We serve as the centrepieces of countless photos. From grown men dancing along the side of the road to children shy about practicing their English, our impression of Pakistan is a country of smiles.
Lounging in a swanky new hotel in Naran, one of Pakistan's premier domestic tourism destinations, the conversation drifts toward Osama bin Laden.
"I have property in Abbottabad, very close to Osama's compound," says the genial Muhummad Khan, chuckling as he continues "and now the property value has gone way down."
It had been 12 weeks since elite US commandos unilaterally stormed Osama bin Laden's compound near Abbottabad, Pakistan, killing the infamous terrorist leader. Midway through a bicycle tour across northern Pakistan, we decided that enough time had elapsed to visit the wreckage of the site and snap a few photos to show off at a lifetime of dinner parties.
Khan continues to ramble about the state of things in Pakistan, reminiscing about days before the 9/11 attacks when he was manager of various hotels in the Northern Areas that were filled with foreign tourists. Those visitors have slowed to a trickle of only the most intrepid and inspired, a trickle destined to slow even more since the bin Laden raid. The Canadian government advises against all non-essential travel to the country, citing, among other things, the leader's death as a possible cause for violence.
It's difficult to reconcile that rhetoric with our first-hand experiences biking toward Abbottabad. As we descend through Kaghan, a beautiful forested valley that is popular with families in the summer, our progress is slowed by the stream of Pakistani people stopping their vehicles to wish us well on our journey. We are offered drinks and food. We serve as the centrepieces of countless photos. From grown men dancing along the side of the road to children shy about practicing their English, our impression of Pakistan is a country of smiles.
One morning we mow down chickpea biryani on the shore of Lake Lulusar, an impressive high altitude attraction in the region. Continuing south on an undulating gravel road, a car pulls up alongside me and the occupants start firing questions. Where am I from? Where am I going? Do I like Pakistan? Next thing I know I am being offered a place to stay when we make it to the Punjab city of Lahore. It's not an isolated incident. By the time we leave the higher elevations and arrive at the hot and humid foothills near Abbottabad, we have wallets full of business cards of people to call "if you need anything, anything at all."
Matt Colautti is a Canadian-based freelance writer and accomplished globetrotter. His travels have seen him cross the Alps on foot, make wind chimes for hippies in Argentina, road trip to the Arctic Ocean, and teach English in Western China. He speaks French, Spanish, and Chinese.
Matt's 9000-km bicycle tour of Asia took him from the heat and dust of Thailand all the way to the heat and dust of Nepal, not to mention among all the nomads, monsoons, and wild monkeys in between. You can keep abreast of his stories at mattisnothere.blogspot.com or follow him @EmmJaySea.
Abbottabad is a large town situated at a point where the Himalaya meets the plains. The city is centered around a densely clustered but clean bazaar, complete with shops selling tall piles of spices, smelly fish, and lots of cloth. North of town is the Cantt area, the traditional British section with tidy streets and lots of trees, now mostly occupied by the military. From there farmland and rural homes stretch out and up into the hills.
We bike past the Cantt Police Station, rumored to be 900m from the site of the bin Laden compound. From there we make a loop, scanning for any sort of demolished building. It's a fairly dense area with lots of traffic that doesn't seem like it could quietly be the subject of a helicopter attack. Our search will require a bit more effort.
Passing a cloth shop, a young shop owner asks if there's anything at all he can do to help. I respond bluntly that we'd like to see bin Laden's home. I regret the question as soon as the words are out of my mouth.
"Bin Laden?" he responds loudly, and we now have the attention of everyone in the vicinity. He points to a minivan and tells us that it will take us to the compound. I don't like the sound of that and we retreat to do an internet search.
We are stopped twice by plain clothed policemen, once in the internet cafe and again while getting some late night kebabs. They want to see documents. On explaining our biking adventure their mood lightens and they wish us well. But it's clear that the city is crawling with undercover police as the government tries to figure out exactly what happened in Abbottabad. Another guest at the hotel tells us that bin Laden's been dead for a long time and that the raid was faked. I don't think anybody knows. One thing is certain: the bin Laden incident was terribly embarrassing to the government of Pakistan. I imagine if the US made such a move in China, there would be serious censorship and traveler restrictions in the area.
We depart Abbottabad for the hill station of Nathiagali, an old summer vacation spot built by the British to escape the heat of the plains. Nowadays it is a chic holiday destination for Islamabad's wealthy. On the way out of town we spy a few shattered compounds, but nothing with the telltale shape made famous by newspapers around the world.
High up in the cool air of the hills, we embrace our defeat by stopping for an ice-cold drinks and Halal chips. In Nathiagali we eat fresh pizza and browse a busy shopping street. Outside of town there are monkeys, who leap from trees to the side of the road to receive a steady stream of fruit from passing families and cyclists.
That night, from the balcony of a plush hotel overlooking the sea of lights dotting the hills, I wonder about the future of tourism in Pakistan. During three weeks in this country we never once feel threatened. On the contrary, we are welcomed as friends. The discovery of Bin Laden will only fuel Western fears of Pakistan, which is a shame since it is a beautiful place to visit. This is not a country of terrorists. As another hotel guest elegantly summed up after a departing family came over to shake my hand: "Look around you, these people love foreigners. Those who can afford it want nothing more than to send their children to school in Canada and the US."
We may not have found the carcass of the world's most despised terrorist, but I think we found a place worth returning to.
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