Wagah & Lahore Friday 13th to Thursday 26th January 2012
Getting into Pakistan was fairly straight forward, it being a seasoned overlander border unlike a few we've been to-and after establishing we were Aussies and having the usual "cricket" based conversation - and a cursory inspection from customs we were through.
With Manuel and Sandra we headed to the nearby PTDC (Pakistan Tourism development Corp) motel, where we were to camp the night. We set up camp-had tea with the customs guys and then headed off to see the border closing ceremony from the other side.
The main difference here was that ladies and men were separated -though they make an exception for VIPs who sat opposite us and for foreigners, so the 4 of us sat together in a designated seating area right at the front-no need to use Andrew's stick to achieve this!
It was funny seeing the ceremony again so quickly -we could see when the gates opened exactly where we'd sat the night before.. and we bought and waved our little Pakistan flags - despite Andrew still having the Indian ones from the night before scrunched up in his pocket..turncoats that we are!!
The ceremony was equally good and enthusiastic from this side, with the addition of a drummer. Think on balance the Pakistani guys had better uniforms..very smart!
We had a nice evening with Manuel and Sandra at our camp site..once the trucks had all gone it was lovely and peaceful. The guys had got 2 small beers left over from Goa and so we shared an illicit last cup! Actually as a foreigner you can drink here -you have to go to the Customs and Excise department to get a permit and then you can buy booze to drink or take away at certain venues ..mainly posh hotels. We probably won't bother - I'd miss a cold beer more in the summer not now it's cold -though I'd quite like an alcohol permit as a keepsake!
Manual and Sandra have a deadline to be back at work so they are hot footing it through Pakistan -especially as they've already been through on the way from Europe - so they were up and gone -very considerately making no noise! - by the time we surfaced the next day. Great to see you both again guys ..thanks for the beer!
The PTDC has its own information Centre and we went and had a chat to Zahid who mans it. Very interesting with lots of great information. Sadly some of the areas we were keen to see mainly on the Karakorum Highway (KKH) are off bounds for a month or so..as they're under 14 feet of snow! Talking with Zahid I asked a couple of times if such and such a place was safe and he got quite irritated saying I shouldn't believe all I read and that Pakistan is a safe place, with very courteous people. Certainly agree with him on the courtesy front and that the majority of the people are quite overwhelmingly welcoming, but then 2 Swiss overlanders were kidnapped last summer and are held by the Taliban as I write, and there have been another couple of aid workers taken last week.
Obviously we choose to be here and have weighed it up and made a decision but you do have to seek a middle ground between the Western media who'd have you thinking that everyone here was a foreigner hating maniac to the tourism authorities who maintain there's no problem whatsoever ..when this isn't true. You just have to read up on it and take a common sense view.
Finally leaving from Wagah we had a look for Mr. Latif of Latif's old book shop -as mentioned in the LP. Sadly Mr. Latif wasn't around, and his shop seemed to have been taken over by a general store..the few books remaining slung in a dusty corner. We did meet Mr. Latif's brother and he waxed lyrical about the glory days of overlanding when the shop had been full of foreigners and the car park chock a block with the tents and campervans of the old hipper trailers. There's still a few of us tricking through!
We drove on the 30km to Lahore, where we were aiming for the Regale Internet Inn as we'd been advised that would be a good base to park the car. We stopped a couple times to ask directions (a lot of policemen around) and the standard of English was really good - of course we are just outside Lahore the cultural if not actual capital.Lahore is a historical city with some lovely old and new buildings -like the soaring Minar-i-Pakistan (which sadly you can't now go up due to there being quite a few suicides) ..but it also does have slums though (initially at least) the begging/poverty was nowhere near that to be found in Indian cities.
