16 March 2018 – Maybe it’s just me, but popping into Pakistan for a long weekend in Lahore seemed like a perfectly obvious side-trip from India. So I crossed the Wagah border near Amritsar and made my way into yet another foreign city. Exploring my latest new neighborhood I quickly got a feel for just how huge this sprawling metropolis of around twelve million people really is. Apart from a few teastands and a KFC with an armed guard at the door, there wasn’t much to do in my area so I hopped in a rickshaw and half an hour later got out on a wide boulevard lined with high-end shops and restaurants. I’d felt a bit uncertain about wandering around alone, but then I thought it’s just another city after all, and took the plunge.
That night at the not-very-obviously palatial Palace Hotel I lay in bed listening to every bang, clatter and smash from the street (and there were many). Lahore has been subject to a lot of terror attacks in recent years, and this fact loomed large in my mind. But reminding myself again of the size of this city, I settled down and slept.
The cultural capital of Pakistan, Lahore offers curious visitors like me seemingly endless opportunities for exploration – yet there’s not much tourism happening at the moment. But I’d found an organisation bravely encouraging it and signed up for a local guide to spend two days showing me around. So it was that after a greasy breakfast of pretty suspect eggs at the Palace, I found myself on the back of my guide Hasham’s motorcycle, speeding along wide highways and through winding tunnels, and then caught up in the snarl of stop-and-go city traffic, heading for Lahore’s historical Old Walled City.
Starting at the Delhi Gate, we turned a corner and slipped down a side street into a tangled web of narrow lanes.
Wandering through the streets of Old Lahore, we stopped for chai and to snack on Lahori streetfood.
Much of the old city dates from the 1600’s when one Mughal Emperor after another added a mosque or two, the occasional bathhouse, or an ornamental garden for good measure.
Lahore does not suffer from a shortage of mosques. There are plenty. Some are small; places of worship tucked away down side-streets or jostling for space next to shops and restaurants:
Others are big and famous, like the elaborately frescoed Wazir Khan Mosque, commissioned in 1634 by Emperor Shah Jahan – who’s more well-known for another of his architectural visions, the Taj Mahal.
And there’s the iconic Badshahi Mosque, second largest in all of Pakistan.
Just outside the old walls visitors can prowl around Lahore Fort, and stroll in Shalimar Gardens for a break from the dust and noise of the city streets.
Hasham showed me a famous old haveli which now houses a girls’ school. It was after-hours, so the caretaker let us in to poke around in the dusty classrooms.
There’s a very local twist to learning English here:
I noticed this fairly detailed sign at the school too:
Maybe they should just arm the teachers. No, wait – that’s a terrible idea.
We climbed up to the school’s rooftop and listened as call to prayer drifted over the quiet neighborhoods below. I heard the crackle of distant gunfire but it was just somebody shooting in the air ‘for fun’.
I wanted to do some more exploring on my own. I’d read about a ‘Food Street’: a street lined with colourful old colonial buildings, all converted to restaurants. As I tried to explain my plan and talk prices with an auto-rickshaw driver in the street outside the Palace a crowd started to gather. This is a normal feature in my travels; I’m used to being observed in even the most mundane transactions, and to people approaching me in the street asking what I’m doing, where I’m going, and why. In some places a foreign traveller’s business is rarely their own.
I was ready to agree to a price when a new voice broke into the conversation – in English: ‘Excuse me Madam, are you a foreigner?’ Two new arrivals, Osama and Khalid, introduced themselves to me and joined the fray. I knew the bargaining for the cost of my ride would be drawn out when Osama indignantly hissed at the crowd ‘She is our guest!’ and sure enough he and Khalid marched me up the street and continued the bargaining process with the next auto-rickshaw driver, and then the next. Packing me into the cheapest ride they saw me off. But as it turns out, there is more than one Food Street in Lahore and the one I ended up at was not the one I was looking for.
This setback only strengthened my resolve to find the right Food Street. The next day I hired a rickshaw driven by a Mohammed Hussein, who could not speak English but seemed at least as determined to find my destination as I was, if not more so. As far as I could tell, we’d agreed to drive to the Food Street, where Mohammed Hussein would wait for half an hour or so while I looked around and took some photos, and then we’d drive back.
Mohammed Hussein revved his auto-rickshaw’s engine and we rattled into traffic. Driving with just the fingertips of one hand, he held up a packet of cigarettes and said ‘Ok? Smoking?’ I couldn’t see why not – we were in an open vehicle and anyway, I was already choked half to death on exhaust fumes from bumper-to-bumper traffic.
Eventually screeching to a halt Mohammed Hussein gestured with his cigarette at the same street I’d ended up in the previous night. ‘One picture? Two?’ he said. I groaned and tried to explain that we were in the wrong street. As so often seems to happen, an English-speaking stranger appeared from nowhere and acted as interpreter between us, and I saw the light dawning in Mohammed Hussein’s eyes.
Back in the rickshaw we flew over the badly patched road. At every bone-jarring teeth-rattling pothole, Mohammed Hussein grinned hopefully at me in the rearview mirror and laughed in an encouraging manner as if to say, ‘It’s fun, isn’t it?’ I found myself grinning back. It was fun, racing around Lahore in an auto-rickshaw. When we stopped again, my friendly driver took me by the elbow, steered me around a corner and pointed at a locked gate in front of us. ‘One picture? Two?’ he said, grinning and nodding and I realised the famous Food Street was on the other side of the bars. And, it was shut.
But I’ve discovered that asking nicely, and if that fails, lurking around and looking disappointed fixes almost anything. Sure enough two random passersby approached and ordered the security guard to allow me into the street anyway. ‘One picture. Even two pictures’ exclaimed Mohammed Hussein (I took several).
On the way back to the hotel the irrepressible Mohammed Hussein improvised a city tour, stopping off to show me the University and another view of the Fort. And before dropping me off at the Palace, holding up his phone he made one last photo suggestion: ‘One picture. Mohammed Hussein and Sarah.’
‘No, two pictures.’ I replied, and took one on my phone as well.
My interlude in Pakistan was drawing to a close. The destination might have been an unusual one for a long weekend getaway, but that’s what made it interesting. At the mini-train station near the border, Aas Mohammed the taxi driver I’d met on my way in, and everyone else there welcomed me as though they’d been expecting me at any moment. Processing passport control on Pakistan’s side, I strolled through the stadium gates marking the frontier, and back into India.