Aug 7, 2013

The Wakhan Corridor

The Wakhan Corridor is a panhandle of land that extends 140 miles in northeastern Afghanistan, separating Pakistan to the south from Tajikistan to the north. The Wakhan was created in the late 19th century as a buffer zone between British India and the USSR during the period of diplomatic rivalry known as the Great Game. Although politically part of Afghanistan, the Wakhan is aptly described as belonging to the Badakhshan cultural region, dominated by Tajik people speaking various Pamiri languages. Having developed a keen interest in Badakhshan during visits to Tajikistan and Pakistan, the Wakhan has for a long time captured my imagination.

 Lying at the confluence of the Pamir, Hindu Kush, and Karakoram ranges (known as the Pamir Knot), the Wakhan boasts one of the most stunning mountain landscapes in the world. Coupled with the hospitality of the Wakhi people and a mere trickle of tourism, it’s difficult to imagine a more exciting adventure travel destination.

Approaching the Afghan border with trusty Tajik driver Dashi

Ian and I accessed the Wakhan Corridor from the Pamir Highway, driving counterclockwise from Dushanbe (Tajikistan) and ending in Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan). A legendary road trip in its own right, the Pamir Highway was an exciting complement to the Wakhan. 

The Afghan Visa

In Bishkek, before flying to Dushanbe to begin our drive, we visited the Afghan consulate. Ushered into a smoky side room, we explained that we would like to obtain tourist visas to visit the Wakhan via the Eshkashem border. The official behind the desk appeared perplexed, briefly left the room, and returned to ask with skepticism why we would want to do such a thing. “Eshkashem is poor security area. Taliban area. There is nothing to see there. Why you want to go Eshkashem?” Ian replied that we were interested in seeing the mountains, and the official suggested applying for a visa in Dushanbe. Undeterred, we wondered whether he had been posturing or if in fact we were more knowledgeable about the Wakhan than he.

We returned to our hotel to find a group of three trans-Asia motorcyclists from Poland who had just visited the Wakhan. We were thrilled to hear their report. “Afghanistan?! Worst country we’ve ever visited. Registration required at every other village. Terrible roads! Basically just rocks, there is no road… horrible place.” Ian and I smiled at each other, thinking that if you’re not up for an adventure, better to stick with the lovely Pamir Highway!

We flew from Bishkek to Dushanbe via a 12-hr layover in the Almaty airport. Placing ourselves next to the 24-hr duty-free liquor store, we proceeded to make the most of a long night, attracting other like-minded travelers and generating quite a disturbance in the departure lounge. We nearly missed our flight to Dushanbe, and had to be driven in a separate vehicle onto the tarmac to board the idling plane.

Dreary and dehydrated, our first stop in Dushanbe was the embassy of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, where we were told to secure a letter of support from the US State Department, with which we could obtain a visa in three business days. Thanks, but no thanks.

Next we visited the US embassy, whose consular staff bent over backwards to advise us on logistics and practical information, as well as provide notarized letters verifying that we were indeed who we said we were. Finally we received a security briefing from the embassy’s head of security, who advised in no uncertain terms: “Do not go to Afghanistan. If anything happens to you guys, you’re on your own. Tajikistan is beautiful; the biggest risk here is earthquakes.” We took it with a thick pinch of salt. That night a few of the staffers congregated at a local watering hole, and we prodded the security official, reiterating that if anything happens we would be counting on his support. “I told you guys already, don’t f---ing go to Afghanistan!”

After 16 hours of driving from Dushanbe and a few anxious nights of anticipation, we arrived in the small Tajik town of Khorog where we would make our third and final visa attempt. Standing on the curb of the consular building peering through a window, a pretty girl approached us, we smiled, she smiled back, and five minutes later we walked away with one-month visas for Afghanistan.

The First Day

The morning of July 23rd we awoke in a dilapidated soviet hotel in Tajikistan, packed our things, and went to pay our $5 tab. The hotel owner’s wife proposed that I marry her daughter, a beautiful Tajik girl with jet black hair, a long glittery dress, and a look of mischief. Sitting at the bar at 8am we found two Tajik soldiers drinking beer in advance of their morning shift. We downed several glasses of Russian malt liquor with omelets before walking over the bridge that joins Tajikistan with Afghanistan at the gateway to the Wakhan Corridor.

This photo needs no caption...

The Tajik officials presented poorly in shaggy uniforms, but they were professional. The Afghan officials, on the other hand, looked stylish in their NATO uniforms and Ford Rangers, but proved themselves unbecoming of their posts. Reaching into my bag with a filthy grin, an INTERPOL officer sifted through my toiletries. “Shampoo?” No, that’s my deodorant. “You buy in America? How much?” I’m not sure, it was a gift. “iPod mp3 player! How much you buy?” I’m not sure, it was a gift. “You travel so many countries, and now you come to my country, and you bring no gifts for police?”

