Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Afghanistan Part 2 - The Daliz Pass

Day 1)

June 8, 2009-

Sarhad e Broghil, Population 548. -elevation 3,400M or 11,154 ft

The lingering effects of food poisoning have left my body in poor shape. I am tired, my body continues to ache, my appetite is minimal, and my muscles feel heavy and weak. Despite this, I must put on my 65lb pack and begin the trek I have spent the last four months planning. As I stand in the tall wet grass beside the guest house, I feel antagonized by the imposing nature of the snow capped peaks that majestically surround me. I feel the adrenaline building up in my veins…….. I can hear adventure, discovery, and experience calling me with a seductive whisper from somewhere beyond the majestic rocky curtain known as the Daliz Pass(4,277M or .

Despite the lingering effects of food poisoning, and diminished oxygen level in the air, a result of the relatively high altitude of Sarhad, I slept fairly well. Excitement and anxiety pried my eyes open at around 5am. Soon after, our host served us a breakfast of flat bread with thick buttery tea before pointed us in the direction of the Daliz Pass. Filled to the throat with dense flat bread and salty tea, we began walking toward the barren mountainside. Our intended destination was a camp ground for nomadic caravans called Barak. Barak was located ten miles from Sarhad, and was unapologetically obstructed by the Daliz Pass (14,000+ ft). Day one of our trek turned out to be a long one, it provided us with several important lessons and an experience that neither my brother nor I would ever be able to forget.

As Toby and I slowly dragged our feet up the muddy mountainside, across the shallow streams and through the thickening snow, our lungs began to feel the strain of the thinning air. It was not until we neared the top of the first snowy ridgeline that I was able to coerce my brother to admit that the altitude was in fact wearing him down. This is the same guy who adamantly refused to wear sunblock because he was brown, and didn’t need it ( more on that fallacy later). By the time we had arrived at what we had hoped was the saddle of the pass, we were hopelessly fatigued, dehydrated and thoroughly discouraged by the incessant gusts of wind that ripped through our morale and pierced our cotton shirts like shards of frosty glass. At around 12:30 we employed the shelter of a large overhanging rock to escape the torment of the wind long enough to choke down a lunch of stale flat bread with raisons and peanut butter. The altimeter on my watch said 13,246 feet.

Shivering now, paradoxically soaked to the core from perspiration, we pushed forward up the thick muddy trail and through the knee high snow at a progressively slowing pace. Because of our fatigue, and our lack of acclimatization, we were not able to take more than 15 steps at one time before pausing to suck enough oxygen from the air to continue. The air became increasingly thin and our bags seemingly heavier with each agonizing step. We eventually made it to the top of the Daliz Pass; a flat snow field intermittently speckled with large patches of thick grass and boulder clusters. The wind gusts across the soggy mantle of the Dariz pass were pervasive and cruel. As we scurried over the top of the pass, the wind cut through our wet clothing, chilling us to the core as it gnawed at our cheeks and ripped open our tear ducts with blatant disregard for our mounting fatigue.

The descent provided us with satisfying and much needed relief, it had become obvious to us both that our pack weight and the mountain climate were given far less reverence than deserved during the planning stage of our trek. The trail gently zigzagged down a steep barren mountainside and soon placed us at the base of a steep ravine with a shallow but rapid stream providing a vein of life to the base of the desolate gorge. According to our old soviet topographical maps that we acquired online from the UC Berkeley archives, this stream was a tributary to the Oxus River.

It was now late afternoon, and my brother and I were weighted down heavily by debilitating fatigue. Being the ox that he is, Toby was now carrying a pack that weighed in the ballpark of 70lbs (30kg); mine was around 60lbs. Regretting it now, my brother had earlier in the day agreed to carry a bit more than I; this was because I was still feeling feeble due to the previous days I had spent praying to the porcelain/dirt hole gods in Ishkashem and later Sarhad e Broghil. This generous gesture is one that Toby would soon deeply regret, but one that has left me forever grateful.

After a 20 minute break spent complaining and contemplating how it was possible that we had not made it to Barak yet, we hastily began discussing possibilities of deviating from the path that lie directly in front of us. The trail in front of us looked hopelessly steep and appeared to unfeasibly lead up the far side of the steep rocky gorge. Ill with fatigue, we foolishly convinced ourselves that the trail ahead would be painfully challenging for us to navigate; therefore, we were better off finding an appropriate alternative route. Option B was to assume that the stream at the base of the gorge would gently and directly take us to the base of the Oxus River, at which point we would simply follow the river upstream until reaching our intended destination, Barak.

Undoubtedly influenced by heavy fatigue and driven by optimism thickly saturated in blinding ignorance, we chose to diverge from the path and attempt to navigate the presumably less strenuous route that followed the stream down the ravine. In retrospect, I find it shocking that we were so irrational to have diverged from the physically intimidating, yet assuredly correct path to Barak . We hardly spoke as we slowly worked our way down the stream; in vain, we diligently scoured the rocky creek bed for any sign of a path. After an hour and half, the seriousness of our mistake began to fuse itself to our dense skulls with terrifying force.

It was after 4pm, we were exhausted, and feeling lightheaded and slightly nauseous due to our lack of proper hydration and acclimatization. The stream soon became more reminiscent of a small river; this was interrupted at times with a massive snow bridge that assumed the shape and function of a small glacier. Not only were the snow drifts becoming increasingly dangerous to cross, but the ravine itself became incredibly steep and difficult to traverse. After Two hours, it appeared that we were perhaps half way to the Oxus river; however, small waterfalls and melting snow bridges obstructed us from navigating the last 500 (estimated) vertical feet downward to the base of the river.

Going further down the steep gorge had now entirely lost its appeal. We were forced to put our heads together and to brainstorm options, or lack of. It was clear that continuing down the stream would be incredibly dangerous; furthermore, we began to realize that even if we made it to the river, there was a very real possibility that we would be trapped by the steep canyon walls and swollen Oxus River. If no trail existed due to high water level, it would be likely that our exit strategy would be an immense challenge, if not an impossibility under the circumstances. Our options were limited, we were so far down the gorge that getting back up with our level of fatigue appeared to be an impossibility; moreover, camping on location was also impossible, we were deep in a narrow canyon with nothing below our feet but an ice cold stream, melting snow drifts, and large loosely set boulders……….setting up a tent would not be possible.

Worn down and weakened by the lactic acid accumulating in our legs and backs and feeling suffocated by the cold thin air, our debilitating exhaustion made our heads feel spongy and lifeless like the cumulous clouds hovering above us. In this unfavorable condition, we made our second utterly imprudent decision of the day.

I noticed a shallow rockslide (gully) on the left side of the steep gorge. It appeared that the shallow rockslide was at a climbable slope, and if we could pull together enough strength to shimmy our way up about 150 vertical feet, perhaps the steep wall of the ravine would level out enough for us to set up a tent and rest for the evening. It seemed at the time to be a simple and logical solution to our increasingly worrisome predicament, a quick fix that would bring our day of trekking to an end in no more than 20 minutes…

Perhaps not surprisingly, the gully turned out to be more challenging to climb than we had anticipated. Even at the early stage, each step was both dangerous and exhausting. We slowly and methodically crawled up the steep narrow gully and though our feet slipped continuously on the loose rocks beneath us, we were able to cling to the jagged cliff wall and slowly pull ourselves up the gully at a respectable pace. We climbed ten feet at a time, with heavy packs (my brothers being at least 70lbs), and thin mountain air, any more than that would be an impossibility in our feeble condition. After each ten foot burst our legs and arms would turn to jelly and the lactic acid built up in our muscles would deliver to us a sharp burning sensation that would often make our muscles cramp and temporarily seize up. Each incremental segment climbed would make my heart beat so hard that I could feel the veins in my temples twitching with each pulsing beat. After a minute or so of gasping for air, and wallowing in physical and psychological despair, I would check on my brother, before forcing myself upward an additional ten paces.

At 150 vertical feet above our starting point, it appeared that our climb was coming to an end. At the 300ft mark, Toby and I began to internalize our emotions of panic and fear; I for one cannot remember ever feeling as desperate, afraid, and exhausted as I did on that mountainside. At about 500 vertical feet I became so exhausted and dehydrated that my head would not stop pounding, my heart was beating so hard that it made my entire body twitch with each beat; with every meter I climbed I would feel an overwhelming feeling of nausea and shortness of breath. The gully at this point was so steep that one slip would without doubt send me to my death; even more horrifying than my own personal despair and fatigue was my lucid understanding that if I were to lose my grip, in all likelihood my body would act like a bowling ball and knock my brother off the rocks below me. There was no doubt in our minds that if this were to happen, we would both weightlessly cartwheel down the cliff at an uncontrollable rate until reuniting with the merciless boulders waiting for us more than 500 vertical feet below. I could not stop thinking about how if my brother were to slip, it would be entirely my fault. Words cannot describe how absolutely horrifying it was for me to embrace this realization.

6pm…….we were both out of water……….we were 1.5 hours into our climb, the gully was no longer a gully. We were now climbing up the side of a cliff. The 60lb+ bag on my back ceaselessly pulled me away from the cliff, providing me with a constant reminder of my hatred for gravity and our ever more dire predicament. According to the altimeter on my watch we had climbed over 600 vertical feet. The ‘cliff leveling out’ mirage was incessantly cruel, leaving us feeling ever more devastated and hopeless with each increment of climbing. I constantly searched the Cliffside for any sort of shelf that would be large enough to fit our tent and shelter us from the snow that was now coating the rocks with an undesirable lubricant. Above and below us the steep rocky Cliffside sandwiched us into a nightmare of hopelessness and fear.

At 6:30pm I could not comprehend why the cliff had not given into the hillside………….when would it level out. The snow poured heavy upon us as the sun slowly disappeared. My hands became numb and the rocks slippery from the falling snow. My palms and wrists were now raw and bleeding from the hours spent pulling myself up the sharp jagged rocks. Toby kept begging me to take some stuff from his bag, but I selfishly refused, I just could not bring myself to even consider adding more weight to my bag. Despite this I could not stop worrying about his role in this dilemma. After every 5-10 foot shuffle upward I would call down and check on him, he would usually just ignore me and look at me with a cold blank stare. What the hell could we do to get out of this……………..the cliff would have to end at some point………..but would we have the energy and will to make it to the top without passing out, or slipping on the snow covered rocks?

At 7pm it was getting dark, and we were in the middle of a snow storm. I told my brother that I could not go any further and that we should just climb into our sleeping bags and tie into the rock, or perhaps tie our tent to a four foot wide slanted rock ledge I had found. We needed to think of something quickly, time was running out, and I was becoming increasingly worried that my brother or I might lose consciousness, and allow gravity to pull us off the cliff. Toby would not entertain either of those ideas, saying it would be impossible to make it through the night that way due to the wind gusts and snow.

