Visiting the Switzerland of Pakistan; Swat

“I want to see mountains again, Gandalf!” Bilbo said after years of staying in Hobbiton writing his book. And we get that. Even though we’ve seen amazing places the past couple of months. Iran is an amazing and diverse country. We do miss mountains. Huge green mountains where rivers flow and fresh air blows. Where we can sleep without sweating and smell the wonderful fragrant of the trees. 

Visiting Swat

Luckily the North of Pakistan is all that. Snowy peaks, forests, rivers. Nature all around. At least, that’s what we think. “Swat is an amazing place to visit, there are great hikes there and the mountains are incredible” an Afghan police officer in Quetta told us. It’s about three hours from Peshawar, the road is alright but it’s a bit busy as the road crosses towns. Towns in Pakistan mean; a lot of people on the street, waking, in tuctucs and on motorbikes. Food stalls everywhere and little shops selling their goods. The first towns we cross are fun. So much is going on that we don’t know where to look. Merchants selling products, bakers baking their breads, mechanics fixing things. Lots of groceries stores that they call super mart but is so small only one person can stand inside it. Children working as well. From collecting wood to carrying super heavy bags. They sell things in shops or on the street or just beg for money. 

We get to an ATM where we can only get 20k rupees so withdrawal a couple of times. We refuel Alexine and do some grocery shopping. On the way we stop to drink Pakistans most famous drink: sugar cane juice. It’s so good!! We let them fill our a bottle for us. And then we moved on.

From terrorism to tourism

Swat was once a Taliban stronghold where TV was banned, public hangings were not uncommon, and girls were barred from going to school. Following a security operation which ended in 2018, the valley is coming back to life and welcoming a steady stream of tourists.

Locally known as Pakistan’s Switzerland due to its snow-capped mountains and lush green landscapes.

But from 2007 to 2010, it was the poster image for the Pakistani Taliban’s reign of terror.

The Taliban, seeking to enforce a crude form of Shariah law in the region, campaigned against girls’ education. Some 640 schools were destroyed in this period in Swat and its adjoining districts, the Education Department says. Read more here.

Malala from Swat

Swat is the city Malala came from. It’s also the city where the Taliban ruled for a long period of time. In that time tv’s were banned, public hanging were common and girls weren’t allowed to go to school. Malala loved school and went anyway. Reason enough for the Taliban to enter her schoolbus and shoot her in the head. Shoot a little girl because she wants to learn, to study. And that same Taliban is now ruling Afghanistan. I always want to believe there is hope in this world, hope for a better more equal world where peace is a normality and war an absurdity. But sometimes I lose hope. When i see the women here walking in burqas, when I hear what happens to women in Afghanistan, when I read stories like they of Malala. It’s a strange world we’re living in. We have been to the depths of the ocean, the weightlessness of the universe and climbed the highest mountains on earth. We have transplanted a pigs heart into a human body, found cures for deceases killing thousands of people not so long ago and are exploring the world of GMO. Yet, we think it’s okay to let a government decide what women wear, what jobs they’re allowed to do and whether or not they want an abortion. We let a terrorist group take over a whole country and look the other way while the women are oppressed once again. What is it that makes men so scare of women? 

In this part of Pakistan many women wear burqas. And even though I’m totally fine with whatever women want to wear I just can’t believe anyone wants to wear a burqa out of free will. It’s warm, inconvenient and asocial. It’s hard to understand the wearing of a burqa and it’s definitely very hard for me to understand that women continue to wear them. When I took off my hijab after three months Iran I felt so free, I felt so me. My hair is part of me, part of who I am. I’m proud of my curly hair and love it when it blows in the wind. I hated the hijab, having to wear it against my will is something new to me. A government, not even my own, obeying me to wear it. But it’s nothing compared to the burqa. It’s an isolation dress. There is no contact with whomever wears a burqa. Is she looking at me? Was that a nod to acknowledge me saying hi? Who is she? 

I wish a time would come where no one is oppressed, but that seems as stupid a wish as is world peace. Buddhists would meditate inside a dark small room for days, weeks even. When their wishes would come true they would offer things on the stupas. If I were a Buddhist I would be stuck in this tiny room forever. My wishes never coming true. But that of course doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fight for what we wish. Cause even if I can change the life of one person for the better I’m a happy person. If only I can decrease inequality for one person I have not failed. 

