Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Opera House

The opera house is definitely my kind of schooling! I feel like I've been on a permanent field trip, sorry if I'm making some of you jealous, hehe! I absolutely loved my first opera especially since I saw it in a different country. The building was big and open, we couldn't help ourselves from wandering around. We got up into the spot light balcony somehow and that was pretty neat-o. The theatre was so detailed and had a gorgeous chandelier. The orchestra was very impressive! Even though we understood none of the singing I still enjoyed the famous vibrato. We had a good time trying to figure out the story behind it.....I think we got the idea. The costumes were great! They wore the silliest old fashioned wigs, tights and dresses. But I must admit that the next night when the men in the ballet came prancing out in their very "close fitting" tights, I had to resist looking over at Bre when she started to laugh....If you know what I mean, ahhaha!
Both performances were awesome but I think I'll have to go with opera! I couldn't believe it when everyone started shouting "BRAVO!" "Bravo!!!" at the end. Hhaha, that's RICH!! One of the nights after the show we came out to a grand thunder storm! The lightning was so constant and fierce. Hhahah, one thunder was SO loud that it made a whole bunch of car alarms go off! Can you believe that!?
Anyway, I loved the shows and would definitely go again. At this point I'm just working on getting Ammon to take me to Vienna for the Opera!!!! Actually, I'm still begging him to take me across the Caspian Sea on my birthday! Wahooooo......Can't stop me now! I'm ahead of the gang!


On the original plan through the area I had hoped that we could skip Tashkent. As it turns out we have had to spend the last week here waiting for visas. We are not going to be able to get an Iranian visa (don't get me started on all the Iranian-Canadians that keep making trouble in Iran and getting relations so bad that they won't let us in) so we are going to go to Turkmenistan and then over the Caspian sea to Azerbaijan instead.
Tashkent, though more expensive than I would like, is a really nice town. Largest in the region and 4th largest city of the former USSR, you would never know it by walking around. It is very eastern european in feel with lots of parks, large squares and monuments, wide tree-lined streets and sidewalks and, in true soviet fashion, a very cheap and ornately decorated subway system. 15 cents for a ride anywhere along it. I have no idea where all the people are because it hasn't been busy anywhere. It's too bad that these countries have such problems with corruption and bad economies because they could be really nice to live in. Maybe everything is going to seem quiet by comparison with India, etc. now.... In addition to the Uzbeks living here, there are also quite a few Russians and, surprisingly, a large Korean population that resulted from a large migration during the war.
As a total change from what we've been doing lately, we decided to get cultural. Last night we went to the ballet Swan Lake. The night before, an opera. First one ever for the girls. It was fun, super cheap at $1.50 for the opera and $3 for the ballet. Too bad we can't do that all the time.
Tomorrow we are off to Samarkand and the silk road.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

A few more changes

Oops, I forgot a few more differences that we encountered when crossing over to Tajikistan.
1. The teeth from well stained and decayed or missing to mouthes full of gold. People here are probably wondering how I can still have all my pearly whites at my age.
2. Alcohol from none at all for ages to every store is half alcohol (literally) and you can smell it on people all the time. It's amazing.

Friday, May 26, 2006


Don't have much to say for a change. The changes here are crazy as mom already pointed out. The biggest for me is the sudden appearance of women. After seeing almost none for the last 8 months (they were either very covered or very rare on the streets) their presence is a little unnerving. They aren't particularly attractive but there is enough Russian influence again that there is a little flesh showing and I am starting to think I was better off in Pakistan.......
What do I say about Tajikistan? I suppose anything I want as you've probably never heard of it. It was the poorest, least educated and most isolated and ignored of the soviet republics and quickly fell into civil war through the 90s. Most of the people are Islamic but it is not an islamic state (the civil war was a failed attempt at an Islamic fundamentalist takeover). There has been almost no tourism here in the last 100 years or so and aside from the spectacular mountain scenery, there is very little to see or do. We hung around Dushanbe for a few days then went north through the Fan mountains to the more prosperous and less ravaged north. One terrible road over 2 passes connects the north and south of the country so for half of the year they are isolated. We stayed in a small town, Istaravshan, now 2500 years old and once visited by Alexander the Great. The old town had unbelievably clean and quiet streets. Some local kids quickly latched onto us and acted as guides for a few hours to practice their english and show us around. It was all good fun. Like in Kyrgyzstan, long-distance taxis are the only means of transport and it is expensive there in general as there is very little tourist infrastructure. From there it was on to Tashkent, Uzbekistan where we are now, once again trying to sort out our final set of visas.

