Pakistan — the world’s best-kept secret

Published: September 17, 2015
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Sheosar Lake, in the midst of Deosai Plains. PHOTO COURTESY: LOVE BALTISTAN FACEBOOK PAGE

Sheosar Lake, in the midst of Deosai Plains. PHOTO COURTESY: LOVE BALTISTAN FACEBOOK PAGE

Sheosar Lake, in the midst of Deosai Plains. PHOTO COURTESY: LOVE BALTISTAN FACEBOOK PAGE The writer is from Slovakia and is a graduate of the University of Durham, UK, and the National University of Singapore. He is currently based in Singapore

I have been an extensive traveller, a true backpacker, having visited numerous countries on all continents. Pakistan had never figured in my calculus until I developed friendships with two Pakistanis; one gentleman from Lahore and the other from Karachi. These two shared a dormitory with me during my studies at the National University of Singapore (NUS). I found these individuals to be poles apart from the general depiction of Pakistanis that the media regularly portrays. What I had always gleaned from the media was that Pakistan was a country mired in terrorism and religious extremism, and was a highly unsafe place, especially for foreigners. Stories about how women were treated in the country were just as dismal. In stark contrast to these images, my Pakistani friends exuded warmth and wit; they were generous, well-meaning and easy to relate to. My curiosity about their country often led me to lengthy discussions with them. Their advice to me was that the only way to truly understand Pakistan was by paying it a visit. As my Lahore-based friend returned to Pakistan upon his graduation from NUS, I thought of grabbing a chance to visit the country. His response was very encouraging. My biggest problem, however, was my mother, who when learning of my plan, screamed and proclaimed me to be crazy. I cannot blame her, as her only knowledge about the country was through the media, which is solely interested in displays of violence and misogyny, thus missing 99.9 per cent of the Pakistan story.

However, as I had made up my mind to visit Pakistan, nothing was going to stop me. Since I desired to visit the Northern Areas as well, my friend from Lahore not only lined up a visit for me, he also took a break from his office to give me company. My journey from Singapore to Lahore (via Bangkok) felt strange, or rather unique, as I was the only foreigner on the flight. The gentleman sitting next to me was a doctor from Lahore. His amazement as to why I had chosen Pakistan as my holiday destination unhinged me for a moment. Later I understood that this was genuine curiosity rather than a voicing of concern regarding my security.

I was received at the airport by my friend. While driving to his home, I saw alleys of trees and greenery, clean streets and orderly traffic — quite unlike how I imagined Lahore to be. The next day, I woke up to a beautiful sunny morning and went around the city: to the historic fort and the Badshahi Mosque. I was wearing the traditional shalwar kurta that my friend’s father had kindly gifted to me. Contrary to my expectations, nobody on the street gave me strange ‘look-there’s-a-foreigner’ looks. The evening was spent sitting on the rooftop of a restaurant on food street, listening to live instrumental music against the backdrop of the splendidly-lit Badshahi mosque, presenting an awe-inspiring spectacle. The desi cuisine was delicious and the spices were toned down at my request. The decor and architecture of the street were indescribably beautiful. I visited shopping areas, busy malls, high-end restaurants and roadside dhabas. There was not a moment, which gave me the feeling that I was at a dangerous or a conservative place. People were open, cheerful and absolutely normal while they went about their daily lives.

The bus ride from Lahore to Islamabad on the motorway was an experience in itself. Passengers were offered complimentary high-speed WiFi internet, sandwiches, juices and headphones, should they want to listen to music or watch a film. While in Islamabad, a visit to a local coffee shop was an eye-opener. I could see petite girls, walking in re-assuredly, hanging out with their friends late into the night, giggling and chatting. My stereotypes as to how women in Pakistan lived were now gradually fading away; more so when I saw so many of them all alone and independent, trekking the woods of the Astor Valley.

