German Ambassador – Martin Kobler’s blind dates across Pakistan

German Ambassador to Pakistan talks about his truck art foxy, using twitter to create awareness on social issues and learning about Pakistan through his blind dates.


Ambassador Kobler has previously been an ambassador to Iraq and Egypt. During his time at the UN, he served on various positions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and the Democratic Republic of Congo. 

I went to Lahore and had biryani in one of the restaurants in liberty market after I put up pictures on the internet, there was a social media uproar, ‘how can you eat Biryani in Lahore?’

The hometown of Biryani is of course Karachi, so recently when I travelled there along with the orchestra, I had a meeting with the Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah, and he said, ‘I heard that you had biryani in Lahore’, and all of a sudden, the doors opened, and waiters walked in with biryani; then the CM said ‘now you get to experience the real taste of Biryani’. So we had mutton biryani and chicken biryani and it was a treat to have.

Comparing the two, I feel that they differ in spices, especially the raita you get is very different in Karachi than anywhere else.

GVS: When did you actually arrive in Pakistan? Was this your first experience in Pakistan?

Martin Kobler: Most recently, I visited Pakistan when I was posted in Afghanistan during 2010-11. But my first visit to the country was as a young man when I was posted in India during 1991-94, I came to Pakistan from Amritsar to Lahore via the Wagah border and then took a bus to Karachi.

Martin Kobler’s across Pakistan
Ambassador Martin Kobler with Najma Minhas, Managing Editor, GVS.
GVS: So what was your perception of Pakistan back in the 90s, when terrorism had not yet hit Pakistan?

Martin Kobler: There wasn’t so much terrorism, but in the 90s I was locked down in Karachi because of some riots. I was on the streets and there were people with tear-guns, etc. so I looked for shelter and went down into the basement of a shop; which turned out to be the most beautiful carpet shop I had ever seen.

A curfew was imposed, so I spent an entire night in that carpet shop. This was one of the most memorable experiences I have had ever. The people were so nice, we had tea, we had biryani and they told me all about cheap carpets and expensive ones; I bought two carpets before I went to sleep that night.

I still have them with me and they are the most beautiful ones I own. All three of my children still fight over them and want to put them in their own flats. Next morning everything was over and later on I travelled back to Lahore and then India.

The German ambassador at the Rawalpindi railway station.

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GVS: Had you been following news on Pakistan before coming here as the Ambassador?

Martin Kobler: Yes of course, I came here 8 years ago, when I quit my job at the foreign office and joined the UN. I was in Afghanistan for two years, and United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) has an office in Islamabad so I visited many times. After that I went to Iraq in very difficult times, then I went to Congo; where I met many Pakistani soldiers, then I was in Libya, and finally came here in July 2017.

GVS: You have been to all these countries in difficult times, is there something different about Pakistan?

Martin Kobler: It is much easier being here. The image of Pakistan portrayed is unfair I’d say. Yes, there were problems in 2008. But now it’s 2018 and Pakistan has done a lot in counter-terrorism. 70,000 people have died. Now the situation is going back to normal, FATA has been integrated into KPK. This will take many years to entirely stabilize, but it is a good sign.

Martin Kobler buying shalwar kameez at a local clothing shop.
GVS: Why do you think Pakistan has this negative image for foreigners.

Martin Kobler: The question of negative image has more to do with Pakistan’s support for the Afghan Taliban. It may not necessarily be a security problem for Pakistan, but it is a problem for the American led coalition in Afghanistan, and so they believe more needs to be done. Even though the situation has gotten much better, Pakistan still has 800 terror-related casualties every year and 1700 people are injured during terror attacks every year.

Although these numbers are more concentrated in FATA and Baluchistan (Quetta). There was a terror attack recently in July and such things don’t happen in other countries, where tourists may be coming from.

So terrorism is indeed one of the determining factors. I was one-day convincing German people to attend a ceremony where I was inaugurating one of the malls with a big escalator, and I wanted a selfie with the Germans; but he excused by saying “I like taking selfies but not this time because I told my wife I am in India”.

