taste of Spain
We have been
organising tours to China over the Karakoram Highway for European tourists
since 1988. Arranging a tour for high profile members of Pakistan Women’s
Organisation, however, proved to be a different ballgame altogether.
They refused to get the
police character certificate, necessary to obtain a Chinese visa and declined
to make a personal appearance at the embassy. Gaun, the visa counsellor at
the Embassy of the Peoples Republic of China, came to our rescue and issued
us the group visa in three days. The Thai embassy, Islamabad on the other
hand, was most difficult and stamped the visa only eight hours before our
flight’s departure from Lahore.
The 40 members of our group
had over 80 large suitcases, brimming with clothes, shoes, handbags,
medicines and dry ration, as if they were migrating to China. My capacity as
a group leader was put to the test during transit at Bangkok airport when I
lost half the group in duty free shops and we almost missed the flight to
Either as a force of habit
or for sheer amusement, the women would not pay attention to any of the
provided information, but would instead ask the same question, and I would be
obliged to repeat myself forty times.
After four hours of flying,
we arrived at Beijing airport’s Terminal 3 building, designed by Norman
Foster for the 2008 Olympics. The roof of the terminal resembled a dragon.
Pakistan-China friendship flags carried by our group played their magic and
the immigration assigned us special counters for speedy clearance. While the
airport formalities were fulfilled easily, loading the 80 suitcases onto the
bus was very tiring and time consuming. Throughout the remainder of our
journey we had to hire an additional cargo van to carry the baggage.
In the last fifteen years,
Beijing has changed dramatically, particularly due to the 2008 Olympics.
High-rise steel structures soar into the sky, ultra modern highways criss-cross
the city, and hundreds of underpasses and overhead bridges are built to
facilitate the flow of traffic, yet the traffic jams are a constant
It took us around one hour
to reach our hotel, Tian Tan, in the city centre. We had barely distributed
the room keys to our guests when the local guide insisted to take us out for
dinner. “Who eats dinner at six in the evening?” shouted the furious
ladies. “We do! In China,” replied the confident guide. Most restaurants
in China close down by eight in the evening so we reluctantly followed him to
a local restaurant. There was a lavish buffet set-up boasting a large variety
of Chinese food: duck, chicken, fish, beef, vegetables and rice. “Mr Akhtar,
is it Halal?” asked the ladies. “The fish, vegetables, rice and soft
drinks are Halal, the rest is up to you!” was my honest answer.
We had to follow a strict
schedule to cover all the historical monuments in and around Beijing but
getting all the ladies into the bus, on time, was a daunting task. There were
always one or two ladies missing while we were aboard the bus.
Our first stop was at the
Temple of Heaven set inside a walled, 267-hectare park. The park was full of
elderly people; some were dancing to the music played on loud speakers, some
were playing cards, while others were gathered around groups of musicians,
magicians or acrobats. There is a long covered passage that leads to the Hall
of Prayers for Good Harvest.
Traditionally, the emperor
was carried in a solemn procession on the first lunar month of each year for
divine guidance and bountiful harvest. The hall is an architectural wonder as
the entire structure stands on massive trunks of fir trees without using a
nail or cement. The ornate roof is decorated with stunning blue, yellow and
green glazed tiles, representing heaven, earth and the mortal world. We
surely could expect good harvest as it started raining the moment we arrived
at the temple.
Our next stop was the
historic Tiananmen Square. At 440,000 sq meters, it is decidedly the largest
public square in the world. The square is named after Tiananmen (the Gate of
Heavenly Peace), the 15th century arched gate that is a silent witness to
major Chinese historical events. Chairman Mao Zedong proclaimed the Peoples
Republic of China from Tiananmen Gate and the 1989 pro-democracy protests by
students were also quashed at this gate. At sunrise and sundown, the Square
is reminiscent of Wagah Border, when smart soldiers of the PLA (People’s
Liberation Army) raise or lower the Chinese flag.
Our group members were
totally exhausted by the time we reached the Forbidden City. While our local
guide, Richard, and I were negotiating the rates with the wheelchair porters,
to carry the exhausted group on the tour, the ladies proudly entered the
Forbidden City, enjoying multi-flavoured ice cream cones.