I continued to climb with determination to endure, though my nausea began to worsen and my head continued to throb. Toby sluggishly followed below, following each of my steps about ten feet beneath me. I felt a glimmer of hope after spotting a large jagged rock that protruded about ten feet from the edge of the cliff. The rock was about the size of a truck and lay about fifty feet up from us and off to the right around forty feet. It seemed plausible that the upper side of the rock would perhaps contain a large flat surface. We were now more than 800 vertical feet above our starting point. I felt like crying, helplessness and vulnerability was overwhelming us both. I fought hard to maintain enough motivation and optimism to escape from this situation. Having my brother below me and in such a dire predicament provided me with an ample amount of determination and incentive to continue climbing.

The other end of the large rock proved to be less than helpful as a potential camping spot. However, from this rock it appeared that an area fifty feet to the right, and seventy five feet up the mountain was an area where the cliff gave into a more gradual, but steep hillside. Toby and I pushed forward with excitement and anticipation, our misery would soon end. At around 7:20pm, Toby and I were out of the gully and standing on a steep hillside.

Feeling elated and comforted by our newfound ability to physically stand without the guidance and support of our frozen hands, Toby and I looked at each other and smiled. We cut sideways to the right along the hillside another 75ft until we came across an area level enough to pitch our tent. The snow had now stopped, the wind had thankfully subsided. After clearing away a small area, Toby and I used sharp rocks to cut a flat spot in the hillside. Toby in fact did most of the digging, each time I bent over to dig, I became overwhelmed with lightheadedness and nausea. I instead used my boots to clear away the sand that Toby had dug up ( I was basically worthless during this entire task). We set up our tent and were in bed by 8pm.

Toby and I were both incredibly dehydrated, and were far too exhausted to consider cooking. Instead, we treated ourselves to a scoop of peanut and handful of raisins each…………it was delicious. During our in-tent debriefing session, we solemnly promised ourselves that we would be more careful, and only make prudent and well thought out logistical decisions.

I shivered through the first half of the night, but eventually was able to heat my core enough to lie comfortably and fall into a semi-conscious slumber. Neither of us were able to actually sleep, our stomachs ached with hunger, our throats were dry and course from dehydration, and our muscles cramped and ached each time we attempted to readjust ourselves in the tent.

At two in the morning, when exiting the tent to use the penthouse toilet, I discovered that the tent was covered in 2 inches of fresh snow. Seeking to capitalize on this gift of nature, I quickly filled our water bottles and aluminum cooking bowls with snow and placed them in our sleeping bags so that we could melt enough snow to rehydrate ourselves. Within an hour we were able to hydrate ourselves with cold refreshing water. I continued this routine about every 2 hours until morning.

-June 9, 2009-

As the sun began to rise we slowly became aware of where we were. At 7am we saw a caravan of Yaks 100 meters above us. We had camped directly below the trail. We had learned our lesson and vowed never to diverge from the trail again.

Leaving Sarhad:


Going up the Daliz Pass:


The first saddle:




The end of day one- Toby cooking breakfast the next morning (the snow had melted by 8am)


A video of our camp spot:

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Afghanistan Part 1 Ishkashem to Sarhad

After narrowly slipping through the gauntlet of the pompous and patronizing Tajik border officials and crossing the Panj aka Amy Dariya aka Pamir river into Afghanistan, my brother and I were picked up by a middle aged Afghan man who worked for the Ishkashem branch of the Agha Khan foundation. At a slothlike pace, the dust coated white jeep carried us along a winding road and up the rocky hill to the town of Afghan Ishkashem. After being dropped off in the center of the village, my brother and I began to feel uneasy, frightened and thoroughly intimidated by our surroundings. The town was little more than a series of narrow muddy streets lined with small bazaar stalls and an occasional mud brick house. As we wandered up the muddy uninviting road, I became riddled with paranoia; I could not help but notice the leathery faces and the soiled clothes of the clusters of men who were now glaring at us with suspicious and curious eyes. My brother voiced his concerns about our safety, … I hesitated before telling him that this village was quite safe and not to worry. I was in Afghanistan……was I just being paranoid? Indeed it is common knowledge that the USA has not won any popularity contests in this country,…. after all it was the USA who was largely responsible for ripping this country to shreds for the last thirty years….but how would this affect my interaction and experience with these people.

I made a mental note: calm down and ignore stereotypes. It is unambiguous that the Western media paints a negative image of Afghans: the Taliban and ‘Islamist terrorist’ are often associated with the image of rural Afghans. This of course is an unfair and inaccurate depiction of the rural, poverty stricken Afghan people. It is common knowledge that often times Islamist terrorists come from expatriate communities in Western states, most of which whom were brought up in middle to upper class households.

I made a conscious decision to meet these curious stares head on. My brother Toby and I began confronting the curious stares by walking directly to each person on the street and saying Asalam Ahalikum, and following this with a sincere handshake and a smile. The fear and unjustified paranoia began melting away with each Afghan we met. Most would open both hands and sandwich my hand with theirs, they would do this with a warm smile and welcoming eyes. The key, in retrospect, was to ignore the nasty images of the Western media and to humanize these people by looking into their eyes and establishing a real and more accurate perception of these people; one based on fact and experience, rather than propaganda and negative imagery. Why does a turban, muddy boots, a weathered caramel colored face, and a striped chapan (Tajik/Uzbek robe) inspire in us a visualization of terrorism and hate? With this logic, should it not be fair that an image of a Chinese person immediately remind us of the atrocities and ideologies of Mao, or should a Georgian person fundamentally inherit the visage and reputation of Stalin?

Ishkashem was really not much of a town, it is a small trading post reputed to be a hub for opium trafficking. Despite the unlikely location, being so far out of my comfort zone began to make me feel alive. The previous eight months I had spent back in the United States had provided me with rest, reconnection, and a thorough reevaluation of the strengths, weaknesses, and existence of the relationships that make me whole. I left the U.S. because of the suffocating feelings of anxiety, monotony, and uncertainty that was chipping away at my soul. Falling back into my old life, and into my old self was becoming a depressing reality………being back on the road and in Afghanistan freed me from these heavy feelings. Peace and happiness slowly returned to me with each step I took into the Wakhan. These feelings were strengthened by the privilege and honor of sharing these special, unique and exhilarating experiences with my little brother.

After shaking dozens of hands and growing a bit more familiar and comfortable with my new surroundings, Toby and I checked into a small quest house across the road from the local police station ( the ‘Aria guest house’). We spent the rest of the evening wandering around Ishkashem gathering supplies for our trek at the local shops. We purchased: 4 head scarves, 3kg of rice, 1.5kg of lentils (bad idea, they take forever to cook at high altitudes), curry powder, 3 rolls of TP, .5kg of raisins, .5 kg of black tea, and a few bags of seasoning powders.

We were not alone at the Aria guest house. An enlightened Japanese guy with an American accent(he went to photography school in the States, and was born there) in his early 30s was also staying with us at our guest house. His name was A.K. Kimoto (his website is: www.spidersandflies.com). AK is a journalist and was in Ishkashem taking photos and gathering information about the problems associated with the widespread opium addiction in the area. Toby and I enjoyed spending our evenings with A.K. and learning about all of his research and experience. Though he considers his home base to be Thailand, he had previously spent a good amount of time in Kabul, and was putting together a self funded academic piece, and photo book on opium addiction in NE Afghanistan. According to A.K., many villages in the area, if not all, have an adult population with a 50% or higher opium addiction rate. In essence, most of the households have at least one opium addict.


-Side note: over a year later, as I finally type up my journal about Afghanistan, I have found out some unfortunate news. While doing a bit of research on A.K. to make sure his website is still up, I have found out that A.K. had passed away in spring of 2010. His website is no longer working, but you can find tributes to him, and an array of his work all across the web.

I feel compelled to share with you these words A.K. wrote about his time in Ishkashem, I found them online, but have not been able to track down his photo essay yet. I hope to do so.


“I offer to transport the mother and child to a clinic. One of the elders cuts me off before I can finish my thought. He smiles gently as he tells me that the child would never survive such a journey in the cold rain, and anyway, this way of life and death have been repeated for centuries in these mountains.”

Opium Addiction in Badakshan- words of A.K.Kimoto

In the remote North-Eastern province of Badakhshan in Afghanistan, opium and heroin addiction are ravaging isolated mountain communities, and the staggering numbers are only getting worse. In some places, it is said that 70% of the population use drugs in some form, from hashish, to raw opium and refined heroin powder. It is not uncommon to find three generations of a family smoking together behind closed doors.

Traditionally, Opium was used as a cure-all, the magic medicine that could work wonders on anything from back pains to headaches to the nagging cough that every one has during the brutally cold winter months. The residents of Ishkashem, on the Tajikistan border say that it was never a problem before. Now, the situation is changing. In Ishkashem, it is said that at least 50% of the population has a serious drug addiction problem. Other remote villages further down the inaccessible Wakhan Valley are said to have an unbelievable 70-80% addiction rate. Children are born into addiction every day, and thus, the cycle is perpetuated.

I also found one of the last correspondences he had with his close friend James Whitlow Delano ( www.jameswhitlowdelano.com ) regarding his lack of recognition for his work in Ishkashem:

-a pic A.K. took in NE Afghanistan-


“I don’t care about being recognized, and I don’t care if I go through life with no fame to show for my efforts. What bothers me is if people don’t take my latest work seriously. Not for my sake, but for the sake of the people who allowed me to photograph their lives. When was the last time you saw a 4 year old sucking down heroin? Is it not a tragedy? If I can’t do anything to bring attention to their plight, and if nobody cares, then what am I doing with my time and in fact, my life? It was never about awards or anything like that. I thought it was about being out in the world, witnessing things that others don’t see, and sharing these stories with a larger audience. I always said that I do what I do because I only have 2 hands.

6-6-2009 (journal entry)

I feel like shit again. The mutton stew and beans I ate for dinner last night ripped my stomach apart and has left me frail and weak. Food poisoning again! Went to the border bazaar today but was too ill to enjoy it. Popped a few pills that A.K. hooked me up with, and sat on the side outside the rock gate trying to ignore the curious stares and salesmanship of the vendors.

Getting transport and permission to go into the Wakhan Corridor has been a headache. After a lot of haggling with several different drivers, I was able to get transport for $600……….which is an extortionate price for the service. The Hilux will take us from Ishkashem to Sarhad e Broghil, and pick us up two weeks later and drive us back to Ishkashem. We also have a local guy sorting out our permits to get into the Wakhan. He is using his connections in Faizbad and Ishkashem to sort out permission for us to go into the Militarized border zone of the Wakhan corridor and Afghan Pamir. Slept most of the day, too sick to eat, sat around outside with Toby and A.K. most of the evening, drinking tea to stay warm and listening to A.K. talk about the heartbreaking stories of opium addiction and poverty in the villages surrounding Ishkashem. He spends each day with a young interpreter, about 18 years old, and a driver that he picked up out of town for the price of $50 a day, which is not that bad. He tells us that people are usually reluctant to have their picture taken, but he always explains to them that what he is doing is trying to spread awareness, so as to bring help to the area, and a way out of opium addiction and poverty.