Last week we had an official delegation, and one woman from the delegation had told her parents she was in Mauritius or something. The point being, people coming here sometimes have to lie to their loved ones about where exactly they are, and something needs to be done about that.

What can be done to change this doesn’t only have to do with security measures. For example, if you have a tourist, circled by five security guards with guns that person won’t feel so safe anymore. So it’s clear that the government and security agencies need to provide security because if something goes wrong it’s detrimental, but the visibility of the security is a problem also.

Secondly, the infrastructure is something the government really needs to work on. There is not a single travel guide. Before I came here, I went to a travel bookshop in Berlin and asked for the latest ‘Lonely Planet,’ and they gave me the one published in 80’s. Also, Pakistan needs to open up to journalists.

Trying Halwa Puri and buying groceries.

I think even for us, diplomats, there are limitations. There is a five-day procedure before I travel to any place here (even if it’s the museum in Taxila). Even if it’s not safe everywhere, it’s perfectly safe to jump into a car and go to let’s say Lahore. Travellers go to the northern frontier in Skardu, or Deosai plain, etc.

In my personal opinion, it is perfectly safe if we plan to go to Lahore this evening, the biggest danger would be a car accident and nothing else. When I came here, I bought a Rs. 600 train ticket to Lahore. On the way, I first went to Gujranwala. Of course, I had the NOC, but I travelled with just one colleague and that’s all. It was my first week and I wanted to see the people.

Usually, I love public transport, but then I realized the language barrier was a problem. I learnt only 20% of the population speaks/understands English; so, I learnt a little bit of Urdu “mujhay thori thori Urdu aati hai, lekin waqt k saat seekh raha hun”. Twice every week I have lessons. I believe it’s enough to learn the basic structure of the language, so if I wish to start a speech in Urdu I can. I can speak Arabic, so it’s easier for me to read road signs in Urdu.

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GVS: Was the language barrier not a problem during your time in India?

Martin Kobler: It was the same in India especially in the rural areas. I love travelling to rural areas and interacting with people. And so there was always somebody to translate for me.

GVS: You have become very popular in Pakistan, does this happen with you every country you go to? You get very warm responses on twitter, why is that?

Martin Kobler: I started my twitter handle only 5years ago when I was in Congo. But I used Twitter, the way Trump does, for political purpose to transmit political messages of the UN. In Libya, I had a great following as well, so I used it to send political messages through interviews and forward messages like “the state has to come together, a constitution is needed”. Here I do it very differently.

I am the ambassador, and there’s a different job description, so here I usually tweet about where I am going or what I’m doing. I also use it to spread awareness about climate change, deforestation, solid waste disposal, plastic pollution etc. Now you see the word ‘straw’ comes from straw (agricultural by-product), and not from ‘plastic’. And plastic is degradable only after 1000 years, and by 2050 you will have more plastic items in the water than the fish.

Moreover, majority of my messages are about the beauty of landscapes in Pakistan, but how can I forget the warmth of the people. I also interact with people via Twitter. There’s a program I call ‘blinddate’, so if a farmer in Punjab tells me “come visit my farm” by a tweet; I try going, but I need a NOC. So recently I went to Chak 44, a place between Sialkot and Lahore almost 50 mins off the Sialkot highway, to visit a farmer’s family that asked me to visit.

Over the last year, I have seen them 4 to 5 times. I have seen them grow and harvest wheat, rice, grazing buffalos. I want to learn how farming works in this country. Although I can read it in papers, but I prefer to rather go there and listen to the stories first hand which are exceptional.

GVS: You have a travel vlog by the name ’90 seconds with Martin Kobler’ is that separate from the blind-date thing?

Martin Kobler: That’s different. I make those when I go on longer trips to let’s say Chitral or Kailash. I started it when I was in Congo, as 2 mins with Martin Kobler. I don’t have much personnel here, so we reduced it to 90 seconds. One of my colleagues travels with a smartphone, no big deal. We don’t have studios or anything like the British do. So I usually travel alone and one of my colleagues does the filming.

