Murree Islamabad & Lahore     Tuesday 28 February to Saturday 24 March 2012

We spent the next few days back in Islamabad adjusting to the temperatures which felt positively balmy when cf with what we'd been through. So it was back to the camp ground, Toyota and of course Kabul's restaurant for a meat hit ..all the old favourites!

 

Whilst not as bad as India in this regard there are a few beggars here and we often see a gang of kids who operate around the posher restaurants in sectors F6 and F7.  One little boy is missing a leg from a road traffic accident and we've got a guess how it happened. Along the freeway kids  line up, wipers in hand offering a  windscreen cleaning service. They  sprint across the road dodging traffic to hurl themselves at your windscreen if you slow down, just to get a few rupees.  We'd pulled over to read our map when this  girl appeared so we let her clean it in safety!

 

From Islamabad we took an overnight trip up to Murree a British established hill station just under 50km to the north. Whilst we knew it wouldn't be a patch on the KKH for scenery (and some of our wealthier Pakistani friends had put it down as a bit scruffy) we were interested to have a quick look as I do like a hill station.  Must be the old colonial in me!

Anyway it was a good drive up, though we had a bit of a smile at some of the warning signs as this nice road climbing up through the forested ridges felt like a stroll in the park after the rigors of the KKH! We hit the shops just before town as several entrepreneurial tradesmen had lined the road with scarves so you saw their wares before hitting the markets in town.

 

Built by the British as an administrative centre in order to escape the heat of the summer Murree is now a real tourist town, mainly domestic we didn't see any other foreigners. Sadly  they're a bit more money grabbing here and you have to bargain hard i.e.) they tried to charge us 400 PKR to park, after a struggle we  got them down to 100. We later found out 20 PKR was the proper rate!

 

 It's actually a nice little town with a great many hotels (all filled  to capacity in the steamy summer months particularly at the weekend, prices rise sky high then) and lots of the usual hill station tourist stuff, e.g.) bazaars selling lots of tat, pony rides, birds of prey you can  be pictured with etc.

You can gaze out from Murree into the mountain ranges of Kashmir  so there were quite a few Kashmiris about ..always good salespeople! It's also a real army base, you walk through the Cantonments all the time. We noticed that like Mount Abu in India they had those bizarre little pram -like things to push you along in if walking gets to be  too much. Ok for kids or luggage, but as in India we also witnessed a few rather large tourists being pushed along by frail little old men..we wondered how they had the nerve!

 

We took a chairlift to a viewpoint and back. This was actually a bit scary for me. I've never been skiing so never ridden a ski lift and as we disembarked I  followed Andrew to my right rather than turning left which I now understand is protocol in these situations.. they all screamed at me and I wasn't sure what I was doing wrong and narrowly missed being hooked and pulled back up by the seat of my pants!

 

I also didn't like the creaking as the thing went up. I'm sure it must have been  safe but I was pretty glad to get down! Having more or less exhausted Murree's delights we took a drive out to Bhurban about 10km away.

 

There are a great many  little resorts in this area, but Bhurban is the place to stay, having a quieter more refined  ambience and amazing views. Of course the only place to stay is the very upmarket Pearl Continental Hotel which I guess keeps the refinement level up there -it's out of most people's price range! We decided to go in to see their renowned view, and Andrew had hopes we might be allowed to camp in their huge car park  though I had my doubts.

 

Getting in was more of a palaver than crossing most borders. We had mirrors under the car, a real cute sniffer dogs and a swarm of armed security men. Our car was  a particular focus of attention and the Rangerovers/Landcruisers queuing up behind were getting a bit impatient and were on their horns by the time we were finally waved through! I think they get a lot of bigwigs (politicians et al) here hence the OTT approach to security. There was an airport security type of machine which my bag was put through before being labelled as scanned and then we went through a beeper machine.

 

Finally we were in! It was all very swish and we sat in the coffee shop on the terrace and had tea and chocolate cake whilst we gazed out towards Kashmir .. it was a great view.  Unsurprisingly in my view the Manager said a bit snottily that they couldn't possibly allow us to camp there in view "the security situation" ..despite all our thorough checking!

