Saturday, January 29, 2005

Pakistan: Peshawar

Peshawar is in Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP), about three hours west of Islamabad.  NWFP, which borders Afghanistan, is described as the Wild West of Pakistan.  It’s the place where some Al-Qaeda and Taliban are still believed to be hiding.

My good friend Anton was temporarily moved from Islamabad to be the security officer in Peshawar while the regular security officer was on vacation.  There are only a handful of Americans stationed there, and they are under a lot of restrictions.  After several days, Anton was in need of visitors, and I, as luck would have it, am always in need of an excursion.  So, road trip it was.  I rounded out the trip roster with my good friends Kaki and Traci, and they were more than happy to come along.

Not only did Anton want to see more people than the small group in Peshawar, he also had a list of things he needed us to bring him from the big city.  This was, without a doubt, an important mission:  I was tasked with bringing nail clippers and Anton’s business cards.  Traci was asked to bring hand sanitizer.  I was also asked to pick up a coat from a tailor in Islamabad and bring it for one of the Peshawar employees.  As far as Anton’s needs went, Kaki was pretty much – how should I put this? – dead weight.  She’s fun to travel with, though.

We were to drive to Peshawar in Goldie, the Little Honda Civic that Could, and both Kaki and Traci were aware of Goldie’s peculiarities well before departure.  These peculiarities included a lack of heat (and defrost), which required that the window be kept down so that the windshield didn’t fog up.

The trip took place at the end of January, and granted it was a bit cold.  Still, I did not appreciate the constant whining:

“Boo-hoo – I can’t feel my feet.”

“Waaa, waaa, waaa – my nose is frostbitten.”

and on and on.

I had to threaten to turn the car around several times.  I wasn’t unreasonable, though.  I rolled up the window little by little until it was clear that we weren’t going to fog.

Driving to Peshawar is always good.  It used to entail driving the entire way on the Grand Trunk Road, which is totally congested, in less than pristine condition, and a bit dangerous to drive.  It is, however, totally fun to drive.  A new motorway (the M1) is being built from Islamabad to Peshawar.  It was about halfway finished, and the first half was open to motorists.  We decided to take the M1 because it would save us a lot of time, and we ended up with the road totally to ourselves.  There was a toll of about one dollar, and most locals seemed to choose the GT Road to forgo this.  Or maybe they just preferred the interestingness of the GT Road to the speed of the M1.  Who knows?

At the end of the open portion of the M1, we hopped on the GT.  We stopped to check out a monument (a tomb or something) by the road.  Then we drove on in to P-town.  I had only driven to Peshawar once before, over a year earlier, and that was as a passenger; Kaki had never been; and Traci had been a few times, also as a passenger.  It would have made sense for us to get directions to the Consulate before we left, but we didn’t.  We did well, though.  We only got a little turned around at first, but we were in the right area, and we found the Consulate on our second pass.

We parked at the Consulate and got a warm welcome.  We gave Anton the things he had requested.  Actually, only I gave Anton the things he had requested.  Traci forgot the hand sanitizer.  It’s all fun and games, I guess, until someone gets an awful disease that could have been prevented with a little hand sanitizer that his friend forgot to bring him.

That being said, I feel I should disclose that personally I am anti-hand sanitizer.

Anyhow, Anton ended up getting tied up with some other visitors at the Consulate and was unable to join us in touring around town.  Meanwhile, another colleague of ours from Islamabad, my good friend Shawna, was also in Peshawar.  After learning of our visit, she had asked if she could hang out with us for the day.  We were happy to have her.

After a very long wait, Shawna, our driver, and our police escort were all assembled, and we were off.  We were only going to be in Peshawar for a few hours, and there wasn’t much specifically that we wanted to see.  Kaki wanted to go to the brass and copper market, and I wanted to find some Pashto movies.  Beyond that, we were just glad to be getting a break from Islamabad.

Before we could get on our way, Anton was at the ready with yet another request.  He gave me some money to buy some men’s shawls and hats in the market.  He was going to give them as gifts.  Having bought some previously, he had a target price for us to go after.

And then we were off.

The first thing we did was drive around a bit.  We went as far as the border of the Khyber Agency, which requires prior arrangements and a permit to enter.  I had already been to the Khyber Pass before, though, and that wasn’t the purpose of this trip.

Local traffic.

Along the road leading to the Khyber Agency was the massive Smuggler’s Bazaar.  This is one of those places that can use the old shopkeeper’s boast – “If we don’t sell it, it doesn’t exist.” – with some degree of truthfulness.  It is said you can buy anything here from a kilo of rice to a can of Diet Cherry Vanilla Dr. Pepper to an attack helicopter.  If your car happened to get stolen in Islamabad, this would be a good place to look for it – minus the VINs of course.

Alas, the Smuggler’s Bazaar was off-limits to us, so we just checked out what we could see of it from the road as we drove by.  Shawna, Traci, and I all had our cameras, and from the moving car, we were photographing the interesting people and sights rather shamelessly.

Allow me to insert my philosophy of photographing people here.  My feeling is that a person cannot be offended if he doesn’t even realize he is being photographed.  So, unless I can ask permission of a person, I will not overtly point a camera at him.  I will, however, snap photographs of a person as I drive by him, or from a distance, or if he’s not paying attention, or by similar means that I consider relatively unobtrusive.  Basically, it has to do with how close I am to the subject (The more in-your-face it is, the more intrusive.), how likely the subject is to want his picture taken (Is he performing or just going about his business?), whether the subject will notice if I take his picture (What he doesn’t know won’t hurt him.), whether the picture is just of the subject or a larger scene (The smaller the part a person plays in a photograph, the less insulting it is.), and how much time I devote to setting up the shot (A quick point-and-shoot is less intrusive than a picture with a lengthy set-up.).  In any case, I think everything balances out in the end when I weigh the pictures I’ve taken against how much I have been gawked at and photographed by non-Western peoples in the course of my travels.  You, of course, may or may not agree with this whole line of thinking.

A young street food vendor.

Anyhow, getting back to the story, we were driving and photographing.  In line with my philosophy, I’d put my camera down whenever we’d stop.  Shawna had a different philosophy.  When we’d stop, she would intensify her photographing.  So we’d be sitting in traffic, and she would be photographing through the window a child or an old man ten feet away from us on the curb.  Some people would smile, some would just sit there, but all could clearly tell that they were being photographed.  I’m sure she got some cool shots, but I think she also raised the probability that someone would whack the car with a stick or worse.  No one did bother us, though, so more power to her.

After we drove the length of the Smuggler’s Bazaar, we went to the brass and copper market.  There were some interesting pieces, but I didn’t get anything.  Some of the others did, though.

While we were at the metalwork shop, Kaki stepped outside to have a cigarette.  She was quickly instructed by our bodyguard to smoke closer to the door of the shop and to get away from the street.  We weren’t in Kansas anymore.

Fully covered local women in an alley.

After the copper market, we were ready for lunch.  We asked our driver if he could suggest a good place.  His answer started with, “Many Westerners like the…”  He was answering a different question than had been asked.  We told him that we just wanted any place that served good food, not necessarily one that catered mostly to foreigners.  The driver started getting all confused.  He thought of several places, but he didn’t think that any of them would be serving lunch at the time.  (It was about 12:45, which is totally early for lunch in Pakistan.)  We eventually had him take us to the Pearl Continental Hotel, and we ate at their Chinese restaurant.  From the restaurant, we called Anton to see if he would be able to meet us there.  He was not.

We were the only customers in the whole place, so we had both a waiter and the manager to assist us.  The service was nice, but the food didn’t really blow me away.  Given the choice, I don’t think I’d eat there again.

As we were leaving the restaurant, the ladies all went off to the bathroom, and Anton called me to pass a message: the Principal Officer – the head honcho – at the Consulate had invited us to join him for tea at his residence at 3:00.  It was an offer we couldn’t refuse.  Not only did he totally outrank us, but he had been instrumental in getting our visit approved.  Background compulsions aside, we were happy to join him for tea.

