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06/08 – 10/08 – Rawalpindi to Amritsar – too hot for cycling

November 10, 2011
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The night under the fan was a blessing – a full nights sleep, saw us ready to tackle the searing heat and the busy road to Lahore.

This was going to be a tough run – the heat had escalated to new heights of +40 degrees. The air was humid, the heat relentless, and the road teeming with agressive, lawless traffic. Luckily for us there was a hard shoulder, but it did little to offer us any protection from the Pakistanis brandishing their trucks and motorcycles, overtaking unawares of two little cyclists to their left. Trucks would hurtle past honking their horns, merely saying hello, but quite literally deafening us as they howled past. The motorbikers were worse, trying to initiate conversation while moving, often oblivious to their proximity to us aswell as the proximity of passing traffic – sometimes two or three at a time.

The heat really was too much to bare, and by lunch time all our energy had been zapped. We had to hide during lunch because of Ramazan, meant we often escaped to a nearby roof or hid behind a truck to eat in private. Sometimes though the need for a cold drink was to instant and i couldnt help but neck it then and there in the shop – much to the startled looks of those around me. I kept forgetting that it was Ramazan, and its offensive for me to be eating or drinking anything during the day. I tried hard to remember to ask before i did so, and everytime i did no one objected – people were even insistant at times that i did eat or drink – but it often slipped my mind.

During our various conversations with people on motorbikes, we increassingly met people who were from the UK, over in Pakistan on holiday to visit family. Its quite a bizarre thing to be in Pakistan and then hear a Brummy accent shout ‘alright mate!’ from behind you as he goes by on the back of a bike. One more memorable introduction was with a young guy who told me he was on the run from the police in Bradford for dealing smack. He boasted about how much money he used to make as a dealer, the prostitutes he used to bang in Picadilly (he even gave me a good reference – watch out Michelle) and the bags of drugs he used to carry around with him. I was unsure to believe him – though he did have two shiny gold front teeth and was driving a brand new motobike, and had a really heavy northern accent. Either way I entertained his story for a bit before he dissappeared, only to reappear again telling me Julian was behind me and I should wait. He invited me to stop and to buy me a cup of tea, which turned into three. Never would you trust someone in the UK who tells you he deals smack, but in Pakistan he buys you a cup of tea. Nuts.

That night was a particularly hot one. We were too far from the nearest town to stop into a hotel, so we stopped at a petrol station conveniently just as the scramble alarm/explosion was going off for breaking the fast, and we were promptly invited to a chow down of bhajis, apples and tadziki. They offered for us to put our tents in the car park of the petrol station, and we happily obliged. We didnt appreciate the warmth concrete stores until that night. It was an impossible sleep. I spent 5 hours between the shower, sleeping in my tent to avoid the insects, and sleeping outside to avoid the oven of my tent. The night patrol staff of the petrol station did what they could to help us, but they couldnt do much,not at least until the guy on shift at 3am woke up from under the giant fan, surrendered his charpoy to us and we got a couple of hours sleeping outside the door of the shop to the petrol station under the fans cooling breeze.

We werent going to make another mistake like that again, and every night to the border we stayed in hotels. Luckily, theyre so cheap in Pakistan, it wasnt such a problem. I never appreciated a rotary fan as much as i have in the last few days.

We stopped for the night in Gujrat, then pushed for Lahore. The road into Lahore was insane. We arrived on the outskirts of the city as night fell, meaning we had to undertake the mammoth task of finding our way into the city in the dark. Of course, no street lights, manic driving, a loss of the hard shoulder, and recent flooding on the road made for a wild ride. Many people were casually cycling along the highway with no lights, as if it was no bother – they were even more insane than we were. We eventually got into the middle of town and found a cheap bed and crashed out under the fan.

The next day was the last in Pakistan, or so we thought. The border is only 30km away, and we were planning to see the closing ceremony that started at 430,so we had loads of time. We spent it drinking mango smoothies behind a curtain (its still Ramazan) and using the internet, just to let people know we didn’t die in Pakistan. We head out to the border around 2pm, being glued to the computers reading about the riots in London. We get to the border only to find that they have closed the actual gates in time for the ceremony, meaning we can only cross tomorrow. Disaster. We wanted to be in Amritsar tonight to celebrate Julian’s birthday. We were not happy, but there was nothing we could do. We checked into the PTDC hotel at the border, pleading with them to let us camp for free inthe grounds as we literally had spent all our rupees. They very kindly agreed, and we went to go and watch the ceremony from the Pakistani side.

For anyone who’s seen Michael Palin’s account of the ceremony, or been there themselves, they know what its about. Its quite a pompous and rather ludicrous affair. Theres two big gates, one Pakistani and one Indian. There are grandstands on both sides – The Pakistani side was mildly populated whereas the Indian side was rammed. Two guys come out to get the crowd going, swinging sticks and shouting. Theres a bizarre competition between two men over the loudspeakers – to who can hold the longest ‘AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH’ The Pakistani’s always win, much to the rapture of the crowd. Then the soldiers come out, doing a rediculously over zealous march with heavy stamping – their legs literally go as high as their heads as they try to outstamp eachother over the fence. Theres a rallying cry and the soldiers gnash their teeth like animals at the opposition, clenching their fists and beating their chests, doing it all while holding Ak47’s. Every now and again they open the gate, flamboyantly march upto eachother, shake hands while looking eachother dead in the eye, then march back to the ranks, feet over head, again to the rapture of the crowd. It all culminates in who can pull down their respective flag the fastest, again the Pakistani’s winning outright. There’s a big salute, joyous shouts of PAKISTAN! PAKISTAN! Then everyone goes home.

We get spotted by the crowd and people rush over to take pictures of the Gohre (whiteboys) we have to refuse offers to be driven back to Lahore to break the fast with various different characters before we duck into the safety of the PTDC hotel.

The hotel staff are lovely and accomodating, allowing us to cook on theporch and use the restuarant space to relax in away from the insects. Around 7pm the power goes, meaning the fans go, and we all start to roast in the night heat. An Afghani guest is concerned for us sleeping outside, and offers to pay for a room for us for the night. We politely refuse, but he insists – before we know it we’ve moved all our stuff inside and are sweating in the comfort of a room as opposed to the mosquito ridden discomfort of the garden. We received unbelivable generosity from this gentleman – I was surprised to receive so much warmth from a man who’s country is so ravaged by war, in which we are involved. He was going to India to inquire about treatment for his son who was badly burned all across his face and body in a bomb blast. He didnt mention anything about the war. All he said was that we are all gods people, and we shouldnt sleep outside. I was speechless with humble admiration.

That evening i had quite a deep chat with the cleaner. It turned out, despite his typically Pakistani appearance, that he was christian, living in Lahore. He asked me how many wives i had. He inquired about girlfirends – the meaning of which i think is quite different over here. He couldnt grasp the conept of a girlfriend in my terms – of casual love without the ceremony of marraige – to him girlfriend meant mistress or whore. He told me about his girlfriends – the women in Lahore who wouldnt let him touch them but would let him watch them – he considered these his girlfriends. I couldnt help but feel pity for him – it seemed he was trapped in a system where marraige is merely a function – your wife is there to bare your children, not for love or for any kind of physical relationship. He sounded trapped in a world where he wanted connection but had to pay for it and deceive his wife – he envied us for having what he saw as casual relationships that were not socially unacceptable.

The next morning we rose early after a sweaty night and made for the border. It was open this time, and before long we were riding off into India. We’ve made it – here we are. INDIA! The road to Amritsar was hot of course, but the promise of beer and more curry kept our pace up – our last cycling together, and a great way to celebrate – Julian’s birthday.

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