Archive for the ‘English’ Category

Quotes from a guidebook

In 2001 there was a Lonely Planet book published, called “From Istanbul to Kathmandu”, featuring the ‘classic’ overland routes from Europe to India. It is out of date and not published any more, but anyways, I met someone travelling with it and found these nice quotes and this drawing:

It’s a long way from Istanbul to Kathmandu – over 10′000 km – but it’s a surprisingly easy journey.
page 12

The Iranian people are pathologically hospitable.
page 50

LP where is your bike


How far can you go?

I was in Iran, I was in Pakistan. For many people, it is unthinkable to go there. Why? It is not safe they say.

What is safety? When are you safe? We normally don’t think about it, but honestly we know that we are never safe. Every second our heart could stop beating, every time we walk we could slip and fall and get injured deathly, every time we close the door of our house behind us is a moment we enter a dangerous world (as if there would be no danger inside the house as well). Some people are paralyzed because they are scared of life. Others step out into that world and enjoy the life that was given to them.

So you are scared of going to Iran and Pakistan while I recommend it. What can you do to overcome your fear? First, define what being safe means for you. Second, inform yourself.

What is safety?

You are never entirely safe. Live with it. Safety is always relative. You can express it in a chance to survive a certain situation, but you can never entirely guarantee it for anybody. So it is never about if something is secure or not, but about how secure it is. How unsecure is too much for you? Take some time and find your line. My personal line is the everyday traffic on the streets. Many people get killed every year by simple traffic accidents. And we live with it, it is a part of the risk we are willing to take as a society. Every day. And it is okay for me too. So I consider everything that is safer than street traffic totally safe for my life. And everything that is more insecure than traffic is worth a second thought. I don’t have a no-go line because I was never confronted with it. A German friend of mine who lived in Pakistan has one. She would quit her exchange semester and go home if there is open fighting on the street. Not before.

Maybe that line is totally unrelated to what you can think of. Let me show you the steps there. First, let us go to India (or any Asian country, for that matter): The traffic is crazy. It is dangerous – at least if we apply my line. But still, crowds of tourists go to India every year. For all of them it is okay to stretch the line to some more crazy traffic. So it is for me.

For a long time, the situation in Pakistan was like this: There were suicide attacks, but only rarely and always on government buildings (police stations, secret service offices etc.). Is that something to fear? Not really, unless you are a policeman or other government official. Otherwise the chance that it hits you is incredibly small. Way smaller than getting hit by a car.

This year, the frequency of the attacks increased. On the peak, there was a daily attack. Some on the market place in Peshawar (a city close to the border of Afghanistan), one on a sidebuilding of a mosque (killing a liberal cleric). That was during the time I visited the country and it was very interesting to see how it influenced people. Suddenly people did not feel so secure anymore. I could observe that feeling in expats who were discussing their security situation. Until this point they always found confidence in the fact that the attacks targeted the government and not them. Still, most of the bombs did. But suddenly the fear factor that a bomb could hit you everywhere everytime came into the game. Exactly what the obscure enemy wants. But everybody stayed. Nobody left the country in a rush. The news were big, the unease was growing, but the real danger was still small.

What the foreigners know is that they have to keep themselves informed. Because it could happend that the front moves. And you don’t want to have an open fight close to your city, not talking of one in front of your house. That would be a real reason to leave. But the chance that this would happen was small. Which brings us to the second point.

Inform yourself

Be honest. You don’t have a clou about Pakistan. You have seen some pictures on TV and Pakistan is always in the news and that gives you a bad feeling. So what you first have to do is learn to put what you see on TV in relation. You see the result of a bomb blast, you see a huge demonstration, you see streams of refugees, you see open fightings. Well, did you ever think about that this probably happened only in one street? And in the next street… Yeah, have you ever, ever thought about the street behind the one in the news? I tell you something: In the street behind, in the parallel street, there is everydays life ruling. Maybe not in a war zone, but for sure in Islamabad.

In Turkey, I saw news on TV, showing refugees within Pakistan and I got the feeling they are flooding all the country, making it impossible to move. I almost skipped Pakistan because of that. What a huge mistake that would have been. Because of that, I know how hard it is to put information into relation when you don’t have the opportunity to see behind the news. Well, at least, try it. Don’t let fear rule. Don’t be put of by a destination by poor information. Even if there is an open war going on in a country, chances are that it is travelable in big parts. Have you thought about how journalists get the news without being killed? They are mainly in the street behind…

So, which additional information made me going to Pakistan?

