Pakistan, the pistachio to my kulfi
And so my friend, my point was – what is so awesome about Pakistan?
I’m a bloke who thrives on chaos but answering this question before buggering off on a new adventure would have resulted in a droopy,
“I don’t know mate, cricket?”
Personally, I can’t bear a game of ball and sticks any more than a warm drink on a hot summer’s day. What a contrast Pakistan is, and here’s why.
The terrorists will kill me
By all the unglamorous artworks the armchair experts of the world were painting of Pakistan, I was in line for a beheading, a bombing or a kidnapping. It’s dangerous they said. Avoid travelling to Pakistan they said. Sure, the driving here is total rubbish and you’d be lucky not to be sideswiped or rear-ended at least once every five minutes, but that’s about as dangerous as it feels for me personally thus far.
I don’t recall having to run away from a long-bearded bloke brandishing rocket launchers, although I did do some running away from a few wild dogs who didn’t appreciate the sound of a triple cylinder motor.
The only trouble I had was convincing locals to let me pay for something. While in a Becham cake shop, the owner was giving Matty and I free samples, and refused any money. A cake terrorist who killed us with kindness. And cream cakes.
Only one living thing that ended up getting beheaded was a white chicken on the Karakoram Highway. Everyone else seems to have their heads attached to their shoulders judging by the number of curious looks and smiles I’ve drawn in the last two months.
However, on a serious, more unfortunate note, terrorist blasts are still a reality of living in Pakistan (more on that later).
I’ll get kidnapped
Yeah I got kidnapped alright… and loved it too. Everybody wants to hang out. Especially those cheeky old blokes who smoke cigarettes and play cards in the street corner hidden from their wives. You’ll be shaking hands and getting to know the locals whether it’s in Lahore or Karimabad and swapping stories too.
Pakistanis are a curious and friendly bunch of people, which can sometimes be quite overwhelming. Once you get around the eagerness, you really begin to appreciate the casual hello’s you get virtually everywhere you go. I mean, I’ve spent a year in Europe and a majority of my life in Sydney, and all everyone does is ignore each other… Well, except at the pub when everyone gets chatting due to the cold liquid confidence on tap.
People will rob me
I ended up robbing Pakistan more than it robbed me. It got to the point where I had to try and force money on people for services rendered, which definitely didn’t work, and it wasn’t for a lack of trying – they kept running away from it! Countless cups of tea were washed down in shops, locals’ houses, petrol stations… they’d pull out the biscuits and the bread, invite you to sit next to the boiler and get some warm brew bubbling.
Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever been so well treated in any other country, which includes the super hospitable land of Iran, and my other favourite, Turkey. Ask for something and you’ve got a friend on a life mission to help resolve it. Yeah, I got robbed all right… robbed of the ability to get anything done myself. Pakistan did everything else for me.
Addressing the misconstrued ideas about Islam
I’m not a remotely religious bloke, and I don’t care much for it either. I remember counting the bricks on the church wall as a youth, trying very hard to fall asleep (unsuccessfully) when old Father David talked smack about sheep in the pulpit. The most religious thing I’ve done is accidently zip my beard into my jacket in a Belfast cathedral, swear loudly and apologise to the big fella upstairs.
I can comfortably comment we as a whole have a lot to thank major media powers for when it comes to closed mindedness. Not that I’m saying some areas of the world don’t have their problems. They do. Some areas are not all areas, just as some people are not all people. Generalising is something we all need to be very wary of.
While riding Pakistan, one bloke fixed my mates flat tire in a small town for free. I was housed and fed magic soup when I was sick in a relative stranger’s home and felt more like royalty then a bloke with gastric problems. I’ve been invited to weddings after a few minutes of conversation, because here, it’s an honour to have a guest. People are so generous, you need to be careful of complementing anything you see – because they’ll try and give it to you.
People embrace me, shake my hand and call me brother. They invite me into their home and offer me tea and the good biscuits. Bloody hell, even my own mum won’t pull out the good biscuits for me. So yes, as you can see, people of Islam are human, just like the rest of us… (just as a side note, not only Pakistan, but Iran, Morocco and Turkey proved to be all very similar and extremely positive experiences).
