Prague: A quaint old European city

charles bridgePrag/Prague/Praha is a quaint old European city that can cast a spell on you. Urdu poet laureate Ibne Insha expressed his feeling of Prague enchantment in a poem of his: Ya shab ki siar Praha ho, jahan nazrain their thitki hoon, jahan dil ka kanta atka ho (allowing for a bit of artistic license it can loosely be translated as follows: “The evening walk in Prague can bewitch and captivate you”). Prague is now the capital of the Czech Republic. It has been the part of the Kingdom of Bohemia and the Austro Hungarian empire. In 1918, after the First World War, it became the Republic of Czechoslovakia. It was occupied by Germany during the Second World War and after the War it was in the the Soviet zone of influence. After the fall of Soviet Union, it broke into the Czech and Slovak republic. With its historic castles, churches, well laid out gardens and cobble stoned streets It is now a very sought after touristic destination. The term bohemian lifestyle comes from this place. The alternate life style that it symbolizes is from the Roma, who are said to have come from this place. Although I rather believe in the theory that the dark skinned migrated to Europe from Rajasthan in the hoary past.

It was dark by the time we reached Prague. The June day was hot. Our train from Berlin Hauptbahnhoff had been cancelled, a rare happening in clockwork perfect Germany. So we traveled by Regiojet bus. The travel was uneventful. The bus had good on board entertainment system. In the four hours journey, I saw a movie based on one of favorite TV programs Man from Uncle. The stewardess offered us cappuccino coffee and the good thing was that it was on the house. The internet was working so you can check up on the social media..

The bus stop at eleven was closed and so were the money exchange. The only place open was a convenience store being run by a young Bengali boy. He changed us money at a slightly unfavorable rate of 24 Czech Korunas for one Euros. For further help he asked a to the Sikh boy, who had just entered the store. I forgave him for making money off us because Gagan was really helpful and hailed us an uber taxi. It is going to cost you 177 korunas to your hotel, we were told. The driver wanted us to pay 200 korunas but we stuck our ground and paid according to the meter and won the first round. Tourist advice was that taxi drivers in Czech Republic can be highhanded. The hotel Jeleni Drivus (Jeleni means moat in Czech) was nice and the receptionist Rustam from Kazakhstan was helpful. He gave us two coupons for beer downtown cafe associated with their hotel. We were able to exchange the coupons for two cups of coffee. The first night that we spent was in a room looking out to the tram station just next to the hotel. Brussnice (it sounded like that) was a busy station and the wife had a hard time sleeping. Next day we got the room changed the one overlooking the castle. Better view and better sleep. The breakfast was good and plentiful and was enough for us for daylong tourism.

The Czech language is woefully short of vowels, so it is different to pronounce their words. Prague has a multi ethnic society. Until the Second World War, it had three distinct populations namely the Czech, the Germans and the Jews. Many Jews were sent to their deaths in the anti-Semitic purges made by Hitler. After the War Germans were forcibly evicted from Czechoslovakia. The Jews spoke German and even had their own variant the Yiddish language. One famous German speaking Jew from Prague was Franz Kafka. A troubled man Kafka had an unhappy childhood and youth. Like Urdu short story Manto (another troubled and misunderstood man), Kafka died in his early forties. I confess I’ve always found Kafka difficult to comprehend. Kafkaesque for me  is something dark and foreboding and Freudian. Sigmund Freud as we know was n Austrian Jew known to us for his method of psychoanalysis. There is a figure of Freud hanging from a pole in Prague. A visit to Kafka’s museum was on my bucket list. Kafka museum is one of the many small and large museums that dot Prague. Someone said that Prague has the most museum per square kilometer than any other city. I can’t vouch for the veracity of this statement but Prague is a small city and if you have time, you’ll be able to see most of the museums in the city. The average admission price to these museums is about koruna 290 per adult. Adult citizens (over 65 can claim some rebate) The only other museum that I saw was the museum of communism. Interesting but a canned version of history. A much bigger and grander one is the national museum at the end of the Wenselas square in the newer part of the city.

