By Suchit Nanda
Minar-e-Pakistan, Karachi, Pakistan
Due to the strained relationships between our countries it was only expected that visa would take a long time and formalities which it did. As I was on a Governmental invitation it surprised me that it still took the host organization nearly 30 days to get my visa clearance from the concerned authorities in Islamabad. My airline tickets had been booked earlier and now the travel date was fast approaching. The visit to the Embassy in Delhi was another thing: I went to the business counter which was shorter and the person was very helpful but not very hopeful that I would manage to get my visa in one day which I required. The other window had scores of people and the typical helper-typists that offered to fill and apply on one's behalf. After a simple jugglery of photocopy back to back instead of separate pages (as the stamp is put on the page itself), I applied in 3 copies with photos, invitation letter, and clearance from Islamabad along with my passport. I was asked to pay Rs 15 which I took as application fee (or for the form). To my utter surprise, this was the visa fee! Seems both countries charge only Rs. 15 which means that it was less than half of what I paid the autorickshaw to get the embassy from my place of stay which was actually quite close - not to mention the plane ticket to Delhi from Mumbai! Evening it took me just 5 min to collect the passport. I was little concerned that the visa only mentioned Islamabad and Lahore and not Karachi the port into which I land, but I was assured that its alright and I should have no hassles.
As I normally like to travel by the country-airline, I went by PIA. Check-in at Mumbai Intl Airport was smooth and I asked for a window seat. Security was normal but just before we board we had one additional hand-bag and person scan was done by a team of two men and two ladies who looked like they were from Pakistan. Warm and courteous that went off smoothly. From check-in to boarding and in the flight one could see that the men and women were mainly Muslim (from their attire). Lady crew members were not wearing any veil, but a salwar kameez with their head lightly draped. The Plane was mediocre, although it was neat & clean, the crew warm, and each seat had a personal screen it wasn't really operational and only the main large screen was working with the flight data regularly updated as in all Boeing 747-300 flights.
As I walked up to my seat in the plane, I got a rude shock, as my seat was the only one which was on the wing, and so although I was technically on a window seat - I had no window. I don't know if this was by design but I half suspect especially after my next hop, (more on that later). The flight was relatively full, there were a few empty seats but in my row of 3, I was the only one, so I had two adjacent seats vacant. Just as the doors were closed, the 4 member team who were doing security check but in plain cloths boarded the flight and it seemed they were air marshals as well. One of them came and sat next to me.
Our flight landed into Jinnah International Airport, Karachi on time, and I was one of the first to disembark. The airport was spic and span, although looked rather less crowded. However, it was far better than any in India. There were people with sign boards clearly marked. Water fountains that worked, escalators that looked new and well maintained, well bright corridors. Overall pretty good. We came to immigrations and I saw about 5 rows for Pakistani Passport holders and about 3 for Foreign nationals, so I got into one. Since I was one of the early ones off the plane, my number came soon, but I was told that since I am an Indian passport holder, I should go to the Counter 1 marked as Crew and Diplomats - before I could get impressed with being in a "diplomat lane", I realized, that it had the longest and most chaotic line. I'm told later by my Pakistani collegues here, that exactly the same happens in India. :) We stood in the queue, that seemed to go back more than it went forward. Wheel chair and "special" people would constantly get ahead of us. With their style of language, and the PR (Public Relations) people bypassing those in the queue, it was a scene right off Delhi. Soon we realized that those who didn't not have "Police clearance not required" on our visa, had to first go right ahead, talk with the already hassled immigration officer and get a "C" form. Fill that up and get into queue again. Although I must be the 6th or 7th person in the Q, it took me nearly 1 hour. There were old ladies traveling alone, and one couldn't help but let them pass ahead of you. Then there were others that did that anyway. :) Finally a group of Bori Muslim youngsters were left in Q along with me and one more person who had come on business with his partner who had cleared immigrations and collected the bags and waiting on the other side. The girl in front of me spoke impeccable English and we got chatting. She and her brothers were also Indian passport holders and studying in the Islamic University in Karachi. Their mother was from Pakistan and they spent most of their life in Egypt but traveled very frequently to India. They told about how the education here in their University was world class, but the city wasn't that great. They like Mumbai more. People in Mumbai don't bother you and there was so many things one could do. The city never sleeps. All the same, Karachi was probably closest to Mumbai and Islamabad to Delhi. The immigration officers were over worked by extremely courteous. They kept saying "you are our mehman (guest) but unfortunately we have lots of papers work to be done". They even had a Webcam like the US immigrations to take a picture of each passenger. My collegues here in Islamabad said that they too faced exactly the same long Q and boring lines when they landed in Chennai. The immigrations officers in Chennai were very kind and courteous but they had so much paper-work to be done. Thank God their experience was the same, and not worse than mine!
