Pakistan | Domestic Tourism

A bus tour throws light on Karachi’s urban geography

01 July 2015
The Super Savari Express, started in December, strives to show a part of Karachi to Karachiites who would not brave the city by themselves.
courtesy Super Savari Expres

EARLY ON A SUNDAY MORNING IN MARCH, a bus stood parked near the Karachi Gymkhana, close to the city centre. It sported the signature kitsch of the city’s public buses—kaleidoscopic paintwork, Urdu couplets, chintzy decals. Close by, a knot of men tucked into parathas at a tea stall, and a stray dog went at a plastic bag. Some 40 people gradually congregated and began to board, using a plastic crate as a makeshift step. They took pictures of themselves, and of each other, incessantly. Inside, one young man asked people to raise their hands if this was their first time on a bus in Karachi. Almost everyone did.

Karachi’s buses are a cardinal part of its cityscape, and vast numbers of its 24 million residents rely on them for transport all across this megalopolis. Not so, however, for the city’s elite, who have for years derided and avoided public buses and the bulk of the areas they serve. Karachi is famously unsafe—extortion, political assassination, kidnapping, militancy, gang warfare and sectarian murder are all common—and the buses are ramshackle, overfull and grimy, with female passengers squeezing onto a dozen or so seats reserved for them, trying to avoid the groping hands of men. Now, a new company hopes to take rich Karachiites out of the handful of neighbourhoods where they live and show them, onboard a bus, parts of the city they don’t dare brave themselves. But the fact that wealthy Karachiites are such strangers to the city they call home says much about its history, and the nature of its present development.

Every Sunday, the Super Savari Express welcomes aboard anyone willing to pay 2,000 Pakistani rupees—roughly $20. Tourists join in, but the organisers pointedly target young people from the city itself. The itinerary varies every weekend, and Super Savari also sporadically runs a cuisine tour on weekday evenings. Since the tours launched in December, they have been praised by the media and by passengers—Instagram has hundreds of glowing photos tagged #superkarachiexpress—and now come with a wait list. On the Sunday I joined in, we headed out on a six-hour tour of Saddar, Karachi’s crumbling and eclectic city centre, which contains everything from crowded new flats to historical colonial buildings, and even a market selling exotic animals and kidnapped pets.

Saba Imtiaz is a journalist based in Pakistan. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Guardian and the Christian Science Monitor. She is the author of Karachi, You’re Killing Me! and the forthcoming No Team of Angels