Day 97 – Lahore
We were now waiting on the shock absorber to arrive from Karachi, and so with no further bike necessities needed to been looked at for the day, we decided to Lahore it up a bit. After a late breakfast, we were driven by Saleem, one of the staff of the Salvation Army, down to the fort. Located right at the border between the Old Town, and the newer areas, it is unclear who the original builders were, although excavations indicate it may be as old as a thousand years. Over the years, it has been added to by successive generations of conquerors, until now it is truly enormous, and consists of more rooms and pavilions than we had time to see in the two hours that we were there. As we approached the main entrance, we were met a by man called Anjum Butt (…), who offered his services as a tour guide. His rates were very reasonable, and so we decided to go with it. What a great idea that turned out to be. It seems that every wall, every alcove, was infused with meaning. We passed carefully manicured gardens, filled with brightly coloured flowers, elegant rose gardens, pools built into the middle of courtyards, with platforms for musicians and dancers to entertain the royal family, cleverly constructed water features that kept streams of perfumed water running down panels that filled the air with the fragrance of rose-water and jasmine, giant staircases leading up to huge rooms where elephants used to be stabled, the palace of glass, buildings covered in mirrors imported from Syria and frescos painted with crushed banyan leaves and powder of lapis lazuli.
Some aspects of the fort actually seemed quite comical. One portion of a large stairwell built for the elephants had been partially demolished, to stop the elephants from disturbing the officers drinking in the pub. The main gates to the whole fort were actually shaped like gigantic elephants feet. As we wandered from palace to kitchen, to grand hall to courtyard, it seemed that the place went on forever, never turning back on itself, an enormous maze. We stopped by a few of the craft shops there, famous for stocking some of the weapons (at least copies of the weapons) that have been used in such films as Conan the Barbarian. But in addition to a veritable armoury, there was also on display some of the most beautiful and elegant wooden carvings, including plates carved out of a single piece of wood, that with a cunning twist of the wrist, turned into a 3D fruit bowl.
Hmmm, I don’t think that quite captures it… uh…. it’s really really cool, uh… I’ll tell you what, next time you come to visit, remind me to show them to you, because we bought two of them.
There was supposed to be an Indian delegation arriving at any moment, so we had to hustle along a bit. The next stop was the Badshahi Mosque situated opposite the Fort, and is the fifth largest Mosque in the world. The courtyard alone is spectacular, large enough to be able to enclose the Taj Mahal. The entire complex is built of red sandstone tiles, topped with white tiled domes. Narrow woven carpets lead from the entrance to the compound up to the mosque itself, thoughtfully dampened at regular intervals to ensure that the bare feet of infidels and faithful alike are not burned too badly.
Inside, though, everything was cool, tiled serenity. But that was not the best part. The Emperor has commissioned Turkish architects to include in the design some exceptionally cunning acoustic devices. In one room about 15 m in length, one person standing facing into the corner will speak, and be heard with perfect clarity by another standing in the opposite corner. In another chamber, if one hums at just the right frequency, the entire room becomes a resonance chamber, hugely amplifying the sound until it seems that the air itself is singing out, which is exactly the effect that the designers were going for. In another corridor, standing in precisely the right spot will result in your own words being magnified several times over. As a physicist, this was an incredible experience, and to think that it was all constructed before the actual principles of acoustics were formally understood.
By now it was after 1:00, and it was time to go meet our driver. After saying goodbye to Mr Butt (…), we jumped in and headed for home, winding our way through the crazy traffic, even more crazy than Cairo, due to the large numbers of bikes on the road, some of them even travelling the wrong way down the road.
Shan had been very keen to find a Pakistani outfit, and earlier that morning, she had spoken to the lady who does the cleaning here. She had offered to actually make Shan an outfit, now just the material needed to be purchased. Shan gave her some money, and she promised to have the outfit ready by that evening. Anael, a Swiss girl that had been here for the last month working on a collaborative project in Pakistan, was returning home to Switzerland that night, and was wanting to pick up some scarves in the bazaar, and Shan was keen to accompany her and see the place. When she presented herself as ready to go to the bazaar, the other girls were horrified. It seems that Shan had been assuming that the most important thing was making sure that her hair was covered. In fact, that was completely irrelevant. The real concern was making sure that one was wearing a long enough top that the bum was completely covered. Well, that explains the stares. It would seem army trousers are as good as a mini skirt around here.
