Pakistan

When outlining the itinerary for this trip, Pakistan was supposed to be a means to an end. I’d spend 10 days, more or less, transiting a country that had me wetting my pants with fear in the lead-up to the border crossing. It’s a testament to the charm of Pakistan, and also to my half-baked preparation that I spent well over 2 months ranging about the country.

Mistakes Were Made, Yes

While Pakistan turned out to be an enjoyable surprise, the real reason I was here much longer than I expected was again due to visa issues. There are some countries whose visas begin to run down the moment they are issued. Other countries’ visas only begin to tick down the moment you cross the border. The latter is a system that makes perfect sense. Unfortunately, India subscribes to the former and I didn’t realize this until there was less than a month left until the expiry of my Indian visa.

India’s visa rules are also notoriously strict. Unlike many other countries, you are not allowed to make any visa extensions, nor, if you are stamped in and decide to leave India for any reason, can you reenter the country without waiting a minimum of 60 days. This is done “to prevent terrorism,” a consular official told me. What isn’t these days? All this to say that I was forced to wait for my Indian visa to expire on January 18th, and reapply for a new one, which meant a long wait in the monochrome capital city, Islamabad. Fortunately, there was much squash to be played, many monkeys to provoke and copious amounts of bootleg liquor to be consumed.

That’s what teeth are for, no?

But on to Pakistan, which is at once wholly deserving of its sordid reputation and simultaneously the country I am most eager to return to.

Mountain High To Valley Low

If you were to draw a line through Pakistan beginning on the westernmost border with Iran and ending just before China, up through the center of the country, you’d end up with what looks like an exponential growth curve.

Use your imagination

Geographically, anyway, Pakistan’s appeal follows the same geometric trajectory. After the vast, desolate western desert province of Balochistan, Pakistan’s scrubby wasteland gives way to blooming plains. Sugar cane, cotton and other crops grow in abundance here. And they’re transported to and fro by these outrageously overladen trucks.

Actually saw someone sleeping on the top of one of these

As you come toward Islamabad, the landscape breaks out with pimply hills. These grow in stature in the Northern Areas, where the three highest mountain ranges in the world (the Himalayas, the Karakoram and the Hindu-Kush) crash together. Up here, you’re surrounded by an amphitheatre of some of the tallest mountains on the planet, including a handful of eight-thousanders.

The Borders – Balochistan

Crossing the Iran-Pakistan border was a relatively straightforward experience, but there’s a very stark contrast between the two countries. Iran’s border compound is full of two-storey administration buildings, decaled with Iranian flags and glowered over by the stony faces of the Ayatollahs. There isn’t really a way to see what is coming on the Pakistani side, as it’s all buildings and gates in the way. Then the Iranians usher you out of their country and you step out blinking on the other side.

The sun seems more intense in Pakistan. The dry and dusty landscape is sparse, with little bitumen to soak up the the pounding sunshine. A handful of low-slung one- or two-room buildings loiter like vagrants around a grumpy, sandy road. Border layabouts wander about aimlessly. They are all dressed in the shalwar kameez. This is a garment that is found widely on the subcontinent, and looks like the result of a one-night stand between business casual and a pair of pyjamas. I will say this: any nation that considers it socially acceptable to walk around in something this comfortable is doing something right.

In a country where staring is a national pastime, when three carfuls of foreigners pull up in the most desolate region of the country, aliens might as well have landed. It’s an all-you-can-gawk buffet. Random Pakistanis with no identifying uniforms approach and indicate the sequence of buildings we need to navigate to leave the borderlands. A form here, stamped there, signed over there, back to the start. It’s like a level in Chip’s Challenge. The first building we enter consists of a dimly lit room full of Pakistanis filling out forms or just sitting about. Nobody is in a rush to do anything in the first place, and now that there are foreigners to goggle at, well… time has no meaning in a place like Pakistan.