Meanwhile the half-full bottle of whiskey we planted in Ian’s bag was discovered. A wave of celebration rippled through the room. Moments later one of the soldiers conceded to Ian that we could keep the whiskey. “We have special law in Afghanistan. Tourist can bring half bottle of whiskey for personal use. It is our special rule.”

We cleared immigration and stood on Afghan dirt squinting at the sun and the distant outline of the snow-capped Hindu Kush. A police pickup truck pulled up, we hopped in the back with our packs, and sped towards the Eshkashem bazaar, passing fields of alfalfa, apricot orchards, and women scurrying roadside in sky-blue burqas.

With the goal of leaving first thing the next morning to begin driving east up the Wakhan, we had precious little time to obtain the myriad registrations, permits, and handwritten letters of permission we would need. We hired a local kid named Azim to help us wade through the tangle of Afghan bureaucracy. Meanwhile we collected supplies for our trek and haggled for shalwar kameez outfits and checkered scarves.

Haggling for provisions in Eshkashem

In Eshkashem we stayed at a beautiful guesthouse perched on a small hill overlooking the bazaar. Inside the barb-wired mud walls were rows of salad herbs, a small orchard of stone fruits, flower-lined walkways, and a large area behind the main house dedicated to marijuana cultivation, with meter-high plants and six-inch buds glistening in the afternoon sun.

To make a long story short, we fired Azim as our handler upon uncovering grave acts of dishonesty. The next morning we departed the guesthouse for our final letter of permission at the army base. The military officer authorized to draft this letter was allegedly at the border post. We drove to the border post. No, he is at the army base, so we returned. No, he is at the bazaar. Finally we spotted him in the bazaar and walked together back to the base. Handing him our passports, he asked if there was any money in the passports. We responded in the negative, and waited patiently outside the main gate under a parcel of shade afforded by a small tree. 

Flaunting our permits!
The Jeep Debacle

Finally we are on our way in a navy blue Land Cruiser (indisputably the vehicle of choice for the Wakhan) with Dowlat, who is the spitting image of a Kalash man I befriended years ago in Lahore. He was the first person Ian and I met in Eshkashem, and we immediately liked and trusted him. Dowlat would prove to be one of the finest people we acquainted during our visit in Afghanistan.

Suddenly a rusting, early-90’s Toyota Hilux careened across the bumpy road leaving Eshakashem, blocking our path. A debate ensued between Dowlat and the other driver, who claimed that it was “his turn” to drive tourists into the Wakhan. The story of what follows is too lengthy to describe in detail; in short, the Badakhshan province has such a nascent tourist industry that transporting tourists is restricted to a lottery system administered by the government. After an hour-long debate attracting a crowd of onlookers, the final decision was delegated to the Governor of the Wakhan district, who demanded that we ride with the other driver against our will. It was one of the most uncomfortable experiences I have ever had as a tourist, but out of self-interest we complied, and had little choice in the matter.

Which rig would you choose??

Moments later we arrived at the petrol station to fill up with benzene. Upon realizing he didn’t have enough money, the driver suddenly ran back into town. Ian and I had depreciated our patience for all the monkey business, and had lost all trust in the new driver. We grabbed our gear and proceeded to walk back through the bazaar to the guesthouse. The whole scene was quite a drama for observing shopkeepers. Back at our refuge, we deliberated on what to do, and agreed that we held only one card that could potentially override the Governor - a senior contact at the regional office of the Aga Khan Foundation, a highly respected NGO that delivers far more impact (utilities, infrastructure, healthcare, education) for the local community than the Afghan government itself.

We passed through security at the AKF office, and moments later our contact happened to walk in. We explained the situation, and feared that out of savvy he would be reluctant to stick his neck into such a mess on behalf of two tourists he had only briefly met. After pondering his next step, he made a minute-long, impassioned phone call. Two minutes later his phone rang, and the Governor’s decision was overturned – we would ride with Dowlat, who was on his way to the guesthouse to pick us up. In the end, Ian and I managed a difficult situation craftily, and we had a bit of good luck as well.

After hours of wrangling and frustration, our spirits were elevated into a state of triumph as we passed the final stretch of trees marking the edge of Eshkashem. We were wheels up, diving into the Wakhan at last. It had been over a week since we left Paris.

The Wakhan

We came a long way to see the Wakhan. My expectations were lofty, and the scenery knocked me out. It was Death Valley on steroids, an order of magnitude larger, and sustained every mile of the way. The Hindu Kush commands up to 5,000 meters of vertical relief above the valley floor, exposed by side valleys that offer glimpses of its towering, glacier-clad peaks. Few places in the world can claim such dramatic topography.

We were mentally prepared for rough driving, and the driving was rough. Heading up the corridor we had a tailwind which maintained a persistent cloud of dust around the vehicle, so thick that Dowlat relied on his wiper blades to clear the windscreen. The abundance of lateral streams flowing into the valley meant frequent river crossings that limited our momentum to second gear. As we progressed up the corridor the technical sections became more difficult, and we had a few legitimate river crossings that demanded an engine snorkel. The Land Cruiser was built for this drive and it handled the Wakhan in style.

