(James) When we left Islamabad, our target for the day was Lahore, a whopping 400km away (we’d become used to significantly shorter distances in recent months!) Getting out of the city was a fairly straightforward matter and we chose to head for the toll motorway as opposed to continuing along the Grand Trunk Road, the ancient strategic road that connects Kabul in the west with Kolkata (Calcutta) in the west, which we had joined at the bottom of the KKH for the last 60km into Islamabad. The motorway meant a four hour journey on a quiet, almost westernised dual carriage way instead of eight hectic hours dodging trucks on the GT Road. The only problem was that technically motorcycles are not allowed on the toll road unless you have obtained an official permit; however, we had heard that you could argue your case (i.e. that your motorcycle was bigger/more powerful than most cars!) and they might let you on. We (naturally) chose to ‘risk it for a biscuit’ and as luck would have it, having arrived at the toll, we were only asked what cc our engines were and once they were happy they were over 500, were waved on without even having to pay the toll! Once on the road, we enjoyed the novelty of a perfect surface and calm, almost completely empty lanes. The novelty, however, soon wore off and we were reminded how the grass always looks greener on the other side – motorway, as any biker will tell you, is utterly tedious (although I won’t lie, we’d prayed for this kind of progress on more than one occasion on the KKH!) Our boredom was only broken on a couple of occasions when we were flagged down by police, although their first attempt was thwarted by our tried and tested strategy, implemented to deal with corrupt police in central Asia, of feigning ignorance and just grinning and waving as we power through (they normally can’t be arsed to chase you, Azerbaijan aside!) We didn’t think for a second that they were corrupt in Pakistan so pulled over the next time where they simply introduced themselves, asked where we were from, the usual questions about the bikes and whether we had any problems or if there was any way they could be of service (a question we’d often been asked in Pakistan – such nice people!) before sending us on our way.
As we rode south, we could sensed changes all around us; the temperature increased, as did the humidity, the air seemed to change to a warmer reddish-yellow hue, we saw our first palm trees as we passed villages, and even people’s clothing seemed more vibrant and colourful. We also saw our first signs of the flooding that had had such a catastrophic affect on the south of the country in the water-logged fields on either side of the highway. With late afternoon rapidly approaching (the sun seemed to set half an hour earlier here than in Islamabad), we finally reached the toll that marked the end of the motorway and the outskirts of Lahore. As we slowed for the multiple toll lanes, we could see two policeman already standing in the middle of the road beckoning us towards a closed booth and once we’d pulled up they introduced themselves and helped with process of paying the paltry fee of 80 rupees for our time on the road. They explained that our presence on the road had been radioed through from Islamabad (hence being pulled over) to ensure our well-being. They asked where we were heading to and for once we actually knew as we’d had to book a hotel as proof our intention to visit Pakistan as tourists when applying for our visa many months before (we had such a vague itinerary, we’d chosen Lahore as it was a definite stop just before the India border). They gave us directions to our hotel which we took with a pinch of salt – they might have been the best directions in the world but such is the lack of signage or lighting that, combined with the sheer chaos on the roads, even the clearest directions become utterly useless by the time you arrive at the first junction.
By the time we actually arrived in the city proper, it was not only dark but rush hour, and with at least fifty percent of the vehicles running with no lights (including those coming towards you the wrong way down the road), it was utter mayhem combined with a healthy dose of terror! (Em: our intercom had well and truly died by now so our strategy was basically to stick as close together as possible – still didn’t stop people from squeezing themselves between us though!) As is always our problem in cities, we have no real idea where we going as we have no city maps of any sort so we tend to head towards the centre or an area known to have an attraction. In this case it was ‘Food Street’ in the Anarkali district, so we rode on, asking directions when we stopped at traffic lights (invariably getting contradictory information…) and eventually found our hotel on a very noisy street. The staff were nice enough though and the Kalashnikov-wielding old boy took his job of guarding our bikes – wedged up an alley way next to the hotel – very seriously (the older generation here seem to light up when you mention that you’re English, many seemingly remembering their time as part of the empire with warmth and pride). Having showered, we ventured downstairs and shocked the young guy on reception with our now clean and semi-respectable appearance (the ‘semi’ part being Emily – I, you won’t be surprised to hear, still continued to let the side down!) We went straight out to food street and, as is the norm, drew way more attention than was warranted but by now we were quite used to the tumble-weed affect as we walk into places as they simply don’t get tourists here anymore (Em: It was 11pm and I was literally the only woman on the street. Cue Starey-McStareysons all around!) Like everyone else we sat at seats in the street as the electrical power came and went and enjoyed some absolutely staggering food – a real chicken jalfrezi like it’s supposed to be – before dragging our overstuffed bodies back to try and sleep.
