Multan, city of Saints & Uch Sharif

For pictures from my whole trip to Pakistan, see the Flickr album at the bottom of this post.

When researching places to visit in Pakistan, I stumbled across a city that I’d never heard about before, called Multan. Multan is in fact the 7th most populated city of Pakistan, with about 1.8 million people (in 2017), which is about the same population as metropolitan Copenhagen. It is located firmly within the Punjab state, some 4-5 hours by bus from Lahore. As mentioned, I had never heard of Multan before, but through research I learned that the city hosts an impressive collection of shrines of Sufi saints, that are spectacular architecturally and from an art perspective. Furthermore, a short drive outside Multan is another site, Uch Sharif, which is more of less a smaller village, but hosts another collection of 3 ruined shrines that has a dazzling color scheme. I dig mosques and shrines, and general architecture of the muslim world, so I was sold. Multan would be the starting point of my Pakistan adventure, from where I would then work my way north to Lahore, Islamabad and Gilgit-Baltistan.

Multan being a major city is fortunately rather decently connected with the major hubs of the gulf, so getting from Qatar to Multan only involved one layover in Dubai. The flight from Dubai to Multan with the flyDubai discount carrier takes approx 2 hours 45 mins. Already from the gate in Dubai it was clear that Multan is no ordinary tourist destination, as all the people waiting were Pakistanis, no westerns, and mostly all dressed in the local shalwar kameez (for the men). Sitting with my normal clothes, and shorts, sticked out like a sore thumb, but nobody paid much attention to me there, possibly thinking I wasn’t actually going on this flight.

It was a late flight, with arrival time in Multan at 02am. And here’s the thing, arriving in Multan as a foreigner is not like any other place I’ve ever visited. Let’s briefly return to my research for this trip. The research had shown that Multan is no ordinary city, and you as a foreigner can’t just wander around the city on your own, but must at all times be accompanied by a state ordained security guard, armed with an AK-47. I thought it was a bit exaggerated, or that anyhow it would just be an experience more than anything, so it didn’t turn me off from going to the city. The explanation given online (by other bloggers) is that it is not because Multan is exceptionally dangerous, but rather that there is a top secret military base nearby, that they don’t want you to go snooping around at. So let’s see how the situation on the ground is actually like these days.

Anyhow, the flight touchdown, and disembarkment went like any other flight, no signs of any guards of extra security. It was only at the passport check almost at the exit of the airport that I spot a heavily armed guard standing on the other side of the passport control, looking at the people coming through, but ignoring all the locals, and rather locking his eyes on me. I realize what’s about to happen, but still didn’t expect the full extent of how seriously they take this. So I pass by the passport control without problems and is immediately taken aside by the security guard asking me if I have a contact coming to pick me up, and when I reply negative he seems slightly flustered, as if you’re supposed to have contacts to visit here. He asks a few more basic questions while escorting me further towards the exit, where right before the doors outside, there’s a booth with a huge “Punjab Police Special Protection Unit” sign, and another sign declaring that all foreigners MUST report to the security officer there. I am asked to sit down, and another security guy takes over. The new security guard asks where I’m staying. I had booked nights at a hotel on booking.com beforehand, and they hadn’t mentioned anything, but as it turns out, there’s only 3 hotels in all of Multan that has been approved to host foreigners, and mine obviously wasn’t one of them. The three hotels are in three different price categories, one high-end super expensive hotel, the mid-range one that is decently located a bit outside the city center and the cheap option with a terrible location. The security officer contacted my original hotel and together they got me booked into the mid-range hotel, called “Hotel Multan Continental”. After this is settled, I ask why this security setup is necessary, and whether I should be scared of visiting the city. The security guard calms me down, stating that the city is safe, and the only reason this policy is in place, is because a couple years ago a female vlogger attracted quite a lot of attention on the streets, causing people to flock her and harass her badly, and the state just wants to avoid this, presumably to prevent getting a bad reputation. Not that I saw any other tourists in Multan in the days I was there anyways, but sure. It is weird though that Multan is apparently the only city in Pakistan where this policy is still in place. Later on when I went to Peshawar, a city right on the border with Afghanistan, and which is in all ways more dangerous than Multan, suffering more terrorist attacks and conservative views, my guide there told me that there had once been a similar policy for Peshawar, but now adays its not in place anymore as the city is deemed sufficiently safe. So why Multan maintains this policy, given the official explanation is strange, perhaps the unofficial military base explanation is in fact the correct one. Anyways, more on Peshawar in another post.

