Things to Know Before You Go to Karachi
Where to score the best kebab rolls, how to spot a liquor store, adopting the right fatalistic-meets-voyeuristic attitude: essential intel for Pakistan’s reality-defying largest city.
Revel in the irreverence. “Has crime in Karachi started happening on the fucking sea now?!” a cop once screamed on the phone while I was holding on the other line—and it’s now my go-to line to describe Karachi. The capital of Pakistan’s Sindh province, it’s a city of 20 million people where reality has long surpassed the wildest conspiracy theories. I lived there for two decades—during which I was robbed twice, pitied by criminals, and told by my dentist to get a gun—but it is also an incredibly exciting place. It has given the country its most bizarre urban legends, from a band of oil-smeared men who’d jump from roof to roof and flash women to a saint’s spirit rattling around the U.S. Consulate. In the late 90s, rumors spread that there was a gang of people injecting HIV into cinemagoers (my memory of watching Titanic will be forever marked by this hysteria). But Karachi’s real host of characters defy myth: a biker photographed riding in the nude, a mayor and several legislators elected while they were in jail, brain-eating amoeba in the water supply, a secret meth lab, and alleged North Korean bootleggers. Karachi is a city where anything is possible, a place where people have literally made castles out of the sand and earned fantastic wealth. It’s why, every year, people immigrate to this city in search of jobs, education, and a new life imbued with this city’s character.
Start the day with a paratha and chai. Karachi runs on chai: brewed milky concoctions made around-the-clock across the city. It’s best served with a flaky paratha—crisp fried flatbread—and eaten at a ramshackle stall in any neighborhood. Chai-paratha delivers the perfect combination of carbs, grease, and caffeine, and is also the only known cure for a night spent drinking all sorts of regret-inducing drinks [see Murree]. Everyone has their favorite chai-paratha place and preferences, from the stronger karak version to the milk-laden doodh patti, but it’s impossible to get wrong.
‘You watch safety of pocket.’ This sign at Iceberg—an ice cream salon in Karachi’s Saddar district—is the warning you need. Crime in Karachi takes on legendary proportions, and while street crime vacillates between terrible and marginally tolerable, it’s always best not to carry too much cash, use a flashy cell phone in public—that Tweet can wait—and to keep an eye on the news for potential riots.
Learn the language. “You mean snatching,” a Karachi cop said to me as I described how two men had run off with my fuchsia handbag by pointing a menacing-looking gun at me one morning. “Not theft.” Karachi’s language is mined from its crime rate and history: bori band laash is a body in a gunny sack, bhatta is extortion, target killing is an assassination and cracker is an explosive device. They’re all blamed on namaloom afraad—Urdu for “unidentified people.” Get with the program.
Don’t get on a bus. Karachi’s buses are the last vestiges of cheap transport running in the city. They’re steel traps that were condemned to the junkyard decades ago, but without public transportation, they’re the only choices left for commuters. The only people who think bus rides are fun are the ones who’ve never used them. Of course, like so many other things imbued with some sort of faux nostalgia, there’s a gentrified version—with gawking passengers—that runs through downtown as a tour bus. Take a rickshaw instead.
Eat the street. “I know a great restaurant in Karachi,” says James Bond at the end of The Living Daylights. Karachi’s much-vaunted diversity is generally a source of political conflict and xenophobia, but its cuisine reflects the people who come to this city from every valley, farm, and mansion in Pakistan, and influences from Afghanistan, Myanmar, India, Korea, China, Russia (for decades “Russian salad” was a staple on menus) and obviously, American fast food. The best local Chinese is at Yuan Tung, an old-school joint where the staff, food, and décor haven’t changed in decades. Karachi’s food streets like Boat Basin, Burnes Road, or Hussainabad have some of the city’s best dining options, where cooks stir vats and barbecue meat in the open, imbuing your food with smog. From food carts, try the homegrown burger: a bun kebab, spice-laden French fries, and roasted sweet potatoes. Karachi Broast’s tikkas with layers of spice rub are worth crying into your plate over. But if you eat nothing else, you must try the kebab roll: pieces of chicken, mystery sauce, and onions wrapped in a paratha at Hot n’ Spicy.
Drink a Murree with your curry. Karachi’s oppressive humidity has only one match: Murree beer. Spot a liquor store in your neighborhood—they’re often unmarked, but it’s the place with groups of men and cops crowding around a grungy window with metal bars. (Although this could also describe a jail or a police station, so make sure.) If you’re not brave enough to venture to the window, a runner is bound to sidle up to you. They’re usually skulking around the pavement and can pick out a potential customer (shifty, nervous, pretending they’re there to get a soda) a mile away. Some brave souls try to drink right outside the shop, but you should probably get out of there with your bagged purchases and drink in the comfort of your room. The liquor store at Lucky Star can resemble a mini-carnival on weekends, and at Zamzama, the runners will give you the lowdown on who’s trying to get them shut down that week.
Take a market walk. Karachi isn’t really a city for walking. The sidewalks are being pared away or used as parking lots, and the streets are often running over with sewage and garbage. But there’s some charm to wandering the city. Whenever I’m in Karachi, I make my way to Bohri Bazaar, an old market with rows of shops selling baking utensils. I shop at the fabric vendors who lay out saris and convince me I need to buy all of them. Last year, I found a flea market near the colonial-era Empress Market in Saddar, with stall after stall offering Empire memorabilia, cheap purses, and commemorative crockery.
