Admittedly, Pakistan isn’t on the top of many peoples’ travel lists, for which they may have many reasons, some are legitimate of course, but most chiefly it has to be that it’s a little misunderstood. We had wanted to go for some time now, but the ridiculous rigmarole around obtaining a visa made it almost impossible. That’s changed and the world’s 6th most populous country is open for business. Perennially seen by the outside world as India’s rabble rousing neighbour with even more rabble rouserery neighbours of it’s own. The new PM, former World Cup winning cricketer Imran Khan is trying to change that; from relaxing visa restrictions for foreigners, implementing a raft of equality laws for his citizens, opening investigations into rampant government corruption and helping facilitate the opening of a visa free corridor to allow Indian Sikhs to visit a holy shrine in Pakistan. Pakistan is a land of plenty, with nature that is almost unparalleled, people just as welcoming, tons of history, and of course yummy street food, Pakistan should definitely start nudging up that list of yours!
Not long after touching down in Lahore we got our first taste of the security apparatus, being pulled over and questioned for 15 minutes by the military about what we were doing, whom we were seeing, and why exactly we wanted to be a tourist in Pakistan. There seemed to be a slight hint of confusion on the face of the questioning officer when we said “We heard Pakistan is nice, and we just wanted to see for ourselves”. Once waved through we were ready to explore.
There is something about the sub-continent, the colour and vibrancy, the smells, the noise and the chaos. They all combine to really let you know you’re not in Kansas anymore. The old walled city of Lahore was no different, and after stopping by the Lahore Fort, built in 1566 and the equally impressive Badshahi mosque, just wandering the maze of streets gives you a buzz. Popping in for tea, or walking through the throbbing markets, which are more akin to a rock concert than a street – where you have to be on guard to prevent being run over by a family of 5 on a motorbike – the thing that strikes you is every body’s initial bemusement at your presence, followed by frantic waving and yelling over the din to say “Welcome to Pakistan!”. It was demonstrative to see the contrast when we went to the cinema (incidentally one of the flashest we’ve ever been to) so starkly, between the people we’d seen earlier in the day and the attendees at the theatre, all in the best clothes with the newest phones.
After a short ride on the very plush bus, we were in the capital Islamabad, which gained the title in 1967, 20 years after independence, from the previous capital, the Southern city of Karachi. Islamabad is the more organised twin of the twin cities, the other being Rawalpindi, with its twisted maze of alleys and streets juxtaposing the grid planned streets populated by the political elite and international embassies. Upon arrival, we got our first look at our truly horrible accommodation on the edge of town. They first offered us what appeared to be a store room, then giving us a room doubling as a mosquito breeding centre, someone outside could have been forgiven for thinking we were in a constant state of applause as we clapped and slapped our way through the gruesome blood letting of generations of these horrid little creatures.
Islamabad is set against the backdrop of the tail end of the Himalayan mountain range, although don’t expect snow peaks, with the hills rising up several hundred metres above the city, giving a great opportunity to get out of the hustle and bustle and go for a walk through the jasmine scented forest. Which is exactly what we opted for after checking out the contemporary Shah Faisal mosque, which has little architectural attachment to the other mosques we’ve visited the last few months. Grinding our way up the hills past couples seemingly attempting to keep their forbidden love from site in a highly traditional country, our hopes of a view were dashed by a thick blanket of smog.
One slightly more scary incident was with the back drop of huge government protests in Islamabad. After killing a number of mozzies and trying to watch some TV among the incessant buzzing, we heard some cracks outside, initially we passed it off, but they grew increasingly louder. Mark said it was fireworks, but Martina, after having lived in Oakland, held more sway in the gunshot realm. Not long after, Mark was convinced and Martina proceeded to call the Swiss Embassy to find out if they had heard of any violent unrest. Their response was a rather unsatisfactory “Well, you’re in Pakistan, what did you expect?”, and Mark then, evidently 10 minutes too late, called reception, only to be told “Mr Mark sir, this is only a wedding, everybody loves fireworks in Pakistan!”, so a rather embarrassing first call to an embassy after 15 months. This incident does help illustrate that being a war correspondent is probably not our calling.
