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Pakistan

One of the joys of overland travel is the simplicity of crossing over an imaginary line and beginning a new journey in another country. Land borders bare the official mark of sovereignty whereas one’s culture, customs and way of life establish a nation’s identity. In today’s climate, these marks of sovereignty are often guarded at all costs, often evoking the ugliest form of patriotism; xenophobia. I find it reassuring that in a world constantly at war with its neighbours, this ‘us vs. them’ jingoism is often a total crock of shit.

With partition occurring in 1947, British India was split in two and sovereignty became an everlasting front line between Pakistan and India. Muslims on one side, Hindus on the other. Since then, both nations have fuelled propagandist agendas intent on causing division, suspicion, and misinformation. When telling Indian’s that I would be cycling through Pakistan, the responses ranged from genuine motherly concern to questions of my (obviously) low IQ.

Terrorists, kidnappings, corruption, extortion, crime and cow eaters were just a few of the issues I’d have to deal with. Six months of Indian reservations and western media tried its best to play devil’s advocate, trying to show me that Pakistan is a nation intent on spreading state sanctioned terrorism throughout India and the world. It was difficult to ignore advice from my own government and media which I had unequivocally trusted my entire life, but as I rode closer to Pakistan the pull was getting more harder to resist.

Celebrating Pakistan's Independence, Northern Areas

“We advise you to reconsider your need to travel to Pakistan at this time due to the very high threat of terrorist attack and volatile security situation. If you do decide to travel to Pakistan, you should exercise extreme caution. If you are in Pakistan and concerned for your safety, you should consider leaving if it is safe to do so" DFAT Warning

As I walked around the fabled city of Lahore in those first few days I couldn’t help but laugh at “how Indian” everything was. Pollution was still rampant, cows stubbornly walked the streets and every aspect of daily life was still typically chaotic. Over the next few months I came to unsurprising revelation that Pakistan is a country just like any other, with people exhibiting the same human qualities that I’ve found endearing all around the world. However, there were still moments that had me second-guessing.

A "Chai Walla" (tea seller), Lahore
Badakshi Mosque, Lahore
Badakshi Mosque at night, Lahore

I took stock of the hysteric crowd. I was alone yet surrounded by people, curious yet apprehensive. Men were everywhere, shouting as one in a sea of people. I looked around mystified by my surroundings, noticing that nearly everyone was smoking hashish, and that I was the only foreigner there. What have I walked into?

Someone grabbed my shoulder firmly.

“Do you smoke up?” questioned a voice from behind.

I turned around to see two teenage Pakistani’s extending a hand of hospitality that led me to another dark unknown room. Before I could even ask of their names, one had pulled out a dark ball of Pakistani hashish. With a somewhat graceful ease, the teenager who had probably only just hit puberty managed to roll the most elegant spliff I had ever seen.

Here I was, accepting drugs off strangers, in a country known for kidnapping, nursing my passport and DSLR camera. Ignorance is bliss, but blind faith is more fun. During the next 15 minutes I learned all about the smoky environment in which I had found myself in, still not perfectly sure if I was about to become the next Schapelle Corby.

My host at Sufi Night, Lahore
Charas (hashish), Lahore

Apart from the copious amounts of hash, “Sufi night” in Lahore is all about Pappu Saeen, the best Dhol drummer in Pakistan. People traverse all corners of the country just to get a glimpse and, with a bit of herbal help, ultimately arrive at another stage of consciousness. Sufism is a smaller sect of Islam that combines a potent brew of mysticism, folklore and spirituality. Qawwali, the drumming, is seen as a key part of the journey to the divine, what Sufis call the continual remembrance of God. I sat around the group in my own mysticism of a part of Islam that I’d never known about. People gathered all around me to tell me more and to then grab a selfie with a gora smoking a joint.

I stood in eagerness to see more but my knees caved in from under me. The infamous strength of Pakistani hashish has a reputation duly earned, and for the rest of the night I was utterly held captive, stoned out of my brains. The drumming grew louder and louder, somehow matching the beat of my anxious heart. I was the first time I’d seen fully grown men go through an existential experience, eyes rolling to the back of their head whilst dancing with the refinement of having a seizure. With every man drenched in a baptism of sweat, I had to make an escape before I, too, was thrust into the main stage. We all know that white men can’t dance.

Men dancing at Sufi Night, Lahore
Men dancing at Sufi Night, Lahore

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.

Naran, Pakistan
Local, Islamabad

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
Local cobbler, Manserah

As I spent time with Mushtaq and his family and friends, my two worlds - both home and away - couldn’t have been more different. Whilst an Australian parliamentarian used her opening speech to decry Islam’s place in Australia and call for a total ban on Muslim immigration, Mushtaq, a Muslim, invited a complete stranger into his world for four days to help celebrate one of the most important Islamic festivals. He bought me a new salwar kameez (traditional outfit) and continued to pay for everything – even my phone credit and trip to the barber. We went around town meeting his family and friends and I often chuckled at how everyone quarrelled about who was paying for my meal.

