Pakistan’s Final Frontier: The Smugglers’ Bazaar

Pakistan’s Final Frontier: The Smugglers’ Bazaar
Islamabad, Pakistan

I went to Pakistan with mixed emotions. I was not sure what to expect, though I was not going to let any of the propaganda that we see on television every day in the West give me an ill-conceived perception of the place. I hate the way the Western media generalizes about certain countries and their people. It is true that Pakistan has some, for want of a better word, gripes with America and other Western governments. But the people I found did not blame the individual for these bad feelings generated by governments. Instead, they were eager to be your friend and help you if at all possible. Their generosity was, at times, quite overwhelming. The average person in the street was much poorer in monetary terms than this near-skint backpacker but they were much richer in their hearts, and it was this that drew me close to the people of Pakistan.

I arrived in Pakistan on Pakistan International Airways (PIA) flight PK809 from Kathmandu, landing at Karachi’s new Al-Jinnah Airport. When I boarded at Kathmandu I thought, this is okay, as I saw hundreds of Westerners piling onto the plane. I said to myself, “see, Pakistan cannot be that bad, just look at how many are coming”. Much to my surprise when we landed at Karachi, all the familiar trekking faces from Nepal headed to the transit lounge ready to catch onward flights to Europe. I was the only Westerner out of a flight of near 400 people who went through Pakistani customs. For the first time in all my travels I felt really alone.

But that was all right, I had come prepared. I was dressed conservatively, as Pakistan’s Sharia Law insists – from ankle to wrist – and wore a baseball cap to cover the little hair I had. I had cut it short so there was no chance of a free-flowing wisp causing any anxieties. Customs and baggage collection proved to be painless and I immediately changed some of my hard-earned US dollars for some Pakistani Rupees on the way out of the terminal.

I had read in the guidebook that there was a domestic flight booking office right outside the arrivals hall. I was in two minds as to whether I should stay a night or two in Karachi or fly on to Islamabad. My intended destinations were in the north of the country, Karachi held no charm, and I had been told that to stay in Karachi’s budget hotels could be dangerous. Reasons given for this were that it was not uncommon for hoteliers to plant drugs in your room, call the police and then force you to bribe your way out of the horrible predicament. Also, I had heard that theft from baggage left unattended in rooms was a problem. Apart from all this, what made the decision for me to fly on to Islamabad was the outrageous price taxi touts were quoting for a ride into the city center. I gently elbowed my way to the flight booking office and boarded the next plane for Islamabad.

On my flight to Islamabad a nice Pakistani man introduced himself to me. He had seen me on the flight from Kathmandu. He was a trekking operator from northern Pakistan, but had been in Nepal helping to guide an expedition in the Everest Khumbu. We chatted endlessly during the short flight and on arrival in Islamabad he found a taxi that was willing to take me the twenty or so kilometers to Rawalpindi. Just as I was ready to say goodbye he too got into the cab. It was now past 9.00 p.m., I was on my own – or near enough – in a very different country, and although I am a fairly seasoned traveler I must confess that I felt a little vulnerable.

I had chosen, from the guidebook, to stay at the Al-Azam Hotel, a shabby place, charging next to nothing a night for a single room. It was not long before my new friend and the taxi driver had successfully located my chosen lodgings, and as I said my good-byes my offer of payment for the cab was refused. To say the least, I was astonished by this my first encounter of such generosity.

With backpack in tow I clambered up the many stairs that led eventually to the reception desk of the Al-Azam. The faces that met me were not like those mentioned in the guidebook: friendly and helpful. They looked at me inquisitively, as if to say what are you doing here? Is someone else coming? You are not alone, are you? Naturally I was there because I wanted a room and after a few minutes when it became clear that no one was following me up the staircase I was escorted to a room. Single women travelers are still quite an oddity in Pakistan. Lugging my pack up another three flights of stairs the night-boy opened the door of what was to be my room and although a little horrified by the filth, I took it. I was tired and mentally exhausted, and as I intended to stay, at the most, two nights I figured it did not matter that the room was a virtual flea pit, forget virtual, it was a flea pit! But for less than US$2 who could honestly complain? I dumped my overloaded backpack in a dusty corner of the musty room and went and inspected the bathroom, dodging a few cockroaches en route. I needed to take a shower, turned on the water and a small trickle rust-colored was all that materialized. Still, I managed to have something of a wash. Not deterred I turned on the basin tap … nothing. Next the toilet, at least it was of western-style, sit rather than squat. I was happy about that. I did what I had to do but soon found that it would not flush – at all. By the next morning, due to the heat, the smell was overpowering in that claustrophobic little bathroom. Nevertheless, the fun did not end there. By nigh on midnight I had made it to bed. I could hardly sleep with myriad thoughts racing through my mind. My first day in Pakistan, a country I had longed to visit, was easy enough but at the same time was quite emotional. I wondered what I should do tomorrow, but it was not much longer before sleep finally began to take over.

