Pakistan 50 Years Ago

As mentioned in an earlier post, my parents and my big sister lived in Pakistan during 1970/71 and I used to travel out to visit them from UK during my school holidays. My big brother was studying at university in England at the time but he joined us on at least one of those holiday trips.

These were fun family times. Here are some of Mum and Dad’s photos of Pakistan fifty years ago.


Bus on the road to Murree.

My Dad was working at the British High Commission in Islamabad. Whenever he had a day off he would drive us up into the hills to places like Murree, a hill station only 19 miles from Islamabad. Here, at an altitude of around 7,500 ft, the air was cooler (and snowy in winter), the air was fresh and scented with pine and we could see for miles.

Cecil Hotel, Murree

We sometimes had a lunch or afternoon tea at the Cecil Hotel, one of the oldest hotels in Pakistan dating from 1851. It was used for a while as an official residence for Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India.

Church in Murree

The Holy Trinity Church on the Mall was built in 1857 and was the centre of colonial life in the town during the days of the Raj.

The Mall in Murree.
New West End Hotel and Restaurant with three bookshops downstairs.
The Ambassador Hotel boasted a ballroom, skating and billiards.
Cable Car near Murree.
On the way to Abbottabad.

On one occasion Dad drove us as far as Abbottabad in the mountainous Hazara region of 75 miles north of Islamabad. This town was founded and named after Major James Abbott in 1853. It was here that Osama Bin Laden was found hiding in 2011.

Islamabad & Rawalpindi

View of Margalla Hills from my parents’ house. Obviously security was not such an issue in those days.

My parents’ house in the British High Commission compound in Islamabad looked out towards the Margalla Hills. The compound had a communal swimming pool, a tennis court and a clubhouse for High Commission employees.

My Mum never learnt to swim but she was happy enough to splash around in the shallow end. My sister was on what, today, we would call a gap year which mainly involved lying around the pool working on her tan. She enjoyed the club and found that she could order a steak and chips and Swan Lager and just sign for it on my Dad’s account.

Staff of the British High Commission Club.

My sister was young and pretty and attracted a good deal of unwanted attention from gawking locals. To better blend in, she sometimes wore locally-made trouser suits instead of the short skirts which were in fashion in Europe at the time.

The Durzi

The durzi (tailor) would come to our house with his sewing machine and find a shady spot on the terrace and in a couple of hours he would make up whatever clothes my Mum and sister requested.

One of our short-lived cooks.

Mum was happy with the house which was modern and simply furnished by the British Ministry of Works. On arrival in Pakistan she was told that she should hire a cook but she had difficulty in finding a Pakistani cook who could live up to her exacting standards and they didn’t stay long. The record was Mohamed who was fired on his first day. Mum sent him to the market to buy a few things and he came back with some scraggy old mutton and tried to cheat her out of the change. She decided then not to bother with a cook. She was always a good cook anyway.

Government Offices in Islamabad in 1970

When Pakistan became independent in 1947 its capital was Karachi but in 1958 the Pakistani government started looking for a site for a new national capital. It selected a plateau below the Himalayan foothills near Rawalpindi and a Greek architect and town planner was chosen to design the master plan of a new city to be named Islamabad with spacious verdant avenues arranged on a grid pattern. Construction began in the 1960s and the British High Commission compound was still incomplete during my parents’ time.

A general view of the new city of Islamabad.
The Intercontinental Hotel, Rawalpindi.
Horse drawn tongas were still a common method of transport in the 1970s and not just for tourists.

Habib Bank Computer House, probably in Rawalpindi. If the building housed Habib Bank’s computer centre it must have been quite advanced for its time. My Dad banked with Grindlays Bank in Rawalpindi.

A pretty pink mosque near Islamabad.
Smiling street urchins in Rawalpindi. They’re probably all millionaires living in London now.
Camels all decked out for a wedding.
I think this is St. Paul’s Church in Rawalpindi.In 2017 it was estimated that Christians made up 1.27% of the population of Pakistan.

After writing this post I think I would like to go back to Islamabad, Rawalpindi and Murree to see how things have changed.

Afghanistan 50 Years Ago (Part 2)

Khyber Pass

Further to my recent blog on Afghanistan, I have come across some more old photos of Pakistan and Afghanistan while sorting through the belongings of my mother, who sadly passed away recently.

