Friday, November 25, 2005

The Ugliest Animals In The World

Well, I survived three days of camel riding safe and sound and in one piece (though my ass and thighs might care to disagree). The Thar desert may not be the most inhospitable, or breathtaking of deserts as there's a certain amount of vegetation and habitations and no vast expanses of sand dunes, but the whole safari experience was very enjoyable. For 3 days I traipsed through rocky scrubland and sand on the back of my trusty camel, who I soon named Humphrey, along with two Swedish girls and a Canadian (Hanka and her boyfriend Martin could only manage a day as they had to rush to Mumbai to catch their plane) as well as our team of camel drivers. I honestly don't think there is an animal as bizarre as the dromedary: notwithstanding its stupendous ugliness, it is ridiculously gangly, with long, spindly legs that seem to fold up like a state-of-the-art camping table when it sits down, and it is the only animal in the world that eats more loudly than the Chinese. But they are also fantastically suited to the harsh desert environment, with each ugly attribute an invaluable desert survival tool. It's also quite comfortable to ride (at least more so than a horse) and its height gives you a supreme riding position almost 3m above the ground (the dromedary is the ultimate SUV of the animal kingdom).

It was nice to get away from the hustle and bustle of the crowded towns and cities, with their constant noise, smells and pestering. In the whole 3 days we briefly saw two other tourists, but apart from that it was just us and the locals. The latter, especially the women, stand out with their brightly coloured clothes: vivid reds, blues, greens and pinks can be seen from miles away. The whole of Rajasthan, it seems, is only made up of vibrant primary colours: the clothes, the sky, the ground and the havelis (beautifully carved and decorated sandstone houses) all vie for your eyes' attention. Sitting round the campfire after dinner, warming ourselves from the surprising chill of the night and listening to the songs of the camel drivers (we were, of course, obliged to sing as well, so I had to dig out my rendition of Flower Of Scotland again, which is slowly becoming my party piece) was particularly enchanting. It did get rather surreal at one point when one of the drivers started belting out "Country Roads", but then again why not? it's a good song. I also learned three, perhaps not important, but nonetheless interesting, lessons. Firstly it gets cold in the desert at night. Very cold. I knew this beforehand, but didn't quite appreciate it until I got myself a bunged up nose. Secondly that melons grow in the desert. They were almost everywhere: small, yet tasty watermelons. Whenever we got thirsty we could just grab a melon, punch it open and munch away. The number of half eaten melons we left in our wake was really rather shameful. And finally that sand gets everywhere. This I had also experienced before, but I failed to appreciate its effect upon my camera, which, after many years of trusty service, is now officially dead. I am now going to have to bite the bullet and cross the digital divide,something that I had been planning to do only once I returned home. But I suppose you have to adapt to your circumstances.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Rats In Rajasthan

Things have been looking up since entering India (well, they haven't been going tits up anyway). I've made a beeline south to Rajasthan to be in time to meet an old Czech friend of mine before she heads back home (and give her a bunch of stuff to take back with her in the process). Generally I prefer to be thorough when visiting an area, but I plan to pass by again on my way back to Pakistan so I'll get another bite of the pie. Nevertheless I did get to see a couple of fascinating temples along the way which I've been meaning to see for some time.

The first is the Golden Temple of Amritsar, the holiest of sites for Sikhs. I like to make fun of my Sikh friends saying that they're all big and hairy just to tease them. Though, like all generalisations, there is more than a grain of truth to it and it's fascinating to be in a place full of tall, turbaned men with the bushiest of beards. It's not surprising to read that they were a military force to be reckoned with in their time. Luckily Sikhs are among the most friendly and scrupulously honest people I know. The temple is a large, pristinely white complex surrounding a holy pool containing the eponymous temple sitting in its centre, glinting in the sunlight. Sikhism is a very welcoming and egalitarian faith (if I wasn't such a religious sceptic I might be a Sikh, and I've got a good start already as I've got the beard) and allow everyone in to look around. But better than that, they give you a meal as well! Heaven for a budget traveller. But I get a guilty conscience far too quickly so I doubt I'll be taking advantage of their generosity too much. Seeing the massive dining halls filled with hundreds of people, young and old rich and poor, really gives a sense of community.

