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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?

Last autumn we took a trip to the Kaghan Valley in northern Pakistan.  This valley is located north of Islamabad, adjoining Azad Kashmir, and requires a drive of some 7 hours from the capital.  Now, driving for seven hours in Pakistan is not something to be undertaken lightly – traffic is bad, and Pakistani driving habits cause significant amounts of stress, even without the added complication of having to swerve to avoid camels on the road – but the drive is well worth it.

People in the West seem to think that Pakistan is a dry, dusty and unappealing place.  I can’t think why this is, since northern Pakistan has some of the most astonishing scenery I have ever seen, easily the equal of the Swiss Alps or the Rocky Mountains.  Pakistan also has the added bonus in that, unlike Switzerland or Canada, there are almost no tourists here, meaning that these vast mountainous panoramas, lush valleys and alpine lakes are yours and yours alone.

We stayed in Naran in October.  This is right at the end of the tourist season as almost everything shuts down for the winter, since it gets remarkably cold.  Even in October the night-time temperature dropped to around zero, and as there is no such thing as central heating in Pakistan the temperature outdoors is basically the same as the temperature indoors.

An unprepossessing situation for a holiday, you might think.  Well, if you idea of a great holiday is a beach and a swimming pool and an open bar, you’d probably be right.  If, on the other hand, you see travel as a way of discovering new places, encountering different cultures, and learning more about the world, I can think of nowhere better.

Enough writing.  Let the pictures do the talking!

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