Here are the Afghan pics from the period 1970-71. They are photos of slides projected on a wall so the resolution is not great but they have a certain vintage quality to them.

Jamil Hotel, Kabul 1970

The Jamil Hotel in Kabul. I don’t know if it is the same place but this is what Lonely Planet says about Jamil Hotel in its latest Kabul guide: ‘This hotel was popular with backpackers until recently, when the police banned it from accepting foreign guests. Rooms have en suite, and although there is sometimes a problem with the water, the management should keep you supplied with buckets.’ Fortunately my parents did not stay there!


No sure if this is Afghanistan or Pakistan. Both had equally high incidence of traffic accidents due to overloading, poor maintenance, dangerous roads and lack of driver training.

Typical scenery.
Khyber Rifles

The Khyber Rifles was set up as an auxiliary unit of the British Indian Army to help control the lawless North West Frontier province. After independence, they became part of the Pakistan Army. This is their headquarters, Shagia Fort, near Ali Masjid in Pakistan, photographed by my parents on their way to Afghanistan via the Khyber Pass.

Salang Pass?

The average altitude of Afghanistan is around 4,000 ft but climbs to as much as 20,000 ft in the Hindu Kush mountain range. This looks like a mining or quarrying settlement. And yes, that’s snow in the distance.

Salang Tunnel

This is the anti-avalanche gallery at the approach to the Salang Tunnel cutting through the Hindu Kush mountains about 60 miles north of Kabul. At the time this photo was taken it was the highest road tunnel in the world at an altitude of 11,200 ft. It was built in 1964 by the Soviet Union as part of the Soviet-Afghan Friendship Treaty. It came in handy when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan fifteen years later. The date on the tunnel reads 1343 which corresponds to our 1964. Afghanistan, like Iran, uses the Solar Hijri calendar, unlike most other Muslim countries which recognise the Lunar Hijri calendar.

Kabul 1970.
Desolate mountains and fertile valley. Nice artistic photos by my Mum.

I’ll write something about Pakistan in my next post.

Northern Ireland’s Coastal Scenery

Northern Ireland is often overlooked as a tourist destination. Partly this is because of the province’s troubled past and partly because the neighbouring Republic of Ireland attracts the lion’s share of visitors to the Emerald Isle. But Northern Ireland has a lot to offer the traveller, including some of the best coastal scenery in the UK. My wife and daughter and I spent a week there in October 2018. It was barely enough time to scratch the surface but we gained a favourable impression. Here are some of the highlights:

Dunluce Castle was one of the grandest castles in the region and in the early 1600s it included a fine Jacobean manor house, now all in ruins. The castle occupied an almost impregnable headland location with steep cliffs on all sides.

The popular Game of Thrones HBO series was filmed in various locations across Northern Ireland and the local tourism authorities are making the most of the connection to attract visitors. The rugged coastline at Ballintoy Beach featured in a couple of episodes.

The tiny harbour at Ballintoy is protected from churning seas by a seawall. Burned limestone and sett stones used to be exported from here to the British Isles.

Nearby is the small island of Carrick-a-Rede which is joined to the mainland by a rope bridge suspended 30 metres above a chasm.

Northern Ireland’s most famous natural wonder is the Giant’s Causeway, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is a landscape made up of an estimated 40,000 interlocking basalt columns, mostly hexagonal in shape.

It is difficult to imagine that nature could have formed these regular-shaped 12 metre high columns.

There are a number of clifftop trails from which to enjoy the stunning scenery around Giant’s Causeway.

The sun fading over the dramatic coastline at Fairhead, Ballycastle, another Game of Thrones filming location (Dragonstone Cliffs) in the northeastern corner of Ireland.

The landscaped estate called Downhill Demesne was the creation of the Earl Bishop of Derry, Fredrick Hervey, in the 18th century. One of its best features is the circular Mussenden Temple, built as a library for the Bishop and modelled on the Roman Temple of Vesta in Tivoli, Italy.

Built on a clifftop, Mussenden Temple has fantastic views of the beach and railway below.

There are excellent beaches all along the coast of Northern Ireland such as this blue flag award-winning Whiterocks Beach at Portrush. Pity about the gale force wind and grey skies!

Away from the coastal scenery, other places we managed to visit while in Northern Ireland included:

The Old Bushmills Distillery where they have been making Irish whiskey since 1608.

