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.
Travelling in the bus from Dubrovnik in Croatia to Mostar in Bosnia Herzegovina is interesting experience. Dubrovnik is a small landlocked isthmus and is connected with the rest of the country through the Neum corridor. So there are multiple immigration checks en route. The border control personnel get into the bus and stamp the passport. By the time you have crossed all the border posts, you’ve have acquired at least half a dozen stamps on your travel documents and it appears that you’re extremely well-travelled.
Entering into Bosnia you witness a number of mosques and churches and Christian and Muslim cemeteries along the roadside and you can almost get the sense that one side of the road is inhabited by Muslims and the other by Christians. As we got off the main bus stop at Mostar, our host Senel was at hand to receive us with his car. His establishment in the heart of the old city has a 9 rating from Airbnb. Senel had fled to Germany during the war and returned because he says he loves his city, where he knows almost everyone. This was not the sentiment of another Bosnian I met. Arman, a cousin of Senal, whose taxi we hired for a day trip around Mostar, spoke of German officials threatening forced eviction if they and other Bosnian refugees did not leave after the end of war. Both Senel and Arman spoke good German from their times as refugees and I could make good conversation with them. One thing that came out was that they don’t wear their religion on their sleeves. Despite the ravages of the war and the genocide, they want to live in peace and bear no grudges for the past. Despite stark reminders of the war like the pock marked walls and reminders of NEVER FORGET, the city has healed fast and is on the road to recovery. Bosnia is not part of the EU but the prices of foodstuff and rents are lower than neighbouring Croatia. It’s now thronged by tourists. Incidentally Pakistani peacekeepers played a prominent role in restoring peace in Bosnia and Kosovo.
Mostar has an old war charm about it and has a distinct Ottoman heritage. It is also known as the place where east meets west. Its most famous landmark is Stari Most, literally the Old Bridge, over the River Neverita. It connects the two parts of the city. Constructed on the orders of Sulaiman the Magnificent in 1566, the bridge was designed by Mimar (Engineer) Hayruddin, a student and apprentice of the famous architect Mimar (Engineer) Sinan. An exemplary piece of Islamic architecture in the Balkans, the Old Bridge was destroyed on 9 November 1993 by Croat forces during the Croat–Bosniak War. After the war it was rebuilt with the help of the UNICEF and was reopened on 23 July 2004 in all its old splendour.
The old bazar cobblestoned and lined by stores selling trinkets and souvenirs is magical place. A singing minstrel in old ottoman dress complete with a red fez cap and baggy trousers strums his stringed musical instrument and would be happy if you throw a few coins for his labours. The city’s unique appeal is the quaint restaurants, some of them located just next to the ancient river with its clear waters. A meal in these cafes is a memorable affair. The lavender scent wafting by is mesmerising and large portions of trout or kebabs with freshly baked bread are mouth-watering. The old bridge is naturally the most frequented place in the city. Located just next to the bridge is a divers’ club, where daredevils change before jumping off the bridge in the cold waters of the river below to let the passer-by that they know no fear. A short walk away from the old bridge is another famous bridge known as the crooked bridge. The area around it is overflowing with flowers. A number of mosques in the old city resound to the call of the azan but the attendance is thin. The maghrib prayer of the mosque, where I prayed was led by a very young man without a beard. Many of the minarets bear green flags with Islamic symbol of a half moon and a star. Looked like the flag of Pakistan minus the white patch. This is, is however, not the official coat of arms of the Republic of Bosnia Herzegovina. I saw similar fags in other places with Muslim majority.
The charm of the old city is many splendored but you can venture out and see more sights in the surrounding area. We hired a taxi and visited Tekia of the Dervish in Blagaj, the old fort in Paticelj and the amazing waterfalls in Kravica. The Tekia is an amazing place. Nestled in the foothills of the mountains, it was a place where the sufi saints of different tarikas would pray and conduct dhikr – the practice of systematically reciting Allah ho. The symbol ‘ho’ in Arabic is written at various places in the Tekia. The prayer place and niche are ideal for meditation. Even today, a prayer call is alluring and mellifluous and is impossible to ignore.