Covering a massive 720,000
sq meters in the heart of Beijing, the Palace Museum or the Forbidden City
was home to 24 Emperors of the Ming and the Qing dynasties for 500 years. A
10-meter high defensive wall with watchtowers at its corners is further
strengthened by a 52-meter wide moat that encircles the City. There are only
four gates that give access to 800 buildings with 9,000 rooms that were
occupied by over 800 concubines (wives) of each emperor.
Males were forbidden to
enter the City. Even the emperor’s own sons, on reaching 18 years of age,
were ordered to leave the palaces. Since natural born eunuchs in China were
not enough to fulfil the needs of the Harem, young boys from poor families
were operated upon to turn them into eunuchs. Although nine out of ten boys
did not survive due to the primitive operating procedures, yet the poor
families were keen to offer their sons in service of the emperors.
The Chinese were masters in
wooden structures but most of the delicately-built palaces fell victim to
fire hazards due to firework displays, knocked over lanterns or accidental
blaze from incense jars. As a precaution now, scattered around the palace
complex are huge bronze vats that contain water to put out any fires.
Shopping is the ultimate
delight of ladies so we headed to the Pearl Market, situated at a walking
distance from our hotel. The covered market had every conceivable item under
one roof and bargaining is the order of the day so we expected a great match
of wits between the Chinese salesmen and our champion local bargainers. We
gave our group two hours of shopping time and requested them to gather at the
main gate by 7pm.
Confident that I knew the
ladies’ love for shopping, I challenged Richard that they would never
return by the agreed time. However, he assured me that they would as the
market shut at 7pm sharp and the women were hungry and desperately awaiting
the Beijing Roast Duck. As per Richard’s prediction and much to my
surprise, they arrived on time and even more astonishingly, without any
It was later revealed that
they did not shop in protest, because of one lady, who bought everything
under the sun, without bargaining even for a single Yuan (1US$ = 6.20 Yuan).
The future shopping strategy for the rest of the group was not to shop
anywhere that that lady went to shop.
The Beijing Roast Duck, an
imperial delicacy, is Beijing’s signature dish, and a must try for every
tourist. The dish came out of the Forbidden City only in 1911 when the last
emperor of the Qing Dynasty was deposed and the Royal Chefs lost their jobs.
The Beijing Roast Duck like the Kobe Steak of Japan are now world-renowned.
The duck and the calf are
given a special feed to ensure high quality meat and beef. The duck goes
through a lengthy preparation process before it is ceremonially brought to
the dining table. After slaughtering, the bird is inflated by blowing air
between its skin and the body. The skin is pricked and the duck is doused
into the boiling water. Finally, it is hung up to air-dry before being
roasted. When cooked, the duck’s skin is crispy on the outside while the
meat is juicy on the inside. The bird is meticulously sliced by a skilful
chef right at the table before serving to the guests. The accompanying plum
sauce, spring onions, cucumbers and pancakes added to the scrumptiousness of
the duck. Our group members took the famous dish with a pinch of salt and to
their palettes, as the ladies admitted, this fine worldly cuisine could not
trump their Pakistani aalu gosht.
to be continued
The historic Tiananmen
View of the Imperial Palace
in the Forbidden City.
The Beijing Roast Duck, an
I got married in
December last year but decided to wait till the summer months for our
honeymoon so we could make use of the cheap flights that fly from London to
the rest of Europe — that rope you in with their insanely low prices and
then proceed to milk money out of you anywhere it can, from food to admin
fees to luggage.
The impending question that
needed deciding was – where in Europe?
We were inclined towards
Italy or Greece, they seemed the most romantic options. But when we found out
a friend was getting married in Tenerife (part of the Canary Islands but
comes under Spain), and not knowing whether I would get a multiple entry
Schengen visa (my husband is the proud owner of a British passport, and I am
endlessly mocked over my little green book of shame), we decided — Spain it
We spent three days in
Barcelona, two in Madrid and five in Tenerife.
A little background
research on what to do always helps. I highly recommend going to your hotel
lobby and asking them to mark out tourist attractions on a map and tell you
how to get there. And the more you walk the better. We would hit a couple of
must-see places and then walk in whatever direction we felt like. When we
were exhausted we would take a cab home. Or, in the case, of Barcelona take
the Metro — it’s simple to figure out and a three-day pass costs only 18
Unlike London, where
everything shuts at 11pm, many shops in Spain close in the afternoons when it
gets hot and then remain open till late at night. Perfect for us Pakistanis.
