Friday, October 15, 2010

Islamabad / Lahore / Peshawar

Truth to tell, I would have just as soon have this flight be the one back home. But the demise of the Chitral and Nanga Parbat options meant that I now had five empty days to fill. Nor could I have stayed in Skardu longer. The possibility of two days of canceled flights followed by that 24 hour bus ride precluded that.

On the plus side, I could always look at this as an Extra Added Bonus Feature. Why not check out Pakistan Today by visiting three of its major cities? So first off I would be touching down in Islamabad, its capital city.

Well, not quite, since the airport was in Rawalpindi, the older, crappier city that pre-existed Islamabad's creation in 1967. And I couldn't see that much descending, since although the cloud cover vanished once we got out of the mountains, it was replaced by an almost as severe smog cover.

But anyone familiar with the intense chaos that permeates India would be pleasantly surprised by the relatively orderly nature of Pakistan. There was only one taxi driver who hassled me as I exited, and the traffic police made sure that he wasn't bothering me and that he was charging the right price.

That turned out to be less than $4 for the 20 km plus drive to Islamabad. Like other 'planned' third world capitals, the city wasn't exactly a city at all. Rather it was more like a few several block square commercial centers surrounded by mostly emptiness. The first hotel I was taken to was charging three times what the LP said it would. So I found my way to another hotel in another of the centers a couple of miles away and made my deal.

By now it was around 4, I was feeling hot and sweaty and polluted, and also very hungry. So I took a cab to the Pizza Hut, several miles away at yet another commercial center, for some middle class munching.

Here at the capital, the country's most progressive enclave, 95% of the people walking around were still men. And of the few women visible, about 95% of them wore at least head coverings. No full burkas, but a fair number of face coverings, too. Which in sum total seemed pretty odd, because I'd been noticing that all of the women portrayed in TV shows and commercials wore stylish modern Pakistani clothes with uncovered heads. Maybe when they go home...

After I stuffed myself I went around the corner to a fully functioning ATM. Then a short cab ride to the Blue Area, Islamabad's fancy shop zone. Well, it wasn't that fancy at all, but it at least was bearable for my walk of about a mile and a half. Then as the sky got dark it was time to go back to the hotel.

And that was about all that Islamabad had that was worth seeing.

Friday morning I took a long taxi ride that went past Rawalpindi and to the Daewoo Bus station. This company is Pakistan's premier non-air travel option. They even have a website that functions. For $10 I bought a ticket on the half hourly deluxe VIP service to Lahore.

I usually get very annoyed by stupid security procedures, but Pakistan is one country where you appreciate such things. Everyone was frisked before getting on the bus; they would also be frisked after rest stops. A guy got on right before the bus took off and videotaped each passenger. I couldn't tell if this was done so that after the explosion they could identify who it was who set off the bomb, or so that they could more readily notify the next of kin.

In a few minutes we were on the open road. And do I mean open. It was a brand new six lane freeway, with no bullock carts, no bicycles, no trucks spewing massive amounts of diesel smoke at 10 mph. In fact, there wasn't that much traffic at all. Again, anyone familiar with India would be flabbergasted at such a smooth, comfortable state of affairs. Not only that, but the a/c worked, and the attendant kept bringing little snacks. After we snaked down a 1000 foot or so drop the rest of the journey was alongside flat, green fields. We could have easily been on an Interstate in Indiana.

After four hours or so we entered Lahore, once one of India's major cities, now (with 9 million people) Pakistan's second largest. I had expected to finally be seeing crazily intense roads such as in India, but again it was relatively orderly and subdued. And I was back in the land of the autorickshaw. I took one to an area of town where the LP had reviewed five different hotels.

They all sucked, especially with the electricity off and their elevators (when they had one) not working. So I took another autorickshaw a couple of miles to another of those LP 'favorite picks'. One that they just went on and on about. I couldn't believe what a piece of junk it was. All in all, this was proving to be by far the worst LP guide ever. I went back to the original grouping and settled on the National. At least they had a generator that would run the lights and fan, if not the lift and a/c.

It was getting dark now, but I decided to try and find a half decent restaurant. I had expected Pakistan to serve up some of my north Indian favorites, such as mutter paneer. But 99% of the menu listings invariably had meat in them, and I was getting tired of 'simple begetables'. Nor, Pizza Hut notwithstanding, were there any restaurants with any class or western dishes. So I walked about a mile to a couple of rave LP listings, which of course turned out to be dirty and shoddy. Then back through the dark on the sidewalkless street dodging cars, autorickshaws, and horse and burro carts. And lame vegetables and rice and naan at the National.

Saturday morning it was time to see the sights, so off I went to the Lahore Fort. Most every large city in northern India has a gigantic fort built by at least one of the Moghul emperors in the 1600s. Unfortunately for Lahore, Delhi's and Agra's are much more impressive. I was still standing out like a sore thumb in this, Pakistan's most cosmopolitan city. At one point of my tour a trio of obvious fundamentalists scowled at me. But then a minute later a large middle class family, including the decked out womenfolk, were so excited to see a foreigner visiting their country that they literally gushed at me.

Next to the fort (again typical) was a huge mosque dating back to the same era. I thought it one of the nicest, most understated, and most serene huge mosques I've ever seen.

Then I had to take a long walk around the outside of the fort to get to Lahore's old city. It certainly was an authentic old city, with narrow, congested, but certainly not scary, lanes and alleys. Since this was where most of the serious shopping got done, there were substantially more women visible. And it was a pleasant walk for a mile or so, but as usual for these places the tiny stores and cheap items for sale were always just more of the same. Generally speaking, you can't find any good tourist goods if there aren't any tourists.

