Greetings from Pakistan!

Holassalamualaikum! (That’s my fallback foreign language, the hola part, mixed with one of the three Urdu words I know — Spanglishstani?) I’m finishing-up seven weeks in Pakistan, on what started as a climbing trip but became something more. A bunch of stories floating through ol’ duder’s head for once I get around to sharing them. Sorry, by the way, for the unposted comments — I see them sitting in my inbox and will approve ’em pronto.

In brief, the climbing…I spent 30 days in the Charakusa Valley, an immaculate place that I’m psyched to have visited again (I was there in 2007 as well), along with young guns Kyle Dempster and Hayden Kennedy. They’re both beasts, phenomenal all-arounders (man, I’m so impressed with the younger generation!) and great people. They tore it up, while I, well…damn. I thought I was ready, maybe convinced myself of such after six surgeries in just over a year, but I think I took for granted what an enormous step up it is from day climbs back home, and even in Chamonix, to the truly awesome Karakoram.

In between smaller climbs, bouldering, and nursing myself back to health, the simple life in base camp provided a beautiful place to make peace with my disappointment. Maybe I need more time, or maybe this is my new reality; we don’t always get what we want in life, and I haven’t forgotten that I am a fortunate man.

And so I left base camp a week early to explore northern Pakistan on my own, and it gave me some of the coolest experiences of my life, like I was living a different existence in a different place, seeing things and meeting people that expanded my concept of the world and of life and of my own smallness, my utter insignificance in the universe, all while somehow making me feel connected at the same time. That’s some pretty cool shit, and a wonderful, liberating experience.

So, you’re probably wondering the “s” thing: safety. And what would a piece on Pakistan be without addressing safety? Well, it is my pleasure, and considering the people I’ve met, indeed I feel it my responsibility. Nope, no evil-doers. No terrorists (how exactly one defines that…well, I’ll save it, but I god-damned guarantee ya two things: when I fly home, the alert level in the US airports will be orange (meaning…what exactly?); and on my next flight after this trip I will hear these words at airport security, as I always do after Pakistan: “Mr. Cordes, you have been randomly selected for secondary screening.”). Here in Pakistan I found alert level green, just peace and love and kindness at a level unmatched by even the enlightened folk back in Boulder (regardless of what their bumper stickers say). Damn, good stuff.

Seriously, to imply, as our government and media most certainly do, that an entire nation (and/or religious or ethnic group) is to be avoided, and its inhabitants mostly hostile and dangerous, is so fucking absurd that it defies reason. It draws to mind the ugliness of racism, and it is wrong and cruel to the overwhelming majority of Pakistanis and Muslims who are kind, peaceful people. Imagine if after, say, the Arizona shootings (or pick any act of violence that occurs anyplace daily at home), people were going, “Don’t go to the US! Man, you might get shot. Crazy people, I wouldn’t go there.” Of course you could get yourself into trouble as a foreigner in Pakistan, should you be an idiot and do zero research as to where to go, or act like a complete asshole, or just get very unlucky. Duh. Name a place in the world where this is not the case.

Imagine a Pakistani, speaking no English and wearing traditional garb, walking through a neighborhood back home. How many people would cross the street to enthusiastically welcome him to our country, invite him to our homes for tea and food and even to stay the night? In Pakistan I was that foreigner, and I lost count of the times people welcomed me in those very ways.

My experiences, after an accumulated seven months of my life in Pakistan (spread over four trips), completely belie the fear-mongering portrayal of the country. I have not had one negative personal interaction here, not once felt concern for my security or felt even a hint of unwelcoming. Never in my life, nowhere in my world travels — including my daily life back home — have I been treated with the kindness and warmth presented to me at every turn in northern Pakistan, whether traveling solo on a bicycle (that was really freakin’ cool, by the way!); walking around and taking public transportation by myself; being with friends old and new, Pakistani and Western alike; kicking around the cities; or heading through remote villages en route to the mountains. It’s especially profound when you witness daily lives that should seem desperate to us — staggering poverty, unemployment near 50%, and a serious lack of the conveniences and services we take for granted. Talk about a dose of perspective.