After a long wait of an hour I was the absolutely last person to clear immigrations. I had enough times between flights (Karachi to Islamabad) so I wasn't too concerned. I collected my bag which was already pull off the conveyer belt like in our airports in India. Customs was a breeze, and I walked out. I went to the exchange counter was quite surprised when the person manning it told me that if you change money in the city you will get a better rate. Hmmm, must be an employee and not the owner to send away business. In any case, I wanted to keep a little currency so I changed Rs. 1,000 into Pak Rs 1,200 in a flash.
Outside, there were good number of people waiting but not as over crowded as Mumbai. What struck me first was that bang opposite the airport and what looked like the parking area was a big exclusive building of McDonald's restaurant! That was the only building around.
Since I had time and I was moderately hungry, I took the elevator to the 7th floor! Yup, not many airports terminals have that tall a building. The restaurant wasn't that clean and there were people sitting in the corridor. The windows weren't clean either, had nose/mouth marks on the clear glass. All the same I took a few pictures (much later I realized that any photography isn't allowed).
Short while later I went to the departure lounge. Every entrance and exit
there were either rifle or automatic weapon totting guards but they were very
warm and helpful. There were metal detectors but they seemed more like "object
detector" as they constantly beeped when everyone passed and no one actually
cared. As in our airports the ticket was inspected to see the validity at the
entrance. Unlike our airport where only check-in bags are scanned, here all
baggage went through an X-ray right at the entrance. Check-in bags were strapped
like our airports to show that they had been checked. There were plenty of
airline counters which seemed to be manned more by women than men. All of them
wore the traditional cloth over the head but the faces were open. Check-in was
smooth and one could take the escalator to the departure gate area. Before one
reached, there was a security check with X-ray of bags and a body check.
Although the domestic lounge it was much better than ours. Interestingly there
were lots of terminals free of charge where one could sit and browse the
Internet. A customized browser had the top 1/3rd of the screen showing Advts.
but the connection was decent and other than pop-up, the sites would open
smoothly. There were book stores, food outlet for snack and yes of course a
McDonald outlet! There was a single kiosk with touch screen that provided
information about the major Pak cities and details of Karachi (as it was their
city Airport). My flight was announced and we boarded. This time too I had asked
at check-in for a window seat and since the seat number was totally different I
was looking forward to see Pakistan from the sky. Guess what? This was a
different aircraft (Boeing 777) and once again I was on a wing and no windows!!!
Maybe some unofficial policy, I wonder. This looked like a brand new plane,
everything was working including the individual screens. The entertainment
didn't actually work, but the flight map and other details showed up. The loo
was very spacious and an hour and half later we landed in Islamabad Airport from
Although I have got used to it by now, I was still amused when the driver prompted my collegue who had come to pick me up, that I was too young and couldn't possibly be the right person. We drove straight to the Holiday Inn, Islamabad.
The entrance had a security block and every vehicle was asked to open the bonnet hood and dickey apart from a mirror check under the car for anything attached. Hotel lobby entrance had a metal detector with armed person manning it. The lobby was decent, and the check in smooth although they kept my passport for photocopy and sent it later to the room. About Rs. 4,000 per night the room looked about average. At the reception I had asked if the room had Internet and I was told yes and that they would send someone up. Quick check, and I could see no Ethernet point and I checked that wireless wasn't there either. Darn. I called front desk and they said they would send someone. Pretty soon I was starting to feel hot. Realized that although set on max, the central air conditioning wasn't working. More calls and more waits. Finally I called the house keeping and half hour later a person showed up. He seemed to check things but few minutes later when he realized that I'm not very convinced by his antics, he coughed up that they were servicing the central air conditioning system and that it won't work all night and possibly the next day as well! I called front desk but as I already knew they were running full, I had no choice but to open the windows which made it noisy but try and sleep. Pretty sad for a Holiday Inn! What was even worse was the water! It was so mucky that one could not see the bottom of the bath tub.
Next morning, I was picked up and after breakfast drove down to the office. What struck me first is how wide and open the roads were.
Four lanes each, very little traffic and excellent road conditions. Driving
was bit like New Delhi and I was completely at home - other than being in a new
place, I had to remind myself that this wasn't India - some part of New Delhi
which I have not seen.
reached the office which is surrounded by Banks, Radio Pakistan and also just a
stone through away from the PM's office building which is quite impressive.
