Thursday, December 29, 2011

Travelogue: Of Pharaohs - Ancient and the Modern

Spinx: A Masterpiece or a Symbol of Tyranny!?

Some Surprises are so Pleasant!
It was all so sudden; got the visa on Friday, booked the ticket on Saturday, and on Sunday morning we were in the CIP lounge of the Jinnah International Airport, Karachi waiting for the Emirates EK-601 to open for boarding! 

While I was babysitting, Urooba was hastily noting the ‘Must Dos’ of Cairo from the internet. Pyramids, Mummies, the Nile Cruise, historical mosques, and Khan El Khalili bazaar were some of the findings while I added Suez Canal, Tanura, and the Coptic Cairo to the list. However, in the subconscious, I was dreaming of watching the rebellious Egyptian youth around the infamous Tahrir square pushing back the remains of the tyranny!
Now We Know How to Travel Light!
Coming Down
With only two hours layover in Dubai, the journey from Karachi to Cairo was smooth except that the flight attendant refused to give Misha the baby bassinet. “She has grown up”, Urooba muttered.
Baby Stroller at Dubai Airport
Not All Taxi Drivers in Cairo are Cons
The frank and amicable Ashraf picked us from the Cairo Airport and took us straight to the Cairo Palace Hotel located in the downtown Cairo. He looked antithesis of those notorious drivers who always want to take you to their uncle’s perfume shop, a typical tourist trap in Cairo! But Ashraf is a common being like us; a hardworking father on one hand who strives to make sure his children get good education and a concerned citizen on the other who spoke high about his presence at Tahrir Square in the toughest of days. 
Was He Really a Salafi?
Despite making his bread and butter from the tourist industry, he was blunt in expressing his dissatisfaction on the disco clubs on the other side of Nile, called Giza. “We Egyptians don’t like that. It is against our values”. 

“Which party you voted for?”, I reacted unbelievingly while looking at the hustle bustle of downtown markets from the cab window. “All my brothers and I are Salafis but we voted for the Freedom and Justice Party, حزب الحرية والعدالة, as there was no candidate of Noor Party in our constituency”, he replied in a firm note.

While familiarizing myself with the emerging political system in Egypt, I was not sure if the clean shaved Ashraf was preempting the imminent Islamist rule, or he was actually one of those Salafis stereotyped in the in-flight newspaper as long-bearded, mustache-less, and women-eaters!

The Football Craze
Cutting through a couple of traffic jams we reached our destination at around 7pm, where the young Muhammad, the football freak, greeted us at the reception. We had already realized that every third Egyptian goes by the name ‘Muhammad’ and every first is a football crazy!

The 11th Hour
After dumping our luggage in the big family room, we took a brief stroll around, basically to have some food. Fool فول and Shawarma were our first meal on the Egyptian land which we had at a local eatery آخر السا عہ or “the 11th Hour” as per Muhammad’s recommendation!
Cairo Palace Hotel
Its Modern Elevator (Reference: Pyramids)
The Cairo Downtown; A View from the Balcony
Lonely as it can be! Down from the Balcony
Tip of the Day; Currency Exchange is easily done at Cairo Airport without the fear of being ripped-off. Before the immigration counter you will notice currency exchange kiosks of big Egyptian banks. For 1000 UAE Dirham, AED, I got 1620 Egyptian Pounds, EGP, against 1635 as quoted on the internet, which translates into just 1% transaction cost. A fair deal indeed! 

These shops happily accept USD, Euro, GBP, AED, SAR, etc on clearly displayed rates.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

A Peek in the Thar Desert: Two Days in Umerkot

The Historical Umerkot Fort Constructed in 1746 AD
Gateway to Tharparkar
Geographical significance, historical roots, cultural vibrancy, agricultural diversity, and religious sensitivity provided Umerkot with a unique positioning, a city which is often overshadowed by the other big names of the interior Sindh.

The city is located at the Eastern entrance of the Thar desert in the South West of Pakistan, and hence nicked as "Gateway to Tharparkar". The fact that it is the only commercial hub on the Pakistan side of the world's 9th largest subtropical desert, which stretches towards East into the Indian state of Rajhistan to become the Great Indian Desert, promises much for an explorer's perspective.
Entering Umerkot; the Gateway to Thar
Promise Low Deliver High
However, I kept my expectation level intentionally low, before departing for the 2 day self drive whirlwind trip during the long Eid weekend.

Reason? Actually, that was my first ever visit of the region, which is more famous for drought and poverty in a country which has itself been ranked one of the lowest in the human development index. So I did not want to destroy the taste of the adventure because of high hopes and big excitement.

