I wanted to post this for those interested in traveling to Pakistan. I do want to point out that the outlook of the Pakistanis on India as described in the blog is pretty much right on the ball. There is very little that Indians know of or about Pakistan and Pakistanis. Most of the perceptions are based on the constant negative PR
about Pakistan and Pakistanis that is based on acrimonious history. In any case, read up.
Erika Bird and Robin Searle
Asia » Pakistan » Islamabad
August 10th 2007 by Banchory to the Bosphorous by Bike
Shrine of Data Ganj Baksh Hujwiri, Lahore
Shrine of Data Ganj Baksh Hujwiri, Lahore
Setting for devotees to ask for boons from this holy muslim (sufi) saint and for some of the best Qawwali music in Asia.
In Urdu/Hindi "Chelo" means "go" or "to go" and so the phrase"Chelo Pakistan" means literally "go to Pakistan". Seems pretty harmless but no, in India this is the worst insult you can give to somebody - really, you can use a string of F-words and other expletives and they will still be there waggling their head, smiling stupidly and doing whatever it was that drove you crazy in the first place. But tell them to Chelo Pakistan and you get a serious reaction. This is really quite sad and I didn't beleive it myself until the first and only time I resorted to it (with a persistant 'comission' tout in Bihar), the guy went crazy and its the angriest I ever saw any Indian get.
This is sadly symptomatic of the relations between the 2 countries; whilst in India telling somebody to go to Pakistan or comparing them to a Pakistani is deeply offensive, do the reverse in Pakistan and there is no reaction. In India the media and politicians somehow blame absolutely everything on Pakistan from failed monsoon to Assamese separatists. Any and all problems seem to be caused by "Pakistani agents". Pakistan is the Squealer on India's Animal Farm and it is not even subtle.
Tell an Indian you are going or have been to Pakistan and they are horrified and will often spend a long time trying to persuade you to consider your life etc. In Amritsar I met a bunch of well eductaed Punjabi's, told them I was crossing to Lahore the next day and got a pile of vitriole about how Pakistani's are all terrorists, theives and that they are starving for lack of food (in my experience you are more likely to be robbed in India - I was - and there are far more hungry and desperate people in India than Pakistan, but then I have the benefit of being able to travel freely on both sides of the LOC). In reply I asked how many Pakistani's he had met in order to reach this conclusion and of course the answer was none, although he did claim to have an Indian muslim freind who was "OK".
His mate realised my point but just flatly stated "you know why Indians and Pakistanis hate each other". Well no I do not really, because this just isn't true - Indians hate Pakistani's they have never met because of a lifetime of disinformation, lies and ignorance. On the other hand Pakistani's seem to have no strong views on India, except to lament that it is so difficult for them to go there. Everday they watch Indian movies and TV and listen to Bollywood pop songs alongside their own 'Lollywood' films and music. They're far more informed about life on the other side of the border than their Indian counterparts are about Pakistan, and seem to be more accepting that the 2 peoples are really one. Also perhaps in Pakistan people long-ago gave up believing anything their government or government-controlled media report to them, and accept that the problems Pakistan has are caused by its own mis-leadership rather than interferance from across the border. Something most Indians could do well to learn from.
Tell someone in Pakistan to "Chelo Hindustan" and they will just look at you rather strangely or else tell you that they would like to go there but getting a visa is next to impossible; they have to go through all kinds of checks and state exactly which towns and cities they will visit, and should they be found anywhere else they will of course be in serious bother. Apparently over 1 million people used to travel between Lahore and Amritsar every day for work and trade, and Hindu's, Muslims and Sikhs lived in relative peace with each other for centuries prior to Partition. Now it is almost impossible for people to cross this border and both countries spend billions each year on military and defence against each other, money that is badly needed to address the huge social and economic problems on both sides of the border.
Pakistan also suffers from a huge image problem not just in India, but everywhere it seems. From what western media reports we do see it seems Pakistan is a land full of terrorists and wars, where any westerner will be instantly lynched by crazy gangs of "Islamic Extremists" or such like. Admittedly recent events at Islambad's Lal Masjid did little to help this image problem, but the reality is that Pakistan is by and large a peaceful, freindly country. I for one feel safer walking at night in a major Pakistani city than I would in many cities in the UK or Europe, and your chances of being mugged, shot etc. are far higher in America than in Pakistan. Much of the news reports about Pakistan are distorted and sensationalised, refferring to "Taliban" all the time - in Urdu the word Taliban simply means 'religious student' and so is a lot different to its perception in the west. Much of the fighting that does occur in Pakistan is in the Tribal Areas, territory which the State of Pakistan has only marginal claims over anyway and where the tribal people (often misleadingly labelled as Taliban) are fighting what they see as illegitimate occupation of their land by the Pakistani state. Often they have very real and legitimate greivances but I suspect little of this is reported outside Pakistan (little enough is reported inside - there has been a noticeable dumbing down of the media since we were here last year).
Those who do visit Pakistan are nearly all overwhelmed by the place, and especially the hospitalitly and freindliness of Pakistani people. It is by travelling that we see the true meaning of things (to quote a Morroccan Sufi proverb), and by travelling to Pakistan the people of India and the West would learn not only some truths about Pakistan but also about their own countries and cultures, and everyone would benefit. So - Chelo Pakistan !!
But enough of Politricks and back to our travels:
Ideally we would have liked to have cycled the 170km road from Kargil to Skardu along the Indus river, but this had been closed and landmined since 1948. Our next option would have been to cycle for a couple of days through the Vale of Kashmir from Srinagar to Muzzafarabad, just north of Islamabad and the epicentre of the Kashmir earthquake a few years back. Again there is a road but it is not open; there is an intermittent bus service for local Kashmiris to cross the LOC but this is often suspended depending on political relations, takes months to get a seat and is only for locals - foreigners not allowed. So our one and only option, short of risking the minefields and being shot, was to trek all the way back south over the Pir Panjal to Punjab and Amritsar, and leave India the same way we entered, via the Wagah border to Lahore. It was hot enough in Srinagar and we really didn't relish returning to the sweltering plains but we had no choice.
We bought a bus ticket and loaded our bikes onto the roof for a 10 hour bus journey on the 300km from Srinagar to Jammu. The road is spectacular, cutting through the Pir Panjal in a long tunnel and following the Jhelum river for some distance before crossing yet more mountains to avoid spitting us out into Pakistan. We arrive in Jammu shortly before sunset and mange to find a bus about to leave to Amritsar that will only take 4 hours. Leaving Jammu in the dark we look west across a sea of blackness - the no-man's land of the (not-so)De-Militarized Border Zone and can see lights in the distance, only maybe 15km away, that we know must be Pakistani villages and towns. In the end the bus takes nearly 7 hours and we don't arrive in Amritsar until 1am and have to try and unload our bikes and bags from the top of the bus while the driver tries to pull away and some 'helpers' try to steal the bags I am passing down to Erika. Hurling a rucksack onto them from some height puts a stop to this and they back off! Exhausted, sweaty and smelly we ride straight to the Golden Temple and collapse onto a hard bed in the pilgrims accomodation block. While Erika sleeps I go for a walk around the Temple and take a cooling dip in the sacred waters of the Tank of Nectar, reflecting that after 9 long months in India we are now back where it all began.
And then we follow the reverse path, cycling towards the border in +40 degrees heat and heavy humidity and finding it wierd how familiar every detail of the road seems, almost as if we have travelled this way every day for years. Exiting India is fairly easy once the passport control guys decide they can actually not go for their lunch break halfway through processing us, and after signing numerous books and more checks we reach the gate and white line that demarcates India from Pakistan. The same porters are there, this time hauling heavy crates of tomatoes from trucks on the Indian side to the line, where they are passed to their Pakistani counterparts. More books and checks and finally we pass under the Azadi Gate (Freedom Gate) and we are in Pakistan. It seems a huge relief.
Road into Lahore is wide and empty by Indian standards, cars slow down and smiling people shout "welcome to Pakistan" at us and we are glad to be back. Although once we reach the city proper the dust and the thick clouds of 2-stroke fumes are not so pleasant, but we member the way and are soon back on Malik's rooftop haven at Regal Inn.
Our plan had been to quickly leave Lahore, cycling north towards Islamabad to get a Chinese visa and then north again up the Karakorum Highway. We stay for a day to sort some things out but fail completely as it is a Sunday and everything we need is closed, and the heat is so unbearble it saps our energy and motivation completely. Also all the travellers in Lahore just seem so much more interesting then those in India - why is this we wonder? We had wanted to cycle as now we were back in Lahore we were back on a route we had cylced all the way from Scotland on and therefore we would feel it was a continous cycle trip, but it didnt. It was almost a year since we had first
arrived in Lahore on our bikes and there was no continuity left in our minds or hearts. Also the oppressive heat really wasnt providing us with much encouragement. We fell back into the trap that is Lahore and Regal; lazy days on the rooftop and just wandering aimlessly around Lahore enjoying being able to walk easily down streets not filled with rubbish, no cows, no **** on the streets, freindly people who are more likely to refuse your money than attempt to overcharge you. Just enjoying being in Pakistan and all the small differences that make it more pleasant than India in so many ways. We buy new clothes, getting Shalwar Kamise tailored for us so we can deal with the heat better, and before we know it we have been there for days and it is Thursday. So of course we visit the Shrine of Data Ganj Baksh for a Qawwali session and spend the evening watching Sufi drumming and dancing.
In the end we drop the idea of cycling to Islamabad as it will just not be pleasant. We take a bus with 2 dutch freinds and a Swiss and English guy cycling to India who need
to go north for their visas, and reach the tourist campsite just beore dark. As usual it is full of enormous Unimogs owned by overlanders who probably rarely drive them offroad but seem convinved you need 2m of clearance to drive in Asia. We pitch our tent beside Gerry, the Swiss guy and go off to get dinner with our dutch freinds. Our favorite chicken korahi place no longer serves chicken korahi as his downstairs restaurnt is a ruin. He smilingly tells us a car bomb destroyed it! The Lal Masjid is only 300m up the road.....
We have a huge feast and come back outside to find it has started to absolutely **** it down. Thunder crashes overhead and strong winds gust through the bazaar, hurling plastic tables and chairs around. Everyone is soaked and we shelter for around an hour waiting for it to finally subside before running back through the rain to the campsite, hoping our tent has not leaked in the downpour. We are met by a frantic Gerry who says "sorry your tent is broken" and points though the dark (there is no power) to a strange mass of green where our yellow tent used to be. A huge tree has come crashing down in the storm, narrowly missing his tent but landing square on top of ours!!
He was in his tent trying to stop it blowing away and did not even hear the tree fall, but looked outside later and got the fright of his life as he thought that we were inside our tent sleeping! They were yelling our names and then got the camp guards to help cut away enough of the branches before realising with some relief we had not been in the tent. Our late chicken dinner may have saved our lives! It was actually a bit funny, there was nothing we could do except pull all our soaking stuff out of the puddle our flattened tent was in and drag it all into a concrete hut that had now become everyone's home for the night. At least the tree had narrowly missed our bikes.
After a not very comfy nights sleep on a hard concrete floor in wet clothes we got up early and went to get our Chinese visa - refreshingly simple - fill in a form, pay your money and within the hour you have your visa. Our plan had been to leave as soon as we had the visa but obviously we had some major kit problems and spent the rest of the day drying our stuff in the hot sun and trying to fix our shredded tent. In the end this took 2-3 days and yet again we were unmotivated to cycle in the heat out of Islamabad and up into the foothills. Maybe if the road ahead had been an unknown, blank canvas it would have been different, but we had been in Gilgit and travelled this road before. Also if we were going to reach Tibet before the winter snows we had to start moving more quickly, and so with a tinge of reluctance we yet again bought another bus ticket and loaded our stuff on the roof for the 25 hour journey to Skardu. We consoled ourselves that were it not for Indo-Pak relations, or rather the lack of them, we would have been in Skardu around a month ago, and would indeed have cycled all the way there from Scotland.