A Travellerspoint blog

Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan

Hello, I write this from Iran and it feels absolutely fantastic to be here after a Hyde and Jekyll last few weeks. When traveling in Central Asia visas become the absolute bane of your life, swapping stories about them is the standard conversation starter amongst fellow travelers and aside from the cost and effort involved roughly half my time in Central Asia has been consumed by days mucking about at embassies or waiting around for things to happen in the comfortable but fairly boring capital cities of the region. The Iranian visa was probably the hardest I’ll ever apply for; it took 7 weeks, cost $210 and I could easily write 3000 words (don’t worry I won’t) on the process which involved giving up on going before an unexpected confirmation by email then bribing my way onto a train to a semi ruined embassy with skeletons literally in the closet and a broken Telex machine. Ultimately though the consulate in Tashkent’s inexplicable refusal to make one phone call for 3 days meant it came so late that my traveling plans were all but ruined. After initially refusing me after a few minutes of begging the Turkmen embassy they agreed to let me apply for a transit visa, the guy there said it probably wouldn’t arrive (before my Uzbek visa expired) but to check last Monday and “Inshallah it will arrive”. And I’m now thinking I might have to start believing in God as both literally and metaphorically my number came up.

Beforehand I was absolutely bricking it as not only would it mean no Turkmenistan but I was looking at a minimum of $420 to sort the situation out (visa extension/flight to Iran) so it would have to rank as one of the best moments of the entire trip. Culturally the Stans are not the most diverse part of the world and I realize I distinguish the countries in terms of the landscapes and therefore the type of agriculture they do rather than any cultural differences between them. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it but after quite a lot of stress from various things (as I’ll write about later) it felt fantastic to end Central Asia with some final beers in the bonkers land of the Turkmen, on an admin level at least it’s one of the most difficult parts of the world to get around so now I’ve ‘seen it’ I can’t see myself returning too quickly.

There’s a memorable line towards the end of the fantastic German film The Lives of Others when the Berlin Wall has come down and one of the characters contemptuously mouths to the corrupt and all round loathsome ex-Communist boss: “And just to think people like you used to run the country”. Well in Central Asian ‘they’ still do run things. The region is home to some of the worst functioning ‘democracies’ in the world as the70 something year old Communist bosses from the ‘80s fix elections and generally terrorize people to make sure they’re repeatedly returned with 90%+ of the vote. On the back of the country’s resource wealth the Kazakh President Nazarbayev has allegedly become one of the richest men in the world but as ordinary peoples lives have also improved (and they supply a lot of oil) he’s largely escaped international criticism. More interesting are Presidents Karimov and (the now unfortunately dead) Niyazov who ruled over the two more memorable Central Asian ‘Stans’ of Uzbek and Turkmen.

Uzbekistan represents one of the worst examples of Western foreign policy since the end of the Cold War. In the same way that the British and American leaders hypocritically congratulated the Tunisian/Egyptian (and to a lesser extent Libyan) peoples recently after overthrowing oppressive leaders the West supported, their policies in Uzbekistan have been similarly ethically bankrupt. The Uzbek leader Islam Karimov really is a nasty piece of work, aside from banning all independent media (no BBC. Reuters, AP etc.) and even foreign NGOs who report on what he’s doing he’s brutally cracked down on any opposition to his rule; allowing no other political parties, regularly using torture on opponents and famously boiling people alive. His partner in crime is his oldest daughter who goes by the stage name Googoosha and is probably going to be his successor. Aside from being a pop star, in very shady circumstances (through probable mafia and definite official help) she’s gained control of vast areas of the country’s economy, running near monopolies in healthcare, telecoms, entertainment etc. She’s become one of the richest women in Switzerland (where thanks to her ‘diplomatic status’ she’s based of course) but has got there entirely thanks to her Father’s position so is absolutely detested in Uzbekistan.

But unforgivably the West has largely let all this go; about 10 years ago Uzbekistan had a brief flare up of Islamic extremism that was quickly crushed by Karimovs troops but his support for the ‘War on Terror’ and allowing NATO to use air bases for raids in Afghanistan meant he was effectively given ‘a pass’ (and $500m in aid) by the West. You may remember the case of the British Ambassador Craig Murray who admirably spoke out about the human rights abuses going on and encouraged Western governments to take action... so in a moment that had the grass roots of the Labour Party up in arms he was promptly sacked and his reputation publicly slandered by the Blair government. Eventually even Bush gave up on Karimov after the infamous Andijon massacre where he ordered the army to kill 1000 people protesting against his rule but by sanctioning him in the first place the West can’t really criticize the likes of China over their foreign policy and begs the question of what exactly are we fighting for in Iraq and Afghanistan. Certainly seeing smiling photos of Karimov with some of the worst politicians America has offered up (Rumsfeld, Kissinger etc.) in recent years is a pretty galling sight and once again traveling in this region has underlined quite how much the ‘War on Terror’ has cost in so many ways for such limited results.

One of the things most people find enjoyable about traveling is seeing how different societies work , sometimes you see things which you think are ‘better’ or more likable than what you grow up with but other times you see things and just feel very lucky to be from a country like England. And in Central Asia one of those things are the police. Along with the visa situation I’d highlight them as the main reason not to visit the region. In some countries e.g. Bolivia or China the cops are under strict instructions not to interact with foreigners under virtually any circumstance; in other countries like India cops will often stop you but it never feels unsafe and is mainly to satisfy the unattractive degree of curiosity that Indians seem to possess. But in Central Asia the police are the most dangerous people to be around, over the last 2months at a guess I’ve been stopped once a day on average and as their main motivation is to try and get money out of you I very quickly learned to turn around and walk away if I saw one. Being confronted by aggressive cops is a pretty hard situation to deal with, they’re the law and you’re not meant to mess with the law but at times it’s been damn scary and I’ll leave Central Asia very, very pleased I haven’t got into serious trouble as I’ve come pretty close a couple of times.

In Tajik/Kyrgyz/Kazakh ‘stan their usual tactic is to fabricate a reason to stop you e.g. ‘we’re searching for drugs’, then you get into an argument over the same two things. The security advice for the region is a) DO NOT let them search your bags (they’ll often plant drugs) and b) if you can possibly avoid it DO NOT give them your passport because (as several travellers have confirmed to me) they’ll just say “Right, unless you give me some money you’re not seeing that again”. So roughly once a day I’ve had to deal with them saying ‘Gimme your Passport/let me check you bags’ and me trying to say ‘No I don’t think so’.

