Days 156 & 157: 22-23/08/19
Location: Gilgit – Burawi – Khanpur Dam, Pakistan
Miles Driven: 270
Our journey from Gilgit to Lahore gave us our first true taste of the world’s worst driving. The first part of the journey was uphill – a lot higher and steeper than we had anticipated. We trundled along hoping that Natalie could cope with the steep incline and dramatic changes in altitude. After a while we stopped for a lunch break. Three little boys watched as we sat on a small brick wall at the side of the road eating marmalade sandwiches. Every couple of minutes they would build up the courage to move slightly closer to us, and by the time we had finished, they were sat on the wall right next to us. We smiled and said hello but they looked away, too shy to talk to us.
A group of men on motorbikes drove past us. One of them did a sharp u-turn, got off his bike and walked over to us. He said hello, and wanted to shake Chris’ hand, but Chris was midway through eating his sandwich and shook his head. The man then told us he was a policeman and that we needed to go back because we had not shown our passports as we drove through the last checkpoint. We were unconvinced – he was not wearing a uniform, and wasn’t able to show us any type of police ID. We repeatedly assured him that we had shown our passports at the checkpoints we had driven through, and after five minutes he gave up and drove away (continuing uphill and in the opposite direction to where he had been telling us to go). Whether or not he was telling the truth, we do not know, but our guess was that he didn’t like that Chris refused to shake his hand, and wanted to inconvenience us in some way because of it.
Lunch finished, we packed up the car ready for the final push up the mountain (a figurative push rather than a literal one thankfully). When we drove away we waved goodbye to the boys and the eldest was brave enough to give us a quick wave back.
As we reached the top of the mountain, there were suddenly masses of people, market stalls and street food vendors. Cars and motorbikes were everywhere. In the midst of the chaos, we noticed an unusual sight – a red Land Cruiser Troopy with a number plate from an unidentifiable country coming towards us from the opposite direction. The traffic was slow, so as we passed each other we stuck our head out of the window and looked into their car to see another couple of overlanders looking just as confused as we were. We quickly agreed to pull over and had a blissful 20 minutes meeting Romy & Joss (known as Globooverland): a British couple who were doing our journey in reverse, after living in New Zealand for a couple of years, they decided it was time to come home, and, not wanting to part with their New Zealand registered Troopy, they are doing the journey by land. Unfortunately, both of our schedules meant that we weren’t able to spend more time together, but we exchanged details, swapped tips for places to stay during the next parts of each of our journeys, and agreed to meet up for a beer when we arrived back home again in a couple of years time!
What goes up, must come down, so that is what we did. The journey down was significantly longer than the one up, and the further down we went, the worse the driving ability of everyone around us became. We were still on fairly mountainous roads, which were narrow and full of blind corners. This did not stop the other drivers overtaking every single time there was a gap in the oncoming traffic, and many times when there were no gaps in the oncoming traffic, regardless of the visibility of the road ahead. Once we left the mountains, the roads were full of traffic and we were back to driving in low range at less than 20mph – this time not because of the condition of the road, but because there was so much traffic. Again, the standstill bumper to bumper traffic did not stop the cars, motorbikes, trucks and rickshaws from weaving in and out into the impossibly small gaps in front of and next to the other vehicles. We drove as carefully as we could, and took more breaks than usual.
Venturing out of the mountains and towards the populated cities meant that we were re-entering the modern world. We could not believe our eyes when we saw the wonderful golden arches of McDonald’s – a sight that we had not seen since Romania! We’d just had quite a big lunch, but we couldn’t not go in, so we took another break from the awful driving and treated ourselves to a drink and some chips. With the exception of the airport style metal detector, and security guard on the door (a feature that we had seen in abundance in China but not yet in Pakistan), we could have easily been back at home.
Our home for the evening had been recommended to us by Mathieu, one of the people we had joined for the tour in China. Parked up between a large man-made lake and a crumbling abandoned mosque, it was a popular place for locals swimming, rowing, and even parasailing. Now down from the mountains and only 600 metres above sea level, the cool temperatures were replaced by heat and humidity. Boy was it sticky. We waited until dark, watching the huge fruit bats fly overhead, and then had a refreshing cold shower behind the car before bed.
Day 159: 25/08/19
Location: Lahore, Pakistan
Miles Driven: 0
Our final day in Pakistan was spent in the city of Lahore. It was hot and humid, and after three days of continuous driving on the hectic roads, we had a very chilled out morning relishing the air conditioning of our bedroom. We were staying in a home-stay booked through Karakorum bikers, hosted by the brilliant Hashaam. As we had found to be the norm in Pakistan, Hashaam and his family were extremely welcoming and happy to do anything they could to make our stay more enjoyable.
