One young man even made it a point to request that when I return to the US, I tell all my friends that, “We are not terrorists…we want peace. We welcome Americans to come visit and see.” It was very moving.
One Wrong Move…
Mom had been warning me for years that “getting old sucks.” She wasn’t lying.
I ran to the dresser to grab my wallet. I needed cash to tip the young man picking up my laundry. That’s when I felt that sharp, violent, stabbing-twisting-tightening sensation. I knew this feeling all to well…my back just gave out. Crap.
Though I’d tried to be extremely cautious lifting and hauling around my heavy backpack—I even got loosened up by my chiropractor before leaving home—all this travel had finally caught up to me and my back tightened up like with a painful spasm that told me I’d officially done too much. So I’d take it extremely easy for my first two days in Pakistan. I started in Karachi that first day, but not leaving my hotel room until after 2PM. I’d been going to hard, too fast.
I probably shouldn’t have chosen a motorized rickshaw for my ride over to Mohatta Palace. Besides the crazy driving—I held on for dear life—every bump and pothole sent shocks through my poor spine. That couldn’t be helping my already crippled condition.
Mohatta Palace was closed—apparently every Monday—so I took a 15-minute walk down to the beach. I enjoyed scoping out all the vendors and loved that I didn’t see any other tourists; locals only in every direction. A camel ride on the sand sure looked fun, but not with this jacked up back.
(Food) Court is Now in Session
After the beach visit, I walked over to the Dolmen Mall, which was pretty impressive, considering the region. It was a great place to use the restroom, wash my hands and find some food. The food court offered so many different options. Like foreign grocery stores, I also enjoy browsing mall food courts and seeing both familiar and brand new (to me) outlets. I thought One Potato Two Potato was an odd/funny name for a Pakistani restaurant. There was an interesting Turkish joint too. After a couple rounds around the area I settled on a sit-down restaurant called Gun Smoke. Yeah, I’m a horrible traveler for bypassing traditional local fare for a chain steakhouse inside a shopping mall, but the burgers looked soooo good, plus, I hadn’t eaten American food for weeks…I was beginning to have withdrawals. Turned out their BBQ whiskey burger was actually one of the best hamburgers I’ve ever had, so score! And it was pretty amusing seeing Pakistani waiters dressed in cowboy outfits.
After my meal I had a nice browse through the mall’s grocery store to pick up supplies for the night (gummy bears, chocolate, etc.), and then it was back to the hotel and and lights out pretty early. My crippled body needed rest.
New Year’s Eve, and I felt like complete death in the morning. I had good sleep, but my back had tightened up so much overnight that it felt like it was going to snap in half. I had breakfast at the hotel for the second time and didn’t make it outside until after 2PM. It was the end of an almost four-week trip and I was feeling it.
Living for the City
As I headed east on foot, I was relieved when the highway where my hotel was located soon turned into a regular street with sidewalks, and later, tons of shops. The Marriott Karachi sat in a pretty pedestrian un-friendly area: With just inches to walk on the side of the road, I prayed not to get hit by the nonstop stream of speeding traffic. But soon I hit Fatima Jinnah Road and all was right again: tons and tons of old school stores and shops, from tailors to electronics to jewelry. It was the kind of street scene I live for and my mood instantly improved. I was really having fun now, as I made my way closer to my target: The Empress Market.
The biggest challenge for me in Karachi was crossing the street. Besides the absolutely insane traffic, I didn’t notice any working traffic lights, and there darn sure weren’t any crosswalks. It was a real-life game of Frogger and it seemed like I was on level 10! I found the best way to cross the street was with a group of people. I rarely dared to try to cross myself, waiting for a group of at least two or three others, as I cowered behind them, using them as a shield. The cars, motorcycles and buses were relentless, and not stopping for anything or anybody! A couple times I found myself in the middle of the road, between speeding traffic, stuck between the lanes waiting for another opening to get to the other side. It was stressful to say the least.
RAMBLIN’ TIP: If you ever find yourself in that situation—trying to cross a busy street with no crosswalks or traffic lights—have patience. Wait to join a group of others crossing.