In many ways Central Asia is run under an unpleasant system of might is right and if you’re richer/bigger/stronger you’ll always get your way. And that’s how it’s been in dealing with the police, if it’s just one cop or they’re younger/smaller than me I would just say no or act a bit bolshie and they’ve tended to back off and let me go. But generally the police recruitment posters go something like: “Are you 3”/30lbs bigger than the average bloke and have an IQ below 80? If so, then congratulations- you’ve passed the police entry requirement!” So they’ll try to intimidate you which when there’s several of them is not nice. The single scariest incident was in Bishkek when I got stopped by 6 cops on a quiet road as it was getting dark. After several minutes of them getting increasingly aggressive as I refused to hand over my bags but had my passport wrenched off me I was starting to get really worried. They then brought up a commander who gave me an icy glare and jabbered something nasty sounding in Russian but involved the word ‘money’ when amazingly and out of nowhere one of the other ones said something pertaining to “Oh let’s just let him go’ and unexpectedly gave me back my passport.

Obviously a very lucky escape, a virtually identical thing happened to the French guy I’m now traveling with and they simply stole $300 off him.

But then came Uzbekistan; I’ve been to a few places but I’ve never been anywhere that comes anywhere close to the police presence of Uzbek cities. If in London you’re never more than 10m away from a rat then in Tashkent you’re never more than 50m away from a pig. In order to maintain his iron grip on power Karimov has created one of the worst ‘police states’ in the world; one tour guide told me he opens his tours with the line: “Welcome to Uzbekistan, where you take the time machine back to the Brezhnev era”.

It’s difficult to convey in words just how thick the ‘green (not blue here) line’ is but there are cops literally everywhere standing around looking very bored, which along with the low wage is much of the reason why they hassle people so much. Their presence peaks in the gorgeous Tashkent Metro (modeled on the Moscow Metro so lots of marble, chandeliers and mosaics in the stations), at each entrance, set of ticket gates, escalator or platform there’s at least one copper hanging around and they all want to check your stuff. On top of being hassled on the streets I basically couldn’t deal with this every day and one time I absolutely lost it with one on a platform when after a particularly bad morning at the Iranian embassy (so my mood was a darker shade of black), I’d already been checked 3 times in the station when another copper demanded my passport… at which point at virtually the top of my voice I just started screaming and screaming at him. He was absolutely shell shocked as I guess he’s used to people obeying him and it must have been a fairly unforgettable sight for the 2 or 300 other passengers on the platform. After a while another cop came over and sheepishly apologized to me but then some sort of commander arrived and in surprisingly good English said “Don’t ever speak to a policeman like that again in Uzbekistan”. Good advice but I don’t think I’d pass off as a terrorist or even something like a mugger so why the hell was I being checked for the 4th time in 5 minutes? I’d advise anyone who wants compulsory ID cards and increased stop and search powers for the police in England to spend a couple of weeks in Uzbekistan and then see how they feel about that. That said, by all accounts corruption and general harassment have improved immeasurably since the ‘90s and as one Kazakh guy said “We’re a young country, maybe in 20 years this kind of thing will have stopped”. I think he was probably right but to sum the whole situation up, as I was waiting for my final Uzbek train, in 20 minutes I saw the same cop get into 2 fist fights with Uzbek blokes. Both times the guys didn’t have tickets so were either trying to carry a 2yr old daughter (his wife was disabled) or the bags of his 70yr old Mother onto the platform. As the baton waving cop gave a lovely display of ‘respect my authority’ contempt with violent consequences I just thought what a horrible, horrible group of people run things and whilst I found 3wks near intolerable I left the country feeling real pity for ordinary people having to live every day under such a repressive system.

Whilst I personally can’t ever imagine wanting to travel on an organized tour, as the legions of French and Italian buses there show the amount of hassle they save in Uzbekistan means it’s probably one of the best places in the world to visit non-independently. Aside from not getting hassle from the police, if you’re traveling independently you need to register your presence every night (i.e. show proof of where you’re staying or you can get fined when you leave the country)and have to repeatedly run the gauntlet of changing money up on the black market (the official exchange rate is 33% lower which is particularly ridiculous as in Uzbekistan the highest value note is worth just $0.40 so $100 = 250 notes. Bus conductors or traders carrying around duffel bags full of money is not an uncommon sight but I guess they’ll get no bank jobs!

Another benefit of going on a tour is getting access to better food; aside from using porcelain toilets again (as opposed to holes in the ground) I’ve also had to relearn how to use cutlery (rather than chopsticks or my right hand for the last 2 years) in Central Asia, although with very limited enjoyment. Central Asia is often considered to have the worst cuisine in the world and whilst I think Mongolia would be my pick I can remember few periods of my life where I’ve taken less interest in food than the last couple of months. Since leaving China I’ve not had a good meal and have essentially got into a routine of eating breakfast then just snacking on fruit for the rest of the day and rarely going to restaurants. I’ve found this incredibly frustrating as whilst in places like Tibet or Mongolia nothing grows so it’s easy to see why the food’s limited to meat and dairy products but here it’s largely the same food yet they have a Mediterranean climate so a quick walk round any bazaar will show a wonderful selection of fruit (especially the melons and figs) and vegetables… but they just don’t do anything with them. Restaurants will often serve nothing but shashlyk (kebabs) and bread or if you’re lucky the onomatopoeic regional ‘delicacy’ plov (fried rice with bits of mutton fat) and the nearest you’ll get to a healthy dish is a ‘tourist salat’ (slices of cucumber and tomato) so I’m leaving the region feeling in terrible condition and desperate for some decent food.

Despite the definite downsides there is a bit to do in Uzbekistan, it’s home to the 3 biggest tourist attractions in the region: the ancient Silk Road cities of Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkhand. They’re steeped in history and thanks to the fluted turquoise domes and mosaic tiling on the giant mosques and madrassas they’re marvelously photogenic. However, like most visitors I was somewhat disappointed when I saw just how overzealous they’ve been in the restoration/reconstruction efforts they’ve made. They’re meant to be living cities but they’ve demolished the old towns and kicked all the residents out to leave the strange impression of a giant museum modeled with souvenir stall lined streets straight out of Disneyworld or MGM Studios. Nonetheless, the region offers very little in terms of man-made attractions so it was quite nice being fairly touristy again.

