I’ve spent 3 weeks in Pakistan, and I’ve been blown over by the friendliness and hospitality of the people. I’d been told about it by people who had visited before but until you experience it first hand you cannot appreciate how warm it is. I’ve been given a necklace by the manager of the guesthouse I stayed in, been invited for lunch after I bought a jumper at a market stall, approached by countless people wanting to welcome me to Pakistan, and had numerous offers of tea. The dentist I visited told me to get in contact if I needed help with anything during my stay in Pakistan, a guy sitting next to me in a restaurant bought me lunch and the man I got talking to on the bus invited me to stay at his home.
Even the border guards and immigration officials were super friendly, although that could have been because they were bored rigid from the lack of anything to do. I was the only passenger crossing the border and it looked like there hadn’t been many others that day. I approached the border by local bus to the village of Atari and had to take a rickshaw the last few kilometres to the border and then it was on foot past the line of hundreds of brightly painted trucks waiting their turn to cross. First through the Indian side and then the long walk through no mans land and through the border gates themselves. I toyed with the idea of staying to watch the famous border closing ceremony where the two sides try to outdo each other in an elaborate (and preposterous) display of jingoism, but as I despise nationalism even more than religion and hereditary titles I decided to give it a miss. It was depressing enough passing all the military installations and barracks on the way to the border. An artificial line drawn by the British creating a new nation but in the process splitting the Punjab in two and unleashing a humanitarian catastrophe. At partition 13 million people had to leave their homes which some had lived in for centuries and cross the new border and nearly a million people died. And the two sides have been squabbling ever since. Both have armies over a million strong and Pakistan has the highest number of military personnel per capita in the world. I thought about all the poverty and suffering I had seen over the past 5 weeks and contemplated what could be done with even a fraction of the $41 billion that India spent on its military in 2010.
When I arrived on the Pakistani side they were experiencing one of the power cuts that blight the country. I had experienced load shedding in both Nepal and India but their power cuts of an hour or two per day seemed amateurish when compared to Pakistan. There the power is off nearly as much as it is on and goes off every couple of hours for a couple of hours. In country areas it’s even worse, and sometimes they are forced to go for a couple of days without electricity. Inconvenient in the winter but it’s difficult to imagine what its like in summer without fans or air conditioning when the mercury is touching 50C. It must be hard to run any sort of business as well, and many companies have backup generators or battery systems. The border post however seemed not to have either so the computer system was down and I had to wait until power was restored. In the meantime I got chatting with the super friendly officials who reeled through the questions that would become very familiar with over the next few weeks. Where you from, what do you do, are you married, what about the cricket? I usually get asked that at least 4 or 5 times a day by complete strangers followed by “what do you think about Pakistan”.
Lahore is only 25km or so from the border and it was an easy ride on a couple of shared rickshaws that cost nothing, about 50 cents, into the city centre. A further rickshaw would take me to the place which would be my home during much of my stay in Pakistan. Down a narrow alley full of dust and bricks from building works and right at the top of an unassuming building filled with accountants offices the Lahore backpackers is like an oasis from all the craziness outside. Never have I received such hospitality from backpackers accommodation. The manager Sajjad cannot do enough for you, he plies you with green tea, offers of food and even the occasional massage if he’s in the mood. He took me out on his bike to find a pair of shoes for me in the fantastic second hand markets and then treated me to somosas and halva. At the backpackers there’s a rooftop terrace which is ideal for soaking up the sun during the daytime and hanging out with the fellow guests. There was the young Aussie stoner who had been there a month smoking and hanging out, a Chinese guy who had caught hepatitis and was forced to stay rather longer than intended, the Chinese girls who were always cooking up a storm in the kitchen and sharing some of their delicious creations. The guy who’s returned to Pakistan to try and obtain the compensation he’s been waiting for 20 years to get after his business in Kuwait was destroyed when Saddam invaded. Then there were the overlanders who had taken a similar route to me , although both had been defeated by Chinese beaurocracy. . There were the Aussie couple who had driven from Sydney having taken 6 years to reach Lahore, and a 70 year old dude from Malaysia and his son who had taken rather less time to get there by (mainly) bicycle. A very interesting set of companions which was handy as a spent rather a long time there waiting for some dental work to be completed.
I was suffering from a bit of toothache when I arrived so I got that one ripped out and at the same time the dude offered to put some crowns in to replace the ones I had lost over the years. I had been quoted around ten thousand dollars to get them fixed up in Australia, he did them for $330. I have no idea what kind of standard they are, but they look good at the moment. He was recommended to me by my couchsurfing host Adil so hopefully they will work out ok.
I stayed with Adil the first weekend I was in Lahore , and it was a real privilege to be invited into his home to see a side of Pakistani life that few foreigners especially men, get to see. I stayed with his family, 2 daughters and a son. Like most Pakistani families he shares a compound with his father and brothers and their families. Adil is an incredibly open minded person and accepting person. The first couchsurfer he had to stay at his place was a gay Aussie. He went to Australia to visit him a couple of years ago and was taken out clubbing and to sample some of the delights Oz has to offer. He was also intrigued to question me about my atheism, and my opinions on homosexuality, and sex outside marriage. He in turn gave me a broader insight into Pakistani culture and values.
In Pakistan a guest is a blessing from God and I was treated like a king during my stay. I thought I might lose a bit of weight in Pakistan because I haven’t been drinking any beer, but any less liquid calories I have been consuming have been more than compensated for by the amount of food I have been offered. As soon as I finished one plateful of delicious food I’m being urged to have more. I was guest of honour at Adil daughter’s six birthday party, and they had a barbeque to mark the visit of an Aussie despite the frigid nighttimes temperatures. Chicken Tika cooked over coals with Naan bread took me back to my youth and Abdul’s Kebabs in Manchester except this was even nicer. Of course there was birthday cake to follow, black forest and rather bizarrely chicken cheese cake which consisted of a bread sandwich with a chicken filling and covered with a mayonnaise icing decorated with flecks of thinly sliced vegetables. Disconcertingly it looked like a delicious cream cake but certainly didn’t taste like one. Although I can’t understand a word of Punjabi I’m pretty sure they weren’t words of glowing approval from Adil’s wife and the rest of the family when he returned from the cake shop with said item. The birthday girl blew out the candles but then had to wait as the cake was shared out in order of importance according to Pakistani tradition. The oldest and of course males start first so a six year old girl has a very long wait until she gets her turn. Then to burn away the excess calories consumed, the furniture was cleared away, the music was cranked up and the dancing began. Again an exclusively male preserve the women looked on and laughed as Adil’s nephews and son tried to teach me some of the dance moves. He told me afterwards he was very impressed with my dancing, but I think he was just being polite.
Then the following day I was invited to one of Adil’s work colleagues for tea (with of course an impressive selection of cakes and biscuits) and for dinner with his best mate. My stay with Adil was an amazing experience and I was truly humbled by the hospitality I was shown not only by him but also his family and friends.
Unfortunately my status as guest of honour ceased when I returned to the backpackers, and I was no longer showered with offers of food and drink. Such is life as they say. Luckily Lahore is a pleasant city to hang out in because I spent plenty of time there. I wandered down the mall with its impressive collection of colonial era buildings, the huge post office with the gothic columns clearly meant to impress the occupied with the imperial might of the British occupiers. The university was also very grand and the museum opposite rather faded and down at heal since its heyday when Rudyard Kipling’s father was the curator, but it still holds some interesting exhibits. Most impressive are some fascinating Gandharian Buddhist statues from the time when the religion held sway over much of the subcontinent. They also illustrate the profound Greek influence over what is now Pakistan showing the Buddha wearing a toga and Greek sandals.
I also spent time exploring the old city wandering through the narrow crowded streets, viewing scenes that seem remarkably unchanged for hundreds of years. It’s like a maze, except mazes generally have more order and planning and I spent a pleasant afternoon totally lost. Every once in a while I would appear at one of the ancient gates that once guarded the city and realise I’d reached the perimeter, re-orientate myself and plunge once more back into the chaos. Eventually rather tired and footsore I stumbled upon the fort.
Strategically positioned between India and Iran and Afghanistan Lahore has been conquered on numerous occasions. It was ruled by the Persians, sacked by the Mongolians and became the capital of the Moghuls for a time, then the Sikhs took over followed by the British all of whom have left their imprint on the citadel that guarded the city. It’s huge walls rise up out of the old town, seemingly impregnable looking, but also an object of beauty. Scenes have been painted onto some of the walls and the main enterance is huge and highly decorated. It’s called the elephant gate either because its big enough for elephants to pass through or because the two towers on either side look like elephants feet. The buildings inside had once again seen far better days and there was a distinctly dilapidated feel to the place. However it was possible to imagine what they must have looked like in their heyday. There were beautiful faded murals on the interior walls, paint flaking in places and running with damp in others. Another room had exquisitely decorated mirrors on the walls and coloured glass built into the motif which must have looked stunning when illuminated by candle light. The sun was setting over the Badshahi Mosque as I was exploring the buildings to the west, lighting up what was for a long time the biggest mosque in the world, and illuminating the beautiful minarets and towers.
Finally the first part of my dental work was completed and I was able to head off and explore the rest of Pakistan.