For over 15 years, there was always an excuse.
Too much happening at work. Cost. Security.
Whatever the reason, I had not returned to Pakistan since 1997. But this year I ran out of excuses and decided to join my father for a three week trip that took us from villages and mountains in the far north, to the urban wonder of Karachi.
As I look back, I am surprised.
Not by the physical beauty of the country. Not by the humility and kindness of the people. Rather, I was surprised by me.
Look. I like to think of myself as a worldly person (twirls fingers through traveler’s beard, sips cup of tea, gazes into the distance). But I didn’t realize how much the events of the past 15 years in South Asia — and how they are reported — influenced my own interpretation of the region. For my father, his experience of growing up in Pakistan, returning often to visit family or volunteer his expertise, shaped his understanding of the country. Sure, he wishes things were better. But his immigrant experience, and his ongoing relationship to the country, are links I do not have.
For over 15 years, my perception was based purely on what I read.
As a result, in the first few days of my visit, every place we visited, every conversation I overheard, every person I saw, I discounted for one reason or another.
I wasn’t asking critical questions, seeking a better understanding. Rather, much to my worldly chagrin, in those early days, I was just as lazy a tourist and news consumer as the next American. Eventually, I let down my guard and began to expect more of my experience. But, it was harder than I anticipated.
Now of course, as an American, my three week vacation makes me an expert in all things Pakistan. And, with my unfettered American access to the internet, I am required by the U.S. Constitution (look it up) to share my profound observations with the world.
If you stop reading here, that’s fine, I understand. This post is certainly longer than I expected, peppered with questionable humor and shallow analysis.
All I ask is that you give Pakistan a second chance. I know I have.
In any case, onward with my wisdom.
First of all, I have no intention of offering a point-by-point critique of media coverage of Pakistan. The U.S. media is what it is. And, it provides a very specific perspective. Even Pakistani newspapers and TV shows dwell on the negative and the sensational. Rather, my travels afforded me the luxury to go around the media and get a closer look at Pakistan’s physical and social diversity. It was a luxury most Pakistanis do not have (although we saw a large number of domestic tourists) and, certainly, most westerners do not take advantage of.
Also, I do not want to gloss over the fact Pakistan is a poor, unstable and, at times, very dangerous place where activists, religious minorities and others are persecuted — or worse. People struggle mightily to maintain a meager existence, the country’s infrastructure is stressed and government accountability is, in most cases, rather theoretical.
The security situation is a powerful undercurrent to everything within the country. When people feel safe in Pakistan, they spend money, travel and are generally more engaged. When people don’t feel safe, they hunker down, hoping the tension will pass. And everyone knows things can go from good to bad overnight. My perception led me to expect the latter; what I experienced was the former.
Finally, I realize my time in Pakistan was as a privileged tourist. Traveling with a driver and a guide, sleeping in comfortable hotels and staying with well-placed family friends. The fact is I got nothing more than a snapshot of Pakistani life, several degrees removed from the reality of the overwhelming majority of lives in the country. Yet, I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to challenge my own assumptions and reintroduce myself to my parents’ home.
All that said, from the chaos of Pakistan there are patterns. Promising patterns of education, infrastructure and democracy, which I (must) hope will lead to greater things for what is a young nation thrust onto the world stage, time and again.
Just 68 years since partition from India that left unimaginably deep scars on the subcontinent (thanks Britain!) and 59 years since establishing its own constitution, Pakistan is a young country with a young population (median age of 22). And, when one accounts for the pressure that comes with being a country of such strategic importance (a physical, political and cultural bridge between the Middle East, Central Asia and South Asia), the powerful political winds that buffet Pakistan can be destabilizing.
Of course, the relative youth of Pakistan, and the sheer number of youth among its population (it is the sixth most populated country in the world), leads to a natural focus on Pakistan’s education system – which we found to have a different profile throughout the country.
We spent the majority of our time in rural, mountainous Northern Pakistan (keep in mind only 38% of the country’s population is urban). We started in the upper northwest town of Chitral (10 miles from the Afghanistan border as the crow flies over 14,000 foot peaks), traveled northeast to Mastuj, hiked for 5 days over the Thui Pass into the Yasin Valley, drove southeast to Gilgit (with a quick trip to Phander), and headed northeast on the Karakoram Highway to Hunza, circling to Skardu via Astore and the Deosai National Park.
