Monthly Archives: August 2014

Juniper berries make gin

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The hills around Gojal are full of juniper berries. Previously all I knew about juniper is that it is used to flavour gin. Now I also know that it grows happily at high altitude, makes excellent kindling and its berries, when eaten fresh have a bitter taste not unlike grapefruit or tonic water (i.e. things that go very well with gin).

I had a slightly awkward conversation about the berries with one of our hosts: “Ah,” I said “juniper, we make a drink with that at home”. Our host wanted to know how it was made, “I have always wanted to make a drink from juniper,” he said. This was problematic because a) gin is (deliciously) alcoholic and b) I have no earthly idea how it is made. Both counts were stunning to our host. Alcohol is not available here. In village life, they know how everything they eat is made.

Reaching travel nirvana

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We were sitting in our Tashkurgan hostel when Saeed came to say hello. Like us, he was enjoying a last beer, an indulgence that is not available in his home village of Moorkhun, about twenty minutes south of Sost. In older times Saeed would be called a trader, or a merchant of the silk road. Today he says “import export”. He treks over the border to trade Pakistani fabrics and generic medicines for Chinese cosmetics and instant noodles.

When Saeed learned we were headed south the next day, just like him, he insisted that we come and stay with his family. We did. The three days that followed will forever rate among our best ever travel experiences.

On the first day we trekked outside of Moorkhun with Saeed’s cousin. Well, we think cousin. The details of relations were a little hard to work out because terms like cousin, sister and even grandmother are used to describe all sorts of people and, in the small villages of the upper Hunza, most people are related to each other in more ways than one anyway.

The Karakoram Highway roughly follows the Hunza river downstream and all around the mountains are spectacular. They rise so steeply it seems as if they’re overhanging at the top, peering down to police the valley below. The stunning views in the Abghaz valley where we trekked were heightened by its calm and isolation.

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We arrived for the night at Saeed’s ancestral village. It’s old enough to have a tower to watch for roaming Uighur hordes, though it’s little more than rubble now. The Jamatkhana – the Mosque equivalent of the Ismaili Islam practiced in the Upper Hunza – was the only building with glass windows. None had electricity or running water. People visit the village to graze animals in summertime or, in the case of our hosts for the night – more ambiguously titled relatives – to escape pollen allergies in the valley below.

On other days we just hung out with Saeed’s immediate family in Moorkhun. We taught games to his four kids, read their school books, helped them harvest wheat and generally roamed about the neighbourhood. The kids’ dedication to showing us about grew with age though all were ready to put hosting aside to play a little fruit ninja. Nuzhat, 6, was still young enough to use rolly pollys as her main means of transportation around the traditional family home with living spaces decked out exclusively in rugs and cushions. Our main use to her was as a living jungle gym. Abbas, 9, seemed to have a little more freedom than his sisters. He came on our trek into the Abghaz and scurried ahead to scavenge a kind of root that looked like rhubarb but tasted like green apple.

The older girls, Fariha, 11 and Sosun, 13, herded us between family apricot orchards and neighbours with waiting cups of tea like the cows and goats they normally shepherd. They were serious about their studies, and while their English wasn’t perfect, they weren’t shy about speaking to us like a Chinese student muddling through their English studies might be.

Their mum, Zaina, showed us wedding photos. She was sad then, she said, because the marriage was arranged. But now she is very happy and clearly proud of her children. At just thirty two, she’s got four kids, the eldest about to go off to college. Quite a different life experience to our own.

She works hard in the fields, teaches evening classes for children on the Koran, runs a small shop with goods for the women in the village, and marshals her older daughters to help her cook for the family and for us. During our visit we were plied with goat curry, and tea, paratha, eggs, and tea, dhal, and tea, potato and spinach curry, and tea, apricots, and tea, apples and tea, and every so often, fresh hot milk, and then tea. We enjoyed it all, although the fresh milk sometimes tasted a bit too much like cow.

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The family’s hosting was effusive. We were given the choicest bits of meat, the seat closest to the fire, and no chance to carry our own bags anywhere. But the family wasn’t stiff around us. Saeed and Zaina still teased each other (“Now you will be cooking.” …”Oh, am I your servant?”) and the older girls still got themselves in an endearingly mighty sulk when they were scolded for disappearing to prayers without telling their parents.

For a while we kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, to be asked to pay an outrageous sum for services rendered, or bundled off to some conniving tout. We weren’t asked for anything but ended up wanting to give something. We gave the  extra camera we never use because we’d seen how much the kids like photos. We’re still not quite sure if the family was profoundly grateful, or a little offended. But our final night became a whirlwind of gift giving in return: dried apricots, clothes and goods from the family shop (“on this shelf, what things do you like… now this shelf”).

We’re not sure what motivated Saeed to welcome us into his home. Pride in his culture? Curiosity about ours? Most likely, we think, a profound cultural imperative to be hospitable. But whatever, we are enormously grateful for the rich experience we received. Some days have passed now but we still smile with memories of it all. It was like we reached travel nirvana.

Fair regional airfares

It must be election season. A nothing story about a couple in Nelson complaining about what they paid to fly to Dunedin caused the Prime Minister to chime in and the story ended up on the front page of stuff.co.nz.

