Through the global media, Pakistan often possesses the image of a country with fierce-looking warlords, armed tribal men and holy fighters that come together in the North West Frontier close to the Afghan border.
However, the Islamic Republic of Pakistan's Minister of Tourism Nilofar Bakhtiar wants to show another Pakistan. She's strong, determined and independent and has a warm, cheerful and charismatic personality.
She's ready to show the world a beautiful country with a rich history, a marvelous culture and with ancient oriental civilizations spread across the provinces. Pakistan is a country full of undiscovered hidden secrets.
With the full support of President Pervez Musharraf and Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, she has prepared elaborate plans to open its doors to foreign tourists and has declared this year ""Destination Pakistan 2007"".
During the opening ceremony in Islamabad last month, her fascinating speech kept the audience spellbound and her passionate, persuasive oratory inspired me to write an authentic story of Pakistan's as yet undiscovered beauty.
Undiscovered mountains and deserts
Pakistan is home to the fierce mountains of the Karakoram, the Himalayas and the Hindu Kush in the north, which provide an unspoiled panoramic view of some of the five highest peaks in the world.
It's the picturesque land of eternal snow, of valleys with turquoise-colored lakes and fields filled with colorful flowers.
The majestic flow of the Indus River that continually meanders through the mountains across the country to reach the ocean and the ruins of hundreds of Buddhist monasteries are silent testimony to long-forgotten Buddhist empires from Central Asia.
Pakistan is the land of the legendary Karakoram Highway, the highest road in the world, which, centuries ago, was used by Marco Polo and other merchants as part of the Silk Road.
It followed a long and dangerous path through the deadly mountains back and forth from Europe to China.
Pakistan is the land of the vast deserts of Cholistan and Thar; land of nomadic tribes that travel on the back of colorfully decorated camels, with ancient fortresses that float like mirages in a sweeping sandy sea, and where desert foxes, wolves and dangerous snakes come out at night to prey.
Lahore, a Persian fairytale
The capital of the Punjab province, Lahore, is situated on the banks of the River Indus. Since time immemorial, the Indus remained the lifeline of ancient civilizations where history, culture, art and religion met.
Lahore is the city where Rudyard Kipling spent some important years of his life and which inspired him to write some of his well-known stories and poems.
A tour around the city takes you to the 17th-century Badshami Mosque in the old quarter built by the Mughals who then ruled the country. It's one of the most striking and largest mosques of the orient and was built of brick and red sandstone with white marble domes.
A large outside courtyard seats more than 60,000 worshipers. As you enter through the immense gates of this powerful mosque and stand beside its walls, you are taken back to the era of Persian fairy tales.
As you leave the mosque and continue to the entrance of the majestic and mysterious gates of the Lahore Fort, the white marble and gilded domes of a Sikh Temple magically shine in the sunlight; people are walking in and out, praying for love, peace and harmony.
The Lahore Museum was built by the British in the 19th century and exhibits many inspiring pieces, including one of the largest known stupas of a fasting Buddha. As you continue to the romantic gardens of love and happiness, you'll come to know that Shah Jahan didn't only build the Taj Mahal, but also designed the Shalimar Gardens in 1641, among the finest Persian-inspired landscaped gems.
At night, an authentic cultural show in the old quarter catches the eye; poets recite tales from the olden days that touch the heart and feed the soul; young women in traditional and colorful outfits express their dreams, passion and love through folkloric dances, and men whirl endlessly around to the beat of oriental music.
From a distance you hear a silent echo of galloping horses of great rulers from the past that pass through the city one more time. These are the horses of Genghis Khan, creator of the powerful Mongol Empire.
A traditional bazaar offers Pashmina woolen shawls from Kashmir, hand-knotted carpets with traditional designs from Afghanistan and Central Asia and ethnic silver jewelry from the northern areas.
A black cobra silently rises from its basket as a young tribal man from Baluchistan mesmerizes the deadly snake while playing the flute.
A few steps further down, a bright red parrot cautiously selects a tarot card offered by his master; another tale is about to unfold. Each and every vendor has something interesting to sell at this bustling market.
Traveling south of Lahore
As you travel further down the Indus River you'll stop at the ruins of Harappa, the ancient city of the Indus Valley, which is home to one of the earliest and most developed civilizations of the oriental world.
As you continue south and enter into the mirages of the deserts of Cholistan, from a long distance you'll see the towers of the Derawar Fort floating in a sandy sea.
Nomadic tribes live in traditional huts made of wooden rods with rooftops of grass, women weave colorful tribal shawls and men wear brightly colored turbans on their heads.
The Derawar Fort dates back to 825 A.D. and was built by Prince Rawal around a magic tree that kept the cattle safe from the attacks of wolves; once the cattle would move away from the tree, the wolves killed them instantly.
And so the prince declared the tree sacred to protect the animals and built the fort around as a sanctuary.
History of the Punjab
This is the Punjab, the richest province of Hindustan in culture and heritage which derives its name from Panjnad, meaning ""the confluence of five rivers coming together"".
It's the province where Alexander the Great crossed the mighty Indus River and debated philosophy at the one of the world's first universities in Taxila: an ancient Buddhist site where many rulers came to study and which was once visited by the Christian apostle, Thomas.
At present, the site shows the ruins of 2,500-year-old temples, monasteries and Buddhist stupas from the Gandhara civilization, which is a rare and unique blend of Greek and Buddhist art.
A museum situated nearby exhibits some of these unique art pieces.
During the British Raj, the Punjab was one of its richest provinces, which eventually was divided between India and Pakistan.
Duleep Singh, the last Maharaja of the Punjab, was only a young boy when he handed over power to Queen Victoria of England. In return, he received a palace and education under royal patronage in England.
Many years later, when he had grown older and wiser, painful, unbearable realities gripped his heart and soul. He realized he had lost everything meaningful; the respect of his people, his beloved land and beautiful empire but also the Jewel in the Crown of the Punjab, the famous Koh-I-Noor diamond which, to the present day shines brightly in the crown of the British monarch.