A Sri Lanka-Pakistan people-to-people journey: An island man’s mountain quest with a larger cause

Everywhere I went I was greeted with great warmth and hospitality. It is a symbol of the decades-long ‘Enduring Friendship’ between the peoples of Pakistan and Sri Lanka. 

Dimantha Dilan Thenuwara Mar 08, 2024
Base camp with K2 in the background. (Photo: Pioneer Adventures Pvt Ltd Nepal)

“Europeans have a reputation for climbing mountains. It is not unusual. You are interesting because you come from a tropical country like Sri Lanka. It is a soft country of gentle people, a land of sunshine, beautiful beaches, tea and tropical jungles. It is not a land of high mountain peaks and terrible cold. No one will expect you to do this and everyone will look at you if you do.”

The words of a mentor came to me at an unexpected and unbelievable moment. I had all but given up but I still had faith.

As the evening light faded in Colombo, my mood was transformed by a telephone call from someone I had never met: Jagath Abeywarna, the Consul General of Sri Lanka in Karachi, Pakistan. His question took me by surprise, "Dimantha, are you still willing to come to Pakistan and tell people about your dream to climb K2?”

It was nearly 7:30 pm on a Saturday last September. The Consul General was inviting me to participate in the people-centred initiative called ‘Enduring Friendship’ being organised to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Sri Lanka-Pakistan diplomatic relations. He was inviting me to visit Karachi, Islamabad and Lahore.

Less than 24 hours later, I was in Karachi, my first-ever visit to Pakistan.

It had been nearly a year since I decided to become the first Sri Lankan to climb K2. The second highest peak on earth, it is also the deadliest, so dangerous that it is known as the “savage mountain”. Since then I made every effort to learn about Pakistan, its people, and its relationship with Sri Lanka. I had even started learning Urdu online. And yet I was surprised by what I found – it was so much more than I had expected and so very different.

Great warmth     

People-to-people. I now hear this phrase a lot. What does it mean? How does it work? My first visit to Pakistan happened entirely through people and meeting people. It all began as an idea, there was no campaign, no budget, just people who went out of their way to make things happen. This was something which remained in my mind throughout my visit.

Everywhere I went I was greeted with great warmth and hospitality. It is a symbol of the decades-long ‘Enduring Friendship’ between the peoples of Pakistan and Sri Lanka. During my visit, I found Pakistan to be a great country to travel to.

Landing at Karachi airport on a Sunday morning, I was surrounded by the sound of Urdu. In airports around the world, including Sri Lanka, the first words you hear are English. I was now in a very different world, with a sound and a rhythm of its own. Also unlike many other airports, people were warm and helpful. When I asked the immigration officer where I could change my dollars, he left his desk and walked with me to show me the way. One gate was closed, so he opened another specially for me.

I knew that Karachi is one of the most populated cities in the world, growing at an incredible rate. I saw this everywhere. There were buildings everywhere and a labyrinth of crisscrossing cables across the roads. I come from a tropical country where everything is green and there are trees all around. Here everything was in shades of sand and brown. I did not see many trees but whenever I looked, I saw eagles wheeling overhead. It was something I had never seen before.

The Karachi Marriott Hotel was like a fortress, heavily defended by armed guards. Yet men were friendly and went out of their way to help. Once past the barriers, it was like any hotel anywhere else in the world. The Consul General was kind enough to be waiting at the entrance for me.

One of the first calls I made was to a filmmaker from Karachi whom I had met in northwestern Sri Lanka a few months earlier – Aisha Gazdar, daughter of Pakistan’s great filmmaker, Mushtaq Gazdar. She had introduced me to another friend, Simeen Ansari, who had told me a great deal about mountaineering in Pakistan as she had been to one of K-2’s base camps the year before. Although Simeen and I had never met before, when I told her my phone was not working, she came over to the hotel and offered me a spare phone to use. This unexpected kindness and generosity was something I came across time and time again.

INSTAGRAM LINK: A Sri Lankan in Pakistan: 'Unexpected kindness and generosity'


I was part of a Sri Lankan contingent, including members of the dance troupe Kanya and those involved in the Sri Lankan Tourism Roadshow, scheduled to perform in Karachi, Islamabad and Lahore. We were all whisked off to the Clock Tower restaurant, where I had my first meal in Pakistan overlooking the Arabian Sea.

The staff welcomed our large group with a flourish. Changing the whole setup of the restaurant for us, they attended to each one of us personally. This was the first time I ate Pakistani food. Sri Lankan food has spice and chilli. Pakistani food is all about flavour. Each dish has its unique flavour, so fresh and appetising that the more you eat, the more you want.

That evening the Kanya troupe, led by the master dancer and choreographer Chandana Wickramasinghe, gave a spectacular and elegant performance at the Arts Council of Karachi.