Our first night we stayed in Dowlat’s village, strolling its maze of paths and aqueducts at dusk. For dinner we feasted on naan, yoghurt, noodles, salad, vegetable curry and chai. We requested to sleep outside that night despite the gusty winds. Dowlat’s family prepared a small castle of mattresses, pillows and blankets for our campout. In true Badakhshani style, no money was ever requested for our stay.

The next day we made it to the end of the road, arriving at the final village of Sarhad. The setting was stunning – about a hundred homes nestled against the cul-de-sac of the valley as it abuts an amphitheater of impenetrable peaks. From Sarhad, we would navigate by foot the oxbow river canyon leading to the upper portion of the Wakhan, inhabited by Kyrgyz rather than Wakhi. Gratefully, we hired a donkey to carry our packs over incredibly demanding switchback passes approaching 5,000 meters in elevation.

The second day I became quite ill and was unable to hike to the next campsite. Insisting that Ian proceed with guide and donkey, I collapsed next to a small stream on a steep hillside. In the afternoon I constructed a gazebo of branches to avail shade for a long nap on a bluff of dry grass above the tumbling Wakhan River. As the afternoon gave way to twilight, I reflected on my solo camping adventure in the Afghan wilderness. There wasn’t a soul for miles and miles, and I relished the solitude to reflect on an incredible journey. The wilderness experience transcended borders - I could have been anywhere in the world gazing at a night sky splattered with flickering stars.

Gaining my strength back on the third day thanks to antibiotics, I eagerly awaited the sight of my companions descending into the small valley where I spent the night. Reunited, we spent our third and final night aside a gin-clear granitic stream. Canned garbanzo beans and cat-food-grade tuna for dinner, eaten with sticks in lieu of cutlery, and made edible thanks to pepper sauce imported from Iran. Any thought of self-pity with regard to our provisions was swiftly dismissed by the sight of the 65-year-old donkey sardar, who came prepared only with chai and bread that, by that time, had turned rock hard.

Dinner preparations at camp

 The departure – not so fast!

Prior to the trek we made a point of counting out our days with Dowlat who agreed to drive back up the Wakhan to pick us up on July 29th. Shortly after our return to Sarhad, we heard the blue Land Cruiser faithfully chugging up the dirt road to the guesthouse. We spent the evening taking pictures, and were rolling downhill at 6am the next morning. At some point it occurred to me how lucky we had been with the driving conditions, although in the days since we had driven up, warm weather was causing glacial runoff to surge. About a third of the way down the valley our progress was arrested in the village of Kret, which lies at the foot of the 6,500-meter Baba Tungi. Shaking his head, Dowlat reached into his tool kit for a sledge hammer as we set out on foot to examine the damage: “Strong problem here... strong problem.” A flash flood the evening before had delivered a torrent of water, completely obliterating the road in its path. That high in the Wakhan, it could take weeks to dispatch a tractor. We deliberated our options while squatting in a field and snacking on freshly plucked green bean pods.

Where did the road go??

We doubled back with Dowlat, crossed a bridge to the other side of the valley, and bounced along an old section of road to its terminus, where it became flooded with a meter of river water. With packs on our backs, we carefully waded a short rapid, clinging to the sidewall of the constricting river gorge. Grinning ear-to-ear, we walked a few kilometers to a small village named Sargez where we hoped to avail a ride to the downstream village of Qila-e-Panja, where we could stay with Salahudin, a man we had befriended in Eshkashem.

Wading through the flooded section of the old road

After several hours of waiting we decided to huff it on foot to Qila-e-Panja, and hire a donkey to carry our packs. Strangely enough, Sargez did not have any donkeys they could hire out, but a scrawny, red-haired Afghan man eagerly volunteered himself for the role of porter - he was pleased to carry both our packs on his back to Qila-e-Panja, all for the price of a donkey. Just as we were tying our shoe laces, a foreigner appeared out of nowhere, exclaiming: "I am French, my name is Lafayette, I have come to rescue you!" We soon learned that Salahudin had sent him, that his real name was Bernard, and we peered around the wall to see a lifted Toyota Corolla with its engine hood raised, its driver pouring river water into the radiator. It was a welcome sight, and we piled in without asking any questions, arriving at Salahudin's home shortly thereafter.

The next morning we arranged two vehicles to get us back to Eshkashem in time to cross the border back to Tajikistan. Upon arrival at 13:04, the soldiers informed us that the border had just closed, at 1pm, but we could stay the night in Eshkashem and try to cross the next morning. Bernard became irate, retorting to the soldiers that the border closes at 2pm during Ramzan. Ian and I were pressed for time with a long drive to Bishkek awaiting us. Stubbornly, we all decided to pay and release our driver, squatting at the border until they let us through.

