Welcome to Abbottabad
A Pakistan vendor rides his bicycle in Abbottabad, Pakistan.(Anjum Naveed/Associated Press)
Leaving the heat and chaos of Islamabad behind, I found myself heading towards the town of Abbottabad while researching the Karakoram Highway chapter of Lonely Planet’s current Pakistan & the Karakoram Highway guide. There are some great little picnic spots near there, and Pakistani tourists tend to pass through en route to the popular, quite beautiful mountain valleys beyond.
During my travels in that maze of steep, wooded valleys, I often wondered where Osama Bin Laden might be hiding. It's wild and I remember thinking that you could easily hide anything or anybody there. It now seems that the world's most-wanted man was instead in Abbottabad in 2007, right at the moment I visited. All that appeared odd then were the town's wide avenues lined with tall trees and the occasional spire of a Christian church rising upwards. It still very much felt like the British garrison town it once was.
I was interested to wander around the old Christian cemeteries, with their graves dominated by the British. While no services were being held at that moment, the churches had caretakers to keep a watch over them.
The town's bazaar was just as it always would have been, a mass of higgledypiggledy buildings. The people weren't used to seeing Westerners around, so they either had a quick look or completely ignored me. I was very uncomfortable with some of the looks I had received in the Swat valley, a few kilometers away - a place that is now out of bounds - but Abbottabad was far more relaxed.
I am surprised that reporters have been asking why no-one was alarmed by the architecture of Bin Laden's compound, a big, blocky, concrete building with high walls and few windows. Had I seen it, I would have walked straight past without looking twice. There are so many like this in the countryside of Pakistan, usually with armed guards standing outside. Some of their occupants have made a lot of money from farming.
I checked all of the town's hotels and restaurants, and also found a nightclub; I've now learnt that it was close to the Bin Laden compound. It was like a bat-cave inside, and was located in the Pearl Continental hotel. This is where all the business travellers stay and is part of a respected, though not exactly cutting-edge, chain - the branch in Peshawar has a famous sign: 'Please leave your guns in the lobby'. The nightclub had three rules: no drink, no girls and no dancing. I found it hard to make a recommendation.
You can get a hot curry near Abbottabad's bazaar and, if you're lucky, a few other choices. By the Pakistan Tourist Office is the Mona Lisa restaurant, with an extensive menu including Chinese and Italian food. I was kept waiting two hours for my lunch, when I had been aiming to make just a quick visit. Still, if the people in the Bin Laden compound had wanted an Italian or Chinese takeaway, I think this is where they would have gone.
This article was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.