Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Time Travel

Our days in Delhi are few - we want to get to Pakistan as quickly as possible - but we have enough time to eat some lovely food and, despite the draining heat and humidity, do a bit of shopping i.e. Gayle finds a shalwar kameez and we buy a couple of books from a real bookshop - a treat for us. The centre of New Delhi has been spruced up since we last visited 10 years ago. There is now a metro system, still growing, and it is quite clear there has been an attempt to clean up. Most noticeable is the lack of beggars and shoeshine boys. None of those "shit on the shoe" scams that made walking around here a hazard. There are now an alarming number of air-conditioned cafes for the Beautiful People. And the air seems not so dirty. There is no fug of blue smoke from clapped out autorickshaws and we read that many pollution-producing factories have been relocated outside of the capital. But walking around Pahar Ganj, the area where most backpackers are staying, there is the familiar noise and bustle, the usual struggle just to walk down the street without being flattened by a cycle rickshaw or motorcyclist, without stepping into anything undesirable and without catching the powerful whiff of incense or urine. After the fairly dull cities of Central Asia, the colour, the cows, the people make a refreshing change and we find ourselves just drifting along in a haze letting the whole river of sights and sounds just flow right over us.

We catch a night train to Amritsar - riding in a luxurious air-conditioned 4-berth compartment to guarantee a good night's sleep shared with a mother and son. We awake too early, at 6am, to the sound of the mother barking at her son to get up but we are feeling good. There's a local bus heading towards the border, a busy ride full of Sikh men in colourful turbans, impossibly vivid blues, hideous pinks and lemon yellows - like wild flowers dotted about the bus. We arrive early at the border, the only open land-crossing between the two countries, and spend an hour swatting flies and fanning ourselves in the growing heat, before passing through all the normal and tedious formalities of passport recording, form-filling and cursory bags inspections. "Is there anything to see?" asked one customs officer who couldn't be bothered getting out of his chair.

On the Pakistani side there is a small bookstall and friendly faces. While Gayle trades books I trade e-mail adresses with a friendly young man whose name I don't even know. "When you come back to Lahore, give me a ring". We take a bone-shaker bus through paddy fields into Lahore, Gayle opting to ride in the men-only section at the back. While she mutters about the stupid division a few more women get put on the back seat - overspill from the crowded front.

At the main bus stand another passenger asks us where we are going. "Islamabad? Me too. Come with me please." We find ourselves being drawn towards a crusty old bus that should be going to the Knackers Yard, but which is going to Islamabad instead. We balk. There follows an awkward moment as the bus men try to sell us a ticket, our new companion tries to get us on board and we try and find an excuse not to follow. "Does it have air-con?" "Yes, of course, come on!" Our seats are at the back, over a steaming engine (possibly a steam engine), and there are folding seats in the aisle for more bodies. It's a little claustrophobic. A speaker above us blares the soundtrack to a Bollywood film. Ah-ha! This is the way to travel..............

We make more friends on the journey - including a family from a mountain village near Skardu who buy us pop at a service station. The road is good - a toll motorway that arcs across the country from Lahore to Peshawar - nothing like anything I remember from my last visit here. The bus grinds through fields of orange trees and climbs onto a higher plain, and finally we arrive in the urban congestion of Rawalpindi, the old city next to the capital. I've been chatting to the man who we got the bus with. He is carrying a tennis racket and he's from Waziristan. He offers us a lift from his cousin, who is meeting him off the bus. I ask him what he does for a living, but he coyly replies that he'll tell us when we get off the bus. I wonder a moment if we should be putting our trust in such a man, except he looks very presentable and speaks very good English and probably plays tennis - all the things that really matter when you're trying to judge character! Anyway, it turns out he's in the army. Pakistani soldiers are now going around discreetly in civvies now that they have become a target for bomb attacks.

We arrive at the house of our friend, Barnaby, about 24 hours after leaving Delhi - not bad going overland - and we are happy to receive his hospitality after the long journey. Even though we have gone westwards we have to put our watches forward half an hour - which just shows how ridiculous time is I suppose.

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