Munich, end of May, I am sitting in my apartment. With me are my best friends, who celebrate my farewell with me and gaze at me with alcohol-drenched eyes. „Pakistan? Are you out of your mind? You are female, you are a tourist and you are traveling all by yourself – you are making yourself a big target and will get kidnapped.“ I had been thinking about this part of my route for a long time. But the more I tried to research, the more divided were the opinions about Pakistan as a travel destination. I look at my friends and shrug helplessly. “I have a very good feeling about this”. Not because I really believe in what I say, but because I don’t want to discuss the potential dangers of Pakistan again. I had already done that over and over in many sleepless nights.
Checkpoints and military
A few months later: „Stop and wait!“ Two Pakistani policemen, only recognizable by their baseball caps that show an emblem of Pakistani military, lean on their machine guns in front of me. One of them wears the typical Salwar Kameez, a long shirt and wide trousers. The other one has a leatherjacket around his shoulders that probably had its best times 30 years ago. The barrier at the military checkpoint in front of me looks windy and I could probably just pass it. For a short second I consider to go without their permission. But then I hesitate and accept their authority – also because of their machine guns that for my taste hang around their body a bit too casual.
Without any rush they write down the number of my passport, visa, and plate in a hand-written, brown-yellowed book. Then they give me my passport back and I get on my bike. But no one moves to open the barrier for me. “Stop and wait”, I have heard that before. I look around and a Pakistani jeep drives past me, the barrier opens and the vehicle is on it’s way to Babusar Pass. “Why he and not me?” I ask indignantly. “Ma’am, from here you need police protection,” replies the guy in the worn leather jacket. I roll my eyes inwardly. I have been in Pakistan for three days now and so far the country has not felt very unsafe.
Entering Karakorum Highway
Coming from China, you cross Khunjerab Pass at an elevation of 4,693 meters – it’s the highest border and the highest paved pass in the world. From here “Karakorum Highway” leads into the so-called Hunza Valley, winding along and around the highest mountain region in the world. K2 is the second highest mountain on earth and the Karakorum mountain range offers three other ones over eight thousand meters.
After traveling on high altitude for such a long time in Kirgistan and Tajikistan the height of the highway on over 4,000 meters can hardly affect me anymore, but nevertheless it leaves me breathless. The snow-capped peaks glimmer in the sun, around them a few clouds are draped, broken by the sharp rocks. Like a foreign object the flawless asphalt road winds along glittering rivers and turquoise blue lakes.
Deeply impressed I stop several times to just stare at this landscape for a few seconds longer. I already had a slight idea how beautiful our world can be – however here in the north of Pakistan this feeling increases to the present superlative. At the same time I am painfully aware that very few Western travelers are seeing this beauty these days – Pakistan as a travel destination doesn’t seem too trustworthy currently. Even while I cross the country, two major attacks are taking place in the town of Quetta. More than a hundred people lose their lives. Up here in the northern mountains it’s hard to imagine that there could be lurking something evil in a pure and serene setting like this.
Terrorism and pure hearts
As a matter of fact, the only thing that is indeed lurking on the way is countless Pakistanis, who try to surpass each other with their hospitality. Tea? Dinner? Night camp? No problem – as long as they can take their smartphones and make a selfie with me and my motorcycle. Even without asking they always assure me how safe this part of the country and breathtaking Hunza Valley is, that they are no terrorists and detest any violent act.
The older generation tells me about past times and thriving international tourism. Even today the area is still well-traveled – however mainly from Pakistani and Indian tourists. While they are talking affectionately about their country, I get a lump in my throat that grows bigger with each of their words. I feel sorry for these peaceful people who suffer most from the terrorism in their country. And I am sorry that these people seem to have the feeling that they need to justify themselves, their faith and their country to a foreigner like me. They are well aware of the picture and reputation Pakistan has abroad – and do their best to prove it wrong. I’d like to tell each of them I’m on their side. That I know about the world not being black or white. And that I am so sorry. But I only listen. Because it as well feels like they had waited for this opportunity – it feels like all these thoughts had accumulated in their inside and would now break out through my presence.