Dramatic Changes

It's such a dramatic change from one country to the next. By far, Afghanistan to Tajikistan was the most drastic for us. It's almost a shock to the system but not quite because that's what everything out here is for us everyday. From the mass chaos we had before it seemed wrong to suddenly change back to a system more similar to home. Just a few of the more noticeable changes include:
1. From bumpy, dry, dusty roads to wide, paved tree-lined litter-free streets.
2. Clothing from men in plain light-coloured salwars and sandals to white dress shirts, slacks, ties and shoes (the most hideous, ridiculously long, upturned, pointy-toed things ever). Women from burkhas without faces (but underneath beautiful coloured salwars and lots of jewelry) to women in what looks like a granny's nightgown (although some with very nice fabric and colour) with a kerchief on their head. (Probably curlers underneath too). This must be the dominant style of the majority ethnic group because there were other women that were dressed in very feminine, Russian-style, revealing or tight clothes.
3. Music from Indian pop music sung by an unnaturally high pitched, whiny voiced female to the western pop and rap that we are more used to at home (but still in a different language, probably Russian).
4. Transportation from donkey carts, bicycles and Toyotas to the ubiquitous Russian Lada cars.
5. Toilets from squaties and water to squaties with sandpaper tp (but there are western toilets in places that cater to foreigners and for a price you can find soft toilet paper).
6. Weather from hot, dry 40C+ days under clear blue skies to cooler temperatures and big fluffy clouds that we haven't seen in a long time.
7. Crowds from "can't move at all without getting bumped around" to wide sidewalks and walking 4 abreast without any problems. The population density change is the biggest of them all and makes a huge difference in terms of livability. You don't really notice it after a while until you get away from the crowds and then you can't understand how you lived through them.
8. Drawing onlookers from "can't stop or you are instantly surrounded" to nobody gives a damn and we feel rejected. People just walk up and start talking Russian to us like we fit in or something. We can actually sit down outside and play cards over lunch again.
9. The sensory onslaught from everything moving all around you everywhere to empty space. It's strange because now you can suddenly stop and not get jostled around and be in everyone's way. People walking on the streets here seem to walk slower, probably because they aren't dodging so many things and because cars move fast in the background making them look slow again. Walking was the fastest way to get around for a while there as there were to many crowds and animals around for traffic to move.
10. Script from the arabic alphabet that we can't decipher to Cyrillic, which actually looks like a word. It's become a lot harder to get by with only english now too. Tajik is actually more related to Persian than any slavic languages but they understand Russian as well. Ammon lost our Russian phrase book after carrying it around for a year and with no english around, Ammon's 30 words of Russian make it very interesting (hard) so we are back to charades. But that is the fun of travelling.
Don't get me wrong, I have thoroughly enjoyed everywhere we've been. Seeing all the changes and differences is wonderful to experience and why we keep on going.

The girls and hospitality

Just want to make a quick note on all the hospitality we've been receiving lately. Yes, it is great but at the same time I'm sure it's not exactly the norm. We've received extra attention everywhere and I'm sure that without the girls, the hospitality would still be there but take on a different form. In dealing with us there has been a lot of hidden agenda and I;m sure most of these guys would do anything just to be basking in the presence of a female (esp. foreign) and as it's not wierd for us, we let them. They can get away with taking photos (oh, how I hate cell phone cameras) and holding the girls' hands when they are not allowed to even see the local women. In some of the stricter families, male and female siblings don't even see each other or eat together, even when living in the same household! It doesn't help that Bre is a flirt either and it's really not all that surprising that half of these dealings result in some idiot confessing his love and making some sort of marriage offer, even if they are already old and married 3 times over. I think that some of these guys are obsessed with the concept of "love" and after having a happy arranged marriage they still think they could not possibly be in love with their wives (only because they weren't from the beginning) so their 2nd wife should be a love marriage. All I can say is I think they've missed the point and once again misinterpretted a "western" concept. Maybe I was just feeling left out but it was annoying to know that many times things were going so well just because people were drooling at MY womens' feet. I'm sure if you check you'll find that lube sales have skyrocketed across South Asia in the last 7 months. It's definately a regional thing though as I received as much novelty attention as the girls in China and the ex-soviet area and people have been almost equally friendly and helpful everywhere.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Hello Tajikistan

