PAKISTAN: War dominates, but we'll be back.

Click on images to enlarge them.

A western Pakistani, a Taftan local.


Mountainous section not far before Quetta.

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Rather than write a normal blog, the following are two emails sent to friends from the road, in Pakistan, slightly edited.

Friends were writing to us, wondering about our well-being, due to the daily front page news on the Taliban war ongoing.

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May 10, 2009
Quetta Pakistan [map link]

Holy shit, holy shit, holy shit! Yesterday we rode from Taftan just after the Iran border [map Link].

The scene: 9 PM, pitch dark. Dust-covered, sweaty, exhausted from some 15 hard hours of pretty rough riding 650 km from the border. (Yes, from 6 AM to 9 PM covered just 650 km and the first 300 were easy! And we were still a couple hours from our hotel!)

In a third-world-ish traffic zoo, in what appears, while riding through the dark, like fairly rough areas in downtown Quetta.

We’re following a highly combat-ready, deadly serious, armed military escort to our hotel ‘for our own protection.’

It’s a no-choice escort and they are quite serious. Cannot-be-overstated. Their mood is contagious.

Poor visibility due to little or no street lighting and blinding oncoming high beams galore. Plus my own headlights do not work; all I have is fog lamps that barely show 10’ of road.

Add to that a long hard day of riding in mostly 40˚C (104˚F).

Exhausted. But for the pumping adrenalin. Holy shit.

Following closely behind a tag-team sequence of Pakistan Army Toyota pickup trucks – some with maintenance challenges, no taillights, one headlight perhaps. A box has been added to contain soldiers on the back.

This is no Keystone Cops show, au contraire, it is a seriously executed, Swiss-clockwork war business. It was all about keeping us off of CNN. Hostages screw things up, and there have been, indeed there still are, lots of hostages and dead foreigners here [see this list of articles and examples link].

This is very for-real. I’ve driven countries at war perhaps a half dozen times. Aside from military traffic, one hardly notices unless wandering too close to the front.

But this is something else. This city is one of the fronts.

Al Qaeda; Taliban; tribal rivalries; internal rebel groups; independence movements; opportunistic bad guys seeking a quick buck. We don't know details, or who is in cahoots with whom.

But we do know urban warfare is definitely being fought, right here and now; we are deemed likely targets, hence are following our pretty anxious defense team.

Terrorism happens here frequently. Here’s a list of 29 terrorism incidents in 2009 [link] in just this one town of Quetta, that's just in the first half of 2009!

In Quetta, Punjabi-go-home stuff is largely at play – just fast info from a couple bright young English-speaking guys at the corner stand, who vanished quickly when some cops approached. A smart businessman gent we sat with, also credits rivalry between Punjabi and Balochi, the latter being locals – Quetta is the capital of Balochistan province. They have oil/gas here, but not enough to meet domestic needs. They are still poor in Balochistan, while the Punjabi are relatively rich, so rivalries and blame happen.

Are Taliban & Al Qaeda backing the domestic inter-tribal stresses? Logically they would; they want Pakistan's relative wealth – and its nukes, so anything that destabilizes is good ... It's a better foundation for theocratic domination than impoverished former fiefdom Afghanistan, where anyhow, there are too many Yanks, Canucks and other allies with serious weapons nowadays. And Obama has gone on record he wants to prioritize Afghanistan, so ... here we are.

Traditional enemy India is clearly not part of the current problem. To the contrary, India and Pakistan share common enemies. But to complicate matters, out of 38 people charged by India's authorities in the coordinated Mumbai terrorist attacks in Nov. '08 – 36 are Pakistani nationals, including two senior Pakistani Army officers. What a mess. Are Taliban etc. behind Mumbai? A definite maybe [link.]

Back to our Army escort: Each Pony Express team had a district; each team efficiently passed us on to the next via radio.

At one point we waited for a late convoy car for five minutes and were immediate surrounded by armed soldiers with their backs to us and guns at ready.

“Very bad men. This is a VERY dangerous area” one white-jacketed officer confided to me as we waited. He named Al Qaeda and Taliban as the source of bad guys. And he emphasized VERY.

