31 October – 4 November 2019. First visit to Pakistan
Thursday 31 October 2019
A very painful night’s sleep. My fingers are badly swollen, and forming a grip is a painful and slow process. I kept waking up due to the pain of moving my hand. Molly the dog didn’t help by wanting to go outside for a pee at 6 am! I finished packing and my driver collected me at 11 am for the trip to Heathrow. I couldn’t lift any suitcase or bag with my right hand, so this could be problematic on a trip where I have three bags/suitcases!
The drive to Heathrow was very smooth and quick, just on two hours, and I managed to work on my Mac book with my left hand, catching up on emails and writing reports for next week’s Board Meeting. Flying today with Emirates airline for the first time. After my recent very positive experience with Qatar airlines I was curious to see how Emirates lined up. It started well, the check in was uncrowded, plenty of desks, and straight through fast track security. The Emirates lounge at Terminal 3 is most impressive. After the often over crowded feel and uncoordinated and tired furniture in the BA lounges the Emirates Lounge was a breath of fresh air. Everything was so clean, tidy, well spaced, with an excellent range of food, both hot, cold and snacks. I enjoyed a chicken salad with quinoa, some cheese and flat bread, and a fresh fruit plate. The champagne was excellent. An added benefit is the lounge is next to the gate, so we exited from the lounge side door straight onto the ramp and into the aircraft. We took off on time, just after 4.30 pm.
My seat was comfortable, spacious, but lacked the drawers and cupboards one finds on BA and Qatar for storing small items. I did like the minibar bar of soft drinks beside my seat, and the very wide TV screen. The working desk, which came out side ways from the arm rest and panel, was generous in size, but I found it slightly too high for working on (the seat on Qatar had a separate setting for ‘work/eat’ which raised the seat to the optimal height for the desk). There are four seats across the aircraft. The outer two by the windows are clearly defined as pods, and have a high degree of privacy. I sat in the middle two, and although there was a panel between the two seats which could be raised, it lacked privacy. The TV screens are so large that even with the privacy screen raised I could clearly see what the person beside was watching, and of course their legs and space! Great if you are a couple, but a little too intimate if traveling alone.
After clearing some emails and paperwork, the meal service began. I ordered a dry martini – which was superb – followed by Butternut squash soup, grilled Dover sole fillet (both of which were ‘okay’ but not inspiring) and an excellent rhubarb and vanilla panna cotta. This was washed down with a spectacular Chateau Moulinet 2009 (Pomerol, France) and followed with a large glass of 1992 Dow’s Colheita Port with my chocolates from Belgium. There is also a bar on the flight. It is a form of small lounge, with some tables, chairs and a limited stocked bar and a barman. It was strange to see some people spend virtually the entire flight in there drinking. At least it provided an option to visit other than sitting on one’s seat for 7 hours.
The flight landed in Dubai at 11.30 pm body time, 2.30 am local time. It was a seamless walk through the connecting flight security and then into the vast Emiates lounge, which clearly opens 24 hours a day. There was only time for a quick refreshing mint tea and then it was time to board the next flight to Lahore, Pakistan. Tiredness was now setting in, and with this next leg only being 3 hours, there would be little time for sleep. The seats on this flight were a little narrower, not pods, but they did convert to a relatively flat bed. I read my book for a few minutes, and then started to fall asleep. I converted the seat to a bed and napped for about 90 minutes. Much needed.
Friday 1 November 2019
We landed in Lahore on time at 8 am.
Lahore is the capital of the Pakistan province of Punjab. Lahore is the country’s second-most populous city after Karachi. Lahore is one of Pakistan’s wealthiest cities, with an estimated GDP of $58.14 billion. It is one of Pakistan’s most socially liberal, progressive and cosmopolitan cities.
Lahore exerts a strong cultural influence over Pakistan. It is a major centre for Pakistan’s publishing industry, and remains the foremost centre of Pakistan’s literary scene. The city is also a major centre of education in Pakistan, with some of Pakistan’s leading universities based in the city.
Immigration at the airport was fairly quick and painless. The luggage even came within minutes – it was all remarkably efficient. Then, as we walked outside with our luggage there was no sign of our driver and car. We waited 30 minutes but no show. My booking document did not have any telephone numbers to call to complain or find out if there was a delay. Plan B, get a taxi. First I had to get some cash. I found an ATM, and was asked on the screen how many rupees I needed. I realized I had no idea how many rupees to the pound, so had to abandon the ATM and wander around the airport, wearing my blazer and looking very Alan Whicker like, trying to find a wifi signal to be able to Google search the conversion rate. The fact this trip is jinxed again crossed my mind!
