A Travellerspoint blog


Hello from beautiful Kurdistan in Northern Iraq (don’t worry Mum that’s the safe part), when I’d just said goodbye to my French/Japanese companions and crossed the spectacular border with Iran I had a satisfying look round at the snow-capped peaks, whilst I know my time away is running out I also know going home is going to be very difficult…. and having visited Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq in the last few months I’m now undoubtedly on some sort of surveillance list held by Mossad.

I didn’t actually intend to be here yet but for no apparent reason Iran refused to extend my visa so I had to make a dash to the border and after the hassles I had getting in in the first place it was a deeply frustrating way to leave the country as it’s such an enjoyable place to travel in, one month there simply wasn’t enough.

Of countries I’ve been to I think Iran vies with Colombia of having the least deserved ‘bad reputation’; one thing that’s frustrated me in recent years regarding Iran is that unless you read The Economist or similar the Western media only tends to report the country in sensationalist headlines about their nuclear program or covering the largely irrelevant rhetoric about Israel or the US spouted by Ahmadinejad without actually describing their culture or how life is for ordinary people. As a result a lot of Westerners think Iranians are religious nutcases who hate everyone and are crudely lumped together with ‘Arabs’ further West, but in reality the truth is very different. For lots of reasons (ethnically, religiously, linguistically etc.) the country is something of an outlier and can’t be put in the same bracket as its neighbours and the people are some of the warmest you could meet with a handshake and an offer of chai never far away. Beyond that though I came to view Iranians as amongst the most interesting people to converse with from anywhere I’ve travelled; English is widely spoken and they like a good natter so from football to geopolitics nearly everyone you speak to has well-crafted opinions on seemingly most things. The landscape is largely desert and the sights were good rather than great, so I think almost all my most positive memories of Iran will revolve around simply talking to people about their fascinating country and its rich history over a shisha, or perhaps something less legal.

Unfortunately one of the first things people tended to say was how much they hated the government and as a visitor you do get the impression that there can’t be many places with a bigger gap between the government and the populace; however you also realize that the country’s actually very divided at the moment between the very conservative, religious and normally rural part of the population and the better educated, more liberal urbanites (who you’ll have 90% of your contact with). A lot of Iranians are very religious (watch the looks of incomprehension when you say you don’t have a religion) but also vast numbers simply aren’t. Whilst they have to register themselves as Muslims and shockingly it’s the death sentence if they change from Islam, the population is much less interested in religion than the government seems to want. When the deeply unpopular Shah was kicked out in the popular revolution in 1979 it was achieved by a coalition of different groups with different goals; in the immediate aftermath though the countrys top cleric Ayatollah Khomeini showed an impressively Machiavellian streak in managing to execute or imprison any rivals for the new leadership of the country and so it officially became an ‘Islamic Revolution’ rather than a Communist or merely democratic one. Unlike Sunnis, Shiites believe that the Quran and ultimately Islam should be interpreted through a ‘divinely appointed’ leading Imam (a bit like the Pope in the Catholic Church) and Iran’s political system post-revolution reflects that whereby whilst the population can democratically elect a president (currently Ahmadinejad) above him is the supreme leader (top cleric, currently Ayatollah Khamenei) who has the final say on everything.

And unfortunately at the moment both men are not good leaders; whilst Ahmadinejad vies with Berlusconi for the world’s most entertaining leader award and is always highly quotable on international issues, he’s a poor administrator in Iran itself. He got to power largely on the back of simplistic populist rhetoric but once in power the population realized he simply isn’t that bright and openly admits he doesn’t know how to run the economy (“I pray to God I never understand economics”).As a result the economy is structurally in a terrible state with unemployment at around 20% and inflation at around 15%; whilst that might point to an imminent revolution like in the ‘Arab Spring’ this year, like Venezuela and various Arab states to some extent they can get away with not sorting out the economy because the country earns so much from oil.

One of the most memorable things about Iranians is quite how ‘relaxed’ they are about ‘work’ and earning money generally. If you enter a shop you learn to wait several minutes before they bother to serve you and thanks in part to a 3hr siesta the average working week is only 25hrs. And on top of that they get no less than 40 public holidays each year! It’s a far cry from China or Vietnam. Whilst it’s not quite the decadence of Qatar or the UAE the money they receive from oil allows them to heavily subsidize fuel and various welfare programs but means they haven’t tried to diversify the economy enough and create stable jobs in other fields like manufacturing, a situation made far worse by the financial sanctions placed on them by the international community. The quality of life is actually pretty good and the relaxed demeanor of the population can fool you into thinking everyone’s happy but the cost of living is also very high and with the oil meant to run out in 30-40yrs, as several Iranians told me they think the country will have to wake up from its fairly slothful state soon.

