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Adventurous then, impossible now: my journey along the Khyber Pass

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Edited version published in The Weekend Independent Magazine on 10 December 2010

Striking the standard tourist pose on The Khyber Pass

I stifled a gulp and feigned casual abandon as I signed the consent form to enter the Khyber Pass.  The government of Pakistan was not to be held responsible for death or difficulties encountered along the way.  My guide beamed at me and said, “Now we collect the armed guard.”

Little did anyone know that the summer of 2007 would prove to be a comparably carefree one for the Khyber Agency, which had been ruled by fiercely independent Pathan tribes for centuries.  According to Ahmed Rashid, author of Descent into Chaos, the Pakistani Taliban had taken control of it by the following year.  Although it is believed that the Taliban is itself mostly comprised of Pathans, travellers ought to take note of one very important difference between the two groups: whilst the Pathans are exceptionally hospitable and enforce collective tribal punishments on those who commit crimes against travellers, the Taliban prefer to annihilate them.  And as the Khyber Pass is the most important supply route for NATO forces fighting in neighbouring Afghanistan, the Taliban attacks convoys and kidnaps commuters with brutal regularity.  Pakistan has attempted to clear the area by launching numerous military offensives, but justifiably condemned NATO air strikes for killing Pakistani troops.  All this combined has turned the ancient gateway between Pakistan and Afghanistan into one of the world’s most dangerous places.  Needless to say, the “Enter at your own risk” form no longer exists: the Khyber Pass is closed to travellers indefinitely.  From time to time, the government of Pakistan seals it off altogether.

I sweated in the battered red hatchback as it lay idle in front of the Khyber Guards police station.  To be honest, I was a bit disappointed with the vehicle.  When booking the trip the day before, I’d imagined traversing the route made legendary by the likes of Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan and Marco Polo in something more sturdy and racy.  Tinted windows would have satisfied me, I thought grumpily.

My 15-year-old armed guard at the Pakistan-Afghanistan border

And when the guard appeared, I was somewhat taken aback by his appearance.  Despite possessing a thick beard, solemnity and an AK-47, his features were undeniably baby-faced.  Sensing my confusion, the guide informed me that our escort was 15 years old and had recently joined the service after his father was killed in action.  “How recently?” I wondered.  As the guard slid into the front seat without acknowledging our presence, his black woollen uniform made me wince.  The only concession to the scorching heat was a pair of open-toed leather sandals.  A garment resembling a sawn-off apron was fastened to his chest.  It contained three plump pouches, presumably containing bullets.  He barely spoke for the next five hours and I never saw him smile.  The only glimpse of his personality he afforded us was to accept a few tokes on a joint pre-rolled by the driver.  Fortunately, he seemed seasoned enough for it not to induce paranoia.

My travel companion and I were reminded of a few simple rules.  It would be pointless to request stops for photographs – such opportunities were few and pre-designated.  And while the car was moving, we were to refrain from drawing attention to ourselves (naturally).  Finally, as a male, Mark was warned against gazing in the direction of females, should any be wandering freely.  The Pathans are fiercely protective of their womenfolk and would shoot without warning if he were caught gawking.  “As Oscar Wilde said, ‘I can resist everything but temptation,’” I joked in dubious taste.

We chugged along to our first stop, the Khyber Gate, which marks the official border with the tribal lands from the rest of Pakistan.   A granite sign describes the area as “a beautiful and fertile valley surrounded by an unbroken girdle in the shape of a Roman amphitheatre.”  It was soon apparent that the Khyber Pass itself is anything but fertile and thus too stark to be beautiful.  Like much of Tibet, vegetation is sparse and exclusively limited to the base of grey and brown mountains.  Its inhabitants live in almost uniformly unpainted clay fortresses, with slit windows and protruding rifles.  Aside from an azure sky, the main source of colour was the plentiful cargo trucks, which were covered in hand-painted designs and every manner of truck-bling possible, including criss-crossed silver chains dangling from the bumper.  Our guide reeled off the most common forms of contraband freighted between the border: weapons, drugs, plane parts and counterfeit cash.

