Central Station while visiting Lahore in Pakistan

Central Station

In Dark Star Safari Theroux argues “If destinations were familiar and friendly, what would be the point of going there?”

I concur and this why I prefer going places without tourists, particularly those which governments warn us against, to see the reality on the ground for myself.

As soon as I boarded the Thai Airways flight from Bangkok to Lahore I knew this trip was going to take me to one of those unexplored places where tourists are as precious as the rain in the desert.

Two hours into the flight, the giggly passengers on the row behind me finally gathered the courage to ask the question that was bothering them since I boarded.

“Are you visiting Pakistan?”

“Yes,” I said, “on holidays.” Lahore is not a connecting city anybody would think of. Where else would I go?

“Are you going for a conference?”

“No, I’m just visiting,”

“I don’t believe you!” One of them exclaimed.

I was a specimen from that rare and elusive species: a tourist! Perhaps they had never seen one.

I knew from my earlier trip to Djibouti that they were going to speculate whether I belonged to a Secret Service Agency. Because, you know, these are the only two types of people who visit blacklisted countries: NGO personnel and Secret Agents. He did not disappoint me. I felt flattered; all the hours in the gym were finally paying off, I looked like a James Bond Girl!

Their question did not surprise me. I had to deal with similar skepticism during my visa application at the embassy in Singapore and my answers were perfectly rehearsed.

Later in the day, as I walked into the hotel’s lift carrying a 1998 Pakistan Lonely PlanetI had managed to unearth from an old bookstore in town, the English man in the lift inquired.

“Here on holidays?”, I noticed his urge to ask in the twenty-second lift ride.

But of all the times I had to justify my interest in visiting what has been named the Most Dangerous Country in the World but now ranks “only” as 11th most dangerous, the most surprising comments came from my local but very well traveled hosts. As a response to my recurrent and honest,

“I thoroughly enjoyed this,” Or…

“I find this (read: anything that we had just seen or done) very interesting,” they eventually reacted.

“You find everything very interesting!” as if I was lying. Nobody asks the hundreds that visit Gaudi’s La Pedrera every day why they find it interesting yet I had to continuously justify my opinion even though, most of the times, it was just the feeling of being special, having the country all to myself. Why is it that we need the approval from the masses to consider a place interesting?

I prefer destinations that are off the tourist radar, and even marked as dangerous, because it is there where you get to see the real culture, where the stereotypes can be dispelled and I can take part in a reality that is not talked about, without the prejudices and demonisation that has come to be a staple in the international media. No country deserves being bashed by myopic journalists that may have not even stepped a foot on the ground. Data and facts cannot tell you the nature and character of a Nation. As a traveler, I seek to discover and explore, not to confirm stereotypes.

Sadly, in the comments of my hosts I could also see that Pakistanis themselves have started to believe the media and lost any notion of self-worth – Why would anyone want to visit, let alone enjoy, a trip to Lahore?

One can’t blame them. Thanks to international media, the only words to come out of Pakistan seem to be terrorism, attack or bomb. A British government official named Pakistan the world’s most dangerous place, even worse than Iraq, and his words appeared on the cover of Newsweek in 2007. The travel advisory from the UK Government warns against all travel to most of the North and against all but essential travel to large parts of the country citing “(…) there is a heightened threat of terrorist attacks, and kidnapping against western nationals in Pakistan”.

These are not irrational fears but recommendations based on facts and Governments have to play it safe. According to the Institute for Economics and Peace report on Terrorism (details here), Pakistan ranked third in number of terrorist-related fatalities in 2014 following Iraq and Afghanistan, countries which are at war.

But it is not just the risk of terrorism which puts Pakistan on the blacklist. The country is ranked the 10th most fragile state in the world by the Fund For Peace (details here), a Think Tank, in the same group as places like (again) Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, South Sudan, Chad, Yemen or Haiti.

So, why did I go there?

I do not have a death wish. I simply have learned to appreciate that nobody knows better how a country truly is than those who go there regularly. And that one should never fully believe media reports because they are simply sensationalistic exaggerations.

I would never consider traveling to Iraq or Afghanistan unless the situation changes considerably – not because of what the media says but because I have first hand knowledge of both. I worked with clients based in Baghdad and have had to cut conference calls short to the sound of sirens indicating imminent risk of aerial attacks.

Having been to several of the so-called failed states such as Yemen, when safety was not such a strong concern, or Sudan, I know that the reality on the ground is often far from the image portrayed in the media and that conflict in some parts of the country should not deter travel to its entirety. Not so long ago, terrorist groups also killed in Spain’s Basque Country, but visitors to Barcelona or Madrid were on the rise. Yet we associate Sudan with Darfur even though it is as far from the capital as Barcelona is from Stockholm.

I am not saying the data on Pakistan is incorrect. Most of the hard facts are reasons enough to cross the country off any travel list. But I do believe that everyone should have access to the whole story and that positive narrative about its heritage-rich history, the hospitality and resilience of its people or the stunning beauty of the landscapes should balance the country’s image and provide a fair image about tourism in Pakistan. Unfortunately, in the case of Pakistan, personal accounts of Western politicians and envoys do not do much to improve the country’s image.

In Lahore, optimism, heritage and hospitality are stronger than in any other place, for the city is a treasure trove of Mughal and British culture and historically peaceful. Except for the attack at the Wagah Border (30 km from the city) last November, which was not claimed by any terrorist organization, all other Pakistani casualties in 2014 were in parts other than Lahore. During my time there (Read Visit Lahore, trust me, you will not regret it here), I did not experience a moment of fear or lack of safety. I felt as in most other countries where security is heightened: Life was normal.

I have written this piece in an attempt to dispel some of the myths about the country and share the true reality on the ground so that, you too, armed with information, can make up your own mind. These are some of the things I heard when I told people I was going to Pakistan.

1. There’s Nothing to see/do

Pakistan has six UNESCO sites and eighteen submitted for consideration. Two of them were taken off UNESCO’s “In Danger” list in 2012 thanks to the country’s conservation efforts. I bet you, like me, could not name any one of them. I went to Lahore with no expectations and with very little knowledge, as I could not find a travel guide and online resources are scarce.

I was met with a rich heritage and beautiful architecture. One of the world’s ancient civilisations was born in the Hindus Valley, South of the country, in 5,000 BC and a lot of the items found can be seen at the Lahore Museum. Later, Mughal and Sikh Emperors erected structures, covered in precious stones, some of which will make you dream of the lost times of Asian Empires.

There is also one of the largest private Asian Art Collections at Fakir Khana. If mountains is what you are after, Pakistan’s North has five peaks above the 8,000m mark, with Nanga Parbat, the ninth highest mountain in the world, also located in Pakistan’s Diamer District of the Gilgit Baltistan region. It is also the western anchor of the Himalayas. The Karakoram Highway connecting the country to China is the window into a world of beautiful lakes, lush forests, snowcapped mountains and absolute solitude. If that wasn’t enough, the coast is also developing with beach resorts starting to sprout in the Indian Ocean.

2. Women have to fully cover and can’t walk around alone

I have been and lived in enough Islamic countries not to be surprised by the lack of women in the public sphere. I also know how to behave, naturally and I am very conscious of cultural sensitivities. I always believed that, as much as we may disagree with a country’s traditions of believes, once we visit their “home” we have no right to judge or despise them.

As expected, there were very few women in the streets of Lahore. However, at the same time, and contrary to the images promoted by international media, women were not fully covered like in most of the Middle East where we have to wear black abayas from head to toe. Nothing anywhere close to burkhas anywhere.

The local attire worn by women is a kurta tunic, usually long below the knee, and long pants, either linen or leggings, down to the ankle. A lot of my colleagues, in Singapore, wear this attire too.

The reality is that very little flesh is exposed except for a tiny bit of ankle, neck and head. Dresses are colorful and beautiful and are very useful to protect from the sun. So, yes, women are covered, but so are men. They dress exactly the same way with pajama like pants and a long kurta, all in the same color. Many will also wear turbans or scarves to cover from the sun and dust. Of course there are also lots of men dressed in Western clothes, less so women.

