party for the newly appointed senator but much more a presentation of his financiers. Outside the villa stands a long table. Beverages and appetizers are served. We look around the premises and soon find ourselves in front of a huge entrance door to the villa. Servants hurry back and forth, a few guests have gathered in the lobby and we enter. Suddenly, a man hastily approaches us, he promises us some chai and firmly sends us into gender-segregated halls. I find myself in a living room with an ostentatious interior design. Oil paintings are hanging on the walls, a crystal chandelier shines from the ceiling, thick carpets muffle my steps, heavy upholstered furniture stands in the middle of the room. There’s a deadly silence, but I am not alone. About twenty men are sitting around me, old and young, in fine suits or leather jackets. Most men have a moustache, bushy or trimmed. What they all have in common is their scowl. I sit down on the only available space left on the couch, dare a friendly “Salaam” and shyly smile around. No reaction – and if so, then only because some of the scowls are getting even more glowering. Uneasy, I shift around and eye my neighbor. A guy in a leather jacket who stolidly stares ahead. I feel out of place and do a runner before my promised chai arrives. In the room next door I meet Babar who is sitting in a gilded wing chair upholstered in velvet. Behind him, a stuffed leopard hisses from the side table, a family picture stands in front of it. When I tell Babar about the strange constellation I just fled from, he breaks out in laughter. I learn that I was amidst Rawalpindi’s most important dons and representatives of different clans. They all supported the new senator financially and are now expecting a service in return. And indeed, soon the senator hastily passes us and disappears into the living room. A few minutes later, the group leaves the villa in unison.         Rawalpindi takes our breath away. We breathe the city’s dirt and can’t stop laughing. What have we gotten into? But at some point, it’s time for us to leave. Via the Karakoram Highway we go deeper and deeper into the Himalayas.   Fourth Chapter / Northern AreaHindu Kush, Karakoram and Himalaya Northern Area – Pakistan’s Himalaya Region. Naturally, the route up north through the mountains is difficult. We are shaking in our boots in light of the disastrous road. Naturally, the route up north through the mountains is difficult. With the roads being narrow and severely damaged from landslides and the constant to and fro along the winding road, we are moving slowly. Our thrill of speed already kicks in at 40 km/h and at 50 km/h, which admittedly rarely happens; we are shaking in our boots in light of the disastrous road. We are on the Karakoram Highway (KKH), the highest highway in the world. Below us, the Indus River runs towards the Arabian Sea and we are surrounded by towering mountains that take our breath away. Impressive massifs like the Naga Parbat, the Killer Mountain, reach high into the sky. This is where they meet, the world’s three highest mountain ranges – Hindu Kush, Karakoram and Himalaya. Before we enter

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