One large book signed in one small room, then another larger book in a different, smaller room, and we traipse across the sand, over a section of flattened barbed-wire fence and in between vehicle carcasses to the security detail. He and his small entourage are relaxing under their frond hut. They’re thrilled to see us. Unlike Iran, everyone speaks at least a bit of English, and many speak it quite well; all are eager to practice. We have British colonialism to thank for that, of course – making travel easier for the lazy anglophone since 1578.

After grinding through the rest of the immigration procedures, we’re on our way with a friendly looking chap and his friendly-looking AK-47 along for the ride.

Photobombing: The new terrorism

Driving through Balochistan took one measure of patience and about a hundred of grim, head-down, submissive resolve. After 26 hours of driving over two consecutive days, all we had to show for it was 600 kilometers covered, a destroyed tire and a caked layer of dust on all my exposed skin that doubled as a temporary fake tan.

Besides the odd camel or madness-inducing registration checkpoint every 20 minutes, there was little to stave off the abject boredom of driving across Balochistan’s wearisome barrens. On only one occasion did I feel legitimately nervous. Our guard was reclining in the shotgun seat, his gun tucked away in the footwell, army hat stuffed in the armrest. We were loping along at about 40 km/h, lazily dodging potholes when I suppose he spotted something on the horizon that he didn’t like. He sat bolt upright, donned his cap and fingered the safety on his gun. I twisted my head away from the road to see him staring straight out the window. “Faster,” he says to me, gaze fixed on something out in the desert. I could hardly go quicker without destroying the car, so I was having kittens for the next five minutes until he relaxed again. Maybe we had just avoided being kidnapped by the Taliban. Or, more likely, he mistook a wandering dromedary for marauding bandits.

An easy mistake to make

The Borders – Wahga

The crossing between India and Pakistan isn’t particularly unusual, despite the schoolyard enmity between the two neighbours. The border is staffed by the same bored-looking, break-taking human shells you find at these government posts the world over, and the formalities are no less tedious. Like elsewhere, moneychangers of dubious repute swarm to you like flies to honey. The standout difference here is that every day they perform an outlandish ceremony to officially close the border.

Ridiculous is an overused word, but few else encapsulate so perfectly the arrant absurdity of the Wahga ceremonies. The patriotic pomp begins with a series of flag-waving male cheerleaders screaming themselves hoarse over an MC who, through a deafening loudspeaker, competes with his Indian counterpart in a contest of who can sustain an “Uhhhhhh” sound for the longest time. I’m not kidding – the servicemen closing the border are like second-graders with facial hair. The MC finishes in a flourish and the Pakistanis in the stands go berserk. On the Indian side, more or less the same thing happens.

Enter a squad of military guards in 2-inch metal-soled platform shoes, bedecked in military insignia and ridiculous caps topped with black-and-white hand fans. They goose-step toward the gates and stamp their feet menacingly, saluting every flag in sight. A few of them strut off toward the gates and shake their chests, Shakira-like, at the Indian guards. Back in formation, the guards fluster about and restlessly preen their moustaches.

It ends with a Pakistani and an Indian soldier attempting to rip each other’s arms off in the parting handshake. The flags are then lowered simultaneously. Apparently the goal is to get your flag to stay up longer than the other by a fraction of a second. Somehow, the crowd can tell. Then the gates are rushed shut with a clang and everyone goes bonkers one last time.

Pakistan pride

The Borders – The Khyber Pass & FATA

As Pakistan’s number one source of refugees and religious zealots, Afghanistan’s human capital is not in high demand. The war-torn country to the north nevertheless sends a constant flood of financially and morally destitute people into Pakistan through the Khyber Pass. This pass is one of the oldest in the world and connects the two countries through Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or, FATA. When you hear about the US conducting drone target practice on civilians and Taliban militants, that’s in FATA. When you hear about women being systematically denied the right to vote in Pakistan, that’s in FATA. When you’re looking for any variety of smuggled good – from rocket launchers to hashish to viagra – you can find it in FATA. It’s basically the Pakistan of Pakistan. You just don’t go there.

The reach of Pakistan’s judicial arm is stunted at best in the rest of the country, but it’s entirely amputated in FATA. Pakistan law effectively does not apply here. The Pashtuns, who form the vast majority of the population here, have their own version of tribal law, the strictly obeyed Pashtunwali code. There are nine fundamental principles, but the core four most in evidence are:

1. Hospitality – This is just the greatest thing. Pashtuns go out of their way to accommodate you and really make you feel at home. As much as a Westerner will ever feel at home in Pakistan, anyway. If I acquiesced to every insistent offer of tea and accommodation, I’d never be able to leave the country. The best example of this came when I was bargaining for a hotel in the north. I was really eager to get the price down more, pleading that I was a poor traveler and could not afford such exorbitant rates ($10 a night). The receptionist said no problem, if you can’t afford it you can stay for free, but that’s the rate if you’re going to pay. Touché, Mr. Hotel Man. I paid.

2. Asylum – Pashtuns are obliged to take in anybody who requests protection, even if that same person is essentially an enemy of the tribe. There’s a famous case of a Navy SEAL being taken in by a tribe and given protection in Afghanistan under this exact precept.

3. Eye for an eye – One is seen as cowardly to forgive a slight and forego the right to blood vengeance for insults or even minor crimes. Consider for a moment the violent spiral that could occur if a Pashtun seeks vengeance by spilling the blood of his enemy (or a male relative if the enemy is indisposed). If that vengeance is not considered justified, the slighted man might well take his own. Can you see how this would get out of control? Well, it does, in fact: There are blood feuds that involve murder-in-turn lasting hundreds if not thousands of years. Fortunately for the likes of Raymond Davis and the CIA, blood money is usually an acceptable way to settle matters.

4. Courage – Every Pashtun is expected to defend his property, family, religion and territory from infringements by laying down his life. This is why a war in Afghanistan is virtually unwinnable, as almost half of Afghanistanis are Pashtun.

Foreigners aren’t allowed in FATA without a special permit. Since a bomb went off a couple days before I got to Peshawar, the city that straddles normal Pakistan and FATA, permits were not being handed out. However, some friends smuggled me in to see the smuggler’s market and the Khyber Gate by throwing me in the back of their car in my shalwar kameez, a shawl and a Pashtun cap. Needless to say, I wasn’t fooling anyone. The next day when we went to go back, the police officer who helped smuggle me in the first time suggested it wasn’t such a good idea. “People know you’re here now.”

“Lookin’ for Bin’s killers/Dressin’ ridiculous/Shawl and cap like I don’t see what the big deal is” – Eminem

Revolving door

To describe the border between Afghanistan and FATA as porous is an insult to sponges everywhere. People and products cascade into FATA. You find large bricks of hash on sale next to AK-47s and even NATO supplies in the smuggler’s market. In fact, there’s an entire section devoted to pilfered NATO goods, called the NATO market (duh). I bought a Marine’s field guide to Afghanistan for a couple of cents, but you can buy any variety of vital U.S. Army equipment and USAid material, like helicopter communication systems, baseballs and Count Chocula cereal.

USA! USA!

Pakistan is the main corridor for NATO shipments going into Afghanistan. The crates are dropped off in Karachi, loaded onto trucks, and promptly stolen. The usual scheme involves moving the container onto a different truck, driving some distance, pulling over, and then incinerating the original truck and blaming it on the Taliban. Somebody told me that about 400 trucks go through the Khyber Pass every day carrying about a quarter of the supplies originally exported.

Under the gun

Gun culture is huge in Pakistan in general, especially so near the slow-burning war zone in FATA. Clint Eastwood has nothing on the average Pakistani. Virtually everyone who can afford guns owns at least one. One guy I met had two WWII-era rifles and even a gun disguised as a cane. I was absentmindedly pulling the trigger on it and when we took it apart we realized there was a bullet stuck in the chamber. I would not last long in a war.