7-6-2009 (Journal entry)

It all begins….. Our documents showed up late from Ishkashem, so we were not able to leave Ishkashem until 7am. The first police checkpoint in the Wakhan Corridor was a breeze; our papers got us through without hassle. Down the road a ways, we were stopped at the next checkpoint in the town of Shandar, this scheduled stop was a bit more challenging. After an hour of phone calls, waiting around, and a douse of uncertainty and confusion, the head of police called the commander in Ishkashem (whom he knows well,.. my brother and I had both met him as well), and soon after we were allowed to pass through the gate. Four hours into the jeep ride we reached the town of Qali Panja.

-side note: Qali Panja marks the end of the Wakhan Corridor and the beginning of the Big Pamir)

The local police questioned us briefly before accepting our permits from Ishkashem and Faizbad and writing us another one for Sarhad e Broghil. After the business end was taken care of, they invited our driver and both my brother and I into the police shack for lunch. Rice, bread, and tea…..sitting on the floor with five other soldiers, eating scoops of rice with curled fingers,……though my stomach was still a bit rough, it was a great and memorable experience.

The drive through the Corridor has been amazing, small Wakhi settlements and villages seemed to arise from piles of barren rock, caravans of double humped camels were often visible from the narrow dirt road. The Wakhi people wore bright red clothes and elaborate necklaces and scarves. I began to notice how their pale skin was often chapped and severely sun damaged, this giving them a very unique and weathered look, one that brought about emotions of empathy and sadness. The rugged road that took us the entire way to Sarhad was by all definitions intense. We drove through rivers and deep muddy streams, over deep ruts and mounds, and up and down the steep rocky mountainsides. Wakhi shepards, young and old watched over their sheep and goats, grazing them in the lush grassy fields along the riverside. Centuries if not millenniums old petroglyphs were frequently seen on large boulders near the road. It was a fascinating and beautiful ten hour jeep ride; however, Toby and I were both quite relieved when it ended. We arrived in Sarhad e Broghil slightly after five pm. Sarhad is the end of the jeep trail, it was an exciting realization that we must go on foot from here…

Soon after arriving, we were greeted warmly by our host and a dozen or so of the local Wakhi villagers. All had severely chapped cheeks, leathery skin and glowing eyes. The guest house consisted of a mud and rock shack surrounded by a 1.5 meter mud wall. Just outside the guest house were about forty Yaks owned by a Kygryz caravan. They were all resting and reenergizing after a long journey into Sarhad from their mountain settlements deep into the Little Pamir. The Kyrgyz territories are located deep into the Little Pamir and start with the village of Bozai Gombaz, before this village is exclusively Wakhi settlements. They respect each others cultural and religious differences and seem to have a very solid trade and social relationship, despite the fact that they segregate themselves geographically. The Kygryz are Sunni Islam, while the Wakhi are Ismaili Islam (a branch of Shia). Their language also differs, but from my experience, they all seem to know each other’s languages, as well as Pashtun.

Sarhad can be described as a serene location. Sarhad is made up of a series of mud shacks and low grassy hills. To the south is a wide flat riverbed interrupted at times by generally shallow streams. Beyond this is a wall of jagged snow peaked mountains belonging to the Karakoram Range, the peaks of these mountains generally representing the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. At the eastern tip of Sarhad is where three of the four highest mountain ranges in the world collide with breathtaking elegance. To the east of Sarhad you can see the Hindu Kush on the left, the Pamir in the center, and the Karakoram to the right. I don’t believe I have ever stood in a location exhibiting as much natural beauty and cultural vibrancy as Sarhad e Broghil. I must note however, that the Wakhi people of Sarhad are visibly worn down by the struggles of everyday life. The infant mortality rate in the Wakhan Corridor is claimed by many to be the highest in the world (163+/1000).


-“The human population of the whole Wakhan/Pamir area-both settled Wakhi and nomad Kyrghyz-suffer

from a compound of problems including chronic poverty, ill health, lack of education, food insecurity,

and opium addiction, arising from the remoteness and harshness of their environment and the lack of

resources and facilities”. (UNEP 2003 http://postconflict.unep.ch/publications/WCR.pdf)

After a quick meal, my brother and I went on a walk around the village trails. We stopped briefly on a large burial mound overlooking the river and expressed to each other the overflowing joy we felt to have finally reaching the trail head.

Here are a few pics:

Men in Iskhashem





On the road leaving Ishkashem…


Pics from the jeep trail:






Lunch at the Police Station

My Brother Toby pictured to the left:



The people of Sarhad e Broghil:










Photo credits go to my brother Toby on a few of these, notably the one below.








Day one! Hitting the trail………..destination over that pass in front of me



Ishkashem panoramic shot:

Border market in Ishkashem. Tajiks and Afghans meet at the border once a week to trade with one another:

Friday, August 07, 2009

Khorog to Afghanistan-


It was an incredible relief to finally be in Khorog. The van ride was easily the most uncomfortable 30 hours of my life. I was consumed with euphoria and adrenaline as I began making my way down the crowded dusty road toward the center of town. Toby was easily as exhausted as I, but in good spirits due to our recent escape from the soviet cage we had been imprisoned in.

Khorog reminded me a lot of Sarajevo: it being an isolated oval shaped town engulfed with high mountains in all directions, and also being a town that has seen its share of conflict in the last 20 years (mostly civil). Khorog, despite its unlikely location is an incredibly young and educated region of Tajikistan. It hosts several universities and has seen the benefit of a substantial amount of development money from the Aga Khan Foundation.

With a bit of help from some friendly locals, my brother and were able to find a relatively comfortable home-stay near the center of town. It was situated within a cluster of mud houses not far from the main road. We were provided electricity, warm meals, and even a makeshift western style toilet (an outhouse with a real ceramic toilet above the hole). Electricity was pretty much standard in the area thanks to Tajikistan’s major industry (Hydro-electric power), but plumbing was pretty much non-existent. Unfortunately the Tajik’s, due to hard economic times and an incredibly unstable privatization/independance period, the Russians have bought up much of their Hydro-Electric industry.

Exhausted yet powerfully euphoric with anticipation, we spent the evening sorting out logistics in a nearby Russian restaurant. As night fell, stress and uncertainty weighed heavy on my body and mind, but with a belly full of borsch and Tajik vodka I slept like a baby.

-I should note that during my short time in Khorog, I came across no fewer than five Tajiks, women and men, who were missing one or both legs. I of course cannot be certain of the cause of these particular injuries……..but I am willing to assume that they were all victims of land mines left in the area during the soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Along the Der-yoi Panj river which provides a natural border with Afghanistan for hundreds of miles, land mines lay dangerously hidden in forgotten locations throughout the area. Though many specific areas are marked with warning signs……….it is no surprise that innocent shepherds continue to fall victim to these lingering, indiscriminate capsules of hate.


Off to Afghanistan-

At 8am Toby and I hired a Russian jeep (Lada-Niva) to take us to the small southern border town of Ishkashem. The three hour river route heading south to Ishkashem was amazing. Rusting shells of Soviet Tanks littered the roadway and provided a stark reminder of the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in the 80s. Separating Tajikistan from Afghanistan along the west side of the road was the Der-yoi Panj river, historically known as the Oxus. High snow peaked mountains lay jagged and bare on both sides of the windy road toward Ishkashem. Glancing across the river into Afghanistan provided a fascinating spectacle; shepherds and farmers were living in desolate caves along the steep rocky mountainside. Crops were being sewn into seemingly barren fields high up the steep mountainside. I grew more fascinated and energetic with each passing minute. We were entering a desolate, high elevation area with a smorgasbord of cultural purity and significance.

As we drove along the weather damaged mountain road the thin air slowly squeezed our lungs as our elevation began to increase. Desperate looking village kids as young as 3, would often swarm our jeep with red crusty faces and innocent smiles. Their tiny hands would shove large vegetables into our windows while yelling the prices at the top of their lungs with desperate passion. Our driver purchased three large mountain vegetables from a group of children, but only after haggling quite hard for a fair price. The vegetables were wrapped up like corn, had a look similar to broccoli, and a pungent smell which seamed to be a mixture between onion and garlic. The jeep reeked pretty bad after we picked up these mysterious veggies.

We passed several desolate mountain villages on our way south. Young women with bright colored head scarves, thick wool socks, pastel colored rubber sandals, and dusty velvet gowns gathered water from the nearby river with yellow plastic jugs as our jeep slowly progressed along the narrow path. These villages were far from any sort of electricity or plumbing. In fact, plumbing is something I had not seen since Dushanbe. The men generally dressed relatively modern while the women almost always wore traditional scarves wrapped around their hair. (Square skull caps identical to the Uzbeks were widely worn by men throughout Tajikistan)

{This is of course an indication of the blurry cultural boundary between the Uzbeks and Tajiks. The Uzbeks and Tajiks had always(as far as modern history goes) coexisted in the region that stretched from the Pamirs to Beyond Bukkara. During the early 20th century, the Soviets colonized Central Asia and forcefully split Turkestan into countries based on the ethnicity of the inhabiting tribes and clans. Russia had already conquered Central Asia in the late 19th century (Great Game era) but had done little more than establish control and set up trading and diplomatic posts until the Bolshevik revolution turned Central Asia upside down. Since Turkestan has historically been a nomadic territory with long established city-states, this task proved to be a challenging one. The Kyrgyz and the Kazakhs were the easiest clans for the Russians to deal with. The people of both groups are nomadic, and had never really been part of any certain city-state within Central Asia. A border was drawn………a history and culture was created, cities were built, and oppressive violence forced the nomads into relatively sedimentary lifestyles. It is probably worth noting that in my opinion there is no real difference between the Kazakhs and Kyrgyz when pertaining to culture. They are undoubtedly different clans……..but their real difference lies in the geographic regions in which they have historically occupied.

The Turkomens were also relatively easy to sort out. They are sedimentary people, whom have had a settlement carved out alongside the Caspian Sea for ages.

The major problem issues arose while the Russians attempted to sort out modern day Uzbekistan. This stretch of land contains almost all of the important ancient Silk Road city-states of Central Asia. Uzbek tribesman were undeniably the majority of the region, however the Tajiks had a strong presence in both Buckara and Samarkand and throughout various parts of modern day Uzbekistan…….enough of a presence that they are to this day quite irate about losing these cities to the Uzbeks. Sorting out Uzbekistan was a problem from day one. When the Russians drew up the borders and created the first draft of Uzbekistan…..the Tajiks were more or less ignored. The Uzbeks now officially controlled Khiva, Bukhara, Samarkand, Tashkent and the entire Ferghana Valley. Being the main minorities of the region, the Tajiks were initially given an autonomous region within Uzbekistan (1924). Then later, after a lot of bad noise the Tajiks were granted their own Socialist Soviet Republic in 1929. This of course did not erase the tension between the Uzbeks and Tajiks………….

