Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Pakistan safety

We've all heard or read that there are problems in Pakistan. The problem is that we don't really know what the problems are... after all we get our 'information' through the media. Not only is the media biased with a tendency towards exaggerating, it's also more often than not a case of 'don't believe half of what you see and non of what you hear'. So what are the problems, where are they, how unsafe is Pakistan and do we as foreigners have to fear being in Pakistan?

Let me start by saying we don't look for dangerous situations. We have no desire to brag about having been through war zones or survived dangerous situations. Not at all. We simply came to Pakistan to see and experience it, preferably without tempting fate. Coming from the border with China, we got the impression northern Pakistan is safe. As we have written before, people are friendly and we did not find one shred of evidence of the area we were in being unsafe. Quite the contrary.

Now that we entered a new region though things had changed. We suddenly found more and more thorough Police checks. We also found the Police heavily armed. The evening before we were about to enter a troubled area, we got a visit from a local head of Police and an armed guard for the night... scary stuff. Or is it? Several years ago the Taliban killed a number of tourists here. While we are well aware that the Taliban has its base in Afghanistan, this could have happened anywhere. The more important question for us was therefore: what is being done about it?

Who better to ask this than head of the Police...? I'm not quite sure what the Taliban had hoped to accomplish in Pakistan but I guess it backfired! As a direct result of their brutal attack, Pakistan temporary reintroduced the death penalty, picked up not only the culprits but also several other members of the Taliban in Pakistan, and as the chief called it 'switched them off'. While you could argue that it would perhaps have been better to do so before they attacked, the same can also be said for terrorist attacks in many other countries around the world. Riding through the affected area today, we never had the feeling it was unsafe. There is quite a Police presence, which is good as prevention is better than cure. What we did notice is the extreme poverty of the people living in the area, many of them living in ragged cotton tents and seemingly living from just herding goats and sheep. As we have seen in many other places, poverty is a breeding ground for extremism, which could explain why the Taliban found a willing ear amongst some of the locals. Having said that, they didn't treat us badly in any way. Quite the contrary. The Pakistani enthusiasm is still here. 

What we had was a magic ride through an impressive area. We rode a 4,000+ metre pass with more switchbacks than we had seen for a long time. The road was challenging in places with water crossings, broken sections and the occasional gravel. I had acquired a bad case of indigestion in one way or another, as had Mike and to a lesser extend Chris. We blame last night's food... I should have stayed in bed but didn't, my stomach was very painful, the road rather bumpy and by the time I got up the pass I was more dead than alive. Still, the scenery was amazing!

Pizza and girls...? We love the translations here!
To make it more memorable the weather gods decided to throw some hail into the equation while we were at the highest point of our ride, which made it even more interesting. Along the way we met an Australian couple Vince and Karen on a motorcycle and on their honeymoon: good to hear proper English again! We chatted about our trips and exchanged hints and tips and might even meet them again in Myanmar.

We stopped in Naran, shared a hotel room with Chris and Erik (which worked out at 5 dollars each). Unloading our bikes took forever as everyone wanted to know about our trip and the bikes, followed by a seemingly endless session of photographs. Like we were movie stars or something! Later we experienced the madness of a Pakistani town when we went for a walk. 

Coming back to safety in Pakistan... the scariest moment we've had was when a gas bottle caught fire in the next door restaurant... flame-grilling the whole kitchen with a flame twice the size of the burners used for a hot air balloon...! With a restaurant full of people, the panic was profound. The chefs jumped out through the windows and within a matter of minutes the kitchen was no more... Or at least so we thought. The next morning the owner said with a beaming smile that exploding gas bottles in the kitchen was a great Pakistani tradition... and continued with great pride that they managed to extinguish the fire without the need of a fire extinguisher... as there wasn't one...!

The group kind of semi split up from Naran, all doing the same route but at our own speed. Being a public holiday meant lots of traffic, add to it that it was Sunday and you'll get the gist... it was a madhouse...a Pakistani madhouse. The strange thing is that it is sort of funny to watch as the things they do here in traffic are bizarre to put it mildly. There is honestly no way to describe it as things we can't even think of doing, happen here all the time. I mean would you even think of taking half your car apart on the middle of the road while traffic swerves around you on both sides? Or what about riding up to the top of a mountain and then park your car in a corner, just to wash it because there is a stream next to the road...? 

