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CNG-STATION-queue

The taxi creaked as it rattled over the rutted road.  The driver looked sideways at me and smiled appreciately.

“You look good in that shalwar kameez.  You’re practically Pakistani!”.

“ I like Pakistan” I replied.  “It is a wonderful country in many ways”.

He sighed.

“Everything here is corrupt.  This country has everything: coal, gas, oil, fruit, wheat, and yet people are hungry and poor.  This country will never get better”.

We drove past a CNG filling station.  Compressed Natural Gas is the fuel of choice for Pakistani taxi drivers simply because it is cheap, yet because of shortages it is only available for two days a week.

“Look at that line of cars!” he said as we drove past a queue of battered taxis several hundred metres long.  “They’ll be waiting for five, maybe six hours just to get enough gas for the day’s work.  Most of them probably got up at 4am to start queueing.  They are poor, and their children will be poor, and their children’s children will be poor, and nothing will change”.

I sat in silence.  The taxi swerved around a pothole, then swerved back again to avoid another.  The road was corrugated and cracked like the cover of an antique book.

“And look at the roads!  Nobody fixes them, and this is not some tiny village, this is one of the biggest cities in Pakistan.  Even village roads in your country are probably better than these”.

I didn’t say anything.  He was right; they are.  His voice was not angry or bitter.  It was worse than that: it was numb, as though despondency had anaesthetised his ability to care.

Struggling to make him think more positively, I asked what he thought should be done to improve things in Pakistan.  He sat quietly for what felt like an age, then said:

“I don’t know”.

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Last autumn we took a trip to the Kaghan Valley in northern Pakistan.  This valley is located north of Islamabad, adjoining Azad Kashmir, and requires a drive of some 7 hours from the capital.  Now, driving for seven hours in Pakistan is not something to be undertaken lightly – traffic is bad, and Pakistani driving habits cause significant amounts of stress, even without the added complication of having to swerve to avoid camels on the road – but the drive is well worth it.

People in the West seem to think that Pakistan is a dry, dusty and unappealing place.  I can’t think why this is, since northern Pakistan has some of the most astonishing scenery I have ever seen, easily the equal of the Swiss Alps or the Rocky Mountains.  Pakistan also has the added bonus in that, unlike Switzerland or Canada, there are almost no tourists here, meaning that these vast mountainous panoramas, lush valleys and alpine lakes are yours and yours alone.

We stayed in Naran in October.  This is right at the end of the tourist season as almost everything shuts down for the winter, since it gets remarkably cold.  Even in October the night-time temperature dropped to around zero, and as there is no such thing as central heating in Pakistan the temperature outdoors is basically the same as the temperature indoors.

An unprepossessing situation for a holiday, you might think.  Well, if you idea of a great holiday is a beach and a swimming pool and an open bar, you’d probably be right.  If, on the other hand, you see travel as a way of discovering new places, encountering different cultures, and learning more about the world, I can think of nowhere better.

Enough writing.  Let the pictures do the talking!

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The car scrunched down the gravel track, bumping from rut to rut before lurching to a halt in front of a battered old gate.  Children turned to look as we got out of the old Toyota.  Elderly men squatting by the side of the road stroked their beards pensively as they observed us.  As we pushed open the gate and entered the graveyard it felt as though several hundred pairs of eyes were fixed on us.  They weren’t hostile, merely curious, as the locals tend to be when a tall Englishman and his Pakistani friend turn up in a bazaar in northern Pakistan.

I had come to visit Murree’s Old Cemetery.  Murree, a town some forty miles from Islamabad, flourished when the soldiers and administrators of the British Raj realised that spending the summer months in the verdant foothills of the Himalayas was preferable to sweating it out on the plains of the Punjab.  Every summer, as the sun soared in the Indian sky and the mercury rose ominously, the British would flee, trailing up into the hills like animals fleeing from a brushfire.  Here they would remain for the worst of the summer heat.  Here they built hotels and cottages, here they danced, here they came to recuperate from injuries sustained on the battlefields of the empire.

