The road to Bayt al-Maqdis (Jerusalem)

“It is impossible to know Jerusalem without some respect for religion” wrote Simon Sebag Montefiore, author of a best seller on Jerusalem and I couldn’t agree more.

Stones and buildings are found all over the world but only a few places evoke a sense of spiritual connection, beyond the grasp of our sensory faculties, which is felt and recognised only by our inner beings. Jerusalem is a city whose past, present and future is embedded in religion. Wandering through the streets of Jerusalem, you see and you hear but you also experience a strange sense of connection – knowing that these are the same streets where the Prophets, their Companions, the Saints, the Sufis, the Mystics and the Wanderers wandered. Almost 700 years ago Ibn Battutah wandered through the streets of Jerusalem, and armed with his Rihlah, I set out rediscovering the Holy precincts of Al Quds.

In 1326 when Ibn Battuta visited the lands of Palestine he seems to have been able to cross through Qatya to Ghazza without any hindrance, perhaps it was his uncanny knack to solicit favours from the rulers of the lands he travelled through (?)Or perhaps after the fall of Acre in 1261AD Muslims could travel without difficulty. Nevertheless in our times it is an impossible journey to enter Ghazza. Unless you know your underground tunnels of course!

From Ghazza he went on to visit Al-Khalil (Hebron), Bayt Lahm (Bethlehem) and al-Quds (Jerusalem) amongst a few other cities in Palestine. For my part I had two options, either to catch a plane to Tel Aviv or go via one of the three land crossing between Palestine and Jordan (all of them controlled by Israel). I chose the latter.

It is not uncommon for Israel border security to ask for access to one’s personal email and social media accounts especially those whom they think don’t while away their evenings watching Fox News. In fact the British FCO website has the following remark in their “Entry Requirements” section for Israel

“Israeli security officials have on occasion requested access to travellers’ personal e-mail accounts or other social media accounts as a condition of entry.”

This tied up with the reports I heard from travellers I had met along the way who had already been to Palestine and Israel. The likelihood that I’d be questioned at length and my email and social media activity scrutinized, being a single male Muslim traveller of Pakistani origin, increased exponentially.

I went about clearing my inbox and un-subscribing from Palestine Solidarity Campaign email list. A quick follow-up search of the term “Palestine” in my Inbox yielded countless more emails than I had previously imagined, including correspondence with my local MP – which I did not wish to part with. Nor did I want to expend a lot of time and energy archiving and moving them elsewhere. I decided to leave it at that, declining to give them access to my Gmail or Facebook if it came to it. Knowing fully well that it meant I could be denied entry (an inevitable outcome I suppose if they went through the correspondence with my MP).

Me and Adrian, a Swiss national, I meet at the hostel in Amman decide to share a cab to King Hussein Bridge – the only crossing Palestinians can use to move back and forth between West Bank and Jordan (also called East Bank – taking their names after the two banks of River Jordan). I had been told that this crossing was the most rigidly scrutinized but doubling back to Aqaba to cross through Eilat would have meant a long detour to reach Jerusalem. I decide to take my chances.

The taxi ride takes an hour. After dropping our bags on the conveyor belt for scanning we proceed to what is the first of many passport checking counters. We both hand our passports. Inspecting mine, without a word the young looking border agent (interestingly the first line of counters including a few lethal looking guns are all manned by young female border agents that all appear to be in teens or early twenties) stamps a sticker on the back of mine which has four English numerals and four in Hebrew. She circles three out of the four in Hebrew and one in English, while Adrian’s has a lone circle. I know from here on our journeys will follow a separate course. At the next counter I am ushered to a waiting area while Adrian eases past emerging a few mins later with his visa. We decide to meet later in Jerusalem, if I eventually get through!

A female border agent approaches beckoning me to follow her. She takes me to a quiet corner and proceeds to casually ask me a couple of questions, some of them outright ridiculous. “Why aren’t you married?” I can think of a number of responses which will deny me entry straightaway but I politely reply “Haven’t met the right person yet”, “Who gave you the money to travel?” “Are you carrying any weapons?” Seriously? I think “I have a Swiss army knife in my backpack” I retort in interest of full disclosure. “Will I be able to find your employer if I Google them” Sure go ahead. After a few questions about my dual citizenship and Pakistani passport that is still in my back pack she says, “Welcome to Israel!” (Err no Palestine is where I’m going) that wasn’t so bad I thought – hardly trailing 30 minutes behind a Swiss national.

