29th October 2009

Don't worry, I’m not dead.

I narrowly missed getting caught up in some of the recent ‘trouble’ in the country but came through unscathed. Thank God. It would have been a sad loss for West London and therefore the world.

I have drifted into the arena of the unwell. I have a nasty case of the runs, a twisted ankle and a right bastard behind the eyes, the type you usually get after a night drinking white russians.

I am propped up in bed wearing an ensemble I like to call ‘I haven’t done any laundry for two weeks’. On my bedside table is a bottle of Fanta and a tray of guilty-looking biscuits. The curtains are slightly open and a shaft of sunlight is lying across my chest like an ingot of warm gold. It seems like a good day to stay in bed and write my blog.

I have had a new travel companion for the past 3 weeks. Sonia, a Swiss-French alternative music fan, cat enthusiast and professional carer for the disabled. She is a veteran traveler in the subcontinent and thankfully didn’t need any baby-sitting from me. I briefly made myself unpopular due to a slight disagreement about cats. Like most cat owners, she thinks they have complicated personalities. They don’t. Cats ignore people because they lack understanding of social behaviour. Other than that we got on very well.

You will see in the photos that I am often looking idiotic in a shalwar kameez, the ubiquitous male uniform in Pakistan. I was advised by the police to wear it in Peshawar, Dir, Kalash and Chitral to make myself less recognizable as a foreigner. That didn’t work in the slightest, but it turned out to be so comfortable that I wore it anyway.

Some Numbers
Total number of days 45
Number of treks 5
8000m base camps reached 2
Bomb attacks during my stay 7
Decent Meals 0

When I crossed the border at Taftan, I was told that I was the first foreigner to be seen there in 15 days, which made me slightly apprehensive. Baluchistan is no nicer on the Pakistani side than the Iranian and the roads are considerably worse. As you drive from Taftan to Quetta, a line of ash-grey hills appears through the haze in spectral dimness. To the south an arid pebble desert stretches outward, without shade or water, under a hard, pitiless sky. This is where Satan will muster his demonic legions at the dawn of the apocalypse.

I saw not one tree or bush. Plants need to start having more sex here. The area is constantly rife with banditry and inter-tribal feuding, and is crawling with CIA spooks looking for Bin Laden. If you decide to visit, I recommend taking practical footwear.

When you reach Quetta, the Middle East gives way to the Subcontinent with astonishing suddenness. All the men are bearded and turbaned and people are noticeably poorer than in Iran. Everyone has guns. In Quetta, you’d be crazy not to. The place has absolutely no 'sights' of any kind but is still one of the most fascinating towns I have visited. It has a lawless, wild frontier atmosphere that I have not experienced elsewhere.

Lahore and Islamabad
The contrast between the two cities couldn’t be greater.

Lahore is an ancient place, full of forts, palaces and museums. The spires of countless mosques, encrusted with loudspeakers, lunge into the sky. It is hellishly hot, filthy and congested, and the air quality is terrible. When you approach Lahore by road, a brown mountain seems to hang over the city as its fetid lungs exhale into the sky. The pollution is terrible for your health but at least it destroys your sense of smell.

Islamabad is like the set of Logan’s Run. It has wide avenues and manicured parks. The shopping and restaurants are first rate and the place is conspicuously clean. All of the bazaars and smelly industry are kept down the road in Rawalpindi. For all that, Lahore is vibrant and fascinating, while Islamabad, like most purpose-built capitals, lacks any real heart.

Peshawar stands at the mouth of the Khyber pass, and as the Afghans have been causing trouble since time immemorial, the town has always been the hinge of the tactical seesaw in the region. However, there had been no bombings for about 6 months before my arrival, so I thought I’d go for a look-see.

This is a great city, with much of the unruly appeal of Quetta but also chock-full of beautiful old buildings. I spent a very interesting few days wandering around the back streets and chatting to the locals. The Pashtuns have their own film industry here, so I went to the cinema to check out the results. My lack of Urdu was no barrier to understanding the childishly simple plot. The key themes were big butts, guns and revenge. Someone told me that no woman who appears in a film can get married, so all the actresses are actually prostitutes.

I managed to find a guy who was willing to take me to see the smugglers bazaar, a kind of duty-free shop for Afghans, where you can buy bales of opium, rocket launchers and other household items. It is located in one of the autonomous tribal areas where Pakistani law does not apply. These areas are administered by hereditary rulers and seem to be in a state of permanent low intensity conflict.

It was a crazy place. I spent a couple of hours wandering around looking at the guns, all of which are made in a village called Darra. I was told that if you give the Darra gunsmiths a new weapon, they can copy it in 10 days. I was also introduced to a local chief by my guide, and spent a surreal hour chatting about current affairs. I handled it with all the balance and restraint that has characterised my blog posts.

“We don't trust you Americans, you think you rule the world”, he tells me.
Ignorant of the unintended insult, he carries on: “You will find that the soldiers of God are not easily defeated”.

“You woudn’t happen to know were Osama is holed up?” I ask.

“He’s in Washington”, says he. “9/11 was all planned by him and Bush”.

“Erm… indeed? I thought as much.”

Pakistanis believe in a whole gamut of conspiracy theories about everyone being against them and it’s not worth disagreeing with a guy who uses the butt of a handgun to open bottles of Pepsi.

I got back to Peshawar where the atmosphere was getting palpably tense. The night before Eid, I was part of a large crowd that gathered outside a mosque in the old city to hear the official pronouncement from the Imam declaring the end of Ramadan. I noticed a number of soldiers nervously fingering their guns and scanning the crowd. It suddenly occurred to me that if Moslem terrorists are going to start a new campaign they are likely to wait until the end of Ramadan to go into action.

I am, you will not be surprised to hear, a very brave man. Nevertheless, I felt that it might be time to get the hell out and left for Chitral the next morning. Lucky. The following day a suicide bomber killed 16 in the street where I had my coffee every morning. Since then the bombs have been going off every few days. Another 60 people were killed in an attack on a women’s bazaar yesterday. It’s business as usual for the North-West Frontier Province: religious nutters running riot, the authorities responding with worthless assurances that the matter is being looked into, and human decency shrugging its narrow shoulders in quiet impotence.

Pakistanis are extraordinarily friendly and helpful. Even people who are rabidly anti-western don't hold it against you personally. There seems to be a straight-line inverse correlation between how friendly people are and how safe a country is considered to be, with Pakistan at one end and Switzerland at the other. The three friendliest nations of the trip have been Pakistan, Syria and Iran, in that order. This makes sense insofar as dangerous countries receive far fewer visitors, so tourists are an exciting novelty.

Somewhat surprisingly, Pakistanis are far more observant of Muslim strictures than Iranians. Attendance of Friday prayers is impeccable and fasting at Ramadan is adhered to one hundred percent, with none of the furtive ice-cream eating that I saw in Tehran. Women are almost never seen in some parts of the country, especially in Skardu, and around Peshawar many of them wear the full Burka, something I never saw in Arab countries.

The Pakistanis are a handsome bunch. Their faces show the influence of the convergence of cultures: some have almond-shaped eyes like the Chinese while others have pale skin and blue eyes, which they claim comes from soldiers of Alexander’s army who settled here.

Pakistani bachelors

... and bachelorettes.

On two different occasions, Pakistani men with beards claimed to be Taliban fighters and said I was being kidnapped before laughing and clapping me on the shoulder. “Just kidding”. Given what’s going on in the country, it’s a practical joke with a hard edge.

In the north, you often get invited to a Pakistani sit-about where you’re served endless cups of tea and subjected to the usual mix of being hugged, kissed and having your hand held by other men. Kids with plastic Kalashnikovs run around shrieking at a remarkable decibel level, ‘shooting’ each other and pinging off the walls like particles in the large hadron collider.

The driving is predictably chaotic, with slightly less aggressive use of the Egyptian brake pedal (horn) than I have seen elsewhere. The Karakorum Highway has sheer drops for most of its length and people inevitably go over. Last week, a bus fell into the Indus on the way to Hushe. The conductor managed to jump clear but the other 40 passengers are toast. They haven’t even found any bodies or the bus. It’s no doubt trapped in a gorge in some uninhabited valley.

Because petrol is expensive here, Pakistanis routinely overload their vehicles. You often see a jeep crawling along with five families packed into it and every earthly possession on the roof. This taxi is a typical example. Recommended capacity: 8. Current payload: 33.

Pakistani Politics
The political situation in Pakistan is predictably messy. Musharraf’s military dictatorship has been replaced by a democracy controlled by Benazir Bhutto’s widower Asif Zardari, variously known as the black prince and Mr 10%. He did a deal with Musharraf giving him immunity from prosecution on the numerous charges of corruption that he would otherwise be facing. One of the problems is that democracy, the shell suit of political systems, doesn’t come naturally to people in this part of the world.

The country is terminally corrupt and nepotistic. It’s all about who you’re related to and how much money you have. You scratch my back, I scratch yours. As someone once said - ”it doesn't matter who you vote for because the government always gets in”. To me, one of the main positives about Obama winning the US election was that it proved that even in the self-perpetuating closed shop of American politics, an outsider with no ‘brand’ can still occasionally make it.

There are several other problems. The country is made up of several ethnic groups that have little or nothing in common other than their religion. The main groups are the Baluchis, Sindhis, Punjabis, Pashtuns, Afghans and Chitralis. Factions among the Baluchis and Pashtuns want a greater degree of autonomy or outright independence. There is also the fact that Taliban forces from Afghanistan are hiding in the mountains. The Americans have been carrying out a series of drone attacks to take out their leaders. I have mixed feelings about this. It feels a bit like shooting lions from an armored jeep. Lastly, there is the simmering conflict with India over Kashmir, which is dormant but unresolved.

In Chitral, I met Amin, the amiable local head of the PTI party. The party is headed by Imran Khan, the first-rate cricketer, infamous ladies' man and lightweight politician. Amin’s day job is providing loans to local business. Usury is forbidden in the Koran, so the Muslims have developed Islamic banking, a kind of cheat whereby they fold the interest into the total amount of the loan. It is hard to imagine that an all-powerful God will be taken in by such a flimsy deception.

He offered to take me round to Imran’s house in Islamabad to meet him, but it was either that or do the Rakaposhi trek, so I declined. Imran is hugely popular with the man in the street. His problem was that he married Jemima Goldsmith, which led to daft speculation about the “beginning of Jewish rule”. Perhaps he has a chance now that they are divorced.

The North
Southern Pakistan, especially the Punjab, is similar to India but even dustier and wears the stony face of Islam. The colour and music of India is conspicuously absent. The country’s main draw for the traveller is the spectacular north, where the Hindu Kush, the Karakoram Range and the Himalayas rise up like the bones of the earth.

Until the KKH was built 30 years ago, many of the valleys in northern Pakistan were totally isolated from the outside world, hence the amazing number of languages and cultures that exist in this relatively small area. Even now, the Chitral valley is totally cut off for 5 months of the year. "It's like being in prison", a shepherd told me, "all we do is stay inside and smoke opium until the spring”. Wealthier villagers move to Lahore or Islamabad for the winter months.

These days they have cable TV of course, which is responsible for local farmers knowing more about Simon Cowell and Yellowstone National Park than about the people in the next valley. Strangely, they don’t have much censorship of foreign TV. In Iran, they banned all the best comedies for being too funny, as well as the best dramas for not being boring enough.

The current problems in the country mean that tourist numbers have fallen between 90 and 95%. Great for me, disastrous for hotel owners. There is an ever-present contradiction in the minds of travellers, who wish to see a place stay free from other tourists while simultaneously wishing to visit themselves.

Unlike Nepal, there is no well-organised network of huts to stay in or much in the way of porters and guides. I carried all of my own gear, except on the Humbrok trek where I had so much stuff that I could barely stand up under it. Edmund Hillary never had such a backpack. Predictably, the tiny porter I hired, Ali, raced up the mountain with it without breaking sweat.

I did 5 treks:

  • Passu to Borit Lake and Passu glacier, which includes two very rickety suspension bridges.

  • From Chitral Gol National park over to the Kalash Valleys. This is one of the last remaining haunts of the snow leopard. I didn’t see one. Fortunately for them, they are elusive and not fond of humans. The BBC team spent 5 months here until they finally got the footage you see in Planet Earth.

  • Herligkoffer base camp. The upper Astore valley is my favourite part of Pakistan. The trek takes you up the valley to the base camp below the Rupal face of Nanga Parbat - the ‘killer mountain’.

  • Humbrok, A trek up to high summer pastures near Masherbrum. This is reputedly the easiest place to get a view of K2 but we got caught in a snowstorm and saw squat.

  • Rakaposhi Base camp. This trek has spectacular views, leading steeply up from 2800m to 3800m over two days to reach a stunning spot where two glaciers converge under the south face of Rakaposhi.

    Thoughts on Religion
    After avoiding the subject like the plague throughout my travels in the Muslim world, I was finally drawn into a religious debate by an Imam in Lahore. It turned out to be a very rewarding experience, mainly because he was such an agreeable guy. It is axiomatic in physics that every interaction, even an observation, induces a change in both parties, so perhaps we contributed in some small way to inter-cultural harmony.

    We covered some fairly predictable ground. I asked him about why God would choose to communicate in a diluted fashion through confusing and contradictory texts that require interpretation by clerics. His answer was couched in the language of the Koran - “we must accept his word as given to Mohammed”. I also raised the issue of free will and the fact that an omniscient creator would surely know exactly what we will do in every situation. “We cannot know the ways of God”, says he. Any way you slice and dice it, ultimately religious belief requires a suspension of common sense and rests upon a foundation of faith and nothing else.

    He put forward the argument that it is impossible to prove or disprove the existence of God and that therefore we are equally justified in believing or not believing in him. This is not the case. Occam’s razor requires that we accept the simplest explanation for phenomena when there is no evidence either way. If you start allowing supernatural explanations, absolutely anything goes. One unprovable hypothesis is as good as another.

    One of my main problems with religion is the fact that religious leaders are increasingly active in the world of politics. This is hardly new but leaves me in no doubt that acquiring and exercising power is what organized religion is principally about. To claim to know the mind of God and to presume to speak for him on political issues is the height of arrogance.

    An issue that I didn’t raise is the poverty of conception embodied by the Muslim/Christian God. A God who gets angry and jealous, a God who rewards suicide bombers with virgins and who creates imperfect humans and then punishes them when they misbehave. How small and trivial, how pitifully anthropomorphic this God seems in the face of the hundred billion galaxies of our visible universe.

    A God that makes sense is the ineffable Indian God of the Vedas. A God beyond what we can measure, understand or imagine. A God about whom nothing can be said. And even this God does not provide an answer to the more fundamental question – why is there something rather than nothing?

    I am not anti-religious. The main tenet of Christianity – treat your neighbour as you would wish to be treated – is an admirable one. It is sad that this sentiment tends to be in shortest supply amongst the church-going public. A case in point: the Christian Right in America was staunchly in favour of the decidedly un-Christian invasion of Iraq.

    If people choose to believe that there is a God watching over them who will take them off to heaven when they die, that is fine by me as long as they don’t insist on condemning me to their imaginary hell just because I don't share their beliefs. However they do and that is in essence what is wrong with these religions.

    (An Aside. One of the benefits of having time on my hands is that I get to read a great deal, so I have read several of the recent atheist manifestos (Dawkins, Stenge, Hitchens etc). They strike me as largely redundant. Hume long ago killed the notion that belief in Christianity can be justified logically. More interesting to me were not the moralistic rants but those that looked at religion as a natural phenomenon. Human beings clearly have a predisposition to religious belief and it seems likely that this behaviour has been found adaptive in an evolutionary sense.

    Amazingly, recent evidence suggests that the world is less violent now than it was in the past. It seems that prehistory was a period of almost continuous warfare. In such a world, religion may have served to increase the cohesion and effectiveness of the tribe in battle. Those without the predisposition for religiosity would have been gradually killed off by those willing to die for their God. As E.O Wilson put it - "When the gods are served, the Darwinian fitness of the tribe is the ultimate if unrecognized beneficiary." Another suggestion is that faith is psychologically healthy for humans, giving them a sense of purpose and the feeling that life is worth living.)

    Best Moments
  • Driving across the Deosai plains, a high plateau which covers an area of 3000 square kilometres. Its lowest point is at an altitude of 4000m. This wilderness is one of the most beautiful parts of the northern areas with a landscape reminiscent of the Scottish highlands.

  • Seeing the Friday prayers for Eid al Fitr at the end of Ramadan in Peshawar. Everybody knelt down in the street to celebrate and pray. It gave me an insight into how Ramadan builds a sense of community - through shared discomfort followed by shared joy.

  • The border closing ceremony at Wagah. Every day, Pakistani and Indian soldiers go through an elaborate synchronized parade routine to close the border. A crowd of several thousand Indians and Pakistanis gather on both sides of the border to watch the show. They spend their time chanting nationalist slogans and shaking their fists at the opposition. The ceremony itself is absolutely ludicrous - the soldiers prance about in terrible uniforms and silly hats, shouting and making faces. The tourists sit in the VIP section and wet themselves laughing, but to the locals it is all deadly serious. A Pakistani policeman who was there told me: "I see an Indian, I start shooting".

    The uniform could conceivably provide camouflage in case of an armed assault on the parrot house at Kew Gardens.

  • Attending a boat festival near Peshawar.

  • Sufi night. Every Thursday there is a night of live music in Lahore, which features a famous band of drummers with a selection of guest musicians and a number of Sufi devotees spinning around to the music. The drumming gets more and more frenetic as the night goes on. Amazing.

  • Seeing a herd of wild Ibex in Chitral Gol national Park.

  • Camping at the idyllic Upper Kachura Lake.

  • Visiting the truck bazaar in Rawalpindi. Pakistan has a bizarre but excellent custom of decorating all of their trucks with carved wooden panels, enamel and paintwork. The results are extraordinary.

  • Shooting ducks with Prince Faisal. I spent a couple of very fun days shooting ducks, or rather shooting at ducks, with Prince Faisal Salahuddin, whose family were the rulers of the Chitral valley for several hundred years until 1972 when the Pakistani government finally brought the region under their full control. His great-grandfather Aman Ul-Mulk ascended to the throne on “steps slippery with the blood that he had shed”. A typical Pakistani succession story. He had 7 brothers, all of whom he killed before he was 30.

  • Driving up to Zani Pass and camping. Stunning. I sat by my fire and watched the sun go down. The valleys were quickly lost in shadow but the snowy peaks, reflecting the evening light, glowed like a line of red lanterns along the Hindu Raj. They burned for a while in the violet sky then slowly went out.

  • Seeing a local polo tournament in Chitral. People complain that polo is elitist. Of course it is. It can never be anything other than an elitist sport - the cost is prohibitive. Anyway, I was surprised to find that polo is actually a good game - fast-paced, aggressive and exciting, with plenty of end-to-end action. I have been to the Cartier polo in London twice but never bothered to actually watch any of the matches. That is not the point of the exercise.

    Worst Moments
  • Being escorted through Baluchistan. I have rarely felt as uncomfortable on this trip as when I was following the police jeeps. Some of their less aggressive behaviour included: using gun butts to smash wing mirrors off trucks that failed to get out of the way fast enough, ramming rickshaws, and overtaking into traffic by ordering oncoming vehicles off the road. At one point a tractor blocked our path for a couple of minutes. They dragged the poor farmer off his seat and told me to drive on while they beat him up.

  • Driving over Babusar pass after the onset of winter. Very dangerous – we nearly slid off a cliff into a frozen lake.

  • Two days in Gilgit. There was a shooting in the street while I was there. The following day a grenade was thrown into a shop as retribution. We then spent two days effectively locked in our hotel during a military clampdown. Apparently, it’s all part of the longstanding Sunni/Shiite disagreement about whether Mohammed's uncle or son-in-law should have taken over from the prophet. I am serious.

  • Stuck in Hushe with no way to get out except by repeatedly dragging a jeep up a hill to try and get it started. Good excercise though. That's me in the jeans.

  • A night at the K6 hotel in Kande. The K6 fought off some stiff competition to be crowned worst hotel of the trip so far. No sheets, pillow or electricity. Infested with mice and the ‘toilet’ was a hole in the ground in a field with a dry stone wall around it but no door. Two kids came and chatted to me while I was squatting there in the morning.

  • Being forced to dance at a performance of traditional music in Lahore. This ritual of humiliating tourists goes back hundreds of years.

  • A wedding in Chitral. All the Muslim weddings I have attended have been tedious beyond belief. This was my third. No booze, no music and no women. In Pakistan, you sit around for a couple of hours, then male members of the two families get in a huddle to argue about the size of the dowry, which has no doubt been agreed long before. After that you have dinner, everybody prays and then you go off home at eight o’clock. I hear that the women’s party is much more fun, with dances and body-painting.

    Best & Worst Food
    I don’t have much to say about this. Pakistani cooking is not up to much. Meat is a part of every meal, usually swimming in oil, and vegetables are a rarity. They have a very irritating habit of chopping a chicken into one inch-square cubes before cooking it. Every mouthful has bones in it. One relatively good thing was a burger-like kebab, cooked in what looks like engine oil:

    Burgers made from the insides of a goat, hat made from the outsides of a goat.

    Quote from something I’m reading
    "It was about forty yards to the gallows. I watched the bare brown back of the prisoner marching in front of me. He walked clumsily with his bound arms, but quite steadily, with that bobbing gait of the Indian who never straightens his knees. And once, in spite of the men who gripped him by each shoulder, he stepped slightly aside to avoid a puddle on the path.

    It is curious, but till that moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man. When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle, I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide. This man was not dying, he was alive just as we were alive. All the organs of his body were working - bowels digesting food, skin renewing itself, nails growing, tissues forming - all toiling away in solemn foolery. His nails would still be growing when he stood on the drop, when he was falling through the air with a tenth of a second to live. His eyes saw the yellow gravel and the grey walls, and his brain still remembered, foresaw, reasoned - reasoned even about puddles. He and we were a party of men walking together, seeing, hearing, feeling, understanding the same world; and in two minutes, with a sudden snap, one of us would be gone - one mind less, one world less."

    A Hanging (Orwell – Collected Essays)

    Visiting Pakistan was a fantastic experience. I would say that this is my favourite country so far. Of course it had the usual combination of corrupt officialdom, dire driving and medieval sanitation, but the Pakistanis are charming and the mountain scenery is incomparable.

    Tomorrow I cross the border at Wagah. I have unearthed the ‘Lonely Planet: India’ from the back of the car. It is an intimidating item, bible-thick and weighing half a ton. It seems the Indians think of Pakistan as India for losers. In the partition, India got the Taj Mahal, the Andaman Islands and Aishwarya Rai, while the Pakistanis ended up with a bunch of crazy Afghans, 50 million goats and Benazir Bhutto.

    A dim recollection gathering dust in a dark corner of the abandoned archives of my brain tells me that it has been three months since my last beer. When I get to India I intend to spend a couple of days drinking in a very unsocial way.