Terrorism and Tourism

We are in south Sinai, the locus of some of the deadliest terrorist attacks on tourists in the last few years, and we were told by a co-guest at our hotel that locals had told them that a major attack of some sort was expected at or shortly after end of Ramadan, which is today. The end of Ramadan, or the Eid al-Fitr, is not especially known for being a time for terrorist activity, but I suppose any holiday may pose a tempting/meaningful date for an attacker. Are we afraid? Not really–but certain senses, honed in 2001, seem to be kicking back in, second thoughts about the kinds of luggage loaded onto our bus, a lowered bar for what constitutes “strange behavior” in others and what is the safest mode of transport. As I previously discussed in my post of 4.29, traveling does bring about somewhat greater risks of all kinds, and with it more paranoia about what might happen. All in all, a good time for some thoughts on terrorism and tourism.

From a traveler’s perspective, I think that there are three categories of terrorism, each of which carries different risks. The first is “domestic” terrorism, the best example of which is probably the many recent attacks in India, or the recent Damascus bombing. As a Korean traveler told me in northern Pakistan, Korean tourists aren’t worried about bombs in Pakistan because they’re aimed at other Pakistanis (say, ones of a different religious sect, or ones affiliated with a certain political movement) and not at tourists. While of course a traveler can still be caught in the crossfire (believe it or not, we ran into two separate tourists who said that they were very close to blasts in Lahore), at least some of these bombs are likely to go off in places where a foreign traveler is not particularly likely to venture. We are not the intended target.

The second category is terrorism directed at outside interests. The most prominent target in this category is perhaps an embassy, or a foreign military installation. This type of terrorism is perhaps most akin to a sort of informal war–the attackers mean not only to terrorize but to make a statement and inflict damage. Examples of this are of course many, including U.S. embassy bombings in any number of countries, the attack on the USS Cole, the bombing in Beirut.

The third category is, for travelers, the scariest: terrorism directed specifically at tourists, most likely in an effort to hurt tourism and decrease foreign influence in the country. The deadliest recent example of this is probably the Bali bomb of 2002, which killed 202 people from 21 (!) different countries. More recently, four people were targeted and killed in Yemen at a major tourist attraction. Hotel bombings fall somewhere between categories two and three, perhaps depending on the kind of hotel that is chosen (some hotels may be chosen for their international “brand,” sort of like an embassy, rather than the explicit desire to discourage foreign travelers).

The “prize” for this third, scariest category of terrorism goes to Egypt, not only for the number of incidents but the heinousness of the targets and methods. In 1997, in an incident known as the Luxor Massacre, a group of six attackers armed with guns and knives trapped and slaughtered 63 people, mostly tourists, in one of the main tourist attractions of Luxor, the Temple of Hatshepsut. In 2004, 2005 and 2006, terrorists killed 34, 88 and 23 people, respectively, in bombings in three different resort areas in the Sinai: Taba, Sharm el Sheikh and Dahab. Also in 2005, there were bombings or shootings near three of the most popular tourist sites in Cairo, the Khan al Khalili market, the Egyptian Museum and Saladdin’s Citadel.

Temple of Hatshepsut, Luxor, site of one of the grisliest terror attacks in recent history

Due to the layout of the ruin, tourists were “trapped” for slaughter.

Three separate suicide bombs were set off in Dahab on April 24, 2006.

A truck with explosives drove into the lobby of the Taba Hilton on October 7, 2004, one of three bombings that evening.

Egyptian Museum, Cairo

Yes, the odds of me or you happening to be in the wrong place at the wrong time are still fairly slim, but the probability increases dramatically when the attackers are choosing their targets specifically to target groups of tourists, places where tourists spend their time. We are their target. Maybe we shouldn’t “let the terrorists win” by avoiding places such as Egypt altogether, but as the lesson of September 11 taught, terrorists do like to hit the same targets over and over again (perhaps because they are simply the best targets), and Egypt as a country has a uniquely dangerous history in this respect, something visitors should be aware of. While there are countless police and military stationed all across Egypt, one wonders whether armed men begging for tips or sleeping in the backs of vehicles can really stop an attack, or whether such a presence would deter terrorists who are willing to die for their cause.

