Finally, I got into Pakistan!
The procedure is the same as on the Iranian side. Without saying a word, I handed over my passport and the notice from Sarajevo. I gave the officer a look that was meant to motivate him to give me the stamp as soon as possible and wish me a good stay in Pakistan. Thank you very much.
I filled out all kinds of forms in which I saw that not more often than every three or four days a tourist would show up in here to cross the border by land. They explained to me that the only way to get to Quetta was taking the bus that I would have to wait for four hours. They took me to the lobby of the prison in which they held illegal immigrants. What a company to wait for a bus!
They asked me to pay for the obligatory armed escort that would take me through Baluchistan, a region known for not so pretty things – a few months before two Swiss citizens were kidnapped. They were being held by the terrorists who demanded the release of their friends from prison. In a normal situation I would pay for the escort because I knew it was obligatory, but still under the impression of the last three days I explained to the policemen that I wouldn’t pay for it because a) I didn’t have any money, and b) their embassy was responsible that I had spent three days more than I planned in Iran. Eventually they gave in and they assigned me a 76-year-old man as an escort, with an old gun on his shoulder. If we got into trouble, he would be the one in need of help, and not the other way around.
I bumped into an Brit/Paki guy who offered me to a ride in his car, and the cops, after being okay with the plan, eventually changed their opinion and put me in a bus to Quetta. I was tired, exhausted, and empty. I didn’t even want to think about the 14-hour ride that was ahead of me after which I would have to take another bus for other town. Which one – I had no idea. Folks in the bus were very kind, but I didn’t feel like talking or anything, especially when I saw what the driver was like, or the condition of the roads. And to think that I was naïve enough to think that Bangladesh was the centre of the chaos.
Travels are just like that – like normal lives they have their ups and downs, good and bad moments. The only difference is that the good moments are indescribably happy, while the bad ones are indescribably sad. The only thing you have to do is decide whether you prefer the extremes or floating on the surface. Somehow, I’ve always preferred the former one. I’ve burned myself a couple of times, but the wounds do heal eventually as soon as one of those moments happens. All you have to do is be patient and wait.
In the early morning I arrived to Quetta, and in that moment I didn’t have the slightest idea what I would do next. The town is known as being one of the most dangerous in Pakistan so I decided to leave quickly. The first bus going towards east was heading for Islamabad, and I decided that Islamabad would be my first stop. All I had to do was take a stroll down the city and find an ATM or an exchange office since, on the border, I refuse to exchange the little of the money I got left.
The town was a mirror image of the towns I’d visited the previous year in Bangladesh: chaos, filth, too many people, the food was similar, dusty air, the sound of horns on the streets – same as always. The people on the streets were very friendly and they showed me where I could find what I was looking for. At the same time they warned me to watch out for the swindlers who were looking for the tourists. However, they knew I wasn’t tourist – I couldn’t be tricked that easily.
Eventually, I found an exchange office; I came in and by their welcome I thought I was dreaming – the owner kissed my hands, offered me with some tea, and behind him, there were two kids who together had approx. 14 years. I started to get suspicious. The exchange rate was very good, and I grew more and more suspicious. I exchanged a smaller amount of dollars, checked on my cell phone whether I got the exact amount of Pakistani rupees as I should’ve, I checked whether the banknotes were alright and finally I asked him to give me some smaller notes – he did it all without a complain and everything seemed perfectly right. I got out, checked once again if everything was ok, and it was. Hey, I wasn’t some random tourist who got fooled easily!
Feeling proud of myself, I returned to the exchange office to exchange a smaller amount of money, but only the kids were inside. The smaller one didn’t offer me as good an exchange rate like his father because that banknote was a bit older than the last one. I smiled at him saying that he was a good businessman – I accepted the lower exchange rate. The kid also taught me that I should put the smaller banknotes on the outside of the wad – that way one could think that I didn’t have much money. I listened and observed very carefully; payed the kid a few compliments and headed for the bus station.
