November 8, 2015

To the Head and Heart of Istanbul

After you have seen all of Istanbul, there is still more to see. To make sense of that seemingly contradictory proposition, I had left Galata Tower and Taksim Square for the last on my itinerary. After three consecutive years of visits that had covered miles of wandering in the streets of the city, I wanted to see more. What better way than rounding off the series with a bird’s eye view that captures much of history and geography, and then to feel the pulse of a city that beckons you to visit yet one more time.
Fatih, Yusuf and Tugrul, three eager young Turkish Air Force Academy cadets, part of a group detailed to look after the visiting delegates, joined me for a weekend jaunt to see the city’s remarkable history come alive in an incredible panorama.  After waiting in line for the steeply-priced tickets at the base of Galata Tower for about twenty minutes, we decided to forego the lift and use the spiral stairway, huffing and puffing our way 150 feet up to the observation deck. The sooner we reached the café on the uppermost floor, we were utterly surprised by a little five-year old girl who was following us up the stairs. She was beaming delightfully for having accomplished what the hardened military men plodding ahead of her had done with so much effort.
Galata is a former Genoese quarter of old Istanbul (Constantinople) across the Golden Horn waterway. This neighbourhood was actually a walled Genoese enclave within Constantinople, having been ‘granted’ to the powerful Republic of Genoa by the Byzantine Emperor in 1267.  The enclave was fortified by a now non-existent citadel, and the landmark Christ Tower (as it was then known), was built in 1348 to reflect the influence of the Genoese in the Byzantine capital.

In the midst of plagues, earthquakes and fires, the tower had stood witness to the sorrows and the sufferings of humanity. It was no wonder that it got converted into a fire look-out after yet another devastating firestorm swept the city at the beginning of the 18th century. Now, happy times were here, it seemed, going by the merry hordes of tourists whose waiting lines could be seen snaking far into the streets below. To us, it was an observation tower that  brought into view the shimmering waters of the Bosporus, the seraglios and palaces of the Sultans, the slender minarets of exquisite mosques, and the terra-cotta tiled rooftops harking back to the Mediterranean cities that were once part of the Ottoman Empire.
The tower also found use as a prison during the reign of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent (1520-66). It was put to more productive use as an observatory by the royal astronomer Takki-uddin Effendi towards the end of the sixteenth century. The observatory was helpful in scheduling royal events in accordance with favourable astrological conditions, as well as visual moon-sighting for Islamic festivals without any fuss.
Fatih, Tugrul and Yusuf, who had not yet started their flying training, brought up the subject of how much fun it would be to jump off the tower in a hang glider. I was not sure if they were hinting at the legend of their very own Turkish birdman, but I knew that every tower had a tale or two about intrepid characters who had broken more than a limb trying out man’s eternal dream to take to the skies.
Being a flier myself, I took delight in relating the story of the ‘man with a thousand skills’, Hezarfen Ahmet Chelebi who had flown across the Bosporus on eagle’s wings glued together, turning him into a birdman.  After nine short trial runs, he fearlessly jumped from the tower as the Ottoman Sultan Murad Khan was watching from his nearby mansion, sometime in 1632. Landing in Uskadar after a three-kilometre ‘trans-continental’ flight without as much as a scratch, he was feted with a sackful of gold coins by the Sultan. To his discomfiture, Chelebi was soon to learn that he had been sent into exile by the capricious Sultan for his ‘ability of doing anything he wishes’. Perhaps, the farsighted Sultan was scared by the thought of Chelebi flying into his palace grounds, and overthrowing him in a first-ever regime change through air power alone! The story of Chelebi’s feat has great currency in Turkey, I was told by the cadets. After all, Istanbul’s third airport is named after Hezarfen for good reason.
If Galata Tower looks like the crowned head of Istanbul, Taksim Square feels like its throbbing heart.  The artery connecting the two is the famous Istiklal Avenue, largely a pedestrian-only street, except for the historic tram that runs up and down its one-and-a-half kilometre length. We decided to walk along the avenue lined with trendy boutiques, cafés and pubs, cinemas and theatres, and many churches, mosques and synagogues. Every once in a while a tram would slowly rumble past, with a ringing bell warning pedestrians to keep clear.  I had seen similar trams in Karachi of the sixties, but sadly, none could be kept operational as traffic increased enormously, while no one had the good sense to limit a few roads to pedestrians and heritage trams.
We passed by the Church of St Anthony, the largest Roman Catholic church of Istanbul.  That one of its preachers rose to be a Pope (Pope XXIII, 1958-63) came as a surprise to me.  He was fondly called the ‘Turkish Pope’ for his fluency in Turkish, though his association with Turkey came about only when he was Vatican’s ambassador to the country.
It was pack-up time at the prestigious Galatasaray High School, and suddenly Istiklal Avenue was swamped with children. Founded in 1453, it is Turkey’s oldest high school, and entrance is restricted to the best of the best; this was evident by the well-groomed and disciplined students, even when out of sight of their hard taskmasters.
Our walk terminated at Taksim Square, the central point of the city, and the hub of its transportation system. Taksim or ‘division’ is named after the water distributory system of the late Ottoman era. Today, the square houses the famous Republic Monument crafted by the Italian sculptor Pietro Canonica in 1928. It portrays Kemal Ataturk and other founders of modern Turkey in heroic poses. Statues, as most people might know, are not at all kosher in secular Turkey.
The square was encircled with the Turkish flags called al-bairak (the red banner), giving the whole area a festive air, even though it was no national day. Display of al-bairak is a national fad indulged in with a passion by the Turks.  During political rallies, mass meetings of activists, and Republic Day celebrations, the square is awash with national flags and banners of all kinds.  There have been some violent protests in recent times, but we were lucky to find a placid environment to relax after a hectic day. The cleanliness of the area was as much a reflection of the efficient municipality, as the discipline and fastidious nature of the Turkish people at large.
The three cadets were very pleased that I had thoroughly taken to the city in which their Academy was located. They were also excited to have visited Chelebi’s launch pad that had him soaring, and they looked forward to be up in the air one day, soon.  I assured them that it would be a good pretext for me to be in Istanbul once again to watch them soar high. From Galata to Uskadar next time!
© KAISER TUFAIL. This is an open-access article published under the terms and conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution Licence, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