You can be pink, purple, green or yellow. Tall, short, fat or skinny. You can be a total troll or a Barbie doll, believe in the chocolate starfish and drink hot dog flavoured water. Whatever the case, if you’re good… well you’re actually a good person. Makes sense right?
There’s really nothing to see here
Geographically speaking, northern Pakistan is wedged between the Karakoram, the Hindu Kush and the Himalayas. That means thousands of awe-inspiring mountains. Towering, razor sharp and striving to pierce the sky. They’re the kind one dreams about except one can’t comprehend the size nor the beauty until it is seen in person. Cloudy or clear, mesmerising views of snow-capped behemoths litter the “Prometheus” of Pakistan.
Apricot and cherry trees line the ridges and small fields around the homes of Hunza. Even in the winter, when the weather drops to the minuses, locals are preparing for the coming spring. Red Massey Ferguson tractors churn down dusty roads loaded up with timber from the days felling. Women three times older than I outpace me on the walk uphill. Evidently my diet of chicken and snickers bars is working wonders.
Meanwhile in the south, the sandy giant of Balochistan sleeps. Occasionally, when it does decide to wake up, the road disappears under sprays of sun bleached sand. Sand dunes turn into low mountains, sprinkled with tiny tabs of green vegetation which try to hide from the dust raising camel herds. Next come the rocky mountains, flared in orange, where the vegetation is replaced by rocky fields and a mysterious railway.
To the east, the reach of Balochistan ends and small rivers form up between slender rushes in northern Sindh and Punjab. Water buffalo wander through hip high water into green fields, snuffing water from their broad noses. Trees set enough shade for pop up fruit stalls off the back of jingle trucks, while sugar cane litters the road all the way northwards. Imperfectly perfect.
Pakistan is perfect (the realities)
Well, no it’s not. Like every other place in the world, Pakistan has it flaws.
Okay so, the electricity is irregular, sometimes working, sometimes not. One minute you’re Facebooking and the next minute you’re looking for the torch so you can have a wee without missing the bull’s eye. That said, it’s all the more reason to do the finer things in life – like going for a walk, or doing maintenance on the bike.
Let’s be realistic and admit the driving in Pakistan feels like a demolition derby in most populated areas. If you aren’t avoiding being pushed off the road, you’re avoiding being rear ended, and if not that, doing the duck and weave saving motorcyclists from themselves. Mirrors apparently, aren’t all the rage here on bikes and merging without a glance is.
The driving isn’t all bad, which is why Islamabad is my favourite city. Yeah it’s classed as the “boring” city and there isn’t much to do for common city dwellers, but for the most part, is a lot more organised then the rest. Believe it or not, people actually stay in one lane which is seemingly outrageous compared to Lahore or the GT road which connects the two cities. Not only that, Islamabad is practically built in the middle of a national park… Which trail were we hiking today?
Unfortunately, terrorism is still quite evident by the bombings that have run around the country in the span of almost two weeks. Some people say it’s government related. Some say it’s the Taliban. Others say it’s foreign governments getting stuck in. All I do know is, I was quite saddened by them all. It definitely feels a lot closer to home.
What worthy experiences could you possibly have in Pakistan?
Meet Mohammed and his brother. These dudes work at a hotel in Mansehra, and are the sweetest security guards north of Islamabad. Maybe it was the beard bondage, but by the way I was greeted, I could have been some age old friend walking into that hotel. Yeah it wasn’t all grand gestures, but doesn’t everyone rave on about the little things?
Meet Esan Ali of Nagar. After letting Matty and I roam his sawmill without a fuss, we were then invited back to his tailor shop for tea. We got to know him and he got to know us over some hot milky tea. Esan Ali told us about the trees of Nagar, and the culture of the areas to the north and south. His sons were studying in London and Italy while he carried on with life back home.