Indeed the world is a crazy place and Pakistan faces some complex issues as it develops. Who knows what the future holds? I don’t. But I do know this: I will never forget the overwhelming kindness and warmth shown to me by the people of northern Pakistan. I leave here humbled and grateful.









18 thoughts on “Greetings from Pakistan!

  1. Nice post, Kelly. I’ve never been to Pakistan, so who am I to comment? But I would imagine, like most things, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. I’m sure you could get into some serious trouble in Pakistan given the right circumstances … trouble that you might not be able to find in the U.S., no matter where you go. But, like you said, that’s not the norm.

    Anyway, sorry your physical performance this trip was a disappointment to you. Hang in there. Hopefully you’ll be back to form sometime soon. And if not, well, you are still inspiring, for your writing, your attitude, and your margs. Cheers.

  2. Kelly, great thoughts. Hope you’re not too bummed out about the shoulder. I remember you writing somewhere at some point that climbing was important, but you were a writer first. Cheers to that, man. I’m sure the shoulder will heal and you’ll get back up to speed, but even if the climbing adventures don’t get bigger and bolder than some of your past ones, I think your writing is only getting better and better.

  3. Definition of a terrorist? Someone who commits terrorism. Just like someone who eats a bagel is a bagel eater. What’s that you say? The act can be judged, but the person is only in that category so long as they are engaging in that act? And they should not be classified with others who commit that act simply by fate of nationality or race? Well, that’s a desperately-needed distinction that is desperately being avoided.

    Did you think about applying for work as a Universal Ambassador of the Goodwill Spirit of Climbing? Basically a bro to the world?

  4. Hi Kelly. A great post about my most favourite country in the world! Commiserations on the climbing but i know how you feel. Last year i headed off to Vasuki Parbat six months after a seriously broken back- and paid the price by having to turn back at half height while Malcolm and Paul went on to get a Piolet d’Or nomination. But im fine now and recently back from the Wakhan Corridor and a new route. So…if you want to go somewhere else where the mountains are beautiful and the people sweet and hospitable- this is it! A far cry from the Afghanistan portrayed by the media.

  5. Kelly, awesome post! I agree with your thoughts and feelings. I was in Pakistan last year. We were invited into so many strangers homes for tea. Pakistan people are the most sincere, kind, genuine people I have ever met. We came home thinking we should invite people into our homes for tea! So glad you had such an awesome bike ride! We are excited to hear about the trip!

  6. Hey kelly.

    Really good post. After visitung pakistan and other stans for 12 years now im compelled to reinforce that what you say is normal.
    Ive often had people simply thank me for visiting their country. Humbling. Especially if you recall the pre-9/11 days.
    Someone above mentioned the truth was ‘somewhere in the middle’.
    Its not.
    Its just how you describe it.

    And of course theres the finest climbing anywhere as well.

  7. Every climber I’ve spoken w/ upon returning from a trip to Pakistan shares sentiments very close to yours. It is amazing to stop and think about how the complex is reduced to the idiotically incorrect narrative.

  8. Awesome.

    I met a couple Iraqi kids this summer who were in the US for a month long leadership trip, sponsored by the state department. They said that they and their families were afraid that the streets of Seattle would be super dangerous and filled with gangstas like they had seen in our movies. One almost didn’t come. This and your experience are good reminders of how much we as humans are influenced by media and the social mindset of our community.

  9. I will be traveling that way next spring, and hope to see some of the indigenous folk sporting mullet stripes. I had to come to terms with ‘my new reality’ after several operations on my battered body, but you know, I don’t miss hard climbing at all. That feeling I used to get pushing my limits to the max has been replaced by teaching to and learning from the people whose villages I merely passed through on my way to a self-absorbed expedition. Insha’Allah.

  10. I love this graph:
    Imagine a Pakistani, speaking no English and wearing traditional garb, walking through a neighborhood back home. How many people would cross the street to enthusiastically welcome him to our country, invite him to our homes for tea and food and even to stay the night? In Pakistan I was that foreigner, and I lost count of the times people welcomed me in those very ways.