This article was published in the daily newspaper The News International on 8 Nov, 2015.

September 20, 2015

Kuala Lumpur Without Hassle

As the airplane set up on the final approach for landing at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, a vast jungle of palm oil plantations came into view. The loquacious passenger sitting next to me told me about Malaysia’s position as the world’s largest exporter of the culinary commodity. When I added that Malaysia was also the number one producer of tin, he smiled and proclaimed with great pride that Malaysia will soon be number one in many other fields too. “You will see for yourself in Kuala Lumpur,” as he hurriedly crossed his heart in Christian prayer, just before landing. He was of Chinese origin, and though his community mostly practised Eastern religions, his family had been converted by missionaries, he told me.  Sensing my somewhat curious demeanour, he assured me that there was no problem in his country as far as religious diversity was concerned. Then, in an almost uncomfortable whisper, he said that sometimes racial issues do crop up, because, “we Chinese work harder and others get jealous”.  On my assurance that I was not one of the ‘others’ – for there are many South Asian settlers in Malaysia – he was much relieved, for he seemed to have realised his imprudence. 

After prompt completion of arrival formalities at the very modern and impressive airport terminal, I was driven 50-km away to my downtown Shangri-La Hotel, by a most courteous taxi driver.  The modern high-rise buildings with Oriental motifs were a welcome departure from the commonplace concrete and glass structures. One could, however, also note that Kuala Lumpur was driven by the universal corporate insatiability, and it would only be a matter of time before it got stuck in the mires of modernism like other ‘global cities’.

In-processing at the hotel was very swift and professional, as would be expected in a city much frequented by tourists.  Namaste-like salutations, with  palms touching together, were common as in much of Far East.  I was in Kuala Lumpur as part of a group participating in a South Asian Security Conference. Expecting to be mostly stuck in the conference rooms, I decided to go sightseeing while I was free and the weather was good. The sooner I had stepped out of the hotel, a cloudburst opened up a heavy downpour, and drenched me as I huddled under a covered bus stop. The spell of thunder and rain lasted just fifteen minutes, and the sun was out soon again in a peek-a-boo monsoon game.

Walking on Jalan Ampang (Ampang Road), I was quick to spot the Pakistan flag flying on a splendid little colonial building, complete with a terra-cotta tiled sloping roof and a turreted cupola. It was the Pakistan High Commission, undoubtedly an architectural gem amidst some tall hotel buildings. We were later hosted by the High Commissioner, H E Syed Hassan Raza, whose encyclopaedic knowledge about any subject, included a complete history of the High Commission building, as well his own residence.

Walking further, the iconic Petronas Towers came into view. I carefully framed the famous building with some palm boughs in the foreground, and tried a ‘selfie’ which had more of my face than desired. I requested two passers-by if they could help with the picture. They were smartly dressed and looked like Iranians but they communicated in what sounded like Pashto. On inquiry they surprised me in chaste English that they were Pakistanis, which immediately resulted in warm handshakes and small talk by the roadside. I was even more surprised when they told me that they were ordinary labourers, for I had taken them to be university students. They resignedly told me that it was ‘kismet’ that brought them to Kuala Lumpur, but they were happy as things were much better than in the Gulf, where one of them had done some drudgery for an year.  True to their Pathan credo, they insisted that it was respect that mattered not ‘paisas’.