These efforts were in vain, as we later learned. At some point the soldiers sourced a nearby villager who spoke English and could translate. “The border closed at 2pm today for Ramzan.” But we were here at 1pm. “Actually the border closed at 12pm today.” We crossed at 1pm just days ago and there was no problem. “Actually there is a problem on the Tajik side.” Bernard piped up: There is no problem on the Tajik side, I am friends with them and they do not close early for Ramzan. “Actually the commanding officer on the Afghan side is sick today, so the border never opened.” Why did you lie to us and say the border closed at 1pm? “Actually the commanding officer is out of town visiting his family and will return tonight.” What would it take for us to cross immediately? A huddle and brief debate led to a quick verdict: “$300.”

The formidable Afghan border force

Ian and I were tired and hungry so we asked one of the soldiers to call us a taxi. He said it would cost $20. When the taxi arrived, it occurred to us that we could play their game, too. We said we would pay $10 for the taxi, or the driver could head back to Eshkashem with an empty car. Embarrassing the soldier who had called the taxi driver was no small victory for us at that point. Further, two of the soldiers expected a complimentary ride to town and we told them they had to pay $5 too, shoving them out of the car. They demonstrated little respect for themselves or their uniforms, and commanded even less from us.

Meanwhile Bernard became irrationally persistent, declaring that he was French, he had five days worth of cigarettes, and that he refused to leave until they open the border. We bade Bernard adieu, who proceeded to smoke cigarettes and install his tent on the army grounds, eventually leaving the soldiers no choice but to escort him free of charge to the guesthouse. Despite being stranded in Eshkashem, we all felt like winners that night.

The next morning we greeted the commanding officer and wasted no time in getting through formalities, only to be informed that we were missing one of the required registration cards, which we were never informed we needed in the first place. We suggested that perhaps it was possible to solve the problem right there at border, and the officer responded that $40 would be sufficient. At the sound of the exit stamp impacting our passports, we grabbed our bags and sped on foot through no-man’s-land towards Tajikistan.

We didn’t look back.


Sep 12, 2011

Pakistan Karakoram

Balti boy in Askoli

Piaiju peak profiled at sunset

approaching the Trango series and Cathedrals

legendary Baltoro shoes

Goro I campsite near Masherbrum (K1)

our runaway horse at Concordia

Broad Peak from Concordia


the elusive Gasherbrum IV
Concordia village life

the mighty K2 at dusk... a sight to behold

Baltoro candy

the Deosai high plateau


Karakoram traffic jam

Apr 22, 2011

Greg Mortenson

The recent revelations of Greg Mortenson have been gnawing away at me the past few days as I attempt to digest the significance of it all. Like millions more, I found Mortenson’s story inspiring. Before reading Three Cups of Tea, the fate of my own adventures brought me to a remote village in Pakistan’s Karakoram Range where I lived with a family while volunteering at their community school. There are several parallels between my experience and Mortenson’s story, which led me to both revere and criticize the depiction of Three Cups of Tea.

Coincidentally, the village I lived in, known as Misgar, is located in the valley adjacent to Zuudkhan, which plays a pivotal role in Mortenson’s story (particularly in Stones into Schools) as the venue for the promise he makes to build a school for the Kyrgyz nomads of the nearby Wakhan Corridor in Afghanistan. More importantly, it was a non-profit foundation that funded the construction of Misgar’s community school, which was subsequently left to its own devices to source teachers, develop curriculum, and improve student performance. In every regard that directly impacted the quality of education being delivered, Misgar’s school was in dire straits.

After returning home and reading Three Cups of Tea, my primary objection was the relationship that Mortenson claimed to exist between constructing schools and educating thousands of children. When discussing Mortenson’s story with others, it was puzzling to me how few people took issue with this extrapolation, which should have been obvious to any discerning reader.

Regardless of what faults Mortenson’s readers may have identified in him, it was the cult of personality that elevated him to heroism (with myself included). The story of Three Cups of Tea is so extraordinary that, with the benefit of hindsight, it’s not difficult to imagine that elements were embellished. Nor should it come as a surprise that a 35 year-old nurse and climbing bum would become a dysfunctional executive.

What’s most devastating about Mortenson’s apparent demise is the implication of intent. That he pathologically misled his supporters is far more egregious than had he done wrong while meaning to do well. The projection of Mortenson’s character, which he worked so hard to craft in his books, has been irreparably damaged.

Mortenson was supposed to be the real deal – a man of genuine motivations who had made great sacrifices for the noble cause of education. To know that he existed was uplifting, and to now discover that he is a fraud is crushing. Did Mortenson become corrupted along the way by the temptation of selling his story to the world? Or did Mortenson, out of desperation from the very beginning, do what he had to do to make a living? We’ll probably never know, not that it really matters.


Apr 17, 2011

Regal Chowk

Part I

The White Mosque’s call to prayer nudged me awake as it echoed through the empty bazaars splaying from Regal Chowk like bent spokes. There could be no more fitting way to begin the day. The sound of the call to prayer embodied everything I didn’t know or understand about this exotic place, and the thrill that I experienced in that brief moment of reflection was the very thing that brought me all this way to Pakistan.

