By Hugh Sykes
BBC News, Pakistan ’08
Suicide bombs, battles in tribal areas, and states of emergency tend to put off casual tourists. But the impression such events convey can often be misleading and unrepresentative of a country as a whole.
A few days ago I was sitting in a cafe sipping best Italian espresso and reading a news magazine.
The front page was full of furious faces and clenched fists under the headline, The Most Dangerous Nation in the World isn’t Iraq, it’s Pakistan.
The cafe was in a smart bookshop in Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad.
I sighed and turned to the article inside.
It was a revealing analysis of some penetration of a few places in Pakistan by the Taleban and al-Qaeda.
I pondered the magnifying-glass effect of dramatic news coverage.
The suicide bomb attack on Benazir Bhutto’s homecoming parade in Karachi in October, which killed an estimated 140 people, and the assault on a Taleban pocket in the Swat valley, a tourist destination, took place while I was in Pakistan.
But neither event had a noticeable effect on the general sense of security and stability where I was in Islamabad or on the road.
The notion that Pakistan is more dangerous than Iraq is absurd.
Until recently suicide bombs, murder, and kidnapping were routine in Iraq.
And there is no way I would do there what I have just done in Pakistan: take a holiday.
I hired a car in Islamabad and headed out onto the partially completed M2 motorway that will eventually connect Lahore (near the Indian border) with Peshawar (the last city on the road to the Khyber Pass and Afghanistan).
But motorways are boring, so I left the M2 and re-joined the ancient Grand Trunk Road, which links most of the main towns of northern Pakistan.
For much of the route it is lined with eucalyptus trees, their almost-autumn leaves and silvery bark shining in the clear October sun as I drove along.
Driving in Pakistan is fast and sometimes chaotic, but not competitive.
They even hoot politely. And one great danger at home you hardly ever have to contend with in Pakistan is drunk drivers and people with concentration blurred by hangovers.
My destinations were Chitral, an isolated valley in the far-north-west on the Afghan border and Gilgit, close to China and Tajikistan.
The round-trip was more than 1,200 miles (nearly 2,000km) and included mountain passes almost half as high as Everest.
And although I was driving alone, I was hardly ever on my own.
There is public transport but not a lot. So, people walk long distances along these high stony roads and if a car passes, they hold out a hand hoping for a lift.
One morning, 12-year-old Kashif sat with me for a while.
He had been expecting to walk for more than an hour to the nearest town, to buy a new pair of shoes.
He showed me the pair he was wearing. The right shoe’s upper was half split away from the sole.
Kashif spoke almost perfect English, good enough to warn me as we turned a tight bend, “Be careful, uncle, road badly damaged round next corner from earthquake.”
Earthquake damage from 2005, still unrepaired.
I spent the night at a hotel next to the old fort at Mastuj, near the snowy Hindu Kush peak Tirich Mir which is 7,690m high (25,200 feet).
The hotel consists of small timber and stone cabins set in a wood of walnut trees and poplars and a plane tree reputed to be 200 years old.
I woke to autumn colours every bit as wondrous as anything I have seen in Kew Gardens or New England.
My next hitch-hiking companion was Mohammed, an English Literature student at Peshawar University.
“So you study Shakespeare?” I asked.
“Yes, and Wordsworth.”
And John Donne, I wondered?
“Ah, John Donne,” he raptured.
“John Donne… the poetry of love.”
I do not know any Donne by heart but when I attempted Shakespeare’s Seven Ages of Man from As You Like It, Mohammed completed every line as we bumped along the dusty road.
Parts of Pakistan are deeply conservative, devoutly Muslim places, and I was not signalled for lifts by many women.
But there were some.
A mother and grandmother, sitting in the back, their heads covered but not their faces and one-year-old Anis and his father Samir in the front with me.
He protested when I took a photograph of the two women but they did not object and posed happily as they waited for the flash.
When I delivered them to the Gilgit hospital where the little boy had an appointment with a heart specialist, his father was so pleased and grateful he gave me a bear hug, and a massive smile that erased his earlier stern objections to taking a picture.
I gave lifts to more than 20 people, learned how to say “no problem” in Urdu (Koi Batnahi), and had to hold back tears when two children said thank you for their lift and offered me money to help pay for the petrol.