Cash Me In Kashmir Feeling Murree As Ever!

Cash Me In Kashmir Feeling Murree As Ever!

 

For our last day in Pakistan, we decided to head up into Kashmir for Imran’s (our friend and guide who has been showing us around the past week in Pakistan) hometown and the resort village of Murree

 

 

Starting with a drive from the Rawalpindi/Islamabad area at noon, we reached Kashmir at around 2pm. You’ll know you’re in Kashmir once you see all the military posts and artillery off the side of the road.

 

 

Once we got out into the center of Murree, it was like a literal breath of fresh air 2291m (7500ft) above sea level.

 

 

This area is completely closed off to traffic, so this pedestrian-only environment was a welcome tonic after a week of constant driving through the urban sprawls of Islamabad and Lahore.

 

 

After we passed the town’s center, we walked along the hills and took in the off juxtaposition of heavy military presence among otherwise a serene natural backdrop.

 

 

You can take a cable car/ski lift here to other parts of Murree:

 

 

After walking nearly the entire length of the Murree area, we sat down for tea and small bites with Imran’s first cousin Tahir and his friend.

 

 

Afterwards we hailed a trolley to take us back to the village center.

 

 

From there we walked over 5 minutes to Tahir’s house.

 

 

After treated to more tea and a small lunch, we debated over politics and religion which to some surprise, didn’t turn out to be very contentious at all (one of us proclaimed her atheism – eeek – which some of us thought would rattle folks a bit).

 

 

We were then invited up to Tahir’s rooftop for gorgeous panoramic reviews of the Kashmiri valleys:

 

 

And to finish off our evening, Tahir gleefully read fortunes from our palms to pretty accurate findings.

 

 

By 8pm we began to head back to Islamabad.

 

 

And right before leaving, we helped Evan haggle down some pashmina shawls to take home.

 

 

After settling back at Jungle Barracks, we then packed our stuff and had a leisurely dinner before I headed to Ali’s sister’s house for some last minute shisha and post-wedding gossip with the newlyweds (photos would get some people in trouble)! And after a lovely hour with them, we headed back to Jungle Barracks, drove off to the airport, then drove back to pick up my backpack that I had left behind in my room (ugh rookie mistakes still!), and still made it in time for my 6:30am flight out!

 

 

Istanbul

With 85,000 United Airlines miles, I was able to snag a Turkish Airlines Business Class flight out at 6:25am for Istanbul where I got in a few hours of sleep (I already have reviewed the Turkish Airlines business class product in another post).

And right before Turkish Airlines moves all their flights to their new international airport next month, I had one last chance to experience one of my favorite business class lounges in the world, which I reviewed more in depth last June. You can now feel the evident wear and tear in a lounge ready to be abandoned within the month.

 

 

Amsterdam

From there I boarded an afternoon flight out to Amsterdam where I reunited with 2 longtime friends and monsooners (at this point I can’t count how many run-ins around the world I’ve had with them), Anthony and Rik, as well as Selma, whom we befriended 2 summers ago in Kosovo

 

 

And just to make it complete with yet another monsoon serendipity: A random message on one of my Instagram stories last week would lead to someone I met 3 years ago at an ECAASU conference, Yan, to join our group in Amsterdam as she also just so happens to be in the area! In fact it would be her random message that steered me to pick Amsterdam as my layover in the first place. Don’t say I don’t follow the signs…

 

 

After a night out with outdoor drinks at Hannekes Boom and shisha at Wonder Bar Two, I turned in at Anthony’s place for a few hours of sleep before heading back out again early morning for my 9:25am flight back home to Newark Airport on the United Polaris Class 2-1-2 configuration.

Last time I took this flight a year ago, I flew out on its cramped 2-1-2 configuration on the aisle seat. What a difference moving one seat over to the middle column could make. So much more comfortable.

 

 

Although I’ve been away for a week, Ali’s gracious invitation to his wedding after a chance run-in 5 years ago made me feel it was more than just another week away, but rather a years-long course towards destiny.

Serendipities rarely have a profoundly lasting effect when you stretch them over a long enough period of time, but this one definitely did.

