Thursday, September 25, 2008


The weather's getting better here in McLeod Ganj, but ironically early snow and heavy rain has closed roads further north and south. There's a few more tourists about and a sense of excitement as His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama is to give a series of teachings. There are suedeheaded nuns from Korea filling our hotel and many Westerners seeking the Four Noble Truths and following the Eightfold Path to Nirvana.
There are about 120,000 Tibetan refugees living in India, in settlements like McLeod Ganj. Many have escaped Tibet by crossing the Himalayan passes, usually on foot, to escape detection by the Chinese. Some arrive suffering from frostbite, some are sent back by India. There are many who have escaped after being held as political prisoners, usually for demonstrating vocally but peacefully for an independent Tibet. There are numerous accounts of beatings and torture whilst in captivity. And the Tibetan government-in-exile has been trying for years to negotiate with the Chinese government for some sort of autonomy and cultural freedom. The Dalai Lama has adopted a pragmatic approach. He realises that the Chinese will never surrender their claim to Tibet, but he hopes that by peaceful protest and support from the international community an agreement may be struck with China. But the young Tibetans are tiring of this approach and frustrated by China's arrogant intransigence. Meanwhile the 6 million Tibetans that still live in their country are outnumbered by Han Chinese who have been moved in. It's a process familiar to the Muslim Uighur people in the west of China, but the Tibetans have a higher international profile. Its hard to imagine China giving way.

Our friend James is busy setting up a website for a new business venture - running guided tours in Pakistan and Afghanistan ( The routes and ideas he has sound fine until we switch on the news and hear about the huge bomb at the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad. But James has been in Afghanistan and Pakistan and enjoyed his time there a lot. He looks and sounds sane to us, but who knows? Each evening we meet to seek nirvana in A Taste of India - a great little restaurant with fabulous food. We are eating our way to Enlightenment.
an enlightening chocolate brownie

Monday, September 22, 2008

Feeling the spirit

"That is a very lovely Pakistani costume you are wearing, sir". The smiling Indian customs officer doesn't want to look in our bags, but makes me feel a little self-conscious in my shalwar kameez, and after the usual form filling we enter India for the first time in 10 years. Well, okay, apart from five days in July to get our Pakistan visa. We head straight to Amritsar which is spiritual home of the Sikhs. It might be an illusion but the Indian Punjab looks wealthier than its Pakistani counterpart. Our guidebook says that 60% of India's wheat and 40% of it's rice is grown in the state, thanks to the plentiful rivers coming from Tibet and the Himalaya.
The city centre is full of pilgrims and a smattering of national and foreign tourists who come to visit the Golden Temple, the Sikhs' most holy place. The temple complex is busy and well-organised, with accommodation and dining halls, a garden and shops which surround the tank (or Lake of Nectar, which is how Amritsar translates) in which the temple picturesquely sits. Pilgrims walk around the lake stopping to pray, the men sometimes taking a ritual bath, and many queue to enter the ornate gilded temple in the centre. There is the constant drone of men reciting the words of the holy scriptures in a sing-song accompanied by tabla and harmonium. It's rather soothing. The whole atmosphere is relaxed and reflective.
Outside on the streets it's a different story. There is the usual bustle, street vendors and touts, cycle rickshaws and motorbikes, beggars asking for alms, traffic police waving and whistling pointlessly. There is food available to us - no more Ramazan to contend with - delicious vegetarian Indian dishes and ice-cream shakes. We take a cycle rickshaw at one point, but immediately regret it. Our rickshaw wallah is an old man and he struggles to carry us far on the flat. We get out early and walk, vowing never to use one again. Two minutes later we get an offer we can't refuse and we're back on a perch, rattling along with everyone else. Wherever we go, we are approached by rickshaw wallahs, including one man in a beard, print dress and heels, looking like Klinger from M*A*S*H.............
We take a couple of local buses northwards to Dharamsala. The roads are busy with all kinds of traffic - our first bus driver seems determined to take priority and blasts his airhorn with gay abandon to clear a path through - donkey carts, rickshaws, mopeds, trucks, minibuses, pedestrians, cyclists, water buffalo and cars. Its not a dull ride, and we have fun spotting signs as we pass like the company called Alchemist Ltd. and the 'Mushroom Training Centre'. The second bus climbs gradually along tree-lined ridges up to Dharamsala. We carry on up to McLeod Ganj, the village above where there's a collection of hotels and restaurants and a temple complex next to the Dalai Lama's residence. This is the home of the Tibetan government in exile and the focus for the thousands of Tibetans now living here. His Holiness is regrettably not here to receive us, but James our long-time travelling companion is. He helps us locate our inner energies and reinvigorates our chakras by taking us to a bar to celebrate our reunion with a gin and Limca.