To be fair to the PM, his heart wasn’t really in it. With every equivocation imaginable he says: “I’ve made it clear that I think Air New Zealand needs to continue the work it’s doing while making sure that it reduces prices to the regions if it can.” And then in the next breath he congratulates Air New Zealand for being one of few airlines around the world making profit.

In between, he acknowledges that Air New Zealand might be in a position to exploit its market power, and that’s the interesting bit of the issue. But first lets pause on the specific complaint that began all this. A couple had to travel from Nelson to Dunedin for a funeral. They bought last minute fares and paid $340 per person per sector. And they were grumpy about that, but that’s more to do the structure of airline fares than whether Air New Zealand is abusing monopoly status.

Airline fares tend to be more expensive towards the date of travel even though the airline is essentially selling the same product regardless of when its bought. This price discrimination is used to increase airline profit. But it also means that cheaper tickets are available to folks booking well in advance who might never be able to afford to fly if fares were priced constantly. Business travelers who are more likely to be making last minute bookings are therefore effectively subsidising other travelers without complaint. It’s only when travelers who generally pay lower fares need to travel urgently that complaints arise. My sympathies to the couple involves, going to a funeral is one such example, but they’re rare and the general model is good.

But Air New Zealand’s a monopoly, right?

Okay, enough trolling. The big question is whether Air New Zealand’s fares represent an abuse of its market power because on the face of it, it does have a monopoly: it’s the only carrier offering connecting flights from Nelson to Dunedin. I’m not convinced this is the case. First, $340 for Nelson to Dunedin is not much more than you would pay for a last minute fare from Auckland to Christchurch or Welligton tomorrow a route in which Air New Zealand faces competition in the for of Jetstar. Flying AKL-CHC tomorrow will cost you $299, about 15% less. Second, a large part of that difference is explained by the higher costs of flying to regional destinations. Smaller aircraft and smaller airports mean fixed costs are spread across fewer passengers.

The question then becomes, why isn’t Air New Zealand abusing its market power? It’s company with a duty to its shareholders to turn a profit. Partly because ground transport creates come competition. But more because the threat of regulation. Regulators are meddlesome and their rulings cumbersome. Their potential can be enough to keep some (though certainly not all) monopolies in check. I posit the same is true for New Zealand Post, which goes so far as to self regulate access to its network for other providers.

Ordinarily I’d say the threat of competition also keeps prices in check, but I don’t think that’s true in this context. The market isn’t genuinely big enough to sustain competition. The last airline to try, Origin Pacific, lasted for only a couple of years. It’s been hard enough on trunk routes where by my count seven airlines have had a go in the last twenty years. The Air New Zealand/Jetstar combo with jets between main centres is the most stable we’ve had in that time and likely to stick around. So too, I’d say, is Air New Zealand’s relatively benign monopoly on regional routes.

Karakoram highway views – Tashkurgan to Sost

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I am confident that on this stretch of our journey I was the only person on the Karakoram Highway reading Dirty Politics. Like Nicky Hager I have weighed up privacy and public interest and decided that it is best that I not post photos of folks getting off of our bus to pee and defecate.

Sup Sost?

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Our bus passed through an arch on a mountain pass, changed from driving on the right to the left and suddenly we had arrived in Pakistan. The cultural difference we’ve observed is by far and away the largest of any land border we’ve crossed. To be fair, there is a great big mountain range in between the last Chinese town and the first Pakistani one. But it’s still dramatic given the bus trip from Tashkurgan was reasonably short.

Suddenly there is English everywhere, from the border guards on. It’s heavily accented, but mostly fluent. Most men on the street, and it is only men on the street, are wearing traditional dress: a shapeless tunic that looks a bit like a night dress in tan, white or navy, and matching pants. They’re also sporting serious facial hair, the first we’ve seen since we arrived in Asia. Tonight one of them served us chicken biryani and chai for dinner. Another pulled us hot nan bread out of his charcoal oven. Total cost: $4NZD.

We’re spending the night in Sost, the closest Pakistani town to the border. Town may be a generous descriptor. There’s a point on the main street where I swear if you turn around you can see every shop, every dwelling, every building in one lingering arc. You’ll also take in a wide circle of high mountain peaks, the highest still covered in snow.

It’s a border town, even though it’s a good couple of hours from the border. It’s also at least twenty hours drive to ocean but there’s still a ‘port’ here. Sost is the hub for goods coming over the Karakoram to change on to Pakistani trucks for the journey onwards. The highway through Sost gives way to mini-vans and jeeps waiting to take travellers onwards. We’re tired, so this is a good place to spend the night, but tomorrow I think we’ll be getting out of here, either into the surrounding hills, or on to the next town.

There is a smattering of stores purporting to have something to do with export-import then butchers, fruit stands, makeshift restaurants and a microcredit bank. Everything looks impermanent and shack-like. Maybe the town packs it in for winter. It must be bitterly cold here, and with the highway snowed in, there’d be little reason to stick around.

