Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Dilemma of travelling in Pakistan

                  Our cycling in Pakistan was to take 5 to 6 weeks to complete, from the border crossing at Wagah across the country to Taftan and into Iran. The plan seemed simple enough until you encounter the 'real-life' situations in 'today's' Pakistan. We left Lahore (cycling) towards Multan, Quetta and Taftan, a distance of about 2,000 km., but while cycling in itself is no big deal, what we encountered along the way is 'extraordinary' to say the least. 85km out of Lahore at a rest area for 'chai' (tea) we met Mr Shawkat, a distributor of Shazen products in the locality, whom after listening to the stories of our 'adventure' invited us to stop at his village (Renala Khurd) for a meal, and to make it easier for us, loaded our bicycles into his van and drove us to his village to meet his family.
                    Haji Muhammad Fahim, his brother-in-law then insisted that we stay for the night before moving on. He also cooked the tastiest chicken curry I've tasted since leaving Malaysia taken with chapatis and also provided us a room for the night. Before spending the night in the village we had to go to the local police station to report our presence in the village, as assurance that Haji was not harbouring 'foreign agents' in his house. Haji Fahim had worked in Manchester, as maintainence manager of the Holiday Inn before returning to settle in Pakistan as his family was not comfortable with the lifestyle and culture in England. Haji Fahim is also a widely travelled man and speaks good English.        
                     The next morning we left the village with a heavy heart, leaving behind people who had been so kind and generous and that we are not likely to meet again. Haji Fahim even presented Aede with a jacket knowing that we would face colder conditions as we progress. We continued cycling and had hoped to stop in Shahiwal for the night but were utterly flabbergasted when no hotels would take us in for security reasons. It was indeed a frustrating situation and we had no choice but to move on. In Multan we were faced with the same situation. Small hotels without authorization to accept foreign visitors again refused us and turned us away.Foreign visitors are only accepted at 'star rated' Hotels with security sanctions, places which we could not afford.                                                                                                                                                 Luckily we managed to contact Sajjad's ( the manager at Lahore Backpackers) cousin ,Ali, who arranged for us to stay with a family in Multan. Haji Shawkat and his brother Mr Masood are businessmen manufacturing and exporting textile products like embroidered bedsheets, rugs and prayer mats for export to Saudi Arabia , Indonesia , Malaysia etc. We visited the factory and also the retail shop and then taken around the city to be introduced to everyone wherever we stopped. We visited the huge market where everything is sold from thread and needles, pots and pans, chains and locks, shampoo and perfumes etc
               When they know that we are Malaysians and are Muslims they promptly mentioned Dr Mahathir although they had never visited Malaysia.I drank countless number of 'chais' and cokes in the process. Such is the friendliness of the people.I doubt if other Malaysians have visited Multan. Multan is a very old city dating back to the time of Alexander the Great ( some believe he died in Multan) . Invaders including the Huns, Arabs, Moghuls right up to the British have fought for control of the city. There are several old shrines in the city - the most outstanding being the Shah Rukn- e- Alam ( pillar of the people) built in 1320. It is truly a magnificent structure winning the Aga Khan award for architectural restoration. The shrine of Hazrat Bahaudin Zakaria (1182 - 1266), Shah Rukn's grandfather, is another magnificent structure. The intricate carvings seen inside and the blue tiles and superb frescoes seen on the facade are a real marvel.