The drive to the Northern Areas through Kaghan and Naran was a breath-taking experience. There were nearly 20 of us in the coaster, and we quickly got to know each other. The next couple of days at Chilas, Astor and Shigar were exciting, as we camped in the wilderness, drank from the gushing springs and dipped in the pristine lakes. This was something I could not have imagined before. I felt so fortunate to have a view of the mighty Indus and imposing snow-capped peaks at the same time. The drive through the Deosai plains was incredibly stunning with a tapestry of colourful flowers spread in the wilderness. The silence was a balm for the ears. We passed through several villages and went hiking. The locals always greeted us with smiles, while those who were far away in their stone-and-mud houses, just waved. Contrary to my experience in many countries, I did not see anyone begging for money or harassing tourists. My visit to the Nanga Parbat base camp created an unforgettable memory. It was August 14, Pakistan’s Independence Day. One could see Pakistani flags fluttering all around. I thought I had reached the real Pakistan, closer to nature and close to national passion.

While our visit ended on a happy note, one thing continued to bother me throughout the visit — the all too obvious ‘VIP culture’. In Astor, despite our booking at the PTDC rest house, we were asked to camp outside on the lawn for the night because some higher-up had landed with his guests, resulting in the cancellation of our booking. The dinner time was at eight but we were kept waiting until 11 as the ‘VIPs’ were still sitting around in the dining hall long after dinner, enjoying their cup of tea. Later, I found myself on the other, privileged side of ‘VIP culture’. On our way back, we were stopped at the Chilas check post and were asked to go via the KKH-Bisham route, which would have taken us six hours longer. The officials on duty were not allowing any vehicle to take the Naran-Kaghan route, which was far shorter. Now was the time for my friend to pull some strings. He called up his father, a retired senior government official. After a short wait, there was a wireless message at the post, which allowed our vehicle to travel via Kaghan saving us six long hours of travel time.

During my sleepover in Islamabad, there was also the unfortunate incident of the bomb blast in which the Punjab home minister tragically lost his life, signifying the challenges that the country still faces. I immediately got a panicky call from my mother. I had to calm her down and drew her attention instead to the bombings in Bangkok that had happened around the same time, and where I had previously studied for my A-levels.

While I took off from Lahore on my journey to Vienna and onwards to home, I was overwhelmed by a feeling of how incredible Pakistan was! What is needed is a better understanding of the country by the world. I would reiterate the advice given to me by my Pakistani friends. Don’t take my word for it, go visit Pakistan and see it for yourself.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 18th,  2015.

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Reader Comments (57)

  • Blithe
    Sep 18, 2015 - 12:52AM

    The silence was balm to the ears .

    Well written! Recommend

  • samir
    Sep 18, 2015 - 1:47AM

    A lot of respect sir. World needs people like you who are willing to break freeRecommend

  • Amir
    Sep 18, 2015 - 2:44AM

    Thanks for the nice artical. But we have lot of problems to fix. It is like some one meeting with a serial killer and writing how nice the serial killer is in person. But thanks for the compliments. Recommend

  • Rasheed Gabol
    Sep 18, 2015 - 2:51AM

    Jealous Indians are coming to spit venom.Recommend

  • Qasim Khan
    Sep 18, 2015 - 2:51AM

    Youre welcome again any time mateRecommend

  • Adam
    Sep 18, 2015 - 2:56AM

    Marcel, very glad you got to see a more accurate version of Pakistan in both your Pakistani friends and the Pakistanis you met in Pakistan. I hope your Pakistani friends can visit Slovakia one day and write in this publication on the beauty of Slovakia’s country and its people.Recommend

  • SK5
    Sep 18, 2015 - 5:34AM

    Beautifully expressed, loved it!Recommend

  • Abu Rashid
    Sep 18, 2015 - 8:52AM

    A well written article. Pakistan is a land of diversities, both in the physical and approach wise. The social schism mainly stems from apathetic political leadership and lack of economic opportunities. Being optimistic I truly believe we’ll overcome these hurdles with the passage of time. Two thumbs up for the writerRecommend

  • usman777
    Sep 18, 2015 - 9:38AM

    Dear Marcel,

    Thank you for your kinds words about our humble country. Consider this country your own. We are forever your hosts.Recommend

  • polwala
    Sep 18, 2015 - 10:07AM

    He called up his father, a retired senior government official. After a short wait, there was a wireless message at the post, which allowed our vehicle to travel via Kaghan saving us six long hours of travel time.
    Is it “Corruption”?Recommend

