Welcome to the blog for our round the world trip.

23 September 2007

We made it to India!!

Guard at Golden Temple
Originally uploaded by rtw2007.
We successfully collected our Indian visas from the Embassy in Islamabad, which gave us the green light to head off towards India (via a perfect, three lane, almost entirely empty motorway) to Lahore to pick up my mum. She arrived in the early hours of the morning to be greeted by a large crowd of men in shalwar kameez, plus the two of us standing out like sore thumbs with a big glittery welcome banner. After many hugs we headed to the sanctuary of an air conditioned hotel: the heat in Lahore is oppressive even at two o’clock in the morning.

The next couple of days were spent looking around the city, which is big, hot, dirty, smelly and rammed with traffic, but somehow despite all of that still manages to be interesting. We visited the huge Badshahi mosque to see evening prayers in front of the impressive domes and then enjoyed dinner on the roof terrace at a fantastic restaurant in the red light district (!) with great views over the illuminated mosque itself. We also visited some of the beautiful sandstone buildings that were built by the British, which are dotted along the Mall and the surrounding areas. Many of the sights were visited via auto-rickshaw, which was an experience given that they are too small for two people really, but we were three – so we ended up cramped in the back, holding on for dear life as we picked our way through the crowds, mopeds, cows and cars, all accompanied by blazing heat and a lung-full of fumes.

Perhaps the highlight of our trip to Lahore was a visit to Wagah border (between Pakistan and India) for the closing ceremony. Every day, the Indian and Pakistani soldiers face-off against each other, wearing big hats topped with odd looking fans; gazing patriotically at their own flag; glaring angrily at the other side; and doing some very silly walks and foot stomping. All of this is accompanied by loud cheers of “Allah”, “Jinnah” and “Pakistan, Pakistan, Pakistan” from the crowd (including my mum, who was singing and dancing away with the best of them). Two days later we saw the same ceremony from the other side of the border, where the crowds were much bigger and there was a lot of dancing and cheering throughout. Somehow, though, the Pakistani side was much better, with more pomp, ceremony and aggression than the Indians could muster.

The next day we returned to Wagah border to cross over into India. This was painless (with only one request for a bribe), mainly thanks to our magic Carnet de Passage. Woe betide anyone who doesn’t have a Carnet around here – an expensive looking Irish Land Rover Discovery has been parked outside customs for well over a year, abandoned because it doesn’t have the right papers, and there are now some Austrian and Slovakian vehicles to keep it company. The ease of our crossing meant that we had plenty of time to watch the spectacle of the border porters at work. Pakistani lorries aren’t allowed into India, and vice versa, so teams of porters walk just as far as the border line with boxes piled on their heads and then transfer them across the line onto the heads of their Indian counterparts. The whole thing is really colourful, with all the porters on the India side wearing blue shalwar kameez and coloured turbans, and all the porters on the Pakistani side wearing green or orange (which seems rather odd given that they are the colours of the Indian flag). Whatever colour their shalwar kameez, the porters were united in absolutely dripping in sweat as they carried heavy boxes backwards and forwards at pace, in the heat.

After celebrating making it to India, which is as far as we have planned this trip and which at times has seemed like a totally unrealistic pipe-dream, we headed into Amritsar. The highlight of this Sikh town is the amazing Golden Temple. The whole temple complex is stunning, but the Golden Temple itself is the star of the show, perched on an island in the middle of a grand square lake. The locals were all very friendly and again very colourful with their turbans for men or bright saris / salwar kameez for women. Yes, there are actually women here, and they even look happy!!! We had forgotten that this was possible at times in parts of Pakistan… The whole scene is accompanied by Punjabi chanting from the priests reading from the Guru Granth Sahib (the Sikh Holy Book) over loud speakers, which really adds to a fantastic and strangely serene atmosphere. In the end, we visited three times, the best of which was in the evening when the whole complex is lit up, with stunning reflections of the temple in the water.