Holy shit, we didn’t expect this, it’s way more serious than we knew.

A dozen traffic-jammed km. lasted over a sweaty hour. An escort of about ten sequential vehicles, each with 4-6 extremely alert soldiers. Most in combat fatigues, all look highly trained, disciplined, fit – right out of the movies. Mess with them, you kill them or you die trying, that’s the intended message.

It ain’t casual soldier duty. Each rifle is held in ready-to-fire position, finger on or near the trigger; the truck’s tailgate is down for emergency exit and firing; 1-2 soldiers sit facing us aft, not looking at us, rather scanning side-to-side. Always a soldier stands with his head and gun poking through a hole in the rooftop. Two or three more in the front seat.

The USA’s top General-in-Charge Patraeus just said in yesterday’s news from Harvard, that Pakistan is the world centre of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, or words to that effect.

Pakistan is mounting a major Taliban counter-offensive, right now in the Swat [map link] region. Things have changed much to the worse in the last few days.

A relevant digression: Pakistan has an apparently superb military, I heard this of all places, in Innuvik NWT (above the Arctic Circle) from the head of the RCMP there – he had been in Rwanda during the worst of it as head of police training for the UN. Famed Romeo Dallaire [link], the UN head of military mission happened to be interviewed on the radio that day. Mr. RCMP told me of the Belgians being surrounded and slaughtered, and of the highest praise they all had for the discipline and bravery of the Pakistan contingent. 'The best I’ve seen in training, discipline and courage' he had told me.

And here we were following them, half the globe away.

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The Army tag-team finally delivered us to the 5-star Serena Hotel.

Holy shit again! It’s virtually impossible to exceed this civilian building’s security. Only rockets or planes could hit it.

Concrete barriers make a long zig-zag driveway no car bomber could weave; monster iron gate are opened for each vehicle; many armed soldiers and private guards are all over; tire spikes fall only on demand; a huge hydraulic driveway ramp nothing but a military tank could cross; and then, finally, you get to a concrete vehicle-proof concrete/steel wall where you must park. Then a fifty meter walk to reception, while passing through airport-level body security en route. Now that’s hotel security!

But you pay for it. The Serena is US$350 a night and looks the part. Brilliant Pakistan-style uber-opulence, massive, ornate, but still tasteful excellence – well worth the price for those traveling in that league. But we’re not. Translated into Europe/America contextual prices, convert that to a $1,000+ per night equivalence – that’s in the context of a country where $5 buys a hotel room and $2 a decent meal. It’s too much money and opulence for us biker heathen; even at the $175 I haggled them down to (trying for $100 just because I didn’t want to ride any more.)

The charming Duty Manager kindly suggested to try the Lourdes Hotel a couple kilometers away. Success. We’re staying a couple nights to rest up, in a quiet comfortable motel-style place, with huge rooms and western toilets, real sheets, for US$35 a night. By now it was 11 PM, it only has dial-up internet, but no point to keep looking.

So after a hot shower, we ate an excellent late-night chicken biryani, plus Pakistan-style fish ‘n chips, a Sprite. Thao washed all the clothes we had worn, we watched a Pakistan English-TV special on anti-rebel war progress. Then we crashed in comfortable clean beds.

Another day of riding in paradise.

Lourdes Hotel lovely garden, the morning after.

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The day previous we had crossed from Iran into Pakistan – see end of the Iran blog. A couple heat-sweaty hours at two Customs sides, all well organized, honest, no bakshish or other games in either side. Such a contrast from Egypt's corrupt fiasco!

The Pakistan Carnet de Passage officer even had an employee bring us another 2-litre bottle of cold water. I left it sitting on his desk, having gulped some – but a Turk trucker we had befriended, came over and asked if he could have a sip. 'Sure' I said, so he put his lips to bottle and glugged away. 'Take the rest' I said, not wishing to share saliva intimacy with him. The Pakistani officer said sarcastically to me, shaking his head in dismay 'Sure, you can have the rest, now…' sharing my distaste.

It was sooo hot … and by 2 PM driving 650 km on reputably bad roads was out of the question. We needed to sleep, not drive, so we went to the best joint in town, a kilometer from Pakistan Customs and slept a few hours in the worst dump ever.