As we mentioned in the intro, people in Pakistan are friendly, among the friendliest anywhere in the world, so it’s not uncommon to be approached and chatted to, welcomed to Pakistan and be offered tea. After checking out the Pakistan Monument, a couple of young guys approached and offered to give us a ride to the – what could be loosely defined as – hotel. After sizing them as genuine, when we turned the wrong way at an intersection our heart started to beat a little faster and with “Mum always said not to get into the car with strangers” echoing in our heads we offered some polite chat as he advised we’d be going to ” Lake View Park” with Mark sizing up if he could “take” the one driving. But when we pulled up, there was a little fun park with families milling around, and we properly introduced ourselves to new found friends and calmly patted ourselves on the back that our judge of character was perfectly fine. Our new friends insisted we go on some of the rides. One has never seen grown men as enthused as when a Pakistani man is on dodgems, whooping and chanting as they smash into each other, it seemed the one foreign tourist in the joint was a particularly special target, as Mark was lined up by all and sundry. Next we moved on to the chair swing ride, which appeared of questionable safety, that wasn’t put to rest as they ushered us on, bags, hats and all manner of easily lost and flying objects on our person. With phones out recording the whole thing everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves, for literally as long as you like, or in our case, one of the patron proclaimed they were feeling sick. After rides and tea later with other friends we were dropped off as promised, and with full wallets as it is actually impossible to pick up a bill, you literally have to run in front to try and pay for a tea!
We pushed north into Abbottabad, which other than being the gateway to the Pakistan’s most incredible natural gems, is also the town that Osama Bin Laden was captured and killed, a fact we found out later. Walking through the streets and eating yummy street food it really didn’t seem like a place to hold the world’s most wanted man. High in the hills above, outside a small town called Nathia Gali, we had a whole trail to ourselves, allowing us a revel in fresh air and the beautiful surrounds, taking in a view of K2, which we later found out was most definitely NOT K2, but it was nice either way.
For our last stop we were back in Lahore. We decided it would be great to have more local experience and linked up with a Couchsurfer. Lahore has what must be the most active Couchsurfing community we’ve come across. Within minutes of being excepted by our host Awais, we were added to a Whatsapp group, and, true to Pakistani hospitality had received multiple invitations to numerous activities. Our first day we met the Foreign Minister at a wake at the national cricket academy, where Martina saw the ’92 World Cup Trophy, unfortunately in the women’s section, meaning Mark missed out. We followed this with dinner at the Governor of Punjab’s residence.
The next day we were picked up by Ghayas, known in Couchsurfing circles as the “Border guy”. On our way as a side trip we popped into the army museum, which in our travels is probably one of the more well appointed. We headed out to the Wagah Border, for the flag lowering ceremony. Ghayas had organised for us to skip the queues and sit in great seats to take in the ceremony. Every sunset this overtly patriotic flag lowering takes place. On the Indian side there is a huge stadium, while a smaller, but equally raucous crowd gathers on the Pakistani side. Patriotic songs and national anthems are belted out in an atmosphere that more closely resembles a cricket match than a border crossing, as the soldiers goose step and high kick in unison across the borders, and Indian and Pakistani special forces officers glare eye to eye, across the painted line that represents the border. It is a true must see this if you are in Lahore, or Amristar on the Indian side, to see the passion and give a sense of the patriotism on both sides of the fence. After the ceremony proper, Ghayas even arranged for us to see the ‘Zero line’, essentially the real border between the two countries, try stepping over and there is a shoot on sight order, so probably best to stay on your side. All this was followed by some of the best street food we have had the whole trip, having a local guide you to their favourite spots you’d never find on your own, is one of the best reasons to couchsurf!
The next day was our last day in Pakistan, with another surfer, Usman, hosting a breakfast and later sharing some more of his secret spots for food, whilst chatting and learning about day to day life and trials living in Pakistan. We took our last journey through the chaos, and savoured every bit of it. The noise, smell and general hive of activity is what gives you such a buzz. Some people may feel a little over-awed, which is fair enough, but we really wanted to soak it in before we hopped on the plane. We really can’t say enough about the people of Pakistan, nothing is ever too much, and always done with a smile. This certainly won’t be the last time we are here, and we’ll certainly be Couchsurfing from the start, and look forward to meeting Awais, Ghayas and Usman, along with the rest of the friends we made again. We have to recommend, if you’re into some off the beaten path travel, Pakistan has to be high on your list, particularly if you’re into trekking, to put this nearer the top of you list, we can guarantee, you’ll get something out of it!
After the chaos and buzz of Pakistan, Singapore was so clean and organised, it’s hard to believe you’re only a few hour flight away. It’s certainly changed a fair amount since we were both here last. But it was the perfect place to stop and explore for the 30 or so hours we had, it was nice to be able to grab some Asian street food and wander to see the gardens by the bay at night, while also getting a decent sleep before the trip to NZ.
We had organised with Mark’s sister to pick us up in Wellington which greeted us with a traditional bumpy landing at the airport. Mark had convinced his Mum that we were heading back to Melbourne and get back into wooorrrr………we still can’t say it. So it was to her great surprise when the lift open to see us standing on the other side. We look forward to a few weeks in New Zealand/Aotearoa and to try and catch up with everyone we can before beginning or resuming a different kind of journey back over on the West Island (Australia). We thank everyone who has been reading, enjoying and sharing this trip with us around the world. We look forward to getting back and planning the next adventure…Wonder how much leave we need to enjoy a trip to Madagascar…..hmmmmmm