Trekking in northern Pakistan

Buddhist rock paintings. In northern Pakistan, buddhist rock art is dating from the 1° century AD until the 10° century AD.

Buddhist rock paintings. In northern Pakistan, buddhist rock art is dating from the 1° century AD until the 10° century AD.

Pakistan offers some of the best trekking in the world. The Karakoram, Himalaya and Hindu Kush ranges which dominate northern Pakistan are truly spectacular. They encompass soaring mountains of rock, ice and snow, huge sweeping glaciers, plateaux and high pastures carpeted with grass and flowers in summer, valleys of contrasting bare rock and fertile irrigated settlements, and rich pine forests lower down.

Yet the potential of this region remains for the most part undiscovered. With the exception of one or two areas ( the trek to the base camp of K2 in particular), trekking in Pakistan is completely free of crowds and pollution. The days when European explorers set out to fill on the “blanks on the map” may be past, but this region remains one of the least comprehensively mapped in the world and is still full of adventure and excitement.

Aside from the natural beauty of the mountains and the peaceful, unspoilt solitude they offer, perhaps the most rewarding aspect of trekking in Pakistan is the contact it brings with the people who inhabit this beautiful and yet harsh environment. With one or two notable exceptions, the people of northern Pakistan are friendly, hospitable and open in a way which seems to be characteristic of mountain people throughout the world. In Pakistan, this is complemented by a fascinating variety of cultures; moving from one valley to the next it is often possible to witness a complete change in the traditions, lifestyle, language and ethnic origins of the people.

Trekking in Pakistan is more demanding than in countries such as Nepal and even India, where facilities are much more developed. Any trek involves having all the supplies and equipment, as well as the physical stamina, to be completely self-sufficient if need be. On many treks it is perfectly possible to go for several days at a time without encounering any permanent settlements, and even in areas that are settled, agriculture at subsistance level, making it impossible ( and unfair) to rely on them for food.

The mountains of northern Pakistan represent an extremely fragile environment. Mountaineering and trekking pose serious threat to the ecology of the region. For many, part of the romance of trekking is associated with “wilderness” images of sitting around campfires under a starlit sky. While appealing, the cutting and burning of firewood is perhaps the most immediate and dramatic cause of environmental degradation. Forests are all too scarce in most of northern Pakistan and are under serious threat. There is no justification for visitors to light fires; they have ( or should have) their own stoves and fuel. The same for the porters…

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Some words about the French adventurers who came in India in the 18° century to make a fortune

During the 18° century, the French ( monarchy) tried to colonize India. Dupleix, then governor general of the French establishments in India and the greatest rival of Robert Clive ( then British governor of Bengal), achieved to rule half of South India thanks to his diplomatic and commercial acute sense : he intervened directly with the South Indian princes by giving his army of sepoys in exchange of territories. In 1763, the Paris treaty ended the Seven Years’ war between the European nations, particularly between France and England. The confrontation between the two nations spred to North America and India where both countries had colonies. Being defeated, France had to abandon its colonies in North America while in India, France retained only five territories, the establishments of Pondichéry, Karikal, Yanaon, Mahé and Chandernagor. All of them were placed under British surveillance. Dozens of French officers were demobilized or deserted their garrisons to sell their services to Indian princes. ( After all, most of them came in India to become rich, not to serve their king.) Those who stayed to serve Indian princes had under their command Indian soldiers who were trained the European way. Once engaged, these adventurers were in charge of armies comprising sometimes thousands of men, cosmopolitan battalions with officers coming from France, Italy, Netherlands, Germany,… Because of their discipline and their ability, such artillery units were dreaded by the other Indian princes. Many times, their strike force made the difference. In return for their services, these adventurers received huge domaines where they almost ruled like monarchs, where the French flag was sometimes flying.

While the British considered them as agents spying on behalf of France, most of these adventurers pursued their own personal goals ( i.e. making money). Claude Martin ( 1735-1800) was one of them. When he was still very young, he embarked to India where he served France for five years. Then, he was taken prisoner by the British but betrayed his country to serve them. He enlisted another Frenchman, René Madec, who had also been captured by the British at Gingee ( near Pondichéry) in 1761. Throughout India, Madec became famous for his military skills. At some point, he was in charge of an army comprising 100 000 men trained by 150 European officers. Benoît de Boigne ( 1751-1830) was another romantical character. First, he enrolled to serve the British before serving the Maratha kings. He was then at the head of an army of 30 000 men and became the ruler of a significant part of northern India.