On the way back I went past the sprawling KL City Park, with its picturesque Lake Symphony beckoning an early morning visit, as the evening weather was getting sultry after the rain shower. The park was a study in harmony and order amongst the human species, with every community intermingling without any fuss.  It was a wonder that no litter, not even a small wrapper, could be seen anywhere. An efficient municipality had ensured that Kuala Lumpur could easily vie for cleanliness with the famously disciplined Singapore.

Having been founded around 1857 as a tin collection and distribution town serving the nearby Ampang tin mines, Kuala Lumpur has rapidly transformed into Malaysia’s economic, business and financial centre. The numerous banks and five-star hotels testify to the international business interests and investments in the country. Kuala Lumpur is also host to many multi-national companies' regional offices, particularly for finance and accounting, and information technology functions.  The modern face of Kuala Lumpur is evident everywhere, but the traditional side thrives in the famous Chinatown on Petaling Street. I decided to take a look at this famous locale, where pirated wares, CDs and DVDs, counterfeit watches (besides the regular authentic stuff) are on offer, and haggling is the norm. The evening crowds and the sultry weather can be a bit suffocating, but nerves never fray as the people, especially shopkeepers, are extremely polite as I found out during my short stroll in the area.

I was looking forward to the Friday prayers, more out of curiosity about the religious mores and behaviour of the Malaysian Muslims. Our group of five Pakistani delegates hired a taxi to the Wilayah Persekutuan Masjid (Federal Territory Mosque). A large multi-storeyed complex, the mosque is surrounded by gardens and small lakes. Though well-embellished in marble and wood carving, the grotesque structure can be heavy on the eyes. The sermon started in a fashion that we in Pakistan are not used to at all. The imam would read out a few sentences from the Quran, which was followed by a slow and clear translation in Malay language. The translation was also displayed on large projection screens inside the spacious mosque. Later, just before the start of prayers, notifications about any funeral prayers and scheduled weddings in the mosque’s community centre were displayed on the large screens. After the prayers, we were introduced to a pleasant custom of handshakes and a short greeting by the adjacent ‘namazis’, as we do annually, only on Eid. We also learnt that other than Juma prayers, many women join in the congregation prayers in the mosque. In fact, a day later, I saw two young women riding a scooter, who parked it outside a mosque and went in for the evening prayer.

Besides mosques, there is a profusion of Buddhist and Hindu temples and some churches too.  In Kuala Lumpur, the Muslim Malays number about 50%, Chinese Buddhists are about 35%, while the remaining Indians and other indigenous people include a smattering of Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Sikhs. I noticed that religious beliefs of all communities are highly respected both at the government and individual level. We happened to be visiting in the midst of the Chinese New Year celebrations, this being the Year of the Goat. All religious communities enjoyed the festivities with relish, as we could see.

Having heard about some famous shopping malls -- which number over seventy huge ones in Kuala Lumpur alone -- a few of us decided to go around the Bukit Bintang (Starhill Walk) area. Some of the famous malls that are located here include the Pavilion KL, Berjaya Times Square, Starhill Gallery and the Sephora Duplex. Perfume-drenched rich Arabs who frequent these malls the most, seemed at home in the chic fashion houses and mouth-watering eateries. The former prime minister Mahathir Muhammad’s own bakery, ‘The Loaf’ is located at the entrance of Pavilion. We were pleased to see our very own ‘Khaadi’ clothing retail store in the upscale Bintang area.

One week in Kuala Lumpur passed by quickly, and at the end of the conference, we had a farewell in the restaurant atop the Kuala Lumpur Tower, commonly called KL Menara. We arrived before sunset to catch an all around view from the highest vantage point in the city. It was amazing to see high-rise buildings all over, with the few empty spaces filled up with public parks. If the slowly rotating restaurant restaurant did not make us dizzy, the gluttonous riot at the dining tables did, and we had to fend our way back to the hotel on wobbly knees.

From a pioneering tin trading town, Kuala Lumpur has transformed itself into a thriving modern city. It seems to be headed in the same capitalist direction like other major Western cities, but with a difference. Races and religions intermingle without any hassle, and Kuala Lumpur, as much of Malaysia, is the perfect example of tolerance and co-existence, something that we in Pakistan would do well to learn more about.


© KAISER TUFAIL. This is an open-access article published under the terms and conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution Licence, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

This article was published in the daily newspaper The News International on 20 September 2015.

