Downtime in Islamabad

(James) They say that Islamabad is a city twenty kilometres from Pakistan, so unrepresentative is it of the rest of the country. Only sixty years old, it was purpose built to be the capital after partition from India (the newly formed country couldn’t possibly have a capital that India hadn’t felt worthy of being one!) The city itself is gridded with a series of ‘sectors’ ranging from A-I and 1-9, and streets within each sector are simply numbered; for example, our guesthouse was in sector F6/1, street 28. Admittedly, none of this is very personal but the city, which is almost entirely inhabited by an ex-pat community from international NGOs, various UN bodies and embassies, is calm with few cars, no beeping, little litter and lots of lush greenery and flowers. Ordinarily, it is seen as being bland and characterless but after fifteen tough and chaotic days, it provided the perfect tonic allowing everyone to unwind, carry out minor repairs and admin and even indulge in some much needed home comforts; all the shops in central Islamabad stock mostly western produce such as Cadbury’s chocolate, bakery goods and English language books – there’s even an Italian restaurant and a Pizza Hut, should that take your fancy! With Islamabad comprising of just ex-pats and government offices, it makes an incredibly attractive target for terrorism and is frequently attacked , so security is always incredibly tight with checkpoints throughout the town and a Kalashnikov-wielding guard outside every home, guesthouse, shop and restaurant (Em: amazing how quickly you get used to all the guns on display!)

Not much had changed in the city since my last time here and, with a week to kill while we waited for our India visa, I was keen to show Em the sights and places that I’d talked about. But before that, we were going to have to say goodbye to some of the group as people began to go their separate ways. Carl, Bene and Stefano were heading straight for Lahore and the border as they had rendez-vous to make in India, whilst Fabian would be staying in Islamabad with Em and me while he awaited the arrival of his bike from Gilgit and new clutch being shipped from Spain. Our first morning in Islamabad was spent swapping photos with everyone before they headed off and, for Em and myself,  filling out our application forms for the Indian visa which we wanted to lodge before the weekend (it was a Thursday and the embassy was closed on Fridays). Before we said our goodbyes, Fabian showed us a video montage of our time together over the last month that he had produced overnight (he is an insomniac!) It was brilliant and made all of us feel quite emotional; it brought back strong memories of experiences we would never forget and it was amazing to look back over what we had achieved together. (Em: it gives me goosebumps every time I watch it!) Rest assured it will be appearing on the website soon, we just need to find somewhere with decent bandwidth. With the Indian consul closing early, Em and I had to say our goodbyes and head off, something we were very sad to do. Given that our group met online – our only common goal being wanting to cross China at roughly the same time – it was a bit of a lottery as to the kind of people we would end up with. Not only that, but the challenges and hardships associated with this section of our journey could easily have brought any tensions or character clashes to the surface. However, Em and I have remarked so many times that we could not have had a nicer group of people; all laid back and easy to get on with, each character seemed to combine and fit perfectly within the group dynamic. We feel lucky to have met such fantastic people, who are now friends that we are sure we’ll see again in the future.

Having said our goodbyes, we took a cab to the diplomatic enclave, an entirely closed off section of town which houses all of the embassies, and having ‘checked in’ at the airport-like departure lounge, took the express shuttle (the only way non-diplomats can move around the enclave is by special bus) to the Indian High Commission where we lodged our applications before the deadline. With that done, we headed back to F6 where I took Em to the sector market so as promised, she could indulge in some creature comforts that she had been missing (Em: I had been trying to find mozzie spray, shower gel and wetwipes, which admittedly I’m obsessed with, since Krygyzstan!) That evening we went with Fabian to the Italian restaurant to get a much-needed fix of Euro-type food.

