12 March 2018 – India and Pakistan go way back. They were once the same country and part of the British Raj until Partition in 1947, when British rule ended with the government demarcating two new countries according to dominant Hindu and Muslim populations. A lot of violence surrounded Partition, and millions of people were displaced. To this day relations between the two countries are strained, especially regarding the ongoing territorial dispute over the northern state Jammu and Kashmir.
So it’s not surprising that the border between these two countries is prone to problems. It’s one of the most heavily guarded frontiers in the world. It can be seen from space at night, thanks to the amount of floodlights installed on the Indian side. There are only five crossing points along its approximate 3000 kilometre length – and just three of those are actually open.
One of the open crossing points, Wagah, is famous in its own right: every day around five pm an elaborate ceremony takes place to close the border for the night. I wanted to get a look at this border and even more than that, I wanted to cross it.
One afternoon I climbed into the back of a crowded share-taxi in one of Amritsar’s crooked side lanes. There was plenty of space in the front seat of the minivan but when I asked to sit there another passenger informed me that since the other passengers there were men, it was not ‘a comfortable seat for ladies’. This is a problem here, and it’s pretty pathetic that as a woman I can’t sit in the same row as some men in case of wandering hands (theirs, not mine). So I hunched in the back for the duration of the trip in a pretty damn uncomfortable seat with a family instead and enjoyed the driver’s desperate attempts to get the vehicle out of Amritsar’s impossible side-street traffic.
When the taxi stopped near the frontier I got out and followed the surge of people to a stadium built right on the border between these two unfriendly nations.
Of course, this is an international frontier and you can’t bring just anything you like with you:
Taking a seat in the stands I looked around. In the middle of the arena floor in front of me was a double set of spike-topped metal gates with just a meter or so between them, dividing the stadium into two halves: India’s side, where I was seated, and Pakistan’s side at the other end.
Soldiers from each country stood on their own side. You know: good fences make good neighbors.
Triumphant music and a carnival-like atmosphere filled the air. Vendors patrolled the stands selling drinks, ‘I Love India’ hats, and flags. The border closing ceremony is a tourist attraction in its own right and the stands were jam-packed with locals who’d come to see the show.
I waited in anticipation while a sort of Grand Marshal skipped back and forth, hyping the crowd up to a screaming flag-waving fever pitch of patriotism as India’s ‘first line of defence’ marched in wearing elaborate headpieces and weirdly shortened pants.
And so began the strangest show I’ve ever seen: a swaggering demonstration of high-stepping and kicking down the length of the stadium towards the gates, where each soldier would puff his chest out and shake his fist at the other side.
The Pakistanis were doing something similar on their end and this went on until eventually the two flags were lowered simultaneously and the gates irrevocably clanged shut on another day for India and Pakistan.
Due to the tension between their countries it’s not easy for Indians and Pakistanis to freely cross between the two, and not many other foreigners seem to want to. Since 2001 Pakistan has been a less-than-popular tourist destination and some parts of it are still not considered safe. But I love a good border crossing and I already knew I’d never be content with just peering into Pakistan from the grandstands in India.
I’d brought the visa with me from home, so I changed some Indian rupees to Pakistani rupees in Amritsar and returned two days later.
After stamping my passport on the Indian side, I’d assumed there was a sort of line in the sand somewhere, probably marked by a jumble of razor-wire coils and overseen by a frowning soldier or two, where I’d actually cross. But as it turned out the meter of empty space in the middle of the stadium between the two gates is the actual border-crossing and so it was my turn to march through the arena (although I refrained from any high-stepping or kicking).
Showing my passport a few more times, I slipped through the gates and into Pakistan.
On the other side immigration officers heartily welcomed me to Pakistan, where a mini-train (of all things) awaited.
I had no clear plan on how to actually get to Lahore, the closest major city and destination I had in mind. I’d booked a hotel there in advance and emailed asking if someone could pick me up at the border but the inscrutable answer had been ‘Sir, the cost is 3000 rupees but sir, it is not possible’. I’d taken that as a ‘no’, so I just rode the mini-train till it stopped at a junction where a couple of taxis waited in the dust. A taxi-driver strolled over and got a grip on my backpack. I told him I was bound for the Lahore Palace, we agreed on a price and set off for the city.
‘My name is Aas Mohammed!’ the driver shouted over his shoulder at me as we tore down the road. He was clearly under the impression that the louder he shouted the better I’d understand him and we continued this way into the city. ‘Aas means ‘Hope’! screamed Aas Mohammed. We drove along a murky red canal, sharing the lane with donkey carts driven by men standing on top, and any number of brightly painted trucks loaded with passengers. As I expected Aas Mohammed quickly got lost, but true to his name he hopefully asked around until between us we spotted the hotel.
Settling into my room at the Palace, I breathed a sigh of relief and felt a bit giddy. I’d persuaded the Pakistani Embassy at home to give me a visa inside of three days instead of four weeks; and then I’d crossed an infamous – and interesting – frontier on my own. Amritsar was only fifty kilometers down the road but it already felt a world away – and I had high hopes for Lahore.