I bought a ticket and afterwards, from a nearby Internet café, sent Tanja an e-mail in which I asked her to help me find a CouchSurfer host in Islamabad, given the fact that I wouldn’t be able to access Internet in the following 25 hours (!) – it took that much time to get there. I sat in the bus and while I was waiting for the bus to set off, I began to count my money, just to see how much I had. Something was wrong. I recounted, searched my pockets – 1500 rupees were missing. I gave a think and realized that the only place where I could’ve lost them was the exchange office. I remembered how the kid showed me to put the smaller notes on the inside, and that was probably the moment when he pulled some kind of a trick and stole the missing amount. After I’d felt sorry for my hurt ego for a few moments, I laughed and admitted that the kid deserved the respect – he robbed me and I didn’t notice anything suspicious although I watched him for the whole time. If only he used his tricks for something more useful…
The bus driver found every hole on the Pakistani roads; the unbearable music was playing so I couldn’t sleep. I didn’t like Pakistan. Since I was known for making rash decisions, I took my little diary and made a list where I put 12 objective reasons why there wasn’t a friendly bond between Pakistan and me:
1. Visa for Pakistan was the most expensive one – I had to go to Sarajevo to make it (which turned out to be a positive experience – hello to Aida and Amina :D), had to write a statement in which I took the responsibility for everything that might happen to me, and so on.
2. Because of the mistake made by their consul I had to wait for 78 hours to cross the border. It was one of the most difficult experiences, not only in my travel life, but in my whole life.
3. Right after I crossed the border I had to pay an escort (even though I didn’t), and all I got was a man with an old gun on his shoulder.
4. The hitchhiking was forbidden, at least for the first 1000 kilometers.
5. Their roads were in an awful state, and their drivers were even crazier than those in Bangladesh.
6. It was the first time I got robbed by a smiling 10-year-old in an exchange office.
7. Pakistan reminded me of Bangladesh, my first non-European love, and we all know that there’s only one first love.
8. The person whom I wanted to meet from the bottom of my heart was at 650 kilometers distance from Pakistani/Indian border and I wasn’t sure for how long will he be there so I had to hurry.
9. Man, I got tired. Practically, I spent a month and a half without a break longer than three days.
10. I had a runny nose, ever since I’d been in Iran. The main cause was the bad air quality which should be better on an Indian farm at the foot of the Himalaya.
11. Besides one CouchSurfer in Lahore, I had no other contacts.
I was thinking very seriously of skipping Pakistan and letting other people discover its qualities. Why did I have such a bad karma for the past few days?
Then I simply stopped thinking about the negative things and I focused on the reality – talking to other passengers, laughing with the driver, switching places with the guy standing on the door while the bus was moving and shouting the names of the stations, sharing the lunch with the local people.
Those were the moments I was missing while I was over-thinking about the things that had already happened and that I couldn’t change anymore, or about the things that were about to happen and on which I couldn’t influence. At the end, one way or another, it all turned out ok.
Just before I tried to catch some sleep for the second night in a row, I received three Tanja’s messages. Instead of one, she found me three contacts in Islamabad. One was CouchSurfer who couldn’t host, but I would be able to stay at his friend’s place, a CouchSurfer who also couldn’t host me because he was getting married in two days, but I could come to the wedding as a guest of honor if I got to Kashmir where the wedding would be taking place; and finally, a friend of Tanja’s best friend Ana who was, according to them, a descendant of the Pakistani royal family.
