In a diplomatic career spanning 35 years, Pakistan's High Commissioner to Singapore Sajjad Ashraf has travelled around the world.
While most of his overseas postings have lasted two to three years, he got an extension for Singapore in what he thinks is his last diplomatic posting.
"I'm glad I got a chance to stay on here, I love this place. I don't think I can leave this place by choice," says Mr Ashraf.
While Pakistan designated 2007 as Visit Pakistan Year, Mr Ashraf, 60, is aware that the political uncertainties in his country deter travellers.
That's why he is bringing a slice of Pakistan to Singapore next month through a Food Festival.
To be held at the Raffles Hotel from April 7 to 13, it will feature six chefs who will be flown in from Pakistan.
An authentic food experience awaits and Mr Ashraf hopes "this food diplomacy will help people see another side of Pakistan and perhaps encourage them to visit the place too".
Pakistan, Mr Ashraf says, is best explored through its food. Having spent time in capital Islamabad, he recommends the Food Street and Blue Area where you can get great Pakistani food for under US$5 (S$7). For a more high-end experience, he recommends the Serena Hotel, which offers great food.
"Don't ever leave Pakistan without eating chicken karahi (chicken cooked in a wok with traditional spices, above), chapli kebab (spicy beef kebabs cooked on charcoal), haleem (a mixture of lentils, wheat, barley and an equal amount of meat cooked on a slow flame), and taka-tak or taka-tan. These are meat chops, which are cut and cooked on an open platter. They are marinated with a rich mix of spices and are delectable," says Mr Ashraf.
2. Take a history lesson
Start by visiting the World Heritage site of Taxila. This is located in Punjab province, about 30km from the capital Islamabad. From the ancient Neolithic Saraikala to the ramparts of Sirkap, Taxila illustrates the different stages in the development of a city, which was influenced at various times by Persia, Greece and Central Asia.
"It was an important Buddhist centre of learning and is considered a place of both religious and historical importance by both Buddhists and Hindus," adds Mr Ashraf. Together with a tour of the carefully preserved ruins, he recommends making the time to visit the Taxila Museum, which features many rich archaeological finds of the site.
3. Faisal Mosque
|PRAY TELL: Mr Ashraf recommends the striking Faisal Mosque.
The Faisal Mosque is located on an elevated area of land against the picturesque backdrop of the Margalla Hills in Islamabad. The mosque's architecture is strikingly modern and unique. "It does not have the traditional domes and arches which you can see in most other mosques around the world," he says.
Designed by Turkish architect Vedat Dalokay, it was completed in 1986 at an estimated cost of US$120 million. "It is one of the biggest mosques in the world and can house 100,000 people at one time. What's also interesting is its shape which is inspired by a desert Beduoin tent, the cubic Ka'ba in Mecca and flanked by four minarets inspired by Turkish architecture."
The mosque also houses the International Islamic University.
4. Gurdwara Panja Sahib
Sikh pilgrims from all over the world visit this famous Sikh temple which has a sacred rock with the handprint of the first Sikh Guru - Guru Nanak.
The three-storey building, built with grey sandstone, represents typical Sikh architecture, with features such as domed bay windows. The central dome is surrounded by several symmetrical large and small domes. The temple stands in the middle of a large stone water tank beside the huge stone with the hand print of Guru Nanak.
There are nearly 50 carpet shops in Islamabad's Blue Area. "But if it is carpets you are looking for, I'd recommend going shopping with someone who understands dyes, knots, designs, colour and can negotiate a good price for you," advises Mr Ashraf.
"Buying a carpet is like buying a painting, you can't pick something without knowing about it fully."
For other handicrafts, explore the markets in sectors F6, F7 and Melody Market. They are home to a rich variety of vendors selling everything from mirror work and patch work to prints and tie-and-dye work.
6. Head to the hills
"I'd also recommend an overnight trip to Murree, which is about 55km from Islamabad. It is called the Queen of the Hills in Pakistan and for good reason," Mr Ashraf says.
In summer it is cool, with temperatures dipping to 10 deg C in the evening. In winter, Murree is covered in snow, making it an ideal stop for travellers who like winter.
This article was first published in The Straits Time on Mar 18, 2008.