Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Phuket Forum

Traveling whirls you around, turns you upside down and stands everything you took for granted on its head. We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next, to find ourselves. We travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn more about the world than our newspapers will accommodate. We travel to bring what little we can, in our ignorance and knowledge, to those parts of the globe whose riches are differently dispersed. And we travel, in essence, to become young fools again — to slow time down and get taken in, and fall in love once more.

The beauty of this whole process was best described, perhaps, before people even took to frequent flying, by George Santayana in his lapidary essay, “The Philosophy of Travel.” We “need sometimes,” the Harvard philosopher wrote, “to escape into open solitudes, into aimlessness, into the moral holiday of running some pure hazard, in order to sharpen the edge of life, to taste hardship, and to be compelled to work desperately for a moment at no matter what.”

Given my own interest in travel, I was looking for information on Phuket and Thailand when I came upon Phuket Forum – a vibrant community of tourists and expats – and was amazed to see how users interact there and are forthcoming with any information you need. I suggest you have a look at the forum, better still join them and learn what Phuket and Thailand has to offer.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Boat business

Salman Rashid

‘My family never gave up building boats since they built the ark of Hazrat Nuh!’ Ghulam Arabi did not so much as bat an eyelid making this startling disclosure. Then he went on to tell me that before the time of the prophet who saved mankind from the Deluge, ship-building was unknown. As irrefutable finality of that statement, Ghulam Arabi cited the Quran.

For added authenticity he said even his great-grandfather was a boatwright. I did not point out that between his great-grandfather and Hazrat Nuh there must have been several thousand years. Quick to see the doubt in my eyes, he said that since his family knows only this craft, it has long been suspected that they go back to those biblical times. That was arithmetic at its simplest, and I could hardly quarrel with it. At forty Ghulam Arabi, having learned the trade at his late father’s knee, himself had twenty-five years of boat-building experience.

He said that he was a Mughal and his sub-caste was Gharu. This latter, he said, derived from the Punjabi or Urdu word for shaping wood. I asked him if his family was called Gharu even in the time of Hazrat Nuh and he looked at me as if I could scarcely have asked a more imbecile question. That, then, was settled: he was a Mughal of the sub-caste Gharu whose family history of ship-building went back to the great Deluge. And so we moved on to less exciting but rather more plausible aspects of his profession.

There were thirty-six different kinds of boats in Pakistan. These included the several types of flat-bottomed punts on rivers and lakes that could either be rowed, poled or fitted with outboard motors. Then there were the large sabot-shaped houseboats (different sizes) of the Sindhu River and Manchhar Lake and there were the different types and sizes of keeled sea-going vessels of the coast. Ghulam Arabi, his brother, two sons, a nephew and a maternal uncle who all work together, could build any of those boats. And they were not the only boatwrights of the country. There were a few dozen other families engaged in the craft.

But they never employed drawings or measurements. There was nothing on paper. Ghulam Arabi and his team had everything in their heads. All that was needed was a photograph and the desired length of the boat and they could produce it. Chaudri Munir, a well-known industrialist from Lahore, brought a catalogue of boat designs complete with measurements and drawings to Ghulam Arabi. He wanted a boat copied and had tried several carpenters in Lahore. But nothing worked. After wasting much time and even more money, Munir turned to Ghulam Arabi.

When our man was offered the catalogue to study, he refused. He simply looked at the picture of the boat, asked how big Chaudri sahib wanted his vessel to be and got his team working. In six weeks flat, Ghulam Arabi had the boat ready to the great delight of his rich client.

We were sitting in the sand of the once great Sindhu River at the ford of Bungla Ichha near Jamaldin Wali in Rahim Yar Khan district. Ghulam Arabi, a native of Chachran fifty kilometres upstream, was taking time off from repairing three or four boats that were soon to be hitched in a boat bridge. Every year between November and March when the river runs low, the boat bridge is strung out and all motor traffic passes over it to Rojhan on the west bank.

The rest of the year, the river being far too wide and with a greater flow for this arrangement, crossings are affected by smaller engine-powered punts. Since these can at most carry a couple of motorcycles and are mainly for passengers, vehicular traffic is routed over Guddu Barrage about thirty kilometres downstream.

Business was good, said Ghulam Arabi. The going rate to build a new vessel was six hundred rupees per foot and a typical twenty foot-long punt took about a month to finish. Charges for repair work, on the other hand, were variable depending on the scale of work. All materials, the timber (always deodar cedar), as well as the nails and other items, were supplied by the client. Ghulam Arabi and his team came with the tools of their trade and their expertise.

The typical work day for them began after the morning prayers and ended with sundown. But though the work day was some five hours longer in summer, daily output tended to be the same throughout the year. The reason according to Ghulam Arabi was the debilitating heat of summer that reduced efficiency.

