A Travellerspoint blog

June 2011


Salaam once again from an unbearably humid Pakistan thinking I’m stupid for being in a Muslim country at this time of year; the temperatures are getting into the 40s and despite drinking about 8l of water a day since you have to have everything minus your hands, feet and face covered my entire body is getting covered in rashes from my clothes chaffing and my torso is covered in milk spots cos of quite how much I’m sweating. It’s one of those countries where despite being a nuclear power virtually nothing ‘works’ and at this time of year having no power for 12 of the 24hours is horrific as when the fan dies at night you wake up very quickly bathed in sweat and if you take a nocturnal walk in the cities you see that most of the (male) population has to sleep outside. But a lack of power is the least of the worries of this deeply troubled country- things really aren’t going well here in virtually any way….

But before the bad stuff the first week or so was great as I entered Pakistan from China via ‘the most beautiful road in the world’, the unforgettable Karakoram Highway- ‘if looks could kill Northern Pakistan would be an Uzi’. Well, actually probably not as Uzis are Israeli but it’s really beautiful anyway. Home to the worlds highest concentration of peaks above 7000m and 3rd only behind only the polar regions in the size and number of glaciers it was an incredible achievement to have built the road through the youngest part of the Earth.

The mountains are continuing to rise and due to their steepness are commonly recognized as the toughest mountains in the world to climb with nicknames like ‘The Killer and ‘The Nightmare’, as one German mountaineer summed up quite nicely: “There’s a reason it (pointing at the 7788m Rakaposhi) doesn’t have a climbing permit fee- virtually no-one can climb it”. The sharpest elevation changes found anywhere on Earth are found in the Karakorams, as much as 7000m down to the gorges of the wild Indus below and as with elsewhere in the Himalayas I found it an almost intimidating landscape to be in. Whilst there are no longer ie organized 2wk+ style treks like in Nepal I did some fantastic day hikes scrambling over glaciers and moraines with the highlight being trekking to the jawdropping Rupal face of Nanga Parbat. It means ‘The Naked Mountain’ in the local language because it’s so steep that snow, let alone vegetation can’t stick on it and certainly staring up at the near vertical 4572m wall up to the summit felt more like the biggest skyscraper I’ve ever seen than a mountain.

And you have it all almost to yourself; I was ‘a bit naïve’ in what I expected in Pakistan. Hotels owners and the like said there was a trickle of visitors up until about 2 years ago but now there are virtually none so whilst the solitude felt amazing I also felt guilty signing into hotels and seeing they’d had a dozen guests this year- because in the North the people were so nice. The Hunza valley I found to be far and away the most relaxed part of the country where every man seemed to wanna shake your hand and have a chat and even the women would say hi to you. The people are Ismaili (an offshoot of Shi’itism headed by the super likable Aga Khan) which is much less dogmatic and has much more progressive ideas in areas like education than the other main branches of Islam. They were really peaceful and easy to chat to and during the harvest time of mulberries, cherries and apricots I found it very difficult to stop stuffing my face and head South to the heart of the country, which is where things have gone pretty wrong.

I found interacting with people (well, men) in Pakistan quite difficult to gauge at times as their reactions to me varied between being openly hostile and almost fawningly hospitable. As in other Muslim countries the culture of offering food and drink to ‘a guest’ is deeply important and amongst endless offers of the delightful green tea, in certain places like bazaars I somewhat embarrassingly found myself having to choose who to go to as the different vendors competed to have me sit and chat with them about philosophy and struggling to conjure up cohesive answers as to why I’m not Muslim.

But people could also be really hostile too, after leaving Hunza I realized that I was saying a few salaams and getting nothing but a glare in response. In order to try and get on with people I tend to trust the logic that ‘a wink and a smile’s always worth your while’ but in this part of the world that’s not really true as people would act more suspicious than friendly in response to a joke or laugh. Therefore I made the decision that as in Argentinian football games and bars I would be Irish for the month. I’d be on buses and the men would give me sly looks and talk to their peers and I’d catch the word ‘American’ quite clearly and that’s basically the problem, as a white person they think you’re American- and as the ever visible anti American graffiti shows, they don’t like them much.

Every single Paki I spoke to blames the Americans for the problems the country faces with the logic being that before the invasion of Afghanistan, Pakistan was largely peaceful but the invasion sent the Taliban fleeing across the border and the spread of more hardline Islamist elements into Pakistan. A recent report puts the death toll of the ‘War on Terror’ in Pakistan at 40,000 with a catastrophic effect on the Paki economy- especially in overseas investments and tourism. But the American involvement has also become very emotive to the population too with the current big issue which people are really angry about are the drone attacks into the tribal areas. Ostensibly done as a risk free method of assassinating militants they’re of very dubious legality and as has frequently happened, when they start killing civilians accidentally it’s a guarantee the populace will get up in arms as the media parade images of dead children and the like. The fact that they’re a ‘faceless menace’ makes it very easy for the Taliban et al to drum up anti-Western feelings and at the moment means the battle for hearts and minds by the US is being resolutely lost.

As one guy put it: “America acted so shocked when the Twin Towers got hit and its civilians got killed yet they’re doing the same here and they think an insincere apology from Hilary Clinton will placate us. It’s total hypocrisy”. The Raymond Davis case earlier this year where a CIA agent shot dead a couple of locals in very hazy circumstances similar to the Blackwater killings in Iraq a few years ago has made things even worse. Under intense pressure from the US the Paki government gave him diplomatic immunity to the angry amazement of the population. It’s made travelling here as a foreigner a bit tenser too, when I got to Swat I was interviewed by the Major of the local regiment at his villa and he wouldn’t even let me go into his garden saying “If my neighbours see you and they think you’re American I could get in serious trouble”.

However, whilst the USA or India or even Afghanistan make for convenient scapegoats, Pakistan’s problems are multiple and one of the things I found most frustrating about the country is the ease with which everyone (government, media and the population) blames someone else for problems which are largely self-inflicted.

