Wednesday, May 31, 2006


Some of you may be wondering what the title of today's post alludes to. Is it a nod to George Orwell's Animal Farm, or perhaps an obscure allusion to a Kevin Smith movie. Actually it is neither, and has more to do with a compacted ball of frozen water. You may think that I'm off my rocker to be talking about snow when Iran is obviously a hot, dry country, where fully one quarter of the land is dessert; but more than that it is a country of mountains, especially in the north and west. Tehran itself sits nestled under the shadow of a range of mountains and even now, at the beginning of June, there are significant patches of snow on the south facing slopes which I can see every day from our apartment window. This was a temptation that I could not resist, and so, the other day, I set off into the mountains to find myself some white stuff. Although Tehran itself is perpetually shrouded in a cloak of car-exhaust smog, it only takes a 5 minute drive from Tajrish Square (the northern transport hub of the city) to get to the base of the mountains and another 5 minutes walk and you are free of the smog. Because of this the mountain paths are very popular amongst Tehranis who flock there on weekends and holidays, for a family picnic or to chill out amongst the many riverside restaurants, chewing on a kebab and puffing lazily away at hookah pipes. I, however, was there for adventure and not bourgeois pampering. And that isn't hard to come by either, as within an hour the easy path peters out and the scrambling and bouldering begins. It's all good fun and you can never get lost as you are always within sight of the city, which gives the whole experience a rather surreal twist as you don't expect to find such terrain on the doorstep of a city of 10 million people (the only other city I've seen that even comes close is perhaps Rio, where you can go rock-climbing up Sugarloaf Mountain). After a fair amount of scrambling I reached the snowline and made myself a couple of snowballs (I don't have any gloves so I couldn't build myself a snowman). Unfortunately there was no-one there with me to throw it at. Next time I'll be more prepared and take a thermos bag with me so that I can take a snowball back down with me for my cousin. Mwahahahaha!

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Close Shave

A popular catchphrase used by countries to lure in the punters is to claim to be where cultures meet and mix i.e. "where East meets West!" or "where the Muslim and Christian worlds meet!" or even "where ancient meets modern!" (the claims are invariably followed by multiple exclamation marks, the sure sign of a desperate mind). You get the picture. Iran is no exception, being touted as the place where India, the Middle East and Europe collide. And though I'm often sceptical of such claims it is certainly true here. In the southwest the Arab influence is dominant, in the southeast the Baluchis are much like their Pakistani counterparts, and in the north and west one could easily be forgiven for thinking that one is in Europe, as I quickly discovered.

Upon crossing the border from Pakistan I was dressed in my scruffy shalwar kameez and sporting a respectable beard, which was par for the course in Pakistan (although some Pakistanis did remark on the worn look of my clothes, though I got the impression it was more because they didn't expect a foreigner to get down and dirty like the common people), and was not unusual on the Iranian side of the border either. However, 24 hours later, upon getting off the bus in Tehran and I looked so out of place it was comical. Smart jeans and shirts, or classic casual-wear is the norm amongst the urban classes here in Iran, though what really marked me out was my beard. In the West we have a very parochial view of Iran as the only images we’re fed are of hyperactive masses baying for America’s blood or wizened mullahs spouting vitriolic rhetoric. The majority of Iranians, however, view these people with more disdain than even we do (because they've got to live with them). And the general leitmotiv running through the appearance of these wackos is their full facial hair, so that anybody sporting more than just a moustache or goatee is viewed, by the "sane" majority as more than a little suspect. The best way to recognise the feared basijis, the fanatical, religious militia controlled by the mullahs, is by their lack of fashion sense and week-old stubble. And since I am sartorially challenged myself then something had to give (I was even getting odd looks and comments from my family asking me whether I had joined the Taliban on my travels). So, under this frown pressure I dug out my razor from my bag - it took a while as I hadn't used it since 'Nam – and hacked off my whiskers. It annoys me somewhat as I'll have to start shaving regularly again, and might even have to spend money on blades and perhaps even aftershave.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Capitals II