The other temple is the Karni Mata temple in northern Rajasthan, commonly known as the Rat Temple due to the thousands of rats that, not only live there, but are regarded as minor deities and are fed and protected in the temple grounds. I was expecting to see a seething carpet of furry bodies, but had to make do with a few scampering little rodents and a circle of squabbling beasties around a bowl of milk. But I still enjoyed myself immensely just watching the travails of the wee blighters, with their little squabbles and curious personalities (they would come right up to my feet and sniff my toes; and then quickly run away again before they were overcome by the smell!).

But now I am in the dessert town of Jaisalmer with my friend Hanka, catching up on the past year and a half since we last saw each other. We spent the day wandering the small streets that surround the imposing, sandstone fort that dominates the city and generally relaxing before we head off on a camel safari into the dessert tomorrow (Hanka is not altogether confident of our survival chances in the barren expanses and has been mentally preparing her last will and testament). But here it's no longer the two-humped Bactrian camel of western China, but single-humped dromedaries, so I'm not quite sure where one is supposed to sit, though I'm sure I'll find out tomorrow.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Bad Day

It was bound to happen at some point on my trip; the planets were aligned perfectly yesterday to make everything that I planned go wrong. The journey from Islamabad to the border crossing with India at Wagah (although the two countries share almost 3000km of border there is only the one crossing, and it's only open for 6 hours every day from 9:30am to 3:30pm) shouldn't take more than 7 hours, but due to numerous cock-ups along the way took closer to 11 hours. Needless to say, I didn't manage to cross into India that day. I can't remember a day when I've uttered as many expletives; and for those of you who know me that is no mean feat. It wasn't anything big or disastrous, just an accumulation of small annoyances, which, by the end of the day, had me ready to blow my top (or almost break down and cry). When I finally arrived at the border it was almost deserted and the last few dhabas were closing for the day, but luckily I managed to persuade one to let me sleep on a spare charpoy (crude, rope bed) until the next morning, not that I got much sleep though as the nights in Punjab at this time of the year are quite chilly. Ah well, I suppose it was bound to happen sooner or later, now hopefully most of my bad luck will have been used up and it will take some time for it to reaccumulate again.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Low Walls

It's hard to think of Pakistanis as being anything but Muslim, but about 1500 years ago the area now occupied by Pakistan was home to an important Buddhist empire known as Gandhara. Although very powerful in their time, and instrumental in the spread of Buddhism to China and beyond, very little remains of their towns, monasteries and other stuff they might have built. But there are still a few things dotted around here and there, so I thought I'd check them out. Most of the remains are just a series of low walls from which archaeologists have managed to deduce an amazing number of things:

"They ate here (pointing), slept there (pointing again), prayed there...that's where they carried out human sacrifices (OK, maybe not the Buddhists)"

How can they tell? it's just walls! Personally I think they're just making it all up and are just as confused about the remains as we ordinary mortals, but just don't want to show it. Well, it must have fooled the boffins at UNESCO at any rate as a couple of the less ruined ruins are world heritage listed. I also had great fun traipsing around the remains, which were blissfully free of tourists (a delightful change to China), and clambering about the fortress that "was stormed by Alexander the Great" and sitting in "Darius's palace".

I have, however, been expecting rather more from the food over here. Not that it's bad, I rather quite like it actually, it's just rather monotonous. My meals invariably consist of roti and dhal, which is bread and lentils (or chickpeas). I have become rather adept at tearing off bits of bread with one hand and using it as a scoop for the dhal, though I'm still loathe to use my thumb as a shovel, not due to any hygiene issue, but I just don't like to get it greasy. My bowels are rejoicing at this simple fare as my stools have improved immeasurably since China, becoming world class specimens, if perhaps with a slightly disturbing shade of orange.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Taking It Up The Khyber

Before coming to Pakistan the only thing I knew about Peshawar was the delicious Peshwari nans, with raisins and coconut, that I would always order whenever I would eat at Indian restaurants. I therefore imagined that it was somewhere in India. But no, it is in fact very close to the Afghan border at the entrance to the fabled Khyber Pass. Being so close to Afghanistan one would imagine this to be a rather edgy and dour town, but not at all: the people here are perhaps even more friendly than elsewhere. The only Talibanesqueness visible are a small minority of burqas and a penchant, among the men, for manicured hands tinted with henna as well as henna'ed beards and hair.