As for the head cover, that was not necessary. It is not a legal requirement like it is in Iran or Saudi Arabia, there is no modesty police, and most of the women I saw were not covered. Instead, Pakistani women wear a scarf across the chest hanging on their backs as a fashion accessory. And the younger generations were as flirty and fashionable in their high heels and sheer silky kurtas as any girl in the West.

3. Pakistanis are all terrorists or support the Taliban

A social media follower asked if there was a Taliban Museum in Lahore and the answer is a rotund no: there is no such thing as Taliban men walking around the streets or a culture of Islamic adulation. Locals are as worried and sorrowed with terrorism as the rest of the world. It is their people, their friends, their family members, the ones who die every time there is a terrorist attack.

I would like to know how one would recognise a Taliban. A white turban? A long beard? Sadly, the image international media portrays of Taliban and Islamic extremists is simply the usual attire of people living in hot Central Asian climates like Afghanistan, Iraq or Pakistan. I did not see more bearded men in Pakistan as I see in today’s Western, lumbersexual fashion shots.

4. Pakistanis are unwelcoming, unfriendly and aggressive

I feel that Pakistanis are wrongly portrayed as aggressive, inhospitable and cold. Everybody thinks Spanish are friendly, Latin Americans happy and British have a good sense of humour but the perceptions and stereotypes about Pakistanis show them as weapon-welding, rustic and uneducated. I challenge you to find a picture of a smiley Pakistani. This image could not be farther from the truth.

I love going places nobody goes to because of how genuine the hospitality is and how welcoming locals are to visitors who have the courage to see for themselves. In Pakistan, the warmth and hospitality were as extreme as the threat of terrorism.

I found Lahori locals to be friendly, helpful and always offering to show me around. Guards and gatekeepers were quick to open doors and show me places that were closed to the public. I got to climb up minarets, down to catacombs and into tombs that were not open. I got explanations and anecdotes shared by the old men guarding the entrance to some of the most relevant places. They always walked with us around the sites as if they were showing us around their homes. Whenever we were lost, passers-by were happy to help us get directions. People were proud to share their slice of history with me and were pleased to see a foreigner.

This was most incredible from my hosts. I had got introduced to a local Pakistani who used to work for my same employer and he took care of me for the duration of my trip. They carried my bag so I could take photos, bought me cold water when the blazing sun was strongest and invited me to their house for dinner. They got me permits for places that required foreigners to register and introduced me to the most interesting people. They drove me around, they picked me up, they dropped me off, they even bought me an outfit for an engagement party they took me to. They took me for breakfast, lunch and diner to the best places. All along there was never talk of money despite my insistence. And, at the end of the trip, they did not let me pay for anything. My intention to pay for their expenses was met with deep disapproval, they were offended that I even asked. Upon my return, my colleagues agreed – this was Pakistani hospitality. It was unthinkable to let me pay for anything.

I should have learned to read the hints. Already before setting off my colleagues had helped me get the visa, including an invitation letter from the wife of one of them, and gave me their personal SIM card to use on the ground. In all my travels to 90 countries this was the deepest connection I had with the locals and the most generous hospitality I have been shown. Ever.

5. Unsafe and filled with guns

I have been to enough countries where the threat of terrorist attacks and conflict is real to recognise an AK-47 when I see it. In Lahore, they were everywhere and the level of police bordered absurdity. But this was not the locals carrying them but the armed forces.

It did not help that I arrived when the Zimbabwean cricket team was on the ground, after a six-year hiatus on international teams visiting motivated by the attack on the Sri Lankan team in 2009. The police presence in the streets was extreme and, around my hotel, where the team was staying, it reached ridiculous levels. There was a safety perimeter of a kilometre. Cars were checked for bombs with dogs and bomb squads. There were barricaded soldiers pointing their Kalashnikovs at every guest arriving. There were two soldiers in every corridor. I have never seen such an amount of elite army teams.