  • Dilip
    Sep 18, 2015 - 10:31AM

    @Rasheed Gabol:
    Arre dear friend, I am an Indian and we in this country (whatever you may read in the media, especially via the ‘trolls’ etc) know very well that majority of Pakistanis are lovely people. The stories coming from actual visitors to that country e.g. from cricketers who have visited in the past are very well documented.
    Our problem is that most of the ‘bad ones’ (and the fact is that every country in the world including India has them!) are sent here and other places like Afghanistan to create mayhem…!! That is part of the conundrum as to why we just can’t figure out you guys :(Recommend

  • Komal S
    Sep 18, 2015 - 10:52AM

    @Rasheed Gabol:

    Get over your Indian Paronoia. All of us believe Pakistan is a beautiful place. There are many Indians who visit Pakistan have said more or less the same thing in your newspapers. Every country is a victim of sensational journalism, currently every rape incident in India gets wide coverage. While we would like to blame the media, as Indians we all know we have some work to do on how women are treated in public places. Most of Pakistanis would agree, there is a lot of extremism in your country which you need to get rid off.
    Recommend

  • Rehan
    Sep 18, 2015 - 10:54AM

    The silence is a balm for the ears. What’ a beautiful line. Just made my day. Recommend

  • Aahjiz BayNawa
    Sep 18, 2015 - 10:57AM

    Pakistan is an enigmatic country. No one understands Pakistan fully. The diversity is phenomenal not only as regards ethnic and linguistic and religious groups but also the land is extremely diverse. You can have some 50 degrees Celsius in Sibbi and Jacobabad but minus 50 degrees Celsius in the extreme North of the country, atop the mountains, incredible!
    In between you have many different temperatures and climates.
    Pakistan is free and especially for the rich, and the powerful, who can get away with many a wrong doings. Freedom, though, is the essence which keeps Pakistan together. Hopefully, in the future, everybody shall be equal before law and law would be strictly enforced.
    However, integrity and honesty standards need to improve tremendously, at all levels.Recommend

  • Sikandar
    Sep 18, 2015 - 10:59AM

    the natural beauty of the Northern Areas was very artistically expressed it was as if em reading Wordsworth. . (Y)Recommend

  • Timorlane
    Sep 18, 2015 - 11:20AM

    It’s because of these VIP thieves that Pakistan stands tarnished
    in the world today
    Recommend

  • Nadim
    Sep 18, 2015 - 11:30AM

    Eye-Opening Pakistan – the world’s best-kept secretRecommend

  • Sep 18, 2015 - 11:59AM

    Taste of pudding is in eating. This is an advise to Pak haters. Media led by FOX News, BBC and CNN has inflicted more damage to Pakistan than India. Recommend

  • indian dude
    Sep 18, 2015 - 12:06PM

    @Rasheed Gabol

    why indian ll be jealous?
    millions of tourist come in india every year…..and india is not ” secret”,its very popular among world traveller…you guys are jealousRecommend

  • Tariq
    Sep 18, 2015 - 12:48PM

    Marcel we are grateful to you for the service you have done to the Pakistanis . You have not only opened a window to the world to this most resilient and amazing country but you have also opened the inner appurture of Pakistnis to see within and rise to the challenges with a deep sense of self belief . We are grateful to the Indian readership for appreciating the fact that no country is bad or the people are are so , its the policy environment and ineptness of leadership which is keeping the the two countries and many more such places as hostage to self created problems .Marcel piece is not merely a moment of joy but of seriousness to put our acts together and steer through the rut . A Slovak in his twenties deserves our accolades for doing some thing which our inept leadership has failed to do so far ,imbuing the people with a faith in this country . We need more Pakistanis from Karachi , Lahore , Quetta and Peshawer to out reach many more Marcels and extend them the hospitality to come to Pakistan and be our guest .Recommend

  • Parvez
    Sep 18, 2015 - 1:59PM

    …….and then one of our many VIP’s goes and spoils it all. I bet no VIP will read this BUT possibly one of their offspring’s just might and if so…..do tell your parents to behave..Recommend

  • ajeet
    Sep 18, 2015 - 2:17PM

    Pakistan is pristine just like north Korea, untouched by civilization.Recommend

  • kaleem
    Sep 18, 2015 - 2:44PM

    Marcel thank you so much for visiting Pakistan.Recommend

  • Sarwar
    Sep 18, 2015 - 2:52PM

    @ajeet:
    The best proof of Pakistan being civilized is that despite excruciating diversity most people live harmoniously, with exceptions here and there, which are blown out of proportion by the media.Recommend