Taftan is a distinctly third-world town, the hotel ditto, two things to avoid at almost all costs. Instead, try drive the 3 hours, 300 km, to Dalbandin [map link] on excellent roads and stay at the Al-Dawood Hotel/Restaurant [no web site but phone 0825-210953] which is clean, nice and serves great food, we happened to stop there. Everyone told us no decent hotels exist before Quetta – wrong info strikes again.

Instead, we stayed at a new low-point dump for us in Taftan; it came to about US$10 and was over-priced at even that. “Filthy” doesn’t do it justice.

A plastic bucket and cup with one iffy tap is the shower. One dirty sheet on the bed, that’s it. No towel, nor soap. Filthy squatter toilet. A dirty diaper on the bathroom floor; rotten food under the bed; garbage all over the floor.

Prostitute phone numbers on the walls “for love call …” is the only bonus.

The sink doesn't work. No water, no drain.
The squatter is no-flush.
You use the bucket to pour water down and then wash yourself.
Everything is filthy and broken.
Previous guests left us dirty diaper and rotten food ...
Taftan Hotel balcony, the view outside is comparable.
Oh, and I met a band of young self-described ‘freedom fighters’ who were setting off the bike alarm late at night. I dressed and went downstairs. We chatted amicably, I asked what they stood for – freedom from what exactly? Why not just run for public office instead of using guns they claimed they had. I couldn’t get a straight answer in spite of good English and education among them, except they hate the Taliban and one wears a Che Guevara cap for symbolic reasons (I pointed out I’d been to Cuba often and the people seem worse off than they are in Pakistan, to no evident avail.)

They wanted to have dinner with me, even offered me some whiskey of which they un-Muslimly had drunk a bit – but I just wanted to sleep.

Next day, I discovered one of them had stolen a $25 headlight bulb I had in a fairing pocket. ‘Freedom to steal things’ may be what they stand for.

They have no web site, so I gave them mine.

Gassing up in Taftan via funnel with cloth filter and plastic bottle.

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Everyone, including the Pakistan Embassy in Tehran, warned there are bandito-kidnapping dangers on the desolate road to Quetta. Even in Lonely Planet, strong advice was to cross this road only in convoy.

Maybe in the past, but not this week. Convoying with slow trucks isn’t our thing, we encountered no cars, a couple locals said there are no issues; so what the heck, we chanced it alone. Glad we did – we hot-footed it, temperature-and-speed-wise; anyone along would have slowed us down.

We didn’t even see a single military vehicle en route. No Taliban, no bandits. Nothing. Just a half-dozen police road-checks where we had to sign in each time.

The last foreigners passing through were some Swiss and Germans a week ago, going the opposite direction.

An army road check guard, in a highly isolated post mid-nowhere.
No English but so warm and friendly to us foreigners.

It hit 40˚C in the morning, more-or-less stayed there for 12 grueling hours. Gallons of unfortunately hot bottled water is the only answer. Just get through it.

The first 300 km of the 650 km to Quetta is gloriously paved total nothingness. Desert. Flat. Barren. Hardly a bump in the land. Just 110 km cruise-control in a boring straight line. I’d have done it at 160 but was concerned about hot tires on a scorching road; a flat out here would truly suck.

The last 350 km heading east prior to Quetta on the other hand, is deservedly famed as driving hell. Not off-road but baaad on-road; I actually prefer groomed gravel to this scheise.

It was paved long ago by someone’s brother-in-law who spent more on kickbacks than on the road’s foundation; single-lane mostly, so passing many fat lorries is a danger issue on two wheels (video below). Sand blows over the road in spots – soft, hard-to-ride sand. In one stretch I almost lost the bike in scary careening, but Allah smiled and we recovered control. Thao walked another bit because I feared a spill.

Other stretches of a few km each are tire-ruining gravel, big 2” rocks with sharp edges. In the best stretches the pavement is so bumpy you go airborne if you hit too fast. Shake, rattle ‘n roll – max I hit was 80 kph (50 mph) but mostly it was half that speed in the bloody heat.

