Pakistan – Grand Trunk Road

Pakistan is a relatively easy country for us to visit since we are just a stone’s throw away in neighboring Afghanistan. Obtaining a visa from the Pakistani Embassy in Kabul took mere hours, and it was an easy-breezy affair to be granted a 6 month, multi-entry visa. Finding a travel agent to Pakistan wasn’t as easy. Unlike neighboring India, Pakistan’s internet based travel agencies are not thriving, and Becky’s numerous inquiries into various travel options routinely went unanswered. However, Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree website came to the rescue, and we were provided with Vertical Explorer’s contact information. From our personal experience, we found Syed ( from Vertical Explorers to be very helpful, providing instant feedback. He proved most accommodating and eager to please. After several online discussions, we quickly narrowed down our aggressive 4 day R&R to include the following sights: Lahore (spinning with the Sufis, Moghul architecture), Wahgah (Pakistan-India border ceremony), Rohtas Fort, Khewra Salt Mines (the second largest in the world!), ‘pindi and Islamabad, Taxila & Takht-i-Bahi (Gandhara Buddhist ruins), and last but not least, Peshawar, which lived up to its reputation and reminded us of the wild, wild, West!

We can wholeheartedly recommend Vertical Explorers. They are consummate professionals who ensured that our every need was met. And they were able to cater our tour to adjust to our budget…simply fantastic. We had such a positive experience that we are planning on a return trip with them to experience the KKH and perhaps observe the Shandur polo match in July. Two thumbs up!

20 OCT: Surprisingly, we were given no hassles upon arrival at the Islamabad International Airport, and our huge boxes of donations easily fit on the free luggage carts adjacent to the conveyor belt in the arrivals section. Once the friendly airport staff spotted us shoving our way through the melee of baggage inspection, they instantly pulled us from the mosh-pit of aggressive baggage carts, and whisked us on through past the inspection process. What a relief! We really didn’t want to have to unpack and explain what we were doing with all the donations for the earthquake victims. Quick side note: thanks so much to Del Powell and Ken McCullough for their generosity…their donations were graciously accepted by several families who had been displaced by the massive earthquake that rocked Pakistan mere days before.

Saeed thrust a bouquet of flowers towards Becky, and we laughed at our greeting by our driver (Wajid Ali) and tour guide (Saeed). The streets were blocked as the President, General Pervez Musharraf, was racing through the streets just as we were about to pull out and make our way towards Lahore. Traffic was awful, and it took us a while to get out onto the Grand Trunk Road. Once we hit it, the journey was smooth sailing all the way to Lahore. Surprisingly, the roads in Pakistan are very well maintained. We kept expecting to see Afghan-style roads, but the pot holes and craters that have become a commonplace sight were not to be spotted here. Pristine, clean roads are forever etched upon our memories of Pakistan!

Our Lonely Planet guidebook recommended the Regale Internet Inn in Lahore, so of course we made our obligatory stop by to say hello to Malik. And indeed, he does live up to his reputation as a lively and gracious host. However, since we had stumbled in well after 10 pm, all private rooms were already booked, and the only lodging still available were the 6 bed dorm rooms. We declined, opting for a good night’s rest in a nearby hotel (Liberty Hotel off of Liberty Square), but did tell Malik we would definitely head out towards Lahore’s lively Sufi-spinning session later that Thursday night. But first, we had to hit Food Street (or Tourist street)…in either case, mouth-watering wafts of food beckoned us to grab a bite to eat. We decided on lamb kebabs and bread, after which we made our way towards the Shrine of Baba Shah Jamal.

The description of “Spinning Out with Sufis” in our LP guidebook was mesmerizing: “Sufism (Islamic mysticism) is an ancient practice and Sufis (mystics) are on a quest for spiritual emancipation…Hypnotic drumbeats coax Sufis into a frenzied state of intense bliss – swaying, whirling and vigorously shaking their heads – as they relinquish themselves to a higher force. You’ll hear some of Pakistan’s most esteemed dhol (traditional drum) players including Pappu Saeen and the legendary brothers, Gonga and Mithu Saeen. The charismatic Saeen brothers demonstrate remarkable synchronicity when playing together, especially considering the elder of the two, Gonga, was born deaf…on Sufi night Gonga intermittently spins at breakneck speed while simultaneously drumming in sync with Mithu – truly jaw-dropping stuff”.