The Khyber Pass

We sped past the curiously named Khyber Model School seemingly just as the bell rang.  Smiling boys in blue punjabis ran out from underneath its arched sign as I frantically tried to capture the rare glimpse of “normal” life.  It’s unlikely that the school still stands today, as the Taliban have blown up the majority.

We made a hurried call to nature by a shallow stream that was 100 metres or so away from the disused Khyber Railway tunnel, which was built by the British for strategic reasons following World War I.  When we pulled over at the 1072 metre summit in Landi Kotal, the guard patiently handed over his semi-automatic weapon to us while we posed for photographs that would justify a raised eyebrow from Interpol.

I was pleased to pick up a bargain at the Afghan border.  For less than five dollars I’d acquired a complete set of Taliban-issued currency.  One of the notes featured charging warriors on horseback; the others were mostly agricultural scenes.  I bought the expired currency from a green-eyed Afghan teenager who spoke excellent English.  We sat cross-legged against a wall decorated with love-heart graffiti as I gazed longingly at the view of Afghanistan.

“Some day,” I muttered to myself, before hopping back into the rust bucket.

Fortress homes

I  was surprised when our guide announced that we were stopping for a traditional Pathan lunch.  Mark and I were ushered up a flight of steps above a carvanserai, or roadside inn.  I accumulated about 20 stares in half as many seconds, before the door was shut swiftly behind me.  The room was bare aside from a stack of blankets.  When Mark peered out of the slit window for a view of other houses with slit windows, he was promptly told to move away.  We sat on charpoys in hungry silence before a plate of chabli kebabs and flatbread arrived.  The meat reminded me of my mother’s homemade rissoles – it was curious to be reminded of Australia at a time when I’d never felt so far from it.

A red pillar perched on the final bend bodes travellers a farewell from the Khyber Rifles, an irregular corps of militia recruited from the tribes of the Khyber Agency.  The other side of the pillar read, “Raised Nov 1878.”  Later, when studying my photos, I noticed that the pillar’s margin contained not one etching of graffiti, but two, by some joker called “Wasim.” I smiled at the seemingly limitless nature of human cheekiness.

Khyber Model School

And so it seemed that our trip had passed without incident.  I tapped my feet along to the blaring Urdu pop cassette while eagerly anticipating a trip to an internet café where I would share my photographs via email attachments (oblivious as I was to the greater pride afforded by Facebook).  But then our guide announced that we were making a stop, and before providing a reason, he’d leapt out of the car and into a crowded bazaar.  I was chewing my fingernails within seconds.  Perhaps it was this ungainly habit that caught the attention of a wild-eyed man, who strode over for a closer look.  His hair was unkempt and he was sweating profusely – he was either high or disturbed – or both.  He stabbed a finger in the air and began shouting, which resulted in a crowd forming around the car.  The guard seemed mysteriously unmoved.  The terms of the consent form flashed through my mind – this time I couldn’t stifle the gulp.  I almost cried with relief when the guide re-emerged to shoo away the crowd with a guilty grin.  We drove back to his office in Peshawar in huffy silence.

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Thailand: sex, lies and no interviews

The Long Bar, Bangkok

I arrived in Bangkok on 11 July 2010 in a very delicate state.  I’d resigned from my job in Bangladesh due to last-minute visa difficulties and I didn’t know where I was going next.  I hadn’t wanted to leave Bangladesh and I was riding an emotional rollercoaster that was made more intense by the fact that I’d slept five hours out of the last 48.  Nevertheless, I was curious to see what Thailand had to offer, even if on a temporary basis.

I started off as one of those sad types who goes around wearing a t-shirt from their point of origin (purchased at Dhaka airport, no less), hoping that someone would say, “Ooh Bangladesh – what was that like?” No one did.

I asked the travel agent at New Siam Guesthouse to put me on a bus to a pretty place that wasn’t too far away.  I was following the advice of a friend in Dhaka who said that the best medicine for my crisis was to spend at least five days at a beach without thinking.  After a three hour journey I was deposited at a pier, and was delighted to learn that my destination (which I only knew was “Koh-something”) was located on an island.

