The best view of Islamabad is from the Daman-e-koh (دامن کوہ) viewpoint on the Margalla Hills (مارگلہ ہلز). There are paths, viewing points, gardens, and picnic areas. You reach it, forty-five minutes by foot or ten minutes by car, from the northern end of 7th Avenue.
It’s possibly the only place where the planner’s design and intent becomes apparent. The Islamabad city, with its rigidly-straight avenues and neat rows of houses, is laid out below. The Presidential Palace and Legislative Assembly, and the adjoining bureaucracy of the Secretariat, Islamabad’s equivalent of Capitol Hill or Whitehall, dominate the view to the east, counterpoint to the sublime proportions of the Shah Faisal Mosque tucked against the hills in the west.
The emerald waters of Rawal Lake (راول لیک) glitter in the distance and, in the haze, the dark mass of Rawalpindi merges on the horizon with lowering thunderclouds. On a clear day, this horizon extends far beyond Rawalpindi, out over the Potwar Plateau, to the ridges of the Salt Range beyond.
Above the viewpoint, a road leads to the crest of the first ridge, a walk of between one and two hours. What passes for a zoological garden, insecure and inadequate; lies beneath the viewpoint, populated by repressed monkeys, one un-performing bear, deer, and some splendid birds Even though there’s no admission charge, it might be as well to give Islamabad Zoo a miss.
There’s another spectacular panorama from a small hill in the floral and arboreal Shakar Parian Park (شکر پڑیاں پارک) Islamabad, Pakistan Monument, Heritage Museum, which you reach by turning south at the traffic lights at Abpara Market (آبپارہ مارکیٹ), or by taking the Shahrah-e-Islamabad (شاہراہ اسلام آباد), the main dual carriageway from Zero Point toward Rawalpindi and turning left into the park. You then go 500 metres (550 yards) down the jasmine-lined drive to the Institute of Folk and Traditional Heritage.
Four or five times a year, the institute stages fresh exhibitions of handicrafts, art, or music and musical instruments from different regions of Pakistan. The institute is also a serious research centre for the study and preservation of the country’s traditional arts and cultures.
Leave here and stroll through the gardens, past the museum, and, also on the right, the Lotus Lake, so named for the flowers that bloom on its surface during the lotus season.
To the left, there’s a road to West Viewpoint and its rose garden, at the top of a hill, overlooking Rawalpindi. East Viewpoint, where the sunken garden is laid out as a map of the capital, overlooks Islamabad.
The park’s arboreal splendour has been much enhanced by various indigenous and exotic trees planted by visiting statesmen to commemorate their visit. As you follow the winding paths through the gardens and fountains, you’ll see many of them.
Past the emblem of modern Pakistan, a sculpture of a star and crescent, a right turn takes you in to the parks famous Rose and jasmine Garden Islamabad, venue each spring of the capital’s flower and rose shows.
Near the park is the capital’s magnificent Olympic Centre, a gift of the Chinese people to Pakistan. Beyond that is Rawal Lake, one of Rawalpindi’s main reservoirs, its banks a profusion of flowering shrubs and trees, secluded paths, picnic spots, and gardens. On the dam wall there is a viewpoint, rest house, and snack bar. There are also boats for hire and fish for catching, but you’ll need a permit which is available from a hut near the dam.
Lovely in spring, when the wild tulips bloom and fruit trees blossom, the woods around the lake are an ornithological paradise, habitat of many resident and migrant species. Islamabad Club, with a riding section (non members can hire horses to ride around the lake or Shakar Parian Park) and an attractive golf course, lies to the west. Those riding should hire one of the stable grooms as guide for the three-hour ride around Rawal Lake’s fifteen kilometre perimeters (ten miles). To walk takes about four hours.
Not far away are Constitution Avenue and the Diplomatic Precinct, each lined with embassies, displaying fascinating cultural contrasts in architectural form, from Arab Moorish and Chinese pagoda, to British concrete and red-brick Canadian. Imposingly handsome, the Presidential Palace, Parliament Building, and Federal Secretariat are distinguished by their bold, clean, white lines.
At the base of the Margalla Hills lie the campus and colleges of Islamabad’s Quaid-e- Azam University Islamabad. But all are overshadowed by the soaring, lyrical splendour of the Shah Faisal Mosque, its four ninety metres high (270 feet) minarets thrusting towards the sky.
Turkish architect Vedat Dalokay drew his inspiration from the octagonal symmetry of the Bedouin sheik’s desert “tent”. The massive main edifice, faced in while marble, is supported on four giant concrete girders.
Opened in 1988, three years behind schedule at a cost of US $ 50 million, most of it donated by Saudi Arabia, the mosque is said be the biggest in the world. It can accommodate 100,000 worshippers, 10,000 to 15,000 inside the elegant mosque, and 85,000 in the courtyard.
Under the marble floor of the main courtyard, the Islamic Research Centre, two-stories housing library, museum, press centre, lecture hall, cafeteria, and the offices of the Shariat faculty of the Islamic University goes about furthering knowledge and understanding of the Muslim faith.
In total contrast, at the National Health Laboratories, on Lehtar Road (لہترار روڈ), near Rawal Lake Islamabad, you can watch skilled handler’s milk deadly snakes of their venom for research and anti-snake bite serums. Just pity the poor living prey, rabbits, mice, and guinea pigs, which scurry about in nearby cages, unaware of their grisly fate as a future cobra supper.
You need to give the directorate at least seven days notice of your visit, however.