Islamabad has always been one of our favorite capital cities. The construction of a new capital was begun in the 1960′s in order to reflect the diversity of the new Pakistani nation.
Set against the backdrop of the Margallah Hills, the city was planned in huge open space grids with evocative place names like F-6, G-2, etc. In a country filled with crowded cities with teeming bazaars, Islamabad was always a contrast and a breath of fresh air.
Its wide tree-lined streets made it especially beautiful. Government buildings, foreign embassies, universities and mosques were laid out on spacious plots with lots of gardens. Market areas were packed with shops, of course, but there was plenty of parking and lots of open parkland around.
In the old days, we hung out at carpet shops and wonderful book stores where modern hardback reprints of old 19th century histories and travelogues could be purchased for three or four dollars. On weekends, when we weren’t hiking or biking in the hills overlooking the city, we could go to open air markets and buy wonderful handicrafts and rub shoulders with all sorts of people.
Sadly, that Islamabad seems to be gone. On this trip, some of the wide boulevards were blacked off with huge steel shipping containers denying access to entire sections of town, often where foreign embassies are located.
Now the largest employers seem to be security guard companies. You can see countless men in
uniform going to their guard jobs on scooters with machine guns slung over their shoulders. These days companies making barbed wire and concrete barriers–both always in view–seem to be more successful than carpet makers. Just getting into the lobby of the Serena, our five-star hotel, required four separate security checks.
Once inside the Islamabad Serena, you seem to be in another world. Nested on fourteen acres of land and gardens, the hotel was built by the Aga Khan, to provide an oasis of beauty. During our former trips, this premier hotel in Islamabad was full of Americans, many of whom were on temporary duty to or visiting the U.S. Embassy. This time we only saw one American, a professor, during our stay at the hotel. The few foreigners in sight were limited to mostly mountain climbers waiting, like us, for clear weather to fly to the high peaks in the north.
The American Embassy, which numbers over one thousand American employees, now houses all on the Embassy compound. It has filled all its gardens and softball fields with trailers as residences. There are strict restrictions on travel outside the embassy because of security.
When we were out with Pakistani friends shopping or eating in restaurants, we NEVER saw another westerner. In museums, which used to be full of foreign tourists, they turned on the lights for us. We were the object of curiosity to groups of children on field trips, who were not used to foreigners. They left on their school buses, each armed with the guard carrying the ubiquitous machine gun.
Each day we returned to our hotel to find that the flight to the mountains had once again been cancelled by bad weather…or by finding we were not next in line for the few available seats. There was just one daily flight to Hunza in a propeller plane to the 12,000 foot landing strip, and the view had to be clear to fly.
The fallback plan had been to drive to Hunza, which took about 20 hours…if there were not any landslides. Clearly, we did not want to drive through Taliban territory in Waziristan, and so decided to cut short our trip and return home.
When we travel we always use the free online “Smart Traveler Program” run by the U.S. government to register when and where we will be in case of emergency. As we had left Pakistan early, we were in our shop on Whidbey Island when our phone range with the “Amber Alert” text sound. The message was a warning from the Embassy in Islamabad to all Americans in light of the bombings at F-6 (our favorite hang-out) the night before.