The Scenic Beauty of Quetta and Ziarat

Long weekends are quite rare and when they happen, a lot happens along with them. A group of us took advantage of the holiday of December 25 and went for a trip to Quetta and Ziarat with Rover Adventure Club

Those of us who work 9 to endless whatever need a break every once in a while to charge our internal batteries in order to stay functional. This seemed like to a good escape.  

So off we went on Friday night for what turned out to be an almost 12 hour trip. I have a slight motion sickness issue so popped in a tablet of Gravinate which lulled me to sleep within half an hour, much to the envy of my friends who were somewhat feeling uneasy being stuck in one seat. Surprisingly, I could barely sleep on the bed the next night and I slept throughout most of our trip to Quetta.

The highway roads were so smooth and were indeed a delight for us people from Karachi
who perhaps don't even have one smooth road at our disposition, even if the roads get fixed, they are bound to get bumpy in the nick of time. 
The next morning we had finally arrived at Gardenia Resort Hotel in the cold city, Quetta, although very warm in its hospitality. The hotel facade itself seemed to be giving us a warm welcome.

The hotel then served us with a very appetising breakfast comprising of deliciously round parathas, omelette, and chickpea gravy. Although I am not a tea consumer but got to know from those around that it was exceptional, so the origin of our roadside dhabas, 'New Quetta Hotel' something something was witnessed in Quetta itself, not just in the hotel but at various other spots too.

Gardenia's service turned out to be pretty decent from their proper heating, warm running water, good food, and rooms with a good view. After settling down and resting for a few hours, we headed off to Hanna Lake and Orak Valley.

The lake looks beautiful in pictures because there it has water in it, unfortunately when we went, it was completely dry despite which there was an element of serenity and calmness surrounding it. See for yourself!

Here you can see the small island that used to lie in the middle of the lake which now has been neglected

There was a small shop and the owner was inviting everyone in for a free kahwah as a goodwill gesture as he considered us guests. Hanna Lake is perhaps another example of  present dayneglect. This water reservoir is a little more than 10 km towards the East side of Quetta was built in the British colonial era in 1894 along with a wall between two mountains. The purpose of the water filled ecological land was to collect water from snow melting from mountain tops and to divert water from Murdar and Zarghoon mountain streams. One can imagine the amount of fish lost and ecology destroyed as a result of the lake completely drying up.

After having spent a good time amidst the Earth's ochre and umber, and the sun's showering gold, we headed off towards the Orak Valley. It was a combination of dried foliage and small rural spots. Although the sunset was beautiful, there wasn't much to see.

Tip of the day: There are some renowned places that serve traditional food comprising of lamb and even chicken cooked in lamb fat which some people certainly love, however if you don't like lamb like me, it's best to avoid it. You should eat less and drink less anyway while travelling. Trust me, drinking less it recommended, considering the lack of proper public bathrooms on the way, our government seems to pay zero heed to such basic needs even though domestic tourism is on the rise in Pakistan. We all love travelling don't we? And you have to be flexible considering the inevitable downside, just have the traveller's spirit.

The same night we went to visit the city centre and thank God we went there. Had we not gone there we would have assumed Quetta to be village only which is still not bad. This was not part of the travel itinerary and the organisers were open to suggestions which was the best part about them and the travel group too comprised of very decent people. We got to know about Liaquat Bazaar from some locals and went to literally hunt for dry fruits. There we flocked into a nice and presentable dry fruit shop which was indeed an eye candy but it was limited to that attraction only since the prices were higher than in Karachi. A very thoughtful policeman outside suggested that we commute for a few minutes and explore the dry fruit street a couple of meters away. 

As excited as we were, and to the dismay of that shop, even those of us who had packs in hand, ready to be purchased, left them as they were and marched towards that God sent street. It was indeed a funny moment and a depiction of how one can instantly lose customers looking for value for money. We all ended up buying a handful of dry fruits from that long street.
The following morning we were to witness the astounding beauty of a few other spots as we embarked upon the journey to Ziarat, the calm abode of the father of our nation. The route from Quetta to Ziarat takes about 2.5 to 3 hours and I once again found comfort in that van seat, snapping pictures on the way.

The next stop was at the PTDC Motel and knowing the limited options there are in Ziarat, this was the only place we could go to. My sincere suggestion would be to skip this altogether and only visit Ziarat rather than staying there because PTDC was the complete opposite of Gardenia in terms of service and cleanliness and everything else. This is an opportunity the government should definitely explore by investing for once in tourism, especially in the neglected province, Balochistan but everything seems in vain other than the natural beauty that stubbornly prevails inspite of us trying our very best to destroy it.

