Fifty three days ago we visited the Wagah border between India and Pakistan, blogged about its famed border closing ceremony, and the fairground feel in the crowds that go to shout and dance each day.
Today, a suicide bomber blew himself up there, murdering fifty five in the process. His attack has been claimed by Pakistani Taliban. It was retribution, they say, for Pakistan’s military operations against them on its Western borders.
The bomber must have made roughly the same trip that we did towards Wagah. He detonated at one of the checkpoint that our skin colour ensured didn’t look at us too hard. It seems the bomber thought he was about to be found out, so made a checkpoint his target, rather than the border itself. It’s the beginning of Muharram, a month of special importance in Shia Islam, so there were still lots of people around, and lots of them died.
This is a tragic day. It risks reinvigorating the caricature of Pakistan that the Western media perpetuates. So, for the record, we found Pakistan to be a wonderful place to travel with friendly, open, curious and inherently hospitable people. Our thoughts are with all of them today. A salaam alaikum Pakistan – peace be with you.
There are still many parts of Pakistan that are unequivocally safe, and great places to visit. The far north we even called travel Nirvana. But today’s bombing is also a reminder that things can get very real there, very fast.
We flew Pakistan International Airlines from Lahore to Dubai. It was pretty rubbish. My complaints, in order of importance, are as follows:
We were supposed to fly an antiquated A310 aircraft. PIA is one of few carriers who still flies them, in fact they have the largest fleet. But instead we flew on a boring modern A320. Lame.
Our flight was delayed by two hours. We were not advised of this at check in or at any other time.
Once boarded we sat on the tarmac for a further hour. We seemed to be waiting for missing passengers, but as again no explanation was given we could only imagine why some passengers would be late to board a flight that was itself two hours late.
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.
The most obvious thing to consider as a western woman visiting a conservative Muslim country like Pakistan is how you will need to dress, in order to be culturally sensitive, to fit in, or, in the case of Iran, to not break the law.
Crossing the border from China to Pakistan I dutifully covered up and had headscarf at the ready. It was an odd experience meeting Pakistanis in China over a beer while wearing summer western clothes and socialising with the same people the next day with arms, legs and head covered. With headscarf it felt like I should talk less and acquiesce more.
As our time in Pakistan went on I acquired a couple of ‘suits’, the national dress worn by women in Pakistan, except those who go further and wear black chadors or burqas that cover all but their eyes. My suits had three parts with coordinated fabric: a long, loose fitting tunic like dress reaching to mid-calf, baggy pants and a large scarf. Buying ready made suits was tough – almost all the stores sold fabric that could be tailored at home instead.
While no woman would go out without a scarf they weren’t permanently attached to their heads, most wore them loosely, readjusting many times a day. Some women would let the scarf rest on the shoulders for periods, especially in the moderate Gojal area or relatively cosmopolitan Lahore.
I found the suits comfortable. It was like wearing pajamas, and I’m going to save some of the pants for exactly that purpose at home. But it was still frustrating to need to cover up when hiking in the Hunza mountains or weathering the humidity of Lahore. Plus, my headscarf technique was lacking. With it constantly slipping off I would tend to let it drape around my shoulders at the first sign that a local woman in my area was doing the same.
In general, though, wearing local dress was pretty easy to accept. Men wear similar clothes minus headscarf, but often plus a Muslim cap, so it didn’t feel like I was particularly singled out as a woman. One friend we met, Jamil, complimented me and confronted Joe about why he wasn’t wearing Pakistani dress too. The next day he suited up in a shalwar kameez.
More striking to me than dress – and I suspect more significant in the lives of Pakistani women – was the segregation of Pakistani society by gender. The country’s shops, restaurants, taxis and hotels are staffed by men and serve predominantly men. There are special sections of restaurants for families with women to eat. That’s even true of ice cream parlours! Throngs of men sat street side enjoying their mago-choc-chip sundaes while Joe and I were escorted upstairs and around the corner.
Women who work outside the home do so in particular sectors. Women can be teachers and doctors, but not fashion designers, for example. There were female air hostesses when we flew out of Pakistan, and one served us at KFC, but everyone else working outside the home or its fields were men. I only once saw a woman driving a car, and never a motorbike, even though these are everywhere. Instead they’d ride side saddle, with their scarf flapping in the wind, and often a couple of toddlers to cling onto.
I was often surrounded by men and only men. Traveling with my husband I will have avoided the scrutiny that a lone female would get. A woman traveling unaccompanied would be even more inconceivable than a married couple without children or not having a religion. But I was still the subject of attention. Most men would nod or smile politely after a moderate amount of staring. Others would introduce themselves and talk to me in a friendly and courteous way. Some would direct their questions to Joe. “Is she also from New Zealand” they’d say. Or slightly more irksome “can I have a picture with her?” (and then her with a friend, and another friend…)
For me the biggest downside of the separation of male and female spheres meant it was hard to meet women, and when I did it was on the introduction of their menfolk. Women also tended to be less educated which meant holding a conversation with them in English, commonly their third language, could be tough. Some of the best chats I had were with the wife who helped us in Gojal. She was sad when their arranged marriage began, for example, though she was happy now. She also talked with pride about the classes on the Koran that she runs for local children, despite not having finished high school.
