Freedom. For me, it’s the best feeling there is. I’m not talking about freedom from life’s fundamental responsibilities; I adore being a mum and find great fulfilment in being a businesswoman. What I crave is the freedom to be me – to be completely and utterly authentic, without the pesky presence of fear, shame or guilt, or the pressure to soften my ambitions to support social and cultural norms.
Who'd have thought that I’d find the freedom I craved in Pakistan, a country where conservative Islamic doctrine steers the lives of many civilians with a firm hand; a place where women (and men) struggle to enjoy some of the liberties I’ve become accustomed to in Australia. But that’s exactly what happened. I recently headed to Pakistan for a motorbike journey and ‘mumcation’ (i.e. child and husband-free vacation), and I haven’t felt so wild and alive in a long time.
This wasn’t my first trip to the ‘land of the pure’. A few years ago, I travelled through Northern Pakistan with my husband in our beloved Land Rover, and we had the time of our lives. I’m pleased to say that my return journey managed to top my incredible introduction to Pakistan. Solo female travellers – particularly those on motorbikes – are highly unusual in this part of the world, so I expected the locals would largely disapprove of my adventure. This wasn't the case at all. I was received like family at the best of times and warm chuckles of bewilderment at the worst. Yet again, Pakistan had challenged my assumptions and inspired me be more open-minded when travelling to countries that cop a lot of flak in the media.
While my second trip to Pakistan was undertaken without the comfort of family, it wasn't without the support of great company. I was accompanied by a mad crew of locals, including: Sanaulla (a much-loved mover-and-shaker), Yasir (a motocross master who lives off cigarettes and energy drinks), Hadi (Pakistan’s female judo champion and a badass babe who rocks the James Dean look like no one else), and Niaz (an affluent and completely adorable farmer from Swat). I quickly fell in love with these guys; they’re all modern thinkers and challenging the 'rules' in their own way.
Speaking of rules… our first day on the road together was a true baptism of fire. I quickly discovered Pakistan’s most important road rule: there are no road rules. At first glance, the heaving menagerie of cars, cattle, trucks, traffic police, bikes and boulders looked like a death trap. Every moving part was in survival mode. Joining the chaos – especially on a motorbike – was a heart-stopping experience. But, once I learnt how to master the roads like a local, things started to become more intuitive and a little less stressful!
The journey from Islamabad to Besham isn’t for the feint-hearted. While the odd stretch of paved road, snow-kissed mountain passes and monkey sightings provide some respite, navigating the townships is somewhat terrifying. Abbottabad is a biker’s worst nightmare. I’m honestly surprised I came out the other side alive. Thinking about it still gives me the heebie-jeebies. That night, we rode into our Besham hotel well after dark. It’d been a long day, but the fear of what lay ahead made it hard to sleep. What the heck had I signed up for?
As the sun smiled down on a new day, my mind let go of the past and eagerly anticipated our next destination: Karimabad, Hunza (a.k.a. heaven). Firstly, we had to ride through Chilas, one of Pakistan’s ultra-conservative and challenging destinations (a quick Google News search will give you an idea of what I’m talking about). Even if my travel buddies hadn’t filled me in on the region’s dark side, I still would have sensed its shadows. After passing through a few towns leading up to Chilas, I suddenly realised I hadn’t spotted a single woman for a while. Being a woman on a motorbike, I felt a bit self-conscious and vulnerable, so I tucked my hair up into my helmet and focused on the road ahead. Before I knew it, I was back on the highway to heaven.
The Karakoram Highway (a.k.a. the world’s highest paved road) is a true joy to behold. I can understand why many bikers prefer to start their road trip through Northern Pakistan from Gilgit, rather than Islamabad. From Gilgit to Hunza, the journey is pure bliss. Straddling the mighty Indus River, the smooth curves of the road are enveloped by gargantuan mountains. At one point, the Karakoram Highway takes you past the nexus of the world’s three highest mountain ranges: the Himalayas, the Karakoram and the Hindu Kush. Nature is clearly on steroids in this part of the planet.
After a 14+ hour day on the road, we finally made it into Karimabad. Yet again, I struggled to sleep; but, this time, it was because I was on cloud nine. I couldn’t wait for the sun to come up, so I could bounce out of bed and explore my favourite place on earth. Our itinerary included two rest days in Hunza, but resting was the last thing on anyone’s mind.
For starters, we stepped back in time while exploring Karimabad’s two iconic forts, hearing tales of old that tickled our imaginations. Next, we lost ourselves to Passu for a day, feasting on apricot cake at Glacier Breeze and braving the nail-biting stagger across a rickety suspension bridge. Best of all, we spent two nights under canvas, with spectacular views, the odd kiss of snow and a star-studded sky for company.
On the first night, I enjoyed a heart-to-heart with one of my travel buddies. I learnt about the intense moral battle that comes with being a contemporary-minded Pakistani while having parents who still have their feet deeply imbedded in tradition. The conflict between what makes an individual happy versus their family and wider community makes it incredibly tough to find a win-win solution. This conversation made me feel incredibly lucky to be Australian. My life choices were a lot easier to make than my friend’s.
On the second night, we travelled to a boutique hotel, where we sampled the local brew (a.k.a. Hunza ‘water'). At some point throughout the evening, I met an incredible British lad called Ben. He reminded me a lot of my husband. Not only did they share the same name and place of birth, they also had an infectious energy and optimism about them. The Ben I'd just met had decided to chase the title of ‘the youngest person to travel around the world on a motorbike’. After taming his ego, he quickly realised there was more value in exploring the planet at a slower pace. He now anticipates his journey will take a decade. If my husband and son were with me I'd have been tempted to join him for the long haul.
After an epic night of 'happy beverages', travel stories and turning strangers into friends, we swaggered back to our tents and called it a night. I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. I was with people who were ‘my people’, doing things that ignited my passion, nourished my mind and filled my heart with joy…and we were only halfway through the trip.
The second part of our journey took me into uncharted territory. I’d never been to Swat or Kalash before but both destinations intrigued me. After diving back down to Besham, we headed north towards Swat Valley and Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan.
For our travel buddy, Niaz, it was a chance to visit home. Arriving at his family farm was like stepping into another, deeper realm of Pakistani life. Taking guests to meet with one’s family is a proud moment for Pakistanis. Everyone was impeccably dressed for the occasion; the men looked beautifully ethereal in their white shalwar kameezes. Gliding past the pastel walls of their semi-alfresco living quarters, they sat on traditional charpoy beds and discussed their lives against a backdrop of rose bushes and fruit orchards. I felt like a complete hobo in my muddy biker gear, with my hair looking like a bird’s nest. Luckily, Niaz’s family pretended not to notice.
In true Pakistani style, our lunch for ten was a feast fit for fifty kings. Every mouth-watering morsel was produced from scratch on the farm, including the buffalo cream and rice paratha. My eyes were popping out of my head, as I decided what to devour first. Once we’d polished off as much as our stomachs could handle and enjoyed a customary chai with our hosts, we waddled back to our bikes and took off for Dir.
A former stronghold of the Taliban, Dir was still laced with whispers of its past. Again, women were rarely present on the streets. The few that were, wore burqas that revealed barely a millimetre of skin. In places like this, which are so different to my hometown (I can’t help but think of our scantily clad meter maids), I try to focus on understanding what’s around me rather than pre-judging it. For me, maintaining a respectfully curious and open mind is the best way to put my fears at ease in foreign or challenging environments.
Before the sun rose on the new day, we were shivering our way towards Kalash. This leg of our trip was undoubtedly one of the hardest. Rocky, muddy, dusty, steep and peppered with river crossings (one of which, I managed to stack it on). It was a real adventure. Upon reaching Kalash, I felt proud to have completed a journey most foreign bikers would've struggled with. Rock on!
Like Hunza, Kalash quickly became one of my all-time favourite destinations. It felt like its own entity, boasting customs and traditions, which were very different from the rest of Pakistan. For instance, unlike the usual arranged marriages, young couples often run away together for a few days before returning home to announce their marriage; furthermore, funerals are moments of celebration - not solemn occasions - and the deceased are laid to rest in open graves.
Perhaps, one of the most striking things about Kalash is the natural beauty of the local people and their unique regional dress code. The women’s clothing is vibrant, tribal and unlike anything I've ever seen - the same could be said for their piercing blue eyes. Spending a day dressed like a Kalashi girl, visiting a local school and exploring traditional homes was one of the highlights of my entire trip. For me, this type of cultural immersion is travel at its best. And it didn’t stop there…
I’ll never forget the night I was treated to live music, local dance and Kalash wine. Let’s just say, on the day of our departure, breakfast was not a wise option and the bumpy roads were not my friend. Towards the end of the day, I was happy to ditch my bike, jump on the back of a pick-up and soak up the fresh air as we drove into Swat – the final leg of my motorbike journey.
While based in the region’s capital, Saidu Sharif, we enjoyed a quick trip to Kalam. My friend, Sanaulla, wanted to show me his favourite place to ‘escape the world’ – a pine forest, where the sound of silence was deafening and the wind so aromatic it was almost tangible.
My final afternoon in Pakistan was spent in the most perfect way. We went back to Niaz’s farm, jumped into 4WDs and went off-roading. The property happened to include a mountain, so the next order of the day was to climb it and watch the golden hour of sunshine in all of its glory. As our crew sat on the peak, huddled together as if we knew we’d soon be apart, we reminisced about our big adventure. We watched the final glimmer of sun leave the sky and all went quiet. None of us wanted things to end.
In a final gesture of incredible hospitality, my friends drove five hours to get me to Islamabad airport before returning to Swat for work. I’m not a crier, but I struggled to fight back tears of sadness and joy as I boarded my flight.
Like any new mum, I’d struggled with the sense of isolation and shift in identity that came with bringing a child into the world. My motorbike mumcation in Pakistan reminded me how good it felt to have quality time with friends and to be Sophee; not Ben’s wife, not Atlas’ mum – just Sophee. While I was eager to get home to my boys, I was scared that it would mean losing the sense of freedom, empowerment and connection I'd gained in Pakistan; but I needn’t have worried. My adventure had ignited a fire in me that wasn’t going away anytime soon. I came home feeling more energised, more in control of my life and more appreciative of my loving family. While my mind still drifts back to Pakistan from time-to-time, my heart is happy to be home sweet home.
'Happiness Hunter' Sophee Southall is the writer, photographer and social media addict behind the travel blog Sophee Smiles - 'Explore. Experiment. Find your Happy Place.'
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