Destination Pakistan: Mythbusters for Karachiites
If any of you want to take a road trip but are hesitant or afraid because of the horror stories that you may have heard, dispel all myths and go ahead, recommends M. Ali Habib
When I first told my family and friends that I wanted to make a road trip from Karachi to Nathiagali, they gave me a number of reasons why it was a bad idea. From being told that I would be kidnapped to the financial cost, most people cringed at the thought of making a road trip all the way to one of the "lesser developed" regions of the country. Why would I undertake such madness, was the common refrain.

Beauty of indigenous flowers reigns supreme at Karachi University
The species of native flowers at KU that authorities at the campus continue to neglect have been recorded by the WWF for their 2009 calendar. Perwez Abdullah reports
There was a time when the University of Karachi (KU) contained over 400 species of native flowers spread over an area of 1,200 acres that captured the hearts of many, but unfortunately, many of these flowers no longer exist on the campus grounds.  





Destination Pakistan:

Mythbusters for Karachiites

If any of you want to take a road trip but are hesitant or afraid because of the horror stories that you may have heard, dispel all myths and go ahead, recommends M. Ali Habib

When I first told my family and friends that I wanted to make a road trip from Karachi to Nathiagali, they gave me a number of reasons why it was a bad idea. From being told that I would be kidnapped to the financial cost, most people cringed at the thought of making a road trip all the way to one of the "lesser developed" regions of the country. Why would I undertake such madness, was the common refrain.

But that did not detract me and I went ahead with that 4500-km-long trip last December. And now that it is behind me, I feel compelled to answer all questions and dispel all myths.

Let me begin by telling you that I am a thorough-bred Karachiite. I was born, raised, educated (besides attending the Aitchison College in Lahore) and married here. To me, this city is a world in its own right. Unfortunately, because of this a lot of us don't feel the need to see the rest of the country, except if you want to get away from the heat – that's when you go up north. Not surprisingly, this leads to a myopic view of sorts and it is for reason that I chose to make this trip: so that I could get out of my bubble and learn more about my country. As a parent, I felt my kids were also living in this bubble where Pakistan meant only Karachi and its malls to them. I decided I wanted them to appreciate Pakistan, the way I did as a child. I wanted them to understand that Pakistan means a lot a more than the consumer paradise that is Karachi. Above all, I wanted them to have memories that would last a lifetime.

In this article, which is not a travelogue, I attempt to shatter some of the myths surrounding road trips in the country.

Myth # 1: Pakistan is burning!

"We have sort of become a nation of whiners," said Phil Gramm, McCain's top economic adviser, a former Texas senator who is now Vice Chairman of a Swiss bank. So to those who whine and feel our country is 'burning', let me tell you this: Pakistan is alive and well, thank you very much. Everyone here does not live life the way the media would have us believe. Perception issues with Pakistan are blowing the country's problems out of proportion. I drove 4,500km in Pakistan, along main roads, dirt tracks and highways. I had good food and I shopped at the bazaars. Never once did I encounter the feeling of gloom and doom. There are, of course, some areas that are strictly 'no-go' (In my childhood those areas were called "Ilaqa Ghair") but barring those, quite a bit of northern Pakistan can be visited.

Myth # 2: The roads are bad

They are not. Au contraire, the roads in Pakistan -- and not just the Motorway between Lahore-Islamabad-Peshawar -- are good. In fact, sections of the National Highway from Karachi up to Lahore (beyond which it becomes the GT Road) are quite impressive. The only road that does not live up to its name is the Super Highway between Karachi and Hyderabad. It is certainly a highway, but super? No comments there.

I was driving an ordinary sedan that worked as effectively along all roads in Pakistan (including the climb to Thandiani off Abbottabad) as it does in Karachi. I saw fellow motorists driving up and down the National Highway in smaller cars. So all you need is a dependable car.