The next day we went to visit Lahore’s Fort, built in over a millennium ago by people unknown. The fort in its present form, however, was built by the Moghul Emperor, Akbar the Great in 1566 when he made Lahore his capital. We decided to pay one of the guides touting outside, which turned out to be a great decision. Peter, not only spoke great English (he used to work as a guide/translator for the British High Commission) but was incredibly knowledgeable, and helped bring the amazing fort to life. The fort was absolutely beautiful, and we were constantly wowed by the level of skill as well as the scientific and artistic vision that was required to create it. Akhbar may have been a fierce (and sometimes brutal) leader but he was clearly no fool. As well as being completely tolerant of other faiths, he was something a scholar when it came to designing many of the great forts, palaces and religious sites that he oversaw. The red stone of the Fort is covered in intricate carvings (and special wide stairs so he could ride elephants up to the royal residence on the top floor some 40 metres above). Master craftsmen had also carved intricate screens made of single slabs of marble measuring some 4 square metres, that weren’t just beautiful but clever, the each of the hundreds of handcrafted holes (all which modern studies have discovered are identical) in any screen was precisely angled to create increased air flow to cool the rooms. Some two centuries later this would become known as Bernoulli’s Principle and today is relevant in aircraft design and in engine carburettors. The summer palace on the roof contained even more intricate artwork, all marble pillars being inlaid with lotus flowers carved from jade and other precious stones, and the hall of mirrors, a room filled with precious stones and ‘mirrors’ which were glass that the Mughals somehow coated with lime and mercury (something that scientists are still unable to understand or recreate). By the time our ‘tour’ had finished it was dusk and, we got to experience that same new reddish/yellow hue that we had seen on the motorway, but this time in the relative peace of the top of forts ramparts overlooking the Gurdwara of Arjan Dev, a temple that is one of the Sikh religion’s most important pilgrimage sites, and the Badshahi mosque. We agreed to meet Peter the next day to look round the Mosque and headed back through the chaos of the Lahori traffic in a auto-rickshaw (tuk-tuk) always guaranteed to scare the crap out of you, then having arrived back in Anarkarli, and with a new sense of appreciation for life, we went to stuff ourselves stupid again.
The following morning we lazed about (the din in the road outside our hotel made sleep very difficult until the small hours) before heading over to the 17th century Badshahi mosque where we found Peter, our guide from the previous day. The mosque again was a welcome relief from the noise of the streets and, despite its size (it can hold over 100,000 worshippers at a time), it didn’t have the ‘intimidating’ air of some large religious buildings. Around the edge of the mosque’s courtyard was a covered corridor where open arches divided the corridor, creating around 80 little ‘areas’ that could serve as places to sit and discuss any issues or business. It’s still a popular place for university students to some to study or discuss their studies. Once again, in these arched areas there was science behind the beauty. The arches were designed in just such a way that one could speak quietly in one corner and the sound would follow the line of the arches coming to those in the other corners as if through a tannoy system. It really was incredible to hear for ourselves and far more effective than the whispering galleries found in the domes of some cathedrals. An additional benefit was that despite the enhanced ‘audio’ in each area, the design of the corridors meant that you could hear anything in the next area so two people could sit on the floor at a point where two different areas meet and listen to their own speaker without hearing the next to each other listening to the speaker in the adjacent area!
By early afternoon we had to say our goodbyes as we had to head for Waggah, the only ‘open’ border crossing between Pakistan and India, some 30km east of the city. Despite high tensions between the two countries, both nuclear powers, which has seen them engage in large scale fighting on a regular basis (as recently as 1999), they have always managed to have maintained the unique daily closing ceremony at the border. This sees the finest soldiers from each side try to outdo each other’s increasingly over the top peacock-like strutting and marching, in front of baying chanting crowds that are whipped into a greater frenzy by flag waving men who orchestrate the fervour. So popular is this daily event that people come from across the country to witness what is only a 30 minute ceremony, in fact there are now stands on each side to accommodate the crowds, and a couple of thousand cram in the stands each evening. On the Pakistani side, it’s women on one side and men on the other, although there is also a foreigner and VIP section (where bizarrely it’s ok for Pakistani men and women to sit together!)
As we walked towards the crossing we could already here the crowds being warmed up by the boosters and walked past the very tall Pakistani soldiers, dressed in elegant black uniforms with fanned hats and capes getting themselves ready. We were taken down to the front and given a seat facing the incredibly colourful women’s section and were instantly immersed in the charged yet friendly patriotic fervour (why can’t they always solve their disputes like this?). The whole thing (whilst a little bit silly) was absolutely brilliant fun as one after another, soldiers from each side would march at ridiculously high speed towards each other before going through a new bit of completely over the top drill and then staring triumphantly down their noses at their opposite number as they faced them looking something like a killer peacock! Each time the crowd would go wild and then the next soldier would step up. The ceremony would end with a more gentile synchronised lowering of the flag, where upon an officer from each side would march to the border line, shake hands, salute each other and both gates would be violently slammed shut. The whole thing is great fun and a real must if ever you’re in this part of the world!
With that we headed back to Lahore, and the next morning made the repeat journey to a now much quieter border – in fact, filling out one of the registration books we could see the names of Carl, Bene and Stefano just one line above ours despite having passed through over a week earlier. We were the only ones there and, with a real sense of sadness, we did our ‘exit’ paperwork. Pakistan had provided some amazing experiences for us. We’d certainly faced adversity but for all the hard work we’d been rewarded with rich experiences that had brought our group closer together, beautiful scenery, fantastic food, immense culture and, of course, the incredibly warm, hospitable and genuine Pakistani people who despite all the problems and challenges they and their country are confronted with, both man-made and natural, simply get on with their lives, remain utterly courteous, dignified and a pleasure to get to know. Don’t believe us? Forget the public image on the news, come and see for yourself!