The Empress Market, housed inside an old stone compound that resembled a church, looked like something out of the 1500s. It wasn’t a massive market, quite small really, but was super cool and authentic. I didn’t see another tourist. Men strapped to big stones walked in circles to grind oil, women sold vegetables and fruit under tarps and the strong smell of fresh spices cleared my sinuses. This was a scene from an old Indiana Jones movie.
The Venga Bus is Comin’
But my favorite thing so far in Pakistan was those colorful buses. Rivaling the “Chicken Buses” of Guatemala, the public buses in Pakistan were decorated with so much ornamentation, detail and color; I absolutely adored them. After spotting me snapping away, a couple of the buses’ drivers even invited me inside for more pictures. A nearby shopkeeper noticed I tipped one of the drivers and scolded me, advising me that such tips were not necessary, and that here in Pakistan I am welcome. That’s awesome!
Meet and Greet
People on the streets were really friendly. Strangers shook my hand, made conversation and posed for photos. Others asked for selfies. No one asked for me for money. As rush hour approached, car and foot traffic multiplied. The whole city was a madhouse! I enjoyed the organized chaos as I finally made my way back to the hotel just as the sun was setting, wondering if I’d even stay up for the stroke of midnight. I ended up ordering a club sandwich from room service and passing out by 11PM. Early flight tomorrow. Happy New Year, old man!
Day Three: Lahore
Lahore seemed even more insane then Karachi, especially when it came to traffic. The rules of the road? There are none! I was mesmerized (and a little scared) by how close everyone was to each other on the road. Cars, trucks, bikes, auto-rickshaws: All crammed so close together like a never ending school of fish, and all going so fast. Handlebars and mirrors of motorbikes mere millimeters from my taxi and other vehicles. I didn’t understand how these people weren’t wiping out and kept thinking that you couldn’t pay me a million dollars to drive here, especially on a motorcycle. So much honking, and there seemed to be no such thing as “lanes.” It was an absolute free-for-all. Madness!
My first stop was Lahore Fort inside the famous Walled City. I didn’t know there was an entrance fee, or even a designated entrance, as I slipped through an open gate in the back. A couple of guys stopped me and did their best to explain to me I needed a ticket. One man finally personally escorted me to the entrance booth where I paid and got my ticket; I was now legal. I was starting to notice how nice and helpful Pakistanis are, and how happy they are to welcome and help a foreigner.
I had a nice walk around the fort for an hour or so before venturing on.
After exiting the calm and protected confines of the fort, I was thrust back into general population. The city was extremely busy. It looked like I was surrounded by busy expressways in almost every direction and I wasn’t sure what to do next. It was quickly getting dark and I felt a little uneasy in general; not because of any one thing, but the combination of the traffic, noise, crowds and lack of familiarity gave me a little stress. My back still in dire shape didn’t help. I was able to swing by the Badshahi Mosque and Independence Monument before surrendering and finding a ride home.
Can You Hear Me Now?
Phone service was pretty terrible for me: I was using Verizon’s Travel Pass on my iPhone, which seemed to work here, but just barely. The constant search for a signal drained my battery faster than ever before, and summoning a Careem (The Middle East version of Uber) was like pulling teeth. Very frustrating seeing the app lose the signal off and on as I was trying to request a ride. With less than 3% battery life left, my ride finally pulled up, and I was off, heading back to the comfort of my cushy American hotel. I’m a little ashamed that I have become so reliant on technology; it’s just that a working smart phone makes getting around in a new country so much easier. I suppose I could always revert to the old fashioned way: actually trying to “communicate” with a driver and “talking” to him. The great thing about rideshare apps, however, is that you know you’re getting a fixed, fair price and it’s almost impossible to be ripped off by an unethical driver.
Later that night I met up with a fellow traveler from Sweden. Anellie was in Pakistan for her fifth time and was quite the expert. She treated me to a great local meal, something I probably wouldn’t have dared order on my own. The meal was fantastic and I enjoyed learning more about the country and her story. We then headed back to her place—Lahore Backpackers—where another friend was waiting for me. Sajjad was a Facebook friend of mine—introduced to me a while back by a fellow traveler—he was also the owner of the hostel. He greeted me with more warmth and hospitality than I can ever remember experiencing, even handing me flowers and placing a flowered necklace around my neck. We all sat around a little fire and talked for a bit before Sajjad walked me back to my hotel. He’d offered me a free night tour of a nearby market, which I really wanted to see, but Papa had an early flight out the next morning, so I had to decline. Sajjad is one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet, so when you come to Lahore, I absolutely recommend him for a tour, and you’re keen on staying in hostels, his should be the one! He even sent me home with a small gift: a little bottle of saffron. I felt bad I hadn’t brought him a gift from the US!
