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Pakistan (3/3), Days 172 – 182: Karachi & Lahore

Day 172

I was back in the capital by 11am. I returned to Sadia’s home where I repacked, showered and shared photos of my short adventure with the family. The trains to Karachi were still suspended, so I bought a bus ticket for the next day.

Day 173 – 174

The overnight bus left at 12pm. The journey had been smooth until we reached Sindh. The flood had caused huge destruction to the road. We didn’t move for six hours. Flood water lay two metres from the highway and drowned all farmland until the distant horizon. We were sitting ducks in a temporary lake. I couldn’t help but imagine the dire situation we would be in if the clouds opened.

On sparse dry land, white tents had been erected as temporary shelter for those who had lost their livelihoods. Villagers walked between stationary vehicles, either begging or selling their only possessions. It was incredibly sobering and sad to witness. We stopped at a service station – the walls and floors coated in mud. A man, travelling on the same bus, bought me a soft drink, a completely unexpected kind gesture. “You are our guest”, he uttered. I thought he should have given it to the child, who was practically on her knees, in front of him. Not to seem ungrateful or rude, I drunk it and returned to the bus.

We arrived in Karachi at 5pm, 29 hours after it had departed and 10 hours late. This meant I had only one day in the city before I had to return to Islamabad. Disappointing, but understandable considering. The outskirts of the city are marked by miles upon miles of slums. People live in wooden shacks next to landfill; they trawl through rubbish to find food to eat or scrap metal to sell. Poverty on a scale I hadn’t seen before. The taxi driver said Karachi was dangerous, he was the third person who had warned me to keep my “smartphone” in my pocket. I took the warnings with a pinch of salt.

Day 175

To guarantee I had enough time to visit the family hotspots, I planned an itinerary for the day. In the taxi, I was greeted by Asfan, a female driver. I was amazed. Not only are women rarely seen in Pakistan, but female taxi drivers are unheard of.

Asfan spoke perfect English, so we quickly built a rapport. I explained about my family roots in Karachi and the plan for the day. She offered to drive me around, so I gladly accepted. After stopping at a florist, we drove to the ‘Gora’ graveyard for Roman Catholics. The person who looked after the graveyard spoke no English, so Asfan parked her car and translated. We went through the death records from 1969 and found my great-grandmother’s name. After a short walk through an overgrown field, I found her gravestone. I cleared the grass and brushed dust off the engraving. I stood for a while, wondering what her life would have been like. I questioned why she stayed in Karachi when her family left for the UK. Their ethnicity was Anglo-Indian – they were Indian and lived in Karachi when it was part of India. So why stay after partition? I left flowers on the gravestone before returning to Asfan, with more questions than when I started.

Next, we drove to the street where my grandfather lived. I found the plot of land where his house once stood, now an apartment block. I wondered what had happened to the land and whether my great-grandmother lived there until she died. Afterwards, we drove to the school my grandfather attended. That evening, I walked across the road and joined a service at St. Patrick's Cathedral, where my grandfather was baptised and family were regular attendees. I spoke to a volunteer, who told me to return in the morning to review their records and see if any other members were registered with our surname. I couldn’t return the next day, but sent the details to my Auntie who had planned to visit in February.

The short time I had retracing my family history was fascinating. There is something quite unique about following ancestry steps through a foreign land. It conjured up more unanswered questions than I had before, but made the trip to Karachi worthwhile. Partition, not only had a direct impact on my family, but on the lives of millions – it resulted in the biggest human migration in history (14-18 million) and caused turmoil on a scale no one could have predicted. Partition was the reason my grandfather left Karachi for the UK, leaving his mother behind. Unbeknown to him at the time, but he would never see her again.

With Asfan, we spoke about her complicated family and ex-husband. She once lived in England, but is now a single mother with four children living in Pakistan. She said moving from England back to Pakistan was like going from Heaven to Hell. The worst decision of her life. That morning, she had prayed to Allah for help – she was down to her last few rupees and didn’t know how she was going to put fuel in her car or food on the table. She said our meeting was her prayer answered: “You have been an angel to me, Ed. Thank you”. Touched by the time we spent together, I topped up her tank with fuel before leaving.

Day 176

After a quick tour of Karachi’s history museum and the mausoleum of Mohammed Ali Jinnah – the leader and creator of Pakistan, I boarded the bus back to Islamabad. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the vehicle was a luxury sleeper – it came with a bed, TV, and even WiFi.

Day 177

With half a day to spare before I planned to leave Islamabad, the Indian visa I applied for ten days before got approved. As soon as I left the bus, I raced to the visa centre to collect my passport – and with that, ten days of anxiety disappeared.

That evening, I was treated to one last dinner with Sadia – I promised to show her London when she visits next year.