Despite the particular challenges posed for women in Pakistan, I enjoyed my time there immensely and would recommend it to men and women alike.
There weren’t as many policy tidbits on offer in Pakistan as we might have liked. Mostly what there seemed to be was an absence of government: Jamil didn’t need a permit to build his house, rickshaws regularly drove straight against the flow of traffic on a one way street. Also many of the political institutions were familiar to us, and so not very noteworthy. British colony brethren, eh. But anyway…
Most of the people joining us on the bus between China and Pakistan were crossing without passports. There’s a passport-like document which is easier to obtain which just lets you cross between Pakistan and Xinjiang. Turns out Pakistani passports are some of the most rubbish you can get, anyway, insofar as you can only go to a collection of sub-Saharan African states (plus Vanuatu and Samoa, obviously) without getting a visa.
On some sections of highway buses and minivans have to travel in convoy with armed police at front and back. Ostensibly that’s supposed to be about security. But from what we’ve heard it’s more likely because the police get some sweet bribery from the restaurants where they make the convoy gather. Very good corruption.
India and Pakistan are not on good terms at all, but there’s has been coordination over responses to recent floods, which have been devastating in the Punjab. That’s very good news.
So this isn’t technically a policy issue but it says something about the relationship between India and Pakistan. These are neighbouring countries with a combined population as large as China’s. But there is only one airline that flies directly between them (Pakistan international airlines) and even then it doesn’t go everyday. There are about four flights a week between Pakistani cities and Indian cities. Nuts.
Wagah is the only functioning border crossing between India and Pakistan. Every day Indians and Pakistanis travel miles to watch the pageantry at the sunset closing ceremony, and to shout at each other.
We visited the Indian side some five years ago. A fielder with a better cricket arm than I could have easily hit the Pakistanis sitting in the grandstand facing ours. Pakistan looked scary: the men, and it was only men, wore uniform shalwar kameez as if to emphasise their difference. The atmosphere on the Indian side was jovial compared to the ferocious cries from the Pakistan side: “Allah uh Akhba!”
Visiting the Pakistan side today we found the gates of the border had obscured the view into Pakistan. Lower down men, women and children dressed in bright colours shared soda and popcorn and danced about just like the Indians. From without Pakistan seems scary and unsafe – you only get to see the happy, human side once you visit. Metaphor, much.
Just as in India, we got VIP seats on account of us being very white people. This gave us an exceptional view of the action. Guards prancing about, clicking heals and kicking their feet in the air like they’re auditioning for the Ministry of Silly Walks. There’s a brief handshake between the Indian and Pakistani guards, giving away that this is actually a carefully, and bilaterally, choreographed performance, but otherwise it’s all pomp and aggression. There’s so much pomp and ceremony that it’s hard to believe the guards don’t burst out laughing once in a while. We certainly did, often. You probably will too, watching the video below:
For all the crowds are jovial there is an unbridled nationalism about the spectacle which brings out a bit of a nasty streak. Indians yell Hindustan Jinjabad – long live the land of the Hindus. They could alternatively be shouting “our GDP per capita is about 20% greater than yours but still significantly behind the global average”. Pakistanis yell Allah uh Akhba – God is great. They’re from an Islamic Republic, after all. Both sides have mascots to rile up the crowd. Pakistan’s was unfortunately reminiscent of duff man.
And this stuff is not just empty nationalism. Pakistan and India have had various levels of hostility towards each other (up to and including war) since partition in 1947. Recent events continue the roller coaster of hot and cold diplomatic relations. The new Indian PM, Modi, invited his Pakistani counterpart to his swearing in. Negotiations over the disputed territory of Kashmir were scheduled. But when the Pakistani High Commissioner to New Delhi met with Kashmiri separatists – which Pakistan considers business as usual – India called off the talks. This strikes me as counterproductive on India’s part. But marginally more reasonable than rejecting an ambassador because they also make representations to a country you don’t like much.
Today our rickshaw journey through central Lahore was blocked by a protest. We can’t be sure because the signage was in Urdu, but we think it was an offshoot of the demonstrations that have brought the national capital, Islamabad, to a standstill. But in Lahore it was pretty feeble. The guy with the microphone shouting chants was louder than the crowd that he wanted to repeat them. Police stood idly by. They were more likely to be twirling their mustaches than their batons. Still, down the road the protests are violent and a significant challenge to state authority, so they deserve a bit of explanation.
Scarcely a year ago Nawaz Sharif won a landslide victory and became Pakistan’s Prime Minister. This was a remarkable comeback considering last time he was in office the military kicked him out and installed General Musharaf in 1999.
Two opposition groups are now appealing for dismissal for corruption. Contrary to what I wrote previously, they’ve little to substantiate their claims that the last election was rigged. They can point to some garden variety developing world nepotism, but their march on the nation’s capital, demands that the PM resign and a new election be held seem disproportionate.