And some fools added well-disguised and really tall speed bumps. What the hell? What idiot can be speeding here? No painted lines or signs to warn you, they just blend in and pop out of nowhere. Lots of brake-slamming, some skidding near-stops. Even at a standstill, I scraped the engine bottom on a few of these killer man-made bumps, taller than our ground clearance. Damn these road guys to hell.

Tires and bike rattled their way successfully without mishap to Quetta where the roads are also under-construction rocky-gravel-total-crap.

A police road-block just outside of town was where we were informed of being escorted to our hotel ‘for our own protection.’ It was not posed as a question.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is where yesterday’s story began. Recording it to be added to The Blog later – but also because I want to write it down while it’s fresh in the mind.

Today we rest up, tomorrow we head on as far as possible towards India.

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May 13, 2009 – email #2 to friends from Pakistan:

We're in Bahawalpur Pakistan [map link]. It’s the much longer route heading south from Quetta to Sukkur [map link] we were forced to take due to closed dangerous roads up north. Indeed a huge 1,000+ km, three days and somewhat rough detour, with roads ranging from velvet four-lane, to gravel and asphalt merde.

So much for a planned three-day crossing of Pakistan! It's becoming a week or more.

Also a tad warm-ish here:
. Last few days have been 46˚C (115˚F) peak.
. Till 10 AM it’s a cool comfy 35˚C (95˚F). All night too.
. Most of day riding over 40˚C (104˚F).

Try riding a bike on merde roads and these temperatures one day. On second thought, don’t. Do it in a Toyota Land Cruiser with A/C on, a way better idea.

These temperatures are the bike’s thermometer in the shade of the fairing; it's quite a bit hotter in the seat and the sun. Add being hit directly by sun; plus engine heat; plus reflected road heat; plus rushing hot air.

. Overall ‘wind chill factor’ is something like 50˚C = 122˚F is my guess.

That's approaching insufferable for us white/yellow Canadian wimps. No expletive does it justice. It’s a whole other experience.

Not complaining; it’s our choice to be here after all. And we'd be whining far less were we here three months earlier. But then we'd have frozen our butts in the East Turkey Kurd mountains, perhaps impassable due to snow. So there is no right answer.

Just getting us through it safely now is all that matters.

The ever-present army/police escort we follow is deterring the 'violence' safety part.

The heat safety is harder to deal with. One's brain does not function as well; one slows down mentally; concern is with physical discomfort, rather than paying close attention to riding skillfully and diligently as one ought.

But we'll get through it, are doing fine.


video

300-400 km is a good day. After 2 PM we can’t take any more heat, so find the first air conditioned digs, tell the cops 'see ya later' – and jump in a cold shower, riding clothes and all. Then we sleep.

Tomorrow our escort cops meet us at the hotel at 5:30 AM , we hope to make 400 km to Lahore. In Shallah. The cops are with us non-stop – two to four armed men at a time, all in Toyota pickups, except two on 125 cc bikes. It’s an obligatory police tag-team escort almost the whole way since Quetta.

They are very nice guys, is the good news.

Not sure if it’s every (rare) driving tourist here, or just us and the kidnapper-magnet bike – but clearly the word is out on the police-army airwaves to look after us. They just show up and off we go. Tag-team the whole way. Slows us down because they drive mostly at 80 kph when roads would justify 110+, but no choice.

They are amazingly well organized – there is almost always another vehicle waiting for us at the end of each team's territorial boundary. Occasionally we wait 5-15 minutes in baking heat, but seldom.

One other good thing: Through some heavy traffic, and poor signage in urban areas, having police lead you with siren blaring, sure cuts through much of it … but it’s a tad embarrassing. We are not VIP’s, but look the part being escorted this way. So much for ‘blending in’ – as if we ever could have …

Still, it’s a damned expensive use of army/police time and fuel, especially during a war. Not sure why Pakistan even gave us a visa frankly although glad they did. The nation is spending lot more on this trip than we are.

In any event, here we are, for a couple more days.

Nicest friendliest people, almost all of them, cops included. Warm, generous, hospitable, smiling (mostly.) They buy us Fantas, water and invite us to lunch ... it is so kind, truly.

Speaking of lunch – Pakistan food wins the Muslim cuisine contest, competing only against Tunisia to our palettes. Delicious, simple, beautifully spiced.

But it’s a country in trouble. Duh.

Hope they solve this rebel stuff – it's a democracy if a flawed one, and a country we want to see make it.

We had to go south due to roads closed on the straight line across to Lahore: There is only one road crossing to India, 30 km from Lahore is it.

Just as well – tires and bike parts await hopefully in New Delhi India, as does my new passport. And via Lahore is a good route to Delhi.

It's still bloody hot in India however and that concerns us. Not sure how much riding we can handle if it stays in the mid-high 40’s.

Not worried any more, we're fine, so is Black Bike. Just a couple more days ...

In mid-nowhere, we stop for a police check.
Too bad you live on the other side of that collapsed bridge ...

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Travels – our Pakistan itinerary: Google Maps does not allow one to show routes within Pakistan, so here are the cities, you can click on links and quickly see the route.

1. Taftan (just after Iran border) [map link]

2. Dalbandin (didn't stay the night, but nice rest stop en route
to Quetta, recommended hotel there) [map link]

3. Quetta (spent 2 nights) Constant police/army escort from here
to Lahore. [map link]

Big 3-4 days southern detour due to east-west road we preferred
but it's closed for security reasons.

4. Sibi (spent 1 night) bad winding slow mountain road
from Quetta [map link].

5. Sukkur (spent 1 night) slow but OK roads [map link].
780 km left to Lahore.

6. Bahwalpur (spent 1 night) neighbor town map link
Google Maps shows wrong town of same name [map link].
441 km left to Lahore. Just did 300 km yesterday, pushing it.

7. Lahore (spent 3 nights) [map link].

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Donkey wagons are ubiquitous.
Kids we met by roadside, stopping for water.
Following our escort, a rare two-wheel one for an hour.
Our motorcycle escort passes another over-loaded lorry.
Another brief motorcycle escort.
Gas station horde as per usual.
Ogling Thao or Black Bike more? Not sure.

Stopped for cold drinks in this cute shop roadside.
Owner spoke English and had a blissful electric fan.
We drank probably 2 litres water plus 2 lires Fanta. Plus packed more.
Cop escorts us to a hotel in a truck.
Bike was left at Police station.

Following our escort through a lovely valley.
Our escort stops for lunch. We couldn't eat, too hot.
Another camel herd traffic jam ...
Just a pretty woman.
The art of lorry painting – Pakistan is likely the world capital.

Passing a truck, or not.
video

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Travels cont'd – Lahore: The Army/Police parted ways with us at the city limits of Lahore [more photos link] – a bustling fine city [tourism link] with an important history for the country.

We needed a luxury break, stayed for three nights at the 5-star Pearl Continental Hotel [link] – a winner, well worth the US$150 a night. It feels and looks like an upscale Hyatt except for the doormen in fancy traditional Pakistani garb. Staff has a bit of quasi-upscale 'tude, but we didn't care: Riding down the glass-walled elevator to the marble lobby in clean cool clothes, that enormous buffet breakfast – it all dissolves the previous few days of 'roughing it.'

Sellers of grave stones and coconut pieces in Lahore.
One of best meals we had on this trip.
Maybe $5 get more than two can eat. Excellent cuisine.
An outdoor food-only street in Lahore, is quite famous.
Normal street traffic in Lahore, taken from a rickshaw.

Badshahi Masjid (Mosque) in Lahore, built 1673 by Auranzbeh




Hotel employee washes Black Bike at Lahore hotel.
From Rickshaw, street art horse in lahore, very attractive.

Some streets need a little work ...
Bamboo 'truck' drawn by a donkey.

video
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Lahore rickshaw view.

Three wheeled cabs AKA rickshaws are sizable portion of the traffic.

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Economy: With a population of about 170 million – about half of USA + Canada populations combined – it had the 3rd fastest-growing economy in Asia, 6%-8% per annum to 2006. In 2005 it had 2nd place growth in the world, after China; the World Bank named it 'top performer in the region' that year. Galloping forward.

But since 2008 the War on Terror has hurt Pakistan badly, foreign investment has dropped by 50%. Growth is just 3-4%. Runaway inflation as high as 25%. That's all scary for a country with nukes and Taliban crazies actively warring to try take it over; obviously it's much harder to topple an economically booming regime.

Poverty remains in the low 20% region but has dropped from 35% since 2000. Half the adult population is literate.

Agriculture is almost 25% of the GDP, uses 44% of the labor force. Pakistan has substantial arable land and one of the largest irrigation systems in the world. Fast-growing manufacturing accounts for another 18%. Services combined are over 50% of GDP.

GDP per capita (PPP) is low however, just $2600 in 2008 [source link.] Pakistan is almost a tie per capita with India and Vietnam, places #162 in world rank out of 225 economies listed. It is worth looking at the source [link] for a moment, just to see who ranks where – it is rather surprising.

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People & travel there: We really liked the Pakistani people, at least those we met.

We were not bugged or hounded in the slightest. To the contrary, Pakistanis treated us with warmth, generosity and hospitality. They offered us meals and drinks on many occasions, which was touching – even Police guarding us wanted to pay for our refreshments. Several guards invited us out for lunch in the midday heat, but we had to refuse, it was simply too hot to stop and eat – but guzzled Fanta and water by the gallon, often offered by someone kind.

We developed an affection for the Pakistanis in general.

When the danger has abated, we'll go back in a heartbeat and highly recommend it to the reader as a tourist destination. Militarily, obviously now is not a good time; summer is never a good idea.

The Police and Army certainly looked after our well-being, it was even a bit embarrassing to be using their time like this. As much of a drag as it was to be following them most of the way, they risked their own lives in the task of protecting a foreign target, always most courteously so! Plus they were exemplary professionals, some highly trained and very-ready dudes. None ever, not once, stretched a hand out looking for tips – that was an impressive and unexpected surprise.

We felt the entire time, that Pakistanis as a whole, both military and civilians, were sincerely happy to see these currently-rare foreigners riding through, in spite of the daily front page world excitement about war issues.

It really was page one at the time on the occasional western TV we caught – Iran's election demonstrations have since eclipsed it as newsworthy, but the Taliban war continues.

Maybe Pakistan observers of us thought, with some justification, that were are a bit nuts. But they never said as much; just seemed to like us and our travel mission. They sure liked Black Bike.

Being escorted as we were, it was almost impossible to explore casually. We just rode and rode, taking as much of the heat as we could endure in a day – except at the very end in Lahore where we had a bit of unescorted leisure time.

Also with the war active in the northwest, we never got anywhere near the resorts in the Himalayas; K2 the famed mountaineering peak (2nd highest in the world); the Hunza Valley which is reputed as one of the most spectacular places in the world with 20,000-foot peaks and such. Wikipedia [link] has lots about tourism in Pakistan and links to other sites.

A lot to see, some of it spectacular. Lovely people. An old culture. Fast-growing economy. Great food. Poor but proud and dignified folks. Low prices. Acceptable roads in most parts.

Were it not for the Taliban 'thing,' we'd love to have explored much more for a few weeks.

Pakistan: Hang in, kick butt economically and politically – and sincerely, thank you!

You welcomed us in at an inconvenient time, showing us great hospitality and protection. It is both appreciated and respected.

We'll be back when the dust settles.






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2 comments:

  1. Dear,
    I m very happy to see ur nice comments about my country "Pakistan". We welcome all foreigner visitors. Please come and see facts and figures regarding the Pakistani nation. Don't rely on media. We love people's, we love all human beings. We welcome u again and again. Have a nice journey.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Humayun, Thanks for your comment. In spite of the ongoing issues, as I write this in Thailand -- Pakistan was one of the highlights of our year's trip so far. We loved the people, the food, seeing your stunning country and think back fondly on it often. We just wish we could have explored more, especially the the north. Our greatest hope is the various factions get put under control and Pakistan gets back on its rapid growth/wealth track, it was doing so well. And will do well again – make it so! - Peter & Thao

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