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3 months in Pakistan
Saturday, 03 February 2007
We stayed for about 2,5 months in Islamabad for many reasons. We’ve seen many travellers come and go at the Jasmin Garden campsite and got the opportunity to roam in and around Islamabad for quite a bit. We experiencing the heat (+35 Celsius), the cold (- 3 Celsius), long rainy days and the humidity of Islamabad.
People here are quite used to western influences, unlike most other area’s of Pakistan. The presence of the United Nations and the (heavily secured) diplomatic enclave undoubtedly causes a steady demand for many things from the western world. Of course Pakistani life-style in Islamabad is clearly and irreversibly influenced by the influx of “lifestyle” technology (music, films, mobiles, fastfood etc). This mixed into Pakistani tradition and culture results in amazing contrasts, sometimes into the extremes.
We’ve condensed the 3 months in Islamabad in a few highlights, read on :

Rawalpindi – Sadr Bazar – Car parts hunt.

When you’re in need of car or truck supplies, Rawalpindi is in most cases the place to be. A 20 minute / 140 rupees taxi ride gets you inside Sadr Bazar wading through thick chaotic traffic. Very very different than Islamabad, which is far less chaotic. It’s a maze of shops most of them grouped together on their specific trade. Getting specific car parts (in Pakistan) has one magic key – bring a sample of what you are looking for. If that means bringing a 15 Kg starter motor or a 30 Kg tire – do it – in most cases it will get you back with what you are looking for. However getting the same tyre proved difficult many times – be prepared for a long search and sometimes high (import) prices. Or just don’t drive exotic tyres. Next to that parts can be copied, repaired or replaced by a look-a-like. For the ones who drive Iveco 4x4’s – you’ll find your parts heaven at Mr Malik’s opposite Hotel Avanti. (See also In most cases prices are just too good to be true - but finding your parts takes time looking, asking around and haggling about the price on a cup of tea. And in the case you can’t get your parts, a (poste restante) parcel from Europe with normal mail (priority) takes about 7 to 10 days and some local tax.

Jasmin Garden Campsite - The fight for electricity

As in most parts of Pakistan – The electricity grid isn’t that stable. Blackouts, deep voltage drops and nasty spikes makes your light go on and off and puts (sensitive) electrical stuff on a severe test. The tourist campsite for foreigners has brand new wiring since the summer of 2006. Unfortunately the old wiring hasn’t been quite removed and is still connected somehow. In rainy times we’ve experienced “smoke from the ground” – thinking of volcanic activity at the campsite? No! Just wiring heating up because isolation has long been gone. The daily walk to the box with the 60 Amp (13.000 Watt) fuse is normal – this fuse drops almost every evening. New arrivals at the campsite join the confusion / frustration and wonder why a simple 400 Watt battery charger can trip a 60 Amp fuse.
Not to speak of what happens when some-one arrives with a state of the art 3000 Watt water heater and looks forward to a real hot shower. Shouting in the morning when the owner discovers his plug has been disconnected in despair by some-one who simply wants a bit of light during the evening. For Pakistani’s it’s a fact of live, sometimes your electricity is simply just not there. Just wait and it’ll come back again or maybe wait some more. A look at the average electrical wiring seen on the streets explains how easily a whole area can be blacked out for a few hours or more. The immense task ahead of improving the electricity grid is far beyond comprehension. If it was only to recover the many Watts lost in “floor” heating and low quality wiring. Not to mention the broad use of incredible cheap and simple air-heaters and water heaters from china, each at least a 1000 watts.
It just makes the problem of no power at the campsite look small and irrelevant. After all most of us are here as travellers – the electricity problem is just a temporary thing. Imagine trying to make a living with on and off electricity?

Islamabad Taxi’s and busses

The small Suzuki Alto with a 1000 cc engine (4 person micro cab) is the main taxi in Islamabad. All of them run on CNG (30 rupees/Kg gas) the Pakistani phrase for liquid gas. In black and / or yellow the Taxi’s usually easy to recognise. The cars are not build for Europeans. Getting in and out of these very small cars is not easy specially when carrying a few bags and all.  

