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Pakistan

Islamabad/Rawalpindi

Pakistan is one of those countries with a reputation for being, I don't know, not very nice? Western governments as well as the news media have done an admirable job of painting an image of Pakistan that portrays a country of lunatic extremists bent on mass slaughter of all western infidels. Of a country where the likes of Osama bin Laden, fleeing the bombing in Afghanistan, has perhaps settled into some cave deep in the North West Frontier Province or in the badlands of Baluchistan. Well, maybe Osama is in Pakistan and there probably are a few loonies who'd like to chop me to bits, but in two weeks in Pakistan the only negative experience I had, other than a touch of food poisoning in Lahore and a moto-rickshaw accident in Peshawar, was someone yelling out a window of a passing van in Rawalpindi, "go back to your own country!" And seeing as I was flying out the next morning I was already in compliance of his wish so I'm sure we could have later become friends or something.

My two week holiday in Pakistan was the sandwich bread of my one month spent in two countries with bad reputations, the filler of that sandwich being two weeks in Afghanistan. Although Islamabad is where I first set foot in Pakistan, the story actually begins two months earlier at the Embassy of Pakistan in Bangkok with the purpose of getting a visa.

The Pakistan embassy is on Sukhumvit Soi 3 so conveniently located across the street from the Grace Hotel and its popular late night, umm, coffee shop, which I'm sure no Pakistani would ever dare enter. Right. Anyway, as with so many visa requests one finds themselves standing at a window with a humorless civil servant on the other side.
"Umm, I'd like a visa," I say handing over my passport.
Humorless Civil Servant sees my US passport, "work permit?"
"No, I have no work permit."
"Then you have to get your visa in your home country."
"I don't live in my home country. I live in Cambodia." There's no Pakistan embassy in Cambodia.
"Do you have a letter from your company?"
"I am my company, would you like me to write one?"
"What documentation do you have?"
There is no such thing as a work permit in Cambodia and as I work as a freelance travel writer and photographer I have no brick and mortar business license either. I show the man my Cambodia Ministry of Information journalist card (expired!) and show him my multi-entry business visa extensions in my passport. This satisfies him enough to say, "okay, but no guarantee," as he gives me an application form to fill out.

I fill it out honestly, listing my job as a travel writer, photographer, and website owner and that my purpose is to transit to Afghanistan and do a little bit of the tourist thing when I get back.

I return to the window and find Humorless Civil Servent has been replaced by Friendly Civil Servent, a man who was indeed, one of the most friendly and helpful embassy employees I've ever met in any embassy anywhere. He looks over the application noting in particular my job and purpose of visit, "Oh, transit to Afghanistan. Okay, no problem. 4400 baht."
"4400 baht???!!! Umm," scratching my head and looking mildly flustered having never expected a $105 US visa fee, "umm, I gotta find an ATM." And around the corner to Bumrungrad Hospital I go.

I return with the cash and ask if I might get a double-entry visa. Nope, the man most apologetically says. Apparently a single-entry is all a US citizen can get just about anywhere now. He then went out of his way to explain all the necessary procedures for converting a single-entry to a double-entry and so forth which I would do when I get to Islamabad.

I returned the next day to find a visa for Pakistan affixed to my passport. Yippee.

I wouldn't get to Pakistan until May 7 flying in on Pakistan Intl Airways. They are one of the few carriers that still permits smoking on board, making a long flight longer. It's already a long flight on account of the fact that they can't fly over India, so they have to head up to China, go across Tibet and back down again. But the views coming in are phenomenal. If you're ever on this flight, sit on the left side coming in, right side going out, for views of K2 and Nanga Parbat. Still, next time I think I'll take Thai Airways to Lahore.

[Photo left: View of Nanga Parbat, 8125 meters.]

My arrival at the airport was at about 6:45 a.m. or so. Islamabad airport is nothing to rave about, small and cramped, really. Changi it's not. Departing the airport was typical mayhem. If you believed the propaganda, you'd think as a westerner and especially an American, that no sooner would I step outside the terminal that I'd have ten men in robes and turbans scream, "Infidel!" and slice me to bits with large swords. Well ten people did descend on me, but it wasn't "infidel", it was "taxi!" And the local garb is actually called a shalwar kameez.