Faces of Pakistan

We were in Pakistan fairly briefly, and only in the Northern Areas, but did have a chance to get some photographs of the friendly locals. The photos are in geographical order, from the Chinese border in the north to Gilgit, the capital of the Northern Areas, in the south.

Some photographs taken from Sost. Because Sost is an administrative and transit center, we think that these two individuals may not be true natives of the area, but they do have a typical northern appearance.


Heading south our first stop was Passu, which is located in the Wakhi area of the Northern Areas. Although they often consider themselves Hunza, and share the Ismaili faith (see post of 7.13), the Wakhi are ethnically and linguistically distinct, being from the Wakhan Valley shared by Tajikistan and Afghanistan (see post of 6.23). Their language (and likely their genetic ancestry) is related to that of Tajikistan and Iran, rather than the other languages of the Northern Areas.

A Wakhi boy

A Wakhi woman, in traditional dress quite similar to the Tajik Pamiris

Two Wakhi girls. Note how fair the second girl is, just like other Pamiris (see my posts of 6.23 and 6.29). Indeed, it is startling how different the ethnicities and cultures of the Northern Areas are from the rest of Pakistan.

The “heart” of the Northern Areas is the Hunza Valley, populated by a people that speak Burushaski, a language unrelated to any other in the world. The Hunza Valley is famous for its cultural distinctiveness, as well as for its beautiful mountains and healthy way of life.






Our young “guide” up to the Ultar Meadow

A common summer sight–girls and women carrying baskets for apricots

Women, sometimes with cover but often not, are a common site in the Hunza Valley, which is largely Ismaili. Heading further south into Pakistan, women were essentially nowhere to be seen–less so than anywhere else we have been.

Some pictures from Gilgit. Although Gilgit is in the Northern Areas, that it is a much bigger city and its more southern location mean that many different ethnic groups from Pakistan have settled there. For example, the second man below (who liked to smile but not for the camera) told us that he was a Pashtun from Peshawar. Gilgit was extremely tense, with a huge police/military presence trying to suppress ongoing sectarian violence, but the locals were for the large part very friendly. The most common joke, believe it or not, was men pointing at their bearded friends and telling us that they are Taliban. One man even pointed at another man’s large belly saying that it was actually a bomb and he a suicide bomber!






I believe these guys are Hunza, because they are wearing Hunza hats.

Rather intense eyes, don’t you think?

Kashgar SideTrip: Karakoram Highway

Plotting out our time in China while in Kyrgyzstan, and trying to put together an itinerary for a couple friends who said that they might join us out in Xinjiang (although in the end they couldn’t make it), we decided on a week-long side trip to northern Pakistan on the Karakoram Highway, or KKH. In this post, I will cover not only our route and some of the highlights of our trip, but also some of our considerations in planning our time in Pakistan.

First, a key question: Is it safe? There have been many bombings in Pakistan recently, and the political situation has been uncertain for some time. Although it is tempting to say that a particular tourist’s odds of being near an explosion are quite low, we actually met a fellow tourist in Kyrgyzstan who said that he was within 100 meters of a bomb in Lahore, and was thrown against a wall by the concussion. While the risk is small, it is certainly greater than in many other destinations. In the end, we felt comfortable proceeding with the trip because we would be visiting only the Northern Areas, which has been safe despite more turbulent conditions to the south. We knew that the religion of most of the areas we would visit was Ismaili Islam, a peaceful and tolerant sect led by the Aga Khan (see post of 7.13), and that there was essentially no recent history of violence in Pakistan north of the city of Gilgit. As it turned out, we ended up spending one night in Gilgit, which was in quite a tense security situation, but as we figured the rest of the Northern Areas was completely at peace and totally safe.

Second, we had to figure out the visa situation. We were planning the Pakistan sidetrip early enough that we could have, if we had to, made a detour to the Pakistan embassy in Bishkek, but we had not really been planning on visiting Bishkek, much less staying the three or four days that would have been required. We learned from the internet that the government of Pakistan had recently started giving visas on arrival at the border with China. For U.S. citizens the fee is pretty steep at USD 150, but visa on arrival saved us a long detour. (The processing at the border ended up being tediously slow, but we imagine that will be resolved soon. I should also note that the Chinese authorities had no problem letting us continue to Pakistan without a Pakistan visa in our passports, a concern that has been expressed in the past.)

