How beautiful is Pakistan
Backpacking in Pakistan: (Not) a vacation destination
Photos: Anne Steinbach and Clemens Sehi
It is well known that some people want nothing more than a beach and a sun lounger, good weather, and a chic hotel room with all-inclusive meals. All of this in a southern, but not too far away holiday destination. Others hate this idea. Two of them are Anne Steinbach and Clemens Sehi, also known as the two minds behind the wonderful travel magazine Travelers Archive. You prefer to travel through Senegal or backpack in Iran. Almost two years ago they were in Pakistan for a month. They have now written a book about their journey: Backpacking in Pakistan. How you got the idea to travel to the country that most people in this country mainly associate with terrorism, how ubiquitous the fear of terror was and why Anne should never take a group photo, but everyone should have done what they wanted, betrayed the two in an interview.
Dear Anne, dear Clemens, Backpacking in Pakistan - generally a trip there - is not what the average German thinks of a vacation. Why did you want to go there of all places?
Anne: We have a soft spot for the misunderstood countries of this world, have been to Lebanon, Senegal several times, I have been to the Ivory Coast and Ethiopia. We followed the situation in Pakistan two years before our trip. In 2018 we had the feeling: the situation has stabilized, we haven't heard any horror news for a long time, now it feels good and now we're flying there and getting to know this country. We just wanted to look behind the veil and see what it really is like in Pakistan.
The travel destinations that you are talking about are not only not very touristic, but are also sometimes not considered to be harmless. What is it that appeals to you?
Clement: We want to get an idea of ourselves and not be guided by prejudices. In Lebanon and Senegal in particular, we were very positively surprised on site. Compared to Pakistan, Lebanon is not at all a dangerous travel destination. It's also very easy to travel around there. You can rent a car, there are well-developed roads and people are open. So there is nothing wrong with traveling to Lebanon. We had the same feeling about Pakistan.
Anne: That is of course also the instinct to discover. Traveling to these countries also means that there is not much information to be found. Hardly any blog posts, hardly any ready-made routes. You can discover things for yourself in these countries. Own food stands, own accommodations.
Clement: It's a step back to more real travel. For example, there is still no travel guide to Pakistan. Not even in the English-speaking area. So we had to find out everything ourselves on site. And that made it all the more exciting for us, all the more exciting.
What expectations did you have of Pakistan?
Anne: We didn't have any specific expectations. That's why the trip was so overwhelming. All we did in advance was to book the flights and the first two nights in Islamabad. We set the route on site and planned it stage by stage. We had only one thing firmly planned: We wanted to see the north and the mountains of the Himalayas. This is also what most of Pakistan have in their heads who have already dealt with the country on a tourist level: The sight of Nanga Parbat and this incredibly beautiful mountain landscape.
We also imagined Pakistan to be a bit like India - only less crowded. You can't say that to any Pakistani, of course, but that was something we had in mind.
Some things actually reminded me of India while reading your travelogue about Pakistan. The fact that locals keep asking for a photo together, for example.
Clement: Of course, you can't compare the two countries as travel destinations. But there was actually something to our performance. Pakistan seemed a bit more organized in many places, especially in the big cities. A little tidier than India.
Anne: People were different too. They were a little more distant from us. They also took a lot of photos, but less intrusive. In India you always felt a hundred people very close to your face - that's not the case in Pakistan.
What was your route like?
Anne: We started in Islamabad, then went north via Chilas to Fairy Meadows and back to Islamabad. From Islamabad we made a trip to Peshawar, on the border with Afghanistan, and then we made our way south. There we were first in Lahore, then in Bahawalpur and from there we were at the Derawar Fort and in the desert and then finally drove to Karachi. From there we made another trip to a fishing village.
The image most of Pakistan has been shaped by news of terrorist attacks and germ cells. The Federal Foreign Office does not generally advise against traveling to Pakistan - apart from the current pandemic-related travel warning. However, there are travel warnings for some areas. And there are regions and cities that are immediately associated with terror. Abbottabad, for example. The city that most people associate with the terrorist leader Osama Bin Laden, who was killed there in 2011. You passed there on the way to the north. Do you have a queasy feeling?
