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The Travel Issue

Let's Go Pakistan!

From the American perspective, Pakistan isn't far from joining the so-called axis of evil.

by Suroosh Alvi
Dec 1 2004, 12:00am

In the arms market. All photos by the author.

From the American perspective, Pakistan isn't far from joining the so-called axis of evil. After Sept. 11, this generally spineless nation conveniently became a buddy in the fight against terrorism. But make no mistake—if its current government should fall, impoverished and overpopulated Pakistan will flip-flop to redheaded-stepchild status faster than you can say "Flight 77."

Islamic extremists are hungry to assassinate Pakistan's President Musharraf (a.k.a. Bush's lil' bitch), and in recent months they've come close more than once. Should they succeed, the United States' greatest jingoistic fear will be realized—crackpot fundamentalists will get their dirty brown paws on a nice little cache of nuclear weapons. You think this country has a bad rap now? Just wait.

I've been to Pakistan 13 times since the '70s, and I've witnessed the steady deterioration of a country that was built on a bad idea in the first place. Religious ideals are not firm bedrock for nation building. Mix in a dash of illiteracy (the New York Times puts it at 44 percent), some classic poverty, and more barefaced corruption than if Boss Tweed and Henry Kissinger co-ruled the universe, and it's a wonder that all of Pakistan isn't already a smoking crater.

Yet despite all this—and call me a pussy if you must—there's something about this tepid cesspool of failed dreams that I can't help but love.

My journeys back to the city of Lahore (the cultural center of Pakistan in the Punjab province), usually consist of typical Punjabi laziness: watching Indian MTV on the satellite dish, eating rich food three times a day, and checking out girls at the nightly weddings. (Our family is so big that every December, which is wedding season, we marry a few young female cousins and nieces off to nerdy, sexually repressed guys they've never met before. It's Pakistan's sole form of legal entertainment, and it's fucking boring.)

To make sure things were status quo in these especially "troubled" days, I decided to arrange a visit this past December. This time, however, it wouldn't be all nuptials and Paki pop. This time I wanted to get around a little more.

After a few preparatory phone calls and emails, I'd inadvertently created the perfect itinerary to discover the hidden treasures that Pakistan can offer the typical tourist. But one quick word of caution first: If you aren't brown (I am) and you don't have multiple armed militiamen escorting you everywhere (I did), you might want to keep your jaunt to the motherland on a strictly armchair basis.
Ready? Let's go!


Capital of the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP)

Despite the bad reputation, there is a ton of fun stuff to do in this country, from normal urban sightseeing (we'll get to that) to the northern areas (K2 is in Pakistan) to really fun stuff like exploring a spot that the BBC recently dubbed "the most dangerous place in the world"—the semi-autonomous tribal areas that run along the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan. The gateway to the heavy shit is Peshawar, a place that's renowned as a center of religious conservatism, and more recently has been depicted by Western media as the first Pakistani city to fall victim to heavy Taliban influence (but I call bullshit on that). The Peshawar I saw was pretty laid back—lots of people goofing around on the streets (seriously). And even though the Taliban leftovers have tried to ban billboards that depict women and music from weddings, the central government in Islamabad successfully shut them down. So despite the intraprovincial and transnational chaos, there is some form of central leadership that still regulates the country, and CNN can fuck off.

Darra Adamkhel (The Arms Market)
Frontier Agency, Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP)

From Peshawar it's only about an hour drive southwest to my favorite arms market in the world. The town is restricted to outsiders, so you can't really get in unless you have some kind of hookup.

Our driver stopped at a security point just outside the town center, where I was introduced to some members of the Frontier Agency militia, six angry-dad-looking bastards with AKs and sidearms, who became my personal bodyguards. My little A-Team followed me through a tight warren of gun shops and factories, and I'm not talking the GM plant in Detroit here, Michael Moore. These are barren little brick rooms where components are labored over all day long in conditions that make Nike sweatshops look like Santa's workshop.

Darra Adamkhel is the largest illegal arms market in the world. They handmake, sell, and export everything from 9mm handguns to M-16s, but they specialize in the Pakistani man's new best friend, the Kalashnikov (AK-47). A Pakistani-made AK runs about $50 (50 fucking bucks!), while the Russian and Iranian versions start at $300 and up. You do the math. Darra Adamkhel is to guns what Canal Street is to Louis Vuitton bags.

The vendors are ethnic Pashtuns, some of the toughest people in the world, fierce fighters who can survive in conditions that would make normal people cry like babies and then die (Pashtuns comprised the majority of the mujahideen soldiers, the badasses who kicked the Soviets out of Afghanistan using their bare hands in the late '80s). Using primitive machinery, they perfectly replicate military hardware from across the spectrum. When the guns in Afghanistan ran out after the American invasion, Pashtuns provided military sustenance for the Taliban resistance, and are also credited with the illustrious achievements of covertly supplying weapons to the IRA, the Middle East, the Muslims in Kashmir, and the warlords that run all of Afghanistan (save for Kabul).

Karachi (pop. 16 million)
Sindh Province in Southern Pakistan, on the Arabian Sea

This megalopolis is the most cosmopolitan and volatile city in Pakistan, and has long been its center of finance. The people are fashion-conscious, the cars are worth more than entire towns in other parts of the nation, and the stratification of wealth is fucking major. The rich are filthy rich and the poor are living in their own filth (with an estimated five million squatters). Karachi also rivals Bogotá, Colombia, as the world's capital for kidnappings and killings.