Malala fought for education. She survived the gunshot and became a famous young inspiring girl. An influencer the Taliban wished would never have flourished. But it is that gunshot that changed the faith of Malala and that of many girls. As many girls (and parents) changed their behaviour towards schools. Nowadays there is a lot of advertisement for girl schools (still separated from boys). And I’m happy to see it, a tiny spark in these dark times. 

Another foreign Switzerland 

Swat is locally known as the Switzerland of Pakistan. The mountains aren’t as high as further up north yet, but the green forests and the raging river are wonderful. But the closer we get to Kalam, our stop for today, the more we doubt the slogan. The road is alright but it’s crowded, and dirty. When we reach the first of Kalam we know for sure; this ain’t Switzerland. Not even close. The scenery is amazing. Truly magnificent with mountains as high as 3.000 meter above sea level. But as soon as we enter the forest we see waste everywhere, tents under every tree and food stalls all around. It’s more like a music festival than a natural area. It’s hard to look beyond all the rubbish. 

We park our van and within no time people come to us taking selfies with us. Welcoming us. It’s hearth warming how kind the Pakistani people are, but please take care of your nature. Your Switzerland is a big waste bin. A thousand years from now there will be mountains of plastic instead of rocks. The forests won’t be smelling after the trees but after the waste. And then the camels and horses that are standing here the whole day waiting to entertain humans. We should take care of our animals, of our nature, instead we exploit them. We are killing our planet and this trip along the Silk Road makes that abundantly clear. The silk road is one long way alongside a waste dump. Plastic everywhere and we still have no idea how long plastic will stay, but I’m pretty sure it will outlast humankind. 

So from womens rights to environmental issues. I’m sorry. Let’s talk about Pakistani culture now. 

We love Pakistan!

We’ve arrived here, parked the van, took some selfies with people and went for a walk. While walking more people stopped to take selfies with us. Up to now we just agree, smile and say our goodbyes. A small gesture in return to all the kindness we have experienced. Remember Waleed and Muheeb paying for our diner? They also did for our lunch and the entrance to the Buddhist monastery. “You are our guest” they kept saying. So, agreeing to selfies is our way of paying back. And here as well, a kind young man asks us if we want tea. So we have a nice talk, drink some tea and take some photos. He is from around the area and tells us he believes in marriage from love.

Many people are still marrying arranged by their parents. But he doesn’t like that. “You should love first and then marry.” He says. It’s always fun where our conversations end up. 

After tea we walk back to the van where another photo session takes place. And when one takes selfies with us, others come. It’s alright, it’s just a photo. But I’m still not feeling well, my stomach is still turning upside down once in a while and my head almost exploding from pain. The smiling hurts my cheeks and we tell everyone it’s enough now. When we do that they let us go. 

Further up we hear some music and we decide to check it out. Three local men playing local music and when we arrive a crowd starts to surround the men. It doesn’t take long for other men to join who start dancing. The music is in Pashtun, which is the local tongue of this region. There are many languages in Pakistan, Urdu is the main language and Pashtun is spoken at the area bordering Afghanistan. We don’t understand a thing but music is universal right? People dance, people clap and people laugh. Music does wonders, it’s emotions in sound and the folklore we hear here is making people happy. It’s uniting people and everyone enjoys. 

The concert is finished and we sit at our van when a young boy brings us tea. “Welcome to Pakistan!” He says. He is such a beautiful young boy. Really, Pakistani people are very beautiful. And very diverse. From dark brown skinned to light, almost white skinned. And from dark brown eyes to blue bright eyes. I love the diversity in people here. We talk a little bit with the boy who doesn’t speak English very well but he is so polite and so sweet. The tea is sweet as well. Sugar and milk. Not what we normally drink but this cup of hospitality is the best I ever drank. 

Gosh I love Pakistan already. And tea is just what my stomach can handle and my headache lessens. While the Pakistani picknickers move to their hotels, we stay in the forest of waste.

Love, Milene & Yuri

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