Preliminaries aside, our trip on the Karakoram Highway.

We started from Kashgar’s long-distance bus station on a morning bus for Karakul (Lake), a four hour ride, where we spent the night in a Kyrgyz yurt. Given the problems with the yurtstays (see post of 7.11), we would recommend for now that you not stay the night, just staying at the lake long enough to enjoy the view and fresh air and then continuing on to Tashkurgan, the last Chinese city on the Karakoram Highway.

Long-distance bus station, Kashgar

Karakul (Lake)


From Karakul to Tashkurgan, another couple hours, we hitchhiked with a truck driver, although buses pass by occasionally as well. We ended up staying almost 24 hours in Tashkurgan, perhaps longer than ideal, but it is not a city without interest. For one, Tashkurgan is a Tajik-ethnic city, an oddity even in Turkic Xinjiang. Second, Tashkurgan’s namesake “Stone Tower,” a mudbrick fort near the center of the city, is believed by some to be a key point on the Silk Road identified by the likes of Ptolemy, and is set on a beautiful site overlooking a green pasture dotted with Kyrgyz yurts.


To get from Tashkurgan into Pakistan, you need to find the bus that departed from Kashgar for Pakistan, which overnights in Tashkurgan. In our case, a friendly Tajik attendant at the bus station helped us locate the bus. The best place to find this bus is the customs office, which lies on the Karakoram Highway just south of its intersection with Tashkurgan’s “main street.” The bus will likely be at the customs office for an hour or two between 9 and 11, depending on how quickly it passes through all of the formalities.

KKH’s name in Chinese, Tashkurgan

From Tashkurgan up to the 4700 meter Khunjerab Pass is a fairly short drive amidst beautiful Pamiri/high plains scenery. On the Pakistani side, the road abruptly deteriorates but the views get even better, as the peaks sharpen and valleys deepen. After a few hours in no-man’s land, the bus pulled into Sost, where the Pakistani immigration and customs procedures took place. We had no serious problems with visa-on-arrival, although a couple procedural mistakes on the immigration officer’s part, and a poorly-timed power outage, ended up in an hours-long delay (causing us and our bus-mates much anxiety).

The bus from Tashkurgan into Pakistan, run by Pakistani NATCO, goes all the way through to Gilgit, but drops off passengers anywhere en route. Although we had purchased our tickets only to Sost, we ended up staying on the bus until Passu, an hour or two further down the road.

Passu is a very peaceful and quiet village in the shadow of a dramatic set of peaks known as the Cathedral on one side and mountain glaciers on the other. We stayed at the Passu Peak Inn, a basic but comfortable guesthouse run by a very friendly retired Pakistani army officer. The people of Passu are Wakhis, coming originally from the Wakhan Valley in Tajikistan and Afghanistan. Although they speak their own Iranian language of Wakhi, they are Ismaili and to a certain extent consider themselves related to the people of the (also Ismaili) Hunza Valley to the south. We greatly enjoyed the food at the Glacier Breeze Restaurant, run by charismatic but also somewhat puzzling Mr. Khan.

Wakhi woman

The number one “activity” in Passu, and one of the most famous short hikes off of the Karakoram Highway, is the “two bridges walk,” which goes from Passu over a couple of cable suspension bridges to the village of Husseini a bit further south on the KKH. The views while a bit different are perhaps no better than from Passu itself (which, frankly, would be hard to beat), but the bridge crossings are unforgettable.

The planks are so far apart that at times you are forced to walk on one of the cables as on a tightrope. At the bridges’ lowest points you can hear the river crackling below you, and the fast motion of the water creates the uncomfortable and dizzying illusion that the bridge itself is moving in the opposite direction. There are several cables, however, so actually falling through is very unlikely.

Trail created along cliffsides from stacking numerous pieces of flat rocks; we had seen these “overings” earlier along the Wakhan (see post of 6.23).

