Jeevay Jeevay Pakistan!

What a mad couple of days! Left Tehran to catch a flight to Karachi (via Bahrain) what seems like days ago but was in fact only yesterday! Since then we’ve had a multitude of eye-opening experiences which have just added to the excitement we were already feeling about visiting Pakistan.

Imam Khomeini International Airport was only about an hour’s drive away from Tehran, so we got there fairly early. The check in desks weren’t even open when we got there and we were the first ones to sit patiently and take a seat and wait for the staff to arrive. The calm was soon broken however, when we were soon joined by what can only be described as a ‘herd’ of Arab men and women in black Chadors pushing their way towards the desks with literally MOUNTAINS of suitcases!

Their cases were piled 5 high on a train of trolleys – we struggled to imagine what on earth they could have in them and wondered whether the plane would in fact take off. I’ve personaly never seen luggage like it, and I’m a girl! After an hours delay we eventually made it to the check in desks and were soon skybound – arriving in Bahrain about an hour and a half later.

Bahrain airport was awesome by the way – the first thing we did was have a beer in the Sky Bar whilst watching the planes come and go, followed by a much needed McDonalds (don’t shoot us, we’re first time travellers!). The instant contrast between Iran (not really friends with the West) and Bahrain (friends with the West) was obvious – one of the first stalls in the transfer lounge we came across was for Rolex, followed by a Dior and a ‘win a Jaguar’ stand. These were odd brands for us to be confronted with, having just come from Iran, which has none of these words in it’s vocabulary. We also noticed the instant price hike of the products in the duty free shops!

The flight from Bahrain to Karachi was about 2 and half hours and went by without a hitch. We landed at 8am and as soon as we walked off the plane, we could already tell that we were in for a shock during our stay in Pakistan.

The baggage collection hall was a nightmare! People were literally just walking over the conveyer belts, there was dirt and water all over the floor, bags spilling out onto the walkways and simply hoards of people everywhere. The conveyor belt stopped abruptly after one heavy-footed man decided to walk over it, so we had to dig around for our backpacks which were eventually found upside-down and covered in muck about 3 metres from the belt. Dear oh dear. Not to be dishearted about the state of our belongings, Richard decided to just get into the spirit of it and picked up our bags before stomping towards the exit on top of the conveyor belt (when in Rome!)

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Once we’d met our new bus outside we headed towards the city centre. There began our first real, shocking taste of Pakistan.

It is impossible for me to describe the amount of pure filth scattered over the streets, which were filled with beggars, armed rangers and buses bursting with people hanging off the sides, back and roof. We honestly didn’t know where to look first. I have to say, it really was EXACTLY like you see it on the TV. Complete sensory overload, from the noise and the smells to the insanely colourful tuk tuks, trucks and public buses which were painted with all sorts of bright patterns and pictures.

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I saw more to shock me in that 1 hour drive to the hotel than I had seen the entire time we have been away. It was hard for us to fathom just how many people live exactly where they were stood, under archways, on benches or simply by the side of the road next to a big pile of rubbish. We were sure that this was probably only the half of it. Every time we slowed down in traffic we had beggars banging on the windows of the bus – holding up babies and putting their hands out for money. Most of the bus was pretty silent on that first drive – just trying to take everything in.

I mentioned the mental driving in Iran – well that was nothing – add twice as many vehicles and sprinkle in some mopeds, donkeys and tuk tuks, then imagine 20 people hanging off buses, having to physically ‘breath in’ as trucks narrowly missed their sprawling limbs!

Soon as we got to the hotel – we fell into bed, absolutely shattered. We had a few hours rest before we were due to go out into the city again to visit some sites.

The first place we went to was Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s mausoleum – he was the founder of Pakistan and his mausoleum is built near the centre of Karachi in a really nice location where lots of locals go to chill out and escape some of the craziness of the city.

When we got there we saw the changing of the guards and caused quite a stir with the locals who got very excited to see us all. Whilst we were used to snapping away, taking photos of everything and everybody; we weren’t used to other people doing the same to us! Gaggles of men, women and especially children all crowded around us and whipped out their phones and cameras and started taking pictures of us, sitting with us, handing us babies and posing! Wow, we felt weird in Iran, but here, we were literally surrounded! We felt a bit bad for Ali Jinnah, actually – people are supposed to go there to see him!

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After that we took a drive around the city – stopping off at a big shopping centre in the ‘right’ part of town where we loaded up on Cadbury’s chocolate, Alpen bars and water. We were en route to Karachi’s beach and if we were expecting a seaside scene like that of the UK – we were about to be disappointed!

The first thing we noticed when we stepped out of the bus was the rancid smell. The beach was right on the doorstep of one of Karachi’s water treatment sites and the smell we nearly gagged on was raw sewage, mixed with seaweed! The breeze just made it worse and more than a few of us utilised our old Iranian headscarf’s to cover our mouths and nose.

The beach scene that greeted us was quite astonishing – there were camels, donkeys and horses being lead round by their owners trying to get us to have a ride; teams of Polo players in the distance; swarms of flies and children running around selling flowers! The sun was setting amongst the smog as we got there so we just stood for a while, again drawing a crowd, trying to cope with the smell as we watched it go down.

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The children begging at the beach were so sweet – they may have been wearing filthy shirts and no shoes, but their faces were gleaming as they forgot about selling their wares and started running around us, playing and posing for photos. It was hard to imagine how these children, who had absolutely nothing but a handful of wilting flowers, could be so full of beans and excited. They evidently had no comprehension of their situation and if we thought about it for too long, we felt quite sad looking at their smiling faces, knowing what their life may be like in the future. More and more children who wanted ‘in’ on the playtime action, soon joined us, so we just teased them and chased them, until the bus came back to pick us up.

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The seaside was also our first encounter with the Pakistani ‘secret’ police. As we were waiting for the bus, a car pulled up with a couple of guys in it holding walkie talkies. One of them sidled over to Richard who just happened to be closest to them and started asking the usual questions – “what is your name”, “what are you doing in Karachi”, “how long have you been in Karachi”, “when are you leaving”, etc etc… It became clear that they wanted us to have a police escort – the situation in Pakistan is apparently not particularly ‘good’ for Westerners! Our guide told them we didn’t want an escort then we set off back to the hotel.

This was the first time that we got an inkling of the fact that we really were in a completely different place to the safer, European leg of our trip and that this wouldn’t be our last encounter with the police!

Hyderbad

Our next stop in Pakistan was Hyderbad – about 175km up the road from Karachi. As it was such a short distance we stopped off at a couple of places along the way. Firstly, to the Makli Graveyard just outside the town of Thatta. This is reputed to be the resting place of some 125,000 Sufi Saints and the land is still being used today by people living and working there. We met a few of these people as we stood outside one of the mausoleums, namely children, women, cripples and a snake charmer, all desperate to ask us for money. Less than two minutes actually stepping down from the bus, we were surrounded yet again!

Our Spanish companion, Tomas, ever the curious, walked off to see the snake charmer who was sat under a nearby tree. He had a cobra in his basket and a mongoose tied to a rock next to him and asked Tomas for money to see them fight! We had been warned about the snake charmer and the way in which Cobras are hunted, taken from the wild, defanged and sedated in order for them to be used as a tourist attraction. We both hate the thought of any animal cruelty and soon told Tomas that we didn’t think it was right for him to give the snake charmer money or encourage him in any way. Tomas then said something that really made us think and sort of made sense – he said; “But… the man? the man, he needs to eat.”

We didn’t really know how to respond to that – should our abhorrence at animal cruelty mean that we would rather a human being starve to death instead? I’d never really thought of it like that and this dilema just highlighted the fact that there really are two sides to every story. It’s a disgrace that in this day and age, decisions like this should still have to be made – a choice between protecting the animals of the world or protecting the people of Pakistan?

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Heading on towards Hyderbad, we stopped at Keenjhar Lake for lunch. This was a great spot with boat rides, rubber rings and holiday ‘chalets’ for people to rent. Loads of local families in caravans were spending time at the lake, playing football, having picnics and swimming. It wasn’t particularly refreshing to sit by the water and have lunch as the humidity was still so high, but it was great to take a detour from the crowded streets.

