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I touch down in Islamabad in the early hours of the morning. It is pitch-black, besides the colourful specks on the runway and some scattered streetlights. I feel a mix of excitement and trepidation in my stomach.
Pakistan is not an obvious holiday destination. Media coverage rarely paints a pleasant story of the country, which is the seventh most populated in the world, but remains shaken by military coups and terrorism. Prior to my trip, I faced concerns from anyone and everyone who asked me about my summer plans. But Pakistan has another story to tell; one of people misjudged by western media who feel their country is portrayed as just a war zone, and want to prove otherwise. Some regions, especially Balochistan on the Afghan border and Kashmir, are not safe – especially not for a white western woman. But the country does have non-violent areas, such as the Punjab region and Gilgit-Baltistan, both of which can be explored as long as you get acquainted with some basic security measures and keep updated on the current situation. And it’s worth it.
Monkeys and selfies in Islamabad
Islamabad is very different from what you see in Homeland, when Carry runs down dusty streets full of screaming people. It’s calm, quiet and very green. Along the roadsides young men sell fresh mangos and the markets of the 6th and 7th district are filled with shops and even some western fast-food chains. On one side of the city, the Himalayan Massif starts building up with beautiful rainforests and monkeys screaming from the top of the trees. In the middle of it, Faisal Mosque, a gift from Saudi Arabia, looms over the city.
The rainforests of the Magla hills are perfect for hiking and I admire the scenery from Dam-ne-koh, a viewpoint from where you can see the entire city and look out over endless stretches of green. While I’m standing there, I catch the interest of absolutely everyone. Women, men and children all want to get a closer look at my white skin and light hair. The women give me compliments on how well my kameez – the traditional Pakistani two-piece suit worn by women and men alike – suits me. Everyone wants to take a selfie with me to show to their families. By the end of the day, I’m quite certain that half of Islamabad has seen my slightly sunburnt face smiling out of a smartphone screen somewhere.
Time passes fast in a city which yields new treasures at every turn. I discover Islamabad’s best ice-cream parlour hidden behind the shopping mall and a scoop of kulfi ice cream – a heady mix of cardamom, rose, saffron and pistachio – becomes a daily ritual, much like getting dressed up in my beautiful, airy kameez.
Himalayan village adventures
A week later I find myself on a very antique propeller plane heading to Gilgit, a small city in northern Pakistan. The plane is an experience of itself, cruising between incredibly high mountains and casually following the turns of small valleys as we fly over tiny villages and sprawling goat herds.
I join a bunch of young Pakistanis from Karachi who are exploring their home country in a small van. We have a guide showing us around, which is a must. Not only do they know everything about the local security situation and take you to places which are impossible to find on the internet, a tour also gives you the opportunity to make Pakistani friends. When the weather allows, we sit on the top of our small bus as we make our way deeper and deeper into the Himalayas. With the wind in my hair and the sun in my face, I think: this is freedom. After exploring the Karakorum highway and the beautiful mountain village of Karimabad, (Pakistan’s top honeymoon destination) we head to Skardu. This remote town in the middle of the mountains is the starting point of mountaineers aiming to conquer K2, the world’s second highest mountain. It is a wild endeavour and none of the expeditions reached the summit in 2016.
Walking through this almost forgotten town, a 16-hour drive from Islamabad, I discover the simple life. Fresh naan bread, spicy chicken and goat meat grilled over the open fire taste like adventure – but those are the only dishes you can find in this remote place, where high altitude means little grows. Here, it feels like the world could collapse and you would know nothing of it. With sparse internet and phone reception, people live in a different reality: their days revolve around making a living from selling goats and drying apricots.
I hire a guide to take me on hikes through the mountains and up to Deosai, the world’s largest plateau which sits at 4000m above sea level. The only way to get there is to hire a Jeep that takes you on a five-hour ride up deadly steep dirt tracks through open land. It’s not for the fainthearted, but when you reach the top you’re rewarded by soft hills carpeted in bright green, sprinkled with little purple flowers that can be blooming in the sun one second and swept over by a snowstorm the next.