Off the Beaten Path
Approaching Karachi Toll Plaze

We started our journey after offering Fajar prayers, around 6:30 am, on Saturday, November 5, 2011 and crossed Karachi Toll Plaza just around sunrise. I wanted to take the longer Tando Adam - Mirpurkhas route, as suggested by the googlemaps, rather than taking the traditional Hyderabad - Mirpurkhas one. Amid this confusion, we ended up traversing around the less traveled Nasarpur - Tandoallahyar road. The scenic countryside full of green crops and occasional sights of colossal bulls with perfectly rounded horns made up for the low quality link road.

Tea Break
It was around half past ten when we crossed Mirpurkhas in the direction of Umerkot and took a sojourn to pour میٹھا کم پتی تیز tea into our breakfast starved stomachs. There we also gave a confirmation call to our host Fasial, an ex-NEDian and a young son of the soil, who was suspicious, in light of his ten years Karachi experience, that we would be able to start the journey before sunrise!

Rains, Floods, and Bad Roads
The 80 km Mirpurkhas-Umerkot road had been badly hit by the heavy rains earlier this year prolonging the journey for another two hours. Parts of the road, with lower elevation, were secured through temporary sand barriers on both sides: بچاؤ بند, as the rain water engulfed the surrounding land including ready crops.
Overloaded Bus as People Going Back Homes for Eid
Reaching the Baithak
It was around 1:00 pm when we made it to the destination, i.e. to the Faisal's permanent residence in Umerkot city, after a continuous six and a half hours, around 350 km, road drive. The کڑک tea was ready even before we entered the guestroom, بیٹھک! The room was cool, even though it was around 30 Celcius outside, not because of the high ceiling but actually due to the air-conditioning, which I fortunately noticed before making a cliche statement!

The tea was followed by the simple but filling lunch, پلاؤ, after which Faisal introduced us to his friend Vash Dev to answer our unending questions about rains, culture, religion, mode of transport, India, and what not!
From Left: Faisal (host), Nadeem, Abdullah, and Myself

Sunset in the Desert
Sunset in the Desert
After the welcome show of hospitality, Faisal advised us to drive out in the desert to watch the sunset. On our way we saw a few tent villages for flood ridden people, however, most of them were thinly populated showing a sign that effectees had started returning back to their homes after the water level had come down in some places. Nearby, there was a long queue outside a water filtering plant, an expected sight in the water scarce Thar.

Due to heavy rains, the desert has turned green, a sight which Tharis see once in a decade for such a long period!
Desert Turned Green After Heavy Rains; Good For Cattle
Modern Camels!
When You're Happy and You Know It!

Cattle Farming
In Desert, Cattle Enjoy the "First Right of Way"
Cattle farming is one of the main revenue sources for the people of Thar, which we witness a couple of times when huge herds comprising of hundreds of cows, bulls, and buffalos were roaming around freely. At one point, when one of the herds was crossing the main road, we had to pause the journey for about quarter of an hour, until we found a space to sneak out!

Youth Power
The Place Where Faisal Set-up the Medical Camp for Flood Effectees
Fasial also showed us the place where he put a medical camp during the crisis period with the help of his University fellows. That was a commendable effort showing that Pakistani youth has a lot of potential and a will to fight any type of crisis and given that we get rid of the corrupt leadership, be it political or otherwise, they can steer the nation out of all problems.

Akbar's Birthplace
Village Kids in Front of the Monument
On our way back, we did a detour to see the birthplace of the most famous Mughal Emperor; Abul Fateh Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar, or Shahanshah Akbar-e-Azam (d. 1605 AD), who was born in Umerkot when his father Nasiruddin Muhammad Humayun (d. 1556 AD) was hiding from his rival Sher Shah Suri (d. 1545 AD). The monument has been rebuilt after it was destroyed, or collapsed, under Army's control during the recent Pakistan India tensions.

Nonetheless, presence of this historical monument adds to the rich heritage of Umerkot.
Please Read!
Night View of the Monument
Cow and Religion
In the evening, we went out for an easy stroll around Umerkot city. The most notable thing was the presence of freely roaming cows, which tells a lot about the character of the city!

Cow: Mother God to Hindus

Umerkot is the only city in Pakistan with significant Hindu population - maybe due to its proximity to India - which has a dominant role over city's trade and culture.

