Past the Durand Line and Across the Oxus (India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan)



Completing formalities, we left our luggage with the tourism office and, at 3.30 PM, we joined the large groups of school children which had been brought there for the border crossing ceremony. The amphiteatre was soon filled up, men on one side and women on the other, while foreigners were granted seats at a small stall near the one for officials that soon arrived too. On the Indian side, one could see there was a similar setting. At 4.30 PM, after the officials arrived, had some chai and cookies, and shook hands, the ceremony started. Especially trained, very tall and imposing soldiers dressed in rather grotesque outfits acted in a play which reminded one of a cheap movie where being bold and noisy is thought as a substitute for having any talent at all. They would aggressively march, loudly clapping their boots on the asphalt, stir their hands towards the "enemy" (i.e. neighbouring country), violently shook their heads and eventually produce a roar that would have suited a bear better, just before shaking the opposite soldier's hand for one fraction across no man's land and turning his back in disgust. Then everything would start over again, with a different combination of boot clapping, roars, fist raising and so on. The audience was invited (rather instigated, I would dare say) to shout, clap hands or sing by a few people dressed in green and madly stirring Pakistani flags. During part of the act, loud nationalistic tunes were played large loudspeakers. The same circus was played on both sides of the fence, the only difference being that, while Pakistani soldiers were dressed in black, Indian ones were dressed khaki. The only thing that was missing to make this grotesque show complete was a sort of sacrifice or a real fight. Eventually the two flags on their respective side of the border were lowered and the show ended with shouting and singing.

Getting on a bus, we reached Lahore in the evening, being lodged in a poor hotel in the middle of a bazaar area selling mostly textiles. The many motorickshaws and especially motorcycles, together with the local dust, created a smog-filled air that would be impossible to avoid especially in the streets bordered by tall buildings, where there was no draught. The narrow side alleys however were simply fascinating, with their small tea serving outlets, food stalls, hair dresser's, drug stores (which also sold coffee, milk, and sometimes even detergent) and bike repairing shops hosted there. To quote someone I met long ago, if I miss Lahore for a certain reason, I miss it for the dust and dirt of its side streets and alleys.

Every day is just another Merry-go-round and, in order to get up, one has to start turning the wheel. So, we started first to find the seemingly only bank in the city the ATM of which also accepted foreign credit cards, and then to find places available for next evening's train to the South. Then there was the time to walk through the old city and its network of narrow streets hosting vegetable sellers, bakers, show makers, chai vendors, as well as the omnipresent motorbike stirring the dust and filling the air with fumes granting the whole street a surreal, tale-like atmosphere. In the 12 o'clock sunlight falling almost perpendicularly down the crooked streets made the colours of vegetables being sold here and there, as well as those of colourful outfits worn by children explode through the fumes, dust and smoke from various businesses (such as bakers and chai makers). Many, especially the young, stopped us in the street, greeted us and initiated a conversation: whether we liked Pakistan, where we had come from, for how long we wanted to stay, as well as the present tense question: what we thought about their country's being associated with terrorism. They were curious and welcoming but, beyond that, they showed that Pakistan was full of life. This permanent interaction with a total stranger reminded me, in a way, of my trip to Iran a few years back. One might think these people were bugging, or that many of them had some interest hidden behind the initial nice words. Some of them were indeed looking to find a job abroad and they hoped that by talking to foreigners, they might catch up a lead. Others said they collected money, first asking for a coin and then for a larger bill; they hoped that the the foreigner they met was from the Euro zone or from the US, hence providing some currency they could exchange, and the disappointment was obvious when they ended with Romanian lei. However many other people that approached me were simply curious, they wanted to have a picture taken or to find whether I liked their city and country.

I shall not forget very soon an old man that approached me while walking in the bazaar: "How are you, young man?". Maybe because of the way he had done so, or because of simple hazard, cumulated with the desire to stop for some chai from a nearby vendor, we sat down on the stairs and talked for a while. He was a journalist, fluent in 5 languages of his country. Born in Amritsar, at the age of 19, during the 1947 Partition, he left India together with his Hindu girlfriend of the time (nowadays his wife) and settled in Lahore. Nowadays he said he could / would not go back to Amritsar for a visit, as they would not grant him a visa. Certainly subjective (just like yours or mine), his story was however that of many other people, be them Muslim or Hindu, on both sides of the artificial and disputed frontier. His was the story of two peoples' tragedy at history's playing the dice during curfew, and there were also the many that died in clashes during the migration of the Hindu or Muslims after the line had be drawn.