The other place I visited in Uzbekistan was Moynaq, also a man-made ‘sight’ but of a very different kind; the USSRs rap sheet for environmental damage in Central Asia is both long and damning. During the arms race with the US they used the big remote, empty spaces of Kazakhstan as a nuclear and chemical weapons testing ground and whilst the human cost has been nothing like Chernobyl even now large areas are littered with gigantic radioactive craters and are completely off limits to the public. Even worse though has been their harebrained attempts to reform the agricultural practices of the formerly nomadic peoples of the region. Stalin launched a disastrous campaign to create giant wheat farms on the unused steppe by forcibly resettling the animal herding populations onto collectivised farms. But thanks to the harsh winters and strong winds destroying the fragile soils (and the fact the Russians had already slaughtered most of their animals) the area was left with no food and around 2million starved to death.

In Turkmenistan we had an incredible night camping out by the truly bizarre gas crater of Darvaza; walking for 1.5hrs in the dark in the desert would normally be a very stupid/dangerous thing to do but thankfully we had a giant orange reference point… cos the crater is on fire. And has been for no less than 40years! During the 1970’s a Soviet gas exploration experiment went a bit wrong, and a gas filled cavern caught fire and just doesn’t stop burning so looks like the Gates of Hell.

It’s got a radius of some 70m and is fairly hot but not so gassy that you can’t get pretty close to it so we just spent an hour watching the mesmeric flames. Under a perfect starry sky it was a truly wonderful experience, camping by a burning gas crater in the middle of the Turkmen desert- quite literally what you go travlling for.

Much more famously though is the plight of the Aral Sea which is generally regarded as the biggest man made environmental disaster in history. Once the 4th largest lake in the world, in the 1960’s the Russians came up with the incredible idea of turning the Turkmen and Uzbek ‘Stans economies into ones dominated by cotton production. I’m not gonna pretend to know much about cotton but I know that it needs lots of water, hence why it grows so well in the Mississippi and Nile deltas. The thing was that those two countries are largely composed of desert and water is at a premium so the Russian plan was to divert virtually all the regions rivers into irrigation canals to feed the cotton fields. Seeing as these rivers were the source of the Aral Sea, unsurprisingly over the next 40years the body of water shrank at a dramatic rate decimating the ecosystem and the livelihoods of the Karakal people who lived by it. Moynaq was formerly the 2nd biggest port on the Sea but now stand no less than 180km from the current shoreline. It has an almost apocalyptic feel to it and was just a very sad place to be as the population has near entirely moved out (I couldn’t even find anywhere to eat) and it’s home to the famous ship graveyard in front of an endless desert vista that you’ve probably seen photos of. A while ago the sea split into Northern and Southern parts and thanks to huge investment rechanneling water supplies the Northern sea in Kazakhstan is making a recovery and getting bigger again but the Southern part has been abandoned with nothing living there as it’s now almost as salty as the Dead Sea. A pretty sad spot all in but it’s a testament to just how bad/nasty a leader Karimov is that not only are farmers still forced to grow cotton in a destructive monoculture but during harvest time in Autumn large numbers of the Uzbek people (including children) are forcibly moved out to the fields to go and collect the crop. It’s not quite the Gulag but it’s remarkable that slavery is effectively still practiced in the 21st century.

After making a just in time dash across Uzbekistan I escaped into Turkmenistan, one of the world’s least known countries. Aside from granting no electoral or press freedoms Turkmen politicians don’t tend to be very open in explaining their policies so the rest of the world very little is known about Turkmenistan, it probably ranks 2nd only behind North Korea as the most secretive country in the world. In part due to xenophobia but mainly to stop locals from meeting foreigners and learning about the outside world if you want to visit as a tourist you have to pay $200 a day with guides who are (allegedly) members of the intelligence service as your hotel room is bugged and you’re generally kept a very close eye on. However, for reasons I couldn’t understand they grant a 5 day transit visa where you have total freedom and, provided you’re prepared to use your time fully, effectively acts as a 3 day tourist visa. Despite being so cut off from the rest of the world (e.g. the media doesn’t present any international news) the people were surprisingly indifferent to us wandering around. Apparently they’re taught in school not to speak to foreigners (if they can ever see any) but I was pretty shocked at how incurious they were to foreigners wearing strange clothes (the national dress is a virtual uniform) and wandering round markets and the like- they just didn’t seem interested. It was like being in Japan again. Here too the security presence is pretty strong but the people are comfortably off as housing is heavily subsidized and gas is totally free (so people don’t ever bother turning it off in their homes), even petrol is just $0.20 per litre (cheapest in the world?) so only 1-2 generations removed from nomadic herdsmen they seem reasonably content (but no-one really knows) in their Turkmen bubble.

The country’s main claim to fame since independence was the leadership of President Niyazov or as he insisted everyone call him, Turkmenbashy (Leader of the Turkmen). Before he kicked the bucket in 2006 he cultivated probably the strongest personality cult the world has seen in recent years, beyond the likes of Stalin, either Kim or even Tony Blair. He had portraits and golden statues of him put up everywhere including a giant 12m one on top of a massive obelisk which rotated so that he’d always face the sun and renamed days of the week and months of the year after his family. He wrote a (truly hilarious) book called the Ruhnama (basically 800pages about how great he is) which all schoolchildren had to learn and he even built the largest mosque in the region which never gets any worshippers (we went on Eid and it was totally empty!) because he blasphemously inscribed the entrance gate with the phrase “The Quran is Allahs’ book but the Ruhnama is a holy book”.

His successor is so much of a doppelganger with Niyazov it’s widely believed he’s his illegitimate son but he’s unfortunately removed the rotating statue and the more extreme policies e.g. the days of the week have been changed back. However, he’s learned from the best so he’s followed Turkmenbashys lead by altruistically covering the country in his portraits and they’re cleverly themed so in front of hospitals it’s him smilingly performing an operation or him flying a plane in front of the airport or commanding troops in a Generals uniform in front of army bases. Absolutely magic.