The next day we are feeling the spirit, but a cup of tea perks us up. We prowl the narrow streets and dodge the buddhist monks and nuns in their burgundy robes, checking out the tourist shops and stalls and perusing menus offering not only Tibetan and Indian food, but Italian, Mexican and Thai too. The place has a musty damp air and it rains
frequently in the afternoons, but the climate is fresh and comfortable. Signs advertise Reiki, Tai Chi, Regression Therapy, Massage, Hindi lessons. There is the sound of drums and tuneless cymbals clashing, mantra music at a cd stall, the click of carrom being played obsessively by young men. At the temple complex we circumnambulate in a clockwise direction. In one of the shrines we recognise offerings of dried nuts, digestive biscuits, Happy Cow processed cheese as essential trekking food - presumably all the pilgrims had to give. The wallpaper is covered in the most graphic, gory and colourful illustrations I've seen for a while. There is a photo portrait of His Holiness looking, with his large tinted glasses, like a benevolent gangster mafia boss. The monks in the courtyards putter about or gather to discuss and debate forcefully and ritually the most intricate and complex matters of philosophical thought and opinion. I caught one arguing "...Capello needs to revert to 4-4-2 if he's to get the best out of Gerrard."

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Terror, fasting and feasting

Everyone is looking up into the morning sky. It's a beautiful sunny day, we're waiting for two more people to fill our jeep, and there's a buzzing sound in the air. Finally we spot it - an American drone? - flying high above us. "Looking for Osama", someone says. We have said goodbye to Jules and we're heading south from Chitral with Jef and Els to Peshawar, which is getting a reputation for bombings and trouble with the local Taliban. We have thought twice before embarking on this journey because of the potential danger passing through areas where there has been fighting between the army and militants, but in theory there should be no problems.
The jeep heads southwards and begins climbing the Lowari pass on a dirt road of about 40 switchbacks. It's full of trucks and at one point we have to dodge rocks and debris which is being swept into our path by a mindless road crew above us. The view from the pass is stunning - a green sweep down to the plains of Peshawar. Quite a few of us transfer to a minibus with a mad driver for the next stage of the journey. The fear of meeting armed men in black turbans is soon forgotten as our driver seems intent on his own personal jihad on the roads. An expletive is
muttered as he overtakes an already overtaking van on a bend in the face of an oncoming bus. It's enough to lead to a reoccurance of the old bowel trouble. As we descend the heat also increases, and what with a few close shaves, we are all sweating freely. Thankfully it seems our driver is blessed, and we arrive in Peshawar just in time for iftar. The streets are not so busy at this time of the day, as everyone is sitting poised in front of food waiting to tuck in. In fact Peshawar seems a fairly sane place and we enjoy walking around the old city's back streets crowded with street vendors and shoppers. We even come across some women - in the streets full of women's clothes of course. However, the heat is tiresome and we try to be discreet when we sneak a drink.
Our bus to Lahore is a Daewoo. There's fully-functioning air-con, comfortable seats, lots of legroom and a hostess. It feels like we're in a spaceship after all our other journeys here. Mind you, the fare is astronomical (for Pakistan). Lahore is obscenely humid and we stumble along the busy roads and through the street markets in a fug of sweat and deafening horn blasts.
The evening scenes are the best - there's almost a festive air as everyone eats their evening meal and then goes shopping. My favourite stall is a wig
seller. He has false moustaches and there's a young man trying on an awful piece that makes him look like an asian David Cassidy. And, at last, we seem to be in a Pakistani city where women are out in numbers. Despite the heat, we are enjoying our last days in Pakistan.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

A steep and relentless walk in the Hindu Kush

We want to head north and cross a high pass into the next valley. Everyone seems surprised that we don't have a guide, but our route description seems very simple and clear, if not blunt about the 1300 metre ascent which is "steep and relentless". As we leave Guru a man accosts us. He wants us to register - it turns out he is the local 'Border Police'. He has no uniform, but is recruited locally to keep an eye on the border, we assume. He seemed surprised to see us, and back at his post we fill in the usual school book with our personal details and invented professions. A man lies huddled in a blanket on a charpoy trying to sleep. Another man appears and asks us if we want a guide. We say no, but then he explains that actually, the police want us to take a guide. And he is one. He is paid by the community so his services are free of charge. We say yes.