How to escape your police escort
Three days and countless encounters later, I for the first time get a bit suspicious at the barrier of the military checkpoint. “Is the area dangerous?” I ask. The policemen look at me irritated and their machine guns jump a little bit around their body as if they would make fun of me. “No, but foreigners need a police escort.” I now officially roll my eyes and sigh as loud as I can to make clear in what a painful situation this brings me. It has 36 degrees and my sweat runs down under my motorcycle gear. However, the two guys don’t seem too impressed by my show and I can’t spoil their good mood with my behavior. Curiously they start to ask me one question after another to learn more about my journey. 45 minutes later my escort finally arrives – a jeep with a gun on the roof and half the village inside. No wonder it took so long. Apparently the trip is used as a very welcome excursion to the mountain pass. Finally the barrier opens and I follow the fully loaded jeep. After the first curves I can’t hold on me anymore. I overtake the jeep, and as neither policemen nor villagers give me any sign, I now lead our column. After two more corners, I can’t see the jeep in my rearview mirrors annymore. “Meet you at the peak!” I think to myself and swing up the next hairpin curves.
On top of Babusar Pass I do not trust my eyes. Loud music echoes from the mountains, countless people sit on the street edges, sip tea and eat cotton candy. The women in colorful clothes, headscarves are rather the exception than the rule. On the bonnet of a colorful Tata truck a transvestite dances to the music, on the truck itself there are big green letters that say “Love Pakistan”. As I later find out, Pakistan is one of the countries that has officially recognized transgender as a third sex since 2009, recently the transgender marriage was declared legal by Pakistani clerics.
In addition to the spectacle around the truck, my motorcycle and I are suddenly the next big attraction of the pass – while I am trying to register at the military checkpoint there, two officials are parked to shield my motorcycle from the surrounding human masses. 20 minutes and countless selfies later my police escort jeep finally arrives too. The colleagues from the checkpoint laugh when they realized how slow the policemen were and that I escaped my own security escort. With a few good advices, the address of some relatives in Islamabad and much benevolence, I am eventually released to continue my journey on the other side of the pass all by myself and without any police escort. Oh, but would it be ok for me if they took a selfie with me and friend me on Facebook? I agree with a laugh. Because now I really have a very good feeling about this.
Security: The safety of travelers depends strongly on the region. Karakoram Highway, Hunza Valley, the cities Islamabad and Lahore are considered safe and are frequented by Indian and Pakistani tourists.
Karakorum Highway: One of the most beautiful and highest mountain roads in the world. Thanks to Chinese support, the road is almost exclusively in good condition and makes traveling as pleasant as breathtaking.
Trekking: The Karakorum Mountains are the highest mountain range in the world and offer challenging trekking routes.
Karimabad: One of the safest and most idyllic mountain villages in Pakistan. From the hotel “Eagles Nest” you have probably the best view on the Hunza Valley.
Babusar Pass and Naran: For unknown reasons (it is beautiful, but compared to the surrounding mountains not outstanding), Babusar Pass is a Pakistani tourist attraction. From Chilas, the road goes over the pass to Naran. The village consists almost exclusively of tourist accommodation and is a good place to buy a Pakistani Shawl .
Islamabad: The capital of Pakistan is one of the cleanest, most developed and western cities of Asia. A visit to Faisal Mosque is recommended – it was the largest in the world until 1993 and its modern, straightforward architecture makes it stand out from the usual traditional mosques.
Lahore: Life in Lahore is almost Indian-colorful. No wonder, it’s only a few kilometers to the Indian border.
Visa: In Germany the application for a visa is possible in Frankfurt and Berlin. Since Berlin is allowed to do the visa itself, a quick and uncomplicated processing is given there. I heard from some travelers that they had issues to get the visa in their country. My suggestion is to always chose a embassy or consulate that does not have to send the visas to Pakistan for getting the permit because those ones either take forever or were denied.
This article was written for Glamour Germany. Click here for the german version.