Pasu and the political problems of Pakistan

Pakistan, November 2016

The small village of Pasu blew us away and might very well be the most beautiful place we have ever seen, hugging the fast flowing Hunza river that cuts through the valley, with some of the most terrifying suspension bridges to carry you across, on the backdrop of the Batura glacier and the surrounding +6000 meter snow covered mountain peaks. Walking through the village, comprised of small squared houses, built with the many surrounding grey-colored rocks, passing orchards with apple and apricot trees with deep yellow, orange and red autumn colored leaves, while misty clouds of dust were being blown up over the Hunza river beds, we felt as if we had entered a real life high resolution picture book. Everywhere we looked, we saw another beautiful scene we could stare at for minutes in amazement.

We found a nice little guesthouse from where we could explore the surrounding area. Venturing out on the suspension bridges with the strong winds gusting around our heads was more terrifying than we had anticipated. The distance between the wooden planks we were walking on was big enough to force us to continuously watch our step, looking down into the fast flowing river about 20 meters below us. While we were holding on tight for our dear lives, half cramped, with our palms sweaty and our heart beats racing, a little old grandmother came strolling past, holding a bucket in one hand, while lightly following one of the cables in the other. We couldn’t help but laugh, though we kept to our steady slow space to make sure we would make it safely across.

It’s hard to describe the beauty of the surroundings, but we captured some of it in a small video you’ll find in our film section. When we made it back across the river to the other side, we met a few young local guys in the village Hussaini. They were curious to learn where we were from. Where Jeroen’s answer “Holland” barely raised an eyebrow, their eyes lit up when they heard Linda say “Germany”. “We love German people”, they cried, “they are very strong and courageous”. We joked that if they had seen us out on the suspension bridges, they would think otherwise.

As it turned out, the Uyghur weren’t the only ones to share a deep love for Hitler (see our previous blog entries), these fellows were rather fond of the genocidal guy as well. For the record, we came across Hitler affections in Kazakhstan and Mongolia too, but the Hussaini guys were almost religious about it. They seemed unhappy about the direction Pakistan is heading in and cherished ideas about violent revolution, to which we tried to convince them that non-violent resistance would help them and their country a hell of a lot more.

It left us with a sour taste in our mouths, wondering how three young men could get such destructive thoughts in their heads. It does show that Pakistan is not in the best of shapes. There are continuous attacks in Baluchistan in the southwest on the border with Iran, it’s not much better in the tribal belt on the western border with Afghanistan and in the east the country has fought several wars with India since independence, with a continuing fight over the Kashmir region in the north and far too frequent bomb blasts in various cities across the country as a result. Pakistan really only has good relations with China, which is investing heavily in Pakistan’s infrastructure, to create a direct seaport for western China to connect with the Indian Ocean. It remains to be seen how much the Pakistani will benefit from these investments, but with the blatant omnipresent corruption in the country, it’s likely that most of the gains will flow into the pockets of the wealthy few.

Pondering these thoughts, we continued our trek up the mountain to Borit Lake and on towards the Batura glacier. After 5 or 6 hours of walking, our tired and sweaty bodies probably didn’t agree so much with the cold wind piercing through our jackets and as the temperature and our energy levels started to drop we were happy to finally be able to make our way back down to Pasu. Though not before a group of journalist stopped us in our tracks (they were making specials on climate change and tourism in the Hunza region): whether we wanted to do a quick interview. Linda made the cut and appeared with her interview on Al Jazeera, but Jeroen lost out to the exuberant enthusiasm of an over-the-top American tourist… 😉 You can find the clip in our Pasu video!

By now, Jeroen’s energy had completely run out and as he started to feel pains in his chest, we decided to hitch a ride for the last kilometer back to our guesthouse where Jeroen experienced a rather rough night. First thing the following morning, we took a taxi to the nearest hospital in Aliabad where Jeroen was diagnosed with pleuritis. The hospital was in a much better condition than the hospital we had been to in Novosibirsk in Russia, which really tells you more about Russia than Pakistan.

