On my return to Islamabad I had the chance to catch up with a Jon Boone. Jon is working in Islamabad as a journalist for the Guardian newspaper in the UK. Jon had been based in Afghanistan for a number of years and was now covering Pakistan. My arrival was just as the Pakistan Taliban announced a new leader, in response to the drone killing of their former leader by the US a few days earlier. It was interesting to see him in action of our plans for the evening changed as he got the call from London to cover the story. I sat in his lounge watching the story unfold as Jon was submitting his piece to the Guardian.
That evening we went round to his friend Jasper’s to hang out with a bunch of journalists, NGO workers, diplomats and political advisers. It was an interesting evening that gave me a little insight to how Islamabad works, for the ex-pats at least. Sarah Adeel ran was one of the NGO’s called lettucebeekids.com. It’s goal was to support young homeless kids in Islamabad. After my visit to the Salaam Baalak Trust in Delhi it was great to hear these organisations were operating here in Pakistan as well. Keep up the good work Sarah!
Streets of Rawalpindi
The following day I went for a drive around Rawalpindi. This is more of a traditional Pakistani city compared to Islamabad. Pindi is a sprawling masses of people, roads, alleys and market areas. Whereas Islamabad is a town planners dream with all the roads parallel to each other and numbered rather than named. Pindi definitely had more colour and character about it.
Back at Tariq’s place in the countryside I just enjoyed the beautiful location as the sun set that evening. The moon finally reappeared and was complimented by the fading glow from the sun. Solar powered lights on the patio gave the location a serene beauty. It was such a great place to relax with friends. Tariq had been a wonderful host but it was time to say farewell.
Sunset at Tariq’s place
3 Wise Men – Tariq, Tosef & Uncle Tariq
Tariq & friends say farewell
I returned along the Grand Trunk road from Islamabad to Lahore. On the way I caught up with the legendary Mansoor Azam. Manzoor had been a key player in helping to arrange my safe travel and accommodation up the KKH. I hadn’t even heard of him until I started getting texts half up the KKH telling me I could stay at his cousin’s place. Turned out he was a friend of Moin’s and had offered to help out. We met near Jhelum where he improved his legendary status even more by buying me lunch and offering to help out anyway he could for the rest of my journey. I was fast learning that this sort of hospitality was common in Pakistan.
Lunch with Manzoor
Sunset over the canal
(Near Hafizabad, Pakistan)
Sunset off the beaten track
(Near Hafizabad, Pakistan)
What was meant to be a straightforward drive to Lahore changed quickly when the local police closed the GT road entering the city of Gujranwala, because of reported shootings. That meant a two-hour detour through the countryside to the M2 motorway. It was a slow going due to rubbish roads but fun at the same time. I got to see a few villages and watch the bemused looks on the locals faces as I trundled past giving them my big white westerner smile and the royal wave I’d been perfecting since I left Europe.
I eventually made it to Lahore in time to get changed and head out on the town with Moin, and his mates Mujtaba and Ali. Mahmood from Islamabad (who I’d meet with Jon Boone) was also in town so he joined us too. We went to the famous Cooco’s Den restaurant in the old city, overlooking the Badshahi mosque. After dinner we popped next door to Andaaz for desert and so Moin could fly his quad-copter (with fitted GoPro camera) around the neighbourhood, and into the grounds of the mosque next door!! Boys with their toys. I was ever so slightly jealous. It was a load of fun. We finished the evening with some poker and drinks around at Ali’s brothers house. Just a standard Saturday night in Lahore really. I even managed to leave the poker table all square.
Moin’s fan club at Cooco’s. Moin (on the far left) is quite famous I’ll have you know.
Moin and his quad-copter
Food Street beside Badshahi Mosque
Sunday as a result was quite slow. Mostly, it was hanging with the Zafar family showing them my pictures of the Karakoram Highway and my latest expedition video, That’s What It’s All About, People (click here to watch). The rest of the day was spent sleeping.