I got a bit curious to see the special protocal گاؤ ماتا has got there, especially with Eid-ul-Adha around the corner when Muslims all around sacrifice the same cow, and other farm animals, in the memory of Ibrahim (A.S) and Ismail (A.S)! However, I was pleasantly surprised that despite being the majority, Muslims of Umerkot are in an implicit agreement with Hindus to confine themselves to the sacrifice of goats to show respect to the religious beliefs of their fellow citizens! Those who could not afford expensive goats, are also not deprived and can sacrifice cows in the surrounding Muslim-only villages in a way that would not offend their brethren!

This religious sensitivity, and harmony, is the another unique proposition of the city of Umerkot.

The stroll ended up at a famous road side restaurant where we had a sumptuous dinner of Chicken Karhai, کڑھائی, and BBQ Lever, کلیجی! However, the highlight was Thadal, تھادل, the flagship Thar cold drink made up of چار مغز, an Indian food ingrediant which is a combination of four kinds of seeds and nuts including almond, and other constituents. The refresher is famous for its cooling effect and suits hot and arid climates.

Undoubtedly, that was one the best drinks I have ever had in my life! No exaggeration!!
Having the Drink of My Life
Day Ends
Before going to sleep, I had a long discussion with Faisal on topics ranging from local politics, Hindu Muslim relationships, scarcity of water, NGOs, health and hygiene of the rural population, and our potential role in bringing any positive change to the lives of indigenous people.

I was surprised to learn that the former Foreign Minister and veteran PPP leader, Makhdoom Shah Mahmood Qureshi, who is originally from Multan, has got a decent following in the district mainly because of his inherited religious seat.
The Roundabout!
Umerkot Fort
Next morning, after offering Fajar prayers, we walked towards Umerkot Fort to catch the sunrise. Weather was really pleasant, cool with a pinch of humidity due to dew fall. View of the city from the high watchtower, with the sun rising from the desert, was worth the effort.
Impressive Entrance
The Watchtower
Taking A View from the Watchtower
Sun Peeking From the Desert
Hold, Fire!!!
Please Read!
That Was Too Heavy I Tell You!
The Museum
The small time museum is one of the few things one can see in the otherwise rubble-ish fort. The watchman was kind enough to unlock the facility even before the opening hours after charging meager PKR 10 per person entrance fee. A few excavated stones were showcased around the entrance while a collection of gold and silver coins from Mughul era were also on the display. On the other side of the room, hand written copies of “Akbarnama”, اکبر نامہ, and various other similar books were exhibited.
Coin Collection
Akbar's Biography
A Colonial Building
Collector's Office
The Troupe
The Remaining Glory
An Arch
Graffiti Everywhere
Walls of the historical fort, except for the front one, were in the sorry state. Followers of Pir Pagara, پیر پگاڑا, did not even spare the front wall while a political sign board in front of the main entrance was also completely out of place. But that’s what it usually happens in a country where people have more serious things to worry about!
Dilapidated Walls
Uncompromising Following!
Halwa Puri, Karak Tea, Peacocks, and Red Chilies
The Breakfast
On our way back from the fort we did some window shopping in the surrounding bazaars, which has already wakened up, and then picked the breakfast, حلوہ پوری, from a roadside vendor.
Magic! An Integral Part of Hindu Culture
A Local Fruit. Don't Know the Name1
Bangle Shop
In the Making
Traditional Bnagles
City Street
Another round of کڑک tea was the need of the hour to do away with the drowsing effect of the oily feast after which Faisal took us a bit out of the city for a taste of rural life. The surprise came when we spotted a couple of wild peacocks while wandering around cottonseed and red chili crops.
Wild Peacock
Tube Well; The Lifeline
It Digs Deep
Ready Crop
Red Chili
A Farmer
Women Farmers
Visiting the Bazaar and the Temple
It was around noon when we peeked into the main bazaar, which was crap full because of the Eid next day, to bargain for traditional handmade embroidery. The humble looking handicraft shop had lot to offer, products ranging from the PKR 100 wallet to the PKR 25,000 bed sheet! This time we were guided by Vash Dev who then took us to a nearby Hindu temple which is devoted to کالی, the Goddess of Death.
Handicraft Shop
Hard Work!
The Temple

Back to Home
We wanted to make it back to Karachi in the daylight, however, it was inappropriate for Faisal to let the guests go without the lunch, so we had yet another hospitable meal, بریانی, before we packed into the car again at around 3 pm. The return journey was quick, thanks to the helping fellows, as we did not make a stopover, and by 8 pm we reached Karachi after an event-less journey except for the bad road patches on Mirpurkhas-Hyderabad under construction highway.

Next Journey
The journey did not end as we had already planned for the next road trip in the near future, this time to the other end of the Thar desert, i.e. to Nagarparkar, inshallah, the farthest South Western Pakistani city touching the Indian border.