Belfast City Hall contains an interesting permanent exhibition on the history of the city.

Construction of the new (Anglican) Belfast Cathedral began in 1899 and continued for nearly 80 years. A stainless steel spire was added as recently as 2007.

The Palm House at the Belfast Botanic Gardens opened in 1840 and was one of the first curvilinear cast iron glasshouses in the world. It is filled with gorgeous tropical blooms and temperate plants.

The Big Fish is a 10 metre long statue on Donegall Quay, Belfast. It is clad in printed ceramic tiles.

The people of Northern Ireland that we met were very friendly although the accent takes a bit of getting used to. They certainly seem to have a good sense of humour.

Afghanistan 50 Years Ago

I visited Afghanistan three times in 1970/71 with my parents who were living in neighbouring Pakistan at the time. I was just a boy in boarding school in England and I flew out to Pakistan for my Christmas and summer holidays.

My passport.

Looking back, my first flight out was a hellish journey. From school I took the train to Euston, then the London Underground to Victoria. From there, it was around half a mile to walk to the BOAC Terminal on Buckingham Palace Road, lugging my old fashioned suitcase (no wheels on suitcases those days). The case was far too heavy, full of things I would never need on holiday such as a shoe cleaning kit, conkers, foreign coin collection, Beano annual etc. I remember having to stop every few yards to switch hands. Never again! Finally reaching the terminal I was able to check in the suitcase and catch the BOAC coach to Heathrow.

The flight was dreadful. It lasted forever, stopping at Rome and Damascus before landing at Karachi. There was no in-flight entertainment in those days, I felt sick as a parrot, the meals were disgusting (plastic food on plastic trays) and, worst of all, everybody seemed to be smoking. I must have passively inhaled around 100 cigarettes by the time I reached Karachi. Is it too late to sue the airline I wonder?

As an unaccompanied minor, I was escorted to the Speedbird Hotel in Karachi to freshen up and attempt to get a few hours sleep before I was taken back to the Airport and put on a PIA domestic flight to Rawalpindi/Islamabad. This was a much better flight. It was a Fokker Friendship which flew at a lower altitude and, with big windows, I was able to take a good first look at the scorched and rugged Pakistani landscape. The food was much better too, chicken curry served on a tin plate. The only downside was the rather pungent man in the next seat who spent the entire flight excavating his nostrils and wiping the contents on the armrest. My parents and sister were waiting for me at Rawalpindi Airport and the agony of the journey was soon forgotten in all the excitement of the reunion.

Hollywood Express Dry Cleaning, Kabul

Here are some of my parents’ photos of Afghanistan from 1970/71. Sorry for the poor quality. They are photos of slides projected on a wall.

Kabul sheep market, 1971. Modern housing blocks, in the Soviet style, were springing up at this time.

As mentioned, my parents took me to Kabul on three separate occasions. My Dad drove in his Vauxhall Viva via the Khyber Pass and Land Kotal. He had a British Diplomatic passport so the border formalities at the Torkham crossing were not too arduous although on the return journey I remember the Pakistani Customs confiscated a watermelon on health grounds. Apparently they were concerned that we might be importing a disease into Pakistan which they did not already have.

The car registration plate reads Kabul 317T. Not so many cars on the road those days. Not sure what type of car it is. Russian perhaps? Or is it an Iranian Hillman Hunter?

In many ways, Afghanistan was a very different country those days. The population was around 11 million in 1971, compared to nearly 40 million today, and the roads seemed wide and empty. Kabul smelled different from Pakistan due to the use of Soviet petrol which had a distinctive odour.

Typical Afghan scene.

Afghanistan was still ruled by a king, Mohammed Zahir Shah, who tried to steer a careful line between the Soviet Union and the United States, extracting financial aid from both sides. He ruled moderately, introduced free elections and supported women’s rights. The country was free from foreign invaders and largely at peace apart from the usual tribal disputes.

Taking the shopping home.

Kabul was a relative shopping paradise in those days. Afghanistan was a wine producer and my parents always bought a few bottles to take back to Pakistan. My sister bought one of those Afghan coats, which were all the rage those hippy days despite their goaty smell. I remember my Mum and Dad buying me an air rifle and a stamp album. Kabul also had an unregulated foreign exchange market and my father took me to a building full of money changers, many of them Sikhs, who sat at desks piled high with banknotes. My Dad was able to get a much better rate for his transactions in Afghanistan compared to Pakistan and it was one of his main reasons for going there.

