Exploring Pakistan’s Beautiful Landscape – 4250KMs in 2 weeks

As some of you are aware, my wife and I decided to take our kids on a road trip this December with an initial idea to see and play in snow and make a snowman. After several rounds of stories about Frozen’s Olaf, the kids clearly knew what to expect and it got them excited already. Now that we have completed our trip, most of the people whom we relayed our experience to mentioned they’d love if they could have these details, tips and tricks and that would encourage them to do something like this on their own. I’m posting this to help others who may be planning to venture out on a road trip in Pakistan.

We tried to enjoy our trip with a relaxed pace, visiting places that we wanted to go to starting everyday when we wanted to so it was a fairly freestyle flexible plan. Here’s a link to our trip itinerary for those of you who are interested.

The places we covered or stayed in are: Multan, Mingora Swat, Malam Jabba, Bahrain Swat, Kalam Swat, Islamabad, Rawalpindi, Abbottabad, Nathiagali, Patriata, Murree, Khewra, Faisalabad and Bahawalpur.

The road network in Pakistan is pretty good especially with the motorways M1-M5 across KPK and Punjab, driving is not an issue. The belt which is slightly difficult to drive is from Hyderabad to Sukkur Rohri. There’s hardly an issue with network throughout and wireless internet devices also work well for the most part. On the motorway, you can easily access help by dialing ‘130’ as the motorway helpline and they’re very responsive.

The best way to start off the journey is to start early morning from Karachi and head straight to Multan to break the journey by staying in a hotel. One can make a small pit stop or two leading up to Multan and rest overnight out there. As the City of Saints is famous for the Multan’s special sweet “Sohan Halwa”, it’s best you buy from here only. There’s a place called “Hussain Agahi Road” where you’d find the two most popular brands selling this halwa: “Hafiz” and “Rewari” – once you leave Multan, you’d find other random brands selling this halwa but none of those are as authentic as them, so don’t wait to buy these later.

After a refreshing night, we headed out to Islamabad, and in our case we decided to chill out a bit and take a good night’s sleep before going to the actual destination the next day. After having our breakfast, we took Swat Expressway to reach Mingora, Swat. The weather around mid December was decent, and surprisingly not-so-called. Do try the sweet “malta” fruit when you enter Swat, it’s unbelievably good but ask to taste first to be sure they’re the sweet ones. We decided to make Mingora our base for 2 nights as it’s an hour’s distance away from Malam Jabba and has much better resorts/hotels as compared to Malam Jabba. For the ones who have the budget, you may decide on staying in PC Malam Jabba, that way you’d be able to make the most of the snow activities in Malam Jabba. For Malam Jabba, snow boots are a must. You can buy them from Karachi or decide on renting them from there only. There are few vendors renting out boots for Rs. 100/pair.

While you’re headed to Malam Jabba, and if you decide to drive all the way up there, make sure you have taken some medicine to avoid motion-sickness (something like Stemetil would help avoid dizziness and vertigo issues). While you’d drive up there, some of the things you would have to notice is hotels and car rental people would keep advising against it and sell you their packages, but it’s doable if you are a decent driver and your car is in good condition. Also another thing is somewhere during the trip up to Malam Jabba, you’d inevitably come across someone selling you chains to put on the tires saying it’s not a doable plan otherwise. My suggestion is that if there’s no snowfall, you should not opt for the chain as that’d put an unnecessary strain on the tires and you’d be surprised to find auto rickshaws all the way up without any chains, so cars are no issue.

Malam Jabba has a lot to offer: Skiing, Chair lift, Ziplining, Jumping Castle for kids, and a lot of snow to play with. You can enjoy the piping hot pakoras and tea in that cold weather while enjoying the breathtaking views from the top.

Once done with Malam Jabba, we stayed another night in Mingora and moved on to Bahrain Swat. There’s not much else out there except a range of mid-range hotels and being an hour’s distance from Kalam, this makes a perfect base for onward travel. The road from Bahrain to Kalam is a bit tricky as it’s a smooth road for the most part except a few patches of unpaved road where they’re reconstructing bridges. This means you have to be careful speeding up on the route and also the unpaved roads can become slippery in rain/snowfall conditions. We drove all the way up to Kalam bazaar and then there’s a forest right after. That’s almost all you can do in your car, and you have to rent a 4×4 for places beyond there. You can rent a 4×4 for 2 hours or so to cover the 4-5 spots after this point for Rs.4000-6000, but if you don’t want to do it, you can still enjoy the views in-and-around Kalam forest by hiking up there, and you’d see several areas with patches of snow blankets. This is most suitable to make a snowman or have a friendly snow fight with friends and family. The beauty of this place is very difficult to explain with words and probably the reason this is called “Switzerland of Pakistan.”

