Published: November 17th 2008November 6th 2008
painted suzukis in 'Pindi
Our next destination was Islamabad. We hadn't enough time in England to apply for visas to India, so we decided to pick them up en route in Islamabad.
Our last day in Gilgit, October10th, was one of packing and farewells. We had a right royal send off, preceded by a lovely dinner courtesy of the Madina owner/manager, Yaqoob. He is a saintly man, who each Christmas, sends a greetings card to each and every world leader with his wish for more peace and understanding in the world. He has done this for many years, and is delighted that Tony Blair and the Queen were two of the few who've bothered to reply. Not surprisingly, he hasn't heard from George Bush..
All the Madina staff, exclusively male, crowded around our taxi to embrace, shake hands and wave goodbye. We felt sad to be leaving, as they are such a lovely group of people.
The overnight bus to Islamabad wasn't quite the luxury coach we'd been led to expect, but it was small and when the road was clear of boulders, very fast! We took comfort in the fact that at least the driver would be able to see the oncoming traffic by
mens hats, old city Lahore
traditional caps in many colours
their headlights. In the moonlight, the wild landscape was made even stranger, the river and white quartz in the mountains glittering. After a few stops and a change of driver, we arrived at the bus depot in Rawalpindi at 11am, after a journey of 15 hours.
'Pindi, as it's known locally, feels more like India - warmer, busier, noisier, smellier - but still less 'confrontational'. Not much of note to see in either Pindi or Islamabad, 7kms apart, but myriad bazaars, with particular items for sale in one zone, e.g. clothes, car spares, furniture, toys all found in one street. We arrived on Friday, and as the Indian High Commission didn't open until Monday morning, we searched in vain for the painters of the wondrous Pakistani trucks, and spent an air conditioned hour or two in the Ethnography Museum.
First thing on Monday morning we headed for the IHC. All the embassies in Islamabad are built within a fenced and gated area, and security is tight. Taxis are not allowed in the enclave. Our taxi driver clearly didn't know the area very well, and we spent a long time driving around trying to find the entrance gate. When we finally
qawwali singers Lahore
every thursday for 1,000 years there's been a qawwali concert in the main mosque
did, the taxi was refused entrance, our bags searched, ordered to turn off our mobiles, and not to take any photos. We were pointed in the direction of the IHC. When we finally found it, there was a large crowd waiting to do exactly what we wanted to do! After wandering around, a security guard gave us application forms, and told us they had to typed: and in order to get them typed, we had to take a shuttle bus to the Convention Centre, where a typist would do the job, bring the forms back on the return shuttle bus, and start queuing!!! The 'Convention Centre', (a rather grandiose name) was a couple of open-sided gazebos where the typists worked, with a small tuck shop, left luggage, and a ticket office for the shuttle bus.
As ever, chaos ensued. Pakistanis are strangers to queuing, so everyone pushes and shoves to get in front, and no-one seems to complain! With forms eventually typed by a one-finger typist, we bought tickets for the Diplomatic Shuttle Bus, to discover we couldn't take our bags with us! Having already breached that security gap, it seemed a little inconsistent, but we had to comply. This,
Old city Lahore
a dental stall!
of course, meant that we would have to come back on the shuttle bus, to collect our bags! The day was looking long already. Back at the IHC, we got into the queue and settled in for a long wait. 2 hours later, we were next but one to the front, when a security guard approached the box office and looked as if he were suggesting they closed for lunch! Fortunately the counter clerk didn't, and after what seemed an interminable wait, in an uncomfortable temperature, with tempers fraying, we got to the till, and the forms were accepted, though we were told we would only get 3 month single entry visas - having applied for 6 month, multiple entry. A nuisance, but at this stage, we were past caring! We would be back in 7 days to collect our newly supplemented passports, or so we thought.............
We arrived in Lahore, our next port of call, and departure point for India, after a luxurious ride in an air con. bus, complete with a lovely hostess and a free 'light meal' - a welcome change from the cramped local bone shakers.
Lahore seemed hotter, crazier, faster, busier as we hurtled towards
The Mall, Lahore
Women seemed to come out at night to shop; very few to be seen during the day
the hotel in a rickshaw that threatened to break the sound barrier, through a fug of pollution and heat. It was a big shock, in contrast to the north, and we couldn't help wondering if this wasn't a 'big mistake'? Having dreamed of warmth, and exotic places, here we were in a warm and exotic place, and it was a vision of hell!