At the fishing village of Ibrahim Hyderi in Karachi, Ghulam Arabi had learned the science of building keeled marine engine-powered boats. Thereafter he had worked there a full eight years to master the craft. Subsequently he moved to Gwadar where he remained another couple of years working with another ustad. He worked at the two places in order to learn the subtle differences between the Baloch and the Sindhi design.

Time was when there were only single-masted sailboats plying the several fords on the Sindhu between Dera Ghazi Khan and Kashmore. Ghulam Arabi and his team built the last of those sailing boats in the later 1990s. Now there are only these small boats with the diesel engine that for some abstruse reason we call a ‘peter engine’ in Pakistan.
‘The sailing boat took five hours to cross the river. These little powered boats take three quarters of an hour. Now everyone is in a hurry and they just want to get wherever they are going.’

Ghulam Arabi said he had no complaints. Business had been brisk and there were still orders in hand for the coming months. I pointed out that one day a bridge will span this part of the river adversely affecting his business. What will he do then?

‘The fishermen of the Sindhi lakes as well as those of the seaboard will never go out of business. If it comes to the worst, we’ll have to move either to Karachi or to Gwadar. But we will carry on the profession we have followed since the time of Hazrat Nuh.’ Ghulam Arabi, the boatwright, was spot on. He and others like him will never run out of work.

Fellow of Royal Geographical Society, Salman Rashid is author of several books including jhelum: City of the Vitasta and The Apricot Road to Yarkand, Riders on the Wind, Between two Burrs on the Map, Prisoner on a Bus and Sea Monsters and the Sun God. His work - explorations, traveling and writings - appears in almost all leading publications.

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Musalla, at last!

It is called Musa ka Musalla -- the Prayer Mat of Moses, and it is a 4055 metre high whaleback of a mountain forming the watershed between Kaghan valley in the east and Siran in the west. The first time I saw it was twenty two years ago from a hilltop in Abbottabad: being mid winter the mountain was glinting a brilliant white in its coat of virgin snow and I had remarked to my friend how it so fitted Melville's description of Moby Dick.

As mountains go this isn't even the kind that spawns heroes; it is too puny for real mountaineers to care about. In order to keep their skills honed for the great peaks further to the north, they would perhaps condescend to tackle it in midwinter when several metres of snow and ice make it a bit of a challenge. The Musalla really is meant for lowly mountain walkers like myself -- even so lowly mountain walkers are known to have failed on it.

In October '91 a friend and I tried climbing it only to discover that we had selected the wrong time of the year: the ridge leading up to the mountain was completely desiccated; but for a couple of filthy ponds, and to locate the few springs one had to be more than well acquainted with it. A second attempt was made in July '93 which was thwarted by the worst weather for many years and at one point, tormented by thirst, we decided never to return to the Musalla. But failure is one thing and giving up the mountain wold have been ignominious defeat.

Back in the comfort of my home I was again dreaming of making it to the top, only this time I knew we would have to do it early enough in the season when there would be some snow on the ridge. And so in mid June the most unlikely climbing group arrived in Shinkiari to haggle with Babu Khan, the jeep driver, over the price to Kund Rest House. It comprised of Javed Anwar (JA) the quiet, soft spoken engineer, Javed Buttar (JB) the brash lawyer full of risque stories from the bar room, and yours truly who would dearly have loved to term JB insufferable but for the fact that this would be a classic case of the pot calling the kettle black.

Not long afterwards our jeep was straining around the hairpin bends as it went higher and higher into the forested ridge until the paddy fields and houses in the Pakhli plain below us looked like a monochrome print through the smog and the afternoon light. And if we had thought mid June would be the "right season" for Kund (2500 metres) with plenty of water from some spring or the other, we were in for a surprise. No season is the right season at Kund. Its only water supply is a slimy tank (dicky in local lingo) that takes the run off from the roof and into which the rest house staff dip their buckets and lotas with total disregard for all principals of hygiene. The result is a thriving population of tiny red things writhing merrily about the tank. The staff bring their tumblers brimming out of it and drink them with complete sangfroid. We, however, restricted ourselves to our supply of mineral water.

Moreover, with Kund not exactly in very keen competition with corresponding places in Switzerland, the bearded chowkidar (who looks like he's taking time off from looting travellers on the Karakorum Highway) has not learned what is to be gained from being nice to tourists. He absolutely refused us the use of any of the drinking water that he was getting by the donkey load from some spring which, if one were to believe him, was somewhere near the Durand Line. However, when JB laid on the solicitor's finesse the man promised to organise a pack horse to get our gear to Shaddal Gali where we hoped to camp the following night.

Irfan, the fellow with the horse, arrived about seven in the morning and it seemed that he had the express orders of his elders never to smile. Either that or God in his infinite wisdom had considered it improper to furnish him with those facial muscles that make a smile -- rather like one of our retired cricketers. And to top it, he was a devious little sneak as I was to learn later.