Iran really needs a radical modernizer but when one gets elected by the people (such as president Khatami 10yrs ago) the Ayatollahs cronies in a Guardian Council can and do reject policies they don’t like and even decide who can and can’t stand for MP (they have to pass a morality test). Whilst having a government run by a monarch won’t necessarily work, neither will the replacement one run by untrained religious leaders and the two tier system frequently doesn’t work. Under Khatami only 35% of policies were approved by the council and earlier this year Ahmadinejad simply didn’t turn up to work for 2 weeks in protest at not getting his way enough.

Predictably the Ayatollah is ultra conservative and has set the system up to ensure religious control at all levels of Iranian life. All branches of the civil service down to police stations and universities have a shady religious overseer onsite who reports directly to the Supreme Leader and can basically veto any decision the police chief or chancellor could make if they feel it interferes with ‘correct’ religious thinking. As with other Muslim countries Iran has developed a laughable legal system based largely round a book that’s nearly 1500yrs old; a particularly good law an Iranian guy told me about is how if you drive 30km you can eat during the day during Ramadan, as converted from the old rule about travelling 30km on a camel! So of course there’s a couple of spots outside Tehran people simply drive to so they can go and eat during the day. Aside from the predictable alcohol ban (though it’s easy to get smuggled stuff), and corporal punishment for things like stealing, Sharia law seems largely obsessed with sex. They still stone adulterers to death there, men and women are segregated in most public spaces (classrooms, buses etc.) and indeed women aren’t even allowed to sing but most famously they have to wear the hijab (hair covering veil) by law. It’s utterly detested by 80% of women and as soon as you’re in a remotely private space they all rip them off; at which point all the men in the room fall into wild, uncontrollable lust. However, one consequence of gender segregation at university has meant that many more girls now go as their religious families are happier to send them so amidst a plummeting birth rate no less than 65% of university places are now taken by women - but then only 20% find jobs afterwards as the religious establishment expects them to become wives and Mothers, which doesn’t tend to go down too well when you’ve had a university education. There’s even ‘morality police’ wandering round telling girls off over their appearance but they rebelliously just slap on make-up and Iran has a thriving cosmetic surgery industry so unlike in Pakistan or Afghanistan strict religious laws all feel like a bit of a waste of time.

I think sharia law rigidly sticking to the Quran can work in countries where the majority of the people live simply in the countryside and are often ignorant of life beyond their circumstances but in a country like Iran it’s a total farce. Unlike in many Muslim countries education is fiercely important in Persian culture so it has one of the highest rates of higher education in the developing world and for example in the UK Iranians are the best qualified of any immigrant community. The country has a long history of interacting with other countries and as there’s also a large diaspora across the globe the people are well aware of what goes on in other countries, despite the worlds strictest internet censor and blackouts on much of the media. With their personal freedoms so heavily curtailed and job prospects so poor it’s sad but understandable that Iran has probably the world’s worst ‘brain drain’ problem, some 4m (almost all university educated) Iranians have already moved abroad and speaking to young people they virtually all had an ‘exit plan’ to get to Canada or Australia etc.

I found Iranian television actually offered quite a decent insight into the country; it’s illegal but virtually everybody has a satellite dish and watches TV from abroad whilst the state run channels offer up morality plays and a Big Brother style show of Hosseins shrine in Karbala. So you can watch a few camera on one shrine, 24hrs a day, 365 days a year. Even Big Brother 4 was more entertaining. What’s also noticeable is how much coverage the 1980-88 Iraq war gets despite the fact it ended 23 years ago, everyday there are reenactments of battles, interviews with veterans and a never-ending series of montages featuring images from the war. For Shiites’, due to the murder of a couple of their first Imams the concept of martyrdom is deeply important to them so across Iran there are posters and billboards of dead soldiers to be celebrated in a religious cause. This is because Saddam Hussein was Sunni and after he attacked in the aftermath of the revolution it enabled the regime to claim the issue as an attack on their religion, which was a sure way of uniting the people. By bringing everyone together in a national, religious cause it allowed the regime to cement their hold on power and it’s probably fair to say that if it didn’t happen there’s no way the theocracy could have survived in it’s present form for so long.

Whilst Fox News and Republican senators may try and claim otherwise, the country which has most to fear from Al Qaeda or the Taliban is not the US or Israel but Iran. The Sunni Al Qaeda type terrorists want Taliban style governments to form in Pakistan and in the Arabian Gulf and sweep through Iran converting the population from the Shiite heresy en route.

The history of Shiitism is one of discrimination in the Muslim world and fighting to hold onto what they believe in, there are only a few majority Shiite countries in the world and Iran is by far the biggest so the country and other Shiites see themselves as very much a protector of the religion worldwide. Surrounded by Afghanistan, Pakistan and probably their biggest enemy Saudi Arabia Iran is something of a caged animal constantly feeling they’re about to be attacked by their Sunni neighbors or the Israel/US. They’re permanently on edge and just think the world’s out to get them so have formed an ultra paranoid/defensive complex with a powerful secret service and a half million strong army bolstered by the hated 2yr national service.