What our tea time did mean, though, was that we had less than an hour to get to the markets and quickly shop.

The shopping turned out to be very unproductive.  We searched around for Anton’s hats and scarves, and, at the places that the driver took us, everything was too expensive.  We didn’t bargain much for anything, but you can get a pretty good idea of what the final price will be based on the initial asking price.

Even worse than failing to find Anton’s things was the failure to find my things – the Pashto movies.  Urdu movies are generally very conservative and family-friendly.  They also have a cinematic look that the rest of the movie-making world achieved 20 years ago.  That’s neither here nor there, however.  Pashto movies, on the other hand, are not nearly so conservative.  They supposedly show a lot of skin, to the point where they, at times, become pornographic.  That’s what I hear anyway.

Naturally, my interest in such movies was purely cultural and academic.

In our search for the Pashto movies, the driver took us to a few DVD stores with large selections.  Each time I asked the clerk if he had any Pashto flicks, the response was the same: With his mouth, he would tell me that he didn’t have any, and with his smirk and the twinkle in his eye, he’d tell me, “I hear you, brother; I could go for some of that culture myself right about now!”

We never did find the movies.

Our final stop was to a shop that carried the things Anton wanted.  The shopkeeper didn’t want to play ball, though, and the price didn’t get nearly as low as we wanted.  As a matter of fact, we could have gotten much better prices in Islamabad.  At this shop, the only thing that caught my eye was a handmade metal bus that was maybe 24 inches long.  It was a good-sized toy, complete with nice sharp edges, protruding screws, and an authentic paint job.  It, like the scarves and hats, was totally overpriced unfortunately.

We left empty-handed and high-tailed it back to the Consulate.

Back at the tea, only two of us actually had tea.  Of the 6 people there, we had 2 teas, a Diet Coke, a water, and two people who didn’t want anything.

We had a nice chat with our host, and before long, we had to head back to Islamabad.  The Embassy rule was that we had to be off the road by dark, so we had to leave Peshawar about three hours before sunset in order to make it home in time.

In addition to the daylight travel rule, Traci and I had another reason to get back to Islamabad.  That night, we were going to Burns Night at the British High Commission.  Burns Night is an annual formal event.  It’s held by Scots all around the world, I believe.  It celebrates the poet Robert Burns, and involves Scots making ridiculous toasts and speeches in unintelligible accents, everyone getting drunk, everyone eating haggis, everyone getting drunk, and everyone doing highland dancing (while drunk).  It was to be my first Burns Night, and after four weeks of highland dancing practice (one night a week) I was looking forward to it.

Getting back to the story, though, we bid Peshawar farewell and hit the road.

Right off the bat, we took a wrong turn.  This led to a few more wrong turns.  Eventually, Goldie was basically parked in the middle of a busy market street, with us inside appreciating the situation.  The road was choked with people and carts and horses and cars, and traffic was standing still.  I thought it was a swell diversion, but Traci seemed to be freaking out.  She did try to play it cool, but her voice had a higher than normal pitch and a note of panic to it.

In no time, though, we managed a U-ie and backtracked all the way to the main road.  Our bearings were restored, and we cruised on home.

The temperature in the afternoon was considerably warmer than in the morning, so it was pleasant driving back with the window open a tad.

I dropped Traci and Kaki off at their homes, cleaned up and put on my tux, and went to Burns Night.  And it turned out to be a huge disappointment.  Not only did the organizers double the price of the tickets over the year before, they also replaced the open bar with a cash bar.  What a rip-off!  There was wine served with dinner and a bottle of scotch at each 10-seater table, but this wasn’t sufficient.

The result was that very few people got tanked, and this was a tragedy.  If you take away the staggering drunkenness, all you are left with is haggis, square dancing, and toasting – a trio that alone is definitely not worth the $50 admission price.  Take away the booze, and you take away the comedy.  Robert Burns was surely spinning in his grave.

To add insult to injury, we were promptly kicked out of the High Commission at midnight, or maybe it was one o’clock, when the party officially ended.  I was so unimpressed by that point that I skipped the after-party that was starting at the British Club and went home.  (With the meager bit of alcohol I had consumed, I was totally good to drive.)

On the way home, I nearly ran over a huge porcupine crossing the road (against the signal, I might add), and my happiness level was magically restored.  I love it when animals walk around in the street.

Cheers to you, Needleback!

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Pakistan: Goat – The Other Dark Meat

Eid-al-Adha is a Muslim holiday that commemorates the Quranic story in which God tests Abraham by telling him to sacrifice his son, Ishmael.  Abraham is on the verge of doing it, and when God sees his level of obedience and commitment, He is satisfied and pulls the plug on the whole operation.  Overjoyed, Abraham spies a goat caught nearby in a thicket and sacrifices it instead.  And so all across Pakistan – and other parts of the Muslim world – every family that can afford to do so slaughters a goat to mark this occasion.  A goat is the most popular choice anyway; people also sacrifice sheep, cows, water buffalo, and even camels.  Particularly with the larger animals, several families may go in together on a slaughter (have shares in a cow, for example).  As I understand it, once the animal is slaughtered, the family is supposed to keep a third of the meat and then give a third to their friends and neighbors and a third to charity.

People sometimes try to tie the Eid slaughter to the American Thanksgiving turkey massacre.  Obviously, a big difference is the size of the animal.

For this year’s Eid holiday, we got a long weekend – I can’t recall exactly, but it was either 4 or 5 days.  It would have been the perfect opportunity to make a trip somewhere, but all the flights out of Islamabad were booked well in advance by people trying to get to Saudi Arabia for hajj.  So, I ended up stuck in Islamabad.

So as not to waste away the entire weekend, in all its rainy glory, I called up my good friend Julie and asked her if she would be interested in Eid touring with me.  Keen for an adventure herself, she agreed.

I called Julie on the eve of Eid, so it was a good time for us to go check out goats for sale.  So, Julie picked me up, and we went trolling for goat.  She recalled seeing some goats at one of the intersections on a main road in the north of town.  When she took me there, I recalled an even better supply of goats further up the road, at the Saidpur goat market.  I had been there previously on a little excursion.

Julie was game, and she started driving down the road toward the market.  Being the day before Eid, the market was doing a booming business with last-minute goat shoppers, and it had the traffic congestion one would anticipate.

The road to Saidpur is narrow to begin with, making it just wide enough for two cars to pass.  On this day, there were people parked along the road, obstructing traffic and making it one-way for much of the distance.  Whenever the road would bottleneck down to one lane, the decision of which direction of traffic would get to go was based on the age-old rule of courteous driving: intimidation.  At first, Julie was getting walked all over.  All the oncoming traffic was barreling through with nary a hesitation, and we were sitting there like suckers, waiting and stacking up cars behind us.

Then Julie snapped out of it.  She said something to this effect: “What am I doing?  I grew up chewing up and spitting out drivers like this on the California freeways!”  (Indeed…  If you didn’t grow up in California, but have driven there, you will no doubt understand the special style of driving Julie had within her.)

At the same time, Julie also remembered that she didn’t care if anything happened to her car.  I think it was a rental.

Anyhow, Julie was henceforth a totally different driver as she plowed through the traffic.  All she had to do to get a little respect was to convince the other drivers that she was crazier than they were, and she did a fine job of it.

When we got close to the market, there were some vendors who brought their animals right up to the road.  More than one guy held a goat up to our car and bared its teeth for us.

We were not interested in drive-thru service, so we found a parking spot and Julie expertly docked us.