Turkmenbashy also embarked on an incredible project of rebuilding the capital Ashgabat; thanks to a desert landscape chock full of natural gas and a couple of pipelines to Russia/China the country is absolutely swimming in money. But rather than investing in education and healthcare blah blah blah Turkmenbashy made the pleasingly bold decision to knock down most of the capital and rebuild it in white marble with hundreds of fountains to set off the look. It’s a quite incredible place to wander round, something like Las Vegas but lacking the irony as aside from the giant monuments to Turkmenbashy, flashy ministries and empty hotels and shopping centres even apartment blocks have been rebuilt as giant condominiums stretching for several KMs into the desert… all in the same white marble style. After a while you actually become a bit desensitized to it all as in the centre of town there’s no life around. During the day you’ll barely see anyone but gardeners, street sweepers and the odd policeman looking after the palaces but for a couple of days it’s an incredible place to visit and at night when they’re all lit up it makes for a cracking skyline. It’s a strange place but as I so frequently do when traveling I just left feeling very, very lucky to have had the chance to visit.

From Mashhad,


Posted by carlswall 14:49 Archived in Turkmenistan Comments (0)

Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan

Hello from Central Asia, I hope the Londoners amongst you are reading this on something you nicked during the riots. After a fairly action packed few weeks in Afganistan and its aftermath I followed it up with a fairly nondescript period; don’t expect much from this one. I had to hang about in Kyrgyzstan for too long trying unsuccessfully to get visas and despite being there nearly a month I don’t have too much to say on it. In fact I found this email harder to write than just about any other on this trip, at the very least I don’t think anyone will die as a result of it. That’s not to say I actually disliked the place, any country where kymys (fermented mares milk) is available on every street corner I’ll get on in but it felt like probably the quietest country I’ve been to in Asia. I then spent about 10 days in Kazakhstan, which is slightly livelier but its reputation as ‘the biggest blank spot on the map’ isn’t far off- put it this way it's the biggest country in the world without it's own Lonely Planet (it's bunched in the Central Asian one).

After staying a couple of days in a yurt I realized the cross which appears on the Kyrgyz flag is from the pattern the thin wooden beams make on a yurt skylight, and that fact quite nicely sums up the Kyrgyz identity. Very much a nomadic people, even in the capital Bishkek the pace of life is extremely slow and the entire country exudes a quietly likable pastoral atmosphere.

Judged by average altitude it’s one of the highest in the world at 2750m although whilst it’s consistently pretty it doesn’t have the awesome majesty of the Himalayan countries to the South. It is fairly well set up for trekking and certainly my best memories of the country were either out on the steppe or in the unspoilt mountains. You can rent horses pretty easily from the locals and ambling along by day followed by gazing up at the stars by night felt like the perfect way to enjoy the country. Probably the strangest experience I had there was mixing with Russian/Kazakh holidaymakers by the massive Issyk Kol lake, there’s enough salt in it so it doesn’t freeze but it does feel really strange sunbathing as giant white topped peaks stare down at you from the mountains above.

Before they got their independence they were part of the USSR and unfortunately those pesky Ruskies left a few negative legacies which Kyrgyzstan and the other former Soviet ‘Stans still suffer from.

A glance at a map will show this part of the world having some of the ugliest and illogical borders in the world- it’s meant to be that way. Once the Soviet Union was established Uncle Joe set the Central Asian republics up under a ‘divide and rule’ system. Boundaries were drawn so that no one ethnic group would be more than 60% in any of the republics and people were often forcibly moved on to ensure this remained the case. Therefore there are lots of Tajiks in Uzbekistan and Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan etc. and on top of that there are plenty of ‘white Soviet’ migrants (Russians, Ukrainians etc.) kicking round. The idea was that this would head off any independence movements as the populations were too divided and it essentially worked but when the USSR collapsed it had stored up problems for the future. Whilst Kazakhstan has largely avoided ethnic violence because it’s so rich, in the other countries there have been quite a few periods of violence where the usual suspects- youth unemployment and accusations of the governments giving preferential treatment to the ‘home race’ etc. lead to rioting and sometimes deaths. The worst case was in the divided Kyrgyz city of Osh last Summer where Uzbeks and Kyrgyz groups clashed for 4 days and left nearly 500 dead although you’d never know it now from walking round the peaceful town.

Whilst on one level it would make sense for the governments to get together and redraw the boundaries, the complicated interconnected systems the Soviets established in everything from transport to trade means that understandably national governments are unwilling to give up fertile agricultural land in particular- even if the people living there don’t want to actually be part of the country.Whilst the Soviet regime was more recent, like the other European powers pre-war division of peoples elsewhere in Asia, the long lasting nature of this particular sin of empires cannot be underestimated and displaced, underrepresented peoples continues to be one of the defining features of the continent.

None of that really seems to matter in Kazakhstan though, but that’s because they’re absolutely loaded. Reminiscent of Slovakia in Hostel before it, thanks to the inadequacy of British and nonexistence of American Geography lessons, Kazakhstan’s international reputation is now based almost entirely around Borat Sagdiyev. Which really annoys me as notwithstanding the fact that Sacha Baron Cohen is the celebrity I would most enjoy slowly torturing to death over a long weekend, rather than being a backward society of peasants, Kazakhstan is rich and growing fast. In fact at the beginning of the 21st Century few countries could look to the future with more optimism. With the split in Sudan it’s now the 9th largest country in the world (but just 15m people) and whilst it certainly isn’t pretty (endless vistas of flattish,yellow, empty steppe) or packed with sights (human or natural) it has supplies of virtually everything that can be mined or drilled for a profit.

In particular it’s oil reserves are estimated to be one of the biggest in the world and whilst pre-independence it was largely untapped, since they started pumping in the mid ‘90s it’s already moving towards becoming one of the worlds top 10 suppliers so the economy is growing at nearly 10% a year with little sign of that stopping. The BMWs, Audis and designer clothes shops everywhere are evidence of the growth but without doubt the most striking indicator of it is the new(ish) capital Astana, or ‘Dubai on the Steppe’ as it’s been nicknamed. It’s like a much, much colder (average temp of -11 in January) version of Brasilia- a city randomly picked out of the wilderness to be the new showcase capital due to its central location, then loaded up with amazing architecture. They’ve spent some $12b and counting on commissions by Norman Foster and Kisho Kurokawa amongst others to create an absolutely stunning city to walk around. I found myself constantly looking up appreciably as they’ve used all kinds of styles (Western, Asian, Soviet and even futuristic) to build the ministries and shopping centres etc. that a 21st century capital needs. Whilst it’s been criticized as a waste of money I couldn’t help but admire the ambition behind it and certainly as a means of nation building by creating a showpiece capital they’re making a pretty good stab at things.Yet no-one knows about it, which is a shame cos it’s really cool, but then no-one would ever go on holiday to Kazakhstan.