From Esfahan it was on to Shiraz (another flight, and more groaning from me), although itself only very briefly an imperial capital (during the course of its history the Persian Empire has had about a dozen different capitals) it is close to the ancient cities of Persepolis and Pasargadae. And although these are the main draws in the area, the city itself is particularly pleasant. It has a mild, mountain climate and many public parks and gardens for strolling and lazing. In fact the Iranians are very fond of gardens and even the remotest dessert towns manage to maintain a respectable showing. I was always wandering around keeping half an eye on the many mulberry trees around the city for any ripe berries, whereas my dad would keep exclaiming about the park lawns and demanding to know how they manage to keep them weed-free. This green-fingered passion dates back as far as Persian history itself, indeed the old Persian word for garden, pardis, became our term for paradise. Interspersed amongst these parks are some more bewitching mosques and mausoleums, like the Shah Cheragh, where the brothers of the 8th Shi'ite imam are entombed. The complex is off limits to non-Muslims, but with a bit of blagging it is possible to get inside. The outside of the buildings are pretty enough, but then so are many others, it is on the inside that the tombs really shine, literally. All the walls and ceilings are covered in a mirrorwork mosaic that causes the whole place to magically sparkle and shine, unlike anything I've seen so far. The town is also famous for its faludeh, a sort of sweet, noodle-like desert served frozen and doused in lemon juice to give it a refreshing bittersweet taste, perfect for hot, sunny days. Needless to say I was stuffing my face.

We managed to visit the ruins of the ancient capital cities of Pasargadae (not much there to be honest), Persepolis and Firouzabad. The latter is intriguing because very little of it has been excavated and so you have to really use your imagination. The outer walls form a perfect circle and in the centre is a huge (easily over 25m), brick tower that juts out of the flat plain like a defiant middle-finger. But it is the ruins at Persepolis that are in a league of their own. Before being burnt to the ground the city was the capital of the most glorious, and richest(it is said that after sacking the city Alexander needed 2000 camels to cart away all the treasure that he plundered), empire of the time; and it shows. Although the remains aren't particularly intact, what is left gives you an idea of how grand the place must have been: massive gateways with mythical winged bulls guard the entrance to the site where 20m tall columns pierce the sky, showing all that is left of the great audience hall, and sublime bas-reliefs cover every free inch of wall. Those ancient Persians sure knew how to build things, I just wish it was true for their modern-day counterparts.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Catipals I

Iran has a rich and long history under its incarnation as the Persian Empire (it changed its name to Iran in 1932, although even 2000 years ago the people called their country Iranshahr; it was the Greeks that called it Persia) with many ups and downs. There have, however, been several Golden Ages, the most notable being 2500 years ago with the birth of the empire under the Achaemenid rulers Cyrus and Darius (both of whom were "Great") when their domains stretched from India to Bulgaria; and some 2000 years later under the Safavid dynasty and Shah Abbas (who, predictably, also deemed himself "Great"). The former had their capital at Persepolis, in the south of the country, and the latter at Esfahan in the middle. Since my brother has a "real job" and therefore only two weeks' holiday our travel plans are somewhat constrained. We're therefore doing the "highlights of Iran" by visiting Shiraz (the nearest town to Persepolis) and Esfahan on a whirlwind tour, travelling by plane (a fact that pains me immensely) and staying in plush hotels. For those of you who are dismayed at this, frankly disgraceful, drop in hardcore backpacking standards from myself let me reassure you that I will be offsetting this unnecessary luxury by flagellating myself before going to bed.

Anyway, first stop Esfahan. In the 16th century Persia underwent a dramatic renaissance under the Safavid dynasty, reaching its apex under Abbas I. Esfahan became a centre for the arts and many beautiful palaces, gardens and mosques sprung up all over the place, leading to the famous Persian saying Esfahan nesv-e jahan (Esfahan (is) half the world). The centrepiece of this glorious capital was the huge Naqsh-e Jahan square. Despite the fact that everything comes to an end some time, the square is still an amazing sight, surrounded by covered bazaars and two of the most beautiful mosques in the world. The amazingly intricate, blue tilework of the walls and ceilings look almost as new as the day they were built, with floral Arabic writing, geometric motifs and flowers interweaving to form a harmonious whole. This is Islamic architecture at its best and gives the Taj a run for its money (whilst at the same time costing considerably less to view).

There are many things besides to see in Esfahan, but my other favourite is the set of old bridges across the Zayandeh river, most notably the Khaju bridge. Not only are they beautiful in their own right, but they serve as a focal point for the local people who come down to the bridges and the waterfront parks in the late afternoon to relax, cuddle, have a stroll, chat, dance, eat ice-cream or just sit back and watch the world go by. It's such a peaceful place that I could sit there for days (especially if I have a constant supply of tasty Iranian ice-cream to hand!).