To me, countries which are based round a religion are something of an affront to the development of rational human thinking, as the likes of Saudi Arabia and Israel offer an abundance of evidence- it seems that as soon as an individual believes differently from what is considered the ‘right’ way of thinking then their position in that society becomes marginalized even to the point of their lives being endangered. Pakistan is another sad but even more nuanced example of this as with outside ‘help’ it’s sadly become ‘the front line of the civil war within Islam’ as they’re not even sure amongst themselves what the ‘right’ way of thinking is. Pakistan was created as a homeland of sorts for Muslims carved out of the most populous Muslim areas of India and the role of religion in the country is eternally being squabbled over. And if you’re wondering why I’m referring to them as Pakis- the point is to highlight the hypocrisy of calling themselves “The Pure and Clean” (as opposed to Indias ‘dirty and impure’ Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Christians…and 100+m Muslims) then getting angry when people (however ignorantly) turn it against them into a term of abuse.

Whilst the British left an efficient secular based legal and civil service, with virtually no other communities to influence things, over time the Imams have become ever more influential in public opinion on how things should be run. Once you establish that the country is 97% Muslim Pakistan is quite diverse in its beliefs, whilst it has a Sunni majority it also houses a big Shi’ite community and various other sects too. Most of the Muslims that came from India or near the country’s borders with Iran and Afghanistan were very poor and uneducated and seeing groups whose beliefs could be easily influenced, missionary money started pouring in from Saudi Arabia (Sunni) and Iran (Shi’ite). Tens of millions of dollars have been spent by these countries going into rural communities preaching and building religious schools (madrasahs) trying to convert the population but they’ve opened up a Pandora’s Box of bigotry and sectarianism- (and if you don’t know the difference between Shi’ites and Sunnis look it up and see how something seemingly fairly small nearly 1500years ago can cause so much bloodshed now). As the 2 sides have fought harder to win converts the type of things they’re preaching have got ever more radical and it’s resulted in a wave of violence which has gone on for more than 20 years. First the smaller Ahmadi sect (who believe there is another prophet after Mohammed) were made non-Muslims in the constitution then the 2% Christians started getting attacked before the Shi’ites and Sunnis turned on each other, calling the others infidels and bombing their shrines and mosques as well as assassinating key figures in the movements.

As with so much of Pakistan it’s a tragic state of affairs and much of the blame has to be down to successive governments who, intent on ignoring the outer regions and their millions of unemployed, disenchanted youths let the increasingly militant preachers encourage violence for far too long and when they finally acted it was too late. And a similar line of logic explains the growth of the many faceted terrorist movements in the country.

As a foreigner you’re most certainly not allowed into these border areas but on a smaller scale the gorgeously forested, bucolic area of the Kalasha valleys showed a great example of so much of what’s wrong with Pakistan.

From Constantinople to Kashmir the Kalasha are virtually the only non-Muslim tribe with their colorful clothes, unscarfed women and pagan beliefs making it one of the most culturally interesting places in Pakistan but they’re coming under serious pressure to retain their identity. They’re regularly derided as infidels by the rent-a-quote clerics which take up so much space in the Paki media and various Islamic institutions have spent lots of money and effort trying to convert the population. They’ve had some success and they’re now down to just 3,000 people, one of the village chiefs explained how they’re forced into a poverty line existence through the government selling off their forests for timber and offering no help with development- because they’re not Muslims. He said therefore the young people are in the position that if they want to do an educated job (or virtually anything beside farming) their education has to be sponsored by a Mosque and they’d therefore have to convert to Islam. As a result the community has very few options and are being slowly squeezed out by the regressive, unlovely system that Pakistan is based round.

A few days ago I also managed to go to a Sufi music concert which was a fantastic experience; Sufism is a mystical, more animated sect of Islam which like other smaller sects has come under huge pressure in Pakistan from hardline clerics and their supporters resulting in various bombings and attacks at their meetings. The concert went on for most of the night and felt something like a Pentecostal or similar Church service with a very excitable preacher and blokes shouting stuff out in (seeming) religious ecstasy right throughout. The crowd could spontaneously start chanting or dancing as they lost themselves in the music and the copious amounts of hash that everyone was smoking. Visually it was really entertaining to view but you can see why clerics detest it so much as it’s an absolute world away from the austerity of worship normally associated with Islam. Either way the inability of other sects to tolerate different beliefs has come to be one of the defining features of the country and paints Islam in a terrible light regardless of what the US or anyone else is doing in the region.

The very idea of basing the country solely around religion and that it would somehow act as a glue to hold the country together was naively simplistic and never likely to work because, what’s now Pakistan had always been home to a wide range of ethnic and tribal groups whose loyalties can’t be easily bought.

Thanks largely to the sense of religious superiority and the attempts by the military to unite the country it’s self-identity is utterly contradictory. On the one hand there’s a strong and very visible crass form of nationalism. All over Pakistans roads are signs saying ‘We Love Pakistan!’ or ‘My Blood Type is Pakistani!’; to the names of the country and it’s cringingly titled capital Islamabad (Islamtown) to the absurd border closing ceremony and even the nationwide school uniform for boys includes a Pakistan cap. But then on the other hand Pakistan is very much a political construction and most Pakis would describe themselves as being of the region they’re from first before the nation as a whole and indeed the army has had to crush several separatist movements since independence. These problems have been greatly exacerbated by the failure of its leaders to govern fairly and this has become one of Pakistan’s biggest problems where instead of aiming to spread development evenly across the country politicians have merely tried to line their own pockets and keep their own geographical power base happy with little thought for elsewhere in the country. As a result regional disparities and tensions between different parts of the country has been a constant problem and at total odds with the ‘one Pakistan’ the government likes to portray itself as. And again going totally against the spirit of why the country was established the one group who don’t have a strong identity –the Mohajirs (refugees) from India were pushed to the poorest regions away from the centres of power and their arrival has been loathed by the natives. In a country of high unemployment and very limited economic opportunities the natives have ended up fighting e newbies, most famously in the biggest city Karachi where the never-ending ‘gang wars’ have led to one of the highest murder rates in the world.

