Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Crossing Pakistan by Road: Experiences of a Foreign Traveler

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While planning for Nepal, early this year, I received an email from Flossie, a traveler who intended to cross Pakistan by road, first crossing from China border to the Northern Areas, and then crossing over to Iran from Quetta and Tuftan. The second part, i.e. crossing over to Iran was specially the concern, for which she wanted my word.

Flossie is one of the bravest persons and greatest travelers I have ever come across as traveling through almost whole Pakistan, from China border to Iran border, is not an easy task, let alone for a solo female traveler!

It was our sheer luck that we could even meet her in person, and that too not in Pakistan, but in Nepal! Then I got to know that Pakistan was part of her bigger overland travels; from Hong Kong all the way to London! Wow! Wow!

After she crossed Pakistan-Iran border safely I requested her to share this extraordinary experience for the benefit of future travelers. Now I am taking the liberty to post this here with a big 'hurray' to brave Flossie:

1. How’s the experience of crossing into Iran overland from Pakistan through Quetta and Taftan?
[logistics from Lahore]
- First, I take a train from Pindi to Quetta. It takes me 48 hours as the train delays all the time
[problems in Quetta, NOC, bus ticket, etc]
- I don't have many problems in Quetta. It is very smooth, thanks to the help of my friends.
- I got NOC within 5 hours in the same day. Couchsurfing is possible, just don't let police know about it. Police in Quetta doesn't like tourists staying with locals. Most overlanders stay in Bloom Star Hotel.
- You can't buy bus ticket from any private bus companies even you have NOC due to security issues. You can only charter a taxi(bloom star hotel can arrange it) or take a flight. No other options.
- I can go by bus due to my luck and help from my friends becoz I went with a worshiping group.

- You need a reference code to  get the visa. So apply to Iranian toruist agency first, wait for 2 weeks then confirm the code with the embassy,  submit all relevant documents and you will get a visa for a month.
- Lahore consulate saves all the trouble. My friend doesn't need a reference code and she pays it on the spot. Got the visa after 4 days.

[issues at border crossing, language barrier, etc]
- the bus is really long and hot. it is about 12 hours driving in the desert in a non-air con air. The people on the bus didn't like me to go out so they hided me very well.
- for women, cover as much as you can. Dress like locals. 
- there are lots of check posts on the way. Since I blended in very well, I don't have much problems.

2. While planning Pakistan – Iran border crossing what were your concerns, especially as a solo female traveler?
[security issues, Czech girls]
- Pakistan is really safe other than some regions. Political issues can change the situations very quickly. So always seek advice from locals. But one thing, locals always have conflicting opinions so it's very difficult to make decisions. And no much information on the internet. So try talk to travellers. There are not many travellers in the country and you almost know all of them. Use common sense.

[difficulty of logistics]
- bus connection is really good over the whole country. So it's really easy to travel.

3. Any tips on Pakistan – Iran border crossing for future overland travelers?
- if you have money, please FLY! becoz there is not much to see from this part of Pakistan.
- But if you are out of money and you intend to cross overland, please seek help from locals which they know best about the region. Blend in as much as you can. Move as swift and quiet as you can.
- this is a tough journey
- once you cross the iran border, you will have police escort all the way to Bam, Iran.

4. What was the good part of this journey?
- you will meet lots of REAL travellers, bikers on the road. Once you are in Bam (there is only one hotel for overlanders), you will share all experiences there.

5. How’s the experience of China – Pakistan border crossing at Khunjerab?

[all the way to GIlgit, Attabad lake]
- border crossing from China to Pakistan takes some time. The border opens at 11am but I can only leave China at 12:30pm. Customs are rude.
- it will take one day when you reach Hunza. Be ready!
- the best scenery I have ever seen in the world, esp North Pakistan. Truely stunning and wonderful locals. They try to help you every way possible.
- due to my nationality(China and PK are good friends), I received really warm welcome from Pakistanis.

6. How concerned were you and your family before visiting Pakistan?
[Nanga Parbat incident]
- My family are fine with me as I have been travelling for years so they have confidence with me.

7. How much did you spend in Pakistan? What part of the country you liked the most?
- Wowow! difficult question! I don't remember the budget! I spent around 200 euro for the whole month. Pakistan is the cheapest country I have been so far.
- I like Hunza the best due to stunning scenery. I feel like I am in the fairy tale. So I spent 5 days there.
- I also like Islamabad becoz I met a bunch of good friends. Thanks to couchsurfing.

