Stage 7 – Pakistan: The Lower Indus Valley [1/3]


I first encountered Pakistan when I was twenty-one, in the summer of 2003, on my first Asian overland trip from Istanbul to Beijing. I came to the country looking for the sublime scenery of the Karakoram and Hindukush Mountains, but found far more. The gentle charm and great strength of character of the Pakistanis opened my eyes to a whole new side of the travel experience; the joy of meeting people who, despite living in utterly different circumstances, one could still communicate with naturally and comfortably. I soon lost myself in the great seething bazaars of Lahore and enjoyed the company of the acquaintances I made every bit as much as the mind-bending scenery of the Karakoram Highway, the legendary high-road to China. In short, my encounter with Pakistan changed my outlook on life.

Still today, I am enamoured with the country, and prize it above all others, with the possible exception of Russia. I would visit Pakistan three times during this journey, spending a total of exactly one year in the country between January 2008 and October 2009. It’s not an exaggeration to say that I feel more at home in Pakistan than anywhere else in the world, and the basis for this lasting relationship were my experiences on this first of three visits to the country.

Pakistan is a very different country from Iran. Prior to 1947 of course, when the British withdrew from India, the country did not exist at all. This is not to say of course that nobody lived here – the Indus Valley of Pakistan is one of the cradles of civilisation, and has the oldest traces of human settlements in the entire Indian Subcontinent – but the elaborate national identity of the Persians, drawn from having existed as a sovereign state for centuries, is certainly absent in Pakistan. There is no ethnic group who call themselves Pakistani; the people of Pakistan are loosely bound nations whose history is tied in with the great story of India; one which stretches back every bit as far as that of the Persians. One notices this immediately when crossing into Pakistan – a sharp cultural contrast which leaves one in no doubt that one has entered the Indian Subcontinent.

So, let us resume our narrative. It’s the 14th January 2008, and I have entered Pakistan, crossing an imaginary line drawn across the harsh, bleak desert terrain of Balochistan. The border post is at the relentlessly bleak town – if it may be called such – of Taftan. It’s the same port of entry through which I first encountered Pakistan in 2003, the same which very nearly all European overlanders use. To my eyes, Taftan might be the world’s largest scrap yard; piles of rusting scrap surround the town, and the only activity seems to be repairing cars in the squalid, muddy streets which run between the crumbling single storey hovels. It’s hardly a fitting entry into one of the most enigmatic, charismatic and beautiful countries in the world.

National Highway 40,  Balochistan Province, Pakistan

National Highway 40, Balochistan Province, Pakistan

As a child, I had often wondered what would happen where a road crosses from a country where people drive on the right, to a country where people drive on the left. Here I had the chance to see the reality, though I was blissfully aware of the fact as I drove my first few metres into Pakistan to be met by an oncoming lorry. It would take a few days to re-adjust to driving on the left. Whilst the Iranian officials in their soulless, modern customs compound had been somewhere between disinterested and brusque, the Pakistani officials in their time-worn office, which reeked of colonial Britain, welcomed me with big smiles. I’m immediately whisked from the crowd of lorry drivers and petrol smugglers and sat down at a desk with the chief, whose manner suggests that a respected old friend has just dropped by. ‘Milk tea or green tea?’ he inquires, and I’m handed a cup of sugary fresh green kawa, a tea popular with Pashtuns. An enormous ledger – that of foreign tourists who have brought their vehicles into Pakistan over the last few years – is opened, and my details lovingly entered. I’m invited to inspect the records, and sure enough, I find Oliver the Austrian with whom I’d travelled in Kyrgyzstan last August. There are no intrusive questions, and nothing as rude as a search of my belongings (which I am thankful for, as the car is filled with almost 300 litres of Iranian diesel, which is steadily dripping from overfilled tanks in the back, creating small magenta and yellow rainbows in the muddy puddles of the border compound) After a few more pleasantries I am on my way on National Highway 40, heading ever east to Quetta, the first city of any real importance. The bone-chilling winds of the previous day have abated, replaced by low grey clouds and steady rain. In summer 2003 the area was a sterile oven; this time around it looked more like a rainy weekend in England’s Lake District, save perhaps for the desolation and occasional bearded Balochi tribesmen. Just under halfway into the 640 kilometre journey, beyond the town of Dalbandin, the road condition deteriorates, and in the dark I have to pull off the single-track road each time a truck approaches from the opposite direction. Soon after the tiny settlement of Padag, I’m stopped at a police checkpoint and told it’s too dangerous to continue at night, though the manner of the Balochi policeman suggests this is more of an invitation than an order. Glad at the prospect of a decent night’s sleep, I don’t argue for a moment.