One extremely unfortunate recurrence that we observed was the pollution and trash left behind by humans! There was so much of plastic (bottles, plastic bags, and wrappers) even at remote spots where human beings were not visible that it had become pretty evident that we are capable of massive destruction. We are doing our best to destroy this planet and have maintained a good success rate unfortunately.

We were very eager to visit the Quaid-e-Azam Residency and ended up being part of a very happening and festive place since it was just a day left for Jinnah's birthday and celebrations were being planned on account of that very day. I won't write all the details about this place as it deserves a separate blog post altogether. So until the next post, I'll share a few pictures below. Among everything else, the security was very prudent and we were allowed inside the house itself upon request, no bags or cameras were allowed, instead phone cameras were acceptable.

This tree was enormous, one had to be several feet away to capture the complete version. I wish we had spared many old ones in Karachi.
After several selfies and quick pictures inside the residency, we left  ... well it was like we were Cinderella's about-to-return-to-the-original-state pumpkins that were extremely time bound, this had to be done to restrict movement inside the well preserved place and it was getting crowded by the minute. There were people guarding the house religiously to keep maintenance intact as if it was their own, one of them was moping the floor with what smelled like turpentine oil and ridding it of the last remaining stains. I hope that prevails among all the sincerity.
Point Zero was our last visiting spot and it indeed felt like zero.
On the way back to the motel, we decided to get off a little distance away and walk. There was a small dhaba that we went to for tea and naan refreshments.It felt and appeared very welcoming.
The night sky of Ziarat was breathtakingly alluring with countless stars, thanks to minimal air pollution. I regretted not taking my tripod for astrophotography as it's an essential gadget to have to shoot a starry night, I could have even given it a try without it, at least I could have tried but I didn't as I immersed myself in the beautiful moment and soaked my soul in the cold night (to be honest all my body fluids were freezing so there was no possibility of experimenting, nah none whatsoever, no fooling around with the camera). It was minus 2 at night and it was fun indeed. :P
Ok there were a few more hours before we could leave Ziarat, this was supposed to happen after breakfast but we requested the organisers to leave at night only so that we don't reach Karachi too late in the night. After consensus from all (even those who weren't around were approached to seek their opinion, had there been even one person who wanted to stay, we would have been in Ziarat till the morning) we decided we would wrap up soon, thankfully all agreed. However, we also agreed with the fact that the drivers were human beings too and would need some sleep before hitting the road, that is something we couldn't have ignored for our own sake. We finally left at 3:40 am. Yey!  

A brief summary:
Departure time: Friday night at 10:50 pm
Losts of fun in between
Arrival time: Monday at 8 pm
Cost of the trip: PKR 14,450
Rover Adventure Club's Management: Good

Sunset in Hub

What Alex and Dr. Pepperberg taught me through their Book

Coco & Me with Alex & Me

Alex & Me is one such book that I had been eagerly searching for, however as unfortunate as it may sound, it hasn't been available in Pakistan. So, knowing my craze for parrots, a friend of ours got it from England ... thank you Fawzia, I owe you for this! 

I simply adore the personality of Alex, the Grey Parrot that is the center of attention of this book. Having one myself, as you can see above, I can so relate to the tantrums and mischievous demeanour of this species. And as I got to acquaint myself with both characters, Alex and Dr. Irene Pepperberg, the bird owner (although our type isn't exactly classified as bird owners but rather slaves) I fell in love with both. This lady's perseverance deserves all the respect in the world; despite being let down several times she continued working for what she believed in. Proving the cognitive ability of a bird in a world of ignorant humans was indeed a taxing task, however both came a long way.

Imagine sending a research proposal for a grant to carry out your study and being asked what you are smoking (Dr. Pepperberg's first attempt at acquiring a grant) is something one might not even directly ask a person who is perhaps even smoking weed ... oh yes, in that case the person would need help but in an intellectual case as this, the researcher is dealt with scorn. A drug addict is sent to a rehab and what do you do with an ambitious scientist? You ask her about her choice of drug ... how very cool. :P Never mind, human race can be funny sometimes, not knowing the real meaning of 'bird brain' as Alex later proved that this term could actually be used as a compliment.

As you go along Alex and Dr. Pepperberg's journey through the pages, it hits you hard given the sheer intelligence of a small bird which was not sought out before and the stark reality that there will never be another Alex. It's as if the author is directly talking to you.