The settlement at Pocitelj has a Muslim fort and a mosque. The business is slow here as salesmen and women sit outside on an exceeding hot day to sell their ware. I climbed up the tower of the old fort that is in need of urgent restoration but provides a good bird’s eye view all around. As I wondered around and entered the mosque to offer prayers, my wife in her own exploration met the Imam’s wife, who took her to her home for a a very welcome glass of sherbet and a cup of Turkish coffee. As I came out of the mosque, she told me that the Khanum has gone below. I don’t know how they conversed with each other because ‘zaban-i-yaar-i-man Turki o’ Turki name danam.’ Roughly translated it means: The language of my beloved is Turkish but alas I don’t know Turkish.
A visit to the magnificent waterfalls at Kravica neatly rounded off our day trip. There are about a dozen cataracts that are falling down a steep precipice, not quite as high as the Niagara falls but easily accessible for all those who wanted to beat the heat. Lots of people were taking a dip in the extremely cold waters in skimpy swim suits, others were sunbathing and tanning their European bodies and enjoying their beer in the shade. Despite all the rush, the waters were not muddied and there was no litter around the place.
Mostar underwent a long siege and suffered the worst that human beings can do to each other. Twenty years from the genocide, they seem to have recovered from their trauma and fast returning to normality.
After the civil war of the 1990s, tourism has become a major industry in Croatia and Bosnia. An estimated 12 million people annually visit Croatia alone. Croatia and Bosnia are off the beaten track from where we live. It is not really the most favored touristic destination for South Asians. There can be many reasons for it. For an average Pakistan, the most popular and perhaps the most worthwhile foreign holiday is performing Umra. It costs less than the Haj and it is the kind of religious tourism that doesn’t give the pilgrims pangs of guilty conscience. Costs incurred are for good purpose because it combines business with pleasure. It serves the person’s spiritual needs and brings him or her closer to the Creator. Those, who permit themselves the luxury of splurging on holidays, are more likely to visit Dubai, Sri Lanka and Malaysia. These places are nearer home, airline connections are well known, the prices are perhaps more affordable and there is touristic history that can be obtained from previous visitors.
I had a chance to visit Croatia and Bosnia this summer and I can tell you it was money well spent. I must confess this was not my first choice but that of our daughter, whom we were visiting in Germany. She made the travel arrangements on Easy Jet, a budget airlines from Schönefeld airport in Berlin to Dubrovnik in Croatia. Flying time was approximately one hour and forty five minutes. So an aerial distance of roughly equivalent to that of Islamabad to Karachi. The small aircraft was packed to capacity and as we started to make a descent the azure blue waters of the Adriatic Sea and the red stucco tiled roofs of houses came into view. As we landed we could feel that we were in warmer climes as compared to the cool weather of Berlin. It was July the 7th and it was beginning to feel like back home. The tourist brochure boasts of 250 days of sunshine and the clothes that the tourists were wearing had become shorter and scarcer in anticipation of a nice tan. The only cover they had against the very hot sun were hats and sun glasses. Among those disembarking were a number of young backpackers on a shoe string budget. Reminded me of my first travels in Europe in the summer of 1981, when I saw all the places that I had ever read about and lived miraculously on less than a dollar a day. I had stowed in my backpack a thick travel book that helped me find cheap places to eat and sleep. Now this can be done through apps available on the smartphone.
