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In recent years the Pakistani rail network has become a byword for mismanagement and neglect.  Rolling stock is old, trains are frequently delayed, and stations have not been improved since the days of the Raj.  However, in May 2015 Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif inaugurated the “Green Line Express”, marking the first major investment in the railways for some time.

The Green Line runs from the Margalla Station in the capital, Islamabad, all the way to Karachi, stopping at place such as Rawalpindi, Lahore, Bahawalpur, and Hyderabad, among others.  I recently took the Green Line from Islamabad to Lahore with my son and father.  The train itself is shiny and new, with a Chinese locomotive and locally-made carriages.  The driver was happy to show us into the engine, much to my son’s delight, and was clearly proud of being involved with such a modern project.

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Seating was comfortable, in 6-berth sleeper compartments, consisting of three bunks on either side of the carriage.  Refreshments are frequently served – sandwiches and the ubiquitous Pakistani chai – and I understand that a full cooked meal is served to those continuing all the way to Karachi, though as we were only going to Lahore we were not able to partake.  Amenity kits, consisting of a toothbrush, toothpaste, a comb, a shoe mitt and soap were handed out.  Each compartment has six pillows and thick fleecy blankets, as well as a flatscreen TV.  WiFi was supposed to be offered but it never worked for us!

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We left on time and arrived in Lahore on time.  On our return journey the train arrived fifteen minutes late – not bad, considering it had travelled something like 1300km through unseasonably heavy rain and localised flooding!  We enjoyed chatting to the many friendly Pakistani people on the train who were all hospitable, kind, and eager to share their food with us.

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Prices are slightly more expensive than regular trains or buses – but the Green Line is immeasurably more comfortable and a much better way of meeting Pakistani people.  I would recommend it without reservation – but be sure to book tickets in good time as the service is very popular.

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I seem to make a habit of missing obvious tourist attractions when I travel.  I spent a year in Spain and didn’t once visit Barcelona, nor Seville.  I grew up in the UK but didn’t visit the Lake District, one of our premier sites of natural beauty, until I was 25.  I travelled all around Tanzania and didn’t go to the Serengeti National Park, which is more or less the only thing that the majority of tourists in Tanzania actually DO see.

Last weekend I remedied a significant oversight on my part by visiting the Lahore Fort.  This is one of Pakistan’s premier attractions and one of its six UNESCO World Heritage sites.  Built largely during the reign of Moghul Emperor Akbar, between 1556 and 1605, it occupies a significant chunk of the north western corner of the Walled City of Lahore.  We turned up in a rickshaw and were deposited a few hundred yards away from the entrance, since renovation work to the next-door Iqbal Park prevented our rickshaw from getting any closer.

First, the positives: Lahore Fort is a really impressive place.  It covers a huge area of land and its walls and towers still possess a real sense of grandeur.  Entering the Fort entails climbing up a set of shallow, broad stairs which seem oddly disproportionate, until you learn that they were thus built so that Emperors could ride their elephants right into the Fort itself.  The walls command an impressive view over Old Lahore.

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Much of the artwork in the individual palaces and rooms which make up the bulk of the Fort is remarkably beautiful: elegant carvings, fine stone inlays, delicate stone tracery.  The skill of the artisans who produced such beauty has to be appreciated.  Furthermore, the Fort uses open space very well: fountains and lawns stretch in front of the visitor, fringed with trees.  The Lahore Fort put me in mind of the Alhambra, another magnificent Muslim palace with beautiful artwork, fountains, and gardens.

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And now for the negatives: everything is neglected.  It is heartbreaking to see.  Magnificent painted ceilings are now stained with damp, their colours faded and worn.  Whole sections of delicately inlaid stones depicting elegant floral patterns have been chipped out, leaving gaping holes.  The 19th century cannon which stand in front of the Diwan-e-Aam have crisp packets jammed into their muzzles.  Most appalling of all is the graffiti: names of visitors scribbled in black marker pen, scrawled directly onto ancient stonework and mosaics.  Mobile phone numbers, inane comments, childish insults, etched onto a UNESCO World Heritage site!  It is unthinkable.  Imagine the outrage if visitors wrote their names in Tippex on Stonehenge or the Taj Mahal – that is precisely what has been done, and continues to be done, at the Lahore Fort.

I don’t understand it.  This is the premier tourist attraction in Pakistan, a country which, contrary to popular belief, is actually packed with fascinating sights.  And yet instead of being revered as an example of Muslim achievement and architectural excellence – which it undoubtedly is – it is scribbled on by idiotic schoolchildren as if it were nothing more than a discarded scrap of paper.

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Where are the UNESCO funds being used?  Not to employ guards, nor to employ guides; not a single one was in evidence.  Is it really that difficult to prevent people defacing a monument of international historical importance?  Do people here really care so little about their national story?

One Saturday morning we took the kids to the Golra Sharif train museum on the outskirts of Islamabad.  The first difficulty we faced in this task was finding the museum at all, which is more difficult than you might think.  Very few tourist attractions in Pakistan are actually signposted or labelled, and only the major ones have websites with visitor information on.  Google Maps came to the rescue, indicating that the museum was in the E-11 sector of Islamabad.  We duly drove in that direction, arrived in E-11, and started driving down the Golra Sharif road. IMG_20160116_1205419_rewind

Somewhat remarkably we found it first time, although we had to stop by a police checkpost to ask directions from the friendly policeman sitting outside.  Several dozen speedbumps later, we arrived outside the museum and parked.

The museum is actually part of the Raj-era Golra Sharif train station which is still a functioning facility, seeing traffic every day as trains rattle through from Peshawar en route to Rawalpindi, Lahore, and eventually Karachi.  The waiting room has been converted into the museum’s main attraction: a collection of railway artefacts from the early days of the railways of the Raj.  Glass cases containing lamps, uniforms, tools and other memorabilia line the walls.  Unusually for Pakistan these are all well labelled in both Urdu and English.  Chief among the attractions (for my 6 year old son, at least) is a gun rack containing original Raj-era rifles – possibly Lee Enfields, although I am not an expert.

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The musem’s sole attendant was only too happy to give us a guided tour.  He was friendly and well-informed about the history of the station and of subcontinental railways in general.  This being Pakistan, we were welcomed to handle the exhibits and were even given a brief lesson in how to load and fire the rifles.

The next-door room contained a remarkable collection of original furniture including some of the infamously-named “Bombay Fornicators” – easy chairs with extended arm rests for impromptu naps.  The room also featured an original Raj-era punkah or fan, a wooden beam suspended from the ceiling with a large square of linen attached.  When a rope attached to the beam is pulled the linen swings back and forth , fanning the room with cool air.  It was remarkably effective and an insight into how people managed to beat the heat before air conditioning was invented.

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The main attraction was found further down the station platform: an original locomotive attached to two carriages which were used by the last Viceroy, Mountbatten, and Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, during a trip from Karachi to Lahore.  Incredibly, the lights and fans are still functioning; my kdis enjoyed lying on the bunk beds and examining the kitchen in which food was prepared for these two remarkable men.  It is fascinating to see such historical artefacts up close; in the UK they would no doubt be enclosed behind glass doors.

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We spent time wandering up and down the platform admiring the beauty of the ancient banyan trees which give it shade, and wondering at the signs advertising chai for sale, complete with Hindi script.  The museum is a window into the past, truly a fascinating place.  We tipped the museum guide – there is no charge for admission nor for the tour, but it seemed appropriate to thank him for helping us appreciate the museum – and made our way back home.

Slightly over a year ago construction work started in Rawalpindi and Islamabad.  Construction work is nothing new around here – Pakistan’s population is growing rapidly and houses are constantly being enlarged, with office blocks and malls mushrooming in similar profusion.  But this construction work was on a different scale.  Some of the most important roads in Rawalpindi and Islamabad – Murree Road, 9th Avenue, the Kashmir Highway, Jinnah Avenue – were torn up, more or less at once.  That’s perhaps half of the most significant roads in the capital of Pakistan rendered unusable overnight.

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Predictably, chaos ensued.  Real, genuine chaos.  Journeys that would previously have taken twenty minutes took an hour or more.  Dust clouds erupted from the construction sites.  When It rained – and last winter it rained a lot – the dust turned to mud, and cars slipped and slid across the cities.  I remember one on particular evening travelling from southern Rawalpindi to central Islamabad, and spending nearly two hours in a clunky, smelly taxi, stuck in traffic, surrounded by thick clouds of choking dust and the constant blaring of horns.  If Dante added more circles to his vision of hell, that would have to be a prime candidate.

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Now, though, all is forgiven.  The metro bus is here!

If you’re wondering what a metro bus is, here is an explanation: it is a transport network, with a single dedicated roadway and stations along the way.  Only metro buses can use it, meaning that there is never any traffic.  Thus the journey from southern Rawalpindi to the centre of Islamabad is reduced from an hour or more to a mere 30 minutes.

