Monday, January 28, 2008

~Retire your dead tire~

Pakistani highway poetry, as seen on the mountain interstate road between Mianwali and Rawalpindi.

From the transport hub of Muzzafargarh, we woke up at 6ish while the traffic had already been roaring past our room for the last hours or so. Non stop. It sometimes can be quite tricky to find the right bus and asking anyone possible is a bare necessity. Police men sitting around a fire at a roundabout -a very much seen sight on any nightly or early morning traffic point- were nice enough to help us, though they didn't know exactly either which bus to take and guessing at 2 different directions. It was very chilly, a cold mist still hanging in the dark dawn air. The fire was a welcome warm friend and the elder officers gave us their chairs, which we first politely rejected but in Pakistan, you just can't refuse such nice gestures. Finally action and we jumped into a bus towards the North of Punjab, parallel to the Indus flow. Going up against it's natural down flow, so to speak.
The morning ride was nice; along dry lands, little forest patches and green low Punjabi fields, filled with sugarcane, corn or wheat. Most of it we were in half slumber as the trip would take over 5 hours. We got off in Mianwali, the biggest city for transport connection of the north western part and there we tried finding an internet cafe to do some blogging and uploading. Tough luck. Not for finding the internet cafe which we did eventually, but as for having an internet connection because internet was down allover town. Just like power cuts, there are also internet cuts. It's life here as you have to accept it. Back to the mini-bus station, we got our ride to the town of Kalabagh, the point where the Indus river turns into the lower valleys from the mountains. Shaping the normal sized river flow into a gigantic wide river. It was the nicest ride so far we've had in Pakistan and we could see the distant mountain peaks and past the cultivated valleys.
We got off at the end of the bridge to Kalabagh town, a long bridge of at least 1 km, made out of wooden and stone panels. Those panels had a lot of wear on them and many had holes and cracks in them, giving you a clear view at the river far below with a feeling that the bridge was not solid at all. Let alone that any maintenance is being done. At least the main structure was of steel. Not that that helped the poor fella who last week fell into the river with his motorbike, through a gap or perhaps a broken panel and his body was only found 5 days afterwards, as we were told by Nazeem, a young pharmaceutical engineer standing at the bridge. The elderly bearded guard at the bridge told us not to film or take pictures. Like we already expected. Nazeem spoke more about the bridge and the town while carefully walking on the bridge so that we could get a better view on the river. I could take some photo's of the river and the view, as long as the bridge itself would not show. Like this one.

Although he was just on his way out of Kalabagh, Nazeem voluntarily appointed himself our guide and took us into Kalabagh. Small dusty streets, goats walking everywhere. The humble sight of daily life of any small Pakistani town it seems. The houses were different than we saw elsewhere as they all had wooden upper parts. Some houses being hundreds of years old.

Kalabagh and its locals never see tourists, as it is off the beaten track and no mention of it in the lonely planet either, despite the serene and beautiful setting of this mountain village. Some locals eyed us with amazement, some with a flustered look of suspicion, others wanted to stop us and talk but with the pace of Nazeem it was hard to stop, except for me buying another Pasthun shepherd hat. Woolly wear for cultural integration :). As the village was not big, we had quickly gone through it and we met several youths who wanted to take us to a mine. Sure! Everywhere pink and white crystal rocks were lying around in man hacked and dumped hills, colouring the place with a special glow. The teenagers told us it was a site for the mining of salt minerals. Salt. The whole place smelled like a damp sea in fresh mountain air.

Down in the mine, hot and humid. And dark. Mobile phones as guiding lights or proper torches, anything with some light out of it would help not to step into muddy waterholes. It wasn't a good idea to walk into the mine with our backpacks on, heavy as they were and we soon were gasping for air, perhaps a bit claustrophobed by the feeling of being a mine so unexpected. We saw mineworkers hacking at rocks, load them into tractor carts. Maarten filming their underground activity while they all posed for him, acting their everyday labour down below. After half an hour of walking about into little caves, seeing white salty stalactites,hearing bats squeek from dark corners and tasting the salty flavour with every breath taken, we stepped back into the open air again. Some fresh air, yay! As the sun was setting already, we quickly needed to get a bus back to Mianwali before there wouldn't be any more buses from Kalabagh's remote location. Like said, it's off the beaten track, even for locals.

Most people in Kalabagh where more fair haired than elsewhere, the colour of their skin revealing their Pashtun roots. Like in most villages in this mountain region and the neighbouring state of North-West Frontier Province (better known as the tribal NWFP area). At this point we were actually just around 70 km's away from the Afghanistan border. The much troubled border, that is.
And we were very close to Kohat (25 km's more north) and South Waziristan (70 km's south-west), without knowing what was happening there.