The second problem with the split was the Ferghana valley……which is a region of Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, and Tajiks all inertwined………..cutting a border in this region needless to say has caused quite a bit of conflict. One only needs to look at a map to see the ridiculously carved borders of this region to understand how difficult it was for the Soviets to draw the line. Needless to say, all was not fair in the end, and many ethnic clans soon found themselves a minority group of the wrong country.}

OK, I will stop trying to create a history lesson and get on with my present explanation of my recent journey. I will mention however that the Tajiks are perhaps the only group in Central Asia that can truly claim substantial cultural and ethnic differences amongst other Central Asian clans. The Tajik Language is similar to Farci, while the Uzbeks and all other Central Asian tribesmen (including the Uigers of Western China) speak a Turkic language. Over the years, very few cultural differences have remained amongst the Tajiks and Uzbeks………..language is now the defining factor.

By the time we had arrived at the Tajik Afghan border it was noon, and the border was closed for lunch. The desolate border post was quite basic and simple….nothing more than a narrow steel bridge followed by a couple portable shacks for customs officials.

Bad vibes and mutual resentment began to thicken the air as my brother and I became aware of our close proximity to a Tajik military police check point. Unfortunately for us, the police checkpoint was located less than 100M from the border, an altercation was inevitable. Knowing that our permits and visas were in order, we were a bit more annoyed than worried about our proximity to the police checkpoint. Getting hassled, harassed, and shaken down by military police had become a familiar occurrence for us throughout our time spent in Tajikistan: {we had passed through no less than six police checkpoints in the last two days, many with officers who casually asked us for a bit of baksheesh for their troubles} . Predictably, within minutes of waiting outside the closed border, a group of soldiers approached Toby and I and demanded to see our passports. After I was forced to answer a few simple questions (in Russian), the young soldiers took our passports and walked back to their headquarters.

For two agonizing hours, we sat anxiously on wet chalky stones staring blankly into the heart of the grey flowing river below us. Rain began to pour from the sky just as a group of middle aged soldiers began walking our direction with our passports in hand. I unwarrantedly sighed in relieve.

Six roughneck soldiers with red leathery faces and bushy mustaches marched up to Toby and I with an underlining demeanor of mischief. Almost immediately I began to smell trouble; they had a suspicious and angry look in their eyes as they began berating us with questions. By the time my Russian language skills had became completely exhausted, the trouble had intensified immensely. I understood the issue, but was a bit unclear as to what exactly was going to happen to us.

-The Situation:

The dimwit at the Tajik Embassy in WA D.C had forgotten to stamp my brothers visa. And anyone who has spent anytime in former Soviet countries knows that without a stamp all documents are completely worthless.

So here we were in the middle of nowhere, exhausted, frightened and completely helpless as a group of Tajik military police relentlessly pried us about how we were able to enter Tajikistan with an invalid visa. After about 30 minutes of bad noise, the commander of the ramshackle police check point came over and in broken English began angrily explaining to us the situation.

-I was OK, my passport, visa, and GBAO permit was inline and was without problems.
-Toby was in Tajikistan with an unstamped visa, which makes it invalid
-this in essence meant that Toby was in the militarized GBAO region of Tajikistan without a valid visa…….. which was really not the ideal place to be without immaculate documents.

{the Gorno-Badakhshan region of Tajikistan tried to break away from Tajikistan during the civil war of 1992, but when the dust settled the local government of the GBAO region settled for being an autonomous region within Tajikistan.}

Toby stood motionless in a surreal state of petrified shock as the officer began explaining to us that Toby would undoubtedly be sent to jail and eventually deported. Having put hundreds of hours of planning into this journey, and come such a long way only to be shut down at the border of Afghanistan was not easy for me to digest. I spent a good 30 minutes pleading with the officers to let us through. I told them that we would be happy to pay a fine if we could simply slip into Afghanistan. I even promised that we would never return to Tajikistan if he merely allowed us to slip through the cracks of Tajikistan’s suffocating bureaucracy(my plan B was to come back in through the border above Kunduz after the Afghan Trek).

An hour later we had gotten absolutely nowhere. We were now through the gate and in the customs office, but where being detained. The sinister smirks on the officers faces made it clear to me that this was the most action that any of these men had seen for quite some time. I began to panic……angry faces, koloshnikovs (AK-47s), jail, deportation, failure, exhaustion, danger, pain, embarrassment, shame, helplessness……..what was happening..

Their crusty sunburned faces sat on their wiry frames like evil scarecrows, enjoying every minute of our discomfort and helplessness. The soldiers resented my desperation, and seamed to thoroughly support the proposed outcome of our dilemma. My brother and I had completely lost our composure and wore a thick mask of desperation and exposure. We were now at the mercy of poor, corrupt, bored, military police at one of the most desolate borders in the world.

Our bags were searched thoroughly as a series of phone calls were made by the station commander. Condescending and unsympathetic glares were directed at us as we stood like frightened puppies in the corner of the dusty steel shack. A million thoughts raced through my mind while we floated in the sea of uncertainty. My brother having very little travel experience was now in perhaps the most frightening and uncertain predicaments of his life. Would he be taken to a desolate Tajik prison while they sorted out his deportation documents? Would we be able to afford the bribes we may be forced to pay?

An agonizing hour went by before the officer stamped our passports and signaled us to start walking toward the Afghan Customs. We were told that since our visa invitations were filed in Dushanbe and our GBAO permits were inline, the military headquarters in Dushanbe had given us the OK to pass through.

It was a Friday……….so the Afghan customs officers had not returned to the post from their long lunch. We were forced to wait another 45 minutes with our tormenters before we were able to pass through the relatively easy Afghan customs and finally step foot on Afghan soil.
On the road from Khorog to the Ishkashem border crossing
I finally made it into Afghanistan. This photo was taken about 200 Meters from the border post on the Afghan side.

Friday, July 17, 2009

The beginning of the end- Journey to Tajikistan

After a quick tour of Chicago and NYC, my brother Toby and I excitedly boarded a plane heading to the world abroad. Our journey began with a quick tour of Istanbul, Turkey, subsequently followed by a relaxing couple weeks in my home away from home, Bulgaria.

I can’t stress enough how completely amazing it was to be back in Bulgaria. All the stress I had been accumulating throughout the previous ten months seemed to vanish within the first few days I was in Bulgaria. I felt at home, comfortable, and exceptionally happy. I was able to reconnect with my host family, old friends, and my former colleagues from the Municipality of Chirpan. Speaking Bulgarian again was like a breathe of fresh air. Surprisingly, the words flew out of me quite naturally and the vocabulary came back rather quickly. After spending two weeks in Bulgaria, I found it enormously difficult to leave. Before leaving, I pledged to myself that I would make an effort to return sooner than later.



Toby and I arrived at the Dushanbe airport just after 3am on the second of June 2009. Our excitement and curiosity seemed to overpower our undeniable feelings of exhaustion as we made our way through Tajik customs. Once through customs, I was able to use my choppy Ruski skills to hire a cab to a nearby hotel. Our rusty, packed to capacity soviet era Lada (Russian car) controlled by a grisly middle aged Tajik man with a black square skull cap and a wiry grey mustache, peacefully sputtered along the dimly lit, tree lined streets of Dushanbe before stopping suddenly in front of the large blatantly soviet Hotel Dushanbe. We had made it!

The hotel felt uniquely comfortable and familiar: peeling wallpaper, obnoxiously high ceilings, walls smothered with arrogantly tacky paintings, mundane, sloppily laid rugs, the musky smell of mildew and cigarettes, and an angry, worn out, middle aged woman with dark sad eyes and an invasive pubescent mustache on each floor. There is nothing quite like a soviet era hotel; on one hand they are quite shabby, dark, and gloomy, but on the other they are spacious, peaceful, and strangely comforting.

Sleep was patchy at best and generally uncomfortable………. our fifth floor room gathered heat with mysterious efficiency and my short narrow bed appeared to have been built for an eight year old. After a few hours of frequently interrupted sleep, we forced ourselves out of bed, and by 8am made our way to the hotel restaurant. Another quite cliché soviet experience; Large high tables, seat cushions peppered with cigarette burns, 70s drug dealer décor, no lights, with only one window uncovered, and an angry looking young waitress with black hair, piercing brown eyes and a stenciled in unibrow. Our meal was about as plain as can be, which was due to the fact that my Russian restaurant vocabulary is quite minimal. My brother giggled as he absorbed the strangeness of post soviet Tajikistan. Little did he know that strange, bizarre, and difficult was the overall theme of former Soviet Central Asia.

Our day consisted mostly of running around town sorting out visas and logistics for our journey east. Plump warm raindrops dropped through the thick, grey, suffocating sky while we wandered around the surprisingly clean concrete jungle of Dushanbe. To my surprise, Dushanbe was actually the most well maintained former Soviet Capital that I had ever visited. The streets were clean and the buildings appeared to have been built with relative skill as they vibrantly glowed with visibly fresh coats of brightly colored paint.

On the 3rd of June we woke up early in order to take a flight into the Pamir Mountains to the incredibly isolated mountain town of Khorog. Khorog is located in the militarized GBAO region of Easter Tajikistan. We were required to attain special permission and a GBAO permit before entering the region. Unfortunately, since the clouds were lingering and the flight was presumably cancelled, we were forced to travel to Khorog by land. Without fully comprehending the implications and consequences of our actions, we made our way to a cluster of 4x4s on the edge of town and began inquiring about hitching a ride east.

This is when we made the first major logistical error of our journey. My Brother Toby and I decided to purchase seats in an old Russian 4x4 van. In retrospect, a land cruiser would have been the obvious correct choice for a drive of this magnitude.

So it began………15 of us packed like sardines into a half broken, grey wrecking ball of Russian steel and soviet engineering. The interior of the rig was a custom job: a couple of velvet covered steel benches bolted to the floor, two rows of broken seats, a small 80s era home stereo fastened snuggly into the dashboard, and red velvet material hastily fastened to the interior roof. Besides the worn out shocks and seats that constantly split apart with the slightest turbulence (which consequently forced my knees into the steel chair in front of me); the most irritating part of this vehicle was the damn velvet roof covering. While sitting, my head rested about 1.5 inches from the steel roof of the vehicle. The sloppily installed Velvet roof covering hung down about 8 inches from this roof……..which meant that for 30 excruciating hours, I had a dusty, sweat soiled piece of fabric resting on my face.

Due to a violent drug war that was rumored to be going on throughout the region along the Northern route to Khorog, our van was forced to take the low route, which for most of the journey hugged the edge of the Darya ye Panj river. Across the river, a mere stones throw away, lay Afghanistan .

We departed Dushanbe at around 10am and began sluggishly roaming down the dirty, pothole ridden asphalt toward the Pamirs. Dust poured through the broken windows as we were all slowly cooked in our velvet lined mobile oven. My patience began to diminish as we constantly took breaks and stopped for vehicle maintenance reasons. After the first five excruciating hours of the journey, I had begun to ignore the severe discomfort I was enduring. I had forced myself to accept the situation and began trying to enjoy the natural beauty and cultural richness of my surroundings.

Sharing this vehicle with friendly Tajik families turned out to be the highlight…….and only redeeming aspect of this journey. Bottles of unpasteurized goat milk were generously passed around the van along with cookies, candy, and various forms of nan bread. Toby and I had become part of a family and were treated with sincere kindness and warm hospitality. At the end of the day, we were all in it together…….and were forced to make the most out of a trying situation.