We joined in the festivities from midnight until 0300, and the description in LP hardly does justice. There is nothing like seeing the Sufis spinning out for hours. Just when you think a normal human being would pass out from disorientation or exhaustion (or better yet, both!), they pick up the pace into a frenzied excitement that even the crowd gets in on…those vibes are contagious! We posed for photos with Pappu Saeen afterwards, and he graciously (and patiently) indulged us. Saeed told us that Pappu was a major celebrity in Pakistan, and he was equally popular overseas. He was very friendly, smiling and soaking up the evident admiration from his fervent followers all through the night.

We were exhausted, and Saeed gave us only 3 hours of sleep before our very aggressive itinerary the next day. So we headed back towards the Liberty hotel to catch a bit of sleep before our 0700 departure the next morning.

21 OCT: Lahore is a city of saints and shrines. And we were visiting in the middle of Ramazan, which translated to no food or drink for us during daylight hours. Actually, it was a self-imposed fast, but we were willing as it meant more sightseeing time for us! And we wanted to get the most out of our short 4 day weekend!

First stop was the Badshahi Mosque, which was located just opposite of the Lahore fort. It is one of the world’s largest mosques, and can hold up to 100,000 people! We were there a bit too early to visit the rooms above the entrance gate. So we decided to admire the interior of the mosque before venturing upstairs to see strands of the Prophet Mohammed’s hair. This mosque reminded us of the Friday Mosque in New Delhi, India. In fact, Lahore’s amazing Mughal architecture was all reminiscent of the architecture in India! We were hesitant to admit this to Saeed though, as we were not sure if that would be insulting or not. But it was a weird sense of deja-vu as we wandered through the Lahore Fort and Badshahi Mosque.

Becky read that the Badshahi Mosque was the scene of an international uproar in 1991, caused by the late Princess of Wales sauntering through with a short skirt! So she covered up from head to toe, and the locals seemed very pleased with her shalwar kameez (traditional tunic and trousers).

The Lahore Fort was next on our list of sites to visit, and we were greeted by the head director, who graciously sent one of his historians to serve as our official guide. We learned all about Emperor Akbar and the multitude of Mughal emperors who have called Shahi Qila (Lahore fort) home. The fort is a massive enclosure of gardens, palaces, greeting halls, and mosques, and we didn’t have to strain our imagination too much to envision elephants in rich décor carrying their heavy loads up and down the fort’s grounds. We did see an old fashioned “lawn mower” which made us stop and laugh. It was a bull pulling a blade…but he wasn’t a very good worker since he wanted to stop and eat the grass every few feet and had to be walloped by a team of 3 men who desperately pulled and pushed the bull into motion from all directions! Unfortunately, the Palace of Mirrors was undergoing renovations while we were there, but it reminded us so much of the Amber Palace’s Jai Mandir and Sheesh Mahal (hall of mirrors). We spent some time here admiring all of the fort’s intricate architecture, and could only wonder what it would look like years from now if it were fully restored. What was amazing is similar places in India are absolutely packed with tourists, whereas here we had the grounds to ourselves!

The views from various lookout points at Lahore fort were quite good, despite the haziness of Lahore. The 60 meter high Minar-i-Pakistan, a modern looking minaret that commemorates the founding of Pakistan, was in full view from the Shish Mahal (Palace of Mirrors).

Afterwards, we visited Jehangir’s tomb. This tomb is set in a beautifully laid out courtyard, which consisted of a 180 room caravanserai (resting place for pilgrims, animals, and travelers). The tomb itself was surprisingly beautiful, crafted from marble and gemstones (which, sadly, had been plucked out). There were decorations on the tomb touting the 99 attributes of Allah in Arabic, and we were impressed with Emperor Jehangir’s final resting place. Our cheap flip flops that we placed outside were met with a demand for 200 Rupee payment (for the safekeeping). We laughed and told the caretaker that the slippers weren’t even worth 200 Rupees! Saeed chimed in as well, and was quite indignant that such a scam would be attempted outside Jehangir’s tomb. He did recommend that a better way to earn money was to earn it, via being a local tour guide instead. So we instantly had a new tour guide, who definitely earned his keep when we helped us crawl through a sealed off area to scale one of the towering minarets soaring over the tomb. After admiring the bird’s eye view (and wondering how sturdy the minaret was post-earthquake), we headed towards the Tomb of Asif Khan. This onion-domed tomb had a small crawling space that Robby, Saeed, and Wajid Ali shimmied their way up towards. Minutes later, Becky spotted them on the roof of the tomb, where they looked miniscule in comparison to the massive structure.

