BORDER TO LAHORE
After the border ceremony, our first stop in Pakistan was Lahore 30 km from the Pakistan/India border. Crossing the border was simple efficient and fast. Roads in Pakistan sofar so good (Perfect). Lahore has Pakistan’s second largest population of approximately 13 million people, and is the capital of the Punjab province. Lahore is rich and has a fabulous history of over thousand years. The heart of Lahore is the Walled or Inner City, a very densely populated area of about one square kilometre. Bazaars and market places in Lahore are legendary- the Kashmiri, Suha, Chhatta, Dabbi, Anarkali are the famous ones of the old city and Fortress Stadium is included in modern Lahore. These markets supply everything that anyone could possibly want; from cloth to copper, brass and silver-ware; watches and bangles to carpets, chapattis and chai. Everything is colourful and available in a large variety and abundance and displayed to entice. After searching for our Michelin tyres between Uzbekistan and India it was here where we organized the delivery of the tyre direct from Afghanistan. The bazaars in the old city are the ones people dreams about. Tiny alleys, selling virtually everything from handicraft to transistor radio, tin sauce pans to refrigerators. Some are just wide enough for a rickshaw, a string of donkeys or carts- and pedestrians must leap into doorways to give room. Some alleys are only possible by single file. Not for our truck. The Old City is surrounded by a 9-meter-high brick wall which served as a protection for the city. Access to the old city is possible through some well-preserved gates. Some of key Lahore attractions are Minar-e-Pakistan, Lahore Fort, Badshahi Mosque and Shalimar Gardens. Places we visited were Jehangir’s Tomb of Emperor Jehangir.
Built in 1637, it’s believed to have been designed by Jehangir’s widow, Nur Jahan. The tomb is made of marble with trellis decorations of pietra dura bearing the 99 attributes of Allah in Arabic calligraphy. These are inside a vaulted chamber, decorated with marble tracery and cornered with four minarets. Lahore Fort is the star attraction of the Old City. The fort was modified in 1618 and later damaged by the Sikhs and the British, although it has now been partially restored. It’s believed that the site conceals some of Lahore’s most ancient remains. Pakistan is crazy about cricket and one way of breaking the ice with the Pakistani is to strike up a conversation about the game.
Pakistan played Australia during our visit and trust me it’s worth experiencing it as much for its wildly ecstatic spectators as for the game itself and we only watched it in the street.
LAHORE TO ISLAMABAD
Next, we arrived In Islamabad home to former cricket great turned politician Imran Khan. However, mentioning Australian Cricket Star Shane Warne or Ricky Ponting will break the ice, get you involved in a cricket discussion and next you most probably will be invited into the house for a cup of chai and dinner. Pakistani people are very hospitable and the most welcoming we have encountered in any of the countries we visited this trip *1. We arrived early afternoon at the gate of Islamabad Tourist Camp only to find it closed. Police has closed the camp as it had become a security risk? Lucky, we had been in contact with Mr Tayyab (R.I.P.) from Tourism Pakistan who has been very welcoming and organized a hotel In Rawalpindi for us where we could stay in the car park. Islamabad’s most recognizable landmark is the Faisal Masjid, a very large mosque gifted by King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, much more a place of serious worship than a tourist site. It is open to non-Muslims outside of prayer times. We also visited Daman-e-Koh, a lookout point in the hills above Suburb E-6 with great views of the city. The security forces seem to have put a lid on things, and the city has been relative calm since the beginning of 2010 with some bombings, shootings or kidnappings targeted at Pakistani politicians. Last month 11 people were killed at an attack at the Islamabad courthouse and while we visited, a powerful bomb exploded not far from where we were camped killing at least 30 people and wounding at least 250 people, some badly. We must admit initially we were nervous about all the guns, army and police check points. It is not possible to walk or drive around without a passport or driving license to prove your identity. But you get used to it very quickly and it is a matter of necessity in a country where since 9/11 the situation from safe to lots of issues started courtesy of the war against terror.