Another positive aspect of this journey was the incredible views from the tops of the mountain passes. One pass in particular looked down upon a beautiful blue-green lake with containing bright red islands with dark green caps. The lake was surrounded by lush, green rolling hills which expelled a consuming ora of serenity and uncontaminated bliss.

As darkness fell, the all-encompassing dust continued to coat my body and lungs while cool air swept in through the cracked windows and began to slowly dry the damp clothing which was glued to my body with an adhesive of dust and perspiration. Sleep was absolutely impossible; in fact, in order to avoid harsh discomfort, one must be alert at all times. Each time I unintentionally dozed off, I would be violently jarred awake by the van hitting a large bump or rock in the dirt road. The vehicles breaks would be used without warning, forcing my knees to smash against the chair in front of me while my head slammed against the van’s steel roof. As I attempt to describe how painful, irritating, and all around miserable this experience was for me………I wonder how I made it to the other side with my sanity.

At 3am we were forced to stop for close to three hours while a tractor cleared the roadway in front of us. A giant rock slide had recently fallen and obstructed the narrow road in front of us with boulders the size of Volkswagens. This particular stretch of the road cut along a steep mud and boulder cliff side which hugging the northern edge of the Darya ye Panj River. Being confronted with this massive obstruction helped me comprehend just how sketchy and dangerous this road actually was. Not only were the edges of this road heavily mined (there were several warning signs), but huge boulders and massive rock slides continuously fell upon the road. I was told that earlier this year a passenger vehicle was struck by one of these rock slides; hurling them down the rocky cliffside and into the river 200ft below the road, killing everyone inside.(Further research shows that in this mountainous region of Tajikistan there have been 23 deaths due to mudslides/rockslides in April-May of 2009)

At 7am we stopped for breakfast at a one shack village nestled into a lush grassy corridor near a sharp bend in the Panj river. We were served by a short middle aged man with a leathery face and soft green eyes, along with his two young daughters. This weather worn mountain family appeared incredibly dirty and unusually primitive. Knowing that their nearest neighbors lived over an hour drive in either direction, it dawned on me that these young girls would most likely never have the opportunity to go to school, experience the world, read a book, or even have the opportunity to venture far from their small mud shack. When I am confronted with these disheartening realities, it makes me resent the pettiness of the Western World. We have grown so accustom to comfort, mobility, and unrestricted pleasure that we often forget how lucky we truly are. While people bitch about traffic and slow internet, there are children all over the world who are forgoing educational opportunities in order to slave away so that their families are able to consume enough calories to survive. I of course am no exception to pettiness; I am in the middle of writing a long description about how horribly painful a certain van ride was for me. If I step back from this situation and look in with the eyes of one of these young girls from the roadside tea shack, things begin to look quite different. Perhaps the young girl would scowl at me and with a look of frustration across her saddened face, would tell me that the cost of my “horrible” van ride is more than her family earns in a month, and maybe I should stop complaining about journeys I take for purposes of leisure and curious exploration.

At 3:45pm on the fourth of June, we arrived in Khorog. The journey along the desolate hardly maintained jeep trail was absolutely horrible. Our van waded through large flowing rivers, up steep rocky hills, and along perhaps the worst road I have ever experienced. This entire journey was completed at an incredibly sluggish pace…….557km in 30 hours!



Thursday, July 16, 2009

Dusting off the cobwebs-

I have been staring through the glowing soul of a white computer screen for the last 40 minutes trying to muster up enough enthusiasm and creativity to begin shoving my thoughts and memories into this box of aging technology. Writers block seems to be an understatement and perhaps an unfair title for what I am currently experiencing. Assuming that you must first be a ‘writer’ to acquire writers block;……….I will say that due to my lack of achievement and past professionalism in the field of writing, I should perhaps only mention that I am suffering from severe laziness and perhaps even lack of confidence.

In many ways the last four years of my life have been a sloppy pastel smudge on the roadmap of adulthood. Experience I have gained but professionalism, responsibility, love, and achievement have been reminiscent of vanishing ink on this roadmap. What I am forced to confront is whether or not ‘experience’ is worth the sacrifice. Sadly, self induced pain is a nagging discomfort that does not merit sympathy. However, how else am I able to describe the painful, uncomfortable, lonely, and depressing lifestyle I have chosen for myself? Are these thoughts even worth writing, or is it better to internalize the turbulence constantly festering within my mind?

After a 27 month Peace Corps assignment in rural Bulgaria I completed a ten month journey which took me into the depths of the developing world. These experiences were incredibly eventful and without a doubt rewarding, however, they did brew a stodgy level of depression, loneliness and confusion that I am to this day struggling to digest. A consuming fire has ignited within my heart, mind and soul. My internal struggles, wanderlust, and inherited need for comfort and stability have become increasingly exhausting throughout the last 9 months of my life. As I attempt to write and ponder my life choices, a couple nagging quotes are beginning to eat away at my concentration.
(both from the Tao De Ching)

-“When you stand with your two feet on the ground, you will always keep your balance.”
-“The more you know the less you understand.”

The first quote sticks out in my mind because of the “a rolling stone gathers no moss” lifestyle I have been living in recent years. Perhaps this ancient Chinese philosophy rings true…………it is a bit difficult to maintain stability while wandering through life aimlessly and avoiding mainstream Western Societal norms.

The second quote is one that has been eating away at my mind for quite some time. I feel that the more I educate myself and essentially the more I open my mind up to the world around me, the more unstable and tormented I feel. Knowledge gained can be quite pleasant and attractive when it comes to bubble gum facts like Baseball statistics, or the history of the telephone; but when you begin to wrap your head around things such as International Conflicts, Globalization, Religious Conflicts and Global Ethics……..your head begins to lose all its stability and wander off into a very uncontrollable direction. Perhaps ignorance truly is bliss…..

Upon completion of my journey and return to the USA, I immediately was consumed with intense feelings of euphoria. The intense reverse culture shock I experienced was initially somewhat pleasant. I went from intense isolation and horribly depressing loneliness to a stimulating lifestyle of social gatherings and familiar comfort. My previously expanding mind began to wilt upon my return to mundane existence and a monotonous lifestyle of work, alcohol consumption, and heavy stress. Three years had passed since I last lived in my homeland; however, I struggled to find substantial differences in the world I had left behind. What eventually became clear was that I had changed and the world that I left had moved on without me. Such is life…….. I feel incredibly lucky to have been able to return to my wonderful family and friends, whom accepted me and tolerated me during my period of adjustment.

Well, now that the words are flowing I will wrap up the nonsense and move on.

I spent the winter working a low level accounting job at a ski resort in the Cascade Mountains. In retrospect, living alone in a desolate cabin and spending my days counting beans in an isolated office was not exactly the best way to reintegrate into the Western world. Besides several wonderful weekends spent with close friends and family members; my time in the USA (10months) was uncomfortable, depressing, and awkward. Sometimes it is easier to move on than to fight through the challenges or reintegration. Which brings me to my current situation………..sitting on a rock hard IKEA couch typing away in Brisbane, Australia.

To make a long story short, last December I decided that I would commit to a career in the field of international aid/development. In order to make this happen, my first objective would be to earn a Masters Degree in a relevant field. This is because entering into the field of Development is highly competitive. Essentially, getting your foot in the door with any reputable organization with anything less than a Masters Degree is near impossible. After doing quite a bit of research, I found a school and program that appeared to fit me like a glove. A few months later an acceptance offer came from the University of Queensland in Brisbane Australia. Though I applied to two other Australian schools, I was incredibly thrilled because UQ was by far my first choice. Starting July 27th 2009 I will commence my studies of International Relations at UQ in Brisbane.

Committing to $40K+ of student loans and two years of graduate study in a far away land was not an easy decision. To say that I have “commitment issues” is quite an understatement. I was forced to come to the conclusion that it is now time to grow up and to begin making a name for myself. Forced sjtability and the compulsory responsibilities of mass debt would now change my lifestyle substantially for at least the next 7-8 years. Knowing that I would soon be confined in an impossible to escape cage of debt and responsibility, I began to plan one last journey.

I spent close to 3 months sorting out logistics for a trip that would take me “the long way” to Australia. This would be by far the most challenging adventure of my life, and potentially the most rewarding.

And in the end it was both………………

-Itinerary: Turkey-Bulgaria-Tajikistan-Afghanistan-Uzbekistan-India-Singapore-Australia-Responsibility/Debt

Monday, October 20, 2008

Videos from my life overseas-

Pakistan-India border closing ceremony:

Ulak-Tartir- This was a game I watched while I was in Kyrgyzstan at the Narus festival near lake Karakol. It is a traditional Central Asian game that dates back to the days of Ghengis Khan. There are two teams of 5, and they fight over a goat carcass. A point is awarded if the goat is placed on the tire and mud altar. There is one on each side of the field, and one for each team. This game has very few rules, and is quite aggressive and violant.

Videos from my time in Syria

Ali’s brother Ardishir playing the piano. I lived with Ali for almost 3 weeks while I was in Armenia. They are Iranian.

Varanasi, India:

Angkor Wat, Cambodia:

This is a tour of my pad in Bulgaria. I lived here for 2 years……..overall it was not too bad, but things got really cold in the winter, and super hot in the summer.

Islamabad - Lahore - Karachi


After a sweltering 4.5 hour bus ride and a couple of arduous police check points I had arrived in the capital of Pakistan, Islamabad. Pakistan is a heavily militarized country with countless numbers of police checkpoints strategically placed throughout its transit zones. Each check point provided a transparent reminder of exactly where I was, and what dangers may be recklessly strewn upon my path. In retrospect each military confrontation I encountered along my journey had effectively knocked me off my puffy cloud of ignorant complacency and down to the dusty floor of justified paranoia. Fortunately, most of the military police officers I encountered in Pakistan were friendly and cordial; nonetheless I often found the checkpoints to be considerably intimidating and slightly unnerving.

I arrived at a small bus station on the edge of Islamabad at 4:30pm. Islamabad was extraordinarily hot; it was to my surprise even more unbearable than Peshawar. The belligerently arid heat penetrated my body with excessive force. I sweated uncontrollably as I wandered across the parking lot to find a phone. After calling my Pakistani host Fareeha and bargaining with a cab driver for 30 minutes, I hopped into a cab and was on my way.

Perhaps I should refrain from going into too much detail about Islamabad. It seems more appropriate to simply paraphrase my experiences and interactions. Security in Islamabad is incredibly volatile, and the safety of my friends in Islamabad is my utmost concern.

Islamabad: Well, what can I say about this city; besides that it is in every way shape and form artificial. It was constructed from the ground up for the sole purpose of containing large business parks and highly fortified consulates and embassies. It is not a traditional or typical Pakistani city; it is a slice of commercialism and rapidly progressive development placed in a highly unlikely location. Islamabad is like Las Vegas………………a thriving concrete metropolis in an extremely improbable and sarcastic location. On the sun slick streets of Islamabad, Pakistani aristocrats drive around in exotic sports cars and diplomats cruise around in their brand new armored land cruisers, while peasant construction workers slave away in relentless heat to create the newest corporate office buildings. When I compare and contrast Islamabad to Peshawar, Chitral and Gilgit; I see potential overpowered by vanity and harsh reality. Pakistan unfortunately will not be able to build itself up economically until it resolves its parasitic social turmoil and government volatility. Islamabad is simply a shallow well of artificial hope surrounded by a forest of callous inevitability.