I got a cab with a real nice driver who spoke excellent English. The first thing on his mind was not whether I was a Muslim, a Jew, a Bush supporter, an Iraq war supporter, an eater of pig, a flogger of camels, the flea of a sewer rat, but whether I might be carrying SARS. The driver said everyone's freaked out about that in Pakistan and as the flight I came in on had originated in Hong Kong they were twice as freaked. Seeing as Pakistan never recorded a SARS case but everybody had a good and proper freak-out - you should have seen the banners in the airport departure area warning of travel to Southeast Asia - I felt rest assured that Pakistanis were no less capable of panic and mayhem as the Americans or anyone else for that matter.

Once it was determined I was probably clear of SARS, it was time for the requisite discussion of my nationality and so forth. My driver, Mehood, said I was the first American he had seen in at least a year. "Glad to have one of you back." I was to hear that comment quite a bit. He then echoed sentiments I would also hear over and over again. That the crazy extremists were to the Pakistanis just as crazy as we westerners perceive them to be. He, and many others I would meet, described them essentially as the Pakistani equivalent of hillbillies. I was often lectured, whether I needed to hear it again or not, that Islam is a peaceful religion and the militancy practiced by a handful of rednecks is not the Islam that 98% of Pakistanis practice. It seems to be more of a poverty issue than an ideological issue. Deep in the hardscrabble northern mountains, mullahs, with hardly any more education than the boys they are instructing, run religious schools (madrassa) that indoctrinate these impressionable young minds with anti-western sentiment. The boys then grow up with few other influences in their lives and the cycle perpetuates.

Mehood took me to one of the many small private guesthouses in Islamabad, this one bearing the original name of the Ramada Inn. It was a little more money than I wanted to spend, bargained down to 1000 rupees a night of which Mehood got the obligatory kickback on, which I know because I asked him to which he laughed and shrugged his shoulders, "but of course." But I didn't think I'd be but maybe two nights and I do like to start any trip in a strange country in some place fairly comfortable. And they had internet (albeit slow) and very reasonably priced and tasty food.

Checked in, the first order of business was to see about turning my Pakistan visa into a double-entry and getting a visa for Afghanistan. First stop is the Passport office to get the Pak visa converted. No can do, they tell me. First get your Afghan visa, then come back and we'll talk about making your visa a double entry. So it's off to the Afghan embassy and nothing there would be finished until the following afternoon. Free time.

At one point while driving around, the taxi is stopped by a police officer who takes a bit of interest in me and my bag and decides to search that bag. It didn't occur to me at the time, but I was later to hear stories of Pakistani police searching foreigners' bags and dropping small rocks of hashish inside. It was suggested to me that next time I'm hit with a search I require the officer to open his hands first before sticking them in my bag. Well, no harm, no foul, the officer didn't drop any hash in my bag nor did he find anything else of interest but he was still determined to get something from me, so he requests "a gift." I stumble and stammer not really saying anything and look over to my driver to see what his response is. But he's not saying anything, obviously it's in his best interest not to get involved.

Think quick. Do I refuse to give in and see how long he delays me, do I give him some money, or do I decide to try a third tactic, that of being a smart-ass? I try the third. I look in my wallet, hoping I'd have something small, like a 5r note (less than ten US cents). Well, I had a 10r note, still plenty small. I pull one out and hold it up to the officer with a big smile on my face.
"No, no, no," the officer says with a look of annoyance on his face, "200, 300, c'mon," he pleads.

Still not speaking, I sit there just holding the 10r note and smiling. Thirty seconds of this and the officer stands up in frustration and hurriedly waves us off. My driver, failing to see what I thought was the humor and insult in my 10r offer admonishes me for offering him anything. Yeah, I think to myself, some help you were sitting there staring out the window scratching your forehead.

As for the stories of planting hash in bags, I later heard an interesting tale in Kabul about these Pakistani police bag searches. I have no idea if it's true or not, but it's a good story.

The story goes that a western tourist in Pakistan has his bag searched and a small rock of hash is placed in the bag. The tourist is taken to the station where the police chief begins his interrogation.
"This is your hashish, is it not?" he demands to know.
"It is not," responds the tourist.
"But it has been found in your bag by our officer. It must be yours!"
Shaking his head the tourist replies, "No, sir, that is not my hash and I think it is your officer and not me who you should be interrogating."
"And why is that!?" the chief roars.
"Because my hash, which seems now to have disappeared, was a much much larger block."
And with that the tourist was quickly set free. Again, I have no idea if it's true or if this tactic would ever work, but it's a funny story.