The walking is pleasant as we head up through tiny hamlets in the early morning light, but already it is warm. Our route turns sharply up a dry river bed and into a shady gorge where the path becomes "steep and relentless". Our guide is patient - we are lugging our backpacks with us and he carries nothing. We learn he is Muslim, and is fasting, but he tells us that he'll drink if it is necessary. The whole day we don't see him drink anything. Near the top our path peters out and the final hour is a slog almost straight uphill. I get a twinge of vertigo looking behind me. The pass is hidden slightly by forest but we get glimpses of the next valley 900 metres below. The path down turns out be as steep as the one up, and we are very glad to arrive at our guesthouse. We still have no idea why a guide needed to accompany us.The next day we walk up to the next village, which is a Nuristani village. A young man here explains that his people came about a hundred years ago, from Afghanistan. The Nuristanis were known as the Red Kafirs, unbelievers, and the king decided in the 1890's to forcibly convert them. It was Islam or the river. Some fled over the passes and settled next to the Kalash, who were known as the Black Kafirs. Ironically the Nuristanis are now Muslim. Lower down we visit the Kalash museum, part of a complex which includes a school, hospital, library and meeting space. It was built by a Greek NGO. We still see Kalash women, easy to spot in their traditional clothes, but this valley seems more mixed and more touristed, not as friendly. The Kalash hamlets are set away from the road.

We take the jeep track to walk to the next Kalash valley of Rumbur. On the way I'm hailed by a man on the other side of the valley. He waves me over but I don't move and he finally runs down to cross a bridge and up to the track. He wants to know if I know any Pakistanis in England. I tell him yes, my best friend's family are from Pakistan. "What's your friend's name?" "Imran Khan." He smiles then - he thinks I'm taking the mickey. "Do you know Saeed Abbas?" he asks. "Er, no" and I try to explain that there are lots of Pakistanis in England and I don't know them all. Finally, after handshaking, smiles and a touch of the hand over the heart, he lets me go.

British government aid, for a cause close to my heart
In Rumbur we stay at Engineer Khan's house. His wife makes good food and he makes good wine. A Frenchman showed him how to. Here we meet Jef and Els, a young Belgian couple we first met back in Passu. It's funny to meet up again so far from Hunza. Engineer Khan is a fan of Zardari, who has just been elected President, and dismisses the allegations of corruption and gangsterism. Someone else has a theory that Pakistan will always support its leader, provided they are strong. Once they appear weak, they will talk them down. At the moment it seems everyone is giving 'Mr. Ten Percent' the benefit of the doubt, in the hope that he can reverse the conflict and bombings.

Friday, September 12, 2008

It's all Greek to me

We're off to Birir with Jules, a friend we first met over a month ago, to visit the Kalash valleys, just southwest of Chitral. We get dropped off at a bridge over the main valley and set ourselves to walk the dirt track to the village, but almost immediately we get a ride from a cargo jeep. The road is rotten and we start to think the walking would be easier as we're jerked and thrown side to side. The Birir valley is a narrow valley that climbs slowly westwards towards the Afghan border. It is one of three valleys settled by the Kalash people, a group that legend says are derived from some remnants of Alexander the Great's army. The people have a pagan religion, many have fair skin or blue or green eyes, and they have tried to maintain their language and culture. Many ethnographers point out that the language has no connection with Greek and suggest the people are caucasians left isolated at some point in the past. These days they have a threatened culture - in recent years their isolation has ended with the building of roads, and the valleys are filling with Muslims, some converts from the Kalash.

There's only one Kalash guesthouse in Guru, a floor to sleep on in a traditional house built of dry stone walls and wood. The kitchen is open on one-side to the world, and the flat roof serves as the terrace for the house above. The family are very welcoming, we are given green tea on the tiny veranda, and we look out over a side stream which is being used by the village for laundry. No Surf or Brite, just a flat rock, plenty of water and a lot of bashing with a short wooden stick. The women and girls are wearing their traditional black dresses and decorative headresses, but the men now wear shalwar kameez. I get a funny feeling sitting here, wondering how good it can be for us to come and visit these communities, to look at the people and, hopefully, take photographs, like a human zoo. Wondering whether this too can have an adverse effect on the culture. Alauddin asks if he can come with us on a walk around the village which is spread out amongst fields of maize - he asks in a way that we cannot refuse, but it is the best thing he could have done. He is able to lead us around, introduce us to families, translate, and show us the important buildings: schools and the halls used for celebrating festivals. We are invited to take tea. There are few men around, mainly women and lots of little children, many covered in dirt. The village looks poor. Alauddin, who is Kalash but has a muslim name ("It's better for me"), takes us to his house and treats us to some home-made wine. It's a bit sharp. There are grapes and walnuts coming into season, and the village has watchmen to stop anyone picking the fruits too soon. Back at the guesthouse we meet Irfan, the owner, who is the village councillor and has been to Chitral for business. He tells us it is very important for their children to have a good education. But when we ask what will the children do with this education, he replies that he hopes they will return to the village and help improve it. It seems improbable to us, and possibly the ultimate irony - that by creating educational opportunities for the youth, NGO's who have funded schools may actually speed up the break up of the community.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Places and Faces