January 26, 2015

Hidden Jewels of Lahore - I

For those intent on exploring the cultural heritage of Lahore, there are the well-known sites like Lahore Fort, Badshahi Mosque, and the Shahdara Tombs, all easily accessible by a vehicle. However, I, along with a group of young cyclists, have been pedalling about for the past few months, and have unravelled some curious monuments that are, regrettably, not the usual ‘must see’ items in travel guide books.  While their location in narrow alleys and congested bazaars may be a reason for their inaccessibility, their dilapidated state may be a better explanation of why few are interested in sparing time to get there.  Sunday being a regular ‘working’ day for our cycling group of young professionals – with this able old hand alongside – we started with Begumpura area. The locale carries its name after Begum Jan, the mother of Nawab Zakariya Khan, a Governor of Punjab during the reign of the lesser Mughal Emperor Muhammad Shah.
Gateway to a Pleasant Garden
Heading west on GT Road, I watched the distance on the bike GPS computer roll up to 1.8-km from the preceding Shalimar Link Road intersection. As expected, this is where the striking two-storeyed Gulabi Bagh Gateway, profusely decorated with brilliant, floral-themed ‘Kashi-kari’ mosaic tiles, came into view on the right side. The gateway appears reasonably well-preserved, compared to many other monuments of that era.  
The Gulabi Bagh was laid out in 1655 as a pleasure garden by Mirza Sultan Beg, a cousin of Emperor Shah Jahan’s Persian son-in-law, Mirza Ghiyas-ud-din Beg; the latter helped Sultan Beg climb up the nobility ladder, to the rank of Mir-ul-Bahar in the puny Mughal Navy. Fascinatingly, the words ‘Gulabi Bagh’ are said to be a chronogram whose hidden numerical value stands as 1066 (Hijri) – or 1655 AD!
Besides the main entrance arch (peshtaaq), the façade has four smaller arches; of the latter, the two on the ground level are simply deep-set alcoves, while those on the upper storey are openings of balconies set with stone-carved jaali guardrails. This Timurid ‘aiwan’ design of the gateway is common to many pleasure and funerary gardens of the Mughal era.  The roof of the structure is, however, not topped with any minarets, kiosks or turrets, as is the case with most other Mughal garden gateways.

