Pakistan: The unseen paradise
Text and photos by Rome Jorge
Filipinos, we know how wrong international perception can be. The
western media just doesn’t get it right. Trouble in far-off Basilan is
no excuse to miss all the beauty of Mindanao, a big place with misty virgin
forests, rich indigenous culture and the friendliest of people. Or to avoid
the entire Philippines for that matter—7,100 islands of the most spectacular
beaches with talcum powder fine white sand, breathtaking dive sites of
iridescent coral gardens, cuddly dugongs, majestic humpback whales and
whale sharks, not to mention hundreds of colorful fiestas in which to revel
There is another place in this world much like our own country with
a noble people, a rich history and a diverse culture—the often-unseen paradise
that is Pakistan.
Pakistan is home to the most ancient Asian civilization in Harrapa,
Balochistan, as well as where the Greeks, the Mughals, the British and
several other great civilizations have all left their indelible imprint.
Go to where the descendants of Alexander the Great’s army of Macedonians,
Greeks and Persians still run through the blood of the Kalash tribe in
the Chitral region. The ancient ruins of Taxila bear the traces of stupas
devoted to the Venus of the Bactrian Greeks as well those of Buddha. Even
the sculptures of Buddha in the Museum of Taxila bear unmistakably Grecian
beauty. In modern Pakistan, locals can possess blond hair, oriental eyes
or dark olive skin. The diversity of cultures is intrinsic in every stage
of this country’s proud history.
For those wishing to go back in time to the colonial era, take a
romantic steam train through the Khyber Pass where the armies of Aryans,
Persians, Arabs, Huns, Afghans, Macedonians and British have all passed,
and where the treasures of the Silk Road flowed from Europe and China.
Enjoy the service of bow-tied waiters as you chug along the countryside.
Marvel at army bagpipe bands and the flag ceremonies that combine all the
fierce regality of British pomp and pageantry with Mughal regality.
The towering onion domes of the grand Badshahi Mosque of the Emperor
Aurangzeb in Lahore Fort incorporate the gilded spires of Sikh temples
and the inverted lotus flower of Buddhist shrines to reflect the cultural
diversity of the Mughal Empire. The stupendous yet sublime beauty of the
mosque as well as the entire Lahore Fort with its intricate red sandstone
walls, honeycomb marble lattices and glazed tile mosaics, speaks eloquently
of the sophistication and enlightenment that the Mughal dynasty cultivated.
The mosque itself sits beside the Dera Sahib, a most exquisite creation
of florid curves in white and gold and one of the most important pilgrimage
sites for Sikhs. At the Lahore Museum, explore pavilions devoted to wonderful
artworks and relics of Jainism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam. Its most
arresting treasure piece by far is “the Starving Buddha,” a skeletal portrayal
that dares to break symmetry by having the figure lean to one side.
For Muslim travelers, Pakistan is an eye opener with its rich history
of Sufi mysticism. Multan, dubbed “the city of saints,” exposes travelers
to a rich local culture that tempers the faith.
Pakistan has long been on the map of mountaineers and extreme sports
enthusiasts. President Pervez Musharraf declares: “We have the best mountains
in the world. We have the K2, which is supposed to be the second highest
mountain of the world. We have the 14 highest peaks of the world in Pakistan.
We have the largest number of glaciers in Pakistan outside the polar region.
Therefore this makes an ideal venue for tracking and rock climbing.”
Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz also noted that Swiss mountaineers, revered
throughout the world, refer to their own peaks as “baby mountains.” “This
is where there are real mountains,” he quotes them.
Sohail Azhar—a Pakistani-born and English raised mountaineer, who
is now director of the UK-based company TravelPak that facilitates tours
of his motherland of other Pakistani expatriates—notes that there is excellent
alpine climbing but a few hour’s drive from the capital Islamabad and that
Pakistan is where four great valleys converge.
Pakistan offers an alpine experience with crystal-clear mountain
lakes, ski slopes and mountain lodges. Azhar recommends going beyond the
popular Murree resort town and exploring the quieter lakesides in the mountains.
This year, Pakistan will host numerous extreme-sporting events such
as mountain marathons, jeep safaris, white water rafting expeditions and
mountain bike competitions. A hot air-balloon festival, aerial safaris
of Pakistan’s mountain ranges and Basant—the traditional kite flying festival
of Lahore in spring—all provide travelers a uniquely uplifting experience.
And oh, the shopping and the street life! A tour of Lok Virsa, Pakistan’s
National Museum of Ethnology in Islamabad whets one’s appetite for all
things Paksitani and surprisingly provides a great guide on what handicrafts
to buy in the different regions of Pakistan. However, the true bargains
are to be found in the ancient cities such as Lahore.
By far, the most authentic Pakistani experience is taking a rikshaw—a
three-wheeled contrivance much like our very own four-wheeled jeepney—and
weaves in and out of the old city’s narrow crowded streets, hunting for
bargain spots such as Liberty (Ladies’) Market in Lahore. Go crazy buying
the Pashmina shawls and scarves of the finest wool and the most intricate
designs. There are also intricate glass-beaded leather-soled slippers and
dainty handbags for ladies, and finely made leather jackets and suits for
men. Pakistani women, the epitome of elegance and beauty, have elevated
the shalwar kameez, the national dress for both men and women, into a most
Woolen carpets, lattice brass lamps, silver jewelry boxes, and if
you care to have it shipped—the most intricate door frames and most colorful
chairs on Earth—all tempt the traveler.
