Many people that heard I spent a week in Pakistan often asked, “how was it?”, “is it safe?”
My responses have always been along the line of “great” and “amazing people and places”, and these answers are often met with incredulous look and disbelief. It made me realize that Pakistan is a country that is often misrepresented in general, especially in mainstream media, and thus, misunderstood by many people.
Perceptions of Pakistan
It is dangerous and full of terrorists. From the media, it seems Talibans and other terrorist groups swarm the country, but as a matter of facts most of 9/11 terrorists were from Saudi Arabia and the Talibans were concentrated in the West and North West provinces. Karachi was susceptible to terror attacks in the past for a while, but things have been improving. Cars, luggages, and handbags are checked before entering public places.
Low Priority on Hygiene
Being neighbor to India, most people associates, at least I did in my small mind, the same level of challenging hygiene and significant existence of slums. Perhaps I did not explore enough, but what I had seen during my week in Pakistan is nowhere near these poor expectations. As a matter of fact, I found many of the public facilities, although old, are clean and often cleaned by attendants.
Precaution as a Woman
From the perspective of a woman traveler, it is located in a continent where respect for women seems to be far and few in between and a single woman traveler is fair game. If precautions are taken and the female traveler is alert at all times, some potential awkward and/or dangerous situations can be avoided. I was uncomfortable one night in a top Karachi hotel because I suspected this man followed me when I got off the lift to my room (he pressed the button to another floor), so I went back down to the lobby to wait it out and sought help from the guys in our group. A banker I met told me to report such incidents to the Security Guards, as they and the hotel management take such issues very seriously, especially when it involves foreigners. He also told me “staring” is a national past time in Pakistan. Despite all these, from what I experienced, with proper arrangements of being with locals or trips arranged with proper tourism companies and being alert, all can be well.
Lack of Business Ethics
In my work, there has also been stories of unsavory business people in Pakistan not honoring their contracts. Honestly, this happens everywhere these days, not only in Pakistan, India, etc. I believe it is about choosing the right partners and being risk averse, instead of risk aggressive in business.
The business society I met in Pakistan is professional and clearly successful in their home and/or overseas markets. They are highly educated. Some earned their degrees overseas. They have clear direction where to take their businesses and they go for it.
On our trip, we met a few government officials under the newly elected Prime Minister, Imran Khan. They emit positive vibes when it comes to improving business policies to encourage foreign investments. They seem to head in the right direction for a better Pakistan. I hope they can achieve their objectives. I had seen many people still live in basic looking huts along the highway between Islamabad and Lahore. It would be a great achievement to eradicate poverty in Pakistan.
Have I slayed some dragons by rebutting some of the misperceptions on Pakistan? I certainly hope so. Pakistan is an untapped place for tourism and it will be a shame to miss it. I did not visit all the places I wanted this trip, but I did manage to squeeze in a couple sights in Karachi, Lahore, and Islamabad.
Karachi: Chaukhandi Tombs
I visited the Chaukhandi Tombs (15th to 18th Century) and the Jinnan Mausoleum. I love archeology, so it is a no brainer to make Chaukhandi Tombs my priority stops on my free half day in Karachi. The carvings on the stones are exquisite. Many have been restored. The tomb with a little hat indicates that a man was buried there. Male’s tombs are decorated with weapons or warriors on horses, and the like. The flat top indicates that it was a tomb for a woman. The female’s tombs are carved with images of jewelries. The small ones, unfortunately, are burials for children dying prematurely. Some tombs have four knobs from their narrow sides. These symbolize pallbearing. I was the only foreign tourist when I was there and there were very few domestic tourists also.
Islamabad: Faisal Mosque
We could not enter the Faisal Mosque because we arrived near Prayer time. A peek inside shows a functional prayer hall, with less decorations compared to other mosques I had seen in the Gulf region. The exterior in my view is quite retro. This mosque is a gift from Saudi Arabia to Pakistan.
Lahore: Badshahi Mosque and the Lahore Fort
I did not manage to explore the Lahore Fort, safe of seeing the Shah Burj Gate which is under restoration, the Almagiri Gate, still standing sturdily and can only be admired from afar, and Hazoori Bagh, the beautiful garden between the Alamgiri Gate and the Badshahi Mosque.
The Badshahi Mosque is the highlight of my Lahore trip. It was completed in 1673 under the Mughal Emperor, Aurangzeb Alamgir. The interior decorations are exquisite, so are the red sandstones used to construct the mosque. It was badly damaged during the Sikh rule and the British era. Sufficient restoration has been done for us to appreciate and imagine it in its original state.
The sites are grand, but the most memorable things about Pakistan are actually the hospitality and the friendliness of the people, and the shopping. The people are still pretty curious about East Asians and often engaged us and wanted to take photos with us. The shopping in Khaadi is also incredible. I came back with a whole new luggage of beautiful and colorful kurtas and homewares. Every female member of my family gets something 😝.
I hope these can convince you to put Pakistan on your bucket list. Having said this, we do need to discuss about the recent political events and a little disclaimer.
A Dark Shadow of The Trip
Halfway through our trip in Pakistan, matters between Pakistan and India escalated which resulted in Indian fighter jets intruding into Pakistan-controlled Kashmir and they got shot down. As a result, Pakistan closed its airspace for a few days which threw chaos into everyone’s plans. We were in Islamabad when that happened and we were planned to go to Lahore by flights the following day. Everyone was calm (both locals and the visitors). As far as “war zone” goes, the people on the ground was calm and collected. Lives go on even though in the background we were trying to rearrange flights. Eventually we got news that some airports were still open such as Karachi and Islamabad airports. This enabled a few of us to get home as planned, or in my case, reroute my trip home from Karachi instead of Lahore. There was more anxiety from the families back home than from us being on the ground, no thanks to the incessant and inaccurate media reporting (depending which sides they are on-Pakistan, India, and global media thriving on sensations).
This event, of course, cast a shadow on our otherwise very positive trip. I came to Pakistan with a totally open mind and I did not regret it one bit.
I am not going to declare all out that Pakistan is 100 percent safe. Not many places are. As a matter of fact, I felt more unsafe driving pass East Washington DC twenty years ago than I did in Pakistan a week ago. Clearly cautions are needed, especially in isolated and secluded places. A local contact told me to go with Makli Necropolis with a guide because they are too secluded. I heeded his advise and skipped the trip because it was too late to arrange for one. There is a certain safety in numbers. Guns are prevalent. So are petty crimes also. Again, it is all about using common sense and being alert to avert risky situations.
After weighing the bad and the good, Pakistan is a place I will definitely come back to – I had missed out on too many sights and street foods on this trip.