The load was secured and we set out along the wooded crest of the ridge that runs into the southeast flank of Musa ka Musalla. Soon we had left habitation behind; now the only people we would meet would be Gujjar nomads on their way to the summer pastures in Kaghan valley. Being on the knife edge crest we had views both to the Kaghan and the Siran sides and on either side we could see several columns of smoke rising from the forest. These we naturally took to be forest fires set off by the unusually long dry spell.

Later we learnt that every June, just before the monsoon breaks, the locals set fire to the grass on the forest floor because, they believe, it grows lusher once the rains come. I don't know what all this burning does to the grass but it certainly ravages the environment: sure enough the distant mountains that in October three years ago had sparkled against a crystalline sky were all swathed in a formless grey cloud.

A pleasant three hour walk brought us to the fork where a trail leads down to the rest house of Shaheed Pani. I was a couple of hundred metres ahead of Irfan and his horse and the two Js were somewhere far behind when the man hailed me. "This is Shaddal Gali. This is as far as I had contracted to bring you," he said. It was just too bad that he did not know I had twice before walked this ridge and knew one place from the other. "Is that right?" I asked innocently. The man said it was and started to undo the load. That was when he got what was his due. I told him since he did not know Shaddal Gali I was going to show it to him so that he would not forget it in a hurry and Punjabi being the language it is, there was no ambiguity in the meaning.

In a sweat the man changed tack saying he had never come this far and did not know Shaddal (which was clearly a blatant lie) and since he considered me as venerable as an uncle (thank heavens for grey hair!), he would very willingly follow me to the ends of the earth. In another hour we were at Shaddal, a narrow saddle between two grassy knolls. On the nearer side a large rectangular heap of stones marked the grave of some unknown shepherd killed by raiders from the distant Kala Dhaka mountains near which a Gujjar tent flapped lazily in the breeze. On the far side a hill rose sheer and blocked the view to the north. To our left and right the mountainside fell sharply away to smoke laden valleys, levitating above which in the east was a line of snowy peaks.

Shaddal was a sort of pit stop on the route between Kaghan and Siran valleys and there was a constant coming and going with everybody stopping briefly for tea or a meal: the Gujjars were busily preparing lunch as we came in and soon afterwards were gone; a group of men were making tea; yet others were simply lounging in the warm sunshine before resuming their journeys. There were naturally stories to be told and questions to be asked and our gear to be examined. We were told, as countless before would have swapped the same tale, that a certain shepherd called Musa vowed a session of prayer on the top if Allah would grant him just one favour. The favour was granted and the man betook himself to the mountain. Others believe that it was none but the prophet Moses himself who came here to pray on this mountain.

It was also said that the Gujjars periodically took up their cattle to the shrine on top so that the animals could pay homage to whoever this Musa was. If this was true, it was without doubt a throwback to some long forgotten pagan cult that had been appropriately altered after the coming of Islam to this part of the sub continent.

At 3200 metres Shaddal Gali forms the apex of two wide couloirs on either side of the ridge and despite its height was rather warm so we set up camp on a slight eminence hoping to get the best of the gentle breeze. This was a patently foolish thing to do, more so since it came from me with the boast of "20 years of trekking experience". If that was folly, I don't know what it was when neither tent was secured with pegs. About ten at night the wind rose to a howling 40 knots and our tents began to flap wildly. It seemed the topography of the pass was funnelling the wind up to and over it, magnifying it almost to a storm.

No one could have slept in the din but I was jolted into full consciousness by a frantic call from JB's tent: it had flipped over and JA said I would have to handle this one alone. The tent had turned on its entrance trapping JB inside and was wedged against ours which had probably prevented it from rolling down the slope and carrying on down turning JB into the finest mince meat ever seen in Kaghan. That it had not set our own tent rolling was simply the greatest good fortune. I struggled against a banshee of a storm to deflate the outer fly-turned-parachute and when the tent was right side up JB helped me drive in the pegs. But that was all the sleep to be had that night, for lying in my sleeping bag I had visions of the storm intensifying, yanking the pegs out and sending us crashing down the mountainside.

Sometime towards morning the storm blew itself out and when I started breakfast at four, it was as quiet as death. JB opted to remain in camp and catch up on sleep and so with a light load of stove and tea things JA and I set out just as sunlight was beginning to creep down the mountainsides. The top of the hill that had blocked our view to the north was a wide grassy meadow with excellent views all round. Malika Parbat and Burawai Peak to the right looked deceptively benign and easily climbable in the morning light; Makra was thinly streaked with snow and ice. Straight ahead loomed the Musalla wreathed in nebulous mist beyond which was a great tangle of snowy peaks and to the left far across the Pakhli Plains was the purple ridge of the Kala Dhaka -- Black Mountain.