Pause on the sidewalk. Karachi’s sidewalks are where the action is. Expect to see any or all of the following: people injecting heroin; groups of men playing Ludo (Parcheesi) with steely-eyed concentration; vendors selling everything from fake watches to IKEA catalogs; yellow-silk clad drummers looking to get hired for a wedding; green-turbaned proselytizers; sex workers in shimmering black cloaks or jeans; and traveling barbers who set up on the pavement with a chair, a dirty mirror, and a bagful of scissors.
Read the paper at Regal. Walk down M.A. Jinnah Road in downtown Karachi, past historic buildings, old bookstores, and tiny tea stalls. Near Regal, a hub of electronics stores and mobile phone shops, is a mini-plaza-like space where hawkers sell newspapers, tabloids, pulp-novel style ‘digests’ and magazines promising cures for heart attacks. Lounge on one of the circular benches and catch up on the day’s news while watching the city’s traffic snarl up.
Chaat it up. Chaat is a snack comprising chickpeas, chutneys, spices, and yogurt in some combination. In Karachi, chaat is an art form: it arrives heaped with steaming potatoes, onions, and crispy paapri. The best chaat is at Bombay Chaat House in Bohri Bazaar, a tiny diner I’ve gone to since I was a kid, where customers squeeze next to each other on vinyl benches with their shopping in tow, and order chaat and a soft drink and a plate of extra paapri, while the staff tries to pull in customers off the street.
Park yourself. I never thought of Karachi’s green spaces with any kind of fondness until I moved away. During the day, parks serve as assignation spots for couples. In the evenings, families descend with noisy kids and bags of crisps in tow to lounge on the grass and gossip. They’re few and far in between, but hanging out at a Karachi park is a good way to relax without having to travel for miles in search of some peace. I like the Nisar Shaheed park, because there’s a small amusement park next to it that makes the place feel alive.
Get scammed. Karachi is a city of scammers. You’re bound to get ripped off by the hotel staff/waiter/liquor store runner/rickshaw/cab driver/grave digger. It’s a vicious cycle: they’re all being scammed by someone, and so they must try out their scam on you. For the love of God, ask someone in Karachi for a second opinion before you start shelling out money. Then ask someone else about the person you asked for advice.
Embrace fatalism. What do you do when you hear a cyclone is about to hit the city? Evacuate? Stock up on groceries? In Karachi, people defy a ban on gathering at the beach when a cyclone is approaching by… gathering at the beach to witness the waves that might swallow them up. The only way to live in Karachi is to have a fatalistic-meets-voyeuristic attitude: the city is going to hell anyway, so we might as well watch it burn.
Get used to guns. A couple of years ago, the air-conditioner in my room conked out. When it was pulled out, there was a gaping hole where a bullet had been lodged. Guns and stray bullets are ubiquitous in Karachi. Gun-toting vans of guards and cops follow blacked-out SUVs on the streets. Private security guards stand (and nap) outside every mall, bank, coffee shop, hip bakery, and shoe store. People will pull and fire a weapon with little thought. Celebratory gunfire marks New Year, the sighting of the moon to herald the Eid holiday, and because it’s Tuesday. Or Friday.
Don’t drink the tap water… Karachi’s water is not fit for consumption. It’s barely okay to bathe in, and it might have some manner of marine life (and the brain-eating amoeba).
… but have a Pakola. Karachiites swear by Pakola, a lurid green ice-cream soda that for a long time was only sold in the city, thus adding to its legend. I happen to think it’s not great, but to say that in public to a Karachiite is blasphemous.
Take in a match. Cricket is this country’s reason for living, and throwing TV sets out the window. Games take place anywhere there’s a bit of space, inevitably ending when someone smashes the ball into a crotchety neighbor’s window.
Take a photo at the beach. I hadn’t been to the beach in a decade until my dad moved into a place a short walk away. Most of my memories of Karachi have to do with sprawling apartments and broken down roads and urban dysfunction. But Karachi’s public beach—Sea View—is, depending on how you look at it, a pitiful stretch of sea, sand, and trash, or a free public space that is inherently calming and beautiful and breezy at sunset. I usually go for a jog when I can—past the dune buggies racing down the beach and people who’ve driven their cars right into the water and defecating camels carrying groups of shrieking kids—to a stretch where birds flock on the shore.
Spend Sunday in the shadow of colonials. Karachi has none of the Mughal architecture of cities like Lahore. Its most famous Sufi shrine is currently being turned into a staid-looking complex and colonial buildings are near collapse. Steer clear of the tourist destinations, except for this one: the grounds of the colonial-era Frere Hall, where on Sundays you can browse at stalls selling an eclectic selection of books—first editions and leather-bound tomes—and lounge in the gardens with the disused fountains and ask one of the Victorian carriage owners idling around to drive you around the block.
Get out of your comfort zone. Most Karachiites will tell you not to venture to the edges of the city. We will insist that you’re going to get robbed or kidnapped or worse. We will say this with an air of superiority because we’re locals and better than you are at navigating spaces, but you won’t listen. So, if you do, make the trip to oft-volatile Manghopir, where soporific crocodiles rule over a shrine and its sulfur springs. Take up an invitation to private parties, where people do lines of coke like it’s the 80s. Watch donkeys race down Karachi’s streets in the annual race. Go down to the deserted parts of the city to see drag racers, bikers doing spins, and the idiot driving a sports car with a police escort in tow.