I stumbled out of bed and across the roof deck to the “sky bath”, filled a bucket with water and paused, to reconsider, before dumping the first scoop over my head. The cold water jolted my body awake and left me tingling with warmth from within. I threw on a tan shalwar kameez and cinched the baggy trousers with a cotton waist string.

Downstairs, I always felt a pinch of guilt waking up Azir to let me out, and would hesitate for a moment before rousing him with a heavy whisper. If I caught him in the middle of a dream, he would thrust out of his bed in a state of disorientation, requiring several minutes to collect himself. There were many intriguing characters at the Regal hotel, but it was my friendship with Azir that I valued most. Belonging to the small Kalash tribe of northern Pakistan, Azir was a long way from home, and his struggle resonated with me. But the resentment of Islamic culture that festered in Azir, while amusing, was tragically ironic. As he removed the padlock from the door and I departed toward the street, he offered commentary on my own irony:
“Mr. Peter, you are looking like Muslim man in shalwar kameez, why you are not looking strong like English man with pant-shirt? And the beard should be full shaving, Peter, not looking like mullah –”
“OK, Azir, we will talk about that later, I have to get to work now.”

Outside the hotel, past the chai-wallah, the men at the flower stall had begun cutting their bouquets of roses, so I proceeded on with confidence. Being one of Lahore’s landmark intersections, Regal Chowk is a popular venue for demonstrations and political rallies. If anything disagreeable were in the forecast, the flower stall would shut down and serve as my cue to stay inside.

Along Mall Road, Lahore’s most prominent avenue of stately British architecture and urban greenery, I made my way to the rickshaw stand adjacent to the White Mosque. Approaching the yellow rickshaw at the head of the queue, I introduced myself to Dawood Sb (“Mr. Dawood”) who, in the coming weeks, would become a trusted friend and host. Hailing from Peshawar in northwest Pakistan, Dawood Sb is a Pashtun man whose brethren spawned the Taliban movement across the border in Afghanistan. Dawood Sb and I didn’t have any formal agreement for my morning commute, yet he never missed a single day delivering me to work.

The rickshaw rides to and from work were the highlight of my day. From Regal Chowk we drove south down Temple Road, which is one of the busiest neighborhoods in Lahore where people, vehicles and livestock converge on narrow streets in absolute chaos. The diversity of obstacles and near collisions you encounter racing through these bazaars could easily double as the set of an action film. As a foreigner it’s tempting to deduce that Pakistan lacks driving rules altogether, but this is not the case. There is a hierarchy on the road, whereby the larger your vehicle, the more dominance you assert over others. As a pedestrian, it is critical to understand that you have no rights, and no vehicle will ever yield to you, not even a donkey.

In Dawood Sb’s rickshaw, there was no mistaking that you were in his custody as a guest, and he took personally any attempted breach of his hospitality. At traffic lights, beggars with filthy infants slung over their shoulder would frequently approach us. I have no idea what Dawood Sb would say to these people on my behalf, but he did so in a very calculated tone with his arm placed across the door, and never had to repeat himself. As a veteran rickshaw driver of 30 years, Dawood Sb also employed the hobby of chastising other motorists for their incompetence. These exchanges took an aggressive posture, but were harmless and became an ongoing source of entertainment.

I’ve often questioned the substance of such relationships, where you spend an hour every day with someone, know basic facts about them, but don’t share a common language. Without the benefit of conversation, other forms of communication assume greater importance, and Dawood Sb and I got to know each other through our actions and body language. Central to our relationship was my investment of faith with Dawood Sb, and his supervision of my wellbeing, which required no explanation.

Temple Road terminates at its southern end by joining Jail Road at Quartaba Chowk, which recently became known as the sight of the dramatic shooting of two ISI agents by “Raymond Davis”, a contract security officer for the CIA. In the annals of espionage blunders, this one was the stuff of movies. The climax of tension during Davis’s custody occurred during my first two weeks in Pakistan, and to drive past the scene of the shooting on my way to work was a daily reminder of my delicate existence.

The day after Davis was released, word spread of a demonstration planned after Friday prayer on Mall Road at Regal Chowk, just steps from my hotel. Steeped in anticipation, this was the event I had dreaded. Several journalists arrived at the hotel to cover the event for international news agencies. There was a German writer, a Spanish photojournalist, a French videographer, and a Dutch reporter. That morning we were hanging out on the roof deck and one of the reporters began to rehears a “fake-live” dispatch on the “inflammatory situation in Lahore”. Once ready, he climbed onto the roof of the sky bath with his video camera on a tripod, and delivered his speech while standing in a collared shirt and underwear.