As the ferry crossed the middle of the bay, the engine failed and black smoke began spewing out.  I didn’t mind the idea of swimming but was upset by the thought of getting my stuff wet.  In any event, the captain stripped off, dived into the water, made unseen but impressive underwater repairs, and we set off again.  But 10 minutes later the ferry broke down irredeemably and we were towed by a friendly vessel for the last nautical mile.

Snorkelling on Koh Sampet

Because I didn’t have a guidebook for the area, I asked the first tourists I saw on land whether they could recommend a guesthouse.  Yes they could.  We walked along the road together and one of the men (both were Irish) told me that he’d spent the previous month living as a monk in a cave in northern Thailand.  He pointed to his shaved-off eyebrows as proof.  “Very good,” I murmured, not knowing what else to say.

I checked into a hot, matchbox-sized room for around US$7 a night.  I was again shocked by the lack of security at the guesthouse – my room was on ground level, perfectly accessible from the street and the door had a pin lock without additional bolts.  Moreover, the window facing the corridor had a flimsy curtain that blew to and fro with the fan.  In Dhaka, it’s standard for apartment windows and balconies to be encased by iron bars and there is often checkpoint-like security on the ground level.  I kind of  enjoyed convincing myself that it was not necessary to live like Rapunzel for the time being.

The following day was a highlight.  I walked to a private cove and snorkelled all afternoon.  I couldn’t believe that I had this reef of paradise almost all to myself.  I oohed and aahed over the sword fish, pancake-shaped spotted fish, scarlet sea cucumbers, schools of minnows and an incalculable array of other tropical varieties.  In certain spots, the water was as warm as a bath.

Monks on the bus

In the evening I found a little bar that had been built around an enormous palm tree.  Small platforms had been built out of the trunk, which was adorned with bottles of liquor and fairy lights.  I played “Connect Four” with a Thai bartender with fantastic tattoos, whilst another took music requests for his funky little laptop.  They complained that business is slow during the wet season, and promised to take me to a party after midnight.  A beautiful Anglo-Indian woman in a white dress swayed in her seat opposite me as I danced to “Waka Waka.”

The bartender then led me along a well-lit path and we soon arrived at a nightclub on the shore.  Happy, suntanned people danced away on a balcony perched over the sand.  Inside was a club.  As I registered the scene, I immediately shed 10 years of maturity and thereafter turned into a disgraceful Western tourist.  Before I could even turn around to see where the bartender was, the Irish ‘monk’ had found me.

He greeted me with, “You look so different without your sunglasses and luggage!” This annoyed me a bit, because I had been wearing my Bangladesh t-shirt when I met him.

His friend, who looked like Iggy Pop, handed me a straw for the cocktail bucket he was holding.  “You look like [a vastly inferior version of] Kylie Minogue,” he shouted over the doof-doof, his veins almost popping out of a pink skull. “When she was young, I mean,” he added hastily.  We began dancing and slurping.

Bangkok Fashion Academy

The monk then attached his lips to my face.  Call it pashing, if you like.  To be honest, I didn’t care – I was happy and free in the warm night, dancing away in a dress so short it deserved trousers.  We went into the club and the monk wanted to dance on the podium, which necessarily involved further PDAs (public displays of affection).

When I said it was time for me to go home, he didn’t try to stop me.  But he suggested, with surprising force, that we get married.  I thought that was a nice idea, but expressed some scepticism as we didn’t know one another.  He accused me of being unfair.  As a compromise, I gave him my business card and told him to email me.  He shrieked that I was being formal.  It’s been a week and he hasn’t emailed.  I saw him yesterday in Bangkok – I kept my head down and kept reading as he walked past.  I think his name was Michael.

I scooted back to Bangkok the following day for a meeting at the United Nations.  It went well, and when I return to Bangladesh I will start freelancing for IRIN, the UN’s news service.  As well as being a terrific opportunity, it was an enormous relief, because it means I can return to Dhaka, a place for which I have great affection and great friends.

