1st November 2017
“Hehehe Pakistan roads” chuckles Nazeer as he slaps his palm on the weathered dash of our open-top Jeep. We are careening down a single-lane dirt road in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa: the northwest province of Pakistan, formerly known as the Northwest Frontier. To the west is the Afghan border, the tribal areas alongside Punjab lie to the south, and Gilgit-Baltistan beckons from the east. We are amidst the confluence of the three highest mountain ranges in the world - where Mother Nature’s power can be seen in its true, raw glory.
With his letter jacket, silk scarf, and black aviators it would be easy to confuse Nazeer for a late 80s Hollywood action hero, or riding along with Dr. Jones as he chases a long-lost artifact in a forgotten corner of the globe. He is in fact our local Chitrali driver, hired to navigate us through the mountain passes and untamed roads of the north. From cows fording the river to our frequent near head-on collisions Nazeer finds everything hilarious, consistently acknowledged with that growingly familiar chuckle.
To much of the west this place is terrifying at worst and confusing at best. I cannot say that I received much enthusiastic support when I announced that I had booked a tour through the region. I was mostly embraced with “but isn’t it dangerous?” and “why would you want to go there”. I am not ashamed to admit the reputation gave me some nerves prior to the trip.
However, while it certainly has had its share of troubles, my experiences were far from the misshapen image we have forged back home. Our group was embraced by welcoming friendly faces, curiosity, and true eastern hospitality. The most challenging part of a trip like this is letting go of your own predisposed notions from years of being told what a place is. It’s releasing the negative stigmas and embracing the welcoming curious nature of the country and its people.
We climb into the mountains, deeper and deeper, village after village, pass after pass; rambling in our jeeps along the rugged dirt roads. Open valleys surrounded by tantalizing peaks. The trees and lush river valleys sink below us, disappearing and reappearing from view, captivating me for hours in an intoxicating dance with the increasingly dry, rocky, intimidating beauty of the Hindu Kush. Driving amongst such stunning scenery and natural beauty is enough to captivate me for hours. School children run along the roadside chasing our vehicles: waving, calling, and smiling. We haven’t seen a village in hours and I do not see one on the horizon, I wonder where they live, how they got here, and what their school is like. I romanticise the idea of what it’s like to grow up here: the idea of the simplicity, challenging but pure, that is life in such a remote region of the world.
I snap back to reality as Nazeer chuckles again. We have nearly plowed through a pack of goats as they are chased down the road by their herder. A lone steer looks on curiously. Yet again it all works out: Nazeer doesn’t flinch, the herder hardly lifts his chin, and the livestock part like the sea in front of us. We brush through without so much as a scrape, inches to spare on either side. The chaos of the roads has become normal. Cars, motorbikes, pedestrians, cattle, all weaving together harmoniously in a seemingly chaotic, yet efficient, symbiotic relationship. How it functions does not make sense. Somehow it simply works.
While some areas we traveled admittedly felt tense, the majority did not. I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of people excited to see Americans visiting their country. The police commissioner of Mingora, the heart of the formerly troubled Swat Valley, putting aside his rifle and swaying on a rickety old swing, will be forever an image of hope to me. “Welcome Americans! See we have fun here too” he yelled with a playfully mischievous air. It’s a signal of the positive change that has garnered the region. I think sadly of how little we hear of this back home.
The deeper we travel into the mountains the more and more welcoming the people become. Generously inviting us to tea, or inquiring about what brought us there. As we walk the streets of Booni, a farming village in northern Chitral; taking in the magnificent backdrop, we wander past a small farm. A young family is ploughing the fields with two oxen, the father coaxing them along as the mother and children look on encouragingly. I feel a bit intrusive as we stop to observe.
The father beckons his daughter over; he bends down and mutters something in her ear, inaudible to us as he smiles. She disappears to the house and reappears moments later, running toward us across the field. Almost tripping with excitement, slowing shyly as she gets closer. Her arms are overflowing with fresh, golden-red marbled apples. She walks up beaming and offers us her spoils. I am again reminded of the kindness of humanity and the often-forgotten notion, and impact, of a small kind gesture to a stranger.
As I reflect back to these moments and my trip at large, I realise that this place and its people are much like those Pakistani roads. While still confusing and foreign to me in many ways, they are not terrifying. Maybe it is not our place as westerners to unravel all the mysteries; sometimes it’s simply enough to see, to listen, and to accept a new point of view, a foreign lifestyle. To accept that there are more cultures and viewpoints throughout the world than one could ever disentangle, all powered by their own century-old heuristics. To realize that in many ways the mystery of how things work is what can bring us all together.
When I walk around I see this. Normal people: mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, sons, and daughters - all waking up and making it through the day. Going to work, going to school, eating dinner with friends and family. It’s that simple, in the end we are not all that different. That curiosity of exploration; the discovery of how people live and see the world can be our tie that binds. Discovering the internal cogs that make a place tick, give it life, warmth, and character can take away that predestined fear. There are problems everywhere and there is good everywhere. If we take more time to focus our energy on that good, I dare say we may just see progress. Things might work - in that same hectic, beautiful, symbiotic chaos that guides those Pakistani roads.
As I sit here comfortably back home I find myself drifting off, dreaming of that next far-off adventure and a hopeful return to those larger-than-life mountains. Someday, when the global image improves, northern Pakistan might just be the adventure capital of the world. For the wonderful people I met along the way, I hope it is - so long as it’s what they want. A tiny selfish twinge in me hopes not.