Pakistan is home to a civilization dating back at least 5,000 years (one of the oldest in the world) but is actually one of the world's younger nations (1947). The current political unrest seems to cloud most people's impression of the country, but there is much more to the 2nd largest Muslim country in the world than "Islamofascism".
Pakistan’s visually stunning north boasts the highest concentration of high peaks and glaciers in the world. The people get a bad rap due to a few bad apples, but are actually some of the friendliest I have encountered in over a dozen countries in the region I have visited.
Please read on for a closer look at this fascinating nation and its stunning scenery.
(Cross-posted @ The Laughing Planet.)
All photos by the diarist.
May I suggest as a soundtrack for this diary a long classical Qawwali song by the world renowned Pakistani artist Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan:
* Population: 172,800,048 (July 2008 est.)
* Religions: Muslim 95% (Sunni 75%, Shia 20%)
* Ethnic groups: Punjabi 44.68%, Pathan 15.42%, Sindhi 14.1%, Sariaki 8.38%, Muhagirs 7.57%, Balochi 3.57%, other 6.28%
* GDP - per capita: $2,600
The entire country covers an area larger than the combined land areas of France and the United Kingdom, or twice the size of California. The green area of this map roughly represents the area I visited and is the reason I specify only northern Pakistan in the title. It would be analogous to visiting the U.S., but only west of the Rockies.
The lowlands make up a much larger portion of the country, but in the summer they are sweltering hot. The Hindu Kush & Karakoram ranges collide to form this dramatic topography. Even the last edges of the Himalaya crunch into this region, hence geological tumult of the 3 highest mountain ranges in the world. There are an estimated 108 peaks above 7,000 meters (23,000 ft) in elevation. In fact, there are so many peaks over 6,000 meters that many of them remain to this day unnamed.
The map above shows my route overland during my 2 months in Pakistan in 2004. I came over the Karakoram Highway from China, a road that has been hailed as a potential member of the "7 modern wonders of the world" club. The pink star marks Shimshal Valley, the yellow is Karimabad, and the red marks the Kalash valleys near Chitral. Virtually the entire trip followed narrow, winding roads, as one would surmise from this topo map.
It sometimes feels like news out of Iraq or Afghanistan: Almost never good. Just this week there was an attack on the cricket team visiting from Sri Lanka that killed six policemen and injured 7 players and officials.
Young cricket players in Chitral, NWFP
"This was an organized attack . . . You cannot stop these things anywhere in the world," Salmaan Taseer, the Pakistani governor of Punjab, told reporters. "They are trying to damage Pakistan."
But is this statement accurate?
Few places in the world have ceded entire districts to armed militants in a tense cease-fire as the government has been forced to do in Swat Valley. Other than in the middle east, there have been very few high-profile leaders assassinated in the world over recent decades. The August 2003 attack on the Canal Hotel in Iraq that killed Sérgio Vieira de Mello and the February 2005 bombing in Beirut that killed former Prime Minister of Lebanon of Rafik Hariri come to mind. But in Pakistan we have seen numerous failed attacks, and one tragically successful one in 2007 that killed former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
Another recent news item was the February freeing of Abdul Qadeer Khan, one of the most successful nuclear proliferators in history.
Some reports are beginning to surface about the prospect that Pakistan may be a "failed state." The Mumbai attacks have raised tensions with India once again. Videos showing the Lahore gunmen casually walking away from the crime scene suggests is was an inside job.
The future of Pakistan and some say the entire region may lie in the hands of Richard Holbrooke, Special Envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan appointed by President Obama. He has had some success as a diplomat in the past, but surely this will be his biggest challenge to date. He was considered a leading candidate for the Secretary of State slot in either a Hillary or Obama cabinet. Holbrooke's appointment shows the importance the President places on this region.
The Obama administration has talked at length about Pakistan. Here is the brief policy they list on their website:
Pakistan: Obama and Biden will increase nonmilitary aid to Pakistan and hold them accountable for security in the border region with Afghanistan.
The locals buses & delivery trucks are ornately painted and decorated.
