What are the first thoughts that come to your mind when you think of the country Pakistan? Hold that thought for a second. Where does it come from? The first words that will pop up in most people’s minds will most certainly circle along the lines of terrorism or religious extremism and if they had to name one person they associate with Pakistan, probably not few would name Bin Laden (even though he wasn´t Pakistani). This is the picture that has been continuously been transmitted through the media ever since 9/11. And while I don´t want to downplay the presence of terrorism in Pakistan after 9/11, the picture that had been and is still being portrayed of this country seems very one-sided and biased. Yes, there have been countless attacks in the past 20 years, smaller and bigger ones. If you read up on terrorist attacks in Pakistan on Wikipedia, you would probably not be very inclined to travel here. A little bit over half a year ago, Lahore experienced a suicide bomb attack in Lahore where 13 people died, the city where we were hanging around for more than a week. Yet, since its peak in 2009, terrorism in Pakistan has declined significantly. One big leap forward was the Operation Zarb-a-Azb, a joint military offensive conducted by the Pakistan Armed Forces against various militant groups from 2014 onwards and is conceived to be a turning point in Pakistan´s war on terrorism. Pakistan and especially its citizens have been suffering severely from terrorism. More than 30,000 civilians and security personnel lost their lives in the war of terror. But Pakistani have just as much been suffering from all the negativity, prejudices and generalization towards their country due to the one-sided news reports by their own media, but also by the media all over the world.
Pakistani are fed up and tired of being associated with violence and war. They want to be perceived as a tourist country and not a terrorist country. And rightfully so! In fact – and this is the sincere truth – we have never felt more safe in any other country we have ever travelled to!
We travelled across this spectacular country for over two months and we only saw a small fraction of its mesmerizing beauty. If we had to summarize our fascination and love for this country then it would come down to two major factors: First, the exuberant and genuine kindness, generosity, hospitality and love that we experienced wherever we went and second the spectacular and largely unspoiled mountains and landscapes in the north of the country. And I´m not exaggerating one bit. I´m not a big fan of making comparisons, but in terms of adventure, nature, culture, hospitality, and security, Pakistan stands unequalled from our point of view and experience.
When we crossed the Chinese-Pakistani border end of September we experienced quite a culture shock in a positive way. While we had very few and mostly superficial interactions with Chinese people during the 11 weeks trip through China, arriving in Pakistan we were immediately greeted with open arms and welcoming kindness. Having gotten used to the often selfish and gruff behavior and attitude of the Chinese, we were somewhat skeptical at the beginning and we didn´t really know how to cope with so much kindness. But we soon discarded our initial skepticism as we saw that everyone was just offering their sincere help. After a while we felt that more than being interested in making money with us “rich westerners”, as white people are often being perceived, more than anything else they wanted to make sure that we felt safe and had the best of all experiences while visiting their country. We have never experienced such genuine curiosity and interest in any country or culture. Just writing these lines and recalling all the countless selfless acts of kindness that we experienced during the two months we spent in Pakistan gives me goose bumps. We´ve experienced kindheartedness and generosity all over the world, in Colombia and Mexico, in Kyrgyzstan and Georgia, in Mongolia and Laos, and also in Europe, especially in the Balkans, but this all-around culture of open arms in Pakistan is really one of a kind. One time a Pakistani guy in his late 20s asked us how the attitude of Germans towards him would be if he had the chance to visit someday? Puuhh, we paused, this would be a tough pill to swallow for him. But there´s no point in making up stories. Who are we kidding? In most European countries, the concept of selfless hospitality is to many people as foreign as the people coming from other countries. It goes without saying that there are differences and exceptions. People seem to be more hospitable the further east you go. But imagine a dark-skinned Muslim with black hair from Pakistan walking through a typical Bavarian village. What are the chances of someone coming up to him and asking him if he needs any help, some advice or let alone inviting him for tea or coffee into his house? Exactly! So we carefully explained to our Pakistani friend that most certainly he would be confronted with some skepticism and maybe even some hostility, that unfortunately people in the west have a lot of prejudices towards Muslims, especially people in rural areas. We told him that Germans tend to be a little cold at first but once they get to know you they open up more and more and that once you make friends with a German, you can usually count on him or her. He was very interested in our explanation, but he also seemed a bit surprised.
I could go on and on about heartwarming encounters with locals who just wanted to get to know us, spend time with us, invite us for a cup of tea, share their knowledge about their countries, learn about our home county or who just wanted to be friendly and helpful to a stranger because it´s the most natural thing in the world – at least for them. Words will not do justice to the experiences we had. I will try nevertheless. The first thing that comes to mind is a hitchhiking experience in the beautiful Hunza Valley in northern Pakistan. There´s hardly an easier place to hitchhike than Pakistan. If you stand on the street for longer than 5 minutes, you are either doing something wrong or there´s no car coming. So a car pulled over and three young guys in their late 20s – Nasrullah, Fahad & Shahid – all working for the Pakistani Army, pulled over and gave us a ride. They were very inquisitive and when we told them our story their curiosity was raised even more. They invited us for tea and offered us to join them the next day for a boat tour on Attabad Lake. We agreed. We spent a beautiful day together, had lots of laughs and talked about religion, (family) values, love & marriage, traveling and so much more. Despite the fundamental differences in our upbringing and our culture, we found a lot of common ground and a deeper understanding for each other. Only by opening up to each other’s opinions, respecting the other ones view and smoothing out our prefabricated prejudices. We made friends and we´ll hopefully meet again.