After obtaining my rupees I had a piece of luck, and spotted a kiosk for our hotel. I asked the man at it if an airport transfer would be possible. He very kindly immediately gave me a driver and car, and we headed off to the hotel. The drive was classic developing country, cows and donkeys wandering along the road, liter everywhere, heart wrenching signs of extreme poverty, interspersed with fabulous looking markets of fresh fruit and vegetables. I could have been back to other trips this past 12 months in Kenya and Ethiopia.
The hotel, Avari Lahore, is part of a chain owned by Mr Byram D Avari (Chairman) and his sons Dinshaw and Xerxes. The 188 room, full service 5-Star Hotel is situated on 48,000 sq. yards of land in the city center of Lahore, abutting The Mall Road. Avari Lahore is the recipient of 6 consecutive World Travel Award for the Leading Hotel in Pakistan. All public areas have gone through a major renovation, including the first-of-its-kind in Pakistan circular, all-glass grand staircase.
A smooth check-in, and into my spacious room by 10 am. I didn’t bother to unpack, but showered and went straight to bed. The curtains thankfully had a blackout lining, so along with my eye sleeping mask, I was able to quickly go to a much needed sleep. I awoke 4 hours later at 2 pm, and headed for a cup of tea with our hosts at 3 pm in the hotel lobby. Outside my window what I had first thought when we landed at Lahore was a fog or mist was in fact smog. Lahore has apparently developed a very poor level of air quality. I decided not to run outside or use the outdoor swimming pool during this visit.
The conference (I was attending the Pakistan Nutrition and Dietetics Society 1st International Conference on Non-Communicable Diseases) began at 6 pm (on time – which is very rare for me in my international travels!), with heavy security because the President of Pakistan was the principal guest. He delivered a very good address, after which there was a brief dinner (a welcome moment because I realized I had not eaten for 20 hours) and then back to my room by 9.30 pm. Time to unpack, pop a melatonin pill, and then asleep by 11 pm.
Saturday 2nd November 2019
A great sleep, awake at 7 am, no jet lag. Breakfast very good – everything from fruit, toast, eggs, through to curry! Opening session of the conference was at 9 am, followed by a light luncheon outdoors beside the swimming pool – the smog had lifted, and a warm 25c settled. I am becoming aware that even at 5ft 10” in height I am very tall here, especially amongst the women. After luncheon I was approached by the organizer of the next day’s breakfast career symposium I was due to attend as a panelist who asked if I would instead deliver a speech at the event for 10 minutes on leadership. I agreed, and headed back to room, not to write the speech, but to watch the Rugby World Cup Final!
The Cup Final was not being screened in Pakistan, so I had to download a temporary piece of software to enable me to change my IP address to the UK, which in turn allowed me to log in to ITV Hub. I watched the game, but half my mind was on my speech and what to say. As the game ran further away from England I focused more and more on the speech! Over the next two hours the bigger plan for the rest of today unraveled. We had been scheduled to meet at 7 pm in the lobby to head out for dinner with our hosts. This changed (thanks to messages on What’s App) to a bi-lateral meeting with our hosts to discuss further collaboration at 6 pm, followed by dinner at 7 pm. 30 minutes later this changed to joining on a driving tour of the city of Lahore at 6 pm, followed by dinner, with the bi-lateral now taking place at 9 am the next morning. I pointed out they had asked me to attend a breakfast symposium at 8 am until 10 am, so I couldn’t be in two places at the same time. Not to worry they replied, we can have the bi-lateral meeting without you – how can that then be a bi-lateral meeting if one of the two parties is not there?
I am sure we were now exposing some the challenges of using What App across international languages!
With the new 6 pm start, time was rapidly running out to finish my speech, so some drastic culling was made to reduce it from 15 minutes to 10 minutes – one quick run through reading aloud against the clock, shower, change, and in reception at 6 pm for the city tour. The 6 pm city tour began at 6.20 pm in the dark (yes, rather challenging!). There followed the single most terrifying car ride of my life – sitting in the front row of the minibus I witnessed rickshaws, motorbikes, buses, cars crossing our front diagonally, being over taken, overtaking, no lanes, disregard for traffic lights, endless honking of car horns. Pure unadulterated chaos.
Occasionally our driver would yell out to the left or right some landmark (which of course we couldn’t see as it was dark) and then we arrived at our restaurant – Poets, one of the finest in Lahore. It was in what appeared to be a very large park (no vehicles allowed). A lovely setting, chandeliers from the ceilings, white tablecloths, indoor and outdoor seating. The night air was warm and fragrant and the glow of lights from the mosque and monument created a somewhat surreal and calming atmosphere. I began to understand how alluring India/Pakistan must have been to the English in the 19th and early 20th century.