*1 I will spend a special chapter on the people of Pakistan who made our trip so special.
THE KARAKORUM & NORTH-WEST FRONTIER PROVINCE
The Karakorum and North-West Frontier Province is a must to explore for every Pakistan visitor. The Northern Area is the most spectacular and fascinating region of Pakistan. It is here that the world’s three famous mountain ranges meet – the Himalayas, the Karakorum’s and the Hindukush. The whole of Northern Pakistan has come to be known as a paradise for Off Road drivers, motorbike riders, cyclists, mountaineers, climbers, trekkers, hikers and anglers of the most famous trout fish. A true adventure area. It is very unfortunate that most overlanders cross Pakistan from either Taf Tan (Iran border) or Wagah (India border) and just transit, never spending any time in Pakistan. We have all heard about the very friendly and hospitable Iranian people, but the Pakistani are no different. Abbottabad was our first stop and starting point of the famous KKH Karakorum Highway. (N35), the main reason to stop here was to see where Osama Bin Laden lived in the suburb of Bilal Town for over 5 years only 800 meters from the Military Academy. (N34.169308 E73.242439). The Karakoram Highway (KKH) is the highest paved international road in the world. It connects China and Pakistan across the Karakoram mountain range, through the Khunjerab Pass, at an elevation of 4,693 meters (15,397ft). It connects China’s Xinjiang region with Pakistan’s Gilgit-Baltistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa regions and serves as a popular tourist attraction. Due to its high elevation and the difficult conditions in which it was constructed, it is sometimes referred to as the “Eighth Wonder of the World”. Despite being called a “highway,” the road which reaches its highest point of 4,700 meters at the Khunjerab Pass on the border between China and Pakistan, is a 2-lane road from Abbottabad to just before Besham. From here it turns into a road with potholes, gravel, and very poor conditions for the next 300Km. The 200 KM from Besham to Chilas took us 10 hours! Most parts remain only one lane wide, places where trucks push past each other at dizzying heights. It was here where we got side swiped by a small Suzuki that tried to come past; lucky for him the road was wide enough, so he did not go down the steep embankment. A 400 million road widening program (a gift from China) was originally to be achieved by 2013 at the latest, but then a violent landslide north of Karimabad occurred. The crumbling mountain buried many villages and created an artificial lake that put some 22 kilometres of road under water. The Chinese have decided to drill a tunnel to bypass the newly created Attabad Lake, now a tourist attraction. Scenery along the Karakorum is superb. At one stage we were within 150 kilometres of China-Tajikistan-Afghanistan. The military presence is huge due to the extremely sensitive state of Kashmir (Pakistan/India Conflict). The Karakoram Highway has strategic and military importance to these nations, but particularly Pakistan and China. We drove as far north as the massive landslide 15 kilometres north of Karimabad. On January 4, 2010, a massive landslide created the potentially unstable Attabad Lake which reached 22 kilometres (14million) in length and over 100 meters (330 ft.) in depth and within 6 months it began flowing over the landslide dam. The landslide destroyed parts of villages while killing many inhabitants. The subsequent lake displaced thousands and inundated over 20 kilometres of the Karakorum Highway including the 310 meters long Karakorum Highway Bridge 4 kilometres south of Gulmit. It is only possible to cross to the Northern section by boat until the new tunnel is finished. The lake has now reached nearly 30 kilometres in length and goods from and to further north are transported over the lake by small vessels, to be reloaded onto trucks at the other end.
The Karakorum highway meets the Indus River at Thakot and continues along the river until Jaglot, where the Gilgit River joins the Indus River. This is where three great mountain ranges meet: the Hindukush, the Himalaya, and the Karakoram. The western end of the Himalayas, marked by the ninth highest peak in the world, Nanga Parbat, can be seen from the highway. During our trip we had some spectacular views of this 9th highest mountain of the world (8,126 meters) and Mt Rakaposhi from our Camp site near Karimabad, 27th highest of the world at 7,788 meters.
