Diary of a French Girl in Pakistan
By Johanna Michel
On my visit to Pakistan for the first time ever, I distinctly remember the day I was crossing the Wagah border from India, listening to a song by Noori while my heart was beating fast – not out of fear, but in anticipation since I had been waiting for this day for a long time.
I was first introduced to the country by my Pakistani roommates many years ago when I was 18 and living in London. Their stories had piqued my interest right away. Finally, after all this time, I got the chance to come to Pakistan. It took me two months to plan my trip and included many nights of researching what to do and where to go.
When I arrived at the crossing, border officials welcomed me with a lot of curiosity and immediately began asking me questions about where I was from, if I was travelling alone, if this was my first time in Pakistan and what the purpose of my visit was. I answered them gladly with as much detail as I possibly could.
“I’m going there because I want to understand if Pakistan is really what the media portrays it to be. Honestly, I don’t believe even for a second what I see on TV.”
There were smiles all around me when I said this.
With so many happy faces, I could have stayed at the border chatting for ages with the friendly staff. But since I thought my friends would be anxiously waiting outside for me, I didn’t stay for too long. After a few more questions, smiles and many shukrias, I was finally on the other side. Pak-is-tan. I think I had to pinch myself a few times to realise that I was standing on Pakistani soil.
I sat on a bench next to a few old men while waiting for my friends to arrive. They looked at me, smiled and asked where I was from. I decided to introduce myself in Urdu and tried to speak the few words I had learnt on my own. I struggled, but they appreciated it so much.
I remember them telling me, “Don't worry miss, although we don't see many solo female travellers here in Pakistan, people will look after you like their own family. You're also most welcome for dinner at our place...”
At that point, I knew that I'd be spending a fun-filled week with unforgettable experiences.
I had my first cup of chai in Pakistan – another thing off my bucket list – with them. A little while later, my lovely friends Faizan, Shah, and Lizzy came to pick me up in their shiny new car. I had met them online and this was the first time we were seeing each other in person. I was amazed at their kindness that they came all the way to pick me up. I said Salam Alaikum to them, Khuda Hafiz to the gentlemen whom I was having chai with, and I set off to discover Pakistan.
Coke Studio songs were blaring in the car as a perfect auditory introduction to the country. I looked out the window, soaking up the vibes I was getting from the city, especially Lahore’s canals and the lush green trees along them.
My friends are devoted bikers and own Karakoram Bikers, a company that arranges adventure tours on motorbikes around Pakistan. When they asked me if I wanted to explore Old Lahore on bike, I didn’t hesitate to say 'yes' even for a second. We set off on our bikes at full speed that same evening toward the chaotic but amazing androon Lahore.
As I was holding onto my friend on the bike, with the fresh breeze against my face and a new landscape around me, I felt a deep sense of joy and liberty.
Wazir Khan mosque was the first mosque I ever visited.
I loved the colourful tiles at the Wazir Khan mosque.
First, we stopped at the Wazir Khan mosque, which I found breathtakingly beautiful. It was my first time to visit a mosque. Back in France, there aren’t any mosques where I live. The perception of Islam in my country is rather negative, but when I went inside the Wazir Khan mosque, I felt at peace. I am an anxious person and stress out easily, but all those feelings disappeared in that moment. I understood why Muslims go to mosques; it’s a place where you can escape all your troubles. Wazir Khan mosque will remain my favourite place in Lahore.
We ended the day with a stop at Pak Café, where we had chai (obviously!) and chatted away. A young lady sitting next to us turned around and asked if I was French (is my accent that obvious?). I responded to her in Urdu, which made her even more curious, and I was in for another set of endless questions!
Over the next few days, I had the chance to explore more of Lahore with another friend, Ahmed, whom I had also met online. While I was doing my research on Pakistan, I posted a question on Quora: "Is it safe for a 24-year-old girl to travel alone in Pakistan?" Ahmed was the first one to respond and since then, we kept in touch everyday until I arrived in Lahore.
I took a taxi from Chandigarh to go to Wagah. I felt a little scared, but Ahmed kept in touch throughout. He is one of the best Pakistani men I have ever met! I also met his family and they are all lovely. I hope to be able to host him in Europe when he comes.
He took me to his alma mater, LUMS. The red bricks of the buildings reminded me of England and the campus didn’t look very different from my university in Cardiff. I also saw a few foreign students and I could imagine myself studying there.
We then headed to the food street and sat at a restaurant overlooking the beautiful Badshahi Mosque. I tried paratha, daal, and mutton, which was tender and cooked to perfection. I also had Nutella naan for dessert, which was amazing! Pakistani food in the UK is decent but it’s nothing compared to what I tasted here. I expected it to be spicy, but to my relief it was rather tolerable.
As we were having food and were immersed in conversation, a singer at the restaurant asked Ahmed if he had any song requests. Since Ahmed knew I was obsessed with Jal, he asked for one of the band's songs. It was another unforgettable moment.
It was time to say Khuda Hafiz to the City of Gardens. Next stop: Islamabad. My university friend Sam came to pick me up from Ahmed’s place in his car. I couldn’t wait for the drive to Islamabad since I remember my roommates telling me how beautiful the route was.
As we made our way to the capital, it was the perfect time as the sun was setting and I could see the untouched landscapes. The land was mainly flat until we reached the hills a little before Islamabad. It was a beautiful sight, with the city lights in the distance as we slowly reached our destination.
Faisal mosque is completely different than the other two mosques I had visited.
What was soothing was the sufi songs playing in the car. My interest in sufism sparked a few years ago when my friends introduced me to it. I started listening to sufi music everyday, especially Rahat Fateh Ali Khan. When I was coming to Pakistan, I brought along a few Rumi books. Sufism, in both its poetic and musical expressions, makes me feel connected to the country.
The following day, I organised a little surprise for my friend and took him horse riding in the outskirts of the city, close to Margalla Town and Orchard Scheme, at the Orrick Horseback Riding Islamabad, which I had discovered online.
The sun was shining, the weather was cool, and we could hear the call for Friday prayers in the distance, which made it even more mystic. We became friends with the owner of the club, Orrick, a friendly Canadian expat who has been living in Islamabad since many years. We also met her lovely husband.
I stayed in Islamabad for a few more days, during which I had the chance to try out some more food by the Margalla hills and enjoy a nice walk by the Faisal Mosque, before heading back to England where I live.
I loved all the colourful, traditional outfits and couldn't help but wear one myself!
I really wish everyone has a chance to visit Pakistan. When I was doing my research before coming, all I came across was news about bombings, kidnappings, and how the country was not safe for foreigners, especially women travelling alone. But I knew that this was not an accurate picture.
In my time spent in Pakistan, all I saw was amazing hospitality, landscape, food, music, and the most welcoming people. Everyone was kind and loving, and they would do everything to make you feel at home. I haven't come across such generosity anywhere else in the world (and I have travelled quite a bit).
I encourage you to go and discover Pakistan. I guarantee that you won't be disappointed by the experience. (Johanna Michel was born and bred in France. She's 25 years of age and presently lives in England. – Dawn)