On the Kohat tunnel situation, here's an article from a few days ago, here a summarized one the outcome, today (though the printed version was way more informative). Basicly, a handfull of local Pakistani tribal militants -or Taliban militants as they have been coined for the sake of the war on terrorism- had stolen 4 trucks filled with ammunition from the military! One must wonder how. That however, the army isn't eager to disclose. The local militants blocked the Kohat tunnel, which is being built through Japanese -financial- help, and threatened to bomb it. A few days of fighting; dozens of militants killed, some soldiers dead and the retrieval of the 4 ammunition trucks. Whether empty or not, who knows. News flash just in, the militants have blown up the Kohat rail road. Surely not the end of fighting in this part of the mountains.

You would think that as we were so close to Kohat, we could have felt the danger, but we experienced nothing out of the ordinary. Not in the villages nor on the roads, even at the small checkpoints around Kalabagh and Mianwali there was no tension to be noticed. The only thing was perhaps that army caravan of trucks we saw the night before in Muzaffargarh, heading up north. Perhaps 4 of those trucks got stolen some 24-48 hours later? It's a game of guesses.

On SWA (or South Waziristan in non-Pakistani media terms), at the Afghani border. here and here a piece about what has happened or is still happening. And a more in depth article. The CIA now wants to enter Pakistan and resolve it themselves, but Musharraf won't let them in according to this article. Will that be the end of it? Unfortunately it never will. The fighting, the mingling of the US or anything attached to the little wars in this region. Afghanistan apparently isn't big enough to wage war in.

We wonder, has above news reached you in the west? We just never know for sure what is known back home as the articles here seems much more informative and go deeper than the short articles in western papers. The papers here are full of it, pages filled with any fight, anywhere in the north and north-western part of the country. The fight against terror, as an ongoing national dialogue without end, without the far-removed feeling that folks elsewhere in the western hemisphere experience.

Last week, while Musharraf was in Brussels giving speeches to the west about the (un)controlled situation in Pakistan, an army committee of ex-service men concluded that Musharraf has to resign. Musharraf simply rebutted that each of these ex-service men (who all have served under him) were no good officers and that he kicked them out all by himself. Bold statement to make about your own men, especially if you don't want to bring unrest in the army. The show goes on.

And all this talk here is not even about the problems of the upcoming elections! No wonder the ordinary decent Pakistani feels that their government has deserted them and do not trust the help from the US anymore either. Still, life on the streets of any town or city goes on as if normal and to the tourist it doesn't feel much more different either, except for the sight of many armed guards on every corner, government building or roadblock. We still feel warmed and welcomed by the Pakistani's so our views have only been opened by their sincerity.

Back to our trip, which seem just a tiny experience compared to the above notions.

In Mianwali we took a mini bus to Rawalpindi (or Pindi as Pakistani's call it). For once, not an old, crowded or bumpy mini bus but a one that had good space and was new. Our driver, who said he was from Peshawar, drove the van in a fine speed and we overtook truck after truck, mini bus after mini bus. It was a pity that it was pitch dark, as we drove on the mountain roads and could not see the views of the valleys below us. We stopped at a police roadblocks where we think our driver had to pay them some share of his profit to them. Or pay our way past them. Either way, each way of looking at it means the same. At other police roadblocks at toll booths of the motorway, we had to open the door so that a police officer holding a big video camera could film each passenger for security and ID reasons. You might guess why with the above situations in the northern regions.

Enter Rawalpindi, taking a mini cab to the Sadr Bazaar area where most (cheap) hotels are. The driver not knowing the way in the most visited part of his own city. He was a sweet man, so no grudges to him, but if you're both tired, cold and coming down with a nasty cold and just want to find a hotel at 2am, your patience doesn't see the fun of it. Our room was like a rooftop fridge as it was the only room available, a room that probably was never used even hence its freezing quality, brrrr. The next day we somehow lost each other in the hotel by miscommunication and perhaps a feverish head and did our own things till we met up again. A handy thing that Maarten bought a Pakistani sim card in his phone at the border. In the early evening we took yet another mini bus from Pindi to Taxila.

Taxila was especially on our minds because of the many archeological sights of Buddhist stupa's and monasteries of the Buddhist Gandhara era. The civilisation sites date back from 500 BC up to 500 AD, until the White Huns came along and ravaged the region, destroying the sites and killing locals and monks alike. Here's a nice write-up on Taxila for the history-loving.
Locked gate at the youth hostel. After waking up the young maintenance guy, we settled in the deserted and empty hostel. It again was freezing cold, so was the room. We consoled ourselves by watching Capote on a pirated DVD (courtesy of the Lahore pirate shops that offer 5 movies on 1 dvd at no cost). Next morning, time to get some warm chai and eat something, but as most shops were closed due to the tourist off-season and the cold, it took us a while. We rented a motorbike as all the archeological sites were scattered over the Taxila district in a perimeter of 7 kilometers and to see all, self-mobility was the way to go. We first went to the excavagted site of Sirkap, which was a town filled with Jain, Bactrian Greek and Buddhist temples. Already 2000 years ago, several religions in this valley literally co-existed as neighbours and in peace with each other. We walked into the old house fundations, the wide street avenues, on the temple steps and on the old defense wall.
Soon enough we attracted the attention of locals who offered us little heads of old statues and coins. All of it coming from the farmer fields next to the site, in their words. The statue heads looked dubious and more like being slashed from temple stone carvings or taken out of protected sites. We bought a few ancient coins though, as those are easy to find in the fields instead of by thievery. The coins were said to from different era's, the Bactrian Greek era, the Pathian or Hindu era. Maybe the ones we bought are fake because the price was quite low (15 euro for 3 Bactrian coins in my case, 2 picturing Alexander the Great), but at the same time a good price for those local men. Perhaps they're not false. Not that we care really, because we more bought them for their beauty and carvings as oppossed to their so-called antique value. Fake souvenirs are fun. I better hope they're fake or not worth much.

