Saturday, April 16, 2005

Pakistan: Hasan Abdal and Khanpur Dam

It was mid-April, and I put in a request through the security office to go to Hasan Abdal and Khanpur Dam, both of which lie maybe 45 minutes west of Islamabad in the direction of Peshawar on the Grand Trunk Road.  There was a big rally scheduled to take place in Islamabad on the day that I requested to go, and there was concern that all of the people coming into town from the outlying regions to take part in the protest would clog the GT Road (making it too dangerous for me to go).  In the end, though, I got a cautious approval, but an approval nonetheless.

That Saturday, I picked up my good friend Portia, and we set off in Goldie, The Little Honda Civic That Could.

Before we got underway, we stopped to pick up a CD for the trip.  It was after 10:30, but when we got to the music stores, they weren’t open yet.  Shopkeepers in Pakistan, like many other people there, are not generally interested in being the early bird.

We waited in the parking lot for a few minutes, and a store opened before long.

Then we quickly picked a CD and continued on our way.

As we drove down the GT Road, it was clear to me that the increased traffic caused by the protesters was nothing to be concerned about, and I was glad that my trip hadn’t been cancelled because of it.  For starters, all of the protesters were heading into the city, and I was heading out.  No problem there.  In addition, the protester traffic wasn’t very thick.  If I had been driving in it, I don’t think it would have been any big deal.

(That said, I realize that hindsight is 20/20 and that it is easy to second-guess the security office when it’s beneficial to oneself to do so.)

In no time, we reached Hasan Abdal.  It was a hole-in-the-wall town with no obvious signage, and we drove by it the first time.  We realized our mistake, though, and stopped for directions.

I started out asking for directions of a man by the side of the road.  I only lasted a few seconds in my baby Urdu before I turned things over to Portia.  Born in Peshawar, and partly raised in Pakistan, she was fluent.

At the point that we stopped for directions, we had been very close to the entrance to Hasan Abdal.

We thanked the man that we had asked directions of, did a U-ie, and exited off the GT Road and into the town.  As soon as we got off the GT Road, there was total gridlock.  The bus station was perched right at the entrance to the village, and there were buses and people everywhere.

We finally got through and into the streets of Hasan Abdal.  These were narrow, one-lane deals for the most part.

As we navigated through the streets, we ended up behind a horse cart.  It was barely moving, and traffic started to back up.  There was no good way to get around the cart, so we kept slowly following it and cars started to stack up behind us.  After about five seconds of patience, everyone behind us started laying on their horns.  I slowed up a little more.

Eventually, there came an opportunity to pass the horse cart, and I gladly took it.

Moments later, we were on the main drag of town, and I parked Goldie on the side of the road.

This was one of those grand entrances where everyone in the area stopped what he was doing to watch our arrival.  It’s fun to get your things together and lock the doors of the car while a crowd of people intently watch as if you are doing something fascinating.  Evidently they didn’t see many tourists in these parts.

Hasan Abdal is an important holy city.  The main attraction in town is probably Panja Sahib, the temple of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism.  This temple makes Hasan Abdal one of the holiest places for Sikhs.  The complication with this is that most Sikhs are Indian and they have a very difficult time getting visas to come to Pakistan so they can visit Hasan Abdal.

In town, there are also a shrine to Baba Wali (a Sufi preacher), some other tombs and shrines, and the usual trappings of town life like markets and eateries and livestock wandering around.

Portia asked some of our onlookers where Panja Sahib was, and they happily pointed it out.  It was only a little ways up the street.

At the temple, there was a crowd of Pakistanis standing outside its large gates, which totally concealed everything inside.  The gates were slightly ajar, and the people outside were speaking with a man on the inside.

Portia and I wedged through the crowd to see what was happening.  When we reached the gate, Portia spoke with the man on the other side.

He explained to her that visitors were not allowed inside the temple area.

This was a pity, but rules are rules.  Portia and I started leaving.

Then the man inside the gate unexpectedly called us back.  He offered to make a special exception and show us around inside.  Again we passed through the crowd of people who would not be allowed inside the gates.  They seemed not to mind that we were getting preferential treatment simply because we were foreigners.

At the time, I wasn’t sure how special an exception we were.  I figured that they must let a lot of foreigners inside.  Really, though, I don’t know how many tourists make it inside and how many don’t.  I did learn later that a few of my colleagues had been denied entry on a separate trip, so maybe Portia and I had indeed gotten lucky.

Inside the gates, there was a large yellow and white temple in the center of a courtyard.  It was surrounded by a yellow and white stone fence and then by a moat.  There were several people walking around that looked like regular Pakistanis as well as several that were wearing the turban that Sikhs often wear.

Our guide gave us a brief tour.  He walked us down to the moat that surrounded the temple.  Before we descended the steps to the water, he asked us to remove our shoes.

The moat was a shallow pool that was nicely tiled and ran with clear water around the perimeter of the temple.  It was used for ritual bathing, and some of the Sikhs also seemed to simply be swimming.

As we stood outside the moat, our guide pointed across the water at an opening in the temple that contained some holy texts.

We walked a little further along the water’s edge, and we came to the place where the sparkling fresh water flowed from the wall and into the moat.  Near this spot, there was a boulder.  As the story goes, Baba Wali, the Sufi badass, rolled the boulder down the hill, right at Guru Nanak.  No one ever explained to us what this was all about, so I don’t know if the two were feuding or if Baba Wali was testing Guru Nanak or what.  In any case, Guru Nanak didn’t even bat an eye at the challenge.  As the huge rock barreled down on him, he simply extended his arm.  When the rock met his hand, it instantly stopped, and an impression of his hand was burned into the stone.  After this happened, Baba Wali probably did something dramatic like throw his turban on the ground in a fit of rage.  (If the Sikhs ever want to sex up the legend a bit, they should consider a nice Hollywood touch like having Guru Nanak punch the boulder at the last second and turn it into a pile of dust.)

The boulder that our host pointed out to us that day was presented as the very same boulder Guru Nanak had stopped in its tracks over 500 years earlier.  It even had an impression of a hand embedded in it, which was pretty cool.

This concluded our tour, and our guide led us back to the main gates.  As we walked the short distance out, we made a little small talk.  As we were talking, we learned that we had just missed the premier Sikh festival of the year by a few days.  This was too bad, but you can’t win 'em all.  At least we managed to get a tour of the temple.

Before we left, our host mentioned to Portia that there was a donation box in the temple (hint, hint).  We were happy to make a contribution, so we pulled out our wallets.  Before we even made a step toward the temple to put the money in the donation box, our host piped up in Urdu and explained to Portia that the box was unfortunately locked at the moment.  We both read this to mean that our host wanted to receive the money directly and that the box was possibly not even locked.  We gladly gave the money (which was the equivalent of a few U.S. dollars) to the man, and he gladly accepted it.

Before we left, the man asked if I would like to take some photos of the temple.  Up to that point, I had refrained from taking photographs since we weren’t even supposed to be inside the gates, and I didn’t want to push our luck by doing anything that might be considered offensive.

After he offered, I took one photograph of the temple, and our guide took one of Portia and me.  Then we left.

After this, we wandered around town.

In the market area, several young street children ran up and started harassing us.  Normally, I just ignore kids like this, and they lose interest in a minute or two and leave.  These kids didn’t leave fast enough for Portia, though, and she gave them a stern talking-to in Urdu.  Here’s a bit of child psychology for you folks at home:  Kids, especially street urchins, like to see adults lose their cool.  As soon as they could see that they were pushing Portia’s buttons, these kids started shadowing us and bothering us with a renewed passion.  I still think that if we had done it my way and ignored them, they would have gone much sooner.

In any case, they continued following us, and more rapscallions joined their ranks.  Periodically, Portia would lash out at them, and each time, they thoroughly enjoyed it.

After literally what must have been 10 or 15 minutes of us walking around with this troupe of scamps in tow, we stopped at a shop and the owner realized that we were being hounded.  I don’t know what he said to the kids, but it was very loud and very aggressive.  All the kids vanished.

I enjoy browsing markets for the people-watching oftentimes more than for the merchandise, and I thought this one was great.  Portia wasn’t so keen on it, though, so we didn’t stay long.

We left the market streets and came upon a few graves of Muslim saints.  These were in small temple-like buildings that were very colorfully decorated, both architecturally (tile work and paint job) and interior-design-wise (colorful cloth, streamers, and tinsel).  At the few of these we visited, there were men serving as caretakers and a handful of beggars lounging around.  We tipped them all a few rupees, and everyone was happy.

After we looked at these tombs, we worked our way back to the car.  En route, we had some cookies and drinks at a little shop.

Further along, I also spied a shop selling charpai.  These are local beds that consist of a colorful frame with ropes woven across where the mattress would normally be.  At this shop, they had nice charpai that were made with wooden frames and natural fiber ropes.  In many other places in Pakistan, charpai were now being made with metal frames and synthetic ropes.  While functional and probably more durable than the traditional ones, these new style charpai were no doubt ugly.  I wanted a pair of the traditional ones, so I talked with the charpai craftsman about his product.  He told me that he could not deliver to Islamabad, and I didn’t have access to a truck.  I decided to try to find similar ones closer to Islamabad.

(As it turned out, after an exhaustive search utilizing many of my local contacts, I never did find any charpai that I liked that were closer to Islamabad than Hasan Abdal.  I eventually came back to Hasan Abdal to the charpai shop, and after a bit of a hassle in making the deal (mostly due to the language barrier), I purchased the two beds I wanted.  Then I found a man with a truck and paid him as much as I had paid for the two beds and he delivered them to my house.  The beds were cheap to begin with, though, so I wasn’t out that much when the delivery charge was factored in.)

Getting back to the story, Portia and I headed back to where Goldie was parked.  We decided against going to Baba Wali’s shrine because it was an hour hike away and we had heard from others that it wasn’t much to see and wasn’t really worth the trouble.