I had my beard at the time, and with my leather jacket, I was looking semi-Pakistani.  Julie, who normally dresses totally local, decided to dress for the weather instead.  She had on some black Western clothes, hiking boots, and a scarf on her head.  She was not looking even semi-Pakistani.  This didn’t really matter, though, since by just being at the goat market and being a woman in any clothing, she stuck out.  Buying and selling goats seemed to be men’s work, and Julie was one of very few women in the area.

A cow painted and decorated to entice buyers.

Once we had parked, we got out and went over to see the animals.  There were goats, sheep, and some different types of cattle, and all around there were men and boys engrossed in the art of the deal.  The animals were decorated with ribbons, jewelry, and paint (most commonly neon pink and neon orange) to entice buyers.  In the goat herds, there was much hanky-panky going on, with goats mounting other goats right and left.  This was causing considerable embarrassment to the vendors, and they spent a good deal of time beating amorous goats with sticks.

Neither Julie nor I had ever shopped for goats before, so we took a moment or two to get the drill down.  Whenever we’d show an interest in an animal, the owner would drag it over and force its mouth open.  We would dutifully look in and nod approval or whatever.  I later learned that the sacrificed goat is not supposed to have any broken bones or teeth, which is why the goat vendors would open the mouths for us to inspect.  We also had a few other moves to make it look like we knew what we were doing.  We would feel the ribs, squeeze the haunches, and generally size up the animal.

A seller presenting the goat's teeth for inspection.

Unlike Julie who grew up on a ranch, I am not overly comfortable with animals.  She took the lead in the goat appraising, but we both realized that I, as the man, was expected to show goat expertise.  In short, if we wanted any credibility, which we did, then I had to evaluate the animals myself.  I gradually got into the swing of things, and by the end, I was manhandling goats with the best of them.

Once I had inspected an animal, I’d ask in Urdu how much it cost.  For goats, I was quoted about US$30-$50 each, and cows were starting at $120.  I don’t know livestock prices, so I’m not sure if I was getting a good deal or if I was getting the foreigner special mark-up.  I didn’t get into bargaining since I didn’t plan to purchase, but some vendors would self-bargain (dropping the price) when they saw I wasn’t instantly jumping at the deal.  I didn’t have a lot of Urdu to pull out, so once I got the price I’d inspect the animal once more, with a lot of hmmm’s sprinkled in, to look as though I was mulling the price over.  Of course, we always ended up walking away to “think about it”.

As we were cruising the animal lots, I was openly snapping photos.  I totally looked like a tourist, yet all the vendors still seemed to think I would buy from them.  I guess they thought we were legit.  Whatever the vendors were thinking, most all of them enthusiastically posed for pictures.

Mid-goat shopping, we stopped at a tiny nearby shop for cookies and juice boxes.  Rather, I did; Julie wasn’t hungry.  Then we continued with the animals.

Toward the end of our visit, Julie answered a call on her cell phone, and I whiled the time away goat shopping.  At one stop, I checked the teeth, felt the goat up, and discussed the price with the vendor.  Unfortunately, what with Julie on the phone and all, I spent too much time with this vendor, and I was really looking like I wanted the goat.  Finally, Julie finished her call, so I muttered to her that I needed her to do something to end my affiliation with the vendor.

Being a master of diversion, Julie pointed to a goat that she wanted to see that was way across the lot, and set out in that direction.  I was then able to shrug to the goat man with a gesture that told him that the missus didn’t like his goat and that we were going to look elsewhere.  Buying into my false state of being whipped, the goat guy posed for a photo and excused me.

Before we left, we checked out a dumba.  A dumba is a special breed of sheep that has a huge, fat butt, and it turned out to be the most expensive animal of the lot.  Asking price was US$300.

Dusk was falling as we left.  On the way to the car, I was stopped by some boys who were making a buck selling bundles of grass to be used as animal feed.  They wanted a photo, and I was happy to oblige.  Along with the enthusiastic grass vendors who wanted the picture, a gloomy-looking friend of theirs inserted himself into the photo, arms crossed, pout on face.  You’d think I had forced him into the shot.  Of course I hadn’t, and I would have preferred for him to leave.

A man leaving the market, happy with his purchase.

Leaving Saidpur, we joined the throng of vehicles pouring out to the main drag – most bearing an animal.  Of course, there were trucks with sheep, goats, and/or cows in the back.  The more amusing ones, however, were the small cars with goats inside.  Even the miniature Pakistani taxis were loaded up with 4-legged passengers.  Heck, there were even two young men on a motorbike, and squeezed between them, a couple of goats.  The scene reminded me of one of the funnier things (or awful things depending on your persuasion) I had seen in Pakistan during my tour: a sedan going down the road with a pony in the back seat.  I kid you not.

The next day was Eid.  Again, Julie and I hit the road – this time to witness the carnage.  It was raining again, but slaughtering was in full force.  All around, but more so the farther we got from the city center, there were people slaughtering animals or butchering them in their yards.  We passed many red-stained driveways.

Julie tried to goad me into approaching a family pre-kill, but I did not want to intrude.  I have no doubt, though, that I would have been welcomed.  The only actual kill I witnessed was that of a bull, which I saw from the car as we drove by.  The bull was pushed on its side and several men were laying on it to hold it down.  Then, one of the men slit the animal’s throat, and blood poured out with gusto.  It was different than I thought it would be.  The blood was like cherry Kool-Aid.  I had always assumed it would be darker red and thicker.  I also thought the kill would have been more ritualized, but it seemed to be pretty nitty-gritty.  Of course, to be fair, I was not in a position to hear what was being said or to see any minute gestures the group may have included before or during the slaughter.

I don’t know how animals register fear, but as we drove, we passed groups of two or three goats that were clearly disturbed.  They seemed rigid and nervous.  Then down the road a little ways, we’d pass another group of goats, and these would be standing feet from an ongoing slaughter totally oblivious to the whole thing.  They’d just be living their carefree goat lives like nothing much was happening.  When we saw the nervous goats, Julie and I each had to crack a few jokes.  Some opportunities require a smart remark.

We drove on in the drizzle, past animals pre- and post-mortem.  As we were driving, we passed an old man walking along the road.  He had a great beard that was long and henna’d orange.  He was kind enough to pose for a photo.

As we continued, we came to a field where several men were actively butchering some goats and cows.  They were sitting in the grass, working on the carcasses – removing the skin and organs, as well as cuts of meat.

We were unsure how they would react to guests, but Julie and I parked and walked up for a closer look.  The men were actually pleased to have us watch them and more than pleased to be photographed.

Those photos were excellent.  The men, in typical Pakistani fashion, would get a hard look on their faces for the photos.  To state the obvious, not everyone prefers smiling for the camera.

The butchering.

The next step in our exploration of Eid slaughtering traditions would have been to partake in the feasting.  Neither of us had accepted any invitations from our Pakistani friends, however, so we skipped this step.  Furthermore, Julie is vegetarian, so eating goat wasn’t an option for her anyway.

Once all the feasting was over, Julie and I again set out – this time to witness the aftermath of Eid.  In the city, there wasn’t much evidence of the event.  Sure, there were the blood-stained driveways and the occasional pile of goat parts (hide, bones, and whatnot) by the road.  Further from the city center, however, the evidence was unmistakable.  We saw whole goats and cows, not just entrails, being dumped by the side of the road.  At one spot, we saw a man with a whole cow in a wheelbarrow, and he dumped it in a spot where three whole animals had already been discarded.  A pack of wild dogs took over from there.  Everywhere we looked, there were dogs and cats either actively eating on carcasses or else walking around with body parts in their mouths.  There were huge birds of prey – hawks and vultures – eating on the carcasses or, more commonly, watching from the air or trees, waiting to dig in.  It was a bumper day for all manner of meat-eater.

