Khewra, Rohtas & Islamabad Sat. 28 January – Sat. 4 February 2012
We finally left Lahore on Saturday heading to Islamabad via a couple of attractions on the way. First was the salt mine at Khewra. We started off on the very good M2 Lahore to Islamabad Freeway - an excellent road 6 lanes, no motorbikes (or cows!) like being in Europe. Khewra and the salt mine is 260 kms down the road. Luckily we'd done some research on-line and knew we were looking for the Lila Interchange - there was no sign for either Khewra or the mine on the freeway and we'd have gone sailing on towards Islamabad. It was an approximately 20km diversion to Khewra which quickly felt very different - approaching the salt ranges the terrain became hilly and desert-like an impression increased by the fact that camels seemed to be the most popular method of transport (as well as donkeys) and we saw them everywhere mainly loaded down with firewood -it's getting a bit chilly out here at night!
Moving a little bit off the tourist track we were receiving quite a few second looks, and before long we were pulled over by a police vehicle. This has now happened a few times -and I think we must look quite harmless as the conversations now follow an established pattern ..why are we here? "tourism" where are we from? "Australia" ..then we get a few comments about cricket (congratulation on beating India!) and are invited to take tea/lunch/dinner/ stay with them/attend their cousin's wedding etc. ..then allowed on our way! It pays to carry lots of copies of your passport/visa so you can dole them out!
By the time we arrived at the salt mine we had front and back (civilian) motor cycle escorts who'd insisted on taking us to our destination. We arrived at 3pm just about in time for the last tour ..cost was 850 PKR each -based on $10 USD -using a really old exchange rate ..which worked very much to our advantage so we didn't say anything! You could walk into the depths of the mine or ride on a train. The train was actually full but Andrew's snapped tendon came into its own once more and everyone squashed up to make room for us so we didn't have to hobble into the mine!
The mine was really quite incredible, and the 2nd largest in the world-first being one in Poland. Discovered by Alexander the Great -or really his horses who kept licking the salty ground - the mines date from around 300 BC. Since this date they have been mined by local Kings and the Mughals until the British got involved in 1872, increasing the operation and putting in the railway.
The mine has also operated as a tourist resort since 2002, and you can take a trip into the vast reception hall (over 250 feet high) and see a mosque and a copy of Lahore's Minar-i- Pakistan both built out of beautifully lit bricks of salt. There was also a mounted cannon dating from the British days -presumably to ward off salt thieves/invaders! There is also a post office inside, but sadly due to the power being down it wasn't working when we visited so we couldn't post a card from within the salt mines..shame.
We had a guided tour -being Saturday afternoon and right at the end of local school holidays there were a lot of us but we were the only foreigners so the guide did the tour spiel first in Urdu and then a second separate version just for us in English ..very impressive.
The tour took us through the main chambers, named after streets in Lahore "The Mall" "GT Road" ..past brine pools (dug by the Mughals centuries ago) and stunning crystal formations in the walls. Built on 19 levels (11 below the ground) and having a combined length of tunnels measuring 40 kilometers the mine now produces between 1200 and 1500 metric tons of salt daily. The salt is in various qualities from the top stuff which makes it to your table after refinement, to poorer quality stuff used as soda ash to make washing powder and for other chemical processes, presumably why ICI has a huge plant in town.
The salt is in a variety of colours from white, to pink to red -which looks stunning when lit up. The temperature within the mine remains a constant 18 degrees year round ..which felt pleasantly warm on a chilly January day - but would I imagine be a relief in the searing heat of the summer.
They make a lot of salt artifacts -candleholders, paperweights and we bought a really nice lamp made of a natural red rock of salt which glows when lit up..hope it survives the journey!
