On top of the world

Uggla finalThe Karakoram highway between Pakistan and China was cut out of the Himalayan mountainsides and stretches some 1 300 km from the rich Punjabi plains in the south to the ancient Silk Road town of Kashgar in the Taklamakan desert to the north.

On top of the world is the first of a series of blog posts relating a passage along the Karakoram highway.

A trip on this road is a journey of a lifetime and may be the most scenic and adventurous one you can do anywhere. It takes you right through the greatest crossroads of the world. This is where the grand mountain ranges meet, where the prime historical empires clashed, where peoples and religions mixed and where fortunes were made on the Silk Road.

Travelling “the roof of the world” in the Pamir area is a physical and poetic experience as well. The human condition seems frail indeed when shadowed by giant mountains.


To me, it all started in the south. I got to a rainy Peshawar by plane, all shook up after some days living with the Mujahedin in Afghanistan while following in the steps of Marco Polo.

I knew I wanted to go over the mountains to Kashgar on the legendary Karakoram highway but soon found out I had to do it in stages. I boarded a minibus for Gilgit in Islamabad in the morning and took of across the lush, damp and fertile plains.

Rains in Peshawar

The bus soon passes by the ruins of Taxila, ancient capital of the Indus valley and conquered by Iranian empires and Alexander the Great. Taxila is UNESCO world heritage and worth stopping at if you’ve got the time.

After a while the road follows along the Indus itself, the source of all historical wealth here. The mighty river has its sources high up in the Himalayas and its grand scale brings a hint of what is to come.

Abbottabad is white, flat and well-ordered, I can see from the bus. Signs saying ”Officers mess” and ”Soldiers hospital” fly by. Everything is more British here than in England.

The landscape gets steadily more rocky and the road steadily worse as the hours pass. Late at night we must stop since the road is blocked by a landslide and I lie down to sleep with my backpack on the roof of the bus. In the early morning we march in column over the landslide and board another minibus on the far side.

High up in the Himalayan valleys now, still following the Indus, the mountains get higher and higher and the road truly frightful. There are minor landslides and large single rocks all over the driveway. The road often narrows down to a slim rock shelf over terrifying abysses. We constantly meet colourful Pakistani trucks for chicken-races.

In the afternoon we reach Gilgit. It’s a grey and gloomy place and a trekker’s paradise with small shops, hotels and restaurants serving banana pancakes. The Great Game may have been played here but that doesn’t make it much funnier.

Over the tiny assemblage of houses by the river the row of immense, dark peaks of the Karakoram towers in the north-east like a line of giants with snow-white crowns and immediately takes my breath away.


Storks and cats of Marrakesh

Uggla final“They even have a hospital for storks”, my friend said knowingly on our way there in a row about the extraordinary nature of the place and I didn’t believe a word of it. 

I quickly realized one of the most striking things of the medina, or old town, in Marrakesh, are the large nests on top of virtually all major historical buildings and along the city walls. Storks roam the skies of the city and tend, unchallenged, to their ever-present, bulky nests. There are even nests right on the iconic Bab Agnaou city gate.

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Storks seem holy to Marrakech. There are numerous stories around to explain their elevated and protected status. It is also said that they are widely revered within Islam since they migrate to Mecca annually, which resembles a pilgrimage.

In the medina there’s a house, the Dar Bellarj, or house of the stork, which is actually said to be a previous stork hospital. It is currently an art center.

Cats are ever-present in the city too, strolling the streets, palaces and parks in splendid dignity, while I didn’t see a single stray-dog during four days there.

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The cat is a revered animal in all of Islam for its cleanliness and, of course, for being appreciated by Prophet Muhammad himself, and this should explain why they are so popular and common. Cats may enter homes and even Mosques, which seems to give them higher status than tourists.

So, in the end, storks and cats, though both numerous, in high esteem and characteristic to the city, would presumably be natural enemies and one may wonder how they get along. Perhaps they just do and it wouldn’t be the oddest thing about Marrakesh.

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Explorer Freya Stark and the Valley of the Assassins

Uggla finalFreya Stark, “the nomad queen”, was curious, resolved and a great explorer of the last century. She always travelled alone.

