Earlier this year I was backpacking Pakistan as part of the leadership team on the first ever Broke Backpacker adventure tour. Before visiting, I didn’t really know all that much about the country except that it was partitioned from India in 1947, was considered a dangerous place to visit and that it had amazing food.
Visiting Pakistan, therefore, proved to be a breath of fresh air with delightful surprises at every twisting turn. I learned a hell of a lot in my 3 weeks in the country but here are the top 8 things I never knew about Pakistan…
It’s a nation of stoners!
Hashish or Charas is a huge part of Pakistani culture and natives will happily smoke entire days away given the choice. Whilst alcohol is semi-prohibited and outwardly frowned upon (see below) smoking herb is delightfully commonplace. The reason’s for this are simple, the Quran expressly forbids the consumption of alcohol but is quiet on the subject of marijuana (presumably because it didn’t grow in medieval Saudi Arabia) so this is taken as a green light from Allah. The other reason I guess is that that there is just such sheer abundance of the stuff that it would be churlish not to smoke it; plants grow wildly in gardens, meadows and even through cracks in the pavements of Islamabad.
You CAN get drunk!
Most people presume that alcohol is completely banned in Pakistan but the reality is quite different. Alcohol is freely, legally available to foreigners and non-Muslims and Rawalpindi even has its own brewery, Murree, which does a half-decent lager using an old British colonial recipe. In truth, most Pakistani’s love a sneaky drink and are able to buy it from one of the licenses outlets simply by saying they are Christian (if the attendant even asks). However, it is not possible to drink in restaurants and there is no bar or club scene so once you get your hooch you are encouraged to go home and drink it privately and quietly. Procuring alcohol also gets logistically difficult once you get out of the cities and into the mountains which has led to a booming & dangerous bootlegging scene as well as the clandestine importation of sub-standard Chinese rice wines.
It has the best scenery in the world
OK so I haven’t yet seen the whole world yet but out of the 40+ countries I have visited so far, Pakistan by far has the most awesome, stunning and utterly majestic natural scenery. The Himalayan foothills of Hunza Valley are truly epic, largely undeveloped and only have a fraction of the trash that neighboring India has. The stone desert of Balochistan will inspire religious experience into all who gaze upon them and Phander Valley is a peaceful paradise. Pakistan also has 9 of the worlds top 20 biggest mountains including K2 and the deadly Nanga Pasat. The best thing of all is that, unlike Nepal, the trekking and mountaineering scene is still a low key affair in Pakistan so visitors may even find they have whole mountains and entire trekking routes all to themselves.
People speak English pretty well
I was kind of apprehensive about visiting Pakistan as I envisioned endless communication difficulties (Urdu isn’t exactly easy to learn) culminating in wrong restaurant orders and getting lost in taxis. However, I needn’t have worried. Because whilst Urdu is the official language of Pakistan, so is English! This is, of course, a legacy of British Colonial rule and the Pakistani constitution is written in the Queens. Education standards are generally low in Pakistan so don’t expect everybody to be fluent and ready to debate abstract concepts but, in the major cities and mountaineering areas, you can guarantee that your waiter, tuk-tuk driver and pharmacists will have just about enough English to execute your requests.
When it rains it RAINS…!
I guess somewhat naively I envisioned Pakistan as been eternally hot and stuffy and whilst that image is kind of true, the weather system is actually far more diverse. When I first arrived in Lahore I stepped out of the airport into a full blown deluge, the streets were flooded knee deep and my cab had to change route twice in order to get around watery streets. The mountain tops are also of course, magnificently capped with pristine, white snow for much of the year; this makes sense seen as Pakistan roughly translates to “Virgin Land”.
Pakistan is really diverse
Pakistan has only existed as a unified country since 1947 being roughly brought together under the banner of Islam. In truth though, aside from being under the chaff of British rule for 200 years, there is little that makes it one country and it feels more like a collection of tribal states. From one province or even from one valley to the next, dress code, culture, language and even skin color change dramatically and locals are more likely to describe themselves as Baltistan or Baloshi rather than Pakistani. There is, of course, a highly active separatist movement in Kashmir and lesser-known ones in Balochistan and Gilgit. In some of the areas, people don’t even consider themselves to be Muslim – I bet you didn’t expect that did you?!
One thing that does bring the people together though is cricket. They all love the game and get behind the national team especially when they are playing arch-rivals India.
Guns are cheap but hotels are expensive
Because of its tribal history, lawless regions and its geographical proximity to Afghanistan, there are a lot of weapons in Pakistan. In fact, UN shipments of ammunition, camping gear, canteens and pocket knives would also go amiss (“lost in Karachi” so the saying goes) and end up at the UN market or the world famous arms bazaar. Many people own handguns and even assault rifles as they can be bought cheaply. Despite this, the country is mostly safe and you rarely actually see people carrying them – they usually only use them to fire into the air to celebrate weddings or cricket results. On the other hand, because of limited supply and high taxes, hotel rooms can be very pricey. A half decent room will set you back at least $40 in Lahore which is a frigging fortune in central Asia. Fortunately, that’s the one and only thing that’s expensive in Pakistan.
Pakistani’s are the most hospitable people on earth!
The Quoran states that it is a Muslim’s duty to feed, house and generally do right by a stranger in ones land and nowhere else is that principle better embodied than in Pakistan. On countless occasions during our trip, I and the tour group were given free chai, feasts fit for kings, hashish and invited into peoples homes at every turn. I guess that aside from the Islamic code this is also borne out a genuine curiosity about foreigners and a desire to show the world that Pakistan is nothing like Fox News wants you to think it is. The most hospitable people of all, are in the Northern reaches of the country. The kindness we received at the traditional Baltistan villages was unparalleled and made me feel truly humbled.
My only fear is that the more Pakistan opens up to international tourism, the thinner this hospitality and curiosity will wear. With that in mind, the best thing you can do is get yourself there to see, taste, smoke, and experience Pakistan all for yourself right now before its too late. The best way you can do this is by joining one of The Broke Backpacker adventure tours – plus you also get to hang out with me.