Officially, it’s prohibited. Still, Stefan Orth decides to couchsurf through Iran, thereby getting to know a country that doesn’t fit its image of a rogue state.
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.
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?
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 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.
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.
* * *
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.
* * *
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.
* * *
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 the mountains, we go through a volatile place. Only 50 kilometers from Islamabad, we reach Abbottabad. It’s the city where on May 2, 2011, a US task force raided Osama bin Laden’s property and killed the head of the terrorist organization al-Qaeda after a short firefight. Four years later, the god-led terror is still so present that, reverently and a bit apprehensively, we stare out the window. There’s a lot of military on the roads and several checkpoints along the highway. But life in the city seems to carry on as usual, we see market stalls and vendors, a few donkey carts.
We travel three days through the mountains before we reach the Hunza Valley. All of a sudden, the surrounding mountains have moved apart and made room for one of Asia’s most scenic valleys. Hundreds of apricot and almond trees are laden with pink and white blossoms. In the background tower massive six-thousanders and seven-thousanders, covered with snow.
The Hunza Valley is centrally located on the Karakoram Highway. For a long time, it was considered isolated, cut off from the rest of the country. Myths and legends surround the region. There’s talk that people here have a high life expectancy.
We stay in Karimabad, Hunza’s main town. For hours, we sit among the town’s fruit trees and admire the landscape or go for hikes through the nearby mountains. High up above Karimabad, narrow trails which are only a few feet wide run along the rock. Rugged cliffs tower over our heads and at an arm’s length away, drop into an abyss whose depth we can only but guess.
The beauty that nature created here is hard to put into words.
Karimabad and the Baltit Fort, a king’s palace from the 13th century, stick out of the vibrant green fields. In the back, on the lower mountain slopes, the sea of pink and white blossoms slowly fades until one can only see shades of brown and beige bare rock. Up above, glistening snow-covered peaks and rugged glaciers. One of them is the icy Rakaposhi, 7,788 meters high.
We sit down on a ledge along the way and enjoy some dried apricots and mulberries. This heaven on earth has some unusual delicacies to offer. The apricot dishes are particularly popular. The dried fruit, crushed pits and pressed oil are used as ingredients in many dishes. Sandwiches filled with chopped peppermint, coriander, cheese and apricot pits or a sweet apricot soup. The Hunza “chocolate”, an energy bar made with dried apricots, apricot pits, honey and other fruits and nuts, is just yummy.
After recharging our energy, we meet Mumtaz, a young teacher of natural history who works at the public school in Karimabad. Without mincing matters he explains that there’s not much going on in this city of 7,000 inhabitants. But the passionate cricket player never gets bored and spends every spare minute on the nearby cricket field where he plays with his friends. The cricket field is kind of a gravel pit where once rock was removed for road-making. The new training season has just started and all of Karimabad’s young men have come together to make sure to get their position on the team. Mumtaz is highly ambitious and swings an imaginary bat into the air. Cricket is by far the most popular sport in Pakistan. All over the country, balls are thrown and broad bats beat them into the distance.
After the sun has set, Mumtaz invites us to join him at the nearby casino. We eye him incredulously: a casino in paradise? The gambling hall is the lobby of a rundown hotel. Several tables are standing in the narrow, long room. A gas lamp shines a dim light, surrounded by billowing cigarette smoke. There are only men in the room. We hear a hubbub of voices, laughter. Dice roll across the tables, cards fly from left to right, tokens clack on the game boards. Tea is served.
Technically, gambling is prohibited in Muslim Pakistan. Though we aren’t talking blackjack and roulette, but nine men’s morris, checkers and ludo. The entire board game collection of my early childhood is spread out here on the tables. Mumtaz and I start a party of checkers, but after a few draws he’s already beat me. There’s no mercy at the casino. The players are lightning-fast and every single mistake is penalized. Every evening, every year, the clack-clack-clack sounds until late into the night
We leave Karimabad, following the Karakoram Highway up north. But after only a few dozen kilometers, we suddenly reach the road’s end. Before us: a huge lake, Attabad Lake. In 2010, blocked by a massive landslide, Hunza Lake dammed up to a gigantic water reservoir. Surrounding villages were completely or partly flooded, fields wiped out. The route up north is destroyed and for a length of 25 kilometers, Karakoram Highway disappears in the floods.
Today, long boats cross over the lake and convey passengers and goods to the other side. Everything here is loaded per hand: heavy cement bags as well as boxes filled with cackling hens. The crossing takes about 40 minutes. Whoever needs to transport their car is in for a wobbly juggling act. At a 90 degree angle, two planks are laid out across the longboats where the vehicle is then aligned and secured only with a few rocks that block the wheels.
