Margot Flügel-Anhalt has always liked to travel. But since her retirement, the tours of the social worker have become longer and more dangerous: as a 64-year-old she drove to Central Asia on a motorcycle, as a 65-year-old with an old Benz via India to Laos and as a 68-year-old with a Lada Niva to Nanga Parbat im Himalayas. On the last two tours, she crossed Iran and Pakistan. "The hospitable people and the fantastically beautiful landscapes make up for the effort on this route," says the adventuress and bestselling author.
WORLD: You gave away your Benz C 180, with which you drove to Laos in 2019/2020. Why did you choose a Lada for your next trip the following year, was the Benz unreliable?
Margot Flügel-Anhalt: The Benz was great. The brake hose leaked only once and the brakes failed, but I didn't have many more problems on the 18,000-kilometer trip to Southeast Asia. That's why I bought another Benz after my return, a used E 240 with 170 hp and leather seats. But for my tour to Nanga Parbat it was out of the question. On the pothole-strewn mountain roads, I needed a four-wheel drive vehicle.
WORLD: And if you had chosen the northern route, i.e. on the Pamir Highway through Tajikistan and then on the Karakorum Highway through western China to northern Pakistan? Your new Benz would have easily covered the distance even without all-wheel drive.
Flugel-Anhalt: That was not up for debate last year because China had completely isolated itself from the outside world due to the pandemic. And I didn't want to postpone the trip. That's why I only had the direct trail through Iran and Pakistan. Beijing has relaxed its corona regime, but to the best of my knowledge it is still not possible to enter China with your own vehicle from Tajikistan via the Kulma Pass.
WORLD: Does that mean that if you want to go to India and further to Southeast Asia, you still have to take the Iran-Pakistan route?
Flügel-Anhalt: Yes, and even if the northern route is open again - the Pamir Highway is a gravel road. And the Karakoram Highway, which was developed by the Chinese, is by no means as perfect as you might imagine.
WORLD: After all, buses have been driving regularly across the Chinese-Pakistani border on the Karakorum Highway for some time. And where they drive, cars can probably get through.
Flugel-Anhalt: I only know the Pakistani side of the Karakorum Highway, i.e. the 400-kilometer stretch between Islamabad and the Khunjerab Pass; I got there by then, at an altitude of around 4700 meters. Sure, the road is passable as long as there are no falling rocks or torrents washing everything away. But you always have to reckon with that in the Himalayas. Likewise in the mountainous western part of Pakistan, and this region called Balochistan has to be passed through by anyone who wants to go to India or Southeast Asia. In this respect, you should either have an all-terrain motorcycle or a vehicle with all-wheel drive.
WORLD: And what else?
Wing-Anhalt: courage and confidence. Because in the western part of Pakistan, the long-distance road runs close to the Afghan border.
WORLD: You mean that a meeting with the Taliban cannot be ruled out?
Wing-Anhalt: Yes, that's why Levies, armed Pakistani security forces, accompany all travelers from the Iranian-Pakistani border to Quetta, the provincial capital of Balochistan.
WORLD: Do you also have a police escort in the hotel?
Wing-Anhalt: Always in Balochistan and Quetta, sometimes in some other provinces and cities. It's much worse, however, if you don't have to sleep in the hotel but at the police station. In 2022 I had this "pleasure" several times when driving the Lada. The severe flood disaster in Pakistan, in which more than 1,700 people lost their lives, had made the roads impassable. Getting to Quetta was not possible, and the Levies insisted that I sleep at the police station.
WORLD: A number of travelers to Pakistan have already reported spending the night in police shelters...
Flugel-Anhalt: That doesn't happen all that rarely, even outside the monsoon season. There are usually no reasons for this. Or it says only succinctly that the travelers would be accommodated in the police stations for their own protection.
WORLD: How can travelers prepare for such situations?
Wing-Anhalt: With patience, humor, drinking water and something to eat. A sleeping bag and toiletries don't hurt either. In addition to the police and military, only prisoners spend the night in the police stations, and no effort is made for them.
WORLD: Can you shorten such forced stays with baksheesh or at least make them more pleasant?