But of more international concern is the Western part of the country which is home to various tribal groups who’ve long been super-resistant to any attempts to colonise them; when Pakistan was being established the tribes agreed to join the new country but only on the condition that the police couldn’t operate and their own tribal customs would trump Pakistan law. The police and courts have to defer to tribal councils called panchyats, who (in a country of 170m which hasn’t convicted anyone of rape in the last 10years) can make judgements like sentencing women to be raped which the Western press loves reporting on and under the system in Pakistan are legal in these areas. The tribal areas run along the porous Afghan border and have become monumentally lawless with Nato (and Pakistan) forces powerless to stop opium smuggling and allowing Taliban fighters shelter and a free rein to operate in a far larger area than they should be able to. There’s even a gun town called Darra Adam Khel near Peshawar where the bazaar is made up of nothing but stalls selling homemade guns costing as little as $50! Unsurprisingly Pakistan has an estimated 20m unlicenced firearms and again I found talking to the people, even army officers spectacularly naïve in thinking they could bring the security situation under control yet somehow still maintain this dual legal system.

Beyond that though when India was split the way it was, all the non-Muslims living in what’s now Pakistan thought they wouldn’t be safe and fled East to the new India; and culturally Pakistan is much the poorer for it.

The paucity of the country’s film, music and literature output since independence stands in sharp contrast to India’s and to my surprise even the food here has been surprisingly bad- unlike the wonderfully diverse cuisine across the border most restaurants here have just a beef, a chicken and a vegetable dish to eat with roti and pretty quickly gets monotonous. In a far cry from the colourful tales and descriptions of people on the Grand Trunk road by Kipling et al, in a country where based on who you actually see on the street 80% (rising to 99% in Pashtun areas) of the population is men, all wearing the uniform like and deliberately unflattering kurtas (Islamic pyjama suit) in terms of the visual stimulation of the place it compares very poorly to elsewhere on the subcontinent.

Things still might have been OK but for the 60years of its independence Pakistan has been ruled for 30years by the army and 30years in a democracy and for different reasons both periods have gone badly. It’s been like a negative jigsaw where they’ve got virtually every piece of managing the country wrong so that nothing fits positively and the final result being that Pakistan is one of the most underperforming countries in the world.

During my travels rounds the continent one of the biggest criticisms I’ve realized you can make of Asian societies is the lack of meritocracies. Across the continent whether in business or politics it’s quite clear that’s it’s not who you are that ultimately matters but who you know or what your name is. Even in the most developed countries like Korea or Japan power or influence are still obtained via informal relationships with the ‘right people’ in back rooms rather than by someone’s innate abilities.

So for example on the surface an observer might think women are highly empowered in Asia as most countries have had at least 1 female leader including the worlds first (Mrs Bandaranaike in Sri Lanka) and the 3 biggest Muslim countries; however what each and every one of them has in common is that they’re either the daughter or the wife of a dead president. Power tends to be shared amongst a small clique of people, often just a few families as dynasties rule and as I’ve written about in many other countries (Philippines, Indonesia etc) this gives rise to corruption and nepotism which has a terrible retarding effect on a country’s development.

And unfortunately Pakistan is another prime example of this; if you’ve been following the latest storyline in the Pakistan cricket ‘soap opera’ you’ll know the latest story involves a selector going on hunger strike and eventually resigning because his fellow selectors refused to pick his son in law!

More seriously though, since independence just a few families known as “The 22 Families” have shared power in the army, business and via the 2 main political parties and have a very blinkered, uneven view of running the country. The 2 most important families, the Bhuttos and the Sharifs hold an immense amount of political and economic power and via rock solid local power bases the competing dynasties have been slugging it out for national control for much of its democratic history. Pakistan is traditionally a very feudal society with local landowners having decision making powers over nearly everything. Local constituents weren’t used to any other system and even with the arrival of democracy, through bribery and gerrymandering etc. the landowners will be elected almost unopposed as the local MP and it’s very much in their interest to vote to keep the status quo- i.e. their own wealth and privileges. When those in charge die or retire their offspring will take over their position and continue the dynasty with this idea sadly highlighted after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in 2007, when her husband had been convicted on too many corruption charges (even for Pakistan) to take over the party leadership quite ridiculously her 19yr old son took over, despite the fact he was at Oxford and hadn’t actually spent all that much time in Pakistan.

The kleptocracy indulged in by its MPS has meant basic sanitation and infrastructure improvements just don’t happen but most seriously this has meant that Pakistan has never organized a proper nationwide tax collections system as the landowners unsurprisingly vote to a)not pay much tax and b) ensure that as much of local peoples incomes returns to them. As little as 1% of people actually pay the correct amount, and as a result the government repeatedly has had to take huge loans from the World Bank and IMF to pay for stuff. Aside from their scandalous spends on the military this means they have to pay huge amounts of interest servicing its debts so is permanently broke and in todays world simply can’t afford to fund the schools, hospitals etc. which can improve the quality of life of the people. It’s much of the reason why the country has become such a slave to American wishes- because the estimated $20bn in annual aid it receives is pretty much all that keeps the government solvent. But whilst the politicians (and cricketers) like a bit of graft they’ve still been better than the military who’ve run the country for the other half of Pakistans life. The worst governed countries in Asia (North Korea, Myanmar, Indonesia etc) offer a multitude of evidence why soldiers should never be allowed to run things; it tends to make for a better administration when you actually understand areas like economics.

Pakistans military rulers have been terrible for the country, whilst they’ve been appalling administrators, in the longer term they’ve set various national positions which have gone a long way to bring the country to its near failed state. With an adolescently macho, misplaced mindset they’ve authorized genocide in Bangladesh, repeatedly lied to the media, population and the rest of the world about what they’re doing and through meddling in virtually all of their neighbours business Pakistan has become absolutely detested in diplomatic circles due to the way they’ve conducted themselves.