Myth # 3: You will have to drive through congested cities

No you won't. The most under-rated part about the National Highway is the bypass concept. Simply put, you can travel from Karachi all the way to Islamabad without having to enter a city. The bypass system allows you to skirt any city that does not fall on your itinerary and lets you get to your destination unhindered. In my case, for example, the first city that I passed through between Karachi and Sukkur, a distance of 450 kilometres, was Sukkur itself.

Myth # 4: You will not get quality food

If for no other reason, undertake a road trip for the great food that you will find in different eateries along the way. Restaurants along the National Highway offer a variety of food that is tasty and freshly cooked. Not only this but also they have a huge clientele. However, if you are looking for international cuisine (in an ambiance that matches the eateries at Zamzama) on the highways of Pakistan, forget it.

Myth # 5: And for that call of nature…?

Petrol stations of all major oil companies along the highway not only have well-stocked convenience shops but also clean bathrooms. I remember when we were close to Moro, a small town in Sindh, my wife and I discovered that our supply of paper glasses had run out. So we stopped at one such convenience store and were amazed to find the huge variety of things available there. Suddenly, from destitute we had turned to people spoiled for choice.

Myth # 6: But is there anything to see between Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad?

Yes, a lot! For starters, there are those over-exposed but still grand sites of Lahore: the Badshahi Mosque, Lal Qila (Red Fort), Jehangir's tomb and Shalimar Garden. There's also the hill resort of Murree.

But that is not it. Before you ask what else this country, which is 1.5 times the size of France (Europe's largest country) with a civilisation that goes back to the dawn of humanity has to offer, here's a list of some of the places you can visit. My personal favourites are:

1- Sukkur – this city has a lot of personality. Perched picturesquely along the Indus, this town can be a major resort in the heartland of Pakistan. It reminds me of Cairo (Egypt) that similarly straddles the Nile.

2- Derawar Fort -- some 25km off the National Highway in the town of Ahmedpur, Sharqia, this fort is without a doubt the most imposing fort in Pakistan, rising majestically from the desert plains surrounding it.

3- Noor Mahal Palace, Bahawalpur – I wager that if shown the picture of this palace, it would be hard for one to believe that this palace is in Bahawalpur and not a picture of a building from the Renaissance era in Florence or Milan. The Nawabs of Bahawalpur lived in style, indeed.

4.   Harappa -- Along the National Highway, between Multan and Lahore, this historical site is so accessible that it would be a crime not to visit it. There is signpost in the ruins that is hard to miss. It says: "Mesopotamia 2500 kms" (the Department of Antiquities does have some sense of humour).

5.   Tomb of Shah Rukn-e-Alam and Bahauddin Zakaria, Multan – No amount of pictures can do justice to these sites of architectural perfection. You have to actually see them to believe them.

6.   Hussain Agahi Bazaar, Multan – This is the real bazaar in Pakistan, with that timeless spirit of commerce mixed with a palpable sense of history. A must see.

7.    Wazir Khan Mosque, Dehli Darwaza, Lahore – If the Badshahi Mosque is imposing for its size, Wazir Khan Mosque has no peer in beauty. Just the walk through the Delhi Darwaza to go to the mosque is worth the trip.

8.   Qutub Minar in Anarkali Bazaar, Lahore – The austere mazar of Qutubuddin Aibak, the first Sultan of Delhi and founder of the Slave dynasty should definitely be seen. He served as the sultan from 1206 to 1210. The loneliness of the mazar oblivious to its grandeur past, brings into relief (reminds one of?) the beauty of Percy Bysshe Shelley's famous sonnet, Ozymandias:

"My name is Ozymandias,

king of kings:

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"

9.   Taxila -- The peace that surrounds this large Buddhist site in the tumultuous surroundings of modern Pakistan makes one wonder if it has something to do with the teachings of Buddha.