At the next counter where I expect the visa to be handed over I am told to wait and fill out a form that pretty much asks for all my family details. This time a middle aged guy with thick glasses wearing plain clothes approaches and causally takes me to the side. He seems to be in contention for the ‘most ridiculous questions’ prize, and armed with his own set fires away, “you look tired, are you fasting?” “Why aren’t you fasting?” “Do you usually fast ?”, “Do you pray?”, “Where do you offer your Friday prayers ?”, “Why are you travelling alone?” questions me at length about the details on the form, my family and my travel plans all the while annotating the form with remarks and notes in Hebrew that I cannot decipher. He jots down all the numbers I’ve held in the last few weeks of travelling through Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt and Jordan. “Do you know any Palestinians?” “No” I reply. “Do you know any Israelis?” I had met two un-apologetically bigoted Israelis over the course of the past few weeks I had been travelling, including a Tunisian (born and raised) girl who felt she had more right to Palestine and the territories than the non-Jews who were born and raised there and whose families had been living there for centuries, “No I don’t”. He takes the form and his notes and tells me to wait.

While I wait there is a little commotion in the other corner. An elderly American woman is hysterical. I ask the guy who seems to be part of the same group as to why they are being held up. “I’m (an American) married to (an American) Palestinian. My sister and I are visiting Ramallah, where my wifes family hails from, for the first time and she has just been granted a visa while they have denied me entry. Why? I’m the one married to a Palestinian!”

It is my first encounter with a Christian Palestinian family. They have no choice – He has to return to Amman and wait a few days while his wife and mother-in-law and sister go to Ramallah and get the marriage registered with Palestinian Authorities who then have to inform the Israeli authorities before it turns up in the border security system. The border agent who seems a little empathetic to their predicament tells them that had he not mentioned they were married he would have been granted entry but now he’s in their system. I always knew marriage came at a hefty price (freedom, opinion, liberty and what not) but marrying a Palestinian has its extra set of challenges!

Christians Palestinians are rarely talked about in the context of the Palestinian conflict, something that propaganda machines wants us to believe has an entirely monolithic identity – Muslim identity, thereby robbing the Palestinians of their ethno-religious diversity. Enforcing the narrative of a conflict between the ‘ever persecuted’ Jew and the ‘ever violent and irrational’ Muslim alone. Something that would easily appeal to the increasingly Islamophobic world of today!

Two hours later the guy emerges again, “Can I see your phone”, I think this might be it, he’d want to see my email. “Why?” I respond “I just want to go through the contacts list to confirm you don’t know any Palestinians” I wonder what made him suspect I might. He takes the seat beside me. I key in the pass code and hand him my Iphone. Punching in a few things he turns the phone around and asks me who Zafer is. I have completely forgotten that I had saved Zafers number, a Palestinian travel agent, recommended by Khaled the hostel manager in Amman. He takes a note of his number and disappears once again.

Six hours have now elapsed since I handed my passport at the first counter, minutes later a different person calls out my name and hands me my passport and a separate printed visa card for 3 months.

I grab my back pack, find the first serveese that’s heading to Jerusalem and jump in. Jaffa Gate Hostel is in the Muslim Quarter of the old city run and owned by a Palestinian. Jaffa Gate or Bab al-Khalil (al-Khalil being the Arabic name of Hebron as the tomb of Ibrahim al-Khalil AS is there) is one of the eight gates of Jerusalem. The serveese drops me of at Damascus Gate (Bab al-Amud). There is heavy armed police and military presence there. I’m told a day earlier a Palestinian youth was shot here amidst an altercation with an Israeli soldier.

I reach the Jaffa Gate Hostel just as the Maghreb Azan is being called out. An elderly Asian Christian lady greets me at the reception; she tells me that the owner is away for Maghreb prayers but that she’s manning the desk and the property as any place unattended can technically be taken over by settlers (?!) She comes to Palestine every year for her pilgrimage to the Holy Land and always stays at the Jaffa Gate Hostel.

