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September 23, 2013

Winter is coming and the night is full of terrors – Northern Areas of Pakistan

In a few minutes I leave on the 13 hour drive from Islamabad to Gilgit, the frontier town that serves as capital of the Northern Areas. It will be my jump-off point into the autonomous Northern Areas of Pakistan. Marco Polo, this website’s namesake, when travelling near here in the 13th century called the area “noisy with kingdoms”, the better situated of which grew rich from taxing traffic to and from China. Gilgit has had many owners over its thousands of years history. It has been a part of Tibet, China, Afghanistan, the British Empire, itself (The independent Republic of Gilgit existed for a brief time following partition) and of course now belongs to Pakistan (kind of). This has led to many religious, cultural and linguistic traditions being layered one upon the other. The animism of the early inhabitants gave way to fire worship brought from Persia, which gave way to Hinduism (~1,700 BC), which gave way to Buddhism (4th to 11th century AD).

When Mohammed bin Qasim’s Arab forces invaded India (including modern day Pakistan) from the South by sea in 632 AD, he succeeded in the South but his forces were repulsed in the North. It was not until after the 15th century that Islam became the dominant religion in Gilgit, brought by the Sunnis who spread up the Indus River from Swat and the Shias who spread into Baltistan from Kashmir.

The King of Hunza converted to the Ismaili faith (followers of the Aga Khan) in the early 19th century and so there are also many Ismailis present in the area today. If you hear anyone speak of “His Highness” in these parts, they are referring to the Aga Khan – a playboy Briton living on a lavish historical estate in France who is in the process of finalizing his divorce from a German aristocrat (my mother attended their wedding reception) for cheating on her with an air stewardess – I know, it’s weird, but he is their pope and his philanthropic foundations spend over $600 million/year worldwide.

From 1947 (when both Pakistan and India won their independence from the British) to 1972, the seven feudal kingdoms along the Gilgit and Hunza rivers remained essentially autonomous, but between 1972 and 1974, they were properly incorporated into greater Pakistan and the Pakistani government took over, establishing five administrative districts.

Despite 100% of the modern day inhabitants of the region being one kind of Muslim or another, pre-Islamic planting and harvesting ceremonies have survived and most people still believe in fairies, witches and Jinn (ghosts capable of magic, kind of like invisible wizards). The town marketplace is a babble of languages as exotic as they are indiscernible. Punjabis, Pathans, Chitralis, Tajiks and Chinese Uyghurs trade side by side.

Despite having all this wonderful diversity around, the Sunnis of the region somehow still feel the need to attack and kill the Shias. They occasionally ambush and board buses on the isolated mountain roads, shooting any Shias they find on them. This made me revise my driving plan up to Gilgit so that I’m now taking the long way just to avoid Sunni areas. While I’m a Sunni myself, I don’t know if I could emotionally deal with anyone on my bus being murdered for their faith. I’d either get killed myself for trying to intervene, or more likely live with nightmares and depression for the rest of my life for letting it happen. Among the Sunnis of Pakistan is a large cadre of assholes who never cease to amaze with their ignorant hatred. The Shias, Christians and other religious minorities of Pakistan won my respect a long time ago for never responding with reprisal attacks. May their patience and restraint be rewarded in the near future with peace and security.

At the last minute before my flight from Karachi to Islamabad my mother urged me not to go to the Northern Areas out of fear for my safety and is to this minute asking me to reconsider. The way I saw it, I was trying to be hardcore but she wasn’t letting me – I felt like Jorge below.

(taken from a Mexican Jerry Springer-type show)

(taken from a Mexican Jerry Springer-type show)

She wasn’t alone. My father, my wife and my in-laws also asked me not to go. I love and respect them all and ordinarily would go out of my way to keep them happy. In fact I came very close to capitulating, but in the end decided I had to do it (with extreme caution). In some bizarre way, it bothers me that I’ve seen so much of the world while seeing so little of my own country which is full of remarkable historical, cultural and natural beauty. The danger is there – there is no denying that. Even in peacetime, people die in car accidents (driving off the side of the mountain) or from rock falls or avalanches. The roads aren’t good and emergency response is often inaccessible. This treacherous terrain, often more vertical than it is horizontal, has many ways to kill. But in the end, this trip was decided in my heart, not my mind, so off I go. Wish me luck!

My original plan was to go to Concordia, the intersection of Baltoro and Godwin-Austen glaciers from which 4 of the world’s 14 “eight thousanders” (meters) can be seen, including K2, and then on to K2 basecamp. But since I missed the weather window for 2013, instead I’ll be hiking across the Batura Glacier (4 day trek), one of the world’s longest and largest, beneath the peaks of Batura (25,574 ft) and Passu (24,600 ft). I’ll also be doing consulting work with a local NGO, helping them with their reporting to donors and putting together a performance monitoring and evaluation plan.

P.S. – Won’t have laptop for next three weeks as I traverse Gilgit & Hunza valleys. Will post to blog upon return.