Prague is a city than can be enjoyed through leisurely strolls. One is bound to come across most of the important landmarks on the must see list. There are many castles and towers but the Prague castle has to be seen to make you genuine tourist. Old steps takes you the Vltvala River and over the 14th century Charles Bridge (German: Karl Bruecke, Czech: Karluv Most). It’s quite a coincidence that Bosnians also call their bridges Most. There is the Stari Most or old bridge in Moststar. The Charles bridge has eleven arches and there is a statue on each abutment. The bridge is a busy place. Trinkets are being sold and artists are making a quick buck drawing caricatures. Some are not willing to work for the koruna. Beggars prostrate themselves with hands folded in supplication. Their caps lying in front of them for alms. Their dogs are also lying with them, sorry for the fate befallen on their masters. Boats full of tourists float past on an idyllic summer day.

Through the winding streets one comes across vendors selling Prague’s trademark Trdelink confectionery with ice cream stuffing. This chimney shaped bakery item came from Hungary via Romania and is now presented as the original cuisine of Prague. There are open air theaters in the evening and lot of cultural activity for those inclined towards such activity. Mozart had quite a following in Prague, when Prague was part of the Austro Hungarian Empire. If you have interest in architecture, you can enjoy the famous barque style of construction. The astronomical clock is quite a sight and is full of tourists, when the clock strikes another hour and all the puppets come twirling out. Prague is also well-known for its puppets. A visit up the Petrin Tower is worth it. It was modelled after the Eifel Tower and was opened to public in 1891. A funicular tram brings you up to the hill. The original funicular had an interesting system of water balancing, in which the wagon on the top was filled with water to drag it down and pull up the wagon at the bottom. Water was released at the bottom, as the wagon on the top was filled with water to repeat he performance. A climb up the tower will again cost you at least three hundred korunas. The exhibition in the basement is for free. Prague has a very elaborate public transport system. The tickets can be bought from kiosks or machines at the bus/tram stops. Some trams have machines installed inside the wagons. Tram 22 takes you past all the historical sites or at least most of them.

We returned to Berlin by train by the fast ICE train. The top speed was 200 km. Our wagon was not hitched to the engine for operational reasons and the lady conductor accommodated us on the seats reserved for the invalid, expectant mothers or the really elderly. We had paid extra money for the seats and I guess we could have saved. The Internet was free and the trip was heavenly. To add more value to to the trip, there was a blonde German Sikh boy on the train with his girlfriend. He obviously didn’t have any reservation and was sitting on the floor next to the door. Gagan at the Prague bus stop had cut his hair. The only religious accouterments was his bangle. The German Sikh had long hair and a turban to cover his ‘kais.’ The bangle with Gurmukhi inscription was adorning his right wrist for good measure. Sat Sri Akal! Back in Berlin, there are more Turks than Germans. World has become a different place. More cosmopolitan and I hope a little more tolerant.

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.

Modi is back: What next?

Despite all predictions to the contrary, Narendra Modi has won a second term with a resounding majority. The Modi led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) has been able to grab 350 seats in the Lok Sabha (the lower house). This tally is just a few seats shy of a two third majority. Till a few months back, the pollsters were of the opinion that Modi would return to power albeit with a reduced majority. The economy wasn’t performing well; unemployment was high, unhappy farmers were committing suicide by the dozens and the minorities literally feared for their lives. Modi’s policy of Hindutva and his hard line right wing Hindu party the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had clearly destroyed the much hyped secular fabric of the multi religious and multi ethnic nature of the Republic of India. He was openly being trumpeted as the ‘divider in chief.’

In retrospect, several factors worked in Modi’s favour. First and foremost the opposition was divided and its leadership was lacklustre. Rahul Gandhi, the scion of the Nehru family appeared to be a softie in the rough and tumble of the Indian politics. He was devoid of personal charisma and seemed still tied to his mother’s apron strings. Modi on the other hand showcased himself as a self-made person without any dynastic support. He had emerged from a modest background and had worked hard to cultivate the macho image of a decisive leader. He claimed to be the regional chowkidar (watchman) and his anti-Pakistan rhetoric also resonated with a public in the throes of a nationalistic fervour. His strong bid to finish the special status of occupied Kashmir also had the backing of the hawkish elements in India. This image building was backed by a strong social media campaign. He had a NaMo TV channel to build his personal following and this was backed by a NaMo App. He made strong use of technology to promote his image as a decisive leader and in the end it paid off.