 

 

 

- At time of posting in Murree, Pakistan, it was 7 °C - Humidity: 70% | Wind Speed: 10km/hr | Cloud Cover: overcast

 

Putting The Kewl Back In The Khewra Salt Mines

Putting The Kewl Back In The Khewra Salt Mines

 

With wedding festivities wrapped up and saying our goodbyes to Daniela, Emily, Jen, Eugene, and Amy last night, the 5 of us remaining headed on a 4 hour road trip this morning to the Khewra Salt Mines, the oldest and 2nd largest (after the one in Poland) in the world.

 

 

Discovered by Alexander The Great’s army in 320 BC and active since the Mughal era, the mine produces 350,000 tons of pink Himalayan salt a year.

Although the entry fee is cheap for local Pakistanis (like a few rupees), it costs $20 USD to enter for foreigners, or $10 USD if you have a student ID. You can get tickets right at the stand by the parking lot.

 

 

After getting our tickets, we headed to the right of the ticket office and walked down the long path towards the railway at the end.

 

 

You can either wait here for the trolley that comes every 15-20 minutes, or walk down the 1km tunnel on your own, dodging the trolley as it comes by.

 

 

Once at the end of the tunnel, we walked for 30 minutes in a big giant circle counter clockwise beginning at Chandni Chowk:

 

 

Along the way are numerous brine lakes excavated for salt production:

 

 

There’s a grand 75m high assembly hall leading to a replica of the Minar-e-Pakistan in Lahore:

 

 

And near the café at the end is Pul-Saraat, a salt bridge with no pillars over a 25m deep brine pond.

 

 

Afterwards we had a very late lunch outside the salt mines; its on-site restaurant delivered substantially!

 

 

Our view:

 

 

We then made the 4 hour drive back to Rawalpindi, meeting up with the newlyweds Ali and Kulsoom at Diva Bahria for another friend’s engagement party.

 

 

Of course, the best part was the fact that Ali and Kulsoom were finally able to let loose now that their wedding functions were finally over. 

 

 

Tomorrow: we make a drive north up to the gateway to Kashmir!

 

- At time of posting in Khewra, it was 17 °C - Humidity: 58% | Wind Speed: 5km/hr | Cloud Cover: partly cloudy

 

Islamabad: A 5 Year Promise

Islamabad: A 5 Year Promise

 

Islamabad just got served

 

How I Got Here

5 years ago I crashed a random wedding in Lahore where of all the “WTF small world moments” I’ve had in my life I would run into an acquaintance named Ali Raza, whom I had first met briefly when I spoke at CUNY Baruch only a year prior.

Flabbergasted, we then took a photo together and he remarked that whenever he‘d get married he would invite me to come back to Pakistan and attend his wedding, insha’allah!

 

 

We then don’t speak until 5 years later when I get an invitation in the mail: He’s a man of his word.

 

 

And so am I. Pakistan 2.0, let’s go.

This time with the help of Ali’s father, I avoided the shitshow I had went through last time trying to get a Pakistani visa and instead acquired my visa within 4 days. They even gave me multiple entry!

 

 

Ali was also even gracious enough to invite/let me bring along a few monsooners to help him celebrate!

 

 

Qatar Airways Business Class: 1-2-1 Herringbone

After a very comfortable 24 hour journey on Qatar Airways’ new Qsuite Business Class, eventually reaching Doha from a conference in Boulder, Colorado, I headed out for my last 3 hour leg to Islamabad on Qatar’s older business class seat in the classic 1-2-1 herringbone configuration.

 

 

Aside from the obvious differences of less privacy and no sliding doors, the amenities kits are understandably smaller and simpler.

 

 

For the meal I opted for a cold chicken tandoori appetizer.

 

 

For dessert, they served a caramel cheese cake and a bowl of small fruits.

 

 

Arriving Into Islamabad

We arrived at Islamabad International Airport at 1:50am in the morning.

 

 

And just like how I felt last time when I arrived into Pakistan 5 years ago at the arrivals area in Lahore’s International Airport, the staring games once again commenced the moment I stepped into arrivals. Oh how I missed even this.