It was obvious that at a certain moment, Lahore had received more tourists: during the visit to the Shahi Qila, we saw only two other foreigners, while the whole stay in the city we saw not more than 10 of them altogether. The Qila was large, but less impressive than the Red Fort in Delhi. However it was far more relaxed, with more generous open spaces, with broad views and simpler decorations. Badshahi Mosque completed the fort brilliantly, with its balanced volumes and - again - with a wide open area that was both accommodating for large congregations, and sublime for the visitor. The city had an interesting life cycle of its own: it started in the early morning, when streets were rather empty and lifeless, then shop attendants appeared out of nowhere and the streets began to buzz with life, with boys carrying plates full of cups of tea here and there, with bakers starting to offer steamy loaves of na’an. The places where, just the evening before there had been terraces serving dinner now hosted stalls serving shoes, shirts, trousers, electric appliances or fruits. The beat of the bazaar would slow down a little (not too much though, compared to similar places in Iran or Yemen, for instance) during prayer times. The main, newer streets of specialized bazaars such as Anarkale, would reach their climax in the evening however, when whole families went shopping, when motorickshaw drivers did good business taking piles of merchandise on their back seats, when people in relatively large groups went dining in "specialized" (however too European) streets, such as the Food or Tourist streets, when merchants or local workers went having some delicious pakhora on poor benches set in front of large, greasy pots full of qormaa, joined by wide ceramic plates of some of the greatest yoghurt, or stoves on which they made dood chai. The more expensive the place, the richer the menu they tried to provide (going all the way from Afghan to Chinese, Iranian or even Italian cuisine), but I for one preferred a plate of spicy qormaa, a couple of loaves of na’an, joined by a glass of chai, sitting on a bench or leant against a wall among the local workers and merchants, an option that cost less than EUR 1.

Lahore Museum was an interesting place to visit, exhibiting an interesting collection of Gandhara sculptures and bas-reliefs, as well as with a few finely carved wooden doors from the region of Lahore. Of the mosques in the central area, Wazir Khan's was the most appealing, with its tilework-covered minarets and walls shining in the smooth late afternoon sun. Its being almost abandoned at that time of the day, the few children running around, as well as its providing a quiet break inviting to meditation made it enchanting and picturesque and different from the busy bazaar that hosted it. After a cup of chai on a hotel roof providing a fine view towards the Badshahi Mosque in the twilight, the time to go had come and we moved to the railway station through the thick smog provided by the heavy traffic of the hour, stirring the dust and filling the air with fumes that almost leaved no way to seeing some score meters away. Despite all this, traffic was rather smooth and, even though it looked chaotic at the first glance, jams occurred rather rarely. Motorickshaws, cars, horse or ox pulled carts, trucks, buses, cyclists, pedestrians and street vendors pulling or pushing their carts full of fruit, all almost bumped into one another, but come to a sort of mutual understanding in the very last moment before colliding, leaving or assuming the right to pass, stopping or rushing only a few centimeters from the other one. This wasn't but a proof that life is so fragile, but, if there is a will, there almost always is a way. Even though this way is not necessarily as strict, formal and written in books we had got used to, and even if there are no traffic lights.

Night had fallen and we got on a night train, direction Moenjodaro: we were going down towards the Indus, willing to see one of the places around which a whole, ancient civilization had developed, a place from where some of the items exhibited in Lahore Museum had come. Trains seemed to be more crowded in Pakistan than in India, with a less frequent service. However travelers' good will and hospitality made it for the lack of rolling stock and service, as people would offer us chai, initiate countless discussions and give us useful advice upon the route to take. We reached Rohri in the morning and, after crossing the wide Indus, we got to Moenjodaro by combining 5 means of transportation: sitting on the roof of a motorickshaw on a pile of luggage, having breakfast consisting of pakhora and coconut on a comfortable bus, taking a connection rickshaw between the main "bus station" and Larkana city centre, being part of a human sandwich in a van, respectively arguing with a taxi driver over an inflated price for the last leg to the archaeological site. The airport next to the site (in the absence of any major nearby town) made good sense now, after traveling for 16 hours from Lahore to Moenjodaro.