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Reunions Part II

I've been looking forward to coming to Iran for some time now. It's a country steeped in history and the people are renowned in travellers circles for being particularly welcoming and friendly. But more than that I was looking forward to seeing family that I hadn't seen for 5 years or more, because, as I have alluded to before, I am half Iranian and a large chunk of my extended family still lives there. Not only that, but my parents, who I haven't seen for the 20 months that I've been travelling, as well as my brother, arranged to come out and meet me there and travel for a while together. And although I'm not a particularly emotional person I was certainly looking forward to meeting them after all this time. Therefore, upon crossing the border from Pakistan, I had a further 24 hour bus journey (not such a chore as both the roads and buses in Iran are infinitely more comfortable than anything else in Asia) before reaching Tehran where my family is based. In Iran the family is very important and ties of blood are particularly strong, so it warmed my heart to be surrounded by familiar and caring faces, cosseted and cared for, with no need to stress about where to sleep or eat or go, wrapped up in their kindness.

The difference between Iran and the rest of Asia that I've visited up to now (with the exception of Malaysia and Singapore perhaps) is immense. Not only can I, for once, understand pretty much everything that is being said (upon crossing the border I felt as if I had been listening to an out of tune radio for a year and that suddenly it had been tuned in to a clear station), but life here is far more akin to what we experience in the West. The place is surprisingly clean and organised and the shops, music and cars do not mark it out as being any different from most European countries; even the clothes are the same, which caused a bit of a fuss because I came over the border wearing my shalwar kameez (almost obligatory dress in Pakistan) and was immediately looked down upon as being a bit of a dirty Afghan (particularly by my own family, who were none too impressed with my minimalist apparel and attention to hygiene). Even my beard, which I had tended with pride through China and the Subcontinent, is seen by many as the mark of a religious, and therefore backwards, man. It seems odd to me that, despite both being Islamic Republics, Pakistan and Iran are distinct opposites. In Pakistan it is the people that are deeply religious and the government quite secular, whereas in Iran it is the other way round. In Pakistan long-distance buses will stop for prayers, whereas in Iran they would look at you incredulously if you were to suggest that. In Pakistan women are free to wear anything (modest) they want, whereas in Iran they must follow Islamic dress codes; however one doesn't see that many women out and about in Pakistan, whereas in Iran women are very present and they often push the dress codes to breaking point. Anyway, I must dash as I am off on a little tour to southern Iran with my family in a short while.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Subcontinental Summary

Whenever the BBC want pictures of bearded, foaming-at-the-mouth, gun-toting Pakistanis burning effigies of Bush and American flags they invariably come to Quetta, the capital of Pakistan's eastern province of Balochistan. That, along with Balochistan's reputation for tribal conflicts and lawlessness (many areas of Balochistan and the NWFP are effectively off limits, not just to foreigners but ordinary Pakistanis as well, because Pakistani laws cannot be guaranteed there and instead tribal laws rule), made me slightly apprehensive before coming. But, as with all preconceptions, my worries proved totally unfounded. In fact Quetta is the cleanest and most organised city I have come across in all of Pakistan, and perhaps even the whole Subcontinent (Islamabad doesn't count as it's only home to bureaucrats, diplomats and NGOs, and they're not real people). Street names are signposted and it is possible to walk the entire length of the main street along the pavement without having to step onto the road due to encroaching street stalls or roadworks; a feat unheard of anywhere else on the Subcontinent! Apart from the lively bazaars there's very little in Quetta for the average tourist to see, but I had to check out the Geological Survey of Pakistan (GSP) museum. Partly because it's free, but mainly because of several fossils that have been found in the area that provided the "missing link" between land mammals and whales, an erstwhile favourite point of attack for creationists trying to discredit Darwinian evolution. Ambulocetus natans (the walking whale that swims) and Pakicetus inachus are famous in evolutionary biology circles are usually housed at the GSP museum. Unfortunately they're on an extended visit to the US and so I had to make do with photos and the remains of Baluchitherium, the largest land mammal that ever lived. The museum has everything that embodies, in my opinion, ought to be like: no multimedia, just rows upon rows of specimen cases with oodles of information and a passionate curator, running the place on a shoestring budget, who is only too happy to give you a little personal tour.