Demand for accommodation in Islamabad is high and this is reflected in the prices, or rather the lack of flexibility in reducing the rates. A week in the city was going to be expensive so we decided that we could only manage a couple of nights in the guesthouse (which was admittedly a bit too plush for our standards/budget) and then look for something more suitable elsewhere. However, on hearing this, the owner of the guesthouse very kindly said that we’d be more than welcome to put our tent up in the garden and camp for the week, with full use of the facilities (shower, wi-fi etc), free of charge. Bonus! (Em: he had taken a bit of a shine to James as he was so enthusiastic and knowledgeable about Pakistan. In fact, this was the reaction of most people we met and led to ‘Mr James’ being guest of honour at several social events in the coming week!!) So after two nights of luxury, we ‘checked out’ of our room and ‘checked in’ to the garden! Within two hours of setting up the tent, however, an almighty storm came in from nowhere, perhaps a sting in the tail of the now receding monsoon, and completely flooded the backyard, leaving our tent sitting in 10 centimetres of water. Fortunately, the garden drained well and our brilliant little tent was more than up to it and didn’t let in a drop. We saw on the news later that the rain had re-flooded and cut off Manshera and Besham, neither places that we would have wanted to be stuck, so once again we felt we had been very lucky in terms of weather.

That evening, we were invited by Sylvain (the French motorcyclist we’d met a few days earlier) over to his house for an impromptu meal for Juan’s birthday; Juan had been unable to make it to Naryn to collect his stuff so had retreated to Islamabad and was staying with Sylvain while he waited for the road to re-open. With the planned bbq struck off due to the rain, Juan and Fabian whipped up some delicious tortillas and, despite not drinking himself, Slyvain provided some cold beers; something we’d been really missing recently. Slyvain also contributed to the food with some home-made muffins which we can only assume were cooked in a way unique the area in France that he comes from (they were burnt to a crisp – who says Frenchmen can cook!!) It was a really relaxed and enjoyable evening, during which Em and Fabian got to experience their first earthquake, albeit a minor one (their reactions were hilarious; they both watched things swinging and moving around but just didn’t make the connection!) Slyvain, it turns out, is some sort of computer-brained genius and entertained us all evening with a seemingly endless stream of incredibly frustrating logic puzzles. He is also a poker fanatic and invited to us his weekly poker night a few days later, which we really enjoyed (Em: I am so going to run poker nights when we get home!) and again we got to see Slyvain’s brain in action as he was constantly able to tell us the percentage chance of anyone having a winning hand at anytime.

The rest of the week was spent doing minor jobs, updating our diary and generally killing time, with one of the highlights being when Slyvain and Juan turned up unexpectedly one evening to ask whether we wanted to go for dinner at a restaurant in the Margalla Hills which overlook the city. Em rode two-up with me and Fabian (currently sans bike – he send the 125 back to Gilgit as soon as humanly possible!) went on the back of Juan’s GS in his shorts and t-shirt. The road up took in some really tight and steep hairpins (Em: way steeper that anything we saw in the alps) and we came across our first monkeys by the side of the road, a sign that we were entering southern Asia. The ride to the top also told me beyond any doubt that Em is now a true biker (as if she wasn’t already) as like all bikers she is now an awful pillion, never happy on the back and more critical of my riding! (Em: It’s true, although at the same time I wouldn’t have fancied the tight corners by myself!) The views at the top were great, and the food was absolutely delicious, despite the frustration of Sylvain giving me the next time to a logic puzzle he’d challenged me with days before and I was still no closer to solving! (Throughout the week, I would get random text messages from him with the next line. Bastard!) Another highlight was meeting up with Ziad, Ahreema and Ester, three of my team from my time here before, all of whom are still working for Merlin. Ziad and Ahreema are now married and expecting their first child (who could have known that romance would blossom given the tough environment we were working in?!) It was great to catch up and reminisce and of course, great for Em and all of them to finally put faces to names and meet each other.

On our last two nights in town, we were booked up for dinner parties: one hosted by Sajjad, the owner of the guesthouse, which we were welcome to invite friends to (Fabian, Juan, Slyvan, Ziad and Ahreema all came along) and another by one of his friends, Shaukat, who we had met a few days earlier and insisted that we came to his house (Em: Mr James was in high demand!!) Shaukat took us to meet his extended family in various large houses on estates around Rawalpindi (Islamabad’s twin city) who were all lovely and incredibly generous hosts, plying us with more food than we could possibly manage. Both his teenage niece and daughter took a real shine to Em (she seems so glamorous, just like something from magazines or billboards, to people here) and each presented her with jewellery from their own personal collection as a gift, something that she was very touched by.