The girls offered to find Shan a shalwar and kamis (traditional Pakistani trousers and top) from amongst their outfits, but this proved to be no easy feat, as Shan is quite a bit taller than any of the girls here. For the next hour, the girls rummaged through the wardrobes of every Salvation Army officer on the base, but even the longest one that they could find left a significant gap between the side slits in the top and the bottom half of the outfit. So, armed with this questionable covering, and accompanied by three men from the Salvation Army, Shan and Anael went searching through the bazaar for the scarves. In one scarf shop, they were shown over a hundred different scarves, even after they had actually chosen the scarves that they were looking for. All the while, the proprietor kept chewing on betel nut, a mild narcotic endemic to the area, and every now and then he would launch a ripe wad of spit through red-strained teeth into a small spittoon with unerring accuracy.
Whenever we get to a new place, John is our researcher, and often turns up some real gems of local interest. This time, he had come across mention of a flag-lowering ceremony that took place at the Pakistan/India border at sunset. Intrigued, we decided to have a look, and at around 4:00, we jumped into the car and Saleem drove us the 45 minutes to the border. The drive itself was quite lovely, alongside a broad canal for most of the way, with trees dipping their branches into the flowing water alongside people taking a late afternoon swim next to banks covered in brightly coloured flowers, looking like a truck of smarties had overturned on the side of the road, spilling its contents onto the grass.
When we arrived at the border, a large crowd had already gathered. We passed under the entrance pavilion, and saw that on either side of the road, grandstands had been built that were rapidly filling up with families here for the show. It seems that this is a very popular way to spend an afternoon, and very soon the seats were packed. We even saw school groups that had come to see the show, although perhaps that is a poor choice of words, as one of the groups was from a school for the blind. But we soon discovered that they would still get a good show, as cheerleaders emerged from the central building, with flags waving, and began screaming and shouting to get the crowd warmed up, shaking their fists in fury when the shouting wasn’t loud enough, and blowing kisses and clapping when the crowd was particularly energetic. Then came the soldiers, charging out in a furious march down towards the border gate. From the opposite side, their Indian counterparts advanced towards them, both sides dressed in full uniform, including hats that added at least an extra foot to their height. For the next half an hour, we watched in cheerful wonder as the soldiers, always perfectly matched by the Indian soldiers performed a series of ceremonial moves that included marche with legs lifted so high that they would have knocked the hats off of the soldier in front of them if he had been any closer. All the while the cheerleaders on both sides of the border were whipping their respective crowds into a patriotic frenzy, clapping and cheering. Eventually, it was time for the actual flag to be lowered. This was done over the course of several minutes with more marching and kicks to make a can-can dancer’s eyes water. Once down, the flag was briskly folded and marched back to the main building, which is apparently the main competition of the event. We were later told proudly that Pakistan always manages to get its flag folded first, apparently a point of national pride. The whole ceremony took about an hour, and was absolutely fantastic, a brilliant example of great entertainment from nothing more than a flag being lowered.
That evening we joined the Wards again for dinner, a delicious pasta with real parmesan cheese, which was quickly demolished. While we were eating, Aamir from the train ride from Quetta, arrived for a visit, together with his mother, who is still insistent that Shan marry her son. He had been keen to see us while we were in Lahore, and this was the only chance we would have. Unfortunately, the Wards had also invited a group of the young people from the church to come over, to give us a chance to speak to some young adults from Pakistan and understand their perspective. This meant that there were a lot of different groups of conversations to bounce around between, but it was absolutely fascinating to be able to understand the world that these young people, many of a similar age to us, live in. As Christians (this is stamped onto their ID cards), they are frequently denied equal opportunities in favour of Muslims, and they feel in many ways like second class citizens. Perhaps even more tragically, as Pakistanis, they are routinely harassed when travelling overseas, which means that whether they are at home or abroad, there is no place where they are able to feel like they are regarded on equal footing with everyone else. We were struck as well by their courage and determination as they spoke with hope of the future. It seems that Pakistan is a country with many problems, particularly with the current crop of politicians in charge, but always hope springs forth. Speaking to them, I was also struck by how easy it would be to start a life here. These were people that I could see becoming good friends if we had the time to stay longer. Many of them were also teachers, and spoke fondly of their students, much as I would do at the end of a day with my house-mates from last year. All of them were also highly educated, with a couple having studied their masters degrees abroad. But for good or bad, there’s no place like home.
We spoke for several hours, but eventually it was time for them to be on their way, and we said our goodnight. The bad news was that we had had no news from the mechanic, which meant that it would be unlikely that we would be leaving early the next morning, as we had planned. Hopefully, he will have it fixed by the next morning, and as long as it wasn’t too late, we would then be on our way before lunchtime, which would give us enough time to make it across the border into India and reach the city of Amritsar.