We are now up in the mountains, which we approached via a horrendous winding road. In addition to the appalling road surface, lots of dodgy Indian driving and endless roaming cows, we had to ford a major river where the road was completely washed away. At times the water was well above where it safely should be on the van (in fact we could have done with a snorkel). With much help from the locals, we made it through in one piece, bar the fact that mum looked like she had aged about five years in two hours. I think that she might define a holiday as something quite relaxing and she is now discovering that this trip doesn’t always quite manage that…

We are staying at McLeod Ganj, a ex-colonial hill station which is the home of the Tibetan Government in Exile (including the Dalai Lama, hoards of Tibetan monks and lots of refugees). So far, mum has been charming almost all the Pakistani and Indian men she has met. She was invited to someone’s house for dinner before she even landed in Lahore and that has continued ever since. So now we are hoping that we might spot the Dalai Lama and she can secure us an invite back to his place… or perhaps he might fancy a ride in the Van of Dreams?

15 September 2007

Random ramblings from Pakistan

The past week has involved much lazing around our campsite in Islamabad, partly due to sheer laziness; partly due to the oppressive heat; and partly because we have both had eye infections which got bad enough for us to wake up Michael’s poor mother for medical advice at 4am UK time and for us to be forced to visit two Pakistani hospitals. At the international hospital, all the doctors had trained in the UK, Ireland or the US and everyone used English rather than Urdu, so the only real differences from a hospital in England were that we were seen much more quickly; the standards of hygiene seemed far better; and the corridors were decorated with educational posters about Islam. Several medications later, the eyes are (fingers crossed) on the mend.

The hospitals were quite interesting because they were the only places that we have seen women working during our whole stay in Pakistan. Although in Islamabad women are much more integrated into society than they were in Indus Khoistan (though that isn’t saying much, given that we saw almost no women in that area), even here we have seen very few employed women. All the waiters, shop keepers, café owners, check-out assistants etc are men. But in the hospital there were female nurses, doctors and administrative staff. In England that wouldn’t even be notable, but here it very much is.

Everything has been peaceful in our area of Islamabad since we arrived, though we have avoided Rawalpindi down the road as it has seen more recent troubles. Even ex-PM Nawaz Sharif coming back to Pakistan last week from exile (and swiftly being deported again) didn’t kick off too much trouble as had been feared. So, fingers crossed, all is well on the security front. We are, however, extremely glad not to be in the north west of the country, where we are hearing of regular trouble in Waziristan, including some recent beheadings. Lovely.

We did manage to drag ourselves off the campsite for long enough to visit the impressive Faisal Mosque in Islamabad, which is absolutely huge (it can hold 10,000 people) and also to head up into the mountains for a couple of nights (mainly to benefit from some cool air). Only two hours outside Islamabad, the temperature was down to 15 degrees (rather than the 30+ degree, humid heat of the city), which made a welcome change. We walked in the green hills, which are covered in pine trees and dotted with big houses owned by the wealthier inhabitants of the capital (who go up to Murree and the other hill stations for the weekends and the summer months). There is a lot of wildlife up there, too, including lots of monkeys who wander at the side of the road and come to restaurants to eat scraps of naan.

A few random observations about out time in Pakistan so far:

1. Sadly, given what a beautiful country this is, there really aren’t all that many foreign tourists. Pakistan is supposed to be having a Year of Tourism this year, but we certainly haven’t noticed. It seems that they have a endless problems in attracting tourists: a military leader took over in 1999 and put people off; then came September 11th; then people were scared off by SARS; then came the London bombings (associated whether rightly or wrongly with Pakistan’s religious schools); and most recently there was the fiasco at the Red Mosque. We have seen far fewer tourists here than I was expecting: there were occasional tour groups in the Northern Areas, but almost no independent travellers. We saw only one cyclist on the KKH, whereas when Michael was here with Chris and Rich they saw quite a few more. Even in Islamabad and the Murree hills, the vast majority of the tourists are of Pakistani origin.

2. The Pakistanis seem to be absolutely obsessed with both politics and cricket. The newspapers are completely dominated by those two subjects. At the hospital, all the doctors and patients were glued to television screens watching coverage of Sharif’s return and almost every restaurant we have been to in the past few days has been showing the Twenty20 cricket on big screens.

