Alexanderplatz Revisited

Berlin is an extremely interesting city. It’s a mix of the old and the new and the true representative of the old East and the new West.   Amidst the all the amazing sights and sounds of this cosmopolitan capital of Germany, there is nothing as interesting as a visit to the Alexanderplatz in the heart of old East Berlin. For me a pilgrimage to this culturally happening place is more important than visiting iconic places like the famous Brandenburger Tor, the Reichstag (parliament house), the victory column, the east side gallery (a potpourri of graffiti and street paintings on the remaining traces of the Berlin Wall), Check Point Charlie commemorating the Cold War’s relic of passage from the West to the East and many other places that draws a tourist.

On one of the last days of October as the trees of Berlin wear the brilliant gold colors of autumn (Herbst) to bid farewell to summer and to brace for the winter that in any place in North Europe can be cold and grey, Alexanderplatz hums with life and diversity. Surrounded by malls proudly displaying famous brand names on their storefronts, the ugly fountain in the middle threw up jets of water as the famous Berlin Fernsehturm (TV tower) and the global watch erected by the communists to showcase their progress stood sentinels on the historic public square bearing the name of Czar Alexander I to commemorate his visit to the Prussian capital in 1805. The square is now a major transport hub and passengers from the city’s underground spill-out of the subterranean station as others hurry down the moving escalators to catch a U Bahn home. The famous trams of Berlin in their festive yellow colors girdle the square and stop to disgorge or pick up their human cargoes.

On the cobble stoned square, street performers play their musical instruments or give enthusiastic and vigorous display of their virtuoso dancing skills and pass the hat around to collect coins. The Roma woman in her long skirt and dark visage begs for alms and a inebriated white man asks empty bottle so he get a refund on it and feed his drinking habit. He then rummages in the dustbin for used bottles. Other beggars by choice have cardboard signs asking you for a coin so they can buy lebensmittel (foodstuff). Some have well fed dogs to give them company. A homeless man in a sleeping bag huddles behind a door to keep away the cold wind. He has placed his mug in front of him so you can drop a coin. A musician with oriental features has a card in his open guitar case proclaiming that he Steve Lin from Taiwan. He is singing English songs. His sole spectator is a very young child. I suspect he has Vietnamese parentage. People from Vietnam represent the second largest immigrant population in Berlin after the Turks.

I hear snatches of Punjabi as I lazily wander around to soak in the scene. Muhammad Khalid is sells trinkets like old Soviet era peak caps and other symbols of the Cold War but admits these are made in China. Khalid comes from Rawalpindi and used to live in a house near the old airport. He is not willing to be photographed but lets you stand behind his stand and takes your picture. Other simply takes selfies in the spirit of the times. Fellow Pakistanis sell Lichtballoons or light balloons with long glittering stems to young children accompanying their parents for an outing. I often come across Muhammad Khalid or other people from my country selling stuff at Alexanderplatz. “How are things in Germany?” I ask a random question to make conversation. His reply is thoughtful and incisive. “Things are always good here because unlike our leaders, theirs are sincere to the nation.” Well said, I think and move on. Perhaps I would come here again.

 

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Eagle’s Nest Revisited

rakhaposhiI visited Eagle’s Nest ten year ago. I revisited it this year. The hotel is the initiative of Ali Madad a former NCO of the Pakistan Army. A simple man, Ali has worked hard to expand his hotel business. He is now known internationally and hosts local and foreign visitors by the dozens on a daily basis during the busy summer season. He shuts down in November and opens again March/April. Perched high up in Duikar village (2800 Meters), the hotel is 25 minutes’ drive (11 kms) from Karimabad, Hunza. In earlier days, one had to hire a jeep to undertake a bone breaking journey on hairpin bends. Now a metaled road comfortable ride on your own car can bring you up to the hotel that began a camping ground.   With the opening up of the road, there has been a mushrooming of hotels and tent villages all along the road. The number of tourists reaching this far has risen phenomenally. Ali Madad is as humble and gracious as ever as a host. He has added a number of new rooms but he doesn’t offer traditional cuisine any more.  Last time we had apricot soup but this time it was traditional fare. The chef, a nephew of Ali goes to Karachi in the off season and works for a fast food outlet in Karachi. Also missing from the hotel was the quaint Japanese lady, who made soaps and oil from apricots. She died a few years ago. Sitting outside and warming themselves in the sunlight you can still come across Ali’s parents, a wizened old couple, with a mother wearing a traditional embroidered camp, the traditional wear of the ladies of this area.

Eagle’s Nest offers a brilliant view of a number of peaks that are a treat to watch at sunset and sundown. A mound outside the hotel is favorite site to watch the sun ups and sun downs. Last time there was only a Japanese and South Korean meditating at dusk. This time the area was thronged by local and foreign visitors. There were a number of Koreans and Thais praying in silence and Pakistanis from the plains taking selfies and chattering away excitedly. Some serious ones were positioning their high tech cameras on tripods just to capture the right moment. A board at the bottom of the mound announced that Noor-e-Tooq is the property of the spiritual leader of the Ismaili community the Agha Khan. Picnics were prohibited on these hallowed grounds. This does not prevent people from littering. The local Girl Guides have placed some dustbins there. Who disposes off the trash from the bins is anybody’s guess. The Noor-e-Tooq could have been a burial ground, once upon a time. You can still discern a few graves on the top. The first time I visited this place it was lonely, forlorn and a bit intimidating. The large boulders strewn across resembled broken dinosaur eggshells. It seemed that new born ancient reptiles had just walked out after being hatched. Now even these rocks seemed overwhelmed by the influx of visitors.

The sun show is a magical moment. It is like a heavenly opera with the Almighty switching on and switching off the sunlight according to a divine script. The only difference is that at sunrise, the peaks began catching the light from the east to the west, as one peak after the other lights up until these majestic towers fully light up. It’s in the reverse order in the evening, as one peak after the other dissolves into darkness, one after the other. The whole show lasts from 20 to 25 minutes. The scene would have been perfect if the Almighty conductor had lent it a symphony of heroic proportions. The mighty peaks that are visible in all their glory from this prime location are Rakaposhi (7788 Ms), Lady’s Fingers, Golden Peak, Deeran, Ultar and Hunza peaks.

Eagle’s nest provides all creature comforts that a modern traveler is used to. Hot water, clean linden and modern plumbing. The only irritation is that the Internet here is patchy but this is the standard problem all over Gilgit Baltistan (GB). Although the Pak China optical fiber cable has been laid and its completion announced with great fanfare. The bandwidth available in most areas of GB is only 2 to 3 GB. Mobile services don’t function at all places unless you buy an SCOM SIM. Locals think that the communication is restricted in this area because the government fears that hostile agencies out to interfere with CPEC projects may misuse this public utility. This fear may be real because the day we were leaving there were coordinated attacks on girl’s schools in Diamir district in Chilas. This left a bad taste in the mouth after an otherwise lovely holiday to some unexplored destinations in our beautiful country.