One of the highlights was the collaboration between the talented Pakistani musician Ashan Bari, known for his expertise in folk fusion, and the Sri Lankan musician Sonal Prabhashitha – a unique fusion blending the traditions of both nations.

I was honoured to be asked to speak before each of the performances, in Karachi, Islamabad and Lahore. I talked about my ambition to climb K2, the hard times our two countries Sri Lanka and Pakistan have undergone, the importance of raising a voice together against climate change, and our solidarity with each other.

The next day I visited Koel Gallery to meet Noorjehan Bilgrami, one of Pakistan’s most renowned artists, an educator, curator and designer, known for her expertise in traditional crafts. Hanging plants greeted my eyes as I was escorted down a narrow pathway and through a courtyard. Gone was my first impression of Karachi, a place of high-rise blocks in sandy brown. This was so different, it seemed like another world, I felt that I was back in Sri Lanka.

Indus Valley

Gracious, warm and welcoming, Noorjehan listened closely as I talked about my ideas and dreams. She arranged for me to visit the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, one of Pakistan’s finest art institutions.

This was the first green space I saw in Karachi. Waiting for me on the lawn, by a pond and turtles, was the elegant Tazeen Hussain, a professor at Indus Valley. She is also a famous actress whose father Talat Hussain is an even more famous actor.

Together with another member of staff, Nurayah Sheikh Nabi, Tazeen guided me around the school, a beautiful place that took my breath away. Its architecture was so completely different to anything I had seen so far. At its heart are two historic buildings which had been dismantled brick by brick, brought here and then reassembled - a testament to the commitment of its founders to their heritage.

The atmosphere at Indus Valley was unlike any academic institution I had been to, it was so relaxed and free. I found the students to be energetic, lively, full of fun and confident. Many knew about K2, some had even been to base camp. They were excited and inspired by my burning desire to climb the mountain.

Sense of belonging

I could not help but notice the way they dressed. In Pakistan, even the most fashionable and most modern young people wear their attire, rooted in tradition. In Sri Lanka, young people never wear traditional dress. We have moved so far away from our culture and our identity that we are neither one thing nor another. At Indus Valley, there was a tremendous sense of belonging amongst the young people I met. They had a sense of place and country, a sense of belonging to something. I could feel it clearly, the sense of ownership. Despite being an IT person I felt at home.

Sri Lanka is well known for its literacy and its free education, yet we do not have anything like the Indus Valley. The Dean of this remarkable place, Dr. Faiza Mushtaq, exudes calm authority. She is focused and to the point, more like a diplomat or a minister. I felt sad when leaving Indus Valley, a special place, full of special people with a special atmosphere. I wondered, what if I had discovered art instead of technology?

The following day, there was a press conference, where I was introduced and talked about my plans to attempt K2 in 2024. I was thrilled to be interviewed by Faizan Lakhani, the Deputy Editor of Sports at Geo TV News.

Speaking at press conferences in Pakistan, Consul General Abeywarna, and Saman Rathnayake, the Country Manager, Sri Lankan Airlines have suggested that I could play a pivotal role in promoting Pakistan's mountaineering industry. The idea generated excitement and interest every time it came up.

My mountain

While the Himalayas are widely travelled, the Karakoram mountains which lie mostly within Pakistan, are less well known and less visited. As someone said, “Everest is known all over the world, everyone knows what it is and so many people have climbed it. But K2 is different.”

It is through my mentor Dr SinhaRaja Tammita-Delgoda that I began to understand that climbing K2 is about much more than mountaineering. Dr Delgoda is a person used to doing things, getting things done and opening doors. One of Sri Lanka’s foremost minds, he is a historian, a renowned scholar, an adventurer,  and an authority on South Asia and international affairs.

“Both countries are struggling with a massive economic crisis. Morale is very low and the skilled and the educated are leaving as fast as they can,” he told me. “If you succeed, you will attract attention from both Sri Lanka and Pakistan, something both countries badly need at this time. It will be very good for tourism in both countries. What is more important is that you will uplift the morale of our people.

“No one will expect you to do this but everyone will look at you if you do”

He is right. While the Himalayas are widely travelled, the Karakoram mountains which lie mostly within Pakistan, are less well known and less visited. More than 5,000 individuals have made it to the summit of Mount Everest, which has been climbed over 9,000 times.

My mountain, K2, is different. It has an aura, difficult and dangerous. By August 2022 less than 700 climbers had made it to the top of K2. As many as 96 died trying. Even making it to base camp is a tremendous achievement.

That is the quest I have embarked upon.

(The author, a Sri Lankan IT professional, is an explorer and a mountaineer. It is his ambition to climb K2 in 2024. On Instagram at @dimantha_thenuwara. Views are personal. By special arrangement with  Sapan News)

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