Everyone seemed to know Regal Chowk which was a blessing, but we quickly worked out that it wasn't a great spot for car camping. We had a quick look at the Regale Internet Inn -which was friendly but very over crowed with masses of Korean travellers, We then headed round the corner to Lahore Backpackers (LBP) where we've been to date! See www.lahorebackpackers.com.pk
We've wimped out on camping here, it's tough in big cities and the advantage LBP had over the Regale Inn was that here we can at least park the car within striking distance -there it was off-site parking, We have a friendly man who by day runs the local "Punjab Arms" shop (he gave us a guided tour) and by night for a small fee turns into a car security man ..so we felt secure leaving it..though we got used to having to do a shuffle around every morning, so all the car/ bikes are moved to allow everyone access to their shop/stall!
LBP is a great spot, it's cheap and cheerful and has some idiosyncrasy you wouldn't find in more expensive places - frequent power outages being the main one- but it's a comfortable clean place.
With a double room, free Wi-Fi (good when it's good!) hot water (pick your moment) cooking facilities and a washing machine all for just 500 PKR ($5.30 Aus. )a night for us both ..that's pretty good! Sajjad the manager is also extremely helpful going out of his way to make sure everyone has a good time, so it's been a really good home for us. He's also a tailor so he was heplful running Andrew up a "new frock" so his dress was more Islamic! There's a great roof to sit out in the sunshine too, and we even enjoy the wailing calls to prayer 5 times a day -though perhaps the 5am one is a little intrusive!
We don't often mix much with other backpackers, so it's been a nice change living with them - a mix of Chinese and Aussies -with the Chinese dominating! We also met another overlander -Adnan Osman a 70 year old retired teacher from Malaysia, who is cycling from Kuala Lumpur to London (over 20,000km) to attend the Olympics, and raising money for Aids charities in Malaysia see his site http://oadnanxtreme.blogspot.com Adnan's son had come out to join him for some of the trip when we met them. Then, out and about in Lahore ( we were both surrounded by groups of locals wanting pictures with us so we saved each other!!) we met Zita and Arpi from Hungary currently spending their honeymoon cycling around the world -see details of their trip on www.cyclingthe360.com The real overlanders -none of this namby pamby car stuff!
The police here have a very direct approach to vehicles who park in the wrong place - they just pick them up on a special police fork lift and dump them in the strip in the middle of the road..presumably the drivers have to go and pay a fine to the police! Like to see them try and lift our car on one of those!
We arrived that Saturday into the midst of a Sufi festival. Sufis are a branch of Islam running parallel to the more conservative elements of the faith, being Muslim mystics and holy men who attain enlightenment through twirling/swaying their way to a state of bliss. The festival which took place at a shrine within the old city was supposedly full of them dancing. Anyway I'll never know as after getting through all the security check points (noticeably more full on here than anywhere else -lots of razor wire and armed police -unsurprising really I guess) I was told that no ladies were allowed in. First but I suspect not the last time that I'll be excluded in this way here!
Never mind we had a wonder around the decorated old town which was very atmospheric feeling quite medieval and even saw a twirling Sufi outside. Everyone was very friendly, tending to address Andrew more than me though "How many children do you have" "None" "I'll pray for you brother."
In Lahore the first job on our list was to get our Iranian visas sorted out, so we were up and off towards the Iranian embassy first thing Monday morning. After the ongoing hoo haa in Colombo I half expected that they'd say they hadn't received our codes from Tehran, getting paranoid that this was really all about my being born in the UK, but no they were there ready and waiting for us.
After filling in the forms we were ushered in for an "interview" not a real one, they just told us to get a blood test and come back the next day. The clinic was just down the road and we gave blood (checking for Hepatitis C & TB I think) and for a cost of 250PKR each that was that.
Next day we picked up the blood tests results (both marked "Patient Fit" !) and went back to the embassy to hand in our results, passports and fee -a whopping $10,800 PKR or about $120 USD each!! Especially as we'd already paid to get our codes this was the most expensive visa to date. Partly this was because we were getting a double entry which costs more -though we never got a direct answer as to how much more! Ahh well ..at least we got them
In the meantime whilst waiting for the visas to come through we did a bit of exploring the city. Regal Chowk where we stay is on The Mall a huge old street with some grand Colonial buildings and always very busy. As mentioned before the people are very friendly and when we wander around the nearby streets - lots of dried fruit and nuts set out beautifully in stores -they're very welcoming and we get offered tea constantly. Very different picture to that painted by the Western media.