The question is what will Modi 2.0 portend for Pakistan, for the region and the world at large? The Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan has telephoned Modi and congratulated him on his electoral win and expressed the hope that they should work together for the betterment of their people. Sometime back Imran Khan had expressed the hope that there was a chance to discuss and resolve the issue of Kashmir, if Modi’s BJP returned to power. His optimism was perhaps based on the fact that a ‘strong’ party with credible nationalistic credentials had more chances of negotiating on a contentious issue of Kashmir than a weak party, forever trying to appease the domestic audience. Khan and Modi will be attending the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan on 14-15 June this year. There is a possibility that they may talk to each other on the side lines of this conference. Some time back the foreign ministers of Pakistan and India, Shah Mahmood Qureishi and Sushma Swaraj met at the same venue and talked. Swaraj had brought along sweet to ostensibly remove the bitter taste in a hostile relationship. Can this be a good omen? It is hard to say. Pakistan-India relationship seem never to take off and is forever shackled in past recriminations and suspicions. Khan’s hopes that Modi may turn mellow after his second victory are also subject to a number of pushes and pulls. One thing is sure, Modi or for that matter any Indian leader or any world leader would only negotiate if there is any gain from such an engagement. Facile negotiations leading nowhere is a waste of time and nobody is willing to invest in such efforts.

Pakistan is a country mired in economic problems and has little to offer to India. What possibly can it offer to spark any interest in India, without compromising its legitimate security interests? The menu of possibilities can be small and large depending on the skills of the negotiators. Some of the issues have been discussed before with limited success but there is always a next time. Trade definitely should be on the top of the agenda. The measly few hundred million bilateral trade can become as big as a 40 billion dollar portfolio. The Torkhum-Wagha economic corridor can be operationalized. A World Bank offer to sponsor this project has just been spurned because of security reasons.   Visa regime needs to be softened. This is a very old demand. Religious tourism should be encouraged. People to people contacts ought to increase. Sports, cultural and educational exchanges need to be revived. A culture of trust has to be developed. The situation of no war-no peace needs to be replaced with one of peace. Bilateral arms control treaties need to be negotiated to effectively rein in the arms race and imaginative ways have to be found out to resolve the Kashmir dispute in the best interests of its people. Stable and peaceful South Asia is in the interest of the world. If Modi understands it and Pakistani leadership provides him a way out in this regard, it will be a great service to humanity.


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.


Gwadar: The Promise and Potential

I had last visited Gwadar in 1998. That was before the much heralded China Pakistan Economic Corridor or CPEC. Gwadar was considered strategically important even then but Government had till then taken no practical steps to benefit from it. Government of Pakistan had purchased Gwadar from the Sultanate of Oman on September 8, 1958 for 5.5 billion rupees, when Feroz Khan Noon was the prime minister. As a concession the Sultan of Oman was allowed to recruit local Baloch for his gendarme. The recruitment continues to date.

A lot has happened in the past ten years. A deep sea port has come up and Gwadar is now linked to Karachi through a two way coastal highway. Road journey of approximately 650 kilometres can take from 6 to 7 hours. There are two flights daily from Karachi. The flight time of the turbo prop ATR is 1 hour twenty minutes. Early morning flights can be delayed or cancelled due to fog. There was intense fog in the morning of 20th of February, while I was there. It cleared off at around 10 am. A five star Pearl Continental Hotel sits atop a hillock overlooking the port. A free industrial zone is coming up next to the port. The first phase of Gwadar port was inaugurated by Gen Musharraf in 2007. In June 2016 began construction on the $2 billion Gwadar Special Economic Zone, which is being modelled on the lines of the Special Economic Zones of China.