The sound of gunfire, loud and sharp, close-by made my eyes spring open and startled my heart into skipping a beat, or three. The gunfire continued through the wee hours of the morning. I lay there awake, wondering if someone was being robbed, executed, or what? Or, if people were just firing foolishly into the air. It was rapid-fire, like an automatic rifle, and too, a heavier, deeper sound like a shotgun, or something to that effect. Thankfully, despite all the commotion I found sleep again and my weary mind and body were finally able to rest.

I woke late, 11 a.m. Made my way downstairs to the hotel’s common area and ordered a chai (tea). As it was now past midday I thought I had better get out and explore. I took my first walk on Pakistan’s streets. It felt good, I felt somewhat intrepid, though I know many have also ‘been there, done that’. No medals were issued but I felt like I was on my way to an eventful and interesting time in Pakistan. I wanted to visit some of Rawalpindi’s and Islamabad’s sights so I took the easy option and found a taxi driver whom I hired for approximately three hours. First stop was the Australian High Commission where I registered my presence in Pakistan and at the same time voted in the Republic Referendum. The main impetus for doing so was to save the cost of the fine for not voting. In Australia it is compulsory to vote. I had been fined the previous year for not voting in the General Federal Election. I did not want to get caught out again. I have since had my name taken off the Electoral Roll as I spend more time overseas than at home these days. Second stop was Islamabad’s Shah Faisal Mosque, purportedly the largest mosque in the world. My driver escorted me inside; it was very elaborate with lots of marble and gold decorations. I wondered how the government could justify building it when so many live beside it in such abject poverty. I then rightly guessed that the voluntary donation box at the entrance might have something to do with it. I gave my donation as my driver had motioned for me to only to find out after 9/11 that some of those very donations went into supporting terrorist cells around the world.

Islamabad is a very different city to that of Rawalpindi. ‘Pindi is typical of all cities in Pakistan, old, dirty, run-down and a shemozzle, but on the other hand, full of character and characters. That is what makes them exciting and interesting. Conversely, Islamabad is claimed to be the most beautiful city in Pakistan by the Pakistani people themselves. I often had locals ask me what I thought of Islamabad and I always found myself lying just a touch in order not to hurt their feelings. I felt the city lacked personality, but I could see why they were all so proud of it. True, it has large tree-lined boulevards, but the design of the city leaves a lot to be desired. The thick grey air pollution does nothing to better my thoughts of the city and row after row of drab high-rise does not make for pleasant viewing. My driver took me past the Supreme Court of Justice and Pakistan’s Parliament House, beautiful buildings in the diplomatic enclave area of the city. Back in ‘Pindi my driver dropped me in the centre of town and I wandered about exploring on foot for the remainder of the day.

That night I lay on my less than desirable bed planning my next move. I was in two minds about whether to head north by bus into the mountains to Gilgit or take the train west to Peshawar. The following morning I woke early, packed my bag, returned my room key, gave the boy at reception the two hundred rupees owing for two nights and made my way down those never-ending stairs out onto ‘Pindi’s streets. It was barely 7 a.m. As a taxi passed I caught his attention and in less than a second my decision was made, “the train station, please”.

The train journey took seven long hours. We crossed some formidable territory. I had no idea that Pakistan was such a dry and harsh country. The clouds of dust and sand that rose as the train swooshed by left me, and the seats, with a centimeter deep covering. It was awful. The carriage itself was not much to write home about. I had bought a third class economy ticket, the cheapest available. In Pakistan one can have no illusion. Third class most surely is nothing more than third class. The carriage resembled a cattle car. There was rubbish and liquid – from what I do not know – all over the floor. As the train rolled from side to side and jolted forward and back, so did the liquid. It was quite disgusting. In my carriage were four men. They all looked at me rather suspiciously and inquisitively. They probably could not understand why I was traveling alone and in third class of all things. The ticket cost barely US$2. I, on the other hand, was not quite sure what to think. I sat there passively. They did not look particularly friendly and, in fact, one looked downright nasty.

After about five hours the scenery changed briefly from yellow to green. We were in the Indus Valley now. Bravely I took out my video camera and began to film from the train’s window when suddenly we came upon the fabled Indus River. The big nasty-looking man waved me over to his side of the train in order to get a better shot. At first I had no idea why he was motioning me. I thought perhaps he wanted to throw me out of the carriage when he continued pointing towards the window. Quickly it dawned on me that his side of the carriage had a better view than mine. His kindness had broken the ice. The air in the carriage had been steely up until then, and for the final two hours of the trip he tried to speak to me in his very poor English and me in my even poorer Urdu.

By the end of the seven hours I had made another friend in Pakistan. He and his offsider invited me to take dinner with them. Unfortunately I had to decline the offer. I was much too eager to dump my pack in another fleapit room – a dorm this time – and wash the dirt from my body. This offer of a meal, like so many I received during my time in Pakistan really highlighted the generosity and hospitality of Pakistan’s people. Nearly every time I went to buy a chai at a roadside stall the owner, or another customer, would pay for me. They would also give me a piece of cake to accompany my free tea. All they ever asked in return was for me to take their photo. But now, finally, I had arrived in Peshawar, a place on the map that, back home, seemed so distant, and so incredibly isolated. Yet I was here now and it felt like an incredible accomplishment…