My impression over the last 2 days are that the people are extremely
hospitable and go out of the way to make you happy. I haven't stopped hearing
how India and Pakistan is so much similar and how we should be having good
relationships. Even the Executive Director had things like India is like an
elder brother and we should forget the politics and do work on ground which we
share. Through the meetings I have not once heard anything bad, and only praises
on how India stood up to outside pressure, and we have such strong scientific
Out of 10 people that I met (almost all Muslim which is understandable since Pakistan has a 97% Muslim population) at least 3 either had grand parents and at least 1 even lived up to 4 years of age in India. Couple of them have visited and had the same hard time getting visa and long queues but warm immigration officers. So its a mirror of what I experienced. while I didn't expected any touch topics, I certainly wasn't prepared to hear so many good things being said. Warmth was genuine and they were open to share their problems in Pakistan as we all the common problems of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh. They were very sensitive to my being vegetarian, and over lunch and through the day I was more at home here than maybe even Bangalore. Another surprise which went against my pre conceived notion was all women wear burqas. Far from it, only about 30% or so would and others would just drape a thin cloth over the head like Punjabi ladies that wear salwar kameez. It wasn't uncommon to see women without that too but I didn't see many in saree so far. Revealing cloths I saw none and most women didn't make long eye contacts - just breezing looks. They mostly laughed and opened up amongst women (as one could see from far) and would walk with the men folk in a way from which one could make out the relationship. So far I have not seen a single couple holding hands or any show/display of affection. Most had an inherent moral code of conduct.
Islamabad, the bazaar isn't impressive. There are no big malls and most shopping areas are like the small ones in Delhi surrounded by residential bungalows. With the advent of Afghanis, street food like fries and peanuts were seen but I was told that this wasn't there too long back. I walked into a book store which initially looked like any small store in India till one looks closer. There were very few magazines, the usual Time and a few others but not really local. Novels were more non-adultish and there was very few religious books other than on Islam. Zero on meditation, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism etc. There were books on self improvement and a few Indian filmy magazines. In fact, Indian films and music is a big craze! street places play Indian music and like a just a few minutes back the food court I visited had a big screen display of Adnan Sami. Indian entertainment content is huge out here.
While I was to visit the Northern Areas (as its called), I wasn't able to as it had snowed quite a bit and the roads were not open. I heard a lot on the work being done in rural Northern Pakistan. I would have loved to see what they are telling me first hand about the Internet access in the rural areas but the weather just as in Kashmir is bad right now with heavy snow fall so, can't do that. Just like in Srinagar and other areas, here too in PoK/Azad Kashmir they had very heavy snow fall and blocked roads. Normally it takes 16 hours to get from Gilgit to Islamabad but a lot more now and even that isn't sure. So sadly I could never go. Maybe another time. Tomorrow I leave for Lahore.
My trip to Lahore & Karachi, Pakistan Part II
4th March 2005
Unlike Islamabad, Lahore was busy and crowded right from the start. It had a more South-Asian feel to it unlike Islamabad which was a designed & developed city laid in a grid of A, B, C intersected with 1, 2, 3 etc. You could almost take a ruler and draw lines which would be the main city roads. I'm told in Islamabad, every block has open space in terms of gardens (which I could see), a school, a market and residential areas. Office blocks are at one end and the main residential areas at the other. This worked great until recently when the city got crowded (Islamabad level which isn't saying much) as the flow of car & bus traffic moves from one part of the city to the other and reverse at the end of the day. Rawalpindi the adjoining and older city was a different animal Iím told (but then I didnít get a chance to visit so canít say much more). The only thing remotely straight in Lahore was the canal. This runs for a really long stretch through the city. Multi-lane roads run on either side of it. Due to Basant celebrations, the Canal had decorative motifs, kites, old-style gates etc, built from paper & wood hung across the canal. With lights at night it looked quite pretty. The water was muddy but there was no smell. Looked like an irrigation water canal more than anything else.
While Islamabad slows down after 5 pm, Lahore sort of wakes up and warms up to the night. Due to my work schedule, I had to try and sleep early, but my hosts would comment even at 8 pm that the dinner was too early. It seems that it is common for families at 10 pm to start talking about where they will go and eat! They have a food street that runs not less than a few kilometers. On either side are trendy eating places interspaced with a few trendy furniture shops and even homes. Evenings its hard to find parking on this road! Food is not just a passion but a pass time as well. Some of the best non-veg dishes especially chicken and mutton can be had here. But the food street has also seen the invasion of McDonald, Pizza Hut, Sub-way, Uno etc. Kids love it while elders snide at it. Seafood is not very popular and vegetarian choice is very limited. Generally speaking I found the food spicy with lots of "masala".
The city I'm told is very safe. One could walk at nights and there would be others doing the same late at nights. People seemed honest. Quite slowly for me, I reached a comfort level to leave my laptop in the car with the driver - something I won't be too comfortable elsewhere.
