SAIDU SHARIF, Pakistan — All roads may lead to Rome, but only one comes to Saidu Sharif.
In northwest Pakistan, Saidu Sharif is the capital of the former princely state of Swat. Alexander the Great passed through town in 327 BC, but Club Med hasn't made it yet.
It's not true, as many first-time visitors think, that Swat got its name from the flies.
Having spent a long, dusty day on the road, I was filled with anticipation as I passed through the sprawling rose gardens and approached the entrance to the venerable three-star Swat Hotel, Saidu Sharif's best. It's a huge two-story structure that has been variously described as "splendid," "unforgettable" and "exceptionally comfortable," one of which proved to be correct.
The hotel was built to last a millennium. The walls are two feet thick, the ceilings 20 feet high. But this building had grown seedier than a deserted drive-in on the outskirts of town. Fortunately, it was a British-built hotel, born to endure seediness in style.
I got my room assignment and crossed the gravel driveway to my unit. After getting past the two padlocked doors and into the room, I eyeballed the place the same way you size up a hopeless blind date.
I couldn't imagine why anyone would want to break in; I was already thinking of breaking out. The spacious room had two beds, a charcoal gray concrete floor, a fireplace long out of commission and a rickety wooden desk and chair. One look at that desk and I knew I wouldn't find any complimentary stationery and ballpoint pens, let alone a sewing kit or Koran.
The door to the left of the fireplace opened into the bathroom. It was a large room, the kind an interior-design magazine might describe as an orchestration of materials and earth-tone colors in an extraordinary wall treatment that reflects a new respect for the integrity of materials and the pleasures of simplicity, and whose geometry supplies the underlying harmony.
But when you really got down to basics, the paint job looked like the results of a paint-by-number kit done in the dark with only two numbers and a bad brush.
The lower four feet of the walls were painted mud-brown and the upper walls were white. If in a positive frame of mind, you might describe the decor as Central Asian Mondrian, with strong horizontal and vertical brown accents provided by the tub and toilet pipes crisscrossing the unintentionally frescoed white walls.
And the brown toilet tank, 14 feet up and to the right on the white wall, was nicely balanced by the white (with rust highlights) basin against the brown wall to the lower left, creating a chiaroscuro look that many people have to go to art school to learn.
A single roll of fuchsia-colored toilet paper provided the focal point that kept the whole composition together. A good decorator always knows when to stop.
Visually overwhelmed by this unexpected paint-and-porcelain jewel, I retreated to the more sedate bedroom and started to unpack. After being on the road with a lot of one-night stands, I was tired of living out of a suitcase. This was going to be one of those three-day stays that I really look forward to because it means I can settle in and hang up all my clothes for a change.
I eagerly flung open the large wardrobe doors . . . only to be met by my roommate, Swat's largest moth. I had asked for a single accommodation, but perhaps something had been lost in translation. The wardrobe's velvety layers of dust and the three mangled wire hangers instantly made my cramped suitcase look like a walk-in closet. My clothes could wait until Karachi to stretch out.
While the moth made itself busy near the ceiling, I flipped on the bed lamp. No light. The bulb looked OK, so I decided to check the outlet. I pulled the bed away from the wall and reached underneath. But before I could get to the outlet, I got to the bird feathers.
I couldn't guess the species, but with eternal optimism I noted that the feathers were too small to have dropped from a vulture. I assumed they were left over from the previous season. It had been a cold winter in Swat, and who could blame the little critters for wanting to move indoors, even to this bleak boudoir.
Mealtime in the dining room of the Swat Hotel was an epicurean adventure. Taking their cue from those Japanese restaurants where they cook the food in front of your eyes, the Swat Hotel did your breakfast toast next to your feet. The cooks used a small, portable, floor heater with a flat top. That's where they put the bread. That's also where they put their shoes to dry them out. Bon appetit!
Naturally, you don't drink the water in Pakistan, but you might want to be careful about the soft drinks, too. Any resemblance between soft drinks at home and soft drinks here is coincidental.