Another vacation was upon me, another chance to escape the normality and comfort of Japan and explore a couple completely new cultures and religions…
After a bonenkai with the usual fare of eating, drinking and socializing on Thursday night, I boarded the Jumbo Ferry towards Kobe as the first step of my embarkation. That preliminary boat ride, early morning bus to the airport, and the lengthy flights that followed left me bushed when I finally did arrive in Delhi. It is easy to just think of any point in Asia as close to my home here in neighboring Japan, but the voyage wasn’t any much quicker than flying all the way back to Michigan. (Not that I wish I had…)
I was met at the airport in Delhi by someone from my hotel, and then drove the hour to where I would be staying. I had only planned to stay one night in India before going back to the airport to fly into Lahore. When I arrived, it was clear I was in a different world – cows walking the street, and the utmost of chaos in terms of traffic. It did somehow manage to work though, and I did indeed arrive at my destination unscathed. It was immediately clear to me that this was in no way a nice area of town, and it was only because the hotels were so cheap that anyone stayed there at all. After being shown to my padlocked prison cell of a room, I dared venture out into the great Indian wilds. Out on the street, as if thrown to the wolves, there were countless peddlers of substances all very interested in getting their product in my hands. Differing from the rest of Asia, a ‘No’ or two wasn’t usually enough to shake them; they would seem legitimately offended at that response in passing. This was different to me, but I did escape their company eventually, stopped by an internet cafe, and then went to sleep. The rolling blackouts were met by the inescapable roar of generators sometimes hours at a time. The next morning, I had every intention of going out and doing something productive with my time, but as this area was isolated from the beautiful Delhi, I dared not venture too far away from my hotel and ride to the airport. I accomplished nothing, and instead sat at the airport for the bulk of the afternoon, slipping in and out of consciousness.
This was the view from my roof of my first India hotel. Nice area.
When the boarding time came, I could very well see that Pakistan was not a popular travel destination. I was however surprised not to be the only American on the flight. Another pair worked for the state department and were accustomed to armed escort anytime they left the campus. They also strongly recommended that I register with the American embassy, as it would make locating me significantly easier in the event of an incident. This was very reassuring. But, ticket in hand I made my way through security and boarded the plane. Along the way, one of the security officers that checked my ticket and passport did a little jump when he saw where I was headed, and then asked why. I explained that it was simply vacation, though I had bought the ticket before things became crazy. For those not too familiar with current events, in late November there was a massive friendly fire incident that took the lives of at least 24 Pakistani soldiers, and they blamed the US for it. Following was a number of rallies and protests advocating for the complete withdraw of US/NATO troops and a general distaste for Americans in general. I opted for a Canadian alias for the duration of my stay.
Upon arrival, I had a thorough inspection at immigration, which I suppose was only fair, but before long I was through to the other side. Here too I had arranged to be picked up at the airport by my hotel. It was already dark by the time I got to my hotel, so I just opted to do some reading and turn in for the night. It wasn’t scary to be in such a place, but having my own room in this decent hotel really made it feel like my safe house. There was a strange giddiness and feeling of invincibility where behind my impervious door I could relax and take what would be my only hot shower for some time. The next morning, I enjoyed a free breakfast of toast, some strangely sweet rice, and a spicy dish that I wrapped up in some nan bread. Finally, before checking out I ordered a taxi to drive me to the major tourist destinations, for a very reasonable price.
When I arrived into the Pakistani wilds everyone was looking at me, though not with eyes of disdain, just simple curiosity. This is a not a country with a remarkable tourism industry, and especially not with Westerners. This was proven by my ability to navigate UNESCO sites, utterly devoid of people my own color. The city that I would be exploring was that of Lahore, what some would call the cultural capital of the country. It had been occupied by the Sikh, Mughal and British empires before finally attaining independence along with India in 1947. The incredible architecture from each era was everywhere. Being Sunday, the market was conveniently closed, and slipping a taxi through the narrow and otherwise congested streets of 4,000 year old Inner Lahore was relatively easy. The city certainly looked its age, with buildings seemingly stacked upon each other and no sign of urban planning. On the Docket were a number of locations I had looked in to before starting my trip – and first would be the Wazir Khan Mosque.
I was very excited to be arriving at this exquisitely tiled mosque from the 1600’s, as this trip marked my first real exposure to Islam and its related places of worship. The architecture and method of worship were all very new to me. At the time of my arrival, there was almost no one around, but I had my first encounter with Pakistani hospitality. There was a man sitting at the gate, who before letting me enter just wanted to hear about me and why I had come to Pakistan. After a bit, he declared us friends and was happy to let me in. I removed my shoes and patrolled the large courtyard, free to take pictures and explore. There were a couple people praying – they too were happy to talk to me – but eventually I made my way back to the car. This was followed by the Golden Mosque, a historical though much less grand place. I took a couple humoring photos and chatted with someone about the history of it. I should add that despite the language of the Punjabi region being Urdu, having once been a British colony had established English as an official language as well. This allowed me to navigate most situations more easily than some of the other places I’ve been.
This was inside the Wazir Khan Mosque. The rugs were for prayers.
The next stop was the historical crown jewel of old Lahore, the Lahore Fort complex. Here there were many [Pakistani] tourists, all very eager to try their limited English and to take photos with me. People say this is common in China, and perhaps so, but I’ve never experienced it to the same degree I saw in both Pakistan and India. I was eventually ‘rescued’ by a freelance tour guide who I chose to employ. His English level was great, and he did a fantastic job of explaining the details of this historical spot, once serving as the headquarters of the Mughal Empire. I saw the various areas used for guests, soldiers, elephants and the royal court. Built largely out of white marble and sandstone; it was completely different from the eastern Asian styles that I had seen thus far. My guide also reminded me that the Sikhs had stolen much of the marble flooring and semiprecious stone inlays when they were building monuments for their own empire.
The Elephant Gate of Lahore Fort. Both because here the elephants entered, and also because the shape of the towers resemble elephant feet.
Opposite the fort stood the Badshahi Mosque, which until recently was the largest in the world. It absolutely dwarfed the Wazir Khan I had seen earlier, and the red sandstone that it was built from was also very impressive. This grand monument is commemorated on several of their coins and bills. Just as the last two mosques, I had to remove my footwear before I could enter the area. There was a massive expanse for prayer as well as the centrally located fountain for washing. One is considered unfit for worship if they and their clothing are unclean. I was bewildered at the sheer scale of the place, and felt lucky to walk around there.
In front of the Badshahi Mosque. Notice the bare feet.
From there, I had a few more places to go, and upon learning I had a car to take me there, my guide thrust himself into my service for the remainder of my itinerary. This was a bit undesired, and he didn’t really have too much to say about the less interesting places, but I guess it was still nice to draw a bit more information. The next couple stops were the Jahangir and Nur Jahan tombs, where a Mughal king and his favorite wife were interred. There were nice gardens, but they were overall a bit underwhelming, especially in the wake of the grandeur I had just walked through.
My final stop was at the Shalamar Gardens, another UNESCO site where I saw some more of the same red and white buildings but most significantly the best remaining example of Mughal gardening that had once helped Lahore to be known as ”the city of gardens”. The 40 acre area was built over three tiers, and had a number of impressive fountains and verdant greenery, even at the turn of the year. Finally, the tour came to a close, where the tour guide then attempted to collect 50 dollars from me, keen to note to knowledge he brought to me. I insisted he provided no more of a service than the taxi driver who had spent the afternoon fighting the chaos on the streets and waiting for me, and refused to pay him anything more than that 20 dollar service. He further insisted on payment in Canadian money, but I explained that my living in Japan rendered it just as foreign to me as it was to him. Initially sullen, he quickly emerged from the theatrical sorrow after the transaction was complete. We brought him back to his roost at the fort and me to my new hotel, the significantly cheaper Regale Internet Inn. Here, I would celebrate my Christmas alone, not my first away from family, but definitely my first completely alone with no sign of the holidays in sight. Almost refreshing was that the hectic oversold nature of it all had nothing to do with my holidays.
Back at the hostel, I met a Chinese traveler named Mi who was a travelling writer, and had been floating around the Middle East and Europe for some time. She was also kind enough to lend me her computer, so as to Skype in with my family for the holiday. In the last day or so, she had made a contact with a Pakistani guy involved in CouchSurfing, and he invited her to a wedding. She in turned invited me, and together we crashed a wedding that was so unbelievably far out of my league. We weren’t really sure what was normal, so we bought some flowers on the street and walked over to the Pearl Continental, easily one of the nicest in the country. There it was immediately clear that my jeans & jumper, and her shawl & leggings would not be sufficient for us to blend in. Our host told us that the women’s dresses cost at least $1200 each, and I can only guess for the suits. We were introduced to the bride and groom, both immaculately dressed in the center of the wedding party. Our host told us to enjoy ourselves and relax, nearly impossible for us as it appeared that the only foreigners had just crawled in from some slum to crash royalty’s grand event. My inadequacy was further highlighted when conversation with a certain Dr. Allah Bakhsh Malik revealed him to be a UNESCO (United Nations) Confucius Prize for Literacy Recipient. What was I doing there?
Soon though, our host saved us by joining us at our table, and had a bit to tell us about everything – this was the interesting part. Apparently, there are four parts to an Islamic wedding, this was the 3rd and concluded with the bride going to the husband’s home for the first time. He also insisted that this (the largest wedding I’ve ever seen) was pretty small, with most having 500-1000 guests. We enjoyed some extremely tasty Pakistani cuisine, the best part being that despite all the nice suits and dresses the hands were the only utensil. This was my kind of event, except that being Islamic it was completely dry. Unfortunate, as I’m sure whatever wine they could have afforded would have been well beyond anything I’ve tasted before. Finally the event came to a close and it was time to go home. On the way, we were shown into a 5 star restaurant that included a dancing woman. Despite being fully clothed, the notion of a dancing woman was nothing short of exotic in this culture and essential proved the high class nature of the locale. On our walk home, we were getting plenty of hoots and hollers from passerby men about my companion’s legs. It wasn’t that you could see them at all, but skin tight leggings were rather risqué by even liberal Lahore’s Islamic standards. This pretty much ended my first day in Pakistan, and was easily the most interesting of them.
…Because starting that night, I would fall victim to some more food poisoning. I think I ate or drank something while in Delhi for the overnight, but it wasn’t until this night that the full rage of it started hitting the colon. I made countless trips to the bathroom throughout the night, my bottom seared by the spice in the food. Then the next day I awoke around noon. Failing to surmount a severe energy deficiency, I slept a few more hours before finally gathering the gumption to walk around a bit. I went to the main road for a for a little snack, and was found by a very strange guy. He talked like Borat and was eager to be involved with me, inviting me to ice cream and such. I was suspicious at first but he seemed alright, if only a little off. From there, I took a rickshaw to Mall Road, which is the main strip with a lot of historical buildings. I wanted to go to a museum, but it was closed already, so I settled for a little shopping, an uninteresting art museum, and walking till I was lost. I made it back by dinner but was so dead I turned in at about 5pm.
The next day I woke up after my 16 hours of sleep, feeling much better. I met that guy again, and he wanted to take me back to his copy shop. He did me the favor of amassing some coins for me, so I felt obligated. When I got there, it was clear I had become his hostage, I had been collected. He had me write my contact details in a book, with all the other people he had captured. He wanted me to write my details for Canada too, but I insisted that I won’t be going home any time soon. To the shop came all sorts of people he knew, and wanted to introduce me to. I meanwhile was sitting and wondering both what was going on and how I would escape without hurting his feelings. In the end I got away after an hour, and a cup of tea, and a little breakfast he prepared. He wanted me to come back the next day, but I could only muster a ‘maybe’. After that, I walked back to the main road and went retried The Lahore Museum. Built during British occupation, it was the largest in the country, and it did have a lot of interesting exhibits. There were some numerous cultural and religious artifacts from the different eras, as well as a collection of coins dating back to the 6th century BCE. When this was over, I returned to my hotel and got ready to check out and leave for the Wagah Border, the only land crossing between Pakistan and India. I was originally expecting to stay another day in the city, but I had exhausted my to-do list and decided there would be much more to gain by going instead to an otherwise unreachable city in India.
The Lahore Museum. The Muslim and British architectural influences are both visible here.
I took a taxi 30 km to the border, where I was directed to sit and wait for a long time. Eventually, I start talking to an upstanding Pakistani family whose father worked for the United Nations, so they were actually based in Geneva. They were very kind, and helped to expedite my crossing significantly just by putting in a few words to the immigration clerk. They were all beneficiaries of their father’s influence; 19 members of their family would be crossing to India to retrace their ancestral tracks. Apparently for them to have received an Indian visa in only 8 weeks was remarkable, and would be otherwise almost impossible. At last, all 20 of us were through to the Indian side, where they continued on to Amritsar and I waited around for the Wagah Border closing ceremony before going there myself. Thus concluded my brief, but incredibly potent exposé of Pakistan.
Thoughts and observations:
Pakistan was a fascinating place for me to go, and I really appreciated the change of scenery compared to all the other countries I have been going to. Most of my travels thus far had been to places with a primarily Buddhist religious aspect. Experiencing Islam as something completely new, was really good for me. But beyond the religious flavor and differing architecture, I was able to see a significant difference in the people as well. I can honestly say that the Pakistanis as a people are genuinely some of the warmest and kindest that I’ve yet met. A conversation is always initiated by grasping the other’s hand, but without the up down shake aspect to it. From there they withdraw their hand, touch their chest and often times perform a gentle embrace. Everyone seems to maintain a fraternal relationship with all of their peers, and they were always to talk to me and label me as one in their circle. We occasionally chatted on such political patters as the Pakistan & USA relations, and I always insisted that the media doesn’t represent the nature of the individual people, hence why I was so excited to come see it for myself. Also very interesting was to see the aspects of a lawfully male dominated society. Never seeing a woman drive, and to be always wearing the extremely modest garments was new to me. I’m a man, so obviously this didn’t upset me as it may have somebody else, but I have always been one to value tradition and culture – even at the cost of personal liberties. Really enjoyed my time in this country.
Other than what I saw in the people, there were a few things from the society that really stuck out to me. Most especially was the presence of Cricket. For as popular as this sport is in some parts of the world, it is absolutely incredible how completely unknown it can be in others. I would bet that not more than 1 in 100 Americans know the rules to this game (I still don’t). Despite this discrepancy, in both Pakistan and India this sport was king. In every public clearing, there were bowlers bowling and batsmen clubbing away. It is easy to draw the comparison to American youths playing baseball in the park, but I saw literally hundreds of people of all ages outside enjoying this sport.
These people are nearly all playing Cricket