However, since the moment of independence the Kashmir issue has been Pakistan’s Achilles Heel and the military governments have taken the nations obsession with it to an almost pathological level. It reminds me strongly of Argentina and The Falkland Islands where the issue is used as a default story to unite the country in a common cause against an enemy- without there being any real justification. In Pakistan through all forms of media and endless government speeches and declarations the public are fed a never-ending diet of propaganda about the atrocities India are committing and how the Kashmiris are not being allowed to rejoin their brothers on the other side of the border. But there’s only a sliver of truth in it, when I was in Kashmir I was impressed at how articulate the locals were in expressing what they wanted and to a man they gave their preference as Independence, followed by remaining part of India and joining Pakistan being a distant 3rd, with the understandable justification that Pakistan is a complete mess. Pakistan has always spent an unforgivable amount of its GDP on the military (upwards of 1/3 but it’s now up to 75%!) and launched 3 wars over the issue, all of which they comfortably lost cos it’s a war they cannot win. Even with so much spending, its army is still only half the size of Indias’ and massively outnumbered in terms of tanks and other weapons. In recent years though it’s responses have been dangerous and morally unforgivable; a couple of weeks ago the UN atomic weapons commission reported that Pakistan has the fastest growing nuclear weapons programme in the world, making 30 last year alone which in the current domestic security climate and huge poverty its citizens face is simply incredible.

Realizing they won’t win an open war they’ve tried to do it by proxy, creating groups of terrorists to do damage to India then saying it’s nothing to do with them. The Mumbai attacks in 2008 were almost certainly planned by the Pakistan military but their biggest contribution to the world has been the creation of the Taliban. The Taliban were a group of Afghan refugees from the Soviet war in the ‘80s and were initially trained in hardline Islamic rhetoric by the Pakistani secret service to go and fight covertly in Kashmir for the Pakistani cause. But as everyone knows they returned to Afghanistan, the ISI (Paki intelligence agency) gradually lost control of them and Pakistan now finds itself in a farcical position where it openly supports ‘good terrorists’ (i.e. ones that do damage to India) but is desperately fighting against ‘bad terrorists’ (i.e ones that want a Taliban style government and do damage to Pakistan). It would be laughable if it wasn’t quite so serious but Pakistans strategic location and the fact it has the ‘M’(uslim) bomb means that America and the West simply can’t walk away and leave the country to sort out its own mess, much as they’d love to.

Traveling in Pakistan almost felt like being in 2 countries, whilst Punjab and the Northern Areas almost felt like being back in India once I headed West to the legendary North West Frontier Province or as it’s now been renamed Khyber Pakhtunkhwa its bombs, guns, cops and terrorists meant traveling here became really quite difficult.

I must admit I never gave a moments thought to the idea of not coming to Pakistan because of the security situation, but obviously just about every other prospective Western visitor does. There were a few mountaineers in the Karokorams and a few in Lahore but after that I didn’t see any foreigners and the police don’t really know how to deal with you. In the KP there’s barbed wire and armed cops absolutely everywhere and I found myself getting increasingly irate as just about every single one of them wanted to check my ID. I don’t ‘deal well’ with the police anywhere and with their invasive curiosity, having to put up with them has been far and away the worst thing about travelling in Pakistan. On the roads there are checkpoints every half hour or so in the Western part of the country rising to every 15mins in Swat and I found it actually quite embarrassing on journeys as at every single one of them they’d do the American airport immigration game of 120 questions (What are you doing here? Where are you going? Etc) which meant a 10+min delay at each post so found myself constantly having to apologize to the other passengers.

When I got to Chitral in the NW near the Afghan border I had a very surreal few days as the police insisted that I had to have an armed policeman with me at all times, as in ALL waking hours and as much as I argued against them they wouldn’t let me go. I can not put into words how unpleasant a feeling it is, rather than make you feel more secure it does the complete opposite. I’d feel perfectly happy walking round by myself but walking with an AK47 armed shadow unsurprisingly gains you a lot of attention. Also despite him being 8 years older than me and a Father of 6 I ended up having a strange, almost parent-child relationship with him. He clearly wanted me to sit around drinking chai, chatting the breeze all day like a Paki tourist might but this is in the Hindu Kush and unsurprisingly I wanted to get out and enjoy it. Therefore I’d drag him onto 8hr hikes which he really didn’t enjoy. At all. An early morning conversation we had went something like this:

Me: Come on Haji get up I want to get out.

Haji: Oh but do we have to go? My leg hurts.

M: No it doesn’t, you’re just saying that cos you don’t wanna walk.

H: It does. Can’t we stay in town, I wanna see my kids.

M: Fine, I’ll go off by myself.

H: No, I can’t let you. But we can’t go because…because I need to pray!

M: Fine, We’ll go once you’ve prayed.

H: Oh, but do we have to go….

What was most frustrating though was just being barred from going to places with the vague warnings of ‘there may be Taliban there’. I could kind of understand it in the hills but when we went to another valley things got a bit more serious when he fell asleep and I popped out to take a look around the next village. I’d been walking for 10 minutes when another cop ran after me and told me to head back, I’d never seen him before so just ignored him and carried on walking but then things went a bit wrong. As you may have seen in videos of police in India controlling crowds at cricket matches or train stations, in the subcontinent the police will just push or hit people first rather than talking to them and that’s what this guy did to me- and I didn’t exactly respond by saying “Oh sorry, my mistake- I’ll turn back shall I?” We then got into a potentially pretty dangerous position where he kept trying to use force to control me which didn’t exactly cool the situation down and I found myself in the strangely enjoyable position (cos I knew I was in the right) of being able to hurl as much abuse as I wanted at a cop aiming a gun at me! It was only solved when a couple of local guys stepped in and broke us up before his boss arrived and gave me the OK to continue, albeit with the cop following 10yds behind. Not good, but things got even worse when I went to the formerly peaceful holiday district of the Swat valley which you may remember in 2007 was quickly taken over by the Taliban. It was widely seen at the time as the turning point where the army had to take evasive action to reclaim it or the entire country could be set on the road to collapse. They succeeded but 4yrs later it’s still heavily militarized and they were ‘just a bit’ suspicious of me. On 3 utterly tortuous, tedious days I was interviewed for 3hrs, 1.5hrs then a head splitting 5hrs by various officers ascertaining who I was and what I was doing there. It was all very good natured and all being of the educated class they seemed to enjoy having a foreigner to talk to but I guess it just showed how far ‘off the beaten track’ Pakistan has now become.

