Oct 6 – Islamabad
Rich headed off by cab to find a mini to take him to Taxila, an archaeological site some way out of town. He had done a pretty complete job of the city while here last year. I headed off to bike the 15 km or so to Islamabad. I will visit a couple of the attractions that I am most interested in and also spend some time riding the streets, which for me is a great benefit of having a bike in foreign cities.
It was the morning rush hour and hectic, but with an unloaded bike I can easily keep up with the flow. I find if I can ride with the fastest vehicles I feel safest. I zig-zagged my way through the unfamiliar streets, but the twin cities are mostly on a grid system so I always knew approximately where I was. There are numerous high volume roads and multi-level traffic interchanges that are the only complication, but with a bike I can hop across barriers if needed.
At the far end of Islamabad is the Shah Faisal Mosque, that is my first destination. It was pretty easy to find, once I found myself on Faisal Avenue, as it rises dramatically against the Margalla Hills. Like Islamabad itself, it is a modern adaptation of the traditional elements of mosque design. It was primarily funded by the King Faisal of Saudi Arabia. I was quite impressed by the grandeur. There were cleaners on both the Minarets and the Dome while I was there. They also impressed me. I removed my shoes upon entering and I was able to take some photos away from the prayer hall, where I was allowed to look in. Some number of people, including a few women, talked to me, further adding to my comfort and enjoyment.
I had cold drink in the shade with the taxi drivers, and then cycled on into the business part of town. I wasn’t too interested in looking at much of this world, but was looking for a coffee house, after a couple of weeks without. The main business thorough fare is Jinnah Ave, and after some looking I found a Dunkin Donut, where I spent a pleasant hour drinking coffee and reading an Islamabad English newspaper, fulfilling another need that builds over time.
My next tourist destination was the Pakistan Monument. I had the location pegged pretty well and some more side street cycling got me in view of the monument sticking up out of the park trees that it sits in. The trouble was that I had a very large complicated interchange in front of me. I hopped a couple of medians, rode against the stream a little and then went up a road that got me to the locked back gate. Some friendly grounds keepers showed me a trail through the trees that got me to the entrance parking lot.
Inside, as usual, a number of people approached me with the usual questions of “where are you from?….how do you like Pakistan?…How long will you be here?…how old are you? ” I don’t mind these questions because they are almost always honest in their intent; very few are touts after something. People really want to make sure we know this is not a country of terrorists and they see the few visitors they get as potential ambassadors. I am pleased to act in that way, as the people have been the best part of this country for me.
Mostly the people addressing me are men, but just inside the gate a woman came up and said “Will you take a photo of my class? How much will you charge?” This took me back a bit, but I am now used to people asking me to take their picture and asking to have me in a picture with them. However I have yet to be asked how much I would charge for the privilege. I tried to indicate I would be happy to take a picture of the class and that I did not want to be paid anything. The woman was confused, but she was joined by two younger people, a younger man and a woman, teachers at the school, who could both speak better English. By now the students were also beginning to form around us and some of the older ones helped sort things out. Soon we had most of the class and with some juggling to get the smaller ones in front I got a couple of pictures. It was really fun helping to find all of the little ones and shy ones who were going to get left out. I hope I got everyone. The woman who first spoke with me is the principal and the students are from Gujanwala, a city near Lahore. I have the email of the male teacher and will send him the pictures I took. I am not sure what the attraction of having an ugly old foreigner take a picture when almost everyone here will have a smart phone or digital camera, but I really enjoyed the interaction, so I won’t worry about the cause I have served.
The monument, to their independence as a country, was built between 2002 and 2007. Architecturally the monument is four flower petals representing the four provinces. I also spent an hour in the attached museum getting up to snuff on the heroes and issues of the independence movement.
That marked the end of my brief visit to the capital followed by an exhilarating rush hour cycle back to ‘Pindi and a shower and a cold drink before going out to dinner at Larosh restaurant, which has become the mainstay of our food supply here in Pindi.
I cycled 50 km today on my visit.
Tomorrow, early, we will take the train to Lahore, probably the most important Pakistani city, historically and culturally.
Oct 7 – Lahore
We left the hotel in Pindi about 5:30, cycled through the streets, still dark and quiet at this time, and got to the station in about 15 minutes. The fellow who indicated that we might not be able to get our bikes on the train, and then gave us to believe he would help us at 6:00, was asleep at his desk. At about 6:00 he started to move around and then did the paperwork, charging us 400 rupees (~$4), and took our bikes.
Our first class car was pretty seedy, but we did have big chairs and air conditioning. We had lots of opportunity to buy eats and drinks It was a pretty easy ride, closer to 6 hours to do the 280 km than the 4 that was advertised. It was a very flat ride and we were able to observe much of the life in the villages and farm districts we passed through. One difference over our mountain trip to date was the significant increase in people and in water buffalo.
In Lahore, the first hotel we had chosen to try was closed, the second, about half an hour away was a dank hostel, but the manager pointed us to a nicer place that we checked into for 3 nights.
