Stage 5: Pakistan - China

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Asia » Pakistan
April 20th 2009
Published: May 21st 2009
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Well my journey through Pakistan into China begins. I went into Pakistan with a very Western idea that it was highly dangerous and that avoiding it at all costs would be best. However yet again I was deceived by my own western ideals and media because what eventuated was a true adventure in every sense of the word. I think it wasnt just the media but every traveller/local I ever talked to tried to dissuade me from going with every excuse in the book. For my benefit I am lucky that I ignored all the warnings not just from individuals & the media but also government and UN advice; because if I had not visited Pakistan due to 'security concerns' I would have missed one of the most authentic, utterly beautiful experiences in my life.

Quick Facts

* Population 164 Million
* CONSERVATIVE Muslim Country
* Country born 1947 when split from India (Partioning)
* 7th largest military force in the world
* Nuclear Armed
* Women are veiled and unseen
* Peace pact with Taliban 2009

Well I start in Lahore which is in the Punjab province of Pakistan. The punjab province was the scene of great bloodshed during partitioning as it was split right down the middle half to India, half to Pakistan. In the ensuing mayhem over a million people lost their lives trying to get onto the right side. I check into the only hostel in the country 'The Regal'. The regal turns out to be a rabbit warren of a place with 50 odd people crammed into rooms with little or no ventilation. When the thermometer started to strike 40 degrees I can only describe it as hell on earth. However what I can say that the people staying there were all characters from the lone swiss guy walking the continent with his dog to the three french people trying to take a tuk tuk from India back to Europe; all characters!

The very first night a few backpackers cram into a tuktuk along with the owner of the hostel enroute to a 'Sufi' night. Sufism is known as 'Islamic Mysticism' in which Muslims seek to find divine love and knowledge through direct personal experience of God. After a 2 hour ride we arrive at our destination uncertain about what is going to take place. We are put at the front of a rather large crowd of Muslims as the special guests and our female compatriots are placed in a curtained off area. Next the sufi master comes onto the stage and starts rattling off retoric looking like a cross between Barack Obama and Hitler. The crowd starts to liven up with cheering as the main act prepares in the background. The main act takes the stage, he has some sort of skin disease and has black and white skin all over his body. Once he begins his first song the crowd erupts. It is now an all out frenzy with people and money flying everywhere. I am lost in the words of a language I do not understand and next thing I know I am standing; next dancing with people throwing money over me. I cannot explain the experience other than by saying it was truly moving with a force MAKING me get to my feet. I leave the place after what seems like minutes but in fact it turns out to be 2am in the morning.

Well after such a moving night I did not expect that the next day I will again be dead dog sick. I am in utter pain again but what is worse is that I am stuck in the Regal rabbit warren hostel with 45 degree temperatures. With these temperatures the fans make the experience some what acceptable but with the power supply that has a one hour on one hour off rotation it turns into a true test of mental. However I find a saviour in a Japanese UN doctor who starts feeding me a concoction of Eastern and UN medicine and within the hour I start feeling better. Some of the medicines look a bit dodgy but the Chinese herbs worked so now I am on my way again.

Once better I explore Lahore city seeing the old Mugal fort, huge mosque and kebab stores. Unfortunately the UN doctor has told me that I am on a diet of green tea, yoghurt and coconut husk for the next few days so can only druel. From here I take the fast bus to the capital Islamabad. On the ride something that strikes me are the immaculate roads. They are Western standard massive highways and are completely clean. I cannot help but make comparisions to India with this view. In India everything is dirty, the transport and infrastructure (apart from the trains) is an absolute disaster. Everything here is very nice and not a sign of extreme poverty. I am just dumbfounded about one of my previous views about India being far superior to Pakistan in everyway. In fact it is the exact opposite.

In Islamabad I work on getting my VISAs for Kazakhstan and Tajikistan while I take day trips to the mogul fort of Rohtas and the 2nd largest salt mine in the world. A few little points I will add in here is

1) There are a tremendous amount of Taliban attacks that are reported in newspapers here. Back home we would hear about 5-10 terror attacks a month whereas it is more like 50 - 100 a month here.
2) There is a huge amount of Marijuana that grows all over Islamabad. Nobody touches it and it is just treated like a weed.
3) There are no women on the streets or anywhere for that matter

After receiving my VISAs I now make for the Afganistan - Pakistan border town of Peshawar to see a very different side to Pakistan. Peshawar has been for centuries a center for trade between central/south and middle east nations using the silk road. It now remains an important border town not only between countries but also between moderate, conservative and extreme Islam, Taliban and Pushtun groups.

