Sunday, November 30

China, Day Seven: Meeting The Locals

Today didn't promise too much. I mean, sure, we had the Terracotta Soldiers to look forward to, but the afternoon was devoid of any attractions and I was a bit worried that we'd spend it all just wondering the Muslim Street again.

But the Terracotta Soldiers were awe-inspiring, even after I learned that they weren't all discovered lined up whole in an underground cavern. Still, the work that must have gone into rebuilding them was impressive in itself, as was the sight of them lined up in their massive pits.

After lunch we headed back to the Great Mosque to pray and generally hang out in for a while. During our stay there, we were told by a fellow Muslim about another "pretty" mosque within walking distance. Jumping at the chance to do something new (it was going to be a first for our guide too), we headed off to find it.

While wandering around Muslim Xian, I finally acknowledged something that should have been obvious to me from the start - that Islam in China is old. 1200 years is a long time, and makes China's Muslims older than any in the Indian Subcontinent or even some now-Arab states. That's a pretty amazing fact given that when most of us think about Islam and Chinese, we'd probably compare them to chalk and cheese. The Muslims we were passing in the street had had Islam in their blood far longer than I had.

On the way we stopped off at another mosque, similar in state to the Great Mosque, but on a much smaller scale. We finally found the one we were looking for, an even smaller mosque than the last, but the one which, so far, was in the best condition.

And then some. Gold plated Arabic script was plastered all over it's inner walls, immediately giving it a totally different vibe to the rustic and natural mosques we had seen already. This too had the same courtyard-prayer hall layout that the last two had, and we quickly established that this too was a Chinese style that had been integrated into local mosque design.

While we were there we met, by chance, an English speaking local who happened to have been educated in the UK too. It was so useful to finally get to have a direct conversation with a local Muslim - he explained things about the culture, the history of the mosque and things we should be looking out for. His final tip was to point us in the direction of yet another mosque, one which was the oldest in Xian - even older than the Great Mosque itself.

But that wasn't the last time we were to see our new friend. As we passed his home, he insisted on having us drop by for a chat with his family (including the two grandparents of his wife) and some Egyptian business colleagues/friends he had staying with him.

So there we were, some native Xians, a couple of Pakistanis (one of whom was British born) and some Egyptians, eating nuts and sipping on milk, all there mainly because of their faith. It was a wonderful opportunity to gain some insight into Chinese Islam, and a brilliant experience that we were very fortunate to have had.

We finally left to visit the mosque our friend had recommended. The contrast was amazing - where the last mosque we went to was stunning in its upkeep and modernity, this really did appear old. Majestically so though; you could almost feel the history seep out of its almost fully stone-built mithrab.

We headed back to the Great Mosque for Maghrib (it was the only one that would gladly allow women to pray in), the last time we would probably be there. After that, we did some final shopping in the Muslim Quarter before heading off for dinner and an early night. This was pretty lucky, seeing as I managed to catch up with a friend online too.

Where I had come to Xian to see some Terracotta soldiers, I had found so much more. Islam in China had finally literally come alive for me here and in some way I wish I had more time to just hang out and mingle with the locals. Alas our time is up once again and we travel to our next destination tomorrow - but this isn't necessarily a bad thing though since as we go there as our itinerary switches from that focusing on tourism to Islamic culture.

Saturday, November 29

China, Day Six: The Great Mosque of Xian

The night train wasn't a great place to spend a night in after all. All three of us woke up tired and irritable, all due to a distinct lack of sleep, all for various reasons including the noise, vibrations and a strange man's snoring. Still at least we got into our hotel room early - even better that it was a swish suite, so good that it's worth a mention in this post!

After breakfast, we headed off to central Xian and spent some time up the Bell Tower, taking in the four compass directions of Xian. We then walked tot he nearby Muslim quarter - a whole road and surrounding area filled to the brim with Muslims and their businesses. We spent most of the morning there, before heading off to the stunning centrepiece of the quarter to pray: The Great Mosque.

Much bigger than anything Beijing had to offer, this was a 1200 year old mosque and courtyard built on orders of the emperor of the time; as a result it is pretty huge, venerated and preserved as an important historical place of worship. The whole place was impressive, but the most beautiful work in my opinion was left for the inside of the mosque - three of the four wooden walls of the large sub hall having the complete Quran carved into them, while the smaller main hall had a wonderful stone mithrab decorated in the usual Chinese-influenced-Arabic. I could have stayed in the place a couple of more hours to be honest - perhaps we'll revisit it tomorrow.

We then covered the rest of Xian proper - we visited the Wild Goose Pagoda, built in honour of the travelling monk who brought Mahayana Buddhism to China from his time touring India. Impressive and dominant, it provided even more awesome views of Xian.

We then stopped by the city wall, a well preserved 26 kilometre wall which surrounds the inner city of Xian. If I had the time I would have liked to have hired a bike and ride it all the way around - really testing my newly found bike riding skills at last. As it stood we made do with a couple of pictures of, from and on the East Gate.

To kill time before dinner we visited a department store in the vicinity of the Bell Tower, where we found out just how expensive China is for the regular stuff available elsewhere. Needless to say, we bought nothing.

Today was really good actually, mostly because of our really helpful and considerate guide; she worked with us and listened to what we wanted to do and adapted the day to reflect that instead of herding us around her home town. We wouldn't have seen half as much as we would have done without her help. It made the whole decision to take a tour a bit more palatable to be honest - it's just a shame we didn't have the same guide in Beijing!

Friday, November 28

China, Day Five: The Night Train

Jummah, and an easy start as we spent the morning getting ready for the Friday prayer. As I sat in the mosque listening (but not understanding) the Chinese khutba, I wondered how many non-English sermons I had listened to during my holidays abroad.

The afternoon was a mixture of delights. First up was the Temple of Heaven, a huge complex housing altars and halls which used to be used for ritual sacrifices - a side of the faith the emperors which I hadn't really seen before. Since it was a temple, all the buildings and constructs were circular in shape (representing heaven), and this was in plain contrast to the square buildings elsewhere.

Our final few hours in Beijing were spent in what we would probably describe as a street market - except it was in a five storey building! We had plenty of fun - possibly the most some of us had had so far - browsing, bartering and in some cases, buying stuff: more trinkets for friends and more junk for ourselves! Heck, it's probably the only place in the world where I can go and be told "oh, you so handsome" (even though it was suffixed with "come buy here"). Still, I knew they were having as much fun flirting with a British Asian as I was when they carried on doing so even after I told them I had no Yuan on me.

We then headed to the train station in order to catch our night train to Xian. I couldn't believe how heaving the place was! I guess these big intercity stations are like this, but it was pretty intimidating anyhow. The berths themselves are a little too modest; it's a bit rubbish that we're sharing our room for four with a stranger man (especially for my mother who's managed to hoist up an impromptu screen for her bed), but I'm sure they'll do for tonight.

When we awake, we'll be in Xian.

Thursday, November 27

Looking Before You Leap

I used to think that it would be easy to let someone know how I felt about them. I even have a draft sitting in my blog somewhere that I will dig out some day suggesting that we all should rely on friendships to ease the process. I'm now wondering exactly how easy this might be, especially for those of us who are "asking-out virgins". It's not entirely about rejection though.

I think that there are many valid and even honourable reasons why a person might resist doing the deed. I've already covered information gathering in posts like this one, and maybe they just don't feel they know enough to justify a further move.

Some might not want to appear as being that guy or girl: not quite a slag but the one who tries their luck with everyone anyway. I think anyone on the receiving end wants to know that you've considered them more than what gender they happen to be. But how can they ever possibly know that about a proposer without a deep knowledge of their private lives? Sometimes that's not accessible.

A related point is how some, after their first try at asking out, suddenly do indeed blossom into a fully grown Casanova, falling into an asking-out spiral where they become desensitised to and objective about the whole process. In other words, some people don't want to lose the "innocence" which they were relying upon to figure out who would really be good for them.

There's also the possibility of causing offense. Now in discussion I've been told that some guys will never cause offense when asking a girl out, but firstly I'm not sure how they can know this for someone whose never done it before; there are plenty of unfortunate stories about nice enough guys who turn ugly under these situations without even knowing it.

Finally there's the possibility of spoiling something good. Although I still refuse to believe this could happen to a sound friendship, enough people have this fear to give it some credibility. Perhaps a disclosure of this sort can wreck friendships, and if that's the case maybe the loss isn't worth the gain?

Why is there a need for any explicit and formal approach anyway? It might make the whole thing contrived and forced, when leaving it all to the blessing of the universe and allowing it to take care of things may be a better idea.

I think that for me, the ideal way to form a serious relationship is to naturally fall into one. I know of couples who don't quite know when they became an item, and it seems that this forms a natural bond that could be difficult to achieve when being explicit (of course some kind of conversation has to be had at some point, but the answers are usually known by then). And similar to how friendships in general can naturally come and go, a relationship such as this one can ebb and flow too without any lasting damage.

This is all just an ideal though and unfortunately real life and the timing issues it presents sometimes means we don't have the luxury of waiting and seeing what happens with every individual we meet. Unfortunately some observers describe this sudden burst of being proactive as desperation.

As a closing note there is another reason why some may avoid asking others out, and that's to avoid any "bad marks" on their record; I reckon there's something impressive about a single person not having any previously failed relationships under their belts (although I do acknowledge that not all relationships end in failure). However, is a vacuously empty perfect record really worth anything in the long term?

Originally drafted 30th August, 2008.

Level of Entry

How "right" does it have to feel with another before you choose to take things to the next stage? For example, I have a friend who has no problem "seizing the day" and will do so with any girl he's known for five minutes (and sometimes less). This isn't anything sleazy and usually just consists of coffee and I have no doubt that the lady in question would have a good time in his company, so I'm not criticising this.

The other extreme is reserved for people like me, who won't take things further so flippantly (with want for a better, less judging word), those who will ensure some kind of certainly and control first. It probably goes without saying that the latter group don't really progress that often, but I suspect they're not really bothered by this "lack of action" anyway, making do with and appreciating the rare times things do happen instead.

There's no right or wrong approach here. Different people need different amounts of evidence and stimuli before showing their respective cards. I'm not even sure which is more effective: the proactive guy may get things done faster, but perhaps the latter will have something more certain, more precious?

As someone in the latter group, it's worth stating why a guy may choose to take things slow. There's respect for the other person (if you ask everyone in a skirt out, what makes the next so special?), a consideration of their own true feelings (since that initial rush of, uh, blood might be mistaken for something else), a lack of time, money or even emotion, and finally the prospect of failure. Proactive guy may not care about any of these things, so in a sense he's the braver one by risking and investing more. Of course he may also become insensitive to all the above too.

Proactive guy isn't necessarily less fussy either, he just prefers to be more explicit about the fact finding process of whether another person will be suitable or not, while guys from the other group may prefer being a bit more subtle, fall into friendship, and gather information that way as a natural consequence. The information gathered is all the same at the end, and of course slow guy would have to become somewhat proactive at some point (in order to "switch" the relationship).

Finally, it's worth noting that none of this considers the other person, and what category they happen to fall into. Some won't wait for the Slows, while others may find Proactive a bit too fast. I guess in this sense the best approach is a balanced and flexible one, the one which suits both you and the prospective as a whole rather than any single person involved.

Originally drafted 30th March, 2008.

Just Do It

I had another interesting conversation with a (female) friend few weeks back. They were asking the age old question of who, with respect to gender, should approach whom first when deciding if there's any mutual interest between the two. Of course in her terms this was "it's obvious that I like him, so why isn't he saying anything?", not realising that the guy is thinking the exact same thing and further how neither wants to make any presumptions about the other.

Guys and girls aren't made equal so someone must be better equipped to take the plunge initially. Although most people would say it's the boys who should go first, I once again stated my arguments as to why it should be the ladies. After being shot down for suggesting she should start dropping more hankies, I pointed out how she was still single, so any further course of action was up to her.

Anyway, it turns out that we weren't talking about asking out people we didn't know, but friends - good friends. My bemusement was surprising for her; I mean shouldn't you just tell them? I don't keep much from my friends and I'm hardly tactful with any of them either, so if it was indeed a friend that you needed to talk to about this stuff, surely it shouldn't matter that it's about them? Respective genders don't even come into it in this case.

I mean if you're uncomfortable about it then perhaps you don't really know them after all? And if they say no, appropriately, then a real friendship would be able to handle that. If they begin to act inappropriately (by going cold, awkward, indiscreet or in my opinion worse of all begin to take liberties)... well then they were probably a dick(ess) anyway and you're better off without.

That's classed as a win-win, I say. I'll reiterate again how I believe I would tell someone about any strong feelings I had for them, and further that without any anticipation of anything in return. I admit that I might be slightly unusual in treating my emotions in a clinical and quantifiable way, but whatever the case it is possible to come out of such a situation unharmed and I'm not just talking the talk here.

There's pretty much nothing to lose and everything to gain, so why delay and wonder what if? Just do it already!

Originally drafted 13th August 2007.

China, Day Four: The Great Wall

Today was by far the highlight of my time here to date. The main reason for this was The Great Wall of China - but let me start at the beginning.

After a drive by of the Bird's Nest and Water Cube, our first stop was at a jade factory. You should know the drill by now; a fantastic briefing and introduction later spoiled by guilt tripping and pushy selling, none of the salespeople realising that we had no interest other than a passing one in the precious stone.

With the morning guff out of the way, we headed to The Wall. Of course since the wall itself is made up of various different ones, this was actually a small taster of much larger construction; nevertheless it was full of excitement and atmosphere for me. It was also a pretty strenuous activity; it took around two hours to climb the uneven brick and stone stairs to the top most point of this particular section and then return back to ground level again. The surrounding views as well as those of the wall itself were amazing, but the actual walking of the wall was even better.

After lunch we were taken to a cloisonne factory. Yawn.

Our next stop was Tienanmen Square. This was more awesome than I had expected just a city square to be - if only for its amazingly cleanliness both in terms of state and lines of design. Despite being under 10 degrees, I wished I had the time to just sit there with a book, reading and people-watching. Still, judging by the heavy police presence, I'm not sure exactly how feasible that would've been anyway!

Our final stop before dinner and home was at a silk factory. But what was this? We spent a whopping two hours shopping and actually buying things! Gasp! After finally finding something we actually had an interest in, we were happy enough to spend the time (and money!) probably being ripped off on gifts and things for ourselves.

But it was The Wall that totally made today for me. With our first leg in Beijing almost up, I'd even go as far as saying that it converted our time here from just merely satisfactory to actually really good.

Wednesday, November 26

China, Day Three: Forbidden Attractions

We started out early this morning, leaving at around 9 for the Forbidden City. We spent a couple of hours walking around the Imperial Palace and its accompanying Gardens. As fantastic as what we saw was, I didn't get to see as much as I had liked to as our guide kept hurrying us along.

Our next stop was at a reflexology centre, where we were treated to a pretty excellent foot massage and brief lecture on Chinese traditional medicine. Of course this wasn't for free as advertised as we were asked whether we wanted to purchase any of the prescribed herbs! Yet more punting it seems...

After lunch, we headed to the Summer Palace, north west of Beijing. This was a beautiful and sprawling landscape, especially with the lake and hall of longevity up on the hill. Again we were rushed and only managed to spend an hour there. This made time for a visit to a nearby pearl factory where we learned how pearls were made and - you've guessed it - given the opportunity to buy some of our own. They were the cheapest in the land apparently!

Our final stop was to watch a pretty awesome acrobatics show, where young training cadets showed us their skills. Although it was thoroughly enjoyable, it wasn't of very high production quality; having said that it was pretty special if only because I got to participate in an act (and have pictures to prove it!).

The most bizarre part of the today was just before bedtime, when our guide brought some of her friends to our hotel room, where they offered their astonishingly wide selection of fake handbags to sell. I would have laughed in my amusement if I wasn't so terrified out of my wits.

A busy day, and mixed bag of highs and lows. The benefits and drawbacks of being on a scheduled tour are becoming more clear now, with the inflexibility of doing what we want, when we want just balancing out being able to sit back and be led everywhere. Having a driver and guide are also very handy... But still I do wonder whether I would have enjoyed today left to my own devices.

Tuesday, November 25

China, Day Two: A Brief Beijing

Since the flight was a bit heavy-going, our first (half) day in Beijing was going to be a quiet affair. After checking in to our hotel (with free wired Internet - yay) we headed off for lunch at a local Halal Chinese; one of the benefits of being on a privately guided tour like we are.

We were then taken to Niujie Mosque, which I think is the oldest in Beijing having been established in 996. Although I've seen them in pictures, actually performing prayer in a Chinese styled mosque is a pretty interesting experience and a striking reminder of just how far and wide Islam spread, as well as the many manifestations it exists in today. It was encouraging to meet local Chinese Muslims, even if I didn't have a clue what they were saying.

After Niujie we had the chance to meet with a local Muslim calligrapher in his home, where we were shown examples of his work as well as presented with the opportunity to buy them. This was one of the downsides of being on a tour of this nature, and I'm sure we'll get marketed at again during this trip. There was a hotty Chinese Muslim girl there visiting at the time, but that's probably neither here nor there

We were back in the hotel for around six, hoping to spend a good night resting. Tomorrow promises to be a full and eventful day, and I still have this damn queasiness to shake off.

Monday, November 24

China, Day One: Transit Sucks

Due to scheduling issues and the fact that the ticket we wanted cost twice as much, our journey to China invovled a whopping seven hour stop over in Abu Dhabi. What made things worse was that I was feeling a bit iffy and achey too.

To be honest though, the wait wasn't that bad. Being British Passport holders, we were granted visas on arrival and headed out into the city. We dropped by Marina Mall (boring), the Emirate Palace (awesome) and some beach I don't know the name of (which we really should have gone to in the first place) and managed to kill a good couple of hours doing so. In the brief time I've been out, I think I kinda like Abu Dhabi, definitely more than I liked Dubai anyway. It's totally a place I could see myself (or rather a family relative that I can visit) living in.

We did get to the airport super early for our flight, especially seeing as we had no luggage to check in. It wasn't a total pain though; with the availability of free Internet and the Eee PC, I had the chance to upload the posts I had prepared, so at least someone benefits out of all this (that's you by the way).

Sunday, November 23

Pakistan, Day Ten: End of Part One

Spent the morning looking around the guy mundi, or cattle market. Although it was still a bit too early to buy stock for the Eid festival in a couple of weeks, we decided to check it out anyway. Not really much to report, although some of the beasts were standing taller than I was. Scary stuff.

On the way to lunch we stopped off at the graveyard where a lot of my family, including my paternal grandmother, is buried. Nearby was the fresh plot from yesterday. Thankfully the place hadn't become more occupied than that since I last visited; I wonder if there'll be any new people to pay my respects to the next time I visit.

Spent the afternoon with my English cousin and her had-just-arrived parents. We went to see the crocodiles amongst other things at Mungo Pir, way in the ghettoish side of Karachi. The whole area was dedicated to a pir, or saint, the locals bathing in the waters they believed to be blessed. The journey home was interesting too, not least because I got to drive a good few kilometers of the journey. Yikes.

Dinner was had with my cousin and a local friend of hers – another example of how this trip was different since I almost never get to meet any new people here that I'm not related to. We headed to Zamzama, first checking out Gunsmoke. This was a disaster for many reasons and amusingly we ended up walking out without paying soon after the starters was served. We ended up at Arizona Grill which seemed a much better choice on many fronts.

The day ended relatively early with packing for the flight tomorrow. The first leg of our trip is now more or less over in what feels like the blink of an eye. It's been busy, eventful and totally fun; almost unlike anything I've ever experienced here. Hopefully the next stage of the holiday will be just as good.

Pakistan, Day Nine: The Simple Old and The Complicated New

Not much time to do anything today – a mixture of everyone being busy and the valima in the evening meant it was another quiet day. Still, this meant having some long overdue alone time playing DS and getting the laptop to connect to the Internet via GPRS. Fun. We also had a funeral to attend, ironic seeing how the same people all attended a wedding the day before.

Seeing the kids play around at the valima reminded me of the days when I used to do the same with my cousins; there was even a 7 year old niece of mine (via a cousin) who looks exactly like her mum did when she was that age. And further still, I remember being at the wedding of the mother of this week's bride. If that's not a sign of old age I don't know what is! It's funny how time flies, especially when you only visit a place once every two to three years.

One good thing about the wedding dos finally coming to an end is that I no longer have to face the constant barrage of "when are you getting married" type questions. The thing is that I wouldn't even mind if the presumption wasn't that it was me who didn't want to get hitched. It seems that over here if you're a guy then there's nothing else to consider. I'm sure I will still be asked this, but at least it won't be hundreds of times within the space of minutes. Honestly the nagging is enough to make me just do it. Perhaps that's the point, the sneaky so and sos.

Friday, November 21

Pakistan, Day Eight: Wedding Day

Another lazy day – between Jummah and the evening wedding there wasn't much room for anything else. Time seems to be quickly passing – the wedding is one of the landmarks of this trip and it's now passed. Once again it was nice to hang out with family, especially since I've not had a chance to visit them formally in their homes yet. Good times.

Pakistan, Day Seven: Coming Home, Kinda

According to our list of things to do, we were quite ahead of schedule. This allowed us to have a bit of a lazy start and our driver picked us up at around 10am. Since our afternoon was more or less set, we decided on the museum on the mall. This was a mixed bag, and had some genuinely interesting stuff (particularly the religious items) alongside some more mundane items (mostly regarding the formation of Pakistan).

Lunch was at Pizza Hut, where we met a few Sikhs from the UK who were in Lahore on a pilgrimage; it had been Guru Nanak's birthday a couple of weeks ago and thousands of Sikhs come from across the world to pay homage to his birthplace this side of the Indo-pak border. It was good to have a conversation with folk from the UK, all the more so since they weren't Pakistani.

On to Shalimar Gardens then. These weren't worth the hassle we got getting in (we were foreigners again, although I saved myself a hefty fee by flashing my NICOP card) and I'm still struggling to see why it's so heartily recommended. But it was on the way to our next and final stop so we thought we'd drop by anyway.

Wagah was amazing. We made it a point to attend the closing parade and it was just like you would see it on television, but live. For once our tourist credentials came in handy – those not from around here get courtside seats to where the action is and it was brilliant seeing the Punjab Rangers do their stomping thing – I got caught up in the going ons and may have shouted “zindabad” more than once. It was a brilliant experience to watch and be a part of and I'm still grinning now at the whole thing.

It was also the closest I've been to India – an irony considering my plans to go there in December. It was surreal seeing the distant land and people at an arms length away, and I now want to go there even more.

On the way to dinner we stopped off at Food Street. At last I found the architectural delights I had been looking for with some fabulous haveli, possibly spoiled by their strong modern colourings. The smells and sights were all tempting, but we decided against actually eating there; I had a flight to China to catch in a couple of days and I didn't want to risk it.

Dinner proper was at Freddy's, a fish and steak house on the way to the airport. There's not much more to say about that, except that the food was pretty good (I had a chicken steak and chocolate millkshake), and the place trendy. It was a nice place to spend our final moments here in.

And that was it. Our time in Lahore was now over. We had a wonderful time here, and two days was a perfect amount of time to spend exploring the place, although looking back we could have done all the bits we liked in just a single albeit rushed day. Wagah was a wonderful experience and the mosque unmissable, but I had somehow missed the vibe and atmosphere I was desperately seeking and without these big ticket attractions I'm not sure how brilliant Lahore would have been for me.

What's really strange is how as I landed at Karachi airport how at home the city felt. I never thought I'd have those feelings about Karachi, but then I guess it takes something like a few days without to really appreciate what you got.

Wednesday, November 19

Pakistan, Day Six: Lahore

Since we were only staying the one night, we decided to catch the second flight to Lahore in order to maximize the time spent there. This was probably one of the rare chances that I would get to visit the city (I was going with my aunt; I doubt anyone else would have been bothered), so wanted to get the most out of it.

To make life easier, we had arranged a driver for the two days which we were there. After he received us at the airport, he took us to the Lahore Gymkhana where we were going to stay tonight.

Thanks to a particularly helpful itinerary provided to us by an illustrious colleague of my aunt, we didn't struggle for things to do, even though this whole trip was so last minute. Our first point of call this morning was Jahangir's Tomb to the north of Lahore. This was a sprawling complex across the River Rabi where the famous emperor was buried – not that I would have noticed it was a tomb otherwise. Still, it was a good reflection of the Mughals and their opulent times, and as such was quite impressive. It was also here that we got stung by the “foreigner ticket prices”: 200 PKR instead of a more regular 10, a further consequence of our indifference to having to behave like a native. We made sure we were more “authentic” when buying tickets at later sites.

Since it was still early, we decided to head back to the hotel for some rest. We had underestimated the toll such an early flight would have on us and the hour or so rest we took was much appreciated. It also set us up perfectly to visit the fabulous Badshai mosque and adjacent fort – something we were told to visit at dusk.

Since it was to close soon, we took on the fort first. Like the tomb this morning, it was a good indication of how the Mughals used to live – their palaces, gardens and taj's all impressive even in their ruin. In the background there was the yet to be visited mosque, a view of a thousand times more worth than a painting or the like.

Once the call to Maghrib (evening prayer) was heard, we made our way to it. The Badshai is an amazing place, even more so in its simplicity. I was a bit surprised at how small the enclosed space was; instead it had the massive courtyard it has become known for. So far this was the most romantic and poignant Mughal building I had seen – I could imagine being back in those times - and I wish I had the time to just stop there and chill. But since we were on the clock, we just paid our shoekeeping fee (!) and left.

The next two hours or so were spent shopping in the apparently famous Liberty shopping market. Perhaps we came at the wrong time, or perhaps it's because we had seen Karachi's Saddar and Tariq Road, but we weren't too impressed by the place – even a layman like myself could see the massive difference. The other Gulberg markets at City Towers and Rega Market were more relevant to the shopping experience, but if we're ever asked where in Pakistan to go for good shopping Lahore would definitely be somewhere in the middle of the list.

We then headed over to Heera Mandi, Lahore's red light district. Apparently it's been cleaned up a lot in the past couple of years, but according to our driver everything comes into the blatant open after midnight. Alas we were there for just dinner; Cooco's Den providing both awesome food and an immersive experience with wonderful views of the Badshai, even a live band was provided by the Fort View Hotel across the way. Owned by an artist who took it upon himself to save the local prostitutes, Cooco's Den is a must-eat and see.

We were still knackered, so we decided to end it there, passing by Anarkali on the way to the hotel. So far, so good; although I must admit that I am a little underwhelmed by Lahore at the moment – something seems missing somehow; I've yet to come across any amazing colonial or Hindu architecture for instance. But hey, there's always tomorrow.

Tuesday, November 18

Pakistan, Day Five: Slowing Down

Stayed in today – I decided to catch up on some sleep rather than go out for more shopping! This gave me a chance to catch up with some more relatives (with all the distractions it almost felt like I was neglecting them) as well as check out the local chappal shops. Which reminds me: I sorely need to replace my soon to retire Boy slippers.

The evening played host to another pre-wedding event (something called an "upton", apparently. This was even more fun than Saturday's event; not because of the dancing and singing (there wasn't much of that here), but more that since it was the second time meeting the clan the formalities had already been dealt with, paving the way for chilling and jibing and more specifically for me, since I was now the oldest unmarried cousin: marriage advice.

This amounted to nothing more than a "just do it", but there was some gems from my wise Pakistani cousins to do with how to pick, the importance of just settling on the practical basics, how I should just take a missus from Pakistan and my genuine favourite how I should accept the first girl that likes me, even if I don't like her that much back (something about her doing anything for me versus me doing anything for her; the latter being preferable).

Alas the fun and games ended early for me, for tomorrow I fly out to Lahore.

Monday, November 17

Pakistan, Day Four: Clothes Shopping is Inevitable

My time in Karachi went back to normal, as we spent the whole day fulfilling chores and clothes shopping. All in all it was pretty productive, the most exciting accomplishment being to book a couple of tickets to Lahore for Wednesday.

Otherwise it was Saddar for the ladies' stuff, Rainbow Centre for dodgy DVDs (do people still buy this stuff?) and finally the Tariq Road for the guys. I snagged two ready made pieces for the imminent weddings and some raw material from Rabi Centre to be tailored later in order to top up my casual everyday wardrobe for home.

I was shocked at the prices in offer – they seem to have gone through some super inflation since I was last here. For example, take Junaid Jamsheed; although some of the stuff there was really nice, there was no way I was going to spend 35-40 quid (in Real Money) on just a kurta. Raw cloth seems to be more expensive too, a suit now costing over ten quid, tailored. I've gone for patterned stuff this time instead of my usual plain, but that can't explain all of it.

Of course all prices are quoted after bargaining. We seem to be taking a lax approach this time around being as rushed as we are, openly speaking English and not spending the time to wear shopkeepers down. I'm always (quietly, of course) amused at the universal self-belief women have that they are good bargainers – as if they've managed to buy something at a loss, mistaking their sheer stubbornness for somekind of tactical strategy. In my opinion they've already lost once they've shown their interest; if it's obvious to me that they're going to buy something at any cost, I doubt the shopkeepers will miss that. On the other hand, I reckon the sheer boredom and lack of care I have for this stuff has a larger effect on lowering prices since ultimately I won't mind if I don't buy.

Dinner was at BBQ Tonight, a fancyish kebab house towards Clifton. We ordered a bit too much and I overate as a result, but the price was reasonable (2000 PKR for five of us). Although I was well fed, I was and am still knackered; I'm yet to recover from the lack of sleep experienced during the flight here I think.

Sunday, November 16

Pakistan, Day Three: Becoming a Karachite

First a bit of context: a cousin of mine from the UK has spent the last year and a half working in Karachi. As such, she's become quite the Karachite. For us, this is good news since we now have someone streetwise enough to take us out to all the trendy places and hang outs, while remaining accessible to those of us only here for a short amount of time. In some ways she was our doorway to a Karachi we had not seen before.

After a gourmet burger at Roasters in Zamzama, we headed to the Sunday Market in Defense. This was much like any Sunday market back in the UK, with rows upon rows of stalls selling anything from house ornaments, to furniture, to books and magazines, to clothing both raw and ready made, to jewelry. Groceries and amenities (ie toilet paper) were also available to purchase, and even wireless broadband was on offer. If I was a braver chap I would have bought some gifts for my girl mates and relatives in the shape of raw material to be tailored later, but I decided not to tempt fate (as well as the wildly differing tastes of said girls). Instead I just watched as my cousin and aunt did exactly that.

It was then all about Clifton. Our first stop, bizarrely (for me at least) was Park Towers where we did a bit more shopping. This happened to be a blessing in disguise as I managed to collect a small trove of gifts for those back in London – I've grown accustomed to getting my gift shopping out of the way.

We then headed to Sea View for the beach. This is not a touch on Australian beaches, but has it's charm and poignancy as a key Karachi place to visit all the same; and of course since we were there with a different crowd we were able to take time and chill there for a bit (which meant camel rides for my companions).

On to Forum, Yet Another Shopping Mall, although with a different purpose in mind. However, since the massages we intended to treat ourselves to turned out to be limited to our feet so we decided to give it a miss. The rest of the time there was spent doing more, you've guessed it, shopping. I guess it was naïve of me to have expected anything else from my exclusively female company.

Dinner was Broast at Boat Basin, followed by some pretty advanced ice cream (if their Red Bull flavour was any indication) provided by Coco Loco.

It was an awesome day of chilling out aimlessly, just hanging out chatting and joking away. It's not something I've often had during previous stays in Pakistan where the time was spent more functionally, or any “free time” was carefully chaperoned by a family-member doing babysitting duties whom I had trouble communicating with. It made Karachi a friendlier, human and attractive place if I'm honest, and I can now see even more how my cousin amongst others can claim it to be a good place in which to live and work.

Pakistan, Day Two: Loving and Hating Karachi

The first question I asked myself on the approach to Karachi was “what the heck am I doing here?”. Quite amusingly I shared this same thought with my aunt. These feelings were nothing new, and as expected subsided as we passed through baggage claim (we're one bag short by the way). We were now in Karachi, and I couldn't stop smiling all the way to my phoopi's flat.

You see, I love Karachi. I love being around family I've not seen in years. I love being carefree and not having anything to do or see (we come here often enough to do away with ritual visiting and things). I love ceiling fans and marble floors and a lack of Internet. I love being able to take a mid day nap, and love how that's normal here. I love hearing at least five simultaneous calls to prayer and taking the short walk to the mosque like the callers are asking me to. I love the haphazard traffic and driving required navigating it. I love squatter toilets (it allows me to pass more easily). I love how they're filming a television ad in the courtyard of the complex I'm staying in. I love palangs, to lounge on, to play cards on and to sleep on. In short I love Karachi, provided that I don't spend more than a couple of weeks here at a time.

Thanks to a borrowed Eee pc I'm able to type as I travel, something which should make my log more immediate and reflective of what's going on. My previous approach of using voicenotes was a bit tedious, although this keyboard is pretty tough to type on too!

It's also the dholke night for the wedding we've come to attend. Conveniently it was a chance to see all my family at the same time too – and good it was. I think I managed around a 70% hit rate with names and relationships, an all time high.

All my cousins now have at least three kids each, and I've given up trying to remember whose are whose, just accepting the sheer cuteness of them all and getting on with it. . I was also able to communicate somewhat, and I can feel the rust being shed off my dodgy Urdu.

So my fist night here and I'm already in a party with singing and dancing – including trying my own hand at dhandia. We don't really get the chance to play at home (some people aren't getting married fast enough apparently) so it was good to have a go like we used to, even though I had to come all the way to Pakistan in order to do it!

Friday, November 14

Game: Bangai-O (DS)

Bangai-O is based on the Dreamcast game of the same name. You play a gundam robot with a variety of weapons at its disposal, as it tries to clear a side viewed level of all targets. That's really all there is, until you acknowledge the depth introduced by some fiendish level and enemy design.

Chain reactions, things which nullify your attacks and plain old numbers are all there to make your life difficult. In that sense Bangai-O is a bit of a puzzle game as you attempt to figure out the most efficient way of clearing a stage.

Compared to my other travel game, N+, Bangai-O isn't as bitesized. It is a deeper and so potentially more rewarding game though, and as such makes a perfect complement to take on holiday.

Game: N+ (DS)

N+ is based on a flash game, where you play a ninja who has to jump around a side scrolling level, opening doors in order to enter them later. It's a simple yet compelling concept as you grapple with the physics of the tiny character in your control, all the time avoiding mines, missiles and robots.

It's also perfect for holiday, bite sized gaming at its best. It does suck a bit that you can only save every four levels or so since some do take time, but that's just something that has you coming back for more as you find yourself drawn into the whole one-more-try pull that such micro levels have.

Pakistan, Day One: Night Flights Provide Little Content

There's something liberating about coming to Pakistan during off peak season. For instance, checking in tonight was a breeze; a far cry from the usual scene of massive queues of people who, despite having been to Pakistan many times before all act as if it was the first time at an airport. I guess it helped a bit that we got here super early, but I reckon the old days are now over.

For the past few days I've been a bit jittery, feeling that I was leaving something behind. The trip had taken me by surprise, probably due to my mother taking charge of the house's packing; perhaps one day I'll get to keep my baggage allowance to myself? These jitters have now disappeared, leaving behind not much other than pure excitement. This is going to be an awesome trip and furthermore one that was well timed.

Flying with my parents is a rare thing nowadays, but I'm also flying with my aunt on this trip, a first for both of us. I think it'll add something new to the trip; a new sense of independence as we explore Karachi on our own terms. We'll see how it all pans out.

This trip is also special for another reason; but more of that later. I have to keep you guys reading for something!

A Lack of Creativity

Yes I know - once again I seem to have fallen into a bit of a lull recently: I've kept up with reviews and links as normal, but haven't written an opinion for ages. Even the Friday posts I promised myself to write have fallen by the wayside. I would blame being busy work but that's totally not true.

The truth is that any creativity I have has been directed at something else, and I both didn't have anything to write or the will to write it - a long fancy way of saying that I had something else on my mind.

But with all that gross self-indulgence out of the way, the good news is that I'm back on track and normal service should now resume. Well in theory anyway; the bad news is that I won't get to post much for a month or so for other reasons. In which case this is a bit of an irrelevant post really!

Keep reading!

Wednesday, November 12

Food: KimChee Click for more info

I can't remember the last time I had a Korean meal, so it was good to have had the chance to at KimChee.

The place was nice and clean, and service of a pretty high standard; that kind of comes with how your meal is cooked in front of you at the barbecue grills embedded in each table. Our group of three were able to hold good conversation despite (us) being a little loud. Top marks for the experience then.

Unsurprisingly there was no halal food here, so I stuck to the prawn grill and seafood soup, both of which were adequate and filling. However coming in at around 22 per head including drinks I wouldn't call Kim Chee super value, particularly for those who restrict their diets.

Tuesday, November 11

Video of the Day Click for more info

It's only the Desi OC!

Yes, it's cheap and cheerful, but it's also oh so compelling and addictive. Watch as the hot Asian 20-something lads and laddettes of California struggle to come to terms with relationships! Cry as misunderstandings throw a spanner in the works! Scream as simple solutions to complex problems are overlooked! Cringe as the characters keep pronouncing themselves as being "daysee"!

As you can probably tell I'm definitely a fan; I'm off to watch episode 2. Oh and Sazia Deen? Awesome.

Thanks to Zany for the tip.

Friday, November 7


Shak says (10:49):
    damn jummah i just know im gonna miss my delieery
xxxx says (10:53):
    no mum at home?
Shak says (10:55):
    damn progressive muslim women go jummah too
xxxx says (10:55):
    no it's nott
    women are for deliveries
Shak says (10:56):
    that's it
    im gonna marry me a christian


xxxx says (10:49):
    im my dream i went to your surprise wedding


Shak says (10:49):
    go on
    just tell me...
    was she fit?
xxxx says (10:50):
Shak says (10:55):
    aw man you suck
xxxx says (10:56):
    im sorry she was in a burkha :)
Shak says (10:57):
    well. fingers crossed eh?


xxxx says (10:45):
    doesn't it suck when you just do a little fart cos you can't be bothered to go to the toilet, and the hit girl with the big boobs comes over to talk toyou
Shak says (10:45):
    oh man have i got some stories about that
Shak says (10:46):
    although that is weard
    you usually go to the toilet?
xxxx says (10:46):
Shak says (10:46):
    i alayws let rip
    otheriwse id be going every 5 mins
xxxx says (10:46):
    I go when Its a prelude to a good s**t
Shak says (10:46):
    i often wonder if i should get my plumbing checked out
xxxx says (10:46):
    its too frequent for my likling
Shak says (10:46):
    then i think... well its not bothering me so why should i

Thursday, November 6

Food: The Tent Restaurant Click for more info

A fancy(ish) Turkish situated on Ilford High Road of all places (opposite one of the best HFCs ever), what The Tent lacks in originality in its name, it more than makes up for in the experience.

The first thing that strikes you is the decor itself: lush fabrics and carpets all over the place, with a couple of enclosed private "tents" (hence the name) for larger parties, there's no doubt that this was a nice place in which to eat. But the atmosphere pimping didn't end there.

While we were eating we had a live singer belting out classics from the 80s and 90s; fans of Magic or Heart will love this place for him alone. And after we were done we hung around a bit for the (interactive for some) belly dancing. This wasn't just a restaurant, it was a whole entertaining night out for all, be it large birthday parties, families or smaller groups.

And we've not even come to the food yet! Although of a good enough standard, there was nothing particularly special about the menu here - we stuck to the basics of Adana Kebabs and Chicken skewers, both of which were served promptly and perfectly edible. Service was above satisfactory and we were allowed to hang out at our table long after we had finished.

Considering the food alone the place was pretty pricey - we were charged a whopping 15 quid a head for the mains, a couple of sides and two bottles of water. A similar meal would have cost less than half that elsewhere, but considering the added extras it was all good value overall. Very impressive for a local joint and thus totally recommended.

Wednesday, November 5

Film: Quantum of Solace Click for more info

More of the same nu-Bond action as first introduced by Casino Royale two years ago - it even carries on where we left Bond as he tries to find out those responsible for the demise of Vesper.

Seemingly a bit unfinished at times both in terms of production and plotline, QoS manages to do a well enough job at entertaining. I must admit that I lost track of both the story and dialogue more than once; the convolutions and dialogue seemed a bit unnecessary at times.

But like Casino Royale, QoS was more about Bond than any story or presentation and like the first instalment it does a good job with that. It's just a shame that we've seen it all before - there's only so much angsty spy action you can take after a while. Recommended nonetheless.

Link of the Day Click for more info

There is cheese pouring our of holes in the sky

I couldn't say it better myself, so I figured I'd link to something a friend wrote instead. I must admit being bemused by the hype and excitement of Obama winning - I mean sure, it's certainly an interesting thing to have happened. But to think this will have a profound effect on anyone but a few people is a bit too optimistic for my liking.

(More ace topical someecards here. Thanks Zany!)

I'd even go as far to say fanboyish if the status updates on my facebook is anything to go by and receiving a congratulatory text message was just a bit too much; how many of these people were even interested in politics before yesterday? I wish it was as simple as an Obama but alas Bush wasn't the sole cause of the world's problems.

I just think we should all be saving our excitement for when Obama actually does something instead of patting ourselves on the back prematurely. Having said that, I must admit that I'd be well excited if he was sworn into office on a Quran...

As for being the first (half-)black POTUS... Well everyone seems to have forgotten Morgan Freeman in Deep Impact. Or even David Palmer in 24. Now they were cool black presidents.