Thursday, November 22, 2012

Ziarat Residency, Apple Farm, and Tourist Traps

 Transportation Reviews: Karachi-Quetta-Ziarat and back

At a height of ~8,000 feet, Ziarat might be the only place in the Southern Pakistan which can be called a hill station. Although it might not be as lush as those in the Central and Upper parts of the country – for instance Galiyat, Kaghan Valley, Swat, etc – however, it still deserves an outing due to its distinctive Juniper forests, orchards, colonial history, and healing characteristics.

Here are a couple of things which one should not miss while visiting the cool hill station:

Quaid-e-Azam Residency
Quaid-e-Azam Residency Ziarat
Ziarat Residency, where the Founding Father – or Quaid-e-Azam – Muhammad Ali Jinnah spent last few days of his life, upon doctors’ advice, fighting the lung cancer is the most characteristic structure of the hill station. The aesthetically designed wooden building does not only possess architectural significance but it is also a remnant of the golden days of the British Empire looking over their rebellious northwestern frontiers towards Afghanistan and beyond.

Now the charismatic 19the century Residency is a national monument and is maintained accordingly.

Reaching the monument from Ziarat bazaar is no big deal; take the upward artery from Shalimar Hotel, or from other any other gulley, walk uphill for around 15 minutes and you will be there. The place is so obvious that losing the way is difficult; however, one can take the assistance of passersby if confused. As you move upward, views of the surrounding valleys will become clearer making the trail-cum-road more refreshing.

The place opens daily from 9 to 5 with lunch break and except for Wednesdays. Unfortunately, we got to know the Wednesday thing only after I lifted Mikael’s buggy all the way upstairs – with the little one inside as he was sleeping – that we are there on the bad day! However, staff was courteous and opened that for us. After all we traveled all the way from Karachi to see Quaid’s memorial. By the way, no one was there except for us and those guards, which I believe would be the case even if we would have visited on a legitimate day.

Gardens around the Residency are the best maintained in the whole Ziarat and provided us with a good opportunity to enjoy our little picnic with Misha running and jumping around freely. Yellow leaves were dancing down from trees, with every passing breeze, announcing the autumn coming!

Sunshine was just perfect for the due warmth – in the otherwise cold town – and the Vitamin D intake was a bonus. Air was as fresh as it could be and an opportunity for us to breath deep to purify our polluted Karachite lungs! Skies were so clear and so blue that we could see the moon – right around noon – inevitably! The whole arena was engulfed into a deep silence which could only be broken by the slow winds and autumn leaves.

When we reached there, the Residency was closed
Because it was Wednesday!
However, the staff opened that for us
Misha found a big park to run freely and collect autumn leaves
An Autumn Leave
07 Tree turned yellow.jpg
Can you spot the moon?
A motorcycle with special facilities
It was the phone call of Abdus Samad Dotani – a gentleman and a local landlord – which forced us to windup and come down to the bazaar to discuss when to visit his apple farm.

Bird Eyeview
Surrounding valleys of Ziarat produce premium quality cherries and apples of various varieties which fetch handsome price in Punjab’s fruit markets. If one is coming from Quetta, patches of orchards start appearing on both sides of the slanting road half an hour ahead of the city center around Zandra and Kewas valleys. Cold and dry weather plays an important role in making Ziarat apples juicier and more flavorsome.

Since winters was in the offing, trees started changing colors; from greenish to red, orange, and finally yellowish. It was a beautiful sight indeed.

We felt lucky when invited by Abdus Samad Dotani to visit his family farms along with a sumptuous luncheon, full of Pushtoon hospitality. Will you call it best of both worlds when he told us that there were still a couple of trees loaded with apples! He intentionally left them for his guests and friends.

We spent a couple of hours in the farm where our host enlightened us about the local trends regarding farming. He told us that some farmers are shifting to cherries and other fruits from apples because of the low priced produce in the market coming from the neighboring sanctioned-hit Iran.

