Pakistan Highway a Surprise Obsession

Pakistan's M2 highway, as wide and clean as a freshly minted air strip, has become an unexpected obsession. It has six lanes that carve a path across the plains of the Punjab, from the city of Lahore to the capitol Islamabad and beyond. The M2 is South Asia's first motorway.

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JOHN YDSTIE, host:

In addition to his radio reports, our South Asia correspondent Philip Reeves sends us letters from time to time, with personal observations about the countries he covers. Here is his latest letter from South Asia.

PHILIP REEVES: After a while as a foreign correspondent, you become obsessive. You get obsessed about maps and airline timetables, about how and what to pack, about where on your travels to find a decent barber, or for that matter, a decent bar.

I've developed an unexpected obsession. I'm obsessed by a road. I feel my road, like a ship or a country, deserves to be a she. Her name is the M2. She's as wide and clean as a freshly minted air strip. Her six fat lanes carve a path across the plains of the Punjab, from the city of Lahore, to the capital Islamabad and beyond.

When she was built, Pakistan's government declared her to be South Asia's first motorway - or freeway to you.

Eight years on, she remains as manicured as a prized lawn. Litter and leaves are swiftly cleaned up by a man in overalls. She's the first motor highway I've seen that's swept by hand. Law and order doesn't exactly spring to mind when you think of Pakistan. Barely a day seems to pass without a fresh political crisis or a suicide bombing.

Like everywhere in South Asia, driving in Pakistan tends to be a wild and lethal competitive sport, often conducted on dusty, cratered roads. Not on the M2. On this ribbon of asphalt hundreds of miles long, the laws of the land are strictly enforced.

Those who drive on her have the air of second graders in the presence of a particularly frightening teacher. Thus, the obsession. I mean, why are the rules obeyed here, when they're so widely ignored elsewhere in Pakistan?

I usually travel the M2 with a taxi driver called Naem. We do have a choice: Lahore and Islamabad are also connected by the rough and tumble Grand Trunk road, a trade route dating back to Alexander the Great. There are no rules there. On the M2, the journey takes three and half hours. The Grand Truck road takes six.

As driver, Naem is, well, let's just say flamboyant on ordinary roads. But on the M2 he's a cagey as a smuggler. He glances frequently at his speedometer, wondering aloud whether his tires are too fat and therefore making his car go faster than the dial says. His explanation for his weariness is simple: It's the traffic cops. There may be chaos elsewhere, but the cops have created a part of Pakistan where the law works.

Every so often, we see them: impeccably dressed policeman, crouching by the curb, pointing a speed gun. Speeding fines are hefty by Pakistani standards on the M2, and you can't get off the hook with a bribe. These cops are not corrupt.

This explains the other mystery of this magnificent road. It's one of the emptiest highways I've been on.

Philip Reeves, NPR News.

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