>>>>(Truck [at right] photo source)
Perhaps this detail is addressed as an attempt to please Allah as the roads are treacherous & death lurks around every turn.
The visit to Shimshal Valley was one that almost didn’t happen. In the past a 4-day trek was required to reach the village (although locals have been known to do it in ONE), but now all that’s required is a little luck surrounding a certain orange jeep.
The road into the valley, which had been completed just 8 months earlier, is an attraction itself clinging to sheer rock cliffs in spots and rumbling over the end of immense rock slides in others.
It is actually quite difficult to get a photograph of a woman in Pakistan. Their husbands often object. The women are very suspicious of foreigners. And the saddest reason, the fear that any picture taken might be used for lewd purposes at a later date. Fortunately for me, the people were willing to let me get a couple shots of the colorful attire used by Shimshali females.
This captivating local girl helps her family tend the goats they take to the hills during the summer months. She had the most amazing green eyes that brought to mind the famous and recently reprised
National Geographic cover of the woman from Afghanistan.
This herd of over 100 goats get milked twice a day and they all have names!
This Shimshali man dons the hat worn by northern Pakistani men in even the hottest months. The men of Shimshal have the reputation of being the finest porters & mountaineers in Asia along with the better-known Sherpas of Nepal.
A future Nobel Peace Prize laureate?
The book "Three Cups of Tea" & the Central Asia Institute, or CAI, has done lots of incredible work in just under a decade. While our government has been bombing a torturing the people in Muslim areas, Greg Mortenson has been building schools for them. Here is a post I wrote about Three Cups of Tea a few months back.
There are myriad ways we can influence the Islamic world besides bombing them. "You can bomb the world to pieces, but you can't bomb it into peace." - Michael Franti
My food & lodging in the village were provided at the students’ family home as there was too little tourism to date to support the building of a guesthouse. One is in the works for next year’s tourist season but I’m grateful to have made it as early in the fledgling stages of tourism as I did.
This is the view I awoke to after spending the night camped out on the edge of Yazgel Glacier.
This picture eloquently illustrates that glaciers are, in effect, frozen rivers. The residents of the valley (such as my 2 guides) practice the rarer "Ismaeli" sect of Islam and hence are mostly removed from the sectarian strife between Shia & Sunni Muslims.
This anecdote from my visit might be considered an amusing insight to some.
An estimated 4 billion people worldwide saw the opening ceremony & other parts of that summer’s Athens Olympics. The people of the world’s 5th most populous country weren’t among them.
Try as I might, I caught not one moment of Olympic coverage on TV - not even any highlights - as the interests of the locals dictate the programming. Their message is loud and clear: We don’t give a damn. Pakistan did send a few athletes to Greece, but failed to capture even a bronze in any of the events. That means this nation of 170 million+ had to look up the medal board at such powerhouses as Eritrea, Mongolia, Syria, and Trinidad & Tobago. (To their defense, Pakistan’s arch-rival India, with a population over 5 times its size, managed only one medal.)
No, Pakistanis are more concerned about games with names that sound like an insect (cricket), vegetable (squash), or designer brand (polo).
Hunza Valley: Where worlds collide
The town of Karimabad in the heart of Hunza is one of the most strikingly beautiful towns one could ever hope to visit.
Stunning steep mountains formed where the Indo-Pak & Australasian plates meet are the youngest on Earth. Abundant freshwater springs may be the reason people here have been known to commonly live beyond 100 years.
Minapin Glacier, wedged between two 7000-meter+ giants, Diran and Rakaposhi, has some nice alpine forests nearby to provide a pleasant break from the largely barren arid terrain that covers much of northern Pakistan. Dispelling my idea of what glaciers look like- a fairly smooth large slab of ice- sharp dramatic shards often protrude up and deep fissures drop down into a chilly dark abyss.
Oh let the sun beat down upon my face, stars to fill my dream
I am a traveler of both time and space, to be where I have been
To sit with elders of the gentle race, this world has seldom seen
They talk of days for which they sit and wait and all will be revealed
-Led Zeppelin: "Kashmir"
This is a rarity in the rugged topography of the region: A lake. Sapura Lake in the foothills above the town of Skardu welcomes those descending from the towering high plains of the Deosai Plateau, "the Tibet of Pakistan".
