As a fairly well travelled chap, I knew very well what to expect for the first half of our journey. South East Asia didn’t disappoint, but nor did it surprise. Once leaving India however Drew and I were both thrust into very new territory – an unfamiliar culture, staunchly religious (and a very unfamiliar religion at that), with a bad reputation in our western media for unsavoury social behaviour.
But we’re both open minded, and we have embraced Pakistan as fully as we could. I kid you not, the people are the friendliest I’ve ever come across (actually, the men are the friendliest I’ve ever come across – I haven’t met any women so am not in a position to comment). We had expected to keep our distance with Pakistan to avoid getting into any sticky situations, but ironically of all the cultures we’ve encountered on our journey thus far, it’s Pakistan’s that we’ve immersed ourselves in most fully. We’ve done more homestays than hotel stays, we’ve been fed to bursting, enjoyed countless chai tea breaks, and even had fuel bought for us. Pakistanis are hospitable beyond words.
And the scenery is simply breathtaking – the world’s second highest peak, K2, is in the heart of the Karakoram ranges, where the Himalayas, Karakoram and Hindu Kush ranges meet. Descending from the mountains you’re taken through fertile agricultural lands, which is followed by vast deserts that give you the feeling of riding through landscapes straight from Star Wars’ Tatooine. There’s a lot to love about Pakistan, and by rights they deserve to have a booming tourism industry.
But undeniably there is a darker side to Pakistan, the side that westerners are more familiar with. Outside of the heavily populated (and economically powerful) eastern province of Punjab the presence of armed forces in Pakistan is almost overwhelming. Police walk around casually with AK47s or assault rifles slung over their shoulders and 9mm pistols strapped to their hips. The army is no different. Bank security guards carry double barrelled shotguns, whilst men of moderate prominence employ armed bodyguards to accompany them as they go about their daily business. Thankfully we’ve not witnessed anything unsavoury ourselves, and when speaking to locals about the security situation everyone’s very quick to say “there’s no security problem here”. I have no doubt that this is due to the huge presence of armed forces, and as a result we’ve become very blase about being surrounded by men with weapons.
When digging a little deeper in conversation with Pakistani people we’ve come to realise that their plight is a horribly complex one. Oblivious westerners might assume that all these problems relating to guns and armed forces stem from 9/11 and the Taliban’s presence in the region. No Pakistani has denied that things didn’t change significantly for them after 9/11, however the problems go far deeper than that. For more than half a century, Pakistan has been a political football; it began when the British partitioned the subcontinent in 1947, and by all reports they did a pretty average job of it. It’s no coincidence that both Pakistan and India have a province called Punjab, and to this day Jammu and Kashmir are still disputed territories.
Pakistan is resource rich, and located in a strategically opportune spot on the Gulf of Oman. Russia invaded Afghanistan in the late 70’s, and out of their own self interest America sided with Pakistan – this was part of the cold war. But Pakistan also borders China, and China’s might is huge. The Chinese are currently investing heavily in infrastructure in Pakistan, for both resources and strategic military gain. But of course China and America don’t get along so famously, and in more recent times (according to the Pakistanis) America has seen this as a passive threat and have retaliated by supporting India. Incidentally, China is also supporting Nepal after India tried to cut off their fuel supply to force them into political submission.
And we haven’t even touched on religion yet! Pakistan is an Islamic state, and Islam comes in different flavours. Whilst Sunni and Shiites previously got along, it was apparently hardlined Saudi Arabian Wahabis that showed an interest in setting the cat amongst the religious pigeons. Remember too that Pakistan is a nuclear armed nation with a notoriously corrupt government and you can start to understand just what a sticky situation it is. Religious extremists are just the salt and pepper on top.
Of course we haven’t seen any Americans, Russians, Chinese or Saudi muftis – we’re blissfully ignorant of Pakistan’s political woes. What we have had to deal with though is literally dozens of military and police checkpoints. Independent travel by road in Pakistan is arduously slow. There is no way for us to know what road is open, what road is restricted and what roads we’ll be required to travel under police escort. Hour upon hour has been wasted sitting at the roadside waiting to find out if we can proceed, and if you look closely at our GPS tracks, you’ll see all the times we’ve had to double back on ourselves. To make matters worse, the police from one district won’t communicate with the police in the adjacent district – we’ve sat around for hours whilst we’ve waited for them to negotiate amongst themselves what should be done with us. These guys couldn’t organise a root in a brothel and sadly all of this has left a bitter taste in our mouths about Pakistan.
Whilst the world’s superpowers make their sport in Pakistan, the everyday Pakistani goes about normal life as best they can. And the overlander travelling across the country is left to negotiate the roads and the checkpoints as best they can, wondering if Pakistan is bitter or sweet.
DISCLAIMER: I am not a historical, political nor religious expert – this post is a condensed interpretation of conversations with everyday Pakistani people – don’t hold it against me if I’ve misrepresented the situation.
For fellow overlanders looking for a more detailed run down of our experience, check out this post on Horizons Unlimited