We were keen on catching the Wagah border ceremony, which has taken place every day since 1948 at the border between Pakistan and India. This colorful ceremony is not to be missed, and we were told that the underdogs (Pakistan) always outperformed the mightier and more powerful India in shouting and chanting matches. However, the Pakistanis were weak from fasting during Ramazan, so today’s performance was an anomaly. Plus, the Pakistani border guards had just imposed a new 10 Rupee surcharge to witness the ceremony, and it obviously had a negative effect in the crowd’s turnout. Saeed told us to look out for a grizzled, old man who had been in attendance every single day for the past 6+ years! We soon spotted him, as he wore a mask of rage against his arch-rivals in India, was dressed from head to toe in the Pakistani flag colors, and furiously swung his Pakistani flag while drumming up the crowd for support.

The Wagah flag lowering and gate-closing ceremony is such a trip. We had a lot of fun witnessing it, even though foreign men were herded off to one side of the street, with foreign women sectioned off on the other side, while the locals were sent back to the bleachers further away. Saeed told us not to feel too bad about the segregation, since he said the view from the locals’ bleachers were quite superior to ours! We quickly learned the chant “Pakistan Zindabad!” (Long Live Pakistan) and we cheered as loudly as we could, but were drowned out by the Indian side (no wonder…the Indian side smartly had bus loads of “spectators” brought in to cheer for the performance) The whole ceremony takes about 45 minutes, and we laughed at the uniformed Pakistani guards, who goose-stepped smartly and clicked their heels loudly against the tarmac. It was such a neat event, with both India and Pakistan vying to have the sharpest looking performers.

The ceremony ended, and iftar (breaking the fast for a quick meal) was the next thing on our minds. So we settled for some delicious, deep fried samosas, which satiated our hunger. It wasn’t enough though, so we headed for Food Street in the search of some dinner grub. Remembering how much food we had heaped on us last night, we decided to share a simple meal of lamb chunks and bread, and the amount of food served was perfect.

22 OCT: We had to wake up early today since we had a lot of ground to cover. We were so early in fact, that we beat Wajid Ali and Saeed in our race down the lobby. The Liberty hotel staff was passed out on the couches, and we were reluctant to wake them up. Soon, however, they sensed our presence so they roused themselves up and eagerly practiced their limited English on us. They were actually quite surprised that Americans would stay at their hotel (it’s not listed in any guidebooks), but we told them we were quite willing to try anything once! Saeed eventually rescued us from one hotel staff member who was super anxious to get sponsorship to move to America, and we said goodbye to all of them.

Wajid Ali had a tough job today. With the two of us snoozing in the back of the car, he must have wanted to take a cat-nap too, but he had a long drive ahead of him. First stop was to the Rohtas Fort (Qila Rohtas), which was built by Sher Shah Suri in the 1500s. Amazingly, much of the fort remains fully intact, even 500 years later. We were met by a local guide who was keen on briefing us extensively on every detail of the fort. We were happy to wander around exploring the walls of the massive fortification, climbing over bastions, crawling through tunnels, and passing through massive gates. Two hours later, we had fully exerted our asthma-prone local guide, who constantly made futile attempts at preventing us from climbing the highest walls. We now knew every nook and cranny of Rohtas fort, and were ready to move onward to our next destination, the Khewra salt mines. Our local guide seemed insistent that he brief us even more, so we finally had to cut him off to prevent our day’s itinerary from becoming hindered.

We were quite keen on buying some of the dhol drum-beat music that we had listened to in Lahore, so Saeed scoured a local bazaar for some tapes. But he came up empty-handed and we figured we would have plenty of shopping opportunities in either ‘pindi or Peshawar. It took forever to find the obscure Khewra salt mines. We were amazed that a well-worn path had not been laid to this magnificent site. The salt mines are the second largest in the world (Poland currently sets the record), and there are underground caverns (17 layers in all), where we could explore. We opted to take the little steam engine train ride into the salt mine, where we were met by a local guide who explained the history of the area.