An area Bill Clinton in 1998 called "the most dangerous place on Earth" falls partially under Pakistani control. And this isn't even anywhere near the tumult in Afghanistan.
Various talks and confidence-building measures cautiously have begun to diffuse tensions over Kashmir, particularly since the October 2005 earthquake in the region; Kashmir nevertheless remains the site of the world's largest and most militarized territorial dispute with portions under the de facto administration of China (Aksai Chin), India (Jammu and Kashmir), and Pakistan (Azad Kashmir and Northern Areas).
My arrival in the town of Skardu coincided with the National Pakistani Independence Day celebration. Hundreds of men and boys and a small girl or two took to the streets chanting and waving Pakistani flags. Yes, this was a bit unnerving for an American in post-Sept 11th Pakistan. What would happen as the jingoism reaches a fever pitch?
Why, yes. It indeed is Mickey Mouse emblazoned on the Pakistani flag. This proved to me once again that the U.S. has done a remarkable job of marketing itself to the world via Hollywood & the like.
Northwest Frontier Province
This region has long harkened images of terrorist training camps and the like due to the understandable bias of the western media. When I visited in 2004, Swat Valley was still a place where American tourists were welcome, if not common.
This man and his son might be perceived as citizens of virtually any country in Europe, North or South America were it not for the distinctive Pakistani Salwaar Kamiz.
Since then, most of the Swat Valley was overrun by Islamist militant leader Maulana Fazlullah & the Taliban insurgency.
The Pakistani government announced on February 16, 2009 that it would allow Taliban's version of Sharia law in the Malakand region. In return, Fazlullah's followers agreed to observe a ceasefire negotiated by Sufi Muhammad.
Other places I enjoyed, such as the city of Peshawer, have been subjected to numerous bombings in crowded public places. Islamabad has had to impose martial law on various areas repeatedly, yet has continued to lose control. Unfortunately I cannot find my digital files which have pictures of burqa-clad women and other images from this region. I did have the unpleasant opportunity to try on the burqa head-piece, and I can tell you it is very unpleasant, especially in such a fiery-hot climate.
Pakistani food resembles Indian food but with beef. But sometimes you might be surprised.
Funny you mention it, because it also tastes like ass
The cuisine in Madyan, Swat Valley was particularly poor. I jumped at a chance to eat kebabs instead of a ladle of mystery meat stew. "Gimme FIVE!" Not until a few bites in did I inquire about the kind of meat it was. "Chicken," someone says. "I believe you call it the buttocks." I didn’t want to know any more as the taste alone had already brought me close to gagging. I try to never waste food, but this time I quietly paid and walked away without finishing my barbecued chicken anus.
Kalash: Inland island cultural refuge
One highlight of any trip to NW Pakistan is a visit to the Kalash Valleys. A small pocket of 3000 people remain from what was once a much larger culture. Near the middle of a Muslim part of the world around the size of Australia, these people have managed to preserve their unique pagan lifestyle against the odds. Their name translates as "black infidels" due to the color of their traditional clothing and "heretical" beliefs in the eyes of Islam.
Although the men dress like Muslim Pakistanis, the women embellish their black robes with colorful spangles and often have tattooed faces. I was fortunate to have talked with the tribe’s chief to have arrived in time for the Utchal festival celebrating the wheat and barley harvests. Mirth and merriment abound while drumming, chanting and a circular dance procession go on late into the night and resume the following day.
"Sunscreen" has been applied to this young child's face. Yes, it's mud.
The landscape is also special with 1000-year-old cedar trees littering the surrounding hills. Not far upstream one finds the border with Afghanistan on the other side of which many Kalash were - mostly forcibly - converted to Islam by the Muslims of Nuristan.