Whilst at the Lake, we had our second encounter with the police – but this time, the office didn’t approach us, just watched from afar, speaking rapidly into his mobile phone.

I think the police are a bit worried about the attention a group of 10 white westerners are drawing to themselves. It’s really odd for us to be stared at so much – with the UK being so multicultural we are used to seeing people of all different shapes, sizes and colours every single day, but here it’s like they’ve never seen anything like us before. It makes sense I guess, since last year, a mere 30,000 foreign tourists visited Pakistan!

We caused another mass crowd when we stopped off in a nearby town to get some fruit and water – attracting not only beggars but what seemed like everybody who was walking down the street at the time!

That night, we really did have a wakeup call as to the situation for Westerners in Pakistan. We know that the political situation is strained at best, as nearly every story on BBC World News is about Pakistan and the Taliban, but you never really think about the reality. Richard and I wanted to walk from our hotel to the corner shop to get some supplies for the next day, so as soon as we have slapped on the Deet, we headed out of the lobby and into the street.

Before we had even stepped foot on the pavement we heard a scuffle behind us and cries of ‘stop’. We turned round to be faced with four hotel guards clutching machine guns, who told us in no uncertain terms that we were not to leave hotel premises. Huh? We just want to go and buy some water! Soon the hotel manager and several members of staff ran down the stairs too, shaking their finger at us and telling us that we were not allowed to leave. Despite our protests, they simply refused to let us leave. We went to find our guide Amjad to tell him what had happened and when he then came to lend a hand, all merry hell broke loose!

We both looked at each other thinking ‘what the hell?” Amjad told them just to send an armed guard to the shops with us if they were worried, but they were causing such a fuss that we just gave up in the end and told him not to worry about it.

Sitting in the chairs in the hotel lobby, we were really frustrated that we were going to miss the chance of going outside at all whilst in Hyderbad. Apparently the rest of the group had gone for a walk during the day and Amjad had received several frantic phone calls from the Police, asking him why a group of tourists were allowed to walk around un-chaperoned!

Later, however, we did manage to get sneak out for an authentic Pakistani experience, when we spied Amjad and Oz Bus guide Leighton, heading out for something to eat. They asked us if we wanted to go with them, to which we replied “Yes”! and joined them as they waved off the protesting gaurds in the hallway! Ah ha! we got past them, finally! We headed down the road in the pitch black, dodging trucks, tuk tuks, puddles and piles of rubbish on our way to a street ‘cafe’ – aka a collection of broken tables and chairs placed on a large corner of dirt, covered by tarpaulin and lit with hanging bulbs. A makeshift kitchenette with smells of smoked meat and stone ovens wafting from it was placed at the side of the street, next to racks of meat waiting to be cooked. The place was buzzing with local people and they didn’t even blink at our presence!

As we had already eaten in the hotel (a vegetable curry as we have decided that for the duration of our stay in Pakistan we will NOT be eating any meat) – we just ordered a bottle of Pepsi and sat chatting with the others while they waited for their Mutton Rogan Josh and Nan. Sitting there amongst the Hyderbad locals was certainly an experience – this was the first time we felt like we were really soaking up the culture and were actually ‘travellers’. We tried to avoid thinking about the giant ants at our feet or about how many cockroaches were hiding in the dark dirt. We especially tried to ignore the rats sat by the wall which were much bigger than the stray cats meandering among us! It was a thrilling experience as we were periodically plunged into complete darkness when the city’s intermittent electricity cut out and the hanging bulbs flickering brightly just added to the ambience of the cafe.

Of course, Rich and I didn’t get away with our ‘no meat’ policy for long. When the Rogan Josh arrived our portions were divvied out and Amjad insisted that we eat with him! We looked at each other with a hint of desperation and reluctantly picked up the nan with our fingers, scooping up some mutton and putting it into our mouths! I have to say, the flavour of the sauce was fantastic – the mutton a bit chewy, but edible. We only had one bit of meat, out of a fear of repercussions but happily ate the rest of the nan and sauce.

Completely satisfied with our authentic taste of Pakistan we walked back to the hotel (via the shop to buy the water that we had originally wanted!) and went to bed, ready for a 7am start in the morning and bracing ourselves for another exciting couple of days!..

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