Australian’s pride themselves on being well travelled, and I can only hope anyone who has reservations about Islam can actually travel to an Islamic country. It was with a heavy heart that I had to leave Mushtaq and his friends, and hopefully I can see them again, Inshallah.

Plan B had now come into effect and I had to travel from Mansehra to Gilgit via Khoistan, an area that Pakistanis and foreigners pass through quickly without thinking twice. It’s with no coincidence that this area of Pakistan has some of the lowest levels of literacy. Most of the education takes place in Saudi financed religious madrassas, which teach a strict form of Islam called Wahhabism.

Ironically, outsiders are seen as the terrorists, trying to change their way of life, and I was warned by most Pakistanis not to travel there. I happily loaded my bicycle onto a bus where the attendant carried a loaded shotgun and 16 other busses grouped together in a convoy employing a “safety in numbers” mentality. Over the next 24 hours we stopped at 13 police checkpoints and only once for food.

Arriving in Gilgit officially marked my entrance into the Hunza Valley, a just reward for anyone who has made the effort to travel to Pakistan. After some minor setbacks over the last month, arriving in Hunza felt truly liberating. This place had been on my bucket list for quite some time.

Hunza Valley, Northern Pakistan
Local Hunza men, Northern Pakistan
Passu Cones, Northern Areas
Passu Cones, Northern Areas

The Karakoram Highway is often considered the 8th wonder of the world. Completed in 1979, the highway was ambitiously built into the mountains, stretching from Islamabad to Kashgar, China. With access only recently being given, the many cultures of the little villages remain as if they’d never been disturbed. Men with timeworn faces greeted me with warmth and an offer for chai and women and children shyly let out innocent giggles as I cycled past. As I sat day after day cycling my way up to Kunjerab Pass (4,755m) I realised that Pakistan was never supposed to be this easy.

From Gilgit I cycled past Nanga Prabat (8,155m), the 9th highest mountain in the world. The next day I cycled past Rakaposhi (7,788m) and decided to walk the effortless 4 hours to base camp. From there, I cycled past Diran Peak (7,266m), then Shispare (7,611m), then Passu Peak (7,478m), then Golden Peak (7,027m)…you get the idea. I think the Karakoram Highway is the only place in the world where 7,000m mountains lose a little grandeur simply from repetition. From Sost I entered the Kunjerab National Park and duly handed over $10 for the privilege; with most of the money going to conservation efforts. A few kilometres later I witnessed Pakistani conservation in the form of a snow leopard being caged for two years. Money well spent.

​The future of Pakistan and the Karakoram Highway has been at the forefront of most of my interactions with locals. From economic discussions with elders to little kids calling me “ching chong”, most Pakistanis are looking forward to a newly established economic partnership. The country is making a gradual, yet colossal shift from working with America to aligning itself with China. CPEC (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor) will transform the Karakoram Highway into a major shipping route with a constant flow of trucks bringing Chinese goods all the way to the ports of Sindh. It’s hard to bring an air of realism to many locals, who see CPEC as a lifeline that will bring tourism back north. But I can only imagine the flow of dollars will go down with the trucks to Punjab, leaving a trail of dirty smoke in its wake. It’s hard to imagine what the road will be like in a few years time, but I’m glad I visited the area now, rather than in the future.

Reaching Kunjerab Pass was one of the more easy rides I’d done. After spending the last five plus months in the Himalayas I was a little melancholy with the usual joy that accompanies the greeting of a mountain pass. The fact that a busload of Chinese tourists illegally crossed international lines to take a photo with me also had me beat. As I slid back down the road I rejoiced at the fact I would soon be in a flat Iranian desert.

Rakaposhi Base Camp trek, Northern Areas
Road to Kunjerab Pass, Northern Areas
Kunjerab Pass, Northern Areas

​If you’ve enjoyed reading this blog, or the previous blogs, please consider leaving a donation on the link below. Whilst my decision to ride around the world was a purely selfish pursuit (because I wanted to), I’ve also taken the opportunity to do some fundraising. The Reach Foundation is an amazing organisation working with the youth of Australia.

Thanks – As you have probably read in the blog I’ve been a little sick over the last few months. So firstly thanks to Martin and Susanne (www.twistingspokes.com) and Gerhard & Vanessa (www.tigasontour.wordpress.com) for giving me some drugs that would help with my infection – I promise ill get a blood screen. Secondly to SK for organising some new rims and shipping them from Singapore; especially for declaring the value $15 so I didn’t get a massive tax bill. And finally to Mushtaq, his family and friends from providing such wonderful hospitality over Eid. I can’t thank you enough.

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