The security guard then tells me that I have to take a tuk-tuk taxi to the hotel, that he sets me up with. But everything is paid in cash (yes, truly shockingly, I know), so first he leads me to the ATM to get cash, and off we go to the specially appointed tuk-tuk, through the deserted streets of Multan, at this time in the middle of the night. Arriving at the Hotel, there’s a security guard ready to escort me inside and take me to reception. At the reception I’m first “interrogated” about my previous destinations up to this part, on this trip, and then finally given a room. But I’m not led to my room before being sternly reminded that I cannot go outside on my own (there’s guards at the exits anyhow, so not likely), and also being asked a rather unusual question: “When do you want to go outside tomorrow, and where do you want to go?”. I’ve never before actually had to have a complete plan of when and where I want to go, as I like to just wander around on my own pace exploring a new city. I rattled off some time in late morning, and the main sights I remembered. This is so that they can have a guard ready for when I want to go outside, so as to cause as little nuisance as possible.

The room is actually fairly nice, plenty spacious and a decent western-style bathroom. The hotel piccolo boy who did nothing but take me with the elevator to my floor and give me the room keys then demands a tip for this service. I try to argue that he has done nothing to deserve a tip, and that I only have big notes from the ATM. He doesn’t care. So I end up giving him a rather handsome tip just be rid of him. Another point to notice about just how absurd this security situation is, is that the elevator can only be used when someone in the reception puts in a key and turns it on. It is very late this point and I go straight to bed, or well, first I post a instagram post stating that I’ve arrived safely in Pakistan, and that the situation is just as absurd as expected.

The next morning after waking up, I’m served a very basic “continental breakfast” consisting of 3 pieces of lightly toasted bread with some butter and jam on the side, and 1 single fried egg, served with local Pakistani milk tea. Not exactly overwhelming. At around 10am, the time I had said I wanted to go outside, I went down to reception, and was greeted by my security guard of the day. A police man not much older than me, with a stunning, thick mustache. Dressed entirely in a field-green military/police uniform, and nonchalantly carrying around a AK-47. He speaks a respectable English, jokes around a bit, and questions me a bit about who I am. He gives off a very friendly and casual vibe, and I’m immediately a bit relieved, since everybody else I’ve interacted with so far has been very serious, and annoying.

He also asks me where I want to go, and I tell him that first of all I want to go buy a shalwar kameez, both to fit in a little better, but also because it is just more comfortable in the sweltering 40 degree heat of Multan. With the final added benefit of being culturally appropriate and perfectly conservative to enter all the shrines and mosques. Both the guard and the receptionist finds it amusing that I want a shalwar kameez, and gives their approval. I tell him that after fetching a shalwar kameez, I want to visit the main shrines of the city, that being first and foremost the Shah Rukn-e Alam shrine, inside the Multan Fort. Other places I wanted to visit was the shrine of Bahauddin Zakariya and the Shahi Eidgah mosque. We set off, yet again in a tuk-tuk, which does seem to be the main of transportation in metropolitan Pakistan. The first thing you notice is that the traffic is heavy and extremely chaotic. The rules of the road are seen more as suggestions to be ignored rather than laws to be followed here. The next thing you notice is the extreme heat, and at the same time you notice the thick layer of smog in the air. Pollution from all the vehicles is quite heavy.

Before I can buy a shalwar kameez however, I need more local cash. So our first stop is a money exchange office, where with the help of the guard (as I left the passport at the hotel, so he had to sign for me. So handy to have a personal assistant with you around town!) I exchange a bunch of euros. I must say that it is a bit strange to see a guy with a AK-47 on his back entering a money exchange shop, without anyone as much as raising an eyebrow. With that sorted, we continue onwards to a shop with a artisan making beautiful shalwar kameezes. Luckily he has many in stock, so I could just pick one in the color I liked most, a light blue one. Unfortunately no dressing room or anywhere to change clothes, so I have to take the shirt on over my tshirt, and the pants over my running tights that I’ve been wearing up to this point. It gets quite warm. The shalwar kameez is really good quality, so I feared it would be extremely expensive, but I ended up paying less than 10 euros for it. Welcome to Pakistan!