The local airport is located about 20 kilometers away. A transfer bus brought us to the center of the city in about 20 minutes time. From here we caught Bus number 8 to Nuncijata up the hill. We had been booked in ABBA Apartments through AirBNB, which provides local hosts in more than 191 countries. Booking can be done hassle free through a technology app that puts you into contact with private people offering their houses or apartments for short term stays. It is amazing the kind of deals that you can get here. So any way, here we were on a rather warm and sunny day on a hill overlooking the Adriatic and the GPS telling us we had literally a few steps to go down the stone stairway to our place of residence but we weren’t really sure to accept the digital advice. So our daughter called our hosts in Dubrovnik and sought advice. To her pleasant surprise her telephone plan covered Croatia since its inclusion in EU in 2015. We again wondered what prompted the Brits to leave the comfort of the EU. A few minutes later Ivo Kostro, a tall smiling man in his thirties appeared on his scooter to help guide us. Apparently the GPS wasn’t far wrong. We were a only a few minutes and a few steps away from ABBA apartments. It appeared that everyone owns a scooter here. It makes mobility easier on narrow winding roads. So as Ivo carried some of our bags on his scooter, we just walked down to our abode for the next few days. ABBA reminded us of the Swedish band of the same name that was so popular our youth. It was small but neat and well contained. There were two bedrooms – one with a double bed and the other with a single bed. A small living room with a flat screen TV opened into a small kitchenette and beyond into a bathroom through an open space covered from all sides and with light entering from the sun roof above. The bathroom had among other amenities a washing machine. Our daughter thought it was ancient and could be a relic of the communist area. Her hunch was right because when she operated it a day later it broke down and the owners had a hard time explaining that it was from the time of former Yugoslavia and needed to be changed.
Ivo’s wife Ljiljana joined us as moved in. She was shorter and could speak a smattering of German. She gave us a short tour of the apartment and Ivo showed the small terraced lawn upstairs. It gave an excellent view of the coastline and a barbecue stand. This apartment like the others that we would hire in our travels had free wifi. After setting us down our hosts pored over a local tourist map and pointed out the places we could visit over a cup of complementary. In the evening we took the steps further down to the harbour. It was a pretty walk through lined quaint apartments open for tourists. There were lots of flowers hanging from the pots in the walls and pretty little lawns in the small courtyards that were visible from the grilled entrances. We had our dinner in a nice restaurant next to the harbour and then we walked down towards the old town or Grad. The claim to fame of the old city of Dubrovnik is that a season of the Game of Thrones has been shot here. One reason I suspect, why Amna our daughter wanted to visit this place. For my wife it was a place, of the famous scene in the movie Fan, where Bollywood star Shahrukh Khan is chased on top of the battlements of the ancient fort. There is a picture cut out of the King Khan in the pantheon reserved for famous stars, who had been filmed in the old. I very gallantly asked my wife to pose with the SRK cut out.
Dubrovnik is positioned at the terminal end of the Isthmus of Dubrovnik. It was founded 1300 years ago by refugees from Epidaurus in Greece. It was part of the Venetian empire until it became an independent republic in in the 15th century. It was a major port that traded with Egypt, Syria, Sicily, Spain, France and Turkey. Isolated palm trees, among a profusion of European fauna, reminds one of its Mediterranean roots. In 1979, the city of Dubrovnik joined the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites. Although it is still being discovered by tourists and movie makers, the beginning of tourism in Dubrovnik is associated with the construction of the Hotel Imperial in 1897. Lord Byron had declared it, the pearl of the Adriatic and George Bernard Shaw said, “Those that seek paradise on earth should seek it in Dubrovnik.” Today it is considered among the 10 best medieval walled cities in the world and among the 10 best places in the world for a fairy tale proposal of the Valentine’s Day. Although Dubrovnik was demilitarized in the 1970s to protect it from war, in 1991, after the breakup of Yugoslavia, it was besieged by Serb-Montenegrin forces for 7 months and received significant shelling damage. A small museum inside the walled city is dedicated to the memory of the defenders of the city. Another interesting place to visit inside the old city is a mesjid, where prayer services are still held.
As we walked around the old city at night it was brilliantly lit and people were enjoying themselves in the restaurants typical Mediterranean fare. Large TV screens had football enthusiasts gathered all around watching the semi-finals between Germany and France. Amna was rooting for Germany, her adopted country but unfortunately the Germans lost 2-0.
Some memorable snapshots forever etched in my mind’s eye are: A swim in the sun drenched Rivera, a walk around the harbour at sunset and large cruisers brilliantly lit up and a brilliant view from the attic top living room of Kostornos, of a luxury liner leaving the port for some exotic destination.
The next day we left for Mostar in Bosnia by bus.