Pakistan resonates as a war zone to most, thanks to CNN but it’s actually a fascinating place to check out.
Pakistan won’t top the agendas of most tourists which makes it a great place to travel. It’s edgy, traditional and full of stories. You’re really out in the wilds in some places here and you need to keep your wits about you. Having said that the hospitality is enormous and travel here is a hugely educational experience.
Pakistan is home to a multitude of peoples, almost all of whom are Muslim. The severity of the religion depends more on the local culture than anything else but in some places it can be very conservative – you may go some time without seeing a woman, never mind talk to one.
Pakistan as a country in its own right takes a bit of imagination; the provinces are quite distinct from each other with a variety of languages and diverse levels of development. The chic city folk of the south hardly admit any allegiance with the wild tribes of the North-West.
Which is funny because it’s the Pathan North-West Province that has all the most interesting stuff for the experienced road junky. Peshawar is a wild town full of Afghan refugees, hashish smugglers and Pathan warriors. Here it’s perfectly normal to see teenagers walking around with rifles.
Pathan country is very traditional and women are made to wear head-to-foot burkhas. The culture is basically Afghani and whilst they are quite a ferocious people, the Pathan hospitality is second to none. It’s a point of honour to treat the guest well.
Head still further West towards the Afghan border and you have the tribal territories. A place the police don’t dare enter. Here the tribes deal in heroin and heavy arms and it’s not a destination for the average tourist.
Up North you have amazing mountain ranges and beautiful valleys like Chitral and Huntza leading all the way up the border with China. In these remote valleys there still exist a few original tribes living as they always have and every year a procession of culture-vultures ensure that they soon won’t.
Then you come down from the hills to the Punjab and you already begin to feel like you’re in India. The food, dress and customs waft over the border from the other half of the Punjab. Islamabad is where all the embassies are located and is like the idealized version of it’s twin city, Rawalpindi which adjoins it and is as chaotic as any Indian city.
Come down then to Lahore and you need to keep your eyes open. Take in all the Kipling scenery of parks, museums and tombs but beware of dodgy hotels and police stitch-ups. Many travelers stay in YMWA for safety reasons alone.
Then going south into the Sind you enter some edgy bandit territory. The landscape turns to desert here and travel by night may not be recommended. We’ve heard of travellers staying with tribes out here but again, it’s not a venture for the first-timer.
At the foot of the country you have Karachi, the modern face of Pakistan. For most people who live there, crowded into sticky slums it’s not much fun but on the exterior there are bright lights and an educated middle class. There are bright lights and a bit of nightlife and Muslim fundamentalists fuming about how the better-off Karachi women go around in jeans.
Then going out West towards the Iran border you have Baluchistan. This is essentially one huge desert with a city called Quetta that is surrounded by the foothills leading up to Pathan country. Quetta is a dusty city where you’ll barely see a woman in the streets all day.
Baluchistan is also the main focus of the country’s flourishing smuggling trade. Guns, heroin and hashish are slipped over the Iranian border and consumer goods brought back in return.
Pakistan is like seeing a country in several different stages of evolution all at once. Travelers are thin on the ground here and in general are received with open arms. Things may have changed since the USA bombed the hell out of Afghanistan and you might want to give visiting a second thought if you’re traveling on an American passport.