Prices for a ride vary and have to be negotiated all the time, there’s no meter. Of course in many cases the initial charge for foreigners is high. Usually the driver starts of with 100 rupees even when the actual ride goes down for 40-60 rupees. Sometimes the opening of the negotiation starts with “As you like”. Which means just name your price. Of course it’s always corrected upwards by the driver. Rain, cold, time of day, the location where you are, competition all have a multiple +10 rupees effect.

Most of the time you end up where you want to be. However sometimes it goes very wrong – the language confusion being the main reason. Secondly coming close to where you want to go doesn’t mean you actually arrive or find the place at all. In other cases you find yourself in a long queue for the CNG station, being stopped by police or in an accident. The latter happened to us in Rawalpindi. A dent in the door and one hour lost in a haze of near fighting and shouting about the damage done.

Some taxi’s are on the brink of falling apart, others are a fine example of excellent maintenance and care. And this doesn’t always show in the price for a ride. It’s not unusual your taxi ride ends with a mechanical failure. Never ever say you want to go somewhere quickly. It means speeding with an unknown state of the brakes or steering, think again!

Police Roadblock near the campsite

The traffic police operate a roadblock near the campsite, making it a quite busy place. Armed men stop cars 24 hr / day using a big iron gate to close down one lane of the street. In the usual street chaos they make random picks and check papers and such.
Sometimes resulting in shouting and in rare cases a arrests.

The mobile iron gate has caused quite a drama in the time we where there. Sometimes drivers don’t see the heavy gate and crash into it at full speed. We’ve seen motorcyclist fly, motorcycles skid, hear loud bangs and the alarming sound of wheels gripping the asphalt to come to a halt.

Several times a week the police at the roadblock clear the road for VIP’s. We’ve seen many convoys with unmarked vehicles whoooosh by at high speeds. At this time it’s quite dangerous to cross the road for at least 15 minutes or more. Police will aim their guns at anyone coming near to the road. Security here is serious business!

Internet café’s

For about 20 rupees/hour you’re connected to the internet through a DSL line. Many young Pakistani’s crowd the many internet café’s to chat, mail or browse the world outside Pakistan. This part of the Pakistani society probably holds the best cards for the future. They can operate a computer in English language and find their way on the internet quite easily.

Internet access from home is still quite rare however will undoubtedly explode in the coming years. Average speeds vary between 2 up to 18 Kb/s with regular drops in speed to almost nothing for several hours. The available speed shows on the state of most PC’s. Old Windows XP – SP1 versions are used, updates just take too long to download. Not to mention the absence of official XP licenses.

The Internet Café PC’s are heaven for Internet worms. Cheap P4’s crawl under heavy loads of multiple virus infections all fighting for the CPU or access to the internet connection. Not to mention the easy access to mail or chat passwords of unsuspecting users. It’s not uncommon to find it impossible to do anything on a PC which in fact is part of zombie PC farm of some hacker elsewhere in the world.

In many Internet Café it’s quite easy to hook-up your laptop to the internet. Most of them operate a local router with dynamic IP address distribution. The biggest problem is usually to find the space for your laptop. On average the internet booth is so small, there’s hardly any space for yourself. This while Pakistani’s visit the internet café in a crowd of 2 or 3 (sitting on 1 chair with 3 people is  really possible).

The weather

When it’s hot in Pakistan, it’s simply hot. The heat in Islamabad stops you from doing things – too humid, too sticky – just grab a chair and sit. But when the heat goes away starting half November, the weather shows more variation. You get humid nights where the temperature drops to about 20 degrees. Then the humidity disappears and there’s actually cold weather dropping to a whopping 10 degrees or lower. Rain and clouds appear making the days a bit sad. Daytime temp is still good and you can get things done during the day. Then the cold comes in – nights below 5 degrees – it’s real cold! And with a cold wave round X-mass 2006 it’s freezing cold at night. Camping out without a heater in the evenings is COLD. For those staying at the campsite at this time of the year, install a DIESEL heater in your mobile home or make sure you have a burner to put hot water bottles in your sleeping bag.

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