As we passed through the entrance arch, the chowkidar’s unkempt bedding and slippers, scattered shabbily in one of the two open side chambers, seemed to mock appallingly at the lyrical Persian stanza inscribed on the entrance:
A garden so pleasant, the poppy sullied itself with a stain of envy,
Thence appeared the flowers of Sun and Moon as lamps for adornment.
The Gulabi Bagh is no more extant in its original size and splendour. The present-day gardeners have, however, made a modest attempt at creating a garden with clipped hedging plants arranged in geometric patterns.  With unsightly residential buildings encroaching on three sides, what is left of the garden is actually a narrow stretch leading up to the tomb of Dai Anga, about 100 metres ahead. If the tomb was constructed in the centre of a square garden, as was usual, the area of the original Gulabi Bagh works out to be about ten acres.
A Tomb Amidst the Garden
Walking up to the squat tomb of Dai Anga, we first went around it to check the commotion. To our surprise, children who were playing cricket just behind the tomb scurried away, and some women hastily shuffled indoors, adjusting their dopattas in the presence of strangers who they thought were trespassers on their property!
When Emperor Shah Jahan’s wet nurse, Dai Anga, died in 1671, she was entombed in Gulabi Bagh. Mirza Sultan Beg, whose pleasure garden was appropriated for funerary purposes, was most likely her son-in-law, for a second grave of a certain Sultan Begum lies adjacent to Dai Anga’s. This grave is wrongly attributed by some to Shah Jahan’s daughter, for he had none by that name. Mirza Sultan Beg, had not lived long to enjoy his garden, nor was he interred in it, when he died in 1657 in a firearm explosion during a hunting excursion at Hiran Minar, near Sheikhupura.
When viewed from afar, something appears odd about the tomb; it does not take long for a keen observer to note that the corner kiosks (chhatris) atop the roof are over-sized. Or perhaps, the Timurid low dome on a high drum, the Rajasthani chhatris, and the Persian cusped arches, are fusion of one style too many for subtlety. The walls of the tomb, now shorn of ‘richly decorated enamelled pottery’ (which the historian S M Latif noted in 1892) give a rather bland appearance. Remnants of a chevron patterned mosaic on the dome are visible; arabesque and floral-themed Kashi-kari mosaic tiles can also be seen to run along the top of the tomb.  
Entering the main chamber of the tomb, we were careful not to step on the low brick cenotaphs, which had been put up after the original marble ones were removed, purportedly by Sikh vandals. The actual graves are in an underground chamber, now sealed and inaccessible. The upper walls of main chamber are richly embellished with Quranic calligraphy, while the inside of the dome depicts an apt celestial theme.  The main chamber is surrounded by eight interconnected smaller ones, based on a floor plan known as Hasht-Bihisht or Eight Paradises. How convenient, I thought, to have such a walk-in convenience for the Hereafter!
Suckling the infant Khurram (future Shah Jahan) certainly boosted Dai Anga’s family fortunes, for her husband Murad Khan, a magistrate in Bikaner, became a favoured courtier under Khurram’s father, Emperor Jahangir.  Dai Anga’s name also lives on for her services to the public, as she built a mosque in Lahore’s Naulakha area in 1649, before she proceeded for Haj. It is a pity that someone who bequeathed Lahore with one of its most beautiful mosques, lies in an utterly neglected tomb.
Cypresses for Eternity
Sarv-wala Maqbara, always had an oddity about its name, so after doing the Gulabi Bagh, we pedalled on to find out more. Winding around some narrow streets, we soon got to the tomb, which is actually just 200 metres north on a crow’s flight from Dai Anga’s tomb. Were it not for the decorative tiled panels with the cypress motif, one could mistake the square structure for an overhead water tank. The tall green cypresses, with an undergrowth of brilliant blue irises, make the tomb unique, for the cypress symbolism of eternity and agelessness so common in Persia, has rarely been expressed in the sub-continent’s funerary architecture.
Sharf-un-Nisa Begum, the occupant of the tomb, was the unmarried sister of Nawab Zakariya Khan, the Mughal Governor of Punjab. Given to piety and religious ritual, she used to recite the Quran each morning in this tower, climbing and descending by a ladder.  On her deathbed, the virtuous lady expressed her desire to be buried inside the tower, up and away from the inquisitive eyes of the passers-by. A Quran and a bejewelled sword are said to have been placed on the sarcophagus at the time of burial. All openings were bricked up and the upper walls covered with cypress-themed ceramic tile panels, four to a side. 
Though much has been made of Sharf-un-Nisa having designed the tomb herself, it is more likely that it was already an elevated garden lookout of the Nawab family, and was improvised as a tomb on the lady’s desire. The tomb was built in the first half of the eighteenth century, though some sources are more definite about the year being 1745.
During the Sikh reign in Punjab, the tomb was pried open and ransacked to hunt for supposed hidden treasures.  It was also stripped of bronze facing on the lower portion of the walls, leaving them with a battered, forlorn look.
Keen to peep inside from the single arch that remains open after the Sikh vandalism, we arranged for a ladder from one of the nearby houses. Since the ladder was not tall enough, and several ‘Spiderman’ attempts had failed, we thought we might have been spared an unwelcome reception by bats and creepy crawlies in a dusty cavern.
Hemmed in by houses, criss-crossed by overhead electric wires, and used as a cricket playground in its immediate surroundings, one wonders how long before Sharf-un-Nisa’s tomb cypresses wilt away, bringing her quest for eternity to a poignant end.

December 7, 2014

Car-free Days in Lahore

It has been called one of life’s great freedoms.  I discovered it when I bought a Raleigh and  pedalled off one Sunday morning, the silence broken by a cacophony of bird song and water mills in the distance.  An auburn sunrise never seemed so enchantingly beautiful.  Time seemed to stand still even though the bike computer continued to calculate the cadence, speed and stuff.  By the time I was back home, I was hooked on to a passion that has seen my retirement years reverse into an unbelievable twenty-something feeling, full of youthful liberty of yesteryears.  I have been in Never-Never Land for the last five years!

I had to check out if the sentiment was for real, and there was no better way than to join a weirdly named cycling group called Critical Mass Lahore.  Having received an anonymous invitation via Facebook, a click is all it took to be part of a group that is now a close-knit family of amateur cyclists.  It would be worthwhile digressing a little, and explain to the readers about Critical Mass.

Critical Mass is a world-wide cycling event held on weekends in over 300 cities. It started in San Francisco in 2003 as a protest movement to reclaim the streets by the cyclists, though the participants insisted that the event should be viewed as a ‘spontaneous social gathering’. This stance allowed Critical Mass to defend their legal position for not pre-notifying the municipal and law enforcing authorities, who termed it as an organised protest. For the same legal reasons, the event’s date, time and route, is not publicised in North America and Europe. The cyclists just trickle in small numbers at a predetermined meeting point, and then ride out when reaching a sizeable number or a ‘critical mass’.

In Pakistan, Critical Mass has three chapters, viz Islamabad, Karachi and Lahore, each independent of the others.  The apolitical movement did not have any legal issues to contend with, as the number of cyclists was never large enough to ruffle the traffic, the law enforcers, or the politicos.  Critical Mass Lahore (CML) has, for instance, an average turn-out of 20 participants for a typical Sunday ride.  For the record, the biggest turn-out for a Critical Mass event was in Budapest, where 80,000 participants rode out on 20 April, 2008.

