Pakistan created in 1947 from the bloody partition with India, Pakistan became a state for Muslims lead by the much revered (in most parts) Mohammed Ali Jinnah. That word Pakistan though, does conjure up thoughts of military coups? Political assassinations? Islamic extremists? Suicide bombers? Drone strikes and war against the Taliban? Imminent war with nuclear neighbour India? The hide out of the bogie man and his legion of evil monkeys? If it does, you can’t really be blamed, that’s all that makes the news. These events have overwhelmingly shaped peoples view of Pakistan; and as a result tourism has suffered greatly since 9/11, but especially since the offensive in the Swat Valley began. Due to the continued security issues, and negative publicity, Pakistan has become a travel destination for the intrepid and those who are “out of your mind?” as my father puts it. Of course, the upside is that you get to travel in a country devoid of groups and other travellers which makes it all the more unique and rewarding. So based on my experience, if you cast aside the stereotypes and out of proportion fears, there is so much more to Pakistan than the media clichés.
I was no different though, on account of my anxiety about being in Pakistan I had originally planned to dash across the country from the Indian border to Iran in about a week. I began my journey in Pakistan by crossing the border, by foot, moments before it closed, but three hours before the closing ceremony began. Being one of the few waiting around I was soon invited to sit and talk with the Pakistani Army Rangers who are the “performers” in the ceremony. It was surreal experience, I had been in ‘big bad Pakistan’ five minutes, now I was chatting with these guys, automatic weapons and all, on a day that a bomb had killed 30 people in Lahore not far from where I’d planned to be staying.
After viewing the border closing ceremony for a second time (the first was from the Indian side which I’ve previously written about) I made my way into Lahore on the ricketiest bus I have ever been on to the railway station. I had read that I had to register with the Police when you arrive in a town so they know where I was staying, I am not sure whether this is still a requirement. At the station I met a local guy named Tayyab who offered me to join him for a cup of chai. Over chai we discussed my Pakistan plan and he told me that Pakistan really wasn’t as “unsafe” as we Westerners are lead to believe, and that I would be missing the best of this country if I didn’t venture north to the mountains. Not being aware of what I was missing he explained more (which was easy for him as he works in the Tourism industry) and then Tayyab invited me to stay with him and his family for a few days, which sounded like an intrepid experience I couldn’t refuse as it’s a great way to really get to know a country and its people.
Lahore is a pretty modern city and considering it was a center during the Mugal Empire, many buildings of that period survive, such as the fort and Mosque of the old town. The inner city has a modern recognizable feel about it, the roads are tar sealed with while lines and traffic lights, the men often wear western clothes, but by far the most common attire for males in Pakistan is the Salwar Kamiz. They wear it in keeping with Islamic dress and modesty. As expected though, the inner cities are noticeably more liberal than the outer or rural areas. Urdu the ‘national language’ that only 10% speak as their first language (such is the diversity of Pakistan as there are dozens of languages spoken throughout the country). Urdu sounds like Indian Hindi, but is written with a modified Persian-Arabic script.
Based on Tayyab’s advice I changed my plans and would venture north into the mountains along the Karakoram Highway (KKH); an area I thought was a real ‘no go’ on account of the war against the Taliban in Swat Valley. It didn’t take much to convince me though, as the Karakoram Range has the densest concentration of high mountains on the planet (topped by K2 (8,611m) second only to Everest) and the longest glaciers outside of the Polar Regions. The adventure had taken a turn and it was exciting to follow the advice of a local and travel intrepidly into the mountains of Pakistan.