While I was sitting in his traditional ‘farshi’ guest room, a delegate from a developmental NGO was there discussing the upliftment prospects. Though people in the area are conservative and mostly support conservative relegiopolitical parties, they also welcome genuine NGOs simultaneously. That observation was contrary to my previous stereotyped thought. Abdus Samad also told us that though ignored in the previous generation people are now aware of the importance of female education and a majority of girls around his village are now going to school.

At the end of the day, he packed us a couple of cartons full of fresh apples for the home also!
An apple farm from outside
An apple farm from outside
Last of the Trees with Apples
Apples from Ziarat Attract Good Prices Because of Superior Quality
A Couple of Isolated Apples
Another One Hanging Alone
Yet another one
Varieties in the Farm
It gets wasted too
Quality Inspector.
Do apples grow on bushes?
A bunch of colorful ones
A row of apple trees
Farsh with handwoven carpet
Meeting with NGO
Juniper - the pride of Ziarat
Tourist Traps
Apart from the above two, most of the other attractions marketed by touts, e.g. natural spring, khewari baba, etc, are no less than a tourist trap and a source of earning for local drivers, in my opinion.

 Transportation Reviews: Karachi-Quetta-Ziarat and back

Friday, November 16, 2012

Karachi to Quetta-Ziarat Transportation Guide

Al-Aziz Runs Comfortable Overnight Coaches between Karachi and Quetta - Rs. 2,100
This month we (family of 4) visited the hill station to enjoy the color of autumn and to utilize our long unused inventory of warm clothing. Initially, I planned to go by car but friends suggested otherwise due to the reported security situation especially around Khuzdar, which is halfway between Karachi and Ziarat on the RCD Highway, so we switched to Plan B, i.e. public transport.

Here goes a brief review of our experience on the road:

No Direct Transport between Karachi and Ziarat
There is no direct public transport from Karachi to Ziarat therefore one has to take a break in Quetta and then transfer to the Ziarat bound hiace/coaster. The transfer can be made immediately, in the earlier part of the day, as there are multiple vans going to the hill station each day.

Karachi to Quetta
For Karachi to Quetta there are many options available; one of the cheapest is the regular coach (Rs. 1,200 pp; twice a day) while the most expensive is Toyota 2.0D taxi (Rs. 3,500 pp, only in morning). Among those, I opted for the 30 seater 2x1 overnight luxury coach (Rs. 2,100 pp, twice a day) run by Al-Aziz, upon Zahoor’s advice who is the manager of Shalimar Hotel Ziarat.

Al-Aziz Coach
After a little googling I found Al-Aziz Coach contact numbers and booked our seats via phone a day before the journey. The coach had to depart at 7pm from Yousuf Goth Terminal, on the Hub River Road, which is way out of the city; however, they provided the shuttle service from their office located near Hassan Square, where we had to reach at 5:30pm to pay for the tickets and to catch the shuttle at 6pm. We did exactly that

Shuttle Service
The shuttle service was a bit uncomfortable and a little late too but not too annoying for the 45 minutes ride. We transferred to the big coach which left the Quetta bound terminal half an hour late as it had to wait for some confirmed passengers who were reportedly stuck up in the city traffic.

Journey Starts
Bus looked new with business class style seats; fully reclining and comfy. Most of the passengers were families with some having kids too. Lights were turned off after 15 minutes and the whole bus went into hibernation, except for the driver off course! There were 5-6 empty seats when we started the journey, which became a nuisance as the staff filled them up enroute with discounted passengers!

After two and a half hours, around 10pm, the bus took a stopover at Bela at a designated restaurant which was selling bad quality food in a disgusting environment. Surprisingly, the stopover on the way back, at Khuzdar, was much better with reasonable facilities.
Al-Aziz Coach Office at Hassan Square
Al-Aziz Coach Runs Shuttle Service Between Hassan Square and Yousuf Goth Terminal
Al-Aziz Coach Yousuf Goth Terminal on Hub River Road - Located Inconvenientl
Al-Aziz Caoch has 2x1 Comfy Seating
We Reached Quetta Before the Sunrise
Quetta to Ziarat
We reached Quetta around the sunrise and promptly took a rikshaw to the Ziarat bound bus station located at Spinzai Road. For Ziarat, I wanted to buy tickets in the coaster, rather than in the hiace, for the sake of comfort, however, I could not find the office of Kakar Transport.

When we reached the hiace stand, at around 7am, there was a van standing stuffed up with passengers and still selling seats. Touts there tried hard to convince me to get onboard but I insisted on the next van for better seating.

For Ziarat, I bought 4 seats, instead of 2, in the middle of the van to make the onward journey less uncomfortable. Next van departed at 8am, reached the hill station around 10:30 am, and dropped us right in front of Shlimar Hotel.

In all, it took us around 18 hours, door to door!

Return Journey
Return journey was quicker and took 16 hours door to door. From Ziarat, I pre-booked 4 seats in the Kakar Transport’s coaster, which picked us up right from our accommodation at 2:10pm, a bit late than the given time.

We reached back Quetta before 5pm and took the rickshaw to Al-Aziz Coach Terminal at Saryab Road. Interestingly, we forgot to pick Mikael’s stroller while leaving the hotel but luckily there was another hiace following the coaster which picked that and brought it to Quetta, just in time!

There I made a mistake! Rather than booking the return seats in the Karachi coach – when we reached Quetta from Karachi – I thought doing it later via phone, which did not prove wise as the staff was very reluctant in making reservation on phone. Thankfully, the mistake did not turn into a trouble.

Coach left the terminal around 6:15 pm; again a few minutes late, however, it was full this time. It reached Khuzdar at around 10pm and took stopover for dinner. The hotel there was very reasonable with clean toilet facilities.

Finally we reached back Karachi Saddar at 5:30am where I took a rickshaw and reached back home safe and sound Alhamdulillah around 6am!
Kakar Transport Runs Coaster Between Quetta and Ziarat
A Fruit Laden Truck on the Highway
Mud Houses Between Ziarat and Quetta
Al-Aziz Coach Terminal at Saryab Road Quetta

Expense Sheet
Home to Hassan Square Rickshaw: Rs. 200
Karachi – Quetta Coach: Rs. 4,000 (2 seats)
Quetta Rickshaw: Rs. 100
Quetta – Ziarat: Rs. 520 (4 seats)
Ziarat – Quetta: Rs. 560 (4 seats)
Quetta Rickshaw: Rs. 200
Quetta – Karachi: Rs. 4,200
Saddar to Home Rickshaw: Rs. 300

Contact Numbers – Al-Aziz Coach Quetta
Hassan Square Karachi: (021) 34945778 – Saleem
Saryab Road Quetta: (081) 2450607 – Naseebullah

Contact Numbers – Kakar Transport Ziarat
Ziarat: 0333 7057573 – Musa Jaan
Quetta: 0333 7839642

Contact Numbers – Qadri 2.0D  Car Service
Karachi: 0301 2513311
Quetta: 0300 3800383
Lahore: 0302 3846001
Islamabad: 0321 5221057

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Accommodation Review: Shalimar Hotel Ziarat and the PTDC Motel

Transportation Reviews: Karachi-Quetta-Ziarat and back
Shalimar Hotel Ziarat from Inside
Shalimar Hotel is not only the major commercial accommodation in Ziarat but it is also the only place which keeps alive round the year even in the harsh winters – when the whole valley puts on the white blanket. Lonely Planet also lists this hotel; both on its printed as well as online versions, but the contact number given in the printed version is obsolete. (New Number: 0833-560353) 

This budget place enjoys good reputation among frequent travelers, both businessmen and tourists, mainly due to the facilities which cannot be found around the rustic hill station. During our recent trip (November 2012), we spent three nights there and found that livable, however, with much room for improvements.