Behind Attabad Lake, the already sporadic traffic withers to even less. There’s almost no vehicle on the highway. But we’re lucky and hitch a ride with a few locals to Passu. From there, we want to hitchhike 50 kilometers off from the KKH to the side valley of Shimshal. But apart from us, there is nobody else traveling on the dusty, hair-pin bent road that runs in between gigantic rock face. We walk through the narrow ravine into the mountains, following the Shimshal, the river that shares the same name.
We are entirely unprepared for this journey. We don’t expect to be covering a great distance on foot. Except for some mulberries we have rarely brought along any provisions. Also, the gas cartridge for our camp cooker is long empty. As it turns out, our calculation completely fails.
We remain the only ones on the road.
When the sun sets and it gets freezing cold, there is still no vehicle in sight. We start gathering scattered dried bushes. With a little wood that we find on the side of the road, we start a fire, heat up our sparse leftover pasta that once found its way into our backpacks as emergency provisions and crawl into our sleeping bags, shivering.
The next morning we set out early. We are hungry and drag ourselves along, hiking at lake-level or climbing several hundred meters above. The road is still dusty, rocky and untraveled and takes us further and further into the mountains. Glacier snouts sprawl out over the cliffs all the way to the road. Gigantic debris avalanches and tremendous boulders line our path in this barren landscape. High up above, snow-white mountain peaks gleam against a bright blue sky.
All day long we follow the same direction. Once in awhile we cross a bridge, hear the river rushing below us. Our stomachs are growling and the alpine sun is burning our faces. Shimshal is still far away. When the sun sets behind the mountain range not a single car has passed us, yet. Slowly, we are becoming seriously concerned about how we’re going to survive the freezing night. It’s been some time since we last saw some wood or anything else we could start a fire with and we haven’t eaten anything but a few dried mulberries in the past 24 hours. We are left with 200g instant noodles, but our attempt to ignite a fire with a few green bushes fails.
Instead of getting warming flames, thick billowing smoke stings our nostrils and makes our eyes tear.
At the peak of our distress, we hear a motor sound in the distance. And indeed, before the darkness sets in, a vehicle reaches us and takes us to Shimshal, which is still a few kilometers away.
Life in Shimshal is hard. Not only because it’s a long and hard journey to get there. The soil is dry, nights are freezing. Hard work is a prerequisite for surviving here. There are no water pipes, no heating and no reliable power grid. Only in the summertime, when the glacial melting sets in, does a little hydroelectric facility produce power. Life in Shimshal mainly consists of working the fields and the tedious work of getting water from the river. Firewood has to be hauled over a distance of several kilometers. Peasants drive their huge sheep, goat and yak flocks through the valley on to their pastures. No work here serves a lesser purpose than mere survival.
And still: the people in Shimshal relish being so special. Almost everyone is a mountain climber. There’s a school for mountain climbing and people are proud to point out that the best climbers are born in their little valley.
On our way through the village of 2,000 souls, we are approached by Niamat. The young man invites us over to his family.
Next to the sleeping quarters there’s a little fridge on the back wall. There are no windows. Only a hole in the flat roof above the oven lets in some light. Household utensils and a few books are stacked in a shelf. There are several cushions and blankets on the floor. It’s here on these few square meters where the family eats, sleeps and lives. A little portable radio in the corner runs on batteries. Flashlights are charged via a solar panel.
In a few weeks when the glaciers start to melt there will be power again.
We talk about the hardship of daily life in Shimshal and the joys of living in this remote spot. By chance we learn that Niamat and his brother Mansoor, who is also present, have written Pakistani history. In 2013, Niamat and Mansoor are the first Pakistanis to go on a successful alpine skiing expedition in their own country. In six hours, the two adventurers summit the peak of 6,050 m high Manglik Sar, only to ski down to their base camp at breakneck speed in 17 minutes. Within five days they conquer three more six-thousanders, leaving deep tracks in the powder. An all-time record!
But Niamat and Mansoor aren’t the only daredevils in town. In a small restaurant, we meet Hasil. He’s also a mountain climber and the first conqueror of the highest peak in Shimshal Valley, that now carries the name Sunset Peak. But Hasil doesn’t only go climbing in the immediate area, but he also frequently participates in expeditions up to K2 and Nanga Parbat. He tells of the difficult, often fatal ascents up the mountains, of the corpses and body parts littering the routes up to the peak. Anecdotes follow: he laughs as he recounts his encounters with the renowned mountain climbers Hans Kammerlander and Reinhold Messner whom he accompanied on their tours through the Pakistani mountains.