And here they died.  The cemetery tells their tales well enough.  Rows of graves, some plain, others ornate, some crowned with crosses which seem incongruous in what has now become the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, tell of the generations of British imperialists who died here, so far from home.  Some graves are those of soldiers – “In Memory of Lt. David Albert Beere”, “Pte. R. F Theobald” – others of administrators – “Charles Arthur Sharpe, scholar of King’s College Cambridge and Engineer in the Public Works Department of India” – while others are painfully personal, such as the grave of one Violet Rose Ward who died aged 30 leaving a husband and both her parents, or that of young Heather June Finnegan who died in 1945, aged 7.  The cemeteries of Murree – there are several – testify to the diversity of the British Raj.  All of society was here, from babies to grandparents, brilliant young scholars to hoary old veterans of the Afghan Wars, and when they died they were buried in traditional Anglican cemeteries, a last taste of home in a distant land.

The Old Cemetery is overgrown now.  Many of the graves are broken, their headstones toppled by tree roots, while goats crop the grass and leave their droppings on the decaying slabs of marble.  It is neglected, ignored by the seething masses that throng the bazaar outside.  It is a poignant place, full of memory, a corner of a foreign field that is, somehow, England.  We pushed the gate open, let it creak shut behind us, and walked back to our car as a squadron of emerald parakeets careered overhead, the sound of their screeching echoing around the valley.

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When we spent time in the UK recently I was surprised by how negative Pakistan’s reputation was.  We bounced back full of exciting stories about Pakistan, photos of its stunning beauty, anecdotes of the hospitality of its people, and nobody could believe us.

“You mean it’s not just a desert?”.

“You mean people are actually friendly?”.

“You mean there are parks, and pizza restaurants, and literary festivals?”.

If you subscribe to similar notions then permit me to educate you: Pakistan is, at times, a completely wonderful place.  It is exotic, vibrant, and beautiful.  The food is fantastic.  The people are warm, friendly, unfailingly polite.  I have not once encountered hostility from anyone even though I am a foreigner and a Christian.  The young people here are intelligent, well-informed, enthusiastic, eager to learn, full of ideas.  The elderly still subscribe to old-fashioned notions such as courtesy and etiquette, such as standing when a lady enters the room.  Everyone offers you tea.

Perhaps oddly, the beauty and potential of Pakistan can be heartbreaking too.  The scenery here is stunning, easily the equal of Switzerland or Western Canada, but where are the tourists who would bring money and support jobs?  Young Pakistani entrepreneurs are some of the most vibrant in the world, so why are their efforts choked by official corruption?  Most painfully for me, why are such marvellously kind people viewed with such scorn by the outside world?

They deserve better.  Pakistan deserves better.  This is a land of immense potential.  May that potential be fulfilled, and soon.

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So after 2 months in the UK, 3 months in Canada, a lengthy pause in my blogging efforts, and several long-haul flights with children, we are back in Pakistan.  I had forgotten how dusty, humid, and interesting it is over here, and just how warm and kind the people are.

We have arrived at a time of political tension, with large protests in the capital and ongoing fighting in the tribal areas between the army and militants, but despite the difficulties it is genuinely wonderful to be back in our own home, driving our own car, in a country we have come to love.

I might even blog more regularly…after all, Pakistan is a remarkably interesting place, sometimes for the right reasons…

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A while ago it became necessary, for various reasons, to make a trip to a town some hours to the north of Rawalpindi.  As this was before we purchased a car we had to make the trip by bus.  You might think that would be a hardship, public transport being generally regarded as less preferable to private, but Pakistan is blessed with the Daewoo bus company.  This company – Korean, I think – has brand-new, air-conditioned buses which run to time, which have TVs, and whose staff even go to the trouble of handing out free snacks and cold drinks during the journey.  It’s an excellent way to travel.