In the early 20th century a hospital for the workers and their families was established out here but in 2007 the medical facilities were expanded to include a clinic for asthma sufferers. Apparently in Russia it was noticed that amongst salt workers who were also asthma sufferers after a period of working in the mines (a bit contrary to what you'd think?) their asthma improved dramatically. Maybe to do with the salt extracting the moisture I guess?? -anyway salt treatment places for Asthma now apparently exist in Europe and there is a special resort here in Khewra which offers a treatment course. For 10 days you spend 11 hours a day in a special chamber of the mine, and the nights at a nearby hospital/resort type place. I couldn't find out how much it was to stay in the hospital but the cost of 10 days treatment is 6,000 PKR which equates to about $62 Aus. …so I would guess way cheaper than Europe! Don't know quite what you'd do in Khewra for such a long time through ..I guess bring a good book or 10!
By the time we had finished it was early evening and we wandered around looking at the sun setting across the salt ranges and the old crumbling British administration buildings. We went to the guy at the ticket office and asked if we could stay the night. There was one hotel there -but it was quite pricey for us at 1500 PKR ($15.50 Aus.) so we asked if we could just car-camp. He made a phone call and confirmed that yes we could and that there would be a security man on all night. We were also informed that the canteen shut at 7pm so we should get our dinner order in by 6.30pm….all good.
We sat to read our books in the last of the sun ..only we didn't get much reading done! The mines are a big venue for school/college trips and we were constantly accosted by students wanting to talk to us and have their photo taken with us…repeatedly! All very friendly. Some of the people here are very aware of the bad press they have overseas, and we are constantly asked to tell people from "your country" that Pakistanis are very welcoming and "not terrorists." The Muslim hospitality here as elsewhere is very full on and people always want to feed us..which can slow progress!
So,..as 6.30pm approached we went to order dinner as arranged only to find that the canteen was in the process of shutting! Worse the security man had arrived and was adamant that we couldn't camp. Of course the man who'd given permission had since left and wasn't answering his mobile. No one else left could speak much English and we had to rely on a Pakistani guest at the hotel to translate. They were immovable we were told to go back to town and "contact your Embassy" ….whatever!
We've had this reaction from security men types a few times in India -they rarely mean to be unkind ..they're just scared of getting in trouble from their seniors for doing the wrong thing so they opt out ..life is very hierarchical in this part of the world and "lower ranks" are often terrified to stick their necks out and make a decision.
Eventually we realized that we were getting nowhere so headed back to town. We stopped at the only other option a Guest House -which looked a bit shut up ..maybe used for visiting officials rather than the public at large. The man there seemed to almost be expecting us..maybe word had spread??
He whisked us across the road to the "Institute of Surveying" a sort of college building where we were made welcome to park the night. There was 24 hour security there - though the security man spoke no English. We had a local meal at a stall (chicken curry and naan bread) and had an early night. Apparently we had visitors in the night -I slept through it but Andrew reported next morning that we'd had an irate policeman marching around the car and banging on about "permission" and "Islamabad" to the poor security man! Don't know how they knew we were there as we were safely shut in behind a wall…maybe the "job's worth" up at the salt mine dobbed us in!
So, back on the road again. On the way out we stopped off to get the car washed at a truck washing area. The decoration of trucks (and auto rickshaws and tractors) here in Pakistan is a fine art …our car with all our sponsors' stickers usually looks quite jazzy but we felt positively drab in this company! We plan to go and visit one of the truck decoration markets at a later date and maybe we'll get a bit of "work done"!
The drivers were all really friendly and competed to give us guided tours of their trucks -smothered in fine artwork, some even inside the cabs. Whilst there waiting our turn for a wash there were trucks coming and going loading up with stacks of salt..either going to Pakistan's major cities, across the Wagah border to India or down to Karachi from where it is shipped overseas- big business!
We took the scenic route to connect back to the M2 rather than heading back on ourselves and the road wound through agricultural villages and desert landscapes - all very attractive.
Next stop Rohtas Fort is about 100km short of Islamabad and 12 kms off the main road..thankfully there was a sign this time though only one so I was very lucky not to miss it. We had been in 2 minds about whether we'd stop here as it was reaching mid afternoon by the time we got to the turn off and we had planned to reach Islamabad that evening, and after all, on our trip to date we have seen a hell of a lot of forts.
