When in doubt call…Sweden

Working from home has its perks but it also can leave you lonely, and – let’s face it – slightly bored. Instead of talking to a colleague one needs to find alternative ways of taking breaks. Such as calling Sweden for example.

This afternoon I came across theswedishnumber.com,  a website of the Swedish Tourist Association. The page proudly reminds us that it was Sweden who first abolished censorship in 1766 and now they are the first country to have its own phone number that anyone can call to speak to … Sweden.

So this is how it works: you dial +46 771 793 336. You hear a female voice informing you in a Swedish accent that you “will soon be connected to a random Swede somewhere in Sweden”. Few seconds later AN ACTUAL RANDOM SWEDE answers!

I spoke today with a really lovely girl from the south of Sweden. It was a bit strange at first speaking to a complete stranger, but her friendliness made it less awkward. She told me she signed up to the programme only yesterday and has already had 3 calls so far. She likes the initiative as she believes it is a great idea for Swedes to represent their country.

I asked my “random Swede” about her recommendations for someone who is traveling to Sweden but doesn’t want to just see the typical touristy stuff. She recommended going to small towns so that one can be in contact with nature, which is really beautiful in this part of the globe. One of the places she recommended was Ystad, a small coastal town on the south of Sweden. She reminded me however to ensure I travel in the summer, otherwise my visit won’t be as fun.

With the approach of the warmer months across Europe, how about we reward this lovely, creative (and brave!) initiative and the AWESOME SWEDES who signed up to it, and visit this stunning part of the world?

If you choose Stockholm, a short train-ride from the capital you will find a bit of Scandinavian mysticism. The town of  Gamla Uppsala was once one of the most important places in Scandinavia and is a home to the Royal Mounds, three burial mounds once believed by some to represent the Nordic mythology gods: Odin, Thor and Freyr. Over the past few years apparently the town has seen a return of the blót. This Norse pagan ritual often involved  an animal sacrifice to please the gods and the spirits.

But what do I know? Better call a random Swede and check for yourself…

                            kon

Thank you Sweden and the lovely Swedish girl who answered my call. You truly made my day 🙂

Beauty in the rough (Part 2)

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There was something magical about traveling through one of the oldest trade routes in the world. The mountainous Khyber Pass, part of the ancient Silk Road, was a passage that saw history being made. The Spin Ghar Mountains bore a silent witness to the processions of Darius I, Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan. They saw invasions that changed the geography of the world, traded goods that brought prosperity as well as wars, and watched how religions developed and spread.

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In the 1960s and 70s Khyber Pass welcomed the alternative tourists – adventure seeking hippies, making their way from Europe to India. In the era of terrorism and fear, the existence of the Hippie Trail seems almost impossible. And yet there they were – happily stoned dreamers hitchhiking cheerfully through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan.  Their journey was a statement. It screamed: “we’re done with wars! We want the world of freedom and love. We say no to the exploitative capitalism and choose the depth of spirituality instead”. Many traveled from Kabul to Peshawar, Rawalpindi and Lahore searching for the Sufi-shrines, before entering India and Nepal.

Despite the flowery philosophy of the hippies, the world decided to once again turn to violence. The revolution in Iran, political unrest in Pakistan and the invasion of Afghanistan put an end to the Western tourism. Gradually, Afghan and Pakistani women began to replace their minis with long skirts; men exchanged the bell-bottoms and colourful shirts for more traditional clothing. The beer-serving liberalism of the Bhutto era gave way to religious conservatism. Khyber Pass’s tourists gave way to armed soldiers. The land became a Taliban hideout and its villages filled with the tough gaze and dark burqas of the Afghan refugees fleeing their country.

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Passing through this land today one can feel the uneasy history of the region. Looking at the faces of the people we passed on the road I could sense their mistrust, so typical for those who have been through a lot. According to the UNHRC, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, in 2015  the country had 1.5 million registered Afghan refugees, making Pakistan a nation with one of the highest refugee populations in the world (and that’s after the UN already facilitated a return of 3.8 millions back to Afghanistan).

Living mostly in the proximity to the border, many of the Afghans travel between the countries, contributing to the local trade  and filling Pakistani jewellery stalls with beautiful silver bracelets and necklaces. Although both countries have many cultural similarities that make refugee’s life here easier, due to the alleged drug smuggling and terrorism the newcomers are not always welcome. According to the government of Pakistan, the majority of the terrorist attacks in the country are traced back to the refugee camps by the border.  Despite regular checks, the mountains provide opportunities to cross illegally, making it difficult to regulate the traffic in and out of the country.