Within the hour we had descended to the saddle of Thandi Gali where the empty tent of another team of five trekkers told us that we weren't going to be the first to climb the Musalla this season. Snow lay thickly in the corries and there was ample water making this a better camping site than Shaddal at this time of the year.

Another hour and a half and we were at the saddle were my friend and I had turned back more than two years ago: a great crack cutting across the contours of the ridge, three hundred metres across and as much deep. Beyond the crack great patches of snow and ice gashed the ridge and far away at the base of the Musalla we could descry the colourful jackets of the five preceding us. But JA was beginning to flag, complaining of being drained because he had not eaten breakfast. I egged him on promising tea and biscuits just before the last push to the top. And tea we had as I watched in envy the five beginning their climb to the summit.

From a distance it had been difficult to assess the condition of snow on the ridge and now we discovered that traversing the snow slopes without ice axes and crampons was tricky business. But ice axes lying safely in Lahore were no good for the Musalla and I had no one to blame but myself for JA had wanted to bring them along and I had said we wouldn't be needing them! Presently we were confronted by a wide snow slope marked by the footsteps of the team ahead of us. I blundered right into these steps and half way across paused to look down. The slope fell clean away more than two hundred metres without a rock to punctuate the slide of the unfortunate trekker who would slip.

Needless to say that it was the kind of situation that could scare the living daylights out of me -- and it did. I leaned against the upward slope and scurried across shouting for JA to take it only if he really, really felt up to it. A little later I was confronted by another patch of snow and the only way to take this one on was to go straight up. This I did by kicking the toes of my boots into the snow and virtually running uphill until I was out of breath. Eventually I was in the maze of shattered rocks beyond which was only snow and ice. The slope again rose at a dangerous angle and knowing JA was tired I shouted for him not to come any higher for the fatal mistake is made only when the body is overcome with fatigue.

Spurred on by proximity to the crest that had twice before defied me the last bit was quickly done. And then I was on the edge of the flat top that stretched almost five hundred metres to the northwest. In the middle distance a cairn stood grey and stark above the white snow and far away the flags that mark the shrine of Musa ka Musalla fluttered in the wind. Even at midday the snow which lay about two metres deep was still firm and scrunched underfoot as I walked to the shrine.

Only four of the five other trekkers had made it to the top, one having succumbed to altitude sickness. I met them as they were returning and a quick photo session was done. Then I was alone in the consummate silence on the summit. The shrine itself was a large plinth of dressed stones topped by a platform made to look like a prayer mat; but it faced more to the north than the traditional west. Next to it was a small dugout which must have once been a room. Its timbers were burnt, presumably by some shepherd or mountain walker benighted on the windswept summit. I cast about for cow pats to confirm if cattle had ever been brought up to the shrine but found none. These, however, could easily have been concealed by the snow.

The ultra violet glare from the snow was intense (glasses were another implement I had left behind!) and there was no question of stopping long enough for the ceremonial cup of tea for fear of snow blindness. And so, in the tradition of all mountain walkers, having added my rock to the cairn I ran down the snow slopes to where JA was waiting with the others. At Thandi Gali JA opted to stay with them for tea but I hurried on and by four thirty I was back in camp where JB fed me noodles and tea while I screamed at him for not having organised drinking water during the day.

That night I slept so soundly that I did not even know when our tent came off its moorings and the two Js did it up again. After breakfast we made down the slope on the Kaghan side and within two hours were at the beautiful, tree shaded rest house of Nadi Bangla. The sound of running water, the first in three days, was like music to our ears and with it came the much needed bath, shave and change of clothing.

JA and JB fell in love with the setting of the rest house and wanted to stay. But my real objective, Musa ka Musalla, had been achieved and I only wished to get home as quickly as possible. After lunch the chowkidar pointed me in the direction of Kaagan wali Gali (Pass of the Crows) where he said I could get a jeep. But there was none, the nearest they said was at Jabra. There was not one but two jeeps at Jabra -- both waiting for repairs, and it seemed they would be waiting long.

The two brothers who ran the tea shop laughed and said it was pointless waiting for transport and if I kept to the foot trail I would be in Balakot well before sunset. By five I was at the bus stand looking back at Musa ka Musalla and Shaddal Gali, both swathed in the smoke from the grass fires. Twice before I had stood here in failure. Now the Musalla was mine.

Salman Rashid is author of eight travel books including jhelum: City of the Vitasta and The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Bridges of Pakistan

Every year, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) puts out a very beautiful calendar on bridges all over the world. However there has never been any bridge from Pakistan on this calendar. There is not without reason. In the last six decades, Pakistan has not built a bridge of any aesthetic or architectural value.

Most of the new major bridges are of the economic variety built for the roads out of pre-cast concrete boxes or beams, or of plate girders that any one hardly notices driving over. Also since rivers are not used for navigation like they are in industrialized countries, the bridge spans are not very large or high. Therefore there is no need of high super structures like one sees in the case of Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco or other structures like that all over the world.

Other than rail and road bridges, Pakistan also has numerous dams and barrages over major rivers. These are river blockage structures and gated spillways to control water flow and are often used for road traffic as well.

Rail traffic, however, requires heavier bridges than does the road traffic. Again unfortunately Pakistan Railway has hardly built any new rail lines since the British period. The railway system in Pakistan is almost one and half century old. The system is antiquated and so are the bridges. However at the time when some of these bridges were built, their design and construction like the Eiffel Tower in Paris was innovative enough that they were considered as engineering marvels of that time.

In the hilly areas of Kashmir, Frontier and Balochistan the bridges were and still are being built to cross valleys and the river gorges. These may be high bridges but their spans are generally short and foundations are placed either on dry land or in shallow waters of seasonal rivers and streams. Very often these are masonry arched structures with some use of steel beams and trusses, even though one occasionally comes across those single span rope bridges thrown over the river waters gushing through the narrow gorges. Pretty as they look, these rope bridges are not permanent structures and could be dangerous to vehicle crossing.

The biggest challenge in bridge building in Pakistan comes at the crossings of the five major rivers in Punjab and the Indus River in Sindh respectively. None of the governments of the past, imperial or otherwise, attempted to construct permanent bridges over these rivers as rivers were almost always used as another line of defense against invaders from the north and west. That is one reason one sees major old forts all along the south and east sides of the rivers and no permanent bridges. Invading armies waited till the end of the summer and crossed the rivers by using boat bridges constructed by tying boats side by side with ropes and then placing wooden planks to provide the smooth riding surface.

British on the other hand, after conquering the areas now constituting Pakistan in mid nineteen century moved the first line of defense all the way to the top of Hindu Kush Mountains. Thus freeing themselves to span the major rivers with permanent structures for both road and rail use. An era of large permanent bridge structures dawned in areas now constituting Pakistan.

Starting from north, the Attock Bridge on river Indus and the Jhelum Bridge over river Jhelum, both near the cities of the same names respectively, are noteworthy. Also are the rail bridges over river Chenab near Wazirabad and over river Ravi near the capital city of Lahore.

These are all truss structures made of smelted iron fabricated one unit at a time from structural steel. Although labor intensive these structures could be erected without the benefit of heavy industrial complexes or construction machinery. These are multi span bridges with masonry foundations constructed within the river beds. Even though the modern techniques of using coffer dams to construct large masonry footings in water were not available, the engineers were able to temporarily divert the rivers to the other side and thus construct the footings in dry grounds. Spanning of the five rivers allowed the colonial rulers to connect Punjab and beyond to their Imperial capital Delhi located in the Ganges valley in northern India.

The real engineering challenge for the bridge builders came with the need to link Punjab with Sindh by crossing river Sutlej and Sindh with Balochistan by crossing river Indus. Sites near the cities of Bahawalpur and Sukher were selected for the river crossings. These two bridges now in Pakistan are often referred in the history books.

William St. John Galwey, (1833-1891) an Irishman from Cork County was called upon to construct the Bridge over Sutlej. Earlier in his capacity as railway engineer he had successfully completed the construction of the Jhelum Bridge. The Sutlej Bridge also known as Adam Wahan Bridge is the only rail bridge over Sutlej River in Pakistan. Its opening ceremonies were scheduled to coincide with the coronation of Queen Victoria and hence in her honor was named as The Empress Bridge.

The Sukkur Bridge over Indus River, also known Lansdowne Bridge was inaugurated on March 25, 1889. It is the longest single span cantilever bridge of its kind.

Since the technique of diverting river waters could not be applied to the mighty Indus and constructing piers in water by using cofferdams was not developed yet, the engineers had no choice but to support the structure by cantilevering from the shores. Two identical impressive structures, one on each side of the river, with multiple vertical and cross trusses were anchored into massive footings on the shores and then tied to the “dead man” back anchors.

Finally sections of the bridge deck, extended one third of the way at each shore and reaching out to the other side, were placed. The middle piece, which consisted of simple trusses also used in other bridges in Punjab, was finally placed to connect the two cantilevered sides. This last central piece of the bridge not only connected the two sides of the river, it also connected Baluchistan with the down country. The mastery of the Briton over South Asia was complete.

Pervaiz Munir Alvi is a Ravian and trained as a Civil and Geo-technical Engineer.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Wanna ride a dinky in Lahore?

A resident of Allama Iqbal Town, Lahore has stunned people with a collection of more than 4,000 dinkies (toy cars) at his home. A 39-year-old Aamir Ashfaq has been collecting dinkies for the last 31 years, consisting of various car models. Aamir claims that he has the biggest collection of dinkies in Pakistan. Passionate about his hobby, Aamir has designated a special room in his house to place the toy cars.

