A to B: Cars like tanks

Travel through Pakistan is intimately segregated by class, writes Samira Shackle. If you're rich, you just keep driving.

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.

This post is part of A to B, the New Statesman's themed week of posts on transport and travel.

Two men celebrate Pakistan's Independence Day in Karachi. Photograph: Getty Images

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Hate Brexit Britain? 7 of the best places for political progressives to emigrate to

If you don't think you're going to get your country back, time to find another. 

Never mind the European Union, the UK is so over. Scotland's drifting off one way, Northern Ireland another and middle England is busy setting the clocks back to 1973. 

If this is what you're thinking as you absentmindedly down the last of your cheap, import-free red wine, then maybe it's time to move abroad. 

There are wonderful Himalayan mountain kingdoms like Bhutan, but unfortunately foreigners have to pay $250 a day. And there are great post-colonial states like India and South Africa, but there are also some post-colonial problems as well. So bearing things like needing a job in mind, it might be better to consider these options instead: 

1. Canada

If you’re sick of Little England, why not move to Canada? It's the world's second-biggest country with half the UK's population, and immigrants are welcomed as ‘new Canadians’. Oh, and a hot, feminist Prime Minister.

Justin Trudeau's Cabinet has equal numbers of men and women, and includes a former Afghan refugee. He's also personally greeted Syrian refugees to the country. 

2. New Zealand 

With its practice of diverting asylum seekers to poor, inhospitable islands, Australia may be a Brexiteer's dream. But not far away is kindly New Zealand, with a moderate multi-party government and lots of Greens. It was also the first country to have an openly transexual mayor. 

Same-sex marriage has been legal in New Zealand since 2013, and sexual discrimination is illegal. But more importantly, you can live out your own Lord of the Rings movie again and again. As they say, one referendum to rule them all and in the darkness bind them...

3. Scandinavia

The Scandinavian countries regularly top the world’s quality of life indices. They’re also known for progressive policies, like equal parental leave for mothers and fathers. 

Norway ranks no. 2 of all the OECD countries for jobs and life satisfaction, Finland’s no.1 for education, Sweden stands out for health care and Denmark’s no. 1 for work-life balance. And the crime dramas are great.

Until 24 June, as an EU citizen, you could have moved there at the drop of a hat. Now you'll need to keep an eye on the negotiations. 

4. Scotland

Scottish voters bucked the trend and voted overwhelmingly to stay in the European Union. Not only is the First Minister of the Scottish Parliament a woman, but 35% of MSPs are women, compared to 29% of MPs.

If you're attached to this rainy isle but you don't want to give up the European dream, catch a train north. Just be prepared to stomach yet another referendum before you claw back that EU passport. 

5. Germany

The real giant of Europe, Germany is home to avant-garde artists, refugee activists and also has a lot of jobs (time to get that GCSE German textbook out again). And its leader is the most powerful woman in the world, Angela Merkel. 

Greeks may hate her, but Merkel has undoubtedly been a crusader for moderate politics in the face of populist right movements. 

6. Ireland

It's English speaking, has a history of revolutionary politics and there's always a Ryanair flight. Progressives though may want to think twice before boarding though. Despite legalising same-sex marriage, Catholic Ireland has some of the strictest abortion laws of the western world. 

A happier solution may be to find out if you have any Irish grandparents (you might be surprised) and apply for an Irish passport. At least then you have an escape route.

7. Vermont, USA

Let's be clear, anywhere that is considering a President Trump is not a progressive country. But under the Obama administration, it has made great strides in healthcare, gay marriage and more. If you felt the Bern, why not head off to Bernie Sanders' home state of Vermont?

And thanks to the US political system, you can still legally smoke cannabis (for medicinal reasons, of course) in states like Colorado.