I drop my backpack and set out to catch my first glimpse of Haram al-Sharif. As I head out I can’t help but think about the day’s ordeal – In the lapse of 700 years, with all the advancement in modes of transportation, it seems to have become increasingly difficult to reach Palestine and perhaps even more so if you are associated with a certain faith…

 

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Rama: A paradise (almost) lost

“They were looking for Shias”, Aisars voice grew sullen “and my cousin happened to be on that bus” he said with a look of sadness in his eyes. Dipping his biscuit in his chai he continued, “but bhai, the situation has improved a lot since Nanga Parbat”, referring to the tragedy back in 2013 when the ‘Killer Mountain’ famous for its notoriously high fatality rate gave its nom de guerre another dimension for altogether different reasons.

A group of foreign climbers were butchered by TTP terrorists (Janud e Hafsa faction) dressed as paramilitary forces in a late night raid at the base camp. A tragedy that could well have been averted had authorities taken notice and decisive action against those responsible for the Shia killings in Chilas leading up to the incident. But alas, in Pakistan the value of a human life is directly correlated with wealth, power and status. Action mostly taken when someone from those ‘that matter’ fall victim to this senseless violence.

Aisar and I are sitting at one of the ubiquitous tent khokhas that have sprawled up all over Rama meadows with the Polo Festival only three days away. The District Government organizing and supporting the event has transported horses and all the paraphernalia but not one garbage dumpster is in sight! As we speak Shabbir, the khokha owner, empties the remaining biscuits in a plate and conveniently chucks the packet behind a boulder. A small pile has gradually accumulated there. Noticing my unamused look he assures me not to worry as this will disappear in a few weeks. Puzzled, I inquire if there is some sort of a cleanup drive by the authorities after the polo festival?

“Andhi Toufan sub kuch apnay saath ura lay jaeey ga” (“The wind and storm will sweep this place clean”),he replies nonchalantly.

His tent is right next to a fast flowing stream that will eventually merge into Astore River. He doesn’t care what the consequences are for those living downstream. As long as nothing remains where his tent is pitched come next year. Sadly this is the attitude shared amongst many others who only come to the Northern Areas for commerce, depicting a complete lack of empathy or understanding of the environment and the eco-system; selfish to say the least. Enjoy, plunder and ‘Allah pay choar do’ (leave it to God) a convenient excuse we have all become so attuned to. The district government on the other hand is preoccupied with putting up banners boasting the names and faces of the district and provincial officials backing the event. Needless to say there is no provision for basic toilet facilities knowing that an entire districts populace will be descending on these beautiful meadows in three days.

Going only by the distance is utterly deceptive in this region. Rama is about 8km from Astore Bazaar and a hike up can be a good five to six hour scramble. I regretted doing just that. Aisar was revving up his bike that had been returned to him by a friend, as I reached Choungrah. Sticking to the oldest trick in my book I inquired about the distance to Rama (secretly hoping for a lift). Shaking his bike to get a feel for how much petrol remained in the tank, while the needle pointed dead straight at Empty.  As if he read my mind, Aisar cheerfully said, “Bhai I can take you as far up as the petrol lasts”, and signalled me to hop on. The sun had already gone down. The Pine, Juniper and Cedar trees cast ghostly shadows that stretch across the landscape in the moonlight. Rama looked beautiful with just enough light to hide the ugly marks made by humans and enhance the beauty of nature.

Rama Lake is still another 2 hrs trek from the meadows. The two guest houses at Rama – PTDC and Forest are both fully booked, as is the case during summers, by government dignitaries (!?). Having left my camping gear in Astore I decide to head back down with Aisar and return to Rama Lake the next day.

The bike refuses to kick start having used up the reserve in the tank.  My head-torch provides us just enough light to dodge the potholes and avoid a tumble off the mountain. We roll downhill back to Choungrah with no petrol and no headlight. 

Aisar insists that I have dinner with his family. All the male members of their family (cousins and uncles) gather at the family home for dinner as is the custom. There baithak (lounge) is large enough to accommodate 25 odd guests. Lamb korma, rice chapatis and raita followed by kheer are delicious yet unmatched by the warmth of the young and generous man that I have only met a couple of hours ago.

