Unveiling Pakistan, chapter by chapter, page by page
Fear, it’s both a vital gift housed by human nature and an insidious enemy of the human race. On one hand, it whispers warnings and protects us from danger. On the other hand, it has the tendency to dramatise risk, rationalise rumours, glorify assumptions, and conjure terrifying truths in order to fill gaps in knowledge and experience.
In this regard, fear often places two hands over our eyes and blinds us from hidden opportunities. It closes the gate on enlightening international relationships, thrilling life experiences and character-building adventures.
I recently stared fear in the face and told it to take a back seat. It knew of my plans to explore Pakistan and it was starting to freak out. It kept replaying the frightful imagery and headlines I’d consumed through international media. My inner devil’s advocate didn’t have any good news stories to fight back with – so it seemed positive tales about Pakistan weren’t getting much airtime.
As I started to share my travel plans with others, fear got it’s “I told you so” face on. Every time I mentioned that Pakistan was my gateway to “The Stans” and Europe, I was met with one of two responses,
“Why are you going there? It’s not safe.”
“Good luck!” backed by incredulous laughter.
As I spent my last night in India, soaking up the intense atmosphere at the infamous Wagah Border Closing Ceremony, my sense of trepidation reached fever pitch. I watched the Pakistani crowd from the Indian bleachers with nervous curiosity. Stretching my neck like a meerkat, I fought to decipher any cultural clues, which would put my mind at ease. From what I could tell, the men and women were sitting in different sections but both sexes were releasing a passion-fuelled fire from their bellies like revved up dragons. Their intense patriotism was hypnotising.
Funnily enough, at this point, my biggest fear wasn’t getting killed in Pakistan. It’s that I’d offend the locals with my cultural naivety and lack of sensitivity and, as a result, represent my home country poorly. I desperately wanted to put a good Aussie foot forward and assure the Pakistani people I was eager to understand their community better. I quickly learned their intentions were exactly the same as mine. The locals knew they were battling against a major international PR challenge, and they were hungry to champion Pakistan’s endearing qualities and little-known strengths.
Indeed, it wasn’t long before Pakistanis became one of the most hospitable communities I’d encountered. From the moment I entered the border at Wagah to the time I left the country through China, they slowly chipped away at my armour with kindness and found their way into my heart. The locals have taught me a lot about Pakistan, Islamic culture and the power of media. They’ve practically demolished my fears and rebuilt my perception of their home country. Let me explain why.
Disclaimer: The following stories and opinions reflect my own experience throughout Northern Pakistan. During my travels, I was accompanied by my husband and another foreign couple – we didn’t venture into Southern Pakistan. Every traveller who’s explored this part of the world will offer a unique perspective, and mine is simply one point of view.
Travel in Pakistan can be safe
“If you look for trouble, you’ll find it. If you stay safe and play by the rules, you’ll come out the other side unscathed.”
I’ve carried this advice with me through every travel destination I’ve visited. Risk, danger and even terrorism are a reality in most places around the world, not just Pakistan.
While this complex country certainly has its challenges and “danger zones”, which should be well-researched by travellers prior to visiting Pakistan, my experience in the north felt safer than many other parts of the world. Just to be on the safe side, Ben and I followed these local tips to ensure we enjoyed happy trails throughout our journey.
Respect Pakistani culture (which has strong Islamic influences) and try to blend in. Mimic the locals when it comes to dress codes, social customs, and body language (we discovered an open-fingered wave with a forward thrust means “Shame on you!”, so keep your fingers together like the Queen of England).
If you’re travelling between towns in your own vehicle, ensure you have the necessary paper work to pass through police checks (e.g. passport with valid visa, an NOC and driver’s license plus photocopies of them all). When interacting with police, it’s always good to offer a friendly smile and handshake. Before hitting the road, check road conditions (online forums like Horizons Unlimited are handy) and try to travel during daylight hours.
Before you enter Pakistan, touch base with a local club, association or individual with similar interests to your own (Facebook is a good starting point). Based on a friend’s recommendation, we contacted the Motorcyclists’ Association of Pakistan and they made sure we experienced their country in the safest, most enjoyable way possible. Having local insights on hand was also a brilliant way to really get under the skin of Pakistan and understand the country better.
Read an extensive range of articles about Pakistan before travelling to this country, including local, on-the-ground stories, travel blogs, news articles, government websites, and beyond. Don’t limit yourself to one source of information.
While this advice certainly came in handy, I believe our best safety tools were a smile and an open mind. Ben and I were hungry to get to know the ‘real’ Pakistan and understand the perspectives of the local people. We entered the country with a desire to uncover its beauty and good news stories. Sensing our friendly curiosity, the Pakistanis jumped at the chance to help us fulfil our mission. If we’d entered their home country armed with stubborn prejudice and overt animosity, it’s possible our travel experience would have been different.