Aamir is married and has three daughters. Talking to Pakistan Today, he said that although his daughters were not much interested in cars collection but they help him while cleaning the dinkies.

Aamir’s dinkies have various interesting features including hoods, trunks, doors and fuel caps that open, ashtrays that slide out and glove compartments that work are some of the realised features. Some models of cars even have hanging ignition keys and removable hood pins to open the hood. Most have working steering and suspension with real materials used in interiors. Aamir said, “New models have always attracted me, whereas, Eidul Fitr, was the day full of excitement for me each year because car models were presented to me as Eid gifts from my parents. Similarly, I always preferred to purchase dinkies from my Eidy.”

Aamir has a variety of toy car models such as Chevrolet, Oldsmobile, Buick, Cadillac, Pontiac, Plymouth and Dodge, Mercedes Benz, BMW, Audi, Porsche, Volkswagen, Lamborghini, Ferrari, Alfa Romeo, Lancia, Maserati, Fiat, Peugeot, Renault, Citroen, Rolls Royce, Rover, MG, Austin Martin, Austin Healey, Lotus, Morgan, Land Rover, Range Rover, Honda, Nissan, Mitsubishi, Suzuki, Isuzu, Mazda, Toyota, Lexus, Subaru, Saab, Volvo, Holden, Ford, Hyundai and others.

Talking about his wishes, Aamir said, “It is my dream to drive the world’s fastest sports car Bugatti Veyron. This kind of treasure takes decades to build, hours and hours of care but if you have the passion then all that hard work brings pleasure and always keeps a smile of satisfaction on your face.”

Aamir also possesses antique cars such as Nascar, London Bus, London Taxi, American school Bus and Hollywood movies cars such as Knight Rider, Dukes of Hazard, Gone in 60, The Italian Job, Fast & the Furious Series, Back to the Future, the animated movie Cars and various cartoon characters. Aamir said that his parents always facilitated him in the collection of cars, especially his father told him about the matchbox dinky, made in the UK and Majorette dinky cars, made in France, which were easily available at super stores in Lahore worth Rs 10 in 1977-1978. The friction power Tin dinkies, made in Japan, were also available in Pakistan in the 70s at Rs 25.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Degh River

Salman Rashid

Long before he became the emperor of India, Jehangir, Prince Salim for all and sundry and Sheikhu for his father Akbar, used to go hunting in forested country some miles west of Lahore. Later, after a pet deer died, he ordered the building of a memorial tower as well as a water tank and pavilion. He also had a fort built nearby and called it either Jehangirpura or Jehangirabad. Today we know it as Sheikhupura after the emperor’s childhood name.

Aside: both the emperor’s names, that is, Sheikhu and Salim are after the saint Sheikh Salim Chishti for whom Akbar had great regard.

Like his father Akbar, Jehangir was a great exterminator of wildlife whose Tuzk (diary) lists at various places rosters of all the animals he bagged during his hunts. Indeed, without seeing the irony in it, subsequent to one hunt his diary complains of the paucity of his bag. But one supposes those were times when nobody connected dwindling wildlife with wanton hunting.

Toward the fag end of the monsoon of 1620, Jehangir was encamped with his wives and court at Jehangirabad. It was the month of October and the monsoon had not yet petered out. As the court began the short journey back to Lahore, the rains continued to fall. And they fell with a vengeance.

Now, the Degh River that rises in the hills below Jummu, flows past Sialkot and dumps itself into the Ravi south of Lahore, lies between Jehangir’s hunting lodge and Lahore city. As the royal caravan neared its banks, it was found to be a roaring, surging alluvial-red torrent. It was impossible to get across even astride the elephants. For four days the royal court was held up until the sodden tents became too much for the king and his family.

The rains eventually let up, the water receded and the procession passed on to Lahore. Those were days when monsoon rains were what young people today have never known. Indeed, anyone who cannot recall the rains of 1973 and again three years later takes a shower of fifteen minutes to be a monsoon shower. Those were days when the rain would not cease once it began. When it started to come down it would continue for days on end until the rivers flowed over their banks to flood farmland and cities.

To forestall a future repeat of the hold up on the Degh, Jehangir ordered the throwing of a bridge across the river that is normally fordable. To this day the bridge spans the river and serves as a connection between the village of Kot Pindi Das and the Lahore-Sheikhupura highroad.

Haroon, my young companion, and I asked for the umpteenth time for Kot Pindi Das before turning off the highway to the right (north). The new black-top road had not been there when I first went this way nearly twenty years ago. This branch lies just after one goes over the Degh River bridge heading for Sheikhupura and is about eighteen kilometres short of the latter. Kot Pindi Das is six kilometres from the turning and the bridge itself lies a kilometre southeast of the village.