The protest was peaceful and consisted of only a few hundred people. As the journalists returned to the hotel in the afternoon, they made no effort to hide their disappointment at the lack of action.
“Hey guys, you’re back! How were the protests?”
“Terrible day. Nothing happening here so we’re heading back to Islamabad.”
Alas, the last story any newspaper editor wanted to run was a nonviolent demonstration of free speech in Pakistan.

Part II

After a long day at work, returning to a crowd of friendly faces at the hotel felt like a college dorm. On this particular day, we had planned a falcon feeding so Phillip and I went on a quick run down Temple Road to buy a half-kilo of diced chicken. Phillip and his wife were Swiss travelers who recently overlanded through Iran into Baluchistan, where they made national headlines after being arrested for lacking the requisite paperwork. As it is, few tourists visit Pakistan these days, and it’s an even scarcer number that make it to Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan and headquarters of the Afghan Taliban. When I first heard this story I asked Phillip if he thought traveling through Baluchistan was a good idea:
“Beautiful place, Baluchistan! Definitely worth a visit... Yeah, no problems really, the police are very friendly.”

Back on the roof deck, we lured the falcons with a few warm-up throws. In short order they gathered into a swarm of several hundred birds, and the aerial acrobatics that ensued were a terrific sight. The falcons would accelerate towards the roof at alarming speeds, arresting their dive at the last moment and often brushing their wing tips against the walls of the building. In local lore, feeding the birds was a way to deliver sacrifice to God, but for us it was purely childish entertainment.

On nights when a good crowd had amassed at the Regal hotel, the owner would arrange for his favorite Sufi bands to play on the roof deck. Nadeem Sb was somewhat of a legend among travelers who had come through Lahore over the past decade, as pretty much all of them stay at the Regal. Having lived with Benazir Bhutto for several years and served as her media advisor while she was Prime Minister, Nadeem Sb was never short for a good story. Perhaps it was his disillusionment following Benazir’s assassination that led him to open the Regal, which provides a distraction from the quandary of politics in Pakistan.

It was a full house that night with the two Swiss, the two Japanese, a Belgian couple, two German NGO workers, and a French couple. The acoustics of unamplified live music makes everything else pale in comparison. For me, there have been few times when I have truly let go of my self-awareness and lived in the moment, and this was one of them. The style of Sufi music was very unusual to me, but the drum beats, the accordion, and the lead singer’s powerful voice owned everyone’s attention, and we danced for several hours beneath a smattering of Punjabi stars.

That night I learned an important lesson about Pakistani hospitality. After the band finished we were sprawled out on the roof deck when I complimented one of the band members on the wool vest he wore over his shalwar kameez. The vest turned out to be an article of considerable personal sentiment, but my complimenting it in public meant that he felt obliged to offer it to me as a gift. To convey respect, I had to accept his gift, but felt very uncomfortable doing so. What I did was, I graciously accepted the gift, and the next day I thanked him for letting me borrow his vest, and returned it – which presented an honorable exit for us both.

Mornings after a big night at the Regal, Azir and I would head out to get yoghurt for everyone. Crossing Mall Road we passed the electronics bazaar and turned down Ice Cream Street, whose namesake was the handful of milkshake parlors at its entrance. The yoghurt stall was at the edge of the lamps bazaar where it met the hardware bazaar, and there were also fruit vendors, men selling goats, and other food stalls. I also needed a shave and Azir brought me to a barber down one of the alleyways.

The two kids running the place were jovial and flamboyant. They didn’t speak English but I was pretty sure one of them was referring to me as a “beautiful man”. I leaned over to Azir and asked if these men were gay. Azir responded, “No, no, Mr. Peter, nothing like this. These are Muslim boys, their fathers are Muslim too. They are not being gay or something, they are just talking too much. They are very nice boys.”

As if on queue, less than a minute later, a third man walked in and one of the barbers declared this man to be his “wife”. I retorted that it was impossible for a man to be someone’s wife, and the barber, to illustrate his point, reached his arm around the man and they proceeded to make out in front of all of us. At first I was in a state of shock but then burst out laughing along with Azir and the other barber. It was the last thing I expected to see in Pakistan, and reminded me how little I really understood this place.


Apr 3, 2011

from camels to Range Rovers in 40 years

Boarding a Friday morning flight to Dubai in my Pakistani costume – a beard and bleach-white shalwar kameez – I pondered what identity I might employ for the weekend. After all, this was the first time I would be arriving in another country in the guise of a Pakistani. What I learned about Dubai was that it really didn’t matter where I was from – I would feel equally at home as a Pathan from Pakistan’s tribal areas or a businessman from New York.

Descending the escalator towards passport control at the Dubai airport was one of the strangest assortments of people I’ve ever observed: two Emirati men in dishdashas, checkered head scarves and headropes, accompanied by their wives in black burqas; two Tamils in lungis; a handful of Pakistanis in shalwar kameez; an African couple in elegant tribal dress; and three Russian tourists in cutoff jeans and tanktops. Considering the conservative Islamic orientation of the Emiratis, it’s tempting to think of such diversity as a contradiction, but rather it is the very essence of Dubai.