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GVS: Which place has been your most visited, among the ones you’ve seen in Pakistan by far?

Martin Kobler: That is difficult to answer in an interview, it is like commenting on different kinds of biryanis. Where I have been most is Baltistan, Shigar Valley, Skardu, etc. The food, the clean air, the simply healthy Baltistan is where I most often visit. I have also visited there with my wife.

GVS: How do you like Pakistani cuisine? Is it too heavy for you, in comparison to other cuisines?

Martin Kobler: The food here is very different. I prefer to eat vegetarian, and there are so many kinds of potatoes, peas, daal (pulses), rice, so it’s a vegetarian’s paradise. I do also eat chicken and meat when served like I had chicken and mutton biryani with the Chief Minister Sindh.

But if I get chance here to eat alone, or at a buffet; I get the same things as everybody else, just without meat/chicken in it. The food is not too spicy for me. I love all kinds of biryani, aloo (potatoes) cooked differently, and though daal is considered a poor man’s dish, I love it.

GVS: You’re from Germany, which is known for its cars, and here you have a foxy with truck art on it, what made you do that?

Martin Kobler: I bought this foxy from one of the journalists who was here. Then I thought we can add a bit of a flavour to it, so I contacted some painters in Rawalpindi; went down there and told them what to do. So it is interesting yet sophisticated. I drive it around. When I go back to Germany, I want to auction the foxy and donate the money to organizations here.

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GVS: The new government has focused a lot on tourism unlike any other, what do you think the government needs to do to attract more foreign tourists to Pakistan?

Martin Kobler: Nation’s branding is very important. For this, you have to develop a concept. When people think of Germany; many think of Hitler, or cars, or WWII. When people think of Paris they think of Eiffel tower, when they think of India they think of Taj Mahal, when they think of Sweden they might think of IKEA or lakes.

But when you think of Pakistan you take a moment to think what really comes to your mind? This is exactly why nation branding is important. Images in the head of people, when they think of a country (in this case Pakistan), needs to be changed. If I was a photographer travelling around, I would love to take pictures of these men with long white beards. A beard does not necessarily have to be affiliated with terrorism.

GVS: Do people associate colors with Pakistan?

Martin Kobler: I have always been fond of truck art. People make these designs on trucks transporting different things, with no return of any sort. Then why do they invest tens and thousands of rupees? It’s very intriguing for me that why do these trucks, tractors, three-wheelers have this beautiful truck art all over them?

So if you think of nation branding, truck art is one of the things. But Pakistan then has to decide what image it wants to have in the minds of people.

GVS: In your mind, do you think people will get attracted to the adventurous/historical/green side of Pakistan?

Martin Kobler: It depends on the kind of tourists that you want. Pakistan also needs to decide whether it wants high-end tourists to come in, low-end tourists or mountaineers. When I think of Pakistan I think of the K2, the Himalayas, and things like that. So again, it depends on what comes in your head when you think of Pakistan.

The Egyptians worked on their image very well. I was ambassador therefrom 2002-2005. Egypt also had a terrorism problem, but despite that Egypt’s branding has always been ‘pyramids’; so terrorism was only associated with Egypt temporarily.

But the pyramids are 5000 years old, and will always be what people see Egypt for. Pakistan has everything. It has landscapes and history. Peshawar, for example, has the largest Gandhara Buddhists art museum, I have never seen such beautiful Gandhara art; there are over 800 Buddhist sites in Gandhara which people don’t know about.

So for the mountaineers, you have mountains like the K2. For high-end tourism, Pakistan needs to work upon the infrastructure. For adventure tourism, you have Shandoor’s polo festival and road trip to Gilgit which takes about 8-9 hours. For whitewater rafting there is the perfect sport for youngsters. Security is also not a concern there.

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GVS: Where does Pakistan need to focus its tourism budget on?