The memories we collected would fill an entire book. There´s the nine IT-guys from Peshawar who accepted our couchsurfing request on very short notice and invited us to their apartment. These guys live for their passion. They started an App- and gaming company and are sharing an apartment together. Most of them are just sleeping on the floor, they insisted that we sleep in one of their few beds. One of them, Shahab, took a day of for us to show us around the beautiful city of Peshawar. There´s Manzoor, a passionate tourist guide and driver, who invited us to his home. His wife cooked for us and sewed a dress for Mia. There´s Qayum, a 68-year old peaceful soul who spent his 20s as a hippie in Europe, now feeding stray dogs and cats and taking care of handicapped people and happy to share his stories with us while smoking a joint together. We ended up spending two weeks at his home. There´s the couple from Islamabad, who invited us to their home, when we had to deal with some visa issues. They showed us what hospitality meant to them, even gave us their bedroom and made us feel embarrassed about our often selfish way of thinking. There´s the taxi driver who drove us to the bus station and was not leaving until he made sure we get good seats. There´s the banana salesmen on the street who didn´t bother to charge us any money for a mere 4 bananas. And if I kept on thinking for a little while longer, I´d probably remember a few more stories of the like.
The unequaled hospitality is not the only reason why we fell in love with Pakistan. The unspoiled nature in the north of the country can capture you for months if you don´t move on. Pakistan is home to 5 of the worlds 14 eight-thousanders. 108 peaks above 7000 meters, more than 4500 peaks above 6000m and an uncountable number of peaks above 4000 and 5000 meters. Moving (and deteriorating) glaciers, pristine valleys, rivers and lakes, an abundance of flora and fauna and unpretentious villages not yet transformed to mountain tourist hotspots. Pakistan once already was the target of many adventurous travelers back in the 80s and peaking in the 90s. Old abandoned tourist buildings are reminding of golden tourist times. Then from one day to another everything changed. When you talk to locals and they tell you about their lives, they all tell the same story: There is a life before 9/11 and one after 9/11. Men in their 50s are proudly telling tales about the many peaks they climbed as tourist guides. One guy remembered with a big smile that he joined many tourist groups as a cook. Some even remember particular tourists (among them many Germans). Some are taking out old dusty photo albums from the back of their cupboards filled with pictures of tourist excursions from the 80s and 90s. When they are finished with their stories, they often pause and you notice how sadness replaces happiness in their faces. But only shortly. Many of the people are now working in agriculture again, or are operating a small shop. Most of them can barely make a living, let alone support a family. Yet, they somehow found inner peace. Also, the locals in northern Pakistan are more optimistic than ever. In the last 2-3 years they saw an increasing number of tourists coming to their countries – among them again many Germans. This goes also back to the new Prime Minister, Imran Khan, who wants to open the country for more tourists and therefore lowered the visa requirements at the beginning of last year. You can notice roads being fixed and new buildings being constructed. Well-educated doctors, lawyers and business people are moving back from Karachi or Islamabad to their families and their homes in the north. Change and hope is in the air and everyone is feeling it.
We spent around one month in the mesmerizing Hunza Valley – particularly famous among bikers and cyclists – which in comparison to the largely remote side valleys is slightly more frequented by tourists. The Hunza Valley is located in the state of Gilgit-Baltistan, with Passu and Karimabad as popular stopovers. One month was not nearly sufficient to dive into the ample natural beauties of the Northern Areas, as this part of the country is also often referred to, just enough to get a glimpse and to ripen the desire to come back. We didn´t rush, we took our time and we allowed ourselves to stay longer, wherever we found a beautiful spot and whenever met someone who´s presence warmed our heart… both of which happened all the time. But that´s the beauty of travelling with neither time limit nor time schedule. You develop a sense of calmness and you appreciate the present moment rather than thinking of where you are heading next.
When traveling to Pakistan as a westerner you are confronted with a culture very much different to your own. Religion, values, belief system, family, marriage, intimacy, gender roles, the concept of freedom, time and responsibility to just name the most obvious. Yet, since we are living in the information age, Pakistani, just like everyone else with a connection to the net, are very well aware of the differences, even though many of them have never had the chance to take a step beyond their borders. How many countries have you visited? 5? 10? 20? Maybe even 50? Pakistan is surrounded by India in the east, its archenemy. To the north-east lies China, Pakistan´s financial sugar daddy who gives the country generous loans in exchange for financial dependency and obedience, and only reachable via the 4600m high Khunjerab Pass. To the northwest is Afghanistan and in the southwest Pakistan borders with Iran. None of which gives free visa to Pakistani citizens. Short side fact: Pakistani passports rank 104thin terms of travel freedom. German passports rank 1sttogether with six other passports. When asking young Pakistani about their biggest dream, many say that they want to see some other parts of the world some day. France, Italy, Germany, Japan, South America… The openness and curiosity towards other opinions and a more liberal way of life is impressive. After all we are talking about Pakistan, a conservative Muslim country, right?! (Attention: prejudice) Nowadays we generally view Muslim countries as highly conservative, discriminative against women and regressive, with a tendency towards violence in order to spread the true faith. That´s what the media tells us right? The people we met and the conversations we had draw a different picture. Many Pakistani (obviously there´s also a quite conservative fraction) are open for more liberal ideas without neglecting their religion. Also we often forget that a few decades ago countries with a Muslim majority like Afghanistan, Pakistan or Iran were much more liberal than today. Very often we were confronted with the question: “How is Pakistan compared to other countries?” Simply because they didn´t have any point of reference, no chance to compare their home country to any other country. To the contrary, for the last two decades they have been told that Pakistan is a dangerous country giving refuge to terrorists. Hence, the other question we were often asked was: “Why in the world are you coming to Pakistan?”
We felt the gravity of these questions, yet they were not difficult to answer. “You live in one of the most beautiful countries we have ever visited, with the most welcoming people we have ever met. I hope that you will have the chance to travel to other countries some day. But know that you live in a stunning country yourself, the beauty of which people are just starting to rediscover. We will for sure come back…Inshallah!”