The Salt range was created by an ancient sea that once covered the entire region. It eventually stagnated and dried up, leaving behind massive deposits along a 300 KM area. The British were the first to truly exploit the region, and they helped expand the salt-mining operation in the late 1800s. Today, the salt-mine still yields enormous quantities of salt for consumption world-wide. We spent some time here just admiring the way salt-crystals light up in the dark (based on their chemical composition…we saw beautiful hues of pink, yellow, orange, and red glowing beneath artificial light sources). The salt mine itself is huge! There is even room for an underground mosque, post office, internet café, and lakes. Truly amazing. Our guide recommended we stick our tongues up against the walls, and sure enough…tasted salty!

Next on our plan was to head towards Islamabad and Rawalpindi to see a few sights before dark fall. Since we were fasting, our thoughts focused heavily on food, and we all voted that Chinese food would be our evening meal in Islamabad. But first, a detour up the Margalla hills towards Daman-e-Koh for a magnificent evening view over Islamabad. The Shah Faisal Mosque was the most dominant sight along the nightscape, and our stomachs were thrown in a lurch on the downward (and very windy) road back towards Islamabad. And they were soon settled by the sumptuous servings of steaming dishes served at Wang Fu’s. We ordered two main dishes and soup, but our table was soon covered by dishes galore, and we heartily consumed just about everything! Chinese food is something we can never say no to, and Wang Fu’s attracted a huge expat crowd who soon filled every table in there. And we know why! The cost of our meal came out to just over $10…not too shabby to feed 3 ravenous travelers.

We crashed at the very clean Green Palace hotel, and the manager of the hotel even came up to personally greet us. He told us to contact him immediately if we found anything to be unsatisfactory, and we were amazed at this VIP service so late at night! Only a few hours of sleep tonight since tomorrow we had an even busier agenda.

23 OCT: We woke up early and were whisked straight away up to the Shakarparian region (S. of Islamabad) for an early morning sunrise view over the city. Several young boys were doing tai chi for their morning workout, but they stopped as soon as they saw us and started inconspicuously following us around! They were dying for an excuse to start a conversation, but we were more into the beautiful gardens and morning view. Many of the trees at Shakarparian were planted by foreign dignitaries. And while they are beautifully planted, they are also cordoned off from the public, who may only gaze wistfully at them from beyond their fenced enclosure.

We were dying to check out the Shah Faisal Mosque, simply because it is the most prominent building in Islamabad. It is situated at the base of the Margalla hills, and was constructed in the 1970s and 80s. The mosque was a gift from Saudi Arabia’s King Faisal, who donated a whopping $50 M. Unlike most massive mosques in Pakistan, this one is completely modern looking, and the Turkish architects supposedly modeled it after a desert tent. We laughed when we read the urban myth that the CIA supposedly believed the massive 88 meter minarets to be missiles in disguise! The mosque was really neat, and we were advised to dress respectfully while visiting. So on went Becky’s Obi-Wan Kanobi hoodie, and we were invited inside the women’s only section and allowed to photograph the interior of the mosque. Saeed scared us when he climbed up one of the pillars of the sloping mosque walls, but he knew what he was doing!

First a quick stop to visit the earthquake devastated building in Islamabad. We read in the newspapers that the building code allowed for 10 story buildings. However, somehow this building had 12 stories, and was unable to withstand the reverberations of the earthquake. Apparently criminal charges are pending. We were amazed that the entire area had already been cleared out, and the debris taken away. Now all that remained were the still-standing buildings from the doomed apartment complex area. We were sad to learn that most of those killed in the building were women and children…they never had a chance at surviving the horrific destruction.

Taxila and Takht-i-Bahi were two Buddhist stops on our agenda today. Actually, only Taxila was, but we decided to include Takht-i-Bahi after hearing about it while at Taxila. Such is the flexibility of our own private driver/guide…it was nice to change things on the fly. Taxila is touted as a “must see” sight, especially if one has an interest in Buddhism and the art of Gandhara. We loved the Buddhas everywhere in Asia, and had recently made a trip out to Bamiyan (Afghanistan) to see the Buddha remains there. So we were very curious to see the state of Buddhas in Taxila.