And that’s not all.  That journey of an hour or more would have been spent jammed into an uncomfortable, crammed minibus, with no air conditioning, no comfort, and no space for luggage.  These minibuses are incredibly unsafe, badly driven, and hellishly uncomfortable.  In their place we have brand new Turkish buses, spotlessly clean, with air conditioning and automatic doors.  They leave every minute – miss one, and you only have to wait for sixty seconds for the next.

And even THAT’S not all.  The stations are fully automatic: you simply beep your token or card against the terminal and you can walk straight through.  A ticket for any single trip costs 20 rupees (roughly $0.20).  No queues, no bother, no stress.  Even the stations are wifi-equipped.

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The metro bus is now my preferred form of transportation.  It is completely effortless and utterly wonderful.  Complaints have been raised about its cost – and to be honest it cost an absolute bundle, perhaps $400 million, with the usual accusations of corruption and nepotism (to give an example, the contract for providing the stations with flowers and trees was given to a company run by the brother of a government minister) – but these seem churlish in light of the fact that the capital of Pakistan now possesses a public transport system that, honestly, would not be out of place in any city in the world.

It’s an odd feeling, in a country where so much is neglected, poorly-maintained, shoddy, broken, or generally worn down, to use a publicly-funded amenity which is genuinely world-class.  God bless you, Metro bus, and may you bring joy and ease to many millions of Pakistanis.

A new metro bus service recently opened in Rawalpindi and Islamabad.  This deeply impressive, stunningly efficient service is really something remarkable and I will write about it at a later date.  What I want to write about today, however, is how the authorities responsible for its construction go about claiming the credit for it.

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On the day of its inauguration massive posters were plastered over every single one of its 20 or so stations.  These posters bore the faces of Nawaz Sharif, the Prime Minister of Pakistan, and of Shahbaz Sharif, his brother, who is the chief minister of the Punjab.  At every single stop commuters were reminded of precisely who built the metro bus, and to whom the credit should go.

This habit of loudly claiming credit for acts of civic generosity is not uncommon in Pakistan.  Our kids enjoy going to a large park near our house.  Outside its main gate is an immense rock with the names of the people responsible for its construction carved into its monolithic face.  Another park in Rawalpindi is called “Nawaz Sharif Park”, just in case you weren’t sure whom to thank.  Hospitals and charitable institutions frequently bear the names of the people who founded them: the Shaukat Khanum cancer hospitals, the Begum Samina Khan Welfare Trust, and so on and so forth.  Any form of charitable activity is loudly and brazenly flaunted to ensure that its beneficiaries are fully cognizant of the generosity of those responsible.

It may seem churlish to complain about this.  After all, there is plenty of need in Pakistan, so surely any effort to tackle the immense inequality in Pakistani society is to be praised, right?  And of course this phenomenon is by no means limited to Pakistan.  Hospitals in the West are frequently labelled with the names of the donors who made their construction possible.  I heard of a church which organised a giving day to raise funds for some project or other, and loudly and publicly proclaimed the names of those who had given the most.  Friends of ours who organise charitable events and ask for sponsorship have lists of people who have donated.  There is an option to make one’s donation anonymous, but nobody ever does.

Jesus, on the other hand, told his followers to give so secretly that even their left hand didn’t know what the right hand was doing.  The correct model, he said, was a widow donating a tiny amount in secret, rather than braggarts donating as lavishly and as ostentatiously as possible.  The point is this: what are the intentions of the giver?  Are they honestly aiming to effect a radical redistribution of wealth in order to improve global equality, or are they trying to buy themselves some credit?  If their goals are merely selfish then it devalues the whole exercise, making a noble act somewhat seedy.

As someone whose livelihood depends entirely on the charitable giving of others, this affects me profoundly.  I’ll be thinking about this topic more and more as I travel on our beautiful new metro buses…

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I’ve always enjoyed airports.  The idea of travelling has always appealed to me; I grew up in a small island and the thought of breaking clear of the boundaries of the English Channel and finding new land, new cultures, new languages, has not yet stopped being exciting.  I remember looking up at the departures board as a child and being thrilled by the thought of the exotic places named on it: Muscat, Mumbai, Brunei; the entire world only a few hours away.

In airports all of the world’s cultures, religions and languages are compressed and mingled together: Indian Sikhs flying to Delhi rub shoulders with bleary-eyed businessmen coming from Chicago; Pakistanis with prayer caps and long beards politely hold the lift doors open for African families dashing to make their flight to Freetown or Abidjan.  Nobody says much – the British reserve really does rub off on anyone who comes through here – so instead everyone goes about their business quietly, privately, peacefully.