The following day I hike to Rama Lake along a narrow and dusty track. The Lake is magnificent. On a clear day you can see Nanga Parbat. In-fact you can trek to the East Side of Nanga Parbat from Rama Lake. Sadly, the entire route to Rama Lake is screaming of deforestation. I see thick and tiny stubs protruding from the ground, reminiscent of mighty greens that thrived there once.

As I stand there admiring the view across the landscape my eyes settle on Nanga Parbat – the second highest mountain in Pakistan, a country with the second largest Shia population in the world, that is failing to protect its natural landscape as much as it is failing to protect the diversity of its religious and ethnic landscape. Perhaps this time we will not wait for a bigger tragedy to jolt our collective conscience into action, and save the meadows from becoming a deforested garbage dump.

(a modified version of this article appeared in Express Tribune)

Border(line) Beauty – Minimarg and Domail

After an hours hike puffing and panting I came to a grinding halt. I had only covered 1.5km distance.  With the sun out in full blazing glory and the treeless plateau of Deosai lending no place to hide, the weight on my back was bearing down hard. It was impossible to keep pace with the occasional cloud that chanced the wide open blue skies providing a fleeting glimpse of a shadow.

At my current pace it would certainly take me another couple of hours to hike up the few kilometres before the descent to Chilam started. I had only recently heard about Minimarg, a scenic town close to the Indian border, and was hoping to catch a ride there the same day. Army had done considerable amount of work to pave the road heading to Minimarg but there were still plenty of dangerous patches yielding to several hundred feet of deadly falls on a miscalculated turn. Night travel was virtually impossible.

For now I had no option but to continue on foot. After another hour of slow and deliberate trek the dirt track yielded to a well tarmacked road and a lone wooden shack turned up with a few kids playing in the adjoining field. Curious, as to who this lonely stranger with a big back pack was they came to investigate. All of them hailed from a village close to Chilam, in the same direction I was headed. After a little rest with no sign of a potential lift I got up to continue. My entourage by now had grown from a solo traveller to a traveller with four young and eager companions.

Asghar Ali, who worked as a librarian in Skardu, had made an early start to visit his family in his hometown of Astore. Instead of choosing the longer but well paved route via Karakoram Highway he had decided to take his Honda 125 on a bumpy but scenic ride cutting across the Deosai Plains.

Upon hearing the sound of a bike in the distance my travel companions made a huge raucous and flagged his bike down from a mile away. Bidding farewell to them I jumped on the bike. In half an hour we were at Chilam ‘Chowki’ (check post). I had requested permission to visit Minimarg prior to leaving Skardu and was hoping that someone had already informed the check post about my arrival.

The sentry came out of the guard room and sizing me up asked a few questions before inquiring,

“App kiss k mehmaan hain?” (Whose guest are you?)

My father happened to know the Commanding Office in the Northern Areas at the time. His name was bound to expedite permits and open gates fast, I thought.

“mein Commander Northern Areas ka mehmaan hoon” (I’m the guest of Commander Northern Areas)

I replied with an air of confidence.

A look of amused disbelief came across his face; he looked me up and down again, and asked me to confirm the name of the Commanding Officer. Sensing that the official was too important to ignore; still my appearance of a travel hardy backpacker made him pause and think, before he finally went back inside the guard room to make inquiries.

It took a while before my credentials were finally verified and I was escorted to a waiting area. My cousin, a Captain in the army, who happened to be posted in Minimarg at the time later informed me with a loud chuckle that the sentry had rang into the Army Camp and his voice laden with doubt inquired,

“Sir yeh aik daaari wala bunda aya hai motor cycle k peechay baith k, or keh raha hai k mein Commander Northern Areas ka mehmaan hoon!!” (Sir, there is a scruffy looking guy who has arrived here on a motor bike, and claims to be the guest of the Commander Northern Areas!)

To the sentry it seemed farcical that someone claiming to be the guest of a senior official could be hitch-hiking there. Thankfully my cousin decided to own me up and not sever the family ties for my lack of following the protocol.

So there I was on the road to Minimarg, a beautiful little town nestled between mountains covered in dense green foliage and trees, at an altitude of 2844 meters. Jamal, a local building contractor, had an errand to run there. High on naswar, he seemed like the perfect companion cum driver, one wished, to take them on a ride touching the clouds (literally and metaphorically) on this perilous road with tumultuous turns and deadly falls.

