December 20, 2013 W├ągah, Punjab, Pakistan

On the Grand Trunk Road - Islamabad to Lahore

by Christian , published on May 30, 2014

distance: 396.77km
duration: 47h 52min

Islamabad is probably the most tranquil inhabitated place in South Asia. Beeing a planned city, it's layout is a grid of several residential quarters with a marketplace in the center. The whole city appears to be a huge park - it's very green and the wide avenues easily accomodate the traffic.

It's not good place to be a pedestrian though as it simply is too far spread out, and even with our bicycles we rarely went further than the adjoining quarters.

Hiking in the Margalla Hills

For two weeks we lived a plush live in Pakistan's capital city. Our warmshower-hosts villa provided all modern comfort and a very gentle housekeeper cooked for us daily. Despite all the comfort it was queer how every house has a high fence (Often with barbed wire on top) and a security guard in front of it. It also felt quite colonial to ask someone to prepare food for us and be treated deferent in restaurants and shops - as if we where some kind of superior beeings.

Riding with Critical Mass Islamabad

Daniela had catched a severe flu and spent the first week in bed, while i started working on our visa-application for India. India's embassy is located in the diplomatic enclave, a locked down part of Islamabad with high security measures and even higher fences. Going there personally turned out to be futile though - contrary to what the embassies website said, visa applications where only accepted when sent with a courier service (And when i went to the courier-service later, i learned there are two application forms and i of course had filled out the wrong one).

We visited the diplomatic enclave again a few days later with our host to show us the British High Commission. He was working for the british government and they had issued him with an armored Toyota Land-Cruiser - the standard model is already a huge vehicle - but with 4cm thick windows and steel plating, the armored version weighs more than 4 tons, a tank of a car!

Our host chuckled and shrugged his shoulders about the security measures they had set up for him and he found it amusing to show us a glimpse of the life of the diplomats behind the gates of the enclave. We entered through a heavy steel gate after a heavy-duty steel-barrier had been hydraulically lifted. Behind the gate was another gate just as large, the first gate closed and only then the second gate was opened (After a flimsy bomb-check of the underbody of the car with mirrors).

Inside the compound are several residential buildings, the embassy building itself and the british country club, with tennis courts and a bar. The place could not have been more cliché - WASPs playing tennis in white polo-shirts and matching white shorts, all of them looking very british. The barkeeper impeccably polite and deferent - and of course there was ale (In cans though). The whole setup would probably not have stood out too much in Europe (Just beeing identified as "typically british") - but seeing this whole setup right there in Pakistan, with all the dirt and poverty outside of Islamabad, it appeared bizarre.

After we had finally been able to submit our visa application for India (And having it setup to be sent to Lahore), we left the luxurios island that is Islamabad and headed towards Lahore, on the Grand Trunk Road.

Our first day on the GT Road

Cows love cardboard

It is only 300km to Lahore, we arrived within 4 days (No police escort this time). The traffic had been ok in the beginning, but the closer we got to Lahore, the thicker it got. Most problematic though where the motorcyclists, who rode beside us for kilometers to interrogate us with the ever repeating questions of the where, why and how. It's not fun trying to concentrate on the erratic traffic while beeing pestered with questions by a guy who doesn't even leave you enough space to evade potholes and other road obstacles.

Surrounded by motorcyclists

At some point, shortly before Gujranwala, we had accumulated two dozen motorcyclists, who found it incredibly entertaining to escort us along the road (And they probably thought we are some kind of celebrities or guiness book aspirants). We had already experienced how a crowd attracts an even bigger crowd in Iran, but this was getting out of hand. After an hour of this, we stopped to get rid of them, but they just stopped as well and bombarded us with even more questions (And there was always someone who hadn't picked up what we had already answered earlier, so it was just more of the same). So we continued, dragging along a crowd of male-only motorcyclists. Only when we stopped and Daniela went away to ask for the price of a hotel-room, they magically disappeared. Clearly i alone was not interesting enough to gawp at, lacking a female body and all.

At a roadside food stall

Other than that, the Pakistani where incredibly respectful and friendly. On two of our three camping-spots on the GT Road we where quickly discovered by village people - and of course they didn't want us to sleep in the dangerous field we had chosen, inviting us to their home. Both times we talked our way out of their offer and where eventually left alone after dark (Only for them to come back in the morning to offer us food respectively an invitation to their house for breakfast).

Camping in front of Rohtas Fort

Talaqi Gate at Rohtas Fort

I would have loved to explore the south of Pakistan, but we only had gotten a 2-month visa and we expected to soon get our India visa issued (And after all we wanted to be in Sri Lanka by spring, so we had to hurry - again).

Hand-kneaded cow dung drying on the wall

Raja invited us to his family home for breakfast

On the roof of Raja's house

In Gujranwala after a long search we found a scruffy hotel, but according to it's owner we had to register with the police first to be allowed to stay. So off we went to the police office in the dark.

Registering with the police in Gujranwala

There the low level officers didn't really know what to do with us and we waited for two hours (Sweaty, stinking, tired and hungry) till they reached someone higher up on the phone, who was willing to take responsibility of making the decision to let us stay for the night in Gujranwala. The officers where friendly and polite though, and they gave me a tour of the facility, including the prison and it's inhabitants.

On the next day we reached Lahore.

"The city of gardens" was supposed to be a nice place - a green city with beautiful old architecture and plenty of charming places to visit. It is not. Lahore is a moloch - i have never experienced such a noise level. The traffic is dominated by LPG-powered auto-rikshaws and the sound they emit is akin to a jackhammer - on top of that there's constant squeaky honking (Little did i know what awaited me on India's roads). Well, we would get our visa and quickly get out of there. While we where there, we made the best of it and did all the touristy stuff we where supposed to do (Badshahi MosqueShalimar GardensMinar-e-Pakistan, The Walled CityWagah Border ceremony).

In the courtyard of Badshahi Mosque

Chipmunk in Shalimar Garden

2 weeks later (4 weeks after we had submitted our visa application), christmas was close, the weather had turned from permanent mild and sunny to permanent cold, foggy and miserable, we where still waiting for the India visa.

Dozens of calls to the embassy hotline had been fruitless (Most of the time nobody picked up) and Gerry's visa dropbox (The courier service that handled all visa issues for the embassy) proofed to be useless and just told us to wait. When we finally had enough of beeing put off, i wrote a mail to the High Comission and we also asked the Austrian Embassy in Islamabad to intervene for us. A day later (The 21st of December) we got a call from Gerry's that our visa was ready for pickup. Incredible!

I'm not sure which of the two actions was pivotal (The mail to the High Commission or the invervention by the Austrians), but we received our first lesson on indian bureaucracy - nothing happens unless there's stern intervention!

The last meters in Pakistan

Drawing attention wherever we go

The next day we picked up our passports and left. Unfortunately too late to meet Wagah border's closing time - and we had to stay in the desolate PTDC hotel at the border. Of all the rundown places we had stayed on this trip, this was in a class of it's own. Surely a state-of-the-art building in the 60s or 70s, no money had been spend on keeping up the infrastructure. Correspondingly the walls where rotting and black from mildew, the carpet was worn down to the backing layer and half of the windows where gone (Great ventilation!). The best part though - the room rate was 2000 Pakistan Rupees - 20$ - no bargaining. For the bargain we got a bucket shower - warmed up with an immersion heater, which the employees warned us not to touch while switched on. 

Our bikes in the room at the shabby PTDC hotel