My opinions of Afghanistan go so drastically towards both good and bad that I don't know what my opinion is. With such a short stay in any country it is hard to tell what it's really like. I don't think I ever mentioned it before but I LOVE Pakistan! Wish I could say the same about Afghanistan. It was definately a fulfilling experience and story I'll be able to tell 'til the day I die and I wouldn't take it back. After crossing the river into Tajikistan I could immediately feel that I was in a new country and knew I loved it! Love at first sight for me! Crossing into Tajikistan was the most drastic change yet! Everything from the clothes, language, alphabet, food, music, buildings, sidewalks, landscape, smell, people, everything!!! It's similar to Russia (ex-soviet) but I find the people more cheery and willing to help even with the language barrier. The best part was freeing myself of the damn headscarf! I would have gladly burned it but settled with chucking it into the air like a graduation hat, hahah!! We get to wear whatever we want now but i don't think I'm ready to wear shorts yet, hahah so scandalous lol!! Seriously.....I go to grab my scarf and something more than a tank top when I leave the room but have to remind myself it's ok now. I have FREEDOM!!!


First of all, I'm glad that I have a crazy enough brother who is willing to take his mom and sisters to a place like Afghanistan knowing that any of the relatives would strangle him if he were in reach. Then again we were the ones up for it so you can call us crazy too. Yes, we are insane but oooOooOOH does that stamp ever look good in my passport! I remember watching the border show from the Indian side and looking across into Pakistan (this was when we had the plans to go to South Africa) thinking "Damn, we came so close and now we aren't even going!" but fate had a different plan in store for us. I am so glad that we were able to go there after all because if we hadn't I would have missed out on such an amazing experience that I will never forget! You know how you create an idea and picture of something in your mind before you've seen it, then when you do see it it's completely different from what you thought? Well that's what happened to me before I entered Afghanistan. It was funny crossing the border because our friend Jazz, the American guy, was not only shocked with himself but more so because he was headed into Afghanistan with a Canadian family. Who would have guessed......what are the odds? I'm glad we met nice people on the bus ride to Kabul. Especially when we were treated to cold juice since I was boiling underneath my headscarf! Speaking of headscarves, I hate them!! It's so frustrating because they never stay on my head so I'm constantly having to adjust them and it gets so hot that I feel like I'm sweating to death! I feel so sorry for the women who have to be completely covered. I am so fortunate to live in Canada where the women have so many rights and freedoms. I am so blessed. I do feel a bit guilty for taking so much for granted. The only way to learn is to be out here living the way others do and seeing the cultures. Kabul is a busy place. I wasn't impressed with the number of times my butt was grabbed at but we all got to belt a few guys! After that we had to reareange the walking order which we've never had to do before. Girls on the inside boys on the outside. Poor them having to watch our butts the whole time, literally! What great bodyguards we have. Any time we stopped for just one minute we'd have a huge crowd gathered around. Soooo much attention!! Now I know how Brad Pitt must feel, hahah! Kunduz was great, I know mom talked all about it but seriously you would have been blown away with the hospitality offered to us. VIP treatment. Absolutely fabulous! I really had the best time. Now I see it all through different eyes. I've learned so much. I'm certainly not the same girl I was when I left home. It should be a mandatory part of everyone's education to do this kind of travel. Forget the fancy new car and go see the world......