Unlike Islamabad, Lahore was full of flair! It was quite common to see people with mouth full of pan, pretending (or could be for real, who knows) as poets & other artists. With a population of about 6 or 7 million, which is about half that of Mumbai it seemed more crowded. While Islamabad had a Delhi-like Governmental feel to it, the people in Lahore were open but very proud of their culture and food. At the snap of a finger they could recite lines like a legend. Popular was a line loosely translated as "if you had not seen Lahore you had not lived life" and so on. Clearly those days are long in the past but the city retains its charm and charisma. Parts of it felt like Mumbai to me, but with a strong Islamic flavour and thus tempered. Liquor is prohibited. I'm told it is available but at least its not on street shops and every dinner table. One could get a fix at the bar in a good Hotel but apparently one had to be non-Muslim. Upper class as everywhere is overtly exempted from all this and people arenít happy that the upper class openly flouts the rules. Though not encouraged, smoking was fairly rampant. Lahore is city of life & culture. Its not uncommon to go out at 10 or even midnight and eat returning after 1 or 2 am. Being an Islamic country there are no discos and one had to know where to go for a bars but there are plays, music shows etc. all the time. Some events were quite close to my hotel although I didn't get to see this side of the city as I was busy & on work.
Holiday Inn, Lahore was substantially better than Islamabad - come to think of it, anything would be better than that. After I checked-in, I glumly ran my check-list of: Do you have A/C, and do you have Net in the room etc. What surprised me was that they had free and public WiFi in the lobby! Something Iíve not seen anywhere else in this trip to Pakistan. This even surprised a few Pakistanis when I told them. Connection was sad - but it wasn't the fault of the WiFi unit as much as probably a dial up modem which pumped the bandwidth (I guess). Still this was my lifeline to the outside world and a refreshing surprise. In fact, this gave me an opportunity to hang in the lobby and watch the "janta" (crowds) pass by. Even my Dell PDA worked so I would have both the PDA and laptop going at the same time. In the whole time I was there I never saw another person using any device although it must be in use. First evening at the Hotel there was a group of about seven journalists from India sitting in the lobby who had come on an invitation. The second evening onwards the hockey teams of Japan, Korea, and India arrived. So there was additional security including a 24 hrs armed guard at even the room floor as some players were staying on my floor. This didn't bother me much - quite a friendly lot. I even got a picture with the Indian team at breakfast.
All this was happening while the Pakistan & Indian teams battled it out in India over the cricket matches. People sounded happy hearing the President Musharraf would visit India. But what got them really excited was how people in India had opened their homes to visiting fans as there was a lack of hotel rooms. One could see the twinkle in their eye as if talking about a relative. Cricket is a huge crowd puller. People would leave half eaten plates and rush to the lobby TV on hearing any cheering. Needless to say, the TV and cricket was everywhere, lobby, restaurant, shops etc. Like India cricket is big. No make that BIG. And when its an India-Pakistan match, the streets look deserted.
Mornings in Lahore start with lazy chat over breakfast. In fact, life seems to revolve around food a lot. People of all strata of society are fond of eating out and would hang out at local tea-stalls & kind, sitting and chatting away.
It wasn't uncommon to see horse or donkey driven carriages which serve as transport to people and goods both. Driving around Lahore needs the skills of driving in interior-Mumbai. At any given point of time, you have cars, trucks, auto rickshaws, hand-carts, and donkey pulled carriages as well as people criss-crossing. They probably have a rule to have same polarity magnets stuck to all since they come really really close but yet do not touch.
On the one occasion that our car was brushed, the guys stepped out and shook hands first! The crowd and commotion would have made one think that it would be fist-first but this is Lahore - the city of culture. Handshake and exchange of details - an apology and off we go. Even money didn't change hands to my amazement. Driver brushed it off that it was just a scratch! City roads were in very good conditions but traffic very chaotic.
Cars scooters come within touching distance - almost heading for you before turning away. There is absolutely no lane discipline. At nights no one cares for traffic lights other than at a couple of well known intersections where its know that cops would be around to check. The only people being stopped were those not wearing a helmet - a law which has come into place recently. Like we hear in India, the word is that the Chief Minister & his son imported some large consignment of helmets before pushing this law through. My driver said that in protest, some people are wearing a pot on their head. Didn't see any but it go me laughing a lot just at the thought. What bugged me most about being on the road was the huge pollution from the auto rickshaws and buses. Thick black and quite suffocating it was hard to breathe at times and my eyes would burn. Just like it used to be in Delhi before the switch to CNG was made mandatory. What a change that has brought about and something they should seriously implement here in Lahore.