  • Human
    Sep 18, 2015 - 2:58PM

    @ajeet Pakistan like north Korea??you’ve got to be smoking something to say thatRecommend

  • Assad
    Sep 18, 2015 - 4:23PM

    Ajeet we sympathise with you , even a non political cultural note causing gripes in your stomach . Have a heart and try to rise from the bottomless pit of rancour and pre judgement , though it is hoping against the hope .Recommend

  • Moin Khan
    Sep 18, 2015 - 4:44PM

    Ofcourse, it does and will remain a secret as there are no globle travellers have Pakistan on their visit list. Recommend

  • Usman
    Sep 18, 2015 - 4:58PM

    @Komal S: And here they are, Exhibit A. Even the weak praise cannot hide your personal inferiority complex which is only cured when you people are ruled. Some nations just don’t know how to act when independent, India is one of them.Recommend

  • Pakistani
    Sep 18, 2015 - 5:55PM

    Thank you for telling a truth!Recommend

  • samama
    Sep 18, 2015 - 7:24PM

    Good expressions about my Pakistan.no doubt its natural beauty is awesome Recommend

  • Zakaria
    Sep 18, 2015 - 7:30PM

    No one knows the value of hospitality and generosity until he/she lived or vised Pakistan …. Pakistan Zindabad….
    Long live Pakistan, Long live Pakistan, Long live Pakistan.
    Friend from SomaliaRecommend

  • Sep 18, 2015 - 7:41PM

    World needs to learn and understand what the problem is not with the Pakistanies at large but the few militants being maneuvered by conspiracies from abroad and Pakistanies are victims of terrorism imposed upon them. .thank you for telling truths. .Recommend

  • hamza khan
    Sep 18, 2015 - 8:03PM

    @Dilip:

    oh you mean like kind of what you did to us in 1971? and are doing in balochistan, and FATA, and karachi? worry about yourself. the people who are ‘bad’ are bad because your government does stupid stuff. tell them to stop and the ‘bad’ people will stop too. Recommend

  • AAMIR Syed
    Sep 18, 2015 - 8:25PM

    Please do visit again along with your friends and family members, and be my guest. Recommend

  • Khalad Goheer
    Sep 18, 2015 - 9:26PM

    Only after Pakistan has rid of women abuse, children abuse, provided basic healthcare, rid of tainted VIP culture and the aura of wealthy rule, should a true Pakistani applaud, what Allah has bestowed on this nation in its natural beauty. don’t get nationalism from an article make you feel the grandeur of what this nation SHOULD stand to be counted amongst “true” nations of the world.
    Show educational excellence with reasoning, not emotional peaksRecommend

  • sterry
    Sep 18, 2015 - 10:53PM

    @Amir: Speak for yourself. Pakistan has the same problems as most developing countries but if anything, Pakistan is much more stable than most Muslim countries in the world. The scenery, beauty and warmth is incredible in Pakistan but people need to see more than just Northern Areas and Lahore where most tourists seem to go. As for the Indian trolls, they know that India is the rape center of the world but rapes are not common in Pakistani society. Just read about the American woman raped in Dharmasala or the Japan government warning to women not to travel to India.Recommend

  • Abu Jaafar
    Sep 18, 2015 - 11:10PM

    long live Pakistan Recommend

  • optimist
    Sep 19, 2015 - 5:09AM

    After visiting many countries, I think Pakistan hospitality is the best. I have never been offered even a cup of tea in 29 countries I visited.
    .
    In Pakistan, everyone is persuading you to join them for dinner! In Pakistan people believe that what you eat is your own share that was reserved for you and host is doing you no favour by inviting you! In fact, the host considers it a blessing of God to have a guest!!Recommend

  • Muhammad Daniyal
    Sep 19, 2015 - 5:21AM

    Thanks A lot for visiting my country and expressing ur true feelings!!

