The airport door opened to a blast of heat and a sea of men wearing the white thawb, a traditional ankle length robe worn in Islamic culture. The tsunami of thawbs stood behind a metal barrier, patiently waiting for their passengers or relatives to arrive. It was a normal scene at airport arrivals; a picture repeated the world over. However, the thawb was the defining difference.
Wearing a backwards cap, sunglasses, shorts, and pushing a trolley with an oversized bike box was the perfect camouflage. I raced towards the opening in the barrier. But, to my surprise, four hundred eyes locked on and followed my trajectory until I had disappeared into the abyss of the taxi rank. This marked my swift introduction to the ‘subcontinent stare’ – a nickname I’d given to the unforgiving, unrelenting, and sometimes, invasive, stare experienced in this part of the world.
The flight had taken 20 hours, an unusually long time for a distance of 900 miles. Bad weather had encapsulated the capital, so we hovered at 30,000ft until we turned south to make an emergency landing in Multan. Here, we re-fueled and waited out the storm before we were able to disembark in Islamabad.
I was riddled with conflicting thoughts about visiting Pakistan. An estimated one-third of the country was underwater; landslides had devastated the north and the Karakoram Highway, and millions of people living in Sindh and Baluchistan were displaced – their homes destroyed and crops ruined. Pakistan was in a state of emergency. International agencies, NGOs and millions of dollars in aid and relief were poured into the country to help manage the humanitarian crisis.
With that in mind, I still decided to visit Pakistan, instead of flying straight to India. Firstly, the visa was expensive – and because I had applied for it before I left the UK, it expired on 13th September. I had planned the entire trip, up until that point, to be in Pakistan before the expiry date. And secondly, my grandfather was born in Karachi, so I was invested in following my family history around the city. In terms of cycling, I decided to assess the situation on the ground. Islamabad to Lahore hadn’t been affected by the floods, so if nothing else, I’d cycle that short distance.
Days 154 – 156
The next three days, I cocooned myself in a hotel. I needed to rest and eat; reclaim the calories lost on the Pamir Highway. I had issues attaining a sim card because of the aforementioned visa expiry date, so when not in the hotel, I traversed between the phone shop and the Interiors Ministry. I quickly learnt, in Pakistan, rules don’t make logical sense. Authorities within government don’t talk to each other, and those authorities don’t talk to the private sector. In short, no one has any idea what is going on.
Days 157 – 158
To save money, I moved to a hostel. The only hostel in town. It was situated in a rundown apartment tower, on the sixth floor. The owners were surprised to see me, even more shocked when I showed them the bike box.
That evening, I was lying in bed with a room shared with Pakistanis – Islamabad lacks a strong tourism industry. I looked at my phone to see a BBC Breaking News notification: ‘Queen Elizabeth II has died’. I immediately sat up. I opened my laptop and put on the BBC World News channel. I'm not sure why I watched so intently – I was glued for two hours – but, Royalist or not, it felt like a pivotal moment in British history.
The next day, I'd almost forgotten about it until I got into a taxi.
"Where you from?", the taxi driver asked inquisitively, with a strong Pakistani accent.
"England, London", I replied (I gave up on saying ‘the UK’ a long time ago, it was often mistaken for Ukraine).
The driver's eyes widened. Without taking his focus off the traffic in front, he tightened his hands around the steering wheel and blurted: "Your mother is dead!"
I looked at him, confused: "I hope not".
We sat in silence momentarily. That was an odd thing to say, I thought to myself as I looked out the car window. And then it clicked. "Oh, you mean the Queen?", I questioned.
"Yes, your mother. We love her. You know Diana? We love her too.", he confessed.
From then onwards, my nationality was always met with: ‘I'm so sorry to hear about the Queen', as if she was a relative. I was surprised at the impact the news had had on this part of the world. But, maybe, it was more a reflection on the respect Pakistanis’ have for their elders, hierarchy, and the class system. And, also, the links (positive or not) the country has to Britain and the British rule.
That weekend, I had been invited to stay with a friend’s colleagues’ family who live in Islamabad. I was very grateful for the invitation, I hadn’t been on my own for three months and was struggling to adjust. I was also keen to understand and connect with Pakistan through those that live there.
