Dark Moon in Islamabad: First impressions of Pakistan

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December 8th 2007
Published: December 8th 2007
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It's Dark Moon and I am in Islamabad. It feels quite strange to be in a place I have previously only seen on the news, mostly in regard to political unrest and bombs. The way Islamabad is portrayed in the media, you almost expect to arrive in a warzone - but things feel relatively normal here. There are big wide streets, cars, people, just like everywhere else - but there is a difference, and that difference is in the atmosphere.

I arrived in Lahore last night, after spending the day on planes and at Delhi airport - I remembered once again why I hate this type of travel: just lots of waiting around at sterile airports. The only thing I like about flying is that you don't have to worry about your luggage once you're checked in!

Being in a Muslim country has advantages. When you arrive at the airport, there is a channel for 'unaccompanied women', which meant I could jump the queue and walk straight through passport control. Apart from that, my father is rapidly achieving fame in Pakistan, because, lacking a husband, I have to declare his name on every form I fill in.

Last night, I treated myself to a stay in a 5-star hotel, which was a nice change after Nepal. Lahore seems a very modern city, although I did not see much of it, but there are proper roads, big cars, modern buildings, and the airport is impeccable - even with free internet access (when it works - this morning I was informed by a pinball-playing imam that the server was down). This afternoon, I took a flight to Islamabad, during which I met a very nice Pakistani lady called Asma, who lives in Utah but is visiting Islamabad for a wedding.

Islamabad again feels different to Lahore. It's not the prettiest of cities - somebody once described it to me as the Milton Keynes of Pakistan, and I can see why. There's no real city centre, and from what I can gather, not a lot to see. All in all, everything seems very serious here, with a harsh edge. People rarely smile, in particular not at strangers. I see men with machine guns everywhere, even at the petrol station. Taxi rides are conducted in stony silence, and if I converse with hotel staff, the first question is usually whether I am married. I find that I am having to act my age for a change, and be equally serious, reserved and curt, as well as keeping eye contact with strangers to a minimum. That's very unlike me, and so different from Tibet and Nepal, where everybody is really smiley and you get involved in conversations all the time. Having said that, the men are courteous: they open doors, carry bags (not that I ever carry my own backpack anyway!), and so on. What I noticed first here is a very low presence of women, in particular unaccompanied ones, and a lot of staring from the men. Despite the fact that I am wearing a shalwar kameez I bought in Nepal, I must stick out like a sore thumb with my red hair and white skin.

I am now in my hotel, in which I appear to be the only woman. Men are clustered around the lobby and seem to regard me as an oddity. I ventured out onto the main road earlier on to get some money and found that none of the ATMs work. So currently I am stuck in Islamabad without a Pakistani rupee to my name - thankfully they accept credit cards in the hotel! Tomorrow morning I am meeting the rest of my travel companions at the ungodly hour of 6 am, and we're being driven to Peshawar and, in a couple of days, we will visit the Khyber Pass before entering the Kalash valley.


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