One journey across Pakistan only leaves a visitor wanting more
Let’s face it. Most of the news that emerges from the global media powerhouses about Pakistan, is of a country more or less emerged in civil unrest and sectarian violence, where bombs explode left, right and centre and where blacklisted organisations try to stake their perceived claim to Pakistan. On the whole, the overall security situation is described as precarious at best.
My story though is not to continue with the daily battering that Pakistan receives, but to reveal the Pakistan of which I have become rather fond.
Cooks, cleaners, drivers, snake charmers, anarchic traffic, hot bazaars, armoured vehicles, personal bodyguards… Life is good in Pakistan. Yet, it is not a place for the faint-hearted; but that is a matter of perspective. I was born and have spent most of my life in Sydney: “Sleepy Sydney”, as a friend’s father affectionately calls it. He is a Pakistani.
I would describe my two visits to Pakistan, in 2007 and 2010, as nothing short of rewarding. In 2007, I attended the Society of Pakistan English Language Teachers Conference with a group from the University of Sydney. Travelling from Karachi to Abbottabad, Murree, Nathiagali, Islamabad, Lahore and Multan before returning to Karachi, we indeed took in some stunning sights between conference commitments.
Pakistan is home to K2, the second highest peak in the world. If you enjoy hiking, trekking and generally communing with nature, Gilgit, Hunza and Skardu in the northern areas of the country might do it for you. The Thar Desert is another formidable area I would like to explore.
The peace and serenity of the Himalayas formed the backdrop for our winding drive from Abbottabad to Islamabad, via charming Nathiagali and the thriving market town of Murree. Historical treasure such as the Lahore Fort stands with pride of place in the Pakistani consciousness and certainly took our breath away. The UNESCO World Heritage-listed Shalamar Gardens, created by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in the 17th century, and the only one remaining of several that were created during his reign, would certainly rival the Tuileries Gardens in Paris in the historical stakes. For a religious flavour, the shrines in Multan were humbling and awe-inspiring at the same time. Our journey up the River Ravi, part of the Indus River system only left us wanting more.
We developed a liking for handicrafts, such as carved wood, woollen carpets and soft furnishings; clothing such as the shalwar kameez and cashmere shawls; accessories such as handbags and bangles and souvenirs from the kitsch to the highly exotic. Given the affordability of merchandise, shopping expeditions started to figure highly on our agenda.
Something you cannot put a figure on was the friendliness and endless hospitality we encountered all over the country. In Islamabad, a family spontaneously opened their home to seven of us when our accommodation fell through at the last minute and conference organisers and hosts saw to our every comfort wherever we went.
In my opinion, Pakistani cuisine rivals some of the top cuisines of the world for its delectable mix of spices, a wide variety of steaming hot roti, meat and vegetarian dishes, and out-of-this-world sweets, catering to every taste bud.
Thanks to Facebook and Twitter, friendships formed on that 2007 trip were rekindled in January this year, when a friend and I, along with her four children, travelled to Karachi together. The main premise was to visit family and friends. A lesson about important bygone epochs came when her father organised a family day trip to Thatta, which is a city known for its shrines of various dynasties that once presided over the landmass that is now Pakistan. This outing also included a visit to the stunning mosque in the centre of town erected by Emperor Shah Jahan in the 15th century.
An abundance of sites across the country should please even the most discerning archaeology or history aficionado. Only a stone’s throw from the capital Islamabad lies Taxila, which was a port of call for Alexander the Great en route to India. In Taxila’s environs, Greek, Buddhist and Hindu ruins are testament to the various cultures and religions to which Pakistan has played host since ancient times. Moenjodaro in Sindh, heart of the Indus River Valley Civilisations, is regarded as one of the most remarkable cities of the ancient world. The Pakistan National Museum in Karachi houses some priceless artefacts of both the ancient and modern worlds; another reminder of a rich history indeed worth preserving.
I consider pre-departure research makes one’s travelling experience all the more rewarding and is simply part of being a responsible traveller. An open mind is another essential element and Pakistan will reward your effort. Avoiding demonstrations, clutching your bag a bit more tightly in busy areas and surveying a street before you walk down it are all standard precautionary measures to take anywhere in the world. Moving about in a large cosmopolitan metropolis such as Karachi, and travelling around Pakistan, I do not recall ever having felt unsafe or in a threatening environment. On the contrary, since Pakistanis don’t often encounter foreign travellers, they are genuinely thrilled and honoured that you have chosen to visit their country.
Speaking from experience, family, friends and food are three elements at the heart of Pakistani culture. If you travel here for the first time, I guarantee that your efforts will be rewarded, for you too will be struck by its charm and embraced as part of the Pakistani family by the time you leave.
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