Taxila is only located 35 km from Islamabad, so getting there didn’t take long at all. Our first stop was the Taxila museum, which houses most of the significant finds from the area. We were given the shakedown by one of the security guards, who gave us a “tour” and then demanded a tip. Don’t be swayed by this…the museum is small and in excellent shape. Everything is signposted in English, so dissuade any one who latches themselves to you as they won’t tell you anything you can’t read for yourself.

Afterwards, we headed out towards the excavation area, and the first stop was Bhir mound. There was nothing noteworthy to see, as most of it remains unexcavated. The local children were out in full force playing cricket, and we decided to leave them be in search of another site. Second stop was Jaulian, which sits on a hill overlooking the countryside. While all the original stupas are now gone, the carvings here are phenomenal. There are numerous 5th century votive stupas that have incredible carvings and detail. Animals, Buddhas, and figurines adorn the base of these stupas, and most are still in excellent shape. The caretaker proudly escorted us around to the Buddhist monastery, where the student’s meditation cells were still intact. We could see why this location was chosen as a place of worship…the views from Jaulian were really serene!

Saeed mentioned that Takht-i-Bahi was another great area to further explore the Gandhara’s ruins. So we headed up north to visit the 7th century A.D. Buddhist monastery. Wajid Ali was running ragged, since we had been going, going, going. So Robby was asked if he wanted to drive, and he agreed. Driving in Pakistan is just like driving in Afghanistan, except there is a lot more traffic in Pakistan! Plus the locals absolutely ogled Robby…perhaps they were amazed that a Westerner dared to drive? In any case, we made good time and arrived to Takht-i-Bahi intact (hooray!) and ready for some sightseeing. Takht-i-Bahi is situated high on a rocky outcrop that commands 360 degree panoramas of the surrounding area. We hiked up the hill and entered into an enclosure that once held 35 stupas and 30 chapels full of Buddha statues. There are remains of a kitchen, dining hall, monk’s cells, and sunken chambers. We climbed up to the very top of the hill for a view overlooking all of Takht-i-Bahi. While we were resting up there, along comes a sole Japanese backpacker…the Japanese are so intrepid! We don’t know how he made his way here, but there he was, scrambling uphill while being chased by “antique Buddha” vendors!

The caretaker, who proudly displayed his photo in a book that had been published over 30 years ago, demanded baksheesh after our tour was over. Saeed worked it out with him, but was certain that the caretaker was pocketing all the proceeds! He demanded a receipt, which was obliged but did little to appease Saeed’s fears that the entrance fees were not going to benefit Takht-i-Bahi.

We did notice that more women here were covered up with the pale blue burqas (similar to Afghanistan). Saeed explained that we were in a male-dominated area, where women weren’t supposed to be seen, let alone heard! This area of Pakistan reminded us of Afghanistan, as the donkey carts and tongas (a 2 or 4 wheeled horse-drawn cart, normally quite colorful) were in full view on the bustling roads.

Next stop was Peshawar, which is the capital of the NWFP (North West Frontier Province). It still has a wild, wild, west appeal to it. Our guidebook explained that “Peshawar tantalizes the traveler with romance, intrigue and danger. Its crowded old city is straight out of a storybook – steaming samovars dispense green tea into tiny enameled pots and eager boys race these to reclining merchants, while the smell of dates, kebabs, and boiling curd wafts over the endless murmur of (an almost all-male) humanity. The picture is rudely superimposed against the 21st century: there are more plastic buckets than brass urns, more autorickshaws than camels and probably more mobile phones concealed than daggers, but the past is persuasive, touchable, visible”

We stopped by the Bala Hisar Fort, where the soldiers guarding the facility refused to let us enter (not sure if it was the late time of the day). They did agree to pose for photos with us, and sent us on our way to the Mahabat Khan Mosque. We ended up parking the vehicle and walking through crowded alleyways to reach the mosque. It was packed with devotees reciting their evening prayers just before iftar. It is supposedly the city’s finest mosque, and we were warmly welcomed inside. The mosque itself has a bit of a tarnished history. Built in 1600s, its minarets were once used as the staging ground for executions. But today, there is nothing that sinister in motion. We tried to enter the caravanserai for a better view of the mosque, but the boy that held the key was no where to be found. So we settled for a wander down Namak Mendi (Food Street), where we staged ourselves in front of a fresh fruit vendor in preparation for the iftar rush.

