Monthly Archives: June 2012

The KKH III: Chilas to Gilgit

The Shangri-La. Not quite paradise on Earth but a close-enough approximation for me.

The Shangri-La Hotel in Chilas may not have been quite the paradise as its namesake described in James Hilton’s famous novel “Lost Horizon”, but after covering almost 200km the day before I didn’t really care. The room even had a real bath and I felt like soaking away the frustration of the innumerable police checkpoints and a road that seemed to disintegrate before my very eyes. Too bad the bath was more suited to 4ft. people. Oh, and there was no hot water. Continue reading

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The KKH Part II: Besham to Shatial…no, Dasu… no, Shatial…no, Chilas

Vous êtes ici! The PTDC in Besham.

While the PTDC in Besham may not have won any prizes for its ambience or its canteen-like restaurant it had definitely served its purpose for me. It provided a bed, somewhere safe to park the bike and luke-warm water out of both hot and cold taps.

It did however have uninterrupted views of the mighty Indus River. The tide must have been out, though.

Discretion being the better part of valour, I had already scrapped any plans of riding the 125km to Shatial if it was going to be like the last 20km of yesterday. So the new plan was to ride to the next PTDC in Dasu about 85km away. I estimated this would take 3-4 hours depending on the road, the traffic and the weather.

Before moving a millimetre today I was wanted to find out exactly what lay in store for me. So, before leaving the PTDC in Besham, I asked the man behind the desk if I would be able to stay at the PTDC in Dasu. I should have known better when he said “Of course. No problem”.

Some of the local constabulary having a chat at a handover.

With only 85km to cover, I rode optimistically out of the deserted carpark and back onto the KKH. Within a kilometre I was stopped at a police checkpoint. No dog-eared book this time, just a police escort. So off we rode. I found following another vehicle distracted me from the much more pressing task of where I was going to put the front wheel for the next 5m. Scrabbling along amongst the gravel in 1st gear, and sometimes 2nd if I was lucky, we stopped after about 10km at another police checkpoint. Here I was handed over like a relay baton to the next escort. This process was repeated every 10-15km. Each time the escorts would stop for a bit of a chinwag and another 5-10min would be wasted. Eventually, I made it to Dasu by early afternoon. Pretty good going I thought to myself. My escort took me to the PTDC and even introduced me to the desk clerk.

Just as well there was some interesting scenery to look at!

I knew it wasn’t going to end well when the desk clerk starting shaking his head and giving me apologetic looks. Apparently the local shire council was having its monthly meeting and the PTDC for completely booked out.  I asked if there were any other hotels nearby knowing full well what the answer would be. There weren’t.

There was no option but to revert to my original plan of riding to Shatial for the night. It was only another 40km (1-2 hours) up the road and there was still plenty of daylight left.

So the baton-passing started again.

On arriving in Shatial, I was handed over to a full police checkpoint and out came the passport again. With formalities out of the way, I asked the senior officer where I could stay in Shatial. He informed me that the hotel had closed some time ago. And anyway, foreign tourists were not allowed to stay overnight in Shatial. He suggested that I could rest for a couple of hours on one of the charpoys at the roadside serai before continuing my journey, but I failed to see any benefit in this.

It was now getting on for 4pm and there was no hope of any sort of accommodation until Chilas – a good 65km away. That would mean at least another 3 hours of riding and that didn’t include any baton-passing. The only thing that I had in my favour was that the sun did not set until between 7-8pm.

So I set off again with yet another escort leading to yet more handovers every 10-15km. Each time precious minutes of sunlight were slowly disappearing behind the 5000m mountain ranges while Iqbal and Abdul caught up on the latest gossip.

Finally, about 20km west of Chilas, I crossed out of Kohistan and into the Northern Areas and the end of the escorts. It was now after 7pm and dusk was setting in. So, in the last of the fading light, I rode in to Chilas and stayed at the first hotel on the left-hand side of the road.

And the name of the hotel?

I kid you not – it was “Shangri-La”.

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The KKH Part I: Abbottabad to Besham

Picture postcard perfect – near Shinkiari. The scenery and the roads were about to change very dramatically

Having spent a lazy three days in Abbottabad, feeling relaxed and refreshed, I bade farewell to Ahmed and his family’s hospitality and pointed the bike north. The goal for today was the little town of Besham – a short trip of only about 150km.

As the goal was modest I got away mid-morning… ish!

At one stage I had considered taking the road up the scenic Kaghan Valley to Naran – a popular place to escape the heat of the Punjabi plains. This road also leads on to the Babusar Pass (4200m) and Chilas, further along the KKH. The route was not only much cooler and more picturesque but also had the potential to save a couple of hundred kilometres. There was only one small hurdle. Even though it was now early/mid June and well into the summer, the Babusar Pass was reportedly still covered by 2-3m of snow and would not be open for at least another 1-2 weeks – too late to be of any benefit to me.  So when I couldn’t find the turn-off to Naran in the midst of the mayhem of Mansehra I continued straight ahead up the KKH and on towards Besham.

In Besham, I was planning to stay at the local PTDC. The Pakistan Tourist Development Corporation operates a series of hotels and guesthouses of varying standards across the country. They are mostly used by government officials who have to travel around Pakistan. However, they are open to the public if there are rooms available.

The road north through Mansehra, Shinkiari and Batagram was in good condition with relatively little traffic and made for pleasant and hassle-free riding.

That was all about to come to a sudden halt.

NOT a picture of the “high security” Thakot Bridge!

About 20km short of Besham, the KKH crosses the Indus River at the Thakot Bridge. The bridge also marks the boundary between the relatively modern district of Mansehra and the “not-so-modern” district of Kohistan. Before the bridge, I was stopped at a police checkpoint and was required to register my passport details in a tired, old, dog-eared book. When I asked the friendly police officer if I could take a photo of the bridge he told that it was not allowed because it was “high security”. So I asked him if I could take a photo of him – to which he promptly agreed! Unfortunately, I couldn’t get a better shot of the original suspension bridge.

As soon as I crossed the bridge into Kohistan district, it was was like stepping back 100 years in time. Where the KKH had been a passable two-lane road, comparable to the Bruce Highway of the ’60s, it gradually deteriorated to a gravelly, rubbly track.  As well as that, Kohistan has additional travel restrictions where all foreign tourists have to have a police escort between villages.  I was relieved that I only had about 20km to go to Besham and my bed at the PTDC.

The PTDC at Besham was a clean but rather characterless place. A moderately large facility, it was virtually deserted apart from a team of Chinese road engineers and their local workers. It was obviously a long time since any western tourist had stayed there. The staff initially seemed to have forgotten what a tourist was but eventually became open and friendly – like everybody else I had met in Pakistan.

The next day’s ride was originally going to be to Shatial – about 125km away. Based on today’s experience I scaled that back to the next PTDC at Dasu which was only about 85km away. Much less demanding.

Those plans were about to go out the window as well!

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A break in Abbottabad

My three day break in Abbottabad was as unproductive as it was unplanned. That is not to say it wasn’t enjoyable – I just didn’t achieve anything except to have a relaxing time spent with a very hospitable family.

After checking into my room at Gilani’s Hotel, where I was again the centre of much curiosity, I showered and changed into some clean clothes. Later in the afternoon, Ahmed took me to his home – conveniently located halfway between my hotel and his father’s PSO pump – and introduced me to the rest of his family. After coffee and nibblies Ahmed wanted to show me the view of the city lights from the top of the Shimla hills just behind the city. From there we ended up at one of Abbottabad’s better restaurants, Nawab’s. After dining late Ahmed dropped me back at Gilani’s and I was left to ponder how it was that the day had turned out as it had. 

Day 2, a Wednesday, was a complete waste of time – intentionally. As I had obtained all my visas in Islamabad in one week, not the two weeks that I had allowed, I had plenty of time to waste so I thought I should start applying myself seriously to the task. 

With the luxury of WiFi in my room I caught up on my Skyping and emails. In between times I chatted with the hotel staff who were all very interested in my trip and my thoughts about Pakistan. This line of questioning has now become obligatory everywhere I go so, in order to avoid repeating myself ad nauseum, I have found a new use for my copy of Mobarik’s newspaper story. I simply show people the story and let them read it at their own pace. This seems to satisfy most people’s curiosity. 

Later in the afternoon (due to the 5 hour time difference) I was bitterly disappointed to hear, via text from my daughter, Sarah that Queensland had lost Game 2 of the State of Origin. Game 3 at Lang Park should be fantastic game and no doubt will be sold-out. 