Women, even foreign women, are respected in Pakistan
Before arriving in Pakistan, I assumed the ways of western women were considered sacrilege and the locals would greet me with stern disapproval. I also expected Pakistani women to be an invisible, silent community walking amongst a land of men.
After all, that’s the imagery foreigners generally see on television and in the newspapers. But from the moment I arrived at the Wagah border post, I had a feeling my perceptions were going to be challenged. Within five minutes, one of the male officers kindly offered me tea and started to ask me about life in Australia. To this friendly gentleman, I wasn’t a woman waiting in the shadows while the men talked shop; I was an intriguing human being, a guest to be greeted with absolute kindness. Male or female, it didn’t matter.
For my first night in a Lahore, the Motorcyclist’s Association of Pakistan had arranged a “welcome party” for my fellow overland travellers and me. There were only two ladies in the group, a lovely French girl named Gigi and myself. We purposefully positioned our chairs at the rim of the gathering, so we didn’t disturb the jovial crowd of men while they discussed motor mechanics and overland adventures. We feared any attempts to join in the conversation would be ignored or cause offence, so we talked amongst ourselves.
But before long, we were pulled into the fold, offered a feast of fresh mangoes and wrapped up in excitable conversation. It felt like we were chilling out with a group of mates back home rather than a pack of male bikies in Pakistan.
There was a moment when I thought I’d finally crossed the line and unintentionally disrespected the local culture, but it was in the presence of an elderly village woman. I’d put on a dress which fell above the knee for a film project and made my way to a suspension bridge in Passu, attempting to avoid locals along the way. I wanted to duck in, duck out and get changed before anyone noticed me. But unfortunately, what started out as a quiet film shoot quickly turned into peak hour for commuters along the bridge. When Lady Senior came across my legs, she pointed at them and started to talk rapidly in her native tongue. When I apologised in English, I think she could sense I was genuinely sorry, as her confused expression quickly turned into a cheeky grin. The elderly woman grabbed me by the hand and guided me onto the rickety bridge for a photo – she knew she was the star attraction.
While the women in remote villages were more conservative in their fashion preferences, their urban counterparts seemed a bit more liberal. During my time in Lahore, I was delighted to see Pakistani women wearing an eclectic array of garment styles, from jeans and long-sleeved tops to glittering tunics with colourful matching pants (known as shalwar kameez). I discovered not all Pakistani women were confined to a burka and the walls of their own home. While this lifestyle undoubtedly exists in areas of Pakistan, I got the feeling it’s often driven by personal choice or a desire to carry on tradition.
Many of the women I encountered wore modest “western wear” and enjoyed high power, corporate roles outside of the home – lawyers, journalists, employees of the United Nations (UN) and beyond. One local explained to me that Pakistan nurtures one of the highest ratios of women in political positions. I wish my home country could say the same thing.
Throughout the rest of my time in this intriguing country, most of the locals greeted me with the same open curiosity and warmth that I showed them. When I plucked up the courage to have a voice, they gave me the same attention and respect as my husband. On one occasion, I went to shake a Pakistani man’s hand after my spouse and the gesture wasn’t returned. However, the gentleman smiled kindly at me an explained it was against his religious beliefs to do so. It had nothing to do with seeing women as inferior; it was an act of respect towards my husband and me.
This moment, along with many others, made me realise that it’s okay for female foreigners to make little mistakes and exercise freedoms within reason while visiting Pakistan, and that the locals are generally forgiving, open-minded and happy to explain the nuances of their culture.
Pakistanis welcomes tourists
Before entering Pakistan, I expected the locals to react to tourists (especially from Western countries) with an air of disapproving detachment – even outright hostility. Not once did I encounter any hatred towards our group of foreign travellers (we even had an American in tow). According to Muslim culture, it’s an honour to host guests and we were certainly treated like royalty during our stay. Beaming smiles, courteous waves, and hearty man-hugs (for the boys) followed us wherever we went.
More than any other international community I’ve engaged with, Pakistanis expressed a deep desire to show tourists a great time and prove their country is so much more than the negative headlines, which attain extensive coverage through international media. Unfortunately, it seems the horrific actions of a minority have unfairly tarnished the reputation of the whole community, which, in my experience, is welcoming and tremendously hospitable towards foreigners.
The locals grabbed us by the hand and took us on the best guided tour we could’ve hoped for. We were supported with free accommodation, traditional feasts, sightseeing sessions, carwash and laundry services, administrative support, and new friendships throughout our stay. One family even lent us the clothes off their back, so we would blend in during a visit to the town mosque.
Government staff was equally supportive, working overtime and adapting processes to help us exit the country according to our schedule. We felt completely looked after by the community at every level.
I was particularly delighted to discover Pakistanis enjoy discussing the different aspects of their country and vocalising their opinions – they weren’t nearly as guarded as I expected them to be. All of our contacts were happy to answer any questions we had about Pakistan and the local culture from the topical to the taboo. They really seemed to get it – that transparency was the key to improving our understanding, reducing our fears, and inspiring us to share positive stories about Pakistan with the world.