Again, we reconnected with fellow travellers at the guest house, which was run by a very affable ex-journalist, Malik, whose fame is spread via the Lonely Planet guide book to Pakistan. He has a vast knowledge of the culture and history of Lahore, traditionally a centre for Arts in Pakistan, and before Partition, India. We did some sightseeing initially, going around the old city and the great mosque. It has some very beautiful parts decorated with exquisite inlay; and others with mirror mosaics; rather sad that it's all gradually crumbling away.
One evening we went to see a Pakistani film (Lollywood!). Same deal as Bollywood, hammy acting,; predictable dialogue, and the strangest moments to bring in a dance sequence - in the middle of a shoot out? - and very, very loud! We'd gone purely because we
The Mall Lahore
fabric merchant at local 'superstore'
heard that the audience usually get up and start dancing too, but it didn't happen the night we went. We left at the intermission......
Every Thursday afternoon there is a Qawalli concert at one of the mosques, so off we went to partake. There was an initial hiatus when the security guard said women weren't allowed, but after our guide from the hotel sorted things out, we were hustled in to the basement of the mosque. It was decorated with paper fruit and flowers, and with Christmas baubles all over the ceiling. We were led to a mat on the floor in prime position, with ranks of men on either side. Several of these men were wreathed in flower garlands, and periodically someone would walk round with a cylinder of what looked like insecticide strapped to his back, and sprayed the crowd with rose water - divine!. Others walked round carrying huge fans on poles to cool the audience down. Sticky sweets were also circulating for our delectation. Some of the singing was fantastic. There were groups of musicians from all over Pakistan, and all were given a slot of 5-6 minutes, a Qawwali version of,"Battle of the Bands". Members
Old city Lahore
of the audience would occasionally get up, walk up to the musicians and throw rupee notes at the musicians, as a sign of appreciation. Quite who got the money at the end of the performance was not so clear, as some of it seemed to be given back. It was all a tad confusing for us 'not in the know'.
Each group consisted of one or two main singers who began each song with a beautifully modulated call and response, accompanied by harmonium, tabla and hand clapping. One of the groups was made up quite young boys, one of whom had a really powerful and penetrating voice.
After the concert we were taken on a tour of the outer precinct of the mosque, infidels not being allowed into the inner sanctum. We felt a bit voyeuristic, and from some of the looks we got, we were not especially welcome. There were many groups listening to a speaker holding forth on some aspect of Islam, others praying or giving offerings at one of the many shrines. There was also a soup kitchen, with a long queue for rice and dahl.
In the evening, we went to to hear Sufi drummers at
Gawalmandi, old city. Lahore
known as 'Food street' locally; full of restaurants and closed to traffic at nights
the Shah Jamal shrine, the tomb of a Sufi saint. We were shown to an open courtyard that was packed with men sitting on the ground. 2 drummers were standing at the far end playing dhol - big, heavy double ended drums that are played with wooden sticks, one thin and straight like a chopstick; the other thicker, semi-circular. The rhythms were amazingly complex, and they clearly enjoyed playing off each other. They played for hours, amidst a crowd who at times seemed as oblivious to them, as they were to the crowd. The stamina required to sustain this playing was impressive, especially when one of the drummers began to spin around, still playing very tightly, until the drum was spinning horizontally. If he'd hit anyone, or his strap broke, someone would have been killed! It was so exciting, and all in an atmosphere that was 90% hashish! Everybody was smoking industrial amounts. It all felt like it could go pear-shaped any minute, but this has been going on for nearly a thousand years, so we just settled into an amazing night, unlike any other!
After 2-3 hours playing non-stop, the drummers stopped momentarily for a space to be cleared,
Old city Lahore
The city's former glory
so that that the dancers could come on. Several men got up, and started dancing. Some rolled their heads and others with bells on their feet stamped around in a trance-like fashion. There were some who had on the familiar red 'dervish' dress that billowed out as they spun, but this whole scene was so unlike the picture of the serene whirling dervish accompanied by a wistful flute in an empty cathedral-like space. This was totally mad!
The next 5 days were spent mostly in bed, with John firstly getting food poisoning, then bronchitis, not helped by the intense pollution in the city.
We had been told to come back in a week for our visas, so on October 23rd, John returned to Islamabad to collect them. He arrived early in the morning to get to the IHC in good time. On reaching the visa section at 8.30am, he was told to come back at 4pm! He would have to wait all day! Character building time! He hung around all day, and then at 3pm went back to see if they would finally be ready for collection! Was told to wait 5 minutes more! and then at last the official
Mosque, Mall, Lahore
Friday prayers . Mosques are the exclusive domain of men. Women aren't allowed to enter the inner sanctum
pronounced that John was being refused a visa, whilst Penny was OK! Stunned and speechless, John got back on the bus to Lahore.
Over the weekend, and after some consultation with Malik, John went to a visa courier service in Lahore, and the process of applying started all over again. It would take 10-14 days to complete, and our days in Lahore became one hazy, polluted, dreamy day, interspersed by such highlights as a troupe of Sufi musicians and dancers performing at the guest house; suddenly becoming VIP's at an inter-faith celebration that we had mistaken for a Diwali night knees-up, and finding ourselves on national TV! There was also a bit of high camp at the border...
The only road crossing between India and Pakistan is at Wagah, 30km from Lahore. Every evening a ritual closing of the border gates between the 2 countries is played out to packed audiences. Each side has a couple of cheer leaders to whip the crowd into a frenzy of good humoured nationalism. Then a squad of very tall, highly decorative soldiers performed a stylised gate closing ceremony, which involved impossibly high goose stepping; mock angry gesturing and running on the spot! For
Border closing ceremony
On the pakistani side, men and women sit seperately.
all it's seeming good nature, it re-affirms Partition every day, and belies the political unease between the 2 countries.
For respite from the choking air, we took off for a few days to Sharakpur, 30km from Lahore. We stopped in a small house in the country- - a few rooms round a courtyard with an over grown garden at the back. Our sleeping accommodation was very basic -4 walls and 2 charpoys, but fine. There was a resident caretaker who slept in the courtyard, with a large extended family who 'did' for us, making chai and cooking meals over a tiny fire. We were either a great novelty, or there wasn't much on the telly, because they also spent a great deal of time just looking at us. Another culture clash was the morning 'chorus' of the caretaker clearing his throat, coughing, hawking, retching and spitting. This is a universal practice on the sub-continent, and difficult for us to stomach with our western sensibilties.
Went for a long walk along the river Chenab. The bank quite soon became overgrown with reeds that we had to push our way through. We came across some reed cutters in the reeds, and a
Border closing ceremony
histrionics at the border; much stamping and scowling in highly ritualised fashion
young man who told us it was very dangerous in the reeds, with many snakes and wild dogs! He asked if he could walk with us. He was studying to be a mullah, and we had a good time talking to him about Islam and Humanism. We came across lots of new and interesting wildlife - turtles on the river bank, some 18" in diameter; the brilliant turquoise flash of the white breasted kingfisher, lots of large, exotic butterflies. We also saw great holes in the ground, which were the work of burrowing porcupines. There were also many snake tracks in the dust, one of which was enormous! After the walk we went into town for a drink, and once again became the 'Main Attraction', so beat a hasty retreat.
We returned to Lahore, somewhat refreshed, to continue what seemed like and endless wait for John's visa.Nine days later, when Lahore had lost much of its charm, and we'd lost the will to live, we heard that John had again been refused. India was just 40 minutes away, but we couldn't go there. Both visa applications that he'd submitted were on refused on the grounds of 'discrepancy of information'.After several
Old city Lahore
traffic is a nightmare, as is the accompanying pollution.
phone calls and a day at the Indian High Commission in Islamabad in consultation with various officials, we were no nearer finding out exactly what the specific discrepancy was. We entered into a Kafka-esque scenario, being told that they knew what the problem was but wouldn't disclose the information and John wouldn't get a visa in Pakistan or, probably , the UK. However, he was welcome to make representation to the Minister of the Interior in India, appealing against the decision (even though he had no idea on what grounds the decision was based). This process could take months, maybe a year....
We spent the next few days in, what in years to come we may describe as 'a low point'. Once the significance of this bizarre turn of events had really sunk in, we began to look at alternative destinations. We'd embarked on an overland trip to India, and had got within sight of it, but this was then end of the road and from here on we would have to take to the air. Whilst this was a sad an unexpected end to this part of our journey, we still have six months in which to explore the
Old City Lahore
Badshahi Mosque. Biggest mosque in Lahore.
inner and outer worlds of traveling, and have decided to head on to S.E.Asia.
There are more photos below