3. Literacy rates are scarily low in some areas. At Fairy Meadow, we were told that the rate of basic literacy amongst women there stands at less than 2%. Even in Islamabad, there are little stalls at the sides of the street where illiterate people pay a literate person to fill in their passport application forms and the like. Odd to be able to make money just from being able to read.

4. There are mosques everywhere. Not just in the towns and cities, but in the hospitals; at service stations and at all the modern petrol stations (presumably for the use of travellers during the ritual five daily prayers). It is odd to see petrol station hoardings advertising electric pumps, 24 hour service, diesel and a mosque.

5. The standard of driving is AWFUL. But we hear that it is even worse in India. Oh good.....

6. In Pakistan we eat a lot (and I really mean a lot) of chappatis and dhal. We are relishing being able to afford to eat out every day as restaurants (especially if you eat veggie food) are so cheap here. Although we have found the quality of food to be generally good (better than Michael remembered), that is probably only because we have stuck to the safe vegetarian options. But it is definitely true that dhal, vegetable curry and chapattis twice a day, every day, for three weeks can get a little repetitive. The problem is that the “Continental” options are pretty grim, so we have resorted ringing the changes during the past couple of nights by going to Pizza Hut (not exactly the authentic local experience, I know, but it was far and away the busiest restaurant we have been to anywhere in Pakistan) and also the buffet at Islamabad’s poshest residence, the Aga-Khan funded Serena Hotel.

7. The month of Ramadan started yesterday. This means that no-one can eat during the day, so the cafes are completely empty until just before sunset, when stalls appear outside each café selling hot samosas and the like for people to take home and eat after dark. Something tells me that despite this being the month of fasting, lots of Pakistanis eat a huge amount of food at this time of year: everywhere from KFC to hotel restaurants is advertising Ramadan deals and special buffets, on which presumably the locals gorge themselves once the sun goes down, having starved themselves for the rest of the day.

8. Pakistan is turning Michael into a hippy. Well, sort of – at the very least he now looks like a full-blown traveller type. He whiles away the days sitting in a camping chair on the campsite wearing linen trousers, sandals, no shirt and sporting long hair (which is now curling around his shoulders). Sometimes he even accessorises with my pink stripy headband - very fetching. Occasionally, he wanders topless in the sunshine around the campsite bobbing his head to my iPod. I can only imagine what the shalwaar kameez-clad, gun-wielding Pakistani security guards on the campsite think....

07 September 2007

Fairy Meadows; a jeep crash; and some suicide bombs

Fairy Meadows Campsite
Originally uploaded by rtw2007.
Having sounded smug in our last blog posting about the easy life we were having, things have gone a little down hill since then. We have been stranded overnight on a stretch of road which the British Embassy had told us to steer clear of except in broad daylight; a jeep has crashed into the back of our van and dented the boot panel; I have developed an eye infection; and two suicide bombs have gone off in Rawalpindi, just down the road from where we are now staying. We won’t sound smug again if this is what happens…..

I am writing this whilst sat on the tourist campsite in Islamabad with the wailing tones of the local Mullah drifting through the van, whilst enjoying the cooling effect of the electric fan which we have been forced to buy due to the heat and humidity. The campsite is a strange imitation of the European version, with grass, electric hook ups, but filthy toilets and showers which are only for the brave or foolhardy. Our near neighbours on the site seem to be primarily barmy: a topless German man who has been living here for three months; a crazed, super grumpy Japanese solo cyclist; and, more positively, the really nice Belgian family who we met in Kashgar (who thankfully got around their lack of permits and got through China safely).

We left Skardu and drove the tortuous six hours back to the KKH, heading for the rest house recommended by our guide book in the uninspiring village of Talechi. After the recent troubles, the rest house had been commandeered by the local armed forces and was no longer available for tourists. Unfortunately, we were only told this an hour and a half after we arrived, when the Captain came back from his game of volleyball. By this time it was pitch black and we couldn’t drive any further as the security situation on that stretch of road means that driving at night is strictly off limits (and the next hotel was in any event about two hours away). Unable to park at the rest house or in the village (again, we were told that it wasn’t safe), we ended up parking on the main road by a police check point so that they could keep an eye on us overnight. All rather stressful (and very hot).

