The Travel Episodes

From Iran Through Pakistan to India

Hitchhiking 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 / Karachi

Pakistan’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.

Metal is rolled into long tail­pipes, threads are milled. 

All kinds of metalworks are piled up in dark halls with high ceilings.

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.

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.

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.

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 / Islamabad

G-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 Area

Hindu 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 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.

Hunza is cons­i­de­red the valley of the hundred-year olds. It is said that Hunza is one of the last para­di­ses – a heaven on earth. 

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 


Shimshal: An Unintentional Hike 

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. 

His sister-in-law is just baking bread on a hot metal plate on top of a low stove.
The family gathers around the fire­place.
Niamat serves us chai.
His house consists of a single room. 

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. 


The World’s Highest Border Crossing. 

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. 


* * *

Fifth Chapter / Lahore

Almost India

A Heat Shock and a Silly Charade at the Border to India.

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.

Next to it stands the Bashahi Mosque which was once cele­bra­ted as the world’s biggest mosque. It is broi­ling in the huge courtyard. The air doesn’t stir. We burn our feet on the blazing slabs. A few thick rubber mats that run across the square make it some­what beara­ble to walk. 

Quickly, we long for Mani’s room where deli­cious ice cream and a water pipe are waiting for us.

A Charade of Silly Walks

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. 


* * *

Read more

Into the Heart of the Pyrenees


Into the Heart of the Pyrenees

The Pyrenees stretch from the Atlan­tic to the Medi­ter­ra­nean, and are among the most beau­ti­ful moun­tain land­s­capes in Europe. Johanna Stöckl treks through the central stages of the moun­ta­ins, through the provin­ces of Lleida and Huesca.

Start Episode

100 miles on the tracks of the Calusa

The Great Calusa Blueway, Fort Myers, Florida

100 miles on the tracks of the Calusa

The Great Calusa Blue­way is an almost 200-mile-long paddling trail off the Gulf coast near Fort Myers. Here Dirk Rohr­bach follows the tracks of the Calusa Indi­ans who were once sett­ling in this region in Florida’s Southwest. 

Start Episode

An Episode by

Nuestra América

Morten Hübbe & Rochssare Neromand-Soma

For two years they hitch­hiked and couch­sur­fed their way from Tierra del Fuego to the Carib­bean. Now, they go in the other direc­tion: over­land to India, of course, again hitch­hi­king.

Readers Mail

Tell us what you think

Deine E-Mail-Adresse wird nicht veröffentlicht. Erforderliche Felder sind mit * markiert.

  • Mandy // Movin'n'Groovin on 24. Januar 2016

    WOW! Was für ein Trip!! Ich konnte gar nicht aufhö­ren zu lesen — sehr span­nend und sehr schön beschrie­ben!

    • nuestra américa on 24. Januar 2016

      Vielen Dank, liebe Mandy. Wir freuen uns, dass dir unsere Geschichte gefal­len hat. Unser Trip durch Paki­stan war ein gran­dio­ses Aben­teuer und ganz anders, als wir es uns jemals vorge­stellt hatten.

  • Alex Sefrin on 24. Januar 2016

    Danke für diese wahn­sin­nig schöne Reise durch Paki­stan!
    Wenn man sich manch­mal die Reise­war­nun­gen des Auswär­ti­gen Amtes durch liest und dann selbst das Land besucht, dann hat das meis­tens nichts mit der selbst erleb­ten Reali­tät zu tun. Genauso gut würde niemand Deutsch­land frohen Mutes besu­chen, nach­dem er das Kapi­tel Danger & Annonce im Lonely Planet gele­sen hat.
    Unsere eigene Einstel­lung, ein Land ohne Vorur­teile mit offe­nen Augen und Ohren zu berei­sen, wirkt sich darauf aus, wie wir von einem Land aufge­nom­men werden.
    So wie ihr es gemacht habt, wurde euch nicht nur Haus und Hof geöff­net, sondern ihr habt auch einen Platz in den Herzen der Menschen gefun­den!

    • nuestra américa on 24. Januar 2016

      Schön, dass dir unsere Geschicht gefällt, liebe Alex. Die Einstel­lung beim Reisen ist ganz entschei­dend, da geben wir dir abso­lut recht. Die Rech­nung ist ganz einfach: Man bekommt, was man gibt. Wir haben Paki­stan als ein wunder­schö­nes Land kennen­ge­lernt und die Paki­sta­nis als sehr herz­li­che und gast­freund­li­che Menschen. Wir waren gerne dort.

