India and Pakistan 2009

Part 3 - Pakistan: Lahore, Rawalpindi and Islamabad

To return to Part 2 (Rajasthan and Punjab) click here.

Fri 6th. After another peaceful breakfast sitting out by the rose gardens at Mrs Bhandari's in Amritsar it was time to move on, so we got an auto-rickshaw to the Pakistan border at Wagha (30 km for 300 Rs). Crossing the border was a remarkably stress-free experience - there were hardly any other people crossing in either direction, and we chatted with the friendly emigration staff while filling in our departure forms, walked through the gates that we had seen slammed closed in the ceremony a couple of days ago and chatted with the equally friendly immigration staff as we were stamped into Pakistan. Outside the border control area there were no auto-rickshaws, just a small group of car/taxi drivers who half-heartedly tried to persuade us into their cars for the ride to Lahore, and we eventually negotiated 700 rupees for the 30 km ride (Pakistani Rupees about 110 to the pound, 100 to the Euro, about 1.5 to the Indian Rupee). The road seemed in a much better state than the road on the Indian side, although whether this is a 'statement' aimed at arriving visitors or more generally true we didn't know, and the driving was also more disciplined (by Asian standards) with less hooting and people actually stopping at red traffic lights.

Lahore was a surprise too, full of modern cars with less bikes and no animals at all on the roads, in contrast to the chaos in Indian cities, and best of all no dogs barking all night. The newer part of town has wide boulevards with trees and greenery, and some nice parks in the more affluent areas. We had no hotel preference in Lahore so we let the taxi take us to the Grace Hotel on Nicholson Road. At first we were put off by the fact that it could do with a coat of paint, a good clean and some new furnishings, but the staff were very friendly and the room was spacious and there was a corner tub in the bathroom so we stayed. We got an auto-rickshaw down to The Mall, the main avenue that runs through the newer part of the city, and walked along looking at the shops, restaurants and decaying formerly-grand buildings. Halfway along we stopped to look at a restaurant called 'Cookers' and met Mr Bukhri, a very pleasant man who is joint owner of the restaurant and a very rich and successful businessman with dealerships importing products into Pakistan. He told us about his travels then took us to the exclusive Gymkhana Club, playground of Lahore's rich elite where he is a long-time member (there is a waiting list of thousands to join) and kindly treated us to a meal in one of the club's restaurants, overlooking the immaculate gardens, 18-hole golf course, tennis courts, etc. He showed us round the lounges, bars and members' rooms of the club, but we could not go inside most of them because I was not properly dressed in suit and tie - we felt like country bumpkins in the big city!

In the evening we walked around the Gulberg suburb of the city, an upmarket residential and shopping area, but found it distinctly American in style, with shopping malls and international fast-food outlets, but very spread out, much more suitable for drivers than pedestrians.

Sat 7th. We went to visit Lahore Fort, but first had a look at the Fort View Hotel which has rooms with wonderful views of the fort and the historic mosque opposite, and also a roof-top restaurant that we decided to revisit tonight.

Lahore fort
The impressive gate to Lahore fort.
Badshahi Mosque
The elaborate gate of Badshahi mosque.
Lahore fort
We strolled around inside the fort which is a lovely mixture of green open spaces and historic old buildings, some of them crumbling and some, like the Palace of Mirrors that Shah Jehan built for his wife, in remarkable condition with hundreds of mirrors set into the walls, elaborate inlay work and marble tracery screens.

It was all a haven of clean air from the fumes and pollution belching from the lorries and auto-rickshaws below. There were lots of visitors and school parties all having a good time and everyone was very welcoming to us, we had our photos taken with countless families and in fact several of them insisted we should come to have dinner at their house tonight! Just as we were making our way out of the fort down the giant stairway called the 'Elephant Path' a tour guide with a party of VIPs invited us to come with them into the 'Summer Palace' which is usually kept locked, and we had a private viewing round the huge chambers one level down in the fort, which are kept cool by the enormous thickness of the walls.

Back at the Grace Hotel we met, as arranged, the taxi driver who took us back to the Wagah border yet again (800 Rs) to see the closing ceremony from the Pakistani side!

Wagah border
Again there were huge crowds, each cheering enthusiastically as its side's soldiers strutted and postured at the other side ....
Wagah border
.... while an energetic lad danced up and down waving a huge national flag on a pole.

Finally the gates were slammed shut for the night and the crowds went home in a party mood after a good show.

We went back to the Fort View Hotel where they seemed very pleased that we had returned as promised, and we had a huge, delicious meal on the rooftop with a fabulous view of the massive fort gate and equally huge Badshahi Mosque opposite, both floodlit except for the occasional power cuts. It was quite chilly up on the roof so the staff very kindly brought a big furry blanket from one of the hotel rooms which we wrapped around us like a tent!

Sun 8th. Surprisingly for a Muslim country, Lahore closes on Sunday and the city was quiet with most of the shops closed (India never closes!) so we had a restful morning with room service for breakfast in our spacious hotel room. Then we set out for some more sightseeing and went back to The Mall where we started with ice cream at Chaman's, a very popular ice cream parlour in the middle of a little street market, then walked up the rest of The Mall. Along the way were pockets of activity amongst the eerily quiet and empty Sunday streets, including a huge book market with a very varied selection of dusty English and Urdu books spread out on the ground.

Kim's gun
At the western end of The Mall the imposing Raj-style Museum and University buildings stand either side of the huge cannon called 'Kim's Gun' after the classic Rudyard Kipling story.

Nearby is 'Tourist Street' where the road is closed to traffic at sunset and the many restaurants spread their tables out under the lights and there is a festive feel to it. We met an English Pakistani from London who was there to manage his father's chain of restaurants in Lahore and had an excellent meal at his restaurant, sitting out at a street table while the cooks prepared the food in steaming cauldrons and barbecues in front of us. The 'chicken handi' was especially delicious.

Mon 9th. We set off to 'do' the old city starting at the historic Badshahi mosque, but the mosque was temporarily closed while a film crew were filming a commercial for some product or other so we had a look at the nearby 'Cooco's Den' in a lovely old 'haveli' house with carved doors and doorways and a rooftop restaurant embellished by all sorts of trophies that the owner had collected, including Buddhas' heads, Christian gravestones and bronze bells. We walked through the maze of bazaars and alleyways across the old city, which still seemed to be opening up as shopkeepers raised their shutters or dusted off their stock, even though it was nearly 11 o'clock.

We came blinking into the light and chaos of the 'Circular Road' near Lohari Gate and made our way south through the less-old part of the city, past street markets with barrows full of second-hand western clothes and cuddly toys that seemed to have been donated for some disaster relief but never quite got there. We came onto The Mall right opposite the post office and bought stamps for some postcards, then went to the nearby Lahore Museum which was most impressive. Inside and out the building is full of Raj grandeur and the huge galleries are full of all sorts of exhibits including the famous 'starving Buddha', more or less a statue of a skeleton, all extremely interesting. We had a rather strange lunch of omelette sandwich and chips (not what we thought we'd ordered at all) at the museum café and returned to Grace Hotel to have a rest away from the vehicle fumes.

As it got dark we got an auto-rickshaw to the Shah Alam bazaar and walked across the old city through winding un-named streets with colourful shops, horse carriages and vegetable sellers with huge baskets on their bicycles. As always, the passers-by were friendly and welcoming and wished us a nice time in Pakistan. As we neared Taksali gate at the northwest of the city a passerby who spoke excellent English offered to take us through Heera Mandi, the 'dancing girl's quarter' (red light district) and we went down even narrower winding lanes past sordid little rooms, some with a middle-aged unattractive woman standing outside (what do you expect for 50 pence?) but mostly with the doors closed while business was in progress! We got an auto-rickshaw round the circular road, past Kim's Gun and back to Tourist Street, where we had another very tasty meal at the same restaurant and also an Indian cooking masterclass with the chef!

Tues 10th. We got the bus to Rawalpindi and this was another unexpected revelation - it was a Daewoo Premier Plus luxury bus, with wide, comfortable seats, seat belts, no open windows to let in draughts, a snack meal served by the uniformed hostess and an English-language film (interrupted with commercial breaks so long that the film had not finished when we arrived 4½ hours later). The whole route was a smooth, 3-lane motorway through the fertile Punjab farmland, with safety slogans on the bridges like "Retire the dead tyre" and "Over-speed thrills but kills"!

We got a taxi to Flashman's Hotel on the edge of the town centre and this was another delightful surprise. Although the hotel looked rather austere from outside, our suite in a bungalow towards the back of the compound was lovely. There was a living room with a comfy 3-piece suite around a gas fire, a verandah outside, nice bedroom and a bathroom with a sunken bath! It started to rain so we spent the evening cosily watching TV in our living room and had dinner at Flashman's restaurant, where for some reason Tuesday and Wednesday are meat-free days so we had vegetable curries and snacks.

Weds 11th.

Shah Faisal mosque
After a nice room service breakfast in our living room at Flashman's we got a taxi to Islamabad and went to see the ultramodern Shah Faisal mosque. It is impressive from outside but absolutely stunning inside, a huge soaring space that is said to hold 100,000 people (with room for thousands more outside), fully carpeted and with an enormous chandelier in the centre.
Painted lorry
Then we went back to Rawalpindi and found a yard where they paint the colourful lorries, and in fact build parts of the wooden bodywork. Every available inch of the bodywork is covered in bright geometric designs in many colours and the decoration extends to the inside of the cabs, where the windows are so small that the driver can hardly see out through all the trimmings and accessories!

In the evening we went to the bazaar area and dived off the choking streets into the back alleys of the Moti and Rajah bazaars, full of colourful shops and shoppers but free of all but the occasional motorcycle. We bought cucumbers and radishes for snacks on tomorrow's trip and had 'dinner' of samosas and spicy beans from a tin plate in a little street-side café in the bazaar. For pudding they also had a plate of chopped banana and apples with pomegranate purée and yogurt which was nice, and the whole lot cost one pound 30 pence - it was Sheila's birthday meal so I didn't mind splashing out! Instead of a taxi we got one of the local minibusses which are also brightly painted and decorated like the lorries, back to the bazaar by our hotel.

Thurs 12th. We went for a day trip with the nice taxi driver we met yesterday. He charged 10 Rs per km so there was no complicated haggling if we wanted to go to different places, and waiting time was free ("you are our guests in Pakistan"!)

We went to Taxila where there is a valley with several remains of a Buddhist civilisation that flourished there 2,000 years ago, with ruins of stupas, monasteries and cities that had been excavated in the 1920s. Some of the sites were very interesting with carvings, inscriptions and Buddha figures round the bases of the stupas, showing a fusion of Greek and Indian influences. The museum on the site has a very varied collection of artefacts found during the excavation.
Hasan Abdul temple
We also went to the Sikh shrine at Hasan Abdul, where there is a colourfully-decorated temple similar to the one in Amritsar and a natural spring gushing from beneath a boulder with a hand-print in it, where Guru Nanak (the founder of Sikhism) had stopped the boulder with one hand when an adversary rolled it at him.

It was another meatless day at Flashman's restaurant so we went for a complete change and had a very good Chinese meal at the nearby Kim Fah restaurant.

Fri 13th - Sat 14th. It rained all day (only the second rainy day this trip) so we spent the morning relaxing in our living room then ventured out to splash through the bazaars and do a few chores before returning gratefully for a steaming hot bath followed by room service dinner - a final very tasty curry. In the early hours of Saturday morning we went to Islamabad airport and had a nice surprise when they took us to the front of the queue and we discovered we had been upgraded to business class!

Dog on bike
Waiting for a ride in Jodhpur.

If you would like to see pictures from our other travels, please click here ...... globe