Despite being so riddled with problems one of the things I find most frustrating about Pakistan is just how much everyone has their heads in the sand about how bad things are and how they can be turned around. Whilst the media is surprisingly free it’s also absolutely terrible. Egged on by jingoistic politicians they’ll report endless stories using ludicrously emotive language about the need to be vigilant against India (which has far better things to do- like growing its economy), petty inter party disputes or moaning about the ills America is doing them- yet there’s little analysis of how their own domestic problems have developed and how they can be solved. Pakis absolutely love talking about politics but neither the politicians, the media nor the general public seem able to grasp that the country is on the brink of failure and only being shored up by outside aid. To tragically highlight this point during the horrific floods that hit the country last year the president gave an international fundraising appeal describing it in emotive language ‘as the worst day in the country’s history’, ‘our hour of greatest need’ etc. etc. yet just three days later for reasons known only to themselves the Paki parliament thought its time would be best used passing a resolution condemning the atrocities committed by the Indian army in Kashmir (which I wrote about last September). Simply unbelievable. They absolutely love conspiracy theories and thanks to the media everyone seems to think the countries problems including the Taliban and all the bombings are down to RAW (Indian intelligence agency). Or if not them then the CIA. Or maybe Mossad. No-one I spoke to believes Osama bin Laden is really dead and despite the seriousness of how bad things are there’s a sense of unreality about the place.

I don’t actually think its problems are unsolvable by any means, if they abandoned the Kashmir issue and started trading with India, stopped supporting any terrorists then massively toned down the military spending many of its problems would begin to get under control and then finally the country might start to move forward. But unfortunately it just seems fixed on a self destructive path and its future is woefully uncertain.

About half the people I went to school with used to say things like “Proud to be a Paki’ but I think there are few countries on Earth whose citizens should feel less proud of. Being here reminded me of traveling in Indonesia and The Philippines earlier on in the trip as whilst large parts of it are stunningly beautiful and the people are often very friendly I think when traveling in other countries you have to be a bit more analytical in judging them and based on an idea of religious superiority and utterly mismanaged since then, frankly Pakistan is a shocking place. I’m sorry the email is so ridiculously long but it’s definitely somewhere I can’t help but feel very passionate about for lots of reasons. And even though they’re the ‘wrong’ reasons I’m still really pleased I’ve been able to go and certainly feel like I’ve learnt a lot from.

From Lahore,


Posted by carlswall 14:39 Archived in Pakistan Comments (0)

Tibet and East Turkestan

Salaam from the Karakorams, I find myself writing this very joyfully from Pakistan after successfully crossing over from China, at 4785m the Khunjerab Pass is the highest border crossing in the world and I was more than a bit nervy going over it. I applied in a couple of places for a Pakistan visa but was told ‘No, you have to apply in the embassy in your home country’… but then I heard about this bizarre loophole at the Chinese crossing where foreigners could get a visa on arrival. The problem is I was doing it ‘illegally’ (for reasons I won’t explain here), I didn’t have a plan B if anything went wrong and the nearest town back on the Chinese side is a 2 day drive away. Therefore despite the extortionate visa fee (thanks to W and the War on Terror) I wasn’t exactly upset when they let me through.

And coming down the Karakoram Highway has been one of the most spectacular landscapes I’ve ever seen, I guess I’ll write more about it in the next email but leaving ‘China’ this way was as spectacular as my entry through Tibet several months ago.

I’ve actually found this email really quite difficult to write because whilst I really do love China, there are some things it (or its government at least) does which are unforgivable.

Ask any Chinese person to point to Western China on a map and they’ll point to provinces like Sichuan or Gansu, in the Chinese imagination the country ‘ends’ at the last fort of the Great Wall at Jiayaguan where prisoners were kicked out of the Western gate and sent into exile. In modern China though, further West are the ‘self autonomous regions’ of Tibet and East Turkestan and they’re some of the worst places in the world to see imperialism in action.

I adore Chinese history and the fundamentally different Confucianist base on which the culture and society is based vs. the West and even things like the music and especially the food I’m already missing.

The pace of development and improvements in the populations quality of life are fascinating and even enervating to see but in what amounts to virtually the Western half of the country things are very different. As I’ve spent quite a bit of time there I found it increasingly difficult to consider the country as one and somewhat hypocritically left the country thinking of it as ‘2 Chinas’ with the positives of the Eastern parts in the middle and the utterly despicable behavior of the Chinese in the West bookending my time in the country.

When I left Nepal several months ago it was via the Friendship Highway to Tibet and due to China's 'Great Firewall' I didn't write about it then but it's obviously one of the most exciting travel destinations in the world and I feel very lucky to have been there at all. As you'll doubtless be aware the Free Tibet movement stepped up a gear during 2008 as it was the year of the Beijing Olympics but the move has arguably backfired as the Chinese greatly increased the number of 'security forces' in the area (1 soldier for every 10 Tibetans) and led to a widespread crackdown in all kinds of areas like schools and monasteries. One of the decisions also made was to stop foreign tourists from visiting the region independently and unfortunately you can now only visit on an organized tour, unless you look Chinese. Much to my disappointment I don’t look like Andy Lau and the tour was disappointing, overpriced and fairly poor quality in a crazy group size of 25; you could ask virtually no questions as the (Tibetan) guide would just quickly mutter "I can't talk about that" and turn away. However, you were given quite a lot of free time to wander around and whilst locals who could speak English would only have brief conversations with you (they can get in a LOT of trouble if caught) simply being there was just a wonderful experience, even at -10 in December.

Tibet plays a very important role in Western imaginations of the 'mystic' East with Lhasa having been the goal of many explorers and adventurers til well into the 20th century. And it is of course one of if not the most celebrated political causes in the world with the likes of Richard Gere and The Beastie Boys being amongst the celebrity activists. And that's because what's happened since the Chinese invasion is really unforgivable on virtually any level; in truth it's hard to know how much of the information given out by Free Tibetan groups is truthful or just propaganda but according to them: 1.2m Tibetans have been killed by the Chinese and 90% of their cultural heritage in the form of monasteries, scriptures etc. has been destroyed or at best turned into tourist attractions. Huge chunks of Tibet have been reassigned to other Chinese provinces and immigration from Han Chinese has been so high that Tibetans are now a minority in the region. Environmentally they've denuded the regions forest cover and animal numbers and in the last few years have even started dumping nuclear waste on the plateau. The history and contemporary politics of the issue are quite complicated but the Chinese claim on the area, with any intellectual assessment is virtually non-existent.