While Critical Mass has no organisational set-up, nor an hierarchy, the three Pakistani chapters do have their respective Facebook pages managed by their administrators. It is here that news and views on cycling are exchanged, and forthcoming events (rides) are posted.  Membership is by request, without any fees or any other pre-requisites to be fulfilled; even bike ownership is not a requirement, and I know one cyclist who has been happily riding on borrowed bikes for a couple of years now!  

Having tried to visit the Inner City a couple of times, I had to give up for a trivial reason – I had nowhere to park the car safely. Not so since I took up cycling. Thanks to our CML rides, we have visited the Wazir Khan Mosque, Wazir Khan Hamaam, Fakir Khana Museum and Sunehri Masjid. We have ridden the narrow alleys, sampled halwa-puri and siri-paye breakfasts, and exchanged early morning greetings – always a hearty khair hovay – with good-humoured locals.

CML rides have taken participants to virtually every locality of Lahore, and each time there has been a sighting of some monument or a historic building that was hitherto unknown to someone.  In Lahore, culture and heritage can be just a few pedals away, so to speak, as we have discovered. While the average distance covered on each ride is about 25-km, CML regularly goes beyond the city limits. Rides to Changa Manga Forest, Ravi Siphon, Wagah and Ganda Singh Border Posts, and even Hiran Minar in Sheikhupura, have featured on CML’s itinerary. These longer rides are, however,  not wholly covered on bicycles; a pick-up truck is usually hired for these, to cover part of the distance.  We have had delightful company on trucks many a time, and have even celebrated a member’s birthday on the motorway, with a lashing wind constantly blowing out the candles.  It is on such occasions that I joyfully discover my senior citizen status mixing quite well with the youngsters’ pranks and tomfoolery.

A keenly awaited annual CML event is the tough 100-km Lahore-Kasur-Lahore ride.  A group of 16-18 participants usually turns up, though half the number complete the full distance.  A lunch break in Kasur’s main bazaar, and a visit to Bulleh Shah’s shrine usually stirs up the locals in surprising ways. I recall the last time when a group of children tried speaking to us ‘foreigners’ in English, only to hear our replies in Urdu with utter disbelief.  It is also not usual for some of the fair-skinned local cyclists to come under special scrutiny at police or military pickets, what with the few foreign tourists being a novelty in the country’s prevailing security situation.
CML rides have served as excellent history and culture field trips, and Lahore continues to throw up an endless mélange of mosques, mausoleums and shrines to be discovered. The convenience of a bicycle in getting through narrow streets, and without any parking issues, makes these trips even more popular. Ride participants have also had the opportunity of taking some spectacular photographs;  the fun of it all has been to post them on social media sites within minutes, providing virtually a live coverage of the event to fascinated friends and relatives. 

Though the CML rides are undertaken at an easy pace due to constraints of vehicular traffic, the distances covered are enough to get the riders panting and sweating. It is no coincidence that all cyclists of the group are absolutely fit, and always in good humour, I may add. 

One of the objectives of CML is to support gender equality in outdoor activities like cycling. On this account, CML has done reasonably well, with about a quarter of the participants on every ride being girls. They have managed to talk their parents out of any apprehensions, learnt to negotiate through atrocious traffic, and also know how to deal with the stares of an awe-struck public in a completely nonchalant manner.  So far there have been no issues, and the group looks like an extended family wheeling around on jazzy bikes! Breaking with the stereotype cyclist does raise a few eyebrows, however, for Lahorites are used to seeing no more than the malis or chowkidars hunched over their beat-up roadsters.

Aneeqa Ali, who has been cycling with CML for almost four years, finds her cycling experience thrilling. “It has been an amazing experience pedaling on the streets of Lahore with a diverse group of people, who come together from different parts of the city, and different walks of life. CML is not just a platform for promoting cycling, but it also provides a wonderful opportunity for making new friends and sharing amazing experiences with them.”

Aneeqa thinks that riding in a group is quite safe, but that still doesn't help in getting rid of the stares. “I guess sometimes these stares are just out of curiosity, and very few times even appreciation. Riding in a group helps avoid any difficulties, but for a girl/woman to ride a bike alone on these streets can pose big problems, and I have had some bad experiences a few times. But that does not make me lose hope, and I am still determined to fight against the odds; with time I have even gotten better at tackling such situations.”

Environmental and social issues have been prime concerns that led Rafay Alam (an environmentalist himself) to organise Critical Mass in Lahore. He is of the opinion that, Lahore has sprawled on the back of cheap agricultural land and automobile financing, and has been designed for the benefit of car owners. Public transport, cyclists and pedestrians – the majority of commuting Lahore – find their city no less than dangerous to traverse. This development elitism fosters social and sexual discrimination. We have become a society that finds it perfectly acceptable that half of its population –  women, children, senior citizens and the physically handicapped – are effectively removed from social and economic interaction.  Critical Mass Lahore, for me, was an answer to these issues.”

