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

Pakistan is a very different country from Iran. The country has only existed since 1947 when the British, at the behest of Indian Muslims, partitioned the great country they were leaving as a colonial power. The territory of Pakistan however, is one of the cradles of civilisation, with the deeply intriguing Indus Valley Civilisation having built the earliest known urban settlements in the entire Indian Subcontinent. The elaborate national identity of the Iranians however, drawn from the millennia of Iranian history, 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 greater story of India; a history which stretches back even further than that of the Persians.

I first encountered Pakistan in the summer of 2003, as a twenty-one year-old 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 great charm and strength of character of the Pakistani people and the colourful, frenetic cities opened my eyes to a whole new side of the travel experience. As a legacy of its colonial history, Pakistan presented in some ways a distinctive, exotic, timeless vignette of a Britain long past, plus, of course, the opportunity for me to converse in my native tongue with people living in utterly different social and cultural circumstances. I soon lost myself in the great seething bazaars and mosques of Lahore and opened-up to the disarmingly generous people I met on the way; experiences I treasure 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.

I would visit Pakistan three times during this Odyssey, spending a total of exactly one year in the country between January 2008 and October 2009. I still regard Pakistan as my favourite country and as odd as it seems, it is no exaggeration to say that I feel more at home in Pakistan than anywhere else in the world, and the basis for this lasting relationship would be my experiences on this first of three visits to the country, moving broadly up the very spine of the country, the Indus Valley.

Police Checkpost, near Padag, Balochistan, Pakistan

On the morning of the 14th January 2008 I cross an imaginary line drawn across the harsh, bleak desert terrain of Balochistan and enter Pakistan. The remote border post at Taftan is the same port of entry through which I first encountered Pakistan in 2003, the only crossing between Iran and Pakistan which is open to foreign travellers on the Great Asian Overland. Just beyond the border gate I have a moment of surprise when a lorry approaches me head-on, before happily remembering that I have re-entered a country which drives on the left-hand side of the road. Other contrasts with Iran are also immediately obvious; whilst the behaviour of the Iranian officials in their soulless, modern customs compound had been somewhere between disinterested and brusque, the Pakistani officials in their timeworn office, which reeks of colonial Britain, welcome me with big smiles. I’m immediately whisked from the crowd of lorry drivers and fuel 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 enquires, and I’m handed a cup of sugary, fresh, green kawa, a tea popular with the ethnic Pashtuns who staff the Customs House. An enormous ledger filled with many years’ worth of foreign tourists who have brought their vehicles into Pakistan is opened, and my details lovingly entered. There are no intrusive questions, and nothing as rude as a search of my belongings. This comes as a relief, as I have almost three hundred litres of Iranian diesel in the truck, which is slowly dripping from overfilled tanks, creating small magenta and yellow rainbows in the muddy puddles of the car park.

Surrounded by piles of rusting metal, Taftan looks at first sight to be little more than a giant scrapyard. The only activity in town seems to be repairing cars in the squalid muddy streets which run between crumbling single-storey hovels, so it is without delay that I begin the long journey east. Yesterday’s bone-chilling winds have abated, replaced by low grey clouds and steady rain. What I remember as being a swelteringly hot, waterless desert landscape in summer 2003 has now taken on a damp dreariness which reminds me of Europe, but the impression of near total desolation remains. 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 checkpost and told that it is too dangerous to continue at night, though the manner of the Baloch 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.

National Highway 40, near Nushki, Balochistan, Pakistan

In the dark, single-roomed hut which serves as a police checkpost, 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 with greasy roti; 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 charpai, 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 and police harassment of Iran and in a country so laid-back and friendly, even in a harsh wilderness like Balochistan, that the police will invite one to stop for dinner sleep for the night, just out of hospitality.

It’s still raining in the morning when I leave Syed Mohammed and his companions in their damp hut. 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 Sulaiman Range which mark very roughly 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. For months I have been roughly circling the borders of this infamous mountain country and I’m frustrated at not quite having the knowledge or confidence to enter it.