The things had finally started to fall back on their place…
After I’d spent three days on the Iranian/Pakistani border, and later almost 40 hours in driving on the Pakistani bumpy roads, I arrived to the capital – Islamabad. Kaiser, a CouchSurfer who Tanja had contacted the night before, arrived in his father’s car and took me to one of the best restaurants in the city. Ali, a guy with whom I would be sharing the room for a couple of days, lived in an apartment above the restaurant. The moment I entered his apartment I ran to the bathroom to take a warm shower (it’d been almost a week since the last time I had a shower), for which I was awarded by my new Pakistani friend with an actual feast brought by a waiter (where does the word waiter come from – is it a person who’s waiting on/for someone?) straight from the restaurant to our room. Also, it was all on the house – Ali’s brother Muhammad was the owner. I’m sure that Muhammad isn’t his brother name, but it sounds cool. You know – Muhammad and Ali. Ali and Muhammad.
Although I didn’t do much research on it, from the little I’d been there I realized that Islamabad was completely opposite from the rest of the country – there were no bumps on the roads, the drivers respected the traffic rules, the streets were clean, there were 5-stars hotels everywhere, fast food restaurants, big shopping centers – it was as if I were in a modern European city. The city wasn’t very old (it’d been planned built some 50 years before) and it’s the tenth largest city in the country. It is strictly divided in 8 areas – industrial, commercial, rural, green, etc. The only thing that reminded me that I was in Pakistan was the routine police controls on a few places in the city. Even though the name of the country clearly indicates that it was an Islamic republic, just like Iran, the things were different. I’d say that they were much more easy-going – you could hear the foreign music from the passing cars, the women weren’t obliged to walk with their heads covered, there was much more freedom. The first night I even went out to have a few drinks with a couple of friends, including one woman. Unbelievable.
The days spent in Islamabad were very interesting- I ran into the descendants of the Khan royal family and I went for a drink with them. Kaiser took me to try some local specialties, and to a belvedere from which you had an amazing view, something like from Sljeme in my home city, Zagreb. It felt like home, except that I’d never been to Sljeme with a guy. I met two New Zealanders who, despite their age, were cycling through middle Asia, amazed by the natural beauties and the hospitality of the local people. They’d spent quite some time on the north of the country and they suggested that I should go there. Even though the 12 reasons why I didn’t like Pakistan from my last post were starting to fade away, I still wanted to get as soon as possible to India. Taking onto consideration that it was very cold in the north of the country during the November, I would be staying in Pakistan only for a week. I was following the summer, right? And my guts.
The highest point of my stay in Islamabad was the last night when I met Arieb. He was born in Pakistan, went to study to Zagreb and stayed there for thirteen years. Boris Veličan, who is known for his crazy travels from Russia to France, or from Croatia to Sahara on foot, gave me Arieb’s number – the two of them met in Zagreb. Also, Boris visited him in his hometown on two of his travels from Croatia to China. Anyway, it’s a long story.
Arieb took me for a drink and told me that at least once a year he visited his second home country to see his friends and the places he liked. While he lived in Zagreb he used to play in an Irish band – Shamrocks Rovers. And now in Pakistan he was recognized on the streets because he’d transferred from Celtic to Sufi and Pakistani folk music. According to the people’s response he was being very successful. After a few drinks and an interesting conversation, he invited me to a banquet in a BBC building on which he’d been invited. He said that food, drinks and good fun were guaranteed.
We got into his car where he had a guitar. I instantly realized that we were going to play a couple of our songs. And so it was – in one moment, in the center of Islamabad you could hear the verses of Croatian songs. Everyone was thrilled and everyone was dancing. It was one of those memorable moments. If it hadn’t been for alcohol (which, by the way, in Pakistan could be bought only by foreigners) I would have remembered more. The experience of drinking with the local people was quite unique. They, like their Bangladeshi brothers, really don’t know how to drink. They would pour whiskey in a 3dcl glass and sip it as it was a juice. There was no elegance, they didn’t know how to enjoy the flavor…they acted as if they wanted to be quickly over with the liquid and feel the consequences. In fact, they reminded me of myself.
