Out of the rubble
One year on from Pakistan’s devastating earthquake, Antonia Windsor wanted to do her bit to help the country’s tourism industry get back on its feet – and discovered a friendly and beautiful country in the process
Tuesday October 17 2006
Often depicted in the western media as a country of hardline Islamic fundamentalists, terror training camps, subjugated women and cricket cheats, Pakistan could seem a hard sell to the potential tourist. We rarely hear of the country’s fascinating diversity, its well-kept Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist shrines, the dizzingly high mountains or the impressive sheer glaciers.
As a white, British tourist I was not ignored because I was a woman, or hissed at because I was a westerner. I was greeted with courtesy, respect and curiosity by Pakistani people, who welcomed me into their houses with a constant refrain of “you are my guest”.
“We are trying to combat the negative image people have of the country,” the country’s tourism secretary, Salim Gul Shaikh, told me over dinner at the Marriot, one of Islamabad’s five-star hotels. “It’s time we told the world of the potential Pakistan holds for the tourist. Next year will be Visit Pakistan year: we are launching advertising campaigns: we are branding Pakistan. We should have done it 10 years ago, but at least we are doing it now.”
There is already a small, established tourism industry to build on. The Northern Areas, where the great mountain ranges of the Karakorums, Himalayas and Hindu Kush meet, have long been popular with climbers and trekkers. Meanwhile, the beautiful Kaghan valley in North West Frontier Province had also begun to build up a loyal local clientele before last year’s devastating earthquake struck, blocking the road to the main resort, damaging more than 100 hotels and threatening to kill off the tourism in the area.
However, the Pakistani people are extremely resilient and now that the roads have reopened they are looking forward to tourists returning to the area. As my British Pakistani guide Sohail Azhar explained, “the best thing you can do to help these people is to come here as a tourist, pay for jeep drivers, pay for porters, stay in hotels, eat in restaurants. By doing these things you will help the local community to re-establish their livelihoods.”
And being a tourist in Pakistan is no hardship. The current underdeveloped state of the Pakistani tourist industry means you won’t find swarms of people following you around trying to sell you things or pick your pockets. Of course, you may have to cope with the occasional blackout, road blockage, or distasteful toilet, but such small sacrifices are well worth making to see some of the most stunning landscapes in the world. Meal times, meanwhile, are a celebration and a gift: wherever you go, from a tent camp of earthquake refugees, to the multi-million pound houses of upmarket Islamabad, you will be invited to a simple but hearty dinner of dhal and chicken or goat curry with chapattis.
Pakistan is a country of contrasts: expansive dusty plains and high snowy peaks, the sombre browns and creams of the male Shalwar Kamez and the brilliant colours of the painted trucks, the aromatic scent of rose, apple and apricot and the pungent smells of diesel, donkey dung and decaying debris. The delights of Pakistan speak for themselves once you are there, and it seems surprising that the Mugal forts and mosques, colourful bazaars and high-altitude treks are not thronging with the adventurous travellers who frequent other parts of south Asia.
Safety in numbers
Although most people in Pakistan do speak a little English, the country is not yet used to a high volume of independent travellers and organising guides, porters, jeeps and drivers can be time- consuming if you don’t know the language and terrain. For these reasons, I travelled as part of an organised trip with TravelPak – the only way to visit areas such as the Khyber Pass on the Afghan border where armed guards are a necessity. And in the company of an Urdu-speaking guide, I was able to communicate and build relationships with the drivers and be welcomed into local homes.
My tour took me from the wide boulevards of Islamabad to the isolated villages of the Hunza valley. I watched the sun rise over the snowy peak of the 8000 metre-high Nanga Parbat from a tent pitched at the aptly named Fairy Meadows; I saw the massive, crevice-ridden Passu glacier; I ate Iftar (the Ramadan evening meal) on rooftops with fasting friends, and took jeep rides that made my heart stop. Not only did I return to London with beautiful handmade bedspreads and shawls, but a balanced view of Pakistan and tales to share with my Pakistani neighbours.
Pakistan’s top five
In the lush Hunza valley, the sleepy village of Karimabad is a tourist oasis. The street that winds up to the old Baltit fort is crammed with shops selling local handicrafts such as shawls and carpets, along with local dried fruit, antiques and gemstones.
The people here are Ismaili, which means they welcome music and dancing, and are partial to Hunza water – a spirit made from mulberries – or their homemade Hunza wine. There is also a cafe-cum-bookshop called Café de Hunza that serves real espresso: a treat for caffeine-starved visitors.
Come in spring for the blossom, or autumn to see the rooftops lined with huge rush trays of apricots, tomatoes, apples and spinach drying in the sunshine. A four-hour trek along the irrigation channel that winds up through the village and hugs the rockface up the mountains will take you up to Ultar meadow, where a small makeshift campsite offers views of Ultar peak and glacier.