Diary of a Traveller: Pakistan with a view of Afghanistan
A few years ago, I went to Pakistan alone (and I am no spring chicken) during Ramadan for a holiday.
I packed long-sleeved shirts, trousers and scarves and booked a cheap hotel in Islamabad which I used as a centre for hailing local Volkswagen buses to go to a brilliant Buddhist museum in the middle of nowhere, and to Rawalpindi, a huge market town, where I enjoyed scrummaging for 30 cent trousers with the local women. A cheap buy is a cheap buy where ever you are and those trousers lasted forever.
I took a minibus to Murry, a private school mountain tourist town full of tunnels, ancient shops selling coloured glass and leadlight lanterns. A mazing food. There I visited a USA church school for European and rich Pakistani children, where I partook in a happy, clapping church service. On my return to Islamabad, I was asked by my minibus driver if I minded if an “untouched” 16 year old school boy, shared my seat (for three). He assured me that I could put my bag between us so we didn’t touch. Which I did. I then asked the boy “How is it that you are untouched?’ He answered in perfect English. ‘I have a very jealous and watchful mother, madam.’
To catch a mini-bus, I had to stand on the side of the road and wave a bus down, the conductor would shout where the bus was going as it barely slowed, and I would shout ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. If ‘Yes’ I could only sit in the front seat with another woman. Catching local public buses meant the men on the buses had to shuffle around to give me a seat on my own. They always did with many smiles, as I thanked them in Arabic, my only nearly Pakistani language. I rode the train through the Khyber Pass. It was a celebration day, so at three stations the passengers were serenaded with British style brass bands by the military in amazing costumes and turbans, tea and biscuits and a game of cricket. We also stopped at a watch tower that overlooked the Afghani border. No one was coming through. Pakistani soldiers are very professional.
I then caught a bus north to Peshawar where there is a sign on the road saying ‘Pakistani Police and army will go no further.’ Here I visited a gorgeous mosque, lots of shops, bought a carpet and played cricket with some Pakistanis and Europeans outside our small hotel, and met three English women who asked me to join their open jeep tour north, Yeah? Off we went with a devout Muslim driver who due to our presence read the Quran every time we stopped. A delightful Ismaili translator (12 languages) and a Pashtun with a big machine gun came along to protect us. There followed an amazing adventure as we stopped at forts, the highest polo field in the world, the hanging Hunsan valleys (where people live to over 110 years), and the local tribe of blonde, green eyed are descendants of Alexander the Great. There the Chinese have built a very long runnel through the Himalayas to China. And much, much more.
But what has prompted this memory are two things. The Pashtuns are the same on both sides of a very fluid border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Pashtun men all own a machine gun or rifle. We saw many racing up and down the mountains each side of us like goats. On both sides of the border, they are all related, and our translator assured us that they were all in training to become the Taleban. My second memory, a lovely one, was my stay in Lahore with the head of Pakistani Servas, a wonderful host who looked after me even though I arrived sick. He and his wife and son put me to bed and fed me lemonade. Climbing the four floors up a very steep staircase to their house, which was built on the top of a four floor commercial building, and seeing Lahore when I finally got better was wonderful. I have stayed in touch with this host and family for years, but they have since moved to a ‘proper’ house as his last letter said. I loved my visit to Pakistan, and my narrow look over the border at Afghanistan. I have since looked over the border from Kyrgyzstan have had nothing but pleasant memories of any Pakistani and Afghani whom I have met. There are lots of Afghanis in Sydney. I wish the Afghani immigrants to Australia lots of luck, and cry for those left behind.
Originally published in Servas Australia August 2021 Newsletter.