In the 1930s Freya journeyed the Near East. She defied the contemporary idea of how a woman of the British empire was supposed to behave, using practical clothing, travelling on her own without male chaperons and staying precisely where she damn well pleased. She was fearless, not hesitating to travel regions with peoples hating the British.

Freya Stark first arrived in the Levant in 1927 to study Arabian grammar with little more than a fur coat, a revolver and a copy of Dante’s Inferno. She later criss-crossed the Near East on courageous trips that she wrote popular books as well as scientific papers about. In one of her most daring journeys she mapped the ruined castles of the strange medieval Assassins sect in the Elburz mountains of northern Iran.

Freya 0

I had the opportunity to follow in her tracks some years ago, to the site of the main castle of the so-called Assassins – the legendary Alamut. Having obtained a visa and crossed the Iranian border northwest of Tabriz, I had an easy ride with buses to Qazvin. On the way I managed to stop to see the fantastic Dome of Soltaniyeh, southeast of Zanjan. The dome is part of the mausoleum for the 14th century ruler Il-khan Öljeitü, UNESCO world heritage and the third largest brick dome in the world.

Road to Alamut

From the south, Qazvin is the main departure point for a journey in the Elburz. Going off in a mini-bus early in the day you quickly cross the foothills until serpentine mountain roads start and you enter a fascinating system of peaks and valleys with the occasional green grazing-spot and small villages of clay brick. Not before long the asphalt road becomes a two-meter-wide gravel track on the edge of cliffs.

The bus heads for the village of Ghazor khan right below Alamut castle. Immediately at boarding it I was generously offered a bed for the night in the village by Mr Yar. This sort of hospitality regarding meals, transport or a place to stay for the night was a very common thing everywhere while I was travelling Iran.

Early in the afternoon the bus enters a particularly wide, green valley with an odd, gigantic rock towering in its midst. This is the valley of the Assassins and the rock is the site of Alamut itself.

alamut 1

After having tea in his house, Mr Yar guides me on a narrow path up the castle rock and we soon stand before a landscape of ruins at its top.

The old man of the mountain

Legend has it that the Assassins were a sect of murderers, ruled by “the old man of the mountain”, the master of Alamut. Truth is there was really a sort of religious sect, commanding a series of mountain strongholds in the Near East for a period during the middle ages. Their actual name was not “Assassins” though, this name seemingly having arisen out of misunderstanding. They were really the so-called Nizari-ismaili, a special sort of ismaili that in turn are a kind of Shi’i Muslims.

The Nizari-ismaili were in fact led by a succession of rulers from Alamut castle, the most famous one the first “old man of the mountain”, a certain Hassan-i Sabbah. The sect certainly committed some political murders to further their cause, though the scale of these murdering operations seems to have been very much exaggerated.

The Nizari-ismaili state was crushed at the Mongol invasion of Iran in the early 13th century when Alamut was ruined. The Nizari-ismaili community survived, however, and exists to this day, their leader’s part of a line of rulers going back to Alamut.

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Freya Stark in the Elburz

Freya Stark had a difficult way here. She started in Qazvin with three muleteers and reached Alamut several days later after an exhausting march. Freya made a thorough investigation of the castle ruins and then continued on further expeditions in the mountains where she was the first to rediscover other castles of the Nizari-ismaili. She also made an attempt to be the first westerner to climb the mountain known as The Throne of Solomon but failed and caught malaria. This didn’t stop her from exploring further and writing her brilliant book The Valleys of the Assassins about it all.

There is a long stretch of ruins at the top of the rock which Mr Yar leads me through. Written sources tell of a fabulous library in Alamut castle and an advanced astronomic observatory. There are no traces of such things now, or of the paradise gardens of legend, where the old man of the mountain would have trained his assassins.

Mr Yar leads me down the steep path to Ghazor khan, offers me a drink of apple juice, later an excellent dinner, and I spend the night in his living room to the sweet smell of cherry trees from the garden.

The Silk Road with Marco Polo

Uggla finalHave you thought about travelling the Silk Road, the legendary network of overland routes from the Mediterranean to eastern China?

You should, and there is no better guide than Marco Polo, the venetian who was the first westerner to do this journey describing what he saw. When Marco travelled from Venice to Beijing 700 years ago it was like going to the dark side of the moon.