I mentioned the waste we had seen to a few of my Pakistani colleagues and got a mixture of responses.  Some acknowledged that, yes, large amounts of meat went to waste since people could not consume it all and had no means to store the abundant leftovers.  Others flatly denied that anything went to waste.  They told me that I had probably only seen entrails being discarded, and if they were actually whole animals, they were probably being discarded because they were discovered to have been diseased once they had been slaughtered.  This explanation sounded to me like a clear case of exaggerated defense of one’s culture, which was unnecessary.  I wasn’t criticizing, and even if I was, what leg would I have to stand on?  After all, I am a member of the most wasteful society in history.

All said, it shaped up to be a pretty fun weekend, and I didn’t even have to fight my way through the airport.

Monday, January 17, 2005

China: Freezin' in Kashgar

For the long Martin Luther King weekend, I took the opportunity to visit China again.  What better way to celebrate the life of a civil rights superstar than to visit a place where individual rights are such a top priority.

This trip was to Kashgar, which is also called Kashi.  Kashgar is near the China/Pakistan border, on the other side of the Karakoram, Hindu Kush, and Himalaya mountain ranges.  There is a direct flight from Islamabad that takes about an hour and a half.

So, on a fine Saturday afternoon, I hopped on the plane to Kashgar.  The flight was nearly empty, and the scenery alone more than justified the cost of the ticket.  For probably 45 solid minutes, we were flying over the world’s tallest mountain ranges, at an altitude that permitted an excellent view.  The glaciers were especially nice.

In no time, we were in Kashgar.  As we landed at the airport, a group of Chinese soldiers was marching across the runway.  As it was winter, they were wearing their green oversized overcoats that made them all look like children wearing their parents’ clothes.

I cleared passport control, left the airport, and entered the territory of the taxi drivers.  Several pounced on the bait.  None of them could speak English, however, so I pointed to the name of my hotel written in Chinese in my guidebook.  None of the drivers would use the meter.  The driver I ended up taking told me he would take me for 50 RMB (about $6.20).  I told him I’d give him 30 RMB (about $3.70), and he agreed.  Once I agreed to pay 30, the driver ran to the other drivers jubilantly telling them.  I guess I was still paying top dollar.

The largest minority group in the western Chinese state of Xinjiang is the Uighurs (sounds like wiggers).  In Kashgar, the population is mostly Uighur, and there are very few Han Chinese there.  The Uighur culture is a mixture of Central Asian cultures drawing from nearby Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan.  They are predominantly Muslim, and their written language is based on the Arabic alphabet.

So anyway, I was cruising down the road with my Uighur taxi driver.  He tried making conversation in Mandarin, but he could tell pretty quickly I was clueless.  He gave Uighur a shot.  The greeting in Uighur happens to be the same as in Urdu, so I thought maybe there was hope.  He greeted me, and I responded to him in Urdu.  Unfortunately, the greeting was the only commonality between the languages that I could detect.

The driver was going the speed limit, so we had a slow ride into town.  There were also a few roads that were closed for VIP motorcades, further delaying us.

Once we got to the hotel, the driver came inside so that he could ask the clerk at the desk to apologize to me on his behalf for taking so long, since the clerk could speak English.  That was a nice surprise since I was thinking he would try to raise the price since it had taken so much time.  At check-in, a man from the in-house tour agency gave me a sheet of paper titled “Learn Uigher: Speak to Them in Their Own Language” and asked me to stop by his office later.  The handout had a few phrases on it.

I was staying at the Seman Hotel, which had formerly been a Russian Consulate.  The Seman offered a wide range of rooms.  The room I got was small and cold, and there was no hot water.  The price was right, though.

I had the whole afternoon remaining, so I ditched my bag in the room and set out with my camera.  I walked for a good while and took in the sites along the main drag.  Actually, the main drag was mostly just stores, and most of the stores were selling the same coats and long johns.  I tried on some jackets, but nothing fit.  The chest fit in a size large, but even in an XXXXL, my arms were hanging out by inches.  I guess the Chinese can maybe do big, but definitely not tall.

On my walk, I passed the People’s (Renmin) Square and the huge Mao statue across the street.  I continued on and came to the East Lake, which was frozen over.  Near the lake, there was a small park with several statues of Disney characters (all officially licensed, I’m sure) and a Ferris wheel which was not running.  At this point, I decided to walk back toward the hotel.

Kashgar in January was quite cold, and nearly everyone was wearing a fur hat as well as a fur or leather coat.

On my walk, a few boys on bicycles rode next to me for a bit and tried to speak English.  Then two girls asked me to take their photo, which I did.  Beyond that, everyone else just gawked at me.

I didn’t go directly back to the hotel, and instead I found a cool street with vendors selling handmade local musical instruments.  I got some street food and browsed the shops.  Specifically, I bought some breads that were about the size of a bagel.  Each was flat in the center, and the puffed outer ring was full of a meat, fat, and onion mixture.  If you are wondering about the fat part, rest assured it was an actual ingredient.  The cook would sit behind two large piles of ingredients – a big red pile (diced beef or sheep) and a big white pile (diced sheep fat) – and take equal measures of each to make the filling.  I finished those two breads that night, and they were tasty.  From that point on, however, my tolerance for sheep fat was rapidly waning.

As I was having my sheep fat bagels, one shopkeeper called me over.  He invited me back into his workshop where all sorts of crazy instruments were in various stages of construction.  There was an old man in the workshop, playing a violin-like instrument and singing.

It was entertaining, but after like ten minutes, I was bored.  I couldn’t find a good time to excuse myself since the old guy just kept going and going.

Finally after another 30 or 45 minutes, they decided it was time to close, and the old guy packed it up.  The clerk showed me the merchandise again, but I didn’t buy anything.  After all, everything was as expensive as it was beautifully crafted.  Plus I wouldn’t have known how to properly play whatever I bought unless I got something totally basic like a rattle.

I walked on back to the hotel, stopping along the way for some more street food.  This time I got some confections made of nuts and raisins in a hard sugar casing, sort of like peanut brittle.  These were on sale everywhere, and I would buy them several more times.

At some point during my walk, I lost my silver bracelet that I had gotten in India on an earlier trip.  Bummer.

At the hotel, I was on the ground floor.  There were no bars on the windows, but more disturbingly the windows didn’t even fully close.  I decided to sleep with my valuables under the covers.

I got ready for bed and started watching some Chinese TV.  At around 11:00, before I had gone to bed, the phone rang.  It was late, and, having been to China before, I was wise to the fact that prostitutes, in collaboration with hotel staff, were known to cold-call foreign guests late at night.  I didn’t answer, and the caller gave up.

I went to sleep, and at 1:30, the phone rang again.  This time I answered.  It was the freakin’ boy working the night shift at the reception desk.  He was either terribly bored or up to no good.  The call went something like this:


“Hello, Mr. Christopher.  I am Aslam from the reception desk.”


“Welcome to Kashgar.”


“What did you do today?”

“I went for a walk, and then I went to sleep.  Is there a problem?”

“No problem.  I am just calling to see if I can help you plan anything.”




“So what do you want to do?”

“Go back to sleep.  Good night.”

“OK.  Call me later.  I get off at 7 o’clock.”

I’m no trained detective, but this was possibly a variation on the prostitute calling game.  With the “What do you want to do?” question, there were any number of ways that call could have ended.

I woke up after 7:00 and missed the helpful night clerk.  Damn!  It was Sunday, and on the agenda was the famous Kashgar Sunday market, an event that draws vendors from all over Central Asia.