Well, seeing as I'm so close, I had to check out the Khyber because you will rarely get to see a pass as legendary as that. Going along it and up to the border, however, is slightly more complex than just hopping on a bus since the pass is in tribal territory. The tribal areas were set aside, during the creation of Pakistan, for the Pashtun tribes who wanted to retain to their traditional way of life. In practice this means that the tribal areas are de facto autonomous and Pakistani law only applies on the road and a short strip on either side. Outside of that area the intricacies of the tribal codes reign supreme and honour-killings over slights of honour are a way of life. Therefore anybody wishing to visit the areas has to get an armed escort as well as the relevant permit.

Once the relevant formalities had been sorted out we set off: me and two other travellers who I had met at the hotel bunched up in the back of a ridiculously small Suzuki taxi, our driver and our guard with his Kalashnikov resting on his lap up front. The pass, in itself, is rather unspectacular (although in some places it does get remarkably narrow), but it is the history of the place and the frontier vibe that are the main draws. Numerous forts, sentry posts and even tank obstacles litter the pass, bearing witness to its strategical importance throughout history. Many of the colonial era military remnants are abandoned, but they are more than compensated by the Pashtun houses, which resemble medieval castles, complete with crenellated battlements and gun slits. Very welcoming. You're not actually allowed to travel all the way to the border if you don't have a visa ("for your own protection"), but from the checkpoint we could clearly see the border town of Torkham and its Afghan twin in the valley below. Whilst peering over at the mountains of Afghanistan we were soon surrounded by a group of Pashtuns (a couple carrying their own Kalashnikovs) who were pleased to see us, not least so that they could practice their English. They explained their aspirations for peace and their own country of Pashtunistan, how they would like to travel abroad and how all the lorries along the road are carrying military supplies for the Americans. I wanted to stay for lunch, but our escort was getting nervous so we had to head back to Peshawar. Our little jaunt has clearly reinforced something that I have learnt during my trip: whatever your image of a place that you form through the media, it is invariably completely false and bears no resemblance to reality; not least because I still haven't been able to find any Peshwari nans.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Feeling Useless

It should be certainly not be news to anybody that last month there was a terrible earthquake in Pakistani Kashmir. Tens of thousands were killed and millions were left homeless. Now I'm no saint and I have no pertinent qualifications, but I was thinking that, with the few days I have whilst I'm waiting for my Indian visa, I could perhaps help out with some grunt work, lugging boxes and the like. I had a few contacts and so off I went to Mansehra, where most of the TLA NGOs (Three Letter Acronym Non-Governmental Organisations, because every NGO that wants to seriously do some good must first have a catchy acronym) are based. First I went to a field hospital run by the Italian Red Cross, where a friend of mine had been doing precisely what I wanted to do just a week earlier. But in the meantime there had been a change in political leadership and they were no longer receptive to volunteers. From there I was sent to the WHO, from there to the WFP, then on to UNHCR, then MSF, MDM and IRC (not to be confused with the ICRC). None of them had any work for me, which perhaps wasn't so surprising, but worst of all, none of them could give me a list of other NGOs working in the area or the name of someone who could give me such a list. There seemed to be no coordination whatsoever amongst the organisations. The UN agencies were probably the worst in that respect; none of the people I talked to amongst them seemed to have any idea what was going on and many were fresh off the plane. Although I'd heard such things from other people during my travels, I didn't expect it to be so bad. That's not to say that the organisations are not doing a good job, but it just seems rather haphazard.

