April 11th-14th: Lahore to Rawalpindi, Pakistan, 326 km
Atsuchi and I left the metropolis of Lahore, waved farewell to Arpi ('just to check you guys don't have a bus waiting!') and merged onto the Grand Trunk Road, the historic trade link from Peshawar and Calcutta.
Receiving friendly waves and curious stares all round, we weaved between motorbike rickshaws, trucks dripping with decorations and cheeky, darting minibuses packed like compressed sardine cans. Our backdrop: the huge Arabic billboards throwing colour amongst the dusty air; one sported an enormous image of Imran Khan. Mosque domes and towers punctuated the skyline and the streets were filled with men ambling this way and that, dressed in their uniform 'chadois camiz'.
This epic highway, compared to those in the lowlands of India, seemed surprisingly quiet and well maintained. When trucks overtook, a smiling face peered forth as decorative bells jangling rhythmically; moped drivers called out encouragement and swerved to shake our hands - Do you like Pakistan?! Where India had been about high-volume horn blasts, here high-pitched beeps and blips issued by buses felt easier on the nerves. Somehow, road life seemed altogether more civilised.
Intersecting the plains, dusty towns refuelled long-distance buses with passengers; in turn fed with an assortment of coconuts, oranges, fried delicacies and cold drinks. The buses themselves, travelling artworks encrusted with kitschy decorations, were shaped like tubes. Windows rolled away into the bodywork, a kind of 'Targa Top', as a clamour of traders eagerly pressed goods into outstretched hands. Roofs were sprinkled with passengers, beards and camiz flapping in the wind while others dangled from ornate ladders, leaping off now and again to scoop up more passengers.
Amongst this happy chaos, quieter moments could be seen. Bicycles were parked on grassy verges as men paused to bow to Mecca. Children clambered atop enormous water buffalo, whose curly horned heads peered up, eyes rolling, as they soaked in murky swamps. Even the Shell petrol station, complete with mini mart, offered a Mosque for religious moments. Under a piercing sun, we refreshed on cool glasses of freshly pressed sugar cane amidst a haze of flies; students politely approached to ask us questions - our country, our religion, our impressions of Pakistan. 'The UK has tested 1000 nuclear war heads, we have tested only 22!' said one. Pakistanis are proud of their country and keen to dispel the negative impressions of Islam portrayed by the West. These questions, despite their weightiness in subject matter, were always asked sincerely, yet with so much less physical intensity than neighbouring India.
Stopping in Gujrat, we sampled yet another delicious naan dipped in chicken curry; then a passer by insisted on inviting us to fresh orange juice. Those around excluded a genuine eagerness to help out; an English speaker always emerged as we struggled with Urdu. Back in the hotel, over a cup of Peshawar tea, I indulged in my first political and religious discussion - the first of many, I don't doubt. We mulled the role of women in Islam, the misinterpretation of 'Jihad' (as nothing more than a holy war), Mountbatten's partition (a fear of establishing a strong Islamic country) and the delicate situation in Kashmir. A dive into the deep end, as I tactfully and diplomatically made my own points felt. I never felt any animosity - 'You are a guest in my country', I kept being reminded. Only when my neighbour crescendoed to his main point - the UNO as a conspiracy against the Islamic nations - did I notice the vein in his forehead bulging slightly.
Resting in Dina, we followed a sandy track that crossed a dry river bed to the imposing Roethas Fort. There, the countryside seemed so silent I could hear my own breath; wheat fields were worked by men with scythes, golden in the evening light. A gang of kids showed us to a sunset point that looked out to the arid desert beyond, bowling stones as they walked, scrambling up the crumbling perimeter walls. A few cyclists, chadois camiz billowing in the wind, kept us company. One young boy, dressed entirely in black, his head wrapped in a black turban, pedalled furiously but silently on his black bicycle. When we stopped for a snack in a roadside eatery, I noticed a stall owner doing a roaring trade in FHM, Cosmopolitan, and others magazines high on flesh factor - sold exclusively to men!
As I reaccustomed to the increasing heat of the lowlands, each day left me exhausted and eager to sleep. Up and over the Jameau salt range we rode. Our destination: Rawalpindi, Islamabad's more lively neighbouring city. A wind storm threw forth a final swirling attack, ensuring we arrived dust covered and weary.
As two males travelling together, I've not felt any of the negative aspects of a Muslim culture. While proud of their tribal heritage, there's a very real desire amongst those I've met, in this brief introduction to the country, to break down the West's depiction of Pakistan as a gun-toting nation of terrorists.
However the West may depict Islamic countries, it's a warm hospitality that has left the greatest impression; one that's no longer so common in Europe.
Goodwill, friendliness and a genuine concern to help out.