I caught a cab, and soon I was browsing the stalls.  I was interested in the souvenir side of things, so I bypassed all the stalls of leather coats, jeans, shampoo, and the like.  The first thing that caught my eye was a chapatti press – a tool that could put a star pattern on flatbread before it was cooked.  As soon as I stopped to look at it, all the people who had previously just been craning their necks to stare at me came over for a closer look.  There were probably 20 or 30 people crowded around me on the sidewalk watching me bargain.  Since I was bargaining for the chapatti press, it would be logical to assume that I was interested in buying it.  Still, people kept trying to be helpful in an annoying kind of way.  Some onlookers ran over to a bread vendor and got some bread that had been stamped with a pattern.  Then they took the chapatti press and pretended to be stamping the bread.  This demonstration was good and well, but I already knew how to use the tool.  The vendor put up four fingers, so I thought he wanted 4 RMB (about 50 cents).  I thought that was a real steal.  I gave the guy 4 RMB, but that wasn’t the price.  He clarified by writing 40 on a paper (about $5).  That was a bit steep, so I walked away.  In no time, there was a rumble from the crowd – the seller wanted to deal.  I ended up taking 2 for 40.  As I was paying, in further attempts at helpfulness, a few onlookers took it upon themselves to reach into my wallet to help me find the right bills.  That was a bit extreme, so I gave them a gesture to step back.

Once the sale was finished, I moved on.  A few people from my entourage followed me, but most went off in other directions.

I continued browsing and came to the main market building.  It was full of everything – hats, clothes, carpets, cooking supplies, herbs, housewares, toiletries, and more.  I bought one of the traditional Uighur hats.  It looked like a toboggan with the top part being black velvet and the trim rust-colored mink fur.  This was very popular in town.  I still had my beard then, and a hat vendor also sold me a hat that was “very good for Muslims”.  It was a black hat with a thick grey band that was made of wool.

Another famous Kashgar product is their knife.  Like the hat vendors, who had their own section of the market, the knife vendors also had a section.  I went to a few shops, and the salesmen were totally annoying.  They would pull out all these knives and cut whatever was handy to show the sharpness.  A favorite demonstration of the knife vendors was to slice the shopper’s fingernails.  It was very annoying.  These guys thought nothing of grabbing a person’s hand and cutting grooves into his nails.  After a few people did this to me, I started pulling my hand away before they could cut the nail, and the vendors would actually start yanking my hand back over as if they were entitled to demonstrate their blades on my nails.  I wasn’t worried about getting cut or anything like that; it was more of a personal space issue.

The knife vendors would also point out the stamped dates on their knives to show how old they were.  Call me a skeptic, but I had no faith that knives made last year weren’t being stamped 1926, for example.  The vendors were all super desperate.

I ended up buying a knife that supposedly had a deer bone handle.  A subsequent vendor saw it and claimed it was plastic.  He could have been telling the truth or perhaps he was engaging in the popular practice among vendors of trying to discredit the competition.  I didn’t really care if it was fake since it only cost about $12.  One knife was enough, though, so I had to blow off all the other aggressive knife hawkers.

I walked out of the market building with my new Uighur hat on, and I think it reduced the staring by the locals by 0.0021 percent.  It’s not like I was trying to blend in though.

Several people did give my hat the thumbs-up.

Just outside the market building, there were more hat vendors.  They were selling knock-offs that were made with synthetic fur.  I ended up getting a third hat.  This type, also very popular in Kashgar, was the kind most people associate with Russians.  It was the black mink hat with the earflaps tied on top.  The real ones were going for like $80 in the market, but my fake one cost only $2.  I changed hats, and I was styling to be sure.  No one could tell it was fake without close inspection, and the vendors who sold it to me even tried to claim it was real.

I ended up roaming the market for hours, and every so often, I would pick up some “helpful” kid.  One kid attached himself to me while I was buying my fake hat.  He spoke pretty good English, but said that he wanted to tag along with me and practice.  I told him fine.

Things were going OK until this kid took it upon himself to try to help vendors sell thing to me:  “Sir, the children make these, and they are not very expensive.”  “Sir, this tea pot is very special.”  Blah, blah, blah.

Practicing English was one thing, but trying to influence sales was quite another.  I cut this kid loose.

I stopped for some pomegranate juice and street bread.  This time I got a large piece with no filling, kind of like a pizza crust.

My last stop was to the carpet section, where I decided that my tastes in carpets did not have anything in common with those of the Kashgar vendors.  Every last piece was ugly and overpriced.

After I made a few passes through the market for shopping, I went back through intending to take pictures.  I hardly took any, although there were plenty of interesting things to see – food stalls with locals hunkering down to whole steamed or boiled sheep heads, chemist shops with all kinds of dried animals and animal parts in jars, hordes of people in fur hats, roads choked with cars, buses, people, and donkey carts, with everyone yelling “Push!” which must have meant “Move!” or “Coming through!”.

After the market, I walked back to the hotel, stopping in the stores on the way whenever I needed to warm up.  A few minutes from the hotel, I went into a supermarket.  I had on my backpack, which was holding my camera and my souvenirs.  At many stores, there were lockers outside.  I had always skipped the lockers, and no one much cared.  At this grocery store, they did care.  An employee started making a big fuss about my backpack, and since I didn’t feel like using the lockers, I left.  And while I was getting kicked out, wouldn’t you know that there were two tourists (who looked French to me), who clearly hadn’t been kicked out, at the check-out counter watching the whole thing.  I don’t mind looking silly in front of locals, but to look silly in front of other tourists is more embarrassing.  I walked a little down the road and found a grocery store that wasn’t so uptight on the locker policy.

On the previous evening, I had inquired at the hotel’s in-house travel agency as to what day trip I could do on my final day.  The two tour operators were both named Abdul.  They showed me three or four excursions I could take, but unfortunately, they were all inaccessible because of the winter weather.  The only choice on the table was a Kashgar city tour, which did not interest me.

There was also a small chance that I would be able to take an excursion to Karakuli Lake (also sometimes written as Karakuri, Karakol, and so forth).  Karakuli Lake is called the Father of Glaciers.  It’s about 3,600 meters (11,808 feet) high, at the foot of Mount Maztagata.  The road to the lake had been impassable for weeks, but Abdul the Shorter said he would check the following day to see if any trucks had been able to get through.  In order to illustrate how dangerous the roads could be in the winter, he relayed the story to me of how in March 2004 he had been in tour-guide training.  He had taken a bus of people up Tiantan Mountain that ended up sliding off the road after some interactions with a mini-bus, leading to a recovery operation that lasted several hours.  And what a small world it is!  I told him how I had been in a mini-bus in March 2004 going up Tiantan Mountain when my car and a tour bus ended up in the ditch and required an effort of several hours to free them.  I’m sure this situation happened more than once on Tiantan Mountain in March ’04, but who knows.  Perhaps Abdul the Shorter and I had crossed paths before.

Anyhow, I was to check back the following day to get the latest on road conditions.  The main tourist season in Kashgar is in the summer, so there weren’t many tourists when I was there.  Besides me and the French people in the supermarket, there were two German guys staying at my hotel.  There was a possibility they would be joining me on the trip to the lake.

When I checked about the trip, I got good news.  The first trucks in weeks had gotten through the road, and the trip was a go.  I was told to be back at the travel office the following morning at 7:00.

Before I left the tour office, I asked Abdul the Shorter for a recommendation for dinner.  He suggested a place near the hotel, which had no restaurant of its own or else it had one that was closed for the winter.  Knowing that the staff at the restaurant he was recommending didn’t speak English, he asked me what I wanted to eat and wrote it out for me in Uighur.  I was getting a local noodle dish and some kebabs, but the translation he wrote for me was several sentences long.  According to what he told me, it said something to this effect: “I want one order of Uighur noodles.  Make it spicy, but not too spicy.  Add all the non-spicy extra toppings.  Bring two beef jungle kebabs with no vegetables.  Make them regular spicy.  Also bring a pot of tea.”  It looked like a novel on the paper.

With my very specific order in hand, I went over to the restaurant.  There was the initial confusion among the staff when they realized we couldn’t communicate, but they eventually seated me and brought me a menu.  I gave the waitress my pre-written order.  She got a kick out of it and passed it around to several of the other staff members.  They were all laughing, but before long, the order appeared as written.