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Incredible Education

What we're learning out here is so life altering that it's hard to describe. We are of course learning by feeling, seeing, smelling, tasting and listening first hand. All of our senses are being expanded every day. Infact some days I get a sensory perseption overload and with so much information to store I get a headache. Afghanistan was one of our greatest experiences but unfortunately we were only able to stay a few days. We got such a range of looks from the people. Some were blank, a few unfriendly, shy, and a good number of faces we couldn't even see at all because they were fully or partially covered (those being the women) and of course most wondering what the heck we were doing. The children were delightful and well behaved. I think when travelling we need to learn to rely on instincts to a great extent, because some times what we've been taught is not always correct. The fears we've learned from ignorance aren't always true either! Yes, we went into a country with a war in progress in a small area BUT we decided to rely on information from people who know more by first hand experience and have just come through the area. I am very happy that we made the decision to go through Afghanistan. On the bus ride from the Pakistan border to Kabul we met a really helpful guy who had some english and infact he went WAY out of his way to see us safely to our hotel after our 12 hour ride. There were a few other really nice people on the bus who gave us cold bottled water, juice boxes and oranges because they could see that we were very hot and tired. We also had a few very friendly welcome notes passed to us in the bus, offering help to us if there was a need for it. Unfortunately some of the happy welcoming feelings were dampered during our walk to the hotel, when some stupid guys decided to grab the girls butts. Savannah had to whack one and Bre bent back some one elses fingers. The men are more like Indians than the Pakistanis but worse in the aggresive sense. They act like a bunch of randy 14 year olds and jump to the conclution that every woman in the west is a whore! Which is too bad and they need to learn and it's sad that a few idiot guys can really ruin the good feelings we had up 'till then. On our 8 hour bus ride from Kabul to Kunduz we again met a nice young man with english and REALLY went out of his way to be most generous. After seeing us to our hotel and the looks on our faces at the price, he offered us a place to stay at his own sisters house across the street. We decided to accept his offer (only because of the stories we'd heard from travellers doing the same and our own intuition). WOW! Talk about hospitality to the max! We were treated like pure royalty and fed until we almost burst. They spent that night and the whole next day entertaining and treating us. We even got live music put on at the house for us as special guests of honor. I honestly don't think that an average Afghani gets as much food in a week as we did that night alone! The family we stayed with consisted of a husband, his three wives and 14 kids and his youngest wife due soon with her first. I think he's a big wig in town. He seems to know everyone in town but then again with these sized families I begin to think the whole town is related. Our original plan was to sleep then wake and take a bus to the border..... Once we met the family our plans got a little more interesting! We woke up at 4:00 a.m. (their normal routine) and saw sunrise around 4:30 a.m. from the expensive land cruiser we were being driven around in to see the country side and meet more family in the nearby village. Each visit to a family we got fed and bloated with cup after cup of never ending chai! It was an amazing experience and the hospitality is incredible. I wish that we westerners hadn't lost the desire to be hosts to complete strangers and expect nothing in return. I know we're good at hosting our family and friends but a complete stranger off the street....? It's also a strange feeling to be a guest to such hospitality, that it's even hard to accept sometimes.
All in all I have absolutely no regrets for going to Afghanistan.
You guys won't believe this but.......... it rained....... We've told you before that it seems to rain every time we change countries and it was a little strange. Well, while leaving Pakistan Ammon says "Well guys, I aint seeing the rain today!" and I said " The day is NOT done, just you wait 'n see!" While going over the Kyber pass we got a quick but sure 10 minute thunder and rain storm out of the clear blue sky. It was definately rare to happen. So rare that everyone in the bus opened their windows to touch the rain!! You got to understand that the Kyber pass is probably the dustiest, driest pass we've seen. Then crossing from Afghanistan to Tajikistan we were SURE this would be the end of the streek! Again it was a beautiful hot, clear, suny day in the 40C's. Ammon said the same thing again with so much certainty, the girls almost gave up hope. Sure enough! Viola!!!!!!! A quick shower but a definate sign! THAT is not just a coincidence if you ask me! I say it's Gods tears of joy for us and blessing on the new country we're entering and Ammon says it's some sort of a baptism and leaving the old behind and making the best that you can of the next! It's amazing really...... we're talking freak rain storms.