Known as efficient warriors, sometimes overestimated, the French adventurers were also well-advised businessmen. Claude Martin made a fortune thanks to the indigo trade. Despite of their long-term sojourn abroad, they had not forgotten their native country. When he came back in Europe in 1795, Boigne was filthy rich. He used his fortune to embellish his native town, Chambéry. Ennobled by Louis XVI, Madec came back to his native Brittany to live a quiet life with his wife. Many times the villagers saw him riding his horse in the moor, accompanied by his loyal indian servant.

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The Indian mind

Hindu ascetic. India.

Hindu ascetic. India.

Because India is blessed by a warm climate, a rich soil, abundant productivity and easy communication, the ( traditional) Indian mind feel in harmony with the nature, with the universe. Contrary to the western mind that assigns great importance to the struggle between man and his physical environment and regards the conquest of nature as the key to cultural progress, the ( traditional) Indian mind doesn’t regard the world as a place full of forces that have to be fought and dominated but as a place where man has to adapt.

One would expect that in a mind where contemplation dominates, passion and desires would not be very strong. But that is not the case with the Indian temperament which is emotional and imaginative. Emotionalism and sensuousness are essential characteristics of the Indian mind, but these tendencies being opposed to the speculative trend, there is always a strong effort to suppress them.

In most parts of the country, there is a certain regularity and moderation in the changes of the climate. Moreover, there are no volcanic eruptions, and earthquakes and hurricanes are infrequent. Consequently, the steadiness of the natural processes has influenced the Indian mind, the Indian morality. In primitive stages, human beings don’t distinguish at all between the moral and the physical world. Their moral conceptions are based entirely on the observation of nature. So, from the beginning, the Indian mind has adhered firmly to the conviction that the moral consequences of every action are as definite and inevitable as the succession of seasons. The doctrine of predestination ( dharma, karma) is in reality the connecting link between the moral and the natural law, as conceived by the Indian mind… ( And because man has no control over the laws of nature, it can easily lead to inaction and fatalism.)

Another characteristic of the Indian mind that originate from the influence of the regularity of the weather is that changes are gradual, not abrupt. So, there is no place for revolution. The Indian mind is capable of big changes but it takes time. New ideas and movements need time before being accepted.

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Why India is such a failure in sports ?

Diving in the mediaeval fort of Chittor. India.

Diving in the mediaeval fort of Chittor. India.

Despite of its love affair with cricket, India is a big failure in sports. Since 1896, India has won only 26 olympic medals, most of them in field hockey. How to explain such poor performances since so long ? There is no obvious explanation. Many ( more or less valid) reasons could be advanced though : poverty, lack of political will, education ( succeeding in school is considered to be much more important than playing any game),…

Yet, despite of their meagre sports results, Indians have a competitive spirit. ( For centuries, the Rajput and Maratha princes have been known as fierce warriors. And Indian traders have been successful through the centuries…) But why struggling to win over an opponent for something as “superficial” as sports ? Indeed, the Indian tradition teaches it is much more beneficial to achieve your spiritual potential by dominating your desires, overcoming your fears,…than surpassing yourself physically.  Since centuries, pandits and gurus have explained that the way to progress was spiritual achievement. May be that’s the real reason why India fails in sports and other “trivialities”…

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Road transport in Pakistan

Helper washing a bus. Pakistan

Helper washing a bus. Pakistan

There is next to no training for would be drivers,… and the test is a farce. Licences are invariably obtained through bribery, and as a result there are real dangers on the roads and streets from poor judgement and suicidal manoeuvres. The general rule on Pakistan’ s roads is “might is right”. Pakistani newspapers are full of stories of buses “turning turtle”, followed invariably by the lines “driver is absconding”. Indeed, accidents often produce large and angry crowds, so the best way to avoid being beaten up ( if not worse) is to flee… ( The same is true in India where sometimes the newspapers relate the tragic end of truck drivers who have been killed by the crowd because they were responsible of a road accident !)

In theory, vehicles drive on the left ! But many drivers tend to forget the good manners… Moreover, pedestrians, cattle and a wide range of other animals roam at will. It can be particularly dangerous when driving after dark because few vehicles are ever lit. The general rule of night-driving seems to be kill your lights as you approach an on-coming vehicle, and then hit them with the full beam just before you pass ! Similarly, use of the indicator lights does not necessarily mean “I am turning right/left”; it can also be read as “Please overtake me to the left/right !”.