In Islamabad I was hosted by an incredibly talented artist in her late 20s named Fareeha (http://fareehakhawaja.googlepages.com/home). Her ethnicity is a unique blend of Tajik and Kashmiri. Due to Fareeha’s charming personality and active social life, she has acquired several social connections within the US embassy, including the US armed forces. Within a day of Arriving in Islamabad I was able to use Fareeha’s connections to penetrate the dense shell of Islamabad’s ex-patriot cliques, and had begun enjoying a wide array of social activities.

I must say that my time in Islamabad was incredibly refreshing and delightfully American. I had found a highly affable crew that provided me with a home away from home, and a place where I could truly let loose and be myself amongst other Americans. It had been a long time since I had the opportunity to spend time with other Americans, and it proved to be a breath of fresh air. Familiarity is comfort.

To be brief; I spent my time in Islamabad…………..
-Chillin on the US embassy compound: poolside pina coladas, pickup softball games, water polo, Socializing and networking at the American club, partying at the Marine Corps bar……etc
-Going on long miserable walks around Islamabad in scorching heat.
- Reading and sweating profusely in Fareeha’s apartment while she was at work (the power went out in Islamabad about every other hour-which means no fan!)
-Eating dinner at the Marriot with an old Peace Corps Bulgaria friend and current Foreign Service officer (Lenny).
-Parties, game nights, movie nights, and BBQs with Americans, held at their fortified mansions.

{Due to the intense danger of the area, Pakistan is a no-spouse, no-family foreign post. So basically every American working there is either single or living across the world from their spouse and kids. So essentially people generally live in groups of 5 or so in fortified mansions with their own 24-7 armed guards, maids, cooks, and vehicle service. It sounds pretty glamorous, but they are living in an area that is treacherously unpredictable and dangerous. A bomb could explode anywhere at anytime and US citizens are constantly a target. They are also living on lock down; they cannot leave the city of Islamabad without an armored convoy, and all the restaurants in Islamabad are off limits to all US military and Foreign Service. The restaurants within the Islamabad Marriot are the only exception to this rule. Due to the high security of the Marriot the interior is considered safe.}
-Unfortunately the times are changing, as I dig through my travel journals and type this up (October 2008), the Marriot lays in shambles. A bombing destroyed a large chunk of the Islamabad Marriot and killed 54 people(3 Americans) and injured 266. The Bombing took place September 20, 2008 and left the Marriot’s security helpless and shaken. Much like the disastrous bombing of the Marine Corps Building in Beirut; the terrorists rammed through the security gate with a dump truck full of explosives detonating the bomb while driving into the building. When I read the news of this particular terrorist attack, it took my breath away. I could not help but think about the safety of my friends stationed in Islamabad. I now know they are all safe and accounted for, however my friend from the Peace Corps informed me that he had lost two of his colleagues in the attack.

Lenny and I served in the same Peace Corps Country (Bulgaria) and County (Stara Zagora). He served about 40km from me, but was in a Peace Corps group that came a full year before me. By the time I had finished my service in Bulgaria he had been hired by the US Foreign Service and was stationed in Islamabad, Pakistan. A month before I arrived in Islamabad four of Lenny’s American Colleagues had been targeted and bombed at an Italian Restaurant in Islamabad - and now just six months later, a bomb had taken away the lives of two of his colleagues. I can only imagine how horrifying it must be to know that danger and death are potentially very real possibilities of your everyday life. When I was in Islamabad Lenny treated me to a steak dinner at the Islamabad Marriot;…………..and now less than 5 months later I am confronted with the fact that a step along my path has been violently destroyed and the lives of 50 innocent souls have been taken away by mindless ignorance and indiscriminate hatred.


-Well I should probably keep this to myself, but in the spirit of journalism I will share: While hanging out at one of the known American Party houses called house # ____(about 6 Americans live there, and have some pretty good parties), I started talking to a military officer named John Doe. After a few drinks John Doe casually mentioned to me that there were several military operations in progress within Pakistan. Being part of the _______branch of the US military, he had quite a lot of inside information. He mentioned that a couple days ago an unmanned plane dropped a bomb on a terrorist cell in Northern Pakistan, and was responsible for killing no less than 14 suspected terrorists. I did not think much about this statement until the following day while I was combing threw the Internet and getting all the daily news briefs from several US based newspapers. I read no less than three articles that mentioned a bombing in Northern Pakistan that had killed 14, and was suspected to be a US air strike. I found the articles interesting because they all noted that the US military had not claimed any responsibility for the bombing. Interesting…………..so now I know something that has yet to be confirmed by my government and released to the public media.


One of the last things I did before leaving Islamabad was to have dinner with my friend Lenny at the Islamabad Marriot. While walking through the Marriot we ran into Jim Doe the head of security for the United State’s diplomatic mission in Pakistan. After being introduced to Jim Doe, I asked him if he had any security concerns about Karachi. I had recently bought a plane ticket that left Karachi for Kathmandu, Nepal and wanted to make sure that the city was safe enough to visit.

Unfortunately Jim Doe’s answer to my question proved to be less than comforting. Jim Doe looked me in the eyes and said: “if you go to Karachi, and simply walk down the street there, I have no doubt in my mind that you will be immediately abducted a killed”. Needless to say, his comment gave me a lot to think about. I had heard rumors that Karachi was considered dangerous territory even by Pakistanis, but had no idea how feared it was by foreign diplomats. Apparently when Daniel Pearl was kidnapped from Karachi in 2002, Jim was in charge of his search and rescue. As most people know Daniel Pearl’s search ended in vain when videos began to circulate via the internet showing Daniel mercilessly being decapitated.

After a brief conversation I thanked Jim Doe for his advice and promised him I would consider canceling my visit to Karachi.



After a few wonderful days of unexpected serenity, I bid farewell to my friends in Islamabad and boarded the 2pm bus for Lahore, Pakistan. Following a painfully slow and uncomfortable bus ride I arrived in Lahore at 7:30pm. The worst part of the bus ride was the obnoxiously loud Bollywood films being played. It was absolute torture and never ending. We watched three full films while I was on the bus; the screeching volume ripped through my ears with blunt vigor that grinded away my patience with rapid force.

{for those of you who don’t know what a Bollywood film is: It is a type of film made in India that are surprisingly popular throughout India and Pakistan. All of the films are musicals with cheesy dancing, and glass shattering vocals. In my opinion they are absolutely atrocious.}

I arrived at a dark, loud, dusty, chaotic, dirt parking lot on the outskirts of Lahore at around 7:30pm. Overly anxious rickshaw and cab drivers swarmed me like locust and created a frenzied atmosphere that suffocated my patience and became quite overwhelming. After regaining my composure, I called my host Mohammed and was soon in the back of a rickshaw heading to his home. The smoky streets were filled with absolute madness, traffic laws seemed to be nonexistent, and the loud bustling streets of Lahore produced a fresh stench of rapid urbanization.

After arriving at Mohammed’s small inner-city home, I was greeted warmly by his family and offered a shower. I had been sweating buckets and collecting dust all day, so a shower was definitely something I could get into. After showering, I sat in Mohammed’s living room and pleasantly conversed with Mohammed’s family.

-Mohammed’s home consisted of: a small kitchen, a small bedroom, a 8x10ft open air, gated, cement patio consisting 2 cots a motorcycle and a sink. A small living room with two couches facing each other, a Persian rug in the center, chipped white concrete walls containing family portraits and posters of Islamic leaders, and one small bathroom with a squat toilet and a sink.

Mohammed was a cordial fellow in his early 20s with a shoddy mustache and a sheltered mind. He was an econ student at a nearby university, and was in his last year of study. I was quite enjoying my time with Mohammed until he informed me that he had told his family that I was Canadian. Mohammed told me that it was extremely dangerous for he and his family to host an American, so I must tell everyone I meet that I am Canadian or English. Well,……….. that is not exactly what I wanted to hear. I had felt completely comfortable being myself throughout Pakistan, and now I was forced to deny my Nationality in order to tame my host’s fear and paranoia. I consider myself highly adaptable and culturally sensitive, so I immediately consented to Mohammed’s demands and assured him of my cooperation with the unreasonable façade.

At about 10pm I hopped on the back of Mohammed’s motorcycle and we tore through the streets of Lahore to the shrine of Baba Shah Jamal. We were visiting a Sufi shrine where Sufi’s congregate every Thursday night to worship and meditate. After driving down a crowded dirt side street we parked the motorcycle along with 100s of others and walked up the stairs to the Sufi Shrine. Fruit vendors and elderly Sufis surrounded the area creating a very atypical atmosphere. Shirtless old Sufi men sat on flat wooden tables sporting aggressive beards and colorful bracelets around their biceps, while lethargically smoking hash and conversing amongst themselves.

Halfway up the steps to the Baba Shah Jamal shrine Mohammed and I took off our shoes before proceeding to the top entrance. The Shrine was similar in design to a Mosque, but contained a more complex, progressive and brotherly environment.

There was on open courtyard with a covered sitting area on one side, and a small room containing the shrine of Baba Shah Jamal on the other. Before entering into the shrine, Mohammed and I dipped our finger in hot oil and touched it against our foreheads ( Mohammed told me to follow his lead). Next we entered the shrine; a small room containing a large ornate casket in the center, and flower petals all over the floor and casket. As we slowly walked counterclockwise around the room we both stopped briefly to bow to the coffin and place our foreheads on the edge of the decorative rectangle box before proceeding forward in line. On the other side of the room was the exit door where each person must turn toward the shrine and walk out of the room backwards (it is considered disrespectful to turn your back on Baba Shah Jamal). Throughout the courtyard, young Sufis walked around socializing and sharing candy, cookies, and pilov(rice dish) with one another. It was quite interesting to see everyone treat each other like brothers and to share the things they had brought. I being the lone foreigner was constantly confronted by curious young Sufis and asked several questions. They all seemed to be amazed by how tall I was; what can I say, we Canadians are tall people.

{Sufi’s have been around since the beginning of Islam; Sufi means ‘free thinker’. So as you can imagine many progressive sects and unorthodox practices within the Islamic faith fall into this category. For example: the whirling dervishes of Konya, Turkey are Sufi’s. Sufi’s are the evangelicals of Islam, which in essence means that a great number of Muslims find their antics to be far too unconventional to be acceptable. Sufis believe that they must meditate deeply (sometimes drug induced) in order to reach an out of this world plane where Allah can be more easily communicated with. Sufi’s are often associated with deep trance drum circles, hash, opium, and explorative meditation.}

At the edge of the courtyard, I noticed a group of 10-12 elder Sufis with long white beards sitting shoulder to shoulder under a small covered area. I sat in fascination and bewilderment as I watched these men interact with the young Sufis. It was nothing I had ever seen before, and something I found both bizarre and intriguing.

