Cult Pakistan website fires classic cars passion

In a country beset by Islamist militants and bombings, with a capital likened to a "living graveyard", a cult website has fired Pakistani passion for classic cars and the freedom of the open road.

Listed by Forbes as the fourth most dangerous country in the world, hitting the roads in the Pakistani outback is not a leisure activity that immediately springs to mind when talk switches to the nuclear-armed state of 167 million.

But over a recent dinner in Islamabad, fans of the fast growing website devoted to all things auto swapped stories and laughed over jokes from their trips, speeding classic cars down deserted highways in bandit territory.

"Media images from Pakistan are always of suicide bombers everywhere and men carrying guns in cities and towns," said Abdul Haseeb Awan, 23, an electrical engineer and businessman.

"The outside world must also be shown images of people engaging in healthy interaction," he said.

It is a refrain heard frequently in Pakistan, particularly from the educated and wealthy elite, increasingly frustrated that their nation has become a byword for terrorism, Al-Qaeda and religious extremism in the West.

Washington considers the northwest tribal corridor along the Afghan border the most dangerous place in the world for Americans and a chief sanctuary for Al-Qaeda leaders targeted in a US drone campaign.

Southern Punjab has become synonymous with madrassas used to recruit Taliban footsoldiers, while southwestern province Baluchistan has suffered a separatist insurgency for nearly six years, as well as flashes of sectarian violence.

"It's a question of mind over matter. We felt as safe as we do in Islamabad or any other city," said Saqib Hafeez Mirza, freshly back from a six-day trip pounding 4,432 kilometres (2,770 miles) in a restored 1974 Toyota Corolla.

He drove from the cool hills of the capital Islamabad down south through the breadbasket of Pakistan, then through desert to Karachi, swinging southwest to the port city of Gwadar on the glittering Arabian Sea.

Mirza bubbles over about "unexplored pristine beaches" in Baluchistan on the border with Afghanistan and Iran, which is also notorious as an alleged bolthole for Afghan Taliban supremo Mullah Omar.

"It was my uncle's car. He passed away in 1976 at 43. Restoring it was very touching and full of memories, especially for my father and I know what this car means to him," Mirza told AFP.

Awan says the website Pakwheels.com introduced him to friends when he moved from the northwest to study in the purpose-built capital, often likened to "a living graveyard" because of its limited entertainment.

His family comes from Dera Ismail Khan, a flashpoint of sectarian violence where picnic spots and mountain valleys once popular with tourists are now subject to Taliban violence and army control.

Taliban and Al-Qaeda-linked bombers have killed more than 3,000 people in attacks across the country over the last three years.

But digging out vintage cars from junk yards, restoring them to their former glory and hitting the tarmac is a growing passion for enthusiasts tapping into the chat rooms of Pakistan's busiest websites.

Hanif Bhatti, 53, a long-time enthusiast, founded Pakwheels.com as an experiment seven years ago and watched in amazement as the number of registered users multiplied to 100,000.

Not bad as a fan base for a specialist website in a country where the Internet Service Providers Association of Pakistan estimates that five million people are online.

Despite traditional clubs in major cities, Internet forums increasingly facilitate interaction and allow car enthusiasts to swap experiences.

"I got very valuable feedback and suggestions from my PakWheels.com friends, which helped a lot," said 29-year-old Bashartullah Khan, who spent four years restoring a 1966 Morris Minor.

After a lifetime restoring Volkswagen Beetles, Khalid Mehmood, 49, says his business today thrives on online recommendations.

"A complete restoration might take three to five months and costs vary from 65,000 rupees (755 dollars) to 350,000 rupees (4,000 dollars)," Mehmood told AFP, puffing on a cigarette in his workshop.

"I've always been a fan of VWs and the simplicity of the Beetle. It's a car everyone can relate to," said businessman Sameer Saeed, restoring a 1974 1303 Superbeetle and a 1978 Volkswagen 182 Thing.

"It gives me immense pleasure to see that people who met on PakWheels.com two years ago, are now friends for life. I feel great joy to have provided such a platform to automobile enthusiasts," Bhatti told AFP.

Driving a Mitsubishi Pajero, he joined Mirza and other friends on the 650-kilometre coastal road heading out of Karachi along the Arabian Sea and into Baluchistan.

"The roads are safe to travel even in Baluchistan. I never feel concerned about security," he said.

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