I hire a driver for the afternoon to see what sites Islamabad has to offer. We start with the Faisal Masjid, one of the largest such structures in the world. Remembering the less than cordial welcome I received at the National Mosque in Kuala Lumpur I wondered how I'd do here. Well, I was made quite welcome as I wandered about the place, my taxi driver tagging along as my guide/interpreter (though a lot of English is spoken in Islamabad).

Sometimes I was approached by a smiling Pakistani who would reach out to shake my hand, offer a warm "hello, how are you?!" and then disappear before I could answer. My taxi driver offered that Pakistan didn't see nearly enough westerners now and Americans were even more a welcome curiosity and a quick hello was all anybody was really interested in.

The next stop was to the Daman-e-Koh, a viewpoint on the Margalla Hills overlooking the cities of Islamabad and Rawalpindi.


view of the Faisal Masjid from Daman-e-Koh

Then more driving around the city with visits to Shakerparian (a park) and Rawal Lake (a park and a dam). There is a lot of parkland around Islamabad.

I would end up sitting around Islamabad for four days trying to sort out my visas. Both the Afghan visa and the Pakistan re-entry permit were easily done, they were just time consuming processes. Probably the most frustrating thing about satisfying the Pakistani bureaucracy is payment is not made at the office issuing whatever document or stamp you need but at a specific nearby bank where you have to fill out a form in quadruplicate, stand in line, pay the money - in my case a whopping 5800 rupees (just over $100 US), and run back to the office to get your permit.

Islamabad is indeed an attractive city, but as I had been forewarned, there really is not much to do here. It's spread out like a modern western suburb with no real urban core and the frenetic energy of other Pakistani cities is noticeably absent here, which depending on your tastes, can be a good thing or a bad thing.

No taxi in Pakistan will use a meter. Ask them how much and the answer is inevitably, "as you like". My response then is, "Well, I like ten rupees. What do you like?" Most drivers don't want to discuss the money before you get in but will if you twist their arm. A couple of times I went along with the "as you like" giving the driver some cash at the end it was about 50-50 whether they were satisfied with what I paid, though only in one case was there any real disagreement which was ultimately sorted out by my guesthouse. Still, it was one disagreement too many and I'd suggest trying to nail down a fare before you leave. One difficulty though, is as I was running errands and dealing with bureaucracies it wasn't always possible to know in advance for how far or how long I'd need the taxi. Which brings you back to "as you like".

International ATMs are very scarce. There is one at the Citibank branch somewhere in the Blue Area. Some of the banks here also have metal detectors at the entrance!

After my four days in Islamabad I had my paperwork sorted out so I took an afternoon bus from Rawalpindi to Peshawar to hang out there for a couple of days before moving on to Afghanistan. I would return for a single night at the end of my trip staying in noisier and more lively Rawalpindi.

Leaving Islamabad via air is even more chaotic than coming in. The area outside the terminal was so crowded with people, who by appearances, seemed only interested in standing around making a nuisance of themselves. It was so crowded out front that it was difficult to find the way into the terminal!

I did find my way in and it was more chaos through the security checks, which really weren't that thorough, but maybe I didn't fit the profile. As on the airplane, smoking is permitted in the terminal waiting area which has very little to keep oneself amused.

One mistake I made is that I was under the impression there was an airport departure tax to pay on the way out so I had a few hundred rupees on hand. Well, there was no tax to pay, apparently it was already included in the ticket, and by the time I realized this I was already through the security checks and past any money changing facility. So I'm stuck with about $15 worth of rupees. If you're in Bangkok and need about eight hundred-some-odd Pakistani rupees, e-mail me.

I made sure I got on the right side of the plane for the flight out so as to see the mountain views again. K2 was barely visible in the distance, so here's a crappy enlarged view of it:

My faith in Pakistan International Airways to find Bangkok was somewhat challenged when I chanced to page through their in-flight magazine and peeked at their flight route map. Hong Kong was shown to be in Korea, Kabul is on the eastern shore of the Caspian Sea, Tokyo is on the coast of Siberia and Beijing is up there as well, though inland. Jeddah is no longer in Saudi Arabia but has been relocated to Africa and in North America the Great Lakes have dried up and Toronto is up around the Arctic Circle. Still, the pilots found Bangkok.

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All text and photographs 1998 - 2006 Gordon Sharpless. Commercial or editorial usage without written permission of the copyright holder is prohibited.