When I was setting out for Karachi, friends gathered around to freely impart dire warnings. The prolonged unrest in Pakistan has roundly knocked it off the tourist map. Not that we were tourists there; my family and I were visiting relatives. Had it not been so pleasant, the visit would have been an anti-climax. Karachi turned out to be a lively commercial hub and it was certainly not overrun by terrorists.
I can truthfully report that:
- I thoroughly enjoyed being in a foreign country where they spoke a language I knew, and where the rupee went a longer way than it did at home.
- My family and I shopped and shopped, buying everything from clothes and accessories to handicrafts, electronics and lingerie. There were pirated movies and software on offer, but we skipped those.
- I visited a ‘dangerous’ mosque, paid homage at my school headmaster’s grave, and rode on the roof of a city bus.
- I saw more liquor consumed in Karachi than anywhere else I’ve been, and it was usually accompanied by excellent mutton kababs. Officially, of course, Pakistan is a ‘dry’ country.
- Guards, police and military personnel were an overbearing presence, but there were fewer VIP convoys and vehicles with red beacons than you’d see in Delhi. Oh, and nobody breaks a red light in Karachi.
- I ate at a 24x7 McDonald’s as well as the late-night street food stalls on Tariq Road. I also accompanied a bunch of youngsters to the beach.
- I was taken with the truck and bus art, the modern versions of which adopt a psychedelic touch, with wildly coloured LED lighting.
- There are many television channels on offer, many populated by baba-log with fake accents.
- Arundhati Roy is hot stuff with the English-speaking left-of-centre elite. But that adoration pales in comparison to the hold that Bollywood has on the rest of the population. Golf remains the essence of snobbery.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Even the process of getting to Karachi is quite an adventure. Happily, it costs just Rs 15 for a visa. Travel is cheap too: you can cross the border on foot, or by train, bus or air. You will need to motivate ‘family or friends’ to send you an ‘invitation’, armed with which you can either join a long, snaking line at the Pakistani High Commission in Delhi or try and find someone helpful there. Alternatively, you can join one of the many peace groups, trade missions and other busybodies who visit all the time. They’ve organised everything from fashion weeks to automobile shows in the recent past. I could safely say that doors open for ‘people like us’ because there’s a not-so-subtle attempt to showcase the ‘real’ Pakistan to the rest of the world.
But what is the real Karachi? Firstly, forget the comparisons you’ve heard of Pakistan with India. Karachi is not Mumbai, Lahore is not Delhi. It’s been 62 years since my parents moved to India, and I didn’t find it all that difficult to accept the fact that I was visiting, rather than ‘returning’ to the city. Still, a week spent attending family functions isn’t conducive to close observation of a place. Nor can you understand Pakistan if you only visit its cities. I am sure those dangerous ‘fundoo’ troublemakers were upcountry, waiting to make the next strike. The locals don’t deny it either. It isn’t a problem unique to that country, as Indians know only too well.
On our way there, we noticed that domestic flights in Pakistan were running full. Apparently, so were trains and long-distance buses. Youngsters on airplanes had to be sternly reminded to switch off their cellphones and food on the flights varied from great to rancid. But the airports and toilets at Karachi and Lahore are both super-clean. They could give Changi a run for its money. If only all these arrangements and the heavy security had an impact on the taxi touts outside.
We went to see the seaport of Karachi and it was busy beyond capacity. Banks and ATMs abound in the city, plastic is widely accepted and money-changers do roaring business. Taxi drivers are as loquacious as their counterparts in Mumbai and Dubai — two cities that Karachiwalas are fascinated with. There is a Parsi influence dominating the skyline, gardens, educational institutions and other real estate. Black kites wheel over the city sky, while on the roads, huge SUVs battle for space with cars of all makes, buses, trucks, and two and three-wheelers. Most gurudwaras and temples have moved on to other roles. But there have been claims that various gurudwaras — among them, Sri Guru Nanak Satsang Sabha Gurdwara in Aram Bagh and Gurudwara Pehli Patshahi in Clifton — are still functional. As far as I could tell, the only Sikh worship option is a Guru Granth Sahib in the only Hindu Swaminarayan temple in Karachi.
The more elite parts of town — Clifton, Defence, the diplomatic area — are built on a scale that boggles the mind. People live in palaces, not bungalows. One such palace, which apparently belonged to an Arab sheikh but now has been handed over to somebody ‘in finance’, had 25m-high walls. Apparently, that wall would survive anything short of a nuclear blast. There’s an even bigger palace, which belongs to a long-departed Indian ‘seth’ — Mohatta Palace. It was held as evacuee property until the late 1990s, when it was renovated and converted into a museum. The richer parts of Karachi are hectic street-crime territory. Everybody has a favourite mugging or kidnapping episode. The upshot of all this is that people tend to not walk around outside too much, they keep huge dogs and hire multiple armed guards. Armour-plated cars are fairly common too.
Outside these privileged quarters, life is very different. I went to Bar-B-Q Tonight, a four-storey kabab place close to Boat Basin, off Karachi’s promenade. I’m certain there were at least a thousand people — of both sexes — in the restaurant on the night we went. Then there were people eating in the parking lot. What that place can do to goat or lamb defies description. Although I did see a number of women at Bar-B-Q, there certainly weren’t many on the streets. Nor did I see evidence of young couples aspiring to newer social structures. Status quo is a fact of life in Karachi.
At the end of the day, the question remains: what does a tourist do in Karachi? She rides around in taxis, shops and eats a lot. At prices lower than in most places around the world. The city is also safer than many others because it isn’t yet full of tourist traps or tourists. That last may explain the genuinely welcoming attitude of the locals. Even in the most dangerous mosque in town.
By air there are daily connections from Mumbai and Delhi. By rail The Delhi-Attari Express and the Thar Link run between Jodhpur and Munnabao/Kokhrapar, from where there are connecting trains to Karachi. By road There are buses from Delhi (www.dtc.nic.in) and Amritsar to Lahore (www.punjabtransport.nic.in), from where you can continue on to Karachi by other means. You can also drive across the border. But there are several restrictions on dates, timing and nationality of the persons travelling. Double-check all of this before you leave.
Where to stay
Karachi has a number of posh hotels: Pearl Continental (www.pchotels.com), Avari Towers (www.avari.com), Sheraton (www.starwoodhotels.com) and Marriott (www.marriott.com). Other includes Hotel Mehran (www.hotelmehran.com) and Embassy Inn (www.embassyinn.com.pk). Mirage (www.miragelahore.com) is a good budget option. Credit cards are accepted at the better places.
Where to eat
Karachi is paradise for meat-eaters, but vegetarian food is beginning to catch on too. If you’re vegetarian, do enquire about the cooking medium because most places use animal fats to fry and cook. Many of the older clubs, like the superb Sind Club, still retain ties with the older Indian clubs, and have reciprocal arrangements with these.
Cafe on Chartered Accountants Avenue is great for French food, as is Sawasdee. All the upscale hotels have excellent, and expensive, restaurants. At the other end of the spectrum, there is Boat Basin, which is the one all-night food strip that welcomes tourists. Bar-B-Q Tonight (www.bbqtonight.com) is a must-visit. Many of the best eating places in the old part of Karachi — the Burns Road area — bear allegiance to Delhi food. Bundoo Khan and Delhi Rabri House are personal favourites.
Chinese food in Pakistan is exactly like our Chinjabi cuisine, and there are any number of outfits that serve these. Beef is all over most menus, so if you don’t eat the meat, be careful while ordering. Many major international fast food chains have a presence in Karachi. BYOB is the unspoken rule at most restaurants.