I came to admire the fact that she did not believe in training the bird through operant conditioning based on which animals are starved and then given a treat when they respond in a desired way, quite an inhumane way indeed. Keeping the research of Otto Koehler, a German Zoologist in mind who did his research about Greys in the 1950s, she introduced a training model based on 3 components:

1. Reference (what the word/label means)
2. Functionality (pragmatics of how the word is used)
3. Social Interaction (the relationship between trainer and subject characterised by enthusiasm and kindness, as if talking to a child, hence leading to efficient learning)

She also introduced the rival method according to which she would have another person present during the training sessions and when asked a certain question if he/she would answer before Alex, that person would be rewarded. This sped up the learning process as Alex would try to win it ... eh, front benchers versus back benchers in class. :)

Alex was so intelligent that he even started coining his own terms. For example, when he was given an apple he called it 'banerry' perhaps thinking that it tasted somewhat like banana and looked like a large cherry. All attempts at emphasising upon the word 'apple' failed as he was persistent on calling it banerry quite vehemently and in the same cadence which apple was mentioned in. The author writes, 'No matter how hard we worked to get him to say apple, he stuck with his label. As far as Alex was concerned, "banerry" it was and "banerry" it was going to stay.' This way of picking parts of two words and adding them together into one word is called 'lexical elision'. Imagine a parrot not inclined towards rote learning but conversing and rather arguing for what he thought was correct.

At one occasion, Alex is described as being naughty. When shown a number of objects and asked how many of a specific colour they were, he deliberately started giving wrong answers after which Dr. Pepperberg decided to give him and break, took him to his room and closed the door. Immediately, Alex started calling out the correct answer, "Two ... two ... two ... I'm sorry ... come here!' he exclaimed. 

I know for a fact that these birds love to have their heads scratched and do not shy away from demanding some pampering, in Alex's case, he would say, 'You tickle' and as far as mine is concerned, she would grab my finger and drag it to her head, the rest is my duty to serve my mistress.

It is mentioned that someone sent Alex a toy bird, he went toward it, bent his head down and demanded, 'You tickle', ofcourse, the toy was unresponsive to which he said 'You turkey' and walked away. Apparently, some students sometimes said this to Alex when he involved himself in dumb acts.

Coco's demands are endless too. Sometimes, she would act lazy and not climb down towards the water bowl to drink water herself but would rather say, 'Coco wants water' and I have to oblige, these calls are at times fake and a means to lure my hand in for some scratches.

And she enslaves other bird species too, on her whim.

The ending of the book will make any pet lover emotional as it did to me, that's how the narration is ... so palpable! Even though it started off mentioning Alex's death, Dr. Pepperberg made the journey of her relationship with him so realistic that it almost felt like the brainy bird died yet again or that until then he was still alive.

Their last conversation and the parting exchange:

"You be good. I love you," Alex said to Dr. Irene Pepperberg.
"I love you, too," she replied.
"You'll be in tomorrow?"
"Yes," she said, "I'll be in tomorrow."

 This would squeeze anyone's heart! He died at the age of 31 in 2007 ... 10 years ago.

Alex's conceptual knowledge was equivalent to that of a 5 year old human's while his communication skills can be likened with a 2 year old's.

For the lovely person this lady is, she even replied to my email a few days ago for what was perhaps the last or the remaining few condolence messages. May she find peace in the thought that she made the most of the time she spent with Alex. 

What I learned through their relationship and perseverance is that if you truly believe in something you can make that happen, despite obstacles and hardships. Forget what people are saying now because tomorrow they will regret for not recognising what you were worth - their loss not yours. You don't really have to stand with the rest of the world ... stand out, make it happen and then enjoy the outcome. Relationships will be sacrificed along the way, people will leave you but that's life and in the end you would have achieved something and found true friends who were meant to be your pillars of support.

Don't run after those who were not meant to stay with you while you struggled ... make room for those who cherish and respect you.

History lives on through TDF Ghar and its Vintage Treasures

A couple of weeks ago my colleague and his daughters invited me to join them for a visit to the TDF Ghar which almost made us time travel to an era bygone. Everything on display; from the gramophone to the vintage bookshelf, the vanity table, and chess boards seemed to have a soul within them and were eager to be observed. Everything on display had its origins and information quoted. The kids were quite surprised to see the analogue phone with the rotary dial and the giant radio. Given the spacious old houses, these huge things still appeared small especially considering the high ceilings of the house as opposed to small boxes of apartments constructed these days. 

The Gramophone

TDF Ghar aka The Dawood Foundation Ghar, located in Jamshed Quarters was constructed in the 1930s and now owned by this particular entity that has presented it as a new public place for the citizens of an agitated city. Special emphasis has been laid on restoring the house and presenting it in its original form so that people get acquainted by history in its true essence. This particular society was built by Karachi's first mayor, Jamshed Nusserwanjee into the very heart of diversity where Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Parsis, and Jews lived in harmony while the city's middle class soared. 

The purpose is also to utilise the space for trainings, seminars, workshops, and exhibitions; something like what is offered by T2F and PCCC (Pakistan Chowk Community Centre) however, in a larger space.