8. Would you recommend other travelers to come to Pakistan?
[areas which are worth exploring]
- Spend more time in North Pakistan if you are into nature. Lahore is also nice with its history and historical buildings.
[were people friendly and hospitable]
- Super!! Angels on Earth
[any issues especially regarding women, harassing, etc]
- Women are well respected in the country. Compared to its neighbouring countries, I feel really safe here. Oh, one thing, don't give your phone number to anyone you JUST know. Becoz they will spread your numbers to their friends and you will have unwanted attention and call all the time.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Revisit: Freshwater Ponds of Ranikot

Ranikot - A Cool Day Escape from Karachi

Located ~ 250km from Karachi, Ranikot is termed as the largest fort in the world and the second longest wall after the Great Wall of China. However, neither of these facts was the reason why I visited the place for the second time!

During thefirst Ranikot expedition, courtesy my inspiring friend Haris Mehmood, we explored and trekked along the freshwater stream running inside the fortification. This watercourse, which emanates from the Kirthar Mountains, casts an interesting greenish contrast to the otherwise monotonous landscape, and was the motive behind the repeat visit; this time with the family.

While sitting besides one of the ponds, it feels like you are in Swat Valley! The water is cool and crystalline, the air fresh and unpolluted, the sunlight full of Vitamin D yet comforting, and the sound echoes. The peeping towers high above the surrounding hills also add to the ambiance and give a feeling as if someone is watching you. 

However, the climax is still to come; a surprise which makes the place a must-see.

This is Doctor Fish – abundant in these ponds and famous for its body cleansing therapy. The miniature marine variety gently eats up all the dead skin and makes it all fresh, once again!. An experience in its own, for which you might be expected to pay a hefty sum in one of Karachi’s a bourgeois spas!
A Trip to Ranikot is Incomplete Without Visiting the Freshwater Stream
Presence of Such a Scenic Spot Near Karachi is Amazing
One of the Ponds Along the Ranikot Stream
Water in these Ponds is Crystal Clear
So Clear that It Looks Like an Aquarium
Doctor Fish!
Villagers Use This Water for Drinking and Irrigation

Road to the Fort

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Entrance of the Fort
We Reached Ranikot Around Sunrise
And Continued Inside Until the Road Discontinued
Under Construction!
Luckily, We Found the Alternate Route to Our Destination: Mirikot
Inside Mirikot; A Small Fort Within Ranikot
Stairs to Mirikot's Roof
Yet Another Fort Can be Seen from Mirikot
But It Was Too Far!
Railway Track Near the Fort
04:00     Left Home
04:30     Karachi Toll Plaza
06:45     Jamshoro
07:00     Ranikot
08:00     Mirikot
10:00     Pond
13:00     Return Journey
17:00     Reached Karachi

Other Useful Links
My First Trip: Mysteries of Ranikot
An Insightful Slideshow: The Great Wall of Sind
Trip Report: Camping at Ranikot

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Chicken Karhai in Nepal

This is Day 14 of Nepal Travelogue (May 26, 2013)
Day 13 Day 12 Day 11 Day 10 Day 9  

The Best Chicken Karhai Ever!
Yes, we had Chicken Karhai in Kathmenau and not only that, it was the best I ever had in my life!

Here is the Catch
This Karhai was not from any other Indian/Pakistan restaurant around but was homemade, courtesy Urooba and may be dubbed as the last part of the cultural-cum-food exchange series going on at Kathrin’s place; mostly one-way till then.

After taking full benefit of the hospitality shown by our kind hosts, not only limited to Swiss Chocolates and Coffees, we needed to come up with something unique and original. So the idea of Chicken Karhai propped up! After marriage, I somehow learned the art of buying fresh chicken and Kathmandu would have been the perfect place for the skill-test! In the meantime, Urooba mastered in executing the Karhai recipe, which was also about to be tested in an alien kitchen.

As a precaution, we both informed Kathrin also about their coming spice challenge which she gladly accepted.

So after having the much needed therapeutic rub in the first half of the day from a recommended Ayurvedic clinic, we bought chicken from the market while Kathrin’s maid prepared the kitchen and essential veggies.

The whole house got filled with the typical Pakistani/Indian aroma as soon as the wok reached the stove-top. I was peeping at Kathrin and Zaeem’s facial expressions, to check if they were comfortable with the overpowering smell, but they both looked enjoying it! Good for us.

At the dining table also, Karhai received an overwhelming response. Everyone enjoyed the food, especially the chef. And why not so, it was her dexterity which made it one of the most memorable days of our life, and hopefully of our hosts too.

So this was the final episode of our Nepal travel. The next morning, we had the flight back home, which meant that there was a whole lot packing waiting for us!

Buying Chicken in Kathmandu

Monday, November 4, 2013

Festival of Buddha Jayanti, Nagarkot Hill Station, and Pashupatinath Temple

This is Day 13 of Nepal Travelogue (May 25, 2013)
Day 12 Day 11 Day 10 Day 9  

Was Buddha Born in Nepal?

