One of the most interesting places I ever went to was clearly Pakistan. I think Osama Bin Laden would have agreed with me since he also spent his final years in Abbottabad, a city not far North of Islamabad. It is also where Reinhold Messner, a legend in mountain climbing, found the one peak that didn’t bring him happiness. And in the shadow of this same mountain I spent 2 weeks with great people.
Still in India
My last stop before the border was Amritsar in India. The Sikhs have their holy Golden Temple in the city and every visitor is welcome to stay a few days. There is a dormitory for Indians and a slightly more comfortable one for backpackers. The food was also outstanding and of course vegetarian. I really loved the experience and gladly gave a donation after my stay.
But it was time to move on. The British left a mess after they retreated from the Subcontinent by dividing one nation. Pakistan and India were formed and so the first highlight was waiting right at the border. Every day both sides line up soldiers in their fanciest uniforms and marching bands parading right up to the marker. There are stands for spectators and it is truly a sight. But I didn’t want to spend much time there as I was eager for my next adventure.
Crossing the border
After getting my visa stamped I took a bus to Lahore and changed onto another one to Islamabad. The capital is around 6 hours away. Everything usually takes longer of course so I expected not much else besides sitting on the bus all day. Nevertheless, I enjoyed it. Earphones in, some good Chinese music matching the Chinese bus and watch the world fly by in formation with your thoughts. I love bus rides through new countries. The road leads mostly through Punjab and gradually turns into a hillier landscape as you approach Islamabad. For the 10 Euros I paid it was really comfortable.
And then there you are. Arriving in the capital with nothing arranged but two credit cards in your pocket. Long story short, for hours I walked through the city from one ATM to another trying to get some cash. i had literally none on me and so it was a very strange moment when even the Barclay Bank wouldn’t accept my Barclay credit card. Plan B was to find a hotel and just pay tomorrow. Surely by then I would somehow manage it. But again things didn’t go as planned. All the hotels I walked into wanted me to pay first and not wait for the next day. There was no chance pleading any further and I retreated like the British before, in a big mess.
Luck is blind
Plan C was now sleeping somewhere on the street, it felt pretty safe and the next day I would simply walk into the Barclay Bank and ask why there was this issue. And then my luck turned. As I walked looking for a comfortable street I met a group of 3 young men. There were curious about a foreigner wandering around at night so we started talking. Pakistanis are some of the friendliest people I have met while travelling and so these young guys also wanted to help. Together we tried a few more ATMs and hotels but all for nothing. So they invited me to stay the night with them. They seemed friendly enough so I went. There was Shahid and Mehboob, two brothers from Kashmir and Nader, a student from Afghanistan.
Shahid and Mehboob were also studying in university so their English was really good. We became good friends and so I just stayed with them for a few more days. What a great time we had.
Islamabad is not the craziest town in the world but there are some cool places to see. The great Shah Faisal Mosque is huge and so white it reminded me in its purity of the Buddhist temple in Chiang Rai in Thailand. Apparently it is the third largest mosque in the world and that is how it felt. Inspired by a bedouin tent it didn’t feel overboarding though.
There are many bazaars in the city where you can buy fresh products from all over the country. I especially liked the fruits. Then many of the bakeries serve fresh warm bread, made in an somehow underground fire pit where the dough sticks to the wall until its done.
But what I also saw was lots of poverty in Islamabad. The slums are not a tiny bit better than in Kenya and according to news those are growing. It is understandable how millions come from Pakistan to the UAE and are happy about any job they can get.
We also went to a restaurant where I treated my friends to some delicious local food and boy, was it popular. It was completely packed but we went in anyways and chose a table we liked. So while the people were still eating we stood behind their chairs chatting and waiting. When it was our turn to eat, the next guests did the same and so on. However nobody was in a rush to finish their meal and nobody minded waiting. It was really relaxed and the food worth the wait.
We walked back to their rooms afterwards and hoped for steady electricity. Since the nights in Islamabad still are super hot with more than 35 degrees and the weak fan cooling us stopped working regularly, staying inside was unbearable. We often went outside in the middle of the night and got some ice cream. Actually when I met them, that was what had happened. My Pakistan trip turned into a great experience thanks to a black out. Luck is blind. Besides that we played lots of card games where somehow Nader always lost. We ate huge watermelons and had long breakfasts every day.
After some time I wanted to continue and Shahid said I should go and visit his family in Kashmir. That’s exactly where I wanted to go so plans were made for the next day.