For every Emirati in Dubai there are four migrant workers from south Asia or Africa whose labor inputs make this master-planned city state spin. Without its army of expatriates, Dubai would not be the two-tiered food chain that it is. At the top are the citizens who enjoy, in lieu of the right to vote, a standard of living and carbon footprint exceeding those of the average American, coupled with social perks like free health care and education. As for the worker bees, the carrot of financial arbitrage is achieved through minimizing one’s living expenses in an otherwise terribly expensive city. Thus, many laborers are said to reside in “subhuman” living conditions, all for the dream of sending some money home.

Despite its ongoing embroilment with the real estate and financial implosions, the Emirates are an Arab success story. While it was oil that propelled this desert outpost onto the global economic stage, the wisdom to invest their resources in infrastructure, social institutions, and diversification has paid dividends: oil and gas now account for only 25% of the Emirates’ GDP, or 5% in Dubai. Throughout its history, Dubai has made its stake in trade by luring merchants with free trade zones and subsidized tariffs. From pearling and gold to re-exports and tourism, the accommodation of foreigners has always been central to Dubai’s existence.

The four meals I ate out in Dubai were south Indian, Persian, Afghani, and Syrian. After my last dinner out, I rode back to the hotel in a taxi and shared the final minutes leading up to India’s cricket World Cup victory with a taxi driver from Kerala. He asked me if I was Pakistani and I replied that I was an American living in Lahore and spending the weekend in Dubai. His response was “Yes, of course.”

Mar 9, 2011

First Impressions

It’s interesting to reflect on the range of emotions over the past few weeks. My departure for Pakistan was overshadowed by controversy among friends and family who expressed unsolicited concern, confusion, and even anger at my travel plans. One of the very things that attracted me to Pakistan – that it is a largely misunderstood country by Western perspectives – made coming here an intimidating prospect. I have to admit that reading the news reel and security reports back home inspired some sobering introspection on my part as well. This emotionally charged mental projection of Pakistan culminated on Saturday when I stamped out of India, walked through the Wagah ceremony grounds, and sped towards Lahore in a rusting taxi. It was then that I began to experience a great sense of relief and remembered why it was that I came.

As expected, the Pakistani people are famously gracious and create an atmosphere that sparsely resembles the one painted by Western media. Pakistan is a fascinating country that lies today at the crossroads of Asia and the Middle East, as it has for millennia. I’m overwhelmed by the amount I stand to learn from living here and feel distinctly fortunate for the opportunity.

Several people described Lahore to me as the cultural and intellectual capital of Pakistan; a place of progressive orientation, universities, and tree-lined avenues; and of course a reservoir of history and architecture spanning several empires. In particular the part about the “tree-lined avenues” I found hard to believe but was pleasantly surprised to find it the case indeed. In contrast to India, the streets are swept clean, cows are not sacred and roaming freely, and public urination is frowned upon. The beautiful rooftop sunsets have been accompanied by a hanging crescent moon the past few days, a sight whose symbolism has not escaped me.

Mar 5, 2011


It’s been nearly a year since I was last in India, which is long enough to relish the novelty of it once again. Minutes after clearing immigration I was bound for New Delhi Station in a black-and-yellow Ambassador and not much traffic to contend with at 1:00am. I could smell that it had just rained and the balmy wind in my face set me adrift in nostalgia. That very moment and nothing more captivated me and I was overcome with content.

It’s great to be back on the subcontinent and I shall reiterate my love for India, which strikes a lovely balance between progressiveness and integrity, which is another way of saying that India has its own style (a diminishing commodity among its peer group). It’s the little things that make me smile: men holding hands, the chai-wallah tune, beedis in the air, unguarded curiosity, head wagging, etc.

My friend Nivi was late to lunch, citing rain and traffic, which I found to be preposterous for someone who lives in Delhi. The next day I read the breaking news in the Hindustan Times: “Rain Lashes Capital, harasses commuters”. The whopping 2.1mm of rain recorded in Delhi that day made great press for the traffic police: “‘We had deployed personnel in different areas of the city. We managed to bring the situation back to normal by late afternoon,’ said a senior police officer.” Whenever I think of Indian police I picture WWI-era rifles and a group of men sitting around sipping chai.

India is wonderful, but India is easy. To spice things up, today I plan to ride the Grand Trunk Highway to the Pakistan border, and walk across into the Land of the Pure, and thus commence the next chapter of adventure and discovery.

Feb 19, 2011


It wasn't that I felt compelled to write about my trip and chose the Pamiri people. It was that I felt compelled by the Pamiri people and chose to write about them. Afterall, the Pamir Highway was the most rewarding chapter of my trip around the world. On top of everything else Central Asia has going for it, it's fair to add obscurity as well. And this is particularly true for the Ismaili people - I don't think I've met a single person in the United States who's even heard of the Ismailis (except a recent acquaintance whose father happens to be Ismaili), so their fascinating story needs to be told. Feel free to check out my article in Marin Magazine!

