Paradoxical perceptions of Pakistan

Generally speaking when offered the choice between a beautiful girl and a moustachioed man I’d be inclined to opt for the former, but fate can be a fickle mistress. As I went through a mildly painful break up with a very beautiful but ultimately incompatible girl, I became close friends with a wonderfully warm and charismatic guy from Lahore. Over the next two years in Bangkok he became one of my closest friends, and on moving back to Lahore invited me to visit him and to take a trip out to the Pakistani Himalayas.

Under normal circumstances I can procrastinate like a stoner with a pizza menu, but after a very brief weighing up of the perceived security risks vs the opportunity for an incredible adventure, common sense won out and I booked my ticket. In reality most places are much safer than we think, providing you use a little common sense and follow the cultural and legal norms of the country. Statistically Pakistan is only slightly more dangerous than the US*, and you wouldn’t cancel your New York, Disneyland or Cali holiday for fear of armed evisceration – would you?

From independent travel to business trips, I’ve been lucky enough to travel all over the world; but the flight from Islamabad to Gilgit (deep within Pakistani Kashmir / Gilgit-Baltistan), and subsequent drive to Karimabad in the Hunza valley was like crossing an invisible boundary into a mesmeric world of snow-capped giants, lush valleys and soaring eagles. Almost nothing can prepare you for the sheer scale of the mountains towering up to 8,000m and the kaleidoscope of colours that the valley’s microclimate encourages – and for the almost complete absence of people.

Arriving in Gilgit
The drive to Karimabad

Hunza has a rich history comprising being part of the Silk Road linking western China with the Middle East to becoming a key outpost of the British Empire due to its proximity to Chinese and Russian spheres of influence in the 19th and 20th centuries. Looking into the almost vertical hillside you can see the old Silk Road cut into the rock and only wonder at the bravery and/or magically motivational powers of money that must have driven merchants to risk landslides, bandits, snowstorms and a sense of extreme isolation. The new Chinese-funded road that cuts through the valley (starting from Khunjerab Pass at a bone-chilling 5,000m) and connects with roads running all the way to the Arabian Sea demonstrates the continued strategic importance of the area.

As they say, a picture paints a thousand words. Here is a glimpse…

When I mention to friends that I’ve visited Pakistan – and intend to return – I get predictable raised eyebrows and questions regarding safety and religious extremism. I want to avoid stereotypes about ‘warm and friendly locals’ that seem a stock part of many travel blogs. In my experience you will find a reflection of your own humanity in whichever country you visit – but I certainly had no first-hand experience of religious fanaticism or aggressive behaviour. Military checkpoints were routine, with the officers friendly and receptive to a courteous approach, while the contrasting and beautiful mosques in Islamabad and Lahore were open and peaceful. Tourism is gradually returning to the country following three decades of major headwinds from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, rise of the Mujahideen, 9/11, Kashmiri disputes and earthquakes to name but a few. The vast majority of people that I spoke with welcome the revenue that rising tourism brings, but also the opportunity to show off their rich culture and unique geography.   

Of course Pakistan is not without its issues, and for sure it’s not as safe as Switzerland. But as the recent attacks in New Zealand as well as the spate of mass shootings in US schools demonstrate, it’s dangerous and lazy to characterize an entire country, ethnic or religious group with one stereotypical swipe of the brush.

With Imran Khan’s election and trialling of a new ‘visa on arrival’ scheme, Pakistan is gradually reopening itself to the wider world, which will hopefully foster greater understanding from within and without. If you’re looking for somewhere a little different to travel this year and wish to experience epic natural beauty and incredible food, and to re-evaluate your perceptions, then I’d recommend a visit to the wonderful paradox of a country that is modern-day Pakistan.

There are a wide range of direct (& in-direct via the Middle East) international flights into Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi, while Pakistani International Airlines is your only option to Gilgit.

Hunza is theoretically accessible year round, but May to October are likely to offer the best weather and beautiful spring, summer and autumn colours. Recommend to stay at Eagles Nest Hotel in Karimabad.

*Murder rate of 6.5 (Pak) vs 5 (US) per 100,000 inhabitants (Wikipedia)

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