(Sorry, I’m not tech savvy enough to draw a map. But, I did link to relevant pictures from the trip above.)
But, the sunsets (Deosai and Skardu, for example) and the mangoes…incredible.
We were lucky enough to travel a part of the world where the Himalaya, Karakoram and Hindu Kush mountain ranges converge, creating a region with the greatest density of mountain peaks in the world in the world, including five out of the world’s 14 peaks higher than 8,000 meters.
To put a finer point on it, when we looked up we saw a massive mountain, when we looked down, we saw a roaring river. At every turn, the views made me ask myself, “W(here)TF am I?”
The villages we passed were nestled among green pastures created by natural watersheds and/or carefully engineered irrigations channels high up the mountain-sides. In these summer months, wheat, corn and other vegetables, along with a range of fruit, were cultivated on every available parcel of land. Meanwhile, cattle, goats and sheep grazed in the pastures above. Houses ranged from small mud-brick shelters with thatched or corrugated metal roofs, to small cement block structures. In the more sparsely populated mountain regions, we saw shelters for shepherds as they moved their herds up and down the mountains with the weather.
The culture of each village differed. In some villages, women were out and about, working in the fields, shopping, talking with friends. In others, women were not seen. Some villages clearly catered to tourists, others viewed us as anomalies in their focused lives. And as we crossed mountain ranges, the languages changed.
Keep in mind that at many points, we were less than 20 miles from some of the most hotly contested military zones in the world — be it Afghanistan or Kashmir. And, just miles to our north were China and Tajikstan. On the maps and in their politics, the national borders of this region are dashed as often as they are solid.
Yet I never felt unsafe. In fact, two times, local police insisted an officer accompany us through particular stretches because of a terrorist incident two years ago. All a part of a focused effort to improve security in the region and reenergize the tourist industry. The officers ended up adding an interesting local perspective on a variety of issues, serving as something of bonus tour guides.
In most cases, power lines ran through villages, providing sporadic access to electricity for a number of the more permanent households. Meanwhile, manual pumps provided access to water in some villages, supplementing the fresh spring water running down the mountain sides. All to say, access to running water and electricity was nowhere near ubiquitous, but it was certainly better than I expected.
What struck me was the number of schools in the north. Whether the village was on a paved road or (more likely) on a one lane rocky dirt road, there was access to an education. Primary and secondary schools, separate buildings for boys and girls. The Aga Khan Foundation’s investments in the region were most prevalent, with a large number of government schools and a small number of Central Asia Institute schools.
The impact of the schools was born out in our conversations with young people. Nearly everyone we spoke to, from hotel staff to drivers to curious kids in the villages, had some level of education. Many were looking to head south to the cities to attend college, others had ambitions to move up their own career ladders.
Keep in in mind this the part of Pakistan, deep among the mountain peaks, we assume the worst. Yet, according to various data sources, the literacy rate of Northern Pakistan is increasing at a rate faster than the rest of the country. Some would argue the standards and expectations of schools in rural areas are lower and the students have a tough time competing with their peers to the south. But the fact remains, these kids are going to school.
In Karachi, a massive city of nearly 10 million, the going is tougher. The economic and social challenges facing children and families are fundamentally different. Life is more expensive, poverty places greater limits on advancement and the tension is greater. Yet even in the chaos of the nation’s biggest cities, headway is being made. Non-governmental organizations such The Citizens Foundation have established over 1,000 secular schools throughout the country, serving 165,000 students, employing 8,900 female teachers.
The education of girls and young women remains one of the biggest challenges for Pakistan. While some of the nation’s provinces have girls’ literacy rates stuck in the single digits, others are trending upward.
On the other hand, if a child has access to education, what are their chances for advancement if Pakistan’s infrastructure cannot meet the need?
On our first night in Chitral, hosted by Siraj Ulmulk of the wonderful Hindu Kush Heights hotel, we were treated to a spectacular light show courtesy of thunderstorms on the other side of the mountains. Each flash silhouetted the peaks, casting a shadow over the darkened Chitral valley.
As the evening came to a close and we went off to our rooms, the wind picked up and, soon, sheets of rain fell from the sky. We went to sleep as Siraj and Salman Rashid (a well-known Pakistani travel writer) cited the rain as an aberration for the mountains; a fast moving squall during what is typically a dry summer.