So there I was lamenting that I had yet to shoot a gun (almost and accidentally don’t count) in such a gun-happy country. My host grabs a 9mm and tells me to come outside. Picture his neighbourhood as the Westmount of Peshawar. It’s a nice place, and we walk outside and down the block. It’s 9 in the evening. He hands the gun to me and points in the air toward the FATA wilderness. “Shoot.” I oblige him and unload a clip. I thought I would feel like Dirty Harry, but all I got was tinnitus in my right ear for the next hour.

Back in the house and I get one of those how did I get here? moments. I’m in the sitting room of a Pakistani family home; there’s a gun on the table and a baby in someone’s lap. A group of men are expounding on how I can make excellent money shipping cars from Canada to Afghanistan and then smuggling them in through the tribal areas. It’s a great business opportunity, they say. They all know someone they can put me in touch with. Perhaps I was destined to be a gunrunner or smuggler. This thought flits through my mind before I remember that my only gangster credentials consist of me angrily and inwardly plotting elaborate vengeance against drivers who cut me off.

Peshawar is not the easiest city to feel comfortable in, but the people are genuinely nice, surprisingly so. I asked a friend how it was living in a city that is suicide-bombed almost on a timetable. He responded that it was really peaceful really, there hasn’t been a bomb “in about 6 months.” Living in that kind of environment you regularly get a chance to take stock of your life and I imagine it seems a bit silly to be bad-tempered or unkind.

As if you need any more reminder of the grim situation in the region, the road leading up to FATA is full of coffin workshops, and they display their creations by the roadside. Many Afghan refugees die here, and are transported back to Afghanistan in these coffins to be interred in their tribal lands.

Macabre.

The Borders – China

Pakistanis have a fervid schoolyard crush on China. To hear a northern Pakistani tell it, China is, like, Pakistan’s bestest friend in the whole wide world, ever, OMG. The infatuation (in the north, anyway) stems mostly from the manpower, expertise and cash that China shovels into North Pakistan to build and maintain the Karakoram Highway. Engineers in the 60s and 70s designed and built this self-styled 8th Wonder of the World through the three highest mountain ranges in the world. Up until then, most of the communities in the area were entirely disconnected from the rest of the world.

There would be resorts all over the place in any other country

The highway slithers around some of the highest mountains on the planet and up to the highest international border crossing in the world, the Khunjerab Pass. Seven- and eight-thousand meter peaks crowd up to the road like Italians queueing. The road’s existence is a feat that mocks the gods. Really. It should not exist. Nature conspires against it at every turn.

Landslides, flooding and earthquakes are common here. In 2010, a massive landslide blanketed several hundred meters of the highway with a literal mountain of debris about 100 kilometres from China. The Hunza River, which capers along next to the road, was also dammed by the landslide and its water level rose steadily over the next 6 months. Whole villages and dozens of kilometres of highway were submerged by the resultant body of water, now called Attabad Lake. The lake is now 400 m across, 100 m deep, and 25 kilometres long.

The work to remove the natural dam was originally supposed to take two years. They now say it will take another two years, but that would be a surprise. Meanwhile, the only way to cross to the other side is by small boat or barge, dodging underwater trees and buildings along the shoreline. The situation is so drastic that the military even considered ordering airstrikes against the dam, but decided the resulting tsunami would be too big of a risk.

China’s interest in this highway is not obvious at first. Pakistan is a highly populated but fiscally poor trading partner. There’s only so much cheap plastic thneeds you can ship to a country before the market is saturated. And while China uses Pakistan politically, it’s probably not as much as Pakistan does China in order to curb India’s influence.

The real motive behind China’s efforts to build the KKH is that it is China’s only land connection to the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean. Currently its only access to this area is through the Strait of Malacca, so it behooves them to have road access. With billions of dollars spent on the highway, it’s apparently a priority for them.

Lake Attabad

A lake where there once was no lake. That small orange thing is a boat to give you an idea of scale.