October 24, 2012

Phuket and Bangkok, Thailand, and Siem Reap, Cambodia

Diving in Phuket

Phuket, Thailand - Beachy stuff, scuba diving and underwater photography. I got to do my first wreck dive on the King Cruiser wreck. That’s me jumping in the water above.

Fair warning. Lionfish may not let you use the restroom on King Cruiser!

Bangkok, Thailand – Jarisara and Tsvetan’s wedding at the Mandarin Oriental.  We also went wat-hopping and did other touristy stuff.

Siem Riep, Cambodia – Fun times on Pub Street. I also walked into a Buddhist temple’s attached dormitory and helped some young monks with their English homework.

Angkor Wat, Cambodia – A spectacular ruin of one of the largest pre-industrial cities in the world. That’s me at the bottom of the first image.

Posing with friends in front of ruins at Angkok Wat.

September 13, 2010

Sri Lanka

What a gem of a country Sri Lanka is! Natural beauty aside, it has the highest literacy rate in South Asia (92%), and breathtaking religious harmony (for the time being – knock on wood). More than once did I spy a Hindu or Buddhist temple sharing a wall with a church or a masjid. With the civil war over, tourists are flocking to the island – over 40% of the travellers I saw at the airport both when coming and going were caucasian tourists - and construction of new resorts is booming. Sri Lanka is beginning to cash its peace dividend and the checks are only going to get larger as the tourism infrastructure develops.

I was in Sri Lanka for work, facilitating a regional conference on grid interactive utility scale wind power for South Asia. Delegates from 8 countries as well as numerous turbine vendors, banks and engineering consultants attended. All in all it was a big success and several sizeable deals were struck.

However, that didn’t leave much time to do tourism-type stuff. I basically was only able to see Columbo and Puttalam (because we toured a wind farm near there), both on the Western coast. In the future I’d like to go to Kandy and see both the Southern and Northern coasts.

When I went, the war against the LTTE had ended within the last year. Security was still very high. My car from the airport to the hotel was stopped at 4 seperate checkposts by what looked like military police. Even once inside Colombo, I saw far more armed uniformed men than I’m accustomed to.

April 8, 2010

Kabul, Afghanistan

I was in Kabul in 2010 to work on Afghanistan’s energy sector, primarily with the national electric utility, DABS, which the prime contractor I’m working for successfully corporatized in 2009, with shares in the resulting entity evenly divided between the Ministry of Commerce and the Ministry of Water and Energy. Since then efforts shifted to achieving cost-recovery through reengineering of billing, finance & accounting, customer service, HR and IT functions.
kabul mazar
Afghanistan is a strangely beautiful and haunting place. Much of its beauty comes from its barrenness and desolation, similar to Balochistan, where I spent a lot of time growing up. Standing in the wide open plains between mountain and desert, it is easy to feel at peace. You’ll run into interesting and colorfully dressed characters everywhere, all with interesting stories, many of them very tragic. And yet they are quick to smile and laugh with you.

I hope these people get what they want, what they’ve always wanted, an Afghanistan where they can lead normal lives. Where they have food, water, healthcare, education, dignity and above all, peace. I hope the 2014 transition will be relatively peaceful but the potential for another prolonged conflict is still very much present.

I found Kabul to be strikingly similar to Quetta, Pakistan. While my personal security detail didn’t allow me alot of freedom of movement, I took advantage of every opportunity to talk to Afghans about their lives and get their opinions on the war. I had expected some negative treatment for being Pakistani but the opposite wound up happening, I received exceptionally warm treatment because of it. It turns out many Afghans feel Pakistan treated them very well when millions of their refugees streamed across the border during the war with the Soviets. Many received their educations in Pakistan and expressed feelings of gratitude towards a country that treated them like their own to the point they almost forgot they were refugees.

My compound was in the Shash Darak area near the main ISAF base. I went out to dinner to several of the well-known restaurants that cater to international workers like myself. Dinner often ran over $50 per person including one or two drinks, which initially surprised me. But then war profiteering often works out like that. America basically dropped a large container of money on Kabul when it invaded it and it shows. Suitcases of $100 bills make their way around the city in armoured Landcruisers like Dominos pizza deliveries. Guns, contracts, narcotics, political favors – they all have a price.

April 7, 2010

Dubai, UAE

Dubai is a city I visit almost every year, sometimes more than once a year, and I’ve been going there for over two decades. During this time, the city has gone from a place to go to buy electronics cheaply to a place where the word cheap seems out of place.

In any case, the rapid infrastructure development and successful capture of the high-end tourism market has been impressive to watch. For a while it appeared the global financial crisis would make Dubai topple like a house of cards, and I thought I sensed some in the Western press relishing it based on the tone of some of the articles. But after 2008-2010 and a small bailout by Abu Dhabi, it seems Dubai is going to be fine. It’s probably stronger for the crisis because the excessive irrational exuberance of the old Dubai has been put in check because of it.

However, something new has emerged since 2012. It seems “black money” from Eastern Europe is increasingly coming to Dubai to be laundered. The size of the Eastern European contingent in the city has visibly grown, and I don’t know if it’s related, but I also saw prostitutes in virtually every hotel bar I visited, many of them Eastern European.