Hasil talks about Hans being funny and Reinhold grim – liking the one, not liking the other.
After two days of exploring the valley, climbing glaciers and being invited to tea several times by peasants and peasant women, we return to Karakoram Highway. On our last leg going north we want to reach the Chinese border. At Khunjerab Pass, almost 4,700 meters in height, Pakistan and China meet. It is one of the world’s highest, fortified border crossings. But on our way there we suffer again from the ramifications of the dammed up Attabad Lake and the scarcely present traffic. From Passu to Sost we travel on Karakoram Highway we’re still lucky and get a lift with three friendly engineers in telecommunications. But then we’re stuck.
We’re 85 kilometers from the border and don’t encounter a single car. We wait. Equipped with a sign that says “China” and “Khunjerab” we stand by the roadside. But there’s no opportunity to hold it up in the air. Except for the policeman behind the closed gate, there is no one else to read our sign.
We wait for three days: from dusk till dawn.
Hour after hour, day after day. Only the policeman’s encouraging words and occasional chai servings help us keep up the belief in our plan’s success.
On the third day the time has come. We run out of patience.
We are still undecided whether or not to give up or keep up our hopes for a little longer when Theo and Sereen, two adventurous travelers from New Zealand and England invite us in their car. They are also headed to Khunjerab Pass and together we continue our journey. We drive up higher and higher. The air is getting noticeably thinner and it’s getting cold. Snow and ice sprawl out on both sides of the road. A few feet away, a groundhog scurries through the snow, ibexes climb seemingly impossible tracks, jumping from from ledge to ledge.
As it happens, there is also a Chinese tour group there when we reach Khunjerab Pass. Funnily enough they think we’re real Pakistanis and are bent on getting their souvenir photo taken with us. Our attempts to clarify the situation are quickly drowned in the Chineses’ agitation so we let it go. Instead, we shake countless hands as a sign of the Chinese-Pakistani friendship and feel like full-fledged ambassadors of our host country.
The tourist group then cohesively disappears into their bus and drives back into the country’s interior.
We, too, turn around, cross Attabad Lake, hitchhike once again through the Hunza Valley and back to Islamabad from where we continue to Lahore, which is a few kilometers away from the Indian border.
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Islamabad and Lahore are connected by an agreeable multi-lane highway. We glide across the asphalt at a comfortable speed. The car in which we are riding is even air-conditioned. While the temperatures outside seem to be climbing from minute to minute, we sit in the car’s cool interior and eat popsicles.
But when we reach Lahore, which is only a few kilometers away from the Indian border, we feel like someone’s punched us in the face. The sun has just disappeared on the horizon and it is still about 35 degrees Celsius. After coming from the mountains and an altitude of about 5,000 meters, this is a shock. We are hit by a wall of heat.
Mani and Shareez, two young students, take us in. They share their two-bed apartment with their housemates Meero and Hamzar. The fan above whirls around the hot air and it feels like like someone is constantly holding a blow-drier to our face.
Mani and Shareez are bosom buddies, constantly laughing, joking around and when they get too bored they wrestle – just for fun. In the meantime, we smoke a waterpipe. It’s Mani’s biggest hobby and his favorite way to spend his time. Four to five times a day, we stuff the moist tobacco into the ceramic head and let the coals smoulder on the gas stove top.
Lahore makes life hard for us.
It is hot, way too hot.
Every day the mercury climbs up to 40 degrees Celsius and more. We give in. Already in the morning the heat forces us into lethargy. With every waterpipe, we get a little more idle.
We’re sprawled out on the floor and listen to the two students telling us about their lives. Mani and Shareez marvel at our journey, at our freedom. For them, such a thing is out of the question. Just setting out and leaving the family behind? The idea seems too extreme. Shareez relates that he can’t even drive from Lahore to Islamabad without asking his father for permission. Which he would most likely deny. Mani agrees, fiercely nodding his head.
Family ties in Pakistan are very strong. The father is the patriarch. His word is law.
That doesn’t leave much room for individual choices. Which is also the reason for the many curious and puzzled looks we get while traveling through Pakistan.
When we are about to catch cabin-fever, we finally pull ourselves together and go out to explore Lahore. The city is considered to be especially Indian. This is not surprising as it’s only 30 kilometers away from the border and also the capital of the state of Punjab – which is divided since Pakistan’s split from India. Here, it is a bit more crowded and a bit more chaotic than in the rest of the country. From all sides, we are eyeballed with curiosity. Passersby are not shy to change sides or change their direction only to get a better look of us. It’s the first time we become an object for the camera rather than taking pictures ourselves.