10.  The Mural by Sadeqain at Mangla Dam -- If somehow you can get permission to visit this place, the more-than-200-feet long and some 40-feet-wide mural painted on one of its walls by Sadeqain in 1967 is jaw-dropping. Showcasing the ascent of man from a cave dweller to one walking on the Moon, the mural is without doubt one of the largest painted this century.

11.  The Water Sports Club at the Mangla Dam Reservoir -- Open to general public, my children, as they took a ride in the Powerboat, said that this was the closest they had come to feeling like James Bond.

12.  The Lok Virsa Museum, Islamabad – I never knew anything like this existed in Pakistan and wouldn't mind going there again and again.

13.  Thandiani -- At 8,000 feet above sea level, this hill station off Abbottabad is higher and colder than Murree, and the drive is much more breath-taking. To complete the experience, come down to Abbottabad and then drive up to Murree via Nathiagali. Just make sure you know how to drive on a snow-covered road

14.  Bari Baoli at Rohtas Fort -- I had never seen a baoli (well) and one cannot appreciate it unless one has seen the Bari Baoli at Rohtas Fort. Sher Shah Suri was one resourceful king indeed.

Myth # 7: But there are no places to stay overnight, right?

Fear not my intrepid traveler for have thou never heard:

"Safar hai shararat, musaafir nawaaz buhtairay

Hazaraah shajar-e-saaydaar raah mein hein"

--Khwaja Haider Ali 'Aatish'

Okay, there are no five-star hotels along Pakistan's national highways but every town of note in Pakistan has a motel that provides a clean bed and breakfast. There are also guest houses in many cities. The cities that I stopped along the way were Sukkur, Multan, Lahore and Islamabad. In Sukkur, the hotel to stay is the one that sits along the River Indus: decent if your objective is just to spend a night. In Multan, try the new motel chain now being operated by Pakistan's leading five-star hotel chain. The same motel now operates in Lahore with an establishment in Faisal Town and one on Mall Road. For Rs3,500 a night (breakfast included), I found these establishments to be great value for money. Islamabad now is a guest house heaven – try Carnation Suites on Marvi Road.

Myth # 8: The dacoits will kidnap you!

This is such a 80s statement. No, really. Back then, a curious coming together of many elements – a tipping point – brought the dacoits on the National Highway. But today's Pakistan is a far cry from all that. First, economic activity has quadrupled and there are lot more money-making ventures. Besides, there is the Highway Police patrolling the region as well and are quite helpful. Nonetheless, cruising along the highway at a slow speed (in cars that seem to work), they keep a watch on traffic offenders and violators. I had to pay a fine for over speeding, so I should know.

Finally, a fact: it is infinitely cheaper to travel by your car. I spent Rs30,000 on petrol for the 4,500-km journey (a return journey by air for my family of four would have cost me Rs80, 000). Also, travelling by road is fun. You stop where you want to, start when you want to and spend some quality time with your family cocooned in the car as you drive towards your next destination.

--Photos by the author

Beauty of indigenous flowers reigns supreme at Karachi University

The species of native flowers at KU that authorities at the campus continue to neglect have been recorded by the WWF for their 2009 calendar. Perwez Abdullah reports

There was a time when the University of Karachi (KU) contained over 400 species of native flowers spread over an area of 1,200 acres that captured the hearts of many, but unfortunately, many of these flowers no longer exist on the campus grounds.  

"The merciless assault against the flowers by the administration has left only a few plants," laments Dr Surayya Khatoon, Professor and Chairperson Department of Botany.  

It was against such a backdrop that Dr Khatoon vowed to photograph the few flowers that remained and meticulously record their details to keep them alive for the generations to come. So impressed was the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) with the exquisite beauty of Dr Khatoon's photographs that it decided used them on a desk calendar produced for 2009, with the Royal Netherlands Embassy in Pakistan generously contributing towards the project.  