With a week now passed in Islamabad, the day for us to collect our visa arrived and having made a second trip to the diplomatic enclave to pick up our passports, we returned to the guesthouse to pack the bikes up and, of course, to say a very sad goodbye to the Fabster who was still waiting for parts. In the end, it was tempting to stay longer as the week had flown by and we still had things we wanted to do and see, but with our visa expiration fast approaching and Lahore, the cultural capital of Pakistan still to come, we knew the time was right to go. Even though the rest of the group was now spread out from the Indian Himalayas to Delhi, leaving Islamabad and Fabian had an ‘end of an era’ feel to it, knowing that what may well have been the most challenging part of our adventure (God help us if there’s worse to come!) was now over.

By the way, in case you’re interested, here’s one of Sylvain’s puzzles. What’s the next line?…..

 0                                                                                                                                                10                                                                                                                                                   1110

11 Responses to “Downtime in Islamabad”

  1. James G says:

    Hi Guys,

    Just wanted to say hello, and to let you know how much I’ve been enjoying reading about your adventures. The last month sounds like the most incredible experience and am so impressed at your adventurous spirit and determination!

    Long may you continue to enjoy your travels!

    James xx

    PS Is the next line 3110?

    PPS Em – what happened to our Scrabble game?!

  2. admin says:

    Glavster!! Really nice to get a comment from you, glad you’re enjoying our mishaps and blunderings! Did you look the answer up on the internet (we had too!!) or are you just very clever?!

  3. Jackson says:

    Mr James….and i dunno do they call you egg over there ;-)
    amazing read again, sat here with Chiara beaming with smiles as after all the adventure and nervous reading, this is like the heart warming stuff.
    i must so am a bit concerned about how close you got to meeting some taliban though.
    havig the bikes painted – awesome!!!!
    no wonder em is keen for poker evenings after her beginners luck
    great photos coming through the water
    once again the generosity of the poeple you come across is truely beautiful
    take care
    my 3 weeks off in november – planning to spend in northern brazil kitesurfing.
    oh also we both must say how great yo both look, all slim, sunkissed and content.

  4. Lorna Souch says:

    Hi guys, Joe looking over my shoulder got the answer straight away – 3110- and explained why (being the mathematical genius he is!!!).
    Great reading about all your adventures – just wish you were around for the Devon wedding at the weekend.
    Hugs and kisses from us all, L,P J and H xxxx

  5. Lorna Souch says:

    Joe says the next line is 132110

  6. julian says:

    Wonderful reading and photos and to know that you may now be through the worst of it. And to have made such good friends too.
    Love from dadinafrica X

  7. Jess says:

    Mr James! Classic.
    But don’t you know Em also seems glamorous and just like something from magazines or billboards to people here too?! x

  8. Mama/Kate says:

    And I thought the answer was 1111110. Duh! Seems like I’m no mathematician.

    So, Mr James and Mrs Pankhurst are a big hit in Islamabad. No surprise there.

    NOW, I can put our skype chat in context. Glad you got some well-deserved R&R.

  9. Rosy and Leo says:

    Hey guys,

    Just wanted to say hello – and to let you know we still read and love hearing about your adventures! Sounds like you are having an amazing time, and are both always looking so happy and sunkissed in every photo!!

    Thanks for the wedding message – shame you couldn’t be there, and Em, we’ll miss you at the annual Pizza Express event before christmas ;)

    Hope you keep safe – lots of love Mrs M xx

  10. James G says:

    Ha ha – are you doubting my logic skills?! I didn’t actually look it up on the internet, although I have to say when I saw it, it seemed familiar, so I have probably come across it before. I can’t imagine I came up with entirely on my own!

  11. Martha says:

    Hi punks,

    glad ‘the fountain’ is getting the recognition he deserves! and glamorous emily doesn’t keep getting ignored any more!

    haven’t got a clue about that puzzle, even now I know the answer i can’t make sense of it!

    we are all prepared for poker nights em, we have loads of chips at home from when I tried to get into it myself (don’t really know what inspired it but I bought a book and everything!)

    lots of love Martha xxx

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