We didn’t stay in Kalam because it gets very cold at night and doesn’t have many good hotels with all the heating and hot water facilities. In fact, we didn’t stay in Bahrain for more than a day and got back to Fizaghat to stay at a good hotel before concluding our Swat adventure. We also tried the food at a famous restaurant there called “Hujra” which has decent food which they serve in cozy family rooms (hence the word ‘Hujra’).

On our way back to Islamabad, we visited Faisal Mosque and then headed to Daman-e-Koh to check the view of the city. After that, we went to check out the Centaurus Mall, which is just another mall but has a bunch of familiar fast food joints. Since we planned to visit Ayub Park in Rawalpindi the next day, we decided on staying close-by at a hotel in Rawalpindi. Ayub Park is a must-see for a good day out with kids since it has rides for children of different ages, a mini-zoo with several interesting animals (not just tons of deers like they have in Bahria Town Karachi).

From there, we decided to leave for Abbottabad. It was a perfect place for us to stay at since it’s an hour’s drive from Nathiagali and 2.5 hours’ drive to Murree. We explored Nathiagali one day (check out the Nathiagali Park and enjoy the Snowtube), kids can again play with snow for hours and it’s generally a fun place to visit. Nathiagali also has a ton of accommodation options, but the mid-range cottages have water issues and you may find issues getting water in taps at night as temperature drops.

We ended up exploring Patriata and Murree the next day and decided to not stay in Murree because it was so full of people and we wanted to avoid staying in such places. It’s almost 2 hours from Islamabad, so we went back to Islamabad to rest, and checked out Lake View Park the next day. We also enjoy the F1 Traxx park nearby in addition to a private Speed Boat ride in the lake. We were not rushing around, so stayed another night in Islamabad.

We headed to Khewra the next morning to explore Khewra Salt Mines, it’s the second largest salt reserve in the world. It has a guided tour which you may take if you opt for the train ride to the inside of the mine. There you can see many important monuments in Pakistan created by using salt. Since Khewra is almost mid-way between Lahore and Islamabad, we had planned to make it a stop-over and head to Lahore, but due to the intense fog, we decided to de-tour and stay in Faisalabad for a night. When you are in Faisalabad, try out a Pakistani restaurant called ‘Baba Tikka’ – it is a place inspired by Kolachi and other Do-Darya restaurants and serves very good Pakistani cuisine. Another thing to try out in Faisalabad is cream chaat from Meher Fruit Chaat shop which is open 24/7.

After Faisalabad, we went to Bahawalpur to explore the city of Nawabs and see a place called Noor Mahal. We enjoyed their light and sound show that lasts for 25 mins, and is worth attending. After the show, we checked the Palace itself which has now been converted to a Museum. We then explored Bahawalpur a bit more by going around, and checked-in to a hotel there for the night. The next morning we started off early and came back all the way down to Karachi. We barely made two pit stops, and since we were mentally ready for the long trip back home, it was manageable and went well.

That’s how we concluded our trip ending up with 4250km traveling across KPK, Punjab and Sindh.

Kick-Starting Tourism Capital in Pakistan

Tourism capital is a big untapped market in Pakistan. This country is blessed with the most scenic valleys, mountain peaks, lakes, rivers, and amazing hill stations. The country has huge arable land as well as large deserts, cities and towns, historical places, heritage sites, rural and urban settings; to sum up, a lot to offer to tourists, both foreign and local – there are amazingly beautiful areas in all the different parts of the country. What has been missing is the perceived sense of security whereby tourists can feel easy while traveling around. Much smaller countries in the neighborhood have managed to raise that critical mass of travelers that has in turn helped them grow much faster, but Pakistan has lagged here. It’s something that is right there needing a focused effort to grow, and the most important supporter in this regard needs to be the government and law enforcement agencies who need to work hand in hand to build a safer country and then media would eventually jump in to help with changing the perception of this amazing country. Countries such as China, India, Nepal, and Sri Lanka are all close by and becoming examples of how effective country branding is bringing in a host of investments, tourist traffic, development ideas and growth across the masses.

It is high time Pakistan gets back to work and quietly creates an exemplary country that revives its image. The efforts in this regard are bound to pay back as a sense of security would automatically lead to a more productive, effective, healthier, happier and more satisfied local population, and it would also bring in tourist spend to all the different areas in the country assuring broad based growth and development. That growth will also bring to the forefront motivated individuals, who would then become role models for others to follow, again something positive in the roots of every civilized, progress-oriented economy.

Here are the 5 steps that the government should quickly take to start with this process:

  1. Initiate a very strict security check and clear out areas of any disturbances so that people may feel free to travel anywhere within Pakistan.
  2. Setup a working state-of-the-art, technology-driven support system that is available across Pakistan to link medical facilities, hospitals, dispensaries, mobile medical ambulances, and security institutions such as police, rangers, and patrolling authorities. It should be a single-point link whereby any caller could get immediate emergency support.
  3. Make clouds of areas whereby particular kinds of tourism is possible. For example, put up a cloud for skating facilities, and link up the businesses, services and transport in those areas. Similarly, do it for historical sites, mountain ranges, etc. Make this all available online and allow accessibility to book online or through phone (this needs very effective pricing check so that the businesses charge fair prices).
  4. Prepare amusement theme parks in various cities that allow activities for families, fun for all and competitions for the youth.
  5. Actively market the efforts in this area on national television and other media so that people can actually see this work done, and become motivated to go out and start enjoying these facilities.

Once the right number of local population becomes very comfortable with the system and facilities, there are going to be foreign tourists too based on the effective word-of-mouth marketing. There could be different prices for Pakistani Citizens (validated through NADRA National Identity Card) and for Non-Resident Citizens/Foreign Tourists. Moreover, there could be discounts for tax paying citizens for using any of the facilities.

Such steps would not only help kick-start the economy, but also ensure that people are provided safe environment, and entertainment to remain healthy.

Karachi Entrepreneurial Meetup

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over  again while expecting different results. – Albert Einstein

Many entrepreneurs are oozing with ideas to discuss and implement across the world today, and many of them often find themselves stuck in a fix – unable to find a solution on how to do something or not sure on what are the best ways to approach a problem.

In Karachi, city, there are hundreds of budding entrepreneurs lacking a platform to discuss ideas and come to solutions, network in the community and get inspired. Some common issues faced are:

– Where to start?

– How to channelize the business development aspects?

– What about the payments?

– What form should the business be in?

– How to go about the hiring process? What are some hesitations in hiring people?

– How to go about alpha- and beta- prototyping?

– How to do needs analysis? How much is the market demand, if any?

In order for people with the right credentials to sit, discuss and resolve mutually, I am starting off a platform – the Karachi Entrepreneurial Meetup. If you are interested to make a difference and feel you really can add value while benefiting from a regular meetup exercise, please register your vote and contact details in the survey here.

I’ll be sorting out applicants and will send out an invitation to all the finalized candidates – the idea is to keep it meaningful, not necessarily a large event. I’d be happier to have 5 people who contribute to the cause than 25 who are there without any firm interest. I hope to get in touch with as many of you as possible so that we can make things happen around here.


Good luck Entrepreneurs!


Of directions and directionlessness


This is a note on the state of affairs in Pakistan that I wrote in early 2009:

Of directions & directionlessness    

Out of the school, most students don’t know the available palate of professions they can possibly pursue in their career, or their respective career goals. They often tend to drift toward the colleges, degrees and interests where their respective cliques –group of very close friends- apply. It so happens that most of the college days get past enjoying the new-found independence from strict discipline and regular checks by instructors. As soon as students complete their Intermediate examinations, their life verges on another such point. It is predominantly undecided for most of the students where they’re heading, except for a blurred idea they have based on their own interpretation of the lifestyle of those pursuing a particular field, or their friends’ preferences for a particular work domain, and also quite often their parents’ interest in letting the children pursue some degree.

This ‘undecidedness’ clearly reflects in their selection of universities for application. For instance, commerce graduates try to get admissions in Chartered Accountancy institutions, Bachelors of Commerce institutions and Business Administration Universities all at the same time. Ironically, the so-called torchbearers for students of this age are the various coaching and test preparation institutes, lined up in almost every other locality in all major cities of the country, also suggest this approach as correct justifying, ‘this way students don’t waste their year in case they don’t get admission into their preferred institution this year.’ However palatable that reasoning might sound, this is a poor strategy to select one’s career.

“Cogito, Ergo Sum,” commonly translated as “I think, therefore I am” is what Rene Descartes, the father of modern philosophy suggested, implying thinking is one thing that differentiates a human being, from just a being. Despite being one of the blessed nations, with all the natural & human resources, we are lagging so far behind in our competitiveness that we are not even listed amongst the 57 countries that are ranked in the IMD World Competitiveness Scoreboard 2009. It is high time to start “thinking.” Most successful companies across the globe believe in planning, research, development, proactive analysis and commitment to continuous innovation, all of which have their roots in thinking.

It is not difficult to see why we as a nation lack this basic skill; simply because, this skill has never been nurtured properly. Our entire academic curricula, examination methodologies, societal reward systems and cultural norms mostly suppress our cognitive capacities and insist to accept things as given, taken as granted. The result, quite expectedly, becomes a society full of directionless people who know they have the resources but can’t manage them. We can’t decide. We can’t take a stand. Certainly, this reflects in the way we conduct ourselves. It sometimes seems that almost everyone in the country only knows that “Ignorance is bliss.”

We cannot run governments and corporations and compete globally by taking dictations; after all, the one giving dictation is also supposed to know what needs to be done. In this spiral, we have to take many radical steps to improve the state of affairs of the country. Its imminent importance is undeniable and cannot be emphasized more. We are so used to not thinking, that whenever we have to do it, even for decisions of petty significance, most of us try to avoid the thinking part and start searching for alternatives such as someone who could recommend, suggest or guide as to what should be done.

There is indeed a need to revamp not only our academic curricula, but also the teaching methodologies. Moreover, requirement exists for widespread adult education opportunities where people are rightly rewarded for their right thinking. This is the only way to dodge the impending doom on our society and get back on track to pioneer success.


Operational Fiasco at OCS Expressions Service


OCS operates Expressions service to send gifts to folks and friends around Pakistan from selections based on several different options. I happened to send over a gift on the Christmas weekend. I wanted to be sure that I send the right kind of gifts over and wanted to be sure that everything goes smooth. After going through hordes of options, I opted to use OCS Expressions to deliver the gift right on time.

It turned out I would have to pay premium for Sunday delivery despite their Christmas weekend waiver offer, but I agreed. I wanted to be sure of everything being in order, so asked the person at the OCS counter to just check about the availability and delivery option for the selected package. The reception officer called up their corresponding staff and confirmed to me the availability and considering I was already booking in the delivery much earlier (more than two days before as against their minimum of 24 hours before delivery time), the officer assured me everything will be in order.

As it turned out, the delivery was made, but only a partial one. One of the key things I selected that package for – ‘specialty assorted chocolates’ – was missing all together. Even more irritating was the fact that no one even bothered to tell me that, and the first person to convey this to me was the gift recipient when I asked how were the chocolates. It was quite awkward to hear, “umm, there are no chocolates!”

I was quite upset and called up OCS staff right away to get only a warm reply, and an assurance of settling the mishap the next working day. They said they didn’t find those chocolates so left it out for delivery later (without even asking me, who had paid in advance already!). I kept trying them the next day and kept getting a variety of responses from different persons such as their customer service head, executive in-charge and even project in-charge. It kept bothering me but to no avail. I requested them to at least make the delivery late even after the entire mess-up already, and they kept giving excuses and time lines playing the blame game throughout cursing their own staff for this. Two days later, I got another message from the gift recipient that they got a call from OCS people about a delay in the gift and that it will be one more day before the surprise gift chocolates… Whoa, so much for the element of surprise my dear sir!

I had asked for a refund based on the fact that they failed in their commitment, they agreed that there was a big mishap and said they’d compensate for the same. The “project in-charge” was supposed to return to me on that. However, despite my calls twice, no one  seemed bothered enough to care. Thinking back on this entire episode again, I feel pity for the company as they didn’t realize they were only creating another mishap after the first one. At least think about the name of the service “Expressions” for God’s sake.

It is awkwardly perplexing how a company coming from an industry thriving on customer relationships, goodwill management, customer loyalty and brand ambassadorship can get away with Operational Fiasco’s with additional cruel layers of icing of poor customer service and ill-will generation amongst all their prospective customers. Is it all about the money for them I wonder? Even if it is, money won’t follow them for sure this way.

Perhaps, OCS Pakistan does not get it now that living up to customers’ promised expectations, a positive attitude and professionalism are hallmarks of success and one can often not succeed and certainly not thrive with an attitude of eccentricity and indifference to their customers.

For a company in any industry, a satisfied customer is a prerequisite for growth, as they the former’s existence dwindles in the latter’s faith moves about to the competitor. I don’t know for sure if you’re sorry, OCS Pakistan, but I feel sorry for you. One more customer lost, eh. That’s it for your sales register today or may be that’s not it. Who knows who all would change their their minds after reading this.