Pakistan is packed with “tourist” experiences
Originally, Pakistan was merely our gateway to “The Stans” and Europe. Our plan was to get in and get out as quickly as possible. But the locals and Mother Nature had other ideas. Thanks to the insightful crew from the Motorcyclists’ Association of Pakistan, we soon discovered this multi-faceted country was home to a plethora of unique cultural experiences, intriguing towns, grand manmade structures and breath-taking landscapes – all begging to be explored. Due to flash flooding and road blockages along the Karakoram Highway, we had an extra week up our sleeve to enjoy them. Here are some of my favourite experiences in Northern Pakistan.
Constructed in 1673, it’s the second largest mosque in South Asia and the fifth largest mosque in the world. It’s as mighty as is it magical, and I could understand why Badshahi is Lahore’s most famous landmark. The courtyard, which spreads over 276,000 square feet, can accommodate a whopping one hundred thousand worshippers.
Lahore Fort (Shahi Qila)
Located in Iqbal Park, one of the largest urban parks in Pakistan, this magnificent citadel is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Origins of the fort extend far into antiquity, with the base structure being built during the reign of the Mughal Emperor between 1556 and 1605. Manifesting the rich traditions of Mughal architecture, this tourist hot spot is a delight to explore.
Nightlife in Islamabad
Pakistan’s capital city really comes to life as darkness descends. We started our night on the town at Mount Daman-e-Koh, which offers dreamy views of the glittering, pancake-flat cityscape below. Our group continued our tour with quick stops at Islamabad’s many community precincts for delicious eats and treats. Fine dining and fabulous traditional restaurants abound in this contemporary part of the world. Note: Pakistanis eat late, especially in Islamabad – dinner usually starts between 9-10pm.
We concluded our night with a shopping session at the infamous Centaurus Mega Mall, Pakistan’s largest mall. Housing over 250 retail stores and a funky eatery, it’s a great place to chow down on dessert while you window shop.
If I’d stayed in Pakistan any longer, I would’ve eaten myself to death. My favourite traditional foods were made by our Islamabad host’s humble yet highly gifted chef, Jamroze. From flaky parathas and fresh samosas, to traditional breakfasts and flavour-packed curries, he kept dishing out the goods and we kept devouring them. There’s nothing better than a home-cooked meal. Then again, the local sweets were pretty delectable too. I was introduced to Shahi Tukra, Sooji Halwa and a sticky brown cake thing which tasted like a super gooey Anzac cookie.
I couldn’t believe these tasty morsels hadn’t come into my life sooner! Of course, no trip to Pakistan is complete without a taste of the local beverage – lassi. Fondly called White Beer by the teetotal Muslim folk, it’s refreshing and delicious.
An iconic feature and international symbol of Islamabad, this mighty structure is the largest mosque in Pakistan. Once the largest of its kind in the world, it’s now the fourth largest mosque on planet earth. Attracting hordes of locals and tourists alike, it’s the perfect place for people-watching and offers foreigners a chance to soak up a bit of modern Islamic culture.
Completed in 1986, it’s quite contemporary in appearance and shaped like a desert Bedouin’s tent. Located on a pedestal of land against a picturesque backdrop of the Margalla Hills, its prime position represents the mosque’s great importance and allows it to be seen from miles around day and night.
The Karakoram Highway (KKH)
I’ve saved the best for last. Renowned as the highest paved road in the world (reaching 807 miles), the journey to and along the Karakoram Highway is much more than a chance to witness a high-altitude record. Home to colossal glaciers, dramatic Himalayan scenery (including the nexus point of the world’s three highest mountain ranges), quaint villages, historical sites (e.g. The old Silk Road), iridescent lakes, thigh-burning hikes, and lush hills loaded with fresh fruit and organic honey, it’s a must-visit for anyone travelling to Pakistan.
Ultimately, while Pakistan offers enough experiences to entertain short-term tourists, this complex country isn’t a holiday destination, it’s a unique classroom offering a sharp, character-building education for adventurous nomads. A trip to Pakistan will not only change your perspective on Pakistani and Muslim culture, it’ll also challenge how you view the rest of the world – especially countries which cop a lot of flak in the media.
Thanks to my time in Pakistan, I’ve become more discerning with the travel stories and news articles I consume. I’m less quick to judge and more comprehensive with my sources of information. I’ve discovered the immense value of community hosts as grassroots ambassadors for a country and realised I need to be actively helpful and welcoming towards of foreigners back home in Australia.
My belief that the world is mostly full of kind, compassionate and good people has been reinforced. As I took my final step on Pakistani soil and ventured into the next foreign land, I carried a reinvigorated sense of hope and optimism with me. It’s the best souvenir I could’ve asked for.
Thank you Pakistan.
All photos: Sophee Gaille
This post originally appeared here.
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.