Or: why didn’t I got killed in Pakistan?

The country is huge. Have you ever had a look at it on a map? You know that India is vast, but in North-South direction, Pakistan is not that much smaller. On the TV screen it may look small and the point showing where is bomb blast was covers half the country, but take it into relations. All the places they don’t cover in the news are totally safe.

I avoided all the ‘most unsecure’ areas. The areas were the army is active, Peshawar – the city close to Afghanistan that faces regular bomb blasts on market places. In most of the places I went to, I felt totally safe.

There are even travellers going to Afghanistan. I even heard the rumour that some Japanese guy cycled through it half a year ago. There are travellers going to Iraq. You think this is suicidal? Not if you inform yourself well. Most visitors to Pakistan skip Peshawar for security reasons. Most visitors to Iraq stay in the north which is a safe part, ruled by a Kurdish government. It is all about good information and about where you draw your line.


Three weeks in Switzerland

When Indian people heard that I am from Switzerland, they often said: “best country in the world” or even worse “paradise”. I could only shrug, as I knew it is not heaven. But there is some truth in this description. I am from one of the most secure countries, from one of the richest countries and all that while it counts as one with very beautiful nature. So I never denied the descriptions. I could tell you here that Switzerland is really heaven or that it is not. Let’s skip that and go directly to my impressions after one year in the east.

My mother drove me home from the airport. The highway was empty, gray, concrete, pot-hole free. A smooth ride with no disruption. But also without anything to look at. There were no animals, no humans, nobody on a bike, bicycle or ox cars. And nobody at the side of the street making fire to keep himself warm.

Which would have been necessary. It was cold. Now it is 15 degree Celsius which counts as warm (spring is coming!), but two weeks ago it was snowing. I saw again how much the climate influences the people.

Everybody has a nice warm house. Or a nice warm appartment. It is just a necessity. You would freeze to death otherwise. That is probably also one reason for our social system. We have to offer housing to the poor, otherwise they die. It looks tough to us to see people sleeping on the street in India. But probably it would be the same here if it would be warm enough all year round.

Swiss people are on time. Everybody knows it. And it is still true. No wonder – who wants to wait in the cold?

Politness and privacy are valued high here. When you enter a local bus on the countryside you say hello when you enter. But for sure nothing more. You don’t start a chat with anyone. Not that it is forbidden. People just don’t know anymore how to do it. There are not many subjects anyway because it could become too private soon.

In India it happened often that someone approached me and we had a smalltalk like the following:
“What is your good name?” – “My name is David.”
“Which your country name?” – “I am from Switzerland.”
“Oh, Swisserland! What is your job?” – “I’m a Software Engineer.” (another ohhh)
“How much you earn?”

It is no problem to ask for the wage in India. I still smile when I think of doing that here. Even good friends don’t talk about their wage. Talking about talking about the wages is already critical. You can do it if you want. But the idea that a stranger asks you in the first little smalltalk how much you earn is so alien to us that I should do it once. And then make a picture of the shocked persons face.

I realized that I am still pretty Swiss. I did not change that much. People started to speak to me on the road in India, but I didn’t approach many people. Okay, it is more difficult when you don’t know how is speaking English and who does not understand a word, so you better rely on the ones approaching you, but still, it is not in my blood to start a smalltalk. I wonder if that privacy thing goes too far sometimes.

I did not have a cultural shock. I really expected one. But now, I am happy that I could just come home and did not have to readjust first. The only thing I felt was this little insecurity. Am I behaving right? Is my behaviour culturally appropriate? Should I behave a little different?

mountain view

The view from last weekend when I went for skiing


I am in India! – Ich bin in Indien!

(Deutsch ein bisschen weiter unten)

It is not news anymore, but still: I made it to India! A month ago I crossed the border between Pakistan and India. I was so happy that I finally reached the goal of my trip!

Border Crossing 1
Border Crossing 2

The first few days I spent in Amritsar at the Golden Temple, the most holy place of the Sikhs. I really enjoyed it. It is a very special atmosphere.

