Pakistan: The Forgotten Quarter


When British India became independent in 1947, almost one-quarter of the subcontinent was split off to be a Muslim country, Pakistan (then West and East, the latter split off in 1971 and renamed Bangladesh).  Tourists flock to India proper; to Pakistan, not so much.  Tour companies skip it entirely.  When a guy in England who regularly leads tours to the garden spots of Afghanistan and Iraq announced an exploratory tour of South Pakistan and the Indus Valley, I am on it.

Getting there is not so easy if you want to fly on a US or European carrier.  I go on Etihad via Abu Dhabi.  This is my first experience with the new mideast-based global carriers (the others being Emirates and Qatar), and I am impressed: ordinary coach on Etihad is better than “economy comfort” on Delta.  The 777 from New York is packed with Indians heading home – instead of having to transfer to a domestic flight in Mumbai or Delhi, they connect in Abu Dhabi on a direct flight to their destination city. I don’t see a single Arab on the plane.

The joining hotel for the tour is in Rawalpindi, a prosaic commercial city that shares an airport with the national capital, Islamabad.  I arrive late at night. The next morning our leader and his companion arrive from England.  With a Chinese gal from California, we are four.

We drive to Islamabad for a bit of sightseeing.  And I mean “a bit.” The city was founded in 1960 as a seat of government and has shopping centers, government buildings, and diplomatic facilities, but sights are thin on the ground.  The main one is Faisal Mosque, a gift from Saudi Arabia and the fourth largest in the world (after Mecca, Medina, and Casablanca).  A jaunt into the hills affords a scenic overlook.  What we really want to do is drive to Abbotabad to see Osama Bin Laden’s hideout, but, alas, the house has been razed to prevent it from become a pilgrimage site   



The next day we drive to the archeological site of Taxila, a series of excavated mounds beneath which are the ruins of cities dating back four thousand years.  Successive civilizations flourished until around the year 500, when invading “White Huns” from Central Asia ended it all. The site is noted for Gandharan artifacts unearthed there but, because the building material used was brick rather than stone, little survives.  Continual erosion from rainwater reveals fresh finds which enterprising guides and guards eagerly offer for sale.  (I buy a square Indo-Greek silver coin with a clear image of an elephant on one side and Alexander the Great on the obverse.)  Taxila is on the World Heritage List and ranks as the #1 foreign-tourist attraction in Pakistan, undoubtedly because it is an easy day trip for diplomatic personnel and businessmen and there is a dearth of any other type of tourists.


The route to Taxila is along the Grand Trunk Road, which stretches from Kabul to Delhi.  The road also serves to display the decorated trucks that are distinctive to Pakistan.


A bit further on is Peshawar, gateway to the Khyber Pass, but we are unable to continue because ahead are multiple checkpoints that turn back foreigners.  This is also the beginning of the Northwest Frontier Province, home to the Pashtun tribe that is the base of support for the Taliban.  The men wear a distinctive cap that looks a bit like a Tam O’Shanter.

The next day is a trip to Rohtas Fort, built in the 16th century to protect the Punjabi plain from invaders coming via the Khyber Pass. With walls 4km in circumference, it is considered the finest example of Pashtun-Hindu architecture.  Anywhere else, a sight like this would be crawling with tourists, but here we are alone.


After four nights with Rawalpindi as a base, we move on.  So far it has been a bit chilly (exacerbated by the lack of central heating), so I am looking forward to warmer climes.  We head towards Lahore, but, on the way, a couple of stops.

The first is Kitas Raj, a Hindu holy site.  The parts of India that became Pakistan were predominately Muslim, but not exclusively so.  The Hindus all fled, but their pilgrimage sites remain.  Despite an almost sealed border for the past sixty years, groups of religious pilgrims are periodically allowed to visit.

Our second stop is Khewas Salt Mine.  Discovered by Alexander the Great, it is the second largest salt mine in the world and a major local attraction, drawing a quarter of a million visitors a year.  Inside there is a mosque made of salt and plenty of salt souvenirs for sale.