As the old Sufi men sat with their backs against the wall- young mostly un-bearded men began forming lines in front of them. As each young Sufi approached an elder, he would begin by kissing his hand, bowing, and then sitting cross legged in front of the elder Sufi. Next, the Elder Sufi would place his hand on the young mans left knee and begin staring deep into his eyes. They would stare into each others eyes with deep concentration and unrivalled determination. I later found out that Sufis believe that they can transfer spiritual knowledge this way. The Elder Sufis were performing a ritual that allows the younger Sufis to gain a greater level of spiritual knowledge through a two way meditative state.

After a few minutes of staring at one another, the elder Sufi would begin gently tapping the young Sufi on the heart while chanting “Allah, Allah, Allah” over and over again while maintaining deep eye contact. Sufi’s believe that because of constant and inevitable sin, our hearts slowly blacken, and by this ritual your heart can be cleansed. After several minutes of chanting and heart tapping it is believed that your heart will be purified, and that as you sleep your heart will be chanting “Allah, Allah, Allah” with each beat. The young Sufi’s were really getting into it, they would yell Allah uncontrollably while shaking and twitching, seemingly overcome with spirituality. I had no idea that this sort of thing existed within the Islamic world, I suppose each major religion has its own progressive and unorthodox counterpart.

Witnessing this was absolutely incredible; watching this ritual being done by 10+ Sufis simultaneously was a fascinating spectacle. As much as I wanted to document this event with film, I knew it would have been highly inappropriate and disrespectful to the Sufis. I am just thankful that the surrounding Sufis tolerated my presence and allowed me to observe this sacred ritual.

Mohammed and I later left the shrine and headed to a crowded area to the right of the Baba Shah Jamal shrine. Even though the place seemed quite ordinary and common, everyone in attendance took off their shoes to show respect. On the edge of the crowd were two hippie looking Sufis pounding large drums to a hypnotic beat. The crowd consisted of a ragtag group of mostly young Sufis sitting on the cement floor smoking hash and conversing amongst themselves. It was quite a different atmosphere than at the shrine, these people were plunging into a drug induced meditation, while the people at the Shrine were using deep thought and ancient rituals to achieve the same sort of enlightenment. Mohammed found the hash circle to be irritating, and almost immediately wanted to leave. He told me that the people were not real Muslims, but simply drug users out for a good time. I personally found the drum/hash circle to be quite interesting and unique. If I had it my way I would have stayed longer. I found out later that one of the drummers was completely deaf.

At around midnight Mohammed and I hopped onto his motorcycle and began our trip home. We ran a few errands on the way back, buying some flat bread and a bag of milk in a back alley marketplace. Riding through the busy streets of Lahore on the back of a small motorcycle was both exciting and frightening. It was thrilling to see such diverse sides of Lahore; it was quite refreshing in contrast to my predominantly cultureless days spent in Islamabad.

I really enjoyed my evening spent with Mohammed, but could not get past the way he treated me. He often reminded me to hide my nationality, and even forced me to wear my hair down instead of the cooler (temperature) and more comfortable pony tail. Mohammed was constantly nervous around me, and repeatedly reminded me that extremists in the area were on the lookout for Americans. I hated the fact that I could not display myself as an enlightened American, and help persuade Pakistanis that America is not synonymous with evil and hate. While spending the evening with Mohammed no fewer than 10 people asked me where I was from……………and each time Mohammed stepped in and told everyone that I was Canadian. I had enough………one night with Mohammed would be all I could bare. I would much rather spend my days alone and in relative danger than in a cloud of uncomfortable internal shame.

That evening Mohammed and I slept on the couches in the living room, his parents slept on the open air cots on the back patio, his sisters slept on cots in the kitchen, and his eldest sister slept in the small room with her husband and infant child. It was a cozy, crowded and incredibly hot house. Lahore was not surprisingly even hotter than Islamabad………..the temperature was becoming a bit ridiculous and difficult to endure.


Mohammed left for work before I woke up, and at around 9am his sisters burst in the living room with my breakfast. One of Mohammed’s sisters spoke perfect English and was quite personable and enjoyable to talk to. We spent the morning pleasantly conversing before I decided to hit the road.

At around noon I took a rickshaw to a cheap hotel near Lahore’s large bazaar district. My stomach was acting up a bit, so I decided to spend the day resting and going on short walks around the bazaar. The heat was overwhelmingly strong and pretty much took all the joy out of being outside. The dust, pollution, and 100f+ heat made walking around arduous and increasingly difficult to enjoy.

At around 4:45pm I boarded a public bus heading to the Pakistan-Indian border. Each evening when the sun goes down a border closing ceremony begins. After arriving at the border, I bought a ticket and proceeded to the bleachers near the edge of the border. At 6:00pm the closing ceremony began. The entire ceremony was incredibly amusing. Their were two large sets of concrete bleachers separated by gender ( everything is segregated in Pakistan, public busses are cut in half by an iron gate, women in front, men in back), with one small front row section for the foreigners (me). The exact same set up was visible on the other side of the gate, except the Indian side did not appear to be segregated.

At 6:00pm an old guy with a bushy white beard, green skull cap, green shalwar and a large Pakistani flag began running around the border riling up the crowd. He would run around section to section starting patriotic chants and waving his flag – every so often he would face the gate, wave his flag, and yell things at the Indian crowd on the other side of the fence. The whole scene was wonderfully entertaining; it was like being at a high school football game. Both sides had way too much “school spirit”. Loud music began to blare louder and louder, as men danced around on the bleachers waving flags and yelling patriotic rants. The crowds on each side of the gate would yell back and forth………Hindustan!........Pakistan!...........Hindustan!........Pakistan! The war of patriotic spirit was on!

After the flag wielding cheerleaders pumped up the crowds on each side of the border, the soldiers on each side came out and began marching around with firm determination and amplified authority. The soldiers then marched straight legged by lifting their legs high in front of them and pacing forward at a manic pace. Next, the soldiers marched around raising their right leg high and then stomping the ground with excess force. Everything about this formal routine was quite unique and fascinating. Even the military uniforms were unusual; their hats were topped with what looked like Chinese fans.

After some intense military marching and a lot of foot stomping, the gates opened up. Two soldiers, one from each side began some sort of central stomp-off /marching showdown that ended in an aggressive face to face stare down. They then shook hands, did their stomp/march back to their respective sides of the border, while two other men took the flags down and shut the border-gate for the evening.

To sum it all up, the border ceremony consisted of a lot of overzealous patriotism, an Indian-Pakistani handshake followed by the closing of the gates, and the systematic lowering of the flags (done by both sides in unison). It was quite the spectacle, and truly an entertaining event to witness.

While standing on the dusty, crowded bus heading back to Lahore, a man besides me suddenly stood up and adamantly insisted that I take his seat. Within 10 minutes of my departure from the border, I had become a renowned celebrity on the bus. People constantly asked me questions and bragged about their relatives who were living in the USA. At each stop, vendors would briefly board the bus selling fruit, popsicles, tea, etc…………..and each time I would end up with something handed to me. By the time I had reached Lahore; I had been given three boxes of juice, a disgusting flower tasting popsicle, and half a coconut. I have really enjoyed how open, warm, generous, and kind Pakistanis are. I don’t think many Americans realize just how abundantly hospitable and warm Islamic culture is.

That evening I decided to go on a long walk around Lahore while subsequently tracking down dinner and an internet café. Surprisingly less than two miles into my walk I came across a Subway……….not the underground transit system but the wonderful American sandwich restaurant. I was thrilled and did not hesitate to spend four times the price of my hotel room on a delicious meatball sandwich. It was quite the treat…………..three years without a glorious meatball sandwich from Subway was far too long.

After another hour + of walking, I came across a smoky internet café with barely functioning computers. I have found that the internet is my lifeline………..no matter how good, bad, crazy, scary, painful, happy, sad, depressing, or enlightening my day has been, I can always find someone on the internet to share it with. I can send emails, post BLOGs, upload pictures, or simply read American media publications via the internet. Internet is the bright glowing sun in my cloudy days, and thanks to the technological boom of the 90s is accessible pretty much anywhere with phone lines. Life on the road would be infinitely more challenging if I were unable to Google logistical information, Email friends and Family, network with potential hosts, etc. In conclusion the internet has kept me sane, and has been a bit of a crutch for me throughout my Peace Corps experience and my travel experience thereafter.

After I had left my cyber chamber of comfort behind and reentered reality; I realized that while I was in the internet Café, Lahore had flooded. I had never seen roads fill up so quickly with water. There was literally 6-8 inches of water covering the ground, I was now on the banks of a shallow river………..and 4 miles from my hotel. About an hour of unsuccessful solicitation later, I was able to flag down a motor-rickshaw for a ride back to my hotel.


After thinking hard about Jim Doe’s advice, and his grave warnings about Karachi, I decided to use my own skewed judgment and travel to Karachi anyway. After personal analysis, it became a calculated risk I was willing to take.

At 2pm I boarded a 3rd class train, destination Karachi, Pakistan. Karachi is the large, population 10 million + Wild West city of Pakistan; here goes nothing!

The train ride was to say the least painful, awkward, and uncomfortable from the moment I boarded. The worn out green vinyl bench seats provided little comfort as the radiant heat penetrated through my already overheating body. The ceiling fan provided a laughable amount of comfort while the open windows did little else than enable mass amounts of sand and dust to pour into the train. Heat and dust plugged up the inside of the train to a suffocating level. As the hours passed by, my dreams of cool fresh air became a mockery to practicality, and an unwarranted ambition to comfort.

Slowly the train putted along the rural desert landscape of Southern Pakistan. From the train I witnessed poor Pakistanis working in treacherous heat along the railroad tracks, often napping in the shade. The train cut across desert villages, and tent cities in the middle of seemingly uninhabitable climate. I found myself utterly amazed by how these people could live and work in such conditions. How many Arizona residents would be able to survive without their AC? These people live in tents, without fans or AC, and are forced to work long hours of manual labor with virtually zero shade. It is just one of the many things that need to be put into perspective; perhaps wealthy people in our world should be a bit more grateful for what they already have, and realize that in retrospect, their comfort level leaves little justification for complaints.

The people sitting around the train seemed kind and friendly, but the language barrier prohibited any shared dialogue between us. They would occasionally share with me snacks they were eating, and I would accept by simply smiling and bowing with my hand over my heart. Throughout the long journey passengers and vendors would come on and off the train. Most of the passengers greeted me with smiles; however a few of the men gave me cold intimidating stares. It was obvious to me that these people were not accustomed to seeing foreigners on their train. Every so often a group of guys would approach me and begin speaking with me in simple English. It all became a bit cliché…………I would be berated about Bush questions, dodge all the bullets I could, explain to them how much I loved Islamic Culture, then they would buy me tea……..and later we would shake hands in friendship before they walked away. Thankfully most of the guys on the train did not grill me too hard; I can only imagine how uncomfortable it would be to be confronted with overpowering hostility in a location that was for the most part inescapable.