Martin Kobler: The important thing about branding is you need to be honest. It cannot be dishonest branding. So nation branding is a matter of confidence in the country; tourists in particular after a terror period need to feel secure to travel here.

So for adventure tourists, rough roads is not a problem, but if I invite my 80-year-old mother, I wouldn’t take her to Gilgit by road. So nation branding, infrastructure and involvement of private companies by the government is what Pakistan needs to work upon.

GVS: What branding name comes to your mind when you think of Pakistan?

Martin Kobler: When I think of Pakistan, the world beautiful automatically comes to my mind. But other countries have done branding differently. In India the slogan was ‘Incredible India’, in Egypt its ‘Discover Egypt’. So something neutral, because you have to attract everybody.

GVS: How and where can the private sector get involved?

Martin Kobler: Well, the hotel industry, tourism companies and also infrastructure. Private companies can help build roads, lifts etc. Let’s take Chitral and Kailash, now those may be a little difficult to reach, it takes 3hrs to go in, and then the same time to get out.

The deputy commissioner of Chitral has for a while wanted to establish a cable car, up and down the area. This will facilitate people with easy travelling from one village to another. Projects like that can be taken up by the private sector.

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GVS: How can the international community help establish the business in these sectors?

Martin Kobler: You have to develop a concept first. Then you can work towards identifying what the international community is interested in and capitalize upon them accordingly. The question of establishing a reliable alliance has to do with what Pakistan wants to do.

When the government wanted to increase electricity generation it managed to add 10,000 megawatts to the grid, and so if it puts its mind to it – it can do anything. PIA for one is in bad shape and it doesn’t have to be privatized. You need to identify where you have reliable allies and follow the models (the recipe) in similar countries to establish a sustainable tourism industry.

I have two examples to share; one of Ethiopian Airlines (Star Alliance); which is a vast network and very efficient at the same time, and the other is Egypt Air. When I was there in 2003, they re-structured it. Egypt Air had the same problems as PIA, too many employees and inefficiency; so Egypt Air asked Lufthansa airways to look over its operations.

Consulting companies of international airlines like Lufthansa can help improve operations. During the 5 years contract, they had the task of making Egypt Air of star quality in 5 years. So they changed the logo, ordered new planes, restructured the airline with minimum job layoff s. Foreigners can only help you if you have the political will to acquire such help.

GVS: What’s your next trip, have you got one planned?

Martin Kobler: Yes, I will go to Muzaffarabad. I am inaugurating a blood bank there. I have been there once before, on an individual trip, to see the line-of-control. I also want to see Baluchistan, as I have never been there before. In January, I plan to go to Thar.

Recently I was in Makli (Thatta, Sindh) which has the biggest Necropolis of 1000 tombs with more than 75 different platforms. The GHS foundation is trying to restore the tomb of Munir Makhfori, a Mughal Emperor. The heritage foundation is trying to teach the community, how to renovate/restore places like this. So I like discovering these new places often.

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GVS: How do you think, Pakistan should promote itself to foreign tourists?

Martin Kobler: If you want to promote tourism in these areas, then why not think of foreign tourists in India, and collaboratively have India-Pakistan tourism. So for instance, Makli is Indian as well as Pakistani, they don’t have a separate history. One can take a train from Thar to Jaisangar, to Jaipur, to Amritsar, and then take a train back to Lahore.

This cross-border can go around like this in a circle. Peshawar is an absolute world wonder, which nobody knows of. The Internet infrastructure should also incorporate a home-page where country-wide things are displayed. Be it when the festivals happen, where they happen.

So people know of these things, and not miss out on the absolute wonders of festivity across the country. I understand the system here in Pakistan because Germany is also a federal state. We also have decentralized power structure and no central control over industries like tourism, but the provinces in Germany have their own projects and they sit together and work with the Joint Federal Agency of Tourism.

So the provinces can operate the way they do here, but a common homepage can facilitate all the provinces, and also highlight all such things for people interested.

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