Sunday, October 28, 2007


Thailand, yes. Bali, yes. Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, yes, yes, yes. Asia is full of places where you are guaranteed a superb holiday experience.

Now I can enthusiastically recommend another, less likely, destination to add to the list: Pakistan.

The food is superb. The people must be the friendliest on earth, and are so happy to have foreigners visiting their country that they will literally stop at nothing to ensure you enjoy every minute of your stay: I have never been the recipient of so many smiles and so much heartfelt hospitality. The geography is amazing, from most of the world’s highest mountain range to the coastal plains of the south. The culture and history are fascinating; ancient Islamic citadels combined with gorgeous intact British colonial architecture. And with English being the language of choice on everything from road signs to restaurant menus and supermarket receipts, and fluency everywhere from cafés to tiny fabric shops in back alleys, communication and moving around are shockingly simple.

I was in Karachi recently for work; after my business was finished, I flew on Air Blue – a superb airline with excellent food, great design and, dare I say it, utterly gorgeous cabin crew – to Islamabad.

The city could have been designed to feature in Wallpaper magazine circa 1998: conceived and built in the 1950s, the place is a modernist’s dream of wide leafy boulevards, straight lines and gorgeous geometric villas shaded by beautiful trees. Ringed by the spectacular Murghal mountains, and with a lovely nip in the winter air, Islamabad was disorientingly beautiful; I spent hours just walking the streets taking photographs of the architecture.

After that, I drove to Lahore: a 350 kilometre trip on a first class toll motorway, rivalling the French autoroute or the Malaysian North-South Highway in its smoothness and quality. As apricot orchards, ancient villages and the occasional snow-capped mountain rolled by at 120 kilometres per hour, the driving experience was so disconcertingly normal that I found it difficult to comprehend that I was actually somewhere as exotic as Northern Pakistan.

Lahore was another revelation. Parts of it could easily pass for the best of Melbourne: old red brick churches, museums, colleges and railway stations, beautifully laid-out botanic gardens, and green, well-tended suburbs filled with heartbreakingly lovely houses from the 1920s and 30s.

Add to this a mesmerising ancient walled city with a huge mosque that looks like an Islamic Tiananmen Square, built by the same fellow responsible for the Taj Mahal, and a vibrant, modern, distinctly upmarket culture of fashion shops and cafés, and you have a recipe for a very enjoyable visit.

I only scratched the surface of the three main cities. But from what I hear, there is a lot more to experience, from old hill stations, to Himalayan treks, to tribal villages in the North West. Pakistan is somewhere I have every intention of returning to with a view of seeing a lot more of the country.

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