Rich went for a walk, I did a blog and then hit the streets. I started to walk towards a large gathering and was stopped and search lightly and then let through. As I got close to the crowd another person with a ID tag on his neck came running over and said it would not be safe for me here. I asked what was the demonstration was about. As we entered Pindi, the demonstration was in support of teachers; there always seems to be something to demonstrate. Well tonight it was the silly anti-Muslim movie that had drawn their attention. I turned and
We took a tuk-tuk (I’m not sure what they are called here) to the Fort. One of the two UNESCO sites here in Lahore. Very large, quite run down, but a nice environment. I am really noticing the dry season more and more as everything is dusty and dirty. In the second largest mosque (after Faisal in Islamabad), I had a nice encounter with an old guide who lured me in by asking me to step into a little alcove, where he emitted a deep throat sound that amplified into an eerie moan. I followed him a bit and then gave him some small change, in part because he was so tiny and cute.
The Old Town abuts the fort, and so I walked in with the idea of taking a cab out when I tired. It was so tight and congested that I could find no ride, nor ea drink for over an hour. By then I was beat by the dusty, smelly heat. The traffic, mostly motor bikes and tuk-tuks, which make a high pitched two cylinder scream supplementing their piercing horns. My queasy stomach was not helping. Nothing was going to appeal, but I was going roughly in the direction of the Lahore museum and Zam-Zama, the giant canon made famous by Kiping in Kim. I finally found them and did a cursory job of that visit, and then struggled the rest of the way back to our hotel. Rich had been in most of the afternoon and I joined him for the rest o the night.
Oct 9 – Lahore
Being too lethargic to cycle, we took a tuk-tuk to the Shalimar Gardens, another UNESCO site and tried to imagine the magnificence 400 years ago. In many ways the decadence of today’s garden, acts as a better outline to build your imagined image on than operating fountains,manicured lawns and lush flower beds.
From there we went to Mazid Wazir Khan, a small wonderfully tiled and painted mosque in the old town. An English girl in Karimabad had recommended them to me and it was probably the highlight of our visit here. It was very peaceful, no touts or guides after us. The tiling and painting are incredible. In particular, the decorative writing has to be the most beautiful of all languages.
Oct 10 – Wagah
We got away from the hotel about 8:00, before the heat of the traffic or the day hits. We chose a very nice ride out of town, down the mall road for about 20 minutes and then 15 km along a canal road that we did with almost no stopping. This took us onto the Grand Trunk road, first brought to my attention in Kim, as he began his journey to help the Buddhist monk he picked up at Zam-Zama on his quest. While not as romantic, as in Kim’s days, the GT, as it is called running all the way from Lahore to Delhis is still a teeming interesting road, one we will try to avoid as much as possible.
When we pulled into the border, after only 27 km I was sweating deeply, and feeling quite punk. At it turned out there was a PTDC motel, like the first one we stayed in in Pakistan. If it hadn’t been for the border ceremonies or if I hadn’t felt so bad we might have continued on through the border to Amritsar. But we checked in and I lay under a fan for much of the afternoon, feeling somewhat better.
At 3:50, we had been told things would start at 4:00, we walked the 100 m down to the gates. We walked through the Pakistan gate, and chose a seat among the 1000 or so that were gathered on both sides of the road before the India gate. We were the only ones there, the India seats, on the other side of the gate seemed full. After 30 minutes people started to dribble in, beginning with classes of students. We began to notice some segregation. When women came in large groups without men the sat on the right side of the road.
Soon a few very tall Pakistani soldiers dressed in black with tall rooster tail hats began strutting about and posing. The guards on both sides are chosen for their imposing presence.
By 5:00 the seats were nearer full than empty and the ceremonies began. The soldiers were very stern, goose stepping, and pumping their fists. There were a couple of cheer leaders who added some levity and got the crowd chanting. The whole thing was quite delightful, and seemed more fun than serious, in large part due to the silly marching. Mostly it was strutting and stamping, but there were also a couple of brief handshakes between soldiers from each country, a flag lowering and the gates were slammed shut a couple of times. It all took about 30 minutes and was definitely worth the wait, even if I hadn’t felt so punk.
All in all Pakistan has been a revelation for me. Rich had indicated as such, but it is always necessary to observe things yourself. That there are hard and fast religious fanatics and some terrorists in this country cannot be denied, but you sure don’t see any on the roads and streets. In some villages in the hills, as we cycled through children, usually in very traditional garb, would run away, but the vast majority of children acted like children everywhere, with glee and fun as we waved and shouted at each other. Many women wear traditional outfits with full or partial veils, but they are also less cloistered than we have been lead to believe. I can’t help but feel that a majority of the country are more religiously liberal than conservative.
Overall the lasting impression for me is how friendly and helpful everyone here has been, and how much they want to be understood and accepted by the rest of the world. Of course our impressions are based upon interactions with common people, which may not reflect government positions.
From here in Wagah we are 100 m from India.