             Anyway, I digress.  We hopped in a taxi and started to make our way to the Daewoo terminal.  It was a spectacularly bad choice of vehicle: run-down, clunky, and in remarkably bad condition, even by Pakistani standards.  The rear windscreen was a piece of clingfilm.  It rattled and banged like a loose door in a strong wind.  The driver was intent on stopping to fill up with CNG (compressed natural gas, the same LPG that some people use in the UK).  We insisted that we were in a hurry, so he grudgingly agreed to get us there and fill up afterwards.

 “Do you have enough gas to get us there?” we asked, more than a little anxiously.

 “Oh yes, no problem.  Don’t worry” he assured us.

             Well, he didn’t.  About three hundred yards from the terminal the car gave one last, sickening rattle and the engine died.  Coasting to the terminal was out of the question since Mehrans have a top speed roughly equivalent to that of a sloth with a sprained ankle.  We came to a halt by the side of the road – a four lane road, with cars weaving in and out at high speed, I might add.  He jumped out and started to push.  I jumped out and started to help.  Jodie stayed in the car and started to pray.

             Pushing a car down a Pakistani highway is the kind of thing life insurance companies don’t cover you for.  If you read the list of exclusions it’s in there somewhere, between “training to be a lion tamer” and “flying metal-tipped kites during thunderstorms”.  Cars blared their horns as they swerved around us.  Buses screeched their brakes in anger as they narrowly avoided slamming into us.  And the driver and I plodded stolidly on.  We came to a junction where two more lanes of cars joined our road, meaning that even more cars were desperately trying to avoid hitting us.  It really was quite terrifying.

             And then it was over; we pushed the car to the side of the road, paid the driver, took our bags, and dashed to the bus station, only to find that instead of being five minutes late, as we had thought, we were actually forty-five minutes early, which gave us plenty of time to thank God for his protection and to vow never again to stop a taxi driver filling up with CNG.

I was driving through Islamabad recently when a traffic policeman pulled me over.  As a moderately  conscientious motorist who has never received a ticket or fine nor been in any kind of significant accident my brushes with traffic policemen are infrequent.  In fact in Pakistan the only reason I ever have to speak with one is either because they are bored and want someone to chat to, or, as happened to me recently, they want to borrow a pencil.

I didn’t have one.  He seemed confused.

“If you don’t have a pencil, how do you write?” he asked.

I attempted to respond that although I liked writing I tended to do so with a computer, and, either way, that I tended not to do any kind of writing while driving, but he laughed and waved me on.

Anyway, on this particular day the policeman seemed moderately irate.  This is odd, because in my experience Pakistani traffic policemen are courtesy itself.  I greeted him and asked him what the matter was.

“You were talking on your phone” he said.  This was undeniable.  A friend had called about a meeting later in the day and I had answered.  Though illegal in the West I had no idea that such a thing was also illegal in Pakistan.

I told him that I was terribly sorry and that I had no idea such a law existed.  He flipped to the appropriate page in his book of fines and showed me the small print.  There it was – “talking on mobile, 300 rupee fine”.  Bang to rights.  Caught red handed.  Busted.

“I’m so sorry, sir” I replied.  “You’re quite right.  I ask for your forgiveness”.

He seemed dumbstruck.  He scratched his head in confusion.

“You know I have to give you a ticket, right?” he said.

“Of course, you are quite right.  It is your job.  I am sorry to have caused you such bother”.

He didn’t know what to do.  People in Pakistan generally argue in this kind of situation.  Minor infractions lead to major disagreements, with lots of gesticulating, shouting, and usually bystanders getting involved for no apparent reason other than their love of a good show.  Nobody ever apologises, and certainly nobody ever asks for forgiveness.

Nobody.  Ever.

“Ok, next time” he said, with a confused face and perhaps the hint of a smile.  “Don’t do it again”.