Islamabad can seem a dull place, full of retired civil servants sipping tea in villas, and with a night scene that’s about as lively as lawn bowls. But you can at least get a good sleep.
While other Asian cities gossip, munch and rattle through the night, a hush descends on this modern government town.
In my neighborhood, dusk creeps in to a chorus of birdsong. Dawn is heralded by the rich and multilayered cadences of the call to prayer from the nearby mosques.
The hours in between are filled with silence, interrupted occasionally by lonely dogs and the quiet rumbling of generators that kick in with every power outage.
This is a fine place for a foreign correspondent to catch up on sleep lost on airplanes or in cars lurching across the benighted landscape toward yet another trouble spot.
At least, it usually is. Every now and then, this soothing soundtrack is broken by a strange sound that seems entirely out of place in this orderly metropolis.
It’s the sudden wail of souped-up car engines echoing over the rooftops and bouncing off the Margalla Hills that form Islamabad’s backdrop.
This doesn’t last long. It’s often at weekends. It’s always in the wee hours. It wakes me with a jolt, a surge of irritation — and a head full of questions.
Who’s doing it? Why? How are they getting away with it?
Pakistan is an unstable nation, blighted by insurgents. A multitude of policemen guard the capital. There are cameras, checkpoints and trucks packed with Kalashnikov-wielding anti-terrorism cops, slowly patrolling the streets.
Could it be that, despite this, some motorheads have concluded that Islamabad’s big, wide avenues are just too tempting to resist? Are there people out there defiantly gunning it through the seat of government?
The other night, I decided to find out. I left NPR’s bureau at 1 a.m. — recorder, camera and pen at the ready — and cruised the empty streets, listening intently, under a moonlit sky.
We pulled over and asked some sweepers sprucing up Islamabad’s new Metro Bus stations. Yes, they had seen cars whizzing past. Yes, these were racing. But, no, they’d seen nothing tonight.
Taxi drivers, napping at the roadside in their battered cars, said the same. They’d seen the racers many times. “They go like a bullet,” said one driver, Khawar Abassi.
We got nowhere that night. However, after rummaging around the Internet, we have finally solved the mystery.
The answer to my questions is Route 66.
We arranged to meet the lads from Route 66, named after the famous U.S. highway, by what they call their “track” — 400 yards of concrete, as wide and straight as a runway.
To everyone else, this is Seventh Avenue, one of Islamabad’s most prestigious highways. Parliament, the Supreme Court and the prime minister’s residence are just 10 minutes away — or two, if you travel at the speed of the Route 66 boys.
The “crew” — that’s what they call themselves — turn out to be six bright-eyed young men, united by a passion for fast cars and a willingness to break the law to feed their addiction.
“It’s [the] adrenaline,” explains their founder, Sheikh Rahim, a 19-year-old student. “It gives us a buzz and makes us happy.”
Rahim climbs into his Suzuki Swift, turns on the engine and pumps the accelerator with an air of deep satisfaction. His is a small car with an exhaust system re-engineered to make a big sound — a throaty, fuel-rich, sleep-shattering roar.
Rahim says there are at least three other crews of illegal drag racers in Islamabad — “the Bulls, the Mob, the Street Kings” — and more in Pakistan’s other big cities.
He describes how the police sometimes show up and give chase, compelling the Route 66 crew to speed off and seek refuge in one of their hiding places around town. If you’re caught, there’s a fine (usually around $10) and your wheels might be impounded for a couple of days, explains Rahim.
The only sanction that seems to worry him is the fact that, when they catch racers, the cops tell their parents. And that means Route 66 is grounded for a while.
I ask Rahim if Islamabad’s residents ever complain about the noise. “They do!” he replies. “They are too lazy to [ask us], ‘What are you guys doing?’ They just call up the police and police shows up.” He adds, smiling: “These are the elite class of Islamabad, so-called!”
Rahim wants drag racing to be legalized. He and his crew say Pakistan needs a proper track for people like them. Theirs is a legitimate hobby, they say. They post videos of their races on Facebook for other speed fiends to enjoy.
For now, though, they remain creatures of the night. What they do is noisy and probably rather dangerous. Yet it is very hard to dislike these gregarious, young enthusiasts. So I guess I’ll just have to buy earplugs.