JOURNAL ENTRY 14: PAKISTAN
My last visit to Pakistan was in 1990. I'd previously been there as a two or three year old but have no recollection of that visit. My 1990 visit didn't really involve much sightseeing so even though I went to quite a few places to visit family, I never really saw what my parents adopted homeland had to offer. I'd looked at books, seen photos and heard stories from other travelers about the extreme north of the country and looked forward to my chance to see it for myself. Coming back to Asia from South America gave me an opportunity.
I left India a week before my girlfriend Nicolet so that I could spend more time with my family. Nicolet stayed in Dharamsala, India where she studied yoga and taught English to Tibetan refugees. It was during that week that I celebrated my 32nd birthday. Nicolet insisted that the monk, to whom she was giving English lessons, join her to eat some cake on my birthday. The monk gave her a present for me. It was a Tibetan silk scarf with a note, "To my teacher's husband from your wife's student Lobsang." Nobody told me I was married!
In Pakistan I saw my sister Julie for the first time since she visited me in Bermuda back in 1994. She's now married and has two children, one boy and one girl. It was a bit strange seeing my baby sister married with kids. That's not to say I feel left behind on the shelf or anything crazy like that. I wouldn't change places with anyone. I like my life just the way it is.
On Nicolet's first night in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, my uncle took us to Lahore's red light district, which is right next to my grandparents' house in the old city. At midnight all those closed doors opened to reveal Lahore's 'dancing girls'. There's also an area right next to the big beautiful Mogul mosque locally called 'the airport' because that's where you go if you want to fly high on drugs and alcohol. It's not quite what you'd expect from an Islamic country but it's definitely a place with a lot of character.
Pakistan is one of the most corrupt countries in the world. I was on a bus with my aunt when a traffic policeman stopped us. We had apparently picked up a passenger in the 'wrong' place. After a few minutes discussion the bus conductor handed over a few rupees to the policeman in front of everybody and we were soon back on the road. On another occasion with my cousin we were pulled over for no apparent reason at a checkpoint. My cousin didn't want to pay a bribe so he had to get out all his paperwork to satisfy the policeman. As I waited other drivers just drove up to the policeman, wound down their window, paid over a few rupees and drove away as though they were paying a bridge toll.
Having had my camera stolen in India, I went shopping for a new one in Pakistan. I was pleasantly surprised to learn is that they have a great selection and are also very cheap. Duty had not been paid on anything because they were goods that had been 'misplaced' while in-transit to Afghanistan. Lucky me- unlucky Government of Pakistan.
A South African whom I'd originally met in India told me of his experience in Peshawar one night when he went to see the movie "Passenger 57". The program started with a ten minute Pakistani hard core movie followed by the first half of "Passenger 57". During the interval was another full feature length hard core movie and then finally he was able to see the second half of "Passenger 57". Wesley Snipes never looked so good.
Near the Khyber Pass on the Afghanistan border is a town called Bara. It's a town dedicated exclusively to producing reproduction firearms. Whatever you want you can get here. For about $6 you can shoot fifty rounds of an AK47 and for about $100 you can fire a rocket launcher. And people wonder why there's always trouble in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
I'm used to hearing bullshit stories from taxi and rickshaw drivers and the one I heard on arrival at Rawalpindi is the most extreme. These guys usually tell you some stupid story so that you end up at a hotel of their choice where they can earn a big fat commission. Naturally you'll end up paying a lot more for the room as a result of this. This particular driver told me that it wasn't safe for us to go to the hotel of our choice because there are riots and people are shooting each other. I told him that I liked guns and insisted that he take us where we wanted to go.
In Islamic countries men and women are generally segregated in public places. At restaurants with Nicolet, we would be shoved into an area behind closed curtains hidden from everybody. One restaurant even had one of those transportable hospital-type curtains that they put around us. All the fuss so that men don't have to worry about having to control their hormones when they see women.
I managed to watch most of the key World Cup football matches on TV in Pakistan. Pakistani TV is a bit over the top sometimes. In between football matches the news would come on and every time a news clip with a western woman would appear they would block out the picture or make it fuzzy. Then the news would return to the female newsreader wearing lots of make-up with most of her hair not covered. The TV commercials have lots of women who don't have their hair covered. So it's okay to be a Pakistani woman on TV and not have your hair covered but a western woman must be totally blocked out.
I don't wish to sound so negative about Pakistan. I just find everyday occurrences there quite humorous.
I've seen lots of colorful forms of public transport during my travels and have traveled on many roads. Pakistan is the king of colorful buses and lorries. Some of them are a work of art but most are just completely over the top with lots of colors, chains hanging down, bells and anything else ridiculous you can think of. You have to give them full marks for trying. And you should see the motorways! They are a good as anything I've seen in Europe. By far the best roads I've seen in Asia. The Pakistani Government must be doing something right.
I really enjoyed seeing my family again. It's so strange that they are so closely related to me and yet I don't really know them. For Nicolet it was an insight into a culture that she had heard and read about but never experienced. I think the reality of what women have to accept in Pakistan was quite a shock for her. It's quite a change going from The Netherlands, which is probably the most forward thinking country on Earth, to Pakistan, an Islamic country.
At the beginning of July we set off for the northern areas and more specifically the Karakoram Highway. In 1966 China and Pakistan embarked on one of the biggest engineering projects since the construction of the Pyramids. The road from Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, to the silk route oasis of Kashgar is a two-lane road that stretches 1,200 kilometers and cuts through some of the highest mountains in the world. It's the collision zone of four mountain ranges: Himalayas, Karakoram, Hindukush and Pamir. The Karakoram, which is the home of "K2", has some of the most mindbending mountain scenery anywhere with the highest concentration of lofty peaks and long glaciers in the world. Some of these are literally on the edge of the road.