The day was wearing on me……………the heat was unrelenting, I was sweating buckets, and the dust began coating me like a powdered donut. My skin was about 10 shades darker because it was now caked with a thin film of mud; which I inadvertently smeared around my face while attempting to squeegee the sweat off my forehead. Every so often I would escape the madness and discomfort by climbing to the 3rd level bench seat and attempting to sleep. I had my MP3 player which provided a pleasant distraction, but the dust and heat countered any sort of comfort with intrusive levels of discomfort.


At 1:30am I suddenly awoke to a loud man made cat sound; I opened my eyes to see two men in their mid 20s inches away from my face. They were staring at me and smiling with probing eyes. Before I knew what was going on they had both jumped up to the upper bench seat I was laying on. The guys began hurling questions at me with intrigue, while smiling like jackals. It was a really weird situation, I was exhausted, uncomfortable, sweaty, filthy, and talking to a couple guys that were way too excited to be talking to a foreigner. For some reason I decided to tell these guys that I was an Atheist………. I for some reason thought it would end questioning, and perhaps be easier than explaining to them I was Agnostic. I was wrong…………….it provoked a 45 minute debate about how it is crazy not to believe in god/Allah, and that I must learn more about Allah. Two hours, 100 questions, and 3 cups of tea later the guys smiled, shook my hand, and exited the train. At around 4am I was again able to attempt a bit of shut eye.

I woke up at 7am feeling absolutely disgusting. It was like being ‘camping dirty’ but multiplied by ten. I was lying in a pool of sweat; my exposed skin was caked with semi-dry dirt, and my face was smeared with thick blotches of mud. The worst part about waking up exhausted and on a hot dusty train, is knowing that you have another 12 hours of misery ahead of you before you reach your destination. I asked myself again……….why do I put myself in these situations? Why did I not just pay an extra hundred bucks and fly to Karachi? After spending months on the road being as frugal as possible, it is amazing how much hardship you are willing to endure to save a couple bucks.

I arrived in Karachi at 6:30pm………..after spending 28.5 miserable hours on the sweltering, dusty, train. My mind and body were numb by the time I had arrived in Karachi. I had eaten next to nothing on the train because when my core body temperature is overheating, I tend to associate nausea with food consumption. The train ride had absorbed all of my energy and left me in a very lifeless physical and mental state.

As I prepared for my arrival in Karachi I decided to hide my camera deep into my bag, and mentally prepared myself for any possible confrontations. I had decided that perhaps telling people that I was from the USA, would not be a wise move in this area. It would unfortunately be prudent for me to take on another nationality while under these circumstances.

Here goes nothing……………..Things were chaotic as I exited the train and began walking across the platform toward the main exit. The platform was jam packed with a colorful assortment of beggars, vendors, and commuters. After exiting the train station I spotted a public bus down the road and without thinking twice, I approached and boarded the old crowded public bus. Upon entering the bus, I Immediately found myself surrounded with cold suspicious stares; it was unlike anything I had experienced thus far in Pakistan. These people really seamed to dislike me and disapprove of my presence…………..my heart began to pound faster, and my legs began to subtly tremble with uncontrollable nerves. One guy in particular was standing about three feet from me sporting a brown shalwar kameez, a long black bushy beard, a white skull cap, and dusty black sandals. He was in his late 20s and was staring at me with piercing, hateful eyes. It became clear to me instantly that this guy did not want me to feel welcome on his bus. I tried desperately to avoid eye contact with the man, but found myself instinctively turning back to glance at him in order to see if he was still glaring at me. Worst case scenarios began to race through my mind like a dark twisted slide show. I began to grow increasingly uneasy about the situation, and decided I would get off at the next stop. Just before I inevitably succumbed to panic and broke down mentally and physically with fear; I felt a gentle tap on my upper back. As I turned around an old man stood up from his chair and adamantly insisted that I take his place. He smiled at me warmly as I sat down in his seat before turning away slowly to gaze out the dusty bus window. It was amazing how something like this could happen…………..here I was literally about to have a panic attack, and all of a sudden I am confronted with a warm, simple, selfless act of kindness that consequently calmed my nerves and eased my mind.

I had no idea where the bus I was on was heading, but figured I would just get off when I saw something that looked interesting. About 15 minutes into the ride, the bus stopped alongside a recent vehicle accident. A public passenger bus similar to the one I was riding had flipped on its side. The shell of the bus was violently mangled, and the partially shattered windows contained highly visible patches of smeared blood. As I began to analyze the scene in more depth, I noticed that several of the people standing besides the bus were seriously bleeding and standing in 2-3ft wide puddles of vibrant colored blood. It was like a scene out of a movie, I don’t know that I have ever seen so much blood all in one place. After stopping at the accident for a couple minutes’, two men from the accident boarded the bus; one man in his late 60s had a deep laceration on his forehead and a broken nose, while another man in his early 30s had blood all over his shalwar, but no visible injuries.

I was incredibly exhausted, filthy, and sweating profusely as I exited the bus, but the fear and adrenaline provided me with enough juice to keep moving. I ended up at the Clifton Seaside……….a long stretch of seaside with an enormous park and a few luxury hotels.

While walking along the crowded sidewalks of the Clifton Seaside, I noticed how exceedingly different the atmosphere had become. There were palm readers and Sufis everywhere. Long haired Sufis sat in circles banging on large drums and smoking hash. Thousands of Pakistanis peacefully picnicked at a large, well maintained seaside park. All in all the area seamed relatively progressive and safe. I kinda expected people to be running through the streets with machine guns while hurling grenades at each other. It appears that I got lucky, and ended up in a calm perhaps even safe part of town.

It was now about 7:30pm and I was beginning to run out of daylight, I thought it would be prudent to lock down accommodation before things got too late. I ended up just walking around until I got lost and wound up in some sort of primitive bazaar area.
Narrow dirt roads, ground littered with animal bones and rotten vegetables, rotting piles of trash everywhere, pools of fresh animal blood, tailors, butchers, various vendors, and swarms of flies pretty much sums up the area. I have never in my life seen so many flies; shop keepers fanned flies away with square pieces of card board, but as soon as they stopped swinging the cardboard, the flies would cover every inch of the meat and fruit they were trying to protect. It was a bizarre and disgusting thing to witness.

The deeper I walked into the bazaar the more uneasy I began to feel. Darkness and cold stares began to penetrate and suffocate my strength. Instead of smiles and hot cups of tea, I was served frosty stares and unwelcoming smirks. This was definitely a neighborhood I should have avoided; I was clearly not welcome here. I began hearing bickering and whispers behind me, which invoked an uncontrollable sense of panic that sent a shockwave down my spine. Was I being followed? Had I got myself into a potentially fatal situation? What the hell was I thinking going into this neighborhood?...............I began to walk faster and faster as sweat poured heavily down my face. I had no Idea where I was and had no idea how to get out of this crazy maze of a neighborhood. The footsteps seamed to be getting closer and closer, even as my pace began to increase. Before I knew it I was at the edge of the neighborhood and near a main road; fortunately I was able to make my way out in one piece. With open air came pleasant relief and gradually subsiding paranoia. I was again in a relatively open area and began to feel a thin blanket of security upon my shoulders.

Darkness fell, and severe exhaustion and panic compelled me to immediately hop into a rickshaw and leave the area. I told the driver to take me to a hotel, and about 20 minutes later we had arrived in an area with no less than 15 hotels. We were actually back where I had started, near the train station. Finally my day was at an end! I could now find a hotel, take a shower and get some much needed rest. The last two days had been hell, and I was now more than ready to shut down my engine for a while.

Panic, exhaustion, frustration, and anger began to consume my body as each hotel I approached refused me occupancy. Over and over I was told that it was too high of a security risk for them to host me. After visiting no less than 20 hotels and miserably walking four miles through the loud, chaotic, and frightening streets of Karachi; I found a hotel that would take me. It was 11pm.

The hotel was incredible! After seeing the flashy new sign, and the four guards armed with AK47s out front; I new this place was a winner. The guy at the front desk spoke perfect English and told me he would allow me to stay at the hotel for $50; we settled on $20. I had enough danger, exhaustion, and excitement for one day. All I wanted to do was to get some food and go to sleep. I perhaps should add that the entire time I was on the train I had “stomach problems”…………..my stomach had been in shambles since arriving in Lahore. Since leaving Lahore the previous day, I had consumed only 4 juice boxes, 2 mangos, and 5 cups of tea. Thankfully now that I was at my final destination and in a safe secure hotel, my stomach was relaxed enough to welcome solid foods. For some reason, when I am severely stressed out and anxious, I tend to completely lose my appetite.

After checking into my room I ordered some fried chicken from the Pakistani style KFC across the street, but decided to play it safe and eat the meal in my pleasantly secure hotel room.


I slept like a baby and woke up feeling great, the electricity stayed on the entire night, and the temperature remained cool and comfortable throughout the night. After eating a delicious continental breakfast; I took a taxi to the airport and by12:30pm was on a flight to Kathmandu, Nepal.

From the moment I left Lahore to the moment I left Karachi for Kathmandu;……….I felt severe discomfort and endured endless amounts of self inflicted pain. I really had no justifiable reason for this sort of traveling. It is not fun, enjoyable, enlightening etc……. It is simply a marathon of pain, fear, discomfort, agony, uncertainty, and stupidity. In hindsight everything about the last couple days falls into the reckless and foolish category. I can always say that I made it through Karachi in one piece, but at what cost? Was my less than 24hr experience in Karachi worth the potential dangers? I suppose nothing really went according to plan; I was told that the train ride would take 17hrs………..not 28.5hrs. This was a quite unpleasant surprise. If I had a bit more time in the city, perhaps I would not have jumped on the first bus I saw, or wandered through a poor unwelcoming neighborhood. I arrived in Karachi with less than 2 hours of daylight, exhausted, scared, and pumped full of adrenaline. I left Karachi rested but marginally exhausted with an overwhelming sense of foolishness.

{I made it out of Karachi alive but in hindsight, the decision to visit Karachi was quite reckless. Pakistan is now considered by many people to be the most dangerous country in the world. In the last year(2008): Newsweek, The Economist, and Time Magazine have published articles stating that Pakistan is the most dangerous country in the world. Karachi is said to have the highest street crime rate of any city in the world.
-Between January 1st, 2008 and August 31st 2008, there have been 149 kidnappings for ransom in Karachi. Over 1,000 murders take place each year in Karachi, and it has been said that 100 rapes occur each day in Karachi. So I guess…………Pakistan, and Karachi specifically was not the safest destination of my journey.}

-So this is pretty much the end of the road for a while. My trip concluded with Nepal, India, Thailand, Cambodia, and South Korea…….but I am not sure I will write about those experiences……..I really appreciate any writing feedback………so if you have anything to say good or bad……..please leave a comment or send me an email. I am planning on rewriting a lot of my stuff, and perhaps will turn it into a book. Thanks for reading………knowing that people read this nonsense gives me inspiration to write.
Trevor Lake

Here are a few pics-
Sufi shrine in Lahore:
Border ceremony:
Mohammed and his family: