03. Pakistan

The visa shuffle – Part 2

Day 2 started out as a carbon copy of the first.

The Uzbek embassy was the next on the list. So again, after breakfast, it was another taxi ride with Shafiq to the embassy at 10am – the opening time for visa applications according to the embassy website.

This is where things began to differ.  After arriving at 10:01am, the security guard ushered me in to the grounds of the embassy where I was invited to sit on a long bench beside a high wall in the garden. Shortly afterwards a small door opened behind a grate in a slot in the wall. The slot was no more than 400mm wide by 200mm high – just big enough to pass A4 documents through.

The face behind the grate was extremely friendly and asked the usual visa questions (do you have all the paperwork, why do you want to visit my country and, more importantly, do have US$105 cash). After these formalities, the friendly face behind the grate invited me to wait on the bench again. As the bench had an awning to provide some shade from the already searing sun I happily settled in to wait.

For how long, I had no idea.

To my utter amazement, it was only about 5-10min later that Mr. Friendly Face reappeared behind the grate and handed my passport back to me complete with Uzbek visa, shook my hand (with some difficulty throught the grate) welcomed me to his country and wished me well in my travels. At 10:20am I walked out of the embassy garden back to Shafiq who was waiting nearby and headed back to the NCG.

Incredibly, the whole process had taken less than 20min!

While today’s process lacked the elegance of yesterday’s audience in the formal reception room of the Kyrgyz embassy, the sheer efficiency of the slot in the wall more than compensated and left me somewhat stunned.

Two visas in two days. Could I get the hat-trick? Only tomorrow will tell.

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The visa shuffle – Part 1

The formal reception room where we had an audience with the Kyrgyz ambassador. Very stately! You will have to forgive the finger in the upper left-hand corner.

The Kyrgyz embassy was the first on the list. So after breakfast, it was a local taxi to the embassy at 10am – the opening time for visa applications according to the embassy website. After waiting outside the front gate with the security guard for 30min I, along with three others, was allowed in to the embassy where we were greeted very hospitably by the Kyrgyz ambassador himself. Only to be told that visa hours were from 3-5pm due to the power blackouts. However, the ambassador very graciously talked us through the process and how to make the payment of US$55 at the correct branch of the correct bank and told us to come back at 3pm. So at 3pm we all returned to the embassy where we treated like old friends while the ambassador regaled us with stories of Kyrgyz culture (yes, we are Muslim but we like wodka even more), what it was like growing up under the Soviet Union and what it meant to the Kyrgyz people when the Soviet Union finally collapsed. By 3:30pm we were done and I left with a Kyrgyz visa in my hand and very friendly impression of the Kyrgyz people in my heart.

One visa down, two to go!

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Life at the inn.

The New Cape Grace Guest House – my new home for a couple of weeks.

Off the motorway and into the streets of Islamabad, I made my way to my hotel with only the usual number of “scenic detours”. The New Cape Grace Guest House (NCG) was several universes away from the Avari but, hey, that was to be expected. There had been a mix-up in the booking and I had to spend the first two nights in rather downbeat quarters but Karim, the owner, and his son, Samir, went out of their way to move me to a better room as soon as one became available.

I proceeded to settle into a new rhythm of life at the NCG and I got to know the names of most of the other staff: Munir, Imran and Tariq and tried to use my few words of Urdu as often as possible. The NCG was to serve simply as a base while I applied for visas to Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Advice posted on various travel websites indicated that it could possibly take 2-3 weeks to get all three. I was hoping to achieve it in much less than that. Not just for financial reasons – Islamabad is a very expensive city, comparable to any big city in Australia – but because there is simply not enough to see or do to keep one occupied for that length of time.

So it was time to start crossing embassies off my “to do” list.

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On the road to Islamabad

Motorcycling heaven! Never been happier to see a virtually deserted 6-lane freeway.

Relaxed and refreshed after two nights of 5-star luxury, it was time to hit the road again. But heading out of Lahore the bike suffered a catastrophic failure – the horn stopped working! On the sub-continent, only two things are essential for surviving the traffic madness – the throttle and the horn. Everything else, including brakes, is optional apparently.

No matter. Press on regardless.

The M2 motorway is about 75km longer than the GT Rd but promised unhindered travel by avoiding the endless bottlenecks caused by the innumerable market towns along the way. However, there was one small problem. Motorcycles are not allowed on the motorway. Or so I had been told. I had also been told that international vehicles were exempt. And I had also been told that motorcycles could use the motorway if the motorcycle and rider met certain conditions.

– over 250cc: Check

– rider over 25years old: Check

– licensed for over 5 years: Check

I had also been told that I would need to get a special permit from an office in the city which didn’t open until 9am. The thought of waiting around until 9am and then going back into the Lahore CBD to try to find this obscure office and then trying to get the permit was too much for me. I headed out of Lahore and hoped I wouldn’t get stopped.

Wrong!

At the toll gate entering the M2 motorway, I got pulled over by the Motorway Police 5m after I got my toll pass. Immediately, I was asked for my permit. I told them that I had been told that international vehicles were exempt. (Which was true – I HAD been told international vehicles were exempt. I just didn’t know if it was true or not). After a slightly uneasy introduction, phone calls were made to somebody’s superior officer and, while waiting for a decision, I had a very friendly chat to the police who wanted to know all about my family and life in Australia. Eventually, after about 10-15min, they wished me well and waved me on my way up the M2.

The M2 was everything that the GT Rd wasn’t. Six lanes of virtually deserted world-class freeway. No donkeys stubbornly refusing to unblock intersections, no bullocks hauling drays massively overloaded with bricks, no cycleshaws going so slowly that if they went any slower they would be going backwards. And everybody driving on the right side of the road. Bonus! (Well, almost everybody)

For the first time since arriving in Kathmandu, It was a joy and a relief to be able to ride without worrying about where the next kamikaze driver, goat or pothole was coming from. Kilometre after kilometre of effortless cruising at 100-110km/h as the bike was finally able to breathe freely once again after weeks of dredging along congested roads in 2nd and 3rd gear.

The Salt Range emerging from the smog. The first elevated land since I dropped down out of the Kathmandu Valley and onto the Terai in Nepal.

Gradually, out of the smog and heat haze emerged the low mountains of the Salt Range which divides the Indus river plain from the broad flat plain of the Punjab. The M2 elegantly carved its way over the range providing many stretches of very enjoyable riding punctuated only by occasional heavy trucks and buses playing “I think I can, I think I can” as they stuggled to haul themselves up and over the range.

From the Salt Range it was just a short ride to Islamabad which was to be my home for about 1-2 weeks while I applied for my next batch of visas.

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Lahori days (continued)

The guys from PBC with Moritz

After visiting the Lahore Museum, my next goal was the 16th century Lahore Fort. By now, however, the temperature was back over the 40 degree mark and the prospect of spending a couple of hours wandering around the fort was less than appealing – no matter how worthy the fort may be.

Instead, I chose something with much more contemporary origins.

Within the international motorcycling community there is a highly respected website called HorizonsUnlimited which is run/hosted/maintained by Grant and Susan Johnson. This site is an ABSLOUTE MUST for anyone who is planning to go motorcycling overseas. The HorizonsUnlimited (HU) website contains a phenomenal amount of information about every aspect of overseas motorcycling including destinations, documentation, freight and choice of bike.

As well as this “nuts and bolts” aspect, HU acts as a virtual meeting place for motorcyclists on the road. Riders can contact other riders who may be in the same city/town/village at the same time. Through HU I got a message from Moritz who happened to be in Lahore at the same time I was. Moritz had been travelling on his Honda Transalp for a few months from Germany eastwards on his way somewhere else.

Independently, Moritz and I had both been in contact with the Pakistan Bikers Club. The PBC consists of a bunch of enthusiastic motorcyclists from all walks of life who meet regularly to organise rides and other social events. So Moritz and I met up with Omar and the guys from PBC and had a great time talking to them about motorcycling and motorcycle travel in Europe and Australia. Large capacity bikes are such a rarity here that they attract huge attention wherever you go.

As well as sharing some delicious local food, Omar offered lots of valuable information and suggestions about travelling along the Karakoram Highway to China (the next phase of my trip after I leave Islamabad) as the guys from the PBC have travelled this route many times and have lots of contacts along the way.

So, if you are ever in Lahore, make sure you contact the PBC. They love meeting foreign motorcyclists and will go out of their way to provide any sort of assistance they can – including trying to track down spare parts or tyres for bikes which are uncommon in Pakistan.

The plan was to then visit Lahore Fort in the cool of the evening. However, the evening still wasn’t cool (about 30-35 degrees). And so, tired but happy, that was enough social interaction for one day and I headed home for one last night of luxury at the Avari.

Tomorrow would bring a quick dash up the road to Islamabad – the Canberra of Pakistan!

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Lahore Museum

The spectacular entrance to the Lahore museum

Suitably rejuvenated in body and soul, I ventured out of my 5-star bubble and into the real Lahore. First stop the Lahore Museum. The museum building is a fabulous piece of architecture constructed in its distinctive red brick with a white marble portico. Inside, the museum itself is a monument to faded grandeur. Most of the exhibit rooms were closed off while major, and much needed, renovations are carried out.  This left only a small selection of exhibit rooms open for display. And what a disjointed selection they were. One room was dedicated to an odd collection of Buddhist artefacts from as far afield as Burma, while another resembled a B-grade art gallery from the 1960’s. Yet another was a peculiar collection of ceramic figurines.  Another contained fabulous examples of Islamic calligraphy – some dating back to the 10th and 12th century. For me, however,  the best was the prehistoric and ancient civilisations room. This contained examples of stone axes and clubs dating from 300,000BCE. There were also extensive displays of the Mohenjo-daro civilisation and the Ghandaran civilisation – one of the first major Buddhist empires.

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Lahori days

At first, arriving in Lahore seemed to promise nothing except more of the same – sweltering heat, chaotic traffic and grimy slums. And one day seemed more than enough. Just an overnight stop and then one final push up the M2 motorway to Islamabad to start the visa tango.

But serendipity is a wonderful thing!

Sitting at a set of traffic lights that I hoped, rather than knew, would take me to the hotel where I was planning to stay a guy on a little bike beside me asked where I was going. I told him the Avari. He said follow me, I work at the Avari.  I’m on my way to work now. So I followed my good samaritan, Khouri, on his miniscule 100cc bike as enthusiastically as my big yellow monster would allow while we dodged and weaved through Lahore’s lunchtime lunacy.

At the border post of Wagah, I had been told that the Avari Hotel was a 3-star hotel – good enough for me, thinks I, following my expensive, but ultimately disappointing, spluge at the Samrat in Delhi. However, the Avari Hotel was any but a 3-star hotel. It was the full-blown, gold-plated, crystal-chandeliered, grand piano playing, over-the-top, luxury 5-star hotel – the likes of which I have never before experienced.  So, after making an instantaneous executive decision to refund my “Fast Forward to 5-star Hotel” (on the spurious grounds that the Samrat wasn’t a real 5-star hotel!), I leapt at the opportunity to wash the last traces of India out of my psyche and start afresh in a new and different land.

The Avari must employ half of Lahore because they had somebody to do everything for you. Open doors, carry luggage, press lift buttons, turn your bed down at night. A level of luxury that is beyond the comprehension of the vast majority of locals who live beyond the pale. But obviously there is an elite in Lahore who accept this as a normal way of life. There were very few western tourists there so I must have been a bit of a curiosity to them arriving in my daggy motorcycling gear.

And all of this for about AUD$100/night!!! I have spent more than that on dank roadside motels up and down the Bruce Highway.

So I spent one and a half days having my every whim attended to by a veritable army of hotel staff. Nothing was too much trouble. After a while though, the overwhelming obsequiousness began to grate and I just wanted to be left alone to do things for myself..

Inexplicably, one of the hotel’s many restaurants (I never did find them all) was holding a Tex/Mex night. This would have been bizarre enough in itself but , in addition, the waiters were dressed up in cowboy costumes. And one unfortunate soul bore a disturbing resemblance to Mr. Bean dressed up as Woody from Toy Story. I was just waiting for John Denver’s “Take me home country road” to replace the Urdu pop songs and the line dancing to start!

After a night of deep sleep in a bed that came with your choice pillows (firm, soft, down, foam among several other options) I indulged in a buffet breakfast that would put many Australian restaurants to shame.

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Entering the lands of Allah.

The Indian officials really didn’t want to let me go. They only opened the gates just wide enough to let me pass!

Leaving Amritsar today meant not only leaving India but also leaving the Hindu world, which has been my home for the last two and a bit weeks, and entering the Islamic world where I will remain until I finally cross the Bosphorus back into the Western world in Bulgaria in mid/late August. One aspect of the 2012 calendar that I could not avoid was that Ramadan falls right in the middle of my travels across this part of Asia. Specifically, all of my time in Iran will be during Ramadan. Could be interesting!

But I am getting well ahead of myself.

Today was about crossing another border. Leaving India turned out to be harder than entering India. Admittedly the Attari/Wagah border crossing was never going to be the friendliest given the friction between India and Pakistan over the last 60 or 70 years. But, even so, was it really necessary for Indian Customs to the check the chassis number AGAIN! And the engine number AGAIN! – paricularly as I burnt my hand on the hot exhaust pipe trying to wipe away the dirt and grime so they could read it. Did they really think I had done a complete engine and frame swap somewhere between Sonauli and Attari in the last eight days? After taking nearly two hours to clear Indian Customs and Immigration I was stopped three more times in the last 200m to the strip of no-mans land for passport checks before I was finally allowed to leave India.

All this official administrivia just to LEAVE India for Pakistan. I dread to think what it must be like trying to ENTER India from Pakistan.

And as a final kick in the guts, it was 47 degrees in Amritsar today!

By comparison, the Pakistani border formalities were somewhat more relaxed if low-tech. Despite getting to Pakistani Customs and Immigration before the coach-load of people returning to Pakistan, I still had to wait until they were all processed. But it was OK. I was out of the sun, I had a chair, I had water to drink and I had nothing else to do. Eventually my turn came and, after almost 90min and with good humour, I was welcomed to Pakistan  – something that never happened in India!

So, another successful 3hr border crossing – another day spent in blistering 45 degree heat! Lahore is only about 20km up the road so that will be it for me today.

Tomorrow, it is back on the road – this time about 350km to Islamabad for a long break (about 2 weeks) while I play musical chairs with three embassies trying to get the next batch of visas and permits.

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