 

 

Once outside arrivals, Ali’s driver and Ali himself (as well as Daniela, who arrived earlier that morning) greeted and drove us over to our lodgings in Rawalpindi.

 

 

We finally settled in at 3am at Jungle Barracks, which was actually an awesome place to stay and run by ex-military officers looking a perfect place to stay active in their retirement. Super secure, safe, and has all the frills I need for a comfortable stay. And the WiFi here is excellent!

 

 

The next morning we chilled out and basked in our Vitamin D. The weather here this season during the day is perfect.

 

 

We have separate entries for Ali’s Mehndi/Rasm-e-Heena, Baraat/Shaadi, and the Walima in case you want to take a peek at all the outfits and splendor of the functions here. But this post will be devoted to our city tours of the planned capital city of Islamabad over the course of our week here.

 

Exploring Islamabad

We began with a drive up to serene village of northern Saidpur, which existed long before Islamabad.

 

 

There we had a late lunch at Des Pardes:

 

 

Nearby here you can keep driving up Daman-e-Koh for stunning views:

 

 

While you’re up there you can dine at The Monal for an unforgettable meal overlooking Islamabad:

 

 

After dining at The Monal we drove south to visit Islamabad’s most recognizable landmark, the Faisal MosqueIt was built in 1987 and designed to resemble a Bedouin tent.

 

 

For lesser-visited sights, if you need to go shop, there is the daily hustle at Jinnah Super Market:

 

 

You can also drive down the green avenues of wealthy Blue Area:

 

 

On the southwest side of town is the Pir Meher Ali Shah Shrine in the Golra area.

 

 

And on the northeast side in Nurpur Shaha is the Shrine Of Hazrat Bari Imam Sarkar:

 

 

If you’re visiting on a Sunday, don’t miss the weekly shops that open up at Itwar Bazar:

 

 

Or go shopping at any of the local chowks by Shakaparian Park:

 

 

To finish off your day, don’t miss the Pakistan Monument. It’s a gorgeous structure built in the shape of blooming flower petals.

 

 

And stop along Rawal Lake for sunset if you have time.

 

 

- At time of posting in Islamabad, Pakistan, it was 17 °C - Humidity: 58% | Wind Speed: 8km/hr | Cloud Cover: sunny

 

A Wedding In Islamabad – Day 3: The Walima

A Wedding In Islamabad – Day 3: The Walima

 

(continued) This will be the third international Muslim Desi wedding I’ve attended (the first was in Kashmir in 2011, the second in Lahore and Karachi in 2014), so I’m amused to consider myself an “expert” now.  

We finish with Day 3 of a desi wedding: The Walima. This is when the groom hosts the bride’s family at their home, formally celebrating the consummation of their marriage and publicly displaying themselves as a new couple. It’s also to reassure the bride’s family that the she is safe with the groom and all is well.

 

 

It’s also where we feed ourselves with more amazing Pakistani food and celebrate one last time with the family, as well as take more dapper photos of our vain selves.

 

 

Can’t get enough of these weddings!

 

- At time of posting in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, it was 16 °C - Humidity: 66% | Wind Speed: 5km/hr | Cloud Cover: sunny

 

A Wedding In Islamabad – Day 2: The Baraat / The Shaadi

A Wedding In Islamabad – Day 2: The Baraat / The Shaadi

 

 

(continued) This will be the third international Muslim Desi wedding I’ve attended (the first was in Kashmir in 2011, the second in Lahore and Karachi in 2014), so I’m amused to consider myself an “expert” now.  

We continue with Day 2 of a desi wedding: The Baraat or The Shaadi.

After returning from Lahore in the evening, we changed quickly and headed over to our friend Ali’s (the groom) house again. This time we’re seeing him off personally to the Barat.

 

 

We then followed his convoy back to the Marriott Islamabad. The Barat commences when Ali is first introduced with his family . . .

 

 

. . . and minutes later his bride, Kulsoom, arrives with her family to be ceremoniously betrothed to Ali. The bride’s family hosts the groom’s for the Barat so that the bride can be formally taken to his home “for the first time.”