  • Kai on 24. Januar 2016

    Wahn­sin­nig inter­es­san­ter Bericht von einem Fleck Erde, den man sonst fast nur aus den Nach­rich­ten oder der Serie Home­land kennt. Vielen Dank dafür! Und verrückt das ich hier das erste Mal von einer Stadt mit 23 Millio­nen Einwoh­nern höre ;)

    • nuestra américa on 24. Januar 2016

      Wir freuen uns, dass dir der Bericht gefällt, lieber Kai. Es ist schade, dass Paki­stan häufig nur in einem schlech­ten Licht präsen­tiert wird. Das Land und seine Menschen haben wir sehr viel posi­ti­ver wahr­ge­nom­men, viel herz­li­cher und freund­li­cher, als es in den Medien darge­stellt wird.

  • Tabitha on 24. Januar 2016

    Schon lange habe ich keinen Bericht mehr so verschlun­gen und dabei sogar noch Gänse­haut bekom­men. Unglaub­lich beein­dru­ckend! Und vor allem, weil sich die wenigs­ten aktu­ell so tief hinein wagen, ist der Einblick um so kost­ba­rer.

    • nuestra américa on 24. Januar 2016

      Vielen Dank für dein Lob, liebe Tabi­tha. Die Reise durch Paki­stan hat uns auch sehr berührt. Die Herz­lich­keit und Gast­freund­schaft der Menschen ist unbe­schreib­lich. Schade, dass das Land aufgrund geopo­lit­scher Inter­es­sen seit Jahr­zehn­ten so einen schlech­ten Ruf hat.

  • Hamad on 24. Januar 2016

    Hi guys,

    I am reading your blog from Kara­chi and found it super inte­res­ting and funny for even a local. Well done on docu­men­ting your adven­ture across Paki­stan. We hope you will visit us again soon!


    • nuestra américa on 24. Januar 2016

      Thanks a lot for your kind words, dear Hamad. We appre­ciate the laud of a local very much. Paki­stan is a coun­try worth visi­ting a second time. We will consi­der going back one day.

  • Johanna Stöckl on 26. Januar 2016

    So eine schöne, aufre­gende und span­nende Episode!
    Toll, toll, toll … Und die Bilder, Videos …
    Musste das jetzt loswer­den :-)

    Lieben Gruß aus München,

    • nuestra américa on 31. Januar 2016

      Vielen Dank, liebe Johanna!

      Wir freuen uns sehr, dass wir dir eine Freude machen konn­ten. :-)

  • Eva on 28. Januar 2016

    Was für ein Aben­teuer. Wunder­schöne, span­nende Episode und mitrei­ßend geschrie­ben. Aber wie geht es Euch denn? Die Kälte, der Hunger, die Hitze, die Menschen und das Ange­wie­sen sein auf jene, Rochssare als Frau — oftmals bestimmt ganz allein auf weiter Flur in diese Männ­der­do­mäne?
    Das würde mich mega inter­es­sie­ren. Ich reise heute nicht mehr so aben­teu­er­lich, weiß aber wie ich früher auf solchen Reisen so oft an meine Gren­zen kam.

    • nuestra américa on 31. Januar 2016

      Vielen Dank, Eva! Wir freuen uns über dein Lob.
      Uns geht es sehr gut. Mitt­ler­weile sind wir in Indien und reisen noch immer per Anhal­ter kreuz und quer durchs Land. Hunger, Kälte und Hitze haben wir gut über­stan­den. Die Freund­lich­keit und Hilfs­be­reit­schaft der Menschen hat dazu beige­tra­gen, dass wir mit den Unwäg­bar­kei­ten der Reise gut klar­ge­kom­men sind.

      Auf der Straße in Paki­stan sieht man nur selten Frauen (abge­se­hen von Isla­ma­bad und Kara­chi). Der öffent­li­che Raum ist von Männern domi­niert. Dennoch sind wir beide stets mit Respekt behan­delt worden.

  • Chris on 28. Januar 2016

    Wirk­lich gigan­tisch toller Bericht über ein Land, dass ein Freund und ich auf unse­rer Eurasien-Fahrradtour (soweitzuzweit.wordpress.com) leider nicht durch­que­ren konn­ten. Das war 2010 kurz nach dem schwe­ren Hoch­was­ser am Indus, auf Grund dessen die Einreise nicht möglich war. Dabei hatten wir schon so viel gutes gehört. Mit am besten hat mir euer Abste­cher ins Hima­laya gefal­len. In den abge­schnit­te­nen Ort möchte ich jetzt auch gern einmal reisen! Schön auch die Bemer­kung das ihr in Lahore Indien sehr nahe kommt. Verrück­ter Verkehr, mehr Chaos, zum Foto­mo­tiv werden. Genau so ist Indien! ;)

    • nuestra américa on 31. Januar 2016

      Vielen Dank für dein Lob, Chris!
      Schade, dass euch damals die Einreise verwehrt wurde. Ihr hättet das Land und seine Menschen bestimmt sehr schät­zen gelernt. Wir haben unsere Zeit in Paki­stan unglaub­lich genos­sen. Nicht nur in den Bergen, auch am Arabi­schen Meer und über­all dazwi­schen.