We were joined by a trio of pre-teenage boys who said the bridge was probably built by the angrez. I smiled and by way of explanation the tallest among them said all such things had been done by the angrez, hadn’t they. When I told them the bridge was nearly four hundred years old and that was much before the angrez, they wanted to know how I knew. They had heard of the Chugattas – the variation of Chughtai by which the Mughals are known in parts of Punjab, but Jehangir was a name that rang no bells for them.

The bridge is actually two separate structures about thirty metres apart. The one to the south has two arches while the main structure is lop-sided with a main arch flanked by two smaller arches on one side and one on the other. And the once-good river Degh that flows beneath now stinks with dark untreated poison that it carries down from the factories of Kala Shah Kaku.

Yet buffaloes wallowed in the poison and I found myself wondering what sort of milk we would be getting in Lahore if they also drank the water. When I warned my three local companions against swimming in the river, the tall one said the river was good. A minute later he had stripped and was paddling about midstream.

Thirty years after this bridge was built, in October 1652, Shah Jehan face a similar situation as his father: the rains had persisted and the Degh was flooded. Only this time, the flood was so high that even the bridge was submerged. Once again the royal camp had to halt four days because ‘certain members of the forward party of the entourage had already been swept away …’

Floods in the Degh have passed out of living memory. Surely 1976 would have seen the swollen river almost touching the top of the arches. After that rains steadily dwindled away to a time that we now regard a fifteen-minute shower a proper fall of rain. Meanwhile, the bridge continues to serve. We saw tractors with trailers laden with sand or bricks going back and forth and I stood at a respectable distance regarding the crumbling foundations of the bridge piers.

There is a branch of the Degh called the Chhoti or Lesser Degh not many miles to the west. That too has a bridge; only that one collapsed, so they claimed, during the floods of 1976. Its debris lies in the bed of the stream and I cannot but wonder if overuse by laden trailers and lack of maintenance will one day cause the demise of this bridge during a similar flood that may yet come one day.

Fellow of Royal Geographical Society, Salman Rashid is author of several books including jhelum: City of the Vitasta and The Apricot Road to Yarkand, Riders on the Wind, Between two Burrs on the Map, Prisoner on a Bus and Sea Monsters and the Sun God. His work - explorations, traveling and writings - appears in almost all leading publications.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Nagar Valley

This article also appeared at BootsnAll

Sometimes we know a journey will be a grand adventure. The three-week expedition this winter with my botanist friends, who were to carry out some fieldwork, to enchanted northern Pakistan was surprising. My friends were to work in the dispersal areas surrounding the Nagar Valley and I was content with stumbling into a wonderful experience of seeing a new valley I had only read about.

People from Baltistan who arrived over the mountains by crossing the Biafo and Hispar Glaciers might have been first to settle in Nagar, the former kingdom across the river from Hunza. A man called Borosh is said to have founded the first village in the Valley and married a Balti girl he found there. The legend has it that the girl and her grandmother were the sole survivors of a landslide that killed all the earlier Balti settlers in Nagar area.

Just beyond the Ganesh Bridge across the Hunza River, the jeep track leaves the Karakorum Highway to enter Nagar. The first few kilometres of this pathway are dry and barren, and then the path bifurcates: a branch crosses the Hispar River on a bridge and climbs up into the fertile villages of central Nagar. Trees that one sees here owe their existence to the human hands and the careful construction of irrigation channels by natives.

A trail to the Nagar Valley winds around the mountain, with splendid and ever-changing Himalayan views, arriving at a little village with apricot trees in bloom next to a huge glacier. Botanists say that the original genus of apricot, the ur-apricot (also walnut and rose), comes from this area or the nearby Pamirs. The climate is certainly ideal for them.

Located about 65 kilometres north of Gilgit, the capital of the Northern Areas, the Nagar Valley is a cluster of small hamlets. The Valley expands northwards from these villages, adding in their summer meadows, gorges and snow capped mountain ridges.

Nasirabad is the largest village in the area with about 400 households. It has grown since the opening of Karakorum Highway, which passes through Nasirabad. The other villages of the area are smaller, dotted amongst the tapestries of fruit trees, small fields and painstakingly structured fields. The people, forests, plants and wild animals have all adapted to find a niche within this unique environment. Nasirabad has one such spring that is famous for having excellent mineral water. The white marble mines in Nasirabad are known to be the second best in the world. Minerals like zumurrad and ruby are also found in and around the Valley and are on sale in shops for travellers mostly.

There is a cultural craft centre in Nasirabad where local women have been trained to produce local handicrafts. This is an important area of development, supporting local people. You can be sure that the purchases there are 100 per cent natural, meticulously hand made and directly benefiting the communities. Local handicrafts include woollen handbags and small purses, sharma (carpet), traditional mats, rugs, and bedspreads, caps, and pattu (cloth prepared from sheep wool used to make waist coats).

