Winter in Canada

Winters in Canada are on an arctic scale. It snows heavily for days on end. The temperature dips below zero as a matter of norm. Sunny and clear days are a rarity. Children wait for snow days so that they can stay at home but despite heavy snows, these days are far and few between. Life goes on despite snowy blizzards. Inside homes, offices and shopping malls, its warm and cozy but as soon as you step out its freezing cold. Unless you are warmly clothed, you are set to be frozen cold. Winter clothing take in a new meaning in places as cold as Canada. Not only do you dress in layers, you wear caps, hand gloves and snow shoes. Going outdoors is an exercise in dressing in multiple layers. Coming inside means another exercise in getting out of the layers of clothes donned for stepping out.

But as I said life goes on. Office are open and so are the shopping malls and so are the schools. Protesters are out in their dozens, stamping their feet in freezing snow and chanting against the government for cuts in the education budget that would mean lesser amenities in schools and greater burden on the elementary school teachers. Indigenous people or first nation as they want to be known are blocking railway lines because they are cutting across sacred territory that is being violated by modern technology.

Winter is a time of great activity in Canada. Summer is the time for leisure. School holidays are in summers, when days are pleasant and people can go on holidays. In our parts of the world, schools in colder regions close down during the winters because these can be kept warm.

What do you do if you are visiting Canada in winters? Mostly you stay indoors, or visit friends and relatives or if you are brave enough visit the Niagara Falls. There is some merit in visiting the famous falls in winters. There are fewer tourists and you don’t have to jostle for space to admire the beauty of these world famous cataracts of exceptional beauty. When we visited the Niagara Falls, this winter it was partially frozen. The picture postcards that you see are mostly from summers, when the water barrel downs and the spray rises in a cloud misting those in the Maid of the Mist ferry down below. Yonder is the United States of America. Everything is picture perfect. On a cold wintry day, the trees on the banks are laden with snow and there are warnings to avoid slipping an d breaking bones.

Canada is a land of immigrants and it is no longer the Anglo Saxon variety that dominates. In Greater Toronto Area for instance you see so many brown people particularly South Asians that it sometimes feels that you are in India or Pakistan. There are so many Sikhs in certain areas that it seems like a town out of East Punjab and there are so many Pakistanis in Mississauga that you actually feel at home. There are desi restaurants in all localities and all stores sell Shan masala. Procuring halal meat poses no problem for those who would like to stick to strict religious dietary norms.

Is life easy for a South Asian immigrant in Canada? Not necessarily. He or she has to struggle hard and work long hours to make a decent living in a competitive capitalistic society and raising children is a real challenge. The first generation comes to Canada for a better future for their children but the children themselves don’t want to have anything to do with their parents roots. They want to be Canadians and not Pakistanis or Indians. One cannot grudge them that. They are part of society that is diagrammatically different from the home country of their elders. This remains the dilemma for those leaving their countries for greener pastures.

Winters can be cold and dreary in Canada but if you have family there, your heart remains behind once you leave them. May remain warm and happy loved ones, where niagaraever you are.


Harnai – A lost railway town in Balochistan

chappar riftNot many people in Pakistan are aware that there is place called Harnai. This small town in Balochistan lies 168 km east of provincial capital Quetta and takes about three and a half hours by road to reach. Harnai district was carved out of the larger Sibi district in 2007. Harnai gained importance at the end of the nineteenth century as a railway station on the now defunct Sibbi-Khost railway line. The bridge on the Chappar Rift has a special appeal for railway buffs all over the world. This was an engineering marvel at the time of its construction. The first railway link to Quetta was inaugurated in 1886 via Bolan Pass. A year later another rail route to Quetta was opened via Harnai, Khost, Chappar Rift and Bostan. The gradient of the railway track leading upto the Chappar Rift is 1 in 40 and rises to a maximum altitude of about six thousand feet above sea level. The bridge was opened by the Duchess of Connaught on 27th March, 1887 and came to be known as the Louise Margaret Bridge. This alternate railway route to Quetta was used for about fifty five years until it was washed away by a flash flood on the night of July 10, 1942. Despite the loss of the Chappar Rift Bridge, the 133 km track between Sibi, Harnai and Khost remained operational until early 2006. The track is operationally (but not officially) closed due to damaged bridges. The previous government actively considered making the Sibi-Khost route operational again but presently this project is halted in its track.

Harnai’s other claim to fame are its woollen mills, which closed down in 2004. On the 14th January 2019, the Balochistan Assembly unanimously adopted a resolution demanding that the federal government reopen the closed Harnai woollen mills for boosting economic activities and providing employment opportunities to local people. Harnai woollen mills is still registered as a company and has its offices in Karachi.

For me, Harnai holds a special importance. This is my father’s birthplace, where he was born on 25 April 1927. From his humble beginning as the eldest son of a minor railway official, my father made a successful career first in the air force and later as a diplomat; retiring as an ambassador. I and indeed all my siblings were lucky to have him as our father. He was the best of fathers and a real model for all of us.