“Hey Ed, how are you? Where’s your bike?”, Sadia enquired with a welcoming warmth and booming Scottish accent. I didn’t know Sadia at all, but I was pretty sure she wasn’t from Scotland. Sadia was joined by her cousin, Yasmin – who was also visiting from London and staying with Sadia and her mum for a couple months. I had been waiting in the hostel car park, so when they arrived we quickly threw the bike into the boot and drove the short distance to their home.
After I was introduced to Sadia’s mum, Idrees, or ‘Aunty’ ( – out of respect, all female elders are called Aunty by anyone who is younger and not a direct relative. ‘Uncle’, is the male equivalent), we had a traditional Pakistani biryani for dinner (with minimal spice to appease their western guests’ intolerant taste buds). We then drove to get dessert when I quizzed Sadia on her Scottish accent. She laughed. “Well Ed, you see, my best friend growing up was half Pakistani, half Scottish and I learnt English from her. She has a Scottish accent, so I probably picked it up from her". Sadia’s surprising Scottishness put me at ease, it felt familiar in a country that was initially very foreign.
Days 159 – 160
Sadia and Yasmin took me for a traditional Pakistani breakfast in the upmarket borough of F/6. Sat outside, we had Nehari (beef), Paratha, Naan, Channay (chickpea), and omelette. Beef for breakfast wasn’t a usual go-to, but when in Rome.
Without warning, the heavens opened.
“Jeez, this is like a monsoon”, I erupted, somewhat entertained by the sudden change in weather.
“It is a monsoon! It’s monsoon season”, the women replied in chorus.
“I’ve never seen a monsoon before”, I drawled, with an unintentional impersonation of Perry from the film ‘Kevin & Perry Go Large’ (rogue, niche reference – if you haven’t seen it, watch it).
We spent the weekend exploring Islamabad’s tourist hotspots. After visiting the Faisal Mosque – sixth largest mosque in the world, I learnt how Pakistan became one nation in the Pakistan Museum, and then ate a meat feast at the Monal, a famous Pakistani restaurant on the outskirts of the city. I met Sadia’s extended family, who visited for the day. The children were somewhat intrigued by my presence – Sadia mentioned they had never met a foreigner before.
Yasmin was building a house in Islamabad, so she showed me, and the extended family, around the small complex. The scale of the new build was impressive – situated over multiple floors with eight ensuite bedrooms... I briefly daydreamed about moving to Pakistan and building a villa myself. That weekend I was fully accepted into the family. I felt like I’d known them for years, not days.
I told Sadia about my plans to visit Karachi, but due to the floods I wasn't sure how to get there. My original plan was to take the train, but all trains had been suspended until the 15th September. Sadia was extremely generous and opened up her home for as long as I needed. I was very grateful.
Days 161 – 164
The following week, I spent time trying to plan the rest of the trip and do admin. In the evenings, myself and Sadia would go out for dinner. Every time it came to pay, she refused my offer: “No, you are a guest”. A credit card fight was a nightly ritual; a fight she always won. I’d encourage her to take me for dessert and then buy her one, as a thank you. We also spent a lot of time driving around the city – a local's guide to Pakistan. Invaluable time and knowledge that I couldn’t achieve on my own.
On one of these drives, Sadia said: “Ed, you know that Pakistan is a third-world country?”.
Having spent a few days in Islamabad, I was surprised to hear this. Islamabad is a developed city. It’s busy, but not crowded. It’s clean, has many western brands and restaurants. It’s home to small independent coffee roasters, palm trees that line the streets, traffic lights that are respected. It has mansions.
The service industry is booming. Most restaurants and shopping malls have a valet service. At a shop, there is no need to leave the car. A man will approach the window, note down the shopping list and return five minutes later with the goods. It’s normal to have a cook and, or maid. In some families, a nanny is a permanent fixture. There’s even a nanny hierarchy, based on their nationality (nannies from the Philippines are the most sought after and expensive). If you have money in Islamabad, and a lot of people do, then you don’t have to lift a finger.
Public buildings have security guards outside or airport security inside. A coffee shop, for example, will have a man standing by the door with either a shotgun or AK47. All houses of a certain size will have a security team, a large gate and a security hut by the gate.
One evening, we watched the T20 Asia Cup Final on a big public screen. After the match, we walked back to the car, when an 18,19 year old drove past in a Range Rover. The thing that stuck was not his youth or the type of car, but the four security guards walking next to the car. One guard for each corner. I turned to Sadia in disbelief: “That is ridiculous!” One of the guards overheard and muttered: “Yeah, it is ridiculous.” Sadia, however, shrugged it off as normal: “Probably the kid of a high ranking military official or politician”, she suggested.