In the evenings we sit, talk and drink tea looking over the Indus River. Pakistan’s youth find themselves caught somewhere between secret raves in Karachi’s basements and buying alcohol on the black market, and longstanding family customs such as arranged marriage. The country is in torn between traditional ways of living and an educated younger generation keen for change. But when individuals depend on their family or spouse’s goodwill; village communities carry the function of lawyers, healthcare and education system rolled into one; and societal rules evolve around religion, this change is hard to come by.
It’s rare for my travel companions to talk to someone from Europe, especially a female. They are shy at first, not knowing if they are allowed to address me as a woman directly. But once they have gathered some confidence they ask me every question imaginable, from the what happened in the Holocaust to what I eat for breakfast.
The streets of Lahore
The last destination is Lahore. It’s without doubt Pakistan’s most bustling city, full of life and home to the best street food in the country. After some not-so-comfortable travel, a little bit of luxury is needed so I check into the sumptuous Pearl Continental Hotel. The spa and swimming pool area where Islamic dress code can be discreetly disobeyed behind closed doors finally gives me the chance to soak up the sun which has been shining merrily ever since I arrived. I spend my days wandering the narrow streets overflowing with food stalls and unassuming shops, embracing the busy vibe of the city.
When I board the plane back to Copenhagen after three weeks, I experience a pang of sadness. It’s the feeling you get when an adventure comes to an end but you feel you haven’t seen half of what there is to explore. All Pakistanis I met told me: “Go home to Denmark and tell your friends that Pakistan is not as bad as it seems, they should come visit us!”. I don’t know if my friends will come, but I will definitely be back.
Tips for Travelling in Pakistan
– Air: Pakistan International Airlines offer domestic flights. It’s recommended to fly if you plan to visit Gilgit-Baltistan Region or Karachi, because distances are long and road travel is not safe in some regions. – Road: Road travel from Islamabad to Lahore is safe and affordable. You can buy a ticket on the day at Islamabad bus station. – Public transport: Do not use public transport because buses are regularly subject to attacks. In Lahore, there are bike taxis which are safe, cheap and a fun way to explore the city. – Taxis: The easiest and safest way to get around is by taxi. Use Careem cab which is available in Islamabad and Lahore and can be ordered by phone. Avoid stopping them on the street due to security reasons. – Where to stay: In the cities look out for western hotel chains which have higher security standards, such as Pearl Continental (Islamabad and Lahore). In Gilgit-Baltistan you can find small hotels in most of the villages.
– Be cautious with your outfit. There is no need to wear a headscarf but arms, shoulders and legs should be covered – this applies to both men and women. The best option is to visit Khadi, the Pakistani version of H&M, and buy some shalwar kameeze. They are perfect for the hot and humid climate and will make you blend in with the locals a little more. – Respect the rules and familiarise yourself with common customs in Pakistan. For example, men should not shake women’s hands or address them directly as it can be be taken as an insult. In cities people are generally more tolerant towards tourists but in rural regions be extra careful. – Talk to the locals, as they have the best tips for restaurants, sights and general travel.
– Get a Pakistani phone number. Buy a SIM card to call taxis and stay in touch with your tour guide, Pakistani friends and for emergency calls. – Photocopy your passport and visa. When travelling outside of the cities you’ll hit roadblocks quite frequently. They are harmless but you must sign a form and leave a copy of your passport and visa with the authorities. – Inform your embassy that you’re going. Almost all countries have a list where travellers can register if they are currently in Pakistan and they will be informed in case of any security concerns. The embassies also offer useful information on vaccinations and recent developments. – Check the map. Stay clear of the border with Afghanistan, the Balochistan region, Peshawar and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. – Stay alert. Remain aware of your surroundings and steer clear of any military facilities, large gatherings and demonstrations.
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