Culturally the differences between the Stans are smaller than I thought they’d be and I think that’s because Russia is still the dominant influence on the region. This has some great sides- stunning Orthodox churches, chess on the sport channels, (at least) bilingual populations and in the capital cities you can see art performances (Opera, Classical music etc.) for just a few dollars. They also ensured schools, hospitals, roads etc. are reasonably set up and I do very much feel like I’m in the ‘Second World’, not quite Europe but a long way from the poverty of the subcontinent. But whilst to their credit the Russians got the basics right for the region they also brought some bad sides- near unbelievable levels of bureaucracy, a reticence to help people even when paid to e.g. hotel clerks or tourist info and perhaps most memorably vodka. As in Mongolia and 'The Great Bear itself', alcoholism is a huge, very visible problem in Central Asia and the consequences of it are around in a number of ways. The tax system obviously works very, very differently to Europe as in Kyrgyzstan for example you can pick up a packet of tabs for 30cents and a bottle of drinkable bottle of vodka for the same price as a beer- $1. If you want you can go for the paint stripper stuff which at 50cents for a 1l bottle has to be the cheapest alcohol I’ve ever seen. Unsurprisingly gangs of drunks litter Central Asian cities and from literally 9am onwards you see people passed out on pavements and especially in the parks. They’re constantly getting into fights and harassing people asking for money etc. so they’d have to be the first places in Asia I’ve been to that feel quite unsafe regardless of the time of day. Beyond that though it’s simply quite depressing seeing so many people literally pissing their lives away and whilst the life expectancy gaps between men and women aren’t quite as bad as Russias 14years they’re still pretty shocking as the men drink themselves to an early death leaving a disproportionate number of older women around. It’s not a great setup.

The boozing could feel out of place, as in theory they’re Muslim countries but after having been in the Afghan and Paki versions of the Stans I always get a shock when I hear the muezzins blaring out here, these feel like the worst Muslims in the world. On my 1st night in police custody in Tajikistan the officers took me out to dinner and over a few bottles of vodka they got fairly drunk, a couple of them got into an argument and the host shrewdly used the traditional Central Asian means of abruptly ending the evening by toasting the Prophet Mohammed, then everyone prayed and immediately left. Eh?

In Almaty the gym next door to my hotel offered classes in ‘Strip and pole dancing’ and ‘Sex Fitness’ (anyone?) and womens dress codes seem to veer wildly between traditional conservative national dress with a hijab to a more ‘Russian style’ i.e. not wearing very much. I don’t think that’s what the Mullahs in Arabia and Egypt would advise and I think it’s part of the slightly schizophrenic national identities they have here. After being dominated by Russia for so long they’ve taken on many of their cultural traits but since independence, Islam (which was banned under the Russians) has become an ever more popular means of asserting their own national identities once again. After only 20 years as free countries for the moment it certainly makes for an at times baffling and incongruous but still quite likable mix of cultures.

I’m now in Uzbekistan and will be for the next couple of weeks but have got no idea what will happen after that, tomorrow’s Monday so I’ll have more embassy ‘fun’ to decide where I can go next. Wish me luck.

From Tashkent,


Posted by carlswall 14:46 Archived in Kazakhstan Comments (0)

Afghanistan and Tajikistan

Well you’ve gotta go off-piste sometimes…

And whilst I’ve never actually been skiing it has been a pretty intense couple of weeks, traveling in Afghanistan, held at gunpoint (again) then spending a few days in a police cell and being deported from Tajikistan- it will feel strange returning to a life on the Northern line. I’ve been writing these for over 2years now so I don’t know how many people are actually still bothering to read them but I’m guessing a few more people on the list might look in at the email subject.

Deciding on whether or not to go to Afghanistan has haunted me since before the trip started and has grown in prominence in my mind as I got ever nearer. I did umm and aah a bit but ultimately I knew I wouldn’t forgive myself if I bottled it and in the context of traveling in Asia it felt pretty vital to come.

Whilst it was a bit scary at times it was also very rewarding and I left feeling frustrated I couldn’t see more of the country and really wanting to return in the future.

Getting the visa itself was very easy but when I went to apply for a permit in Peshawar to cross the Khyber Pass the officer was (understandably) contemptuous: “On the road to Kabul there have been 2 attacks on NATO convoys in the last 10 days. So no I’m not going to grant you a permit”. And then that very evening militants tried to blow up that building, though they actually missed and got the one next door they still killed 40…

Therefore rather guttingly I had to get the expensive flight meaning I couldn’t cross probably the most iconic border in the world and since it was Pakistan Airlines one of my bags went missing en route- the clue’s in the company name.

I arrived into Kabul a bit nervous but the nerves quickly disappeared as I got into the standard argument in Asia with taxi drivers trying to rip me off! Kabul turned out to be a surprisingly pleasant place to be, during the Afghan civil war in the ‘90s it was virtually destroyed during street fighting as various factions slugged it out for control of the country before the Taliban eventually emerged victorious. Therefore there’s not much in the way of sights with the eerie shell of the Darulaman Palace being a good monument to the power vacuum followed by brutal street fighting that emerged after the Soviets were defeated. The bazaar area around the disgusting Kabul river is really interesting to wander round and there are some nice parks dotted on the hills which make up the city and these felt almost misleadingly peaceful considering what’s going on elsewhere in the country. I think what I was most surprised by though was the sense of affluence about the place; until the Russians invaded, Afghanistan wasn’t a permanent warzone run by religious nutters so there were lots of things hinting at a better life I wouldn’t expect to see like flower shops, Western clothes stores and even travel agents. When you add in a not terrible infrastructure and the fact it’s not quite so densely populated, life actually felt more comfortable there than in most of the subcontinent.