What impressed me most, however, was the people of the area. Despite having lost their homes, their livelihoods and many members of their families, the legendary Pakistani hospitality was as strong as ever. I actually felt very embarrassed that these people, who were forced to live in tents, were giving me food and shelter when I had come to help them. This is one side of Pakistan that you definitely don't hear about in the media. I have been offered tea and food and shaken more hands in my one week here than in my whole time in the rest of Asia. Sometimes it can be a bit much and people continually come up to me wanting to know my life story: "what country are you belonging to? are you a Muslim? what is your profession? what are your qualifications? are you married?" and so on and so on, hardly pausing to hear my replies, before wandering off. But it's all innocent and fun, and I amuse myself by varying my nationality to see the different responses they illicit (my current favourite is Mexican).

After one and a half days of being passed from one NGO to another and calling various phantom phone numbers, I decided take the hint and leave rather than get in people's way. Perhaps I could have been more forceful in my inquiries, but then again I didn't want to be some morbid disaster tourist. If you would like to help out then there are a plethora of agencies that are doing good work to help the affected, such as the ever-present MSF that I'm sure would accept donations.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

It's English Jim, But Not As We Know It

After months of battling to make myself understood through Southeast Asia and China (you just start getting the hang of one language when your visa is about to run out and you have to go to a new country and start all over again) I am once more in a country where I can sit back and be linguistically lazy as here in Pakistan you can always find someone who speaks at least a bit of English (I've also managed to find a couple of people who speak a smidgen of Farsi, which has made me inordinately happy). Well, I say it's English, but it's an English that seems to have been stuck in a Victorian time warp so I am continually being called "sir" (I wasn't even called that when I was a teacher) and asked for my "good name". It's actually rather quaint. But I will try and pick up some Urdu and Hindi as I will be staying here some time.

I have, however, fled from the Northern Areas to Islamabad; not because it's not nice up there, but because I want to get away from the cold and I need to start applying for my Indian visa (which takes some time). It can get quite annoying the hoops that countries want you to jump through before they will let you in, when all you want to do is spend money in their country. At the moment I'm reading a book by John Simpson in which he talks about how people travelled some 150 years ago. The British refused to have passports and would just arrive at borders and demand to be let in, which they invariably were. Bring back the good old days I say! Either way, I will be back in Pakistan after my tour of the rest of the subcontinent and I'll be more thorough then. Islamabad itself is rather uninteresting as it is one of those 20th century inventions that I'm beginning to really dislike: the designed capital city. They all share certain characteristics that make them rather soulless places, like ridiculously wide boulevards and no pavements; no discernible town centre; and people never seem to live there, they always just work there, or at best reside there. As far as they go Islamabad isn't too bad because although it doesn't have a centre, each of its little districts has a central market which is often lively enough.

Sunday, November 06, 2005


I have finally managed to leave China and am now in northern Pakistan. Yay! And although it's only 8:15 in the evening I am feeling rather tired due to, for want of a better word, buslag. You see, in an elegant display of classic, communist one-size-fits-all mentality, all of China follows "Beijing time" of +8 GMT, despite stretching over 4000km from end to end. Therefore when you cross over from China into Pakistan you have to set your watch back a whopping 3 hours (The biggest time difference at a land border, incidentally, is between China and Afghanistan, where the gap is 3.5 hours.).

The road over the Khunjerab pass is the famous Karakoram Highway (or, as it is lovingly known by travellers, the KKH), and it takes two days to get from Kashgar to Sost on the Pakistani side. On the Chinese side the road rises steadily to the windswept Subash plateau that borders Tajikistan and Afghanistan to the west. The landscape is harsh and desolate and life must be tough for the Tajik herders that live up there. The plains are dominated by the great, big meringue that is Muztagh Ata (meaning "Father of Ice" in Uighur), a 7500m behemoth of a mountain. But because the plains are so empty, you lose your sense of perspective and the mountain doesn't look as big as it should. The night is spent in the town of Tashkurgan. It was very late and cold when we got there, so my impression of the town is tainted by my hunger and the onset of frostbite. Needless to say, it was not a highlight.