Unfortunately for Pakistan, even without the bad press, outside of the mountains it didn't look like there was much that was of any genuine interest here in the flats. After returning to my hotel I then took a two mile stroll towards The Mall, Lahore's 'vibrant downtown'. But once again it was just dirty and boring. And no usable sidewalks, so I was constantly dodging traffic. Plus no usable restaurants. Oh well, back to the National. But just as I was leaving I saw out of the corner of my eye, rather incongruously, a Subway(!). The subsequent sandwich wasn't all that good, but at least it wasn't rice and vegetables.

I had been planning on two days in Lahore, but I had run out of anything halfway exciting halfway through the first day. On top of that the city was hot and polluted. Plus that night I was lying on the mattress in the hotel room when I noticed that my body was getting covered with all sorts of bites from some kind of invisible insect. So I sprayed down the bed and made plans to leave the next morning.

Thus on Sunday morning it was back to the Daewoo terminal for the 10:15 to Peshawar. For this I would be backtracking to Islamabad, and then going over two hours further, which would take up most of the day. The good news was that I could look forward to about seven hours of air conditioned hassle free travel. The bad news was that, since my flight left Wednesday, that would give me Monday and Tuesday in one of the most dangerous cities in the world.

I am not an adrenaline junkie. It's just that Air Arabia, the cheap airline that would fly me back to Dubai, only flies out of Karachi and Peshawar. And Karachi might be even more dangerous. Plus it was a 21 hour bus ride from Lahore. Plus the roads were ruined after the flooding. Plus I already had my ticket from Peshawar.

Anyway, I had been communicating with a couple of other people who had just been there, and they said that everything had been copasetic. Not to mention that the media are always over-hyping how scary terrorist centers are. Although I must admit to a little trepidation when we pulled into the Peshawar terminal and I was deposited out on the street.

My first impressions were of more crowds and more poverty. And awful, awful pollution. Some of the worst pollution I'd ever experienced. On a Sunday afternoon in a city with no industry. I got an autorickshaw easily enough and was soon at Green's Hotel, an LP 'midrange' pick. Prices were twice what LP said, but the armed guard and the iron gate outside, plus reliable wifi, cable, and a/c even when on generator all made it worth it. Especially since the power kept going on and off every hour or so.

That night I was lying in bed, thinking 'Geez, it would be such great terrorist PR to kill an American. And I sure look like one. And the longer I stay here the more people will know about me.' It was kind of unnerving to think that life could be so uncertain. Then I realized that this is exactly what we did to millions of innocent Iraqis with our invasion. I got up and took another sleeping pill.

Monday morning I went out on the street. Didn't feel that dangerous. Maybe I should walk all the way to my destination. But the pollution was so bad that I gave up on that idea and took an autorickshaw over to Khyber Bazaar. Then down that street for a while and a right turn into Peshawar's famous old city.

More twisting little alleys and lanes. Like Lahore, lots of people but overall calm and easy. Again, though, no tourists and therefore nothing all that interesting to look at, let alone buy. Even without the threat of being blown up, one would think that Peshawar should be pretty exotic. And it had seemed that way the last time I was here, in 1970, on my way from Afghanistan to India. But maybe I've seen too much by now. Or maybe the world—especially the poor world—has just gotten too damn homogenized. Or maybe the pollution was just too unbreathable. Within a couple of hours I was through the maze and back out on the slightly wider commercial streets of slightly newer Peshawar.

Was I in danger? It was hard to say. Like the rest of Pakistan, there were any number of people who would stop me on the street, shake my hand, and warmly say, 'Welcome to Pakistan'. For the rest, I could imagine them thinking, 'Dead man walking'. Or maybe, 'That dude is one brave MF'. Probably both. With so many people passing by, and with me so clearly not one of them, all it would take would be one or two Taliban sympathizers...

Of course, I could just be imagining everything. Except for the fact that Peshawar has had several waves of deadly bombings over the past couple of years. So that even if my life wasn't specifically in danger, the fear and tension must just be below the surface of every mind walking past me.

Back to the clean air and a/c of my hotel room. The TV was even flat screen and with at least five English speaking channels. Free, courteous room service. Armed guard outside. Streets constantly patrolled by soldiers and police. Ahhh.

And, save for a couple more forays out to do some last minute shopping, that was about it for my stay in Peshawar. After around 50 days of intensity, it was kind of anticlimactic to be sitting around wasting time until my flight to Dubai.

Pakistan had turned out to be surprising, in that the people displayed a civility and a gentility that harkened back to an earlier time. It was easily a more pleasant environment to be in than India. Too bad everybody thinks of it as a failed state. And too bad it really is too poor and too overpopulated and the government is totally dysfunctional and it doesn't have anywhere (outside of the mountains) to visit that isn't totally lackluster.

Well, I made it safely to the airport. And I made it safely to Dubai. And 38 hours after I woke up on Wednesday morning I made it back home. And I was immediately caught up in the whirl of fixing old problems and making new money.

And as the kaleidoscope of the last couple of months settled down, I started thinking, 'Whoa, I was walking around Khiva'. And, 'Damn, the Pamir Highway really was out there'.

But here's the reason why I continually keep going to these strange and distant land:
As I was finishing up walking through the old city in Peshawar, I looked down and happened to see a small head. It had a small mustache and beard, and was attached to s small round torso. He would have been a midget, except that there were no legs. Clearly somebody brought him here every day, and he 'stood' there implicitly begging. He couldn't even theoretically escape if a new bomb went off. I gave him 50 rupees (What the hell is the proper amount to give in such a circumstance?). He looked at it and tucked it into the pocket of the kurta that draped over him.

And I went back to my comfortable life. Except that I'm well aware that he is still there.


At 2:43 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks Michael! (for all the great stories and for making it home safely) - Cliff


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