Ok, before you all start freaking out let me just stress a few points. Yes, we went to Afghanistan, in transit for the last 4 days but we are now finished. We are currently in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. No, we have no intention of going to Iraq or any other war zones. Yes, we are trying to get a visa for Iran but that is proving very difficult and is unlikely to happen. As group leader I take full responisibility so if you're going to yell at anyone, make it me. Having said that, I presented the case to the girls and they were good to go. It was not a decision made lightly and we are not getting cocky after 1 year out. I'd been watching the news for a long time and in the last 2 months, getting all sorts of Afghan news daily emailed to me, and talked to everyone I could find that had been there or was going. Hopefully now that we are done, I can stop suffering from accelerated hair loss......
It's no joke though. Every year since the US-led invasion tourists have died in Afghanistan and entering ourselves would plant us firmly into the realm of "extreme tourism" but statistically for what we had proposed we fell into the low-risk category. As with every other country, our biggest threat was car accidents, and there are plenty of those everywhere.
Why did we go? Well, like almost everyone else around here for the last few thousand years, because it was in the way. Afghanistan is the crossroads to everywhere out here and entering meant leaving south Asia (the Indian subcontinent) and entering central Asia again. Armies from as far away as Greece and Mongolia have come stomping through here and well, there are foreign armies here now too. As to that, a brief and very incomplete recent history follows.......
The soviet invasion fails and they pull out. Afghanistan is left in a state of chaos and civil war with nobody in control during the 90's. In the late 90's the Taliban, a Pashtun, highly fundamentalist Islamic group (trained and funded by Pakistan and the CIA remember) successfully take over. The people don't agree with the philosophy whole-heartedly but are desperate for peace and support the most successful group. A very tough and extreme form of Islamic law is imposed on the people and despite relative security and peace, after 5 years of power only 3 countries officially recognize the Taliban as the rulers.
To this day, the Taliban has NOT been labelled as a terrorist group. After 9/11 the US demanded that they give up Bin Laden. To the Taliban, many of whom fought beside him against the Soviets, Bin Laden is a national hero and honoured guest in addition to being one of their only sources of external money. The Pashtuns have a very strong code of honour that places guests at such a high level of honour that they would rather die than let harm come to one. The Taliban demand proof that Bin Laden was responsible before making a decision, the US refuses and immediately invades controlling Kabul by as early as Nov 2001. 2 months for the total takeover, from nobody heard about them to done deal. That's a little too fast and there's no surprise the conspiracy theorists love it.
Since then it has been largely ignored while Iraq took center stage. I've heard it said that things are worse in Afghanistan than people believe because the US is trying to present it as a success story. The truth is that things are getting worse and not enough people care. The US is handing over command to NATO and reducing their troops in the country. Dutch, British and Canadian forces have now taken on an offensive role instead of the peacekeeping one they used to. Western-backed warlords control the west and north of the country, and Karzai, the president, controls very little outside of Kabul. The Taliban has had considerable success lately and now effectively countrols all the countryside south of Kabul and along the eastern border with Pakistan with many frequently running freely across the border into the uncontrolled tribal lands of Pakistan where they get the most support and to hide. That's a huge area. Opium production is on the rise and Afghanistan currently accounts for almost 90% of the world's supply. In the last year or so, the military has tried to wipe out the opium fields and hunt down the Taliban. As a result, the farmers and criminal element have now joined forces with the Taliban, making things much worse. More scarily, in the last year, the Taliban have started to use suicide bombers as a weapon, something previously unheard of in Afghanistan. NGO's are pulling out of the south and other areas as they continue to be attacked and reconstruction efforts have often produced poor results. It's a big problem that people at home (who are footing the bill) checks what these guys are doing. Often work is poorly done and falls apart after the companies (most of whom are in Iraq too) leave so that teh Afghans have nothing but less faith in their foreign liberators. The US alone spends about $1/2 billion a year on reconstruction in Afghanistan, but spends about $1 billion per MONTH on their military there! People are beginning to wonder if it's not really just a military occupation of their country and support is waning in some areas. 