“There is no downtown in Berlin,” said my architect son in law authoritatively. “True there are places like Unter den Linden, Bradenburger Tor, Potsdammer Platz and the Alexander Platz but there is no place like the typical European old city downtown,” he told me with someone, who is knowledgeable about cities and town planning. But despite this expert advice, I have given Alexander Platz the designation of Berlin’s downtown. It is a sheer delight to visit this town square. There is so much humanity and cultural activity in this place that it veritably pulsates as the heart of this old German city.
After two very hot days in Berlin, when the mercury had reached the uncharacteristic 34 degree Celsius in the first week of June, there were light showers in the late afternoon and light gusts of wind. Later in the evening the showers would turn into a torrential rain. As we emerged from the Ubahn station into the Alexander Platz the activity was subdued. There were no break dancers or jugglers. A lone drummer sat in front of the Galleria Kaufhaus and was giving an animated performance to a group of toddlers, who were gathered round him, watching him with earnest attention. A vigorous boy among the rapt audience (average age two years) was actually tapping his feet and swaying to the rhythm. The proud mothers were busy capturing the moment on their smartphones. Some amused passer byes threw coins in the hat of the musical mendicant without stopping. A few scavengers looked into the waste bins looking for glass bottles to claim Pfand (refund). Eureka, one seem to have found a priceless bottle.
Towards the left and beyond the train station, the Fernseh Turm (TV tower) rose up into the dark skies. Yellow trams clattered in and out of the station as commuters came out and climbed into these gleaming wagons. Past the C&A store and other malls, stood the clock tower. Another relic of the Cold War it gives accurate time across the world irrespective of the Western or Eastern sphere of influence. On the top of the tower planets revolved in their metallic orbits in infinite motions. On one side of the square the ugly fountains threw water into the air. School children carrying ruck sacks sat on the edges of the water tank surrounding the fountains.
Two Pakistani vendors stood in their appointed spots selling Soviet military caps, gas masks and other trinkets from the Cold War. They are always there. I mean the persons may change but it is always Pakistani salesman trying to make a living from the East-West conflict of the previous century. Suddenly a slight wind blew off the cap of one of the balding sellers, as he tried to settle a bargain with a Central Asian client trying out a Spetznaz (Soviet Special Forces) red beret. So as not to leave the business unfinished, he looked around for help as his hat drifted farther away. Out of a sense of loyalty to my countryman, I went after the cap and returned it to the gentleman, who could have been from Rawalpindi, Kharian or Gujrat or even Sialkot. “Shukria Bhaijan,” the grateful businessman acknowledged his thanks in a familiar Jehlumi accent.
The crowd moving around the square represented people from all over. Girls wearing smart hijab, form fitting jeans and designer sun glasses perched on the top of their scarves could have been anywhere else in the Middle East. Portly matrons in billowing dresses could be part of the Turkish diaspora living in Berlin. The city has the dubious distinction of being the second largest city of Turkey. Slant eyed South East Asians sat sipping coffee in wooden cabins or lighting up their cigarettes under the awning to cover themselves from the sudden increase in rain could have been from Vietnam or the Philippines or any other place. Berlin also boasts a little Vietnam. The Dong Xuan Center in Berlin has many warehouses belonging to one successful Vietnamese businessman.
Berlin is a vibrant city. It has rebuilt itself after the re-unification of Germany. Immigrants have made it good in this city giving it a distinctly metropolitan look that is most evident in Alexander Platz.
What’s the difference between the National Security Agency (NSA) Museum in Washington DC and Stasi (the Ministry of State Security) museum in Berlin? One is a celebration of victory, while the other is a commemoration of defeat. One is bright and cheery, the other is dull and grey. The NSA displays and exhibits tell you how the unbreakable German cipher machine enigma worked and how a team of dedicated cryptologist were able to decipher it’s working to turn the tide during the Second World War. They also give you a history of Cold War counter intelligence operations. The Stasi Museum tells you in graphic details all tricks of the trade that the State’s secret police employed to monitor its citizens and eliminate those not found to be ‘politically correct.’
I guess all intelligence agencies use similar tools of the trade. Bugging devices, hidden cameras and in modern times cyber attacks to hack into hostile computer networks. At the end of the day, it’s not the means but the end result that counts. If it is against a genuine enemy (a state actor or a non-state actor) the end will justify the means but if it is to keep tab against your own people it would be resented.
There is nothing fancy about building number 1, the former HQ of Das Sicherheits Minesterium – the Ministry of Democratic German Republic’s State Security. It’s a practical nondescript building that appears dark and forbidding. The furniture is Spartan and the walls are painted in cheerless colors and have simple pictures of heroes of Marxism-Leninism as adornments.