Reaching new heights
The Bus took me to Gilgit-Baltistan, a province in Kashmir and bordering India. The family lives in Gorikot, a very small village in the mountains at a height of 3000m. Zahid, the eldest brother, picked me up and together we went to his family where father and mother were already waiting. There were also his wife, sister and 2 more brothers which were all really friendly. Two days later Mehboob came from Islamabad for his school holidays.
Gorikot doesn’t have much. But what there is was plenty to fill two weeks with great fun. Together with Mehboob I watched plenty of cricket games at the local field, even tried a hit myself. Being the only white guy in town that was met with lots of enthusiasm by the locals.
In general everyone was just so friendly I couldn’t believe it. Some days I walked around by myself and whoever I met, he felt obliged to invite me for tea. Of course we also went to visit all of Mehboob’s 60 cousins and their families were more tea was offered. In two weeks I drank more tea than in the whole year before. But those meetups were always fun, they did try to convert me to become Muslim but not in a pushy way. After some time they accepted that I will stay Christian but nothing in their attitude changed and we continued to be great friends.
At the parents house where I was allowed to stay, they offered me the whole winter garden for the nights. It was really comfortable and became a second home. In the beginning of my time there I even got a special lunch since the mother thought a Westerner needs to eat Pasta. Everyone else was having rice with lambs and vegetables but I got the pasta. And when I fell sick for a few days, they came and brought food and hot drinks many times during the day. Such a generosity I have not met in any other country except maybe in Thailand. Out of all of them. Interesting was that there were never any women present. Only at home the old mother who would bring the food sometimes spoke to me but besides that I talked to no woman in my two weeks in Pakistan.
Nanga Parbat and many sheep
Back to Reinhold Messner. In 1970 he and his brother Günther reached the summit of the Nanga Parbat but quickly had to descend afterwards due to bad weather. In an avalanche Günther perished and Reinhold had to struggle for survival before rescue a few days later. It was Messner’s first summit above 8000m and the start of the greatest career in climbing with many records broken. However none of those successes could ever make up for loosing your brother.
I had heard of this mountain and like all things in Pakistan conveniently fell in place, the Nanga Parbat was just a few kilometers away from Gorikot. And to top it all, the brothers Shefqot and Mehboob were going to climb near in to visit the herders that took care of their fathers goats and sheep. My luck continued and of course I went with them.
Gorikot is already at an altitude of 2500m so the trek taking all day was quite challenging. In the end we reached almost 4000m and finally saw the little camp. We stayed the night in the tent and the Kashmir scarf I had gotten from the mother, handwoven, kept me nicely warm in the tent at night. We hiked around the area a bit and looked out for the Nanga Parbat but often clouds were in the way.
Deosai National Park and the Nomads
Some days later a new tour was planned. With many cousins, including one with 4 wives which led to interesting talks, we made our way to the Deosai National Park very close to India. At the time it was off limits for foreigners but at the first military checkpoint I was wearing a scarf and pretended to be asleep. At the second one I was introduced as a distant cousin, they do have blue eyed people up there, and so all went well.
Deosai is breathtaking. There was still snow and the air is so fresh and relaxing. At a nice river we stopped and the boys got out a big net and caught at least 10 kilos of fish. There was a nomad family camping next to us and they cooked them for us. Together we ate the fish and had more tea, first sweet then salty. There was a little girl, clearly mentally challenged, who was eating the fish bones and running around barefoot all day in the cold grass. Everyone just said she was crazy and I realized how well we take care of such people at home. At one point we even had hail up there at 4000m and took cover in their big tents. They also had many horses and wild marmots were running the fields.
On the way back we stopped at a cozy restaurant in the woods. It seemed completely deserted but after some time people showed up and started a big fire in the oven. We each ate like 3 kilos of lamb with lots of bread. The whole trip was my treat to the family and I was relieved to pay back some for that amazing hospitality.
Tired and happy we arrived back in Gorikot and I decided I had seen it all.
I said my thanks to all the people in the village and took a bus back to Islamabad. A few more days I stayed with Shahid and Nader before it was time to head back to India.
That meant another bus to Lahore where I stayed the night this time. The city doesn’t offer too much so I slept long and well.
The whole trip to Pakistan had been amazing. I had internet for maybe 2 hours during the whole time and only used my phone for pictures. Back in India’s hustle and bustle I was already missing the serenity of Kashmir. And my friends. The whole time in Pakistan I felt incredibly safe and always surrounded by friendly people.
And now living in Abu Dhabi, Pakistan is so close I just might go again.
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