Spellbound by Marco Polos book and its mysteries I followed in his steps some years ago. Who were the strange Assassins sect he writes about, or those worshipping an eternal fire in present Iran? What roads did Marco actually take and could they be travelled again? How could he even do this trip in medieval times without modern equipment? The Mongols, occupying most of Asia, were seen as the legions from hell by Christian Europe, so how did Marco dare to engage with them?

Physical Map of Asia

The Silk Road

The so-called Silk Road is a network of roads rather than a single route, leading from eastern China over land to the Mediterranian sea in the west. By Marco Polos time they had been travelled by traders and caravans for more than a thousand years already, but very few people travelled all the way. Trade was mostly done back and forth over parts of the network of routes and between great cities such as the silk centres of China and Kashgar, Bokhara, Samarkand, Balkh, Herat, Merv, Tabriz, Bhagdad and Istanbul. The historical importance of these routes is immense. Empires thrived controlling them and fell to armies following them.

Going all the way today you might want to start in Istanbul and end up in Beijing, like I did, going through Turkey, Iran and then either Afghanistan and Pakistan or through the central Asian former Soviet republics and finally across China. It’s a 4 000 miles / 7000 km journey as the crow flies, much longer on the ground.

Venedig x

A tricky route

The “oveland trip” from Europe to India was popular during the 1960s and 70s and more or less for anyone though mostly attracting young people, many of which were “hippies” in search of alternative lifeways and seduced by Asian religions or philosophies. The hippie trail eastwards came to an abrupt end though, precisely in 1979 and due to political upheavels. The soviets invaded Afghanistan this year and a religious movement dethroned the Shah of Iran, creating an Islamic republic.

Since then there have been wars in Afghanistan and from time to time impossible to pass through Iran. Travelling the Silk Road today is tricky for the long and arduous road itself. You are, after all, journeying a considerable part of the globe and having to handle the bureacracy of the many countries you will have to pass is a trick in itself.

Yazd x

In a way, Marco Polo had it easier. The Mongols may have been feared by the Christian leaders of Europe, but for smooth traders like Marco and his elder venetian relatives they were no difficulty. The same Mongol empire ruling most of the Silk Road area rather made things easier once the Polos had befriended the great khan. The Polo family even acted as ambassadors for the khan of the Mongols to the Pope, and vice versa, representing the Pope at the court of the khan.

Following Marco Polo

The curious thing about Marco Polo and his book are its many riddles which have kept historians and adventurers going for a long time. Marco recorded his route and his impressions of countries and cities, but he also recorded the many stories and legends told to him along the way. I had the opportunity to investigate some of them, which I will return to.

I followed Marco Polos Silk Road route through Turkey, visiting the lost city of Ayas, spent three weeks tracing his roads in Iran which turned out a very hospitable country to me and where I managed to see Shiraz, Persepolis and the holy city of Meshed. In Afghanistan I stayed with a mujahedin guerilla fraction in Herat before flying to Pakistan and going by the ruff Karakorum highway across the Himalayas to Kashgar in the Taklamakan desert area of western China. I visited the famous Dunhuang caves by the desert and rode steam trains through northern China to Beijing.

Herat x

Kashgar x

The digital traveller

Uggla finalWhat does the digital revolution do to historical travel in the 21st century?

There is a loss. Easy to use and easily available digital resources catering to travellers are quickly making physical, shop-style travel agencies obsolete. The same goes for ticket offices, for printed guidebooks and for paper maps. At the end of these developments we might find a thoroughly digital information environment around travelling. An entire field or segment of the world of material objects and the locations (shops, ticket offices, bookstores) related to them is on the brink of extinction along with a whole range of social situations and their associated jobs (booking a ticket or buying a book over a counter, asking for map directions).


Digital resources, furthermore, are taking travel into an era in which we rely heavily on the ratings of others of historical sites, institutions, restaurants and what not.