We drove back to Murree where it was now getting dark and camped at the less grand Hotel Grand Heights. We agreed to eat our meals there as payment for letting us park -we were the only guests - and as is the norm with Pakistani food it was a bit oily for our tastes. Then, when we went to leave the next day they tried to charge us 500 PKR for parking which was a bit cheeky. Like I said a bit more money grabbing up here!

 

Murree isn't a match on the "real " mountains but it is a pleasant little city escape from Islamabad and must be heaven in the searing heat of the summer. On the road back we came across a parade with musicians and a lot of decorated camels.

 

There was a group of men who were all dancing/singing and soon collected a crowd. No one could tell us what it all was, and as it is wedding season I wondered if the dressed up camels were going to the groom's house as a form of dowry?? No one we asked later knew either, though someone suggested they were just travelling entertainers but if so it's weird that whilst they were happy for us to take pictures they never asked for money.

 

Back in Islamabad we had a nice surprise ..company in the campsite.  Sven from Germany had cycled all the way here…a real overlander! Sadly he'd had a bad experience recently down in Sindh when his backpack was stolen with all his belongings. To his credit he remained very upbeat about it all "far less weight to carry now." He was in Islamabad sorting out his replacement passport/ visa etc. It  was great to meet him and swap travellers' tales.

 

So back to Lahore. We hit the city early evening and it  felt very warm ..the temperatures here have  climbed to early/mid 20s and it's the first time we've shed our coats in what feels like forever.

 

Getting back to Lahore Backpackers really felt like coming home. Vanessa our Chinese friend was there which was a lovely surprise. She was actually up in Peshawar with Katherine when her and Soliman were killed which must have been horrific. It was sad going back to where we'd met Katherine and her absence was really felt by everyone there. All of us are still greatly saddened by that appalling news. 

 

Meanwhile, life goes on and  Sajjad the Manager had just been blessed with the arrival of his first child a son so it felt good to have something to celebrate. The backpackers is quite multicultural at the moment with guests from Germany, Holland, China and even Iran …the latter a good source of info for our trip to come.

 

We have already spent a week  in Lahore doing our chores (washing, website, and car maintenance!) and a bit of sightseeing.  

 

We enjoyed wandering around the old city -as ever a colourful kaleidoscope of ladyboys, crumbling havelis and bazaars. I just read "The Dancing Girls of Lahore" by Louise Brown, a study of the Heera Mandi red light area in the old city, and it really brings it to life -a great read, recommended as a backdrop to visiting the city.

 

One evening asking directions we  met Jawad a nice guy who lives and works playing cricket (every little boys dream here!) in Bradford UK.

 

He is currently playing domestic cricket here for the UK's off  season and after our chance meeting he invited us for dinner and to see him play (they won) at Gaddafi stadium the next day.  Thanks to Jawad and friends for dinner and for gifting Andrew his team t-shirt, which is already getting some usage!

 

Last Sunday sitting in the sun on the roof terrace,  we figured  out that something was going on when we saw a lot of banners  going up, "Welcome to our Turkish brother" "Turkey is our ally" etc. and we heard that the Mayor of Istanbul  was visiting and scheduled  to drive by.

 

The crowd grew throughout the afternoon, both bused  in and brought in by tractor, presumably from rural areas. We asked one man who was visiting  but he didn't know and was just focusing on the free meal promised! A bit of a "rent a crowd" they all dispersed the second he'd zoomed by, surrounded by a police escort. Hope dinner was good!  On a bright (literally!) note the usual 8pm to 10pm power outage was canned in his honour, so he wouldn't be plunged into darkness enroute so we had something to be grateful to our "Turkish brother" for!

 

Next day we headed to the Shalimar Gardens just out of town, where, by coincidence the Mayor had also just visited  (the flags strewn about were a giveaway!)  Built by Shah Jahan in the 17th  century this Mughal garden is now a bit faded but you can see remnants of its former glory. It was very similar in design to other Mughal gardens we've seen, and unsurprisingly  the red sandstone and marble had come from India.

 

The King sat on a throne whilst he was entertained by dancing girls from a stage in the middle of the water and musicians from the sides. With thousands of scented candles it must once have been very lovely. An early tourist William Moorcroft stayed here in the 1800s as the personal guest of the current ruler (Maharaja Ranjit Singh) and he even built him his own little house within the gardens! That was the time to be a traveller- never mind asking to park!   