Floods in Pakistan: Worst ever in the History of the Nation


There are instances when one feels quite helpless at the state of affairs and wonders how could he make any positive difference. Indeed, the recent floods in Pakistan is one such occasion when many Pakistanis are feeling this way. Around 20 million people are estimated to be affected by the floods directly and innumerable societal affects on a broader scale. It is a natural disaster of such a huge scale that government, military, NGOs and civil society are working together toward saving people and helping survivors still feeling quite helpless.

Some major issues that have sprung up in light of the floods and extended damage everywhere are:

  • Rescue of living people in flooded areas
  • Availability of food
  • Access to medicines, health facilities and psychological support
  • Access to clean water
  • Provision of shelter to the affectees

All these issues seek an immediate attention. It is clear that resource scarcity, ineffective resource mobilization and difficulty in doing rescue operations due to geographic difficulties are significant hurdles in the near-term.

On the longer-term, issues of higher importance remain to be resolved. Some of those issues are:

  • Channeling the floodwater out to sea and repairing/developing dams, barrages and water channels throughout the country
  • Rehabilitation of affectees back into their own areas
  • Provision of alternative homes to the affectees
  • Employment generation across all over Pakistan, especially in flood-affected areas
  • Preparing land ruined by floods for use in agriculture, again
  • Arranging for food security of the country by managing the food reserves (of wheat, rice, grains, etc.)
  • Re-establishing the social protection measures and infrastructure (schools, colleges, hospitals, clinics, roads, parks, etc.)
  • Finding hope and setting direction for the broken families, destitute adults, orphans and providing them psychological rehabilitation and some activity to keep themselves productively occupied

It indeed is a big loss and it cannot be corrected in one day, one week, one month or even one year. The short- and long-term goals for putting things back on track and bringing the house in order would need huge amounts of dedication, efforts, mutual support and commitment to a unified goal – of progressing together and reviving again. More than monetary aid, these are issues that need human care and support.

Pakistanis are a resilient nation. They have been through worst of conditions. As long as they stand united, I am sure the revival will come through. All that is needed is a firm faith in Almighty, coherent policies at the governmental level, support from all segments of the society and most importantly BELIEF in oneself and each other.


Shipping Industry in Pakistan


Pakistan is a country of 170 million people, who are spread all over and it has been blessed with the best natural and human resources. It has the hills and mountains, a 1000 km long coast line, sea, lakes and rivers, valleys, oil and gas fields, mines and huge natural resources through capacity to grow staple food products to fruits and vegetables.  Pakistan borders with China, India and Afghanistan and is one of the easiest sea route for transfer of goods to Afghanistan, China and India (especially the first two).

Shipping is one of the sectors in Pakistan that has not been well-planned largely on account of short-sighted government policies more than anything else.  It is a sector that can lead to great synergies in exploring the potential of the country’s geographical location. The continuing work on the Gwadar port in collaboration with China is possible because everyone stands to benefit out of the win-win situation. With China trying to reduce its dependence on the sea route through Arabian Sea where there is a much higher security risk and risk of interruptions, it envisioned a possibility of having Gwadar serve their interests in difficult times. As it is, once Gwadar port is online, China would be assured of a far more safer and easier sea route to Gwadar port for deliveries coming from the Middle Eastern region through the Arabian sea

On comparison, Pakistan seems to be lacking in many different areas as the radar chart (source: WorldBank database) below indicates. It is interesting to note that although Pakistan fares roughly equal to other lower middle income countries in the region, however, in comparison to its neighbour China, it definitely has a lot of learn and implement and there is ample room for improvement in all the areas of operation and management. The highest gains can be made in the infrastructure, where government-private sector relationships and government’s iron-willed determination and honest commitment could do wonders.

If Pakistan is willing to chalk out its strategy for trade and production management, the country can claim massive gains in the fields of shipping, logistics, trading, manufacturing, rentals generated by government and semi-government institutions for various infrastructure facilities’ usage such as storage & handling charges. Moreover, development of ancillary industries could thrive due to the ripple effect. Such a policy would bring in all the stakeholders on the decision table and take them into confidence on the longer-term beyond-the-nose kind of planning not seen of late. This would entail not only vague ideas but practical plans and milestones in each domain and follow through of ideas till implementation and post-implementation support.

Given the geo-strategic positioning of the country and the enhanced value of the location in light of the emergence of a stronger China and a post-war Afghanistan (being a land-locked country), Pakistan can definitely capitalize on the opportunity to develop a brighter tomorrow for itself, rather than depending on the foreign aid to push through this difficult time. In fact, this country has the potential to become a major shipping center in the region once it streamlines the infrastructure deployment, brings in competent people management and the government is able to control the security situation in the country.