We are driving along the highway, a big, multi-laned road that could be in any major European country, when we realise we’ve missed the turn for Attock. There is nowhere to turn off the highway for miles; by the time we finally manage to get off the road and drive back the way we came, it is getting dark. I tweet an inane joke about being lost in north-western Pakistan. A response comes back: “I’m not sure you want to be roaming around that area at this time of night.”
Now we are on the Grand Trunk (GT) Road, one of the oldest roads in South Asia, which stretches from Bangladesh across northern India and Pakistan, and up to Afghanistan. In Pakistan it spans the most populous province of Punjab, from Lahore in the south, through Islamabad and up to the north-western province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK). It pre-dates the highway and you can tell; the road is more uneven, there are pedestrians walking on dusty pavements, and the motorbikes which are an ever-present feature of driving in Pakistan’s cities – thankfully absent from the highway – are back in force.
Not only are we lost, we are lost in a militarised zone, Kamra. The site of a large airbase, and cantonment, the town was attacked by militants a few years previously. Pakistan’s atomic assets are stored nearby. The authorities are jumpy about foreigners being in the area.
We pull up near the pavement, and in broken Urdu, I ask a man the way to Attock, where we are visiting friends. He gestures up ahead, and tells us to take the next left. “Isn’t that the airbase?” I ask. He nods. “You’ll need your ID cards.” “We’re foreigners,” I say, “we don’t have ID cards, but we have passports.” He shrugs. “You can try.”
In front of the airbase is a huge statue of an eagle, reminiscent of the Third Reich. We drive up to the toll booth. This was an error: the guard is unimpressed to say the least. “Who are you? What are you doing?” We’re trying to go to Attock, to visit a friend, I explain, thrusting our passports at him. He looks suspiciously into the car, taking in the box of cherries, the discarded sunglasses, the printed out Google maps. We can almost see him register that we are idiots rather than spies, and that this isn’t a fight worth fighting. Wearily, he tells us foreigners are not permitted to drive through the airbase, and sends us back on our way. Eventually, we get there. Our host’s first question: “Have you been followed?”
Travelling around Pakistan, one of the main priorities is to “keep a low profile”. You don’t want to attract the attention of the security services, terrorists, or, perhaps the highest risk, local criminals. In the face of poor law and order enforcement, foreigners and those with means – those most likely to face a threat – take steps to ensure their own security.
The road trip from Islamabad to Attock and nearby village Shadi Khan, on the border of Punjab and KPK, was one of many I took while living in Pakistan’s capital city. The network of highways allows easy travel around the province, and the relatively stable security situation – Punjab is one of the safer parts of Pakistan, and the National Highway Police well-respected – means it’s possible to travel around the province by road. This was a shock after living in the southern port city of Karachi, where the very idea of a road trip was unthinkable. The city, Pakistan’s economic hub, is volatile and dangerous, a melting pot of ethnic and sectarian tension, intense poverty and ostentatious wealth, and warring gangs and mafias vying for control. During the months I lived there, numerous work trips were cancelled due to law and order problems on the roads: a running gun battle here, an explosion there.
Across this intensely class-bound country, your means of transportation is a marker of status. One measure is that if you are rich, you have a car but do not drive it yourself (a driver does that), if you are middle class, you drive your own car, and if you are poor, you cannot afford a car at all. At the bottom end of the spectrum are the private minibuses which rocket around with passengers clinging to the sides and the roof, or the auto-rickshaws which buzz around the city. Those who can manage it may invest in a motorbike. It is hair-raising to see a family of five crammed onto a single motorbike, babies and all, the women riding side-saddle to preserve their modesty, weaving in and out of traffic.
Islamabad, the capital, is a planned city, built on grid system with greenery everywhere. As in many other countries, foreigners often break the norms, riding motorbikes or bicycles or even – gasp – walking. In Karachi, a sprawling megalopolis, this would be unthinkable. A functioning, business-like city, it has huge roads with five lanes of traffic, which fast descend into insane jams, particularly given the frequent road blocks and security alerts. Many of the wealthy always travel with a driver or even an armed guard, to give at least the semblance of extra security. An air-conditioned car feels like a small tank against the chaos outside, but in fact, you are not really protected at all. Muggings at gun point, which are so routine in the city that many people carry two phones so they can give one over to robbers without much inconvenience, mostly happen in queues of traffic: a man on a motorbike drives up to your window and points a gun at you. There is not much a driver can do in that situation. Kidnapping, the other main threat, can also happen while you are enclosed in the apparent safety of a car. A family friend was kidnapped by terrorists on his way to work; gunmen surrounded the car and knocked out the driver.
Like the highways across Punjab, the main roads in Karachi are wide, freshly tarmac-ed, and highly functional. But despite the self-contained bubbles, the cars which the wealthy always travel in, safety is still a concern. Driving to the beach on the outskirts of the city one day, we had to pass through Lyari, a particularly dangerous part of town. My friend, driving the car, explained: “It’s fine, but you don’t stop the car for anyone or anything. Even if someone smashes into the back, you just keep driving.”
There is something strange about never really walking on the street. I lived in Pakistan for the best part of a year but never got the smell of the place, the feel of it, except for walking between car and destination. But you can see plenty from behind the windows of a car. It is a beautiful country, with varied terrain and people with remarkable fortitude. You just keep driving.