What the opposition does have, though, is charismatic leaders who have whipped their followers into a frenzy. One is Tahir-ul-Qadri, a Pakistani born Canadian national cleric with a white turban and a broad smile. The other is Imran Kahn a former cricketer who comes off to me primarily as a sore loser.
Khan, much like myself, is prone to using corny cricket metaphors. He’s recently started talking about how a “third umpire” will come in to adjudicate the situation. What he means is that the army will come in and kick the PM out. His protest is probably best.understood as creating enough havoc that the military feel they have to get involved.
But the army is its own team, not an impartial observer, and it’s probably the strongest in Pakistan. Its generals have called for restraint between the two parties and encouraged negotiations between the government and opposition. That’s a sleight on its constitutional job of doing what the government tells it. But it has stopped short of actively intervening thus far.
The army isn’t wild about the current PM. It has kicked him out before, after all. And his inclination to warm relations with India is counter to its reason for being. But it just might be that its major military offensive against the Taliban is enough to consume most of its attention. It’d sure ironic if the Taliban inadvertently keeps Pakistan on a democratic path.
Here’s hoping the protests just peter out, like an ODI batting chase that isn’t losing wickets but can’t hit the required run rate.
The food here has been great. The lack of tourist infrastructure means we have basically always eaten where locals eat, but the fare has been consistently good and we’re yet to get sick from it. Key menu items for us, and everyone else, are:
Curry: beef, chicken, mixed vegetables or dhal. It’s ubiquitous and we don’t go a day without it. To use a Wellington reference point, Pakistani curry is more oily like Satay Kingdom than creamy like Tulsi. It isn’t soupy. Meat is generally left on the bone. It’s not like there’s a big menu offering tikka masala, korma and dopiaza. There’s just curry.
Barbeque, known as tikka here: almost as common as curry, but less likely to be cooked at home. We’ve enjoyed chicken, mutton chops and beef kebabs. The best stuff is amazing, tender and well spiced. The worst stuff has unexpected offal. But it’s all pretty goo.
Biryani: This is a spiced rice dish coloured yellow with turmeric. It generally has some meat, maybe nuts and raisins. Fiona isn’t a massive fan, but it’s the main way we get rice. We’ve eaten plain white rice with curry once in Pakistan, much more common is…
Bread: Chapattis are plain, unleavened breads and they’re everywhere. Parratha are like chapattis but fried in oil. Naan is cooked in an oven. Conveniently they’ve found a way to make it round and with a kind of beehive pattern indented in the middle which makes it easy to tear and dip in your curry.
Drink options are limited. Several times we’ve thought what an awesome addition a Kingfisher would be to a meal, but that’s a no go. Soft drinks tend to be the order of the day. Mountain Dew, just called “dew” is among the most popular and the pepsi range beats out coke.
There are a bunch of things in Pakistan that strongly remind us of our other travels in the sub-continent, to Indian, Nepal, Bangladesh and the Maldives. South Asia certainly isn’t unified politically, it is by quirks like these:
Use of the terms “daughter” and “sister” to refer to strangers: “daughter, daughter, you come look at my shop!”
The currency of the term “love marriage”
Children with darkened, dirty faces who tug at your sleeves asking for money in perfectly serviceable English
Male friends walking down the street holding hands
People who say “why not” for yes, “not possible” for no and “possible” for good old fashioned ambiguity
That funny kind of head waggling that either means yes or no, but you can never really tell
Men with beards and hair coloured ridiculous shades of red and orange with henna
We didn’t see a single McDonald’s between Zhengzhou in China and Lahore in Pakistan and we traveled more than 5,000km in between. That’s partly explained by the seemingly greater love for KFC in these parts of the world, but more so by the under development of Western fast food brands.
And then there it was, off the six lane highway between Islamabad and Lahore: the golden arches. So, Pakistan can’t be a stage one as it has some Western fast food brands. In fact, spending more time in Lahore, the country’s second largest city, we’ve seen a handful of McDs, KFCs and even Subway (no Starbucks though, much to Fiona’s chagrin). Still, the fact that there is none of that outside the biggest of cities puts Pakistan squarely in Stage 2: Western fast food is available in major cities (or tourist traps) but is prohibitively expensive for all but the richest.
As for prohibitively expensive, the concentration of fast food outlets in the parts of Lahore where not every woman is wearing a headscarf is instructive. Fast food cuisine is only really accessible to the richer, more cosmopolitan Pakistani. That’s not because, by our standards at least, the food is expensive. You can get yourself a decent looking spicy chicken burger and a drink for less than $2NZD. But Pakistan is dirt poor. Its PPP per capita s a shade over $3,000USD/year. That’s less than India, right next to Papua New Guinea, and just a little higher than the point in the list where almost everything becomes sub-Saharan African. It is the poorest place we have been on our travels this year. We estimate that travel here is about five times cheaper than at home.