4 1/2 years later and still only 1/2 of Kabul has power. The Taliban was also managed that much. In all honesty, the west has totally botched the job. True, there are more legal freedoms allowed and girls can go to school but most women still wear burkhas as the cultural aspects of issues are stronger than the law. In all honesty though, men out here in south asia are such perverts that I would probably try to lock my wife at home or make her wear a burkha when around those people. I didn't think it would bother me so much, but these femiphobic countries and people are driving me crazy.
So now that you are thinking, like we did, that Afghanistan is like some post-judgement day scene from T2, I'll tell you what we actually saw.
Our first day we went straight to Kabul from Peshawar. Long, rough day. Because the area around Peshawar is tribal, we had to get a permit to go through the Khyber pass and get to the border. We also had to pick up an armed tribal guard to escort us. Now-a-days I think it is just a formality and money-grab thing than anything else. I don't know if there is safety in numbers but there are more tourists than you think going across. The day before an Italian guy, the day after, and Irish guy and Italian girl. We went with a very American guy (Jazz, 38) that sounded like Dad, Wade and David in the way he talked and thought at times. We also had a Dutch guy (Jain, 23) going on the same day but at a different time. That was just from our hostel and I know there were others going too.
The Khyber pass was way busier than I thought. Tons of border traffic going through and quite a few villages along the route. The Khyber is not a high pass and the mountains are very short, barren, crumbly looking things. Historically though, it's the gateway to India and invading armies have been using it forever. The key is to control the pass so there are numerous forts and military personnel stationed here, going back to pre-British days when the Sikh empire stretched this far. The border was easy though leaving Pakistan we had to have our picture taken. I wonder how long it takes for those to reach the US military.....
Thus began the Afghan experience and for me it was totally unreal. I'm glad I went and sad that I wasn't able to see more as it is very unlikely that people will be going back any time soon. To think of all the history, past and currently in the making just blew me away. Jazz and I were constantly shaking our heads saying "Wow, I can't believe I'm doing this". Mom, well, I don't think anything phases her and the girls are too young to really appreciate it I think. Afghanistan is a mix of people so there are many more looks and you instantly know you are in a different part of the world. There is a military and police presence everywhere we went, which has been pretty common for us lately so we'd've thought little of it except for all the military helicopters flying around. The terrain is unbelievably rough and rugged (but somehow beautiful) and it is immediately obvious why nobody would be successful in conquering a small rebel group out there. Villages are made out of mud-brick houses with high mud walls surrounding them so they look like mini forts. It would almost be normal countryside but then you'd see old tank wreckage or a sign for demining (or landmines) on the side of the road.
Kabul, while not as quiet and dirty as what we've seen lately, definately looks wrecked and is obviously overcrowded as people come in from the countryside for work or relative safety. I don't think the population is that high but the density is crazy. The traffic is horrible too. It's been a long time since we've seen so many private cars.
We met up with Jain at our hotel the following morning and spent 1 full day walking around Kabul. There are quite a few westerners here but not as toursists so they were shocked when we said we were. As everyone is working for NGO's, the military or business groups and have loads of money, Kabul is much more expensive than we've seen in a long time. $15/night each is a lot more than $2. Not much to see as most things are destroyed, but we did get to Chicken st., the backpacker hangout of the early 70's. Nothing really down there now but souvenir carpet shops.
From Kabul we went straight north to Kunduz and then crossed into Tajikistan the following afternoon. This is already too long so I'll let the girls finish it off.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Checking In