"Informal learning spaces play an important role in helping society in using the right to speak in a constructive manner. People can share their ideas and materialise them for larger benefit of the public. Incubation centres and other similar projects are gaining popularity because of their inclusive nature. TDF Ghar, will connect the visitors with the rich and vibrant history of Karachi while giving them a place to talk and discuss ideas," Hiba Zubairi Communication Team Leader, The Dawood Foundation.

Present in the living room are antique artifacts and vintage collectables that one would only see in museums now. The tiles are also handmade and belong to the same era, the decade of the 1930s. Meanwhile, the first floor had almost got its renovation completed till the time we visited, it awaited antique furniture display, some of which was already stacked for its turn.

The Revolving Bookshelf

The Sehan Cafe arranged along the likes of Iranian cafes that existed till the last decade or so (even though some can be found inn Saddar) welcomes the early bird with Hulwa Puri.

As you go upstairs you see a pictorial display of Karachi's history, the time when intellect was widespread and people used to mind their own business, a time of prosperity somehow planned on a different tangent.

The rooftop offers a spectacular view of the quaid's mausoleum.

What we are not taught in history books is something that we found here; the concept and inspiration that led to the creation of this mausoleum. The design was influenced by the Samanid Mausoleum in Uzbekistan. You will find more details when you visit TDF Ghar.

The flora and fauna is quite meticulously arranged on the rooftop.

My colleague, Khurram Zia Khan with his daughters, Nabeeha and Zainab

The 145 year old Masjid Rajgan of Khanpur

Masjid Rajgan from a distance

Our office takes us to an off-site location for the annual retreat, this year we went to the Khanpur Valley where the 19th century history had left its mark while some scars remain from the 1970s. The bird species and the sunset were a treat to observe although it was pretty warm just when we went two weeks ago. 

We were staying at a resort along the outskirts of the Khanpur Dam. In the distant hills stood a vintage architectural structure engulfed in sheer melancholy or so it appeared, yet its beauty attracted the curious and restless soul. Later, some locals told us that it's a mosque which is about 200 years old, upon return I did a little research and got to know that it's actually 145 years old and is called Masjid Rajgan (aka Rajon ki Masjid). It's ironic how our government hasn't put in any efforts to preserve old buildings so that people could know history along with its proof, this one in particular like other magnificent structures of the past has been looted of it's precious belongings and left at the mercy of architectural extinction.

The state of affairs of our historic treasures and their significance reminds me of a saying by Marcus Garvey: "People without the knowledge of their past history, origin, and culture is like a tree without roots." Is this what we are turning out to be?

So after getting to know that it's and old mosque, my colleague, Pooja and I planned to visit it the next morning before breakfast. As we walked, there was a great deal of beauty along the way, it was just a matter of being able to observe it because it was pretty hot and when you feel hot you don't feel like observing much and try finding a shady spot instead. But we came to explore and hence observe ...

So this is what we first saw:

And then there was this gate that welcomed us to the abandoned mosque.

As we stepped inside the mosque we were amazed by the cool temperature within and its high ceilings that gave it a very spacious effect despite the hot weather outside. We lack construction like this in our present day and have resorted to living in cramped up spaces.  

Masjid Rajgan was was built in 1872 by Raja Sultan Jehandad Khan who also happened to be the founder of the old Khanpur Town which was later swamped by Khanpur Lake and the dam which displaced people from this area. It is said that the Raja invited architects renowned for their Islamic art from Dehli to design and construct a mosque in the valley. The carved wood used for the doors and windows was brought in from Leepa Valley, however, unfortunately the mosque has fallen prey to theft and neglect. The mosque's arched entrances and the main gate were said to be replicas of the Jamia Masjid in New Dehli which was built by Shah Jehan in the mid 17th century.

Given its large courtyard, it could easily house a 1000 people at a time. Though completely deserted, it is still preferred for Eid prayers due to the availability of a bigger area.
There are graves outside the mosque but are quite battered. Some of us visited the spot once again the following day and got to visit a shrine nearby which adorns the late date of cleaning to be June 30, 1969 now quite generously infested by hornets. 

There was also a family palace that was equipped with precious glass, wood, and ornaments acquired from Belgium, Italy, and France and this too succumbed to greed as it is said to have been destroyed by WAPDA and looted off its treasures in 2000. 

An article published in The Express Tribune emphasizes that Masjid Rajgan falls under the Antiquities Act of 1975 and therefore it qualifies being declared a preserved antique by the archeology department but who really cares as was obvious from its dilapidated condition. It should definitely be on the list of protected sites.

Some of the pictures are of the birds and shepherds encountered on the way. 

Pooja, the wanderer ...

The scary, barren tree ...