 

Mind you you certainly can't fault the hospitality here now, you are often forced to come and have tea /ice cream whenever you try and go anywhere whether you want it or not!  Maybe that's whilst why our stay here is so long, nothing ever gets done and you spend most waking hours in tea shops!

 

On the way back we stopped at a couple of tombs, one for a brickermaker(?) and his wife but one very ornate one for Shah Jahan's nanny, a nice thought. Whilst it wasn't really being looked after, and sadly there was a bit of graffiti  the original art work was still really good.

 

 

The photo on the right is in a similar style but is in the middle of the mall. Centre is a copy of the Quran ..can't get closer due to a great deal of barb wire!

 

Today (Wednesday 14th March) we plan to go to the Lahore Zoo not far from where we're staying Usually we  avoid these like the plague, particularly in Asia but we've heard this one is ok, the animals look well cared for and there are  gorgeous gardens so we might take a look. In the next day or so we head south towards our next destination the historical city of Multan.

Update Thursday  16th March 2012:

The zoo was actually pretty impressive. It was founded by the British back in 1872 and is thus one of the oldest zoos in Asia. Whilst I'd rather see animals in the wild I had to admit the conditions were pretty good, the animals looked sleek and healthy and the gardens were pretty nice too ..all in all a bargain afternoon at just 15 PKR about 15 cents Aussie.

 

We actually felt like zoo exhibits ourselves generating a fair bit of attention and quite a few photos in our own right. This impression was heightened when we overheard one lady say to her companions "look over there…2 foreigners wandering free!"

 

The white tigers were particularly gorgeous, as were all the birds..spring was in the air and all the peacocks were strutting their stuff and we got treated to literally dozens of displays of finery.  In patriotic spirit we made a real point of hunting out the wallabies …but only found a lone wallaby! Poor thing they're usually herd animals and he looked a bit lonely ..perhaps we should get Taronga zoo in Sydney to send him out a friend or 2. 

 

The other highlight was the "elephant simulator" ride which  gives you the elephant riding experience  without the elephant..sadly our picture of this didn't come out for some reason!

 

 

Lahore is renowned for its street food, and as well as a few great cooked meals at the backpackers we've ventured out to taste the local cuisine. We had a bit of a shock in Laxmi Chowk though, when we encountered a local specialty ..sheeps' testicles ..no thanks! Just to prove how fresh it all is the sheep (live) are sitting patiently on the pavement next to the food stalls. Mercifully we never saw one prepared.  We chickened out and had  chicken kebabs instead.

 

The only other bit of excitement was going to the posh Pearl Continental Hotel. Whilst the vintage Rolls Royce in reception and the swish inside shopping mall were impressive we were interested in the back shed!   We'd heard rumours ..which were found to be true ..that we could purchase alcohol here from the bottle shop without going to the extensive faff of getting an alcohol permit.  It felt a bit like we were doing something dirty we were directed to the rear of the building and ushered into a shed where we were able to buy Murree Beer! Established by the Brits in the 1800s the Murree  Brewery http://www.murreebrewery.com/ has mainly diversified to make soft drinks, but it does make some alcohol for export and for foreigners (i.e. non -Muslims ) who are allowed to drink in private.  So ..we smuggled it home and had it in our room. It seemed very strong ..but maybe that's after a couple of months' abstinence!  The last one  for a while I think ..the laws are even stricter in Iran our next country and alcohol is  a real no no!

 

 

The next morning we  had intended  to leave Lahore,  but both of us went down with our respective lurgies,  Andrew a bad stomach and me a sore throat (neither alcohol related!) so we've taken it easy for a day and   plan to finally leave Lahore tomorrow….or the next day!

Update 23rd March 2012:

Amazingly we're still in Lahore! This is mainly due to Andrew having somehow picked up the stomach bug from hell, making it hard for him to contemplate driving long distances but also, to be honest, because we really like Lahore and particularly the backpackers where we've met a lot of interesting people, overlanders other travellers, and sometimes lady boys!