 

 

While the Mehndi is brashly colorful and celebratory, the Barat instead is the more regal affair:

 

 

We have some traditional cake-cutting:

 

 

After a few games where Ali has to playfully barter to get his shoes back from Kulsoom’s sisters who try to get him to stay, Kulsoom has to cry her eyes out at the end. 

Like, it’s mandatory. Look at Ali’s grin in the background: “she’s been practicing all week for this!”

 

 

For guests, we spend the entire evening shmoozing, passively watching the ongoing celebrations at our leisure, eating to our wits end, and taking group photos together:

 

 

We happen to have enough monsooners tonight for a Prague/Budapest Monsoon Reunion Photo!

 

 

 

- At time of posting in Islamabad, Pakistan, it was 20 °C - Humidity: 50% | Wind Speed: 8km/hr | Cloud Cover: mostly cloudy

 

Some Lahorious S-Wagah

Some Lahorious S-Wagah

 

 

Thanks to Ann Wen again for help with the blog title!

A lot of this has been repeated the last time I was in Lahore, but the highlight that I came back for would be the Wagah Border between India and Pakistan. 

 

Lahore

After the Mehndi/Rasm-e-Heena ended at 3am, we crashed for 3-4 hours at our hotel before being picked up at 6am for a long 5 hour drive to Lahore. What a blur. I remember a quick pit stop at a McDonald’s somewhere in the middle before waking up in the Shahdara district in front of the entrance for Jahangir’s Tomb

FYI nearby are also the tombs of Noor Jahan and Asif Khan.

 

 

After half an hour here, we headed south across the Ravi River and drove east towards the border town of Wagah. Along the way we stopped by and wandered around the Shalimar Gardens, a UNESCO World Heritage Site:

 

 

The Wagah Border

It takes about a full hour to drive from Lahore to the infamous Wagah Border between India and Pakistan, where the flag lowering ceremony has become a daily public exhibition between two nations with a complicated relationship.

 

 

It’s free to view, and everyday the ceremony starts at 4:15 PM in winter and 5:15 PM in summer. Get there at least an hour before to ensure adequate seating, which we did at 3pm. 

 

 

Once we arrived we snagged VIP status thanks to Ali’s dad’s hookups. So we were first greeted with complimentary tea in the VIP holding area.

 

 

We even got a group photo printed and framed for us on the spot!

 

 

Then staff escorted us to our front row seats by the border where we saw all the action commence at 4:15pm

 

 

Current India and Pakistan relations in a nutshell:

 

 

Once the drumming begins and the announcers over the loudspeakers begin to lead a chant, soldiers from each side compete round after round over who can stare down, shout, yell, sing, and out-goose-step better than each other.

 

 

After 45 minutes of well-choreographed theatrics, a soldier from each country then shake hands to finish off the ceremony. That part is nice.

 

 

Back To Lahore

After the ceremony we drove back to Lahore and parked along Food Street for dinner.

 

 

Among the many restaurants here, we chose to have dinner overlooking the Badshahi Mosque at legendary Cucoo’s Den, where I dined as well 4 years prior:

 

 

The view never gets old:

 

4 years ago

 

We then turned in at Hotel One by Liberty Market for the evening, catching up on sleep and up the next morning at 7:30am for a drive over to visit Hazrat Data Ali Hajveri:

 

 

Afterwards we returned to the walled city, first to stop by the Gurdwara of Arjan Dev, but alas their “ticket guy” was unavailable for an hour, so we had to skip it. 

Thankfully such was not the case when we next visited what is arguably Lahore’s most iconic attraction, the glorious Badshahi Mosque.

 

 

After 30 minutes here, we sauntered over to the Minar-e-Pakistan nearby, Pakistan’s replica of the Eiffel Tower.

 

 

Sadly we would miss the other highlights of Lahore I was able to visit 4 years ago, but we were running late for Ali’s Baraat portion of his wedding so we had to leave by noon for the 5-6 hour drive back to Islamabad.

 

- At time of posting in Lahore, Pakistan, it was n/a - Humidity: n/a | Wind Speed: n/a | Cloud Cover: n/a