One thing we noticed is, there is only one road rule: the biggest has, no make that: takes, priority. In the morning it wasn't too bad but as the day progressed it became worse. I was overtaken by a car who then started pushing me off the road as they wanted me to stop so they could take a photo of me...! We've said yes to quite a few photos, over a hundred in fact in just 6 days, but pushing me off the road to force me doing what they want? Come on, show some respect. Talking of which, wherever you park your bike they jump on it too... without as much as asking(!) to have their photo taken on our bikes. If they damage it, push it off the stand etc then they won't pay up of course... Having had this happening for a few days now, I've quite had it. I don't jump in their car, so don't jump on my bike!

It wasn't all bad though. We had a good ride. Not as spectacular as the first days perhaps but good nonetheless. We were still in the mountains, enjoying the views and at the same time trying to avoid the KKH as much as possible. All went well until a nasty looking policeman pulled us off the road at a checkpoint... He refused to speak English... the first person we had met in Pakistan who claimed not to speak English, which considering his rank was highly unlikely. Why we were stopped was not quite clear, until someone else informed us we were at the border with another country... Eh? Yes we were about to enter Kashmir but had been told by the Pakistan Police this was the part of Kashmir which belonged to Pakistan. For some reason he only picked out foreigners too... Pakistanis were allowed to drive on.

After much discussion back and forth it seemed we needed some sort of form, which could only be had in Islamabad... Hadn't he just told us Kashmir was not a part of Pakistan, so how could the form only be obtained in a big city in Pakistan? It didn't make any sense and felt more like a scam to me. After all they knew damn well we could not have obtained the form as we came from China. 
Then it suddenly became much worse when Petra asked a question... He made it clear she was not allowed to speak to him, as she was a woman... I'm not joking here, that is what he said! Kashmir my ass, if this is how they treat foreigners here, they can keep it! Still, we tried to talk some sense in the border guard but it made no difference, these guys couldn't care less and did their utmost best to make sure we knew they didn't care. There was no alternative but turn around and find another route, which was going via... the KKH! Great, the busy corridor we had been trying to avoid and had in fact been advised to avoid by the Pakistani Police we had met. 

The traffic was mad, by the end of the day I seriously hated anything coming from Suzuki as the thousands if not millions of little Suzuki vans here are driven by absolute idiots who don't have any respect for anyone but themselves. The S on the front for me stood for Satan or Sadist. As we were going further and further south the polite and courteous Pakistani drivers we had seen in the north, made way for something I can only describe as anti-social. Merging into traffic is done by simply pushing into it and of course bikes are seen as an easy target. It wasn't long before I hit one of them when I had the choice between being ran off the road altogether or taking evasive action and hitting someone else. If I would have been able to take evasive action then Mike, who was behind me, would have hit him or worse. So I held my ground and ran into him. Holan panniers saved the day once more as they took the hit without as much as a scratch, the aluminium fuel bottle mounted to it faired less well. All this because some nasty Policeman at the Kashmir checkpoint didn't let us through because of some 'required' document. Had they been smart, then the required document could have been bought at the checkpoint.

Pakistan is pretty much cricket mad. Seeing kids on the roads carrying cricket bats made me think I should buy one... don't worry I'm not even slightly inclined to join a sportsteam, but a cricket bat would be handy to fend off a few minivan drivers. As soon as we were able to leave the KKH things improved and we decided to start looking for a hotel. Camping is just not an option here. There are that many people living in Pakistan that finding a spot is as easy as trying to camp in a big city. Getting closer to Islamabad meant hotel prices were going up and up. The first night in Pakistan we spend 12 dollars a night, now they were asking 80 dollars per room per night. In the end we found one for 40 and were able to share it with 3 people. Of course there was no hot water, most of the electrics didn't work despite the fuses being being taped up to prevent them from tripping but at least the rooms were quite ok and the beds didn't wobble like they did in the last place we stayed.

The day ended on a positive note when Chris, who had been to India before said the traffic we had experienced today was comparable to big cities in India... or maybe slightly worse. The main difference with bigger cities, according to him, was the madness simply lasted longer. It was something I had been wondering about today. Up until then everyone had told me India was 10 times worse than Pakistan, and I could not quite see how anything ten times worse than what we had seen today could still function :-)