Hanna Lake, Quetta, Balochistan, Pakistan

Quetta, capital of the province of Balochistan, nestles in the jagged thrusts of the Sulaiman Mountains and is for me one of the most evocative cities on the entire Subcontinent. Though mentioned as early as the eleventh century when it was part of the (Afghan) Ghaznavid Empire, it was in the late nineteenth century when the British incorporated it into the Raj that Quetta began to grow and become a strategically important city. Quetta guards the Bolan Pass, one of only two traditional overland routes from the west into the Subcontinent and remains an important garrison out in this wild and rather lawless corner of Eurasia. Despite being the capital of Balochistan, Quetta is a predominantly Pashtun city with strong links to Afghanistan. The native population has been swollen by hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing the turmoil in Afghanistan over the last few decades and, lying under two hundred kilometres from Kandahar, is a staging post on a busy modern-day trade route between the sea-ports of Karachi and landlocked Afghanistan. Pashtuns, who run very nearly all the transport services in Pakistan, carry out cross-border commerce on a huge, usually semi-legal scale. The city’s bazaars are incalculably vast, filled with what must be one of the world’s largest collections of used-car parts and consumer electronics, where whole containers of used Japanese goods disappear into the muddy streets and passageways of this mega-market.

Zarghun Road, Quetta, Balochistan, Pakistan

My host in Quetta is, fittingly, the son of a Pashtun customs officer, and is named Zahir. His father, Baharuddin, holds a highly sought-after position, making a living from the thriving cross-border trade and receiving 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, horse tangas and bicycles all career around unseen potholes and mudbanks, until I reach the customs district. Zahir is a student, and with handsome, chiselled good-looks, is also a part-time male model. We start to talk a little about Pakistan and I soon find that Zahir regards himself as anything but a Pakistani. “I am Pashtun, I am not Pakistani. I am an Afghan”. He clearly distances himself from his lowland countrymen, people whom he regards as having simply accepted colonial rule. “We have never been beaten, not by the British, the Russians, or the Americans”. Though his words are obviously peppered with a little youthful bravado, they sum up neatly the sentiment of many Pashtuns, who identify themselves with the mountains of Afghanistan rather than with the plains of India. Pashtuns often seem to me to be the living embodiment of the romance of the North-West Frontier. Valorous, fierce tribal warriors, Pashtun society traditionally operates around pashtunwali, a code of honour based on vendetta, hospitality to strangers and fugitives, and forgiveness if mercy is begged for by an enemy. This tribal law supplements their Islamic faith and makes many Pashtuns extremely traditional and extremely welcoming at the same time.

Zahir’s family are in fact not particularly traditional. Zahir and I sleep in the same bedroom as his sister, and we are even driven around town by his mother; a rare occurrence anywhere in Pakistan. On one evening we visit some members of the extended family who live across town. Zahir’s family belong to the Jalalzai Clan, one of dozens in Pashtun society, and originate in the Afghanistan border region north of Quetta. I’m right amongst the family, male and female members, who quiz me with questions about my own family; parents, brothers and sisters, and of course my own plans to produce offspring. Interestingly, Zahir’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 to be a car-backfire or 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 Zahir’s cousin wryly.

Orchards, near Quetta, Balochistan, Pakistan

My time in Quetta is a wonderful re-introduction to my favourite country. In addition to being treated to Pashtun hospitality I have some minor work done on the truck (a new clutch bearing) and stock up on spare parts from the city’s well-stocked bazaars. After nine days however I am ready to continue. As I leave the Jalalzai’s household, Zahir’s mother kisses me on the arm as if I were her own son and it is in high spirits that 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, emphasising its barrenness, with only occasional Baloch settlements consisting of fortified castle-like compounds of local clans. It’s a tribal landscape which can have changed very little in centuries. I pass through the historical town of Kalat, seat of the once-powerful Khan of Kalat who in 1876 signed the Treaty of Kalat with the British chargé d’affaires Robert Sandeman. The treaty nominally brought the warring Baloch tribes under direct rule of the British, though in reality the area was left almost totally undeveloped outside of Quetta, and it remains so today. 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.

I break my journey roughly halfway to Karachi in the town of Khuzdar. Here I have been put in touch with a colleague of Zahir’s sister. His name is Zaman, a local Brahui (the Brahui are a tribal group similar to the Baloch, 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. Balochistan is rich in natural resources; principally natural gas from the Sui Gas Field (domestic gas is in fact called Sui Gas in Pakistan) but also gold, copper, chromite and more. Zaman tells me that these resources are taken by Pakistanis (by which he means Punjabis), yet the province remains starkly undeveloped, used as a testing ground for the Army’s nuclear weapons. “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”. As we sit in a cold, candle-lit room in Balochistan’s fourth-largest settlement, where people have to buy bottled gas in order to cook, I couldn’t help but sympathise with Zaman. It’s perhaps unsurprising that the BLA enjoy support among the local population, and I have seen ‘BLA’ sprayed on what seems like every road-sign and wall along the road from Quetta.