From Husseini, we hitched a ride (with a group of young men from Karachi and their armed guard) down to Karimabad, where we stayed at the wonderful World Roof Hotel. Karimabad is the quiet and well-touristed capital and heart of Hunza, which was a princely state in British India and has an identity quite independent from the rest of Pakistan. The Hunza are Ismaili, speak a unique language unrelated to any other and are clearly visually different from their compatriots to the south. Thanks largely to the efforts of the Aga Khan, northern Pakistan enjoys higher levels of education and other social development than most of the rest of Pakistan. In some ways, it is unfortunate that northern Pakistan is suffering a downturn in tourism due to instability in the rest of the country, and some people in the north were quick to point out that we were in “Hunza, not Pakistan,” and totally safe.

Karimabad is located several hundred feet uphill from the Karakoram Highway, and enjoys a commanding view of the Hunza Valley, all the way across to Mt. Rakaposhi. Up “behind” Karimabad are yet more snowy peaks, while Karimabad itself is an Eden of terraced fields and orchards.

Truck driving up downtown Karimabad

View of Karimabad

View from Karimabad, afternoon

We enjoyed the wonderful climate and scenery of Karimabad not only from the perfectly placed balcony of our hotel room but also made a day hike up to Ultar Meadow, where we enjoyed tea with the local herders while hearing the occasional breaking of snow and ice from the nearby glacier. This hike is characterized as “easy” by the Lonely Planet, but we had difficulty finding the way until a very energetic 12 year old offered to act as our guide (for the usual $5 rate). Even if you knew the way, it would be a stretch to call the short hike “easy,” but it does offer incredible views of the nearby peaks, glacier and across the valley.

Glacier, Ultar Meadow

Trail up to Ultar Meadow. This section of the trail follows a man-made water channel, which directs snowmelt from the mountains into the lush irrigated fields of Hunza. But for these channels, the Hunza Valley, with little precipitation, would be a mountain desert.

One night, we hired a jeep up to Eagle’s Nest at Duiker viewpoint for dinner. The Eagle’s Nest is a comfortable hotel with a truly spectacular location that really merits a long stay–just you (and your loved one), the priceless view (like that from Karimabad but higher) and a pile of books. Food was tasy, and great value.

Terraces near Eagle’s Nest

The principal historical site of Hunza is Baltit Fort, beautifully refurbished by the cultural projects wing of the Aga Khan Foundation–perhaps the best such restoration job we’ve ever seen!

Baltit Fort

Old house restoration at Baltit Fort. Note the similarity to Pamiri homes from Tajikistan (see post of 6.23).

It being summer, there were apricots absolutely everywhere in the Hunza Valley, ripe for the picking. Dried apricots and apricot pits are used widely in Hunza cooking, including in the delicious apricot soup.

Ganish Village, downhill from Karimabad, also well-restored with the support of the Aga Khan Foundation. Ganish is Shiite Muslim, and not Ismaili like the rest of Hunza–they did not convert to Ismailism with the rest of Hunza in the nineteenth century.

We decided to catch the Kashgar bus from its origin in Gilgit, and so hired a car to take us down the night before. The couple hours’ drive was memorable for the views of the old vertiginous trails and roads heading southward from Hunza as well as Rakaposhi Viewpoint, where we enjoyed a simple but tasty meal.

Old roads/trails along the way

Rakoposhi Viewpoint

Gilgit itself came as something of a surprise. We were told that there has been some sectarian violence in Gilgit, but did not know that there had also been a very recent assassination attempt. There was extremely heavy police/military presence, including a sort of military bunker set up in the town center and pick-up trucks with armed soldiers cruising down the main road every several minutes. The somewhat rough crowd populating the town was nonetheless friendly, joking with us by pointing to their friends and saying that they were Taliban and suicide bombers. (Indeed, most of the people in Gilgit did fit the western Taliban stereotype, in terms of facial hair and dress.) [To avoid spending a night in Gilgit, you can easily pick up the bus to Kashgar as it passes through Karimabad. Or, if you want to fly into/out of Gilgit to start/finish your trip, it is perfectly possible to have a Karimabad hotel pick you up/drop you off to avoid an overnight stop in the town.]

The bus from Gilgit to Kashgar takes one long day, departing from Gilgit around 6 AM and arriving in Kashgar almost at midnight. Watch out for the Chinese border officials and their x-ray machine!

Our bus had some trouble starting!