An expo was held a few weeks ago to highlight the investment potential in Gwadar.  The mega event was attended on the Government’s side by the prime minister and other high officials. The PC is fully booked to cover such events. There are plans to lay a railway line to link the port with Karachi and Quetta to move cargo either way. Gwadar being a deep sea port is the gateway to CPEC. With 57 billion dollar in Chinese investment CPEC is being touted as a game changer for Pakistan and a flagship project for the Chinese Belt Road Initiative (BRI) to connect Europe with Asia. It has two components i.e. infrastructure development and energy production to overcome the yawning power deficit.  The credit for beginning the work on the port with Chinese help and the coastal highway goes to General Musharaf. After he was no longer in power the operations of the port were given to Singapore Port Authority who didn’t live up to the expectations. Now Gwadar is part of the CPEC that goes upto the Chinese province of Xingjian through the Khunjarab Pass on the Karakoram Highway. Thus reducing the 12900 kilometre sea journey to just 2000 km overland and cutting the two weeks of sea travel time to two. It is going to benefit Pakistan by creating Special Economic Zones (SEZ) along the routes and millions of jobs. The eastern route runs along M 8 (Gwadar-Turbat-Ratodero-Sukhur-DG Khan).  The port is fully equipped to handle containerised cargo handling but full shipping activity is still a few years away.

Until recently Gwadar was a small fishing village. The local economy is still dependent on fishing. A fish auction hall on the old jetty does thriving business. The fishermen build and operate wooden launches, which do not match international shipping standards. The signs of development are a host of low priced hotels and guesthouses and roadside cafes that do business till late into the night. The new two way corniche is a nice place for a stroll. A few kilometres away on the Koh-i-Batil picnickers watch the sun go down in beautiful rust colours in the Arabian Sea from the sunset point. A little short of the town is a bubbling sinkhole that turns into a geyser in summers. This little known place is known as Samandar ki Aankh or Eye of the Sea. The other driver of economy is smuggling. Launches are used to ferry illicit cargoes of liquor from Gulf countries and local smugglers bring in cheap diesel from Iran overland. To allow the locals to survive, the Government turns a blind eye to low level diesel smuggling at the individual level but cracks down on liquor and narcotics trade. The bazar are lined with shops selling Iranian fuel. The standard rates are about twenty rupees less than the Pakistani price. Absence of filters can leave sediments in the fuel tanks and block the carburettors. A lot of investment is being made by non-local Pakistanis in buying and selling land. The government sponsored Sangar housing society is a favourite land deal destination. In the market one finds a lot of offices doing business in real estate. Although lots of new development is visible as the city sprawls northwards, development activity is sluggish because of an extreme paucity of water. Natural gas connections are also rare and most of the cooking is done on LPG. Many locals have benefited from this boom in real estate and have moved on to Karachi with their moneybags.

The security situation is stable but that is because of a very heavy presence of the military. Besides the Coast Guards and Frontier Corps Balochistan, a full-fledged infantry brigade that is part of the CPEC Security Division is now based in Gwadar. Pakistan navy ships guard the entry to the port and the Maritime Security Agency patrol the coastal waters to prevent smuggling from the Sea. The local Makranis are considered to be peaceful and the cadres of Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) and Balochistan Resistance Army (BRA) are said to have been driven out. They’ve gone inland into the mountains and their activity is now mainly in Turbat, Mand and Kech. These armed secessionists are said to be no more than a few hundreds  and most of the time, they try to cause panic by posting ‘fake’ news of terrorist activities on their websites and Facebook pages.

The Army has taken over the operations of the local civil hospital. There is also a Chinese hospital in the vicinity of the port, where Chinese labour force can also be seen but mostly they are confined to the port dues to security reasons.

There is an acute shortage of water in Gwadar and the dams in the vicinity of the city are drying up due to shortage of rains. Water is sometimes purchased from Iran. Summers can be hot and power outages frequent. A few years a cyclone had struck the city.

Chah Bahar the Iranian port is about 90 kilometres away. The Iranian government has recently leased the first phase of the port known as Shahid Bhesti on a 15 month lease for 85 million dollars to the Indians. Indians have used Chah Bahar as the launching pad for fifth columnists like Kulbhushan Jhadev. This nefarious activity notwithstanding, Iran will benefit if the two ports are connected through rail and road.

Gwadar can become the modern day El Dorado, if its true potential is allowed to flourish. This will require courage, patience and vision.