In the dark, single-roomed hut which serves as a police checkpoint, the policeman, Syed Mohammad, lights an old paraffin lantern, and reveals a number of faces, dark-skinned with wiry black hair, all smiling. I’m given a dinner of mattar, goat stew with peas, eaten by hand with greasy rotis, all very welcome after another foodless day. After a chat in basic English I retire to another hut and stretch my sleeping bag out on a charphai, a traditional Indian rope-bed. I lie back, listening to the rain drumming on the roof, and breathe a deep sigh of relief to be away from the restrictive theocracy of the Iranian ayatollahs and into a country so laid-back and friendly, even in a harsh wilderness like northern Balochistan, that the police will invite you to stop for dinner and put you up for the night, just out of hospitality and concern for your well-being. It’s still raining in the morning when I leave Syed Mohammed and his companions in their damp hut. For them, it must be a pretty bleak existence out here, hundreds of kilometres from the nearest city in a (usually) waterless waste with not even the most rudimentary facilities.

The road gradually improves as I continue east, through the town of Nushki, winding into the low mountains of the greater Suleiman Range whose long north-south ridges mark the collision zone between the Indian Subcontinent and the Iranian Plateau. The road passes close to the southern-most reaches of Kandahar Province in Afghanistan. It’s frustrating to have been so close to Afghanistan for so many months now, but to have never set foot in the place.

Quetta, Balochistan Province, Pakistan

Quetta, Balochistan Province, Pakistan

Quetta, the capital of Balochistan Province, is one of the most evocative cities of the subcontinent. Though mentioned as early as the 11th century when it was part of the (Afghan) Ghaznavid Empire, it was in the late 19th century when the British incorporated it into their Indian Empire, that Quetta began to grow and become an important place. Quetta guards the Bolan Pass, one of only two traditional overland routes from the west into the subcontinent (the other, the Khyber Pass, is far further north) and remains an extremely important garrison out here in this most wild and rugged corner of Eurasia. Despite being the capital of Balochistan (a decision made by the British, without consideration of the actual ethnic make-up of the area), Quetta is a predominantly Pashtun city. As well as native Pashtuns, many hundreds of thousands more have fled turmoil in Afghanistan over the last few decades  and made Quetta their home. Just under 200 kilometres from Kandahar, the city lies on a busy modern-day trade route between landlocked Afghanistan and Karachi’s seaports. Pashtuns, who run very nearly all the transport services in southern Pakistan, carry out cross-border commerce on a huge scale, usually illegal or at best semi-legal. The city’s bazzars have none of the aesthetic merit of Iran’s labyrinthine, vaulted alleyways, but are incalculably vast, filled with what must be one of the world’s largest collections of used-car parts and consumer electronics. Prices are rock bottom, as whole containers of used Japanese goods are tipped into the muddy streets and passageways of this mega-market.

My host in Quetta is, fittingly, the son of a Pashtun Customs Officer, named Zamrak. His father, Paleh, holds a highly sought-after position; as well as getting a cut of the dealings in the ‘informal’ sector of cross-border trade, he receives an apartment in the city’s ‘Customs Colony’. I drive through Quetta’s flooded streets, which are a sea of muddy rainwater through which trucks, buses, autorickshaws, cars, taxis, horsecarts and bicycles all careen around unseen potholes and mud banks, until I reach the customs district. Zamrak is a student, and a part-time male model. We start to talk a little about Pakistan, and I soon find that he regards himself as anything but a Pakistani. “I am Pashtun, I am not Pakistani. I am an Afghan. Those others, the Punjabis, the Sindhis…’ and he waves a hand broadly east towards the vast lowlands of the Indian Subcontinent ‘…they are slaves. They just accepted what was done to them. We fought back. We have never been beaten, not by the British, the Russians, or the Americans”. Though his words were obviously peppered with a little youthful bravado, they summed up neatly the sentiment of many Pashtuns, who identify themselves more with the mountains of Afghanistan than with the plains of India. Pashtuns often seem the living embodiment of the romance of the Northwest Frontier. Valorous, fierce tribal warriors, Pashtun society traditionally operates around Pashtunwali, a code of honour based on vendetta, hospitality to fugitives and strangers, and forgiveness if mercy is begged by an enemy. This tribal law supplements their Islamic faith, and makes many Pashtuns extremely traditional, and extremely welcoming at the same time.

