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.

Murree

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

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?
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