Fortunately, morning arrived without any incident and we were able to drive the 15km or so to the abandoned resort of Raikot Bridge, where we nervously left our van in a paid car park under the watchful eye of an Osama look-alike (the nearby lock-ups unfortunately being locked-up and no keys being available). We climbed into a beaten up old jeep for the slightly scary ride up a narrow, winding path to Fairy Meadow. Appropriately, given the sheer drop from the road into the valley below, the registration number of our jeep was “RIP 9868”. The ride was hot and bumpy, not helped by having eight people in one tiny jeep (we had continued our role as a Pakistani taxi service by picking up locals along the way so that they could return to their homes up in the mountain villages). At the top of the jeep track we had a walk of a few kilometres in the heat, up to the beautiful resort of Raikot Serai at Fairy Meadow. We arrived hot and exhausted, but the friendly staff immediately brought out green tea for us to drink whilst admiring the fantastic view of Nanga Parbat. Whilst we waited for a very tasty lunch to be prepared, we pitched our tent in what must be one of the world’s most picturesque spots – a beautiful green meadow under the enormous shadow of Nanga Parbat, which at 8,126m is one of the world’s highest fourteen mountains. This set the tone for the next couple of days, which we spent lazing around Fairy Meadow and wandering up the valley to a viewpoint over the Raikot Glacier.

Unfortunately, when we came back down from Fairy Meadow (on an equally precarious jeep journey), we discovered that whilst we had been in the mountains a different jeep had crashed into the back of our van, denting the boot panel, smashing the tail light and bringing off the paint. What made it worse was that the Osama look-alike tried to cover this up and the locals had the audacity to ask us for their car parking fee despite having failed miserably to actually look after our van. This lead to a rather heated exchange of words. I even did a little bit of shouting, especially at the irritating Steve Birkett look-alike in the black shalwaar kameez who had asked us for the car parking money and seemed to think it was all hilariously funny (until Helen snapped a mug shot of him and told him that she was reporting him to the police for stealing tourists’ cash).

From there it was a two day drive through Indus Kohistan to Islamabad, though more picturesque and changing scenery, becoming greener as we headed south. We pretty much drove straight through the area, though, as this is where much of the recent trouble has been and it is classified by all the embassies as a restricted area. It isn’t a particularly pleasant area in places anyway. Although people were still friendly to us and waved as we drove past, there is a strange atmosphere, not least because women are not really mixed into society on the streets at all. The very few who do make it out (we saw hundreds of men but perhaps only 15 women in two days) either wear full black veils with only a small slit for the eyes, or full burkhas. Very different to Hunza in the north. I have noticed the lack of women much more on this trip than when I was here with Rich and Chris, probably just because having Helen here makes you notice so much more that she is very much in the minority.

We overnighted in Chilas for one night and then in Besham, where the two main incidents of note were discovering that we had lost a second hubcap and meeting perennial Pakistan visitor, “Mystic” Meg from Nuneaton. Meg and her two local guides provided interesting after dinner conversation lubricated with their own fermented grape juice.

Islamabad itself is a strange town. I have seen more of it this time than on my last visit. The highly fortified Diplomatic Enclave (where we had to drop off our passports to get Indian visas) is one example. You cannot drive or walk into the enclave, but instead have to take a special diplomatic shuttle. The whole area was not too dissimilar to Chernobyl: stuck in a time warp of 1960s buildings; completely overgrown; with lots of people, few vehicles; many machine guns; and lots of barbed wire. It was also quite strange in that environment to queue for an ATM behind an American soldier in full desert cammo gear. The city feels like it was chucked up in the 1960s and hasn’t had much development since. It is split into zones (so you go shopping in F-7 or G-9) and everything is really spread out. The whole place feels like a tired cross between Stevenage and Milton Keynes, but with far more shalwaar kameez. We haven’t braved Rawalpindi (the old town just down the road) yet, as two suicide bombs went off there earlier in the week and have made us rather nervous of straying too far. Instead, we have lazed around the campsite and been to a tailor so that Helen could be measured up for some local style clothing, which will hopefully keep her cool and give her enough head covering to keep the locals happy.