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March 2011 -- Unfortunately, Pakistan is not an ideal travel destination at the moment. A quick transit, at best, may be justifiable though.The Islamic Republic is facing huge problems, and it seems unlikely that they will be solved or just tackled within the coming years.Even with simple people, I experience enormous hospitality. Friendly, curious and helpful Pakistanis really do everything they can to represent their country in a dignified way. All in all I had a mostly comfortable time in Pakistan. However, my freedom to travel was limited due to safety concerns.Culture and landscape are so diverse that you should actually spend more time here. For security reasons this is not advisable at the moment.

Pakistan is battling at various different front lines: the aftermath of the horrendous floods in late 2010 still affects the whole country, from the Himalayas down to the Arab Sea. Hundreds of thousands still live in tents, and that's unlikely to change within the near future. In Kashmir, the conflict with India is ongoing. Poverty has reached an unbearable degree. Minorities are scared to death. Taliban and Al-Qaida are destabilising the country, especially at the North Western Frontier Province along the Afghan border. NATO uses the country as its main supply route for the war in Afghanistan - for most Pakistanis, a wrong and appalling pandering to the West. They suffer from a failed US foreign policy. The mercenaries, armed by the US in the 80s when fighting against the Russians (there are hundreds of thousands), make their living as Taliban fighters in the region today. Having renamed the once useful allies to terrorists now, the USA chases them: every now and then they bomb a Pakistani village, killing not only the bad guys, of course. Accordingly, anti-American spirits in the country are at the boiling point.Meanwhile, a corrupt elite clings to power, failing to fulfil its core duties.Neither is it capable of providing basic state services (such as security, food supply, infrastructure or education), nor is it able to tackle the pressing problems of the country, like corruption, the flood disaster, price hikes, hunger, international dependence, or Islamism.Like this, for a long time, Pakistan has been following a zigzag course. Fearing the loss of political influence and privilege, leaders did not want to lose American financial support. At the same time, the very same leaders did not crack down on enemies of the state.In consequence, Islamists have earned such sympathy among the people with their dubious values and their rejection of NATO and the US, that many state institutions are now interspersed with them, rendering a decisive political strike against them less and less likely.At the same time Al-Qaida, under pressure from NATO in Afghanistan, uses Pakistans power vacuum as a retreat. In that light, it appears almost logical that Osama bin Laden settled in Abottabad, next door to some military installations.

Wild West in the Middle EastThe Iranian-Pakistani border crossing Mirjaveh/Taftan is the only road connection between the two countries. This is where tarmac ends, where brick houses make way to clay huts, and where a big banner welcomes workers of international aid organisations. Welcome to Pakistan.On this side of the border, too, a military escort remains my company. During the day, a pickup truck drives ahead; at night, a soldier sits in my camping chair, in front of the van. For staying overnight in the critical border regions with Afghanistan, I have no choice but to park inside highly-walled police compounds. Located in the vast deserts of Balochistan, there is a certain air of wild west in the region.I get my reality check when, a few kilometres ahead, a NATO tanker is shot ablaze. While passing the truck, a guy on a motorbike had opened fire at the truck's trailer with a machine gun. 40.000 litres of petrol go up in flames, igniting a giant fireball. Its getting hot as I pass the fire. Locals later tell me to stay away from unlabeled (possibly NATO supply) tanker trucks.

The Indus valleyShortly thereafter, I bounce along terribly bad but very busy highways, finally reaching the lowlands of the river Indus, that were hit so hard by the 2010 floods. For miles and miles, I pass through tent cities of international aid organisations. On both sides of the road dam, large smelly lakes still cover the usually fertile farmlands; clouds of mosquitoes fill the air.In the evening I stop at Jacobabad, a depressing place. Large areas of the town are knee-deep in water. There is no electricity, but crowds everywhere. Donkey carts make their way through the muddy lanes. I can hardly get out of the car because begging children press so hard against the door. The military escorts me to the only ATM in town (which is out of order) and then to a surprisingly nice but fortress-like hotel.The owner and his friend invite me in. Their good company and a good dinner cheer me up again. Later that evening, they take me on a nightly tour around town. The Land Cruiser pushes through the flooded streets of a pitch dark city. I feel pretty out of place but nevertheless welcome in Jacobabad.