We cruised out of town on the one-lane streets and thankfully didn’t encounter much oncoming traffic.

Back on the Grand Trunk Road, we headed back toward Islamabad.  Soon we came to the turn-off for the Wah Gardens.  These gardens are actually located on a military installation, and right after we exited the Motorway, we were faced with the military gate, manned with ID-checking, armed soldiers.  I don’t know how easy it would have been to get inside, but neither of us much cared about seeing the gardens and we consequently didn’t feel like going through any hassle for the privilege.  I reversed away from the gates, did a U-turn, and re-entered the highway.

Our final destination was Khanpur Dam.  Neither of us had been before, but a colleague had recommended it.

Khanpur Dam, and the lake it forms, lie 48 kilometers from Islamabad.  It is one of the main sources of water for Islamabad and Rawalpindi.  Khanpur is on the same road – only much farther down – as Taxila, which I visited a few times before.

As we drove out to Khanpur, we were really in the sticks.  There were very few people in view and almost no other cars.  After we had been driving for a bit, though, this suddenly changed.

A string of cars flew by us going the opposite direction, back toward Islamabad.  These weren’t just any cars, though.  They were all diplomatic vehicles, and ambassadors at that.  I could tell this much from the license plates, but Portia could do even better.  She could identify which country most of the cars were from, and she spouted these out as they passed us.  (Many people who hung around the diplomatic circles learned the series of diplomatic plate numbers.  I myself never did learn more than a handful, though.)

We didn’t observe the American ambassador leaving this gathering, but that’s not to say he wasn’t there.  Whatever was going on, though, it was really curious to see so many ambassadors out there in the boondocks.

After all the motorcades passed us, we came upon a large, interesting tree by the side of the road.  There were three young boys there, maybe 8, 10, and 12 years old.

We stopped the car and walked up to have a look at the tree, and the boys came to look at us.  They started talking to me, but unfortunately my basic Urdu only allowed me to understand a very small bit of what they were saying.

Portia stepped in and tried to talk with the boys, and they immediately clammed up.  Outside Islamabad, things are more conservative.  These boys were refusing to speak with a woman because it wasn’t considered proper.

I tried to convey to the boys that Portia was my translator, but they either couldn’t understand this or they just didn’t want to speak with her in any capacity.  Even when I tried to get them to resume speaking directly to me so that Portia could overhear and tell me what was happening, they clammed up.  They seemingly would not speak at all until there was no woman around, but that was no good considering my language shortcomings.  We hit an impasse, and the conversation ended before it started.  Oh, well.

I had my camera out, and the boys kept looking at it.  I asked if they would like a photograph.  The two older ones consented, and the youngest one bolted.  I took that to mean that he didn’t want to be in the photo.

After a few photos of the boys, me, Portia (not with the boys, of course), and the tree, Portia and I walked back to the car.  The two boys followed us all the way and then just stood silently outside my window.  They really didn’t seem to be after money, but I don’t know what they did want.  Maybe they were enjoying listening to the music coming from the car, maybe they were trying to muster the courage to request a ride, maybe they did want money, maybe they just liked being in my company, maybe it was curiosity…  who knows...  We didn’t stick around to solve the mystery.  We gave the boys some pretzels we had been snacking on in the car, bid them farewell, and continued down the road.  They took the pretzels and stood there dumbfounded as we drove away.

A few minutes later, we arrived at Khanpur Lake.

Along the stretch of shore that was near the road, several boatmen were waiting with their colorful vessels.  We parked and went down to see what they could offer us.

Portia bargained with the boatmen, and we ended up with what we thought was a good deal on a boat ride around the lake.  When we loaded up in the boat we had chosen, there came to be a scuffle between our boat driver and some of the others.  From what we could tell, the guy we had hired had jumped ahead in the queue, and others who had been waiting longer for customers had gotten passed over.  As we saw it, this was our driver’s problem and had nothing to do with us.  We stayed in his boat, and he soon joined us and pushed off from the shore.

The lake was nice, and the ride was fun.  It was a good ending to our daytrip.

After maybe half an hour, we returned to the shore, paid our driver, and started back toward Islamabad.  When we left, the other boatmen probably kicked our guy’s butt.

When I would later see my friend who had recommended that I go to Khanpur Lake, he would ask me why I hadn’t gone swimming while I was there.  Besides not being prepared to go swimming, the main reason we didn’t was that there were "no swimming" signs posted all around the lake.  During his visit, though, my friend had been at the lakeside home of one of his friends, and, of course, being on private property, he had much better access for swimming than we did in the public areas.

It had been a good enough treat for us just riding in the boat.

We left the lake the same way we came, and when we passed the interesting tree again, the boys were gone.

By the time we hit the GT Road back toward Islamabad, fortune smiled on us once again and the increased traffic caused by the protesters had totally dissipated.  That meant that we could go at the normal, brisk GT-Road speed all the way home.  This was a good thing.

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