A bit of recent history on the place: When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in the 1970's thousands of Afghan refugees poured into Peshawar (many of which are still there). As a breakwater the Americans and Pakistanis started training conservative Pushtun groups and migrated extremist muslims from around the region and other countries. They trained and initially armed them to protect the border from the soviets but also to sneak over the border and disrupt soviet activities. These Geurillas formed the start of the Taliban, the same group the Americans (and now Pakistanis) are trying so hard to eradicate along with Al Qaeda.

So we start by and meeting my guide for the next two days whom I think I will call Mr Mo. We begin by traversing the old city for a few hours. Initially coming to Peshawar I was very apprehensive, this city although controlled by the goverment is completely surrounded by the tribal lands awash with Taliban. However the old town turns out amazingly nice people, I cannot walk more than a couple of steps without locals shaking my hand. It is almost as if we are seeing a town like it would of existed iduring silk road times, people fashioning copper pots, fruit, vegetables, silk of course. Me and Mr Mo spend the afternoon going to centuries old caveranasis. These caveranasis are places where traders on the silk road would meet, sit to discuss over exquisite green tea and then stay the night. The places are still standing and I swear with the same centuries old guys in them! We sit, talk, sip tea and smoke from the hooklah pipe in these places which still offer rooms at a whopping 20c a night.

NOTE: The next part I am not going to add any of my personal opinions I am purely reciting factual events and information that was recited to me. It may be true, it may be false but they are definitely not my opinion.

Well the next day and the start of our adventure into the tribal lands. Mr Mo, myself and our driver pack into our little unmarked car and I put on some local clothing. Mr Mo informs me that going into the tribal lands used to be no problem however now everything has changed in the last month. The Taliban had taken over the SWAT valley in Pakistan only a few month ago, and now the army presence has been stepped up ten fold. The border into Afghanistan and tribal lands are now closed to foriengers and most illicit activities have gone underground. This has only just happened but lucky for me my appearance with Pakistani clothes on makes me look like a local. By now my beard is quite long and my hair is dark and this has enabled us to breeze through the ten odd military checkpoints we had to go through.

Now in the tribal areas we head to the new underground smugglers bazaar. In the past the smugglers bazaar was open however now with the current situation it is done in secret but the idea is remains the same. We wonder past stores displaying every possible kind of american product ranging from skincare products to body building supplies to military supplies. The idea behind the bazaar is that goods are flown from the states and supplied to the army and its personnel. The army personnel then sell the goods to smugglers to make profit. The smugglers then run the border into Pakistan and thus into the smugglers market avoiding taxes. However they must pay the smugglers bazaar entry fee, so we see a number of afghans with wheelbarrows running into the market and parting with a few ruppees to get their stash in. Is quite comical seeing the guys stop at what looks like a parking attendants office to pay their 'smugglers' fee. Of course it is not only american products but also items such as clothing and silk being run over the border to avoid taxes.

Next they 'smuggle' me back into the car and we move onto the tribal headquarters for the area. I am led into a room with a number of men all brandishing arms. In the center sits a casual looking unarmed man who stands and shakes my hand. As I say hello to him he motions me to sit and asks me in english where I am from. I reveal that I am from New Zealand and then an instant change falls over him and he turns into something I can only describe as a long lost brother. He makes note of my beard, tells me I look like a Pakistani and breaks into praise. We delve into a very long conversation about life in my country and his life here. It is revealled that he is one of the tribal leaders for the area and responsible for many people both military and civilian. He then grabs the firearm off his nearest bodyguard to show me. See he says "all Chinese made", and indeed all the writing on it is in Chinese. I ask him upon inspection whether he reads or speaks Chinese and he replys no. I then ask how does he know if the gun is on safety or not as it is in Chinese, he replys " I dont know Chinese but I know that it is in safety now", as he swings the gun upward and proceeds to depress the trigger. "See no bang".

Our conversation then moves from the war to the Opium trade. He then describes to me how he is able to fund his operations. He tells me that he deals with two main ventures, selling arms supplied from China and selling Heroine to America. As I am not too interested in the Chinese I ask him how on earth he is able to sell Heroine in the states. I understand selling to Europe overland but the states is a whole different kettle of fish. He tells me that he deals with a few ranked US army officiers directly in which they cut and package the opium into Heroine for them. The Heroine is then loaded secretly into the back of US aircrafts bound for the states. In the states it is then sold onto the streets for healthy profits. The money is then fed back through so that the supply chain is unbroken in a play that sounds a lot like what happened during the Vietnam War. Therefore the army is inadvertantly funding the Taliban machine and thus by the Taliban being alive by the way of that money it enables the US army to exist in Afghanistan. Vicious circle.

