Thursday, December 30, 2010

Round-the-World Honeymooners: Benoit et Marie

Benoit and Marie on Around the World Honeymoon!
Hasan called me with a bit of excitement that a French couple, on their round-the-world-trip by road, is visiting Pakistan and will stay in Karachi for a couple of days and that if I can host them for a night or two. Yes, for sure! I have heard crazy stories of such travelers and wanted to meet one. Actually our European Backpacking trip was initially a “Karachi to London by Road” kind of thing! But after half an hour Hasan called me again to tell that the French have already got a place and we can however meet them the next day for dinner.
Travelers are God's guests!
It was a pleasant surprise to see Benoit et Marie, the French travelers, at the dinner the next day, wearing traditional shalwar kameez with Marie gracefully wearing a scarf. In the local attire they were looking like locals, may be resembling to Pathans because of their fair features!

The next day, after a little pursuance, they agreed to be my guest for a couple of days!
The way to go!
Benoit, 23, et Marie, 22, planned to travel around the world, to around 60 countries, mostly by hitchhiking and started their journey soon after their marriage three months back. Benoit’s father was nice to bear all their marriage expenses while their other relatives reacted positively to their appeal to give them cash as the wedding gift! But that was not enough for two years of traveling so they also had to work in factories as part time workers in addition to their routine jobs.
It was unbelievable that they came to Pakistan all the way from France, by road, crossing through Southern Europe, Eastern Europe, Turkey and Iran! And from Pakistan they will continue to India from where they plan to take a flight to China to continue to Australia through South East Asian countries and then to North and South America! Crazy!!!
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Benoit et Marie were surprised to see normal human beings in Pakistan doing normal things as they do in France. As before coming to the country, they ‘were convinced’ that all Pakistanis carry Kalashnikovs searching for heretical outlaws to refine their shooting skills! Likewise, if you think all the people in the West are promiscuous and materialistic then they are a good example to disprove the notion!
Ready to attend the wedding!
So, change in plan! Initially they wanted to just pass by the country but then they decided to understand the culture, see the street life, taste some local food, and experience the hospitality. And Benoit was excited to attend Ali Ayaz wedding and was very happy wearing the traditional Sherwani. Marie cried at the wedding reception as if her own sister is the bride and leaving her paternal place :--)
The spicy biryani
They tried the food and they will not forget it. Not because they liked the spicy local cuisine but more because they feel Turista almost after every meal. And what is Turista? Leave it!
Some Random Memories
From Quetta to Karachi
The troupe crossed Iran border and entered into Pakistan from Tuftan where they were escorted by a policman till Quetta, where they changed the bus to reach Karachi. And it was neither difficult nor dangerous but a little less comfortable for them! 
Benoit trying the Shalwar the first time!
Trying Falooda at Tariq Road
And the fish at Jamshed Road
They tried and liked local fish also, Mangra finger fish and the famous Surmai, with the Chatni. Benoit could not resist having the delicious crackers (Papar). That was a welcome change for them after days of chicken and rice!
And finally the Turista :(
Benoit after having biryni, gajar ka halwa, falooda, crackers (papar), and samosa for 3 continuous days!
At Moiz place
Benoit talking to journalists in France
Marie, finally connected after five days!
Misha with her French guests
Their portable house
French cake in the baking
To Benoit et Marie (on behalf of family and friends): We love you guys and your travels. It was exciting for us and we believe it must be an experience for you guys. Wish you all the best in your future and Turista-free travel!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Trip Report: Away from the Urban and the Modern (Part 2)

So here goes the second and the final part of the trip (See Part 1)

Shahjahan Mosque: An Acoustic Miracle 
Sunlight making its way inside of the mosque
The namesake of the legendary Mughal emperor, Shahjahan Mosque was the farthest point in our trip, and was ideal to have a midway break after having lunch at a roadside hotel. Although the mosque may not be the best of the structural masterpieces built by various Mughal Emperors, it however fully reflects to what extent Shahjahan had been a connoisseur of art and architecture and to what physical distance his penchant reached. The place is probably the only and is surely the closest reminiscent of Golden Age of India from Karachi. The grandeur was impactful if not breathtaking and the symmetry was astonishing.
Shahjahan Mosque

Detailed corner designs
Yellow stone work
An eyecatching pattern
It is actually the symmetry which makes the place an acoustic miracle; sound travels in the hallways without any external support so that all believers can hear the reciting of Imam easily even if they are standing at a distance. The phenomenon can still be observed!
Sound travels through these arches!
Artwork on arches
Fortunately Zohar prayers were about to commence (2 pm) and the mosque is still functional giving us a chance to appreciate the genius with the authentic experience. However, the number of participants suggested that the glory of the place has long gone.
Dilapitated condition of the moque
Directions: The site is around 80 km from Qaidabad and is easily navigable through online maps. Watch out for the rickshaw stand on the National Highway and turn right, you will be there in 2-3 minutes. One may also take help from passersby if required.

Makli Necropolis
A vault inside Makli
 On our way back, we stopped briefly at supposedly the world’s largest graveyard. And what can you expect overthere other than a combination of the oldest, older, and old crypts! So we confined ourselves to visiting one vault which was in line with the Chowkundi design albeit a lot more detailed. There was a guy at the entrance of the vault demanding a fee which was actually meant for foreigners only (Rs. 200) so we just ignored him.