Ich bin in Indien! Das ist nun schon einen Monat lang so, aber egal, am 22.November erreichte ich mein Ziel Indien! Ich war hoch erfreut und den Rest des Tages überdreht.
Die nächsten Tage verbrachte ich in Amritsar beim Goldenen Tempel – das Herzstück der Stadt und der heiligste Ort der Sikhs.
Viele Pilger übernachten dort, draussen auf dem Steinboden. Es gibt auch Zimmer für wenig Geld, aber nicht für uns. Für Touristen wurde aber extra ein Tourist Dormitory eingerichtet. Massenlager, wie ein Hostel, warme Dusche und gefiltertes Wasser. Gratis. 3 Nächte darf man bleiben. Im Tempelareal gibt es auch eine Gemeinschaftsküche die rund um die Uhr geöffnet ist und immer das gleiche serviert. Einfach, schmackhaft, nahrhaft. Und gratis! Die Gastfreundschaft der Sikhs hat mich beeindruckt. Ich war auch beeindruckt von der Logistik, es werden etwa 30-40‘000 Mahlzeiten pro Tag bereitgestellt. Ich habe dann auch mal selber eineinhalb Stunden beim Abschwasch geholfen und gesehen wie das gemacht wird. Das Geschirr geht durch 5 Waschgänge, drei Mal Seife und zwei Mal Wasser. So ist sichergestellt, dass es am Schluss garantiert sauber ist.
Um den Tempel rum ist eine wunderschöne heilige Atmosphäre. Im Tempel selber wird die ganze Zeit gesungen, die Musik wird per Lautsprecher in das ganze Areal übertragen, der Tempel ist von einem grossen Wasserbecken umgeben. Als ich das erste Mal dort stand, dachte ich daran, dass das doch so oft mein Ziel war. Der erste Ort in Indien, Amritsar, der goldene Tempel. Und jetzt bin ich dort. Bin mit dem Fahrrad dahin gefahren. Auch mal mit Bus und Zug, aber alles über Land. Und jetzt stand ich davor. Ich dachte daran wie ich von zuhause abgefahren bin, meine Lieben zurückliess, erst noch auf vertrauten Strassen fuhr und bald die Schweiz verliess. Und während ich um das Becken rum lief und langsam auf den Tempel zuging liess ich mir all die Erlebnisse und Begegnungen durch den Kopf gehen die diese Reise zu dem gemacht haben was sie ist. Es war ein wunderschöner Moment.



A story from Pakistan that should not be forgotten

Cycling on the G.T. Road, not far away from the Waga border post, we stopped for a tea at a little restaurant (if you can call it like that). A few benches in a garage and a table outside on which the tea was brewed. Only after we ordered the five teas we realised that we did not want to sit inside, there were way to many flies. We sat outside against the wall of the shop.
The owner of the shop next door then brought chairs outside for us!

Could that ever happen in our country?


Up, up, we go!

So what to do next? Flee the nannies! We took an overnight train to Rawalpindi/Islamabad. There I applied for my Indian visa and had to hear that I have to wait two weeks for it. Two weeks! What should I do? I had planned to go directly to India, skipping the beautiful north of Pakistan. But now, it sounded like an invitation to have a look at the famous Karakorum Highway, the Hunza Valley, the mountains. I left my bike in Pindi and took a bus up. But even without a bicycle, travelling kept being adventurous. Here are some stories.

In the bus up north

It was a 20 hours ride to get from the Indus valley up to Gilgit, the first station of the beautiful north. Distances are long and the road is bad. Really bad. The Karakorum Highway is just a path chopped into a steep mountain wall. And right now they are doing a lot of construction work. But back into the bus.

It got dark and cooler and cooler. The two little square roof windows were opened and I tried to close the one in the back, close to me. It did not work. Maybe it works electrically? I went to the front to ask if the driver or
the steward can close it. They did not understand what I want, but there was a nice man in the third row who spoke good English. And he told me: “We have a problem here. I am sorry. We need the fresh air. This man over there has a dead body with him.”

Na, da schluckt man erst mal leer.

I could then explain that I only need the back window closed, the steward came to the back and closed it with force. While turning around I had a discreet look at the mentioned man, but could not see a dead body.
At the next stop, my new friend explained the story. This couple had a baby, it got sick, they went to Islamabad for treatment, but were too late (or the treatment was not effective). Now they are bringing their dead child back to their village to bury it. Sad story.