Due to Minimargs’ proximity with the Indian border I had to restrict my camping and trekking ambitions and was forced (read: glad) to swap my tent for a cosy shell proof underground bunker.

Minimarg served as the perfect prelude to the spectacular lakes and roving green mountains of Domail. The fact that both these places are hard to get to, coupled with the special permit requirements meant that they were out of reach of the typical “tourons” (touristic morons who throng to these beautiful places and litter them) and absolutely pristine!

My original plan was to get to Domail on horseback but a scurry to the riding stables in Minimarg proved that the riding skills I had acquired as a toddler needed much more than just a brush up! With my riding hopes dashed, I resorted to my proven and tested method – asking around if someone was heading to Domail. And sure enough a 4×4 was going there the next afternoon.

On the way to Domail camouflaged by trees is the striking little village of Nagai with identical wooden cottages. My tiny GoPro coupled with the rickety 4×4 I had caught a lift on hampered my (otherwise professional!?) ability to capture its splendour, so you have to take my word for it!

The crown jewel of that region however is the beautiful Rainbow Lake that takes on different colors at different times of the day. The water is crystal clear sourced from the streams and springs coursing their way down the mountain. It is one of those lakes that make it hard to resist a plunge especially when you see a wooden ramp leading to what could be the perfect diving platform. The sun will dry you out in no time.. if only protocols did not get in the way! So instead of a dip I hopped onto a raft that took me across the lake to the other side where lunch was already waiting in a picture-perfect wooden hut overlooking the lake. It was delicious and a far cry from the paratha rolls I had been consuming the last few days – rumour has it, that the cook responsible for catering had been personally enlisted by the ‘powers that be’ in that region. A wise choice and one that I fully endorse!

Minimarg and Domail proved to be as ravishing for my visual cortex as they were for my salivary glands. However my wandering spirit felt subdued by the restrictions imposed on venturing off the designated tracks and trails. I was told about a scenic Ansoo (tear) Lake a few hours hike from Domail right on the border (yes there are two Ansoo lakes but most people have only heard about the one in Kaghan). Sadly I was prohibited from trekking there and my spirit shed an ansoo or two. One day I hope as much as anyone else that we (Pakistan and India) can get over our differences and be fully able to explore the beauty of our own as well each other’s countries uninhibitedly.

After three days in Minimarg and Domail I was ready to head to Astore. Filled to its 16 strong capacity, I paid an extra Rs. 100 for the front seat in the local jeep van that left promptly at 9am for Astore and saw Minimarg disappear in the distance.

(a modified version of this article was published in Dawn)

A Night Amidst The Giants of Deosai

I first came across the name “Land of the Giant” in a blog post by Salman Rashid. It had never before occurred to me that Deosai could have anything to do with a Deo (giant). And so I decided to embark on a trip hoping to spot the giant(s) that inhabited this beautiful plateau above 4000 meters.

Stocked with six omlette-paratha rolls I hoped they’d be enough to last me two days camping in Deosai.  I was glad I didn’t need to carry any water as Deosai had ample fresh water springs (though I never imagined a dirty diaper would greet me at a source of one of these; if that wasn’t enough there were still plenty of plastic bottles and wrappers thrown about this beautiful plateau, a very worrying sign as the number of people that frequent Deosai is on the rise, but this is a topic for another post !). My back pack with the tent, sleeping bag, and the little food and gear I was carrying was already a back breaking 25+ kilos and I intended to trek out of Deosai to Chilam, so economizing on weight was crucial.

A college friend posted in Skardu proved an invaluable source and organized a jeep ride to drop me in Deosai. From Skardu to the entrance of the national park took about 1.5 hours. A bored looking wildlife official met us at the gates. After collecting the customary Rs. 40 entrance fee, he handed me a pamphlet which had some useful information about the national park, and let us through.

The doorway into the land of the giant belied the beauty that would be sitting atop higher than the slopes we were gradually climbing. The jeep grunted and groaned as it clambered up the narrow and winding track, wedged between the mountains, following the course of the river that raged below. Once atop the narrow track opened up into a endless expanse of beautiful unhindered green plains, peppered with purple, yellow, blue and white flowers. Fast flowing streams cutting across the landscape with vision only hindered by beautiful snow laden mountains in the backdrop of this plateau.