Zamrak’s family are not particularly traditional – his mother rarely covers her hair in front of me, and I even sleep with Zamrak in the same room as his sister. They do however take hospitality very seriously, and in the evening I’m driven across town to meet some relatives. The family belong to the Jalalzai clan, one of hundreds in Pashtun society, and originate in the region to the north of Quetta. I’m right amongst the family – male and female members – who quiz me with questions about my family; parents, brothers and sisters, and of course my own plans to produce offspring. Interestingly, Zamrak’s father must stay in another room; social mores dictate that he may never see his sisters-in-law. As we are chatting, we hear the sound of a very distant explosion. I assume it’s a car-backfire or a gunshot, but my hosts assure me it’s a bomb, planted in the hills by the BLA, the Balochistan Liberation Army, to sabotage the gas lines on which the city relies. ‘Welcome to Pakistan!’ says Zamrak’s cousin wryly.

Apple Orchards, Balochistan Province, Pakistan

Apple Orchards, Balochistan Province, Pakistan

As I leave the Jalalzai’s household, Zamrak’s mother kisses me on the arm, symbolically recognising me as her own son. It’s been a wonderful re-introduction to my favourite county. With high spirits and a cache of cheap car-parts, I set off south, deviating from my 2003 route on a road which will take me on a 740 kilometre journey to Karachi. Quetta’s famous apple orchards line the road immediately south of the city, but the land soon becomes depopulated, with only occasional Balochi settlements consisting of fortified castle-like compounds of local clans. It’s a tribal landscape which has probably not changed in centuries. I pass through the historical town of Kalat, seat of the once-powerful Khan of Kalat who made deals with the British political leader Sir Robert Sandeman, nominally giving the British control of Balochistan, though in reality the area was left almost totally undeveloped outside of Quetta. It’s hard to believe that very much changed here with the arrival of the British, let alone with Pakistani independence. Kalat is now nothing more than a large village, a wretched place of rudimentary hovels, and the present Khan’s authority extends little beyond the settlement’s edge.

Roughly halfway along the road to Karachi lies my rest-stop, the town of Khuzdar. Here I have been put in touch with a colleague of Zamrak’s sister. His name is Zaman, a local Brahui (the Brahui are a tribal group similar to Balochis, but speaking a Dravidian language), whom I meet in a small office. As it gets dark, the lights of course go out, a common occurrence all over Pakistan, but especially severe here. “Pakistan Zindabad!” (Long-live Pakistan!), Zaman says sardonically as we are plunged into darkness and he fumbles for a candle. We get chatting about the BLA, whose activities I had heard in Quetta, and who enjoy much support in this ethnically Balochi and Brahui area. “The Balochistan Liberation Army are fighting for independence of Balochistan from Pakistan. Just look at us. This country of Balochistan, our country, is rich. We have the gas, minerals: iron, chromite, copper. We have Gwadar deep sea-port. The Pakistanis – the Punjabis – just take everything. What do they give back? Nothing. Look at this place. There is no light, no gas, there are no facilities, the roads are bad, the people are poor. Even the smallest village in Punjab has gas. They are raping us”.

There are plenty of young Balochis with similar sentiments. Every signboard in the area, even in Quetta, is smeared with ‘BLA’. It’s certainly true that Balochistan gets a raw deal; in 1952, oil prospectors in the extreme east of Balochistan found vast natural gas reserves near the village of Sui. Since then, the Sui gas field has supplied all of Pakistan, though the pipelines mainly go east into Punjab and the country’s eastern corridor along the Indus River. Natural gas has in fact become known as Sui Gas to Pakistanis. As we sat in a cold, candle-lit room in Balochistan’s fourth-biggest settlement, where people had to buy bottled gas in order to cook, I couldn’t help but sympathise with Zaman.

There are, of course, two sides to every story. Balochistan is an ancient, tribal society, controlled by hereditary nawabs (tribal elders), most of whom shun modern development, realising that education of their people would spell the end of their power; tribal traditions would die out, and Balochi culture would be eroded. Pakistani Balochistan has a shockingly low literacy rate; a 1998 estimate puts it at 14% overall, with literacy in women far, far lower. Whilst the Pakistani government is not exactly treating Balochistan as a priority, development plans are often vehemently opposed by the Balochi establishment. After dinner, Zaman and I retired to a bachelor hostel belonging to the local university, where I have the slightly surreal experience of playing snooker in a comfortably furnished lounge looking out across the utterly desolate moonlit wilds of Balochistan. The lecturers staying in the bachelor hostel were almost all Punjabis. Very, very few Balochis receive higher education.