Not to be culturally insensitive, but it was not the best meal I’ve ever had.  The kebabs were heroically tough, and the noodles were nothing special.  Uighur food is nothing like Chinese food; that’s for sure.  As I was jawing on my meat and choking down the noodle soup amidst large quantities of tea, I got the urge for a beer.  That’s one word I know in Chinese, so I ordered one.  They told me they didn’t have any beer, and then I realized my mistake.  Uighur restaurant = Muslim staff = no alcohol = no beer.  Doh!

I felt like a doofus, so I asked for a Sprite instead.  Meanwhile, the manager had dispatched a waitress to get me a beer from a liquor store in the area.  She was proud to present it to me a few minutes later, and I felt like more of a doofus than before.

I finished dinner, and then I called it a night.  Again, I watched Chinese TV, had a cold shower, and went to bed with my belongings under the blanket.

And again the phone rang at o-dark-30.  I answered again, and this time it was a woman who it seemed could speak no English.  It was probably just a wrong number, so I hung up.

The next day, I woke up and reported to the lobby by 7:00.  There was no sign of the tour office staff until 7:30, which was the new starting time that they forgot to tell me about.  The Germans weren’t there, so I asked where they were.  It turned out that they were going to wait and see how my trip went before they committed to one.  Weenies!

My driver was a man whose name I can’t recall.  I’ll just call him Wilbur for this story.  Wilbur spoke no English.  We took off in his old beater with no heat in the freezing cold, and like my taxi drivers before, he strictly adhered to the speed limit.  We slowly drove through the empty city streets, and on the edge of town, we stopped for gas.

Shortly outside town, the paved road ended, and we continued on over raggedy gravel roads for at least an hour.  Wilbur kept going at his slow city driving pace, which, when transferred to a gravel road, seemed quite fast.  On the way, we stopped for breakfast at a roadside restaurant.  The chef had several large pots of food outside, so we each got a heaping plate of a rice dish and went inside to eat.  The dish was a greasy concoction of rice and diced carrots.  Wilbur got his with meat, but it appeared to be goat jaw and I passed.  The rice wasn’t bad, although I’m sure the greasy component was my old friend: sheep fat.  For drink, we both had bottomless tea.

I was the only foreigner in the restaurant, but no one batted an eye.  It must’ve been my hat.  Just kidding.

Wilbur and I both ate every last grain of rice, and then we left.  Wilbur paid, and for both of us breakfast cost a dollar.

Before long, we reached the mountain ranges, and they were spectacular.  The gravel road gave way to a nice paved road.  It was kind of screwy, though, because the perfect blacktop was peppered with snowy stretches and patches with dirt and rocks and portions that were severely pocked.  So, there would be miles of perfect road, a few hundred yards of random crappy road, miles of perfect road, and then more random crappy road.

Highway through the Mountains

As we cruised along, we passed some government checkpoints where I had to get out of the car and go in a building and present my passport, while Wilbur waited outside and allowed a soldier to search the car.  Five or ten minutes after one of these checks, we were cruising along when we came to one of the bad spots in the road.  It was an icy stretch where a stream seemed to have decided to develop after the highway had been built.  The ominous aspects of this stretch were three huge pools of ice and water that we would have to cross.  They were one after another, separated by large mounds of ice.  Wilbur stopped the car for a moment, gauged the situation, and looked over at me.  I gave the thumbs up.  Then he gunned it.

We cleared the first pool and the first hump and the second pool and … and, well, that was it.  We were stuck with the back tires in the middle pool, the front tires in the last pool, and the belly of the car high and dry on the mound of ice between the two.  Wilbur got no response in forward or reverse, so we got out of the car to check it out.  At first we tried to push the car to get it off the hump.  Since the back of the car was in a huge puddle, we couldn’t push directly from behind.  Instead, we each pushed from the back corners of the car so that we could stand on the banks of the puddle.

And as we were pushing, I slid into the pool.  I was up to the knee, both legs, in the ice water.  I climbed out, and I was numb.  My pants immediately froze.  Wilbur, meanwhile, assessed the situation with a look of concern for his tip.

So, we were a few kilometers away from the nearest people, our car was stuck, it was freezing, and I was wet.  Things were not looking all that good.

Not wanting to die and all, I started digging up dirt and rocks out of the snow on the sides of the road to start filling the space under the tires.  I didn’t have gloves, so it was painful work.  Wilbur decided to help after a bit, and before long we had not much to show for our efforts.  Then after a bit more, we finally started making headway.

About the time we were ready to try firing up the car again, two people came up on horseback.  One was a Chinese soldier or some other type of uniformed officer, and I don’t know who his friend was.  Anyhow, Wilbur started the car, and the three of us pushed.  And in a puff of smoke, the car struggled over the hump of ice, flopped into the third pool, and ended up on the good stretch of pavement.  We were all cheering and high-fiving.  If only one of us had brought a flask, we could have toasted.

The soldier who helped us get our car out of the ice (left) and my driver "Wilbur" (right).

Wilbur stopped the car, and the soldier and I got in.  The soldier left his friend to get both of their horses home and we drove him down the road a ways and dropped him off.

Meanwhile, it was still cold enough to see my breath in the car, and I couldn’t feel anything below my knees.  I took off my shoes and socks and started massaging my feet.  As much as I like a crazy story, I had no intention of losing my toes to frostbite on this trip.

As I was kneading my toes, the feeling was starting to come back.  Wilbur reached over and felt my toes, and then he turned on the heat.  Classic!  We had been freezing all morning, and he had been holding out on the heat until it was absolutely necessary.  I reasonably had assumed that the car had no heat.  Before long, though, my toes were in the clear, and we soon reached Karakuli Lake.

Karakuli Lake, ringed by mountains

It was beautiful.  We admired it, photographed it, and moved on.

This excursion also included a visit to a local family’s home, so we continued on toward this objective.  The Abduls had told me that the driver would stop along the way so I could buy some candy or another small gift for the family I would be visiting.  Wilbur did not stop.  We arrived empty-handed.

The local family’s house was in a small village surrounded by mountains and a pasture where yak were grazing.  (As an aside, the word yak in Uighur means yes, and they call the big furry animals something different.)  The scene was quite pastoral.

We pulled up and the son of the house (maybe 14 or 15 years old) came out to meet us.  We went inside and met the rest of the family – the father, the grandmother, the mother, and her baby.  Of course, I can’t say for sure what relationship these people were to each other since I couldn’t communicate with them.  As you’ll recall, I couldn’t even communicate with Wilbur.

The house seemed to be constructed of mud bricks.  Near the door, there was an incongruous solar panel propped against the wall.  I’m not sure what it was powering.

The scene of the home-visit.

Anyhow, inside the house, we followed the lead of our host and took off our shoes.  Wilbur must have relayed my wet feet story because the grandmother took my shoes and then my socks and hung them near the stove that was near the door.  When we first entered, the father, a short, round man, was asleep under some blankets in the middle of the floor.  Wilbur roused him, and he quickly got up, folded his blanket, and invited us to sit.

I thoroughly enjoyed the decor of the house.  While houses in the States might have photos on the walls of mountain vistas and quaint villages, such things were the everyday reality for these people.  Instead, they had a few large posters of tropical island scenes and a large poster of a standard two-story house that could have been photographed in any American suburb.  Their exotic was my familiar and vice versa.

Getting back to the story, the father, Wilbur, and I sat on the floor.  The son kept coming in and out of the house.  The grandmother was doing laundry in a small tub on the floor.  The wife spent her time helping the grandmother hang the washed clothes, tending the fire, and amusing the baby.

I greeted the family, and they greeted me back.  The father and I had a few gestured conversations.  That was pretty much the extent of our interactions.

Remembering my Uighur cheat sheet from the hotel, I pulled it out.  It didn’t get me anywhere.  It had a few dozen phrases like, “Where’s the toilet?” and “That’s too expensive.  Will you take 100 RMB?”.  Nothing much was useful for an actual conversation.