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India : the vultures are back

Twenty years ago, the parsis living in Bombay used to offer to the vultures their own dead. Since centuries, that’s the way parsis got rid of their dead. By respecting this tradition, none of the sacred elements ( air, earth, water, fire, ether) was polluted. Something essential for the parsis, a community that follow the teachings of Zoroaster ( a Persian prophet who lived in the VII°-VI° centuries). 

Now, there are no more vultures in the “towers of silence”( the places where the dead Parsis are left). Indeed, since the 90’s, millions of vultures in India have been decimated by an anti-inflamatory the indians used to administer to the cattle, diclofenac. So, parsis have replaced the scavengers of the skies by solar panels to get rid of their dead. But vultures could come back : two breeding farms should open near the towers of Malabar Hill ( in Bombay)…in 2014. If everything is OK, the vultures will replace the solar panels .  ( Solar energy is non operational during the monsoon.) It will cost 3.8 millions euros ( IRs 275.000.000, US$ 5.000.000) for the next 15 years : nothing for the parsis, the richest community in India.  “Most of the bird farms spend fortunes to buy meat, but for us, it’s free because the vultures eat carcasses, our own bodies,” says D.R. Mehta, the person in charge of the project.

In 1975, one of the “towers of silence” had to be closed following the construction of three high-rise buildings near the necropolis. Some dwellers didn’t like to have such a fantastic view over…the carcasses and the feeding of the scavengers !

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There is perfection in imperfection

Jaïn monk in India. In jaïnism, perfection means knowing the scriptures, being wise,... and being able to strip naked in public.

Jaïn monk in India. In jaïnism, perfection means knowing the scriptures, being wise,… and being able to strip naked in public.

Why do we feel we have to be good at something to try it, that we have to succeed at something in order to enjoy it, that we have to do something right before we feel accomplished ? Striving for perfection can create frustration and disappointment. But doing something imperfectly leads to new insights and a new way of looking at things.
Here’s what perfection is costing us :
Spontaneity : perfection is a way to be in control. But control limits spontaneity.
Process : when we focus on perfection, we are in the game for the product, for mastery, not the process. We compare ourselves against people who are further along in the process and can’t enjoy our own progress.
Completion : the higher the goals of perfection, the lower the hopes of completion.
Mystery : there is mystery all around us and enjoying the mystery evolves us. Perfection doesn’t honour the mystery.
Authenticity : striving for perfection doesn’t allow us to be authentic.
When we let go of perfection, allow ourselves to do things imperfectly, we come to see how good we are, just the way we are. So our lives can be improved when we let go of perfection.

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“Take up one idea”

Hindu pilgrim on her way to a temple. India.

Hindu pilgrim on her way to a temple. India.

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Lesotho, the mountain kingdom

Shepherd. Lesotho

Shepherd. Lesotho

“Khotso, pula, nala”. These three words ( peace, rain, prosperity) greet people as they enter the kingdom of Lesotho, a tiny African country completely surrounded by the Republic of South Africa. The people are called Basotho ( one person is a Mosotho) and the language is sesotho.

Lesotho is a very mountainous country. Only 15% of the land is flat and fertile enough for farming. However, Lesotho is primarily an agricultural country. The country has often been called the “Switzerland of Africa”. It is the only country in the world with all its land rising more than one thousand metres ( 3.280 feet) above sea-level. Thabana Ntlenyana peak up to 3.482 metres ( 11.423 feet). Until recently, it was almost impossible to drive a vehicle through most of Lesotho. Travel accross the mountains was either on foot or on horseback.

Lesotho’s high elevation accounts for its dry climate. The country is virtually free of the tropical diseases ( such as malaria and bilharzia) found in other African countries, and the sun shines for more than 300 days a year. Winters are harsh and the mountain-tops are often snowcapped.

Lesotho is one of the smallest countries in Africa with a total area of 30.355 square kilometres ( 11.720 square miles). It is similar in size to Belgium or the American state of Maryland. Lesotho’s population is about 1.4 million people, most of whom live in small towns and villages. Maseru, the capital, is home to approximately 75 000 people.

In the heart of the country, modern civilization gives way to a biblical way of life. Shepherd boys tend their herds. Distant cow-bells carry an echo over treeless cliffs. Mothers ( and girls) walk great distances each day to fetch water. The only sign of the modern world is an occasional small aircraft flying overhead.