In the end we were so glad we did make the effort -it was really impressive and apparently the largest stone fort in Asia. Built in 1543 by an Afghani ruler Sher Shah Suri the imposing fort was built to serve 2 purposes -to ward off the Mughal hordes and restrict their invasion route from Peshawar to Lahore, and to hold off the local war-like Gakhar tribes. A very imposing structure it no doubt did this well -until the late 16th century when Akbar established his fort at Attock north of Islamabad and it was left empty.
The fort shows a marrying up of local Pashtun and Hindu styles some of the work being done by Man Singh (he lived in the impressive haveli the fort's highest point) a General in Akbar's army whose palace we had visited in Jaipur. He was a Hindu so as well as a mosque the fort area has a small Hindu temple, now fairly derelict but with some evidence remaining of the once beautiful art work.
The fort is now fairly ruined though the impressive outer wall with its 12 gates is well preserved - what is amazing is the sheer size of the compound -at one time the fort housed 30,000 troops!
Set in a hilly area with the Kahan river below it would certainly have been a tough fort to attack ..with the arrow holes and channels for pouring hot oil down onto invaders making it harder still. Built into the walls were pigeon lofts which acted as a security system to rouse the guards if an invading army approached.
We had a guided tour with a knowledgeable local, and it was pretty atmospheric to wander around in the fading sunlight. The mosque had some original well preserved stone carvings of verses of the Quran, and there was an execution block where there was a hole for the unfortunate victims to drop through after hanging.
As ever we had frequent photo calls ..in the one pictured the baby was plonked on me without warning ..think we were similarly unimpressed ..just after the picture was taken he started bawling! It was starting to get dark by now so our guide Mr. Ali suggested that we stay the night at the local archaeological office. After the problems of the night before we said pretty strongly we'd like to speak to them first to be 100% sure it was all ok.
So we met Mr. Khalid Mehmood Sarwar an Anthropological Engineer (I think that's right) who has studied the fort for years. We were made extremely welcome by him and his colleagues and invited at once to drive our car into their compound "outside is for ordinary visitors but you are our special guests." They did take a copy of our passports and ring to tell the local police that we were there which was a relief-we didn't want another nocturnal visit!
That night they couldn't have made us more welcome -opening up a room so we could have a hot shower and serving us lovely Kashmiri tea. We went with Mr. Ali to his daughter's house for dinner. Mr. Ali has 6 daughters and 3 sons - they all have huge families here and our childlessness is treated with horror/dismay. His eldest daughter is married with one child and we enjoyed a meal she and her sisters cooked for us on their open fire, chicken in spices and naan bread -delicious. Then we went back and sat with Mr. Ali, Mr. Khalid and various colleagues by the fire, whilst he told us about the various ancient wonders in Pakistan. We had a great night's sleep -thanks so much to all of them for making us so welcome and especially to Mr. Ali and family for a delicious meal.
Next morning Mr. Khalid showed us a documentary about the fort (he starred!) and arranged for 2 of his staff to show us around the bits of the fort we'd missed -mainly the impressive deep step wells which were incredibly ahead of their time, and ensured that the fort had fresh water year round.
They also opened the museum on the top of one of the gates for us. This is a bit of a work in progress not yet open to the public so we were honoured to be shown around and up onto the gate roof top from where we had a fantastic view over the surrounding area.
It's nice that the outer areas of the fort are still "living" with local villagers still herding goats, getting water and chopping wood around the site like they no doubt have done for centuries.
As mentioned before you don't see many dogs here in Pakistan compared with neighbouring India but this area was an exception -they were everywhere - all wearing collars and actually looking like they belonged to people -rather than being strays. The reason became clear next day when we saw a big "pig hunt" going after the local wild boar setting off -it's a popular sport here and good hunting dogs are very much prized.