We went into the watch shop to get me a battery and as we arrived when they were about to sit down to lunch they insisted we join them. Lunch was an assortment of home cooked dishes eaten with locally bought pita bread to dip in -delicious! This kindness was not an isolated incident and lots of the others people at LBP seem to have had had similar experiences. Islamic belief emphasizes hospitality towards visitors and they take it to heart! One policeman whom we stopped to ask directions actually quite scared me by demanding I get out of the rickshaw asking me what I was doing in Pakistan "just tourist" and then inviting us to dinner at his house!
A few immediate differences from India exist. The food here is tasty but VERY meat orientated - I think vegetarians must struggle! What vegetables you do get tend to be overcooked quite cruelly -so our "green vegetable" which we think was once spinach ended up looking like a sort of dark green sludge! Good kebabs though! The other main difference I noticed was no dogs ..or cows! None. In India street dogs & cows are everywhere -here it's all cats ..understandably more bold in the absence of dogs. It's like at partitian it was Hindus and dogs one way, Muslims and cats the other! The other difference is the frequent (5 times a day) calls to prayer, which you do hear in India but here it's an on-going back drop you never leave behind.
Getting a bit of culture we went to the Lahore Museum an impressive old building opposite the University. Interestingly Rudyard Kipling's father was the museum's first curator and Kim's' Gun which features at the beginning of Kipling's novel "Kim" is on the road outside the museum. I have to admit I've never read the book, but the gun apparently once featured in many battles before ending up in Lahore as a trophy of war.
The museum was well worth a look. Some of the exhibits reminded us of the sites we saw in Bhuj India as they related to the same ancient civilization which ran along the Indus Valley.
There were 20 galleries with displays from ancient stoneage artifacts to a sculpture of a fat Queen Victoria which was once in the City Centre. There was also a good section on the birth of Pakistan including a picture of Mohammed Ali Jinnah Pakistan's first PM with Gandhi.
I really liked the miniature painting -done on tiny bits of ivory, incredible work. The beauty pictured is Mumtaz for whom the Taj Mahal was built. The Gandhara period sculptures were also especially impressive, particular the fasting Buddha. This period came after the 3rd century BC invasion of Alexandra the Great and you can see the Greek influence in the amazing art work- particularly the changing faces (and footwear!) of the Buddhas.
On the streets here the people are very striking looking and you sometimes see someone with very pale skin and green or blue eyes which popular myth says is a throwback coming from the gene pool of Alexandra's troops. Allegedly there are tribes up north where blonde/red hair is common. They are often very handsome people and you see some very attractive faces on the streets of Lahore.
Whilst here we managed to get to a Sufi Night ..with the help of Sajjad it'd be hard to know where to start without him! Having a parallel existence to mainstream Islam -Sufism is the mystic branch of Islam -finding a role for pirs or religious teachers who are revered almost as Saints (though this would be against the flavour of Islam) their rituals are often accompanied by music and trance like dance all of which brings a state of euphoria bringing the devotees closer to god.
Anyway piling into a auto rickshaw (they are slightly different here with sliding side doors -not very roomy for Westerners!) we made our way to the Shrine of Baba Shah Jamal on Thursday night - Thursday leading up to Friday the Islamic holy day seems to be the pinnacle of Sufi activity.
