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.