I had just arrived in Karachi when I got a message from a friend telling me about an artist I should try to meet (not far from where I was staying). Heider Ali turned out to be much more than just an artist; He had painted a Pakistani “jingle” bus that was featured in the Smithsonian and has fathered creations all over the world. He had just completed customizing a plane at the airport and invited me by to show me the matching rickshaw and VW Beetle he was working on. He had just started on the bug when I arrived, but seemed to be moving fast just painting freehand. The plane, the rickshaw and and the VW were all painted with an explosion of bright colors reminiscent of black light posters and lava lamps, but yet, quite different. Pakistani symbols, as well as featuring silhouettes of a female figure and a Buddha looking character. It was then that I first heard the story of the “Dancing Girl”.
In the 1920s, an architectural site named Mohinjo- Daro was discovered in the Indus valley dating back at least 5,000 years old. Besides some hieroglyphics that have never been translated, there were several interesting things unearthed. Among these objects were the Buddha figure and a 4-inch metal figure of a naked young woman adorned with bangles. The discoveries were significant since they proved the site to be one of the oldest areas of human civilization and the residents to be capable metal-workers. The popular figure was nicknamed “Dancing Girl” because of the sculpture’s pose. in 1946 when the countries were still one, the statue was loaned to the Delhi museum and got quite a bit of international attention. However, the next year, India and Pakistan became partitioned, Pakistan was now a separate country and asked for its treasure back. India said no. Another stalemate like Kashmir arose with no hopes of getting the piece back unless international powers intervened.
The site was listed as a UNESCO site in 1980, but for reasons unknown, never had any more archaeological digs or national attention. It is estimated that only 20 percent of the site has been unearthed, so there might be lots more treasures below ground.
Imram Khan, a Pakistani entrepreneur and owner of the flight school Sky Wings became focused on bringing international attention back to the site. So much in fact that he had hired Heider to paint one of his planes, an auto rickshaw and a VW Beetle with symbols from Mohinjo-Daro. He had previously begun a project of painting planes to entertain, educate, and let international audiences know about Pakistan’s commitment to peace. One of his planes was being painted pink and purple to highlight Breast Cancer Awareness. Another favorite art plane in Imran’s fleet is blue and features a cartoonish shark profile with a toothy grin; it’s affectionately known as “Baby Shark”. However, Imram’s real passion was national attention for Mohinjo-Daro and it’s hijacked statue.
Before I left my meeting, Heider asked me if I might be interested in going on one of the planes to visit the ruins. Who wouldn’t? My plans for the following day were either negotiating an 18 hour bus ride to Lahore or booking a crowded train to somewhere. A private plane ride was definitely an upgrade and a chance to see what the country looked like from the air. I really didn’t expect anything to materialize thought, but it was a crazy fun thought: Hopping on a plane to look at ruins on the other side of the country…. that’s Indiana Jones stuff.
As I wrapped up the rest of my day visiting the sites in Karachi, I got a message from Imram. He was going to get two 4-passenger planes ready for the following day. He had contacted the media to let them know that a foreign journalist would be writing about the site. They were interested in writing about me writing about it. I was at the airport early the next morning but a military exercise postponed our flight until mid-afternoon. Imram set me up with a student flight pass and we talked a little more about the site. It looked like this might actually happen. Suddenly we were cleared for takeoff and on our way!
As we ascended over Karachi, it was easy to see how dry the area really was. A few miles past the outskirts of town, there was desert and no trace of civilization. It wasn’t until 2 hours later when the land suddenly became green. We were approaching the Indus valley, which had been fed by the Indus river for thousands of years. We landed on a closed airstrip that had been temporarily opened for our visit. The security waved us through to our awaiting hosts and we hopped in the car to speed to the ruins.
I had been told there was going to be press, but I was not prepared for the reception awaiting me. There were at least half a dozen photographers from various news sources as well as a huge group of locals who’d just come along to see what all the fuss was about. It was as if George Clooney or the US President was visiting. There were cameras going off, videos being recorded and microphones appearing from nowhere. Suddenly I was doing interviews about my visit to Pakistan as well as selfies with countless cell phones. We headed to the ruins which were unlike anything I’d every seen. There was a large central mound in the center of the site: below stone walls divided what had once been rooms and buildings. This is the place where the famed “Dancing Girl” had been discovered and there was potentially many more treasures hidden beneath the stones. The ruins, only partially excavated, still extended as far as I could see. It would take hours to navigate the main parts, but we had much less time because of the military delay.
I only had a short time to absorb the magnificent ruins, before we were off to visit the new resort, Soomra Safari Park. The park’s centerpiece is a giant man-made lake with themed lodges on the shore as well as two floating in the middle of the lake. Hitched nearby was a wagon with colorful decorated oxen for a photo op to the boat, but the animals were a little overwhelmed with the sudden crowd and deafening music, so we headed straight to the boat. The resort is an amazing achievement and I was really puzzled how they had created such a huge lake. I got to steer the boat to the other side where there was a copy of the ruins we had just visited. I climbed up the peak and was able to look down at the resort and the rest of the valley. It was amazing how different this part of Pakistan was from Karachi.
The resort was full of lots of surprises. Once we returned to the other side, I caught a glimpse of some monkeys as the bhangra band went into full swing and we were seated at a long table. Dozens of plates appeared from nowhere with seemingly infinite meats, vegetables and rice dishes. Many I recognized, but I had never tried a lotus rootlet before. It had a delicious taste, but as I bit into it, hundreds of spider web looking strands appeared, a most unusual vegetable. But then again, the entire evening was odd, with old men dancing and music playing until it all stopped when the boss gave someone the “I’m about to speak” signal.
“Would you like to go into the haunted house?” someone asked. A haunted house in Pakistan? Was this a joke? In a town in the middle of nowhere no less. I was assured that they weren’t kidding. The haunt was fully staffed and the monsters were anxiously my visit. There’s not been very many days in my life where I felt the whole world revolved around me, but this was one of those rare days. Everyone was watching me to see if the American would take a chance in the dungeon of doom. “Sure”. I said. The table was cleared and I was guided to the menacing barn with strobe lights. It was just as awesome as the time I watched a live Rocky Horror show in New Zealand. A copy of a copy of a copy is always entertaining, and I must admit, for a haunted house in the middle of Nowhere, Pakistan, they did a pretty good job.
We took a few hundred more selfies and headed back to the airport for the 2 1/2 hour flight back to Karachi in Baby Shark. The Associated Press and lots of other Pakistan publications covered my visit. It was quite the adventure for me, but for the town, it was a time to showcase their priceless archaeological treasures. It also was a good test run for the new weekly service that is going to take tourists from Karachi to the ruins for a similar itinerary that I experienced.
Pakistan is an almost overwhelming symphony of sights, sounds, smells and flavors. It’s so different than the west, but also so interesting because there’s never a dull moment and there’s a constant stream of unexpected things. The people are the most hospitable that I’ve met in the entire world. It’s as if everyone I met was hired by the tourism board to make sure my visit was perfect. Pakistan is working hard to show the world that it’s shed its connections to the Taliban and the entire country is intent on showing its treasures through peace and tourist awareness.