Karachi's main attraction is the nouveau riche kids, who live in a decadent, morally bankrupt bubble—a lapsed-Muslim Less Than Zero. The young rich kids have split into two groups: the ones who choose to speak English, who rock Gucci, Armani, and Burberry; and the Urdu-speaking, more conservative Muslim youth (boring!). The former are out of control, necking down E and sniffing cocaine like drugs were invented today. They're torn between the old-world values of the East and the nascent Pakistani pop culture and full-on liberalism of the West.

The Khyber Pass

It's the most historic pass in the history of the history of the world, okay? If you don't know something about the Khyber Pass, you didn't go to grade school. It's 33 miles long, it starts on the outskirts of Peshawar and connects the northwestern frontier of Pakistan with Afghanistan. It goes way the fuck back, as in the Aryans came through here in 1500 B.C.

In 326 B.C. Alexander the Great and his army bludgeoned their way through. Persian and Greek armies came through also, and a bunch of other dudes like the Scythians, White Huns, Seljuks, Tartars, Mongols, Sassanians, Turks, Mughals, and Durranis all had their battles and meetings and shit up in here. In 1842, 16,000 British and Indian troops were killed by Afghani soldiers (Pashtuns, duh) in the Khyber Pass. How about that?

In recent years, the pass has been a pipeline for human misery: refugees constantly flowing back and forth, along with arms, heroin, and gold.

I drove the length of the pass with serious fucking security. At the edge of the Khyber region, we met up with two pickups full of soldiers that acted as an escort sandwich, one in front of my jeep and the other behind, and they freeeaaakkked out when I started taking pictures. They were speaking Pashto, not Urdu, but the message was clear: "Put the fucking camera away before you get shot." These guys were part of the Khyber Rifles, a militia organization that's protected the pass from conquering armies for centuries.

Right now, the Khyber Pass is a spot-on summation of the effort to rebuild Afghanistan since America's recent high-octane "hello." Stunning scenery, the beautiful Hindu Kush mountain range for as far as the eyes can see, with small mountain roads zigazagging through the Khyber pass filled with pure desperation: Pakistani supply trucks—a nonstop convoy of refugees, troops, food, rubber tubes, and rice, slowly making their way to the border. It was fucking intense and it made me kind of sad.

Red-Light District (Hira Mundi)
Old City, Lahore

After eating at Cooco's Den (see the Dining Out listings), take a stroll through Lahore's Red-Light District in the Old City. From dragon-chasing junkies, to snooker halls filled with 10-year-olds at 2:00 a.m., to open rooms with whores on display, it's a South Asian Amsterdam, and definitely not in the next Islamic theocracy. I recommend buying some paan (tobacco in a betel leaf with a thin slice of areca nut and lime paste—it's been a cultural mainstay here for centuries). Chew on it for a while (make sure you spit, not swallow), cop a real nice buzz, and take in the sights (that's what I did).

A high ranking Pakistani politician describes his home as a country where "there are fires everywhere, but no one to put [them] out." Others call it a place where everyone is landlord but nobody owns any land. The Western media sees it as a time bomb that's set to blow. The reality is that Pakistan has deep issues that are insanely complex, nothing is what it seems, and it's a country that's stigmatized beyond belief. No one from the West has any interest in going there, and that really makes it worth visiting.

All in all, countries with a bad rap are a helluva lot more compelling to visit than places condoned by Condé Nast Traveler. I'm surrounded by Americans everyday, and I have absolutely no desire to see Americans when I travel. Cancun? No thanks. It's a fucking frat party.

Who would you rather emulate: the cast of The Real World or Graham Greene? Next time you're planning a trip, don't be a wimp. Try something off the beaten path, some place that CNN or the New York Times says is a dangerous shithole. Remember—it isn't a real journey unless there's a good chance you'll get shot, catch dysentery, or disappear forever.


Dining Out

Cooco's Den
Hira Mundi, Lahore

This place is directly across the street from the stunning Badshah-I Masjid, the largest mosque in South Asia (capacity 60,000), and in the heart of the redlight district. It's a restaurant that used to be a brothel—the guy who owns it, Iqbal Hussein, grew up in the whorehouse, and his mom and aunt were the madams. When all his high-school buddies turned to gang violence, guns, and heroin, he turned to art, painting the prostitutes. He went on to have shows in Europe, New York, and Sydney, sold tons of paintings at $10,000 a pop, and then started the restaurant.

They cook the food on the ground floor and pull it to the rooftop dining room on ropes. The fare is traditional Pakistani food cooked to perfection. Things like Tavaa Murgi (chicken), Haandi Gosht (lamb), Seekhi Kebab (lamb), and Roghni Naan (buttered tandoori bread).

You see a more sophisticated side of Lahore here, surrounded by Hussein's portraits of the working girls. It's not what you expect to find in this "Talibanized" nation: couples on dates, good music, even fucking white people! Bottom line is that by Pakistani standards, this restaurant is extremely controversial, and that's rare when it comes to food.

Kashmir Burgers
Parking lot of Gulberg Mini Market, Lahore

When I visited Lahore as a kid, my fat cousin Imran would take us to eat what we called "bargers." They're disc-shaped kebabs with a fried egg, onion, tomato, and some hot sauce slapped on top, all on a hero bun. I'll put them up against any barger that's ever been made in the West.

Khyber Rifles Officer's Mess
Khyber Pass, Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP)

If you're ever going through the Khyber Pass, make sure you check out these three chiefs who hang out with the goats and the soldiers behind the officer's mess in the garrison. It's pretty simple. They kill a lamb, put some fatty meat on skewers, and grill it up. But for some reason, meat has never tasted so good. Maybe it's because the lambs are unintentionally free-range, or maybe because they're freshly killed. Or maybe it's because I was starving.

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