Day 178

I gave Idrees, Yasmin and Sadia a box of chocolates to thank them for hosting me for so long. I was sad to leave them and Islamabad. I am extremely grateful for the time I got to spend with them; they had been very kind and treated me as family. Hopefully one day I will be able to return their generosity.

Later that morning, I teamed up with Joris and Antoine, who were fresh from the Karakoram and also keen to reach Lahore in two days. Antoine needed to be in northern India before the mountain passes closed for winter. And Joris was running out days on his visa.

Two British-Pakistanis yelled encouragement from the safety of their cars as we battled beads of sweat, heavy dust and unforgiving traffic along the highway. I was surprised at the number of Pakistanis from England I had met in the country. It was strange to hear Manchunian, Brummy and Cockney accents in an unfamiliar world.

We found a hotel in Jhelum to rest our heads, a town at the halfway point between Islamabad and Lahore. Outside the hotel, four inquisitive children spoke to us in perfect English. They wanted to know everything about the trip, so we stood for some time answering their questions.

That evening, we ate dinner in a restaurant when a group of men sitting opposite sparked up a conversation. Again, they wanted to know about the trip and welcomed us to Pakistan. They were happy to see foreigners in their country. They left before we had finished, so we said goodbye and thanked them for their welcome. When it came to asking for the bill, the staff told us that the group had paid for our dinner when they left. Incredibly kind – another example of true Pakistani hospitality.

Day 179

110 miles lay between us and Lahore, so we were on the road by 7.30am. The day was similar to the previous – hot, dry and flat. We made good progress.

In the morning, we stopped for a short Pepsi break. When it came to pay, the kiosk owner refused to accept our money – we were his guests. Later, we searched for somewhere to eat when a car pulled up alongside us. The man inside asked about the trip and insisted on joining us for lunch. In the restaurant, after we had piled on the calories, our new friend insisted on paying the bill. Again, we were guests in his country and he wanted to make sure we were looked after. The generosity from the people of Pakistan was unbelievable.

Back on the highway, Joris and Antoine had attached themselves to the side of a truck. One on either side, they held onto the truck with one hand and let the vehicle pull them along. Antoine encouraged me to join, so with some hesitation I gave it a go. At 30kmh, I reached out to grab hold of the truck, but missed by half an inch. I lost balance and hit the tarmac. After I picked up the bike and hobbled to the side of the road, Antoine said that I slid along the road for a few metres – a result of the speed at which I fell. Luckily, there were no cars behind and I only came away with a few grazes and a bruised ego. We rested at a petrol station before continuing on.

The traffic was hairy. Tuk tuks and motorbikes piled onto the highway headed in the wrong direction. As the miles ticked by, the more intense and hectic the roads became. A motorbike crashed into the side of Antoine which resulted in a meeting with the tarmac. Nobody was hurt, but the intensity of the traffic was getting to us.

Cycling through Lahore made Istanbul look easy. It was almost impossible to snake through the traffic. Trucks, tuk tuks, buses, cars, motorbikes and pedestrians competed for space. As night drew in we made it through the worst unscathed, but our stress levels were high. I was staying in a different hotel to the French duo, so we parted ways at a small intersection. I was sure I’d see them again, so I kept the departure short.

Joe was in charge of accommodation for Lahore, I told him I didn’t care where we stayed as long as it was within my budget. The day before, I received a WhatsApp message which read: “Mate, I’ve booked a hotel. I thought I’d ease myself into the madness, so I’ve gone way over. Don’t worry, I’ll pay the difference”.

The hotel was nothing short of luxurious – a four star affair. Sporting a sweat drenched t-shirt that hadn’t been washed in days, a cap with dry salt stains, chain oil smeared across both face and legs, and bloodied gashes down my arm, I confidently marched up to reception and revealed that I had a reservation. To my surprise, they didn’t ask for background checks.

The room had a lounge with a TV and a hotel Netflix account, a shower with hot water, a sit down toilet (not squat), room service AND free buffet breakfast(!). Joe, you have well and truly outdone yourself here, I thought. In fact, I was so blown away that I sent a video to the family WhatsApp group. I quickly showered, gave everything I owned, bar a shirt and trousers, to the laundry service, and went downstairs to face-plant the hotel restaurant. This was the definition of champagne lifestyle on a lemonade budget. Or, incredibly generous mates. Either way, I loved it and made myself right at home.

I spent the rest of the evening watching Money Heist on the hotel’s Netflix account. What a life.

Day 180

My old pal, Joe, arrived at four in the morning. He came bearing treats from home: inner tubes with presta valves, tyre levers, patches, allen keys, a bucket hat and Haribo. Legend. Being in possession of presta valve inner tubes was anxiety relief. They were non-existent in that part of the world.

Back to the same jokes, routine and banter, it was like he hadn’t left three months earlier. That afternoon, we visited the Badshahi Mosque in the Red Fort and met Hugh, a British cyclist I had bumped into in Islamabad airport. We walked around the mosque, accepting an onslaught of selfie requests. Joe’s height (6ft 4in) was a crowd pleaser and drew a lot of attention. Afterwards, Hugh headed off for the closing gate ceremony at the Wagah border. We had forgotten our passports (an unnecessary requirement for the ceremony), so we raced back to the hotel to collect them, before pursuing Hugh in a taxi some twenty minutes later.

Since partition in 1947, Pakistan and India have had a hostile relationship. A concoction of historical events and border disputes (Kashmir) resulted in the border being one of the most militarised in the world. The on-going tensions means that Pakistanis can not enter India and vise-versa. A very sad state of affairs for the families separated across both sides in a subcontinent that used to be one nation.

The Wagah border is the single foreigner crossing between the two countries. It’s a heavily guarded border which is marked by a large gate that towers into the sky. The lowering of the flag ceremony is a military parade practised by Pakistan and India. Since 1959, 20,000 spectators fill a stadium on the Pakistan side each day to watch a bizarre show of military prowess, nationalism and masochism. India, of course, has a stadium which is twice the size.

Not only were the costumes reminiscent of peacocks, but the dance moves were bird-esc in nature. Ironic, considering the peacock is India’s national bird. The ceremony was more interpretive dance than military parade, and despite the performance happening daily, the guards were often out of sync. An MC kept the audience engaged, pumping up the hype and adrenaline throughout. The crowd waved Pakistan flags above their heads whilst cheering “PAK-I-STAN” constantly. A scene of patriotism that mirrored a religious cult.

I thoroughly enjoyed the ceremony, despite its…oddness. That evening, we were joined for dinner by Hugh, who excitedly told us about his trip back from the ceremony which resulted in his meeting with the English cricket team at their heavily guarded hotel.

Day 181

The selfies started from the moment we woke up. Back at the fort, we were bought museum tickets by a local. Generous, yet totally unnecessary. Foreigner tickets are three to five times more expensive than local tickets, so this would have put him hugely out of pocket. Although, a museum ticket could be seen as the asking price for a feature in one of his Tik Tok videos. At the fort we spent most of the time talking to locals and taking selfies. One group of fifteen teenagers wanted a shot, so to save time we took a group photo instead. We were kindly shown around part of the museum by a guy on a weekend trip from Multan. I also spoke to his dad on the phone.

Selfies had been a commonality throughout the trip, especially in Pakistan, but the experience at the fort was unlike previous encounters. It was constant. It’s what I’d imagine being famous feels like. We left the fort early and sought camouflage in one of the bazaars.

We had tickets for the final Pakistan – England T20 match that evening. The T20 series was the first time England had played in Pakistan for 17 years, so it was a widely talked about, celebrated and anticipated series within the country. A couple weeks before, I managed to get us tickets for £10 each, the most expensive seats in the stadium but the only ones still available. The cheapest tickets had been £0.60. The series was a draw and had come down to the final match.

That afternoon, we walked around the bazaar trying to find an England shirt… surprisingly, the market for England shirts was limited, so we came away with Pakistan ones.

Thousands of spectators walked through the streets towards the Gaddafi stadium. The atmosphere was electric, people chanting and waving their nations’ flag. TV crews were set up outside the stadium interviewing fans. Of course, we were stopped and Joe was asked to do an interview. He initially said no and suggested I do it. The interviewer looked at me and then turned back to Joe and said: “Well, he could but we’d prefer you”. Without much persuasion Joe was micro-phoned up and had a camera in his face. After hearing the technical questions he was asked, I was relieved they didn’t interview me. My fraudulent cricket fan persona would have come undone on national TV.

We befriended two guys who had won tickets to watch the match; we sat next to each other and were joined by a young British-Pakistani, who was visiting from Bradford for three months.

England controlled the match from the start and they went on to win, without much competition. Pakistan fans left the stadium in their droves before the last ball was thrown. In some ways, I wished Pakistan had won, it would have been great to see Lahore go off.

Day 182

We cycled the short distance to the Wagah border. Before my exit stamp was given one of the officials impersonated my mother and called me Peter. It was very odd. To leave the country, we had to cycle through the middle of the stadium and across the gate. Originally, I’d thought the gate was just for show but it was in fact a hard border.

And, just like that my time in Pakistan was done. From the wealth of Islamabad and beauty of Gilgit-Baluchistan, to the polluted port of Karachi and the historical enclaves of Lahore. Pakistan's cultural richness is built on a multitude of ethnicities, languages and traditions that span thousands of kilometres.

I spent more time off the bike than I'm used to, but the people made up for it. The countless number of selfies and hands shaken, with those who have had little-to-no interaction with a 'Gora', has had more of an impact than the mountains of the Karakoram. Every single person I spoke to was just grateful to have tourists visit their country.

Pakistan, shukriya. It was a pleasure.


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