Almost everyone speaks a mix of Urdu and English but there is a good amount of Punjabi as well being the in Punjab. During conversation, people slip back and forth many times within a sentence between English and Urdu. Since I am fluent in both, it was no issues and seamless, but others can have trouble and cause locals too consciously speak in English which doesn't come naturally to them. Urdu as I'm told is written in Nafees or Nastalique. In Pakistan, the Nastalique character based font is used for Urdu which I believe comes from Persian roots. Street signs are in Nastalique but almost all are also in English. Seemed to me that politics is a popular topic of discussion especially when eat (which is a lot of time) but they stayed away from controversial issues at least in conversations with me. Cricket is extremely popular and consensus was that at this time the Indian team is quite strong. Jokes on American life, and policy is favorite topic and brings everyone together. Every single person that came to know that I was from India were very curious to know about life in India. I never got the feeling like they were critical - in fact it was mostly praises of the progress India has made and how they should as well.
On the street what stood out to me was that there were very few beggars. In my trip I saw just a couple of them. I can't say of the inner city but the parts that I visited didn't have many beggars which is quite contrary to what we face in India.
My visit to Lahore was actually to a University campus so I got to see the youth. A young lady who after graduating from the same college and now working for a few years in the institute was my contact point-person. Able and effective it was good to see the youth. My first day went in briefing and laying out my plans and objectives of the trip. I got a long briefing on the working and the background. Second day being a Sunday was a day off. She and her cousin were nice enough to take me around in the office car arranged so that I could get to see the major sites of Lahore.
Sunday, our first stop was the Lahore Museum. This being the first place we visited, we spent a fair bit of time and it was worth it. Housed in Mughal Gothic structure, and opened in 1894 this is one of the best museums in Pakistan. What pleasantly surprised me was a very large section devoted to Buddhist heritage. A lot of these were from Myanmar (Burma) but it was a nice and sharp contrast to the events that took place not long ago in Afghanistan where they blew up thousands of years old Buddhist rock carvings in the name of religion. Another equally pleasant surprise were old and not so old statues of Ganesha, Radha-Krishna, Shiva, Durga etc. There were even some old stone carvings of Ramayan. Admittedly these were all exhibited as heritage from India and not as religious icons, but the fact that it was even on display was very significant to my mind. Common opinion especially in India and the West is that Pakistan is full of fundamentalists. Here was a good example quite contrary to that. While, I won't go so far as to say that itís totally false, this clearly showed a different side and that pleased me and gave me hope for the future. This section was much smaller to that on Buddhism but it was by no means any neglected section. As expected there was a large display of Islamic literature and they had what looked like some rare manuscripts on display. There was another big area for stone sculptures from Gandhara period. Then there was a large section on weapons used in older times including Mughal, Sikh and Hindu areas. What amused me was the prominent display at the entrance to the weapons area of shells from 1960s war between India & Pakistan. Shining and in good condition, it looked silly and completely out of place. Almost an after thought oh we have to remember were at war once. Then there was a spacious area for paintings. If one went into details, one could easily spend anywhere from 3 hours to half a day. We browsed through and went onto the next place on our list...
Constructed in 1674 by Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb in red sandstone with white marble veins, it is considered to be one of the most beautiful & one of the largest mosques in the world. This mosque also contains what is claimed to be the actual relics of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions. This section had some additional security but nothing excessive. I saw a strand of hair precariously balanced on a glass rod, walking stick in quite a good condition and clothes which apparently belonged to Prophet Muhammad. We then moved onto the courtyard which was huge. I saw pictures and itís claimed that nearly 1 Lakh people can sit and pray together in this place. This was a huge place and I have some nice pictures of the same. Adjoining the Mosque and separated just by a common wall is a Sikh Gurudwara. I don't remember for sure but I believe it had to do with Raja Ranjit Singh.
Across the Badshahi Mosque, is the Lahore Fort which was rebuilt by Akbar, Jahangir, Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb, after it was destroyed in the 14th century by Taimur, the Mongol Invader. Four generations of rebuilding and improving has been captured in the massive red stone walls. Some of the steps were enourmously wide and only later did I realized that elephants used to use that pathway to go up. I'm sure in the by gone days this place would have had its own elegance. As one approaches the front, one sees the ďDiwan-e-KhasĒ - the public and private audience halls. Areas where once emperors sat & walked were today just amusement spots for the casual tourists. At the entrance was a UNESCO board. Apparently they are helping restore the place.
There is a lot to be seen here including the ďShish MahalĒ (Palace of Mirrors) which was under renovation/re-construction. Still parts could be seen through the mesh. Itís claimed that when itís dark, if you light even a single candle, due to the way it is constructed you can see the candle in every single mirror and there were literally thousands of them. Then there was the back area which had like a water storage area which also I believe served as the bathing area for the queens and right next to it was a patch of flowers that had lots of bees. I got some really cool shots from my macro lens connected to the Nikon D70. On the other side was ďNaulkha pavilionĒ, named for the mystical number nine and for the nine lakh rupees it took at that time to build it.