Just a quick note for those of you in the know. We are fine, things are going well, no problems at all. We'll have the stories coming in a few days when we are done. Don't worry too much. Sorry.

Saturday, May 13, 2006


We are now in Peshawar. It's a "border town" near Afghanistan but so much more. It is also the "border town" of the tribal areas, and capital of the North West Frontiers Province. The people in the area are almost all Pashtun. Known for their excessive hospitality, extreme tribal moral code, and for creating the Taliban. It's another example of the mix that is Pakistan. The official language of Pakistan is Urdu and is the first language of only 10% of the population of the country. Most of the area surrounding is off-limits even to non-Pashtun Pakistanis. The only way to get around is with a permit and a local tribal guard. Apparently everyone that is, was or will be a terrorist passes through the area. A lot of it is scare tactics and business now though so they can get more money. There is a huge "smugglers bazar" just outside of town. It has everything imaginable apparently and as it is right on the edge of the tribal area, there is a gate and behind the gate, on the tribal side (where you are officially not allowed to go but everyone manages to sneak into) is where they sell tons of weapons, hashish and opium. I should be going tomorrow I think with some people from our hostel.
Today I went on a "field trip" with an american guy from our hostel to the gun factory town of Darra Adam Khel. It's technically off-limits to foreigners and you need a permit but in reality everyone just jumps on a minibus, prays they don't get stopped at the checkposts and then pays a "bribe" to the tribal guards in the town to escort you around for an hour or so, shoot the guns (if you want) and then get sent back to Peshawar.
So the two of us went (it's not a girl thing), had a few strange looks from people at the bus station when we told them where we wanted to go, but got to Darra without any problems. The guard quickly found us and invited us in for tea while he told us what the deal was. He's supposed to send us back but well, a little money will get a little time first......
Almost the entire town is involved in gun making. They say that anyone there can, if given a new gun he's never seen before, copy it exactly in less than 10 days. There are of course tons of Kalashnikovs, but also lots of shotguns, handguns, pen guns, M16s, you name it. All perfectly reproduced, with only little hand tools. They even recycle and cut down used bullets, to make new ones. German, Russian, Chinese, American, whatever. They have it all. It's crazy to see and hold all the guns. You can also hear guns constantly being tested by buyers or builders, even just across the street. Definately had a few jumps! What does it all cost? Well, a copy Kalashnikov runs at about 10000 rupees or (~$200) and are the most popular. Others can be much cheaper, shotguns (~$100), handguns (~$60). We opted not to shoot any, but got a couple of cool photos!
This is the wild area for us, so keep up the prayers. We have to go back on the move again in a few days so you might not hear from us for a bit.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006