Inside Ilyasi Mosque. Surprisingly cool inside – supposedly due to the mountain stream that flows beneath it into cooling ponds.

Day 3 was a repeat of Day 2 except I applied myself even more diligently to wasting time. After successfully doing so all morning I invited Ahmed out for lunch at a typical local eating place of his choice. He took me to the old part of Abbottabad close to the famous Ilyasi Mosque. After visiting the mosque and its cooling stream and ponds, from a street stall we bought chaplikababs – a local favourite of highly spiced mutton mince and naan. After lunch Ahmed took me up into the cool hills back along the Murree road to escape the heat of the afternoon but eventually we had to return to Abbottabad as Ahmed had family affairs to attend to.The rest of the afternoon was spent wasting even more time as was the evening. 

My time in Abbottabad was drawing to a close. What I had learned about the city and its people that had adopted me so unquestioningly? People from outside Abbottabad would say the city is not blessed with a lot of natural beauty or with many attractive features but it is home to a large army base and other military establishments. However, the locals love their relatively green and prosperous city. Hmmm… sounds just like somewhere I know! 

Exhausted from wasting so much time in Abbottabad, it was time to move on. Tomorrow would be the start of my journey up the Karakoram Highway (KKH) to the Chinese border – some 735km away. Still with plenty of time up my sleeve, I planned to travel no more 150km/day with lots of rest days in between. A leisurely pace I thought! 

Little did I realise how ambitious my seemingly modest schedule would prove to be.


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The story behind the story.

WARNING: This is a long story so feel free to skip it.

I will have to go back a few days to when I was still in Islamabad.

The road up to Daman-e-Koh

One afternoon, following yet another embassy visit, I decided that I needed to get out of the smog that passes for air in Islamabad. A few people had suggested that I should ride up to Daman-e-Koh, a popular picnic spot and lookout (a bit like Castle Hill or Mt. Coot-tha) just a short ride from the NCG. It was a pleasant ride to the top where there was a large carpark, a small foodstall and plenty of tables for the locals to sit and enjoy the view of the grey blanket that smothers Islamabad.

It was pleasantly cool with a slight breeze gently pushing the empty chip packets across the grass. I parked the bike and, as I was peeling off my riding gear, a gentleman about my own age in the car parked beside me commented that he liked my bike and asked “from where are you coming?”. This conversation is now almost mandatory whenever I stop anywhere. After some more idle chit-chat I took my leave, thought nothing more of it and walked over to the foodstall for a luke-warm Pepsi and a packet of stale, masala-flavoured chips. I sat and tried to enjoy my not-so-high tea in the relative quiet of the picnic area where I daydreamed for a while. Eventually I emerged from my reverie and wandered back to the bike where the same gentleman was still standing looking at the bike. After a bit more in-depth conversation, he and his female companion invited me out for dinner. Initially, I was a bit wary but after further conversation I decided that they were genuine people. Mobarik gave me his card and told me he was a journalist and his companion, Asiya, worked in the field of women’s and community health. They offered to pick me up from the NCG at 8pm.

Back at the guest house I did a quick bit of internet research and Facebook stalking and found that Mobarik was indeed a journalist – in fact a highly regarded journalist for “The International News” – the major English language newspaper in Pakistan. Any reservations I may have had were allayed and, promptly at 8pm, Mobarik and Asiya arrived to pick me up. Surprisingly, Asiya had brought two other younger female relatives, Sumaira and Arooj, along as well. Mobarik and Asiya has chosen Habibi’s restaurant in F8 Markaz for dinner. In due course, I was to find out that Habibi’s was one of the more expensive restaurants in Islamabad.

Dinner at Habibi’s

The restaurant served traditional Arabic, not Pakistani, food including deep-fried whole quails – very crunchy! During the meal Mobarik, Asiya and I discussed many topics and toward the end of the meal Mobarik asked if he could write a short article about me for his newspaper. Initially I was somewhat taken aback, failing to see how he could make anything newsworthy out of our dinner conversation. I queried him about what “angle” he was going to take and eventually agreed. Mobarik asked me to email him some of the photos that we had taken at Daman-e-Koh and said that he would put a story together for the “City News” section of the Sunday edition of “The International “Times”.

