Things I learnt about Pakistan

A little visited and fascinating place, Pakistan is so much more than what the media portray (e.g. terrorism, Bin Laden, nuclear stand off with India). It is home to some of the most spectacular scenery on the planet, distinctive regional sub-cultures, ancient Buddhist sites, vibrant cities and towns, and wonderfully friendly people.

I spent a fortnight traveling in a loop with Wild Frontiers from Islamabad north into the mighty mountain regions of the Hindu Kush, Karakoram, and Himalaya. Without having to worry about challenging logistics, and in the company of the most well travelled group I’ve been with (between us we’d visited 170 of the 196 UN recognised countries), it was a great way to explore this intriguing part of the world.

Before I visited I didn’t know much about Pakistan other than the War on Terror, military influence on elections, corruption, nuclear weapons, Partition from India, and the sizeable British Pakistani population. Immersing myself in the country and culture for a fortnight, speaking to our excellent guide and the locals, mainly travelling by open Jeep, and reading a dozen mainly non-fiction books on Pakistan gave me a more in depth and balanced view of the country. Here are a few things I learned / observed from the trip…

When people think of big mountains they usually picture Nepal or Tibet, but Pakistan is full of them. It’s home to 5 of the 14 over 8,000m, and has 55 over 7,000m, and around 300-400 above 6,000m. Not far from Gilgit is the meeting point of the three highest mountains ranges on earth, the Hindu Kush, Karakoram, and Himalaya, and where the Gilgit and Indus rivers meet. For those who like this sort of scenery Pakistan is hard to beat.

Pakistan was once home to some of the most significant Buddhist sites in the world between 1,700 and 2,300 years ago, particularly in the Swat Valley. There are impressive remains including the Dharmarajika Stupa in Taxila, and Saidu Stupa in Mingora, and numerous rock carvings such as the Kargah Buddha near Gilgit, and these from Chilas dating back to the days of the Silk Road.

The international tourist industry has yet to recover from 9/11. Pakistan effectively lost around 15 years of overseas tourism, with annual numbers to the Chitral region for example still only a third of what they were in the 1990s. National tour companies are expanding but still only have a quarter of the guides they employed then. Tourist infrastructure is developing but don’t expect high standards of cleanliness from many hotels, or for accommodation to be particularly cheap. The government run PTDC hotels are in great locations, and have some of the best standards for where they are, but manage your expectations.

The local tourist industry is booming though judging by the amount of development in the mountains. Pakistan has around 20 million local tourist visits, many escaping the heat down south. This is still less than 10% of it’s 220 million population though so there is a lot of potential for growth, helped by the Pakistani passport being one of the worst in the world for visit free travel, and the difficulty of visiting it’s main neighbours of India and Afghanistan.

There are very few international tourists, only around a million a year (Iceland gets two million for a country a fraction of the size), with many being overseas Pakistanis returning to visit family. There are no recent guidebooks for Pakistan. Which is quite appealing to be honest. For the first week until we got to Hunza our group only saw a handful of other tourists, which is hard to do these days. Locals wanted selfies with us as here white faces are relatively rare.

I got the most local reaction I’ve had while running in unusual places (such as Iran, Georgia, and Cambodia). The sight of a white guy running up hills in the Hindu Kush (at nearly 3,000m above sea level) is clearly not common and usually was welcomed with a smile, a wave or in Mastuj a request for a selfie. It says something that our tour leader has been guiding for 25 years in Pakistan and I was the first runner he has had on a tour. Other than the challenges of altitude it was a great place for it, with wonderful scenery and few wild dogs.

Pakistani driving is some of the scariest I’ve seen (comparing with Vietnam, Iran and the Balkans among others), with overtaking on blind corners common, but they do make correct use of their car horns at least. Drivers hoot to let other vehicles know that they are there and overtaking, and other drivers seem far more accepting of being overtaken than most countries I’ve been. It helps that away from the motorways the roads aren’t great, with the slower speed allowing time to deal with close misses.

The Karakoram Highway, an epic and expensive piece of civil engineering across the Himalaya by Pakistan and China, was surprisingly quiet north of Hunza. Pakistan doesn’t actually make much that China wants to buy (with Chinese tariffs not helping) and there were fewer goods coming from China than expected.

I know the human development statistics for Pakistan are poor, much worse than its peers, but in the areas I travelled at least, there appeared to be little absolute poverty. Living a subsistence life in the valleys is tough, but I saw little sign of malnutrition or begging. I’ve not been to India yet, but others in my group have and noticed the difference in this regard.

Women appeared to be almost invisible in public, very different from Iran, the other Islamic Republic I’ve visited. I can’t recall seeing a single female driver, almost none working in any of the hotels or restaurants we visited, and the vast majority of people seen in towns and bazaars were male.

There were fewer obvious mosques than expected, particularly compared with my travels in Turkey and the Balkans. They are there apparently, just smaller, recognising that the northern parts of Pakistan are some of the least populated parts of the country. Still I was surprised not to see more sizeable mosques.

It’s hard to drive very far without coming across a checkpoint. We would have pass through literally hundreds of them in our two weeks. Thankfully we had a driver and guide to see us through, only once at the border of Gilgit-Baltistan did we need to get off the bus. There we had our photos taken, a measure brought in to help with internationals visiting the epic mountains of this region and going missing.

I’ve never seen so many men with guns around, which surprisingly quickly became quite normal. Thankfully they were all held by police and army, and is a sign of how seriously Pakistan takes security, which is understandable given recent history. Their presence was particularly heavy in the Swat Valley, which had been held for a while by the Taliban. Despite / because of this the place felt quite safe, with the government recognising the impact that an incident would have.

It’s interesting that many other places have had numerous terrorist attacks (such as Egypt, Istanbul, and London) but tourist numbers have bounced back relatively quickly, whereas Pakistan is still seen as a no go location by most. I’d have no concerns about returning to Pakistan, and look forward to doing so in the future to explore more of this fascinating country.

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