During the planning phase of the cycle tour, even before I had purchased my bike, if I was asked where I was most looking forward to visiting, my answer was undoubtedly “Northern Pakistan.“ And at the time I didn’t know a single friend or family member who had visited the infamous country. This meant that to me, there was an exciting, pioneering, trail-blazing feel to it. A large percentage of people recoiled when I mentioned Pakistan as part of our intended itinerary, this was often reciprocated by stereotypical warnings of how dangerous the country and it’s people are and that cycling is just outright ludicrous. Having spent 56 days cycling through Pakistan, I can affirm that these people couldn’t be further from the truth.
Jacob and I were welcomed with wide, open arms from the first hour upon entering the country. People were so interested to know where we were from, how much time we had spent in Pakistan and their paramount question was “What do you think of Pakistan and it’s people?” Pakistanis are an extremely proud nation who know that their country, since 1947 when Pakistan achieved independence and was declared a sovereign nation, has been scarred by a violent history. International tourism in Pakistan plummeted since 09/11 and as a result, its people have felt displaced from humanity. The international press continue to jump at the opportunity to share news of a negative nature of an explosion or suspected terror attack but it’s rare to see any positivity emanate from the oppressive clutch that the media has on the masses.
As we cycled south from the Chinese border through Gilgit-Baltistan we encountered countless offers of food, accommodation and people just wanted to chat and hear our story. We tallied a total of 31 complimentary cups of chai during our time in the country, most often from people we had literally just met. Some people whom we had only shared a few words with or simply just a hand shake even paid for our entire meal and a few restaurant and hotel owners refused payment. We were taken back by the genuine kindness, generosity and humble altruism of the Pakistani people who were always willing to help in anyway possible. From the perspective of the natives we were greeted as international guests and often treated as royalty. One experience that stands above the rest is spending a few days with Kareem and Qayyum in Karimabad (read more about this experience here).
That said, I did only cycle through the Northern Areas of Pakistan followed by a short time in spent in Islamabad and Lahore (read more of these accounts here). There are areas marked as a danger to tourists but anyone visiting Pakistan are advised to do their own research and make their own judgement.
The Northern Areas of Pakistan isn’t just home to people devout to demonstrating acts of humanitarianism, it is home to the most majestic, awe inspiring creations on this planet. Never have I witnessed anything as spectacular as the snow capped peaks and steep, dramatic valleys of the Karakoram Mountain range. The impressive feat of engineering that is the Karakoram Highway has made this area accessible for all to enjoy, with the opportunity to partake in mountaineering, trekking and camping for all abilities. Though, if you are lucky enough to visit this area, by no means limit your visit to those destinations along the highway, Rama Lake, the Deosai National Park and the Fairy Meadows should not be missed.
To tour Pakistan as a cyclist it is safe to say that we didn’t just turn a few heads, we turned almost every head. It is not surprising that two white Europeans riding heavily, over-laden bicycles attract so much attention, especially so considering the slow pace that travelling by bicycle permits. This means that it is unavoidable, one will stop for lunch or spend the night in a small, insignificant village that scarcely witnesses such outlandish visitors. One memorable moment such as this is when we attracted an audience whilst bathing in a glacial tributary, the locals wouldn’t even avert their eyes when I changed my underwear.
However, I must note that the relentless barrage of repeated questions can be tiresome, especially after long or consecutive days cycling, but it is important not to blame any individual as they are merely satisfying their curiosity as to who you are and why you are buying eggs from their local store. At times it can grate on you, though fortunately, travelling as a pair it is often that only one of you has to take the brunt, which is a relief if the other is tired, fatigued or run down. I later learned that it is better to embrace it, take a moment or two to say “a salaam alaikum” (Hello) or share a wave rather than put on my metaphorical blinkers and ignore what is going on around me.
I leave Pakistan with extremely fond memories, from the undeniably inspirational to the comical. I chuckle to myself looking back and reminding my self of wearing odd pairs of small sandals when using hotel and guest house bathrooms. The photographs we have of us swarmed by Pakistani tourists wanting selfies as if we were celebrities. Singing at the top of my voice The Sound of Music soundtrack while passing school children. The inability for us to inquire about food at restaurants despite our elaborate body language, whilst repeating “Daal? Chapati? Naan?” We never understood how they couldn’t interpret that we were obviously hungry, perhaps it was our pronunciation, perhaps they were just in shock that we had swanned through the door. Attempting to learn the toilet techniques of the Asian squat and wash bucket combination, often resulting in wet underwear. We enjoyed times with school children mimicking each other and teaching them simple games. I always remember the meaningless conversations with people we couldn’t actually understand but managed to mutually and equally enjoy each others company. All of these memories I hope will stay with me and remind me of the time spent in this remarkable country.
If I have one gripe, it would be he availability of a good quality, hot steaming mug of freshly brewed coffee. But you can’t have everything, right?
“Inshalla“… If God wills it.