Despite hearing plenty of stories of foreigners being arrested and detained for several days on suspicion of spying we didn’t have any problems from the police until our last stop in Tabriz at the end. We’d met a former professional footballer and after we’d played 5 a side (very badly) with him and had an Iranian night out (ie dinner and shisha) he took us to the big game on Friday. We were celebrities going to the stadium as everyone wanted their photo taken with us and I even got interviewed on the radio. Iranian football has the reputation for being one of the most passionate in the world and the atmosphere was magnificent in a cracking game (4 goals, 2 pens and a sending off) but unfortunately we missed half of it. As we were entering the stadium the cops saw us and took us to a cell; they then brought a couple of secret service agents in from town who spent an hour questioning us and going through our cameras etc. about what we were doing in Iran. Whilst they eventually let us in to the stadium to watch the 2nd half our Iranian friend had to go and be interviewed again the next day and he was really scared. He said not to make any contact with him as he’d have to give up his phone and all email accounts and essentially I think they wanted to know why he was with foreigners. The fact they’d arrest him at a football match of all things underlines just how paranoid the government is and we were left wondering why they even bother to grant tourist visas if they’re that worried about foreigners mixing with the population.

This attitude of ‘the world is against us’ means the government doesn’t really care what the rest of the world thinks and is much of the reason why it’s come to be known as ‘the pariah state’.

On the Israel issue I think most Muslims around the world applaud the Iranian stance and their refusal to shut up and let the Palestinian cause go whilst they take American oil money, like most of the states in the Arabian Gulf have done. But I think Western attitudes to Iran are deeply hypocritical; whilst the American government has been bitterly moaning about (probably state backed) cyber attacks from China (and indeed recently congress declared them acts of war) at the same time they and Israel launched the Stuxnet worm which is probably the biggest and most successful cyber attack in history. It basically sent many of the rods which Iran was testing into a frenzy causing them to collapse and setting back the Iranian nuclear program back as much as 5years. Iranians are quite defensive about getting nuclear power, not many ordinary Iranians want the bomb but they do want nuclear power, unfortunately the technology needed to generate nuclear power can be easily modified to further enrich uranium to use in nuclear bombs. Despite having the oil, Iran’s refineries are hopelessly out of date so they often have to export oil to other countries only to have to reimport it in refined form afterwards costing them far too much, so they feel they need nuclear power as an alternative source of energy. The West doesn’t accept this as an excuse so even with heavy financial sanctions and Hilary Clinton threatening to obliterate them Ahmadinejad seems determined to get it so the issue seems likely to run. Most Iranians also feel that America simply doesn’t have the right to say who can and can’t have the bomb, as Ahmadinejad once said to an American reporter: “If it’s a good thing why can’t I have it and if it’s a bad thing why do you have it?” Also in recent years several times the likes of Turkey and Egypt have made the eminently sensible proposal of creating a nuclear free Middle East so Iran would have to abandon it’s nuclear programme and in return Israel would have to destroy the 80 or so nukes it’s believed to hold. The US consistently shot it down straight away under Bush and whilst the Obama administration has finally made tenuous beginnings to even discuss the proposal it’s unlikely they’ll issue Israel with any sort of ultimatum. I think it’s this perceived double standards which makes progress for Americas reputation in this part of the world so difficult

Tony Blair also recently gave a fairly bizarre interview blaming Iran as the major sponsor of terror attacks worldwide (not Iraq then?) and demanding regime change. But a quick look at the nationalities of attackers in 9/11 and 7/7 for example reveal a grand total of 0 Iranians involved whilst the Western allies of Saudi Arabia, UAE and Egypt contributed all but one of the attackers. Buoyed by Ahmadinejad’s iconoclastic statements on the international stage Iran makes a good bogeyman to aim at but Islamic terrorism is clearly more complicated and if Western countries really want to stop attacks then they need to focus more on the influence of the radical Mullahs in Egypt and the state backed Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia than anything in Iran.

But the ‘no one likes us but we don’t care’ attitude taken by its leaders is not shared by Iranian people at all, I actually found them very insecure about their place in the world. Another of the opening questions you’re sure to be asked by the people is “Iran is good?” or “Iranian people are good? When you answer positively you can see the relief in their faces and they follow it up by asking several questions about Iran’s reputation globally. The culture of hospitality is vitally important and whilst on a couple of holidays we were bombarded with cakes and sweets from strangers it’s the everyday hospitality and generosity of the people which make it such a rewarding place to visit. I didn’t see anywhere near enough of the country and it’s somewhere I definitely want to return to in the future, though under the current political system that may be difficult. The Iranians I spoke to all gave the same view that a revolution will take place in 2-5yrs, the Ayatollah is 72 yrs old and believed to have prostate cancer. The common wisdom is that there’s no way the population will accept another supreme leader after he dies and as the international financial sanctions increasingly hit it’s hard to see how the current system can survive. And if the revolution does happen Iran really could be one of the most likable countries in the world to visit. I hope so.

From Shaqlawa,


Posted by carlswall 15:02 Archived in Iran Comments (0)

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)

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