The Shrine was buried away down back streets and we'd never have found it without a guide. We were ushered in and I was directed through to the shrine. As it was a religious area shoes were removed and heads were covered. Going first ( I was a bit speedier on the shoe removal) and with no one around speaking much English I was a bit perplexed to be ushered into a room, with a bed and a TV blaring, and nearly jumped out of my skin when I noticed a little old man lying there - I thought at the time it might be Baba Shah Jamal himself- but when I googled it and found he lived in the 16th century it seemed unlikely! I guess a pir or religious teacher. Whoever he was he generated a lot of respect lying in bed ..smoking a large joint of hashish! I nodded to him and was ushered out before the next in line …bizarre! Devotees came to queue up to pay their respects to him all evening.
We then went and sat on a stage where we were a focus of attention from a lot of the -gorgeous -children. Ladies were also present though with the exception of us foreigners they sat separately. The evening really got going with the arrival of 2 renowned dhol (traditional drum) players Gonga and Mithu Saeen.
These 2 brothers play brilliantly together, spinning around whilst playing the drums, an impressive display made absolutely incredible when you learn that the older one, Gonga, is deaf and plays by feeling the vibrations alone. As they play the (male) Sufi dancers sway and twirl and shake their heads -so that they sometimes look like they are spinning on their necks! Absolutely incredible. Apparently Sufism spread by such wandering mystics was the way that Islam initially spread across the subcontinent.
We were made welcome and given sweets all evening. There is no charge though of course it's a great idea to reward the musicians. Hard to sum up in a few words one of the most amazing experiences of our trip to date -definitely go if you're ever in Lahore on a Thursday night! Have a Google if keen to know more, there are loads of u-tube videos of Gonga playing,
Half way through the evening a guy in chains arrived - his hands were cuffed togehter and chained to a steel ring around his waist in a way which can't have been comfortable. We were seriously wondering if he was on some sort of jail release program ..but later found out he was a Shiite Muslim "celebrating" the lead up to the festival of Moharrum. We actually got caught up in a parade for this in Ahmedabad an incredible 2 years ago. It commemorates the death of Mohammed's Grandson Imam Hussain. He died, very unpleasantly, due to lack of water and devotees make themselves suffer to empathize, though I'd never seen one like this guy with the chains. Nice to see that as a hardline Shiite he was still respectful of Sufism, itself a very tolerant branch of Islam.
Next day we took a rickshaw to the Shahi Qila or Lahore Fort and the Old City.
The Fort was built by Akbar in the 16th century (though it was built, demolished and rebuilt many times before) but Shah Jahan his grandson was much involved in re-designing it which was why it was very like the Red Fort and the Agra Fort -similar layout and rooms plans, and the same use of pietra dura work and mirrors for effect could be seen everywhere.
The Shah Burj Gate was a really great example of beautiful painted tiles on the outer wall -would have no doubt looked amazing in its heyday.
Opposite the main gateway to the fort was the 17th century Badshahi Mosque -it is one of the world's largest and holds 100.000 in the main court yard.
The late Princess of Wales apparently upset some religious types by appearing here in a skirt considered too short in the early 90s, but I was well wrapped up (due to the cold as much as anything!) so no problems!
Nearby was the tomb of Allama Mohammed Iqbal -a poet who was instrumental in founding Pakistan, now residing in a red sandstone building with an armed guard. We had a good wander around somewhat slowed down by the fact that everyone seemed to want pictures with us! One family was particularly keen and we must have done every combination of me and Andrew with each family member (there were 3 generations) so by the end we both had smile fatigue!!
Leaving the fort we set off walking towards Delhi gate in the old city but got a bit disorientated. We stopped at a Customs car - armed guards in the back -to ask directions and they insisted on taking us almost to our next destination and gifted us a huge bag of oranges they bought from a street vendor when we got there!
The heart of the old city was a real bazaar with a jumble of all sorts of shop, and horse drawn carts -very atmospheric. We even got pursued by a lady boy dancing for us and demanding payment. Actually you see ladyboys quite a lot in downtown Lahore -the same as in India they got around asking for money to go away and leave you in peace!
In the depths of the old city we visited the Sunehri Masjid or Golden Mosque - dating from 1753 there was some restoration work going on but the trademark 3 gold domes were still very visible.