Meet the saviour. Out of patches for the tubes, we managed to stop in a small village outside Becham. This bloke appeared out of nowhere and without a word had Matty’s tube patched within minutes. With such rapid speed, I don’t think Flash Gordon could’ve kept up. Anyway, this saviour refused any kind of payment and disappeared as soon as he was done. He should have been on the Pakistani athletics team.
Those four people I mentioned – all strangers. I have so many more similar stories to tell, but you get the point. Pakistanis commonly ask me,
“What can I help you with?”
I find this remarkably friendly approach is evident almost everywhere in Pakistan. It’s almost as if they want me to tell you, dear readers, that Pakistan is a nice place to be, despite what the mainstream media says. I’ll take first-hand experience over media coverage every day of the week.
Then there is the raw beauty of the Karakoram. Majestic. Jaw-dropping. Beautiful. Well look, none of those words really do that area justice, so let’s settle on indescribable beauty. One realises the magnitude of what a tiny being you are in this great old world when you need to crane your neck back to see the tips of those natural gorgeous cathedrals.
Even the cities are an experience. Lahore, for example. Walking down the street is an experience for your lungs. You’d probably be better off sucking down a pack of smokes a day. The street bazaars are full of curious characters, interesting smells and outrageously gaudy goods. Colonial architecture peeks over high walls covered in razor wire, while cathedrals and mosques dominate the skyline. Lahore is unique, kind of like the Pakistani version of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.
Bombings and blasts
Pakistani’s are quite a resilient bunch. Upon hearing about the first blast in Lahore, my Pakistani friends were saddened, but also seemed to speak about it in such a casual way. It affected me more I guess because of two reasons – it’s so much closer to home and I feel like it’s totally unfair to a country that has contributed so much to my well-being on all levels.
The blast was only a few hundred metres from the hostel where I was staying the following night. Fifteen people had been killed and many more injured. It wasn’t until a few days later that the reality of the Mall road blast sunk in. Whenever I pass that infamous corner on Mall road, I remember what happened. Perhaps these people were going for a tea and chat about politics. I can’t tell if locals remember it too, or whether they just seal it behind a tough front of smiles.
That same week, another six blasts went off across the country. Then I remember thinking after the fifth one, the one that killed 75 people at a Sufi shrine, was the first time I wondered if I should actually be leaving the country… then I realised no one else in Pakistan was leaving, they were just carrying on trying to enjoy their life, so why shouldn’t I do the same?
To be truthful, I did take a day away from everything just to reflect a little and remind myself how lucky I was to be on such an adventure. You take the bad with the good, and I’m glad I was exposed to these blasts in a way – it really made me realise what a great place my secondary home is. (For the record, my primary home is on board with Trumpet – the secondary, Australia).
Pakistan is somewhat mental. If you want to lose your sanity, ride through the smoke heavy, action-packed cities of Haripur, Abbotabad and Mansehra in one hit. If being awestruck by nature is your thing, keep going north until you see three of the world’s greatest mountain ranges collide. Behind all the interesting chaos, it’s really a nature lover’s hidden paradise, left mostly untouched by the rest of the world.
Pakistan isn’t the most perfect place in the world, and I cringe inwardly whenever I see educational institutions for children wrapped up in razor wire, which is necessary to protect innocent civilians from terror attacks. This aside, what really makes it a place worth visiting though, is the people. They are the pistachios to my kulfi and the sugar in my chai.
Despite the blasts, tribal concerns, government corruption and other bits and pieces, Pakistanis move onwards with a twinkling grin. They’re tough, they’re resilient, and don’t scurry away to hide despite the current issues. There is a strong pride of their identity and culture, and I don’t foresee that attitude changing anytime soon.
If anyone is going to change the country, it’s the younger generation coming through. They are well-informed and quite involved in political matters, which new social media channels are helping out exceptionally well with. This generation of young people are trying hard to change the common misconstrued views of their home, and relay the truth of what lies in this corner of the world – that Pakistan, well, it really is awesome.
All photos: Atthehandlebars
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.