Before the trip, while planning, I was excited to know that our dates coincide with a local festival: Buddha Jayanti, the birthday of Buddha; however, I had no idea that the event is also a bone of contention between India and Nepal! As can be seen from the banner above, Nepalese cry foul of its neighbor for not recognizing the Hiamalayan country as the saint’s birthplace. Instead, India claims the honor to her benefit.

Without knowing much about the controversy, we happily participated in the signature campaign which you may described as بغض معاویہ rather than حب علی! Interestingly, there were grumblings around as locals were skeptical of us; they might be confusing us with Indians!

The Festival of Budhha Jayanti
We spared Bhaktapur at the tail end of our trip as a local CSer assured us to show us the celebration around his hometown, which has an influential Buddhist population. But the guy ditched us at the eleventh hour, which was off-course disappointing because we would have better attended the event at Kathmandu’s Swayambhunath, which gets extremely vibrant during Buddhist festivals.

Rather than whining anymore, we decided having a walking tour of the town at our own.
ہمّت مرداں ؛ مدد خدا !

To our luck we found a big noisy procession at Darbar Square, the most notable aspect of which was the dummy of Dalai Lama; a crowned boy sitting on wagon’s roof maintaining a demeanor expected from a religious figure. Simultaneously, a troupe of boogies was dancing passionately on the deafening drumbeat flaring up the otherwise docile march.

Further roaming around took us to a monastery where the event was being celebrated rather decently. As per the tradition, women from around the community brought homemade food to be distributed among young students, or future monks. One of the organizers got excited to know that we came from Pakistan and candidly offered us the same food; a platter of daal bhaat and kheer. He further enlightened us that the brighter ones among these pupils will be given scholarships in Thailand. Ambiance inside the hall perfectly resembled to that in a typical Pakistani seminary although I never thought that there might be any influence of Buddhism on Islam, and that too in Pakistan. Or this may be a reflection of shared Eastern traditions.

Change of Plan
Although it was a happening first half of the day but things were not going as per the plan, mostly because we felt ditched by the CS guy. That resulted in a heated debate among us, the most obvious thing expected from a married couple regardless of the situation! Finally we both agreed to change the plan and ditch Bhaktaour in reply, where we earlier intended to spend two nights, and instead thought of visiting the nearby hill station Nagarkot.

Outside the gated city, we tried negotiating the sightseeing tour with a cab driver who referred us to a minivan. Good for us, as we wanted to checkout from the hotel and needed space for the luggage and Urooba’s souvenir shopping. We texted this change of plan to Kathrin, our kind host in Kathmandu, who was gracious enough to accommodate us for two more nights, before we flew back to Karachi. On the other side, the lady manager-cum-owner of Nyatapola Guesthouse, where we were staying, got vivid by this sudden change of plan and tried fleecing us the second night’s charge – unsuccessfully though.

Nagarkot – Kathmandu’s Murree
Nagarkot was to Kathmandu what Murree is to Islamabad, however, a lot less commercialized. So if you endeavor deep into Himalayas – e.g. Pokhara, Everest area, etc – there is no need, in my opinion, to bother visiting this resort town. Having said that, I must say the place is a good escape if one feels enough of the noise and pollution of Kathmandu.

We stayed there till sunset and then came down to Kathmandu and visited the enroute Pashupatinath Temple – a huge Mandir famous for royal cremations. It was getting darker and watching a dead body being prepared for incineration at the Shamshan Ghat was too explicit and nauseating for me. Perfect setting for a horror scene! Although Urooba was more composed and analyzing the scenario, albeit with a distance, from the the medical point of view. Nearby, I found a post-burial ceremony, which was easier for me to negotiable with. A band of musicians was playing some tradition rhythms, may be part of the local funeral rites, while the audience was sitting in the rather Western setting. 

With this, we ended the day, and so did the Nepal trip, effectively speaking, as we spent the coming day rather uneventfully at Kathrin’s place before returning back to Karachi.

Budhha Jayanti Flag in Bhaktapur
A Neighborhood Monastery in Bhaktapur
Women from the Neighborhood were Distributing Food Among Students
Looks Like a Pakistani Madarsa!
It Was Kind of a Parents Day at the Monastery
Heavy Woodwork is Bhaktapur's Specialty
Bhaktapur's Artisan-ship is Evident from these Intricate Designs
Attention to Detail!
More Worldly Kids Outside the Monastery
Bhaktapur's Narrow Alley
Some Sort of Dried Vegetable
Now Going to Nagarkot - Kathmandu's Murree
Terrace Farming Around Nagarkot
Himalayas Shrouded in the Mist
Nepali Bamboo
A Picturesque Dating Spot!
Nagarkot Treeline Around Sunset
The Darkness of Pashupatinath After Sunset