We then went the short distance on to the Mosque of Wazir Khan. We'd been recommended to see this and it didn't disappoint. Dating from the 17thcentury (it was set up by Wazir Khan himself who was Shah Jahan's doctor and later the governor of Punjab ) the brightly coloured tile work was stunning.
Currently undergoing extensive renovations it'll look superb when finished. There was a junior school religious class going on when we visited so we tried not to be too disruptive!
We then went the short distance on to the Mosque of Wazir Khan. We'd been recommended to see this and it didn't disappoint. Dating from the 17 Century (it was set up by Wazir Khan himself who was Shah Jahan's doctor and later the governor of Punjab ) the brightly coloured tile work was stunning. Currently undergoing extensive renovations it'll look superb when finished. There was a junior school religious class going on when we visited so we tried not to be too disruptive!
That evening we returned to the Fort Area with Sajjad, & Vanessa and Helen 2 Chinese girls from the hostel to go the renowned Cooco's Den & Café restaurant there. This coincided with the opening of a "Food Street" in this area, which was being attended by a Minister's son and various VIPs, so the security was intense and whist this event had been advertised everywhere getting in was a bit tricky.
There were razor wire barricades and a heavy police presence on the gates and they weren't letting anyone in without special invites -even loads of increasingly irate media men who were amassing. At one point it got a bit scary as we were trapped between the police and the media with the wire all around us but eventually we did get in. Then we had a problem as they wouldn't let Sajjad in ..but after a bit of quick talking we were all in …whew ..nothing's easy here!
The fort area looked stunning lit up at night. Coocos is located on the edge of Heera Mandi Lahore's red light area. It is housed in a beautifully restored haveli which was the childhood home of a man who became one of Pakistan's premier artists Iqbal Hussain. Iqbal's grandmother, mother and sister were all nautch or dancing girls. Descended from the original fort courtesans and once famed for their singing and dancing these ladies now have no way of living but prostitution.
Iqbal was a street kid running with gangs before by chance he ended up at Art School and developed a specialization in drawing the people and streets he grew up in. Though his work had a struggle for acceptance in conservative Pakistan he has now developed a following here and abroad and his paintings sell for over $10,000.
The Haveli was beautifully decorated and you could see his studio too. The food also was good, and it was amazing to eat with such a view -down over the Badshahi Mosque to one side, and over the traditional singers to the other. Gorgeous location and I loved Iqbal's artwork.
Maybe after all this excitement (!!) the next day I went down with a shocking cold so as I write on Wednesday 25th January I am resting up and using the intermittent internet to update the website. As we've had a further problem with the car's alternator which means its starting is unreliable Andrew has headed off to Toyota. Actually we tried to go yesterday but got turned back as we had to go near a Cantonment or Army area and we didn't have our passports. Today with his passport Andrew still has issues. Our visas have a stamp next to them saying "you are advised not to enter any Cantonment prohibited or restricted area without prior permission of the Ministry of Interior or the Home Department." This seems to be a standard thing for all tourist visas and we didn't take a lot of notice of it but the police have apparently (he phoned) still not let him through to Toyota's workshop by the obvious route via the Cantonment area. This means that he has to drive all-round the houses to get there ..hopefully he'll find it and get the car sorted. All being well -if the car and I are both fit and healthy- we head towards Islamabad, Pakistan's capital city tomorrow.
Update 26th January 2012: Happy Australia Day! The car is now fighting fit (there was a problem with the new alternator not being compatible with the car's ancient computer but all sorted now) and I'm also on the mend. We're off to the post office today and heading to Islamabad tomorrow.
BIG CONGRATUATIONS! To Juliet and Jeff our Belgian overlander friends (www.bearoundtheworld.be) who, now back in Belgium, gave birth (well Juliet mainly) to their first child a little girl Zia just a week ago. We'll have to detour via Belgium when we do finally get to Europe!