By Nick Welman
Everything seems broken in the Abasseen Express with which I travel from Multan to Rawalpindi. Lights are broken, the fan is broken, the coupé door does not close, the window is jammed, the toilet does not flush. “Yes, that’s Pakistan,” says Sadiq, my coupe mate in the first class sleeping wagon. He doesn’t mean it as an apology at all, an appropriate pride just rings in his voice. We, as Europeans, abhor adversity. We invest billions in efficiency, in management systems, in all kinds of risk-a-management. Pakistanis, on the other hand, embrace the setbacks. They incorporate them into their culture, they make them part of everyday life, part of their identity. It’s so relaxed. You have much less stress that way.
The name of my train, Abasseen Express, is derived from the Pakistani name for the River Indus. Abasseen means very poetic: the mother of all rivers. But – in stark contrast to that poetic name – the floor of the coupe is so dirty that I reluctantly put my luggage there. Sadiq senses my reticence.
“We Pakistanis are free people,” he jokes. “We don’t mind a bit of dirt.”
In our conversation (Sadiq is a physics teacher in the city of Quetta), the conversation is directed towards favorite colors.
“My favorite color is gray,” explains Sadiq.
“Gray?” I frown. “What a curious favorite color. If someone in Holland (where I am from) were to say that, everyone would think he is very boring and conservative. Or maybe even a bit depressed by nature.”
“Why?” Argues Sadiq. “It’s a beautiful color. Look at your own shirt. That is gray. If you don’t like gray, why are you wearing it?”
Indeed, I am wearing a gray cotton shirt.
“What is your favorite color?”, Sadiq wants to know.
“Red”, I answer to the best of my knowledge.
“Red? You shouldn’t say something like that in Pakistan. When you say red is your favorite color, everyone will think that you are very aggressive and violent.”
You can’t characterize Pakistan as a typical holiday destination. The more luxurious hotels of the Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation (PTDC), the official state-owned company that promotes tourism at the major sites, are often chronically understaffed. You’ll find the PTDC hotels at attractions like the ruin cities of Mohenjo Daro and Taxila. I dined regularly at the PTDC hotel in Taxila; every time I appeared I got an extra dish for free. On my last visit I only had to pay for the salad; Apparently, they rarely get such regulars.
Few tourists choose Pakistan as their main destination. Most travelers are passing through, with or without organized tours. For example, from Iran to India, or on the spectacular Karakoram route that runs through the Himalayas to China. Almost everyone who visits Pakistan in this way, as a stopover, as a transit country, eventually becomes fascinated. Pakistan is a country that is very ‘itself’, with a unique identity and somewhat self-retented. This makes the visit a special experience for many.
What do I wear?
Pakistan is a real man’s country, in the sense that I spent a week with friends living in Mandibahauddin town, centrally located in northern Punjab. During this time, I was not introduced to any women, I was not allowed to shake their hands, and I was not even taught their names. On public transport, men and women travel in separate compartments on Pakistani trains, and some women travel with their faces completely covered, so that even the eyes remain hidden. As a result, it is recommended for female tourists to dress accordingly and adjust clothing styles. No one will force you to wear a headscarf, not all Pakistani women wear it either, but completely covering your arms and legs, and not emphasizing certain body parts is recommended. The easiest way is to simply bring some extra cash and to step into a clothing store after arriving in Karachi, Islamabad or Lahore. Ask some advice on something that is comfortable to wear, looks good and is considered appropriate. By adapting to the Pakistani dress style, you will stand out less and have less chance of being bothered by men. In the big world cities like Karachi and Lahore you might get away with a tanktop and shorts, but in any other place in Pakistan, it is highly inappropriate for both women as well as men. As a result, when going on vacation to Pakistan, you might as well leave your shorts at home. If you now start to wonder about how things work at the beach, rest assured. Pakistan has no beach tourism, because the few desolate beaches around Karachi are one big misery. You do not have to fit “a week of rest at the beach” into your travel schedule. Instead, focus on Pakistan’s rich cultural heritages.
Unlike in some other countries, as a foreigner, you are welcome in just about every mosque as long as you stick to the rules (take off your shoes; wash your hands, face and feet, cover your head). If you have any doubts about something, such as how or when you enter as a woman, simply ask for advice. Most Pakistanis will appreciate your visit to a mosque and your willingness to learn about Islam, and are therefore happy to help you.
If you want to do the washing in the mosque completely according to the rules, you must perform the following actions in sequence: wash your hands three times, rinse your mouth three times, ‘rinse’ your nose three times, wash your face three times, three times your arms and three times your feet. You always start on the right, followed by the left. Baskets with hats are ready in the mosque, which you should use if you are bareheaded. Just take one out and put it on.
Pakistan as travel destination
The north of Pakistan – the peaks of K2 (8611 m.) and Nanga Parbat (8126 m.), the valleys around Hunza, Gilgit and Chitral – is a great destination for mountain climbers and (semi) professional expeditions. These mountains are for experienced mountaineers who hardly need any explanation as to how to prepare for such treks. For those people, Pakistan is an interesting destination, especially if you are also motivated to actually get to know the Muslim culture. People who want to marvel at beautiful pictures and like to have their camera at the ready, can better look elsewhere. In addition, remember that you can only get alcohol in the most expensive international hotels or in illegal circuits in Pakistan. If your ideal holiday is sitting on a sunny terrace with a glass of beer or wine in your hand, then Pakistan is not the right place for you.
Pakistani speak their own variety of English, but it is not mastered by all Pakistani. At first you will have difficulty with their pronunciation, but you will get used to it. Almost without exception, every Pakistani thought that I spoke very poor English.
If you decide to travel by bus or minibus, leave very early in the morning, because in the course of the afternoon transport slowly comes to a standstill. You will notice that the country is rich in exhaust fumes. Public transport is present everywhere as well. However, while the Indian railways are a motor behind the economy, the Pakistani railways are run by a distressed company that is constantly on the brink of bankruptcy. There are plenty of trains and you usually get where you need to be, but do not count on things such as a comfortable night’s sleep. Every larger train station sells a timetable, “Trains at a Glance”, with which you can plan your train journeys. I advise you to try to book trains in advance, but if the train of your preference is already fully booked, there will always be an alternative. A last tip: the best class is incidentally the “air-conditioned sleeper” or the “lower a-c”.
Pakistanis greet each other with “Assalaam Alaikum” – peace be upon you. This greeting is certainly not reserved for Muslims, so use it to greet others. Shake someone’s hand, make eye contact, and say the words slowly, loudly and clearly. You will definitely make them happy.
Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation
General tourist information about Pakistan