A visit to Harnai had always been on my wish list. In some small way I wanted to pay homage to my father. This wish was fulfilled on November 29, 2019. It was a cool and sunny day that we moved by car of a relative living in Quetta to our destination.  As we drove past Baleli ordnance depot and turned right towards Kutch, the sun rays glinted on the mulberry trees near Bostan, highlighting their golden autumnal colours. The drive through the windswept steppes of Balochistan is always an exhilarating experience. And this one was no exception. The road follows the gentle turns of a former railway track and after having been upgraded, it has shortened the route to Punjab. It will eventually become part of the CPEC.

One town along the route that caught my attention was Shahrag. Literally the jugular vein, miners had struck a rich vein of coal deposits here. Coal is still excavated here in commercial quantities. One of my maternal uncles was born here. I remember from my maternal grandfather’s autobiography that the place was infested by scorpions. Next of course was the famous Chappar Rift. The pillars of the bridge and the mouth of the tunnel are visible from the dirt track below.

Short of Harnai, an arch over the road welcomes the traveller to Harnai town. On the right hand side is a hotel much favoured by truckers. We stopped and drank some delicious piala chai and resolved to have our lunch there before leaving. The aroma of lamb meat and tandoori naans wafted in the air whetted our appetite. A stream of clear water flowed next to the hotel that added to the idyllic look and the timelessness of the place.

Soon upon entering the town is the the railway station, now sadly bearing a deserted look. A new building stands half done. An ugly structure has replaced the earlier more traditional colonial architecture that typifies railway station buildings all over Pakistan. More painful was the fact that the project had been abandoned by the new government (after sixteen months in power, not so new actually). The station master was missing and his office was boarded up and locked, so I could not check the records to find any mention of my grandfather Malik Muhammad Din (I’m really not sure if the title Malik was entered in the official records). The railway huts were in various states of dilapidation and decay. In one of the still functional rooms, a Sindhi from Sindh had taken up residence. He now sells chickpeas in the streets of the town and earns enough money to send back to his family. I’m sure he uses technology for money transfer, probably easy paisa.

I tried to imagine, which particular railway hut my father was born in. Who delivered the child? Was there a midwife? How did my grandfather inform his family in his native village Maira Akku, near Golra, now next to the federal capital? Did he send a message on the railway telegraph system to Golra junction, asking one of his colleagues, did he write a letter home and was a few years later that his parents saw his parents saw his offspring(s)? Where in Balochistan was his brother in law, the railway doctor? Did he come see his sister and his new born nephews? Did he travel by train? Was it already hot by the end of April in Harnai? What arrangements did my grandfather had to keep his wife and son cool?   A host of questions came rushing to my mind. I had no answer. Perhaps if I had a time machine, I could have travelled back in time to see how the young family was coping with the arrival of their first son, so far away from home in the wilderness of Balochistan.

The town was dusty and had narrow streets like any other small town in Pakistan. We turned back and had our meal (a really tasty one of typical Baloch meat dishes), offered our noon prayers and drove back. Another cup of tea and prayers in Bostan reclining against bolsters lying on the floor and then past Kuchlak, a town that still looks more like an Afghan with tribesmen wrapped up in blankets looking every bit the Taliban that dropped the kidnapped son of the Governor Salman Taseer (he who was assassinated by one his body guard for sympathizing with Asia Bibi) next to Al Saleem Hotel. As a parting gift, they left the Governor son with enough money to buy roast from Saleem Hotel and make a telephone call from the kiosk next to the hotel to his home in Lahore. This hotel now capitalizes on its notoriety and does brisk business.

As we entered Quetta, a setting sun was throwing its light on the surrounding mountains. A host of thoughts struck me: Would I ever be able to go back to Harnai again? I wondered. I once thought of establishing a school library in Harnai and Mastung (my mother’s birthplace). Perhaps I’ll donate some books to the FC School that I saw near the railway station. Would the children read books? I’m told that reading has gone out of fashion, in the age of the Internet. Perhaps someone will read this blog and may be somebody in the government may consider reopening the Sibbi-Harnai railway line?  May be the glory of the railways will be restored?

 

 

 


Post Conflict Rehabilitation in North Waziristan and the Role of Pakistan Army

North Waziristan, now a district of Khyber Pukhtunkhwa is a wildly beautiful place. It had recently been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. A rugged place, this had come to be dominated by the Taliban. It took enormous resources of the state to wrest it back and restore its writ. I visited the area as part of a university research team to find out how the post rehabilitation was taking place on the ground.