Talking about India

In the hostel in Karimabad I started talking to some travellers about India. It is a strange situation, it seems like everybody has been there before, only you overlander have not. I asked for tips and where and how. And then something happened that has always happened, but still came unexpected. They told me better not to go to India! They told me it is nicer here in Pakistan, no touts, less hassles, friendly people. Again and again, wherever I go, people keep telling me not to go to the next place. And they are seldomly right. It took me a while to figure out that the one guy telling one bad story after the next was full of negativity and not a good reference. Sure, India must be a shock for the first time visitor who deboards a plane. But I did not come by plane. And in the ten days that I am here now, I did not get a bad impression at all. Travelling overland conditions you, I really recommend it.

A scene from a shop

I went to a shop which sold cloths and clothes. It was dusk and there was no light in the shop. We had to inspect the goods outside. Just after me, a lady with her daugther came to buy a jacket. She had a small discussion with the shopkeeper and then he said to me: “I have told her to coming during the daytime, so she can have a better look at what she buys. It is to dark now.”
Me: “Ou sorry, I did not want to come so late.”
He: “Nono, you are a tourist. That is alright. You tourist always have a lot to do. You always work in the internet and stuff.”



On the road to Multan everybody told us that Multan is safe. “Multan, no problem”, “Multan, safe”. So our expectations were quiet high. No police escort, freedom again. More opportunities to get in touch with locals.

We got disappointed. The local police chief seemed to have other ideas about the security situation. We had nannies all the time. And not just one policeman. No, it had to be a police jeep with six policemen! They always wanted to know our plans for the next day. Imagine five travellers who got used over months to always live in the moment, decide for the moment, people who don’t know where they will sleep at 6pm, but always find something and suddendly someone asks: When do you want breakfast tomorrow? What do you want to do tomorrow? What is your plan?
Police Escort
It was an experience. Imagine us going to the internet cafe. A jeep, two policemen in the front, four in the back, all with guns. All for a short ride to the internet cafe. And that in one of the supposedly safest cities in Pakistan. I may give you the image that Pakistan is really dangerous. But I think they were just übereager to protect us.

The only thing you can do, as always, is to make the best out of the situation. So we asked the policemen for a good and not too expensive restaurant, they brought us to one. They sat around a table, waiting while we were eating. We told them that we need to go to the hospital, no need for a taxi, they are our taxi, they even used the sirene. We want to see the shrines. They brought us there.

On the one hand, it was a cool experience, because it was so different. Always someone guarding you, we felt like VIP’s. On the other hand, always having someone asking where you are going is annoying, we felt like hostages.


Riding from Quetta to Multan

After a long bus ride from the Iranian border to Quetta, we first took some days of in Quetta and got a feeling for the new culture. Also, we tried to get a permit to cycle to Multan. We went to the Home Department of the province, talked with them a few times, provided a detailed schedule and they told us that we are going to get a fax to our hotel. The fax never arrived. On the proposed day of our departure, the hotel owner simply called the police, asked for the required escort and of we went.

On our map were two roads, a red and a yellow one. We wanted to take the yellow one, less traffic is better, isn’t it?! Well, the first few kilometers of this wonderful yellow road turned out to be just an earth road. After that uphill, sometimes paved, most of the time gravel. Then the Diarrhea came. I continued cycling for the whole day, but definitly slower than my friends. The night in the police station of a little village. The next day is was not the only one sick. We hired a pick up truck the get to Ziarat, the next place with a hotel. The road was great, sad we could not cycle that part! Ziarat is a former British hill station, but there was not much except for that one teahouse that really reminded us of an English garden. Getting better, cooking on our own for some days. Then cycling on, always a motorbike with two policemen and a gun on it next to us. No traffic on roads with great scenery. Sleeping in police stations, cooking, cycling and some crazy interactions with locals. Also some very nice moments, I will remember the policeman who said: that over there is my house. It was lunchtime and so we got invited to eat there!

The ride ended with me and a friend being heavily sick again, so we decided to take a bus to Multan while the others cycled. They seated us in the back of this minibus. On the road were a lot of checkpoints, everytime we two had to get out, crawl over all the seats, write our names and passport numbers in a book and go on. These policemen on the countryside were mostly nice, but not really bright. Sometimes we had to explain that our visas are not expired. Was it the first passport they saw? But there were other names in the books before ours… The image that will stick in my head is a policemen sitting lazily on a plastic chair, holding a rope that replaced the boom barrier, stopping cars like that.