Anyway, now is the opportune moment to summarise my thoughts and impressions of my 6 months here on the Subcontinent. My first observation, however, is slightly off topic (though not much) and has to do with nomenclature. Sometime in the recent past it has become the norm in Britain to call people from the Subcontinent Asian, rather than Indian, as used to be the case, probably to defuse complaints from Pakistanis or Bangladeshis. But personally I find it stupid, not least because Asia is a vast continent that stretches from Irian Jaya to Istanbul. But that aside, Pakistan and Bangladesh are extremely recent political entities that were carved from territory that was for centuries known as India, and its inhabitants even referred to themselves as Indians. The drawing of a line on a map can't change millennia of shared history and genealogy. On top of that it should be Pakistanis that call themselves as the term originally referred to the Indus river and the lands immediately surrounding it i.e. modern-day Pakistan. Anyway, that's my tuppence worth on the subject of political correctness applied without due thought. But on to the meat of the subject: India (the Subcontinent).

Where to start? it's difficult to summarise a region that is home to a fifth of the world's population, but I'll start with a topic that is very close to my heart (less than 15cm) and forms an integral part of any true travel experience: food. I've already touched on Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan cuisine (not that great, unfortunately) and so will concentrate on Indian and Pakistani. In the UK we consider ourselves connoisseurs of Indian fare with curry having become the national dish and there being more curry houses in Britain than traditional chippies. And that is true, to an extent. We are accustomed to many of the dishes, though often they are altered for European tastes. However, we only really know north Indian, Pakistani and Mughlai cuisine (and the top end of that, because for the most part people generally only eat roti and dhal) and know little about south India cuisine, which, for me, stands head and shoulders above the rest. My particular favourite were south Indian meals (also the singular, as in "can I have a meals please?"). Often served on banana leaves (which adds to its exotic appeal) and eaten by hand meals vary from region to region, restaurant to restaurant and from day to day (i.e. restaurants change their meals every day). The basics remain the same though: rice, several different vegetable options, tasty coconut chutney, tangy lime pickle and sometimes curd and mithai (sweets), depending on price. And the price is very reasonable, usually around 20p and, best of all, they keep topping you up with veg, rice and chutney until you burst, a la Mr. Creosote. Delicious. Though I must say that my body is finding Pakistani food more "wholesome" than its Indian counterpart as my bowel movements have gone from dubious to championship winning.

A less pleasant, but necessary, part of travelling in India is seeing the poverty. Every country, including developed ones, have their disenfranchised poor eking out livings on the margins of society, but the chasm between the haves and have-nots in India is jaw-droppingly enormous, and a blight on the country. The squalor endured by inhabitants of India's shanty towns as well as many of its rural poor is inhuman. Even Pakistan, which scores significantly lower on the UN Human Development Index, doesn't seem to have such extremes of poverty (though I may be wrong). It seems a shocking indictment of a democracy that has supposedly had a left-leaning government for most of its life is unable to provide basic amenities for the majority of its populace. Despite the external investment and influx of tourists (almost non-existent in Bangladesh and Pakistan) the government seems to be incredibly adept at squandering this money to the detriment of its own people. Of all the regions I've travelled through South Asia is the one I'm least optimistic about with regards to the future of its people. In Latin America democracy is consolidating after a long period of autocracy and things, by and large, seem to be headed in the right direction; similarly for Southeast Asia; and the standard of living for the Chinese is increasing before your very eyes, and though personal freedoms may not be being acquired at such meteoric rates they do seem to be inching along at least. Here, on the other hand, you have Sri Lanka which is locked in its perpetual conflict with little sign of things abating; Bangladesh has so many problems that one wouldn't know where to begin (not that the ineffectual politicians are likely to set aside their squabbling for long enough to even think about it); things might be getting better for India's middle-classes but the majority has little to look forward to; and Pakistan, which seems to hold such promise, is riven from within by internecine and sectarian conflicts. I hate to be a pessimist, but I don't see blue skies for the foreseeable future. One example of this malaise is the fact that almost any extended conversation with a twentysomething Subcontinental will invariably touch upon the subject of how one gets visas to work or study in Europe, as they all want to flee their own country. Staying with politics (though on a less heavy subject) here's an interesting little factoid: despite women having a marginal sole in public life on the Subcontinent (less so in Sri Lanka), all four countries have had female prime ministers (in Bangladesh both the PM and the leader of the opposition are women), a feat not accomplished by more emancipated countries such as the USA, France or Australia! Though, to be fair, they were all either wives or daughters of previous prime ministers.

