Hunza Through Foreign EyesA tourist in the Hunza Valley

Pakistan often finds itself in the unenviable position of being labelled as the most dangerous country in the world. It has been on the cover issue of an international magazine for this reason a couple of years ago.

With such a reputation, can you believe any person enjoying a peaceful life in Europe, vacationing in Pakistan, nine times in the last eight years? Can you imagine a European, trekking, on his own in the known and not so known mountains and glaciers without a porter or a guide? Can you expect, anyone, in his sane mind, declaring Pakistan his favourite travel country in the world?

Newsflash! Gilbert Kolonko, a traveller from Berlin, Germany, whom I had the pleasure of meeting at the heavenly Borith Lake in Gilgit-Baltistan, not only did all that but spent his time and money to write a book, just so that the Western world changes its perspective about Pakistan!

I have travelled extensively in Pakistan but I have to embarrassingly admit that some of the places and local festivals Kolonko mentions sounded Greek to me, or at least German. From Karachi to Khunjrab, Wahgah to Balochistan, and much of what lies in between — he has travelled to and experienced.

Simple, humble and sensitive, Kolonko is well read as well. He seemed like a person who questions everything he sees, analyses it and forms a strong opinion. At our first interaction, one could notice long scratches, just scabbing over, on his right arm — violate badges of courage brought back from a recent trip on a mountain or a glacier. His positivity, animated body language and loud laughter draw people to him. He would laugh from his heart at simple incidents and jokes. It was as if he really knew how to enjoy and appreciate the little pleasures in life.

On the subject of Pakistan’s icy mountains, Kolonko is a “walking’pedia” and an animated “Google map” rolled into one. He remembers altitudes; distances both in kilometres and hours, can draw maps and recognises even little known peaks and glaciers.

When most of us criticise, complain about and condemn Pakistan and its government, finding a “Gora” who actually claims that he loves Pakistan is a unique phenomenon. So I was naturally curious and wanted to find out his story and why he wrote a book about Pakistan. In the dimly lit dining room of the Borith Lake Hotel, after dinner one evening, we had a nice conversation.

Here’s what Kolonko had to say:

“I had never imagined visiting Pakistan in my wildest dream, and would never have come here had I not met a Dane in 2005, who had been here earlier and was raving about the picturesque landscape, snow capped mountains and amazing people.

After only two days of interaction with the people, upon my arrival in September 2005, I was ashamed of my preconceived notions about Pakistan and its people. The biggest factor to change my view was the attitude of the common man I met on the road.

The Western media portrays Islam as a religion with no tolerance, that promotes aggressive and extremist behaviour. I experienced that the people are generally open-minded and in no way fanatical. They were polite and had an ingrained sense of warm hospitality such that even though when they did not have enough to feed their own family, they would not let me pay for my bus ticket and chai (tea). When I argue with them, they tell me “you are our guests and we cannot let you pay”.

The media projects that the root cause for the majority of the issues in Pakistan is the low literacy rate. I found that amazingly, despite the low literacy rate, people could differentiate between “Western people” and “Western governments”. They treated me as a human being and their guest and their resentment towards the policies of the Western governments never impaired our interactions.

I realised that the common man is trying to follow Islam, as much as he can. There is no contradiction between what they say and do. However, it is the leaders of the country who are doing the opposite, because of which, the common man is suffering, the religion is getting a bad name and the country is falling apart.

Pakistani people get greatly surprised when they find out that I have written a book, Let’s Go to My Favourite Travel Country — Let’s Go to Pakistan. Since the book aims to project a positive image of Pakistan, they are curious to know what inspired me to do so.

When I was in Nepal working on a book about the fight between the Maoist party and the government of Nepal, there was a general perception that the Maoists were fighting for the rights of the common people in Nepal and were loved by them. But when I spoke to the people in the villages, I found that in reality the fight was crushing the common man. They were struggling to make both ends meet and had no interest, whatsoever, in the fight.

The same is happening in Pakistan where a few religious extremists and the corrupt government and army are fighting and the person suffering the most from this is, the common man.

I wanted to give voice to the common people of Pakistan. I want to educate my fellow countrymen on how much Pakistan has to offer to the world. This book is my attempt to clarify the misunderstandings that have been instilled in the West.

It has become extremely difficult to have my voice heard back home due to many reasons. The people there generally think that Pakistan is synonymous with Islam and Islam means Taliban. Pakistan is as such considered in the same league as Iraq and Afghanistan and no one is really interested in reading anything that would inspire them to travel to such countries. When I titled my book Let’s Go to My Favourite Travel Country — Let’s Go to Pakistan, most of the people thought I had gone mad!

Kolonko observes that for anyone who gets convinced and is willing to travel to Pakistan, the visa policy, restrictions and bureaucratic procedures involved pose a major hurdle. In contrast, he feels that the process is much simpler in neighbouring countries such as India, Nepal and Sri Lanka, where citizens of most countries are offered visa on arrival. The issues surrounding visa extension requests further complicate the matter. He feels that a more tourist friendly framework will translate into a tourism boom, foreign exchange earnings and a healthy contribution to the economy.

He believes experiencing Pakistan first-hand is the quickest way to change anyone’s preconceived opinion. However, the above mentioned visa restrictions are not conducive to achieving this objective.

He views the “friendliness” of its people as Pakistan’s biggest asset in terms of its tourism industry. Someone out there needs to capitalise on this asset. This will improve Pakistan’s image worldwide and also provide immense employment opportunities.

Kolonko clarified that the purpose of his book is not to meddle in the affairs of Pakistan. His only reason to write this book is that the country gets a fair chance of hosting travellers from all around the world, the kind of tourism that this country truly deserves.

Meeting people like Kolonko, who appreciate the beautiful things our country has to offer, makes me wonder when will we, as a nation, stop complaining and start focusing on and appreciating the positive aspects. I believe that we have many blessings, magnificent landscapes being one of them. I also believe that not appreciating what one has, amounts to thanklessness. An appropriate way to show appreciation is going out and experiencing these gifts.

My request to the reader is, “Let’s go out and see Pakistan”. The people in the north rely on the earnings from the tourists’ season. As we all know, except for some nutty ones who still have the courage to come here, there has been mostly a draught of tourists ever since 9/11. Our people are in a difficult situation and are in need of some hope. You can be that hope.

After experiencing a few patches on the blue marble, I truly believe that Pakistan is my favourite travel country also, and it has the potential to become yours too.

Written by Sharjeel Ahmad for Dawn News.