The Karakoram Highway is a highlight on its own but it got real special because we met an extraordinary journalist. Atzaz, a multi talented freelancer who, among other things, shoots, interviews and edits short movies and documentaries about traveling in his beloved Pakistan, was suffering from kidney stones when he asked Antoine and me who were just passing by if we would like to share our traveling experience of northern Pakistan. This, and the fact that he was living in his Suzuki Swift for the whole trip he was undertaking, mark his determination and perseverance to inform people about traveling in Pakistan.
It goes without saying that Antoine and I gave the interview (see the result by clicking on the following link: https://fb.watch/g3NzAWYMA2/). What goes not without saying is how I ended up staying in his home city of Mirpur a week later. Since I had to wait for over a week before receiving an Indian visa and Atzaz invited me to visit another part of northern Pakistan, I went to the state of Azad Jammu and Kashmir.
Normally foreigners need a permit to enter this border state that has a long history of conflict with neighboring country India. Nevertheless, without a permit and with an overdue Pakistani visa, Atzaz and his cousin smuggled me behind the border post. I was happy they were able to get me in: Mirpur and its surrounding area are quite different from what I had seen so far. Furthermore, Atzaz and his family members took care of me in a way, it was humbling and all a tired traveler needs after cycling the Karakoram.
I stayed in one of the many big houses that are not inhabited most of the time because the owners moved and live in the UK. Every day a delicious meal, time to read and write, watch the Pakistani play cricket, a tour to the Mangala lake, live traditional music, an introduction into all kinds of new sweets. I even received a beautiful turquoise amulet (husseini feroza) for a prosperous continuation of my journey from Atzaz’s extremely friendly brother Waqar. The hospitality and friendliness were so special, there were moments it made me feel uncomfortable, not knowing how to respond to such kindness.
I learned a lot about Pakistan and its inhabitants through Atzaz, his mother, Waqar, Hassan, Ash, Sheer and all the others. Here’s a short enumeration:
- The Pakistani are a proud and kind group of people. Unfortunately, they are very receptive to hearing what’s going well in their country and less interested in hearing what might be changed for the better. This ‘looking away from the real problems’ is something Atzaz did not do. I have tremendous respect for people who follow an unpaved path and I sincerely hope he is able to change the things he thinks ought to be changed for the better.
- It was in Mirpur where I drank lassi for the first time. It was also the first time I drank the sugar edition of milk. Before, in Turkey and Iran, I had only drank the salty version. It was surprisingly good. Especially with the halwa, puri, semolina and gulab jamun that was also part of the breakfast.
- I learned that the Sufi traditions and rituals are not only practiced in Persia: they also found their way into Pakistan. The ragas I heard, played live by an old man on a harmonium during a small gathering, were mesmerizing, as was the music of Mohammad Rafi.
- In Pakistan, I noticed, people often gather or spend time in rather big companies. The family (and tribal) ties can be and are often very strong. The reasons for sticking together closely are not always that nice. Nevertheless, the Pakistani make the best of it, which is probably the reason why it’s seldom quiet in a house. The upside for me, as an outsider you meet so many new interesting people.
I would meet Atzaz again in the Pearl of the Punjab, Lahore, where he lives with his wife and family in law. In the short time we had, he showed me an extraordinary city: splendid buildings and monuments all covered under a thick layer of smog, bustling traffic lanes, people coming from various walks of life sharing the narrow alleys of the ancient city center in an easy-going manner, sizzling food in frying pans everywhere, the smell of the bread baking ovens where a constant stream of chapati emerged from, the open sewage, fifty shades of brown, orange drinking water barrels, countless charpois, beggars, free roaming cows and goats, hundreds of power lines (some on eye level) meeting in street corners looking like cobwebs made by a confused spider and so much more, it was magnificent in all its glory and filth!