Rafay would like to see the city of Lahore formally accept the vision of CML. “It would be a dream come true if the city of Lahore took the first step that so many other cities have taken, to safer streets and more equitable and sustainable cities: A car free day. I would appeal to the city of Lahore to consider closing a major artery one Sunday morning a month, from 6 am to noon, to allow pedestrians and cyclists to ‘reclaim’ their city. Shops and khokhas along the artery could support local businesses and recreation activity.”

Whether Rafay’s idea of closing a major road to vehicular traffic one Sunday a month gets a nod or not, his vision of CML is, happily, here to stay.  

© KAISER TUFAIL. This is an open-access article published under the terms and conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution Licence, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

This article was published in the daily newspaper The News International on 7 December 2014.

September 22, 2014

In the Heart of Germany

Located on the border of former East Germany, Geisa was once the western-most town of the former Warsaw Pact countries.  Today, it lies in the central German State of Thuringia, a forested region with shallow hills, undulating meadows and several gushing rivers.  In the days of the Cold War, these terrain features could ostensibly stop or slow down any possible Soviet armour advance towards Frankfurt and beyond.  Only the Fulda Gap allowed a free run to the Soviets, with the result that its defences figured predominantly in NATO war plans. A study tour of the Gap was, thus, central to prudent defence planning in the South Asian context, as the US Naval Post-graduate School’s brief for us stated.  That is how five of us former armed forces officers ended up for a week-long jaunt in the heart of Germany, last March.
Arrival and pick-up at Frankfurt airport was flawless, as was the drive to the hotel on the no-speed-limit autobahn (motorway).  I noticed that the neatness all around was, in no less measure, due to the absence of ugly billboards that have blighted the skylines in our own cities.  An oddity compared to many other European cities, Frankfurt’s high-rise glass and concrete buildings were visible on the skyline from afar. With over 200 international and national banks, as well as one of the world’s largest stock exchanges, Frankfurt is indeed well-structured to be Europe’s largest financial centre. 
While checking in at Le Méridien Park Hotel, I was surprised by a classic blonde German-looking bellhop, for he was actually an Afghan who had stayed as a refugee in Peshawar for many years.  Umar, who could speak fluent German as well as Urdu, turned out to be a handy guide during the stay at the hotel.  After the domestics were done I hastened to the city centre, for it was a Sunday and it would be fun to watch the weekend revellers, as Umar suggested. While walking down the streets, I was pleased to know that Germans continue to put up with my namesake, for quite a few roads, plazas and apartment blocks carry that name. Wilhelm-I was proclaimed the Kaiser (emperor) when Germany was first unified into an integrated nation state in 1871.  He is one of the few old-time leaders whose name lives on in the city, despite zealous renaming of streets and squares in post-war Germany.
As soon as I stepped out of the hotel, I was overwhelmed by the grandeur of the nearby 126-year old Frankfurt Central Station.  Why, I sadly rued, could we not similarly preserve the splendour of our own 154-year old Lahore Railway Station and its environs, now a messy reflection of its former colonial glory? Walking on Münchener Street, which starts from the station, one could be excused for thinking that this was somewhere in the Middle East; almost every shop sells either Turkish or Arab food and groceries. 
Heading towards the Innenstadt (Inner City), I decided to first walk along the green belt that forms its perimeter.  Cyclists could be seen pedalling in specially marked cycle lanes.  Sunday was also a day for showing off their exotic cars, and many a nutty motorist raced past in his roaring convertible or coupe.  A stroll on Goethe Street was eye-dazzling, as it has some of the most prestigious fashion shops in the world, and caters to the rich and the famous.  Being neither, I strode off to the commoners’ city square marked by the Hauptwache (Guard House), once a prison and now simply denoting the city centre.  A prominent landmark of the Innenstadt is the baroque St Catherine’s Church, the largest Lutheran church in Frankfurt, which stands in the midst of many modern buildings. Like all European inner cities, the square was awash with holiday gaiety and liveliness.  Street musicians heartily played trumpets and accordions for bystanders. A curious contraption seen in the square was the Velotaxi, a three-wheeled cycle rickshaw cocooned in a light aerodynamic shell.  It was meant for tourists and could be taken into pedestrian-only zones without any hassle.
Near the Hauptwache is the famous MyZeil shopping mall, a modern glass-panelled structure with its trademark vortice-like hollow on the façade, that almost seems to suck one in.  The mall houses over a hundred stores, besides play areas, atriums and restaurants.  It marks the beginning of the Zeil, Germany’s most crowded, pedestrian-only shopping street, that has famous retail stores selling items twice as expensive. 