The site itself was quite extensive, and it was all quiet in the early afternoon heat, with only a couple of school groups bringing some life among the ruins. Even though at the first sight there was not much to see for the uninitiated, the site slowly came to life as one started to imagine what people living there would have been like, moving around with daily duties. Furthermore, the desert colour brick walls created a fascinating atmosphere in the strong sunlight of the early afternoon. Only distant shouting and singing coming from the school children would bring one back to "reality". Following the same logistics, by only replacing the taxi with yet another autorickshaw, respectively traveling on top of a bus now instead of the top of the autorickshaw, we got back to Ruhri after dark, and after our bus from Larkana to Sukkur was stopped a few times at police checkpoints, with the driver having to wait in order to join a convoy of trucks for safety reasons (as it was dark already).

Another night train ride followed, back North to Multan, but this time we had no seat reservation and the train was full. On the way, we also found out that Multan was holding an important religious gathering for 3 days and we got there in the middle of it. After successfully booking tickets for onward travel, we searched for a hotel, to find most places full and the one that was available overpriced given the event in the city. Eventually we found an interesting place called Guild Hotel, with a wide yard and rooms separated from it by a thick reed curtain. The old part of the city was very nice, with many interesting merchant houses boasting once elegant balconies. Maybe fortunately, the present tense was hiding some of them from public sight, either with commercial banners or with large pieces of cloth hung above the bazaar alleyways, against the sun rays. The beautiful shrines on the fort hill were host for part of the religious gathering we had been told of, with pilgrims coming from all over the country and several parts of the world. Many of the pilgrims came to us, being curious about the country we had come from, about our impressions on Pakistan so far and wanting to know whether everything was fine. Small children wanted to have pictures taken with us: the extent to which our own European society has turned into a cube of ice in the name of the so-called "civilization" was incredible.

Evening came and we boarded a 16 hour train, direction Peshawar. The time to change the scenery had come. Our train was full, with many people - if not whole families - sleeping on the wagon floor, under the seats where other people were, on or under their luggage. Sometimes two or three persons shared the same - anyway very narrow - bed, while many other travelers were standing up at the wagon ends. This way, the whole carriage was the best expression of a strong community, with people helping each other, making way for those that needed to pass on, creating the smallest place for those that had too much luggage or for those that had nowhere to sit. I soon fell asleep, just to wake up a few hours later in a bazaar-like music. A child somewhere was playing Tetris with the volume turned to the maximum so that everyone else could count his score. A man sleeping on the floor was testing all ringing tones his mobile phone had and, eventually, after choosing one, he went on, playing it over and over, enjoying it thoroughly. A few small children were screaming. Someone else was singing. Women dressed in colourful outfits were sitting on a pile of sacks full of cereals in a corner, talking mildly. These all created a visual and auditive image one could not (and should not) have slept to. Despite facing so many problems and obvious obstacles on a daily basis, these people were as familiar as possible with being alive, that no highway or Euro 4 engines would have made any difference: they were alive and proud of it.

At dawn, we were already 2 hours late (the train had arrived in Multan with a 1 hour delay in the first place) and, by the time we reached Lahore again, we added another half an hour to the delay basket. Then we started to cross dusty plains, with time seeming to be as irrelevant a notion as a sweep in the desert. Countless bulls were bathing in pools and rivers, while pale green bushes and trees made no contrast, as they were covered in a layer of fine dust themselves. The dust was the very essence of everything, it filled everything and it would have been impossible to ignore, even with the window shut or in an AC wagon, hidden behind some designer's sunglasses. Children were running along paths or unpaved village streets, waving at the train, shouting, smiling and stirring the dust. It reminded me in a way of my early years in a village of Wallachia and I would not have missed this scenery for all forts and monuments in the world, as famous or UNESCO-listed as they might have been. The railway crossed some dry hills where the elements had created curious shapes, deep ravines or steep shores. After many people got off near Islamabad, the train got emptier and only the large amount of garbage, as well as the thick layer of sand nowadays covering the seats reminded one of the long way we had followed. Eventually, with a 3 hour delay, we reached Peshawar after a very inspirational - I would dare say - journey lasting over 19 hours.

Easily finding the happy, hippy-like Tourists Inn Motel and its charismatic old manager, we got the news:

1. General Musharraf had introduced the State of Emergency, under pressure from the Constitutional Court that was stating he could not act as both President and head of the army, so he had suspended the Constitution and the Constitutional Court's right to talk. The easiest way to cure the rabbit is to kill it and bury the problem.

2. Pakistan Airways had gone on strike, freezing many of its operations. The airline engineers which had started the strike gave the government a couple of days to comply with their requests. More than Musharraf's coup (it was not his first anyway), we were more concerned about PIA, as we had intended to go to Chitral by air.

Different from other hotels we had stayed at, the motel was quieter and less polluted, as it was located behind a tall building sheltering it from the noisy street, only with the pupils at a nearby school bringing the place to live during their breaks. However - as always - I would have preferred to be surrounded by locals rather than by other tourists, their smoking dope and their chat reminding one of the typical discussion in front of the TV set, when people surround themselves with popcorn and bottles of beer. In the morning we got good news assorted with not-so-good news: the piece of good news was that PIA had restarted operations (or it was compelled to do so given Musharraf's move), including its Chitral flight. The not-so-good piece of news was that the price had almost doubled since summer. More news from the country read that Sawat area in Northern Pakistan was the stage for an army conflict between the government forces and the Taliban, and that Peshawar itself had experienced 3 blasts in the last week, in the area where CD shops were located in the bazaar (as some considered CDs to bring a bad Western influence into a rather strict Muslim society). As a result, some of the remaining CD shops had been closed down, while the attendants of others did not seem to bother or they rather assumed the risks, in order to make a living.

Deciding against the journey to Chitral, we went to get the permit that would enable us to go to the Afghan border, as the region between Peshawar and the Durand Line through the Khyber Pass lay in the tribes' and not government's administration, only the road being under central administration. Going to the top floor of the Home and Tribal Affairs building for a form, then down for someone's signature and then back up for the permit, we eventually got the free of charge paper allowing us to reach the border. After also having settled transportation to the border, there was the time to visit the city and its old bazaars. In a picturesque mixture of Subcontinent and Persian atmosphere, the old part of the city was very interesting, with its Pakistani, Afghan (including here all ethnic groups covered by the two terms) and even Turkmen merchants. Once elegant merchant houses stood next to new 3-4 floor buildings, while the odd decaying caravanserai or mosque hosting the praying would make the picture complete. After picking the fabric and colour for it in a mid-aged man's cloth shop, we were invited upstairs in the his brother's tailor shop, to be taken the measures of and to sip a cup of good sabze chai; the following day the light and comfortable shalwar kamis would be ready.

I felt rather ill because of a flu which had probably merged in with the little sleep accumulated during the last 3 nights on trains, as well as with the omnipresent motorickshaw fumes or some of the street food. So, making an effort to still answer the local people's questions and kind curiosity, I returned to the motel, meeting a Polish young man that had come from Krakow to Pakistan overland, South of the Black Sea, and was now on his way back, through Afghanistan, Iran, then the Iraqi Kurdistan or Abkhazia, according to the local situation and visa issues. The following day I took the old city at a slow pace, with its narrow streets contrasting from places where they sold second (third or tenth) hand clothes or car spare parts, to places where everything was shiny and well lit, in the jewelery bazaar. Turkmens were selling fine metal work, Afghans were selling carpets and embroided cloth, Pakistanis were into fine gold items. The fort was closed for visitors, as it hosted a military base, but it was well worth going there, with the wide road partly surrounding it streaming of cars, colourful buses, motorickshaws or motorbikes. On the way back to the motel in the evening, when crossing the bridge over the railway, two rather young men asked me to take a picture of them; it was not the first time it had happened on that day alone, and I happily complied, but, just as someone would arrange his or her hair before having the picture taken, one of them took a bunch of parceley out of a plastic bag and was very glad that it too appeared in the picture. It was just one of those things making life worth living beyond whatever "normality" stands for.

The following morning, with the Home and Tribal Affairs Office permit and joined by a soldier with an antiquated rifle... (click here for the sequel)





The air in Pakistan’s larger cities might seem hardly breathable at times. However this is the very way Pakistan uses to say "I am alive". And then, once one steps off the main street, there are many things to discover, from the colourful tile design of mosques hidden in Lahore's bazaar, to the back streets with their great qormaa stands and chai vendors, or simply to the people living there, with their fascinating stories...