Sunday was a few days away so, next day, I returned to the task at hand of getting the last visa for Tajikistan. Saturday was the daytrip to Taxila and the “story” was pushed to the back of my mind.

Continue reading

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From Murree to Abbottabad

Slippery slope – Murree to Abbottabad road.

With yet another unexpected change in plan, I decided to head for Abbottabad – a relatively large city at the foot of the hills about 70km away – where I had a couple of jobs to do. One was to get money as none of the ATMs in Murree would accept foreign cards. The other was to get petrol – an increasingly problematic issue wherever I travelled across Pakistan.

Finally getting away from Murree after the obligatory 15 minute photo opportunity for the locals, the road from Murree to Abbottabad turned out to be a complete joy for a motorcyclist. With relatively light traffic, it was an endless series of tight corners and gravity-defying hairpin bends. Combined with the cool mountain air, it made for great riding – albeit at low speed. Around every bend was a vista worthy of a photo – along with evidence of recent landslide activity! Slowly I descended the mountain range, stopping every few kilometres to take photo after photo of the stunning scenery. Eventually I was back on the flat but slightly elevated plain on which Abbottabad sits.

Abbottabad is a city of just under 1 million people. Arriving in the city brought the return of heavy traffic, choking diesel fumes, free-for-all driving and a high demand for the horn. I was very glad that I fitted the replacement horn in Islamabad. Originally I had had no intention of staying in Abbottabad. In fact, I had planned to skirt Abbottabad completely due to its unfortunate connections to Osama bin Laden.

The start of the climb up to the Khunjrab Pass into China – 735km to go!

(As an aside, the most important aspect of Abbottabad, for me, was that it is the only major city on the Karakoram Highway, or the China-Pakistan Friendship Highway to give it its official name. The Karakoram Highway (usually abbreviated to KKH) is the road that will take me up into the peaks of the Karakoram Range, through the Khunjrab Pass into Xinjiang, the far western region of China, in about three weeks time.)

Since I started travelling I have got into the habit of not allowing the tank to drop below half-full. So the first order of business in Abbottabad was to find a petrol station that actually had petrol to sell!

After filling the tank, the plan was simple: find a Standard Chartered bank ATM for more cash and head a further 30km up the road to the much smaller and less chaotic town of Mansehra. But that plan was about to change, and change in a very unusual way.

And this is were a new story begins.

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Faran Towers!

Having just left the “homeliness” of the NCG just hours before, the decidedly cool reception from the front desk at the Hotel Faran came as a bit of a shock (thoughts of Basil Fawlty begin to form in my mind). The owner, Hafiz, was a friend of Mr. Karim but unfortunately he wasn’t there. After a little bit of to-ing and fro-ing, I was eventually shown to my room and I immediately decided that my 2-3 nights in Murree had just become one night in Murree.

After settling in to my room, I went back to the front desk to enquire about the possibility of internet access and found that Hafiz had returned to the hotel in the meantime. I also found that the attitude of the front desk staff was decidedly less cool. While I was happy about the change, I couldn’t help wondering why it took the presence of the owner for the front desk staff to offer a warm, smiling welcome to a guest (thoughts of Basil Fawlty begin to recede).

I began to think that I had been too hasty in my judgement about the length of my stay and, after perusing the menu, decided that tonight I would have my chicken curry delivered by room service. Unfortunately room service requires a functioning telephone – something which I didn’t appear to have. So, it was another trip to the front desk to place my order.  Just as I was about to say “Chi……” the lobby was plunged into darkness by the inevitable load-shedding at 7pm. Out came the matches for the gas lanterns while we all waited uncomfortably in an eerie half-light for the back-up genset to kick in. After ordering my chicken, vegetables and naan I tried to explain about the phone. In the end, I gathered my lack of telecommunication was the least of their concerns. Fair enough. (Thoughts of Basil Fawlty return with renewed and sustained vigour).

After quite a pleasant meal and almost two hours of uninterrupted power supply, during which I had the pleasure to hear a garbled Tony Greig commentate of a badly ghosted replay of some day/night match between Pakistan and Sri Lanka, I decided that it was time for a nice, hot shower and an early night.