Lahore has a long, eventful history. The city’s architecture being a contemporary witness. Colonial buildings from the time of the British emperors next to impressive mosques, shrines and temples. The old town, which is surrounded by a high, centuries-old town wall, is still the city’s vibrant center. We go through the Delhi Gate, one of thirteen entrances to the old town. The narrow alleys are teeming with vendors and vendees, carriers of goods and onlookers. We wander through the alley of tailors, the alley of fabric vendors, through the alley for supplies for children’s birthday parties, through the alley for spices and household items, the alley for screws and spare parts. A few curious boys follow us. They just stare at us as if paralyzed. Even when, amused, we stare back at them, they don’t snap out of their trance-like state.
Ever since, Lahore’s old town has also been a cultural center, a symbol of wealth and power. According to the legend, the city was founded 4,000 years ago, by Loh, the son of the Hindu God Rama. The moguls erected the marvelous mosques, palaces and gardens that still belong to the city’s most important landmarks. They turned Lahore into one of the most significant Islamic centers of the subcontinent. The city’s reputation attracted theologists, philosophers, mystics, poets and artists alike. Later, the Sikh left their marks, then the British took over. Lahore is a melting pot of all kinds of religions and cultures and today’s creative heart of the country.
The inhabitants are proud of their city’s uniqueness and again and again, we hear “Lahore, Lahore aye” – “Lahore is Lahore”.
We visit the citadel Shai Qila, Lahore’s World Cultural Heritage. Erected by the moguls, it must have been a real beauty once. Today, the site is slowly deteriorating. Paint chips off the walls, trash litters the corners. A fire breaks out in one of the buildings and the fire station is called into action. Only the massive Alamgiri Gate in all its magnitude is still very impressive.
Quickly, we long for Mani’s room where delicious ice cream and a water pipe are waiting for us.
The border to India is only a few kilometers to the east. Since their independence and splitting, the political tensions between the nuclear powers Pakistan and India are often ruthless and carried out at the expense of the civilian population. Archenemies as they exist nowhere else. At the Wagah-Attari border this political enmity is creatively expressed in the border-closing ceremony. Every evening, it’s a charade of its own special kind.
It is probably the most entertaining of all military parades.
Tall soldiers in spruced-up uniforms with funny-looking hats that kind of a resemble a cock’s comb march up and down. Their beards are carefully trimmed, their expression grim. Determined, they demonstrate their alleged power to the border officials of their neighboring country. It’s exaggerated and, on both sides, synchronized down to the last detail.
But the soldiers aren’t just marching, they are waging war against each other. The ultimate weapon is the high-kick where they throw one leg high above their heads and then knock their knee towards their forehead. And so they fight the air, which, probably coming from the neighboring country, is also declared an enemy. Raised fists and wild gestures are also part of their repertory. The parade continues in robot-style. Monthy Python couldn’t have staged this any better.
As if the theater alone weren’t enough, there are also hundreds if not thousands of bystanders on both sides. Men wearing flag outfits fuel the atmosphere, urging their fellow countrymen to make as much noise as possible to really show “them over there”. Shaking their fists wildly above their heads, both sides are hollering and screaming without restraint; “Pakistan Zindabad” – “Long live Pakistan” clashes with “Hindustan Zindabad” – “Long live India”. Again and again, the masses, which are overcome with patriotism, jump from their seats. It’s hard to say whether the atmosphere is more of the festival or the soccer game type. But it probably doesn’t make a difference whether you’re waiting in the first five rows for “Rage Against the Machine” to play or if you’re standing in the south bank of the Westfalenstadion (a soccer stadium in Dortmund, Germany). Either way, it’s pretty intense.
Half an hour later, the whole performance full of screaming and threatening is over and at last, it happens, what all this has been about: the border is closed. Slowly and steadily the national flags are pulled in on both sides. God forbid if one of the flags stays up longer than the other. Then, finally, the Pakistani and the Indian official quickly, forcefully and probably painfully shake hands.
In the end, both border gates crash shut. The ceremony is over.
It gets quiet again. On both sides, it’s now time to take souvenir photos with the handsome soldiers. If now a Pakistani or an Indian would look over the low border fence on to the other side: they would spot their mirror image. The enmity that politically separates both nations would lose its breeding ground. They share the same looks, the same mentality, even the same language, Punjabi. But instead of looking, they go ahead and buy souvenirs: a DVD of the ceremony, mouse pads and cups with the pictures of the soldiers.
Tomorrow, the charade starts all over again.
Tomorrow, we will be in India.
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