The next day, after clearing customs and the farcical Chinese bureaucracy, we headed off towards the looming mountains that form the border with Pakistan. The difference, upon crossing the pass, was huge and immediate. Whereas the countryside on the Chinese side was mainly flat with mountains off to the side, in Pakistan the mountains rise straight up from the side of the road making them seem taller, more dangerous, more real. Here a constant battle is waged by man to keep the mountains from consuming the road that was built with so much effort and human sacrifice. All along the route there is evidence of continuous landslides as the mountains try to reclaim the road. I know I've waxed lyrical about many places whilst on my trip, and I have been moved by all of them, but none match the mountains of northern Pakistan for visceral impact. The raw, jagged, primal peaks are the greatest testament to the incredible forces that cause continents to move and collide. Nowhere else in the world can you see such stupendous mountains so closely, or see glaciers descend to within a short walk of the main road. Wherever the road widens only slightly, a village springs up, with sheep and goats scurrying about (although god only knows how the villagers can keep so much livestock as there is barely any grass upon the rocky hillsides). The villagers of these northern areas are fascinating because they do not look at all as one might expect, being sandwiched between the Turkic peoples to the north and the Punjabis and other Pakistanis to the south. In fact, if you were to give them a wash and a change of clothes (and perhaps a shave for some of the men), they could be from pretty much anywhere in Europe. Apparently the people of the Hunza valley are the last remnants of the Kushan empire that ruled the area 2000 years ago, or, according to some, descendants of Alexander the Great's army as he marched through the region some 2300 years ago.

Friday, November 04, 2005


There are a couple of things that I wanted to write about in my last post but didn't get around to because I thought I was pressed for time, but in the end I have been forced to stay a few days longer in Kashgar as the bus for Pakistan won't leave until it is full enough to make it worth their while. This did allow me, however, to witness the Eid al-Fitr (end of Ramadan) celebrations. The festivities started off with (what seemed like) the entire town, dressed in their Friday best, massing at the mosque for prayers. Not only was the mosque full, but the entire square as well. Prayer mats everywhere and the sermon blaring from loudspeakers. I tried to get to the roofs of several buildings to get a picture of the throng but was always pulled down by overzealous security guards. Then, after the sermon I guess the people were feeling rather peckish after a month's fasting, so there followed an entire day of feasting. There was also music and continuous dancing (though only by the men). The dance was very simple, but made up for it by being a marathon. Several hundred men formed a rather loose circle in the square and would go round and round to the rather constant beats of the tablas being played on the mosque roof (forward, back, spin with arms raised; forward, back, spin with arms raised...). The extra days have also allowed my stools to get slightly more solid in preparation for the bus journeys ahead, which will allow me to appreciate the beauty of the landscape without having to concentrate on controlling my sphincter muscles.

But now to the things I left out in my last post. I mentioned that the Chinese are fond of disregarding signs, and this can be particularly annoying when you're sat on a long-distance bus with a crowd of chain smokers and no ventilation. I have therefore developed a new hobby whilst here. I've started demanding that people stop smoking, or when I see them dropping litter (and especially if there is a bin nearby) I tell them to pick it up again. And because they know I'm in the right (especially if they're sitting under a no smoking sign), and generally the Chinese will try to avoid confrontation, they just give an embarrassed smile and put out their cigarettes (or pick up their litter). Sometimes they may try to ignore me, but on a bus there's nowhere to flee and I can get very voluble. The great thing is that they can't really insult me or talk back (which would be the most common response back home) because I just don't understand them and I just keep pestering them. It's great fun and gives me a fantastic feeling of accomplishment.