"Plants have been on this planet for hundreds of millions of years ago, even before the existence of mankind. As a matter of fact every cultivated plant today has been a wild plant in the distance past. In earlier times humans lived in close harmony with nature, interacting with species of natural flora and fauna. Plants also fulfill most human needs like food, fibre, medicine, spices, fuel, construction material, etc., but with the advent of agriculture and the ensuing civilisations, human beings gradually isolated themselves from the natural environment and began to think that only the plants [they selected] for cultivation were important," writes Dr Khatoon in the calendar.   

But later in the 20th century, people began to realise that every species on Earth plays an important role in the environment, although human activities have resulted in large-scale extinction of species - precisely what happened with the flowers in KU.  

The 12 wild flowers that appear in the WWF 2009 calendar are:

 1. Cistanche tubulosa, also known as kasi in Balochi and phatkwar in Sindhi. Coming from the Orbanchaceae family, this fleshy leafless herb is between 30cm and 60cm tall. It is found mostly in the plains of Sindh, Balochistan, and Punjab, but occasionally also in high altitudes like Gilgit. A parasite for the roots of other plants, this particular flower lacks chlorophyll, the green pigment found in plants, and is used to treat sores or is mixed with yoghurt to cure diarrhoea.

2. Barleria priontis, also known as khussara or kala bansa in Urdu and khussaro in Sindhi. This flower stems from the Acanthaceae family and is a medium-sized spiny shrub up to 1.5m high, found mostly in Sindh. The bitter extract of the plant is used to treat whooping cough, catarrh, and tuberculosis. Chewing its leaves eases toothache, and its roots contain febrifuge properties, which reduce fever. Its pretty yellow-orange flower blooms from September to March, blossoming in the morning and withering by the afternoon.

3. Fumaria indica, also known as shahtra in Persian and pitparo in Sindhi, comes from the Fumariaceae family, and is a small, erect, annual herb of the winter season that blooms mostly from February to March. Found in most parts of Pakistan in the agricultural fields, particularly in wheat fields, the dried plant is used as a blood purifier and febrifuge. It is also said to be a laxative and an antihelmintic drug, and contains diuretic and diaphoretic properties. The flower is commonly used in Tibb-e-Unani, or herbal healing, to heal stomach derangements, liver ailments and skin infections.

4. Euphorbia caducifolia, also known as thoar in Urdu and thohar in Sindhi, comes from the Euphorbiaceae family. From April to February, the plant sprouts attractive bunches of greenish to dark red flowers. A large, majestic shrub that can attain a height of 3 metres and with a diameter of up to 4m, this is a plant with many succulent, cactus-like branches stemming from the base. It is a prominent feature of the dry and rock terrains of Sindh and Balochistan. The latex that exudes from the cut branches is acrid, rubeficient, purgative and expectorant, although it may cause dermatitis on contact. The plant is used to remove warts, cutaneous eruptions, and to ease earache.

5. Capparis deciduas, also known as caper, or karir in Sindhi, and karil in Punjabi. From the Capparidaceae family, the capparis deciduas can be anything from a large shrub to a small tree, stretching 5m high. It is commonly found in the arid plains of Sindh, Punjab, and Balochistan, and is usually leafless with green, crooked and spiny branches. The wood is hard and resistant to termites, and in Sindh, it is used to make boats. Its young fruit and floral buds are pickled, while its ripe fruit is sweet and edible, albeit with a slight bitter after taste. It is the favourite food of Houbra Bustard, while small birds relish the nectar of the flower. Laden with orange-pink and red flowers and bright red fruits, the plant presents a spectacular sight throughout the hot season.

6. Acaia nilotica, also known acacia or babool in Urdu and babar in Sindhi. From the Mimosaceae family, the acacia is a medium to large tree, often reaching up to 18m in height. The bright yellow flower heads are produced in abundance from June to October, with the plant being found all over Sindh, particularly in the forests, and in the frost-free parts of Balochistan and Punjab. Its bark is used for tanning and medicinal purposes.