Aside from the security related to the game, the city is filled with Military Cantonments, which carry extra security. And even outside of the cantonments, we were constantly being stopped, the driver’s ID checked, the car verified. This created a lot of traffic jams making the entire city very inefficient. My local hosts were surprised that this security presence did not make me squeamish, but I am exception, to the regular traveler this would have been unsettling. I read Forbes Doug Bandow in 2013 describing Islamabad as “The kind of place where you can walk safely while not actually feeling safe.”

I did not feel unsafe. It was not the locals, contrary to what everyone thinks, who carried the guns, it was the police or the army. You know where I’ve seen signs asking patrons to “Please leave your guns outside”? In Texas. There was nothing remotely close to that in Lahore.

6. Chaotic, messy and dirty

From the images on TV and the articles on the press I had also envisioned the city to be chaotic, dirty, smelly, hot, humid and generally messy. I like these kind of settings and you are more likely going to find me lost in the confusion of a street market in an unknown country than in the orderly streets of a Western city. I enjoy seeing the real life. But to most people, chaos usually breeds distress and is a source of safety concerns.

I found Lahore, with perhaps the only exception being the Walled City, to be surprisingly clean and tidy. People don’t try to rip you off, take your money, steal from you or otherwise scam you anywhere. You are charged as much as the locals and there are street signs and a relative order in the chaos. Even when the traffic becomes surreal and you see the drivers of the various vehicles fight to squeeze through, there is a sense of peace and calmness in the air. People chat with the driver next to them, they smile, they take it easy. I never felt like this in India where the colors, the noises and the smells are so overpowering you find yourself exhausted at the end of the day. Pakistan had a soothing quality to the disarray of city life.

As much as all of the above, and many other myths, need to be dispelled, there were also a few things that were confirmed in my visit and which would only be fair to note.

Islamic culture protects women excessively and tends to expect us to be relatively submissive. I was talked down at twice, by the Reception Manager at the 4* Hotel with regards to a credit card issue, and by the personnel at the Business Class check-in counter of Thai Airways who even had the guts to tell me to “Relax”. When it was clear that I was not going to take any of that and I demanded to speak to the Manager they were not only shocked but also utterly offended – a woman speaking with emphasis back at them was surely a first. Perhaps these were isolated incidents but I couldn’t help but wonder if I would have received the same treatment had I been a man. I would almost certainly have not.

Safety is needs to be taken into account. Even if one can travel with precautions, you should try to avoid visiting alone because the visit will be slowed down by untraceable bureaucracy (how to get permits, where to register, how to avoid the “speed-up fees”, etc.) and language barriers – most people don’t speak English. Awareness is the best precaution when traveling, anywhere. Follow the local advice, they know best as the security threat affects Pakistanis as much as it affects foreigners.

As a foreign woman used to traveling to Muslim countries where my skin and hair color stands out I know that stares are unavoidable. It does not bother me in any way. When I travel I also ask to take photos of the locals and I snap away at all the sights. For them, I was as much an attraction as Lahori life was to me. I was as exotic to them as they were exotic to me and it is safe to say that I took as many photos as I featured in. The curiosity and the smiles won me over every time someone asked for a photo. Sometimes they asked and posed with me, other times they sneakily – though obviously – tried to steal a shot. All in all, I enjoyed my moments of fame.

Last but not least, if you visit, go with an open mind. Things will not be what your trained subconscious is unwillingly expecting and you should enjoy that. Who knows, maybe Pakistan will one day be removed from the West’s negative Travel Advisory lists. In April 2015 it has dropped to 8th position in the list of most dangerous countries according to IntelCenter, a supplier of data to Intelligence Agencies and in 2016 to 11th place.

One thing is true, the Pakistan I saw was not the place British Cricketer Ian Botham referred to as the place “(…) to send your mother in-law to for a month, all expenses paid”. Unless you really love her and she has an adventurous soul. I, like his mother-in-law, who eventually visited a few years after that remark, have unforgettable memories from our visit. When the mind is open, the heart is fondest.