I walked another tightrope past people openly sitting and smoking on graves surrounding numerous shrines. Every set of eyes were watching me. Gusts of THC continually threw me off balance; politely putting my hand over my heart as an apology for being another clumsy gora. I made my way through the maze of people to Yumi, the Korean girl I travelled here with, and who was confined to the women’s only section. I sat relieved, confirming my current mental capacity by wiggling my big toe with an abnormal amount of effort and concentration. Yumi burst into laughter. Thankfully I resurfaced from Alice’s drug infused rabbit hole and wandered around to take some photos. An hour later Yumi organised a rickshaw back to the hostel. I sat in the back with the cooling air refreshing my body and mind. I pondered with a sense of upcoming adventures - Pakistan was going to be a country like no other.
In true Murphy’s Law fashion, all my plans were put on the backburner as toilet paper replaced Tinder as my most highly prized asset. “A country like no other” manifested into self-diagnosed travellers diarrhoea, which then turned into a self-diagnosed bacterial infection. Seventeen days later I had learnt more about acceleration, gravity and angles in my thrice-daily excursion to the squat toilet than five years at high school. To fix the ailment, I once again took random drugs, but this time given to me from a cyclist trying to shed weight before a flight. After trying to hopelessly read the Danish instructions, I swallowed my pride and unfamiliar pills hoping for the best. Thanks Martin and Susanne!
They seemed to work, and with new bicycle rims in my possession I was ready to turn my wheels north. I set off from Lahore travelling along the Grand Trunk Road; one of the more historical routes in the world. The road was initially lined with quaint palm trees and caravanserais feeding weary traders, and I hopelessly tried to recall them to my mind as I inhaled diesel fumes and dust for three days straight. My first impressions of everyday Pakistan were unfairly based on the previous country. My comparisons ranged from a little poorer, a bit more rugged, women non existent, local men more friendly, people generally less obtrusive, bus drivers still dickheads.
Exactly one year to the day since I left Adelaide had me cycling through Abbottabad, a Pakistani town ill-reputed for being the hiding place of Osama Bin Laden. There remains quite a bit of controversy around whether the Pakistani government gave assistance to OBL. But given the amount of foreign aid being donated to Pakistan for assisting in the Afghanistan war, it wouldn’t surprise me. The city itself wasn’t all that exciting, but a stronger feeling of conservatism was felt, with girls as young as six wearing niqabs and chadors- a custom widely reserved for when girls reach puberty. Bin Laden and I now share more than a terrible beard, as I too was hunted by the “anti-terrorist police”, who tried following me in a 4X4 loaded with men carrying guns.
The valley then started in earnest, winding its way up the Kunhar River. Domestic tourism flourishes in these areas due to the safety, proximity to the plains and mountainous views. Over 1 million people visited the valley in the week after Ramadan and prices showed for it, with an average room fetching up to 25,000PKR ($300). By the time I reached Naran things had quelled down, but the domestic tourists were still intent on flattering me with my “bravery” and insisting on a photo. I watched one man upload the photo to Facebook with the caption, “Hanging with my friend from childhood”. I was once again discovered by the police and was ushered to their compound. Travelling further to Babusar Pass (4,100m) would require an escort. Unfortunately the escort was of the police variety and not the female type in a bandage dress. Banditry and kidnapping were common in the area and the recent troubles in Indian held Kashmir had caused a spike in jihadists making the traverse from the tribal areas and Afghanistan. Not the best place to cycle by myself.
I stayed the night and was given my own personal guard(s), AK-47 and all. Leaving the hotel without their presence was impossible and I would often find the guardian of my safety sleeping out my front door spooning his gun. I was told to keep all windows and doors locked and curtains closed, only opening them to see if it was a policeman knocking at the door. Just like a real prison, I was allowed exercise in the evening where we would go to eat food and ice cream. Trying to judge the actual threat to my safety was quite difficult, and I often thought the police were just being too pedantic.
The security guard at Naran, Pakistan
Whilst Pakistani’s happily ate their dinner and ventured around town, I would be marched into restaurants with a guard commandeering a table, using his influence to slash the bill in half. Once he even asked to me to watch his gun whilst he visited the toilet, and my reservations about the threat to my safety were confirmed with the safety off. The next day my guard informed me that I was heading back to Abbottabad. Police had gone home for Eid and the police stations were all closed. No police meant no escort, and no escort meant no cycling.
This was crushing to say the least. I had been in Pakistan for a month and I’d only achieved shitting 4 times a day. I sent a message to Mushtaq – a person I shared chai with a few days earlier – and he suggested I join him and his family for Eid celebrations. The festival honours the act of Abraham sacrificing his only son, under the command of Allah to prove his faith. Afterwards, an angel was sent to tell him the sacrifice was already accepted. A nearby ram replaced the son and now all Muslims slaughter an animal to commemorate this. Sound familiar? It’s the same in the Christian bible.
The animal is then divided into three sections; one for the family, one for relatives, and one for the poor. Science has once again changed the religious landscape, with many families now using deep freezers to store a larger share of meat for later. I was sure Mushtaq wasn’t saving any meat for later, as we proceeded to eat meat for every meal for the next three days.
Mushtaq and Family celebrating Eid, Manserah