On my way back to the hotel, I was suddenly accosted by two Turkish-looking men who claimed to be plainclothed police undercover agents.  They promptly displayed their ID cards which seemed too blurred to be read without glasses. In a bit of a tizzy, I asked them what they wanted. On being unable to produce my passport, which I wasn’t carrying, they asked me if I had cash on me. Ah, so this was my first-ever mugging, I realised!  When I told them, with some derring-do, that I was a military man, they asked if I had any ID.  On being shown one, they immediately apologised, and said that drug peddlers usually had hordes of cash on them, which is what they were checking for.  They told me that Taunus Street on which we were standing, was the seediest one in Frankfurt, and that it was surprising that I was walking about merrily in such a hazardous locale. One of them volunteered to escort me to the hotel, which was not too far off.  When I thanked him in Turkish – having a 20-word vocabulary – he was momentarily not sure if I was an illegal immigrant, but finally replied back in good humour, saving me yet another interrogation!
Next morning, the bus for Geisa arrived outside the hotel exactly five minutes before departure time, reminding us of our precise military time-keeping of yesteryears. Since public transport is quite efficient in Frankfurt, the traffic on the city roads was not congested and we were soon on the autobahn. The beautiful views of rolling hills and lush cultivated lands was often broken by patches of dense forests. Soon after getting off the autobahn, we passed by Wasserkuppe, a small mountain in whose shadow, glider pilots have flown for over a century.  Lately, paragliding has also become popular as the thermals in the woodless valleys offer excellent soaring possibilities.
When we reached Geisa, we were not expecting it to be a town as small as it was, with a population of less than 2,800.  It is a quaint little settlement with small terracotta-roofed houses, and neat cobblestone streets. The town was heavily fenced and garrisoned when it was part of East Germany. Now, Geisa is one of many small towns preferred by Germans, who want to be away from the hectic life of big cities to which they commute only for work.  We were struck by the serenity of  Geisa’s city centre with its old market place, town hall and dainty flower shops. Geisa seemed quite religious in its outlook if one were to go by its 14 churches, one for every 200 inhabitants. In fact, we could see church spires in small towns all through our trip, though that is not necessarily an indicator of godliness in today’s Germany, or most of Europe, for that matter.
We were lodged in what was once an eighteenth century castle, with its prison right across the castle courtyard. The castle overlooked a mysterious wooded stretch which hid the ruins of the town’s thousand-year old settlement of Gongolfiberg, as a later walk in the woods revealed.  The renovated castle building is the seat of Point Alpha Foundation which holds memorial conferences and organises tours to the Point Alpha Museum and memorial, a short distance form Geisa. Point Alpha, once manned by the US forces, was the NATO counterpart of Geisa, just as Wagah is to Attari in our context. We visited the museum, which has dioramas of life in former East Germany under a stifling communist dictatorship; it has many murals and photographs of people who managed to cross the heavily guarded border and escaped into West Germany.
Several days were spent in the fields around Fulda Gap, poring over military terrain maps.  It was not an unusual sight to see groups of students and even senior citizens busy in similar study trips, though their interests seemed more aligned with Nature than the military.  The Rhon Biosphere Reserve, of which Geisa and Fulda are a part, is among the biggest natural parks and recreation landscapes of Central Europe. Its basalt plateaus, moors, forests and streams are popular amongst hikers as well as bikers, who use specially designated trails. There was no garbage to be seen anywhere, no billboards, and no unsightly messages scrawled on rocks, as is the case in our mountainous areas.  The Chitral Gol National Park and Karakoram National Park could qualify as Biosphere Reserves (a title granted by UNESCO for keeping Nature ‘intact’) but sadly, our people have neither the learning nor the interest in preventing harm to the environment.
Our visit to Geisa came to an end with a series of briefings in the castle’s modern conference room.  While we had learnt about NATO defences against a sudden Soviet-led attack, the trip was also an excellent sampling of a fast-paced Frankfurt and a laid back Geisa, with unspoilt Nature seamlessly connecting the two. 
A return to Frankfurt was rounded off with a farewell dinner at a remarkable restaurant, a short distance from our hotel. It was the Druckwasserwerk Restaurant, which was once an old water pumping station, at the edge of Main River.  With its cavernous interior, vaulted ceiling and dimmed lighting, it beckons the honeymooning couples, as much as the golden agers like us. After a sumptuous dinner, we walked back along the Main, and parted on a unanimous note that few things could be more salubrious than a trip into the heart of Germany.

© KAISER TUFAIL. This is an open-access article published under the terms and conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution Licence, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

This article was published in the daily newspaper The News International on 21 September 2014.