Before leaving we had another cup of lemon grass tea -a local speciality only made at this time of year - and enjoyed some pakoras. These small pieces of vegetable are dipped in chick pea flour batter and deep fried -no doubt bad for you but really tasty! Before leaving Mr. Khalid provided us with the names and addresses of colleagues of his at museums around the country and a colleague of his Mr. Mina Riaz Ahmed Pirzada also very kindly gifted us a signed copy of his book "Magnificent Rohtas Fort." Thanks so much to all of you you really looked after us so well. The fort's definitely worth a stopover between Lahore and Islamabad.
We drove the final hour or so to Islamabad without any hassle, an easy road and some old British architecture (and new British soccer teams!) on the way!
We headed straight to the Foreigners' Camp Site. We'd heard about this from other overlanders and it was as good as they said -admittedly it is now a bit chilly for camping (perhaps why we have the place to ourselves) but on our trip this is the first designated "proper" camp site - with a kitchen, powered sites a toilet and shower block and 24 hour security all for just 100 PK (just over $1 Aus.) a night..incredible!
Architects take note when planning cities -this is a truly fantastic inclusion. www.islamabad-overland.com The usual Guard was also very nice -though sadly he was away a fair bit and was then replaced by the one in our picture who was as scary as he looks! Service declined during these times!
Islamabad is "a city of two halves" neighbouring Rawalpindi "Pindi" is the old chaotic part whereas Islamabad proper 15 kms away is very modern and planned - a bit like Chandigarh in India or Canberra in Australia, I guess all planned cities are fairly similar.
The camp site is located in a fairly rural area called Shakarparian to the south of the city next to the Rose & Jasmine garden and near a few clubs (riding, golf, shooting) and a sports stadium.
The City is laid out in sectors /grids again like Chandigarh so it's pretty easy to find your way around. So far we've mainly ventured into F6 and F7 - the nice residential /shopping areas where the tourist information and good shops/restaurants are to be found. The tourist information here in Pakistan is very good with clear maps and information in well put together booklets of each area. Zahid the tourist guy at Wagah was also really good, but the guys here in Islamabad were awful -they weren't particularly friendly and getting information was like getting blood out of a stone. When we got in they completely ignored us and just sat chatting together so we sat for 5 minutes thinking they were also visitors! Andrew reckoned they were shy ..if so maybe they're in the wrong job!
The shops at F6 had a superb cluster of old and secondhand book shops -my favourite sort of shopping! There is a huge refugee community of Afghanis here (over 3 million officially, probably more) and there were many shops selling Afghani handicrafts - carpets, cushions, carved cupboards - really nice stuff. Unsurprisingly a lot of Afghani artifacts can be found in the markets at Peshawar the town on the border with Afghanistan so we'll have a look up there.
In Sector F7 we went to the renowned Afghani restaurant "Kabul Restaurant" -which is an Islamabad institution and a great spot -though maybe not if you're a vegetarian! We ate a large helping of lamb and chicken kebabs with naan bread and washed it down with green tea -very good …if a bit of a protein overload! www.kabulrestaurant.net
Out and about in these upmarket areas you do see a few kids begging /selling stuff -but nowhere near the same level as at a similar place in India. As an initial impression there seems to be less inequality here than in India - yes slums exist as do huge mansions -but there seem to be a lot more people somewhere in the middle. This is just a first impression -guess we've not really explored enough to know for sure.
Luckily the tourist camp site is very near to Toyota Islamabad and we went in to say hello, and met the GM Mr. Aman Mirza. Very kindly they took care of our oil change and changed our filters for no charge. They also have a good customer lounge with free Wi-Fi!! Thanks guys we really appreciate your help. www.toyotaislamabad.com
The guys at Toyota also pointed us in the right direction for a welder to make up our snow chains. We first got the chains organized way back in Delhi , and had planned to get them made up before venturing back to Ladakh -but then we couldn't get our Pakistan visa from India and had to retreat to Sri lanka so plans changed. Depending on the weather we hope to drive at least some part of the KKH (Karakorum Highway) so thought that it would be prudent to have them on board.