7. Solanum nigrum, also known as black nightshade or wonder berry, or mako in Urdu and Persian and karweel in Sindhi.  This annual herb belongs to the Solanaceae family and is between 15cm and 60cm tall. Found nearly all over Pakistan, mostly in the vicinity of cultivated lands, it is used as a herbal medicine.

8.  Oxystelma esculentum, known as dhudani in Urdu and akk-pholri in Sindhi. From the Asclepiadceae family, this is a handsome perennial twining herb found in most parts of Pakistan, particularly in the vicinity of the wetlands. The decoction of the plant can be gargled in case of a sore throat or an apthous ulceration of the mouth, while its fresh roots can cure jaundice. (Picture: Twined on Phyla nodiflora, its leaves not visible)

9. Barleria acanthoides, also known as kakoori booti in Sindhi. Part of the Acanthaceae family, this is a medium-sized dense, spiny shrub found mostly in hot and dry parts of Pakistan, particularly southern Sindh and Balochistan. The long-tubed white flowers bloom from September to February, opening up at night with withering by late morning.

10.  Nerium indicum, also known as oleander, as well as kaner in Urdu, and zang-e-gul in Sindhi. A handsome, erect shrub up to 2m high, this plant is one of the most attractive species of wild flowers of Pakistan and belongs to the Apocynaceae family. Its beautiful pink flowers bloom from the branch tips from April to October. The oil from the bark of the root is used externally to treat scaly skin and leprosy.

11. Senna alexanderina, also known as Alexandrian Senna, or Senna-e-makki in Urdu and Arabic, and ghora wal in Sindhi. Belonging to the Ceasalpiniaceae family, its shrub is found in the plains of Sindh, Balochistan and Punjab and is up to 90cm tall. The plant's bright yellow flowers can be seen for most of the year. Its leaves and fruit are cathartic and used as purgatives and laxatives. Just the leaves, meanwhile, are used to treat gout, arthritis, skin diseses, and intestinal worms, among other ailments.

12.  Citrullus colocynthis, also known as bitter apple, or indrayan in Urdu and throh in Sindhi. This weak-stemmed prostrate or climbing perennial  herb belongs to the cucumber and melon family, or to use its scientific term, the Cucurbitaceae family. It is found in most parts of Pakistan, particularly in hot arid areas, and is one of the best-known medicinal plants. The bitter apple's fruits and the tuberous root are believed to be an antidote for snake bites, and its fruit, seeds and root are all purgative.

Before Anarkali, there was Mato…

The bond between an (Asian) elephant and its mahout has no parallels. Dr A. A. Quraishy recalls the relationship between Mato, the first female elephant at the Karachi Zoo and her mahout

The untimely demise of Anarkali, the beloved elephant at the Karachi Zoo, has put elephants in the limelight. But much before she arrived in Karachi, I had imported another female elephant from Burma. Her name was Mato which means 'mother' in Burmese. Unfortunately, most people do not know about her and the gentle, loving creature that she was. In fact, Mato would patiently wait by the platform, making sure that everyone was properly seated in the howdah perched on her, before she started moving. She did not even need a command from the Anwar, the mahout – Mato would move on her own. She also knew that one round meant going up to the century-old fountain in front of Tamarind Avenue, a path that that mahout had selected. Not once did an accident ever happen because of Mato.

One Friday, however, she refused to move after a group of excited children had alighted. The mahout gently nudged her, thinking that would make her move but nothing of the sort happened. Puzzled, the mahout asked his assistant, who was standing on ground, to look into the matter. Soon enough, the assistant let out a scream – a toddler was huddled between Mato's front legs in fear. Mato was standing on three legs so that the child wouldn't get crushed under her weight. The assistant quickly picked up the child, lifting him up so that the hundred or so women standing on the platform, eager to get on Mato, could see the baby. "Hai mera bacha (Oh! My baby)," said someone from the crowd. It turned out that the baby had slipped away unnoticed from the mother's arms amid all the pushing and shoving to get on top of Mato.

