Suddenly in Pakistan

That was the title of the book I chose to read on the flight from Zurich to Islamabad. Admittedly, reading that book and at the same time flying into Pakistan wasn’t exactly easy and gave me some little thrills.

I read about a country with its problems, extremes and contradictions: a atomar power with religious extremists; soon to be one of the most densely populated countries (more than 200 million, twice the size of Germany); great wealth resides next to pure poverty (still, millions of Pakistani live on a dollar a day); against the promise of the state founder Jannah, religious minorities don’t have an easy life but Pakistan is at the same time a melting pot of many languages and ethnics; it has one of the largest military but the government is bankrupt and eduction is low; it gets supported by the US and most Pakistani would leave for the States if allowed to, but it’s also their worst enemy …
And suddenly I arrived at Pakistan, Islamabad airport, myself. Fortunately, it turned out that Islamabad is quite a good starting point for Pakistan since it’s pretty relaxed and calm as compared to other cities. Things went pretty smoothly from the beginning: my bike box perfectly fitted on the roof of the very small car arranged by the guest house to pick me up from the airport at 4 a.m. in the morning. Accompanied by two other dudes on a motorbike and with the strange box on the roof, it, of course, didn’t go unnoticed by the police and just an hour after my arrival I had the first encounter with the police – the first of many to follow, as I expect.
I made myself comfortable in a mediocre guest house in order allow myself some time to adapt, plan and explore Islamabad a bit (a green and planed city divided into sectors, I stayed in sector F-7). I went to the impressive Shah Faisal Mosque, got nice views from the Margalla Hills and joined Kamra, a sincere warmshowers member I contacted in advance, for a cultural program in Serena Hotel. More interesting than the program itself were the people Kamra but me in contact with (e.g. the trainer of the national youth cycling team) and the hotel – because I had to pass three security checks in order to enter it.
My original plan was to cycle to Gilgit, a town amid the Himalaya in the very north but thanks to facebook and Kamra I quickly got convinced to take the bus instead and start exploring the region from there since I only have limited time. Thus, after two (and a half) nights in Islamabad I grabbed my bike and headed to the bus station in Rawalpindi, the neighbouring city, about half an hour away. While searching for the right bus station in Rawalpindi (it took me probably 3 hours) I finally came to realize that Islamabad is not really Pakistan and that I finally arrived in Pakistan. Rawalpindi stands in stark contrast to the relative calmness of Islamabad: chaos, blunt poverty, overcrowded, smells and smoke, piles of waste, etc. But since I expected it somehow, I wasn’t entirely overwhelmed and finally found the bus station, got my ticket, put my bike on the roof and left at 7 pm, with a 18h bus ride lying ahead of me.
Right at the beginning, one of the bus drivers collected 10 pass copies from me (I did my homework and got 20 copies before) – in order to be handed over to the police at the many check points we were passing. And, shortly after we left Rawalpindi, we had a quick stop in order to collect a pump gun that was put in reach right next to the driver – you never know ;).
However, the bus ride went smoothly (I think I spare the comments about the chaotic traffic and the driving style – hard to describe anyway ;)), we had a few breaks once in a while for meals where I had a good company by Isar – a young and nice guy from Karatschi who is working in the north for the government and tries to educate the locals to use improved agricultural methods. Another stop was to gather enough buses together in order to form a mandatory convoy.
At about 1 pm we arrived at Gilgit and I went straight to the recommended guest house, Madina I, and got a warm welcome there (I got welcomed by a guy who worked as mountain guide and has been to Nanga Parbat, K2 etc. – he even once did a expedition with Uli Stoeck and called him a good friend). I am planing to stay here two nights to relax from the bus ride, explore Gilgit a bit (not a very nice town), get some things sorted and prepared for the cycling: next destination will be the Hunza valley and Khunjarab pass.
I am expecting to have quite many encounters with the police here since Gilgit-Baltistan seems to be a bit special in this respect. For that region foreigners need to register additionally and I am bound to carry a “foreigner registration card” that says: “Keep this original card always with joy” or “Gilgit-Baltistan is a very peaceful region, however in some areas Policemen may be deployed with you for security where deemed essential.”. Although the police is supposed to be very nice here and of the helping kind, I feel well prepared in that respect: in Pakistan most things seem to work via relations and by now I have gathered quite some contacts – contacts via my friend and flatmate in Germany, Jam; contacts to Skardu via a banker I met while withdrawing money in Islamabad; a contact in Gilgit thanks to Kamra (the warmshowers-member); and the contact to Isar … .

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