While leaving, a board at the entrance gate by UNESCO aroused my interest as on it the opening line in English and Urdu is written as follows: "According to available historical information the origin of Lahore fort is obscure. Traditionally the foundation of Lahore and its fort is attributed to "Lo" the son of Rama Chandara of epic age (1200-800 BC)." I didn't know what to make of this line which is followed by historical data of the last few hundred years. The Lahore Fort is included in the world heritage list and one can easily see why.
The Fort is girdled round by a formidable fortification wall strenghtened by semi circular bastions at regular intervals. The Mughal period buildings are grouped in 4 large quadrangles including the Shish (Mirrors) Mahal, Diwan-e-Khas, Sleeping Chambers of Shah Jahan, Jahangir's Quadrangle, Pictured walls etc. In 1846 A.D. it was occupied by British and remained in their possession till 1927 A.D. when it was handed over to the Archaeological Survey.
From the mosque & the fort is visible the Minar-e-Pakistan which stands as a really tall structure. The resolution for the creation of Pakistan was passed in Lahore in 1940. The tower in Iqbal Park commemorates this event. The vast park provides a relief & an entertainment area as well as picnic spot for the citizens and they flock in large numbers at all times. Even in the afternoon heat one could see people near the base and on the viewing gallery above. We decided there is not much to see from there so we moved on. This ground I'm told is also a favourite spot for political parties to hold rallies. It was certainly large enough for it.
The famous Shalimar gardens is what we visited next. Once again due to the wanton destruction, it has been taken over by UNESCO & Archaeological Department. Empreor Shah Jahan built these gardens in 1641 A.D. to serve as a recreational place for the royal family. The name Shalimar has been variously interpreted as "abode of bliss" or "house of joy". Shalimar is synonymous with the word garden or fragrance. The approach road is busy and like any crowded street of Lahore with all itís hustle bustle. One has to dodge traffic and one barely avoids being hit by cars, or animals or bumped into by people but once inside it is lush green and tranquil. The row of water fountains makes the place magical and it has been able to retain a good part of the splendour that it would have been in those days. Although there was a UNESCO board, the upkeep wasn't too good. The water fountains were not operational all the time (but maybe they have some timing not mentioned), and the walls were deteriorating. It seemed more like a picnic place for people but there were not many visible wrappers or other modern junk. The water fountain had moss and it was shallow water but from even a little distance its not too visible or an eye sore. Far from it, the place had a magical look. The water also makes this a cool place to hang out - literally. Although I couldn't visit it again in the evening, I found no lights on or around the water fountains but if they were to be added the beauty would be many folds. The nearly 80 acres of green oasis is worth visiting. There is a nominal charge of Rs. 10 for locals and I think Rs. 100 but I easily passed in as a local. The flowers were in full bloom and looked lovely. I got some nice pictures here too. Rows of flowers, pockets of flower beds and lush green gardens over such a large area make it a very nice place. Once outside its back to the urban jungle of Lahore and I found solace in my modern mini-palace - the Holiday Inn Hotel.
In the evening, my friends who earlier lived in Singapore although originally from Lahore and now living in Lahore for the last few years picked me up. We went to Pakistan Radio as they were having a Musical night for a collection towards the Tsunami victim relief fund. Tariq Aziz was compeer of the show. With his bold and deep voice he cajoled everyone to dig deep and make generous donations. Major radio stars performed live and I'm sure the event would have gone on till really late but we left by 10:30 pm for a nice Chinese - well Pakistani Chinese dinner. Actually unlike other places this was more authentic and very decent. Dropped back to the hotel late at night I got my share of sleep and off to a busy working day ahead.
Next evening also I met with my friends and went to their office. They are a leading private ISP and have wired a big part of Lahore with fiber. They are still reaching the outer edges of the city and also rolling out in other cities where they currently have dial up and leased line customers. Interestingly I was told that they often monitor the policy initiatives in India and use that as a basis to try and convince the Government to have more liberal policies. Seem this works quite well. :) They are ahead in other areas. VoIP is legal even between cities. They have less of cable wars and the roll out of mobile services is at a very rapid pace and growth.
To my mind, the people in Lahore dressed bit more liberally but as other places in Pakistan, women here have a 200+ degree vision and are very aware if someone is watching them. They could be doing their own thing but they have this inert ability to sense if someone is watching and they move away uncomfortably or if eye contact was made they look down & away. There is almost zero physical contact - no handshake, no pat on back or face, and one can see major efforts to avoid even casual touch like handing a glass. Youngsters wore fairly bright colours and high heals with socks seemed popular with the girls. Older and more traditional women wore black or at least dark as a predominant colour.