Leaving Khuzdar, the road winds down in earnest from the cold barren highlands, over the parched, infertile coastal plains of Balochistan and finally crosses the dry Hub River, entering the southern province of Sindh. Very soon I enter the industrial area of Hub Chowki, a squalid agglomeration of industrial units and wasteland which crawls with slow-moving but colourful lorry traffic, and I’m swept through a chaotic network of roads into the gridlock of central Karachi. Predictably, the traffic is shambolic, and driving is further enlivened by the city’s main streets having been dug up, snarling up traffic where smaller cars founder in enormous mud-wallows. It’s a fitting introduction to this largest of Pakistani cities.

Sadr Bazaar, Karachi, Sindh Province, Pakistan

Sadr Bazaar, Karachi, Sindh Province, Pakistan

Karachi was transformed by the British from a relatively unimportant coastal town to one of the sub-continent’s major ports. It was the country’s capital from independence in 1947 until 1962, when the capital was shifted more than a thousand kilometres north to the newly built city of Islamabad. Karachi remains far and away the country’s largest city, and its commercial heart. It is the country’s only major port at present, handling all of Pakistan’s, and much landlocked Afghanistan’s sea freight. Karachi is very much a metropolis; despite being the capital of the southern province of Sindh, it is ethnically a fractious mix of people; Mohajirs (Muslims who migrated from India following partition of British India in 1947, known to themselves as Urdu-speakers), Pashtuns, Sindhis, Punjabis and almost every other ethnic group in South Asia. The city has an atmosphere very much of its own, and without a single ethnic identity, is perhaps the most Pakistani place in Pakistan. From across the country people are attracted to Karachi by the lure of jobs and prosperity. Of course for most, the dream never quite happens, and like any big South Asian city there are vast, wretched slums where millions live without even the basics of life. Every extreme exists in Karachi, from the shanty towns to the towering mansions of Pakistan’s top government and military officials in the district of Clifton. With all these nations and such extremes of inequality in a city whose population might be anything between eighteen and twenty million, it’s little wonder that Karachi has a history of communal violence and brutal turf-wars. This, together with a lack of conventional tourist attractions means that the city is not of obvious appeal to tourists, and few make it here, which is a shame, as one can hardly claim to have seen Pakistan without seeing its largest, most vibrant city.

All Saint's Church, Karachi, Sindh Province, Pakistan

All Saint’s Church, Karachi, Sindh Province, Pakistan

My host in Karachi is Zeeshan, a Punjabi from Lahore. His father is a top-grade military man and the family live in a closed military cantonment, in ‘western-grade’ apartments; a great luxury in Pakistan, enjoyed by very few aside from the pampered families of the all-powerful Army. Zeeshan himself has not followed his father’s footsteps into the military, but works for a large multinational. In the evening, I meet two of Zeeshan’s friends, Faizan, an Urdu-speaker with a well-paid job in another multinational, and Naeem, also a Lahori who’s in the clothes business, and also well paid. These are the upper echelons of Pakistan’s nascent middle class, which only really exists in Karachi and the big cities of Punjab. This moneyed, less traditional urban middle class fights a losing battle for progress in a country which is mired in an almost unending catalogue of problems, trapped between the super-rich and all-powerful ruling classes; the Army, the big political families, the feudal landlords, and the big tribal chiefs who wield power across the various provinces of the country, and the vast working classes, the urban poor, the landless peasants, the illiterate, the ignorant.

Zeeshan and Naeem, the Punjabis, see Karachi as a place of opportunity, a place to earn money. Neither are particularly attached to the place, citing common complaints of the city being too big, noisy, dirty, crime-ridden and having a muggy coastal climate. According to Punjabis, and especially Lahoris – who are not incapable of a touch of cultural zeal – Lahore is the greatest city in Pakistan, and perhaps in all Asia itself. Faizan on the other hand, whose parents came from what is now India, but who has grown up in the city, loves his native metropolis: “I love the action, it’s a non-stop city. You can’t find as much nightlife, good food, as many different people, or the same facilities in any other city”. Other friends of mine, Pashtuns, who make up perhaps the largest single group in Karachi, see the city as their nearest metropolis. While there are several large, ethnically Pashtun cities – Peshawar, Quetta, or Dera Ismail Khan for example – they have very few of the opportunities of Karachi. Pashtuns practically run the transport network of the city, as bus and lorry drivers, and also occupy many menial jobs. Whatever people’s attachment to, or sentiments of Karachi might be, its cosmopolitanism, commercial dynamism and sheer magnetism make up for its lack of conventional ‘sights’.