Clement: We did not specifically travel to an area that is considered a terrorist area or Taliban area. We didn't want to put ourselves in danger. But if you want to go to the north and to Nanga Parbat, then you have to go through there. We drove through Abbottabad late in the evening with an intercity bus - and of course you have a queasy feeling in your stomach. Just looking at this street sign, everything rattles through your head that you have seen on television.
Anne: But we tried to push that away a bit, not to think too much about these pictures.
Clement: Exactly. There is a basic sense of danger, but it's not that it is actually there or that it is actually visible. Abbottabad is a city like many others. It has a story, yes. But you just see a very lively city that still has a wild market bustle at night.
Anne: The police are very present in the north. As soon as we drove across the border to Gilgit-Baltistan (note: a special territory of Pakistan and part of the disputed region of Kashmir), we felt a check every hundred meters. We didn't notice much of it because the bus driver did it. But when we bought the tickets in Islamabad, we each had to hand in 20 copies of our passports. All of us. Only for the trip north. The bus driver apparently had to keep giving out these copies. Pakistan protects this area enormously - for the tourists and of course also for the locals.
Apart from this (perceived) danger - how was it in the north?
Clement: It was already mid-November when we were there, very gray and wintry. That means we didn't notice that much of the landscape, which is actually known as a flowering picture-book landscape. It was just very, very rough. A very rough, cold landscape.
Anne: Unfortunately, we were only allowed to stay there for 24 hours because one of our tour group (note: the Swiss Flo, who started the trip to the north with Anne and Clemens) did not have the right visa. So we “only” went on a hike to Fairy Meadows, but it was beautiful, apart from the fact that Clemens was sick with heights. Standing on top of the snow-covered fairytale meadow and seeing the Nanga Parbat was just awesome.
How did those around you react when you said that you wanted to travel to Pakistan?
Anne: They were all shocked. All. Family, friends and colleagues too. In fact, we have not received positive words from anyone. It was more like: Why, why do you want to go there, what’s there to see, does it have to be? My grandma said: Go to Switzerland, there are mountains too.
Clement: We have now traveled to a few crazy travel destinations, which is a bit used from us. But Pakistan was already the top. In terms of terrorism and threats, it was a different matter. And in fact, Pakistan is not a travel destination. At least so far.
Anne: Because everyone simply has images of terror in their heads. That's the only thing people associate with Pakistan. There are no other reports. No positives. If Pakistan is in the media, it is because something happened.
But there are also aspects of Pakistan that are completely unknown. For example, 75 percent of all soccer balls sold worldwide are produced in Pakistan. But the national sport is actually cricket. What else did you learn about the country?
Anne: Pakistan is a Muslim country. What I didn't know is that Sufism is very widespread in Pakistan. Sufism is a form of Islam that, at first glance, has nothing to do with Islam to me. Sufi shrines are very different from mosques, much more colorful, full of flowers. Music is made there and every Thursday evening there is a kind of party where the men dance in a trance. That is actually not in accordance with Islam at all. You can go to these parties as a visitor, even as a non-Muslim.
Clement: What we unfortunately didn't manage, I would have liked to have danced there. I also learned a lot about the founding history of Pakistan. I knew that Pakistan and India were once one country. But I wasn't aware of the story behind it and the causes of the enmity. There is one place in Pakistan where this enmity between India and Pakistan is truly celebrated: the village of Wagah. This is the border crossing from Pakistan to India near Lahore.
There we were at a border ceremony that takes place every evening. With dance, music and applause, Indians and Pakistanis try to drown each other out. After seeing this ridiculous event, we were both even more interested and learned a lot about Pakistan's history on the spot.
On Islam: Anne, it wasn't your first Muslim country. But what was it like to travel through Pakistan especially as a woman?
Anne: By and large, actually no different than in other Muslim countries. I had concerns, also because we traveled as a couple even though we are not married. We always said that, but we didn't have rings on. For example, I only packed certain clothes: nothing body-hugging, nothing that shows cleavage.
You see very few women on the streets in Pakistan because it is not customary for women to go out on the streets alone or to do errands. That's why I was often the only woman on the street. I had to get used to that. At some point I didn't notice it that much either.
There is no compulsory headscarf as in Iran, for example. I only wore the headscarf when I thought we were in a very conservative area, or all the women around me are fully veiled. We had that in Peshawar, for example. And then I put on the headscarf, also out of respect for the other women.