Since 2001 billions have poured into the country in the form of NGOs and reconstruction projects so there’s money about but I also realized that’s brought about a 2 tier economy which is one of the reasons why so many Afghans (especially in the countryside) are angry about the lack of progress in their lives. Whenever there’s a big UN or NGO mission anywhere in the world quite quickly traders will supply them with virtually any goods Western workers want and since they’re on expense accounts they don’t really care how much things cost, leading to so called ‘NGO inflation’. Therefore whilst local food/transport are very cheap things like accommodation are illogically expensive in Afghanistan ie about what I was paying in Japan but not exactly of the same quality (this would cause massive problems later). The budget for security of UN and NGO workers in the form of bodyguards, bullet proof 4x4s etc has now risen to equal what they’re actually spending on the development projects themselves and it’s become something of a lightning rod for criticism of the UN mission as local people see bodyguarded Western diplomats effortlessly spending $12 on a box of American cereal in Kabul whilst the rebuilding of a clinic in the countryside has taken 4years.

Whilst security is obviously a major problem, if there’s one thing that has to improve if the country is to develop is the corruption problem. Once again it’s another piously ‘Muslim country’ where absolutely everyone is on the take, from the president down to rank as one of the most corrupt countries in the world.

On a local level nothing gets done by local officials unless you pay them first and harassment and petty bribery by cops is something the people have to put up with every day. But this goes all the way up to the President, every single Afghan I spoke to was utterly contemptuous of the government and would dismiss them as nothing more than thieves or robbers. Virtually everyone around Bush family friend Hamid Karzai has been indicted on serious corruption and other charges yet he seems to think it’s his right to turn a blind eye to it. For example his brother has been widely implicated in the heroin trade but Karzai refuses to investigate him and Karzai’s bizarre response to questioning was to blame the American invasion saying there was less lawlessness and opium grown under the Taliban. As happened so many times with humanitarian missions in Africa, Western governments are pouring money into the country but just aren’t getting a good enough return thanks to a combination of bureaucracy and corruption creaming off too much of the money. Despite the investments ordinary people just aren’t seeing enough visible improvements around them and the frustration this causes means NATO are having a hard job convincing the population their presence is a positive thing.

Leaving Kabul didn’t go very well and ultimately I didn’t do half as much as I wanted to in Afghanistan; when I got to what passed for a bus station I asked about getting to Bamiyan where the famous huge Buddhas were destroyed by the Taliban in the ‘90s. Along with a national park nearby it’s the safest part of the country but the driver and other passengers strongly advised me not to come as it’s not actually walking round the streets which is especially dangerous in Afghanistan but the traveling round, basically the guys in black turbans set up checkpoints on the roads and if you’re stopped at one of those then you’re in trouble. In the previous 2 weeks fighting had kicked off on the road to Bamiyan and one of the passengers said ‘Just don’t come, if they catch you they will kill you and no-one can rescue you’ as the other guys made the triple whammy of sharp intakes of breath, shaking heads and the ‘slit throat’ sign. So I didn’t go (which caused problems later) and had to take the only really safe road North to Mazr e Sharif. The scenery was however fantastic as at this time of year Afghanistan is a country of 3 very striking tones, the cobalt blue of the sky, the yellow colored dust of the dry mountains and the green of the valleys below, which the people live in. Apart from the plain that forms towards the Iran border the rest of the country is mountainous and in a harsh and unforgivable landscape which like SE16 is prime bandit country it’s not difficult to see why no-one has ever conquered Afghanistan. But the only problem I had in the country didn’t come from the Taliban but the boys in blue, well it’s more a turquoise colour in Afghanistan but the police anyway. I’d been to a city called Balkh (birthplace of Zoroastrianism) and had gone into the ruins of an old mosque, I took a couple of photos when a guy wearing civilian clothes(I assumed the caretaker) came up to me and wrenched my camera out of my hand. He flashed a police card and indicated he wasn’t gonna give it back and 2 more cops showed. I again asked if I could have it back at which point he pulled out his pistol and aimed it at me. At this point I thought I was in real trouble- basically being mugged, but then he ushered me to the exit with the gun still firmly trained on me. As I left I thought I was damn lucky I was only losing the camera and still had my passport/money on me but I grew increasingly angry about it going back to town and I asked a local where the police station was and despite him saying “You may make things worse” I decided to try and get it back anyway. And amazingly it worked, I explained the situation and the commander put out a couple of calls, told me to wait for an hour and a cop walked in and returned it to me! The explanation was that you can’t take photos of ancient monuments in Afghanistan (though there was no sign to say that) and they’d simply confiscated it for unknown reasons. I was ecstatic to get it back but it was the 2nd time in 2 weeks I had a cop aiming a gun at me at point blank range for not even the beginnings of a good reason. They are designed to kill after all and why countries like America let cops or even civilians brandish them so freely is truly beyond me.

Afghans recent experiences are war and being refugee and this, added to the hyper conservative Islam means they’re a hardened, uptight people. As in parts of Pakistan people rarely laugh or joke and I think the abiding image I have of the people is everyone, even young children frowning rather than smiling under almost any circumstance. But they’re also a fascinating people to look at; Alexander the Great conquered what’s now Afghanistan and Northern Pakistan and (so the theory goes) his soldiers left an incredible kaleidoscope of different looks amongst the people. Therefore alongside the (very tough) Persian look you have loads of people with lighter skin, blue or green eyes and blonde or even red hair so the girl in that photo by no means stands out. When I arrived in Northern Pakistan I realized there were people who looked not all that dissimilar to me wandering around and so feeling like Kim I hatched the cunning plan of trying to look like a native which, much to my surprise proved to be remarkably effective. In Islamic folklore Mohammad had a beard about my colour so as a mark of respect men all over the Islamic world a) grow beards and b) dye it with henna so it looks reddy brown (incidentally the importance of the colour green in Islam is because it was apparently his favourite colour too!). Therefore I simply didn’t shave for a few weeks and after buying a couple of kurtas (the pyjama suits they wear) and a Talib cap like the one Osama bin Laden would wear I could basically wander round and people would think I was a Pashtun- in the Punjab people would look quite warily at me! There aren’t exactly hordes of Lonely Planet touting Australian backpackers so people just wouldn’t think of a foreigner being in their midst. This obviously fell apart when I had to start speaking and it was quite funny seeing the shock people got when they realized I was a foreigner and I even got into a couple of tourist attractions paying the local price which I enjoyed. More seriously though in places where there was a definite tension in the air like Peshawar being able to move about and have nobody looking at me twice definitely made me feel much more secure. So quite bizarrely, with the exceptions of places like Hong Kong or Singapore where there’s lots of foreigners about I felt ‘I slotted in’ better in Afghanistan than anywhere else on this trip.