Our first stop was Chitral on the Afghanistan border. On the bus journey to Chitral I first saw how dedicated the northern Pakistanis are to their faith. At prayer times the bus just stopped and everybody just hopped out and start praying towards Mecca. I was happy to see people following their faith after all the hypocrites I'd come across earlier. In Chitral itself the only women to be seen on the streets were tourists and really young or old women a bit extreme but that's what they believe in. The most striking things about the Chitralis and many of the northern Pakistanis is their features. They don't look anything like me. Many have sandy or light brown hair and many have green or blue eyes. In fact they simply look European! The next most notable thing about the northern people is their friendliness. They must rate amongst the friendliest people I have ever come across.
A good example of this was our trip to Shandur Pass. On our way we couldn't find any public transport and ended up being stranded at a petrol station near a junction. There were policemen at the junction checking traffic going to the Pass. They knew we were on our way to Shandur. It was starting to get late and a police truck filled with supplies for the Pass arrived. One policeman instructed that some of the supplies be offloaded so that we could be given a lift. So we started our journey on the back of the truck. It was a bumpy ride and soon one of the policemen inside the truck suggested that we change places because he was concerned about us being on the back of the truck. Of course we refused, it was too much to ask they had already gone to great lengths to give us a lift.
When we arrived at the pass it was late and one of the policemen arranged for another policeman to escort us to a good camp area and help us put our tent up. Finally once our tent was up the policeman left. Moments later our Chitrali neighbors invited us to their tent for tea and offered food too. We took the tea but declined the food. The next day I bumped into a Chitrali who had previously helped us find a hotel in Chitral late at night. He told us that he had his jeep with him and it was at our disposal should we need to go anywhere. Later that day the policemen identified themselves as Special Agents and told us to let them know if we where in any difficulty. We needed to arrange transport to leave the pass to Gilgit and approached some people from Gilgit. They told us that they would take us and they did. It took two days and they provided all the food for the journey. We even ended up going to one of the driver's uncle's house, where we were shown around the beautiful area and where we stuffed our faces with some great homemade food. By giving us a lift we had saved a lot of money and so at the end of the journey we offered to pay for the trip. They told us that it would be an insult for them to accept anything. Finally they took some money when I suggested that they donate it to their mosque. The northern Pakistanis are people that Pakistanis can be proud of. They give Pakistan a good name, which is a lot more than can be said for some of the others. These people are a great advertisement for Pakistan.
The main reason for going to Shandur Pass was to see the world's highest polo game at about 3700 meters. The game has been played between Chitral teams (on the eastern side of the Pass) and Gilgit teams (on the western side of the Pass) since recorded history and is apparently played as close to its original form. It's a stunningly beautiful location for a polo game with a big lake next to the field and the whole area surrounded by snow-capped mountains. The drive from Chitral to Gilgit is undoubtedly one of the world's most beautiful. The polo game was great. There are no real rules and no real umpires so anything goes. At times it's pretty violent. A week or so before we arrived two men died as a result of a head on collision. I don't think animal rights activists would be too impressed by what the horses have to go through. I also don't think Prince Charles would last too long out there. During one game a dispute over a goal lasted for over an hour and in the end the chief of police had to be consulted to sort it out. It was totally comical. With a mentality like this one can only wonder if there will ever be peace in Pakistan. Personally, I have my money on Israel settling its disputes with the Palestinians first. With the friendliness of the local people, the stunning location and the local atmosphere, my visit to Shandur Pass during the summer polo festival has to rank as the best thing I've done to date on this latest Asian leg of my travels.
From Gilgit we moved up the Karakoram Highway all the way into China making stops to do some treks and enjoy the scenery and culture. The landscape was of course amazing. It really is hard to believe that you get so close to the mountains and glaciers just by stepping off the bus. Things are pretty vertical out there and even the relatively simple treks involved crossing glaciers and some pretty steep ascents. In general, it's fairly much hardcore trekking that involves carrying all your own equipment but the rewards were worth it. We didn't do the trek to "Concordia", which is often described as a 'walk into the throne room of the mountain gods'. With trekking permits and other government regulations the cost of the trek is astronomical and other travelers say its bad value for money. I could go on forever about the beauty of the northern areas. If you are interested in trekking and superb landscapes then this is the place for you.
One of the other interesting stops we made in northern Pakistan was to the Kalash Valley near Chitral. The tribal people who live there are originally all non-Muslims, which is unique in Pakistan. The women in particular look great in their traditional outfits. It's now a dying culture as many have now converted to Islam. Muslims will tell you that it is just God's will but I'm sure pressure from otherwise hostile surrounding communities has had a lot to do with it. I can't help but feel a bit sad when I see yet another culture soon to fade into the distant past. On the subject of tribal people, Nicolet and I came across some strange people after a trek to Malana, northern India, just before coming to Pakistan. In Malana we weren't allowed to touch the local people or even touch any of their buildings. The penalty for doing so is 1,000 rupees which is a lot of money for India. There are some strange cultures out there and all one can do is respect them, enjoy the opportunity of seeing them and hope that the impact of our visit is minimal. I have often wondered how different my travels would have been if I had been born 50 or 100 years earlier and had the opportunity and the inclination to travel.
When I left Pakistan I weighed a mere 61kg, my lowest recorded adult weight. That's a lot of diarrhea! I suffered from dysentery in Northern India and I think it was giardia in Northern Pakistan. I think the most talked about subject amongst tourists in Pakistan was the quantity and quality of their shits. Beware of Pakistani water!
We're hoping to fly from Beijing to Bangkok around September 20th. From Thailand we hope to go to Cambodia, Vietnam and then finally my dream destination, Laos.
As a man told Nicolet in India, "I love you: it's my God given right."
|( next journal entry )|