Erich Mielke the Stasi head from 1957 to 1989 sat here on the second floor that was called the first floor to keep him in good humor. Mielke wielded enormous power and was won’t to flaunt it by appearing regularly in the news of the state controlled radio and TV. He had a fetish for military uniforms and an insatiable appetite for medals and decorations. He had several rows of ribbons on his uniform because the party kept recognizing him for his ‘services’ at regular intervals. His schedule was strictly regulated from early morning till late in the night. His secretary of thirty years had memos and notes to remind her of what her boss wanted e.g. his breakfast had to be exactly laid out in a standard manner and there were to be no deviations to it. Not only was the crockery and cutlery to be placed in certain manner but also the bread and butter. The newspapers in the morning were also to be laid out precisely in the same order. His idiosyncrasies apart, Mielke ran a tight ship and even maintained a dossier on his boss Erich Honecker. Nothing new there. FBI’s long serving director J. Edgar Hoover (1924-1935 and 1935-1972) is said to have closely follow the flamboyant JFK. Conspiracy theorists claim that he had a hand in the assassination of the young president. Some presidents also eavesdropped on political opponents. Nixon illegitimately bugged and taped the Democratic Party HQ in Watergate Hotel. He was ultimately forced to resign and leave the White house. Even today President Trump is being investigated for his role in the manipulating the results last elections by former director FBI Robert Mueller.
What Stasi did was no mean feat. It is said to have monitored a population of 17 million through an elaborate system of spies and informers. 5 per cent of the people were formally or informally part of their network. Not only your neighbors, colleagues and friends could be reporting on you, even the spouse, children and parents could be willingly or unwittingly informing the secret police about your movements and activities if these were not in line with party ideology.
One wonders, however, if the Soviets had won the Cold War? What then? Would the Stasi still have opened up its premises to the public to celebrate victory over the decadent West?
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.
I 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.
Names of cities evoke images. These pictures are usually connected with memories. Warsaw had reminded me of the Cold War. For my sister it means Polish dolls that she had played with as a girl. The images can only be replaced by new ones, if you visit a place. So it did in my case. We drove nearly 600 km due east from Berlin to reach Warsaw in about 4 hours. It took Hitler’s armies five weeks to occupy Poland in September 1939 to begin the Second World War. Warsaw is now part of the NATO and the EU. It is also integrated within the Schengen system of open borders but it has not accepted Euro as the common European currency. It still hold on to its Zloty.
Warsaw is an old city that has seen a lot of turbulence in the past. It has been occupied and reoccupied and it has witnessed uprisings and risings against forces of occupation. It gave its name to the military alliance created by the USSR to counter NATO. The USSR imploded last century but Russia is now resurgent and is not happy with either the NATO expansion eastward nor with the deployment of the US missile shield in their country. I saw a small demonstration outside a military HQ against NATO. I also saw a small honor guard marching to the tomb of the unknown soldier. They were not goosestepping!
The most famous Pole of modern times has undoubtedly been Pope John Paul II. The first non-Italian to occupy the highest seat in Roman Catholic Christendom. The other person grabbing headlines during the end of the Cold War was Lech Walesa, the port worker in port city of Gdansk. Poland unlike many other European countries has not been a colonial power. Its coastline is too small in comparison but it has produced many men and women of knowledge. Copernicus, the astrologist that first came to the conclusion that all the planets revolve around the sun in our universe was a Pole. Also Marie or Maria Curie who discovered the elements Polonium (named after her native Poland) and Radium; and the phenomenon of radioactivity was a Pole. Curie was the first woman and indeed the first scientist to have been twice awarded a Nobel Prize in two different subjects. A small statue overlooking the banks of the River Vistula. Across the Vistula is the famous zoo that is the centerpiece of the recently released movie The Zookeeper’s Wife.
While in Warsaw, it is a must to see the old city with its amazing square and churches and spires. Despite the fact that Poland during the Cold War was a part of the religion-less system, it now appears to be a deeply religious society. Religious symbols are everywhere. One interesting piece of information that I found towards one end of the square was the pictorial history of the Poles, who went to Manchuria towards the beginning of the twentieth century to establish factories, businesses and yes spread religion.
If you are in Poland, you must sample their dumplings or pierogi. You can ask for one with vegetable filling. If you are on a budget, you can survive by taking your meals at a milk bar or bar mleczny. Food is relatively inexpensive in Poland and so is petrol but if you’re travelling on the main road be advised that you’d be frequently required to pay toll. The public toilets are neat and well maintained but people do not speak English and you rarely find any instruction or information in any language other than Polish. Incidentally the Polish language does not sound remotely close to either to English or German.
If you enjoy travelling do visit Warsaw or other places in Poland like Krakow.
There is a distinct possibility that I might have been writing this blog in Portuguese instead of English. That is if the Portuguese had not restricted themselves to their coastal holdings in Cochin and Goa and had decided to move inland. They had ‘discovered’ India before the English. Vasco de Gama set sail for India in 1497. This was even before the Moghuls arrived in the subcontinent. Remember Babar, the first Moghul defeated Sultan Ibraheem Lodhi in the battle of Panipat in 1526. Fortunately or unfortunately the Portuguese decided to build their colonial empire in South America and where they successfully destroyed the ancient civilization of the indigenous people with the Spanish conquistadors and replaced it with their religion and culture. The English did much the same in our parts of the world. Portugal held on to its colony in Goa till 1960, when they were forcibly evicted by the Indians. This long toehold in India allowed the Portuguese to leave their mark in the shape of their brand of cuisine, names and their particular form of Roman Catholicism. Cyril Almeida, the journalist better known for the infamous Dawn leaks carries a Portuguese name.