 

Like the Hijras in India the lady boys form their own sector of society. They live from entertaining (some are apparently really good dancers) prostitution and begging. Sajjad who runs the backpackers knows many of them from when he helped an American journalist who was writing a book about them, so when some came visiting we took the opportunity to talk to them (Sajjad interpreted) about their somewhat tough lives. Fascinating.

 

Ko Nagai and Hideki Yamamoto are the first Japanese overlanders we've met, driving their 1968 Datsun from London back to Japan -see their trip on www.tripline.net./datsun/    In addition Mark from England and Roman from Switzerland both of whom we met in Goa over new year -see our last India page- also arrived in Lahore enroute to China via the KKH.

 

The shop keepers  below the backpackers  must wonder what the hell is up-4 foreign vehicles in the laneway!

 

Most mornings involve a lot of jostling around of vehicles so that everyone can set up their stalls/open their shops. You have to be careful where you park as, as  I think I mentioned before, the police take a tough approach to parking violations and you're likely to just find your car picked up and unceremoniously dumped elsewhere ..then you have to negotiate a fine to get it back. A tough approach but it does work, you really think about where you're going to park!

 

Soon after their arrival Mark, Roman and Andrew all headed off to the car markets to shop around for spare parts - I get a bit over this having already been a couple of times so I was happy to opt out of this one.  The car markets at Balal Gunj are massive, employing numerous people and thus having a host of "support workers' providing food for them. As ever Muslim hospitality was at the forefront and Andrew got pressed to drink a special drink which is allegedly "very good for stomach." Hopefully it doesn't have the opposite effect!  We saw some  (parts of ) cars with NSW plates  Apparently they buy smashed up cars in bulk from overseas to utilize the parts,  but also (we later found out) the area is  renowned for being a dumping ground for stolen vehicles form both Pakistan and overseas.

 

A more pleasant way to spend the afternoon in my view was afternoon tea at the very posh Pearl Continental Hotel, just down the road (and a million miles!) from where we're staying.   We went with a friend Mr. Khan who is originally from Peshawar but has now lived in Quetta for 30 years. The advertised "English Afternoon Tea" turned out to be an Western/Eastern fusion experience. The tea and cakes were English but the samosa, curry puffs and sweets were more local!  ..all in all it was  delicious though.

 We've enjoyed the food here, (though something has definitely laid Andrew low) and have had some lovely meals. "Cookers" a restaurant across the road from where we stay has become a favourite for kebabs and delicious hot naan bread..very good. We've also become regulars at Chaman's a famous Ice cream parlour here, I've been working my way through the flavours though poor Andrew hasn't dared indulge for a while!

 

Whilst in Lahore generally we drive around the city but a few times of late due to the parking situation -we'd have to cause such an upheaval to get out -   we've been taking  the rickshaws, especially the motorbike ones like in the picture. They're great fun if a little crazy.

 

 One outing we took was  to see the tombs of Jehangir and  his wife Nur Jahan. We probably should have got an auto rickshaw rather than driven here, as whilst it looked deceptively simple on the map it was a nightmare to find with no signs in English. Once away from the upmarket/touristy areas of the city little English is spoken so we couldn't make ourselves understood. We hit gold when we found a picture of the tomb in our tourist brochure which meant the people trying to help actually understood where we were headed -our pronunciation was poles apart!    

 

Emperor Jehangir was the father of Shan Jahan, who built the Taj Mahal and as you'd expect his tomb really is a masterpiece. Built in 1637 it sits in a garden, and consists   of the usual  red sandstone and marble with  pietra dura inlay work, and elaborate depictions of the 99 names of Allah in Arabic Calligraphy inside the vaulted chamber.  What was particularly impressive was all the gorgeous painting on the walls. Well worth a trip…once we found it!

 

Around the edges of the garden was Akbar's Caravanserai - consisting of accommodation for "wayfarers" the earliest overlanders, so a subject close to our hearts!   It wouldn't be a bad camp spot now, though I doubt if they'd let you!

 

Behind this was an older tomb dedicated to Asif Khan -the father of  Shan Jahan's beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal of Taj Mahal fame.