Finally, we reach Lahore, the historic capital and principal city of the Punjab.  Since most of the Punjab was awarded to India, people were shocked when the border was drawn to place Lahore inside Pakistan.  Formerly almost evenly split between Hindu and Muslim, the city, like the country at large, is now “the land of the pure.”


Lahore Fort is the main drawing card, big in every respect.  It was both a military garrison and royal residence.


Across the street is the Badshahi Mosque, long the largest in the world, now fifth in size (though its courtyard is still holds the size record).  Built in Mughul style, it is impressive in every respect.


The Shalimar Gardens were designed for and constructed by Shah Jahan, builder of the Taj Mahal.  The name “Shalimar” might be evocative of oriental splendor, but these days the grounds are pretty shabby.  The fountains and pools have been drained to fight mosquito-borne dengue fever.  (What, they never heard of insecticide?)

The Lahore Museum is reputed to be one of the finest in South Asia, but contains mostly boring and repetitive statuary.  My lack of enthusiasm seems to be shared: there are no tourist vehicles in the parking lot other than ours.

The Wazir Khan Mosque is a small-scale gem, also courtesy of Shah Jahan.  Instead of impressing by size, its beauty is in its intricate colored mosaics.  One of its minarets was damaged by an artillery shell lobbed by India in one of their periodic border skirmishes.


Yup, the border is very close.  When in Punjab I attended the gate closing ceremony staged daily at sunset at the Waggah Border Crossing.  This time I witness the pomp and circumstance from the Pakistani side. Attendance on this side is much smaller, so we can sit up close to the action.  Enthusiasm is high, egged on by flag waving cheerleaders.  On the other side of the gate we can see the huge crowds of Indian spectators.  Relations between the two countries range from frosty to hostile, so this bit of daily swagger is about as friendly as it gets.


Leaving Lahore, we are also leaving the comparatively cosmopolitan and liberal part of Pakistan; from here south it’s hard core Islamism and xenophobia.  All travel from here on out is with an armed escort: generally a police jeep with four guards.  We are not in any real danger, but the government doesn’t want any incidents to damage their already fragile tourist industry.  It’s not unusual: government officials normally travel with a security escort – it might not be of help in a serious attack, but does deter opportunistic stone-throwing or confrontation.  (Plus, it creates employment.)  Just to be sure, I am advised, if asked, to identify myself as a Canadian.  (Eh?)


We visit Harrapa, where the Indus Valley civilization was rediscovered by British archeologists in the 1920’s.  Civilization first arose in four places: Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, and India, but the latter disappeared to history.  In the 19th century workers building the Lahore-Multan railroad found large quantities of fired bricks and appropriated them for construction; only much later did anyone think to look in the holes to see if there was anything else.  The city dates back more than 5000 years, but died out about 1500 B.C., right around the time of Moses.  The site is significant to the upmost, but holds little of interest for the jaded tourist – the artifacts have been removed to museums and just outlines of foundations remain.

In Multan, we stay at the Executive Guest House. Apparently it caters to executives who are not overly demanding about such things as hot water. Also, an extra blanket would have been of more use than the prayer rug provided.  They must not get many fair-haired guests: the sachets of shampoo provided contain black dye. Here, we are on lockdown, not allowed to leave the hotel without escort, even to the KFC across the street.


Multan is known as the city of Sufis, saints, and beggars.  It is chockablock full of shrines housing the tombs of Sufi saints, each attractive in its own right, but collectively they blur together.  Some are busy, others quiet; there are guardians chanting prayers and others banging sticks on metal alms boxes.  The people are friendly, greeting me with salaam alekum, instead of “death to America.” (If they only knew).



In Multan, you have to be a sound sleeper to make it past the 5:30 AM call to prayer.  However, it takes a while to get underway because we can't leave before our chronically late security team arrives.


We drive past green, green fields of newly-planted wheat.  Punjab is the breadbasket of both India and Pakistan, and it is no coincidence that the Indus Valley was a cradle of civilization.  Enroute, we are periodically met by and handed off to new escort vehicles.