In the afternoon we went into Lahore with Hashaam on a food tour that we had booked with Karakorum bikers before we left the UK. Neither Chris nor myself are city people – we would choose countryside over city(side) any day, often finding cities busy, noisy, and even when we have a guidebook, we feel like we don’t really know what we are meant to be looking at or going to. I think that one of the reasons we had enjoyed Montpelier so much was that we had our own personal tour guides in the form of Chris’ Aunt and Uncle who lived there (shameless plug of our previous blog post, “Bonjour France!“). The same can be said for Lahore. With Hashaam as our guide we didn’t have to navigate, and weren’t concerned about going the wrong way, or accidentally finding ourselves in a “dodgy” part of the city (not because it is Pakistan, but because all cities have bad bits). As a result, we could take in the sights more than we would have done otherwise.
Our tour started with a stop at a samosa shop; a place that we certainly would have avoided if we had been on our own. A tiny window front selling samosas on metal plates to a steady stream of locals. Despite the Karakorum Biker’s website assuring us that the food on this tour would not make us ill, we knew they were wrong, and had already written off the evening and following day knowing that we would not be able to move more than a few metres away from the toilet. As a result, we went into our food tour with the mindset of ‘well if we’re going to get ill, we might as well eat everything and enjoy it’.
The samosa was served with sauce – either a sweet sauce similar to that of the sweet and sour sauce you can get in an English Chinese restaurant, or a spicier chick pea sauce. We had one of each to try them both. Quite simply, it was delicious. We could have easily eaten two or three of them. If this was the first course, we were excited of what was to come.
Hashaam took us into the Wazir Khan Mosque just as the call to prayer rang out through the city. Despite having the same features as the mosques we had visited in Uzbekistan, the intricate tile work, which had been shades of blue in Uzbekistan, was a beautiful rainbow of colour here. The 17th century mosque had been designed by Shah Jahan, more famously known for his creation of the Taj Mahal. It was worn down, with cracked and missing tiles. There was some evidence of restoration work, but not to the extremes that we had seen in Samarkand, Bukhara, and Khiva (second shameless plug of our previous blog post, “Uzbekistan’s Big Three“). The mosque was still in use, we were the only tourists inside. For me it was far superior to those we had previously visited in which I had felt that all sense of spirituality had been lost to tourism.
Once the call to prayer was over, we climbed the narrow spiral staircase within the 33 metre high minaret. From the top we had a fantastic panoramic view of the city, which stretched out to the horizon in all directions. The sky was hazy (or perhaps full of smog). I asked whether flying kites was as popular as the book The Kite Runner had led me to believe. It was, Hashaam told us, however since 2007 kite flying, and the Basant Kite Festival, has been banned due to too many serious injuries and even deaths. Competitive kite fliers would use metal strings, or attach shards of glass to their string to cut down other kites, and many people had been electrocuted after their kite has flown into power lines. Looking around at a skyline that once would have been full of kites, we still managed to spot a couple of people flying kites from their rooftops despite the ban.
Winding our way through narrower and narrower streets, our next stop was Khalifa Bakers. Established in 1925 as a small family bakers, Khalifa is now known as the place to go for biscuits in Lahore. Nobody, Hashaam told us, can leave Lahore without a box of Khalifa Baker’s famous naan khataai – a tasty almond flavour biscuit of a similar texture to shortbread. We ate some warm fresh from the oven and took a box with us for later.
As we walked further on, Hashaam was an excellent tour guide, pointing out different parts of the city, telling us stories and stopping every now and then at street vendors so that we could try some more food. Our final destination was on the restaurant lined and aptly named Food Street. We enjoyed dinner sat on a roof top terrace overlooking the impressive Badshahi Mosque. As the sun set, the sky turned a beautiful shade of pinky-purple. We ordered a variety of dishes and enjoyed them all – as vegetarians, we did not have the greatest number of dishes to choose from, but certainly more than there had been in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
As we ate, we chatted. Hashaam seemed just as interested in our culture as we were of his. We laughed at the cultural differences in our relationships – Chris and I having met via the dating app Tinder compared to Hashaam meeting his wife on his wedding day through an arranged marriage. We talked about Pakistani people in England. Is it true, Hashaam asked, that in England the term “Paki” is used as an offensive label for a person from Pakistan? Yes of course we answered, explaining the connotations of the term in England and showing surprise that this was not the case everywhere. He explained that “Paki” means pure and “Stan” means land – so Pakistan translates as “land of the pure”. Feel free to call me a Paki, he told us, it is much more a compliment than it is an insult.
Arriving back at the home-stay, we’d had a brilliant day. Yet another highlight to add to our ever growing list, and yet another amazing experience in Pakistan. We slept through the night with settled stomachs and to our amazement the food had not made us ill! Karakorum Bikers hadn’t been lying to us, and this was the cherry on top of a very tasty cake.