At dawn, shortly before D.G. Khan, at some checkpoint, the police took us out of the bus, with all our luggage. It needed a lot of protesting to get an explanation. D.G. Khan was supposely to unsafe for us, so they wanted to bring us directly to Multan. Well, that suited our plans well. We had to wait for the escort for some time. In the meantime, we got offered a shower at the police station    , and even a hot one! What more can you wish?

The crazy thing with police escorts is that they are always only the police men from the current district. So at every district border a new escort is waiting. For the less-then-100km ride to Multan, we had to change the jeep three times. Always new policemen, always unloading the bicycles and all the bags und loading them again. They also have different police districts in the big cities. Cycling out of Quetta, we cycled next to four different jeeps. But I was positively surprised that we almost never had to wait for the next escort.

Read on for travellers: A recent thread on the Lonely Planet Forum about the same area.


How to deep deeper into a culture

There are certain things that help much to get an insight in how a culture works. Here are some suggestions for your next trip.

  • Go to the hospital. Preferably as a patient.
  • Post a parcel. Not with DHL – in the main post office.
  • Use a taxi.
  • Use an overland bus. Use a train. Use whatever else there is. For example motorbike taxis in Teheran.
  • Try to find something specific in town. Things you want to buy. It is getting more interesting if it is a thing of high value, for example a car.
  • Ask for a vegetarian meal.
  • Ask for the way.
  • Spend a day ore more in a small village.
  • Try to talk to locals.
  • Meet locals.
  • Be in need of help.
  • Do as the romans do and contemplate why they do it that way. Join their free time activities.
  • Work on a local farm for some weeks. (

A vicious circle

If you go to Pakistan, don’t go as a tourist, go for longer time.

That was the advice a friend got before going to Pakistan and it is true. You cannot understand this country by travelling through it, you have to study it to understand it. Nevertheless, I got some insights that helped me understanding at least a bit. The biggest insight came from understanding that Pakistan has a lot of illiteracy and poverty.

Illiteracy and Poverty

Half of the population of Pakistan can neither read nor write. I don’t know exactly how the school systems works and I heard different things. Some people say there are public schools for everybody that are free, but they are in a bad shape and if you want some good education you pay for a private school. Others told me you have to pay school money for every kid. We talked to one lady in Northern Pakistan and she told us she has to pay 2500 Rupees per month for every boy[1] so he can go to school but she does not have to pay school money for her girl. Lady in PassuThis lady was living in a small village, she had a garden, a simple house, two cows and seemed to be pretty happy. But I cannot really imagine where she could get the money for the school from. She herself had some education, about 10 years of school, but after that, her parents could not afford more school years for her next to the fact that she would have had to move to a city which is further away and which would take some money too, as there is no higher school nearby.
I realized that the state of Pakistan is not able to provide proper education to all its kids – or simply this government does not care. To be fair, it could also just be because they have problems right now that are more urgent than education. But thinking long term, it would definitely be of high value to invest in education.

Now imagine yourself living in a little village in Pakistan. You are poor, maybe you can’t read yourself, you barely survive and then you have to pay money for your child so it can go to school while it is in an age where it could already earn money. Would you let him or her go to school which cost you money or would you let him or her help in the household/restaurant/on the fields which would make your life a little more bearable?

I started to imagine the lives of the waiters when sitting in small restaurants in villages. I saw small boys washing the dishes and thought that the waiter maybe started his ‘career’ in the same age, under the same conditions. Maybe he is bound to that one restaurant, he survives, but he does not have

That also helped me understand why they sometimes react so helpless on me. Some people just stare at me, others don’t understand my simple order or giggle because of me. But there is no reason to blame someone who always lived in his village, who can’t read and therefore is hardly able to think outside his box.

If you are poor, you can’t afford good education for your kids. If your kids stay illiterate, they will never make a lot of money. They will live simple and so will their kids and so on. A vicious circle.

[1]30 CHF/US$. But to get a better picture, imagine 300 CHF/US$ as a lot of things in Pakistan just cost the tenth of what they cost in the west). And that multiplied by three, because she has three boys.