I also wanted to talk about Chinese writing. Although learning Chinese characters can seem like a daunting task, and in the long term to master the written language is extremely difficult, it is not necessary to master a whole alphabet so one can start picking up characters straight away. Plus it's possible to invent your own little stories to help you memorise the various characters. Some of the more complex characters are combinations of simpler ones and seem to have their own perverse logic, although others just leave me baffled. For example the symbol for "garden" is a combination of the symbols for "money" placed within the symbol for "mouth". Now I still haven't been able to find a Chinese person who can fully explain what putting money into your mouth has to do with gardens. On the other hand, the character for "peace" is made up of the character for "woman" under a "roof" symbol. Now that, to me, makes perfect sense: you can't have peace unless the women are at home. Well, I think I've insulted enough people for one post so I'll stop here. Hopefully my next contribution will be from Pakistan.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

If You Notice This Notice You Will Notice That It's Not Worth Noticing

Kashgar, tucked away in the western corner of China (the rooster's ass), 3500km distant from Beijing, has always been a vital crossroads on the Silk Road. (For more information on the Silk Road the following site is very good.) Caravans would either set off west towards Samarkand, Bukhara and Kabul, or south, over the mighty Pamir and Karakoram mountain ranges (home to the highest concentration of 6000+m peaks in the world), towards India. And that's hopefully where I'll be headed in a couple of days time, across the Khunjerab pass, which, at 4730m, is the highest border crossing in the world (another superlative to add to my list).

As this is my penultimate stop in China this is as good a time as any to give my thoughts and impressions on this immense country I have now spent over 12 weeks in. But first I'd like to digress a little and talk about a topic that has provided me with endless amusement, and more than a little bit of head scratching, whilst criss-crossing this land: signs and notices. All throughout China there are notices exhorting citizens not to spit, not to smoke, to buckle up, to drive on the right and overtake on the left, not to drop litter, to cherish the environment, and to generally be nicer, friendlier and more caring people. The Chinese, however (or at least the vast majority of them), seem to think they apply to other people and duly ignore them. The authorities therefore, when faced with having to translate these signs into English for foreigners, say to themselves "well, if our lot don't bother obeying them, I'm damned if I'm going to spend good money on translating them so that foreigners can ignore them as well". So instead of getting someone who speaks English for the translation they instead turn to free translation tools that can be found on the net. Not only does it seem obligatory for there to be at least one spelling mistake, but the content itself is rather cringeworthy and probably worthy of a book in their own right, but I only noted down some of the choicest examples, and here are some of my favourites.

"It is forbidden to fire the hardcore scenic area" In Wudang Shan.
"No tossing" On a bus window.
"In the building it is forbidden for people with slippery dress" The HSBC building, Shanghai.
"It is not allowed to [...], shit or piss in the park" In a Shanghai park.
"Eggs with fungus and alien vegetables" In a restaurant in Emei Shan (though tempted, I decided to opt for the scrambled eggs and tomatoes instead).

That's enough flippancy for now; back to my summary of China. It's undoubtedly a fascinating country with innumerable sites that evidence its long history (even despite the destruction of the Cultural Revolution). The grandeur of the Great Wall; the beauty of its mountains; its intricate architecture (strictly pre-communist stuff only); and its many, varied ethnic groups, all make China a compelling country to visit. And 3 months isn't even enough to see nearly half the country (future travel itineraries have already been planned). Getting around is relatively simple and it's possible to travel almost anywhere independently with only a limited vocabulary and enough patience. The latter did sometimes fail me, however, as I often found the locals rather uncooperative (and I think I've expressed my opinions about their tourists clearly enough already). Unfortunately this has become the first country in which I've actually lost my temper with someone and raised my voice in anger, something I hate doing and hope won't have to do again. That said, I don't like to criticise people, especially if I don't know the whole story. And in a way I can understand this behaviour. Only 30 years ago the country was completely rural and undeveloped, and the change, in such a short space of time, has been so enormous that the Chinese that were brought up under Mao are probably feeling slightly lost in their own country. The progress that has been achieved, and the ensuing changes to people's lives, in such a short space of time are just mind-boggling. Hopefully, as the people become more accustomed to their new-found prosperity and more educated at the same time, they will become more responsible towards others and their surroundings. If not, then I fear that the country might be heading for some serious problems.