The first sign of habitation we encountered was a small shackturant (read: khokha) near Deosai Top (also known as Ali Malik Mar) close to which was a Gujjar encampment. And who knows their milk better than a Gujjar? So we decided to settle for some khalis doodh patti and witnessed their butter making skills, using goat skins, first hand. Each summer these Gujjar nomads travel from Punjab to these lush green pastures to fatten their herd. I’m told they have to pay a small fee for each animal they bring to graze (?) Hailing from a Gujjar family myself it was an interesting encounter with my distant kinsfolk that had decided to stick to the trade rather than settle in the cities. For once I was envious of their life style – overwhelmed by the beauty and magnitude of this treeless, never ending, green expanse they had decided to call home for the summers.

An hour later we reached Bara Pani where there was a Wildlife Project encampment. This was one of the places I had in mind to set camp for the night, but it meant that I’d have a very long and arduous trek the next day to reach Chilam . One of the wildlife officials suggested I continue all the way up to Sheosar Lake close to where there was also a bear sanctuary. Could the elusive deo or deos (if there were more than one) of Doesai be the Himalayan “brown bear” that inhabit this region, I thought ?

By the time I reached Sheosar lake it was 4pm. As the sun began to set the few local tourists who had flocked to it earlier slowly disappeared. I quickly ditched the idea of pitching my solo tent by the lake, as the thought of a brown bear ripping it apart snapped me back to reality.

I had spotted Aslam, a tenturant (read: tent khokha) owners’ tent pitched a few hundred meters away from the lake, and decided to pitch mine there too. Aslam showed me a white flour trail at the back of his mess tent that led up the hill. The culprit, he suggested, could only have been a brown bear with enough strength to move the rocks lining the base of his tent. He wasn’t taking any chances with his supplies tonight and decided to sleep in the mess tent, the theory being if a bear smelled a human inside he’ll go away.I wasn’t sold on the wisdom of his theory considering the countless people who have been mauled by brown bears elsewhere in the world.. Having recently watched “The Revnant”, I’m convinced he’s got it all wrong!

At night fall the stars had the sky completely alit, the moon light illuminated the distant white mountain tops. After a stroll around the lake I settled into my sleeping bag hoping to wake just before sunrise and go searching for the brown bear if it hadn’t already found me by then!

After hardly an hour of sleep I woke up shivering. The temperature had hit sub-zero and my sleeping bag with an extreme rating of -7 C was proving inadequate. A slight headache symptomatic of altitude sickness, which usually hits the hardest at night, had crept in too. I jumped into my base layer, fleece, and woollen socks and snuck back in to the sleeping bag, only to wake up minutes later to the sound of something ruffling outside my tent. The first thought that struck me had my senses fully heightened, ‘Could it be the bear that had ransacked Aslams mess tent last night?’

I wasn’t taking any chances, the vision of a bear paw tearing through my tent lunging for the paratha rolls and catching my limbs as an extra treat was enough for me to grab my jacket head torch and jump into my boots. Sensing the direction which the sounds was coming from, I opened the tents zip on the opposite side and with my light flicked to full beam I jumped out of my tent. Showing the light frantically in all directions I couldn’t spot a thing. Just as I was about to head back to the tent, I noticed a horse grazing at a few meters distance. Feeling relieved and disappointed at the same time I shooed him away and meekly made my way back in. Repeating the same episode twice that night around 2am and 4am, I gave up on the idea of sleep.

The sky was already turning crimson, the sun eager to pierce the early morning sky with its rays. I looked at my map and decided to trek over to the summit of a peak overlooking what was marked as a bear sanctuary. The visibility was good enough to spot a bear from a few hundred meters away, giving me enough of a head start in case I had to make a run for it.

The trek to the summit took longer than I had expected, the clear air and unending expanse of green had deceived me into thinking it was closer than it really was. By now the sun had already burst through the sky. With the temperature shooting up quickly, my hopes of spotting a deo, that I thought to be the brown bear, known to stay in cooler climes, dwindled. Feeling inadequately equipped to spend another night on my own and running low on food, I decided to break camp and trek to Chilam.. Determined to return another day.

(a modified version of this article was published in Dawn)

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