Day Four: Islamabad
An early flight had me in Islamabad by 9AM. The moment I exited the plane into the airport, I knew “one of these is not like the others!” Here lay an almost perfectly planned out, new and modern city. You could call Islamabad the Brasilia of Pakistan: The spread out capital had wide and manicured streets, geographically divided neighborhoods designated as “sectors,” and just an overall orderly and organized feel. And there wasn’t an auto-rickshaw in sight. Don’t get me wrong, I actually love crowded, crammed and chaotic cites; this was just a nice breather from the madness. I instantly felt some relief.
I was lucky enough to make it to the Marriott before breakfast ended and helped myself to a pretty hearty buffet. After some chill time in the room, it was off to explore. First stop, a look at the entire city from Daman-E-Koh park.
If you plan on going to Daman-E-Koh, know that Uber or Careem will only take you as far as the bottom of the hill. You can’t get cell service once you’re heading into the hills, making rideshare services useless. So your Uber will drop you at the bottom, near the zoo, where you can negotiate a ride up with the handful of taxi drivers standing by.
Between the gas fumes and the sharp curves, I tried to fight off the dizziness as we ascended in the tiny 1970’s Suzuki hatchback that reminded me of a clown car. The driver couldn’t even shift without banging into my knee, as we rattled and squeaked up the hill to the park. The ride was worth it though; soon enough I was strolling through a park with monkeys, checking out the great view, enjoying some seriously authentic live music, and even taking selfies with strangers. Good vibes here for sure.
RAMBLIN’ TIP: The taxi drivers will offer to take you higher up into the mountains, past Daman-E-Koh and up to some restaurants and resorts further up, but really, the park is the best stop. There’s no need to continue the journey up the mountain unless you really have time to kill. There is a nice restaurant called The Monal with tables outside if you’re in the mood for a nice dinner overlooking the city. Otherwise, just a stop at the park should do it.
I Said Yes to the Dress
I needed to find local attire for my trip into Afghanistan the next morning. I had fun searching for a shalwar kameez at Centaurus Mall. It took me awhile, but I finally found it. The ultra-loose fitting shirt and pants were cream colored and very light. I quickly realized I had a problem: the pants (shalwar) were super-duper wide…like “made for a giant” wide. They’re designed that way; it’s the style. A fabric “cord” is used to secure the giant cartoon pants around your waist. Only this shalwar kameez didn’t come with said cord. So I then spent the next 40 minutes walking around the mall for the cord. Finally found one. Now I just needed the hat. I’d find a traditional wool pakol a few miles away at a smaller shopping plaza.
Function at the Faisal
A trip to Islamabad wouldn’t be complete without the obligatory stop at Faisal Mosque. Now the fourth largest mosque in terms of capacity, the mosque is a major tourist attraction and is referred as a contemporary and influential feature of Islamic architecture. But even more interesting than the building itself, was the people watching. Strangers shook my hand and welcomed me to Pakistan. They asked how I liked it here, wanted to know where I was from, and asked for selfies. One young man even made it a point to request that when I return to the US, I tell all my friends that, “We are not terrorists…we want peace. We welcome Americans to come visit and see.” It was very moving.
My only night in Lahore was interesting…and fun! It included hugs from a doggie, some magic ice cream and a fancy Chinese dinner with a new friend. I wished I had more time to spend in Islamabad. Though I liked the chaos, noise and excitement of Karachi and Lahore, I really felt comfortable in Islamabad. I have a feeling I will return one day.
Contrast and Compare
I had trouble deciding which one city in Pakistan to visit when planning this trip. I was happy to have ended up seeing three of the country’s major cities, albeit at a pretty rushed pace. I found Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad to all offer different tastes of the country, with Islamabad being the odd one out: a calmer and more collective part of of Pakistan. With tourist visas easier than ever to acquire, now is a great time to visit. If you have any doubt, see my text exchange below…
And now…the REST of the (Insta)Story: