Friday, 30 December 2016

Astola Island - A hidden gem of Pakistan


Everyone is familiar with the beauty of Pakistan’s northern areas, but few have taken the time to discover the mesmerising charm of the country’s coast in the south.

I had never thought of exploring the coast either, until I met the famous British adventurer Tracy Curtin-Taylor who told me that she had never witnessed a coastline this beautiful.

I planned a trip with my friends to Astola Island, one of the many hidden gems of the part of the Arabian Sea that touches Balochistan.

We set off on our journey on a cool, November morning on a boat from Pasni, a fishing town 35km away from Astola. As we sailed and gained some distance, I looked back at the town: the Jabl-e-Zareen (Beautiful Mountain) was overlooking the pristine beach and the small buildings surrounded by golden sand dunes resembled something straight out of the Arabian Nights.

The golden sand dunes of Pasni in the distance as we were on our way to Astola.

The boat captain told us that the sea is calm during the winter season, making it the perfect time to visit the island.

Once we were in the open sea, we were welcomed by seagulls calmly flying above our heads and a fishing boat nearby, where a man was pulling up his net. The seagulls were silently observing, waiting for the right moment to dive in and steal a fish or two. A few of them succeeded, and it was exciting to see.

As we sailed further ahead, I saw larger fishing boats passing by. My friend Bakhshi, who works at the fishery department, told us that these boats are called “launches”.

Each boat is operated by a team of 15 to 20 men, who catch fish the whole day. The fish caught on the shores of Pasni is famous and is also exported.

As we neared Astola, my first sight of the island was of a tall, oddly-shaped rock standing in the middle of the sea. But as we inched closer, the crystal clear, turquoise water took my breath away and I had to remind myself that I was still in Pakistan and not at a beach on the Mediterranean.

A stunning range of blues as seen from the hills of Astola.

Astola is also known as Jezira Haft Talar (Island of the Seven Hills) because of the small, rocky mountains that stretch across the 15sq km island.

The reason why the island’s exquisite beauty has remained untarnished is because of its remote location. From Karachi, it is a seven-hour drive to reach Pasni, from where you have to take a three-hour boat ride to Astola.

Once we reached the island, I wanted to see it from a height and so I hiked up one of the hills. The climb was tricky since the mud was soft and the rocks slippery.

After some struggle, I found a well-treaded path. The view was worth it when we reached the top as the island and its shores were even more alluring from above.

It was a thrilling experience climbing up and seeing this amazing view.

The colour of the water and pattern of the beach changes throughout the day depending upon the tide. The seabed is visible to about the depth of 20 feet .

There is no standing structure on the island except for the remnants of a lighthouse the government had built in 1983.

After a few hours on the hills, we climbed down and got on the boat to explore the other sides of the island. I found every side of the island to be different and more beautiful than the other. The southern side did not have a beach.

We went snorkeling and it was startling to see so many multi-coloured fish. When we went back on the boat, the fishermen showed us some of the fish they had just caught.

The fish that the fishermen on our boat caught while we were snorkelling.

Since there are no facilities on the island, we had to pack everything from water, food, to camping supplies. We had lunch on our boat with jellyfish swimming around with their tentacles floating behind them.

One of my friends got stung and was in pain for the next 10 hours. People who are visiting for the first time should be aware that jellyfish only look pretty.

Vegetation on the island is sparse and consists of shrubs and large bushes that come to life when it rains. The island has no source of fresh water of its own. Keekar is the only tree which can survive the harsh conditions.

Astola is a tough yet popular destination for camping and eco-tourism. People usually set up camp at the beach and go snorkeling, deep sea diving and even hunt fish under water.

As Astola receives more recognition, the number of tourists will increase. Let’s hope that this doesn’t damage the island’s beauty.

It felt calm and peaceful by the sea in the afternoon.
The sunset was breathtaking from the seven hills of the island.
One of the boats of campers visiting Astola island.
Fishermen throw in their nets in the sea.
A view of the island from our boat.

The climb up the hill was worth the struggle; the bird's eye view of the island was beautiful.

There is limited greenery and vegetation on the island.
The strange rock formations I saw as we reached Astola.
The crystal clear, turquoise water appeared to be a darker colour from a distance.
The beach on the island is incredibly clean, unlike other parts of Pakistan.
We had to bring our own supplies and cook our own food while camping on the island.
There were many seagulls hovering closely above us in search of fish as we were on our way.
The hills were of many different shapes, each of them unique.
A picturesque view from the hill we climbed, with fishing boats in the distance.
The reflection on the water of the golden sunlight in the evening was beautiful.
There were many different seashells scattered on the beach.
The magnificent sunset on the beach.


Monday, 3 October 2016

BBC journalist Benjamin Zand's visit to Pakistan

Benjamin Zand playing football with kids in Lyari PHOTO: NOFIL NAQVI/BBC

BBC journalist Benjamin Zand is no stranger to travelling. In fact, he makes it a point to visit places around the world that have a “bad reputation.’’

When he decided to visit Karachi, everyone warned him against it. He was told all kinds of stories about killings, abductions and, yes, he was also told to carry an old phone he wouldn’t mind parting with – something every Karachiite can relate to. He came, regardless, to see how much truth there was in the claims. In the period he was here, he shot a documentary to show the world a Pakistan one is not accustomed to seeing.

He had some fun times, as well as a few crazy moments. He was mistaken for a Liverpool footballer in Lyari; had his British queuing skills tested to the max; took a bus tour of Karachi; tried Pakistani dishes like biryani, daal and haleem; and even attended a gig with singer Ali Gul Pir in Hyderabad.

Although he’s currently off to another “dangerous” locale, he intends to return to Pakistan soon. “I hope to come back in 10 years and see the Lyari-based child who wanted to be president as president, and the one who wanted to be an astrophysicist an astrophysicist – that would make me happy.”

Quite naturally, The Express Tribune wondered what kind of an experience he had in Pakistan, so we decided to ask him.

ET: Tell us about your documentary. What is it about?

Zand: The documentary is part of a series where I go to places that have “bad reputations” to try and change people’s perceptions of them. There’s currently so much bad news around that I thought it’d be nice to have something that reminds people that we’re all humans who eat, sleep, love and want to make something of ourselves. Something that will help people relate and connect with others.

Pakistan seemed like a perfect destination. To many people the country has a very bad reputation, but over the years many of the friends I have in Pakistan kept telling me how the country is misrepresented – so I thought I’d come and see for myself. The documentary will be split into separate videos, which means more room for me to meet people. You’ll see me spend time with the kids of Lyari, at Kiran School and play football with rising talent from the area. And meet the ladies of Karachi United’s women’s team and play football with them. I find out about Karachi’s music scene, visit CityFM and head to a gig in Hyderabad with Ali Gul Pir. I spend time on the Super Savari Express and see a different side of Karachi. Go for some nice food and, relax on French Beach!

Benjamin Zand with Ali Gul Pir PHOTO: BBC

ET: Why did you choose to shoot the documentary in Pakistan?

Zand:Pakistan comes with so much baggage. Being a journalist, I had heard so much about the country, about conflict and chaos. And although it does have its issues, so does everywhere, I hadn’t heard much good about the place. Friends had been telling me for years that there’s more to Pakistan than the world thinks, so I wanted to see for myself. I just wanted to meet some people and to spend some time with young Pakistanis. I travel a lot, and I learned a long time ago that people were people wherever one was in the world. So I knew Pakistan would be no different.

ET: What impression did you have of Pakistan before coming here? Did your opinion change, positively or negatively?

Zand: To be honest, I wasn’t really sure what to think of it. I had heard a great deal of bad stuff. Especially about Karachi, about how dangerous it was, how I was going to get robbed and about terrorism there. So I was very apprehensive. But then I had people actually living there telling me of all the cool stuff they were doing, telling me I’d be fine and that the media had it all wrong. So I was confused but had an open mind. My opinion definitely became more positive. Mainly down to who I met. Without doubt the country has formidable problems it needs to overcome. But, nearly all the people I met were amazing. So welcoming, so ambitious, so curious and so willing to help – and I loved it. The heat was ridiculous. And Karachi is a bit crazy. But, all good things tend to be a bit rough around the edges. As with most places – Pakistan is full of great people who want to make a difference in the world, and I was lucky enough to meet some of them.

Zand at Karachi’s French beach PHOTO: BBC

ET: Which Pakistani cities did you visit? Which one did you like best? What did you think of Pakistan’s biggest city, Karachi?

Zand: Sadly, I only visited two, Karachi and Hyderabad. This is probably my biggest regret as I would have liked to properly explore the country, meet more people and find more stories – but I didn’t have time and my visa didn’t really allow me to do so. I really, really wanted to go to Gilgit and explore the Hunza Valley, but sadly my visa didn’t let me! Thankfully, Karachi was interesting enough. With about 24 million people and being extremely massive, I felt like I had a good first experience of Pakistan. Karachi is without doubt crazy. Pure carnage, some may say. But I suppose that’s what makes it what it is. Before I came people made it out as if I was going to get robbed three times a day, I was told to take a rubbish phone and a rubbish wallet to give in case this happened. And, without doubt, that does happen. But, Karachi is a city of 24 million. There are going to be some bad people in that large a city. I just wanted to speak to the good guys, and I was happy to find that they greatly outnumbered the bad ones.

ET: Did you try any Pakistani food?

Zand: Of course! What do you take me for?! I tried daal, biriyani, haleem, BBQ, chai paratha, curries – which I can’t recall the names of – all washed down with a nice lassi. It was all delicious, except for being extremely spicy 87 per cent of the time! I’m half-Iranian so dishes like biriyani and kebab I was familiar with.

ET: Did you pick up any Urdu?

Zand: Hmmmm, not much! Let me remember. I think, ji is yes? Theek hai, okay? Mera naam hai is my name is?! I know khoda hafez (same as Persian) although supposedly I say it wrong, shab bekhair (same as Persian too), shukria. And I learned things like, “let’s be friends” and, “I like kebab” but I can’t remember them!

ET: Tell us about your visit to Lyari.

Benjamin Zand at Empress Market PHOTO: BBC

Zand: I actually visited Lyari a few times. Before I went the first time, I was genuinely worried. Once again, people had told me so many bad things – about drugs, guns and murder. But this time, it was the people in Karachi telling me I ought to be perturbed. The ones telling me before that I had nothing to worry about were now telling me to exercise caution. So I was a bit concerned. My first thought though when I hear of such places is, “It surely can’t be as bad as people say it is.” I’m from Liverpool in the UK and a lot of the places people would “never go to” were places I lived and hung out at – so I know how things can be misrepresented.

So I decided to go anyway, and thankfully, for me – it wasn’t that bad. Once again, everyone treated me with respect and kindness, and I couldn’t really have asked for anything else. The place clearly has a chequered past and present, but the people I spoke to were just so appreciative that the media was there in the first place, doing something that wasn’t about violence and gangs. I think there should be more positive stories from the place. In so many cities, areas like this become the bogeyman, an area people tell their kids to steer clear of. As a consequence, the prevalent mind set just restricts the area from growing. So, more people should take the opportunity to visit there – connect with another side of their city and do what they can to help.

ET: Tell us about your experience with those impressive kids from Kiran School.

Zand: Well this was obviously a major highlight of the trip. It is no exaggeration to say I don’t think I’ve ever met more impressive kids. As soon as I arrived at Kiran School, my first destination in Lyari – I felt completely welcomed and just so happy to be with these kids. I was taken on a trip around the school with kids who were eight, nine and 10. The confidence with which they talk and act, and the ambition they have for what they want to achieve when they grow up is testament to the things they’re learning at the Kiran School. The fact the school teaches both parents and children is a really beautiful thing and something great for an area that has a lot of issues, so it’s a trip I’ll cherish for a long time.

ET: Tell us a bit about your Super Savari experience.

Zand taking a tour of Karachi PHOTO: BBC

Zand: The Super Savari trip was great. It was unusual, I had never been on a tour of a city designed primarily for people who live there. It reveals both, how huge and polarised Karachi is. The rich often stick to their side of the city and the poor are stuck in their side. As a consequence, it was really nice to see a group of people trying to bridge this gap and show people what all Karachi had to offer. It’s in its early days now but hopefully it’ll continue to expand. My tour ended with a trip to the Empress Market which was cool. For me, markets are the best way to understand a city – a complete hub of life and madness, so i loved it.

ET: Did you make any Pakistani friends?

Zand at a gig in Hyderabad PHOTO: BBC

Zand: I made a lot. I genuinely met some people I hope to stay in touch with. The hospitality people showed and their willingness to help was just amazing. All the young Pakistanis I met were so chilled out and easy to get along with, so hopefully we are now BFFs.

ET: Any good, bad or funny incident that you’d like to share?

Zand: One funny moment was when I was playing football in Lyari. I had turned up out of the blue and there just happened to be a huge match going on – a Lyari version of Barcelona versus Real Madrid if you wish. The stadium was packed, and there were people training everywhere – some with amazing skills. I came to speak to a few people, and also brought some clothes just in case I could have a friendly game of football. Within ten minutes, I was told I had to play in a game that was just about to start. Already apprehensive because I needed to play football in front of thousands of hard-core Lyari football enthusiasts – I quickly changed into my football kit. As I walked out, I remembered I had my new shiny, luminous red Liverpool jersey on.

As I entered the pitch, a huge crowd gathered, presuming that I must play for Liverpool and be amazing at football! I sucked it up, and spurred myself on to handle the pressure. As the game began, it was a tough one, my team giving me the ball every two seconds expecting me to score from the half way line, and the other team was taking me out every three seconds to show me how the game is played in Pakistan’s little Brazil! Eventually, I scored two goals and my team won 3-2. I’d like to believe it’s because I am that good at football. But, it was actually because the referee was being hospitable and didn’t want me to lose! I was told he was telling the kids that I had to win. So he gave my team two extremely contentious penalties and free kicks! We all smiled, laughed and celebrated at the end so it was okay.

There were also a lot of crazy moments. There was the time we were driving from Karachi to Hyderabad along a highway that was under-construction. It was an excessively hot day and our air-con in the car wasn’t working. We were slowly dying as the car was heating up to insane levels and we were stuck in the never ending traffic, I also needed to pee which wasn’t good. As we hit yet another diversion stuck behind a big construction truck we dreamed of driving off road, onto the tractor-filled under-construction road, and speeding around all the cars stuck in traffic till we reached our destination. We realised though, that would be crazy. Barely two minutes later, the car in front turns off the road down a ditch, onto the under construction road. Then the car behind us does the same. Then pretty much every car around us did, driving away to air-con filled freedom as we patiently waited behind a construction truck on the diverted road. My British patience and queuing skills being tested to the max.

ET: What advice would you give to anyone wanting to visit Pakistan?

Zand: My advice would be to try as hard as you can to forget what you’ve been told about the place and just go. It will definitely be different to what you’re used to, and it will be hot, busy, loud and a bit crazy – but if you just take time to speak to people and listen to them you’ll have a great time and realise they aren’t too different. Try as many foods as you can, but be careful as some can be spicy and hard on the belly! Try and make some friends before you arrive as that will help make your trip go well – it’s not always the easiest place to travel around as there’s not a huge travel scene yet. And there a lot of guns! So you’re going to have to get used to it. It can be a bit overwhelming sometimes, it was for me. All in all, just make sure you’re willing to understand. To hear why they think what they think, to walk in their shoes and see things from their perspective. It’ll expand your mind and you’ll have a good time.

ET: Will you visit again?

Zand: Definitely. As I said, I have to go to Gilgit, it just looks incredible up there. So, if anyone wants to come then let me know. You can be my little travel buddie.


ET: What message would you like to give to the people of Pakistan?

Zand: Thank you for being so welcoming. Keep encouraging foreigners to come and keep welcoming with open arms. We need a bit more unity in this world and you can be part of it by connecting with the people who think differently from you. Try and understand them as they try and understand you. Good luck for the future – hopefully you can achieve whatever you want to achieve in a more inclusive society. And, try and spend some time visiting areas you’ve heard bad things about, they’re not going to get better if no one’s willing to visit and listen to those who live there – Lyari being a prime example. Finally. I’ll see you soon! I’ll be back. Save some daal for me.

-Express Tribune

Pakistani startup doctHERs wins Unicef award for improving women's lives

doctHERs, a Pakistani initiative which uses online technology to match trained junior female doctors with rural women and girls via telemedicine, was honoured at the inaugural Global Goals Awards curated by UN children's agency Unicef.

Dr. Sara Saeed Khurram, one of the co-founders of doctHERs, received 'The Campaigner Award' for her organisation at a ceremony in New York on Tuesday.

The social enterprise has created nine virtual clinics in underprivileged communities over a period of 1.5 years. Six of these are based in the urban slums of Karachi, two in Mansehra, and one in Hafizabad.

doctHERs is available to patients in both rural and urban areas. While challenges differ in the two areas, gains are the same: doctHERs creates employment opportunities for women, and improves the quality of healthcare in the region.

doctHERs was one of the three winners honoured for championing women's and girls' rights worldwide.

Yusra Mardini, a Syrian teenager who saved fellow refugees from drowning and then swam for the refugee team at the Rio Olympics this year, and Rebeca Gyumi, a lawyer who fights against child marriage in Tanzania as head of the Msichana Initiative were the other two winners.

"The three honourees were recognised for their contributions to advancing the rights of girls and women," said a Unicef press release.

Aimed at rallying support for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) agreed last year to tackle poverty and inequality by 2030, the Global Goals Awards were judged by a panel comprising the 17 SDG advocates who advise UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.


Here’s Pakistan, raw and real, through the lens of a smartphone

Three months, Rs250,000, and a backpack, what does that get you?

Memories for a lifetime.

From Gwadar to Khunjerab Pass – I made it to over a hundred sites travelling solo, hitchhiking and using public transport. What started out as a desire to get away from the day-to-day ordinariness of life, turned into a journey encompassing cities, towns, plains, forests, deserts, mountains and beaches. I managed to explore all four provinces and territories, all the while meeting some of the most wonderful people from all walks of life.

I was hosted by old friends in certain places and places where I had no friends, I ended up making more. When neither option was feasible, hotels provided a roof over my head. People were full of love and respect everywhere I went. The diverse landscape and terrain kept me fascinated all through out. What’s more is that the entire experience changed my perceptions about Pakistan and in the process, false myths and stigmas associated with Pakistan were debunked. Terrorism, oppression and poverty; these are the words that go hand-in-hand with Pakistan, or at least that is what the foreign media portrays. But their depiction is inaccurate. One has to experience Pakistan like I did to understand what it actually is.

I visited numerous places. The following is a list of places in each city I feel are worth a visit.


Astola Island
Kali Temple

Hingol National Park
Kund Malir

Balochistan University of Information Technology, Engineering and Management Sciences

Pak-Iran Border

Hana Lake
Quetta Cantt mosque

Pak-Afghan border

Quaid-e-Azam Residency
Prospect Point
Baba Kharwari
Zaranda Tangi
Kawas Dam


Fort Munro

Sakhi Sarwar
Sakhi Sarwar shrine

Dera Ghazi Khan
Ghazi Khan shrine

Suleman Taunsvi shrine

Dera Ismail Khan
Indus River viewpoint
Jogian Wali Gali temple

Bannu park

Mountains and meadows

Kohat Tunnel
Zinda Peer

Jamrud fort
Fort Bala Hisar
Qissa Khwani bazaar
Karkhano markets
Mohabbat Khan mosque
Peshawar museum
Deans mall

Malam Jabba
Ski Resort

Shandur top

Ghulam Ishaq Khan Institute of Engineering Sciences and Technology
Tarbela Dam

Attock Bridge
Attock Fort
Attock Festival
Hindu Temple

Hasan Abdal
Punja Sahi

Rama Meadows

Nankana Sahib
Nankana Sahib


Bhuddist ruins
Taxila museum

Faisal mosque
Monal restaurant
Pakistan museum
Saidpur village
Lok Virsa museum
Lake View park
Pir Sohawa
Centaurus mall


Shimla Hill

Lake Saif-ul-Mulk

Babusar top

Shangrila hotel

Fairy meadows
Nanga Parbat base camp

Sheosar lake

Shangrila resorts
Sadpara lake

Rakaposhi peak
Altit fort
Eagle’s nest

Attabad lake

Khunjerab pass

Banjosa lake

Khewra mines

Katas Raj

Badshahi mosque
Lahore fort
SoZo water park
Lahore museum
Jhalo park
Lahore zoo
Wahga border

Shah Rukne-e-Alam shrine

Noor mehal
Derawar fort

Bhong mosque

Guddu barrage

SSD temple

Kot Diji fort

Masoom Shah minar
Lansdowne bridge
Sukkur barrage
Sadh Belo

Mohenjo Daro
Bhutto family mausoleum

Gorakh hill

Rani Kot

Lal Shahbaz Qalandar shrine

Gadhi Bhitt
Shiv temple
Krishna temple

Bhodesar mosque
Marvi well
Neenuram ashram
Ghori temple

Umarkot fort
Shiv temple

Shah Jahan mosque
Makli hill
Kinjhar lake

Rani Bagh

Quaid-e-Azam tomb
Mohatta palace
Do darya
Frere Hall
Atrium mall
Ocean mall
Dolmen mall

So here’s Pakistan, raw and real, through the lens of a smartphone. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

-Express Tribune