It's taken me a year, but I've finally realized that I haven't been taking full advantage of this blog. Preparing for a place and then finally getting there gives you so much info about the geography, history and politics that by the time I get around to telling you guys I assume you know it too. But it's like the girls keep saying "I didn't even know this place existed until we got there." What I should be doing is trying to trick your brains into learning something.
Pakistan is a very young country but has been populated for a very long time (today it's 7th most populated in the world). The main river is the Indus, and the very, very old Indus civilation centered around it (I always thought it was further west). More recently it was the western and northern-most sections of British India. During it's independence, British India was partitioned into 2 countries, Pakistan and India, based on religious grounds. India is hindu and Pakistan is muslim but aside from the religious differences, the cultures can be very similar. Unlike most other muslim countries, Pakistanis give their daughters dowries, have a strong sufi (religious/mystic holy men) tradition, and a weak concept of a caste system (adopted from the Indians I suppose). They also share the British link and thus drink lots of tea, speak english quite well and drive on the left side of the road (I'm becoming so used to it, I can't say it's the wrong side of the road anymore).
Eastern Pakistan later separated to become Bangladesh. Pakistan and India have hated each other from day one and have had numerous wars, mostly over the disputed Kashmir region in the north. We were in the disputed northern area on the Pakistani side but it is safe up there. It's always been on the Indian side where extremists have caused trouble. Most of the area way up there in the north is at the tail end of the Himalayan mountain range with almost every valley historically being it's own little kingdom (similar to Tibet, Bhutan or Sikkim). The British and later Pakistan, annexed or "conquered" these kingdoms. As they turned out to be unruly, they were largely left alone and used as a "buffer-zone" between British India and Afghanistan or Russia. Even today, a lot of these "tribal areas" are still uncontrolled and lawless. The people often look quite different from each other and some of them are even paler-skinned than we are!
At the risk of getting myself into trouble I'll try to clarify the larger political picture with respect to recent news as these things look from here (I love reading the local papers and will miss them when I get back to non-english speaking countries). Historically, Pakistan has been more of a US ally than India. The US focused more on it, in an attempt to counter the soviet influence in Afghanistan and Iran during the cold war. During the soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the CIA setup/funded/trained/supported/encouraged etc. (whatever you want to believe, but they were definately involved) extremist schools of Islam, mostly in the lawless tribal areas of Pakistan in order to produce the freedom fighters that fought so well against the Soviets. Once that war was finished, the "schools" survived and the fighters just switched to different battles. Kashmir India was a big one and the Pakistan government continued to support or ignore these extremists to the point now where the government can no longer control them if they wanted to. These schools also ended up producing the Taliban group that later took over Afghanistan, so when the Taliban was ousted in the post-9/11 attack by the US on Afghanistan, they just dissolved back into the tribal areas along the border from where they continue to operate. As nobody really controls the area, and the terrain out here really would make it impossible to conquer someone that didn't want to be, it's a perfect place to hide and Pakistan is getting blamed for supporting the Taliban and other terrorist groups.
Add to that the facts that Pakistan is muslim, has a history of military dictatorships and coups, and has nuclear weapons, it's no surprise that everyone is afraid of them. The reality is that there are a lot of police and military around, it doesn't get along with it's neighbors and Pakistan is a mess in certain areas that it never controlled in the first place. By far the majority of the country and it's people are stable and very friendly. We are asked all the time if we are afraid but it has not been the case at all. Many locals have stated that they just want peace and how can they change the perception of the western media which, admittedly, portrays them very unfairly.
On a more practical and personal note, in India I was averaging about $200/month or $7/day with a lot of moving around. In pakistan so far we are spending ~$5/day without moving around. There is less to see here so we are not spending money on sites, but everything else seems to cost a little bit more. One could argue that the quality is a little bit better too, softer beds and meat in your food. Unlike India, Pakistan also has student discounts for transport and stuff so we are glad we were able to renew our cards in Delhi (without any proper proof too). It's also interesting that while India has it's own brands of everything and doesn't have many import items, Pakistan hates India so there are none of these Indian brands here but lots of import foods and goods from home. Almost all the packaged food here is Nestle brand too.

Thursday, May 04, 2006


From Islamabad we went north like Ammon said. Speeding along dark mountain roads, nearly tipping on every turn. It was quite a sight to see Ammon stretched out on the back bench just trying not to fall off as it was he cut his head on the roof! It's a wonder we ever made the whole journey in one piece. I can definately see how trucks, buses etc. can fall off the road to their doom and if you read the news it isn't all that uncommon either. It was a torturous 19 hour, bumpy bus ride to Gilgit, the main town along the Karakoram highway. They regularly have landslides blocking the road as the mountains constantly try to reclaim the road that was forcibly blasted through its domain. Earthquakes are also very common up here as you may remember last year's disaster. We aren't in that area so can't make any comments on it. From Gilgit we immediately took a minibus 3 hours up the road to Karimabad in the Hunza valley, considered by many to be the most beautiful place along the Karakoram. We have been staying here for the past week enjoying the fresh air and mountain scenery from our hotel room while playing our ongoing card game, "daifugo". We are always checking the thermometer to make sure that it's really 20C and not freezing because we're SO cold! Pretty whimpy, eh? We're all bundled up in our fleece. Yesterday we went on a 5 hour round trip hike up 3,000 ft through a steep canyon to see a glacial ice fall. At 10,000 ft and having not hiked for 6 months we impressed ourselves with how tough we still are. We witnessed a small rockslide that fell after we had passed. It definately woke us up and gave us a reality check. It was loud, at first we didn't know if it was a small earthquake or an odd thunderstorm. Kinda freaky!! The scenerey is great and we'll be here a few more days. I am REALLY not looking forward to that ride back to Islamabad. Cross your fingers!!
YEAH! Anyways, it's our year anniversary and we are all SHOCKED at how fast time flies when you're having a good time! We miss everyone, especially Sky!