Ismailis and the Aga Khan

[Please also refer to my posts of 5.20 and 5.28 for an introduction to the history of Islam.]

The Tajik Pamirs and northern Pakistan share not only mountainous terrain and certain ethnic/cultural links but also religion: Ismaili Islam. The Ismailis are Shiite Muslims who believe that the true seventh Imam was a man named Ismail rather than his younger brother Musa, as the Twelver Shiites (such as those of Iran) believe. While during certain periods, such as the Cairo-based Fatimid Empire, Ismailis were a powerful force, today they form a small minority of Muslims, often scattered in remote mountainous terrain.

The historical distinction between Ismailis and other Shiites may seem minor, but, over time, this simple succession dispute has led to a universe of divergence, as Ismailis have become among the most progressive of the Islamic sects, in stark contrast to the Shiites of Iran. Indeed, the distinction between Ismailis and other Muslims has grown so great that one (Sunni) Kyrgyz woman in Tajikistan told us that the Tajik Pamiris were not even Muslim. Of course, despite the strong lingering of pre-Islamic beliefs and traditions the Ismaili Pamiris are in fact Muslim, as are the Ismaili Hunzas of northern Pakistan, but it is true that the Ismaili worldview of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries is clearly a world apart from some other sects of Islam, and, to this outsider, far more appealing.

This difference is perhaps no more apparent than in Pakistan. In the fabled lands of Hunza in northern Pakistan, the population is largely Ismaili, having converted in the 1830s, while the rest of the country is largely Sunni and, to a lesser extent, Twelver Shia. In Hunza areas, it is common to see local women out and about living their lives, and to interact with them on a socially equal basis, as in the West. Just a couple hours south, it is essentially impossible to even see a woman in public, because they live in seclusion, public life being the exclusive domain of men. The Hunza Valley is exceptionally safe, a haven of calm befitting the beautiful landscape; a couple hours south, sectarian violence necessitates battlefield levels of policing by armed soldiers. In the Tajik Pamirs, whenever a local person spoke of religion, he or she stressed the unity of humanity and faith, in sharp contrast to some religious who see people of other faiths as fundamentally misguided and dangerous.

Flag of the Ismailis, Hunza Valley, Pakistan

All of this is thanks, I believe, largely to the stewardship of the living Imam of the Ismaili faith, the Aga Khan. That’s right–while Twelver Shiites believe that the twelfth Imam was the last, the Ismailis believe in a line of succession that has survived to this day from Mohammed to Karim al-Hussainy, the forty-ninth Imam and the current leader of the Ismaili faith, generally referred to by his hereditary title, Aga Khan IV.

I do not know too much about the history of the Ismaili Imams, but as of the nineteenth century the Imam of the Ismaili faith already had some prominence in Iran, acting as a governor of some localities. The forty-sixth Imam was granted the title of “Aga Khan” (an Iranian-Turkic royal title) by the Shah of Iran. The family later moved to British India, where the 48th Imam, also known as Aga Khan III, played a significant role in the establishment of the Muslim League and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Aga Khan III also served as the President of the League of Nations, the pre-United Nations body that existed between the two world wars. His son acted as Pakistan’s Ambassador to the United Nations.

Karim al-Hussayni (Aga Khan IV) was born in Switzerland in 1936, grew up in part in Kenya and attended Harvard, where he studied–get this–Islamic history. When it was time for his grandfather Aga Khan III, in accordance with Ismaili custom, to choose a successor from the family, he chose his grandson Karim rather than Karim’s father to be the 49th Imam because he believed that it was good for the Ismaili faith to have a younger Imam who had grown up in the atomic age. The Aga Khan currently lives in France carrying on his family’s distinguished history of public service with the work of the Aga Khan Foundation, one of the largest privately run development organizations in the world. I’ll discuss the Aga Khan Foundation a bit later, but first I wanted to convey a sense of the Aga Khan’s spiritual leadership of the Ismaili faith–the following excerpts from the website of the Aga Khan Development Network put it succinctly.