On our visits to various Toyotas in India we'd seen the "Design Your Dream Car" contest. You design your dream car and the winner gets to fly to Tokyo to see it being built. Andrew was all gung ho about entering before he read the small print and saw you had to be under 16! Anyway we happened to be in Toyota Islamabad on the day the Pakistan finalists were being shown around the workshop -quite a few girls we were impressed to see! Good luck to all of them in the international level competition- over 80 countries are involved.
When not in Toyota we've done a bit of tourist stuff. We drove out to the Daman-e-Koh lookout in the Margalla Hills National Park. This lovely National Park with walking trails is just outside the city centre (as we said a well-planned city this - parks and picnic areas abound) and the lookout has great views over the city -though it was a bit foggy and overcast when we visited.
Never mind we had a coffee at "Diana Terrace" officially opened by the late Princess of Wales in the early 90s,and fed the tribes of Mongeese gartered below. We only had some old naan to give them (kindly provided by the restaurant) and they were most put out.. no doubt waiting for the BBQ meat left overs the restaurant gives them in the evenings! They looked different to the Indian ones with red heads and grey bodies.
The lookout gave us a reasonable view of our next stop the Shah Faisal Mosque. Built between 1976 and 1986 the phenomenal cost (about $120 Million in today's vales) was a gift from King Faisal of Saudi Arabia -no doubt why both the mosque and the avenue leading up to it are named after him. The design is supposed to represent a tent. It is an impressive construction much bigger close up than you realize from afar -each minaret tower being 88 metres.
Supposedly the CIA demanded a closer inspection of them fearing they were actually missiles though that could be an urban myth! Whilst very impressive I wasn't blown away by it - maybe on a sunny day with the light pattering the areas around and the fountains working it'd be different - I thought it was a bit full of concrete and not as nice as other mosques we'd seen. Andrew was blown away by the building techniques so maybe I'm being harsh. I didn't know why he was laughing taking that picture of me, with the crescent moon on the roof giving me devil's horn!
We then saw the National Monument up past our camp site -though the signage wasn't great (not in English anyway) so we drove up and down missing it a few times! Completed in 2006 the Monument is pretty impressive and again has great views down over the city. The monument is built in red granite with the 4 petals representing the provinces and the 3 smaller petals the 3 territories of Pakistan. Inside the petals there are detailed carvings depicting famous places/people in Pakistan's history. We weren't feeling too cultural so gave the museum a miss (saving 500 PKR!) and had a wander around the gardens instead.
The next day (Friday 3 February) the weather really took a change for the worse and we got a chill wind and constant drizzle… not great camping weather, especially when the hot water system got inadvertently turned off -no hot showers! We dodged the weather by going into the Lok Virsa Museum just down the road. When we got there it was shut for an hour due to a power outage (an ongoing event here everyone just gets on with it and works around them) so we sheltered from the rain looking around some of the handicraft shops. A lot were shut due to the weather but there was some lovely stuff on show, lapis jewelry from the northern regions bordering Afghanistan, beautiful hand-woven shawls from the Hunza region. All really nice but we don't have much budget for souvenirs so we just got some handmade spoons made from apricot wood and a bag of dried apricots -both from Hunza. It's supposed to be very beautiful up there maybe we'll get that far up the KKH -see how the weather goes -it's snowing there now.
The museum was interesting though we could have done with more signs in English, and better light as literally and figuratively we were in the dark a fair bit! The displays, showing the huge cultural diversity to be found here were beautiful showing jewelry, costumes and art from around the country -sadly no pictures allowed.
It's Saturday 4th of February as I write and I'm back at Toyota "interneting" whilst Andrew finishes off our snow chains. We plan to visit the Sunday Bazaar near to the camp ground tomorrow (as long as it's not rained off!) and then on Monday we head on towards the North West Frontier's (NWF) capital of Peshawar, stopping first at Taxila a "must see" archaeological site with allegedly the world's best collection of Gandhara Buddhist art.
We attended the "Sunday Bazaar" but it was cancelled due to the Prophet's Birthday -which there were lots of streamers/ floats and men waving green flags to celebrate! Ah well. It was also "Kashmiri day" -where Pakistan showed her support for " our brothers & sisters in India -Occupied Kashmir."