Many strange anachronisms have also been retained from the days of the Raj. I've already mentioned some turns of phrase that disappeared along with crinoline in Britain but that are still going strong from Karachi to Kolkata. Lawyers in Chennai still wear constricting cravattes, black and white outfits and even wigs throughout the sweltering heat of Summer and the well-to-do still frequent exclusive clubs and gymkhanas. But the most pervasive and pernicious legacy is that of bureaucracy. It is impossible to get anything done without having to fill out a form and getting 3 different people, whose sole purpose seems to be to drink chai in secluded, hard-to-find corner offices, to stamp it. Even the supposedly simple task of buying a train ticket involves (at least) a visit to two different booths and the filling out of an application form. The bureaucracy seems to feed upon itself and each person's goal is to get a bigger desk and a longer, and more obscure, job title, which is there only to confuse people so that the person has less work to do. I once, on the quest for the office of the "deputy chief commercial officer – passenger", got lost in the bowels of Pakistan Railways HQ and spent ages walking past rows upon rows of dingy little offices, each with its shrivelled occupant idly twiddling his thumbs. The lethargy and inertia was almost oppressive.

But I have to end on a light note; my Indian idiosyncrasies. No visitor to India can ignore the Head Wobble. An essential component of communication throughout India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, though not so much in Pakistan, the Head Wobble perennially baffles visitors. It can mean yes, but it can also mean no, perhaps, I'm not sure and even hello. Not that foreigners will ever be allowed to decipher their secret code. Not only that, but it seems to require the control of muscles that I’m not even sure I have because no matter how hard I try I haven't yet been able to execute a single wobble. One very common gesture that is quite straightforward to understand is what I call the Hand Twist. In it the right hand is held up (at about chin level) and twisted through 90 degrees whilst simultaneously curling the fourth and fifth fingers (leaving the other three at right angles to each other). The Hand Twist means "what?", although a surprising amount of nuance can be added, from sarcasm to surprise, depending on the speed, style and general body language; and because of its ease it is a gesture I have quickly adopted into my vocabulary and am hoping to import back to Britain.

But that's it for South Asia and another country (Iran) and region (the Middle East) await. Onwards and westwards!

Thursday, May 11, 2006


When General Charles Napier conquered Sindh for the British in 1843 it is said that he sent the one-word message peccavi (Latin for "I have sinned") to the Governor-General. It's a pity that the story is apocryphal, especially as it's doubly appropriate, as he was ordered expressly not to attack Sindh. Due to family engagements (we're planning a small reunion in Iran in a few days) I've had to cut short my wandering of the mountains of northern Pakistan, though I hope to return one day. Instead I aimed south and west, towards the city of Quetta. Three days, and over 2000km, later I arrived, tired, smelly, and covered in dust that is an inescapable part of train travel in Pakistan. On the way, though, I had to stop off at Moenjodaro in northern Sindh. Moenjodaro is the most impressive of the Indus Valley Civilisation sites, that stretch from Afghanistan to northern India, and one of the 6 Cradles of Civilisation. The ruins will not stun the visitor with their majesty or grandeur, but what they represent in terms of mundane life is far more important than grandiose statues and palaces. The city was very well planned, with straight streets and designated city areas for different purposes. Many houses had their own personal wells, there was a covered drainage system and even public dustbins. And all this 5000 years ago. Most cities on the subcontinent aren't living up to those standards even today! But my visit to Sindh was brief as the Summer is already upon the region causing temperatures to rise well into the 40's, making it unbearable to do anything remotely strenuous or outdoorsy during the day. So I quickly vamoosed and fled to Quetta, which has the advantage of being at altitude and the weather is therefore pleasantly warm at the moment.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Geology 101

A classic, philosophical conundrum asks what would happen should an irresistible force encounter an immovable object. Various clever, semantic arguments have been put forward to advance one position or another, but they are pure sophistry. If you really want to know all you have to do is go to northern Pakistan. 50 million years ago the irresistible force (India) piled slap bang into the immovable object (Asia). The effect, of course, was mountains on a colossal scale: the Pamirs, the Hindu Kush, the Karakoram and the Himalayas. Just this small stretch I'm travelling through is a geologist's wet dream. Not only can you see layers of sedimentary rock bent and twisted at impossible angles but also various metamorphic (such as marble) and igneous (granite) varieties joining in the fun. Just east of Gilgit, if one looks closely enough, you can see where the continents meet as well as the poor, unfortunate islands that got caught between the hammer of India and the anvil of Asia. The forces that must have been released are just mind-boggling.