The people of Peshawar were super friendly, and we were soon offered sweet dates and dinner invitations in private homes. But we declined, as we had been advised to partake in some delicious mutton karai. And boy, were we glad we held out. Dinner was absolutely delicious, after which we were brought tea pots full of green tea. Is there ever a point in the night where one can consume too much tea? Our hosts didn’t think so, and they kept pouring cup after cup of delicious tea in front of us.

We actually befriended an ex-Taliban fighter tonight. He was our waiter, and we asked him to join us for a bit so we could talk. His story was simple, but amazing. He was only a few years older than us, and had been recruited by his Mullah to go fight the infidels up North and to the West. Well, he joined up, as any young, eager teenager would. Later on he realized the infidels up North were part of Ahmad Shah Masoud’s Northern Alliance. He was horrified that he has been ordered to kill fellow Muslims, and had the exact same reaction in the West when he realized the Iranians were also Muslim! So he fled over the border to Pakistan, where he had family members hiding out. From here, he was trying to live a simple life, while caring for a wife and 8 children! Talk about needing birth control…he only made $1.50 a day, working 18 hours every single day. And he considered himself lucky…at least he was earning wages to feed the family. Somehow, it seemed ironic that the both of us (ex-army soldiers) could befriend an ex-Taliban member. But such is the way of Peshawar, where anything goes.

Reconfirming our return flight on Pakistan International Airways was a bit of a nightmare. Thank God for Saeed. He found a local office in Peshawar (that was still open at 2200), and we were able to get our tickets reconfirmed. Apparently, PIA releases any unconfirmed tickets at 1500 the day prior to travel. So we were lucky that there were still open slots available to us.

Afterwards, we made our way to our night’s lodgings, which was the immaculate VIP House (TM Group of guesthouses, contact info: 092-91-5843392/5854860). This hotel was top-notch…gorgeous antique décor and wonderful, spacious rooms. We were sad that we only had one night’s stay here…the bed was sumptuous and lulled us to sleep immediately.

24 OCT: Woke up early to see if we could get an escort for our Khyber pass visit. We had read that the Khyber pass itself was a long, winding, and barren passage, and since it passed through a lawless tribal area, an escort was absolutely mandatory. Unfortunately, we were told that our escort would be unavailable until about 9 or 10 am that morning. Since our return flight to Kabul departed at 1330 that afternoon, we didn’t want to risk the possibility of delays that would result in missing our flight. So we opted to see what else Peshawar had to offer.

The Smuggler’s bazaar was absolutely barren early this morning. We saw the section where weaponry was sold (gun shops), but a large signpost warned us that foreigners were not permitted to enter. Saeed explained to us that if we were able to convince one of the vendors to sell us a gun, a secret call would be made to the police and we would be “ratted” out. That way, the police could claim a “bribe” when confronting you (or else send you off to jail!) Not our cuppa tea, so we left the smuggler’s bazaar and headed over towards the Islamia College.

Islamia College was built in 1913. This beautiful campus (opened only to men) has an amazing Victorian style architecture, and its famous for being depicted on the 100 RS note. We wandered through the campus, and walked into the mosque in time to hear the morning prayers. Afterwards, we decided to head back towards Islamabad, but got sidetracked at the Peshawar Museum. It wasn’t opened yet, but for a small fee, we were able to rush about the exhibits and look at the amazing Buddhist statues and friezes. Absolutely amazing…although it would have been nice to spend a bit more time here.

But time was limited. So we hopped back into our car and headed back towards Islamabad. On the way, we stopped by a small shack where we were able to pick up some Pakistani folk music CDs. Saeed suggested that we take a short detour to the Galra Shareef Shrine, where we were able to witness some qawwali (Islamic devotional singing and music) before heading over to the airport.

We were a bit paranoid about missing our flight (traffic was heavy), and made it to the airport with just over an hour to spare. But thankfully, we found the airport to be tiny, and were able to easily check in and get our boarding passes with enough time. But first, we had to say our goodbyes to Wajid Ali and Saeed for a great time in Pakistan. We definitely plan on coming back to visit Northern Pakistan and the KKH. Until next time!

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