The region includes some of the world’s largest glaciers like the Baltoro Glacier. Five of the world’s mountains taller than 8,000 meters are in Pakistan and are accessible and can be seen travelling on the Karakorum highway. When travelling through The North-West Frontier Province in Pakistan your safety is the biggest concern of the local police and help is on hand everywhere you go. In all a wonderful experience and we would never have visited this area if it wasn’t for the Pakistan Hubb Members, MAP members and Mr Tayyab from Tourism Pakistan. Having travelled over 75 countries sofar it appears to us that China doesn’t worry about the short-term rates of return for its building projects abroad, but on the long-term trade options that they open instead. The country is also interested in gaining allies with its generous help. In many countries besides Pakistan, Chinese engineers are working on key infrastructure projects. And often the Chinese are also investing in exactly the places from which the West has long since retreated — such as many African countries rich in natural resources. The west appears to be pouring in billions of dollars in foreign aid for hand-outs while China provides work and income.
MULTAN & BALUCHISTAN
On our way back to Lahore we stopped at the Khewra Salt Mines 160 km from Islamabad. Discovery of Rock Salt in this area dates to the days of Alexander the Great. It is the 2nd largest Salt Mine in The World. Next was Lahore where again we stayed with the Hubb/MAP members and it became clear that 4 weeks Pakistan was not enough, but our Visa had an expiry date. It was time to move towards Baluchistan and its capital city Quetta. After all reports we were a little nervous (we must be honest). We stayed one night in Multan, the city of Saints, Dust & Beggars as it is introduced in an old saying. Today Multan is a combination of the old and the new Pakistan culture. There is a big hustle and bustle in the Old town, and the comfort of sound streets in the New city. The Old (Purana Shehar) city has a very interesting Bazaar and many elaborately decorated Shrines of the Sufi saints. We stayed just outside town at a Mango farm (we were told Multan has the best mango’s in Pakistan and many are exported to Australia), recommended by another Hubb member in Lahore. One highlight we visited was Mausoleum Hazarat Bahauddin Zakaria.
Once we left Punjab we arrived in the South-Eastern province of Pakistan named Sindh. Karachi with around 20 million people is Pakistan largest city. Sindh’s the population is mainly Muslim (92 %) but Sindh is also home to nearly all (93%) of Pakistan’s Hindus forming 8 % of the province’s population. Our next stop was Shikarpur close to the Baluchistan border where we bush camped in a village Square just outside town. Here we were served a traditional Pakistan meal in front of our truck. Nervous but ready we entered Baluchistan in army convoy until the Capital Quetta. The Pakistan army and Police where great and this first part of the Baluchistan province was passed with no issues. Quetta lays at the altitude of 1,675 meters. It is a small city of about 1.4 Million people. Just before Quetta we crossed the rugged Bolan Pass. Our plans of sightseeing around Quetta including a visit Hanna Lake, which is a scenic lake with beautiful picnic spots around it, were halted by a shooting and bombing in town, so we stayed put until it was safe to leave Quetta to cross the 600 KM to the Iran border.