But whilst they can be handsome in a very rugged way like Shahid Afridi for example they’re also the hardest looking people I’ve ever seen. Aside from being naturally big and lives in a tough climate giving them wizened skin ‘made of leather’, Pashtuns in particular past the age of about 12 all seem to possess an unhinged, almost psychotic look in their eyes which says ‘I could kill you if I wanted to ’ and their unpredictable natures make them genuinely scary to be around. On a battlefield they must be truly terrifying to come up against. The Pashtuns are the largest tribal society in the world spanning both sides of the Afghan/Paki border, they do things ‘differently’ and are remarkably intractable in their way of life. If you grow up in a country like England you’re taught that virtually the worst thing you can do is criticize another culture but there’s not much to admire about the Pashtuns. To give just a few phrases I’ve seen used to describe them: ‘lazy, violent, and idle’, ‘vulgar, hostile and aggressive’ and ‘the most warlike people on Earth’. To an outsider perhaps the most striking thing about them is their refusal to acknowledge national or even Sharia law before their own honour code. Whilst bits of it are positive like their overwhelming hospitality (“my friend is my brother, my brother is my friend”- which is why they didn’t give up Osama bin Laden ) most of it is backward beyond belief, the sort of stuff the rest of the world (except maybe Albania) got rid of decades if not centuries ago. They live by a system of revenge based bloodfeuds which can go on for generations in case of insult to self, family or clan and are almost always over zar (gold) zan (women) or zamin (land). I once watched a documentary set in a hospital in Kandahar and there was this endless stream of blokes being brought in after being stabbed or bludgeoned or shot because they’d literally looked at some other guys fat tailed sheep the wrong way.

The role of women in Afghanistan obviously gets a lot of coverage in the Western press because of the Taliban rule where they banned women from working or wearing white socks (they felt men might find them too arousing) or doing almost anything constructive with their lives but things are now much more relaxed than the Western press often reports, although as with most things in Afghanistan it almost entirely depends on the individuals tribe and which part of the country it’s in. In Kabul and the North it’s not unknown for women to wear Western clothes or work before they’re married but what I was most shocked to see were the number of beauty parlours. I was also lucky enough to stay with a shopkeeper and his extended family after I’d got chatting to him over about 4pts of chai one day. He had a couple of teenage daughters and I initially didn’t really know where to look but they actually started speaking to me seemingly at total ease in front of the rest of the family. The key point though was that they were the much more relaxed Tajiks and whilst in almost all of Asia it may be a mans world, just about anyone can be thankful they weren’t born a Pashtun woman in surely the most male centric culture in the world. The sense of honour (called nang) over women is the most intense of any of the honour codes and it’s every mans duty to defend the family’s honour, and the smallest things literally down to outsiders giving eye contact to a female can be a breach of that. If a girl does something willingly then it’s she who must be punished (often murdered) and one recent UN report put domestic violence amongst Pashtun households at a scarcely believable 90%. They don’t believe women should be educated beyond being able to pray so female literacy stands at 11% and perhaps most noticeably they keep women under the strictest purdah, where they’re not allowed out of the female quarters of the home and can’t speak to any males who aren’t members of the family. As a result in Pashtun areas you basically don’t see women beyond the age of 11 or so so they maybe make up 1-2% of the visible population and they’ll be totally covered under a burkha and clearly past ‘child bearing’ age. With their entire lives revolving round looking after the home and children with the occasional highlight being only religious holidays I can think of few groups who have a harder ‘natural’ lot in life.

But the negative impacts of the Pashtuns go much further than that; since travelling in Pakistan and Afghanistan I’ve realised that whilst Western governments aren’t allowed to say it, the problems of this region aren’t an ‘Afghanistan problem’ or a ‘Pakistan problem’ but a Pashtun one. As I wrote about in Pakistan since the 1980s the Pashtuns have had increasing contact with and been influenced by Wahhabism’ from Saudi Arabian preachers and this is what helped create and equally importantly sustained the truly bonkers Taliban. If you look at the conflict geographically on both sides of the border- where there aren’t Pashtuns there isn’t really any fighting, where there are Pashtuns then you have a virtual warzone. A view expressed to me on both sides of the border (from members of different tribes) were that if a ‘Pastunistan’ were carved out of the 2 border areas then the rest of the countries would be safe and the Pashtuns could be left to sort their own problems out.

They’re underrepresented in the national armies (especially in Pakistan) yet they make up the vast majority of the Taliban and whilst in Pakistan you have a clear split between them and the rest of the country in Afghanistan it’s much more complicated and is much of the reason why democracy isn’t working.

Whilst democracy may be the least worst form of government and in the post-Cold War period is seen by Western governments as the ultimate goal for all countries to work towards, in many developing countries it can’t function effectively due to the makeup of the population. As most African countries have seen since independence, people don’t necessarily vote on a basis of left-right politics and deciding who has the best policies but vote almost purely on tribal lines; and Afghanistan is the same. The Pashtuns make up nearly half the Afghan population and so despite the fact Hamid Karzai’s government has been utterly rancid, his ability to rely on the ‘Pashtun vote’ and subsequently cut deals to various local warlords means his grip on power is far too strong. Therefore you have the contradictory position where despite the fact the government are officially ‘at war’ with the Taliban they both draw their support from the same people in the South and East of the country and there are plenty of mutterings that the Taliban are closer to the government than anyone would like to admit. It’s led to a big split with the Americans about how the country can move forward with the Americans up until very recently insisting on no deals with the Taliban (and grouping them with Al Qaeda) whilst the government advocates ever increasing rapprochement with militants such as releasing leaders from prison and trying to gain a negotiated peace. But this seems a very risky strategy, despite coming up against the worlds strongest military for 10 years now they’re causing as much damage as ever with virtually no-one predicting an end to the fighting any time soon. As one guy gave the pretty good analogy: “It’s like a man trying to remove a wasp nest, the wasps will keep attacking him so he has to kill each wasp individually but they’ll just keep coming til he goes away”

America now finds itself in a very difficult position where if they leave then the country may once again return to chaos yet it’s ever harder to justify the money they’re expending on the conflict. The war in Afghanistan (and you might say Iraq too) have had a terrible impact on America in the last 10 years; thanks to the dubious legality of the wars and the waterboarding and torture flights that followed it’s international reputation has taken a battering and aside from the near 2,500 soliders who’ve died in the fighting international terrorist attacks haven’t stopped and Afghanistan is still very unstable. The economist Steven Levitt calculated that by 2008 the wasted time spent removing shoes on airport security queues had ‘cost’ 28 lives and the massive increase in passport and visa costs (the UK passport has doubled in 4 years because of the Americans insistence on microchips) shows that you don’t necessarily need to kill people to have a negative impact on ordinary peoples lives. Perhaps even more prosaically the war in Afghanistan has helped to plunge the USA into a debt of near incalculable proportions to ultimately achieve little beyond the recent assassination of ‘The Sheikh’. Whilst Al Qaeda and friends haven’t quite achieved a world run under a single Islamic Caliphate based on a 12th century Arabia (or whatever it is they ultimately want) at this stage you can make quite a strong argument they’re winning the War on Terror ‘on points’.