The men weren't pushy at all. But they didn't pay any attention to me either. Whenever group photos were taken, I was politely asked to get out of the picture. Some have said that they have a wife at home, and when the woman sees a picture with another woman on it, she becomes jealous. I was never shaken my hand either.
Clement: But when a decision had to be made or negotiated and Anne took the floor, then everyone listened. And often everything was done exactly as Anne said it would be. As if everyone were thinking: Oh, the woman is speaking. Then it must mean something.
The tourist infrastructure in Pakistan is currently still in need of development. There are no travel providers or even prefabricated modules. Even accommodations are still relatively few and far between. How did you plan your trip?
Clement: In Pakistan you can backpack just as much as in India or in many countries in Southeast Asia. In fact, the tourist infrastructure is not that good. There is accommodation in most of the larger cities. Many of them are guest houses. We looked for them. We booked the first one online via booking.com. Then we fished from guest house to guest house. Partly through recommendations in the guest house, or simply looked again on the Internet and found something.
There are also hotels, in the larger cities these can also be star hotels. Whereby the big international chains are not to be found there. Not Hiltons, but more Amari. And as for traveling around: You can travel by train very well. There are also intercity buses that are extremely cheap. And in the cities - except Islamabad - there are rickshaws. There is also Uber all over Pakistan. And the Arabic variant AS IS THE NAME and even the rickshaws use these platforms. That means you can order a rickshaw via the app. So there are these quaint modes of transport, but in a modern way.
Anne: That's really funny. Sometimes we had very old drivers, already in their mid-70s, with this long white beard, sometimes colored orange. Then they come with their rickshaw, take out the smartphone and say: “Hi, Clemens?” You can also fly, we also made a domestic flight to save a little time. Ultimately, everything is there in terms of infrastructure. There is just no information about it yet.
How did you come to an understanding at all?
Clement: The Pakistanis speak pretty good English just like the Indians. I would say that the accent is partly very similar. Above all, the vocabulary is very good. Not just the youngsters speak English too, the older ones too.
If I want to buy beer in Pakistan - what's the best way to do it?
Anne: Well, actually, alcohol is banned in Pakistan. However, this only applies to Muslims. Christians and atheists are allowed to drink beer, there is no law. But that still means that it is not available for sale. There is no Späti and no supermarket with an alcohol shelf. Even large supermarkets don't have that. But there are - especially in the big, international hotels - small, secret booths where you can buy alcohol. We did that too. We drove to a five-star hotel in Lahore and went to the reception, when a security came to us and asked: “What can I do for you?” And I said: “We want to buy beer.” And thought, oh god, I'll be taken away in a minute. But the man took us through the hotel and then there was a building in the back garden of the hotel where beer was sold.
Clement: You can think of it like a bottle shop. With the difference that you can't see what's inside the building from the outside. Then a little window opened and someone said: "Beer?"
Anne: There is also a brewery from the times when Pakistan was a British colony, the Murree Brewery in Rawalpindi. Beer is still brewed there today. In Pakistan, a strictly Muslim country.
Who would you recommend a trip to Pakistan to?
Clement: Everyone who is looking for a bit of adventure and wants to travel instead of taking a vacation. It is not a travel destination for beginners when it comes to individual travel. I would recommend other countries. And it's probably not wrong if you've been to a Muslim country before. Otherwise Pakistan can be overwhelming. Otherwise, I can really recommend it to anyone who loves traveling. Unless the security situation changes. Pakistan leaves a very wonderful feeling. It also has to do with people. We have never met such hospitable people and have never been welcomed with such open arms as in Pakistan. Not even in Iran.
Anne: That is why our book was created: Because we came back with a suitcase full of stories that only came about because we got to know people and because they let us be part of their lives.
Backpacking in Pakistan: Read more
The book “Backpacking in Pakistan” was published in March 2020 by CONBOOK-Verlag. On 288 pages, Anne Steinbach and Clemens Sehi tell a lot more about their journey through the mysterious and exciting Pakistan, dispel clichés and make you want to spend a holiday in a country that is still missing on the tourist map of the world.
There are many more stories and pictures from and about Pakistan by Anne and Clemens on the blog of the two: Travelers Archive.
This interview was first published in a shortened version in the travel section of the VRM newspaper editions.
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