I wasn’t keen on the home-visit in the first place, but once the excursion started it was too late to back out due to the fact that I couldn’t convey to Wilbur that I wasn’t really interested.  He and the father spent most of the time chatting, and whenever they’d address me, it would just result in awkwardness all around.

After a bit, they offered us bread and tea.  It was plain bread with no filling.  Everything was tasty.

Before long, the baby went into a crying fit, and this provided a good opportunity for us to leave.  I was grateful to the little screamer.  As we were leaving, I gestured to Wilbur in private to ask if I should tip the family.  He gestured back that they were good friends of his and that I should not offer any money.  We bid them farewell and headed back to Kashgar the same way we had come.  If we had instead continued on further south, we would have reached the Pakistani border in a few hours.  This, however, was their two-day tour, and I only had one day.

On the way back to Kashgar, we stopped at a second, smaller lake and took a few photos.

When we reached the spot where we had been stuck earlier, there was another car stuck in the ice water.  It, however, was part of a convoy of three vehicles, and the other two were on the verge of freeing it.  This time, Wilbur drove on a side track that was a good ways off the road and thereby avoided the major puddles.

Soon we were back at the passport checkpoint.  When I came out of the building, I found Wilbur talking with a load of people on a bus.  Evidently, he was friends with some of them because we ended up with two kids, a boy and a girl, in the backseat.  They were also heading to Kashgar.  Technically, I suppose they should have paid part of the fare for the ride, but I didn’t really care about that.  At least they could talk with Wilbur, and the car wasn’t silent.

When we came to the place where we had had breakfast that morning, there was now a market in progress.  There were farm animals and people with fur hats everywhere.

Wilbur stopped the car and ran me through the market.  We went straight through and didn’t pause once.  It all seemed a bit pointless, but I guess he had been instructed to take me to the market, which is what he did.  I didn’t want to shop anyway, so I didn’t much care.

We left the kids in the car, but they went off to the store to buy candy.  We got back before they did.

On the gravel road, we were again going along at a good clip.  The whole car was violently shaking like we were in the space shuttle re-entering Earth's atmosphere.  After a while, we hit pavement.  Curiously, the car continued shaking.  Wilbur stopped to have a look, and the right rear tire was blown.

We were out in the boonies, so he drove for several minutes until we came to a service station.  There he had his spare inflated, and he changed the tire.  The blown tire was totally destroyed and the rim was bent.  The kids started laughing when they saw it.  I’m a sucker for laughing kids, so I joined them in laughing.  I watched as Wilbur changed the tire, and about twenty Chinese men watched me watching Wilbur change the tire.  The kids, meanwhile, were off buying steamed sweet potatoes from a street vendor.

We finally reached the hotel, and I relayed our adventures to Abdul the Taller.  He was embarrassed that we had had some problems, but he offered, “At least it was exciting.”  And that it was.  It’s the parts that go wrong that generally make the best stories, anyway.

As I was leaving, Abdul the Taller commented that he really liked my hat.  It looked exactly like his – the same style and color.  The big difference was that his was real mink and cost $80; mine was fake and cost $2.  He told me that he had been looking for two new hats to give to his father and brother, but that everything he had seen was too expensive.  When he asked me how much mine had cost, he was totally confused.  I tried to explain that mine wasn’t real, but he never did understand.  He was still trying to wrap his brain around it when I left.

It was my last evening in town, so I wandered around to some areas I had missed before.  Then I went in search of dinner.  I was through with Uighur food and all its delightful variations on sheep fat, so I was looking for anything else.  I passed several Pakistani restaurants, but none seemed to be open.  Beyond that it was slim pickings.  I ended up going to a Chinese fast food chain.  It was closely patterned on McDonald’s, but served soups, ribs, pizza, cakes, tacos, and Chinese food in addition to hamburgers and fries.

I got a pepper burger (hamburger with black pepper sauce) combo, and it was just what the doctor ordered.

Then I had some street raisin-nut dessert, and I was ready for bed.  I got no mystery calls that night.

The next day, I was back at the airport ready to head home.  The place was nice and cold, so all of us waiting passengers sat on the heater that ran the length of the waiting lounge.

The flight home was packed with Pakistani businessmen, which meant that the baggage, both checked and carry-on, was voluminous.  We did manage to get all the passengers and bags shoe-horned into place, though, and we were off.

As we took off, the whole valley was covered with clouds, and visibility was low.  As a result, we were treated to an awesome view.  Once we climbed high enough, we came out on top of the clouds, only to see the peaks of the huge mountains.  It was the strangest thing because it totally looked like the clouds were supporting the mountains.  I couldn’t look away.

Soon enough, we crossed the rest of the mountains and landed in Islamabad.  And darned if I didn’t have a powerful craving for bagels with sheep fat.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Pakistan: Katas

Another weekend, another day-trip.  This time the destination was Katas.

Katas is a town with some Hindu ruins about 2 hours from Islamabad in the direction of Lahore.  I decided to check it out one Saturday in January with my good friends Nenita and Tim.  Tim is a Marine Security Guard at the Embassy.

Cruising down the Motorway in Goldie, the Little Honda Civic that Could, with the windows down, the air was brisk to say the least.

We found the turn-off for Katas without much problem, but finding the actual ruins was a little more difficult, as we had no guidebook or map for the place.

We hit the town and drove straight through.  At one point, I pointed out something I thought might be the ruins, but the overall consensus in the car was that it was nothing.  We blindly drove around and got to see some nice countryside as we did.  We were never really lost, though, since we always knew how to get back to the center of town.

We drove down one road leading out of town for 30 or 40 minutes, and deciding it wasn’t the road we needed, turned around and came back.  After that, we continued down a road in the opposite direction.  In this direction, we could tell sooner that the road wasn’t going where we wanted to go.  This road was heading toward the Khewra Salt Mines, which I had visited on an earlier trip.

We backtracked and picked up another road.  This one didn’t take us to the Hindu ruins either, but it was a good find.

Almost immediately, we passed a fort high up on a cliff to our left.  We decided to keep going and to climb and photograph this fort on our way out.  We ended up forgetting about it, though.

As we continued down the road, we came to a reservoir with a crazy old tree next to it.  Tim started calling it the Hobbit tree, and the name was fitting since it was so large and gnarly.  We got out and took some photos.  Meanwhile, locals were doing laundry in the nearby reservoir.

We continued down the road, and before long we came to a turn-off for a village that was up a steep, steep hill.  It was up a one-lane road that had to have a grade of at least 45 degrees.  Goldie zipped us up, no problem.  The only problem was that the narrow steep road just kept going up and up, and there didn’t seem to be any good place to turn around or turn off.  Eventually, we hit a roadblock and could go no further.  I had to creep down in reverse for a bit before we hit a spot in the road that was wide enough for me to redirect Goldie, with a little repetitive forward and reverse action.  As I was maneuvering, some young men came up.  With their little bit of English and my little bit of Urdu, they communicated to us that we were in the village of Watli.  We told them that we were seeking ruins, and they pointed us further down the main road, where they said we would find an old tomb.

We thanked the guys for the information, and started back down the monster hill.  It was like going down a roller coaster.  Tim immediately asked to get out.  He said he would walk down so as to reduce the pressure on the brakes.  I let him out, and Nenita and I continued down.  I had the brakes all the way down the whole way down the hill, but we couldn’t have stopped if we wanted to.  Even with full brakes, we were traveling at a pretty good roll.

We made it to the bottom, though, and Tim joined us in a moment.  Once he got back in Goldie, I asked him if he hadn’t walked so as to avoid joining me and Nenita in the spectacular wreck that wasn’t so hard to imagine happening coming down that hill.  He admitted that was exactly his thinking.  We all got a laugh about that.

We cruised on down the road, and on the top of a distant hill, I noticed what I thought was a fort.  It was difficult to make out, though, and Tim said it was just a rock formation.  As we got closer, I was more convinced that it was a fort.

