Pakistan was formed by the division of India half a century ago, and founded in the name of Islam. Few Western people venture here but as traveller Neil Gibson discovers it offers some ofAsia’s most mind-blowing landscapes, a kaleidoscope of cultures and a deeply generous people.
His journey begins in Karachi, a bustling port town. He comes across a film crew making a movie on the life of Jinnah, and takes the opportunity to find out more about the founder of Pakistan. Leprosy is still a massive problem amongst the poor in Karachi and Neil visits one of the hospitals that treats lepers. Neil then takes a horse and cart to the Saddar Bazaar, Karachi’s main shopping area, and gets himself kitted out in a shalwar kamiz, Pakistan’s native dress.
From Karachi, it’s a 17 hour train ride north to the sufi city of Multan, inhabited by the ancient Indus valley civilisation. The 4000 year old city is home to the mystical side of Islam and Neil arrives in time for the Urs festival, where every year the holy men come to chill out and trance out. Neil has his fortune told by a bird, has his turban stuffed with onions and rides a camel to the spectacular Derawar Fort in the midst of the Cholistan desert.
Neil’s next stop is Lahore, once the centre of the Mogul empire and considered to be Pakistan’s cultural and artistic capital. Here Neil visits the last bastion of British colonialism, Aitchinson College where Imran Khan was once a pupil, and visits the incredible Badshahi mosque, one of the largest mosques in the world. Neil learns about the strict lifestyle required by the Koran and takes part in some Kushti wrestling.
A bus journey 440 kilometres north-west takes Neil to the frontier town of Peshawar. Due to it’s proximity to Afghanistan, the town is full of smuggled goods and as Neil discovers, it is possible to buy almost anything in the markets. Neil then visits the legendary Khyber Pass and looks out at the real-life ‘Gateway to India’.
Neil takes a short flight to the north-western extremity of Pakistan and the exotic valley of Chitral. This is where the game of Polo originated and Neil is invited to take part in a game. He stays with the Kalash people, believed to have descended from Alexander the Great.
From here Neil journeys north to Gilgit for the incredible Ashura festival, a Shiite festival which commemorates the death of Iman Hussein, grandson of the prophet Mohammed who was murdered in the desert. During this festival, the Shiites whip themselves with knives to show their grief, until they are completely exhausted.
From Gilgit Neil heads up to the Hunza valley to the start point of a three day trek, crossing two incredible glaciers and ending his journey looking out at the stunning views from Rush Peak.
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