We were in luck, the manager of a hotel in the neighboring town Karimabad happened to be in the hospital as well. He told us that (under light pressure from the doctor) he would make us a good deal and drove us to the hotel in his little minivan. We took it easy for a few days, enjoying the wonderful dal (lentils) and mixed vegetable curries with chapati (flat bread), looking out on the spectacular Hunza valley. As Jeroen’s energy came back, we started exploring more of the surroundings and visited the Baltit and Altit forts (dating back 700 to 1100 years), though we spent most of our time in a tiny little wooden shack, where Lal Shezadi managed her own mini-restaurant with the most amazing local dishes. Apart from the excellent food, the place got most of its traction from the brutally honest owner, who loved to speak her mind about her customers, especially in their immediate presence. We were in luck, she seemed to like people from Europe, but many of the Pakistani had to endure her thorn. They all took it in good fun though and we had many great conversations with them while waiting for our food, making it the highlight of our stay in Karimabad. Lal Shezadi even invited us into her cozy little home for the celebration of her childrens’ birthdays.

The area is rich in apricot and apple trees, the latter of which were hanging full with fresh fruits. So when we were wandering around Karimabad, we were often given apples from the peoples’ own gardens as we were passing by. It’s also a relatively liberal and progressive town, where women are allowed to work and able to walk around without a headscarf, with a literacy rate higher than 95% (compared to 55-60% in the rest of Pakistan). Tourism probably played its part, though a lot is also influenced by their religion. There was a sharp contrast in development and education between Karimabad (with a majority of Ismaili Muslims) on one side of the river and Nagar (with a majority of Sunni Muslims) on the other side. The Ismaili follow the Aga Khan, who advocates educating girls before boys, as the women typically stay at home with the kids and are therefore the ones educating their own children, and is a lot more progressive in general than the more conservative spiritual Sunni leaders.
Besides all these political predicaments, there was also plenty of opportunity for socializing. Even though foreign tourism plummeted after 9/11, the Hunza Valley still hosts the occasional over landers, backpackers ánd an increasing amount of domestic tourists. And so we would end up standing on a rooftop at night, sharing stories and a bottle of wine with a mixed group of foreigners and Pakistani, thinking why the hell we can’t all simply get along…

Hike from Pasu to Hussaini
Autumn colors in between Pasu and Hussaini
More autumn between Pasu and Hussaini
Batura glacier near Pasu
Pasu street
Autumn colors in Pasu
Hunza river near Pasu
Suspension bridge near Pasu
Hotel Karimabad
Goat in Karimabad
Way to Altit
Mountain view in Karimabad
Cat in Altit
Linda and cat in Altit
Lal and Linda

Lal and her children

Foreign Encounters

Beijing, September 2016

We arrived in Beijing with no place to sleep and it was already pretty late, so we decided to try our luck with a downtown hostel. When we were organizing our Chinese visa application in Ulaanbaatar, we had made a 2 month long fake itinerary with copies from hotel reservations across China, as well as fake plane tickets in and out of Beijing. The Chinese government is a little anal about controlling incoming foreigners, but in this case it could actually help us find a place to sleep. Of course we had already long canceled our reservations, but at least we had an address. Unfortunately, the place was packed and every other hostel or hotel we could find was fully booked. Eventually we managed to make an online reservation for a nearby hotel, but the address turned out wrong. Figuring we wouldn’t be able to pitch our tent on Tiananmen Square, we kept looking and after a lot of walking and asking we were lucky enough to find the hotel. By then we were pretty much exhausted and not too pleased to hear them say: “we’re sorry, we do not have a reservation in your name”. We kept our cool and after some pressing and a quick phone call with the chef, it all turned out fine. Tired, but relieved, we jumped into bed well after midnight.

