April 7th: Crossing the border: Amritsar, India, to Lahore, Pakistan, 60 km
A final breakfast of chapatis and dahl in the Golden Temple canteen and it's time to hit the epic Grand Trunk Road to Pakistan. I have a new riding companion, Atsushi from Japan, who sports a yellow construction and is also heading to the Middle East. Saying goodbye to the spear-clutching guards, one asks, 'Why do you wear that?' - pointing to my ear ring. Lost for an immediate answer, he prompts: 'Is it your hobby?' I'll miss the peculiar way this country looks at life...
A dusty highway slices through Amritsar. Three lanes of 'pond life' - buses, motor rickshaws, cycle rickshaws, bicycles and cows, all make up the inhabitants of the 'food chain'. Street stalls, materialising whenever more than a few people gather, line its chaotic edges. Beyond this alternative motorway, the road to Attari is quiet, heading like an arrow for the thirty kilometres to the border.
Indian formalities unfold smoothly; a Sikh officer enquires about my age and exclaims: 'You look very fresh, I thought you were no older than 18!' Very polite indeed. Pakistan officials seem initially tense. With a shrug, one demands our fictional bike papers - a problem so soon? Atsushi comes to the rescue. 'Yes, we are travelling by bicycle,' he replies; his misunderstanding of the question satisfies them as we are dismissively waved forward.
The atmosphere over at the customs officials is more relaxed; cricket practice comes before bikes. Are we carrying alcohol? No, we answer sincerely. 'And if we were to check, we definitely wouldn't find any?!' We stop to chat to some friendly Iranians, and I tell them my sorrowful visa story. 'Your Robin Hood (Cook, I deduce) is having talks with our government. Soon, everything will be ok!'
Emerging into a geographically identically Pakistan (or is it really hotter?!) its mythical transport trucks are the first sights to confront us. They're decorated to the gills in colourful motifs, encrusted into the paintwork like a Rajasthani palace. It's midday and men squat in the shade beyond the reach of the piercing sun. Dark eyed, they have healthy fist-length beards and are uniformed in 'chadois camiz', the traditional shirt cut below the knees, allowing them to shuffle this way and that.
Cycling through a succession of dusty villages, there is a noticeable lack of cows; instead, water buffalo wallow in the roadside swamps. Gone are the Hindi temples, replaced by a stream of mosques, silhouetted against the sky. Men bow to Mecca as kids wave enthusiastically. Arabic script stencilled into archways and loudspeakers that call the faithful to prayer - azans - evoke the hallmarks of a Muslim country.
For all Pakistan's geographical similarities with India, its visual differences strike out immediately. Long, windowless buses shaped like polo tubes, Toyota pickups and bright yellow Ford transits will be our new road companions. Tea stalls dominated by tall, lean men in skull caps are dotted along the dusty roadside. Women cover themselves in full chador, a thin slit revealing their searching eyes. Kids have a strange lope; with almost every step they bowl an imaginary cricket ball. So much dust, so many men.
We arrive in Lahore, a relatively Western city and cultural capital of Pakistan. Pausing to consult our map, passers-by clamour to offer (random) directions and welcome us to their country. Eventually, we locate the run-down YWCA and check into a tired looking dorm where a trickle of water provides a much needed shower. Hitting the streets, it's a successful first foray into Pakistani food; we gorge on naan and potato disks, as a passerby politely asks us for a few moments of our time.
'May I enquire with you the following question. Do you come to the city of Lahore for its culture or its people?....My father is American, I am the owner of 8 Hiltons, London and Switzerland included, I have been given a knighthood by the British and have visited Buckingham Palace,' he adds with a flourish. How to react?! I tell him we've only had a couple of hours to assimilate the city and will get back to him later. He's delighted with the answer, and bids us farewell, waving us on politely.
Back in the dorm, I'm lying on my 'charpois', a rope strung bed; in this high ceilinged room, the spinning fan wobbles overhead, churning the warm air and the memories in my mind: endless days of cycling in the heat of SE Asia are flooding back. I gulp down a couple of bottles of water and demolish a bag of fruit. Outside, yet more 'azans' seem to answer each other in stereo from opposite sides of town. In the cooling air of dusk, their long, almost strained lamenting melodies drift across the evening sky, filling the emptiness with their simplicity.
After such a prolonged stay in India I feel very aware of all the changes around me. It's a good feeling. Fellow travellers, draped over their charpois, swap information about the do's and dont's of a Muslim country. My back and legs ache after reshaping themselves to the contours of the bike. My mind is filled with these new sights and sounds and the balmy air of the lowlands seems far removed from the crisp nights of Dharmsala.
For sure, I'll sleep well tonight...