There were a number of reasons to visit Portugal besides being the birthplace of Vasco de Gama. It is also the native country of António Manuel de Oliveira Guterres, the new UN Secretary General and I believe that my second term roommate Christopher Khalid Saleem was also a Goan Christian. Army was not Christopher’s calling and had decided to call quits. So he did against his mother’s wishes and went back to Karachi. Once he sent me a box full of old books purchased from the thriving old book bazaar in Karachi but thereafter we moved on our separate paths and there has been no contact ever since.
Back to Portugal, our daughter, who had traveled to Portugal and written a travelogue that was widely read and appreciated had booked us in the Belem House in Lisbon, a bread and breakfast joint owned by Mavilde, a sixty five year old pensioner. The landlady and her husband Julio, a retired economist were on hand to receive us. Both spoke good English and explained to us the various facilities that their House had to offer. It was a good place. Two rooms, a lounge, kitchen and bathroom. The kitchen had modern gadgets and was stocked with the minimum essential groceries. The place was well located in the district of Belem and was near a number of places such as the monastery, the monument of discovery and the Belem Tower. The River Tagus is just a walk away. A ferry ride on a moonlit night was magical to say the least. The other rides to remember in Lisbon was on the iconic number 28 tram that chugs up through the narrow alleyways to the Castelo Sao Jorge. The return journey to Belem on a tuk tuk was also fun. The rickshaw driver, a man with a pony tail claimed that the ride was funny but safe.
We went to Sintra by taxi that cost us 25 Euros. The hill town was shrouded in early morning mist that gives it a magical touch. The mist was not a onetime phenomenon but happens every day and is marketed in the postcards showing the mist clad Pinela Palace. The most exotic sight in Sintra is the Moor’s castle high up on the mountain. A bus ride through narrow roads gives you a chance to visit four historic sites in the small but extremely pretty city. Portugal was part of the Iberian empire that was ruled by the Arabs for 800 years. The kingdom of Granada fell in 1492. All the Muslims were converted to Christianity and officially none remained after 1501. It was around the time that the Portuguese had landed in India.
Porto in the north was also on our itinerary. It is famous for the Port wine but for me personally it was the Livraria Lehlo that was fascinating. This library is small when compared to Saeed Book Bank in Islamabad but is known for its exquisite woodwork. It is also the place, where JK Rowling sat and wrote the first Harry Potter novel. She taught in the Porto University next door. The students still wear capes that was the uniform that Rowling gave to the students of Hogwarts.
Portugal has been part of the EU since 1975 but now has an ailing economy but suffice is to say it has thriving tourism.
A half-moon hung low in the sky casting a diffused light on the victory monument on the hill in Victoria Park. The environment was surreal as people barely visible in the low light cast semi shadows in the semi darkness that covered the steps surrounding the Gothic structure. In the pleasant summer evening a number of people were lying or sitting hidden from public-gaze gazing out at the sprawling city of Berlin. In the distance the TV tower, the monument that the East Germans had erected to celebrate their technology, emerged from the darkness as a symbol of a bygone era.
In this twilight zone, when everything was not clearly visible, the monument to victory stood out pointing to the sky. The cast iron monument of 1821 was dedicated by King Fredrick William III of Prussia to the liberation wars fought at the end of the War of the Sixth Coalition against France in the course of the Napoleonic Wars. It provides an excellent viewpoint over much of the central and southern portions of the city. In summer an artificial waterfall originates at the foot of the monument and continues down the hillside to the intersection of Großbeerenstraße and Kreuzbergstraße. A historic wine-growing area, today the park is neighboring two small vineyards, one in the northeast founded in 1968 and owned by the Senate of Berlin and cultivated by the adjacent market garden, the other one established in summer 2006 within the Victoria Quarter on the southern slope of the Kreuzberg Hill.
The waterfall was given a trial run for the first time on 14 October 1893. Gas motors in a neighboring machine house (now the venue hall of the restaurant in the Villa Kreuzberg, the former engineer’s home, an ensemble built 1892–1893) pumped up the water. Since summer 1894 13,000 L (2,900 imp gal) per minute are cascading the 24 m (79 ft) down to the small lower pond. Between 1898 and the First World War the waterfall was electrically illuminated at night shining in light resembling Bengal fire. However, the operation of the waterfall was interrupted between 1914 and 1935, and again 1938 and 1961. On the occasion of the festive days firemen re-flooded the idle waterfall for one day on 19 August 1955 by pumping the water uphill with their firefighting devices replacing the war-ravaged pump house.
Since 1949 the annual late summer funfare Kreuzberger Festliche Tage (Kreuzberg festive days, founded as Kreuzberg-Festwoche, i.e. Kreuzberg festival week) is held in the park, accompanied by more events also in other locations. In August 1953 a memorial stone was added in honor of the victims of the communist suppression of the Uprising of 1953 in East Germany. In November 1958 the smashed southern edge of the socket octagon was reconstructed again.
Today the Victoria Park on a warm autumn night reminds you of the ghosts of the past.