The itinerary includes a visit a pottery factory, but our guide and driver have difficultly finding it because they keep getting directions to a poultry factory.  Finally, we get to the right place. The wares are colorful, folksy, and very cheap.  The master craftsman, who family came from Persia three centuries ago and brought with them the art of miniature painting, shows us some of the ultrafine work produced by his father and him: the national anthem painted on a needle; verses from the Koran painted on rice grains, wheat grains, and oat grains.  The price of seeing these is having to watch him sift through an entire photo album of himself with various dignitaries, diplomats, and politicians.

We arrive at our next destination: Bahawalpur.  Instead of a private hotel or guesthouse, we reside in a facility owned and operated by the Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation.  It consists of six one-bedroom bungalows inside a walled compound plus support buildings; on the other side of the wall are accommodations for visiting judges.  It’s obviously a jobs program because there is abundant staff but no other guests.  The reason we stay here is because our escort, from the Punjab Elite Police, has to stay in government quarters.



Bahawalpur was an autonomous princely state, whose ruler, in 1947, chose to become part of Pakistan.  It is on the edge of the Cholistan Desert; on other side is Bikaner, a princely state that became part of India and which I visited in 2009.  The Victorian-era royal palace is best looking building in town, but it is now used by the army so not even photos are allowed much less visits.  The Library is one of several other stately buildings.

Politics intrudes on our holiday: yesterday a car bomb exploded in a crowded market in Quetta, capital of Baluchistan State. In protest/solidarity/respect the merchants have closed early, cutting short our afternoon shopping excursion.

Perhaps because of yesterday’s events, we are now twice as important: we get a second escort vehicle for the drive to Derawar Fort.  Located in the Cholistan Desert, it changed hands periodically between the Maharajah of Jaisalmer (also on my 2009 trip) and the Nawab of Bahawalpur.  It is, in a word, spectacular.  As usual, there are no other visitors.



Afterwards, we ride camels to the necropolis of the family that still owns the fort.

Continuing southwest, we enter Sindh province and drive to Sukkur by way of Uch Sharif.  Our itinerary is confined to Punjab and Sindh, avoiding the Northwest Frontier and Baluchistan provinces which both border Afghanistan and are subject to spillover of its troubles.  In the Quetta bombing 80 were killed, mainly Shias, probably the work of the Taliban.  At Uch, our route is blocked by a large protest demanding greater government protection against the Taliban.  While we are threading our way around the demonstration our guide explains to me the ubiquitous posters for the upcoming election: the guy with the broad smile is “Mr. 20%”; the guy with the half-smile is “Mr. 10%”; and the guy with scowl is, at the moment, Mr. Wannabe, currently at 0% and seeking to improve his position. A recruiting poster for the Pakistani Navy outlines the steps needs to join up, including the delivery of a 100 rupee draft payable to “Director of Recruiting.”

Uch Sharif was founded by Alexander the Great and is famous for its shrines.  There are some good ones (World Heritage and all that), but, yes, by now I am getting shrined out.


Our next overnight is Sukkur an ancient and important city on the Indus.  We stay at the Stepp Inn, where the motto is ”Your Satisfaction is Our Pleasure.”  (If so, they lead a very ahedonic life.)  My room is dated but large, featuring a Victorian fainting couch.

The natives are restless: we don local headgear and our security team abandons their jeep to join us in the minibus.  We visit the Sukkur Barrage, built across the Indus during the Raj to control a vast irrigation system, and a 100’ ft high conical minaret from 1607.


We need a boat to take us to Sadhu Bela, a Hindu Temple on an island in the middle of the Indus.  Once a major pilgrimage site, it is well-maintained but lonely now that the Hindu population fled to India.


On the way to Mohendojaro, the country’s premier archeological site, we have to reroute: the demonstrators are out early, not waiting, as usual, until the Friday prayers have let out.

The site is remarkable and extensive, although remains of mud brick cities cannot compare to those of stone.