  • Patricia O'Brien on 31. Januar 2016

    Love Paki­stan. Thanks for remin­der

    • nuestra américa on 31. Januar 2016

      Most welcome! :-)

  • Basti on 15. April 2016

    Moin und vielen Dank für den ausführ­li­chen Bericht! Eine Frage habe ich: Würdet ihr nach dem kürz­li­chen Atten­tat in Lahore die Stadt in nächs­ter Zeit berei­sen oder ist dies in Anbe­tracht der Lage (trotz aller Sympa­thien für das Land) gerade der falsche Zeit­punkt?
    Sollte man so etwas grund­sätz­lich im Auge behal­ten oder trotz allem mit einer zwar vorsich­ti­gen, aber (zum Teil) naiven Einstel­lung nach Paki­stan fahren, um sich selbst, abseits der Massen­me­dien, ein Bild zu machen? Wie steht ihr dazu? :)

    • Morten und Rochssare on 16. April 2016

      Hi Basti,
      In Paki­stan kann es leider immer wieder zu Anschlä­gen kommen. Darüber soll­test du dir immer im Klaren sein. Wenn du dann immer noch Lust hast, nach Paki­stan zu reisen, soll­test du das machen. Lahore ist eigent­lich eine sichere Stadt. Das Atten­tat zu Ostern galt ja auch expli­zit einer christ­li­chen Gemeinde. Es war eine Angriff auf eine reli­giöse Minder­heit im Land und nicht auf den Alltag. Von diesem Stand­punkt betrach­tet ist es eher unwahr­schein­lich, dass du als Tourist fürch­ten musst, Opfer eines Anschlags in Lahore zu werden.

    • Basti on 27. April 2016

      Hey und vielen Dank für eure Antwort!
      Ich bin gedank­lich schon einen Schritt weiter und darf mir hoffent­lich bald selbst ein Bild davon machen!
      Leider war bei all den Leuten, die ich bisher unter­wegs kennen­ge­lernt habe, noch kein Paki­stani dabei und nun stehe ich vor der klei­nen büro­kra­ti­schen Hürde ‚Invi­ta­tion Letter‘ im Visa-Antrag. Mit einer (noch nicht vorhan­de­nen) Hostel-Reservierung komme ich da wahr­schein­lich nicht weiter, oder? Habt ihr einen Rat und/oder viel­leicht sogar einen Kontakt, den ihr empfeh­len könnt? Zudem bin ich gerade (auch?!) in Indien, was die Bean­tra­gung nicht gerade einfa­cher macht. Aber zumin­dest der Plan steht!

  • Karina M. on 25. Januar 2017

    An sich ein sehr span­nen­der Arti­kel über ein Land, das wohl nicht viele als Touris­ten zu sehen bekom­men. Aller­dings finde ich es furcht­bar, dass ihr das Leben der dorti­gen Sicher­heits­kräfte aufs Spiel setzt, nur weil ihr unbe­dingt durch Krisen­ge­biete reisen müsst — und das zum Spaß. Ein Abschnitt wie dieser ist einfach schreck­lich: „Die Levies selbst sind immer wieder Opfer terro­ris­ti­scher Über­griffe. Zuletzt ster­ben im Januar 2014 sechs Levies bei einem Schuss­wech­sel, als sie einen spani­schen Radfah­rer durch Belut­schi­stan eskor­tie­ren, fünf weitere Levies und der Spanier selbst werden verletzt.“

    Manch­mal sollte man viel­leicht darüber nach­den­ken, ob man auf eine nicht notwen­dige Reise verzich­ten sollte, auch wenn die Geschichte, die man später zu erzäh­len hat, dann um eine Anek­dote ärmer wird…

    • Uwe on 13. Februar 2017

      Bewun­dere Euren Mut zu dieser laaan­gen Reise!!!

      Als junger Mann bin ich auch mit klei­nem Gepäck durch Südost-Asien. Heute wäre ja wieder Zeit zu solchen ausge­dehn­ten Reisen mit Part­ne­rin. Aber bei etwas fort­ge­schrit­te­nem Alter möchte man morgens in etwa wissen wo abends das müde Haupt abge­legt werden kann. 

      Was noch inter­es­siert wie seit Ihr an die nächste Adresse für eine Über­nach­tung gekom­men? Alles über Couch-potato, oder andere Quel­len?