Of everything that I bought, this tomato singlet is my favourite.

Over Facebook I contacted an old school friend called Dan Cole, who has lived in Bangkok for the last nine years.  When he met me at Asok Station he said, “We haven’t seen each other since Scot Crawford’s 21st birthday party.”  That was nearly a decade ago, but no matter – Dan’s big brother went out with my big sister, and that will hopefully always count for something…  He took me to Long Table, a properly cool bar with a pool on the 28th floor of a skyscraper.  We polished off a bottle of wine and a duck salad before heading to a house that’s been converted into a bar.  The spirits menu contained a list of 13 levels – each cocktail gained in strength and had the name “tiger” and a verb attached to it.  We were the only farangs, and the crowd seemed very chilled out – unlike the rest of Bangkok I’d previously seen or heard about.  Dan told me a lot about the lesser-known Thailand, and I was incredibly impressed by his fluency in Thai.  One minute he’d be talking about a “mate” in a still-thick Aussie accent, and the next he was speaking to the waiter in drawn-out Thai monosyllables.   He took a test that confirmed that his speaking, reading and writing skills are at Year 9 level. After climbing a few cocktail levels, Dan took me to his beautiful restaurant, which has a lake in its centre.  Unfortunately a tree came crashing through the middle of it, so it’s closed until November.  The restaurant, called The Lake House, also has a resident python.

Whilst waiting for the weekend to pass and the Bangladeshi embassy to open, and then for my visa application to be processed, I’ve kept myself amused with lots of meals, massages and ill-judged attempts to find interviews for a British website I work for.  One trip involved crossing town to visit The Bangkok Post to ask whether a journalist would be interested in being profiled along with some of their book recommendations.  Sadly, I couldn’t get past reception on the ground floor.  Over the phone, a secretary told me to leave a card and said she would call the following day if someone was interested.  I’d given up hope by the time she’d finished her terse sentence.

Fluffy puppy on Koh Sampet

Yesterday I went to the National Library of Thailand because I thought I would find some book lovers amongst the staff.  From the inquiry desk on the ground floor I went to the manager’s office, who asked me to write my request down on paper, as her English wasn’t strong.  I was then taken to the literature section on the third floor.  That’s when the fun and games began…  The friendly staff thought that I wanted to borrow five books about Thai literature.  They brought out several books (in Thai), complete with printed descriptions on cardboard sheets (in Thai). It was very difficult to explain to them that I wanted someone’s personal opinion on their favourite books.  I called Dan for language assistance, and afterwards a librarian who spoke quite good English was summoned.  I showed her the website when a man on the counter plugged in his Chinese modem, and the librarian looked morally affronted when she registered that I would also require a profile photo along with her personal opinions.  When I said that I was leaving four days later, she became agitated and said, “How can I read five books in that time?”  Finally, she asked me to write down my request on a Thai template form, as it would require the director’s approval because she is a government employee.  I just received a very polite emailing stating that it would be too time-consuming and difficult to express their ideas in English.  I realise that my introductions may have sounded a bit shifty, and if anything, I was grateful that they humoured someone who said, “I’m a journalist from London living in Bangladesh [with an Australian accent] and I’d like to interview you about Thai literature…”

Bangkok by night

I made one last-ditch attempt to find friendly journalists by going to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Bangkok.  The address on the internet said it was in the Penthouse of the Mayeen Centre.  A Thai girl at an internet caf้ told me it wasn’t too far away, but I couldn’t find a taxi driver that knew it.  Even after I found a willing driver, he soon lost enthusiasm and asked if he could leave me on a street corner.  No!!  I have to say that during the last 10 days I’ve been disappointed by taxi drivers – yet again.  Some people say they are a wise bunch, but I disagree – whether I’m in Iran, London or Thailand, they (mostly) try to rip me off and do funny stuff.