After that we drove to a hilltop Bactrian Greek temple and then to the Jaulian site, which was a big Buddhist monastery with attached stupa with many carvings. Most of them now safely housed in the Taxila museum. We saw another monastery which name escapes me right now -must check the Taxila map, left it in hotel-, which was situated on a high hilltop. Also a few nice Buddhist carvings here while most of them were in the museum. Finally we went to Dharmajika, the biggest Buddhist site of all around Taxila and it was like a true town with streets and roads. All built around a big centralized stupa, there were many structures and a big monastery and we spend a good time just at the peak of sunset walking around and losing ourselves in the environment. We had seen what we wanted, it was getting dark and we wanted to get back to Pindi as not to spend another night in a fridge as room. Before that, Wwe played a bit of football with local students of our age. On a makeshift football field, jumpers for goalposts (Ron Manager, if you know what I mean ;)), and it was on one of the ancient sites! Archeological ditches lay everywhere and we ran next to these, sometimes a ball being kicked in one of them. Ofcourse, playing footie when having a cold in our bad shape, it wasn't the wisest thing to do, but we enjoyed our miskicks ;)

Bus back to Pindi after a lot of roadside waiting. We're getting used to it. Back to a different hotel and room, which was less like a fridge, oh some warmth! To some extent. There we wasted another lazy night of watching a movie. So far in 3 months, we've only watched a few movies on the laptop, we do try to discipline our luxury. ;)
We saw Good Night & Good Luck, which must be said, is a great movie. It made us reflect on it with the current thought how the Pakistan press has a lot of freedom of expression here in politics, perhaps even more than the press in the States.

Next day Pindi, time spent in internet cafe (previous post eh) and some browsing in secondhand book shops. In the computer shop area there are many good book shops that sell books at dump prices. Escpecially social, futuristic and political books. Maarten can already recommend Thierry Meyssan's The Big Lie, which is about the facts of 9/11. It's not about conspiracy theories but it just underlines the hard known facts that seem to have been forgotten by everyone, the media and politicians alike.
Factoid from the book that we had forgotten about and now seemed oh so paradoxal and coincidental to us: On the 11th of september, Osama Bin Laden was actually in Pakistan getting treatment and diagnose on his kidney's in a hospital. Where? Rawalpindi.

Sometimes Meyssan seems to point into a secret right wing society theory, but you still keep enough space to make up your own mind with the facts, as it should be. What does absolute truth mean if you firstly do not know the main facts?

I got Future Shock, by futurist writer Alvin Toffler, written in 1970. Not to be confused with Science Fiction literature, it is a futuristic read about a new illness that supposedly would cripple humanity in the next 50 years. We're more than halfway now and ofcourse it has not come true on a grand scale but it already offers interesting viewpoints on the effects of change in general and on society. 450 pages still to go.

From Rawalpindi we got a late mini bus (always those mini buses, but they are so much faster than the average coach bus!) to Lahore.
We're back now in our same comfortable backpackers heaven. A warm enough room and good solid bed, a little kitchen to cook or boil whatever you want. Almost all of the Polish, French and American travellers have left and we have the 10 bed dorm room all to ourselves now, yay. There are still a few of the old group left, those who are not on a backpacking holiday but who are doing work or research here.

More on Lahore hiphop crews in a next post. Yup, we're not joking. Bandana's and gangsta style rap battles in Urdu and over old Pakistani folk. It's happening here and we hope to experience more of it. Hopefully we can also catch the Sufi musician with the help our hotel manager, which we missed the last time....
Almost nearing the end of our Punjab project trip...3 more days to go, so to speak.

Some pics...most already uploaded dayzzzz ago (see right hand blah blah)

Seb with Pashtun local at Kalabagh, One eye missing and clutching a lump of opium in his hand.

Taxila bus stop

election poster, does he like football that much? ;)

flying a kite

other view from Sirkap

Taxila views

Jaundial Buddhist site, don't worry, heads are at museum

local Pashtun kids

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