We left Islamabad, one muggy August morning – a little late in leaving because of administrative snags. The journey was uneventful. From Bannu we were given a military escort and it was dusk, when we crossed Saidgai check post and it was nearly dark by the time we entered Mir Ali Cantonment. For me this place has special nostalgic value. I trained here for my ISSB physical test in 1974. An uncle of mine was commandant of the Tochi Scouts training centre located here. The training centre is still there. It is now part of Frontier Corps KP (South). The existing facility had to be rebuilt after it was destroyed by the militants. An army brigade headquarter is now based in Mir Ali. We had a fruitful discussion with brigade commander on the dinner table of he views, about the situation and what tactics and strategies are being adopted to bring back normality. The next morning, we visited Golden Arrow Army Public School (GAAPS) in Mir Ali. This wonderful new building and a dedicated staff indicated Pakistan Army’s resolve to rebuild the lives of the people, particularly the younger generation.

From our early morning visit to the school, we moved to Boya to see the copper mines. En route we stopped at Gardai, where my unit was deployed on the eve of independence. An old fort is still there and commemorates the fact that Ayub Khan as a young officer served here. We also utilized the short break to visit a local government school and meet the teachers and students. The teachers were hospitable in the tribal tradition and the students knew their lessons. Boya, our destination has been a known site for copper exploration for a very long time. The locals had been extracting raw ore and selling it in the open market as far away as the Hatar industrial state. Now a copper plant has been established here under the supervision of Frontier Works Organization (FWO). A formula has been devised to plough back 50 per cent of the earning for the welfare of the local people. A team of competent engineers and workers are overseeing the entire project.  The heavy transport and machinery has been borrowed from the locals thus fueling the local economy. At Boya fort one could see the hulks of vehicles destroyed in IED attacks. Beyond is Khar Qamar, scene of one of the worst ambush sites and scene of an unsavory demonstration. On our return we visited an orphanage in Mir Ali being run by Pakistan Sweet Homes. Orphans are a sad reality of this war ravaged area. But the spirit of the orphans was uplifting. They sang patriotic songs, celebrated the birthday of a young peer of theirs. After the celebrations we played an even more spirited game of football.

The next day, we visited Razmak, a hill town at the height of over 7000 feet. Razmak had been a British outpost to control restive tribes on both sides of the Shora Alqad. There is a beautiful scouts’ mess here and a cadet college in Razmak. The operations of the college were disrupted twice in the past but normal activity has resumed here for the past few years. The people of Razmak refused to be taken over by the insurgents. They had been the greatest beneficiary of the fruits of education through the cadet college, even though the war did effect it as well. The current GOC is an alumnus of Cadet College Razmak.

After over nighting in Razmak, our next step was Alexandra Fort on our way back. It was captured by 3 Gorkha Regiment (Princess Alexandra’s Own) in 1922. The piquet is named after Alexandra and provides a very nice panoramic view of the area. A PTV booster is also located here. There are plans in pipeline to install a chairlift for tourism.

Our next stop was Miranshah, another British outpost from the days of the imperial Great Game. Miranshah is a fort and the HQs of Tochi Scouts (established circa 1904). The British had deployed aircraft squadrons within the fort from 1922. In 1928, the famous spy TE Lawrence served here masquerading as Leading Aircraftman TE Shaw. The PAF maintained its presence here till 1961 for operations against Faqir of Ipi, who wanted Waziristan to join Afghanistan. The Faqir died in 1960 and with him ended a saga. A monument for the PAF squadrons deployed in Razmak Fort stands next to the runway. My late father served here in 1950.

Pakistan Army has done a wonderful job of reviving Miranshah. The bazars have been reconstructed and a modern state of the art hospital is fully operational. The Medical Superintendent gave us a detailed briefing. His worry was power outage that affects the operations of this facility. During our stay in Miranshah, we were also able to meet some former militants and obtain their views about the future. The Army is doing its best to engage all strata of the society, including the Maliks (the tribal elders), and the old as well as the young generation. The new civil administration, the judicial system and the police services (comprising the former khasadars and levies) are at the moment struggling to establish their presence.

Our last stop the next day was Ghulam Khan border-post. The commandant of Tochi Scouts gave us a thorough briefing from a vantage point and indicated the fencing activity and the series of forts on the crest line to guard and manage the border and a new border terminal to regulate the trade.

After a week long hectic and often intense study tour, we moved back to civilization. As we traveled under military escort and saw the reassuring sight of soldiers patrolling the roads and civilian traffic moving peacefully past check posts without any undue interference. Soon In Shaa Allah, the Army will go back and the civil administration will take over. On the way back what caught my attention were endless date orchards in Khajoori. It is quality date producing area and the fruit grown here is much sought after. Before we entered Bannu, we saw one last remnant of conflict – IDP camp in Baka Khel. Once these internally displaced people go back, true peace will return to Waziristan. I’m sure this day will be soon.

Long live Pakistan.

 

 


Berlin’s Downtown

alexander_platz_berlin“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.


Stasi Museum – A Reminder of a Defeated Order

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?

 


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.

 


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.