A review of the 1942 classic movie “The Magnificent Ambersons” 

April 23rd, 2024 by Roger Darlington

When Orson Welles signed a two-picture deal with RKO Pictures in 1940, the result was the acclaimed masterpiece “Citizen Kane” followed by the butchered masterpiece “The Magnificent Ambersons”. Again Welles wrote, produced and directed, but this time he did not star – in fact, it was the only film that he ever directed in which he did not act – although he was the narrator. 

The film is an adaptation of the 1918 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Booth Tarkington and narrates the decline of a family and a lifestyle at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, as epitomised by the replacement of the horse-drawn carriage by the automobile. It is a film about decline and nostalgia for the past and it is full of the virtuoso camerawork which made Kane so famous, such as a long, moving shot in a ballroom sequence. 

As originally crafted by Welles, the film ran for 148 minutes. By the time it was released, it was only 88 minutes – as well as savage cutting which makes the storyline somewhat disjointed and sometimes hard to follow, the whole tone of the movie was changed by the studio to make the ending more up-beat. All this was done while Welles was down in Brazil and without any consultation with him. The director later opined that the studio had destroyed his work and, in doing so, had destroyed him.

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Holiday in Pakistan (12): conclusion

April 21st, 2024 by Roger Darlington

The conclusion of my holiday in Pakistan was almost as disruptive as the beginning, with a threatened flight change. At Islamabad airport, I was not given a boarding pass for the onward journey from Doha. Then, at Doha airport, I had to visit three desks of Qatar Airways, be  told that my intended flight was fully booked, and have a suggestion that I fly home via Athens, before I eventually secured a seat on the same flight as the other group members. 

The problem was unusually heavy rain in the Guif region which had substantially dislocated flight schedules. Climate changed is seriously impacting global travel now. 

So, how to assess this holiday? 

There are so few foreign tourists in Pakistan that all the hotels, restaurants, shops and tourist sites made us incredibly welcome. Everywhere ordinary people wanted to speak to us and be photographed with us. “How are you?” “Where you from?” “Thank you come to Pakistan” were said over and over. 

Internationally, many view Pakistan as an unsafe destination. Certainly we experienced lots of road checkpoints and security at hotels and we saw armed guards, police and soldiers everywhere, but we never ever felt threatened. The danger is not to tourists: the day before our departure, two suicide bombers on motorbikes attacked a Japanese delegation in Karachi. 

This was a wonderful trip in so many respects: the vibrancy of Lahore, the modernity of Islamabad, the historic sites, the mosques and markets, and above all the absolutely stunning mountain scenery of the Hunza Valley. We had some delightful accommodation and delicious food.

However, overall it proved to be the most challenging holiday of my life. I always expect some things to go wrong on long-haul ventures, but the scale and frequency of the set-backs this time were unprecedented. 

Really, Pakistan – as I found in Ethiopia – is not yet ready for tourism and we paid the price for being pioneers. The country does not yet have the transport infrastructure, in terms of good roads and reliable flights, for large-scale tourism.  We met so few foreign tourists outside a few from Thailand and Taiwan. 

As far as the Jules Verne group was concerned, the biggest challenges were at the beginning and the end: a  delay of over 40 hours at Heathrow airport, so that we lost two days of the programme, and that 18-hour road journey from Gilgit to Islamabad, when we lost a third day of the itinerary.

However, I am still pleased that I made the trip. It was a real adventure in a very different country. Geographically, the highlight was the glory of the mountainous Hunza Valley. Emotionally, the biggest buzz came from my mountain climb at Shigar Peak, the toughest climb of my life. 

To summarise: Pakistan is a fabulous tourist destination but it is not for the faint-hearted or infirm tourist.  

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Holiday in Pakistan (11): Islamabad and Taxila

April 20th, 2024 by Roger Darlington

We finished our holiday in good spirits since we had the best hotel of the trip (the Serena), the weather was excellent, and we had some interesting visits. We drove along the wide Constitution Avenue in Islamabad, on which many government buildings are located, and then north-west to the ancient city of Texila which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. 

Old Taxila was founded around 1000 BCE and, for a time, it was c the capital city of ancient Gandhara, situated on the eastern shore of the Indus River. In 326 BCE, the city was conquered by Alexander the Great who gained control without a battle.

At Taxila, we visited the museum with its impressive collection of artefacts from different empires, the railway station built in 1881, one of the 30 local archaeological sites (Mohra Moradu), the Gandhara Resource Centre, and a yard carrying out the Pakistani cultural phenomenon of ‘truck art’. 

Back in Islamabad in mid afternoon, some of the group rested, some went to a market, and I visited a special mosque. The modern Faisal Mosque was a  gift from Saudi Arabia and it is a huge structure with four minarets visible from much of the city. I was surprised at the relaxed family atmosphere in the surroundings as the mosque’s location doubles up as a kind of picnic park. 

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Holiday in Pakistan (10): the worst journey of my life

April 19th, 2024 by Roger Darlington

The antepenultimate day of our holiday (Friday) should have been nothing special. The plan was to take a one hour flight from Gilgit back to Islamabad and visit some tourist sights in the Pakistani capital. What could possibly go wrong? In short: everything. 

The morning flight from Gilgit was cancelled for some reason that was never revealed. So we had to return to Islamabad by road. The summer road was not available because there was still snow in parts. The road we took would always have been challenging, but it was more problematic because of the exceptionally heavy rain that has hit Pakistan this April.

So most of the journey was on a constantly winding road hugging the mountain side with high rock mountains on one side and precipitous rock falls down to the Indus River on the other side. The road was basically single lane so that, whenever we overtook a vehicle or an oncoming vehicle passed us, one vehicle had to move against the mountain or the edge. At regular intervals, there would be the usual potholes and then, because of the recent rain, rocks would have fallen on the road or streams would wash over the road. 

I lost count of the number of police checkpoints. On two occasions during the hours of darkness, they insisted on providing us with an armed escort for a section of the road.

The opportunity for toilet stops were rare and the toilet facilities were miserable: no opportunity to sit, no toilet paper, no water to wash. The last toilet stop was about three hours before we finally reached our hotel. Lunch was from a box packed by the hotel – it left a lot to be desired – in a remote village called Sunbar Nala situated by a roaring river. Dinner was the usual meat, rice and dal during a quick stop in a town called Besham. 

Even when we reached the vicinity of our hotel, our troubles were not quite over. All the usual access roads were blocked for security reasons because the hotel was hosting the New Zealand cricket team, so we had to go round and round to find an access point. 

We left our hotel in Gilgit at 7.20 am and finally arrived at our hotel in Islamabad at 1.05 am next morning after an exhausting and bottom-numbing journey of almost 18 hours. The last third of the journey was in darkness and cold because we had dressed lightly, expecting to be in warm Islamabad. We only changed driver after about 12 hours. 

Could any journey be worse? Well, yes. 

The night before, I was struck down with a severe case of diarrhoea during which I almost passed out. In the morning, as well as diarrhoea, I had vomiting. I was so weak that, for the first third of the journey, I lay on fold-out sears arranged by helpful members of the group and just slept and slept. During the whole day, I took every opportunity to relieve myself and took one Imodium tablet after another. I ate absolutely nothing all day and drank only one cup of green tea.

It was the worst journey of my life. 

And it means that, having lost two days of our holiday because of the 40-hour delay in the outward flight, we have now lost a third day. 

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Holiday in Pakistan (9): more of the Hunza Valley

April 18th, 2024 by Roger Darlington

Our last day (Wednesday) in the Hunza Valley was a very long one. We left the hotel at 8.45 am and I was finally back in my room at 10.30 pm after almost 14 hours.

The mountain-side road went through five tunnels – one very long indeed – built by the Chinese before we reached our first destinations: a view of the Passu Cones (a collection of high snow-capped peaks), a view of the Passu Glacier (receding fast as a result of global warming), and the Rainbow suspension bridge. I had fun crossing the bridge and back, carefully stepping across the gaps of about a foot and a half. 

Next stop was another suspension bridge, the Hosseini Bridge. This is at least twice as long as the Rainbow Bridge, but again I walked the full length and back. Alongside the bridge are zip wires and our guides and a few of the group returned across the river by one of these wires. I didn’t bother because it was such a simple zip wire experience compared to the one I had in Costa Rica with 11 lengths. 

Lunch was at a bed & breakfast place called “Mokhsha” in a village called Gulmit. The local community has built a stone pathway of some 1600 steps from the village to the ruins of the Ondra Fort. We were driven to a point where it was about 600 steps to the top which is 2,770 metres (about 9,100 feet) high. It was a very tough climb, but we did it and the views were breathtaking. 

It was a short drive to our next experience. In January 2010, a landslide blocked the Hunza River and created Attabad Lake (also called Shishket Lake), resulting in 20 deaths and 8 injuries and effectively blocking about 16 miles (26 kms) of the Karakoram Highway. The new lake extends 19 miles (30 kms)  and rose to a depth of 400 feet (120 metres) when it was formed as the Hunza River backed up. We had a short ride on the lake. 

The final tourist stop of the day is called the Eagle’s Nest Viewpoint. There are no eagles, but there is a 360 degree view of high peaks in all directions, including six peaks over 7,000 metres (23,000 feet). And there was coffee at the “Hard Rock Hunza”. 

We did not return to our hotel but proceeded straight to dinner at a restaurant called “Odyssey” in a village called Dorkan. Pakistan is a ‘dry’ country, so we had drunk no alcohol for two weeks, but somehow at this restaurant we were offered “Hunza water” which is  a light red wine. 

After a good meal, we went out to the hotel’s garden for an informal cultural show. We were entertained by music, singing and dancing, all in the old Hunza traditions. Our guides urged us to take part in the final dance, but the British are a reserved people and only two of us did so. I represented my country with moves observed earlier and replicated to the best of my aged ability.

On Thursday, we left the Hunza Valley and, for about two hours, drove west and lower in altitude to the town of Gilgit. The only sight of the journey was the Kargah Buddha which is an archaeological location located about 6 miles outside of Gilgit. It is a carved image of a large standing Buddha some 50 feet (15 metres) high, in the cliff-face in Kargah Nala. The carving, which is in a style also found in Balistan, is estimated to date back to the 7th century.

After a quick lunch at our new hotel (the Gilgit Serena), we drove the short distance to the military grounds of the GB Rangers (this GB stands for Gilgit-Balistan) to view a polo match.  We didn’t have a clue what going on, but we met a retired local hero of the game called Bulbul Jan and we were feted – food, drinks, caps, and endless photographs and filming by local media. I was invited to throw the first ball of the match and one member of the group, Lisa Rowe, gave a television interview.  

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Holiday in Pakistan (8): the Hunza Valley

April 16th, 2024 by Roger Darlington

Monday was very much another travelling day. Once the landslides of yesterday were reported to be clear, we were able to leave Kachura at 9.30 am. It was raining and rained all day, so the clouds were low and the sky was grey. 

On the early part of the journey, it was evident that the rain had dislodged rocks onto the road, but on the drop side of the road the high rock formations were amazing: different colours, shapes and formations. We eventually arrived at a location which does not look that special but is famous as the junction of three huge mountain ranges: the Hindu Kush which goes all the way to Afghanistan, the Karakoram which goes all the way to China, and the Himalayas which goes all the way to Nepal.

Lunch was special. We went to the home of our local guide Ali which is in a town called Oshikhandas. We all sat the floor around a large rectangular carpet loaded with delicious food. We were then shown the rooms and gardens. In the afternoon, we stopped a place called the Rakaposhi Viewpoint, where we were supposed to marvel at the Rakaposhi mountain, but the weather was so terrible that we couldn’t see a thing.

It was 7 pm and dark when we finally reached the Serena Altit Fort Residence where we are going into spend three nights. The journey of 290 kms (about 180 miles) had taken nine and a half hours. 

We were now in the Hunza Valley which lies along the Hunza River and borders Ishkoman to the northwest, Shigar to the southeast, the Wakhan Corridor of Afghanistan to the north, and the Xinjiang of China to the northeast. The Hunza Valley floor is at an elevation of around 8,000 feet (2,438 metres).  

Tuesday was a full and fascinating day. 

We started with a visit to the 900 year old Altit Fort located 200 metres (650:feet) above sheer precipitous slopes that cascade down towards the Hunza River. The fort itself is not that interesting, but the views are terrific and we had a guide who made fun videos of us on some of the viewpoints. Next we went to a furniture workshop to meet the women from a collective organisation known as CIQAM, meaning ‘wellbeing’, ‘prosperity’ or ‘green’ in the local Brushaski dialect.

It was then a short drive to the village of Ganish, one the oldest settlements on the ancient Silk Road. The original character and design of the village remains intact, with several richly carved mosques that are each over 500 years old. Lunch was at a restaurant in the Darbar Hotel where our table was in a large bay window looking out over a series of snow-capped mountains – truly, a spectacular vista.  

The afternoon began with a tour of the 700 year old Baltit Fort where the Mir of Hunza resided until the 1950s. This was much  more interesting than the Altit Fort  (incidentally, Altit means ’low ‘ and Baltic means ’high’. As we were leaving, our guide to the fort approached me tearfully to explain that I looked so like his father who had died some years previously. Coffee and cake in the “Mountain Cup” cafe completed the day. 

Instead of having dinner in the hotel again, we drove to the town of Ali Abad where we ate at a restaurant called “2 Magpies”. Here I had a conversation with a Pakistani orthopaedic surgeon and his much younger American friend and received an invitation to stay at their summer house.  

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Holiday in Pakistan (7): the climb of my life 

April 15th, 2024 by Roger Darlington

On Sunday morning, the weather had changed to low cloud and drizzle. The programme offered an optional hike to Shigar Rock, located next to the Shigar Fort. Accompanied by tour guide Raza and local guide Ali, nine of the 12 of us went on the hike. Only one of us then opted to climb an extremely steep rock face up a narrow ‘chimney’ to the top. It was the toughest climb of my life and I doubt that I could have done it all without some help from Raza and Ali. It was dangerous but thrilling.

We should then have visited the 14th century Amburiq Mosque, but there had been so much rain that it was surrounded by huge puddles and the guide decided to give it a miss. Setting off about 11 am, from Shigar we drove back west, passing our way through the Katpana cold desert. At Skardu where we had landed a few days before, we visited the Kharpocho Fort, originally built by the King Ali Sher Khan Anchan at the end of the 16th century. This involved more climbing in more drizzle.

Continuing westwards, we eventually reached our next overnight stay: the Byarsa Hotel located near the alpine Kachura Lakes, located in the Karakoram range of western Himalayas, the greater Kashmir region, and in the Indus River basin. 

After lunch at the hotel, we should have visited the nearest lake, but it was still raining so only a few of us – including me, of course – ventured over there, a walk with coffee at a cafe which took up an hour . In the evening, the whole group drove the short distance to the Kachura Lake for dinner at the Pagoda restaurant. 

This trip has already involved plenty of excitement and Monday morning introduced a new adventure. The rain of the last couple of days had created two landslides on the road that we were taking to the Hunza Valley, so we had to delay our departure from Kachura for a couple of hours while the landslides were removed.  

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Holiday in Pakistan (6): travelling further north

April 13th, 2024 by Roger Darlington

It was a whole day (Friday) in the Khapu Valley.

Most of us – three opted out – started the day with a one-hour hike from Garbuchong village, not far from our hotel, all the way up a rocky pathway to the Thoqsikhar Viewpoint overlooking the Khaplu Valley. It was a tough climb – not just steep but comprising mostly large, unevenly shaped rocks and all at a significant altitude (around 2,700 metres or 8,700 feet). We had to pause regularly to catch our breath. But the views were spectacular: snow-capped mountains, blue sky, pink blossom.

After a quick call back at the hotel to pick up the others, we drove over to a village called Machlu for a leisurely stroll. Most of the adults were at the mosque, but there were lots and lots of children, wanting to greet us with a few words of English or just a smile, often happy to be photographed. 

Lunch was at a local trout farm sitting outside in the bright sunshine. Naturally most of us actually had trout. Back at the hotel, we were given a tour of all the main rooms in the original palace building that is now the main block for residents. We could almost sense the presence of the former royal family that lived here and ran its territory, 

Saturday was essentially a travelling day.  We left our hotel at 8.50 am and, before hitting the main road, we visited two local mosques, one very new and the other exceptionally old.

The first was in the process of being built by local labour with funding by the local community. The intricate wood carving was all done by one old man who was self taught. Unusually it is a Sufi mosque. The second is called Khanqan-i-Chaqchan and it is has stood for almost 700 years, making it one of the oldest mosques in Pakistan. It is built out of wood. 

A final, and very brief, stop was at an establishment called the Baltistan Art & Crafts Revival Academy. This doubled as a toilet stop which was very convenient because ahead of us lay a constantly winding and bumpy road journey of 170 kms (105 miles) from the Khaplu Valley north-west to the Shigar Valley with no public toilets (we found private a couple of times) and no restaurants or cafes along the way (we only had lunch once we reached our hotel). We were now a bit lower – around 2,300 metres (about 7,500 feet) – but it was overcast so it was cooler.

We arrived at our new hotel at 1.45 pm. The Serena Shigar Fort is based on a fort-palace dating back some 400 years. It was very atmospheric, especially when I kept banging my head on the absurdly low door openings and we regularly lost all power for a few minutes at a time. All part of the fun of travel in a new land. Lunch was not served until about 3.30 pm and we were back in the restaurant for dinner at 7 pm. Mealtimes are another flexible feature of this kind of travel. 

As throughout the first half of our tour, everyone was so friendly and often wanted to talk to us. At the conclusion of dinner, Jenny and I had a conversation with a couple serving in the army (the husband was a colonel) and, as with so many of our earlier conversations, they complained about how misunderstood Pakistan is globally and sought to emphasise that it is much more modern that foreigners appreciate. 

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Holiday in Pakistan (5): travelling north

April 11th, 2024 by Roger Darlington

The last two days of our trip have been very much travelling days.

On Wednesday, we left our hotel in Lahore and took the M-2 motorway all the way to Islamabad – a journey of 430 kms (about 270 miles).  We were supposed to break the journey with two tourist sites.

The first was the Himalayan Salt Mine at Khewra but it was closed due to Eid.Some of the group members were very disappointed by this, but I’ve seen salt mines in Poland and Colombia so I was quite relaxed about the situation.

The second was the Katas Raj Hindu temple complex. The local Hindu community fled the location in 1947 but it remains an important location for Hindus. It is a large complex but we barely spent half an hour there.

Our lunch stop was at Kallar Kahal in the Soon Valley where – in spite of a bit of light rain – we sat outside (under an awning) for our meal and enjoyed the view of the lake.

Before entering Islamabad, we drove through the city of Rawalpindi, just to obtain a quick appreciation of it. Rawalpindi is the older and larger sister city of Islamabad which is very close by. It is the fourth most populous city in the country with a population of over 2 million. It houses the headquarters of the Pakistani military. 

We arrived at our hotel in Islamabad at 5.15 pm. Islamabad is the capital city of the country, although it only has the ninth largest population (1.2 million). The capital used to be Karachi, but it was moved in 1967. Our accommodation – the five-star Serena Hotel – was amazing, but we had dinner out at a huge, sprawling restaurant where there was a multitude of joyous families celebrating Eid. 

On Thursday, we had a very early start: alarm at 5.30 am, breakfast at 6.30 am, and departure at 7 am. This was because we had an early flight from Islamabad north to Skardu. It was a short flight (half an hour) but the views were breathtaking; huge, snow-capped mountains. We were now at an elevation of 2,250 metres (7,400 feet) so we had to wear warmer clothing. We were met by a young local guide called (Mushraq) Ali.

We made a quick visit to the Satpara Lake before having lunch in the dusty little town of Skardu overlooked by the mountains. Them we took a basic, single-lane, mountain-side road all the way eastwards through the Khapu Valley to our next hotel. It took us four hours, but we had a few stops to take photographs of the amazing scenery and to relieve ourselves behind suitable rocks. 

Our accommodation was fabulous: the Serena Khaplu Palace Hotel – first built in 1840 and a former royal residence. We were now at an elevation of 2,660 metres (8,700 feet). The night was cold. 

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Holiday in Pakistan (4): more of Lahore

April 10th, 2024 by Roger Darlington

On Tuesday and still in Lahore, again we left our hotel at 9 am. 

We should have started with a visit to the Lahore Museum which is the oldest in the country and the greatest repository of the history and culture of Pakistan. It was first established in 1864 and moved to its present premises in 1894. One of the early and most famous curators of the museum was John Lockwood Kipling, the father of Rudyard Kipling. But the museum was closed because of the end of Ramadan. 

However, we did look at the building next door which was the original location of the museum. There was an exhibition of posters and art protesting at Indian occupation of the disputed territory of Kashmir. 

We then moved on to the Lahore Fort or Shahi Qila. This is a candidate for UNESCO World Heritage Site status. It was Inhabited for millennia, destroyed by the Mongols in 1241, and rebuilt several times over the centuries, the present design tracing its origins to 1575, when the Mughal Emperor Akbar occupied the site, guarding the northwest frontier of the empire. The highlight of the location is the beautiful Hall of Mirrors or Sheesh Mahal. 

Next stop and next door was the Royal Mosque or Badshani Mosque, the largest from the Mughal-era, located on the outskirts of the Walled City. Constructed by the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb between 1671 and 1673, it is constructed of red brick with wide courtyards and eight minarets. The design is relatively plain and renovation is needed. 

After a couple of hours back at the hotel for a leisurely lunch, we were out again from 3.30 to 9 pm. Throughout all out time in Lahore, the temperature was in the mid 30s C.

It was a fascination afternoon. First stop was the Wazir Khan Hammam or Royal Baths, a 17th century Persian  bathhouse presently under repair. Next was the Wazir Khan Mosque, the most beautiful in the city. It was completed in 1641 and made with glazed tiles in the Kashi-Kari style. 

The remainder of the afternoon was spent traversing the Delhi Gate Market, a long, narrow and noisy street lined totally with open-fronted stores selling absolutely. In spite of the small width of the street, motorbikes – carrying families and friends, sometimes as many as four passengers including small children

 – thronged the passage way, proceeding in both directions. It was madness but utterly joyous and everyone wanted to to great us and even be photographed by or with us. 

The five of us plus our guide crammed into a tut-tut for our final destination: dinner at one of Lahore’s finest restaurants, the “Andaz”, overlooking the illuminated Badshahi Mosque.

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