Silly me! What was I thinking? Not only was there no hot water coming out of the hot water tap (and yes, I checked both in the daily, sub-continent, which-is-the-hot-tap-today lottery) but there no water of any description coming out of the hot tap! After getting redressed it was time to pay yet another visit to now-officially Basil on the front desk. Standing in the lobby, slightly damp, I explained to Basil that there was no hot water. Basil called for Manuel to take a look at the unco-operative tap.

Manuel and I returned to my room where Manuel proceeded to turn the hot tap on to confirm that there was no hot water. Yep, there was no hot water. Manuel said “5 minutes” and left. Shortly afterwards, Manuel returned with another Manuel. Manuel 2 repeated the process to confirm there was no hot water. Yep, there was still no hot water. Manuel 2 pointed mysteriously upwards and said “5 minutes”, then both Manuels 1 and 2 left. After a few minutes, Manuels 1 and 2 returned with yet another Manuel. I now had an entire regiment of Manuels standing in my shower recess trying to solve the mystery of the missing hot water. Manuel 3 pointed, not mysteriously but knowingly, upwards and said “5 minutes”. Manuel 3 left without taking Manuels 1 and 2 with him but soon returned. Manuel 3 turned on the hot water tap and, miraculously, there was hot water. Manuels 1, 2 and 3 all pointed knowingly upwards. As my army of Manuels trooped triumphantly out of the bathroom I also pointed knowingly upwards and Manuel 3 nodded.

My stay at Faran Towers would indeed be brief.

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Head for the hills!

The lads from New Cape Grace Guest House. From l to r: Ishaq, Tariq, Munir, Rafique and Imran

The time had come to end my sojourn in Islamabad. I had enjoyed my stay much more than I had anticipated and this was due, in no small part, to the lads at the New Cape Grace Guest House. Munir was the night duty manager but appeared to be there 24 hours a day. Imran was the ever-alert gate guard – one of the few in Islamabad NOT to be armed with an ancient Kalashnikov, an M16 or pump-action shotgun. Ishaq and Tariq were the two house “boys” even though they were both in there mid-twenties. Rafique was the cook who slaved away in the kitchen preparing delicious meals.  Together with Mr. Karim, the owner, and his son, Samir, they made what could have been a very exasperating few days chasing visas into something much more enjoyable altogether. I took my leave of everyone at NCG and headed for Murree – a mere 50km away in the hills behind Islamabad but a world away from the relatively ordered and neat streets of the purpose-built capital.

On the steep climb to Murree – a bit of imagination in architecture shown by the local EdQ.

As I climbed up the winding road through the hills, the climate changed noticibly. At almost 2300m Murree is higher than Mt. Kosciuszko, so for the first time in my travels there was a noticeable chill in the air as I wound my way up to the confusing, serpentine maze of 19th century streets, lanes and alleyways carved precipitously into the side of the hill. After about five attempts to find the right alleyway, I eventually made it to the hotel that Mr. Karim had recommended – the Hotel Faran.

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Last day in Islamabad

Shah Faisal Mosque – lacking the traditional dome it was designed to resemble a bedouin tent.

Still undecided about going to Murree for the day, a chance comment by one of the other guests solved the problem. Danya was an aid worker for one for the many NGO’s operating in Pakistan. As we chatted over breakfast about our respective plans for the day, Danya quipped that maybe I could have my cake and eat it too. Immediately, the light bulb came on. I wouldn’t have to make my trip to Murree a daytrip at all. I could change my route north to include Murree. Not only that, but I wouldn’t have to retravel the same boring stretch of GT Rd that I rode to Taxila yesterday.

So my last day in Islamabad was free to use as I chose.

Even though I had been in Islamabad for nearly a week I realised that I hadn’t really seen much of the city itself apart from embassies, banks and shopping centres. So, after doing a few domestic chores I decided to do some sightseeing around the city. The first visit was to the massive Shah Faisal Mosque.

The Shah Faisal Mosque was a gift from Shah Faisal of Saudi Arabia and is one of the largest mosques in the world. The main hall can hold 10,000 worshippers in the main prayer hall, another 20,000 in the adjoining porticoes and another 250,000 in the courtyard and surrounding grounds.

Saudi-Pak Tower.

Another stunning piece of modern Islamic architecture is the Saudi-Pak Tower. A modern high-rise office block, its main distinguishing features include the almost total lack of external glass windows typical of just about every Western high-rise building and the delicate use of traditional blue tiles to contrast the biege exterior.