  • Fiona on 4. Oktober 2017

    Bin echt geplät­tet von eurem Blog…So ein Land wie Paki­stan, das man wirk­lich gar nicht kennt und so fremd ist, ist wirk­lich span­nend… Ich selber habe ähnli­ches erlebt bei meiner Nami­bia Rund­reise aber das war dann doch noch­mal ganz anders von der Kultur her. ICh finde es toll, dass ihr den Mut hattet…Ob es was für mich wäre weiss ich nicht aber span­nend ist es total!
    LG, Fiona

  • Patrik on 22. Dezember 2017

    Hallo ihr Beiden,

    echt ein super Bericht hat wirk­lich riesig Spaß gemacht den zu lesen. Ich und meine Freun­din sind beide auch sehr inter­es­siert vom Iran nach Indien zu reisen.
    Könnt ihr uns viel­leicht ein paar Tipps geben, wie ihr das alles orga­ni­siert habt (gerne auch per Mail)?
    Hattet ihr das Paki­stan­vi­sum damals in Deutsch­land orga­ni­siert?
    An der Grenze Iran/Pakistan, mit der Poli­zei war das im Vorfeld so orga­ni­siert oder habt ihr das erst alles dort gemacht?


    • Christoph on 7. Juli 2018

      Moin Moin,

      ich habe ähnlich es auch geplant nur das ich die Stre­cke mit dem Auto fahren möchte. Würde mich sehr freuen wenn ich paar Infos und Tipps zur Orga­ni­sa­tion (Visum, Eskorte) bekom­men würde. 

      Beste Grüße von der Küste,

  • Reise In Die WüSte on 14. März 2018

    Die Leute dort haben wir als sehr gast­freund­lich erlebt.

    Aller­dings haben wir große Unter­schiede bemerkt, je
    nach­dem wo man sich mit ihnen unter­hält.
    In den Touris­ten­städ­ten waren einige Leute doch schon ziem­lich beharr­lich aufdring­lich.
    Im Landes­in­ne­ren gab esdann ein komplett ande­res Bild.
    Freund­lich und schon beinahe zurück­hal­tend.
    Jeden­falls braucht man dort keine Sorge haben bestoh­len zu werden.

  • Bernd Rudolf on 10. Februar 2019

    Ich war mal 1974 als Tram­per von Köln aus bis Neoal unter­wegs. Damals gings noch durch Afgha­ni­stan. Fahre dieses Jahr mit dem Wohn­mo­bil eure Stre­cke ab. Bin ganz neugie­rig wie es wird. Hab ein wenig Respekt vor Belut­schi­stan. Aber andere habens auch geschafft.
    Viel Spaß noch wünsche ich euch Lg Bernd

  • 1. The Travel Episodes – Travel destination on 9. Mai 2019

    […] example, the Hitch­hi­king through Paki­stan entry, when you first landed on the page, you are alre­ady feeling the tense atmo­s­phere of the […]

  • The Best Design Travel Blogs In 2020 – Safe Socialising on 13. April 2020

    […] example, the Hitch­hi­king through Paki­stan entry, when you first landed on the page, you are alre­ady feeling the tense atmo­s­phere of the […]

  • Kurt on 13. April 2020

    voll coole Reise! Konnte gar nicht aufhö­ren zu lesen-und mein Puls schlägt auch höher!

  • Lisboa Catmandu por Terra: Roteiro de 3 Meses Passo-a-Passo on 21. Mai 2020

    […] preten­dida. Poderá ler aqui (em inglês) um detal­hado relato da entrada por esta fron­teira e aqui uma abord­a­gem mais radi­cal a este troço da […]

  • josec on 9. Juni 2020

    wow landed at this webpage and in love with the content & visu­als. just here to say thumbs up .

  • 20 Most Beautiful Travel Blogs in 2020 – Nomadlly.com on 27. Juni 2020

    […] example, the Hitch­hi­king through Paki­stan entry, when you first landed on the page, you are alre­ady feeling the tense atmo­s­phere of the video […]

  • dil on 28. Juni 2020

    What an amazing post, thanks for sharing it!

  • 20 Most Beautiful Travel Blogs In 2020 That Takes Storytelling To The Next Level - on 11. Juli 2020

    […] example, the Hitch­hi­king through Paki­stan entry, when you first landed on the page, you are alre­ady feeling the tense atmo­s­phere of the […]

  • Most Beautiful Travel Blogs - 78agency.com on 14. September 2020

    […] example, the Hitch­hi­king through Paki­stan entry, when you first landed on the page, you are alre­ady feeling the tense atmo­s­phere of the video […]

  • Himalayan Adventure Treks & Tours on 27. September 2020

    Awesome Arti­cle! very inte­res­ting and infor­ma­tive with amazing Paki­stan pictures. Thanks for sharing.