I will make one last rather commical observation: During the final 15 minutes after all the talking was done we all sit down infront of a big screen tv. The guards hang up their guns and we gather around the tv to watch the american show "are you smarter than a 5th grader". It was the most uncanny situation I have ever been in, to be surrounded by all these guys and guns and then trying to explain the complexities of the show to them. Strange but true! After goodbyes I take leave and we proceed to the next stop. My guide is bewildered at why the leader took such a liking to me as he normally is indifferent to foriegners, then he points at my beard and laughs.

Next we are taken to our final stop which is part of the underground smuggling rink. Here I am shown counterfeit bills that come from Hong Kong and Singapore. The bills look so unbelievably real however are less than half the face value. i.e. The 100 US fetchs approx 40 US on the market. Lastly I see some Hashish and a cool little pen gun that fires real bullets. The pen gun is quite funny as the guy proceeds to show me how it works and then asks me if I would like to buy one. What are you crazy, hell no!

The next destination on our agenda is the Afghan refugee camps. The afghans have been in the camps for close to 30-40 years now and only starting to move back now. The kids are really cool and I have a good time playing around with them. On the way to our next destination we see the Pakistan refugee camps which are even bigger but more temporary than the Afghan ones. The Pakistan refugeess are from the SWAT district that is being held by the Taliban as of the start of 2009. Well with the tour over I say goodbye to Mr Mo with my thanks and head back to Islamabad with my head spinning after what I had just experienced.

Next I board a overnight bus for my trip up the Karokoram highway to China. The Karokoram highway is the highest paved international road in the world and follows part of the old silk road. It connects China and Pakistan across the Karakoram mountain range, through the Khunjerab Pass, at an altitude of 4,693m and a length of 1300km。

I arrive in my first stop along the highway at the town of Gilgit, some 18 hours from Islamabad。 From here I take a jeep journey along a road which would rival the “worlds most dangerous road” in Bolivia。 One side of the jeep is rock wall and the other sheer cliff for hundreds of meters down。 We climb a total of 1300m in the hour I am onboard and am very happy to get out of that deathtrap. I spend the rest of the day hiking to a place called Fairy Meadow. The meadow is stunning half covered in snow with trees as part foreground a huge glacier as the rest and 8000m Nanga Parbat in the backdrop. I spend the night by the fire with the locals singing and dancing in front of this 8000m beast.

Next on my journey is the Shangri La valley of Hunza. Hunza was locked away from outsiders for centuries by the mountain terrain. The valley has snow capped mountains down to rock cliffs down to bright green apricot trees before hitting the rivers. The trees are fed glacier water and thrive with a bright green colour I havent seen since I left New Zealand. The locals are renowned worldwide for their long life with most reaching 90 -100 and still physically active. Some say it is the glacier water (that is actually black from hard minerals) that they drink, some say abundance of sunshine, some say the plentiful organic fruit/low meat diet but I say it is the absolute love of life that they all contain. All the locals have a love for living and are the most pleasant people you can ever meet, always with a smile they greet you.

Next I begin my Rush Phari trek which takes me to some amazing gacial scenery. My guide Leo and our porter spend 2 days traversing 4 glaciers through some spectacular scenery. The nights are especially cold and as snow starts to fall on our tent our porter has to get up every hour to scrape it off. No problem I am told the porter is in the Pakistani army stationed in Kashmir so is used to it! I spend the rest of my time on the highway and trekking through the mountains. One thing I will say about my Karakoram experience is that the scenery ranks at or even above the most beautiful places I have been to. That includes New Zealand, Patagonia and Norway. Big call but the scenery is that spectacular and devoid of any tourists.

With that it brings me to the end of my Pakistan journey as the road takes me to 4700m and the Kunjerab pass into China. Pakistan for me has been another eye popping journey and something that I will not forget in a hurry. As we pass the border posts we see a dramatic transformation in the people from the friendly faces of the Pakistanis to the rigid ones of the Chinese. This above all else reinforced the belief that I was very lucky to have experienced Pakistan. Pakistan has a huge number of complex problems from disputes with India, to Afganistan, to the Taliban and finally to the West. However they are working to rsolve these and with the move to erradiate the Taliban from Pakistan, I think that they are moving in the right direction.

I really hope that Pakistan actually fufills its destiny as the "next big thing" in tourism as the people really do deserve it. They deserve the chance to show the world that the media hype is not all correct and that they are some of the kindest peope in the world with some of the most SPECTACULAR scenery in the world.

Here is the link to my pictures:

Pakistan Photos



13th May 2010

Yes you are right.Pakistan is a very friendly and kind people land. The beauty is horrific. I am planning to go to the same journey through silk route. If any one is intrested he or she can contact me at 92-323-4984448
20th October 2010
Lahore Fort, Lahore

my son is excited about this photo. He is trying to learn all he can about pakistan

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