    :) Please come back with ur friends or family in futureRecommend

  • Kiran
    Sep 19, 2015 - 7:21AM

    i read from books that north pak had many natural places to wonder… But i am sad that being Indian i don’t have such chances to visit north pak..
    Thanks for highlighting rapists India, it’s a big concern for own Indians bcz we have our own sisters in family.. Recommend

  • Arslan
    Sep 19, 2015 - 8:04AM

    Nice article :)Recommend

  • Stewart
    Sep 19, 2015 - 8:53AM

    The World’s Best Kept Secret was the hideouts of Osama Bin Laden and Mullah Omar.Recommend

  • Riaz Ahmad
    Sep 19, 2015 - 12:25PM

    Don’t b sad Kiran….. where there’s will, there’s a way, B happyRecommend

  • Zahid Baloch
    Sep 19, 2015 - 1:57PM

    Beautiful article.
    Pakistan is a beautiful country.Recommend

  • zargham
    Sep 19, 2015 - 3:23PM

    The author represented the true image of Pakistan. We need few more like him to create positive image of Pakistan. Our foreign missions and native Govt. should took interest in promoting the tourism so the people like him visit us more often.Recommend

  • Basit Kjan
    Sep 19, 2015 - 7:19PM

    dear Friend thanks for giving us such an honor. I am from north west where you visited. You will be my guest hopefully on your next visit to Pakistan. I hope the world learns to enjoy the planet and its natural habitat.

    Cheers,
    Basit Recommend

  • Zahoorahmad
    Sep 19, 2015 - 8:40PM

    Pakistan is a great country with four seasons weather and rich in natural resources. Food is abundant &I no body sleep hungry. Best roads compare to nabouring countries. The Law & order is as good as any where else. Please do visit and see it yourself. I am sure you will feel at home.Recommend

  • Pukudengutha
    Sep 20, 2015 - 12:16AM

    Marcel, I grant you gullibility, but why so many Pakistani’s are thanking you? By any chance, if you write thousand times more praises on an Indian tour, you would probably not get even one “thank you” from any Indian. Not that the Indians are thankless people, but they will not consider it unusual or a special favour.
    I am absolutely sure of one thing, If you visit North Korea, which incidentally is a friend of Pakistan, you would fall short of vocabulary both in French and English, to describe “silence and beauty” of that country. Not joking, but honestly stating, believe me.Recommend

  • usman777
    Sep 20, 2015 - 7:59AM

    pukudengutha,

    that is how we pakistanis are. we welcome and we don’t brag.
    from 1947 to 1990 our gdp growth was bettern than india… we refused to brag… it is who we are and it is who you are.

    just take the exampel of comign to our paper and discouraging others… nothing but ugliness..Recommend

  • Hamza Qaiser
    Sep 20, 2015 - 10:17AM

    Sometimes, even us Pakistanis need to be reminded of how great this place actually is. Thank you for sharing your wonderful experience with us. Recommend

  • Assad
    Sep 20, 2015 - 10:24AM

    Stewart ,Pukudenggutha,

    One good cultural note and Pakistanis feeling happy about it , gives gripes in your tummy . Oh,it is peeling of the skin. Do not sulk, avoid reading any thing good about Pakistan .Recommend

  • G ball
    Sep 20, 2015 - 12:31PM

    So how come they all move to Bradford?Recommend

  • Furry
    Sep 20, 2015 - 5:47PM

    We should not vitiate the forum by provocation rather write objectively on other presentable images of Pakistan.Recommend

  • Ricky Minaj
    Sep 21, 2015 - 2:50AM

    We need to break free from ugly stereotypes which stops us from exploring and understanding the world. Bomb blasts and terrorism should not deter us. Hats off to you sir!!Recommend

  • hanif
    Sep 23, 2015 - 1:28AM

    Thanks dear you visit Pakistan, we respect Indian peoples also, maximum good peoples, just some bad same in Pakistan, there is noculture difference between our countries ,so we just need good and positive attitude Recommend

  • Sep 24, 2015 - 3:03AM

    Well done mate it’s a good country to go to for a holiday it’s just some people make it bad Recommend

  • bilal
    Oct 13, 2015 - 10:10PM

    great and true picture of Pakistan.Pakistan has the largest world Ambulance system which show s how generous people should be here.secondly i am not exact but almost being among five nations of the world who give donations to the charities………….So,these are the enough proof of Pakistan for his soft image for the world……….Recommend

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