Quite amazingly, and to my utter surprise the Border to India is just 30 kms or so away. One can easily drive to it. This wasn't something so apparent from the map. As they say, so close and yet so far.
I also visited Virtual University which is a satellite based distance learning initiative in Pakistan. Much like IGNOU, using satellite broadcast, the educational content is beamed over the country and students get to register and appear in person for exams.
My work done, I was all set to get back to Mumbai with a short stop at Karachi which is basically how I came. So it was back to the airport - Karachi here I come...
My best efforts to get a window seat simply didn't bear fruit. Once again I was on a different seat number but still somehow the force managed to place me on a wing. To be fair, the check-in counter at Lahore did first issue a different seat number but that was an aisle seat. When I asked for a window seat, I did get it but again I was back on the wings. Strange thing was that the plane was not that full and so there were window seats which were free. This had to be a conspiracy. I don't know if it was an observational difference but this time although the airhostesses wore a salwar kameez and scarf like cloth it was not on their head but actually around the neck not covering either head or face. The men were in white shirts with a tie and probably needed it more, but it was the women that wore an additional coat while serving food & drinks. Karachi airport was as described earlier. My earlier plan was to land at night and connect early next morning to the flight to Mumbai but as this was very late at night I was suggested that it would be better if I take an earlier flight and get to rest a bit. I liked that idea, but since the only earlier flight was at 11 am reaching 12:30 pm I had time at hand. The university suggested that I see their setup in Karachi as well just like I had done in Lahore. So I was picked up at the airport and taken to their campus.
Reaching the campus I had a surprise in store. I was told in 10 min notice that since I had vast experience, could I take out 30 minutes and give a lecture to the students. The talk was attended at this leading Comp Science institute by their students which comprised of 5 PhD students and about 20 others all doing their Masters. The Dean who asked me and introduced me has a PhD from Stanford, and the 2 faculty members present there also have PhDs from US where they went to study on scholarship. Once my talk was over, I was offered a short tour of the city and a drop off to my hotel which worked well with me as this was my first time to Karachi.
My driver was multi-ethnic. He was from Hoshiarpur, Punjab living in Karachi and Catholic by faith. I even met a few Parsis in this short trip. The first place we went was Jinnah's Moseleum. Its a majestic structure and there were guards on patrol and some doing a "change of guards" routine. Next to the main structure is a museum in which they have kept his cloths, 2 cars, study table, pictures including with Gandhiji, Nehru etc.
Time was short so we drove through the nice part of town where the ultra rich stay. I'm told that this being the business capital of Pakistan and capital of Sindh, the richest people have homes here. Plots go for 3 to 4 crore rupees over and above the construction costs. We saw Bhutto's house, Benazir new house after her marriage and other big homes as we headed to the beach front. The beach called "Sea View" was a mix of say Chowpatty and Marine Drive though smaller in scale. There were the usual shops and street vendors and locals who came to hang out. After watching the Sun set we headed to Park Tower.
While the multiplex concept is yet to catch on, a Mall like building is the Park Tower. Its a 4 storey structure which had branded shops in it. Not bad but miles to go before it catches up with the R-Malls and the Life-Style like malls of Mumbai. Interestingly this was the first place where I could see trendy cloths. Girls wore relatively shorter cloths and boys had the tight t-shirts and trendy hair cuts. Seemed like an up-market place to hang out. There was even a stylish lingerie store. I believe a good place to hang is Food Street but I didn't have time to go there. So we headed to Regent Plaza hotel where I was staying.
Very nice hotel - the best that I have stayed in Pakistan so far although there are more expensive places which I'm told are better. The room was extra fresh and I learnt later that this was so because the floor was just opened up 3 days ago. At the buffet dinner, the hostess was a Parsi girl. She stood out by her dress, looks and most noticeably the multiple ear/nose rings she wore, which is something I had not seen before. She looked very Parsi. She got talking when I was leaving as she learnt that I was from India as she has part of her family living in Mumbai. She said that about 2000 Parsis live in Karachi. Even in Karachi, I found a genuine admiration for what India has done & achieved. They want to learn and replicate this success. BPO is nascent and lot of interest is there. The musicians playing at the restaurant played nicer when they knew I was from India and appreciating their performance. They had very high regard for Indian music & musicians and at least one had performed in India.