The next morning we ran into a somewhat odd and colorful character in the hotel lobby. He introduced himself as Captain China and appeared to be a man of many talents, or so he claimed. He was a tourist travel agent specialist as well as a standup comedian. He immediately combined both talents when he uttered the phrase: “ah, you’re from Holland (Jeroen) and you’re from Germany (Linda)? Yeah, I’ve visited both countries many times, I rééaaally like Holland…” while silently smirking at Linda. It probably was one of his better jokes, as it went quickly downhill from there, but in between the humor we had a nice conversation in a little cafe across the street. To our surprise they didn’t serve tea, but they did have a selection of homebrew IPA beer. It felt a little early at 10:00 am in the morning, but that didn’t seem to bother the Captain. When we tried to steer the conversation towards some more politically sensitive topics relating to freedom of speech, religion, movement and assembly, we got a frank answer: “I might not like it, but what can I do about it?”. It probably sums it up quite nicely. The government is very suppressive and intolerant to any regime criticism, so you don’t want to stick your head out too much. Many people we met in China had a similar response. They would shrug and point out that China is still a developing country. They probably didn’t reveal the back of their tongues to us, but their reactions were are a lot more satisfying than what we call the “Russian Reflex”, which is to ignore any politically loaded question and to simply start talking about a whole new topic.

We said our goodbyes to Captain China, but not before we became WeChat friends, the Chinese version of a Facebook type messenger app (Facebook is blocked in China, as well as Google and many other services). From there we were on our own to explore the city of Beijing. Not an easy feat to accomplish, but the Captain recommended us to visit the Temple of Heaven, so that’s where we went.

First something to eat though. The strange thing in China is, that your mind plays tricks on you. Every shop has a name sign in Chinese, so it feels like every shop is a Chinese restaurant, because of course that’s how it’s like back home. Luckily for us, in Beijing it’s not even that far from the truth, there’s food everywhere. One of our favorite street foods was melon on a stick, which is exactly what it sounds like. Kind of like the healthy and delicious alternative to ice cream!

As we were biting away at our melon in the Temple of Heaven park, we were sending messages back and forth with our second WeChat friend: Sabine, a German girl living in Beijing and working as a German teacher. We got in contact through Couchsurfing and she kindly took the time to show us around town and gave us her insights on living in China as a foreigner. Strangely enough, none of the foreigners we met in China seemed to enjoy the country so much to consider building their lives there.

It’s different for the Chinese themselves of course. One of which we met is Owen, a journalist working for the New York Times. He wouldn’t tell that to anyone in China though, because the New York Times is blocked in China. No enviable lifestyle, living a double life, without earning much of a wage. So by the time he would reach his thirties he would ditch his ideals, quit journalism and find a decent paying job. In all the criticism he has on the current political situation and all the criticism he can’t even voice (he wouldn’t discuss what he called the three T’s: Tiananmen square, Taiwan and Tibet), he was also agonizing whether he wasn’t ignoring all the positive developments that are going on in China. There are of course many, the economic growth and increase in wealth of the middle class in China over the past 30 years is unparalleled, and it is one of the reasons why most Chinese are happy with the political status quo and not willing to demand more personal rights. We can only assume it must feel like a double-edged sword for many.

By this time, Mike had sent us a message on Couchsurfing that he would be able to host us. Like Owen, Mike is working in journalism. Where the Chinese Owen is working for an American paper, the American Mike is working for the (English language state-run) Chinese paper: China Daily. Self-censorship is a daily routine, but that’s how the media in China works. Mike showed us around town and allowed us to use his place to organize our visa for Pakistan, for which we had to send our passports to the Pakistan embassy in Berlin. Not the most reassuring country to be without passport, but there is no other way to get the visa and there is currently no other land route from China to India. Through Tibet would be an option, but the government doesn’t allow foreigners to enter Tibet without a permit and a personal guide, unfortunately too costly for us. Mike would soon leave China after having lived in Beijing for two years, just like a Brazilian colleague of his. His colleague organized a farewell party with a bunch of Brazilian diplomat friends, who all told us they couldn’t see themselves staying in China either.

Dan and Katie, a couple and two more American expats, shared similar thoughts. We met them through BeWelcome, a non-profit platform that resembles Couchsurfing. They gave us a little book: “Hiking around Beijing” as well as some great advice on where we could go to explore the Great Wall of China. We planned to be gone for two days, but we ended up staying out for a whole week…

Jeroen eating ice cream
Inside the Hutong
The lakes
Laundry and chaos
Lotus in Beihai park
Mao in front of forbidden city
Overcrowded forbidden city
Shopping street in the rain
Child in front of temple of heaven