Not far from the NCG was the Rose and Jasmine Garden.  A large park covering many acres, the locals flock to it in the late afternoon and early evening to escape the heat and enjoy the cool shade of the large trees and admire the many varieties of roses. Islamabad calls itself “The Green City”. It certainly is green compared to what I’ve seen in the rest of Pakistan.

Eventually I got tired of dodging all the Sunday afternoon drivers and called it a day. Tomorrow I would head for the hills and spend a day or two in Murree.

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A day in the countryside: not another ….ing ancient temple!

When I asked if Iqbal would like to be in the photo, he replied, “Yes. Two old men together.” Thanks, mate!

Having completed all my visa formalities in record time (only four days when I was advised it could be 1-2 weeks) I find myself with a lot of time to fill in. So today I decided to take a daytrip to Taxila – about 35km west of Islamabad.

Taxila’s main claim to fame is that it is was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980. It contains ruins from a series of different ancient civilisations dating back to the 6th century BC Achaemenid empire of Darius. Alexander the Great then conquered Taxila in 326BC and left an astonishing legacy of Greek culture and architecture that survived for many centuries after his departure. Next in the long list of famous rulers was the Mauryan king, Ashoka, who converted to Buddhism and made Taxila the capital of a Buddhist empire that ruled most of what is now present day Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. Most of the ruins are related to successive Buddhist civilisations including Scythians, Parthians and, finally, the Kushans before they were obliterated by the so-called White Huns from Central Asia in the 6th century AD. Taxila never recovered and remained undiscovered by the Western world until the early 20th century when British archaeologists began excavating the ruins.

Taxila Museum was very well laid out and, as I was the only Westerner there, I had the luxury of my own private museum guide, Zaheer – better than an iPod and headset anyday: Zaheer could answer questions! The museum contains thousands of artefacts that had been excavated from the various sites. The ruins are actually spread out over seven main sites and a number of smaller sites covering an area of about 30 sq km.

Ruins of Buddhist stupa at Mohra Moradu – 2nd century AD

Some of the sites, like Mohra Moradu, are 5-6km from the museum, so I hired a motorised rickshaw to take me to some of them.  These rickshaws are commonly called QingQi after the Chinese manufacturer and appear to serve no other worthwhile purpose than to act as mobile chicanes in the heavy traffic in Islamabad. After spending 5 minutes in one I realised why they are such a menace on the road. With only 100cc motors and a 3-speed low range gear they couldn’t pull the skin off custard. At one stage, going up a moderately steep incline,  I thought the driver was going to fry the clutch on the spot as the pathetic engine screamed to red-line while we started to roll slowly backwards down the hill. That, along with the apparent lack of any rear suspension, made the travel to the various sites a feat of endurance. The morning’s trip to the various sites had taken nearly two hours and I was happy to get back to the museum with all of my anatomy intact.

After a short break for lunch, I hired a different rickshaw, hoping that the first QingQi was just a dud. Nope! The second one was just the same. I knew that the second trip would be much shorter and less arduous but I was still relieved when we returned to the museum for the last time.

By this time, I had well and truly overdosed on ancient temples and was keen to head for my haven at the NCG back in Islamabad. As much as I had enjoyed my day out in the countryside (well, maybe not the relentless hawkers selling “genuine”  artefacts for 200 rupees – about $2! Genuine – yeah, right!) I was happy to say good-bye to Taxila.

Back in friendly and familiar surroundings, I decided that a chicken curry would make a nice change from all the other chicken curries I’ve had over the last 3-4 weeks. However, I made one minor mistake. Absent-mindedly I had replied “hot”, as I usually do back home, when asked how I would like my curry. It wasn’t until after the second mouthful that I appreciated the true consequences of my error. These dishes were not toned-down versions for Western palates. These were traditional dishes and I had just ordered a “hot” version of a local dish. To say it was “hot” would be a massive understatement. It was eye-wateringly, nose-runningly, lip-blisteringly, brow-sweatingly HOT. With lots of chapatis and about a litre of water I finished my dinner and waited for the A/C to kick back in at 10pm.

And what of tomorrow? Perhaps another day-trip to the hill station town of Murree for a bit of cool weather? Or perhaps just a day slothing ’round the NCG in preparation for leaving the following day (Monday)?

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