By Joel Hill
NOT long before I left for Pakistan, I told a dear friend where I was going. He simply replied “Don’t go, comrade, they kill cricketers there!”
Other people would also ask, “Why?”
I wasn’t entirely sure of the answer to that. All I knew was that when you get a chance to go somewhere that you otherwise would never be able to, you go.
There are some people that do it alone. They don’t speak the language and have this bizarre feeling of invulnerability. They come to Pakistan, hitchhike around in blissful ignorance of the possible dangers and almost always survive. I’m envious of these people and definitely not one of them.
Luckily, I had a friend on the inside, Madeeha, who promised to show me the true side of Pakistan. And that is exactly what I saw all the way from one entry point, Karachi, to the other, Khunjerab.
The first thing I felt was the warmth. The people are lovely, that’s just the way it is. Hospitality is deeply entrenched in their culture. As a guest in the country, your wellbeing, welfare and happiness is of the utmost importance to them. This is across the board, I experienced no exceptions.
Basically a bag of menthol, cardamom, aniseed and other exotic things. It was excellent, I think they expected me to spit it out — apparently even an acquired taste over there. These dudes were from Karachi and instant friends. Picture: Madeeha Syed
Unlike other experiences in neighbouring countries, I never felt like anyone was seeking to rip me off. Their interest in you as a person is genuine. They are truly happy to host you. No false friendships, no sales tactics. People always wanted to say hello, offer us chai, have a photo taken and just chit chat.
Some would say, “Tell your friends back in Australia we are good people.” Which I have. In fact, the insecurity over their national image abroad was a regular talking point.
I can also say they are attractive. Holy smokes! The north of Pakistan is full of amazingly good looking human beings. Locals say all the attractive bollywood actors come from that area.
Sure, the landscape is stunning and the scenery is surreal, but what really got me about Pakistan were the people because they have beautiful souls.
That sounds incredibly lame, but it’s true.
The mate who sold me the hat (Pakol) and put a feather on it so I could look even more handsome. Picture: Madeeha Syed
Madeeha had insisted that I wear the hat the locals wear, called a pakol. I felt a little awkward about it, since it has been drummed into me recently by the hyperactive left that doing anything cultural while being visibly white is ‘appropriation’. But, to my surprise, everyone was absolutely loving seeing a gore in a pakol.
This was typical of the Pakistani spirit. A lot of my reservations about being politically correct were lost when I realised that people were just genuinely happy that I was there, and, they just wanted to hang out.
When it was time to return, a taxi driver rode us to the airport through roads fraught with traffic. We almost missed our flight. I wanted to offer the driver a tip, but he refused. We had been chatting in the taxi (mostly translated by the capably bilingual Madeeha) on the way and, apparently, he considered me a friend and a guest. He would not accept my money.
This hospitality is something I have never seen in my travels anywhere else.
At a post office in Hunza trying to send home some of the Pakistani love. Picture: Madeeha Syed
One thing I did take issue with in Pakistan is slavery. It’s fairly visible and you can see how it works. The poor are kept poor, the wealthy exploit them and consider it to be doing them a favour.
A frightening part of this cycle of poverty is that one of the only ways to get a decent education for the poor is through Saudi funded ‘madrasahs’ that teach kids some pretty extreme forms of Wahhabiim (an extreme form of Islam that developed in the 18th century).
You can tell the kids that go to the madrasahs as they are beautifully dressed in white clothing. I recall one of the locals commenting that ‘the kid over there is eight going on 30, those madrasahs have taken his childhood’.
I really do hope that the people of Pakistan can keep their moderate form of Islam despite these well-funded pressures from abroad. The kids need to go to a school where they can think for themselves, learn the critical thinking skills that we take for granted.
Over there, money talks when it comes to education, and the poor are left to make some very difficult decisions. Work or Wahhabiism is a decision nobody should be forced to make for their child.
The hospitality was incredible.
Interestingly, in conversation, it was also mentioned that if a household has to choose for one child to be sent to school, it will be the girls. We had a very haram scotch in Passu and talked with our driver about the local school his father helped build. The girls get sent first, as the boys can work.
Having the bottle of scotch was incredibly illegal for locals, but fine for me. Tourists (non-Muslim) can carry one bottle of liquor. Airports will give you a little bit of grief but we always got through. We never had to, but apparently you can ask if there is a ‘fee’ involved in passing customs with the bottle.
Fee means bribe, obviously.
But you don’t need the booze. As Australians, after walking up a mountain the first thing we should do is have a cold beer on return to base. But as time went on, I learned that prohibition there was a blessing in disguise. It felt good to be sober after all was said and done.
I would have loved to have been able to go to a Pakistani pub to meet people, but we just met people on the street and around the place.
Rocking the boat.
Another reason why I was glad that there was no booze was that there were tons of machine guns around ‒ mostly, in the hands of the several different police/paramilitary units that were patrolling the places I visited. America has taught us one thing, alcohol and assault rifles don’t mix. Eventually the sight of an AK-47 becomes disturbingly normal.
As an Australian guns will always make me nervous, but they were on duty. On duty doing what? Protecting us? On the one hand, I am happy to know that we are being protected. But then, protected from who? That is always a disturbing thought.
One day, as we were walking through Hunza, enjoying the sights and chatting with the locals, Madeeha got a phone call. Some intelligence agency guy was ‘just checking’ where we were. I thought, okay, well, I guess that is a good thing.
But are the intelligence agencies worried about us? Should I be worried? Now I’m a little worried. But I felt so safe. The bogeyman was nowhere to be seen. Needless to say, there was no cause for alarm. I don’t know why, but there wasn’t.
Are you watching me?
And lastly let’s not forget the food. It was the most essential part of discovering the country and predictably, Pakistan didn’t disappoint.
The food was rich and delicious. It did slightly impact on my stomach but mostly because of my belligerent insistence on eating curries all the time. They were so good, slow cooked (or often pressure cooked) with the bones still in.
Often meat-heavy dishes, that slides off the bone and the ‘gravy’ is aromatic and delicious.
Whether it was in a dingy little hut at a mountain base camp or in a pricey restaurant in a city, the food was always fantastic. Price was never a factor in the quality of the food, some of our very best meals were by far the cheapest. Up north, the meats are almost always locally sourced. You may order a meal before you go for a hike, come back and notice there’s one less chicken hanging around.
Speaking of friends that are eventually food, I have a new-found respect for goats now! I’m not sure why, really, seeing as their purpose, for the most part, is to end up in a curry.
But they prance around like champions, taking on rough terrain like nobody’s business. Pakistani goats are total legends and worthy of much respect. Especially when eaten. Goats are awesome in life and in death.
The kid was all right. Picture: Madeeha Syed
Basically, I would say that Pakistan is widely misunderstood and worth visiting, though it is dangerous.
It really helps if you know someone. You need a letter from a local to vouch for your visa, or you can get a travel agency to do it for you (for a small fee). If you’re mildly insane you can go it alone and see what happens.
But let’s face it, my experience was a guided experience from someone who is well connected in the country. If you are keen to see the country, our friend Naveed Khan is an ex-marine who has recently set up a tour company called Hunza on Foot.
I hope that one day, Pakistan can spend less time defending itself from itself and more time fostering the excellence from within.