Friday, November 13, 2015

Pakistan finale in Lahore

Lahore was described to us as the city to get the real Pakistan experience. At the same time it was described by Pakistani living further north as a filthy overcrowded place with nothing much to see. Wherever we went opinions seemed to vary wildly about whether we should go there or not. We could have gone around it and straight to the border with India, but we chose to go in and experience it! On arrival, we already experienced some of the madness which makes up this city. Now it was time to go to the centre... on foot... well, most of it anyway!

We wanted to see the old fort, a big mosque and the old walled city centre. As walking from the backpacker hostel to the mosque was 4,5 km, we decided to take a tuktuk to the mosque, which was the furthest point, and then walk back past the other 'attractions'. The tuktuk ride was memorable for several reasons: the chaos around us, being up so close to cars, bikes, trucks and everything else which just seemed out to kill us, and the appalling way the one we were in was driven... I felt sorry for the poor tuktuk just because the way it was mistreated by its owner... Although we had agreed on the price, which was basically what the driver said he wanted for the trip, the clown which was treating his tuktuk so badly started demanding more money while we were still underway... 50% more in fact. Bad luck sunshine!

The mosque was very impressive, well worth a visit if you are so inclined. We had some doubts on whether to go into the fortress or not though, when they deemed it ok to charge foreigners a 25 times higher entree fee than the locals. Even by my standards that is absurd. Looking at the shabby outside with fallen out plasterwork, paint peeling on the remainder which was still there and the general impression that the last maintenance guy had left a long time ago, we wondered what there would be to see inside. While we tried to discuss if we would go in or not, we were continuously pestered by all sorts of people pretending to be my friend while all they really wanted was to sell me something or be my tour guide... In the end we decided to give the fortress a miss, get away from the paid friends and head for the old walled city instead.

Tuktuk terror in Lahore...

I guess they all wanted electricity just look at the cables above...
The old city itself is very nice. Narrow streets with tiny little shops and workshops. Old crafts being practised at every corner and for a foreigner this strange mix of unfamiliar sounds and smells. Although we are not city people, we love places like this. They are so full of life and full of colourful characters. All this is complemented by thousands, and I mean thousands(!) of motorcycles allowed in there as well. After walking just a couple of kilometres we agreed there is something to be said for vehicle-free city centres...

As soon as we came to the actual wall of the 'walled city' and exited it, the traffic situation changed quite dramatically. No longer where they trying to run over our feet... as the traffic had come to a complete gridlock! Seriously, we could have walked over the roofs of the vehicles, that's how dense it all was. On street level, crossing was possible but cars, bikes and tuktuks were bitterly fighting for every square centimetre. It's total chaos where there seems to be no rules whatsoever. The bizarre thing is that there are actually quite a few traffic rules and regulations in Pakistan, but non of them are being enforced. The most visible one is that there is a helmet law here for motorcycles... well... look at the photos.

Patriotism strikingly displayed by this charismatic and wounded soldier, see also picture below
At the end of the afternoon, every afternoon, there is a flag lowering ceremony at the Wagah border, both on the Pakistan and India side. Both the Pakistan and India forces give quite an impressive show, demonstrating both their rivalry and friendship. It's more a performance than a ceremony, in our view. Carefully choreographed no doubt too but still good to have been able to watch. It's not just ceremony though, there is still quite a lot of tension between India and Pakistan, as we found out a while later when the Kashmir dispute fired up again.

They present quite a show, and from both sides the  public joins in as well. Especially the theatrical way in which the forces on both sides display their pride in their country, reinforced by the public frantically waving with flags and singing along at the top of their voices. Impressive was also the charismatic wounded soldier who paraded at high speed on one leg... He even did pirouettes, jumped up and down and all while carrying the Pakistani flag with pride.

At sunset the gates are opened from both sides and the flags lowered. Michael Palin described it once as 'carefully choreographed contempt' but since then the aggressive part has been toned down. What we saw was still carefully choreographed but more theatrical than ceremony or aggression. All in all well worth it to experience, quite impressive and certainly something we had never seen before. As other motorcyclists found out the day after, it's not just ceremony either... when they lower the flag and close the gates... the border is absolutely closed!

Honda 'dealership' in the old city... just try to find it in the maze of narrow streets!
Unlucky in love I guess...
With a minivan ride back into town we also started our last evening in Pakistan. A country which has been amazing to us. We were blown away by the unbelievable beauty of the north. We were also blown away by the people! The friendliness, the enthusiasm, the warmth... it was all around us where-ever we went. We love the food, the hospitality and never felt threatened in any way. The opposite! Of course there have been problems here in the past, which country hasn't, but can we judge a whole population by the actions of a few individuals? That would be slightly unfair, we think. Pakistani people are in general very friendly and certainly not out to kill you :-)

Of course we can only speak about our experiences, which were in the north of Pakistan, as we have not been to the south. I've already briefly said something about the good food, which is available everywhere. We prefer to eat simple street food over expensive restaurants for several reasons. The main one being that we rather pay the families that cook our food, rather than for a small army of waiters and the expensive car of the owner. The shawarma at a local stall just around the corner from the backpackers for instance is quite good, as was the lunch we had at a small restaurant in the old walled city. We have no idea what it was but it tasted great. Also in the walled city we were invited to have a cup of tea, which we gladly accepted. Food-wise Pakistan is quite cheap to. For just 70 rupees (or 70 dollar cents) you get a spicy chicken shawarma which was enough for us as an evening meal, with drinks included the total bill came to 210 rupees (or 2 dollars and 10 cents) for two. We sat down outside while enjoying the food, enjoyed the chaotic city life at the same time and talked again about Pakistan. A country which has left such a good and lasting impression and which has been a real eye opener. It's once again a country which has been maligned in the news, while it proves to be very different from the image being portrayed. We certainly enjoyed every minute of it and love to come back here one day and do it all again!