  11. Wow! That’s great to hear your story/adventures in Pakistan despite your lingering health issues. It’s so refreshing to hear how a little bit of travel can help one understand his neighbors and warm the soul. I love to travel and make it a point to always get acquainted with the locals no matter where I go. Thanks for sharing.

  12. Dear Sir/Madam,
    My name is Abdul Mubeen. Currently I am living in Dubai, U.A.E, and I am a chartered Accountant (ACCA). I am belonging to Pakistani administered Northern Area (Gilgit Baltistan), a remote area in Himalayan – Kramkuram mountain reign. My village name is called “Hudur Gujrat” (Distract Diamer Chillas) an End of the road forest village.

    The tragedy of my village

    In 1977 Government of Pakistan announced to build a building for school in my village and fortunately after around 30 year in 2007 this school building has been completed. During these 30 years, school has educated only 8 men and 1 woman out of six thousand population area and I am the only one graduate.
    There is no single dispensary and maternity home in the village as well.
    Few months before I read an amazing book (three cup of tea and Stone into school), both of these books are based on the story of our area, but unfortunately non of any international NGO contact our district , because being a “ TALIBAN” holding area this become a “ No go Area” for any international NGO. Although this area facing many problems like religious extremism, Poverty, Law and order , family discrimination, women violence etc, but what ever these problem will be the log term solution is one and only one that’s “EDUCATION” especially for girls.
    To deal with this single solution for the entire problems recently, I visited my village and surprise that the school buildings were empty and only one teacher was there for three schools……. I had raised the following question to my villagers to understand the ground problems and for my feedback.

    Q.1. what happen if some NGO will build a school for our children?
    A.1.We don’t need just school buildings “we need education and healthcare services for our children regardless it’s from inside building or open air field”.

    Q.2. Why are you not sending your children to school?
    A.2. what is the benefit of sending our children to school? We are poor people and our children are helping us to look after our animals and cultivation. These things are helping us to increase our income.
    If we will send our children to school for primary education then we have to send our children to cities for higher educations. As you know there is no community hostel and compensatory resource. So it is batter that we will not send our children to primary school and ask them to helping us in our daily activities.

    Q.3. why our children are attracting to religious mind extremist “Madarsas”?
    A.3. It’s very simple that we are poor people and Islamic Madarsas are sporting or children and our homes and we have no fear and worry about the future of our children because after getting education from Islamic Madarsas they also decide the future of our children.
    After getting such concern and problem facing by the village elders, I realize that with out a proper alternative compensatory long term PLAN of education we can not come out of the problems and being the only one graduate of the village its my responsibility to bring this problem to your intention.
    I m looking for the help of international humanitarian people and NGO’s to help me to start a compulsory education for all program in these remote areas of Himalayan Mountain reign.
    Please help me and forward this massage to all the concern people within your coordination, because being a human it’s our collective responsibility.

    Thanks and regards,
    Abdul Mubeen ( or 0971-507906835.

  13. ” ….make peace with my disappointment” Great post and wonderful perspective KC! Sounds like you have found the secret to a happy and wonderful life. Why as Americans, do we value altruism but never practice it in a way you have witnessed first hand? Thanks for posting.

  14. Thanks for the great post. The media twisting the consciousness of US citizens is always on my mind. I’m in New Zealand now. Everything is so comfortable and relaxed. Very little crime and the community is so welcoming and friendly. It’s strange to think how much less safe I feel when in the US. It’s even wilder to think how much safer you feel in Pakistan. I never really thought about visiting Pakistan, but now its definitely on the cards. Thanks for the inspiration.

    • thanks much (whew, i need to catch up on some replies!) — i’m sure there are places in pakistan to avoid as a visitor, just like anywhere. indeed, though, it’s not hard at all to find the chill spots, ya ask around, be smart, and don’t buy into the hype — as you said, all that media-fear-twisting consciousness crap is to be avoided! cheers, kelly

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