Since it was the off-season, I did not bother advance booking; however, I did call Zahoor – the hotel manager – before leaving Karachi to make sure if they were open and to enquire about the best commuting options from Karachi. He was responsive, not only on the phone but afterwards also, and guided us well.

PTDC Motel
The other decent accommodation option in Ziarat was PTDC (Pakistan Tourism Development Company) Motel which we would have preferred due to its cleanliness, tranquil environment, and cozy cottages should there have been heating arrangement.

Both Shalimar Hotel and PTDC are on the main Ziarat road but on the opposite corners of the city with former being on the entrance when coming from Quetta. The bus dropped us right in front of the hotel and it took me 10 minutes to negotiate the deal with Zahoor who allotted Room # 15 and Jamshed to us.  On the way back also, the Quetta bound coaster (pre-booked) picked us up from the hotel. We found the hotel conveniently located; close enough to the hustle-bustle that it does not look haunted in a town which gets dead as the sun sets down but not too close to the level of annoyance.

About the Room
The room was spacious with wall sized glass windows on two sides to get maximum sun exposure. On the flip side, it was located far behind which made it inconvenient especially when the intercom system was not functional. The double bed, blankets, and bed sheets were very clean while the carpet floor was grimy and the toilet was too small and rundown. I had to insist to get a bathroom wiper and the carpet was vacuum cleaned only once and that too when we had already spent a night. In order to keep kids away from the rug, I requested an extra mattress which they provided free of charge and without reluctance.

Electricity and Gas
Initially they provided us a slightly faulty gas heater which was replaced the next day. Gas pressure used to get week around sunset for an hour and they had a policy to close the valve at 11pm. Even if they do not disconnect the supply, it is highly advisable to turn the heater off before sleeping, ignoring which may be life threatening. There was two hours of electric load shedding twice a day (7am and 3pm) in addition to the occasional breakdowns during daytime for indefinite hours. During nights also, power disrupted a couple of times but luckily for a few minutes only. Surprisingly, there was no alternate illumination in the room except for the candles which one can get from the staff on demand and our cell phones.

Other Services
Room service was satisfactory and unfussy; we ordered food and tea quite a few times which always reached us without much waiting.  Food quality was also good enough with realistic prices. They have various well maintained conference style dining areas as well on both floors in addition to 16 bedrooms on the first floor out of which only 3-4 were occupied due to offseason. During our stay, there was a meeting of health department which occupied those dining halls.

Staff was easygoing, soft spoken, and well mannered. Security was also good and the overall ambiance was family friendly. Although the room occupancy was low when we visited but the place gets high in demand during spring and summers so advanced booking would be wise during the season.

Overall we found Shalimar Hotel Ziarat recommendable to those visiting the hill station, either with family or friends, except for ones too demanding.

Gas Heater (included)
Hot Running Water (included)
Washing Machine (self use, free of charge)
Iron (self use, free of charge)
Television (only Geo News)

Short Comings:
Broken Intercom System
Rundown Washroom
Unclean Carpet

Room Charges: Rs. 1,200 for the double room 

Shalimar Hotel Ziarat from the Front
Shalimar Hotel Ziarat from the Backside (Room#15 is on the Right Corner)
A View from Inside the Room - Just OK!
Sipping Hot Qahwa in the Room
Do Turn the Gas Heater Before You Sleep
Main Ziarat Road in Front of Shalimar Hotel
Zahoor - the Responsive Manager of Shalimar Hotel Ziarat
Kaleemullah Kakar (front) and Zahoor are Responsible for the Room Service
Shalimar Hotel Ziarat - Conditions
Restaurant of Shalimar Hotel Ziarat with the Inside Family Room
Stairs for the First Floor
One of the Dining Halls on the First Floor (Noticed the Telephone!?)
A Typical Double Bed in Shalimar Hotel Ziarat
Bathrooms can be Improved