Despite the diabolical road conditions, it’s an incredible drive. I went during the worst possible time of the year. It was subzero at night and there was no electricity, heating or hot water, but it was the highlight of the country nonetheless. Various rivers course alongside the highway, sometimes languidly meandering through the valleys; at other times unbridled boiling whitewater courses equinely through narrow channels. The rivers’ colours are vivid, opalescent, transmuting from robin’s egg blue to ice blue to ultramarine, like the lapis lazuli found in the surrounding rocks.

The mountains run the show here, though. Snow-crowned peaks rise imperiously behind brown- and grey-stone eminences. The biggest are regularly lost behind heavy clouds. I loved watching the largest peaks get lost behind cloud cover only to reemerge later, seemingly even grander and more jaw-dropping than before.

God’s own highway

Do go in the summer, though, or at least the fall. In winter the water that runs the hydroelectric dams slows to a trickle, and power is rationed out to towns at a couple hours a day, if you’re lucky. Virtually all of the major trekking routes are closed during this season, as well, and many passes are closed due to snowfall.

Here’s a compilation of some of the video from the drive:

The Borders – Islamabad

As Pakistan’s purpose-built capital, Islamabad is home to all of the major embassies and high commissions. After the Marriott bombing in 2008, the diplomats were all relocated permanently inside the diplomatic enclave. The district is heavily fortified, and the embassies within even more so. I visited the Canadian High Commission and was led through blast walls and 3 sets of dour security officials before ultimately getting to someone who could deal with my passport issue. However, I didn’t see one Canadian at the Canadian High Commission. They were in their quarters behind more security doors and thick, one-way glass. I understand the risk, but it was very dispiriting. Diplomats rarely go out in the city now, and they live out their fully furnished two- or three-year stints in isolation.

The argument for planned cities

They have a saying in Pakistan, “Lahore is Lahore.” It means that there’s no other place like it. If Lahore is Lahore, though, then what is Islamabad? Most Pakistanis, even those from the city itself, marginalize the city as sterile and soulless. As a planned city, it admittedly lacks the twisty alley enchantment of Lahore and other old cities with their old forts and old buildings and old institutions. But with those things come the attendant old infrastructure: old sewers, old roads, old social habits.

I see planned cities slammed all the time in travel writing. It’s too much; I like them. They appeal to a sense of order and organization. They’re usually very clean, which is a change in the third world. Islamabad was the only place in Pakistan where I saw someone wait to throw out garbage in a trash bin. People live as a reflection of their environment, and it’s manifested in Islamabad in the (relatively) sane driving, clean streets and calm, polite people.

The downside is that it costs more for everything. And it is true there is little to do after the day is done, unless you’re lucky enough to be able to get into the diplomatic enclave. But if you’re just a regular Pakistani, forget about it. And if you’re here for architecture, forget about that, too. Islamabad has but one interesting building, a futuristic space mosque that looks like the headquarters of some supervillain. Rumor has it that the CIA asked Pakistan to inspect the spires of the mosque during construction, fearing they were missile bays.

The Faisal Mosque

I really liked Lahore, too. There is much to be said for it – always something going on, beautiful old architecture and so on. I could never live there, though. To many, sucking down lungfuls of blue and white rickshaw exhaust, almost getting hit by donkey carts on a daily basis and dancing around puddles of urine and discarded food packaging everywhere is a small price to pay for living in the cultural nucleus of a country, but it’s too rich for my blood.

The Dark Side – Pakistani Politics

Let’s face it, if you read the news coming out of Pakistan, it would be fair to think that the end times are near. But with Syria bombing its own citizens, Bahrain violently clamping down on anti-government protesters (again) and Israel and Iran involved in very public Spy vs. Spy buffoonery, Pakistan is quietly slipping behind in the ranks of Countries That Scare The Hell Out Of Everyone. However, the wacky antics of religious lunatics and a comically corrupt government are ensuring Pakistan still has a strong claim to the top of this steaming pile.

