How we found a desert oasis in Pakistan

With just minutes to spare before the border closed for the day, we drove out of Iran, through the barbed wire fence, into Pakistan. Before we reached the Pakistan border, in no-man’s-land, a Pakistani official waved us down and jumped on board. With a huge smile, he said “don’t worry, be happy, you are now free. You are in Pakistan, we don’t have all those rules they have in Iran”. Looking straight at us, he continued “you don’t need to cover up in Pakistan, we are a free country, throw off your head scarves, throw off you chador’s, welcome to Pakistan”. Everything is relative it seems.

mosque, Quetta, Pakistan, 1990
mosque, Quetta, Pakistan, 1990

After a couple of days driving through the Baluchistan desert in Iran, we continued on through the same desert in Pakistan, the mountain range to our left outlining the inhospitable border with Afghanistan. And then we arrived in Quetta, and it seemed like an oasis in the desert. Sure, it was a dry sandy desert, but it was also a very friendly, hospitable stop.

markets, Quetta, Pakistan, 1990
markets, Quetta, Pakistan, 1990

Back in 1990, Iran granted visas to very few westerners – Germans (it was a WWI/WWII thing), and Aussies and Kiwis. So in far north eastern Turkey, five of us parted ways with our other six truck-mates, and we went overland through Iran, while they had to back track to Istanbul, fly to Karachi, and then train up to Quetta to link up with us again. Which meant we had a few days to chill out in Quetta and we found it a very enjoyable stopover indeed.

making fresh naan bread, Quetta, Pakistan, 1990
making fresh naan bread, Quetta, Pakistan, 1990

If I google ‘Quetta’ now I see titles like “Taliban stronghold’. But 20 years ago it seemed a very different place (or maybe we were just naive or lucky). We wiled away the days wandering the hot, dusty streets. We got measured for our own salwar kameez, so that we might blend in a bit more (a tunic top over truly enormous gather-at-the-waist trousers). We sampled perfect, hot pita bread out of an under-floor charcoal oven. We drunk tea and conversed in pigeon english/pakistani/ sign language for hours in the local fabric shop. For a few days it felt like we become a part of the fabric of daily life in Quetta. It was an easy, smiling, welcoming town back then. Western tourists in big trucks were rare, and were warmly welcomed, however odd we may have seemed to the locals.

clothes shop, Quetta, Pakistan, 1990
clothes shop, Quetta, Pakistan, 1990

Back then we were on an overland from London to Kathmandu, during the first Gulf war. All the western countries were giving stern warnings to not travel to the Middle East, to not travel to Pakistan. As you do when you are young and have spent all year saving for this once in a lifetime trip, we ignored all the warnings, and we had a truly exceptional experience. We had an amazing, non-threatening, welcoming time everywhere we went. So I have to wonder – would it be the same now? Do I just think it is less safe now, just because I am older. Do I believe the media/government websites now more than I did then, or am I missing a great opportunity. It saddens me a bit that I even have to ask myself these questions. It does seem that Pakistan is a much riskier place to travel now than then, and I have noticed that most of the overland truck companies do not go through there anymore. Which is a shame. Because twenty years ago it was a highlight that I will never forget.

#fridayfaces – boys at Badshahi Mosque, Lahore, Pakistan

I met these friendly, cheeky young locals in 1990 in Lahore, Pakistan, while visiting the impressive and beautiful 15th century Mughal mosque, the Badshahi mosque. I was making my way slowly from London to Kathmandu on an overland truck.

Boys of Lahore, Pakistan, 1990
Boys of Lahore, Pakistan, 1990

Photos of the faces of people I come across in my travels take me right back to that time and place.

Pakistan needs our help – still!

Aid for Pakistan (2010)

Karakoram Highway, Pakistan
Karakoram Highway, Pakistan

“Flood aid slows to a trickle” is the (small) headline in The Australian this morning (Aug 2010). “The situation in Pakistan is rapidly getting worse” says today’s email from oxfam. The flooding has been going for a month now and it hardly even makes the news anymore.

