CPEC-Cuisine enroute ! By Moneir Aslam

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Back in time an Army institution in one of the Pakistan cantonments, developed a beautiful park in the vast adjoining lands. They transformed a huge not too beautiful depression there into an artificial lake. Over the years someone thought of a moored wooden platform too. And then, a comfortable sitting area thereon to view the natural surroundings. Since refreshments and food enhance relaxation they commissioned a small kitchen close by. They the named this, open to all, arrangement as the Black Swan Restaurant.

In the 90s, an evening at the small Black Swan Restaurant was a delight for the clientele. Serenity, evening breeze, soft lighting and low background instrumental music. Barbequed offerings too. Beautiful goldfish and tortoise swimming lazily in the lake added to the magic of the enchanting evenings.

An officer, a Major, with the additional task of overseeing the park had an unusual report to contend with one fine morning. The abundant goldfish numbers in the lake were suddenly decreasing one of his staff reported. That was odd. No one fished there, humans, animals and birds included. No dead fish spotted either. The Major ordered discreet surveillance of the lake for clues. He had his answer soon. The accredited Chinese Trainers at the Institution housed at a barracks close by seemed to have taken a fancy to these exotic fish. Some of them would walk over to the water edge at night; turn a torchlight on to attract them. Throwing in some crumbs ensured easy handfuls of the prized catch.

The Major reported the matter to his Commandant, a Brigadier, and asked for permission to nab the culprits on their next foray. The seasoned Brigadier counseled restraint reminding him that Pakistan- China friendship was: “Higher than the Himalayas. Deeper than the oceans. Sweeter than honey.” He therefore invited the Trainers Head Mr. Wang over for Tea Break in his office. After exchange of pleasantries and tea, the Brigadier delicately inquired how his men were doing and whether they were satisfied with their lodgings and food.  Wang replied that they were being very well looked after. Did the weekly menu include sufficient quantity of fish the Brigadier delicately queried?  Wang nodded in the affirmative. After volunteering to increase the fish quantity, the Brigadier ever so delicately informed his guest that some of his men were denuding the lake of its ornamental fish.  Wang profusely apologized for the loss and assured that the fish need not fear for their lives henceforth.

Some days thereafter, the Major had another unusual report to contend with. The tortoise numbers were now decreasing his staff informed. Discreet surveillance ensued. By next morning he had his answer. The Chinese guests, it was observed, were using the same nighttime technique. But honoring  Wang’s word they wouldn’t scoop out the fish. They would patiently wait for the tortoise and then excitedly grab their favored delicacy out.

The Major dutifully reported the matter to the Brigadier who again invited Mr. Wang for Tea Break. In the diplomatic trapeze that followed over tea Wang was ever so helpful. But representing an over 8000 year old civilization he very politely explained that tortoise happen to have attained a culinary status that could not possibly guarantee them a large thriving population. Still, he would restrain his men from this culinary delight.

 The Major was back in the Commandants’ office some days down the road:” We have a problem, Sir”. The civilian Cook deputed for the Chinese had resigned. The Chinese it transpired had slaughtered a dog and kept it in the kitchen deep freezer. Steeped in the Muslim culture of Halal and Haram, this had disturbed the Cooks’ equilibrium. The good Brigadier did not opt for Tea Break diplomacy this time. He relied on pragmatism instead. He doubled the Cooks’ pay and instructed the Major to buy another deep freezer exclusively for whatever the Chinese preferred to store. After all, any number of stray dogs in the deep freezer meant that much number less for the Cantonment stray dog shooters to shoot.

Fish, tortoise, dogs and now to the present, the blessed China Pakistan Economic Corridor- CPEC for short is happening. The Pakistan component starting from the dizzying heights of Khunjerab Pass at 4693 meters ends 3000 kilometers down south at Gwadar Seaport. A path breaking convoy of Chinese goods has already successfully traversed the length and been shipped to distant shores. Such a long road journey needs regular stops for rest and food. The planners must have catered for the Rest/Service Areas for the Eastern, Western and the Central CPEC Routes. Did they, by any chance, spare a thought for the culinary preferences of the transiting friends? Fat chance! The awe on the unprecedented $51 billion investment bonanza is too intoxicating.

The Chinese, metaphorically speaking, can and do eat any and everything that moves, swims or flies depending on their medical beliefs. The usual rice, noodles and vegetables too. To the fish, tortoise and dogs we may add wild boars, rabbits, monkeys, frogs, snakes, scorpions and cockroaches. Or most birds, insects, animals and wildlife enroute. Considering the trade convoys, of an over 1.381 billion strong Chinese population, are going to be massive and unending 24/7, whatever wildlife species inhabit the length and breadths of CPEC will be fair game. A lot many local hosts will be more than happy to rewrite the fair definition of hospitality. The skills have been ruthlessly honed. Try asking the visiting endangered Houbara Bustard what they think of the Pakistanis when they are out pleasing the Arabs!

In a country where basic constitutional rights elude its hapless citizens, what hope can there be for the non human inhabitants. The Black Swan Restaurant Lake had some semblance of order. CPEC is an ungainly, impersonal and oblivious very long corridor narrowly focused on its core mission- conveying goods speedily. T he foreseeable future for the wildlife thereon and there under is unfortunately just –“cuisine enroute”! That translates into sure extinction for some if not all of them due to rampant over poaching. For this unthought-of, unheard and uncatered for wildlife, migration far away from the CPEC offers the only hope for survival. Someone try telling them this!

Lt Col Moneir Aslam (Retd) is a free lance writer.