On another occasion, a team from the zoological gardens of Abu Dhabi came to visit me. They wanted a few experienced animal keepers, since they were short-staffed, and asked me if I could spare some from the Karachi Zoo.

Now, that was like asking for the moon. An experienced keeper in any zoo is an asset so it is not advisable to part with such keepers because it can jeopardise the well-being of the animals.

In those days, employment in the Middle East was akin to finding paradise. So understandably, just about anybody – especially a keeper – was eager to go and work there. I was in a fix and did not want to part with my keepers but one Ahmad, the brother of Anwar was really keen to leave. Reluctantly, I sacrificed two of my best keepers but as the list was being finalised, Anwar requested that I include his name in the list as well.

"Who will look after Mato?" I asked. "My assistant is competent enough now," replied Anwar, adding that he had to get his sister married and his current salary was enough to meet the expenses of the wedding. I finally gave in and put his name on the list. Thus, Anwar left and for an entire week, Mato cried continuously. She ate a handful of grass, drank only a bucket of water (instead of the usual ten) and barely slept. However, she continued to entertain visitors at the zoo and did not give any trouble to the new mahout. Still, she was not the same. I felt bad for Mato and regretted my decision to let go of Anwar.

A week later, when I was going to my quarters inside the house during lunch break, I heard Mato yelping. As I ran towards her enclosure, I thought that she may have collapsed from grief or was perhaps even dying. Instead, when I got there, I saw that Mato had her trunk wrapped around Anwar (in a bid to hug him) and was weeping.

"How is that you came back so suddenly, Anwar?" I asked. "Sir, I couldn't get Mato out of my head. So I have come back," he said.

I know it sounds like a fairy tale, but this is no story. It's true. The bond between an (Asian) elephant and its mahout has no parallels. In fact, both Mato and Anarkali would play mouth organs, loved cold drinks, ate the candy offered by children and never injured anyone. Often, when Anarkali's mahout asked her whether her name was Anarkali, she would grunt in affirmation, much to the delight of the visitors.

Elephants are naturally affectionate creatures. Even when they are in a herd, they take great care of (and love) one another. However, when they are separated from their herd, it is only natural that they transfer that affection to a mahout, who they trust and love. This bond can be established in only a day. However, it is only the female elephants that have this sort of disposition. This is why male elephants are not kept in zoos because they are neither soft-hearted, nor affectionate.

However, recently I was told that the City District Government Karachi (CDGK) wants to bring in a male elephant in the zoo which is not advisable because it will prove to be disastrous.

It is quite difficult to find soft-hearted mahouts. Often, it is regarded as a family skill where the child watches his father being affectionate towards and elephant and, thus, loses his fear a creature so huge. A new, inexperienced man, unfamiliar with elephant psychology, will never be able to control the latter. This is also the reason why a female elephant in Islamabad Zoo killed two mahouts in one day – because they treated her like a buffalo and used a stick to get her to move. Initially, she patiently bore the mistreatment but a month later, when she could not take it anymore, she killed them. 

It is clear then that elephants have a rather unique mindset. On encountering the skeleton of an elephant in the wild, they go silent and fondle the bones softly one by one, mourning the loss. It's almost as if they are saying "if we could bring you to life, help you rise from your reclining state and carry you with us, we would."  Another interesting thing about elephants is that when one of them from the herd gets stuck in the mud, the rest of them will not leave till they have rescued him/her. The herd will also wake up at the same time after a night's sleep. Elephants easily adopt baby elephants that are not their own without a second thought, which is quite remarkable.

Despite their gentle nature, they are often neglected and mistreated. This, I feel, is the reason that Anarkali passed away – not because she was old or sick; but because she was neglected and felt unloved.

--The writer is the founder of Wildlife Conservation Society of Pakistan and former director of Karachi Zoological Gardens


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