Now all pimped up in the local style, but still sticking out like a sore thumb, we head to the central square of the town, where the Multan Fort is located. Here I get a close up look of the Shah Rukn-e Alam shrine, a most impressive and beautiful building. Circular in shape, built entirely in earth-colored bricks interlaced with beautiful blue tiles as commonly seen in Persian mosques. The shrine is standing on top of a hill, and is itself a rather massive structure, so it is visible from across the city. The outside is stunning, and so is the inside, which hosts the shrine of Shah Rukn-e Alam. I won’t pretend that I know a whole lot about these sufi saints and shahs buried in these shrines, only that they are highly revered and important across Pakistan, even to this day, seen in tons of roads, squares, schools etc. being named after the various saints buried in Multan. Inside the shrine, people are congregating to spread flower petals across the tomb, and mourn/pray around it. The walls inside are fairly barebones, giving the place a solemn atmosphere. Once again, entering such a revered place followed by a guard wielding a AK-47 seems a little strange. The shrine is over 1000 years old. Just wow. It was definitely worth going here to see it.

Next the shrine is a museum/art gallery featuring some stories and images from the history of Multan, but the main thing to come here for is the roof-top view of the entire city, which stretches far in all directions, with so many short storied brick houses, and mosque domes and minarets dotting the skyline all around. You of course also get a grand view of the Shah Rukn-e Alam shrine, which is perfect for photographing it. You also get a great view of the central square down below the fort, which hosts a massive flagpole flying the Pakistan flag, surrounded by several majestic british era colonial administration buildings. Multan is an absolutely wild city to observe. So much activity in the streets at all times. At this point it is already past noon, the sun is beaming down hard, and patches of sweat is already forming on the shalwar kameez. So we rush on to the next site, the Bahauddin Zakriya shrine, which is at the further end of the fort grounds. This shrine is also visually astounding, having a square base, with a hexagonal tower on top, finishing in a beautiful dome. The building is built from red bricks, again interspersed with the azure tiles, and on top a white dome with blue decorations. This shrine is also over 1000 years old. We check out the grounds, spending a good time in the shade, trying to cool down a bit.

At the central square, before jumping back in the tuk-tuk to continue onwards, we grab some sodas from a stall, and I just observe the chaos of the central round-about, with so man motorbikes, tuk-tuks and cars going around, while the square itself is littered with mobile sales-booths booming with spices, flowers and anything else you might expect to find in a bazar. The entirely place exploding with colors. It is a sensory overload of the best kind.

The final stop of the day would be the Shahi Eidgah mosque/shrine. It is a bit further away from the central square, but still not too far away. The mosque itself is in the typical Pakistan style, where the building is narrow, but featues a huge open square outside. The building is grand, and painted in white, but again decorated with the blue tiles as seen on all other holy sites here. A huge white dome tops off the mosque. There’s several entrance portals to the mosque, all ornately decorated with floral patterns in various colors. But this pales compared to the inside of the building, which roof domes are decorated in so many extremely intricate patterns in all the colors of the rainbow. White and classy outside, but extremely colorful and artful inside. The inside also, thankfully, featured a lot of big fans. A couple of people had gotten the same idea and lay sleeping on the floor inside the mosque, seeking refuge from the sun.

Right next door is the shrine to Ahmed Saeed Kazmi. This tomb is smaller than the other ones we visited, but still impressive. Again a square base, but with a hexagonal tower on top. The building outside is completely white, but inside is also decorated in ornate patterns, and various colors, with the tomb of Ahmed Saeed Kazmi in the center of the structure – like all other tombs we visited, covered in flowers.

Having checked out both the shrine and mosque, it was time to head back to the hotel for a siesta, and to dress down, so that I wouldn’t have to wear the shalwar kameez on top of my normal clothes. Such a relief! At the hotel the guard send me off, and sat down chatting with the receptionist, not expecting nor asking for any pay. Because that is the thing, these security guards are provided free of charge by the Pakistani state, which is at least an advantage of this system. And he doesn’t even just function as my security, but also a my helper to get me around the chaotic city, he tells a bit of the history of the places we visit, and as such is also sorta a tour guide of sorts. Unfortunately I wouldn’t be assigned this guy again. We made our goodbyes as I retired to the room.

The room also had a roomservice menu for dinner, and so in the evening I ordered some dinner – cashew chicken with fries on the side. The food was fairly delicious, so not being able to go outside to find some local food wasn’t that bad. After the dinner, I went down to the reception to sort out the plans for the next day, where I wanted to go to Uch Sharif, the city 1.5 hours outside Multan with more shrines. I got a price for this trip, which was more than I had on me at the moment, so I would have to go get more cash. But luckily a new security guard presented himself, saying he was going to take me touring now. I had not asked to be taken out this evening, so this was a surprise, and I didn’t really have any places in mind that I wanted to visit, in fact I was getting ready for just settling in for the night with some netflix. But the guard was insistent that we go out, now that he was there, and that it would sad for me to just sit in the hotel alone instead of seeing the city – fair point. So now the cash problem could at least be solved, and I could pick up some snacks and drinks.

So we set out to find an ATM, as all the money exchange places was close at this time. Finding a ATM accepting international cards turned out to be quite the task, and spent well over an hour, visiting several different bank branches ATMs before we finally found one that worked. At this point I was pretty pissed, as I kept telling this new security guard that I’d just go exchange money the next day, before going on the tour. But he wouldn’t hear it, and just kept asking people about where to find a working ATM. Seeing how hard it was to find an ATM, I made sure to withdraw plenty of money so as to not have to struggle with this again right away. With that finally out of the way, we headed to the one single place I could come up with to visit, the Darbar Hazrat Syed Abdul Hassan Jamal Uddin Musa mosque. A smaller mosque on the south side of town. It wasn’t exactly anything too special compared to the places I visited earlier in the day, but it was full of worshippers unlike the other places. So it did give some insight into he local culture here. Several of the locals tried to talk to me, being very interested in me and my thoughts of the city, but unfortunately my guard was very quick to shoo people away, which was really annoying. I was looking forward to talking to the local people, but it wasn’t meant to be here.

After the mosque, I asked to be taken to a super market for snacks and drinks, but as a rookie I forget that western style supermarkets don’t really exist in this part of the world, rather there the bazar or very specialized shops with just one kind of item. So we want to a sort of bakery making delicious Pakistani treats, cookies/cakes, all very sugary and sweet. I was offered free samples of all the various kind, to decide which I liked best. I picked out a few kinds, and got a bag full to take back to the hotel, along with some soda. My guard mentioned several times that his children at home would love some of these sweets, not directly begging, but his intentions were pretty obvious. So I paid for a package for him as well. The guard then wanted to take me to dinner, but since I had already had my dinner, and also just wanted to go back to the hotel now, told him no. He then again gave me the sob story of hungry children at home, and so I gave him a tip to buy dinner for his family, on the condition that we go back to the hotel. It is bit annoying that some of these guards beg in this way, but of course one has to remember that this is a very poor place, and who knows how much these guards make in salary. Anyhow, we went back to the hotel and I resigned for the night, with the plans for the trip to Uch Sharif the next day in place.

Next morning started with yet another underwhelming continental breakfast, exactly the same as the previous day. At the agreed time I went to the reception, where some armed guard were sitting in the couch, along with a regular looking guy, wearing just a plain shalwar kameez, and no visible weapons. The guards approached me first, so I thought they would be the ones taking me on the trip. But they quickly told me that the other guy would be my driver, and assured me that he was a great driver. I was relieved, thinking that since we were going a bit outside Multan, the security circus wouldn’t be needed for the day. How wrong I was. This will unravel later.

We set off in his car, driving along the chaotic roads out of town, to connect to the broad, new highways going across Punjab. These highways are built by China as part of the China-Pakistan friendship projects, but more importantly the Chinese Road & Belt initiative to construct a modern silk way, and establish influence in many countries across the region. Anyhow the highways are nice, and surprisingly traffic laws are actually enforced here, and only cars (and trucks of course) are allowed to use it. So driving here is a pleasure, as traffic is very light and orderly. The Punjab landscapes are in many ways similar to driving across Denmark, as Punjab is also entirely flat, and full of green fields as far as the eye can see. All along the trip, the drivers phone would keep ringing. At first I didn’t pay attention, but eventually asked what was happening, just to be told that it was both the Multan police, and the Uch Sharif police calling continually to ask how far along we were, and when we would arrive in Uch Sharif etc. also coordinating us picking up a police guard along the highway to take him back to the police headquarters in Uch Sharif. I still didn’t suspect that my driver himself was guard, but rather just thought the police here was a bit overtly precautious. Arriving in Uch Sharif, and dropping off the police man we had picked up shortly outside the city, we were also assigned a police escort, consisting of the 2 officers, one skinny guy with a big full beard, and a plump guy with just a thick mustache, quite a duo. They wore the green military/police uniforms and pistols. They escorted us down to the Uch Sharif shrines, laying in a fairly remote area outside town. This place is very holy, and so the place was swarming with people.

This place itself holds 3 shrines to various saints. The unique thing about them, is that they have ben partly destroyed over time by natural disasters (more accurately, floodings that eroded the foundation of the shrines making them partly collapse), so what is left is the ruins of shrines. They are all constructed in a similar style to the Shah Rukn-e Alam shrine back in Multan, that is a circular base. In beautiful white colors and blue tiles. They stick out in the green landscape, and are absolutely beautiful. Even more so than the Shah Rukn-e Alam shrine, in my humble opinion. They were also my main reason to come to Multan in the first place, and I’m so happy I got to see them. Only the ruins are standing, so they are not used for worship, or even as active shrines anymore, but rather just a monument and open air museum of sorts. But next to the 3 ruined shrines, is a mosque that holds tombs, and where people come to worship. There’s a big courtyard shaded by several huge trees, where people sit around and relax. People here were also very keen to talk to me, but again out police escort quickly shoo’d people away. Once again, really annoying, when all you want to do, is talk to the locals. At least I was given all the time I wanted at the place, probably also because there’s nothing else out here to see, so it would be a bit overkill to drive 1.5 hours each way to then just stay a short time.

Just outside the complex, there were people selling drinks. So I bought drinks for the trip back. There was also toilets, but the security wouldn’t even let me see them (I did kinda have to go), because “they are very dirty, and there’s better toilets further on”. Interesting. Really trying to shade me from all the things that might give me a bad impression of the place I guess.

The officers escorted us back to the highway, and we were on our way back to Multan. The trip back was uneventful. By now though I was tired of the security circus and just wanted to move on to Lahore, so the next plan would be to be taken to the bus station – after packing up at the hotel. But once we reached the hotel again, the same guards that had been there that morning, was still there. And this is where they let me know that my driver for the day was actually a senior police officer, in fact their commander. So they pulled a lot of jokes on him, about how he’s a completely different, much more strict, person when he’s in his uniform. So after all, I hadn’t just been designated a random driver, but actually a senior police officer, one of the leaders of the Multan police force. Suddenly it made a lot more sense why both the Multan and Uch Sharif police were calling him constantly on our drive there. I wouldn’t have suspected it on my own, as the guy was rather small of frame and not looking like much of a senior police officer, but who knows how many weapons he might have had on him, or in the car.

Anyhow I asked to be taken to the bus station to go to Lahore, after packing. They all tried to convince to stay till the next day, but I insisted. In the end the relinquished, and I quickly packed my stuff. Taking me to the bus station was both my senior police officer driver, and his 2 subordinates, who were all very jolly and joking around with their in-civilian commander on the entire way there. At the bus station they assisted me to buy a ticket, for the bus leaving an hour later, and then they actually just let me, with that one hour still to go. Amazing. I didn’t take advantage of this freedom though, instead just sitting in the waiting hall – because it was cooler than the outside. An hour later I boarded the bus alone, and free, and was on my way to Lahore. But of course all throughout that evening, and the following day, the Multan would keep occasionally contacting me on whatsapp asking where I was, and what I was doing. That is really uncomfortable and transgressive honestly, but I wasn’t about to ignore them, and once I made it to Gilgit Baltistan, the inquiries also stopped.

Traveling around Multan was certainly one of the most unusual and frustrating things I’ve ever tried. It’s really hard to get under the skin of a place, when there’s constantly guards shooing away any common people trying to interact with you, and when you don’t have free reign over your time and movement. But at the same time, it was definitely also quite something to have a personal guard armed with an AK-47, and experiencing this insane bustling city full of colors, art, architecture of various styles, holy shrines and also dirt, smog and poverty. Multan is a lot, and not a place I would recommend to a casual traveler. But some more seasoned travelers, this place could really pay off.

And so, did I ever actually feel threatened or in danger here? Or the victim of unwanted attention? No not at all!

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