As you go through bustling avenues, note not only the fusion of British
colonial architecture with Mughal motifs but also of the Pakistani penchant
for elaborating everything from rickshaws to buses, to trucks, to even
tractors. Such folkloric art brims to the surface even in the busiest city
A fine thing to tote back home is a hookah water pipe. One puff of
apple-flavored shisha on a hookah pipe inside a cozy café such as
the Hangout Bar in Islamabad and you will find cigarettes to be absolutely
barbaric; hookah is the proper way to smoke.
By far the most authentic Pakistani experience is feasting on some
genuine street food. You haven’t tasted real kebabs until you have savored
the soft and flavorful mutton kebabs on the streets of Lahore. Freshly
grilled over coals, these are clean, filling and quite a bargain. Chai,
that milky and sweet hot tea drank all over Pakistan, is best savored off
the street where it is boiled all day and night in huge caldrons into a
creamy consistency that is nothing like the tea bag affair they serve in
Those wanting to retreat to the gracious accommodations of world-class
luxury hotel will have plenty to choose from in Pakistan. The Marriott,
Holiday Inn and many other hotels offer globe trotting travelers luxuries
such as spas and even alcoholic beverages (only for non-Muslim guests).
Besides biryani rice, masala and other local fare elevated to haute cuisine,
these fine hotels also offer continental and oriental dishes.
Although Pakistan offers a great tourist experience, it is still
not too touristy. No overly aggressive hawkers and hustlers yet. Pakistani
merchants have their own selling strategy: hospitality. How can you refuse
when they offer tea and biscuits? And if you think Pakistan offers the
same wares as India, think again. Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz recalls that
during the friendship cricket matches between the two countries, Indian
visitors “cleaned out Lahore’s shops.” Pakistan and all its marvels are
unique and even their neighbors know it.
Pakistan has so far escaped the radar of most travelers. As Musaraff
himself notes: “Pakistan is the ideal destination for tourism. Unfortunately,
it is the best-kept secret of Pakistan.” But that is about to change as
Federal Tourism Minister Nelofar Bakhtiar unveils Destination Pakistan
2009, a year-round calendar of events to promote the country in three niche
markets: religious tourism, most especially for Sikh and Buddhist pilgrims
as well as Muslim devotees; cultural tourism with the numerous archeological
sites and well-maintained museums; and adventure tourism in the mountain
ranges and deserts. Already, great strides have been made to improve the
country’s tourism infrastructure with numerous additional roads and hotels
under construction. Those traveling Pakistan will feel secure with the
very visible and constant presence of military and police. The common folk
in urban areas speak English and are quite helpful.
This year, see the unseen. Explore Pakistan and discover a totally
different country from the one you thought you knew.
For more information, visit www.tourism.gov.pk.
The Pakistan advisory
Traveling to Pakistan is a safe, affordable and unforgettable experience.
Here are a few tips to maximize your trip based on actual experiences:
* Shawls for women and scarves for men are more than fashionable;
they are essential gear. They warm you on chilly nights and allow ladies
to enter mosques.
* Women travelers would do well to always wear long-sleeved shirts
with pants or long skirts and avoid exposing skin with low-rise jeans,
short skirts, sleeveless blouses, hanging shirts and other revealing clothing.
Even Capri pants can incur too many stares. Even men should wear pants.
* The Pakistani Rupee has nearly the same value as a Filipino peso.
Currently, one peso equals roughly 1.2 rupees.
* Always haggle for a lower price. Threaten to walk away and they
will always concede. Tourist prices can nearly double at markets. Hotel
shops can sell for prices several times over. If they are offering purchases
using credit cards or dollars, they are most often overpriced. But even
then, these items can be a great find.
* They do not sell alcoholic beverages in all of Pakistan, save in
international hotels, and even then only to non-Muslims. Hotel managers
will go as far to ask for the passports of guests with Arabic sounding
names to comply with religious laws. Do not try their nonalcoholic beers.
They are nothing like the real thing.
* Do not drink from the tap. Bottled water and beverages that have
been boiled such as tea and coffee are quite safe. Cooked street food is
* Temperatures and humidity can vary greatly depending on the season.
Always check the Internet for your seven-day forecast.
* Know the news. Just as one should check the six-day forecasts on
weather websites to know what to wear, one should also follow world news
and travel advisories from the Department of Foreign Affairs.
* Know your geography. Just as it is unjustifiable to label the whole
of Mindanao as dangerous because of incidents in Basilan, one should not
avoid the country because of problems in remote areas or border regions.
* Know your world culture. Avoid offending local sensibilities. Many
historical sites are functioning religious centers and one should dress
properly. Never be pushy or noisy. Do not discuss politics, religion or
any potentially divisive issue.
* Know your way. Always seek out and get free copies of tourist street
maps at hotels airports and train stations in every destination. Identify
your hotel, police stations, bus, tram, train and subway stations and other
safe points to go to in case of emergency. Orient yourself to where you
are before proceeding and always trace your route to each destination.
When traveling with company always designate a safe point to rendezvous
at a given time should you be separated. Bring your mobile phones and store
the numbers of your local guides and contacts.
* Be a civilian. With outdoor tourism such as mountaineering or kayaking,
avoid military clothing or gear, especially in regions with known insurgency
problems. Always pay a courtesy call to local officials and inform them
of your itinerary. Should you and your party fail to make it back in time,
this information will allow them to mount a search and rescue mission at
the soonest possible time.
* It is quite normal for security guards, policemen and military
personnel to sport Kalashnikov assault rifles. Do not be alarmed and do
not alarm them.
* Most Pakistanis in urban areas speak English and are quite helpful.