Thursday, November 12, 2015

Islamabad

They all wanted our photo...
The capital of Pakistan has for me always been one of those places I had heard about but never really knew where it was, or what it would be like. Until now that is! Having been in Islamabad and wandered around a fair bit, we were pleasantly surprised with what we found. Not the expected chaos and madness but a town which, in it's own peculiar way, seems to function rather well. Not a cultural highlight perhaps but for us a good place to experience Pakistani city life without being confined to exorbitant restaurants and tourist traps. In short we quite liked what we found.

Weird cloud formation which resembled nuclear testing...
It started less positive though when we found the campground in Islamabad closed, due to pressures from the US Embassy... I couldn't believe what I had just heard when the campground owner told me that. 'Let me get this straight' I said, 'The US Embassy has asked you to close your campground... and you did it?' The man nodded... 'why?' I asked. 'Because the US feels it isn't safe here'. So what? Since when does one country tell another country to close down a campground?
Anyway, it's a boyscout thing now and we had to look for an alternative, which meant a guesthouse.

Posing for photos again and again and again and...
The aim had been to apply for a Myanmar visa, which didn't happen as the Myanmar Embassy said it was too difficult to do that in Pakistan. No idea why there is an Embassy complex then, or why Myanmar has a consul here. To us it was yet another example of lazy officials at embassies doing their best to be unhelpful, instead of promoting their country. What followed was a rather mad day. We visited a huge mosque, found out that 6 people die in traffic accidents every day in Islamabad alone, were witness to a Pakistani marriage which according to another witness was nothing but a scam to get the groom a US passport and we had huge fun in the smallest Suzuki taxi ever while trying to get to a hilltop for a good sunset view of the city... 

Attending a wedding in Pakistan... The wedding was already in progress when we arrived at the guesthouse, but we were immediately invited to join ?!? We were told it was a marriage scam between an American woman and Pakistani man. We certainly got the distinct impression they hadn't met before...
Visiting the Faisal mosque was for us a strange experience. It is a huge and impressive building, no doubt about that, but I didn't get a 'religious' feel with it. From the outside it seemed more like an abstract StarWars building than a mosque. At the same time I can appreciate that the architect wanted to try something new, something more modern. As religion is something which by its very nature is traditional, with very traditional customs, linking it to a modern architecture will always be difficult I suppose. The strange thing is that I don't even mind the building or the architecture, it just doesn't seem to be a mosque somehow.
Entry to the building, which is free for everyone, means taking off shoes and socks as in other mosques we visited. Later in the morning and on a hot day, like we had, this means burning your feet on the pavement! Visiting earlier in the morning would be a better option as there is quite a lot to see. 

Unfortunately the mosque itself was closed but the glass fronted doors luckily still allowed us to look inside as this is the point where the strange mix of modern architecture and traditional religion visibly meets. On the inside this is also a very modern building but on the floor are the traditional praying rugs. They seemed out of place as we had until then only seen them in older mosques. Maybe it's the traditional designs of the prayer mats versus the modern the design of the building, maybe more modern mats would have suited the architecture better... but then again you can't change the customs of a religion just to suit the building... It's strange that only the day before we had witnessed a simple ceremony at a small open mosque type building in Islamabad, which despite being on a much smaller scale had a stronger religious feel to us. I can't quite understand it somehow. From what I've been told the building isn't controversial amongst muslims... so maybe it's just me.

In Islamabad there are thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, small motorbikes. They carry anything from families of four(!) to almost impossible loads like big 20 litre cans of some sort of soup. There truly isn't much they won't carry! Come to think of it, everything in Islamabad on wheels is small. The taxis are mostly tiny Suzukis, which barely made it up the hill as it had to carry 6 fully grown adults up there (ie us). The 74 year old taxi driver did a superb job though! He kept the revs up through the corners and carried quite a lot of speed too! We scrambled out of the taxi and found Erik, our American friend, complete with a beer, waiting for us. We enjoyed the sunset from the top, overlooking Islamabad! 


Eating can be done in quite a few restaurants in Islamabad. Some expensive, some not so. Be careful about food courts where waiters run around and sell you the food from the small fast food restaurants around it. Their so called service charge can be higher than the actual food costs! We found a good place to eat too in the Melody Food Street, which is a bit like a food court but no waiters. You buy directly from the guys doing the cooking. Plenty of small restaurants cooking amazing food for very good prices. Quite a human touch came after we had our food, when a passing tramp was given some leftovers by the cook. Later that night the taxi driver we asked to get us back to the hotel, became lost. He then tried to drop us off at a shopping centre, followed by somewhere else, before he finally asked another taxi where to go. We got there in the end! It's all part of the fun. Islamabad gave us a good feel. We had walked around in it quite a lot and found it a good place to be. The guesthouse we had found, because the campground was closed, turned out to be a good one too, with very friendly people.

Islamabad by night... 

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