The welcome back at the Madina Guesthouse in Gilgit is typically warm. It's one of the best run hostels we've stayed in, with a large staff of friendly helpful and attentive young men. The place is an oasis. We have come to collect our deposited baggage and head west to Chitral, but we're lured to stay by the presence of Celine and David, good friends we met here a while before. We also meet Marthein, whom we last saw on a bus leaving Kerman in Iran at the end of February. He's still as enthusiastic and talkative as ever. There's also Wasim, from London, whose parents are from Pakistan - this is his first visit - and Irene from Bradford, a larger than life character, who claims to have travelled around India in a Pink Panther suit. We are definitely on some kind of a Gringo Trail here - there are so few roads that we inevitably meet people again or meet others that we've heard about - and there's a strange community of travellers passing through Pakistan.

There's a man at the tailor's shop who helps to translate my request for a shalwar kameez. He asks us if we speak Urdu, and when we say no, he asks us why not? The tailor is measuring me up very briskly: chest, neck, arms, legs. We reply "Because so many Pakistanis speak such good English." The tailor asks something and the man translates "He wants to know - would you like one phucket or two phuckets?" "Two would be fine thanks......."

There's an early bus to Mastuj that takes us over the Shandur Pass. The journey is ten hours, not bad considering most of the road is a dirt track. The dust swirls through the bus, coating us in fine brown powder, which we shake off at the chai stops. On the way down off the pass the bus slows to pick up schoolchildren and shepherds to give them a free ride home. The ticket man is constanly chattering and joking with everyone, jumping off the bus to shoo a cow out of the road, calling out to villagers working in the fields. He is immaculate, and resembles George Clooney a la Errol Flynn in 'O Brother Where Art Thou?' At sunset we arrive in Mastuj, a small picturesque village at the confluence of two rivers. We stay at Jafar's place. He's not there but his father sorts us out, before sitting down with another old man to smoke a joint. Finally Jafar returns late from Chitral, inebriated and maudlin. He pays some drunken compliments to the Swiss woman who is also here and then tells us about his unhappy marriage, saying "Pakistani men are not bad but the trouble with Pakistani women is they always complain about us" before passing out in the spare room.
Gayle phones home

Ramazan is starting. Thankfully only the grandfather of the family is fasting, and we can get breakfast in the morning. Wandering round the old fort, used by the British, we are invited to sit with an old man in the shade of walnut trees who is dressed and talks like an old English gentleman. He's 95. We talk a little and a servant brings us apples. The man eats with us. I ask if he is a Sunni or Ismaili (the latter do not fast). He smiles and tells us he's 'an Internationalist', before going on to tell us the story of the women buried alive in Waziristan for refusing to comply with their arranged marriages. He shakes his head in dumb incomprehension. It's another world.

We are starting to think that Pakistan is more of an idea than a country. We are now in the North Western Frontier Province, and like the Northern Areas there is a sense of detachment from the government and the rest of the country. The main town here is Chitral, served by only two roads, both of which are closed for 5 months each winter. We arrive here at midday and are grateful for a hotel with a garden where we can sit out and cook our own food, seeing as no restaurant is open. Towards the end of the day the bustle in the streets rises a couple of notches as men complete their last minute shopping for iftar, the evening meal that breaks the daily fast. We meet Jamil, a true Pakistan People's Party supporter, who blames General Zia for the islamification of the country, and the creation of the mujahadeen to fight in Afghanistan and Kashmir - he sees how it has back-fired on the country. The unrest in the tribal areas has spilled into neighbouring regions. He is very positive that Zardari can negotiate a settlement rather than try and use force. His optimism seems remarkable in our eyes.

Ramazan date seller