We came to a fork in the road; to the left the better road continued, and to the right was a crude rock road.  The fort seemed to be down the rock road, but we decided to follow the nicer road in hopes that it also went there.  Before long, it became clear that the paved road wasn’t leading to the fort, so we backtracked and took the rock road.  By rock road, I mean that the road was formed of large stones, almost like in a dry stream bed.  It was definitely off-road type terrain.

Right off the bat, Goldie dragged bottom on a few spots.  Tim again volunteered to walk to reduce the weight, and Nenita and I drove on.  We drove a long way, carefully maneuvering so as to inflict the least amount of damage on Goldie.  When we eventually reached the bottom, we were expecting to have to wait a while for Tim.  He ended up running, though, and caught us almost immediately.

Once he caught us, he asked us why we hadn’t stopped.  Turns out that he only wanted to walk the first section of road, but when he yelled for us to stop, we couldn’t hear him and continued on to the bottom.

Kussak village

At the bottom, there was a village we would soon learn was called Kussak.  I parked Goldie under a large tree at the entrance to Kussak, and we unloaded.  To the left were the school and a well, and to the right were some houses.  And straight ahead was the fort.  Two young men greeted us as we first started walking around, and we conveyed to them that we were interested in the fort.  They led us on a trail part of the way up the hill and then pointed the way for us to continue unescorted.  We thanked them and continued.  It was not a bad hike.

We checked out the ruins of Kussak Fort (which really were ruins) and admired the fine view that the hill provided in all directions.  Then we headed back down to Kussak.

Kussak Fort

Once we reached the bottom of the hill, more villagers came to talk to us.  A man named Shoukat invited us to have tea, and we accepted.  He took us to his house where we met his toddler daughter, Asifa, and his brother Mehboob.  They served us tea and cookies, and we chatted.

I found Tim to be quite amusing during the conversation.

Both Shoukat and Mehboob were in the army, stationed in Rawalpindi, which is adjacent to Islamabad.  When they asked what we did, Nenita and I said we worked at the Embassy.  Tim was weary of admitting to being a Marine and told them that he was an English teacher in Islamabad.  Shoukat and Mehboob got confused and thought we were all teachers.  Nenita was laughing at Tim later since he was claiming to be an English teacher, yet he couldn’t understand any Urdu.  She kept asking him how he would communicate with the students.  Maybe he meant that he taught the subject English, not the language, at the International School.  It didn’t much matter since our hosts had no follow-up questions regarding employment.

At the time, I had a beard and Shoukat asked me if I was Muslim.  I told him that I was Christian.  A few seconds later, Tim piped up, “I am also Christian.”  Tim is a clean-shaven blond kid with a buzz cut; I don’t think they had any doubts he was Christian.

A few questions later, Mehboob asked, “So how do you find Kussak?” meaning what did we think of it.

I immediately said that we thought it was great.  Tim, meanwhile, thought I had misunderstood the question.  He started explaining how we found (as in located) Kussak.  “We were driving along, and we saw the fort in the distance.  We took a right turn…”

Tim, however, was the one who misunderstood the question, and everyone was just staring around while he gave his long response to a question that was never asked.

I say again, no disrespect intended, but Tim amused me.

We chatted a little longer about how nice Kussak was, and Shoukat commented that they had many tourists coming to their village.  I didn’t really believe this based on the response we had gotten.

We had to be on our way, though, so we thanked our hosts for their hospitality, and we all walked outside.  For a village that gets a lot of tourists, it was hard to tell.  All the young children were out of school now, and they swarmed us.  Well the boys did, anyway; the girls had to maintain decorum.  The boys made for some fun photos.  I was content to get some candid shots, but Tim requested for all the kids to pose in a group.

After the photo shoot, Nenita gave the kids a bag of candy we had been snacking on in Goldie, and we made a super slow getaway down the rock trail.  Such a slow getaway was funny since the whole town was there to see us off.  Finally we made a turn and were out of view.  This time, Tim rode the whole way out of the rock garden, and we only dragged Goldie’s belly a few times.

By now, it was getting late and we were out of time to explore.  We went back to Katas, and the spot I had pointed out on the way in turned out to be the Hindu site we had been searching for.  We parked and quickly toured the ruins.

They were interesting.  The inner stairways and passages were still in tact in several of the buildings, so it was possible to poke around, albeit in the dark in most cases.

The highlight of the ruins was a pool that, according to legend, was formed by the excessive crying of the Hindu god Shiva at the death of his wife, Satti.  A second pool was also supposed to have been formed in Pushkar, India.  Each pool is supposed to be crystal clear, shaped like a large tear, and bottomless in the center.  The one is Katas was shaped sort of like a tear, and it was pretty clear, although somewhat choked with algae.  I couldn't tell if it was bottomless in the center.  Both pools are considered sacred to Hindus, and prior to Partition, Katas was a major pilgrimage site.  Now it wasn’t really drawing too many visitors, pilgrims or otherwise.

Shiva's bottomless pool with temple buildings.

As we were about halfway through viewing the ruins, a young man came up.  He pronounced his name as Danielle, but I’m sure it must have been Daniel.  Anyhow, Danielle was a student at the local university, and he started following me around asking the usual questions.  Once we had gone through the usual spiel, the conversation reached a good ending point.  I turned to Danielle, shook his hand, and told him it was nice to have met him (meaning “so long, sucker”).

He turned to me and said, “So can we make a friendship?”

I had no idea what he was talking about.  I shook his hand again and said, “Sure, we have made a friendship.”

Unsatisfied, he replied, “Aren’t we going to exchange contact information?”

I told him that I would give him my e-mail address, but, alas, neither of us had a pen.  He suggested we ask Nenita, so we went over to her.  Since I really didn’t care to have Danielle for a pen pal, I asked Nenita for a pen, at the same time giving her the subtle signal to say no.  Nenita said no as requested, but Danielle wasn’t finished.  He asked me to just tell him the address and he would remember it.  This was fine with me, so I slowly repeated my e-mail address to him, letter by letter, until he thought he had committed it to memory.  He did the same for me, although I had no intention of remembering his e-mail address, so I only pretended to be trying to commit it to memory.

After a bit, we were again walking around the ruins, our new friend in tow.

Evidently, committing my e-mail to memory proved too difficult for Danielle because at one point he stopped, picked up a stone, and started scratching my e-mail into the wall of one of the ruins.

I promptly told him to stop.  Not only was that vandalism, but I didn’t like the idea of my e-mail being out there for the world.  People might think I had written it.  Dad used to tell us, “Fools’ names and monkey faces, always found in public places,” and I didn’t want to be a fool or a monkey.

We finished touring the ruins shortly afterward and headed back to the car.  The sun was already going down, which meant we were going to be out after dark.  The sunset was off the hook.  It looked like something painted for the set of Gone with the Wind.

As we loaded up, a man came up to us and tried to make our acquaintance.  Reading from a card, he asked me, “What is your name? Where are you from? How do you like Pakistan?” without any pauses for me to respond.  I answered him, “I’m Chris from America, and Pakistan is very good.”  Then I told him bye in Urdu.  He turned out to be a rickshaw driver, and he slunk back to his vehicle without any customers.

When we were about ready to pull away, Danielle asked me if we could give him a ride to his house, which was on the way out of town.  I didn’t really care, so I put the question to Tim and Nenita.  Neither of them cared either, so we put Nenita in front and Danielle in back with Tim, figuring that if he decided to try anything funny, it was best to have him seated next to the trained killer.

We drove for a good ways down the road, and we were all beginning to wonder where Danielle’s house was.  Finally, he asked me to stop where a dirt road intersected the main road.  His house was up the dirt road, and he got out, thanked us, and walked the rest of the way home.

And we never heard from him again.

Two quick hours later, we were back at the Embassy.