The food in Poets was outstanding. Dish after dish arrived, table top BBQs, hotplates, bowls, breads, fire, smoke, everything deliciously spicy but not hot in the mouth (hot food being a particular dislike of mine). I cannot remember the names of anything I ate, but that it was simply wonderful. The meal concluded with rice pudding served upon a bowl of dry ice – very dramatic. We had not had any alcohol since arriving on Friday, Pakistan being a ‘dry’ culture, and I cannot confess to having missed it. However tonight was different – a cold bottle of Riesling or perhaps a Gurversteiner would have complemented that meal perfectly.
We walked out of the restaurant and boarded a small modern rickshaw and went for a 9.30 pm ride around the Iqbal Park, inside the walled city, up close to the Minar-e-Pakistan, which is a national monument. The tower was built between 1960 and 1968 on the site where the All-India Muslim League passed the Lahore Resolution on 23 March 1940 – the first official call for a separate and independent homeland for the Muslims of British India, as espoused by the two-nation theory. The resolution eventually helped lead to the emergence of an independent Pakistani state in 1947.
Some form of protest was taking place, in addition to very loud and repetitive chanting (which I assume was a prayer) being blasted over a loud speaker system. We drove back to the restaurant and onto our minibus for a further hair raising ride back to the hotel. I reconnected with Wi-fi at the hotel to find an email from the organizers of the morning symposium announcing the planned 8.30 am start would now be at 8 am, and the venue had changed from being in the main plenary hall to now being on the outdoor terrace – clearly I must remain flexible! I was in bed and sound asleep by 11 am.
Sunday 3rd November 2019
Having woken at 6.30 am to run through my speech (to be delivered at 8 am) a few times I headed down to breakfast at 7.30 am. Although my symposium was called a breakfast meeting I was unsure whether it would include breakfast (and as someone who traditionally refuses to attend breakfast meetings because I do not believe breakfast to be a time for talking – and singularly they are the worst invention ever to come out of America – I would rather talk and not be eating!) so I went to the dining room at 7.30 am for my now usual Breakfast of cereal, toast, fruit and coffee.
Promptly at 8 am I arrived at the outdoor terrace only to find hardly anyone there. Slowly, over the next 25 minutes people drifted in (I don’t think the change of time back to 8 am had reached any people). The 6 panelists, myself included, were invited to sit in a row facing 5 long tables of young scientists and graduates and provide a few words of introduction each about our backgrounds and what we could contribute to the discussion. I clutched my speech, waiting for the cue to deliver it.
Each panelist was then asked to deliver a short view on career advice, including me, and then it was breakfast – no speech needed! I adopted my best fixed smile and headed over to breakfast – two hours spent writing a speech and preparing a PowerPoint presentation – all for no reason. All was not lost though as I joined a table of young scientists/researchers and we spent the next 45 minutes discussing the good and bad of CVs and job interviews – this was a much better use of my time.
The rest of the day was a blur of endless selfies, photographs, tea breaks, lunch with the organizers to discuss our long term strategy of working together, and then a long closing ceremony, with more photographs and lots of farewells.
At 6 pm we were invited to go shopping and have dinner. I quickly changed clothes, ordered a car at reception to take us to the airport in the morning at 7 am, and then we headed to the shops at 7 pm.
Another terrifying drive across Lahore and to a huge shopping mall, not at all what I had expected. Packages Mall is open until 1 am everyday. Families with small children were still arriving at 10.30 pm!
We shopped, purchased some gifts for my wife, and we headed to the Food Court. I could have been anywhere in the UK – KFC, MacDonalds, Subway, Wraps, burgers, ice cream etc. People, all looking fairly affluent, were tucking into all this western food – yet not more an few streets away from this Mall is appalling levels of poverty. What a strange world we live in.
We arrived back at the hotel at midnight, only to be told by the receptionist it would be better if we left for the airport at 6 am, rather than 7 am – I hadn’t even had the chance to pack yet (because of the very busy schedule). I finished packing (it was not pretty!) by 1 am and went straight to sleep.
Monday 4th November 2019
Time to fly – first to Dubai, and then onto London. Alarm went off at 5 am, straight into the shower to force myself to wake up – only 4 hours sleep. So tired. The porter collected my suitcases at 5.40 am to check out. Breakfast did not start until 6 am, so the receptionist kindly offered to organize some coffee and toast, which was delivered to me in the lobby within minutes. A nice touch. At 6 am the car arrived and we were whisked off to the airport. I had expected heavy traffic as the reason why they changed our departure time from a relatively civilized 7 am to 6 am. We drove though quiet streets very quickly and found ourselves being dropped off outside the departures at the airport at 6.30 am.
