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Emily Chap­pell takes the road less trav­elled

“Of course we have queers in Pak­istan – oh my god!” shrieks Omer, af­fect­ing out­rage.

He and Rukhsana are sit­ting in La­hore’s CTC Café, ig­nor­ing their lat­tes, preen­ing iden­ti­cal quiffs as they swap iphones to cri­tique each other’s self­ies, and en­light­en­ing me as to the true state of gay life in Pak­istan be­tween mouth­fuls of Is­lamic ba­con (it’s made from turkey) that’s al­most in­dis­tin­guish­able from the real thing. I am slowly coax­ing my brain back to the real world, af­ter spend­ing an in­dul­gent morn­ing in The Last Word ( the­last­word­, La­hore’s favourite book­shop, stum­bling across ev­ery­thing from sub­ver­sive graphic nov­els to the lat­est shin­ing stars of Com­mon­wealth lit­er­a­ture.

It’s hard to re­mem­ber that a few days ago I was ped­alling along the Grand Trunk Road, caked in sweat and dust, and grate­fully ac­cept­ing the at­ten­tions of the high­way po­lice, who would stop me ev­ery cou­ple of hours to pass me snacks and of­fer me lifts. One of them even lec­tured me on the benefits of sun­screen.

Af­ter six months cy­cling through moun­tains and deserts, and the cold­est win­ter I’ve ever ex­pe­ri­enced, I was direly in need of good cof­fee, new books, and a chance to hang out with my own (queer) kind. I didn’t ex­pect to find it in Pak­istan, but this place has a way of sur­pris­ing you. Omer and Rukhsana, whom I’ve met through a com­pli­cated chain of ac­quain­tances that be­gan in a seedy gay bar in Kings


Cross, de­scribe with gos­sipy glee how many Pak­istani queers yield to parental pres­sure and marry a mem­ber of the op­po­site sex (“Rather than end­ing up a bit­ter old queen,” re­marks Omer), some­times with­out the knowl­edge of their spouse, but of­ten with their con­nivance and co­op­er­a­tion. Rukhsana re­calls, with some­thing be­tween a shud­der and a chuckle, the per­sis­tent at­tempts of a slightly older woman to se­duce her at a party, while the woman’s hus­band nod­ded ap­prov­ingly from the other side of the room, flanked by a cou­ple of pretty boys.

“It’s not al­ways this creepy though,” Omer has­tens to re­as­sure me, and goes on to tell me the rather touch­ing story of a man he knows who still lives in the fam­ily home, along with his wife and his boyfriend, whom his mother refers to as “the other wife”, and treats as an equal mem­ber of the fam­ily.

Ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity is il­le­gal in the Is­lamic Repub­lic of Pak­istan, but some­times you wouldn’t think it, watch­ing men strolling down the street hand in hand, or curled up to­gether in the Shal­i­mar Gar­dens, look­ing bliss­fully re­laxed as they doze away the hottest part of the day un­der the mul­berry trees. The sil­ver lining to the coun­try’s strict gen­der seg­re­ga­tion is that same-sex friend­ship, in­ti­macy – and some­times ro­mance or sex­u­al­ity – have blos­somed, and eye­brows are less likely to be raised over a young woman’s pas­sion­ate at­tach­ment to her best friend than if she were found to have ex­changed text mes­sages with a male class­mate.

The con­ver­sa­tion moves on to food, which for most Pak­ista­nis – and Lahoris in par­tic­u­lar – is as re­li­able and end­less a sub­ject as the weather is for the Bri­tish.

That evening I am taken to the world-fa­mous Cuckoo’s Nest. I fol­low my hosts up the wind­ing stair­case of a house that used to be a brothel, past por­traits of long gone cour­te­sans, onto a roof ter­race twin­kling with lanterns, where sprawl­ing Pak­istani fam­i­lies (and one or two lonely white tourists) are de­mol­ish­ing mouth­wa­ter­ing piles of biriyani, suc­cu­lent bowls of dal and stacks of nan so fresh that they steam as you break into them. Across the busy street be­low us, we see the flood­lit Bad­shahi Mosque, in all its ge­o­met­ri­cal per­fec­tion, dome and minarets glow­ing out of the dark­ness of the old city like a fairy­tale palace.

A few weeks later, I es­cape the in­creas­ingly un­bear­able heat of the Pun­jab and find my­self sit­ting at the win­dow of Passu’s Glacier Breeze Restau­rant, hop­ing that, since I’m the only diner they’ve seen this week, they’ll be able to muster enough calo­ries to make up for a stren­u­ous morn­ing’s trek along the edge of the Bal­tura Glacier. Across the val­ley a clus­ter of icy moun­tains rises al­most ver­ti­cally up to­wards the sky, their slopes whit­tled by mil­len­nia of strong winds into crys­talline spires and pin­na­cles. At their foot the Hunza River winds its way down to­wards the In­dus, through av­enues of dark green po­plars, apri­cot or­chards and lush ter­raced slopes on which the farm­ers of Hunza painstak­ingly eke out their living.

Food here is fresher and lighter than the hearty cur­ries served down the hill in La­hore. Hun­za­kots use apri­cot oil, and let the flavour of their home-grown or­ganic pro­duce speak for it­self. They’re not averse to a lit­tle in­dul­gence though and, hear­ing that I am plan­ning on cy­cling up to the Chi­nese bor­der, the chef of­fers to bake me an apri­cot cake for the road and de­liv­ers it to me at the Passu Peak Inn the fol­low­ing morn­ing.

This per­son­alised ser­vice is ut­terly typ­i­cal of Pak­istan, and en­hanced by the sad fact that the tourist in­dus­try here is just about dead – in neigh­bour­ing Karimabad, I climb the steep cob­bled streets to the an­cient Baltit Fort, guiltily avoid­ing eye con­tact with lonely-look­ing shop­keep­ers. No one seems to mind though and, in pleas­ing con­trast with neigh­bour­ing In­dia, Pak­istani friend­li­ness very rarely spills over into has­sle or ha­rass­ment. The fact that I am trav­el­ling alone only seems to heighten peo­ple’s so­lic­i­tude – where in many coun­tries I have been fol­lowed down the street by men un­der the mis­taken im­pres­sion that all Euro­pean women are har­lots, here they are more likely to wel­come me to Pak­istan, in­vite me back to the fam­ily home for a cup of tea, and call up their cousin to make sure I have a bed in the next town.

Ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity is il­le­gal in Pak­istan, but some­times you wouldn’t think it

The Karako­ram moun­tains tower over Karimabad’s an­cient fort. Above: The Hunza Val­ley, Pak­istan’s par­adise on earth. Left: A man wan­ders through the wind­ing streets of Karimabad

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