The charming Pakistani greeting – a salaam alaikum – means peace be with you. That is exactly our wish for modern Pakistan. We found Pakistan to be a beautiful and diverse country with extraordinarily generous and vibrant people. But it’s also struggling with a fight with the Taliban on its borders, terrorist attacks in its big cities, and now a violent protest challenging its democratically elected government.
These troubles, including and especially the Islamic nature of them, fuels widespread fears about Pakistan, becomes the all consuming image of the country, and keeps travelers away. Try and find a book about Pakistan for your kindle, you’ll find they’re all about war and terrorism, not anything else that happens in a country of two hundred million people. The country’s beloved cricket team can’t play international games at home. One hotel manager we spoke to said he had 12,600 visitors in 2006 and is now lucky if he tops a thousand a year.
There is some hope. The protests in Islamabad should burn out, the same manager thought. And – in an argument that sounds like a rare example of real life mirroring debating arguments – the US withdrawal from Afghanistan will diminish ability to recruit against a now less seen infidel. But in the meantime Pakistan is rough around the edges.
For our part we felt safe, very safe, everywhere we traveled in Pakistan. That’s partly because of the destinations we chose. We avoided the western borders, the Swat Valley and Karachi. Where we did go was awesome. Gojal is idyllic, with a purported 100% literacy rate, a moderate form of Islam and no apparent interest from the Taliban who hang out a couple of (big) valleys over. It is travel heaven. The Karakoram region generally has plenty of police, and the massive mountains all peer down like they are guarding the valleys below. Lahore felt like India. Crazy, sure, but never dangerous.
Our feeling of safety was enhanced because of how generous and honest everyone was with us. It felt like if we did get into trouble somehow we could cry for help and be surrounded by chivalrous rickshaw drivers. Hospitality seems to be an inbuilt cultural imperative. One hotel owner we spoke with said he got flack from his elders when he started a guest house twenty years ago and, wait for it, charged foreign guests to stay there.
In three weeks we had more invitations to tea and dinner, and to stay in locals’ homes than we have had in the total of the rest of our travels. Even the everyday foreigner hustling that characterises travel elsewhere in the sub-continent was absent. Taxi drivers offered us local fares. Sometimes we’d suggest a price and they’d reply with a lower one. That’s unimaginable in India. We were never asked to pay for the cups of tea or dried apricots that were lavished upon us. Cultural oddness aside, all the people who hosted us were genuine. The times we spent with them were among the very best travel experiences we’ve had, ever. Period.
All said, if you’re a resourceful enough traveler to be comfortable without a Lonely Planet, we have no hesitation in encouraging you to head to Pakistan, right now. All our friends could get up and go right now and the northern region would still feel untouched by tourism and the guest houses would still be eerily empty. There is a slight paradox though, in that the lack of tourists means they’re not a good target for some rogue Islamist to make an attack. If tour buses of westerners start turning up and showing their sexy elbows in public though, conservative groups might start to up the foreigner hating.
So, extraordinary as our experience in Pakistan was, we still encourage careful monitoring of the security situation as you plan your journey. And in the meantime, we encourage you to join us in wishing Pakistan a salaam alaikum.