 

 

Nur Jahan Jehangir's wife (and step mother to Shah Jahan) has a nearby tomb which again took us a while to find! This tomb was plundered badly by a later Sikh ruler Maharaja Ranjit Singh -indeed a great many of the treasures from these tombs supposedly ended up at the Golden Temple in Amritsar - so there is less to see and you feel you are looking at a shell of the original. We were lucky that we happened to arrive at the same time as some very learned visitors a Pakistani Professor now head of a University in Chicago and his Afghani born wife. He was able to tell us a great deal more about the history of the area and even got the caretaker  to open up the trap door and allow us  down into the vault where the bodies (Nur Jehan and her daughter) were stored..all a bit creepy but interesting.

 

After this we stopped off at the upmarket suburb of Gulberg -we've not  often been here but I was tracking down a few second hand book shops to replenish my reading supply. There were strawberries for sale everywhere (Andrew definitely didn't dare!) and a few refugees from Afghanistan selling carpets.

 

Finally one thing we'd missed out  on during our long stay here is the Qawwali or Islamic devotional singing. The main place to hear this is at the Shrine of Data Ganj Bakhsh Hajveri, a Shrine near the old city named after an 11th century Sufi preacher.  We'd tried to go very early on during our first stay in Lahore but we fell at the first fence when ladies weren't allowed in, and Andrew stayed out in sympathy.  Since then we'd not bothered trying but Sajjad told us that apparently one of the Chinese ladies Vanessa had gone, and that ladies were only barred during special ceremonies. So we tried again, going (together with a fellow Aussie traveller Sam) with a rickshaw driver and guide arranged by Sajjad.

 

 Again we were immediately told that ladies weren't allowed in. To cut a long story short the guide argued back and we ended up being ushered up through the Shrine's management hierarchy where the issue was discussed intensely (in Urdu) before  finally we were allowed in.

 I was the only lady there so I think it must be an exception they make for foreigners only.   Andrew had to give a copy of his driving license but they actually asked for our passports, so, although they let us in without them, it might be a precaution to have them with you. Obviously dress very conservatively -heads covered for lades, no legs on show (either sex) etc.

Anyway ..finally we made it in! Numerous Qawwali groups performed whilst we sat crossed legged and listened. Playing at this shrine is deemed a great honour so groups come from far and wide …really good some of them, and varying in style from a drum based almost rock sound to more folky numbers. Some of the guys (young and old) had really good voices. Cameras are not allowed so no photographic evidence sadly. The security here was really full on -I guess due to the ongoing threat of sectarian violence.

 

 Whilst the playing was going on there was a constant circulation of men collecting donations. They walk around the big circle collecting as they go and then throw the money over the players at the end. Also groups of men stand in the middle of the circle showering each other with notes - presumably this also goes to the players?

Some of it is a bit showy " look how much I'm giving" and we had a youngish guy next to us throwing out a huge amount of money -some big denominations too - throughout. I decided he looked like a Mafia don ! There are also men with canisters on their backs walking around spraying scented rosewater on the crowd. It was really worth going to ..but I was glad when it was time to go as sitting cross legged (pointing your legs out front is rude) for long periods of time is not comfortable for most Westerners past childhood! Definitely worth timing a  visit to Lahore to include a Thursday so you can attend this and then onto the Spinning Sufi sessions we wrote up last visit as well.

 

 As I write this on Friday 23rd March we are finally really planning to leave Lahore tomorrow and head towards Karachi via Multan and Moenjodaro. On the whole we're glad about the delay as  last night was a fun night to be here as Pakistan beat Bangladesh (by just 3 runs ) to win the Asia Cup in cricket. This prompted a huge party in the Mall the main road running past where we live. Traffic was stopped, fireworks abounded and there was dancing in the street..quite incredible!

 Whilst waiting for Andrew to get better we've been talking to our sponsors, who as ever have been really helpful. Toyota in Karachi has agreed to provide us with some spare parts we need, and Mobil Oil (through their HR Manager Romana Khan)   has arranged a TV interview and press conference for  us for  next Friday 30th March. Mobil has also very kindly treated us to a couple of nights' accommodation at the  "Beach Luxury Hotel"  Karachi which we're very excited about.  Pakistani hospitality continues to impress ….