Monday was the big day for applying for my Iranian visa. Months of changing and tweaking plans in response to the changing circumstances in Iran (as a result of the recent elections) meant I this was the one big visa I need to sort in person. Armed with my application form and authorisation code I headed to the consulate to apply. It was meant to be a formality I was assured. Alas I was once again in for a surprise. First up I had to fill in a new application as they didn’t accept the British version in Pakistan. Then I was told I had to get an official fingerprinting form completed. How do I do that? I asked. You need to go see the SSP (Police) over on Mall Road. Right. What is their address? It’s on Mall Road. Just ask someone. It’s easy to find. Yeah right, I’d heard that before.
Too cut a long story short it took an hour and a half just to find the right location after bouncing around the city. Once inside the Inspector General of Police building, I found the fingerprint guys who said no problem. You just have to pay 1000 rupees and provide us with your passport AND a national identity card. After a mild panic over the national identity card requirement, they accepted my UK drivers license. Then I had to run to the bank to pay the 1000 rupee fee and get a receipt, because they didn’t accept the cash on site. Arggh!! And race back before they closed for the day around 4pm. I was duly finger printed and sent on my way. Phew, what a day! I should at least be thankful the Iranian consulate didn’t make me do the medical everybody else was doing!!
Fingerprinted and Processed
Old Town Lahore
Gates of the Old Town
Old Lahore Fort
The following day I headed back to the consulate to deliver my fingerprint form and pay my $200 visa fee. Come back at 4.30pm on Wednesday and it will be ready for you, they said. Righto then. With the rest of the day free I headed into the city to look around. I walked along the Mall road and then through the old town to the fort, Minar-i-Pakistan and the Badshahi mosque. On the way back I wandered into a different area of the old city and was promptly questioned and asked to leave. This was due to heightened security leading up to the two-day religious festival of Muharram. There was an air of suspicion around me as I left. The friendly stares were gone and I could feel all the eyes on me. I wandered off to main road and back into town. Muharram runs for a two days in the first month of Islamic calendar as a remembrance for the death of the Prophet Muhammad’s two grandsons. The Shia sect of Islam conduct big processions during these days and they have often be targets for terrorist attacks. The whole of Pakistan was on edge as a result. My carefree, happy-go-lucky attitude wasn’t going to help me talk my way through this area.
After this I decided it was time to head home. While trying to give an auto driver directions (something that is impossible, as Pakistani’s are rubbish at directions, even when you show them a map!!), Tony the friendly local stopped to help and ended up offering to give me a lift home on his bike. I said sure, as I shrugged at the poor auto driver you had just seen his fare evaporate in front of him. We sped off along the roads and after a few stops (Tony’s poor bike was struggling and kept cutting out as we were riding along the main canal road) I was home. Top chap!!
On Wednesday I picked up my Iranian Visa as planned (I was very happy) and prepared for my departure the next day. It was time to get back on the road. The next challenge was to drive across southern Pakistan through the volatile Baluchistan region. More specifically Quetta, the site of several terrorist attacks this year, which was going to be the area of most concern. Everything just needed to go as planned for the next seven days and I’d be in safely in Iran.
Lahore is a classic city. Old forts, large mosques, great monuments, excellent restaurants and a vibrant outgoing attitude (unless there is a major religious festival that has been targeted by terrorists in the past). It’s what you would expect from a big cosmopolitan city with a rich history. There was loads to see and do. Personally I like just wandering the streets watch the world go by. Lahore was perfect for this.
Islamabad / Rawalpindi are two big contrasting cities. One new and focused around the government, in Islamabad. Where security is understandably high and official government business is the name of the game. However it lacks the character of Rawalpindi which is a hive of activity with markets and people everywhere. I enjoyed my stay at Tariq’s house just outside Islamabad. It showed me a relaxed and scenic side to the hectic region, that made the most of the natural beauty on Islamabad’s doorstep.