The Kabul River contributes a quarter of Afghanistan’s freshwater. Both Pakistan and Afghanistan depend on it. A source of friction in the future?

Afghanistan Situation

Back in 2010 I wrote a letter to David Cameron who had just taken over as Prime Minister of UK. He had inherited the consequences of the 2008 financial crisis and I thought he might like a few suggestions. I don’t know what I was thinking at the time. Perhaps I was hoping he would offer me a job! Clearly I was deluding myself to think that he would take any notice of my ideas. One of his aides sent me a brief acknowledgement while my letter was no doubt consigned to the shredding machine.

Anyway, in this letter, among other things, I urged an immediate withdrawal of UK forces from Afghanistan with a view to saving £2.5 billion per year for the UK taxpayer. This is what I wrote eleven years ago:

‘This is our fourth war in Afghanistan and the Afghans have taken an unbeatable lead in the series, having won two and drawn one. The earlier wars were fought when Britain was at the height of its imperial power with the almost limitless resources of British India right on Afghanistan’s doorstep. The technological superiority of our weaponry over the Afghans’ was at least as great as today and it was a time when the British public had an appetite for imperial adventures and a higher tolerance of casualties. If we could not overcome the Afghans then, what makes us think we will have more success this time? For the Afghan, guerrilla warfare is the national sport, inter-tribal disputes are part of their DNA and advanced weaponry is the ultimate male status symbol. Our Armed Forces of course are excellent but are on a hiding to nothing in Afghanistan. They should be pulled out now while we can still claim an honourable draw.

The Americans will eventually pull out too and the Karzai government is likely to fall. We certainly should not waste further UK taxpayer money on trying to prop up that government with funds and weapons. The Taliban might regain power but their dark reign will not be complete nor will it be permanent. Afghanistan is likely to fragment into rival warlord fiefdoms. It will be sad for the Afghans but ultimately they have to sort out their own problems and perhaps, free from foreign interference for the first time in decades, they will have a chance to forge a more stable future for themselves.’

Pity Mr Cameron didn’t follow my suggestion.

Brunei-Malaysia Border Visible From Space

Brunei is an unusual shaped country, with a large swathe of Malaysian territory (part of Sarawak) separating the western and eastern districts of Brunei. Even more unusual is that its borders are discernible from space. This Google Maps satellite image shows that the majority of Brunei’s territory appears to be a darker shade of green than Malaysia’s.

The reason for this is logging.

This close up of a section of the border reveals a tell-tale maze of dirt logging roads on the Malaysian side, built to extract fallen trees. The jungle on the Brunei side remains relatively pristine.

Here is another section.

This image shows how neat rows of oil palm trees have replaced the rainforest on the Malaysian side of the border.

Why the big difference in land usage between the two countries?

Conservationists would argue that Brunei has done a better job in protecting its forests by:

  • Reducing the number of licensed logging operators.
  • Increasing the area of gazetted (protected) forests to 55% of the total land area.
  • Enforcing laws with regular patrols by forest rangers.
  • Banning the export of raw logs and sawn timber and limiting exports to finished and semi-finished products such as furniture components, door frames, doors etc.

Economists on the other hand might point out that Brunei is so oil-rich (forestry only contributed a minuscule 0.14% to GDP in 2018) that it does not need to exploit its forest resources as aggressively as Malaysia. Furthermore, Brunei’s pampered citizens enjoy generous handouts from government such as free education, healthcare, pensions, housing schemes, subsidised petrol and utilities. Given these perks, there is less incentive for Bruneians to earn a living doing dangerous work in a steaming jungle.

Recent Posts on Northumberland Traveller

I have written some new posts recently on my Northumberland Traveller blog:

Wooler History Walk

St. Abb’s Head Circular Walk

Twizel Castle Walk

Discovery Museum, Newcastle upon Tyne

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Norham – The Most Dangerous Place in England?

I have written a new post about Norham, a small village in Northumberland with a turbulent history.

I have posted it on a new blog, which I have called Northumberland Traveller, where I have transferred all Thrifty Traveller’s existing articles about Northumberland.

You can read about Norham by following this link:

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