After dinner, Zaman introduces me to some friends of his who work at BUETK, Balochistan University of Engineering and Technology Khuzdar, an island of higher learning in a province where according to a 1998 survey just one in four adults has basic literacy. Here I have the slightly surreal experience of playing snooker in a lounge looking out across the utterly desolate moonlit wilds of Balochistan. The lecturers staying in the bachelor hostel are almost all Punjabis. Very few Baloch receive higher education.

Beyond Khuzdar, the road gently winds down to lowland Balochistan on its way to the Arabian Sea. I leave behind the rugged mountains and sub-zero air, entering a landscape of scrubby and rather nondescript foothills. Just outside the town of Bela, resting place of Robert Sandeman, I reach the plains with their balmy, slightly muggy warmth; I am in the Indian Subcontinent proper at last. On the hazy eastern edge of this featureless, dusty plain lie the jagged Kirthar Mountains and beyond them, unseen, the Indus Valley. The first sign of having reached Karachi is the sprawling industrial city of Hub, home to several large food industries, a squalid agglomeration of factory units and wasteland which crawls with slow-moving but colourful lorry traffic. I cross the dry Hub River into the southern province of Sindh and, not long after, rather abruptly enter the city from what feels like its back door. My first impression is that Karachi is a terrific mess, an unsigned farce of waterlogged and half-dug-up streets around which traffic snarls up, though eventually, through asking a few helpful pedestrians, coupled with a bit of instinct which I’ve acquired from driving blindly around huge cities, I find my destination in Askari III, one of Karachi’s up-market army cantonments.

DJ Sindh Government Science College, Karachi, Sindh, Pakistan

Despite being Pakistan’s largest city by far and, with a population estimated to be between fifteen and twenty million, one of the world’s largest cities, Karachi is a modern place. It was indeed the British who founded Karachi as a city; capturing the insignificant fortified village of Kolachi from the Baloch Talpur Dynasty in 1839 and incorporating Karachi into the British Raj four years later. With connections by rail to the rest of India, Karachi soon became a flourishing port city. At independence in 1947 the city became Pakistan’s capital and from a population of less than half a million, very rapidly expanded with the arrival of hundreds of thousands of Muhajirs, Muslim refugees from India, and later migrants from across Pakistan as Karachi became a thriving metropolis. Though having lost its position as national capital in 1962 to newly-built Islamabad, Karachi remains the commercial heart of the country, with almost all of Pakistan’s foreign trade passing through the city’s two large sea-ports.

Because of this history, Karachi is fundamentally cosmopolitan, with a (sometimes fractious) mix of Muhajirs (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. For many migrants of course, the dream of prosperity 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 slums to the super-rich mansions of Pakistan’s top government and military officials in Clifton and the Cantonments of the Defence Housing Agency. With all these nations and such extremes of inequality it’s perhaps unsurprising that Karachi has a history of communal violence and gang 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. This is a shame, as one can hardly claim to have seen Pakistan without seeing its largest, most vibrant city.

Holy Trinity Cathedral, Karachi, Sindh, Pakistan

My host in Karachi is Zeeshan, a soft-featured Punjabi from Lahore. The son of a high-ranking army officer, Zeeshan lives with his wife, son and parents in a military cantonment, in ‘western-grade’ apartments; a great luxury in Pakistan. On such army cantonments one can escape the squalor and unplanned expansion which typifies Pakistani cities and live in well maintained, high quality housing, a privilege of army life. Zeeshan shows me around Karachi, whose centre is relatively compact. Here, amidst the snarling traffic and press of colourful shoppers and hawkers which congest the streets of the centre, are small islands of preserved imperial splendour. Buildings such as that of the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation or the Government Science College are beautiful examples of the Indo-Saracenic style popular in the heyday of the British Raj; crisp buildings of yellow or pink sandstone which stand out as landmarks in a city which often gives the impression of a vast concrete sprawl. A number of churches also hark back to the colonial era, though are still in use by Karachi’s small but visible Christian population. The Anglican Holy Trinity Church, lying in a calm city park, has a restrained Victorian Gothic belfry in the same soft yellow sandstone, around which vultures slowly wheel in the warm afternoon air. Inside, where three colourfully dressed women sing hymns in Punjabi, plaques commemorate fallen soldiers of the Baluch Regiment in campaigns in India, Afghanistan, Burma, Yemen and Gallipoli, evoking in me an odd sense of nostalgia for a Britain which ceased to exist many decades before my birth.