I am still staggered by the scale of this disaster, it’s not the number of people who have died, it’s the 18 million who have been badly affected, 8 million of whom currently cannot survive without extensive aid, who currently have no drinking water, no shelter, no food, are succumbing to disease outbreaks. And the flooding is still occurring. These are people who may live if the right aid gets to them, and will die if it doesn’t.

Hunza Valley, Karakoram Highway, Pakistan
Hunza Valley, Karakoram Highway, Pakistan

Travel through Pakistan

I understand that Pakistan doesn’t exactly have a positive media profile these days. But I was fortunate enough to travel through Pakistan twenty five years ago, and had an amazing trip through many of the areas that are now suffering so much. To me it does feel as personal as Bali or Thailand or any other destination I have enjoyed. I know Pakistan has changed in the last twenty years, and there is no doubt that it is a more dangerous place today, but I also remember that I travelled there during the first Gulf War. Our governments were warning us not to travel there then too, again because it was “too dangerous”. Yet our experience was of incredibly friendly, hospitable locals and stunning scenery.

Hunza Valley, Karakoram Highway, Pakistan
Hunza Valley, Karakoram Highway, Pakistan

It was also here where I belatedly discovered that nearly all my favourite “Indian” meals in London were of Pakistani origin – the fact they were meat rather than vegetarian dishes probably should’ve been a giveaway sooner for me!

So I’ve pulled out the old photo albums and scanned some of my old negatives for this post. If some of the negatives have deteriorated and have stains on them, it’s just a sign of age.

Classic Overland through Pakistan

I travelled through Pakistan as part of a classic London to Kathmandu overland truck trip. We entered western Pakistan from Iran, travelling through the scorched earth of the Baluchistan desert to Quetta, with the border with Afghanistan always just off to our left. As a dusty desert town, Quetta was quite an oasis for us – a sleepy spot where we could sit for hours and drink tea with curious locals, or watch the bread be made in the fire pit under the floor. Here we also got outfitted in our own salwar kameez, so that our dress standards respected the local conditions.

Khyber Pass Gunman
Khyber Pass Gunman

Then we moved on, following the Indus Valley all the way up to Peshawar. Even back then it felt dodgy, a classic border town, renowned as the drug running capital between Afghanistan and Pakistan, long before its current infamy as a porous border for Taliban, terrorists and drug lords as well.

Up the Khyber Pass

We wanted to drive up the Khyber Pass to the Afghanistan border post, but as that route was rightly considered dangerous even then, we had to hire an uzi-toting guard to sit in the front passenger seat to protect us.  Although he looked older, he was the teenage son of one of the local big-wigs, and he was so nervous, I am not sure he would’ve been much help if anything had gone wrong. We couldn’t cross into Afghanistan, so we literally stood on the border, took photographs in both directions, and then headed back into town, without any incident.

View of Afghanistan from the border on the Khyber Pass
View of Afghanistan from the border on the Khyber Pass
View of Pakistan from the border on the Khyber Pass
View of Pakistan from the border on the Khyber Pass

Up the Karakoram to the Hunza Valley

We continued right up into the Northeastern corner of the country, following the Karakoram Highway far into the western edge of the Himalayan ranges, following the Indus river towards China. It was a spectacular multi-day drive through the Swat Valley to Karimabad in the Hunza Valley, the reputed Shangri-La, the cradle of longevity.

It was an oasis of greenery along a highway of unrelenting grey and gravel and dirt. Many of the houses had that year’s apricot crop drying on their rooftops, and we happily consumed a few kilos of dried apricots each that week.

Tourism was fairly common back then, albeit in small numbers, but we found that the kids were very curious about us, and were also very shy. Some of the younger ones looked as scared of us as if they had just seen aliens for the first time.

Karakoram Highway, Pakistan
Karakoram Highway, Pakistan

I remember these young girls we met on the Karakoram, and I have to wonder how they and their children or even grandchildren are affected by the current disaster. All I can do is keep donating to charities I hope can help, and if we can all do that then maybe we can help them survive.

Swat Valley, Karakoram Highway, Pakistan
Swat Valley, Karakoram Highway, Pakistan