The history of Lesotho goes back literally millions of years, and yet the country itself is very young. ( The country emerged as a nation between 1815 and 1820 under the guidance of the king Moshoeshoenand gained its independance from Great Britain on 4 october 1966.) Fossil footprints left by dinosaurs are visible. They are thought to be over two hundred million years old. The earliest known inhabitants were the Khoisan ( or Bushmen) hunter-gatherers. Skilful painters, they left evidence of their lives in rock paintings. Later, they were replaced by Bantu people during the first millenium of the Christian era. Among all the Bantu groups who lived in southern Africa, the Sotho settled in present Lesotho and adjoining territories of actual South Africa. The Basotho nation was formed by the unification of several clans in the early 19° century by the king Moshoeshoe. Following a series of wars, the basotho lost most of their territory to the Boers but Moshoeshoe appealed to Great Britain for protection and Basutoland became a British protectorate…since its independence in 1966. Since then called Lesotho, the country is a constitutional monarchy, an homogenous nation constituted by almost one ethnic group, the Sotho.

Lesotho is also the African country with the highest percentage of christians ( about 80%). ( Well, many Basotho mix the traditional ancestor worship and christianism !) The first missionaries arrived at the beginning of the 19° century : they were invited by Moshoeshoe to provide advices on foreign affairs, to help to acquire guns, to bring education. They also introduced potatoes, wheat, pigs,… to the local population.

One of the poorest countries in the world, many Basotho are forced to work in South Africa because of the lack of employment. Something like 40 % of Lesotho’s male working population work in the gold and diamond mines. They leave their homes for weeks or months; they return permanently when they retire or are disabled ( tuberculosis). The country is largely dependent on his neighbour for food, clothing, and anything to meet the basic needs of the population. The country boasts few natural resources like water ( there is a series of dams that allow the country to be self-sufficient in electricity and even export power to urban and industrial centres in South Africa), diamonds also. Sheeps being abundant, there is a basis for wool and mohair ( small scale) industry.

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Anarchy in ( muslim) India

Fakir. Ajmer, India.

Fakir. Ajmer, India.

Considered as the anarchists of Islam, fakirs are muslim ( male) wanderers who live on charity and the love of Allah.  They are not magicians who perform “miracles” such as lying on a bed of nails, eating fire, raising bodies,…even if some of them do mortifications.

Most of them are “ajlaf”. They are the descendants of low caste hindus who converted to Islam during the Muslim invasions and the Mughal era ( in the mediaeval times and the following centuries), compelled to do so by poverty or to win the protection of a new lord. They did it by entire castes… or they were seduced by the message of a sufi, a muslim mystic.

Located in the state of Rajasthan ( India), Ajmer is the fakir’s Mecca, the main muslim pilgrimage centre of the subcontinent. They come from all over India, sometimes on foot, to pay homage to Moinuddin Chishti, a sufi master who lived in the 12°-13° centuries. Usually called “Gharib Nawaz” ( the saviour of the poor), many people ( be they muslims or not, be they Indians or not, be they poor or not) gather to the saint mausoleum through the year. During the annual celebration to commemorate the death of the master, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims come to visit his tomb. Even though the presence of the fakirs is forbidden inside the “dargah”, they find this a propitious ground. Indeed, pilgrims are generous : charity is an obligation, the giving of alms one of the five pillars of Islam.

Being followers of the sufi teachings, fakirs believe the Divine doesn’t think, He sees Himself in fraternity, in poverty. So, material riches are illusory as is the world around. As disciples of poverty, the only hierarchy they recognise is that of the heart. Condemned by orthodox Islam, which reproaches their bohemian style of life, their lack of sense of responsibility ( Fakirs don’t work, they have no children. They just wander, beg…and smoke cannabis.), the fakirs disturb. But if they upset preconceived notions, it is so that others do not stay enclosed in their own certainties, so that they question their own beliefs. To go beyond the doctrines, the precepts, the particularisms, because the sufi message is universal.

Fakirs and sufi followers like to join together in burial places around the tomb of the sufi saint. Just to meditate…and smoke as well. Cannabis circulates freely and the fakirs say that smoking the “chillum”, an earthenware pipe, enables them to approach Allah,…and contemplating the Divine is a way to reach the Paradise, “Firdous”.

Such gatherings also signify that death is not the end of life, that there is a dialogue between the world of life and the world of death. So that the deceased may help us ( if we pay homage to them) and the living do not forget them. The past, present and future being joined, distinguishing them is futile.

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