Restaurant, Karachi, Sindh, Pakistan

In the evening, Zeeshan and I meet with two of his friends; Naeem, a fellow Lahori who is in the clothes business, and Faizan, a local Urdu-speaker who, like Zeeshan, works for a multinational. The three hail from the upper echelons of Pakistan’s nascent middle class; a small group found mostly in Karachi and the largest cities of Punjab, who exist squeezed between the all-powerful ruling and landowning families, and the vast numbers of urban and rural poor. Zeeshan and Naeem, the Lahoris, see Karachi as a place of opportunity, a place to earn good money. Neither are particularly attached to the place however, citing common complaints of the city being too big, noisy, dirty, crime-ridden and of its muggy coastal climate. For them, 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 in Pakistan”.

Together we head down to Clifton, Karachi’s affluent seaside district, and stop at the beach which would be nice to walk along were it not for the piles of festering rubbish which have washed ashore. Clifton seems a pleasant and reasonably orderly place, but here families move about in cars, stopping at air-conditioned malls, and so it feels rather characterless in a place as vibrant as Pakistan. We end the day at Boat Basin, a colonial-era park set around a lagoon, across Chinna Creek from Karachi Port, having a dinner of fresh kebabs in an outdoor restaurant on ‘Food Street’.

Jinnah Mausoleum, Karachi, Sindh, Pakistan

The next day is Sunday and Zeeshan takes me out once more for some sightseeing. We start at what is perhaps Karachi’s most recognisable landmark; the gleaming white mausoleum of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, known locally as Quaid-e Azam (Founder of the Nation), the founder of Pakistan. The white pepper-pot building, a modernist interpretation of Bukhara’s Samanid Mausoleum, is quietly busy with visiting families and the dazzling white-tiled walls illuminate the beautiful colours of women’s shalwar kameez dresses. Jinnah, a highly successful, 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. Jinnah is revered in Pakistan, though he is a contradictory figure. In terms of lifestyle, he identified himself as a sahib, wearing a suit and tie, with a distaste for the shalwar kameez and iconic karakul hat in which he is invariably pictured, and which has become known as a Jinnah Hat. His command of Urdu, the national language, was faltering. Considering that he was responsible for founding the world’s first state based on religion, it’s surprising that privately he was very much a secularist, far more Atatürk than Khomeini. He is known to have been a drinker and chain-smoker 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 the 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 subcontinent. 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.

Saddar Bazaar, Karachi, Sindh, Pakistan

From Jinnah’s white shrine we make our way south-westwards along Karachi’s main thoroughfare, M. A. Jinnah Road, entering the commercial district of Saddar. Normally furiously busy, on a Sunday there is a strange quiescence about the place, with shop-fronts shuttered and trade limited to informal trolleys from which fruit and second-hand clothes are sold. The backdrop is of faded grandeur; of once elegant streets with strong Gothic touches overwhelmed by the disorder of the modern era; arcades and towers poke vacantly from a dusty mass of concrete extensions, colourful billboards and hanging nests of informal electrical cables. M. A. Jinnah Road terminates at Kemari Harbour, whose foul reek of fish, oil and sewage one may smell from a distance of hundreds of metres. Here I see people throwing chunks of offal into the air to be caught by circling vultures, which hardly improves the foul-smelling atmosphere. Beyond, small boats putter among floating litter on the murky, mangrove-filled waters of Chinna Creek. Not far beyond, but out of sight, huge mangrove swamps stretch along the indented mouths of the Indus River all the way to the Indian border.

I wrap-up my stay in Karachi with Faizan in a hectic, small restaurant hidden in a backstreet of Empress Market. It’s a simple place, but it is at places like these, visited on a local tip, that one often finds the best of local culinary culture. The restaurant serves a distinct variant of haleem, a spiced dish of ground wheat, lentils, barley and meat and a speciality of the city and is delicious.

In just two weeks in Pakistan, I have traversed a swath of the country which has taken me from its wildest, most undeveloped and isolated regions, to its commercial heart in this simmering, multicultural metropolis. As in Iran, I have heard a great many opinions from a great many people of diverse ethnic and economic backgrounds. Unlike Iran however, these people seem to exist without much in the way of shared history or national identity. The great unifying force in Pakistan is of course religion, and I will now set off away from the big city towards what people in Karachi call simply ‘the Interior’ in order to try and see more of the country’s spiritual background. I have an invitation to stay with a Mr Bossin, of French origin, in the city of Hyderabad, 180 kilometres from Karachi on the Indus River. I am about to turn an important page in The Odyssey.


One thought on “Stage 7 – Pakistan: The 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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