Whilst it's an otherwise fairly disappointing film there's a wonderful scene in the Brad Pitt film "Seven Years in Tibet" when the Chinese army are approaching and playing messages over loudspeakers and on the radio along the lines of "Tibet is being overrun by foreigners and the Dalai Lama is under the thumb of foreign imperial powers" to which the defence minister bemusedly responds "…But we're a nation famous for not letting foreigners in for centuries. In fact the only ones here are you two (Heinrich Harrer and his climbing companion)"
Basically, China lies about Tibet. A lot.
For many years the Chinese government have offered no explanation for the occupation beyond "We've always seen Tibet as part of our country and the takeover in '49 was merely the reunification of the country'.
This is Stalinesque in its dishonesty; in Lhasa there is a staelae recording an agreement between the '2 countries' to respect the wishes of the other, whilst this is from the 10th century the Chinese also use the laughable claim of control due to the fact that during the Mongol empire both were governed as one area. This is like India trying to claim Myanmar under the pretext that both were run by the British once upon a time and ignores the fact that the mighty Red Army took it very much by force against the tiny, untrained Tibetan militia.

Whilst there's obviously a huge amount written in the Western press about the destruction of the region etc. in truth in the first few days there were very few signs of it with towns hosting few security personnel and only the ubiquitous Chinese flag on every public building gave the hint that the Chinese are trying to show their authority.
Tibetans were wonderful people to be around, they don't see many foreigners but even in Lhasa would always greet you with a smile and a tashi delek (hello), I would also describe Tibetans as perhaps the most interesting people I've ever seen to look at with wonderful brightly coloured clothes and seemingly unending supplies of character in their faces at all ages. From the insanely cute children to the effeminate looking long haired men and the ever smiling old women who had more lines than you'd think possible it was something of a photographers dream wandering round and seeing them with their prayer wheels and beads. Culturally it is as you might expect an incredible place to be; Tibetan Buddhism through the use of Lamas and Shamans is much more colorful and vibrant than the more conservative forms of the religion practiced in places like Myanmar or Sri Lanka and the incense filled monasteries and temples are wonderful to wander around. Amongst the highlights were the statues in the Tashi Lumpo monastery and getting to see the monks doing their famously energetic debating (stamping their feet and clamping their hands to make a point) at the Sera Monastery. Amongst such a friendly, peaceful people the first few days just felt nothing but very relaxed and all the things I'd heard about the region didn't ring true.

But then we got to Lhasa and things really changed- the first thing I saw when we got off the bus was a female SWAT officer brandishing a rifle not much smaller than her in the middle of an ordinary shopping street. In the evening there was a festival going on and it would have been a wonderful sight with thousands of colourful pilgrims from the countryside making a kora (circuit) of the big Jokhang Temple. However, they had to share the route with literally hundreds of armed soldiers doing nothing but glaring at the people and emitting that sinister air of menace which comes with knowing they can say or do anything to the locals and there'll be virtually no comeback on them. Tibetans are about as unconfrontational and peaceful a people as can be imagined, quite how the Chinese feel the need for all the guns and snipers on the roof etc. is just beyond me as even if a few Tibetans do protest about anything you can be fairly certain it won't need such a heavy handed response. Still, I made sure to wink and smile at the troops as much as possible and wave at the video camera touting officers looking out for 'troublemakers'.
For all the Chinese 'reunification language' or talk of 'investing in the region' on the ground the Chinese have done so many things which serve seemingly no purpose but to demoralise the Tibetans. From turning the 'picnic island' in the centre of Lhasa's river into a horrible, soulless shopping centre to tearing down the village below the Potala Palace and building a Tianamen style square with an horrific 'Tibetan Liberation Monument' standing phallically out under 24hr armed guard.

In Tibetan Buddhisms hierarchy the 2nd most important Lama (senior monk) is the Panchen Lama and one of the most serious and perhaps the nastiest thing the Chinese have done has been to make him and his family disappear. He was only 6yrs old in 1994 when he was abducted by the Red Army and is believed to have been kept under house arrest ever since though no-one has actually seen him. The Chinese claim that only they can pick new Lamas and it's a deliberate challenge to their authority on the part of the Dalai Lama to choose another Lama. They inserted their own picked Panchen Lama whilst the actual one remains the record holder of the world's youngest political prisoner. For the above reason the Dalai Lama has indicated the next DL will probably have to be picked from the exiled community, if another one is picked at all.

Whilst so much is written about Tibet's incredible culture and it's destruction, Tibet itself is one of the most memorable landscapes on earth. 'The roof of the world', almost all of it is at well over 3500m up to Mt Everest and is the watershed for several of the world's longest rivers (Yangtze, Brahmaputra etc.). It receives very little rain and it's a harsh environment hosting 50% of the worlds silica with the population eking out a subsistence lifestyle with meat the major part of the diet as no crops or vegetation aside from barley will grow. As we spent 3 days on the bus we got a good look at it but the train journey leaving it would surely rate as one of the most memorable in the world.
It was deeply controversial at an estimated $10 billion cost but it's an incredible piece of engineering. Long parts of the line have been built on permafrost and they actually invented a cooling system to keep the ground frozen so that melting snow doesn’t interrupt with the sleepers. You go past beautiful frozen lakes and go as high as 5400m on a 2 day journey to get off the gigantic plateau and it's one of the things which to at least some extent indicates the Chinese influence in the area isn't all bad.

Whilst the present Dalai Lama is one of the most popular men in the world his predecessors ruled under a terribly corrupt and stagnant governing system; new Lamas were decided under a belief in young boys being reincarnated from the previous lama and were picked via an archaic and open to abuse system to maintain the monasteries power, in fact for much of its history in Tibet the theocratic governing system paid no attention to improving the everyday lives of the people.
That’s starting to change as there are definitely positives of the Chinese coming in, in the last few years they've invested billions in building fantastic roads and the railway and organized schooling has been established beyond the monastery system which only educated young (male) monks, which I think most people would agree is an improvement on what went on before.
But, and this has perhaps become the key part of the whole Tibet issue is that the Chinese have done this with only their own interests at heart. Tibet has huge deposits of various minerals, oil and natural gas and the government clearly has a long plan in regards to more trade with Nepal.