                More Muslims from Malaysia need to travel to these places to see and appreciate Islamic art at its finest. Our stay in Multan is indeed memorable as we made friends with so many people from the man in the streets to the very well-to-do. We were hosted to a sumptuous dinner by youngsters Ali and Mutahzar (19 and17) whom we met in Shahiwal. Their father is the Pakistani High Commissioner to New Zealand and are back for a vacation. The family is well known in Multan and owns huge tracks of real estate including a castle. Their residence is walled with armed personnel manning the entrance. They also have a farm near Multan and homes in Lahore. Being sons of a diplomat they have travelled widely and are well read. When travelling by train they use the private VIP carriage complete with valet and waiters as their uncle is in charge of the Railways. 
                  Also in   Multan we enjoyed the company of 'Uncle Masood' who provided us with a hilarious show of his antics to friends and family members while we were there. To us, he is No 1 showman in Pakistan. From Multan we did not continue to cycle towards Quetta as we were advised to consider other options due to the security risks. Instead we travelled to Rawalpindi and to Islamabad (in the opposite direction) to seek advice from the  Malaysian High Commission there.                                                                       
              Cycling on Pakistani roads (and highways) are fairly easy as traffic is not heavy except in towns and cities, and as we approached Islamabad the roads are wide and with good road signs. We reached the youth hostel without difficulty but I had to make a new membership card to replace the one I lost with my wallet to enable me to stay there. That cost me 800 rupees. The hostel has basic facilities and is affordable.            
             The Malaysian High Commission in Islamabad follows strange working hours : the notice at the gate says , open Mondays to Fridays from 8am to 12 noon. On Friday it closes at noon and re-opens on Monday. A long weekend I'd say. Islamabad is a modern city (Adminstrative Capital) like what Putrajaya is to Malaysia. It was designed in 1958 by the then President Ayub Khan . Foreign architects and planners were brought to plan from the scratch and as a result the city does not have much character like Putrajaya.The city has wide tree-lined avenues, and rectangular modern buildings with little architectural identities.                                                                                                                                        
             There are however some interesting sights to see, like the 'Monument', situated on a hill overlooking the city, the Cultural Village and the Islamabad museum. There are several ways to move around Islamabad but luckily no motor rickshaws are allowed. The most popular mode seemed to be the Toyota and Mitsubishi vans that seats 9 to 10 passengers but is more often packed to up to 20 passengers (not a good image to portray in a modern capital city). The Faisal Mosque is another attraction in Islamabad. It ia a gift from King Faisal bin Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia and designed by a Turkish architect. It has minarets rising up to 88 meters. The mosque can accomodate 100,000 worshipers.
             While we need to leave Pakistan in the last week of January (unless we have our visas extended) we are not too keen to leave so soon as we do not want to be in Europe too early because of the cost factor. Here in Pakistan we can enjoy the same cost as in Malaysia or even lower, but once we leave Pakistan the cost will progressively rise. We have been in Pakistan for more than 3 weeks now, but so far we have only met about a dozen tourists (all in Lahore) .To see a Malaysian tourist would be wishful thinking and to see a Malay (Muslim) tourist would be a 'miracle'. I have spoken to several operators of adventure tours and treks including to K2 base camps and the Karakoram regions, but all have yet to see Malaysian Malays (Muslims) doing the treks. Many Malaysian Chinese and Singaporeans have done so but not Malays. Why?  I know why, but I am not telling you.

              The one irritation that people cannot avoid in Pakistan is the regular power cuts throughout the day. In most places we have been, it takes place at regular intervals , some lasting one hour and some lasting for two hours. So, you need to know when you can use the computer (if there is connection) or when to do the laundry (if you have a washing machine). All banks and most business and commercial buildings have generators that automatically switch on when the power is off. It is strange that with several rivers flowing from the mountains that HEP (hydro electric power) cannot be generated to provide enough supply for the whole country if proper planning is done . The other problem that is apparent is the shortage of fuel that drives the vehicles using gas. In many places you see vehicles lining up to fill gas at the pumps. We are told that there are shortages and in some cases have disrupted public transportation  like the railways. Speak to any Pakistanis they will tell you the trains are always fully packed but at the same time losing money.

               What most seem to agree is that the leaders are corrupt including the President. Fresh elections are expected soon and Pakistanis are optimistic of a brighter future. I hope so, too. One thing a Pakistani will proudly tell you is that very few Pakistanis live below the poverty level while in neighbouring India 50 percent of the people live below poverty level.
                 When we were in Lahore we appeared on TV on two channels: Channel 5 and Xpress Channel describing our interesting adventure. Since then, many people recognized us and in many places people stop to chat with us and have photographs taken with us. To many of them it must be unusual to see a father and son cycling together for such a long period and through so many countries. Many just want to know why we are doing it.

Leaving Lahore

At Renala Khurd

Prayer mat factory in Multan

Delhi Gate in Multan

Mausoleum of Shah Rukn-e-Alam

With  Ali and Mutahzar

With University of Karachi netball team and their coach

At the monument in Islamabad


Joe said...

Amazing stories!

Anonymous said...

oh adnan,so so so nice to hear from u.we were so must be very interesting to travel in pakistan.2000 km pedalling without any word with happy u 2 r on track.wish to hear more stories from u.may god bless us all.Deen from J.B. Malaysia.

Anonymous said...

Great Pic, Nice to know that you both are well and enjoying the place.
I rang home to find out where you all are?
Anyway happy travelling looks like its pretty cold there.
Here we had terrible weather Yesterday it snowed in the mountains. On News years day we had Thunder Storm with hails stone as big a the golf balls. Did a lot of damanges to cars and houses.
Will keep track of you blog.
Take care and God Bless. Melbourne

chief gabril said...

Introduced by the Pakistan tour, now in the form of monuments and archaeological heritage preservation in the nature of their conquerors with an attractive land.

KNizam said...

salam tuan. good to read your travelogue here. good luck on your cycling journey towards europe. pray for your safety and health. :)

there's one malaysian whom had made to the 14 days journey to K2 basecamp last year. Mr Shaiful Bahari, he's now stationed at Jakarta :)

Anonymous said...

hai adnan aede how r u 2.hope u r in good health and on track.wish u both all the best.good bye[god be with u]. deen j.b. malaysia.