CYCLING IN PAKISTAN
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 ( thelastwordbooks.blogspot.ca), 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
EMILY CHAPPELL CYCLES A QUEER ROUTE THROUGH PAKISTAN
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