LahoreIn Pakistan's second largest city I also stay longer than initially planned. My camp spot on the premises of the Anglican Cathedral is just too good. The bishop and his family as well as a few employees live in a well-manicured green oasis in the heart of Lahore, a metropolis of nine million.

Trample diplomacyWith its arch enemy India, too, Pakistan has only one crossing - and that is Wahga Border. For many Pakistanis and Indians this place is highly symbolic, from a German perspective, it may be comparable to Berlin's Allied Checkpoint Charlie. It stands for decades of confrontation and border rows, but also for careful peace advances and first economic contacts. Few citizens from either side can cross this border, the fear of the other side being just too big. Only few vehicles cross at this pompous checkpoint.Instead, Pakistanis and Indians celebrate their rivalry during the daily flag lowering.To foreigners, this ceremony partly resembles carnival: elite soldiers on both sides furiously march towards the border line, hitting the ground with their boots as loud as possible. Only centimetres before the border line will they shout - and stop. The goal of both parties is to make any move before the others do - or, even better, to move absolutely synchronised with their counterparts.As part of the ceremony is also about who's the loudest foot clapper, both Pakistani and Indian soldiers complain about pain in their feet. A bilateral agreement between the two governments now regulates the effort with which soldiers may hit the ground, so the uniformed stampers won't need to be replaced that frequently.To hold cheering crowds of spectators on both sides of the line, special arenas have been purposely built. Directed and instructed by professional crowd warmers, people's faces turn red as they shout either 'Pa-pa-Pakistan' or 'India, India, India'. The next morning, rolling across one of the world's hotter borders, I make my way to India without any problems.

East of the river the picture changes: after weeks in the desert, lush green fields and palm groves almost hurt the eye. Finally being left alone by my armed escort, I stay for a few days at a big petrol station on Highway 5. Junior boss Ali shows me their land, introduces me to uncles and friends, we watch the cricket world cup on TV and I get fed very well.

I stay there for a week and enjoy a wonderful time. Two friends show me around town. I get invited to a birthday barbecue by the bishop's family.

Tramples to impress the neighbours: elite soldier on the Indian border (Wahga)

Petrol station in Balotchistan (near Quetta)

Smiling but scared to death: Pakistani Christians (Christian school, Pattani)

Punjabi truck (near Pattoki)

Friendly but prepared (Nok Kundi)

First night in Pakistan (Nok Kundi)

Post office (Nok Kundi)

Afghan refugee families build these highways with their bare hands. (near Nushki)

Escort (Balotchistan)

NATO tanker under attack: Supply for Afghanistan goes up in flames. (Sibbi)

Soldier (near Quetta)

Not a representative image: Most roads are a desaster.(near Quetta)

Full (near Sibbi)

Passing by refugee camps(near Jacobabad)

Water to the right, water to the left: Flood levels slowly drop since the 2010 desaster. (near Jacobabad)

Where the water trickles away, the salt remains. (near Sukkur)

Testimonial to a colonial past (near Jacobabad)

The murder of Benazir Bhutto in 2007 left many devastated to this day. (near Sukkur)

Farming in the Indus Valley (Pano Aqil)

Above the roofs of Lahore

On the terrace of an artists' café (Lahore)

Badshahi Mosque (Lahore)

Lahore Cathedral... secured by antitank barriers. (Lahore)

Landmark: Minar-e Pakistan (Lahore)

Fort (Lahore)

Two artists show me their work - and their city. (Lahore)

The last kilometres in Pakistan (Lahore)

Crowd warmer at Wahga Border

To each conutry its own gate - the border line is in between. (Wahga)

Lowering the flags (Wahga)

Foreground Pakistanis, background Indians (Wahga)

'Mini Pakistan' at the backdrop of the Indian border (Wahga)