Jinnah's Mausoleum, Karachi, Sindh Province, Pakistan

Jinnah’s Mausoleum, Karachi, Sindh Province, Pakistan

Zeeshan takes me around to see a few things in Karachi; there are several large churches from the colonial period; the Anglican All Saint’s Church looks like an English town church, built of pink sandstone and transplanted into Karachi’s palm trees and squalor. At Clifton Beach, one may take a camel ride among the piles of rubbish which wash ashore, just a stone’s throw from the huge villa of recently-murdered ex-Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. But the ‘real’ Karachi experience is the bustling commercial district of Sadr, the crumbling colonial centre of the city with plenty of faded colonial grandeur; an interesting Persian Gulf / Gothic hybrid which induces a touch of British pride somewhere deep within me. One of Karachi’s few real ‘sights’ is the mausoleum of Mohammad Ali Jinnah, or Quaid-e Azam (Founder of the Nation) as he is known locally, which is a modern rendering of Ismail Samani’s 10th Century tomb in Bukhara, though white marble slabs replace the delicate terracotta tilework of the original. Jinnah, a British-educated lawyer, was head of the All India Muslim League, which relentlessly and stubbornly campaigned throughout the 1940s for the creation of a Muslim state upon the British withdrawal from India. He is a revered character in Pakistan, though perhaps misunderstood. In terms of lifestyle, he was most definitely a sahib, wearing a suit and tie, with a distaste for the native shalwar and kameez traditionally (and almost universally) worn by Pakistani men, as well as the distinctive sheepskin hat which has ironically been called the ‘Jinnah Hat’ ever since. His command of Urdu, the national language, was faltering. Considering he was responsible for founding the world’s first state based on religion it’s surprising that in reality he was very much a secularist – far more Atatürk than Khomeini – who was partial to a bacon-breakfast each morning, followed by a walk with his dogs; hardly the behaviour of a pious Muslim. Nevertheless, Jinnah was indeed a great politician. Despite long fostering divisions between Muslims and Hindus in India, the British in the lead-up to their withdrawal were totally against the partition of India, as was Nehhru’s Indian Congress Party. It was Jinnah’s unbending demands for a separate Muslim state that led, for better or worse, to the partition of the sub-continent. Perhaps because he died just six months after the birth of his nation, or perhaps because he had neither the humanitarian charisma of Gandhi, nor the socialist genius of Nehru, in history he is overshadowed by his Indian counterparts.

Fruit Sellers, Karachi, Sindh Province, Pakistan

Fruit Sellers, Karachi, Sindh Province, Pakistan

I wrap-up my stay in Karachi in a hectic restaurant hidden deep in the city’s clamourous bazaars, with a dinner of haleem, a mouthwatering slow-cooked dish of spices, meat, barley and wheat, and a speciality of the city. In just two weeks in Pakistan, I had traversed a swathe of the country which took me from its wildest, most undeveloped and isolated regions, to its commercial heart in this simmering metropolis. As in Iran, I had heard a great many opinions from a great many people of diverse ethnic and economic backgrounds. Unlike Iran however, these people seemed to exist without much in the way of shared history or national identity. But what the country lacks in cohesive national identity, it makes up for with a great freedom of speech, and of the press; a very welcome change from the regressive theocracy of Iran. The great unifying force in Pakistan is, of course religion – Islam – and I would set off away from the big city, towards what people in Karachi call simply ‘the Interior’ in order to try to find a more spiritual side to the country. I had an invitation to stay with a Mr Bossin, of French origin, in the city of Hyderabad, 180 kilometres north-east of Karachi on the Indus River. I was about to reach a pivotal point in my journey.


One thought on “Stage 7 – Pakistan: The Lower Indus Valley [1/3]

  1. Hi there. I enjoyed your travelogue on Pakistan. As an Indian whose family hails from Lahore but has not yet had the opportunity to visit Pakistan, I found your perspective fresh and interesting, particularly the parts where you share your interactions with the locals. Thanks for a nice afternoon read. 🙂

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