Wing-Anhalt: Normally you only stay one night in a police station. I never paid a bribe.
WORLD: And in Iran, what is the worst that travelers have to expect there?
Flugel-Anhalt: The fuel shortage is currently a major problem in Iran, as is the fact that there is no internet in conflict situations. In order to be able to find your way around in traffic and to book hotels in advance - which I would always advise - you should load a paid VPN onto your cell phone, virtual networks cannot be easily blocked by the security police. And very important: Never film or photograph in sensitive areas, such as near barracks, military facilities or industrial plants.
WORLD: The fastest route across Iran to the Pakistani border crossing at Mirjaveh leads through the desert. Is there accommodation there?
Wing-Anhalt: Yes, hostels have now opened in every larger town along the road, even in small settlements. Most of them can also be booked online.
WORLD: Did you keep your headscarf on in the car when driving overland?
Wing Anhalt: At least it was close enough for me to put it on quickly in case I ran into a control. Iranian women are prosecuted by the vice squad if they remove their headscarves while driving.
WORLD: Now the vice police is history …
Flugel-Anhalt: I recently spoke about this topic on a talk show. After that, friends who are from Iran and saw the show told me that the vice squad still exists. And I think so too, because it fits with the terrible news of the last few weeks about executions of demonstrators.
WORLD: The Iranians are mostly Shiites, the Pakistanis Sunnis - does that make a difference for travelers?
Flugel-Anhalt: As a traveller, you will not be affected by religious problems if you stick to the dress code and treat people with respect – no matter what religion they belong to. In the larger cities of the Pakistani provinces of Sindh and Punjab, women dress very Western, and in the Hunza Valley in the north-east of the country, where mainly Ismailis live, women can also learn a trade. However, the majority of Pakistani women are veiled, and in Balochistan you don't even see veiled women in public, or only very rarely.
WORLD: And still, a foreigner traveling alone like you can tour Pakistan?
Flugel-Anhalt: Pakistan needs tourism, it is an important source of income. People respect older women like me. And I'm not a victim, which means I distance myself in good time if a situation threatens to become ambiguous.
WORLD: Would you have liked to have had a man by your side in such situations?
Flugel-Anhalt: I consciously and like to travel alone. If I were traveling with a man, nobody in Iran and Pakistan would probably speak to me, only to the male companion. When I travel alone, I experience an incredible amount of helpfulness and hospitality.
WORLD: The goal of your trip was the Nanga Parbat, which rises not far from the Karakorum Highway. What ideas did you have of the eight-thousander?
Flugel-Anhalt: In the run-up to the trip, I dealt intensively with the Nanga Parbat and its history as the glorified "Mountain of Fate of the Germans". Before Herman Buhl climbed it for the first time in 1953, it became an icy grave for many mountaineers. They took the risk because they wanted to experience the fascination that emanates from Nanga Parbat.
WORLD: Did the mountain also cast a spell on you?
Flugel-Anhalt: Absolutely. I was very fortunate to experience a moonless night near it, at an altitude of about 4500 meters. In this absolute darkness, the Nanga Parbat seemed to glow from within. I heard the thundering avalanches, the cracking and bursting of the glaciers. That was pure luck for me. The 22,000 kilometer journey was worth it for that alone.
WORLD: Speaking of which: did the Lada bravely hold out there and back?
Wing-Anhalt: The Russian off-road vehicle was heavily challenged. Because of the mud and water in Pakistan, the voltage regulator in the alternator broke, the fourth gear in the transmission gave up the ghost, and the driver's seat broke. But everything could be repaired by competent craftsmen on the way. And I got home safely.
Margot Flügel-Anhalt has written three books about her travels; after “Über Grenzen” and “Einfach abfahrn” “Hoch. Out: My journey to the people on the highest mountains in the world”, Polyglott Verlag, 240 pages, 18.99 euros. In it, the 69-year-old describes her three-month tour to Nanga Parbat.
The onset of winter exacerbates the already difficult situation in Iran. According to the EU foreign service, the required classification of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organization is not easily possible - for the regime critic Neda Soltani also a question of will.
Source: WORLD | Nele Wuerzbach