Now those of you who've been following my travels for some time (what? you're still reading?) will know that I'm a bit of a cynic when it comes to deities ad their adherents. But wandering around these mountains is about as close to a religious experience as I'm ever likely to get. The lack of oxygen at altitude almost certainly played a part but it's mainly because I get to see nature virtually untouched by human hands. And, as far as I'm concerned, there's nothing more beautiful than nature, be it a mountain landscape or a close-up view of a flea (and everything in between). There is an elegance and "rightness" (in the sense that it fits) in nature. As soon as Man steps in with his unnatural shapes and artificial creations then beauty takes a nosedive. Not that I'm advocating going back to the Stone Age, mind you. That is clearly impossible and undesirable (I would have no more computer games to play, for a start), but we can try to make our impact as soft as possible, and we should try our utmost to preserve the few remaining areas of pristine wilderness so that future generations can marvel at true beauty and learn to cherish it.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Getting From C To G

My next stop after Chitral was to be Gilgit, the capital of Pakistan's Northern Areas (an area locked in legal limbo due to the ongoing Kashmir conflict, though it does mean that people there don't have to pay taxes). There are only two roads that link the Northern Areas to the rest of Pakistan: the KKH and a jeep track over the Shandur Pass between Chitral and Gilgit. Apart from being the link between the two towns the pass is also home of the world's highest polo ground which hosts the famous (for people who care about that sort of thing), annual Shandur Cup between teams from the two neighbouring regions.

As you can see from the map it's not that far from Chitral to Gilgit, especially as the crow flies. Unfortunately jeeps don't fly. Neither do they glide or hover. They just trundle, and none too quickly at that.

So I was feeling pretty pleased with myself by the end of the first day out of Chitral when I reached the town of Mastuj, not far from the pass itself. The next day started even brighter when I caught a jeep to the town of Laspur in the shadow of a pass, where I hoped to get onward transport. And that's where I stayed for the rest of the day, sitting by the side of the track and waiting. Waiting, waiting, waiting. Occasionally some kids would come by and poke and prod me, or someone would try out their English on me: what's your name? where you from? That being the general extent of their vocabulary. 8 hours later and not a single vehicle sighted (except for local tractors). I finally gave up and began questioning the wisdom of my decision to take this road.

The next morning dawned with the beeping of a jeep's horn and I was off again. The road up and over the pass is perhaps the worst I have ever travelled and the jeep would often lurch precariously close to the yawning precipice at truly sphinctre-puckering angles. But, eventually, we reached the other side. It had taken over 3 hours but it was still only 9 o'clock and I was raring to get to Gilgit. I got a bit suspicious when the driver motioned for me to get off at a hotel as I had asked to be dropped off at the bus stand. But apparently the five daily buses to Gilgit leave between 6 and 8am. The small crowd of locals that had gathered by now all said the same thing, that I should stay the night and catch a bus the next morning, a mantra I would be hearing often that day. Well, I wasn't going to sit around for another day twiddling my thumbs and so I shouldered my backpack and set off towards Gilgit, some 100 miles down the road. A few hours later this was beginning to look like a rather rash choice as I wasn't significantly closer to my goal, I hadn't even seen a car going in my direction, and the dry, shadeless rock walls of the valley were turning it into my own personal oven. My only entertainment was when I would get to a village and all the children would start crowding round and following me like the Pied Piper. I would see how far they would follow me out of their villages before losing interest or fearing to go further.

It was well after one o'clock when I was finally given a lift by some guys from Gilgit who were on a weekend fishing break. They were only going a relatively short distance, but it eased my feet and they offered me some of their picnic lunch. Revitalised and with a slight spring in my step I pushed on. It took another 4 different rides: a truck, a wannabe rally driver, a minivan and a police chief to finally get me to Gilgit some time before 10pm. It had been a long day, but ultimately satisfying because I had achieved what I had set out to do despite many people telling me that it couldn't be done.