Unlike Islamabad and Lahore, there were a fair share of high rise buildings in Karachi. Islamabad and Lahore in comparison where something maybe more like Jaipur. Dry, lots of red brick work while Karachi had the sea and the salinity like Mumbai. Karachi had flyovers and the feeling of a big city. With nearly 15 million residents its population is the size of Mumbai which is more than some of the European countries! Karachi to my knowledge was also the only Pakistani city that had a local train service. Although part of Sindh, I'm told a very wide mix of people live in the city. Karachi is a melting pot of cultures, but that is exactly the very same reason why there is so much violence. The pot is boiling. I saw armed guards everywhere. There were open top jeeps with automatic machine guns and with people sitting with fingers on the trigger. Could give a fright - but then when I read the local papers I realized why so. Most articles on cover page had stories on how local politician were gunned down in their car. Another on how a group pelted stones on a police station and so there was firing and yet another on how two Government servants were brutally gunned down. Whew!
Back to the hotel, I had a short rest and left very early morning for the airport. Did my usual baggage scan and came to the airlines check-in counter. The staff asked me for my documents and when I handed it over, insisted that I had one document missing the police clearance certificate which is the exit permit. I argued that it was there as the police officer had signed my ďCĒ form. Seems that wasnít enough. Just to be double sure, the PIA staff went to immigrations and they too said I needed an exit permit which I didnít have. They showed the paper other passengers were carrying which I was required to have with me. Unable to convince the immigration officers myself, the only option was to miss my flight and go into the city and get it done from the CPO (Central Police Office). With no other choice, I left and re-checked into my hotel. Left the bags, and went to the CPO. Lots of cops as expected and not allowed to enter you have to sit on the side. A friendly sepoy asked my case and said this was tricky. I would need to speak to an officer. Although non-Pakistanis are not allowed entry inside, there is a booth made for officers. He looked at my papers and said clearly that the person in Islamabad has misguided me and I may have to go back. He said that the office there should not have just signed but taken 4 photos and given a different paper. How was I to know? Even the host in Islamabad didnít know although they have had people from India as little as couple of months back. This guy went inside with my documents and spoke with a senior officer. Before that he even negotiated that since it would cost me a couple of thousand in air-ticket, maybe I could offer something and get the stamping done here and just leave. With clear credentials and on a Governmental body invitation I expected the paper work to be smooth but then I ran into another hitch. Technically I didnít have entry permit to Karachi so even with money how was he to give an exit permit? My passport had permit for just Islamabad and Lahore and although I could transit from Karachi, as per my papers I wasnít allowed to leave the airport is what I was told. The senior officer also came out and met me. While he was sympathetic there was no choice. He said, technically right now he is supposed to hold my passport as I was in Karachi without a visa for it, so the best case would be not to show the passport around and just leave for Islamabad! Gosh! From Islamabad to Lahore and Karachi now back? Even worse, since my visa was given for exact number of days, and since I was not flying out tonight (canít isnít it?) I would also have overstayed my visa tomorrow morning. With a bleak picture, I had no choice but to leave as soon as possible. Called my hosts and FAXed my papers and got a booking for the flight out to Islamabad.
Back in Islamabad, the host admitted that there was a mess up at Islamabad police to whom the passport was sent within 24 hrs as required by law. They just acknowledged it instead of issuing travel exit permit documents. So now we would have to process the documents again. Another issue is that there are no flights from Islamabad to Mumbai so I would either have to go to Delhi (but those flights were full) or else go to Lahore and then Delhi to Mumbai which means more time & cost as well. The papers were now submitted on Friday for visa extension first. Being a Friday, the office close at noon and as with Governmental staff who come at 10 am and leave at the earliest, little progress was made. With just one more working day and that too a Saturday the chances were slim. Surprisingly the Chief police officer was very nice and accommodating. Very helpfully he offered to do the documentation within 30 min, but I had to first get my visa extension and that was taking time. With constant follow up that included, cajouling, begging, threatening, putting pressure from the top and what not, the files moved. Thirty minutes after closing time, we finally managed the papers out of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and we had just 30 min before the police station closed for the day. Next day was Sunday and this section remains closed so I would be stuck again. So we rushed across town. Having got that done, we rushed again as within 15 min, the travel agentís office would close. With little flight options, I finally managed to get a seat on an Islamabad-Dubai flight which connected to Dubai-Mumbai and reached Sunday afternoon! What a photo-finish. The strangest thing was that this time, at the airport, neither did the airline staff ask for these papers, nor did the immigrations! After having passed both, I actually came back and asked them to take it after all I had spent so much time, money and effort in getting it!
The trip so far which was too good to be true turned out just that.
I'm glad that it was finally over and that I could get back to Mumbai. Before I could breath easy and reflect on the events that transpired, I was packing bags again as I was headed within 12 hours this time to the East - Samtse & Thimphu in Bhutan via a connecting flight in Kolkatta & Gangtok. Sending this out from Samtse, Bhutan. So far so good. If this trip is anywhere as exciting as Pakistan, will write about it too. :-)
~ Suchit from Samtse, Bhutan, 15th March, 2005