The Aga Khan has emphasised the view of Islam as a thinking, spiritual faith: one that teaches compassion and tolerance and that upholds the dignity of man, Allah’s noblest creation. In the Shia tradition of Islam, it is the mandate of the Imam of the time to safeguard the individual’s right to personal intellectual search and to give practical expression to the ethical vision of society that the Islamic message inspires. . . . [The] wisdom of Allah’s final Prophet in seeking new solutions for problems which could not be solved by traditional methods, provides the inspiration for Muslims to conceive a truly modern and dynamic society, without affecting the fundamental concepts of Islam.

The key to the dignified life that Islam espouses is an enlightened mind symbolised in the Quran’s metaphor of creation, including one’s self, as an object of rational quest. “My Lord! Increase me in knowledge,” is a cherished prayer that the Quran urges upon all believers, men and women alike. . . . This spark of divinity, which bestows individuality and true nobility on the human soul, also bonds individuals in a common humanity. Humankind, says the Quran, has been created from a single soul, as male and female, communities and nations, so that people may know one another. It invites people of all faiths, men and women, to strive for goodness.

The message is one that I find exceptionally sympathetic. The Aga Khan stresses compassion and tolerance, the opposite of the sectarian and other chauvinism and violence seemingly promoted by some Islamic sects. He stresses individual rights and freedom of conscience. He believes in the intellect and “new solutions” rather than stale dogma, which can cause many religions to turn cruelly reactionary and conservative. He recognizes that the religious message, the gift of the prophets, is meant to “inspire” and cannot necessarily by itself solve the world’s problems, and that the most important thing is to retain “fundamental concepts” and “goodness.” The worldview is overwhelmingly universalist, a belief in the brotherhood of man and not just Shiites or Muslims.

The Aga Khan’s religious message also goes to compassion for the weak, a message common to many religions but often paid only lip service.

At the heart of Islam’s social vision is the ethic of care of the weak and restraint in their sway by the rich and powerful. The pious are the socially conscious who recognise in their wealth, whether personal talent or material resources, an element of trust for the indigent and deprived.

Traveling in Ismaili areas has given me a great deal of respect for the Aga Khan precisely for his commitment to improving life of the poor. He recognizes that his flock, the Ismailis, live in remote circumstances at the edge of the Muslim/civilized world, and literally helps build bridges to connect them to each other and to the outside world. The Aga Khan works through partnerships with, and funding from, all sorts of other entities including multilateral organizations and governments, adding to the available pool of resources from the Aga Khan personally and private contributions (including those of wealthier Ismailis). The Aga Khan is sadly uncommon in being a world spiritual leader who also looks after his followers’ material well-being.


While areas of geographical focus are chosen based on the presence of local Ismaili populations, the Aga Khan Foundation provides all services on a non-discriminatory basis without regard for religious affiliation, ethnicity or gender. The mission of the Aga Khan is far broader.

[The] combined mandate [of the Aga Khan Development Network, or AKDN,] is to improve living conditions and opportunities, and to help relieve society of the burdens of ignorance, disease, and deprivation. . . . The impulses that underpin the Network are the Muslim ethic of compassion for the vulnerable in society and the duty, guided by the ethics of the Islam, to contribute to improving the quality of all human life. The pivotal notion in the ethical ideal of Islam is human dignity, and thus, the duty to respect and support God’s greatest creation, Man himself.

Not only is the Aga Khan’s (and his grandfather-predecessor’s) mission impressive, but the organizations have shown incredible results. For example, the Hunzas benefit from significantly higher levels of social development (such as health and education levels) than the rest of Pakistan. Everywhere you see Aga Khan projects–schools, clinics, dams and canals, restorations of historical sites, etc. To hear locals speak of the Aga Khan is moving. Doesn’t it seem unlikely that an eighth century schism could have such real world consequences in the twenty-first, and make Ismaili areas of Pakistan such havens of peace and prosperity while other parts of the country burn with religious strife? The Hunzas converted only in the 1830s–had they not, how different may life in northern Pakistan be today, without the leadership and development assistance of the Aga Khan?

The Aga Khan is, in one word, inspiring. What would it be like to be born and educated in Europe, to attend Harvard, and be a living Imam? A man of the twentieth century, and with the political burdens of public service, but also a descendent of Mohammed and a spiritual leader? I do not know as much as I would like to about the man, but could he have made any better use of his position?