Airports are great levellers.  Everyone has to go through check-in; everyone has to go through security; everyone stands around and looks up at the monitors to see where their aeroplane is waiting.  People from wildly varying backgrounds, with wildly varying levels of wealth and wildly varied lives, are rendered temporarily equal by the mundane modern realities of catching a flight: belt off please sir, can I see your boarding pass madam, do you have any liquids in your bag?  Even the rich and mighty must bow before contemporary society’s demand for unimpeachable security.

I find myself talking to a British marine biologist who has just arrived from Sydney and looks utterly befuddled, peering around him with weary eyes, unsure of the time zone he finds himself in.  Then he says goodbye and makes his way off to a flight somewhere else.  A Congolese charity worker sits down and we chat in French.  He, too, looks exhausted, being halfway through a trip from the Congo to Paris for a conference on street children.  He talks wearily about his work.  When I ask if he has children a smile breaks across his weary face. Yes, he has three.  He is proud of them.  Then he, too, says goodbye and makes his way to his hotel.

Today’s world seems to be supremely characterised by division: between religions, between races, between rich and poor, between old and young, between wealthy Europeans and the dozens of desperate migrants who risk, and often lose, their lives in an attempt to cross the Mediterranean barriers of opportunity.  Yet here, in the anonymity of a modern airport, the divisions are temporarily levelled.  The marine biologist, the charity worker, the businessman – all are rendered briefly equal.  As Pakistanis say, “hum sub insan hain” – we are all people.  And all the people go about their life’s journey, as we always do, and as we must.

Damascus: the Jupiter temple (III A.C.) in front of Omayyad mosque

Back in 2007 I went to Syria and Jordan on holiday.  I flew with a friend to Damascus, travelled to Hama and Homs, visited the astonishing Crusader castle of Krak des Chevaliers, and wandered around the old city of Damascus with my jaw hanging down.  I had long been interested in Byzantine history and the history of the Middle East and the experience of seeing everything first hand was unforgettable.  We walked, took buses, ate in local restaurants, drank mint tea, and gaped at such a remarkable and historic country.

What struck me most was the hospitality with which we were greeted.  That trip probably marked the beginning of my love affair with the Islamic world.  Even in 2007 Syria was reckoned, at least in the West, to be a dangerous and hostile place – not quite noxious enough for Bush to include it in his notorious “Axis of Evil” speech but certainly worthy of an Honourable Mention.  The reality we encountered was entirely different.  On our first night we stayed at a Catholic guest-house run by nuns – and quite openly too, there being little to no hostility between Syrian Muslims and Christians.  Armenian and Orthodox churches were everywhere.  We walked down Straight Street in Damascus, site of St Paul’s historic meeting with Ananias, and were greeted warmly and with no fear whatsoever.  We visited Christian monasteries which didn’t even bother to post security guards at the gate.  Everyone we met was kind to us.

That was when I began to realise that we needed to start distinguishing between the politics of a country and the opinions of its citizens.  The Syrian government was a long way from a democratic haven but I realised how unjust it was to connect those policies with the Syrian people.  We Westerners affix labels to places like Iran, Syria and Pakistan and lazily assume that the labels are also transferable to the people of those countries – but this is not so.

And now I read the news and am heartbroken by what Syria has become.  Millions of refugees forced from their homes by the barbarity of Islamic State.  Thousands killed.  A civil war that shows no signs of ending.  Fundamentalists from around the world seemingly in competition with each other to reach new heights of murderous savagery.  Who would have thought, in the aftermath of 9/11, that new evils would arise to make even that mass slaughter seem civilised by comparison?

I want to remember the Syria I encountered in 2007, a place of remarkable harmony and welcome, not the Syria that we see now.  I also want to remember the words of Habbakuk, a prophet in the Bible, who looked at similar cruelty and barbarity and received consolation from God:

How long, Lord, must I call for help,
    but you do not listen?
Or cry out to you, “Violence!”
    but you do not save?
Why do you make me look at injustice?
    Why do you tolerate wrongdoing?
Destruction and violence are before me;
    there is strife, and conflict abounds.
Therefore the law is paralyzed,
    and justice never prevails.
The wicked hem in the righteous,
    so that justice is perverted.

The Lord’s Answer

“Look at the nations and watch—
    and be utterly amazed.
For I am going to do something in your days
    that you would not believe,
    even if you were told.