Unfortunately for us the area is under enormous pressure and due to Terrorist activity we were not allowed to go anywhere without police or army escorts. The famous Bloom Star hotel has an entrance only 3.25mtr high hence too low for our truck. Police arrived and escorted us to the Police station where we camped on a perfect lawn with 24-hour security. We stayed 3 days and had our own body guards and armed security around the truck. Once we received our travel permit to drive with a private escort Army/Police (anti-Terrorist Squad) we had to leave immediate. During our stay we did visit the city and had lunch but never without 2-armed anti-terrorist members next to us. The city of Quetta is completely rebuilt after the earthquake of 1935, and offers little historical interest. The food and goods on sale in the bazaars give it a certain Central Asian feel and a reason to see it. Afghan refugees have brought with them fresh crafts like the distinctive Hazara rugs, to add to such traditional items as Baluchi mirror work and wooden crafts. The Quetta market was under very tight security due to recent bombings and granate attacks at the markets. After 3 days stuck at the Police station in the northern cantonment of Quetta the news came we are to leave. Very close to a small military museum in a bungalow once occupied by Field- Marshal Montgomery when he was an instructor at the Quetta Staff College, it is the academy which trains Pakistan’s military elite. We did only leave the Police station when we had to go to the bank or were going for dinner or lunch and to the department of Home affairs. Once we received the green light from the Department of Home Affairs we had no choice but leave immediate as the army convoy arrived within minutes. The province of Baluchistan is the largest of Pakistan’s four administrative provinces in terms of area, constituting approximately 44% of the country’s total land mass, and the smallest in terms of population, being home to less than 5% of the country’s population. The province is bordered by Afghanistan to the north and north-west, Iran to the south-west and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas to the north-east. Baluchistan is rich in exhaustible and renewable resources; it is the second major supplier of natural gas in Pakistan. Baluchistan is a land of contrast. It has places with rugged mountains and plains stretching for hundreds of kilometres. The people are a mix of Pathan-Baloch and Brahui. However, you find also Uzbecks, Afghans, Tajik and Turkamen who migrated or fled their own countries. Due to the tribal lifestyle of many Baloch and Brahui people, animal husbandry and trading bazaars found throughout the province are important. Like the rest of the third world countries, Chinese are also in Baluchistan to be found. There is Chinese involvement in the nearby Saindak gold and copper mining project where deposits exist in the Chagai District in Reko Diq area. Baluchistan is not a very safe part of Pakistan however as a tourist you are well protected and are given police/army escorts wherever you go. The Baluchistan conflict is an ongoing conflict between Baloch nationalists and the Government of Pakistan and Government of Iran over Baluchistan. Baloch insurgent groups operate in the Pakistani part of the region, the Iranian part and in southern Afghanistan. Since the 2010s, attacks against the Shia community by sectarian groups though unrelated to the political struggle, have also continued to rise in Baluchistan. Recently, militants have clashed with the Islamic Republic of Iran over its respective Baloch region, which borders Pakistan. Baluchistan is one of Pakistan’s poorest regions although it has vast natural resources. Baloch separatists allege that the central government of Pakistan is systematically suppressing development in Baluchistan to keep the Balochs weak. Like as with all other countries we visited, the local people are friendly and don’t want any trouble but are being dragged into this not knowing who the enemy is. US planes bombing in the name of War against Terror does not help as many civilians are being killed in the process. Once we left Quetta for Taf Tan (Iran border) it was just under 700 KM of police/army escorts and an overnight stop in Dalbandain at the local police station which was also the prison!!!
The week before our arrival five border guards were kidnapped from Taf Tan and found dead the following day, so as you can imagine things were tense. The Custom formalities are simple at Taf Tan and take about half an hour. As we left Pakistani customs Clary was reminded to cover up before entering the Iran Gate.
We were greeted with “WELCOME TO IRAN” . Customs were organized and fast on the Iranian side and our army escort was already waiting to take us on perfect roads out of the danger zone. It took less than 3 hours to reach Zahadan. (Iran Part of Baluchistan). For us the journey was easy and with a well-organized escort system for foreigners we never felt unsafe.
The Pakistani government does anything in its power to ensure tourists are safe and well looked after and this was the case with us and other overlanders we spoke with in Pakistan.
The people who protected us were from the Anti-Terrorist squad also known as the “Elite Force” or “Police Commandos” specializing in Counter-Terrorist operations and VIP security duties, as well as acting against serious crime and performing high-risk operations which can’t be carried out by the regular police. It was formed in 1998 as a counterterrorism unit, but over time its duties expanded to VIP escort.
The Elite Force is used in a range of special operations including “high-risk searches”, raids and rescue operations. They are trained by Pakistan’s Special Service Group in personal combat, martial arts, crowd control, close quarter battles and reconnaissance. They are trained in the use of a range of weapons, including the AK-47, Glock Pistol, MP-5, and grenades. They can use different kind of weapons like Pakistan-made G3, machine-guns etc. Their arsenal also included flak jackets.