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Before I was going to see the border with my own eyes, we stopped at the Michni Post, the last check-point before the Torkham crossing into Afghanistan. The post has been guarded by the Khyber Rifles,  a unit of the Frontier Corps, since the 1800s, policing this tribal region.The place was a strange mix between a small military base and a  tourist attraction. As we arrived, we were greeted with various nuts and freshly squeezed fruit juice. The air filled with the soft scent of cardamom coming from kava, green tea mixed with a hint of delicate spice.

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We sat down on the traditional woven rugs covering the seats of the tiny auditorium and a seriously looking man in a uniform began to give the presentation outlining the history of the passage. In front of us was a glass wall providing a panoramic view of the Western end of the Khyber Pass. After our “guide” finished talking, I went towards a telescope from which you could see tracks and people at the border. We stepped outside to take photos of the stunning view. We were tourists in this world. Just like the hippies…

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Beauty in the rough (part 1)

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I woke up early. We had a long journey ahead of us, so after a quick breakfast consisting of the best, lightest cheese omelette I’ve ever had, and the warming milky-ness of dudh patti chai, we left the officer’s mess where we had spent the night and got into the 4 by 4s waiting for us outside. I looked behind and noticed an armed soldier sitting at the back of our jeep. Him and his rifle, ready to defend us should the Taliban want to spoil our trip to the border.

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In the early hours of the day the air was crisp but the blue sky brought a promise of a sunny warmth. We drove through an empty road, every now and again passing men hiding from the winter cold under wide beige shawls. A long queue of bearded men waited in line by the side of the road to register for the national IDs. We had just left Peshawar and were in the semi-autonomous Khyber Agency. An area governed by its own, tribal, rules. We were entering a world I didn’t know.

The Agency, also known as FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas), is an area with difficult past and complex legal status. Although the region is formally controlled by the government of Pakistan, in reality the majority of Pashtun population living in the region is subject to laws agreed by the jirga, the assembly of the tribal elders. FATA also does not fall under the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court of Pakistan, following instead a special set of laws known as Frontier Crimes Regulation. Under the FCR, jirga can decide on the appropriate punishment for the committed crime, forfeiting the accused person’s right to the judiciary trial. With the increasing Talibanization of the region since 2001, Pakistan has steadily strengthened its military presence in the region. Interestingly, over three quarters of the people living in the area claim to support the army and its fight against the radical militants. According to a survey conducted in 2010 by the New America Foundation and Terror Free Tomorrow, around 70% of the FATA population supports Pakistan’s military activity targeting Al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

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The route to Afghanistan is a lonely one. Vast open spaces, sandy landscape with occasional passer-by rushing to their every day chores or a solitary mosque. Every few kilometers a chaotic village market buzzing with hurried buyers. Other than that, silence. The vast tranquility of this place filled me with a strange peace. Blue sky and sunshine embracing the rocky scenery gave the route a serene feel. It was hard to believe that this oasis of calm where people just go about their daily routines  is known more for the terrorists than its beauty.

 

 

In the valleys we passed children were playing cricket. Even in the most remote areas little boys know how to use a bat and the ball – in Pakistan following this sport seems to be unanimous with the national pride and the chants of “Pakistan Zindabad” – “Long Live Pakistan” are just as likely to feature a national rally as they are to be heard at a cricket match.

Aside from the occasional kids, we saw mostly men. A few women here and there rushed somewhere accompanied by another woman or by a group of kids. Their colourful vails providing an interesting contrast to the monochrome background of mountains and men. Despite the colour, however, these mothers, wives and daughters shared a certain roughness that the terrain seemed to instigate in its people.

Were they happy? Or is happiness something they don’t have the luxury to ponder on? They reminded me of my grandparents – generation of people brought up to be tough. People who rarely  give in to sadness because their life has got no space for expectations. People who grow old appreciating the little things in life – a calm evening with the family, a tasty meal,  a chat with the neighbour. Sometimes because there is nothing else to enjoy. People who don’t complain but carry on in silence. How I wished I could have stopped the car and hear their stories.

But we kept on going.  After all, isn’t that what we always do?