We stay in an on-site guesthouse.  I feel like I am in a country-warp: my room clock is set to India time (Pakistan time +30 minutes), and there is a second access to the bathroom from the corridor so the untouchables can clean it without polluting the sleeping area. I can’t complain about the room’s size: it can hold a chamber orchestra plus audience.  No wi-fi, though.

We stop in Sehwan for one more shrine: the tomb of the a 13th century Sufi saint.  It is quite a good one, in terms of the building itself and the size and enthusiasm of the worshippers.


The next stop is a modern shrine: the Bhutto family mausoleum at Larkana, their home town.  Ali Bhutto was prime minister during the 1970’s.  His career ended at the end of a hangman’s noose in 1979.  His daughter, Benazir, was prime minister at various times in the 1990’s and assassinated in 2007.  Their tombs are housed in a Taj Mahal-type structure.  The forecourt has a helicopter pad and plenty of room for mass rallies.  The entrance road is blocked off and fortified against truck bombs.  Inside, a gallery displays huge campaign posters of Benazir.  On martyr’s wall has a year by year list through 2011, when the Governor of Punjab met his fate for criticizing the severity of the country’s blasphemy laws.  Overall, the place is a fine monument to the Pakistani tradition of offing those with whom you disagree.



We proceed to Manchar Lake, the largest lake in Pakistan, created by the Sukkur barrage.  We are supposed to visit people of the Mohana tribe, who live on the lake in houseboats.  Reputedly descendants of the ancient Medes (and often called such), they are ethnically distinct from the Sindhi who surround them.  When we arrive at a lakeside village, there is a political meeting of some sort in progress.  For the first time, the people seem hostile to our presence.  (Looking at the photos I took that afternoon, everyone, old and young, had a scowl or a threatening look.  We engage a boat to take us out to the Mohanas, but they won't get closer than a couple of hundred yards: they explain that there is trouble between the boat and shore people, and they are not allowed any nearer.  Oh well, the Religion of Peace and all that.

On to Hyderabad (not to be confused with the city of the same name in southern India).  There’s nothing to see here, just a stopover for the night.  In the morning the protests have gone big time.  We sit around the lobby waiting for the word that it is safe to depart.  We can see the black smoke from burning tires curling up around the smiling portrait of the mayor on the “Welcome to Hyderabad” billboard.

A benefit of the ongoing unrest is that no one else is at the Shah Jahani Mosque in Thatta.  Constructed by the builder of the Taj Mahal, it is made of red brick and blue tile instead of white marble.


Also in Thatta is one of the world’s largest necropolises, featuring finely-carved sandstone tombs both large and small.  We get a bonus snake charmer.



Finally, we reach Karachi, the end of our journey.  Post-independence the population has exploded to an estimated 23 million, making it Pakistan’s largest city and one of the world’s mega hellholes.  It is the weekend and there is a hangover from the protests, so the degree of traffic congestion is tolerable.

Despite its size, Karachi has only two places worth seeing: Jinnah’s mausoleum and the National Museum.

Jinnah was the father of the nation: his intransigence in insisting on a separate county for Muslims led to the partition of India.  Someone asks the guide whether Jinnah had any children: No, only a daughter.”


The museum is a 1970’s pile. Most of the rooms are closed for renovation.  Those that are open, including a display of coins form “ancient Pakistan” (hah!), are thick with dust while the staff sits around drinking tea.  Fresh paint has dripped onto the exhibits while drop cloths are in a pile on the floor.  The only room which shows any sign of care is the Koran gallery.

The shopping Karachi, however, is the best yet.  The markets contains treasures and souvenirs both new and old at low, low prices.  One of my acquisitions is an exquisite embroidered-in-silver antique wedding gown that will be just perfect for my next 15 year old bride.

It’s been two and half weeks. I get driven to the airport for my flight direct to Abu Dhabi.  It will take our driver and guide five days on the road to get back to their homes in Gilgit in the far north.  For me, that destination will have to wait for my next visit.

Trip date: February, 2013

Site Meter