For Afghanis themselves, the scars of Taliban rule in the ‘90s are yet to heal and the other tribes are deeply doubtful of any future after the Americans have left with a terrible government and an active Taliban still around. Whilst a lot of criticisms are made of it due to the hyper conservative Islam and their hostility to foreigners, considering their history as the playground of outside powers: Britain and Russia in the Great Game in the 19th century, Russia and US in the Cold War in the 1970s and 1980s and even rich, crazy Arabs and the US in the ‘War on Terror’ since 2001, their unwillingness to work with others or change their way of life is understandable.

The future of the country on any time scale still seems very, very hard to predict. I did enjoy being there more than I thought I would though; it’s an intoxicating culture (probably the opium) to be around and the pride they take in their independent spirit and old traditions was a really pleasant change from the artificial culture and nationalism they’ve tried and failed to create in Pakistan. I think probably my best memory of the country was watching the mesmeric sight of the evening prayer in front of the beautiful Hazrat Ali shrine in Mazr e Sharif. Watching the 2,000 or so guys worshipping in unison in the blue twinged twilight definitely made me want to return to the country one day and I hope it’s able to find a way to peace soon.

But I ran into huge problems trying to leave; if I ever have a son aside from obvious bits of advice like ‘If you’re gonna flash, flash hard’ and ‘Never pat a burning dog’ I would say never, ever, ever, ever try to enter Tajikistan 3 days before your visa is due to start. I’d picked up my Tajik visa in Islamabad but had to guess when I was going to enter the country; because I had to scrap the centre of Afghanistan this left me with several days before my Tajik visa dates started and this was a major headache. I was having to pay basically more than I could afford for accommodation in Afghanistan and didn’t really wanna shell out loads more simply to sit around in the dodgy border town for 4 days waiting for time to pass, therefore I tried to enter Tajikistan early- big mistake. I got stamped out of Afghanistan fine but when I tried entering Tajikistan they were like “Oh no you don’t”… they arrested me and put me in a police cell for the rest of the day without explaining what was gonna happen to me. Eventually about 8pm they took me to a laughable meeting with the local district attorney who had a chat right in front of me with the border guards and a poor little local English teacher they’d roped in as an interpreter about how much to try and fine me. Eventually they explained I had to pay a (ridiculous) $400 fine, they seemed unaware of quite how much they were asking and when I said I didn’t have it they asked if I knew anyone near by who could come and pay it! So I said no and they said “Well can you pay $200 then?” They weren’t actually proposing any solution to the problem so again I just said “No, I’m gonna have to go to the capital to get this sorted”. They definitely didn’t want this so decided to try and deport me in the morning back to Afghanistan. I explained to them it wouldn’t work and lo and behold it didn’t as Afghanistan were pretty firm in saying ‘no you left yesterday- you can’t come back under any circumstance’. I then spent 6hrs in no mans land with exit stamps from both countries before they (Tajiks) decided to rearrest me. They locked me up for 21hrs in a 4x 9ft cell with a local guy without any food or water but thankfully the other guy had some cigarettes so we just chainsmoked to ward off any hunger pangs. Finally about 4.30pm the next day they let me out in the courtyard to do some exercise and even let me sleep outside so it could’ve been miles worse. Crucially they also didn’t confiscate my stuff so whilst they wouldn’t tell me anything or let me phone the British embassy I could at least read to pass the time. Then out of nowhere on the 4th day of my captivity out of nowhere they gave me the phone and it was the British Deputy ambassador saying I was coming to Dushanbe that evening.

The Tajiks decision was to deport me ‘nicely’ ie not ruin my passport and let me buy a flight out.

The problem was Tajikistan is not exactly a well connected place and the 3 options they gave me (Istanbul, Frankfurt and Riga for some reason) were all horrible. Very expensive and even more cogently would mean my trip was ruined- I’d have had to go home from any of them. I did discover an ace in the hole though as brilliantly last year Kyrgyzstan started granting visas on arrival at the airport to Westerners. However, the Tajiks weren’t aware of it and the supine deputy ambassador sold me down the river a bit as he almost dismissed it as an option in the late night meeting we had with some guy very high up in the foreign ministry. He sycophantically seemed to be 70% interested in ingratiating himself with the Tajik guy and only 30% interested in pleading my case so I found myself in the crazy situation of really having to fight the urge to have a go at him in the middle of this meeting. I bedded really disconsolately at the prospect of having to abandon the trip at great expense over something soooooo small (in my mind) would have been a terrible way for the last couple of years to end. The next day was one of incredible stress when I took a big risk by effectively ignoring the deputy ambassadors commands and bought a flight to Bishkek. When he found out he was so annoyed with me he refused to speak to me but having met the Tajik guy who was gonna make the decision I gambled he would let me go…. and after a spectacularly stressful meeting he caught the Hail Mary better than Randy Moss and agreed to let me catch the flight the next morning.

When I arrived in Bishkek they gave me a VOA no questions asked and I’ve been in an utterly ebullient mood ever since. Whilst I had to pay for a flight and didn’t get a chance to see anything but Dushanbe (and a police station) of Tajikistan it really was a trip saving moment. With a slight rejig of my plans I’m now able to carry on OK and am really looking forward to the last few months of the trip.

After no alcohol in a while on my first day in Bishkek I went out and got enjoyably drunk and after seeing no women for the last 6 weeks in Pakistan, Afghanistan and a Tajik prison cell it’s great to be back in the USSR!

From Bishkek,


Posted by carlswall 14:43 Archived in Afghanistan Comments (0)


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)

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