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Our Journey By Train Down The Middle Of Pakistan Begins In Rawalpindi


To understand a country, you really need to listen to people. Over the next three days, we're going to do just that by traveling through the heart of Pakistan on a train with our correspondent, Phil Reeves. Our journey begins in the north, in the city of Rawalpindi.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: This is Pakistan's most magical hour.

This is my absolute favorite time of day in South Asia - early in the morning. The sky is pale blue. People are wandering around, wrapped in big, woolen shawls against the chill. The sun has recently risen and is a big, orange coin low in the sky, casting this lovely apricot-colored light.

I'm here to catch a train that will take me 1,000 miles south. We'll travel down the middle of Pakistan to its largest city, Karachi, on the shores of the Arabian Sea.


REEVES: My fellow passengers prepare for the journey with tea and cakes.


REEVES: Our train pulls in.

It's green and cream-colored and somewhat battered-looking.


REEVES: And we're off. Doors are still open. And during this journey, we're going to ask people where they're going and talk to them about that, but I don't just mean where they're going today. I mean where they're going at this point in history, in this part of the world, because there's no better place to meet people than on a train.

FAROOQ ANSARI: Farooq Ansari is my name. I'm working in a private pharmaceutical company. I am looking after for marketing and sales department of pharmaceutical products.

REEVES: Farooq Ansari is on his way to give a pep talk to a sales team in the city of Multan, about halfway along our journey. Business is pretty good these days, he says. Some medicines are selling alarmingly well.

ANSARI: We have medicines for anxiety. We have medicine for depression. There is a huge growth in the sales of this sort of medicine. As far as commercial interest is concerned, we are happy that we are selling our medicine. But as a national, this also creates an anxiety for me that what we are doing.

REEVES: You're anxious about the amount of anxiety medicine that is being sold because people are anxious about the country.


REEVES: There's much to be anxious about. Every other week seems to bring a sectarian massacre or a militant bombing. Yet people here often tell me what they really worry about is how to secure a toehold in a society where so much depends on who you are, who you know or who you pay.


REEVES: Sit down for a minute with Aftab Jamil. He's 24, and he's heading home.

AFTAB JAMIL: My mom will cook my favorite dishes. It's like rice, meats, et cetera that I like.

REEVES: So you'll be treated like a hero when you arrive?

JAMIL: Yeah, yeah, of course.

REEVES: Jamil will get a hero's welcome because he's just landed his first job. He's a civil engineer. He says finding work was not easy without connections.

JAMIL: Political involvement is too much in this field. So it's highly difficult to be in on merit.

REEVES: To be there on merit?

JAMIL: Yeah.

REEVES: How many different jobs have you applied for?

JAMIL: I've been applying at roadways, highways, motorways, airports, buildings department, irrigation department and didn't get a job.

REEVES: How many applications - 10, 15?

JAMIL: No, it's a thousand.

REEVES: You've made thousands of applications?

JAMIL: Yeah.

REEVES: Jamil's father couldn't pull any strings to help him. He's a blacksmith. Jamil says he heard from a friend about a vacancy on a highway construction project. And when he was hired, it felt like winning the lottery. When you're young and single and get your first pay packet, it's party time, right?

Not for Jamil. He earns the equivalent of $150 a month. He says he must send every dime home to help pay for his sisters' weddings, except for $5, which he keeps as fun money. We chat and look out of the window at a countryside still governed by tradition.

There's sugar cane. There are mango groves. There are stagnant pongs. There are donkeys and children and goats and sheep and small mud villages, half mud half brick, and palm trees and paddy fields and lots of little pathways, little mud paths running across the landscape, which is mostly flat.

Roughly 200 million people live out in that landscape. More than half are 25 or under. If they can't find a toehold in society, they could easily fall prey to Islamist extremists. Militant groups are very active here. Khawar Ajaz sees that firsthand.

KHAWAR AJAZ: Danger - very dangerous.

(Foreign language spoken).

Very dangerous.

REEVES: Ajaz is a cop. He started out two years ago as a constable. He's just been promoted, so he's on his way to a training course. Ajaz is 25. His parents died when he was in his teens. He says he has no political connections or money, and that means he knows precisely how high his career will take him.

AJAZ: (Through interpreter) I can go up to ASI, assistant sub-inspector. I am a poor man. You have to grease the palms of someone if you want to go beyond that.

REEVES: Ajaz says an assistant sub-inspector in the police is paid $400 a month.

And you'll be happy with that?

AJAZ: Sir, very happy, sir.

REEVES: That seems strange to me. Why not push against that ceiling? Yet what matters to Ajaz is that his job is permanent.

You feel safe in this job?

AJAZ: My - my kitchen is safe (laughter).

REEVES: Ajaz is thinking about his sons. Being a policeman gives him some social clout. He believes that will eventually make it easier for his boys to find work and secure that precious toehold.

AJAZ: (Through interpreter) This will be a plus point for them because of my job as a policeman.

REEVES: To get ahead in Pakistan, you have to think ahead. Farooq Ansari from the pharmaceutical company is twice Ajaz's age, but he has teenage kids and knows that young people are under a lot of pressure.

ANSARI: They are worried about their country. In this sort of condition, in this sort of political culture, they are feeling that we are going towards destruction.

REEVES: We arrive in Multan. Ansari steps off our train into a world that seems to need his anxiety meds. Philip Reeves, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.