The only facilities on the route to the Valley are informal camping grounds and occasional huts of shepherds. Informed backpackers taking this route go fully equipped with tents and sleeping bags and other necessary accessories so that they can enjoy these unfrequented destinations or they have to rely on local help, which is found easily. You may find friendly locals with horses (and other offers) following at some distance, waiting for the call that you will make when tired.

And you are sure to make a call on Mayoon bar trail, the name given to one of the summer pastures above the village of Mayoon, leading up to Mayoon nullah. The hike passes through steep undulating areas along the valley side. In summers, pastures come to life and a whole variety of plants transforming the area into a green carpet dotted with colours. Shepherds live in their huts keeping a watchful eye on their stock. Easy access to get quality water from the torrents makes Mayoon Bar (and Rooi Bar) a wonderful camping location. Look out on the way for the birds of this area including chukar, jungle crow, yellow-billed chough and magpie. Also keep alert and you may be rewarded with a view of the Himalayan ibex or the snow leopard.

It is cold in the winter, with temperature below freezing point. Snows not only confined to the peaks and ridges but also decorating the trees of the Valley bottom, the area takes on a new and stunning beauty, making it worth braving the cold. The area used to be domain of snow leopards that are now on the verge of extinction. Winter visitors stand much better chances of seeing the prized wildlife of the area, as they venture down the slopes in search of food. Given its remarkably elusive nature, there are good chances to actually see one of these great creatures in the wild but the sighting of snow leopards depends almost totally on luck and luck most commonly favours at dawn or dusk during winters. It is also pleasing to see areas covered with thick flocks of birds and large herds of four-legged creatures roam free. If you have any capacity to wonder, you will experience wonder. I had no difficulty satisfying my addiction during my zigzagging in Nagar.

Few animals match the rare beauty and quite mystery of the snow leopard. Seldom do people see these animals in the wild. They live in remote pockets of Asia. The big cats differ in appearance, body types and functions, live in different habitat and prey on different animals. Scientists believe that the last ice age, which ended about 10,000 years ago, wiped out but a few species of big cats. The exact number of snow leopards is difficult to estimate as they live in rugged terrain and researchers mostly rely on indications of the animals rather than direct sightings. Snow leopards are superb jumpers and leapers. They can spring and pounce on prey that is up to 45 feet away. Some of them can still be found in the Nagar area.

A strategic plan for the conservation of snow leopards in Pakistan was presented on April 20, 2001 by an international NGO in collaboration with the International Snow Leopard Trust in Gilgit. The presentation was attended by a large number of potential partners and stakeholders. It was revealed there “the total remaining population of snow leopard (Panthera uncia) – a globally endangered species – is estimated around 7,000-10,000, out of which approximately 300 are found in Pakistan.” Some of the critical habitats of the snow leopard have been identified by the NGO and they plan to extend scope of activities by focusing on identifying critical habitats in NWFP, AJK and Northern Areas.

The plan also identified various threats to the survival of snow leopards. Based on these findings, various strategies were proposed, which could be implemented by both government agencies and the NGOs which are interested in big cats’ conservation. Only last winter, a young snow leopard was caught in Nagar Valley. Work of international NGOs to save different species of the big cats’ family in Iran’s Kavir Desert and Nakuru area in Kenya is a good example to follow.

The most dominant geological feature of the area is Rakaposhi, first climbed in 1958 and ranked among the world’s 50 highest peaks. The people of Nagar claim that they have the best view of their peak. And it is true, stunning views of both Rakaposhi and its sister peak, Diran, can be seen from the Valley. And downwards, towards the Hunza River and the tall thin poplars way below reminds one of the scales of the Karakorum Mountains.

“Tourism is like fire, you can cook your dinner on it but if you are not careful it will burn you house down,” an old Asian adage reads. Tourism is the largest and fastest growing industry in the world. It has significant environmental, cultural, social, and economic impacts both positive and negative. If undertaken responsibly, tourism can be a positive force for sustainable development, conservation and environmental protection. Whereas an unplanned tourism can be socially, culturally, and economically disruptive and have devastating effect of fragile environments. Northern areas, to a large extent, rely on the existence of attractive, uncrowned and clean destinations. These are often in environmentally fragile areas that are biologically significant and rich in wild life. In addition, these mountain areas have now also become the object of desire of a number of competing interests: resort hotels, polo tournaments, adventure tourism, and big game hunting. What the public as well private tourism sectors in Pakistan are aiming at is a common goal: the long term preservation of the natural environments.

Go to Nagar and you may still have a good probability to see the big cat, sometimes called the snow queen in addition to enjoying the diversity.

Related: Mountain Movers, Nagar valley, Deosai Plans