Vault front

Boundary walls of the vault
Stone work inside the vault
Directions: The cemetery is located on the main National Highway a few kilometers short of Thatta and is clearly visible. Once you arrive there, take the car inside upon paying a fee from the entrance which is on the right side of the main entrance and then park the car inside where you want to take a look around.

Bhanbore: The Port of Deebal
Advent of Islam in the sub continent
Bhanbore is an excavated archeological site believed to be an ancient port city, named Deebal, where Muhammad bin Qasim started his Sindh campaign from. The site is complimented with a museum which exhibits excavate pieces of artifacts and pottery belonging to lost civilizations in addition to a model depicting the famous war between the young Muslim warriors and Raja Dahir. We offered Asar prayer on a preserved patch of land located on a rock and marked as the first ever mosque of the subcontinent.
A model depicting the historical model of Deebal
Explaining the site
Bhanbore Museum opens everyday including public holidays except for the first Monday of each month. Winter timings are till 4 pm and we were half an hour late but the staff showed courtesy and reopened the museum for us.

The old city of Bhanbore is also famous for a romantic tale of Sassi and Panhu often referred to in the folk poetry.

Directions: From Karachi, on the National Highway, watch for a signboard on your right when the milestone suggests that Thatta is still 41 kilometers. Turn left and follow directions, it will take you 5-10 minutes, avoid days with heavy rains as the road off the highway, which is otherwise in motorable condition, may get inundated.
Sunset at Bhanbore
Sunset at Bhanbore
Sunset at Bhanbore
Sunset at Bhanbore
Sunset at Bhanbore
Sunset at Bhanbore
Sunset at Bhanbore
 Overall, the trip was fun especially with friends and is moderately recommended for a day break especially during days when there is nothing much to do. Winter months of December to February are the only good period to make this excursion to avoid the scorching heat in the other part of the year.

One thing that surprised me was the mentioning of Late President Ziaul Haq by the staff looking after those sites who praised him as the only incumbent who cared about maintaining these sites. This is contrary to the popular chauvinistic image of Mr. Zia who is considered an ignoramus especially in the local print media. The recent government has also allocated funds to promote tourism in the province however it would only be a surprise if even some the grants can be spared from corruption!

Road Conditions: National Highway is not in the excellent condition when compared to Super Highway although it is perfectly motorable with speed ranging from 50-80 km. Most of the track is single lane and you may find people crossing the road at their ease in addition to slow moving carts and rickshaws.

Trip Members: Saeed Khan, Haris Mahmood, Tariq Mahmood, and I.
The troupe

Monday, December 20, 2010

Trip Report: Away from the Urban and the Modern (Part 1)

Inside of Shahjahan Msque Dome
"Haleji Lake (Urdu: ہالیجی جھیل) is located in Thatta District, Sindh, Pakistan. It is the Asia's largest Bird Sanctuary." says Wikipedia.

However, Wikileaks reveal that the ugly looking water reservoir is hardly a bird sanctuary let alone the largest in Asia! Unfortunately, the leak gets no attention amidst the high level political cum diplomatic cum carnal brouhaha and risked my credibility before friends who assembled around dawn on a chilly Aashoora morning for the long day trip around National Highway to explore the lake in addition to surrounding archeological sites.

For pictures please see Day Trip to Chowkundi Tombs, Haleji Lake, Shahjahan Mosque, Makli, and Banbore
The Chowkundi Surprise 
The Crown refers to the gender of the person burried

The neckless is for women
After taking a brief stopover at Qaidabad for Chai Paratha, we first stopped at Chowkundi Tombs, a cemetery consisting of aesthetically carved yet simple graves of 15th centaury Baloch tribes. The word Chowkundi refers to four cornered assembly made up of engraved stone blocks. To our surprise, those stone blocks were not cemented together and the whole assembly depends upon the gravitational force only! Design on each grave reflects the gender, social status and the profession of the deceased. And those who could not afford are sleeping without that much a burden! It took us around half an hour to appreciate the relatively well preserved and clean reminiscent of history.
An overview of Chowkundi Graveyard

A smoking chimney in the background
Ali Dinho, the proud watchman there, deserves special mention. He warmly welcomes visitors and guides them around with all the energy and interest. Don't feel shocked when the talkative Ali gives you his visiting card and shows some English speaking skills. Upon our inquiring about the safety of engraved stones from theft, he narrated us an example when a Belgian visitor spotted one such piece in the drawing room of his host, not surprisingly a senior police official!
Ali Dinho and I!
Directions: The cemetery is located on the left side off the highway while heading towards Thatta around 10 miles from Qaidabad; a signboard can be seen hiding between trucks and shops. Watch out for Total fuel station on the right hand side. The site is less than a kilometer off the highway and doing it first thing in the trip makes logistical sense.

For pictures please see Day Trip to Chowkundi Tombs, Haleji Lake, Shahjahan Mosque, Makli, and Banbore
The Ugly Reservoir of Haleji!
Caged Crocodiles at Haleji Sanctuary
Our next stop was Haleji Lake which does not require any introduction, and if you still need one then see the opening paragraph of this post! Nonetheless, we saw a handful of colourful birds contrary to our expectation of a birdstorm in addition to all colourful crows and colourless pelicans. The reservoir is also a sanctuary of marsh crocodiles out of which some are caged to entertain bored visitors. The place is not worth a visit unless you like to pay tribute to the Late Bird Sanctuary! Later on a friend told me that the migratory Siberian birds had long changed their route because of the Afghan War! Alas!

Directions: Do you still need one???