Pakistani originals: Here, 'Truck Art' is artisan craftwork. (near Multan)

The guy on the left really is a professional flag waver... (Wahga)

Additional Information

PAKISTAN (updated 02/2011)RouteTaftan (from Iran) - Quetta - Jacobabad - Sukkur - Multan - Lahore - Wahga (to India)Entering via Mirjaveh/Taftan (from Iran)A solid terminal on the Iranian side, a clay hut on the Pakistani side: friendly service, no problems, three hours. Immigration right behind the border line (flat barracks on the right). Further mandatory security escort will be organised at Police House (passport registration, wait), customs clearance at Customs House (Carnet de Passages). No bank, no ATM, no insurance available, money exchange on the street is possible. Exiting via Wahga (to India)No problem, three hours. Small bank for money exchange on Indian side, no ATM. Border Closing Ceremony starts simultaneously (16:30 Pakistani time, 17:00 Indian time).RoadsDrive on the left, ideally. Overtaking happening on any side. Slow trucks, many accidents, little driving skills. In general, road conditions are bad.In detail: The N-5 from Sukkur to Lahore (northbound) is acceptable, except for the bridges and the stretch from Bahawalpur to Multan (bad). Southbound it's partly very bad. Approaching Lahore, the N-5 motorway is dirt and gravel. The RCD Highway (N-40, Taftan-Quetta) is good from Taftan to the railroad crossing east of Dalbandin, then bad until Lakh Pass (shortly before Quetta). The N-65, Quetta-Sukkur, is very bad from Bolan Pass to Sibbi, then very good until Jacobabad bypass, then very bad until Sukkur (flood damage, tents on the road). The Indus Highway (N-55) is impassable due to flood damage. Road tolls apply (EUR 0.30 each toll gate). Whenever possible, it's advisable to bypass any larger cities. Sign posting is in Urdu, only on main highways and in big cities in English. You can find a frequently updated map of the RCD Highway (N-40, Taftan-Quetta) here.FuelPetrol (premium, EUR 0.75/L) and diesel are always available. Apart from Balotchistan, there are lots of stations. Fill up in Mirjaveh/Iran before crossing, first Pakistani petrol station is in Quetta (640km from border). Between Taftan and Quetta petrol is available only in bottles and from jerry cans. I did not see any LPG pumps.Camping... in the open is rarely possible. The escort will bring you to police stations. If travelling without escort, local police will tell you it's too dangerous.The Indus valley is densely populated, there are few solid roads, large areas are still flooded, making it hard to find camp spots. Many mosquitoes. Locals are hospitable but very curious, so it may be hard to find sleep. Petrol stations are a noisy option, usually with lots of people. Popping a tent should be difficult. Check out my Camp Spot List for a few tips.SecurityPakistani security forces make big efforts to protect travellers even though the country surely has more pressing problems. However, it's sometimes hard to appreciate that. You get an armed escort, staying by your side 24 hours from entering to leaving the country. The escort situation changes every now and then, sometimes it's more relaxed, sometimes very strict. It'll either be some guy joining you in your car or one or more vehicles going ahead or following you. They urge you to drive fast and without any stops, thus shifting responsibility for your safety onto the next shift or district. Sindh and Punjab provinces were more relaxed. Avoid the North Western Frontier Provinces at any cost. Keep a low profile at all times. Pakistan has a culture of mob attacks.Stay away from NATO tankers (unlabeled trucks) on their way to Afghanistan, they are potential targets. The tanker route is: Karachi to Hyderabad via Super Highway, then via N-5, Khairpur, Uch Sharif, Muzzafargarh, Mianwali, Rawalpindi/Islamabad, Peshawar, Jalalabad via Khyber Pass, Kabul. MiscellaneousCredit cards are accepted only in big cities. ATMs are rare, often out of order and don't always accept foreign cards. Internet cafes only in big cities, wifi is not common. Daily power cuts, mostly in the evening, can last for hours. Beware of power surges when using laptops.All information subject to change (note time of writing).

A big thanks to Hannah Zarkar for proofreading this translation!

fabian pickel