Published: July 22nd 2010
July 18th 2010
Well an awful lot has happened since I last left you all in Lahore almost three weeks ago. Due to Pakistani internet connections being extremely slow, I have honestly not had the patience to wait four hours to check my email. Apparently religious leaders here have stopped the spread of high speed internet because of the fear that young sexually repressed Pakistani men will use them for unislamic activities. Aka they will download pornography. Given some of the comments that I have received in the past week of men saying that they wanted to "make sex" with this young British journalist at the Shandur festival and that European women have no social values (using as evidence pornographic films which they seemed to think was a good example of the cross-section of the European female population), I would say that their fears are not unfounded. But nevertheless, I have found a high speed connection. And there are very few young Pakistani men downloading pornography. So far...because it is early.
Ok, I digress. I left you all in Lahore on June 29th. Lahore is really a wonderful city with lots to discover. And one of the benefits of there being a high
Data Darbar Qawalli music
Four hours before bomb blasts
risk of terror activity in big cities across Pakistan is that those nefarious creatures, tourists, generally stay away. I had basically the place to myself, save for a young French convert to Islam, a crazy hash-smoking hippy and a young boy from Singapore (at whom the manager of the hostel enjoyed screaming "war Singapore people war." Go figure.
On Thursdays in Lahore, it is tradition for travellers to head to Sufi shrines to discover the mystic devotionalism of the Sufi branch of Islam. Due to the security situation in big cities in Pakistan, I was discussing Thursday July 1st with this young French convert to Islam who was in Pakistan photographing sufi shrines the security situation in Lahore. He remarked to me that sufi shrines are perfectly safe as they had never been attacked in the past. It seemed that he had ommitted to mention that one in Peshawar had been attacked in 2009. Extremist Sunni militants criticize Sufis especially because they do not practice a pure form of Islam. They partake in many things that for extremists are forbidden. One such things is the worship at shrines which is considered very taboo as it violates the "one god"
Matthew and Gonga
Shah Jamal Sufi shrine
principle. Also is the use of devotional singing and music making (as well has hash hish smoking) in Sufi worship. Sufisim as a form of Islam deviates from the Quaran and instead preaches direct union with god.
Missing out on discovering this unique sect in Islam was too high a price to pay to not miss out on the Sufi excursions. So on Thursday July 1st, Matthew headed to a place known as Data Darbar, the Shrine of Data Ganj Bakhsh Hajveri for a spot of devotional singing, known as Qawalli. It was great fun with perhaps 500 people in attendance, throwing money over each other, spraying each other with rose water and dancing. The music wasn't all that bad either. It was quite interesting to watch these old Sufi guys with crazy long hair and beards dancing around in ecstasy. Kind of makes me wish I had a faith like they did.
Anyhow, later that evening, Matthew headed to see Sufi night, a night of Sufi drumming at the shrine of Baba Shah Jamal famous because of one man, Gonga, who is deaf. He arrived and the first group of musicians started playing. Then however, this chap
behind me received a phone call from his friend telling him that there had just been three-five bomb blasts at Data Darbar, the place where I had been about four hours previous. In the past, there have been very few coordinated attacks so the chances of this sufi shrine being attacked at the same time was very slim. And as this grinning Pakistani guy behind me said, "oh there is no problem, this place has very good security." I did not see any security when I walked in. The guy from the hostel who had escorted us foreigners there said we would wait another half hour to see. But at least 60% of the Pakistani attendees left so I started to get mildly scared. I tried to imagine where a suicide bomber would launch his attack and the likelyhood of me getting killed. Then Gonga motioned to us that he even thought that it was not safe for us foreigners to stay. So we left. Finally back at the hostel, I saw on the television the place where the suicide bomber had blown himself up. He had detonated his bomb just next to the place where I had left my
shoes to enter into the Qawalli place a few hours previously. Experiences such as these really make you humble. It definitely gave me a greater sense of the fear that people here live with on a daily basis.
The next day, I headed up to the old frontier city of Peshawar where I planned to spend three days and had already a local guy meeting me there. An amazingly friendly chap, we spent hours talking and talking, him telling me about his Pashtun culture and me telling him about the culture back in Canada. On this trip, I tend to whitewash Canadian life and values a little bit for fear of offending people. Way too liberal for some conservative societies such as this. After a while though, this stretching the truth a little bit gets on my nerves and with this guy, I felt I could have an honest and frank exchange of ideas. Very very interesting...he was a little shocked to say the least. Pashtun hospitality is incredible. In Pashtun culture, even if an enemy comes to your house seeking shelter, he will be welcomed with open arms. As soon as you are the guest of someone here,
you are perfectly safe. Nothing at all could happen to you. Also, given the fact that I apparently look Pashtun, I felt perfectly safe and at ease walking around Peshawar, a beautiful city. It is now safe to visit after last year's sectarian violence thanks in part to a very heavy security presence. But old tourist favourites such as the Khyber Pass and the gun factories are not particularly recommended to visitors at this time.
From Peshawar, I headed up north through Dir district (where there was a suicide bomb at a police checkpoint the day after I travelled through), across the 3200m Lowari pass to Chitral. A bonechilling 12 hour ride (especially given that they cram almost 20 people into a tiny minibus), I was very glad to arrive in Chitral. My trip from here took a short two day detour to the toilets of the Al-Farooq Hotel, which was rather unfortunate. I put it down to some very bloody beef I had eaten for lunch in Dir on my way up.
With my stomach almost back to normal, I met six Pashtun guys from Peshawar also planning to head to the Shandur Polo Festival, held at
the 3800m Shandur Pass every year for the celebrated Chitral-Gilgit match. This year, however, Gilgit boycotted the festival so the end match was to be between Chitral and Chitral. Not quite as exciting but I figured it still warranted a visit. And it did. Merely getting to Shandur itself is an adventure. It took 7 hours in a jeep along an EXTREMELY bad and dusty road. One of the Pashtun guys I met worked as a "tourism promoter" and was also the publisher of a very dubious magazine that argued that Osama Bin Laden was actually Jewish and connected to the state of Israel. Being a VIP, he had connections and managed to get us a very good driver, organize free tents and free food for all of us at Shandur. Very handy and he was quite good company, parading around wearing Mughal era dress (and bell bottom jeans) to promote tourism.
Shandur itself was a very dramatic setting, and given the altitude, I even got a little bit lightheaded from the lack of oxygen. The polo itself was a little less exciting given that the same team was playing the same team but was still interesting. Polo in
these parts is "freestyle," which means that there are no rules at all. This makes for some fairly brutal playing. If you are wondering who won the match, Chitral did.
In addition to the polo, there was a wide arrange of cultural festivities on offer, from interviews with members of some very dubious press agencies, to traditional Pashto dancing, to a rather surreal Rhianna themed all-male dance party and fireworks show. I think that will go down as one of my more unique all-male dance parties. These Pashto guys were also very interesting. Some were quite liberal, some were very conservative. When I referred to the terrorist who was excuted in Iran last month for stopping traffic on the Bam-Zahedan highway and indiscriminately shooting 20 women and children as a terrorist, one of these guys shot back at me that I had no idea what I was talking about and that he was not a terrorist. I argued that yes, he was. Then he replied saying that what we westerners do not understand is that in their culture, revenge is very important. This chap also had a rather dark understanding of Islam as well, one that could be called
On this trip, I have slowly developed a great admiration for the Muslim religion. The intense devotion and spirituality that it inspires, the deep honesty it entails and the honoured status given to guests. But when someone is using religion for political purposes or has a rather twisted understanding of that religion, I cannot help but find it a little scary. In Chitral, I was a little bit peturbed hearing the sounds of a group of 30 small boys of around 10 years old learning the Holy Quran off by heart. In this part of the world, there are some definite dark elements to the great religion of Islam.
From Shandur, I headed back down over the Shandur pass on yet another bone-chilling jeep ride towards Chitral. From there I headed to the valleys of the pagan Kalash people. There are only a few thousand Kalash left today in the world, and they are unique for their pagan religion, which still thrives in three valleys of Northern Pakistan, about 15km from the Afghanistan border. The Kalash are rumoured to be descendents of the lost tribe of Alexander the Great, and while the authenticity of this legend has
come into question lately, it still remains a very evocative one.
The Kalash still practice their pagan religion which, as described in the Kalash handbook, "the Kalash people love practicing unlike in many cultures where day to day traditions are a chore more than a pleasure." The Kalash people worship one god but worship through subsidiary gods. In Kalash culture, things are divided into pure and impure. Most things connected with women, believe it or not, are considered to be impure. A menstruating woman is considered to be impure, and when she is menstruating she must go to a concrete building in the village square where she is locked away for six days. Afterwards, she must wash herself and all her clothes before returning home. If a man accidentally comes in contact with her during her menstruation, he must also wash his body and his clothes before returning home. The Kalash, iin their worship, practice the sacrifice of animals and there is a little sacrificial alter near the town of Grom in Rumbur valley which can be visited by (get this) men only.
Maybe I'm being a little too jestful because being in the Kalash valleys felt like
being almost in a different country. Yes, for the first time in Pakistan I actually talked to a woman! Can you believe that? And homemade Kalash brandy and wine can be bought relatively cheaply. After a lovely few day walks through the valleys, it was absolutely heavenly to sit back and eat non-curry food and sip some delicious homemade red wine.
One night I even had a brandy drinking session with an Afghan guy and three Pashtun guys who were passing through! The Afghan was a cultural advisor to the NATO forces in Afghanistan and was taking a holiday in Pakistan. He did not view the mission in Afghanistan as having a very likely positive outcome for the Americans. As he put it, the local people will never accept their presence because for them, the Americans are infidels.
He was completely wasted and I asked him if he was muslim. Yes, he replied, a very devout Muslim. Why then was he drinking alcohol. Well, he told me that although alcohol was haram (forbidden), it was not that haram when compared with killing people and hurting people. The taliban, he told me, are the real bad muslims. Drinking doesn't
hurt anyone and Allah is merciful. That's the kind of stuff I personally like to hear. None of this talk about Jews and big conspiracy theories about the Taliban being a mix of Israeli and Indian special forces.
The experience of being so close to Afghanistan in the Kalash valleys made me wish I was headed over the border. On one of my day walks, I visited a Noristani village, just 18 hours walk away from an unguarded border post with Afghanistan. Just 18 hours away was one of the largest taliban strongholds in the country. And according to my Afghan drinking friend, the entire village was made up of Taliban. I don't know if that is true but the reception when I made it over there wasn't all that warm. But it was raining and I did manage to get invited for tea (black tea with sugar, no milk tea this time!) so they cannot have been all that hostile.
The one annoying thing about the Kalash valleys was the heavy presence of border police and their tendency to annoy the foreign visitors. Last year two local NGO workers (one Spanish, one Greek) were kidnapped by the
Me and soldier - Peshawar
Yes, classic touristy pose
taliban and one beheaded apparently, or that's what some people say. And then this year, a crazy American guy came to Bumboret on a personal crusade to kill Osama Bin Laden (as he is rumoured to be hiding in these hills). As a result of these insidences, the police here are trying to ensure that no more foreigners go missing and that foreigners get up to no mischief. I think they are more focused on the latter than the former given their attitude. Foreigners are technically supposed to have a police escort everywhere they go, but I managed to sneak out everyday by myself. The thought of having an alcoholic, hash smoking unarmed policeman is not my ideal company for a peacefu walk. One day though the local policeman, hardly able to stand up and stoned out of his mind, got quite angry when he saw me appear after one of my eight hour walks, screaming "Taliban taliban." Yeah right. Despite these little annoyances, the Kalash valleys were pure magic and a wonderful place to relax and unwind for a few days.
From Kalash, I headed back over the Shandur pass (crazy I know) on first a 7 hour
jeep trip and then a 12 hour bus trip to Gilgit, where I got yet another case of stomach upset. I put it down to either the mutton curry or the rancid goat cream I ate in the Kalash peasant family's home the day previous. I knew at the time that it was a bad idea to eat it (given that two members of the family were lying in bed at 3 pm groaning in pain for some reason), but when you are offered food, especially by someone extremely poor, it can be very rude to refuse. I hate offending people more than anything else.
From Gilgit I headed up to Karimabad, which is stunningly beautiful but full of tourists. And by full, I mean 15 people. A lot, yeah, I know. As it was a touristy place, food was expensive and shitty (by expensive I mean 2 euros instead of 80 cents) and lacking in flavour. I did a couple of nice little walks, but decided that it was time to head back to Lahore and get my ass into India.
So I decided to do the 34 hour trip in one go rather than waste three
days in towns I did not really want to stop in. The only transport I could procure, as I had left it late in the day, was a minibus and a cramped minibus at that. But at 10 Euros for a 30 hour journey, I could not really complain. And usually one stops frequently on such journeys. I asked the guy sitting beside me, "where is the 2nd driver?" "Oh no," he replied, "Pakistani drivers are very experienced. They can drive up to 30 hours without needing a rest." "Oh well," I thought to myself, "sounds fair enough." And off we went down the legendary Karakoram highway to Rawalpindi. As the road in the past has been the target of armed robberies and we were travelling at night, public transportation is required to travel in armed convoy. We were ten vehicles in total and every time one vehicle had to stop for a flat tire or driver pee break, we all had to stop. But my minibus was packed full of young Pashto students returning from China for the first time in three years. So they were rediculously happy to be going back home and had the Pashto and Bollywood
music blaring at full volume the whole way (no I didn't sleep very much). Very good fun and quite surreal. I had to pinch myself a couple of times to make sure that I wasn't dreaming.
At about 4:30 PM last night, the minibus finally reached Rawalpindi, the driver still awake and looking fairly energetic. We had left at 5 PM the night before. From there, bussed it to Lahore where I arrived at 10:30 PM finally. After a couple of months in these parts, I am finally getting used to dealing with Taxi drivers. Even though he tried to rip me off last night, I still managed to pay the local price. I was well proud of myself.
So now I am in Lahore, a little sad that my Pakistani odyssey is over and planning what I am going to do for the next three weeks in India. It is now monsoon season so it is rediculously humid but at only 30 degrees, it is surprisingly comfortable here.
I am really going to miss Pakistan. This country turned out to be stunningly beautiful, with people more hospitable and helpful than anywhere else that I have been.
Even the most anti-western people I have met have insisted on buying me lunches, tea, inviting me home, despite expressing deep hatred for the place from which I come. One chap who bought me lunch even said he may become a suicide bomber in America one day to "fuck with them." But he still bought me lunch and invited me to his home. It is a place of contradictions, with some very very liberal and then some very very conservative. But it is still only a minority that it is disturbing the situation for the majority. It is such a shame, and I hope for Pakistan's sake that the situation improves soon. The Pakistani military is doing an incredible job trying to control the situation. These boys are professionals true and true. But so long as the country remains poor and undeveloped, young people are still going to fall prey to the extremists. Maybe it is something to do with sexual repression as well? In some places I have been, I wonder how people reproduce as there are no women.
Anyhow, enough of my ramblings. Farewell Pakistan and hellllllllllllloooooooooo India.
There are more photos below