Chaos is the only word that can describe the scene. Cars parked three deep against the kerb, no order or system, certainly none of those overly officious individuals you find in most western airports patrolling the kerb outside departures looking to ‘move you on’ after 2 minutes. People had clearly just abandoned their cars outside to see off their friends and relatives. There were two obvious doors into international departures with a security guard at each checking one had a flight ticket and passport. Before that were the masses, pushing and jostling to form two lines. It was impossible to see a way through, with luggage carts, suitcases, people, children.
I now understood why we had been encouraged to arrive early – it was going to take some time to get through here, and I sensed security and immigration would be the same. Then, to my right hand side, a young man with a badge hanging on a lanyard and wearing an informal kind of uniform appeared and pushed his way to me. He offered “fast track”, “do not queue up with these common people”, it would cost 3,000 rupees (£15). This was an easy decision (as I recalled my Father’s stories from his visits in the 1980s to India about how he had to bribe people to get anything done). This young man then came alive. He managed the 3 suitcases belonging to my travel colleague and I and pushed his way out of the crowd, with much shouting. We went to a side door, and he showed our tickets and passports to an official who waved us in. Now were in security.
He put our suitcases and hand luggage through the inspecting machine, went through security with us. I was patted down by a security guard who asked where I was from – “England” I replied. “Ah”, he said, “our old colonial rulers. You are very war like people”. “Just friends now” I replied – he seemed to like that response, laughed and waved me through. I realized I had not removed my laptop or ‘phone from my bag and pocket, but that didn’t seem to matter. I thanked our young man, and paid him his 3,000 rupees. He said we hadn’t finished yet, and led us to the check-in desk. Even though there were a couple of people queuing up for business class he barged past them to the desk and presented our passports to the counter. He engaged another airport official, this time with a far more impressive looking security badge around his neck who took my hand luggage, whilst we were checked in. He then asked for a further 2,000 rupees (£10) for this task.
Now we were in the hands of a new official ‘guide’. He took our boarding passes and VIP lounge passes, and passports, and we moved along to immigration. A very long queue of about 15 people (in fact 6 long queues) faced us. Undeterred he pushed his way through to the front, with everyone meekly stepping aside, and suddenly we were at the front of the immigration line. Passports checked we then followed him up the stairs to the Lounge, where he walked straight in ignoring the front desk and found two chairs and a table for us, put down my hand luggage and said “Have a safe flight”. He then looked at me for money. A further 2,000 rupees later he left us. We looked at the clock – it was only 6.55 am, and we felt exhausted by that 20 minute, quite unique, experience. My colleague remarked about the ‘class system’ at play, to which I replied that I know who they learnt that from!
We drank coffee and waited for the boarding at 8.50 am. It was only a short walk to the Gate, and time to stop at the gift shop to purchase the tacky gift for the office (last year we decided to stop bringing chocolates and biscuits back from international trips and replace them with ‘tacky gifts’ as a bit of fun. We are gathering quite the collection of shot glasses, snow globes and other paraphernalia in the office!). The flight was only half full, so plenty of room, and quick service. An excellent breakfast of mushroom and paneer omelette, the best croissant I have ever tasted in the air, strong coffee and two glasses of Moët Chandon and life began to return to normality.
A 2 hour stop in Dubai allowed time to pick up some cigars from Duty Free, snack on some cheese and nuts and champagne in the vast lounge, and then board at 2 pm local time the flight back to London. Moët before take off, a fabulous Martini once airborne, and then food. Smoked salmon, an amazing pan fried beef tenderloin (which I would classify, uniquely, as historic) and a fabulous cheese board (mature cheddar, Pave de chèvre goat’s cheese and a BerghemBlu Italian blue cheese). More of the Chateau Moulinet 2009 (Pomerol, France) and followed with a large glass of 1992 Dow’s Colheita Port, and then a Hennessy X.O cognac. After clearing the last of my emails and paperwork I settled down to watch a gritty, yet enjoyable, movie The Corrupted.
We landed at Heathrow at 5.30 pm, luggage was very quick to arrive, my driver was waiting, so we were heading into London at 6.15 pm. I arrived at my Club at 7 pm, and decided to forgo dinner after such a long day. I grabbed a cigar from my new duty free haul and took it for a walk, for one of my favourite walks in London – Piccadilly, St James, Jermyn Street, Piccadilly Circus, Regent Street and back to Mayfair through South Audley Street. As far removed from the streets of Lahore as you could imagine. Back in the Club by 9 pm. A delicious cup of hot chocolate in bed, more Melatonin, then quickly asleep. What a trip that had been, and only 74 hours spent in Pakistan!