We woke to something very different. News of flash floods wreaking havoc throughout the valley and a loss of lives among the small Kalash villages to the south. The Kalash being an ethnic and religious minority in the country, noted for their beautiful dress and unique culture. (Plus, they make an incredible gin-like liquor from apricots and mulberries.)
As the day passed into night (with more rain), the news became worse. Bridges were washed out and landslides crushed through roads and villages. For the north, this quickly became a humanitarian disaster on par with massive floods that struck the region in 2010.
The precarious infrastructure of the region came into full effect. Single lane dirt roads, the primary thoroughfare for many communities, were incapacitated by landslides. The slides themselves were facilitated by mountains stripped of their trees by unregulated logging operations. And the main road running up Chitral Valley saw three major landslides that led to diesel shortages and the deployment of Army helicopters to transport people and goods.
Although better prepared for the monsoon, cities and communities to the south also suffered from serious flooding. The newspapers spoke of preparations, relief efforts and the Prime Minister (and other politicians) visiting stricken areas throughout the country. The flooding in the southern provinces followed record temperatures a month earlier that led to nearly 1,500 deaths in one day in Karachi.
Of course, at one point or another, all countries face natural disasters. How they manage their resources and establish their infrastructure determines their ability to weather such incidents. Roads and bridges, obviously, are the core elements. For a country like Pakistan, whose livelihood is inextricably linked to the environment, management of natural resources in the context of climate change is crucial.
The glaciers we saw – and traversed – during our 4 day hike over Thui Pass provided a clear example of the effects of climate change. Time and again our porters pointed out how far glaciers had receded over the past decade. As we walked to the end of a particular glacier, they pointed almost a mile ahead to where the glacier used to stretch. And later in the trip, a hotel manager warned us to be sure we were well on our way back by mid-afternoon because the Indus River was flooding roadways late in the day due to rapid upstream melting.
Here, as with the education, there were promising patterns. At several points we witnessed the construction of hydro-electric spillways that were designed to use the natural force of the river, not requiring the establishment of full-fledged damns. And, while far from ubiquitous, solar panels were seen in more places than I expected. Finally, national cricket star turned anti-establishment politician, Imran Khan was focusing his attention on efforts to reforestation of the north (as well as establishing the first college in the Chitral area).
In Karachi, the infrastructure was better than I remembered but still stretched thin. Power flickered on and off through the evening and consistently running water was a challenge in even some of the best neighborhoods. And while the roadways were clean and fairly orderly to the north, the chaos of Karachi created massive trash challenges and what I would call “flexible” traffic rules (Islamabad motorcyclists being the most innovative).
As important as education and infrastructure are to the country, the accountability and transparency of democracy is the key to a thriving Pakistan. Keeping in mind the momentous occasion that was Pakistan’s first peaceful democratic transition of power in 2013, there is considerable work to do.
For example, the Chitral bazaar flooded by the rains was bordered by a new bridge local authorities left unfinished for years. Throughout the north, government authorities looked the other way as pine forests were cut for their lumber. And examples of haphazard urban development were shared from cities and towns across the country.
Finally, there were too many stories of civic leaders, human rights activists and others slain in cold blood for speaking their mind.
Conversations often gravitated towards complaints about the government. Different than what I would hear in my father’s voice 5-7 years ago, these were complaints riddled with advice and ideas for change, not the hopelessness of years past. People felt the government had the potential to improve — which is fundamentally different from an intractable status quo.
Perhaps it is the fact that national leadership transitioned without violence or malfeasance. Perhaps it is the feeling that negotiations with Afghanistan and India are in a positive place. Perhaps it is a sense that local administrations and bureaucracies are more responsive than in the past.
While NGOs throughout Pakistan are doing important work, for real reforms and improvements to health, education, infrastructure, to reach the necessary scale, Pakistan’s government must function at a much higher level. For the time being, Pakistanis actually expect their public institutions to be accountable. Which is half the battle.
So, with these thoughts I have gone from a typical American who reads only one news source to a typical American who knows everything about a place after one visit every 17 years. (I believe I am qualified to run for president now.)
It was an eye opening trip on more levels than I ever expected. Yes, Pakistan is a crazy, chaotic country and there is so much more to do.
But, Pakistan’s people, geography and culture are a thing of beauty.
The least we can do is the work it takes to respect and honor that beauty.
(You can find more photos here and here.)