Reading Pakistani newspapers is a surreal experience. When the 24-hour news cycle eventually tires of covering the daily monstrosities in Syria, Pakistan will be there with a story of a doctor in FATA who was blown up in his car because he was advocating vaccinations, or a story about the systematic kidnapping of several Hindus a month in Balochistan province, some of whom are forced to convert to Islam, while the others are ransomed or killed, or more than 140 people dying from cheaply made heart medication in Lahore.

Meanwhile, stories that would be front page news in virtually every other country are tucked under Bollywood fashion critiques near the back of the paper. In late December, militants blew up a middle school in FATA. Mercifully, no one was killed. They destroyed the school because of, to understate it, ideological differences. The most ridiculous part of this story wasn’t that terrorists had blown up yet another school – that’s not too unusual – but that the locals were objecting to the use of police sniffer dogs to trace the culprits, as dogs are un-Islamic animals. Seriously. This is a story that appeared on page 19 of a major newspaper (read the article here).

Over in Balochistan again, a popular provincial political leader calls for the assassination of the president of the country, offering a 100 million rupee reward, a fully furnished bungalow and full protection from retribution, judicial and otherwise.

The price can only go up on a property like this!

As the lunatic fringe runs rampant and destroys Pakistan’s international image, the government’s ineffectiveness is fully exposed. They have such little control over such huge swathes of the country that nothing can be done to prosecute or even arrest a man who publicly calls for the president to be gunned down, for instance. And this is when they’re not directly complicit in wrongdoing themselves, which brings us to what is headlining the front page.

Send in the clowns

It’s little surprise that the thieves and other career criminals blundering about in Pakistan’s parliament are what everyone is talking about. In times of crisis, the man on the street looks to the government for leadership. In Pakistan, a country that has basically been in crisis for its entire history, the leaders are regularly found hunched over the corner safe in a dark room, greedily stuffing their pockets with fistfuls of cash.

Pakistan’s current coalition government is on course to become the first in the entire history of the country to complete a full term, though early elections are expected sometime in the fall, and 6-8 months is an eternity in Pakistan politics. Most recently, the prime minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, was indicted for contempt. Laws here are regularly disregarded at politicians’ convenience, so it would be a huge shock if he is actually convicted and stripped of office. The very reason Gilani was indicted in the first place was for refusing to renew a corruption investigation against the current president, whom Gilani claims enjoys complete immunity from prosecution both inside and outside the country.

This political soap opera plays out in front of the looming spectre of another military coup. The military, having ruled Pakistan for over half of its existence, see themselves as the rightful rulers of the country. Political maneuvering by the civilian government to bring the generals to heel is never effective: In 2008, the government announced, and then several hours later retracted due to military pressure, a decision that would have seen the ISI (a CIA equivalent) brought under civilian control. Fortunately for the current government, the military only tends toward coups when money is flowing into state coffers. After decades of pilfering politicians, there is little money left, the economy is in the toilet, and the military is happy to sit back and watch the civilian government flounder about in a shoal of desiccated finances, trying to evade potshots from an embittered electorate.

A friend of a friend working for the family business described the administration’s impotence as such: “The only thing standing between me and jail is the utter incompetence of the government.”

Pakistan’s Obama

As Obama swept into office in 2008 on the fuzzy notion of “change”, so does Pakistan’s Imran Khan intend to take back parliament for the people with his platform of being the only remaining politician who hasn’t been accused/convicted/indicted of criminal activity. Khan is a revered cricketer who captained Pakistan to their only World Cup victory back in ’92, which is the Pakistan equivalent of Sidney Crosby winning hockey gold for Canada in 2010. He’s been an outsider in the political game for about 15 years, but in the run-up to the coming elections is now seen as someone who can take on the two major parties. Like Obama did, he cultivates a strong youth movement, and his most ardent supporters are young idealists. But as his popularity grows, he is forced to take aboard turncoats from other parties who, while shepherding in the votes of their electorate, are also liable to pollute his spic-and-span reputation. He is seen by the man in the street as Pakistan’s last great hope. Should he fail in bringing about change, or worse, is eventually corrupted by the establishment, there will be Obama levels of disappointment among his supporters.

The Americans

You wouldn’t think Pakistan would be in such dire straits financially. It’s a relatively resource-rich country, though it actively works to negate that advantage. And America throws money at Pakistan like a drunk at a strip club. The US has been shelling out about $1 billion a year to the country for the past 5 years. After Osama lost history’s longest game of hide-and-seek, the US at least withdrew military aid. From the point of view of the average American, it’s hard to justify sending their taxes to a country that at best was willfully ignorant about harbouring this generation’s most infamous terrorist.

But money sent to Pakistan is good for American business. A sizeable amount of that total has been earmarked for construction and improvements of America’s embassy and consulates around the country. American construction firms get paid an obscene amount to fill those contracts, who then parcel out the actual work to local Pakistani companies for a pittance.

Driving In Pakistan

Here it comes, you say, Adam’s customary rant about driving. Yeah, well…

I was often asked by Pakistanis what I thought about their country. I always answer as honestly as possible in these situations because trite platitudes tend to translate across language barriers surprisingly easily – people can tell you’re holding something back. Typically I would tell them their country is beautiful, their people are fantastically friendly, but nobody knows a damn thing about driving. They would treat me to a conspiratorial smile, as if I had made a common mistake, and tell me that no, Pakistanis just drive differently. They have their own system, they tell me, people can tell what the other drivers are going to do almost telepathically. It’s a system that works, they say.

I’ve heard this argument before. I would lend it credence if it was even remotely borne out by statistics. It never is. People die from traffic related deaths at a grossly disproportionate rate in Pakistan, Iran, India, and everywhere else drivers claim to have an instinctive understanding of how to drive correctly. They are wrong. There is no such thing as an instinctive understanding of the rules of the road. You follow basic safety laws, and everyone gets home alive; you don’t, you end up killing or maiming someone. The general problem is that people fail to grasp that they’re driving around giant steel missiles.

Unlike in Iran, where they drive like they’re on a racetrack, in Pakistan nothing can really go very fast. All of the tiny taxis are powered by compressed natural gas and barely go faster than 30 km/h. However, they have a tendency to line up four abreast on a two-lane road and make it impossible for faster traffic to safely get by. When there is little traffic they sit in the very middle of the road, blocking passing vehicles in both lanes. People with more powerful cars swerve in and out of lanes to avoid them at breakneck speed. The rickshaws dart around indiscriminately between vehicles like dragonflies, cutting off vehicles going twice their speed. Don’t get me started on animal carts – I understand their necessity, but don’t drive your donkey down the middle of a four-lane highway. It’s just common sense.

I was ranting about driving to a Pakistani friend and he scoffed at me, saying that the statistics misrepresent the death toll. “When one motorcycle crashes in Pakistan, five people die.”

He unwittingly proved my point.

The prisoner’s dilemma

You’re out driving at night. Another car is approaching. You both have your high beams on. Here’s the game: Do you turn yours off or keep them on? If you turn them off, and the other driver does as well, both of your views of the road ahead are quite good. If you turn them off while the other doesn’t, he is able to see perfectly, but you are driving blind into a void, and vice versa. If you both leave them on, you are both equally blind.

I got to play this game every night I was driving in Pakistan. Nobody wants the mutual benefit of cooperation in this country, so high beams are left on permanently. This is a minor inconvenience driving around the city, but up in the mountains on a gravel road, with a 600-ft drop less than a foot from your outside wheel, it’s like driving into a Stargate. You hope the wormhole spits you out on the road and not the bottom of a canyon.

This bus driver unknowingly reaches the Nash Equilibrium every night

Stray Observations

The right-hand rule: I understand the reasoning behind this, but to see the effort required to give/take with only the right hand is nonplussing. A mechanic was fixing my broken exhaust pipe underneath the car when he needed a tool. He extracted himself from under the vehicle to free his right hand to receive the wrench, even though his left was totally free, and then returned to work.

Cellular grievances: No matter what culture you’re from, walking through a crowded market blaring the latest Top 40 track out of the single tinny speaker in your cell phone is inexcusable. Obnoxious people like this need to be put in stocks and force-fed old Nokia 3310s.

Shaking hands: In Pakistan, there seem to be very few social interactions that don’t involve a handshake. I’m a big fan of it – it gives you an instant connection with the person. But in spite of spending almost three months in the country, I am still a universal failure at greeting and parting from people according to local customs. As usual, I take no responsibility:

You never know what you’re going to get when you go to shake someone’s hand in Pakistan. A few give you the ol’ cocksure Wall St. grip-and-pump, others dangle a hand like an exhausted fish on the line. Some barely touch you, others present you their forearm. Some go for the bro-hug, others do a Buddha-like pose with the left hand up, touching your chest and the right gripping your hand. In retrospect I saw the reasoning behind every type – for instance, the forearm touch was if the guy thought his hand was dirty from some work he was doing; the hugs came from people you had just met only if they were on hugging terms with the person who introduced you, and so on. I was initially put off by the absence of firm handshakes, but I came to enjoy the hand tap. It’s much less formal and more relaxed than a business shake.

And the award for most adorable moment of the entire trip goes to the 1-year-old in Peshawar who was brought out and introduced to everyone and offered his hand to shake to everyone in the room.

This kid could be president one day.

Belles dames sans merci: Walking around Karimabad, well up north on the KKH, two middle-aged women walking the opposite way said hello to me. I went into shock. It was the first time I had been publicly addressed or even acknowledged by the opposite sex in about 3 months. Highlight of my trip so far.

CNG POS: I mentioned that most of the cars in Pakistan run on compressed natural gas. This is because of a government subsidy years back that dramatically lowered the price of CNG compared to petrol and diesel, which led to everyone converting their cars/rickshaws/deathtraps to run on CNG. I would have thought it was pretty clean-burning, but it seems like a ton of rickshaws use a 2-stroke engine. Their noxious exhaust fumes are omnipresent in a city like Lahore. Rickshaws drive around with CNG tanks strapped to their sides. They’re mobile explosions waiting to happen. A government ban on CNG cylinder imports means that it’s obscenely lucrative to use crappy material, so the high-pressure gas leaks at the slightest bump and hundreds have died from CNG fires.

Smoggy Islamabad

Cricket: I’ve been able to hack my way through the thicket of dashed numbers and arcane terminology in cricket to ascertain the basic rules of the game. Essentially, someone throws a ball and another fellow attempts to hit it with a beam of wood. That’s about as far as I got, and it’s good enough for me. Pakistanis love the game. I came across the story of a medical attendant giving an injection while distracted by a cricket match and paralyzing the patient’s arm. It seems to me that the appeal of watching a game of cricket is similar to watching baseball; that is, drinking heavily for several hours and yelling at the players. Alcohol is illegal in Pakistan, though, so I’m not sure where that leaves us.

Time To Say Goodbye

I ran over a cat a couple days before I left. It was the first casualty of the trip and I was quite depressed about it. I was playing way too much squash and my knees were screaming for mercy. When I would go outside, my car would look at me like a sad puppy who wanted a walk. My new Indian visa was expiring by the day. As much as I loved the country, it was time to leave Pakistan. However, I’ll be back to enjoy the wonderful hospitality and the beautiful environment in the north. I honestly can’t wait to return.

It’s on to India now. Five times the population = five times the fun, right? We’ll see about that.

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45 thoughts on “Pakistan

  1. It took us quite a while until we found some useful & recent information on Pakistan. Thank you for sharing this. Realy great insight & read! We’ve hoping to visit Pakistan this summer too 😉

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  3. Good write up .There is much more than this , far better and exciting. I love my Pakistan. From an resident

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