Beyond the Stigmas: 7 Reasons to Travel to Pakistan
“Yes, Mum, I’m going to Pakistan.”
“Are you sure? Do you really want to go there?”
Well, the answer was yes. First of all, it was exactly en-route on my overland motorbike trip from Australia to the Netherlands. It would actually have been hard to avoid. Second, places with stigma intrigue me. An important part of travelling is having the chance to see the world through your own eyes. This means challenging popular opinion and visiting places against the “better advice” of people who have never actually been there.
Now the tricky thing about Pakistan is getting a visa to go there. The rules and regulations differ according to the country you are from. However, one thing is the same for everyone: you can only get the visa in your country of residence. Not ideal when you’re on a long overland trip… So I was forced to send my passport away in order to obtain the visa.
Once you have the visa, it’s smooth sailing. The people at the border are friendly, helpful and professional, and once you’re in the country, you will be treated like a queen. Seeing Pakistan with my own eyes has radically changed my opinion about this country. Here is why’s why you should travel to Pakistan:
1. The powerful women
When you enter from India, the first city you’ll visit is Lahore. A culturally rich, bubbling metropolis. Almost immediately you’ll have to wave goodbye to those long carried prejudices. Yes, you know exactly which ones I mean. Only about half of the women cover their hair, they drive cars and many of them work. I met women who were studying at the university, and who have no intention of marrying at all. They are modern thinkers–independent and determined to live the lives they choose for themselves.
2. Genuine hospitality
The women weren’t the most surprising aspect of Pakistani culture–the overwhelming hospitality was. In Lahore, a local family hosted me for a week. They gave me a home away from home during my long trip. That’s something so incredibly valuable that it’s hard to put it into words. Other people showed me around the city, invited me for dinner and took me to places that few people have the opportunity to go. And that is exactly what makes Pakistan so special. People are genuinely helpful. Not for your cash, and not to trick or scam you. They will politely come up to you, introduce themselves and ask if there is anything they can do to make your stay in their country more pleasant.
3. The modern and clean capital
My journey continued to Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan and the most modern city I’d visited since leaving the western world. The streets are wide and clean, with trees or grass often separating one side of the road from the other. Unlike anywhere else in Asia, people actually obey traffic rules. Most people speak some basic English, while a large part of the population speaks it fluently. All of the major fast food chains are represented, there are cafes with good coffee and amazing brownies, and there are malls and supermarkets. If it wasn’t for the local people asking me if I needed help with anything, I might have thought I was in a European city.
4. Transgender women
I’ve never seen as many transgender women as on the streets of Pakistan. Traditionally they perform at parties and it is considered good luck when they bless a child. They have a long cultural history, apart from religious or political influences. Although there are still social stigmas and life is not easy for them, they are legally recognised as a third gender, with a specific marking as such on their passport.
5. They know what we think we know
This was actually a painful realisation. There is very little tourism in Pakistan, so the people are naturally interested in interacting with those few westerners who do visit. Once you start talking to them, they make it their goal to show their beloved homeland from the best angle. They are proud of their country, yet painfully aware of the picture that is painted in the media. They will declare that they’re not terrorists, and that they oppose violence just as much as you do. They will explain that the Koran actually condemns violence. Unfortunately, people felt the need to justify their nationality and religion. I felt ashamed that I come from a nation that carelessly generalises and portrays an entire population as a bunch of radicalised terrorists.
6. Breathtaking nature
Every Pakistani will tell you: “Go North, go to the Hunza Valley, you’ll love it.” The Hunza Valley is located in the Karakorum Mountains along the Karakorum Highway, which connects Pakistan and China. When you make your way up north, you will understand what the locals are so excited about. Telling you that the north of their country is one of the most beautiful places on earth isn’t an empty sales pitch. It is the plain truth. The mountains are endlessly tall and endlessly impressive. They rise up several thousand meters from the highway, and run along the river in the valley. You will pass multiple glaciers and glacier lakes, in all shades of blue and green. All you’ll experience all of this while the moderate elevation of the valley itself, around 2500 meter, makes the climate perfect. In the summer, during the daytime, it is a comfortable 25° Celsius, which drops a bit at night. Perfect for us tourists. But more importantly, it allows the locals to cultivate all kinds of crops and grow the most delicious apricots and apples.
7. Giving, without expecting to receive
This is a trait that’s so simple, and yet so beautiful. One morning, during a stroll along a glacier, we were persuaded by some farmers to see their orchard. We walked under the trees and apricots literally rained on us. One of the boys climbed into the tree to shake out the ripe fruits. They washed them for us in the mountain stream, and for the next hour, we sat under the trees and ate kilos of the juiciest, sweetest apricots. From where we sat, we could see the snow-capped mountains and the mosaic of green fields. When we left, the farmers thanked us for coming and wouldn’t allow us to pay for the fruit.
Now when I think of Pakistan, I think of incredible snow-capped mountains, beautiful glaciers, good roads, modern cities, tasty food, and juicy apricots. But most of all, I think of the amazingly friendly people. Their hospitality, their pride in their nation, their determination to get rid of their unjustified stigma and to be seen for who they are.
Travel and seeing places with your own eyes, is one of the tools we have to create understanding and unity in this world. To remove prejudice and to replace it with real life experience. I’ve been to Pakistan and I can properly advise you: go visit Pakistan and its amazing people. You will love it!
Top photo credit: Fasih Ahmed