 Tajikistan: A Central Asian Gem


Jul 29, 2010

Sierra 2010

No California summer is complete without at least a week of climbing on the east side. This trip was action-packed, not only with some of the best 5.10 crack routes in the high Sierra (3rd Pillar of Dana, Red Dihedral on Incredible Hulk, and OZ on Drug Dome), but with ferocious electrical storms, hot springing rest days, and bloody battles with unprecedented mosquitoes at the zenith of alpine spring.

3rd Pillar as viewed from the base - perfect white alpine granite

Adam cranking the summit move on the 3rd Pillar, 600 feet airborne

The Red Dihedral route - 1,200 feet of blissful backcountry crack climbing

Jun 30, 2010

the End of a Dream

To reflect back on my trip, upon its conclusion, is a surreal exercise. What commenced as a momentary departure from the currents of everyday life, has taken its own course and shape, and emerged as a life in itself. The journey, spanning 11 months, has taken me to 16 countries in Africa and Asia, wherein I’ve logged over 25,000 miles of overland travel on local buses and trains. As travel does, it has bestowed upon me an enriched perspective of the world, in vivid colors and three dimensions, to accompany me in all future endeavors that life may entail. In receipt of this extraordinary gift, which few people in the world have the chance to experience, I’m overcome with gratitude for my good fortune.


If Beijing can be likened to Washington, then Shanghai is New York, rather like an epicenter of global commerce than ancient history, to which Beijing lays its claim. The pitch of activity in Shanghai, not to mention its confluence of colonial and post-modern architecture, resonates a story of capitalism, not imperialism. With a bitter aftertaste, this tale summons a sad chapter in history when, content to its own devices, China was forcibly disrobed and placed upon a disagreeable global stage. But the Shanghai of today is a thriving masterpiece of Chinese advancement, and can hold its own in any short list of the world’s greatest urban civilizations.

Exploring the periphery of Shanghai uncovered a beaming ray of hope in my quest for embers of tradition in China, in Xīdì, Anhui province – an ancient city having preserved its heritage in an unusual degree of authenticity. Aside from minority establishments such as the ancient city of Lìjiāng in Yúnnán, there are few surviving outposts of old China among the Han. In Xīdì, peasant life perseveres along with its Song Dynasty architecture – nearly 1,000 years old – in a remarkable display of style and detail. What a shame that more places like Xīdì have not survived in China.

Here's a map of my final route through China:

View China route in a larger map

Jun 21, 2010


Here's my mini photo essay from Beijing, less the essay.

Forbidden City

Tiananmen Square


Jun 18, 2010

China's Silk Road

At last, my trip comes to a close as I inch eastward across China, in a longitudinal traverse from Kashgar to Shanghai, via Beijing. The bulk of my 4,300-mile overland route follows branches of the ancient Silk Road to Xī'ān, before continuing on to the eastern seaboard.

Kashgar is a culinary oasis of lamb kebabs, plov bowls, lagman noodles, and vibrant desert produce: melons, mangos, apples, bananas, apricots, plums, and pears. Returning to western China from the isolation of northern Pakistan, I relished this rehabilitation with a reluctance to leave. Continuing along the Southern Silk Road, the Uighur towns are culturally segregated, the Uighur side with its mosques and dusty bazaars, the bustling Chinese side with its steel reinforced, concrete mid-rises.

From the fringe outpost of Hotan, I veer north, crossing the heart of the Taklimakan Desert via the newly completed cross-desert toll road - six hours of rolling sand dunes and glittering tarmac. Flanking the road are grids of grass installed to keep the migrant dunes at bay, and the journey is effortless for an air conditioned sleeper bus with flatscreen TV's. In this manner, the Chinese have tamed their wildest desert, a place historically revered by trade caravans for its severity.

Ürümqi's cultural contrast

Back in Ürümqi – the world's most inland city - I boarded a 36-hour train to the ancient Chinese capital of Xī'ān, the Silk Road's terminus. Xī'ān, despite its growth and modernization, retains a charming character through historical features. The city's new, outer rings are a sprawl of flyovers, smokestacks, and construction cranes; but the old city is one of the few in China with a surviving city wall, along with its traditional sentry buildings and gate towers. Xī'ān is also home to the Qin Dynasty's Terracotta Army, whose significance for Chinese history eclipses the sight of the soldiers themselves, although the extent of their detail and individuality is astounding.

Not far from Xī'ān, I made a day trip to Hua Shan, one of China's five sacred Taoist mountains, and perhaps China's most precipitous set of peaks. Their impressive granite headwalls, bathed in orange smog at golden hour, are a geologic anomaly amidst indistinct surroundings. Of course, Chinese legend has it that Hua Shan ("flower mountain") consists of subdivided petals of a lotus flower. Climbing the mountain (i.e. riding up the gondola) is said to deliver wealth and happiness.