I left Islamabad in the car of the girl who’d been with us on our first night out in Islamabad. She offered me the ride to Lahore then. I accepted…it wasn’t hitchhiking, but it was quite similar. There were four of them, two drivers and me. The drivers were in one car, while the rest of us were in the other one. Soon I found out why – so that they could drink without the drivers telling their parents about it. Before they started drinking, I told them about my travels and I saw the spark in their eyes with a bit of disappointment – their parents would’ve never allowed them to do something like that. Their life had been already decided for them – what would they study, where would they work, and maybe even the person with whom they were going to spend their life. And when you think that those guys were lucky because they were able to make some choices on their own.
It reminded me of a story that was the same all over the world – wherever you go you will find people who think of themselves as of a majority – mostly because they’re the loudest ones, not necessarily because they were numerous. They have their rules which they follow, but for some strange reasons they have the need to put upon other people their way of life. All those who are being rebellious are casted out of a community or are constrained to live by these norms. It doesn’t matter whether they are happy or unhappy. In some places you’re not allowed to hold hands with your girlfriend or choose your partner. In some places you’re not allowed to make jokes related to religion or politics. And in some places you are being misunderstood if you like to travel.
The trip to Lahore was very funny, and in Lahore I said goodbye to luxury of my friends’ car and I got into an old cab whose owner was Shoyeed, a CouchSurfer who I’d already contacted from Iran. When my young and concerned friends saw that sight they sent me a message saying that I could go with them and spend the night at their friend’s place – they were probably afraid of me being lost in the dark hanging out with the local taxi driver.
I refused their offer with a smile on my face, and was off to a Chinese restaurant with my new friend and his friends. I guessed that my mother had called them and warned them that I had to eat some soup because we ordered two huge portions and finished them in record time. During the meal we had a pleasant conversation, as we knew each other for years. I realized that I was in a different group of people, especially since they allowed me to pay one part of the bill, which was a very rare thing in Islamabad. It’s nice to be spoiled and live on other’s account, but still, it’s even nicer to feel equal to others, and pay your part of the bill and maybe even sometimes treat you friends with a drink.
In my new home I met Shoyeed’s family – his mother and three sisters. They welcomed me with a cup of warm tea, just before I hit the bed. There were two goats in a room next to mine, who kept bleating carelessly for the whole night unaware what was going to happen to them in few days: Eid al-Adha, a Muslim holiday on which they celebrate the moment when Abraham, on God’s command and in His honor, accepted to sacrifice his son. Eventually, God changed His mind, but as He was still hungry, He asked sheep instead of a child. So now, a couple of thousand years later, Muslims all over the world sacrifice an animal on that day. Only in Pakistan almost a million of animals get sacrificed. The only good thing in that whole bloodbath is that one third remains to the family, the second third goes to the relatives and friends, and the third part goes to the poor. I don’t know in which moment God decided to renounce his part.
The following day Shoyeed took me by the hand and took me to sightseeing so that I at least see some of the culture and architecture before I took off to India. And it was beautiful. The Badshahi mosque took my breath away. Some twenty years ago, it’d been the largest mosque in the world, and it reminded me awfully of Taj Mahal, also built by the Pakistani, a couple of years before. We made a few steps around the court-yard of the mosque, also the largest in the world, and we observed the moon which was in a perfect position above the beautiful mosque. It was a perfect way to spend my last day in Pakistan, since the following day I would be on my way to India.
Shoyeed, my own taxi driver, gave me a lift to the border which took more or less half an hour. We arrived there in the break of the day, so I could be the first one to cross on the other side. Although the memories of crossing the Iranian-Pakistani border were still pretty fresh – I also arrived there first, but it took me three days to cross the border. Luckily, there were no problems with my visa so I easily entered India. By the way, Wagah border crossing is known for the magnificent change of guard when they close the border, but I didn’t have time to wait for it. If you’re interested, you can find the clips on YouTube.
And I, I was in India.
GALLERY – PAKISTAN.
YT VIDEO – PAKISTAN: