On my way to Iran, the last town I visited in Pakistan was Quetta, the most conservative of Pakistani cities, a mere 130 km from the Afghan border, mirrored on the other side by Kandahar, another 110 kilometers further on. To get there I had to pass many hours of the barren dessert and desicated hills of Baloochistan. On arrival, I made it to the town centre, where I strolled across the bazaar, for the two hours my local contacts gave me before they could come and pick me up.
I was surprised at how different this bustling market was from others like it around the country. Textiles as beautiful as elsewhere were on display, although of a completely different style than the gorgeous headscarves of Lahore or Gilgit –here, the patterns on the scarves were not woven in, but embroidered onto them. Women on the streets were extremely rare, and most of those on sight who showed their faces at all, exposed Central Asian features – they were Hazara, an ethnic in Pakistan only present in Quetta, whereas in nighbouring Afghanistan they constitute a considerable component of the population.
Most of the men on the streets wore prayer caps and sported the bristly beards shaved over the lip as worn by the prophet Mohammed himself. Many eyed me as curiously, in what seemed an entirely friendly and innocent fashion, just as I equally felt drawn to ogle them. This seemed to me the most exotic of all places in Pakistan.
Finally, I got a phone call from my contacts. Emran Khan, a bank manager fromAbbotabad who had picked me up hitch-hiking on the Karakoram highway a month earlier, had given me the phone number of his wife, who stayed with her family down here. She could not come herself, and sent her brother in her stead, who tugged along a friend. Both having donned white, embroidered prayer caps and crisp, white Shalvar Kameez, the two of them were choice exhibits of young, male Quettans, with their wild Islamic beards and the blue, piercing eyes of Taliban fanatics. Well educated, their English was excellent. To each other they spoke the language Hindko, called `Gunda` by themselves, which the Hazara of Quetta also speak, as well as half the Pashtoun across the country, from Abbottabad to Quetta. It counts as an Indo-Arian language, whereas Pashtoun itself is Indo-Iranian.