Animist Idolatry. The people of the village try to gain acceptance by explaining that their belief system does not differ greatly from Islam. They claim to believe in one God despite cosmogony that suggests otherwise. (Wikipedia flatly calls them as "polytheistic")
The highlight of many Pakistanis’ visit to the Kalash Valleys is the chance to leer at women exposing themselves. Well, their heads and necks anyway. They still wear long dresses with long sleeves, but Kalasha women don’t don headscarves like 99% of Pakistani women. But an even bigger draw for many is the opportunity to get drunk. Muslim countries of course enforce a total ban of all alcoholic beverage, so the availability of liquor in this non-Muslim region is a big deal. Sure, their Islamic beliefs still forbid them to drink, but that doesn’t stop them or even slow them down. Sloshed Muslims aren’t hard to spot throughout the day and night. Although it may sound funny the reality is that it’s rather sad. Full-grown men behaving like stupid, obnoxious teenagers is not a pretty sight. Some Muslims who live in the area have the telltale swollen red proboscis of full-blown alcoholics whose only relief will be an early death.
The details about people who have, in theory, agreed to participate in this series, and links to the diaries already published (with a few more portraits from Pakistan mixed in).
List of Past & Future DKos Travel Board Diaries (the last 3 of which have made the Diary Rescue:
left my heart
Phoenix - Leftcandid
Northern CA - SallyCat
Northern Orange County - Seneca Doane
Sacramento - tgypsy
San Diego - SDChelle (can offer advice)
Southern - Jbeaudill
Lakewood/Denver - carver
Oceanview - ObamOcala
Panhandle area - panicbean
Big Island - Purple Priestess
Southern part of state - kathryn1812
Maine - Cartoon Messiah
Coastal Islands - ksingh
Boston - tnichlsn
Minneapolis - parryander
St. Louis - GoldnI
Big Sky Country Part 1 - Ed in Montana
New Jersey - Blue Jersey Mom
New Mexico - linc
Santa Fe and north - claude
Albuquerque – votingformydaughtersfuture
Southern – 4 corners
New York City - plf515, LarryinNYC, DrSteveB
Charlotte - eeff
Chapel Hill - chunyang
Oklahoma - karesse
Portland – arenosa,
Portland – Hardhat Democrat
coastal - Jbeaudill
Pittsburgh - Pandora's Box, housesella
Lancaster - spedwybabs
Central PA, Harrisburg - wishingwell
Charleston – CamillesDad1
Great Smoky Mountains – RantNRaven
Nashville – fiddlegirl
Chattanooga – Sandy on Signal
Dallas-Fort Worth – drchelo
West – 4 corners
Salt Lake City – jlms qkw
North-central - 4freedom
Virgin Islands Caneel
Leavenworth - marlakay
I-90, WI-MN border - 1864 House
Belgium - Cartoon Messiah
Cambodia - LaughingPlanet
Alberta – TexMex
Montreal - dragOn
Thunder Bay - Howth of Murth
Vancouver - Purple Priestess (can give information)
Shanghai – mweens
Sichuan – LaughingPlanet
Yunnan - LaughingPlanet
Bogata - bogbud
Costa Rica - Alice Olson
Croatia - seenos
London – shazzbot
North England – Cartoon Messiah
Lyon - melanchthon
Germany - lizah
Northern States - LaughingPlanet
Sumatra - LaughingPlanet
Rome - lizah
Tokyo – YoyogiBear
Korea - LaughingPlanet
Laos - LaughingPlanet
Cancun, playa del Carmen, Tulum - davidseth
Colonial Mexico - TKWow
Jalisco (SW Mexico) – mango
Northern Areas- LaughingPlanet
Scotland - linc
Edinburgh - SDChelle
Spain - Cartoon Messiah
Thailand - anniesamui
Bangkok – Shunpike
Tibet - LaughingPlanet
Wales - linc
If you are traveling, you may contact the person listed to see what they can do for you. They may be able to host a person, or have a meal, or just offer advice. Note they are not obligated to do anything; these are just people who have told us what areas they live in or have expertise. Also, any arrangements you make are between you and the person you write to.
I randomly blockquote from these earlier writings of mine from the road.