I asked for directions at a hotel called “Mike’s Place.”  Something there was up – the seediness was palpable.  I saw a group of South Asian men sitting on an L-shaped couch, whose eyes boggled as a group of Eastern European women walked over to them.  I could be wrong, but it looked as though the women had minders.  The Anglo-Indian barman told me that the Penthouse was a hundred yards down the side-street.  I saw a neon sign that said “PH” but somehow missed the entrance.  Everything was dark except for a massage parlour on the corner, so I stopped there to ask for directions.  The transvestites opposite tittered.  I walked through an eerie carpark and an overweight pock-marked bouncer told me I had the wrong Penthouse.  So I kept walking, found a non-comprehending motorcyle taxi and then a five star hotel gave me a print-out of a Google Map.  We reached a beautiful hotel that had a Mayeen Centre, but it wasn’t the right place and they pointed to a building in the near distance.  Nearly two hours later from the time I set off, I walked into the foyer and saw that the BBC, ABC, ITV and others had their offices in the same building.  Coupled with the fact that Bangkok is a city that never sleeps, it seemed promising.  The smiling men on reception pointed to the elevator.  Up I went, came out and saw that the FCC’s bar was closed.  I heard footsteps around the corner so I didn’t even get to savour my disappointment before escaping back into the elevator.

The vial around his neck contains the hide of a tiger's scalp

So that’s what happened, more or less.  I’m going to wrap this up because the Wild Orchid Villa Caf้ has been playing the same mixed cd for the last three days (or longer), and it includes a ballad remix of “YMCA.”  It also smells a bit like sewerage and there is a toad behind me with a powerful ribbit.

I have decided that if there is a heaven, it would involve having a Thai massage every day.  For now though, I’m keen to get back to my reality.

Too many tigers, complains tourist group in Bangladesh

Published in The Star Weekend Magazine on 9 February 2010

Jessica Mudditt
Sundarbans, Bangladesh

A group of tourists have lodged a complaint with the Ministry of Tourism after seeing “too many” tigers in the Sundarbans this week.

Tourists Hasan Reza from Bangladesh, Florian Sichling from Germany and Shampa Afroza Shumu from Bangladesh were disappointed by frequent tiger sightings

The 20 tourists, including nationals of overseas countries such as Turkey, England, Germany and Australia, spent around US$240 each on a three night cruise with Guide Tours.

Adventurous tourists often visit the mangrove forests of the Sundarbans, but with little or no expectation of seeing the ‘man-eating’ Royal Bengal Tiger.

In a joint letter addressed to the Ministry of Tourism, the tourists claimed that they hoped for “nothing more than a glimpse of a tiger, or perhaps tiger tracks and faeces.”

The tourists believe that spotting large numbers of tigers makes them an easy target for ridicule when they return to their workplaces.

Hasan Reza, a 39-year-old from Mymensingh, said, “My photos have been ruined by too many tigers.

“Even my closest friends will accuse me of faking them with PhotoShop.”

Guide Tours attributes the sightings to recent reports from tigers that they are lonely and need more human contact in their day-to-day lives.

Florian Sichling, a 34-year-old from Germany said, “I saw tigers at play, drinking at the water hole and killing wild pigs.

“Since going on this trip I no longer need to spend money on safari adventures such as these.

Florian Sichling from Germany said photographs such as this one look "ridiculous"

“I would like Guide Tours to tell me what I will do for a holiday next winter.”

A spokesperson from the Ministry of Tourism said, “The tourists have every right to be upset and we are treating the matter seriously.”

Rony Chowdhury of Guide Tours said, “Our tourists don’t usually see any tigers.

“In fact, the last time we spotted any was around three years ago.

“We have apologised to this group unreservedly.”

During the trip, which included forest walks and long-boat rides, otters, deer, wild pigs, lizards and snakes were also seen in the wild.

However the tourists stated that  they saw an acceptable amount of these species.

Future trips to the Sundarbans have been temporarily halted until the government is satisfied that no further tiger sightings will occur.

*** This article was inspired by The Onion, which is a website full of  of spoof news articles.