Around Lhasa they've taken almost all the best land and turned it into little more than industrial suburbs, the bus system doesn't run to towns unless there's a Chinese community and unless you're Chinese you've got no chance getting a job below the lowest levels in any public service.

In some ways China is not the best place to travel in, whilst the landscapes are outstanding and transport is normally pretty good the distances between places can be exhausting and the tonal language is frustrating to say the least. However, probably the biggest criticism visitors have of it is that it’s ‘The Great Monoculture’. Aside from a few Western provinces the people look, speak, dress and eat the same and thanks to Mao’s unification programmes despite the vast distances there’s very little human differentiation between areas. Therefore another thing which the Tibetans are struggling to deal with is being turned into a human zoo or tourist attraction from which they see few of the benefits. Tibet has become an object of fascination for Chinese tourists with the 'mysterious' Tibetan culture being popularly promoted by the tourist board and Chinas best selling book of the last year, the pseudo spiritual mystery The Tibetan Code. Since the railway was finished in 2007 the domestic tourist industry has grown annually at 45% but as they stay at Chinese owned hotels and pay incredible sums to enter the tourists attractions (e.g. $45 for the Potala Palace) which the government keeps, their presence is understandably deeply resented by the Tibetans. Certainly the bizarre sculpture in front of the Panchen Lamas Tashi Lumpo monastery of a Chinese tourist taking a photo of Tibetan people looked like nothing more than stating 'this is how we see you’.

China's economic clout is now so strong that the issue has now been almost forgotten by much of the international community in fear of losing trade etc. and the Dalai Lama now has very modest goals. Whilst most Tibetans would dearly love the Chinese to leave entirely he's reduced their aim to nothing more than religious freedom with no hope of a separate state in the medium term at the very least.
One of the things I've never understood about Tibet and being there has brought me no closer to understanding is why the Chinese are still persisting in the religious clampdown. During the initial invasion under Mao it was understandable as he was trying to build a united atheist country through the language, political system and everywhere in China experienced a clamp down on religious activity. However, surely that's now defunct and for a culture as peaceful as Tibet surely they should just let it be. The Dalai Lama has now resigned all political roles and even asked for a Chinese passport but he's still listed as a separatist leader and vilified in the Chinese government run press. With the recent news that the Chinese are going to stop schools teaching in Tibetan it's a depressing situation in a magnificent part of the world but I can’t see how things are going to improve any time soon.

I do feel very lucky to have been to Tibet but for a neat summary: an incredible landscape, fascinating culture, a home to wonderful people and the Chinese are slowly strangling it to death.

Fast forward a few months and a similar situation is occurring in what the locals call East Turkestan but the Chinese don’t; despite being the 2nd most powerful country in the world the Chinese really can be unbelievably petty. My Bavarian friend will angrily recount how his China Lonely Planet was confiscated by border guards when crossing from Kazakhstan because Taiwan was covered a different colour and other amusing examples I’ve seen are Tibetan mastiffs and even ‘Tintin in Tibet’ being pointlessly renamed to ‘Chinas’ Tibetan mastiffs and ‘Tintin in Chinas’ Tibet’.

In East Turkestan the cynical name the Chinese have given the province is Xinjiang, which means ‘New Frontier Province’ and that alone is symbolic of the cause of much of the problems in the area.

This area is home to the Uighur people and being Muslim and (unless to the very practiced eye) largely indistinguishable from other Central Asian people it has none of the ‘sex appeal’ of the Tibetan cause to Westerners although if anything things are maybe worse here, certainly more volatile and likely to end in violence than Tibet. China has a slightly longer claim on this area (about 150years) but as with most of Central Asia for most of its history who governed it in practice is highly debatable, China didn’t really start taking a proper interest until the 1960’s and ‘70’s when they found resources and Mao launched ‘the Great Leap Westwards” and encouraged Han Chinese to move in to develop the area.

As can be seen in many examples such as the British in Southern Africa, more recently Russians in Georgia/Ukraine or even the ongoing Israeli policy of changing ‘facts on the ground’ in Palestine, one of the very worst aspects of empire building is moving people into already occupied areas. Ostensibly this is done to develop those areas but it creates divisive, potentially dangerous changes to the makeup of the population and the longterm prospects of peace in those regions. In the case of modern China the concept which screams out at you is Lebensraum as the Han Chinese have overgrown their Eastern heartlands and quite simply needed more room to settle and feed the population. The problem is they’ve taken away so much of the locals land and resources that it’s led to a major culture clash and even violence through an ongoing insurgency in the region.

It’s another magnificent area to travel in, vast and empty it’s home to the giant Talimaklan desert but is punctuated by gorgeous oasis areas such as the -150m Turpan basin where amongst the vineyards you can quite remarkably look up to snow capped 5500m peaks above you.

Ignoring it’s natural charms the Chinese are so interested in the area because it’s rich with oil and gas reserves and is of vital strategic importance in their increasingly successful ambitions to control Central Asia. The Han didn’t really want to move West with its inhospitable climate and different, remote environment so the government has thrown in all kinds of incentives to people to make the move. They’re offered higher salaries in government jobs, free education for their children and in some cases even lower tax rates compared to Eastern provinces. These have been so successful that the joke goes: the ‘Iron Rooster’ (the train that goes West) arrives full and leaves half empty’, to the tune of 250,000 migrants a year moving in.

In contrast the Uighur population have one of the worst quality of life in China, they’re not allowed to speak their own language at school and as in Tibet they’re virtually barred from holding any positions of authority. In East Turkestan they have few economic opportunities beyond farming and it’s a sad but frequent sight all over China where they’re forced to move to cities on the East coast and reduced to doing nothing more than selling either bread or meat on the street as they’re treated disdainfully by the Chinese. As a result, calls for independence have become more pronounced and frequently have started to use violence against the Chinese immigrants as they feel they’re now second class citizens in their own home area. Their way of life is even less compatible with the Chinese than Tibetans and in the bigger cities like Kashgar or especially Urumqi the difference between the two communities is, if not quite apartheid certainly unofficial segregation. Perhaps one of the most surprising things about the situation is that you see virtually nobody who’s ethnically ‘in the middle’- they’re clearly either Chinese or the central Asian looking Uighurs as intermarriage is virtually unheard of and culturally the differences are stark. The Southern half of Urumqi is the Uighur part where there are virtually no Chinese wandering round, the people eat mutton, listen to Turkic language music and the women definitely cover up whilst in the Northern half of the city you have the usual neon lights and conspicuous consumption beloved by rich Chinese (flashy, overpriced bars, shops and restaurants) and the women display their standard dubious taste in clothes via skimpy shorts and heels. Due to China’s crazy policy of having just one time zone (it’s still light at nearly 11pm at this time of year) they even time their lives separately with the Chinese following the official Beijing time whilst the Uighurs use ‘local time’ set 2hrs earlier. Apart from maybe Guyana and the warring Black and Indian communities I can think of few places I’ve been where the two communities have so little in common and clearly resent the others presence so much.

One of the biggest criticisms most people have about China is their unforgivable foreign policy and their wasted seat on the UN security council. They’re quite happy to not get involved in any dispute and write off virtually any human rights abuses or clampdowns by abusive leaders abroad as ‘internal issues’ and this has twin benefits for them. On the one hand it allows them to trade with absolutely everyone and so they’ve virtually singlehandedly shored up the world’s worst governments (North Korea, Sudan, Myanmar etc.) totally ignoring any moral implications of doing so in exchange for very cheap resources. In fact you may argue China has been one of the biggest obstacles in achieving peace for much of the world and if everyone behaved like this then we probably would have had plenty more serious wars following WWII. Then on the other hand it allows them to treat their own citizens however they want using the justification that it’s an ‘internal issue’. This task was made much easier by the Sep 11th attacks as with total justification they could point to NATO chasing ‘stateless terrorists’ and say they’re merely doing the same. In East Turkestan the issue reached a crux in 2009 when after riots by the Uighurs over unemployment and their lack of opportunities the Chinese ruthlessly responded by throwing thousands in jail and executed hundreds more. As with Tibet I couldn’t really see how a solution can be found that will make everyone happy, the Chinese will simply not listen to any calls for change either from the Uighurs or the international community and the oppression both Tibetans and Uighurs face is upsetting to see.
Despite all the above I think it would be unfair to blame the Chinese people as a whole as they're told virtually nothing of what's really happening. Thanks to the millions spent on propaganda by the government, the impression I get is that most Chinese merely believe that the rest of the country is simply investing in the region (at their own expense) to improve everyone who lives there standard of living and they receive virtually no word on the human rights abuses etc.. In Turpan we saw a bizarre official mural of Uighurs laughing in the fields and displaying their traditional dancing before it incongruously ran into paintings of electricity pylons and aeroplanes taking off to perfectly highlight the Chinese attitude. Whenever China releases a statement on Tibet or E Turkestan they seem genuinely perplexed why the locals aren’t thanking them for bringing so much development to their areas but they seem simply unable to understand that for other cultures there is more to life than money. As with most people around the world political and religious freedom probably comes ahead of financial concerns for Tibetans and Uighurs but for lots of reasons that’s certainly not true of the Chinese. China is full of public propaganda about how unified and happy all the different races are in the country but seeing the total cultural domination by the Han and lack of respect given to other humans in these areas definitely led to me thinking how the idea and fears of the Yellow Peril and Dr Fu Manchu became popular in the West a hundred or so years ago. Quite a negative way to leave China as there’s so much I admire about it but in it’s current form at least an ever more powerful China is a scary prospect.

Ultimately the lack of freedom in both areas link into one of the strongest feelings I’ve had about traveling in Asia- there simply isn’t enough of it. To put it in some sort of context: Europe has ?m people spread across ? countries, on this trip in Asia I’ve visited 22 countries but collectively they’re home to ?bn people. Much of the blame for this lies firmly with the imperial powers, aside from China described above the British created ‘Frankenstein’ states in India, Myanmar and Pakistan by establishing the modern day countries based on what they found easiest to administer, rather than actually reflecting the cultural, ethnic and linguistic makeup of the areas in question. In the New World this wasn’t really a problem as even in the biggest countries like Brazil or the States the national identity is very much formed round the idea that (virtually) everyone is an immigrant. But in Asia things are far different as you have many of the worlds oldest civilizations, based on different religions, ethnicities and language being suppressed or ignored by whoever is most powerful at the time. As a result, with the exceptions of Vietnam and Japan in all of the bigger countries I’ve visited there are separatist conflicts of differing intensities. In almost all countries a power split has formed along ethnic (Myanmar, India, Pakistan etc.) or religious (Thailand, The Philippines, Sri Lanka etc.) lines with the biggest/most powerful group inevitably suppressing weaker groups and it’s been one of the most negative things to see traveling in the continent.

International relations are actually very good in Asia; aside from the ongoing Kashmir issue and minor Thai-Khmer clashes there have been very few conflicts since they gained their independence in the post WWII period. However, because you have so many independence movements across the continent unforgivable sums are wasted by countries with no external enemies like Myanmar and Sri Lanka on relatively gigantic armies whose role is to do nothing other than suppress groups wanting greater autonomy or independence. Far and away the worst example of this is Indonesia where the Dutch were even more guilty than the British in India by not forming a workable plan for the post-independence period. The Indonesian state is now fairly horrific to see as whilst many islands want nothing to do with the country the majority Javans simply send in developers to strip their resources and then the army to hit the locals if they show any resistance.

The only successful independence story of recent years was in East Timor and despite being dirt poor and riddled with developmental problems it would have to rate as one of the most uplifting places to visit in Asia. The people were so pleased of their freedom from Indonesia and the national pride they felt shone through as they happily talked about it and you couldn’t help but hope that Tibetans, Uighurs and the various other minority groups are given the same opportunities. If there’s one wish I’d have for the continent it would be that maybe in the next 30-50 years the map will start to look much more complicated than they currently are and maybe one day more like Europe.

But for now I’m still in Asia, so from Karimabad,


Posted by carlswall 14:35 Archived in China Comments (0)