Spain is full of tourists
and the locals seem completely chilled out and happy! Not everyone knows
English but ask enough people and someone will be able to help out.
Having not slept a wink the
night before, we were exhausted on the first day in Barcelona but didn’t
want to waste a single minute, so we headed to Port Olimpic and were slightly
disappointed. We had imagined a typical European quaint city and instead
ended up at an artificial beach with a lot of topless women.
We stopped to grab a bite
at one of the restaurants along the beachfront. It turned out we weren’t a
fan of their kind of food. The vegetable paella (rice dish) at most places
was good and tortillas (Spanish omelets) and salmon tapas were palatable. But
overall gastronomically we were far from satisfied.
After Port Olimpic, we
ended up in the heart of the old city and realised this is what we had been
wanting to see all along — narrow streets, cathedral and museums. We were
exhausted so we headed home but the next day it was the first place we hit.
If you’ve seen one
cathedral, you’ve seen them all. I enjoyed the exterior architecture of
Barcelona Cathedral more than the inside. Next we headed to La Rambla, which
not only has all the brands but running alongside are vendors selling
souvenirs, antiques and paintings.
One can easily spend a day
exploring La Rambla and its side streets. At one end of the street is Rambla
De Mar, a beautiful walkway that leads to a mall, a cinema and restaurants
that come alive at night.
We made the mistake of
leaving the famous Sagrada Familia, a massive church built by Antoni Gaudi,
an architect who has left his mark all over Barcelona, to be visited on a
Sunday, our last day in the city. They were holding a private mass there and
we couldn’t go in so be sure to find out the in advance when the basilica
is open to visitors.
We did, however, go to Park
Guell. Be warned that it is an uphill walk and if you go in the summer you
must keep water with you, but it is worth it. There is much to see, including
Gaudi’s iconic dragon, benches and ceilings all decorated with tiled mosaic
for which Gaudi is well known. We also made the mistake of leaving the
Picasso Museum for Sunday when it is free and had a long queue which we
didn’t have time to wait in. On other days tickets cost between 6-11 euros
and it is easier to get into.
Wishing we could have spent
another day in Barcelona, we were off to Madrid. Our hotel Nh Palacia de Tepa
(45 euros a night per person) was 10 minutes away from everything we wanted
to see, and upon checkout we found out that it was built on the ruins of a
palace and they had a glass floor through which you could see some of the
We only had a day and a
half in Madrid, so we were lucky that on our first night my husband’s
friend and a local gave us a night tour, pointing out the skyscrapers, the
gates of Madrid and Toledo and the Cibeles Fountain where Real Madrid
celebrate their victories. We avoided bus tours but that would be the next
best option to get a quick overview of the whole city. Our friend even took
us to Real Café, one of many restaurants inside the Real Madrid stadium and
a must for football fans.
During the day we went to
see the Almudena Cathedral and the Royal Palace of Madrid, where you can rent
a headset and get an audio tour and is as grand as any royal palace you can
imagine. We also visited Museum De Prado near which there are several museums
but we decided to stick to one.
We found Madrid to be much
prettier than Barcelona but the latter certainly has more to do for tourists.
I do wish Barcelona’s sites also did audio tours as I would have liked to
know more about what I was seeing. Buying a basic guidebook is highly
I was adamant that I wanted
to see either bullfighting or flamenco dancing. I was told the former was way
too gory so we opted for the latter. We selected Carmen at the Nuevo Apollo
theatre, where we experienced a mix of flamenco and ballet.
Madrid has many shopping
areas and we walked from Puerto Del Sol on to the Gran Via which has a New
York feel to it, but eventually opted for Fuencarral which is more of a
market and is covered as well, important because Madrid can get quite hot.
Our last stop was Tenerife,
a four-hour flight from Madrid.
It was like two holidays
rolled into one: from city to island. We were on the south side of Tenerife,
which has two main resorts, Gran Melia and Abama. Both of them are huge but
while Gran Melia is more modern, Abama feels like its built in the middle of
a forest. We stayed in the latter and we had to find our way around using a
map. It has eight swimming pools and its own beach and to get to places one
needed to ask to be taken in a buggy.
Sadly, due to time
constraints, we didn’t get to see the actual city, which is an hour away,
or the volcanoes, which is about a five-hour excursion and was recommended by