Twenty hours through some fantastic scenery lands you in Islamabad or it’s sister city of Rawalpindi. Pindi is a sprawling metropolitan area characteristic of any south Asian city. Livestock walk the streets among honking cars, rickshaws, and food vendors. Organized chaos.
Islamabad, on the other hand, is one of the best planned cities. It has origins in the 60’s to replace Karachi as the capital of Pakistan. Roads form a grid system that provides easy and fast transport around the city. The Diplomatic Enclave houses all the embassies under tight security, as much of the city operates.
Lots of police checkpoints but its generally not a problem so zip around quickly on Islamabad’s highway arteries.
My stay here was firstly to acquire an Indian visa, a week process during which I could possibly leave. I parted with Eddy heading south to wait for a few days and try to find a couchsurfing host.
To my rescue came Badar and his amazing friends and family. In the ensuing 10 days I enjoyed perhaps the best hospitality anyone has shown me outside of my own family. Badar is the CEO and founder of a successful British Immigration Consultancy with 6 locations all over Pakistan.
I happened to arrive at a good time as he was traveling for his home village several hours away in Talhatta. He took me along for the ride and he stopped for my benefit in Taxila so I could see the museum there.
Taxila is the present day archaeological site of an ancient Buddhist center of learning in the Gandhāran empire. Dig sites and broken down stupas spot the area and are probably the main attraction since the museum is a bit lackluster. Their collection was small but the pieces were choice, with nice sculptures of Bodhisattva in a near classical Greet style. Th figures are life like and contain more attention to details like mustaches. The museum in Lahore would later have the best collection.
Talhatta was a welcome respite from the busy city life. Badar’s forefathers actually founded the village and nearly everyone is related somehow, including many, many uncles and cousins who I was always meeting. It proved to be a welcoming couple of days.
Badar and his longtime friend Yassin organized a barbecue one evening in their newly planted orange grove. The bbq chicken and other goodies were delicious. Relaxing time in the mountains looking at the river and taking night walks.
Upon return I stayed a few days with the family of some coworkers. I surfed with Osama and his brother Vicky. At one point we were watching a movie about a plot to kill the US President and Osama says to me, “Did you ever imagine in your life you’d be sitting in Pakistan with Osama watching this?” I had to laugh.
Vicky was a great friend to me and introduced me to many of his own friends. I felt very much at home in their presence with an atmosphere just like with my own friends in the States. Vicky ushered me many places, including a midnight visit to the bombed out Marriott Hotel, Parliament Building, local hangout at Jinah Super, and a scenic drive to the top of a mountain through some jungle. I got to see a lot of locations I otherwise would have missed.
It was hard to pull myself from their good company. This experience was true evidence to how couchsurfing.com can change the face of travel. It was great to be able to have conversations on political and religious themes and get their opinions. I expanded my knowledge of Islam and was also fortunate to be able to meet Badar’s religious teacher.
With Pakistan considered President-elect Obama’s number one foreign policy obstacle and the terror attacks in Bombay, this area of the world will have much effect on the rest. These are the people living with what you see in the news if Pakistan is mentioned. There are dangerous areas, such as the tribal regions near the Afghanistan border. Peshawar, the city before the Khyber Pass on route to Afghanistan, is unsafe though I did meet travelers who visited there. One American was recently ambushed and shot in his jeep there.
Even so, these stories are all that is reported from Pakistan. Friends and family who only see Pakistan through this lens deem everywhere to be dangerous. But my travels have shown me, much of the country is a dream to visit. The Northern Areas has been untouched by any unrest. Badar expressed what I think is a correct desire for Rule of Law that is held consistent. An accountability process that is dependable and applies to everyone including authority members. He himself is pushing forward a case against a bribery attempt not because he will get any monetary reward, but to follow through on the process as law dictates.
Upon leaving Badar treated me to a delicious meal of sheep and chicken Biryani. These sheep have huge humps of fat on the bums. I thought the posters I first saw of them were exaggerations as part of the ad, but then I saw some being pulled down the busy street.
We had some chai and I settled down for the morning train to Lahore.