The next day though, I was wondering slightly what all the rush was about as Gilgit is a pretty uninspiring town. The sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shias of last year may have died down since then, but there is still a large military presence: you have to pass at least 5 military checkpoints before entering the centre of town and military jeeps with mounted machine guns are a common sight on the streets. The town does have some redeeming qualities such as shops and restaurants (it's nigh impossible to find anything but out-of-date biscuits and chapati and dhal (lentils) in most villages) and also internet access, which is sorely lacking in the mountains of Pakistan.

Thursday, May 04, 2006


North of Swat the valleys get narrower and steeper as the mountains close in. One such valley, in the northwest corner of the Northwest Frontier Province is the Chitral valley, with its eponymous river (though later in its life it becomes the Kabul river) and, at the northern end, lording over the valley like some overbearing king on his throne, sits Tirich Mir, foremost amongst the titans of the Hindu Kush. The Chitral is the main valley in the region, but many smaller lackeys branch off on either side. There are two such unassuming minnows about 20km south of Chitral town; blink and you'll miss them.

But if you did see them, and happened to be curious as to what they contained (which, thankfully, few people in the course of history ever did), you would see that after about 10km they open up to reveal fertile little valleys, with little fields and orchards, watered by immaculately maintained little water-channels, and little villages that climb the hillsides. And if you were to walk amongst the inhabitants of these villages you would notice that their language is quite unlike those of neighbouring people (actually, you probably wouldn't notice that unless you were a trained philologist, but I have been reliably informed on the differentness of the language), and you would also notice the women. Firstly because you can actually see them (in many parts of Pakistan women observe purdah, whereby they remain at home and rarely venture outside, and when they do they are heavily veiled) but also because of their clothes: black dresses embroidered with geometric motifs of the most shocking and vivid colours, such as fluorescent oranges, yellows, blues and greens; and headdresses embellished with beads of the same colours, cowrie shells and buttons and often topped off with a freshly plucked flower. Meet the Kalasha people.

In the middle of an unbroken ocean of Islam stretching from the Atlantic to the Arabian Sea the Kalasha are a minuscule, pagan island, following their own religion (indeed, to many Pakistanis the Kalasha valleys are known by the rather derogatory appellation Kafiristan, or Land of the Infidels) and observing their obscure, ancestral traditions since time immemorial. Unlike the village of Asterix and Obelix that withstood the Roman Empire thanks to their magic potion, the Kalasha have their remoteness to thank for their survival. This survival is, however, being now threatened by the influx of outsiders into their valleys: Chitralis expanding into neighbouring valleys, Punjabis looking for a business opportunity, and Nuristani Afghans looking for a better life (the Afghan border is only two mountain passes, and a day's walk, away), as well as proselytism by local Pakistani Muslims. Perhaps half the Kalash community is now Muslim. For once, though, tourism might actually help preserve the community as the significant revenue generated by it would disappear should the Kalash culture also disappear. Their appeal lies not only in their uniqueness and isolation, but also in their hospitality. Trekking in the Kalasha valleys is far more time consuming than anywhere else not because of difficult terrain (though it is that) but because every person you meet must shake hands and have a chat. This will usually be followed by the offer of a cup of tea. "What? halfway up a mountain?" my look seems to say. "No problem," he says as he whisks out a kettle from his knapsack and starts setting up an impromptu fire on the hillside (much trickier was actually managing to sit on the steep, scree slope for long enough to drink the tea without slipping all the way to the bottom). Perhaps this openness stems from their religion, or perhaps their isolation and relative lack of corruption by the outside world, or perhaps yet from the not insignificant quantities of pot they all seem to smoke. My visit to the Kalasha almost ended as soon as it began.On my first day there I was playing volleyball with a group of kids when I over-extended myself leading to a trouser-rupture of a size and location that could have caused an international incident, especially as I hadn't brought a spare pair. Luckily a friendly local gave me an old shalwar kameez and my trip could continue.

A lot of time can be spent in the company of these warm-hearted people, lazing under fruit trees and sipping Kalash wine or hiking over from one valley to the next over steep ridges. I, however, have a bit of a deadline looming (more on that later) and so after 3 days took my leave hoping, perhaps, to return again some day.