The presence of police and security in Pakistan is unlike anything I’ve seen before. For example, the Red Zone in Islamabad is home to government buildings and where most internationals live and work. The road to the Red Zone is barred – locals can’t enter without a special permit. When I had to speak with the Interiors Ministry, no taxi would take me there – they are forbidden. In May, Amir Khan, the ousted ex-President, held a protest march. The march was headed for Islamabad. In response, the government locked down the city and blocked all the roads leading into and out of the city with shipping containers. No one could enter or leave. Not a common response to a protest.
Despite the security, the city felt incredibly safe and rich. So, when Sadia asked if I knew that Pakistan was a third world country, I’d be forgiven for thinking it wasn’t. Islamabad is a bubble, a playground for the one percent. Only when I left would I understand this.
During another outing, Sadia mentioned: “You know, it’s not very common for an unmarried man to stay with three women. It’s very rare.” It hadn’t crossed my mind how unusual the situation was, and might be for the women I was staying with. In fact, the more time I spent in Pakistan, the more I understood how unique it was. Rarely are women seen in public (Islamabad and Lahore are exceptions) and without a male counterpart. The streets are littered with men. And marriages (arranged or love) traditionally happen at a young age. When meeting someone for the first time – taxi driver, shop keeper, acquaintance – the first question will also be: "are you married?"
Having spent over one week in Islamabad and with no sign of the train suspension being lifted, I decided to leave for the Karakoram Highway – now cleared from the floods. In order to keep to the direction of my original route, I'd get a bus to the Chinese border, turn around and cycle back to Islamabad.
The night before I left for the Karakoram, I wanted to share a slice of British cuisine and culture with my hosts, as they had shared so much of theirs. I suggested a roast.
That afternoon, I went to the supermarket with Nazeer, their housekeeper-cum-chef. He had worked for the family (immediate and extended) for years and is now seen as part of the family. Back at the house, we got to work. I think Nazeer was either miffed or humoured by his demotion to Sue Chef. Yasmin also helped.
After I returned from collecting dessert, Yasmin pulled me aside and whispered: “Ed, I’ve.. umm… put chillies in the gravy. Us Pakistanis, we love a bit of spice...”
I think the roast was enjoyed. It wasn’t exactly how it’s made at home, but it was good, considering.
The bus terminal was in Rawalpindi, an 11 km ride from the heart of Islamabad. The two cities are like chalk and cheese. Rawalpindi is what I had expected Pakistan to be: busy, dirty streets, and poverty stricken with tuk tuks aplenty.
At the manic bus terminal, I found the Gilgit departure area and paid for my reserved ticket. I had time to spare, so I went to stock up on supplies. Immediately, I could feel curious eyes following my every move. A ‘Gora’ in Rawalpindi was an anomaly, a sight not commonly seen. Before I entered the shop, I left the bike outside – within seconds, a group of men were inspecting the two wheeled mechanism. Drop-down handlebars are an alien concept in Pakistan.
Uncomfortable with the attention, I took the bike and beelined for the bus. En-route, a woman stood in front of me and begged for money. “Nahi” “nahi” “nahi”, I repeated in Urdu (“No”). I continued to walk when she grabbed onto the handlebars and brought progress to a halt. I held her arm and removed it from its position on the bike. However, my obvious annoyance and irritation at the situation wasn’t enough for her to leave. She continued to follow until I reached the bus. A small group of men also trailed, a couple feet behind.
The bus manager, who was sitting behind a table in front of the bus, invited me to join him. After an aggressive spout of Urdu, the crowd and woman dispersed – I’d assume he told everyone to leave. Thankful for his intervention, we sparked up a conversation. We got along well. We laughed, joked and discussed what life was like in our respective countries. I relaxed.
I hadn’t experienced a situation like that before. An unintentional intensity driven from curiosity and extreme despair. It was a sharp lesson into what life would be like outside of the Islamabad bubble. Beggars are part of daily life when travelling, but this situation felt different. It was… desperate and invasive. I sat with these thoughts for a while.
The bus was an overnight affair. In between consciousness, I read the entirety of Joshua Wong’s book ‘Unfree Speech’ – a firsthand account of the fight for democracy in Hong Kong. Fitting.