So, is this new world more “social”, “democratic” and “pluralistic”? Not necessarily. Is it effective and fast? Oh, yes. Is more information ready for use at our fingertips? Yes, for sure. Does the availability of ever more information right under our eyes make us wiser? No, because wisdom is not information as such but the ability to interpret and use information. Might all this conform travel so that some popular places and sites attract everyone while shadowing others? Possibly. The brave new digital world holds much potential, but potential is not the same as outcome.

My friend Michael is a digital traveller – an early adopter of all new things digital. He travels the world making full use of digital applications.

Looking at digital films on the Internet rather than reading guidebooks, Michael plans his Germany trip, deciding which cities to visit and what main sites to see. For travelling there, he books his train tickets through the train company app and his hotels through an hotels app. But Michael goes further, being on the cutting edge of using the fast-growing flora of digital map functions and the equally booming selection of rating apps for sites, restaurants, museums and most other things.

Using digital maps in his smartphone, Michael would plan his itineraries in cities beforehand, getting to know the exact routes, how far he would be walking and the approximate time of such tours.

Then there are digital guides to historical sites, cultural institutions and restaurants in the form of apps relaying on visitor ratings. When lunch is imminent Michael would look at what restaurants are close by, check their ratings and choose one with a satisfactory record among previous visitors. The one time during the Germany trip when he did not and went purely on intuition, he ended up disappointed in a bad place.

All in all, to an experienced traveller such as Michael, actively seeking the unknown and unexpected, the wealth of digital information and possibilities gave him a much richer experience. Ratings took him to excellent food vendors he would never have dared choosing just based on street-views. It also took him to interesting historical sites hard to find without recommendations that would not have gone into printed guidebooks or that he wouldn’t have found without very detailed directions. When previous plans failed, digital resources could quickly come up with alternatives.

Digital maps tied to other data sources are in effect augmenting reality, connecting physical locations to a wealth of information in a way that paper maps can not. Cutting down on time and money spent on getting tickets and finding hotels through using apps gave Michael more time and money to explore German cities.

So, in the end, the digital has its obvious advantages and Pandora is out of the box anyway so let’s just roll with it, making the best out of all those new, beautiful things.

Turkish railway

Uggla finalI recently bought a pocket watch made by the Swiss Zenith company in 1968 for the Turkish state railways. It works perfectly. It has its mysteries. 

On the front it says “T.C. Devlet Demir Yollari” meaning Türkiye Cumhuriyeti Devlet Demiryollari or State Railways of the Republic of Turkey. On the back is a steam locomotive and the crescent-and-star symbol of Turkey.

Curiously, it has the letters S. O. H. engraved inside, along with a date, 15/12 1969. Needless to say, I have no idea who S was, or is. All I know from the Zenith factory number is that the watch was made in 1968 in the high air of the strange watch town Le Locle in the Swiss Jura mountains and I can only presume it was presented to a Turkish railway official a year later.



I like to think that the watch was used for railway time keeping all over Turkey in the 1970s and 80s while I was growing up in Sweden and that it travelled with S from the old Orient express station Sircesi in Istanbul to the Iranian border, across the Taurus mountains, to Samsun by the Black Sea, all over Anatolia in winter, to the Mediterranean coast at Izmir in summer and to the gloomy town of Kars on the Armenian border when snow was melting in spring.

Turkey kept steam locomotives like the one on the watch running through the 1980s and S would have worked on steam trains, experiencing these powerful, smoky beasts, so close to living beings.

I travelled with trains in Turkey once, in the hot summer of 1993. First from the Greek border to Istanbul and I can still remember the dry, grassy smell of rural Thrace shifting to sharp city odours as we passed the old Byzantine city walls and ended at the grand Sircesi station just below Topkapi palace and I then lost myself in Istanbul for the first time. Maybe S was on the same train.


A little later I made the scenic journey from Erzincan in central Anatolia to Kars in the north-east on a heavily guarded Eastern Express train. This was a time of high tensions between the Turkish state and its Kurdish minority and army servicemen patrolled the carriages with nervous attitude and the conductor (was this S?) told me the PKK had a habit of sometimes attacking the train.

So, S and I may have met, unaware of the watch linking us together. But how did the timepiece end up in Skellefteå in the far north of Sweden in the store from where I got it? No one knows, the clock keeps ticking, trains keep going in Turkey and fate has its odd ways.

Till Kars 4