There’s also a store that had cell phones on display. I walked in to see about a sim card as we’ve heard mobile internet is our best shot at connectivity in these parts. “Sim card” the man behind the counter mused, clicking his tongue and not quite meeting my eye. I thought he didn’t understand so I started to pry open my phone to show him, but he stopped me: “Foreigners cannot register here. I have sim card. But only for locals.” His answer wasn’t rehearsed. I suspect foreigners very rarely arrive in his shop these days. We’ve not seen any since we arrived in Pakistan, nor bumped into any in China who came over the Karakoram.

Border towns tend not to be exciting places, and many are filthy. But the clean air and gorgeous mountain vistas plus its unambiguous Pakistanness make Sost a fine place to start our journey here.

 

This least friendly country thing is bollocks

It wasn’t inspiring when, not only could we not find a decent guidebook for Pakistan, the first hit on the Rough Guide website when searching “Pakistan” was a claim that it was the third least friendly country in the world for tourists. It’s a claim that has also been repeated by the Huffington Post and CNN.

The list that they site comes from the World Economic Forum as part of its work on Travel and Tourism Competitiveness. The top two ‘least friendly countries’  area apparently Venezuela and Bolivia where we’ve been. Reading this I call bollocks. The people in Venezuela were lovely, despite the fact that their country was falling apart around them. And the people in Bolivia were also super friendly, except perhaps for the witches. Other countries in the top ten don’t stack up either: Trinidad and Tobago, Latvia, Slovakia? Really? How about Iraq or Syria? How about frickin’ North Korea? Surely letting foreign visitors into your country is a prerequisite for friendliness.

So I dug into this a bit more. I can’t get to the raw WEF data without a log in you need to pay for, but best as I can tell, what they call “Affinity for Travel and Tourism” the mainstream media had reported as friendliness. Which is more, the WEF’s ranking relies heavily on their survey of global executives. This has a couple of big problems. First off, not everyone who travels is an executive looking for the things an executive is looking for. I completely accept that neither Bolivia nor Venezuela would be a great place to do business right now. Their governments are unpredictable and their attitude towards foreign investors punitive. That will colour an executive’s experience, but not a backpacker or other holiday maker. Second, my suspicion is that countries were executives tend not to travel much (ahem, Sub-Sharan Africa and the war town Middle East) just don’t get rated.

You really want to test the friendliness of a country, you need a much larger cross section of travelers than those who sit around boardroom tables.

On the road

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For the next two weeks the Karakoram Highway will shape our travels. It’s the road from Kashgar, China, to Islamabad, Pakistan. It passes through the Karakoram ranges for which the world’s second highest mountain, K2, was named. Historically it was an important silk road trading route, but today we understand it is a well maintained highway, redeveloped with Chinese money. China wants to increase its linkages with Pakistan, and is especially interested in shipping goods from Karachi.

The highways is known for outstanding scenery. The first leg today from Kashgar to Tashkurgan was genuinely breathtaking. But we understand the best is yet to come.

Into the unkown

Today we’re crossing from China into Pakistan. At 4,700 metres the Karakoram highway will take us over the highest border crossing in the world.

Normally we love our Lonely Planets. But Lonely Planet’s Pakistan and Karakoram guides are out of print. Our next port of call tends to be wikitravel. But here’s the kind of information we’ve found there:

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Sost is the first town over the Pakistani border. We’ve no real idea what we’ll find there. Maybe we can fill in the wikitravel afterwards. But we know from reading other travelers accounts that the scenery is amazing and the people are warm and welcoming. For anyone who is worrying we also know that Pakistan’s northern most regions have historically been among its most peaceful and are considered by many to be its safest today.

One thing we are confident of is that there is unlikely to be much reliable internet. So blogging will be light and or non-existant for the next ten days or so. Wish us luck.

Tonight in Tashkurgan

 

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We’re in Tashkurgan, the very last town in China before the border with Pakistan. Were it not for the official buildings that come with being the seat of the Tajik Autonomous Community, it would feel like a village, but their pomp and circumstance makes it rise to the level of town. It’s not clear that this ‘autonomous region’ has any more independence than Xinjiang, and if it does that probably owes more to its remoteness than any genuine devolution of power.

We really are in the middle of nowhere. It was seven hours along a dusty road from Kashgar. And there’s about 100km of no mans between here and Pakistani border formalities, including the western end of the Himalayas with peaks reaching above 8,000m.

Tashkurgan was another important stop on the silk road. This is seen most clearly in the ruined fort just on the city’s outskirts. Beyond are grasslands when yaks and camels join the standard horses, cows and sheep. The hills around are arid and angular, and the higher among them are capped with snow, even in this height of summer. We think it looks like Afghanistan and it turns out filmmakers do too. Tashkurgan provided the backdrop for most of the filming of The Kite Runner.

There’s just a hint of Pakistan emerging. We ate yak curry with chapatis for dinner and had the first strange recognise New Zealand because it’s a cricket country. We chatted with a Pakistani man tonight who told me excitedly he had once seen Mark Greatbatch play. Bring on the cricket chat, I say. It’s a nice change from talking about whether New Zealand really looks like Lord of the Rings (and/or Harry Potter).