Entering Pakistan ...
The Amritsar to 'Wagah Border' road sees much traffic. Many
hundreds of tourists go that way each evening to witness the
infamous 'closing of the gates' ceremony on the India-Pakistan
border. Besides, there is substantial local traffic to and from
the villages, farms, institutions and establishments along the 32
kilometer route. At Atari, the road abruptly ends at the border
gates with a few dhabas and shacks on either side.
Our entry into Pakistan takes less than thirty minutes. Immigration
and customs on the Indian side, followed a few minutes (and a few
footsteps) later by immigration and customs on the Pakistan side.
It is definitely among the shortest international transit times we
have experienced. Transiting along with us across the few meters
of buffer zone are sacks of potatoes, garlic and other commodities
on the heads and shoulders of coolies. But its more complicated
than that. Trucks ferry material right up to one edge of the 'buffer'
zone - being forbidden to cross into it - unload their wares onto the
heads and shoulders of a waiting line of coolies (of one nationality)
who walk the payload to a painted white line, halfway into the
'buffer' zone where it is then handed off to a similar line of coolies
(of the other nationality) who then carry it back across 'their' half
of the 'buffer' zone and into their own territories and load it on
'their' trucks. Whew ! The dogs and crows, on the other hand -
they wander across and back and forth at will, unquestioned
and un-militated against.
We notice that the customs and immigration halls on the Indian
side are rather more pucca, formally constructed & appointed
than the simpler ones on the Pakistan side. We also discover
a currency exchange scam being run by Indian customs officials
and attendants. If you are carrying more than Indian Rs 10,000,
you are asked to change at least the excess amount - but are
offered an unfavorable rate (125 PRs to 100 IRs, on the day
we crossed), while on the Pakistan side, we get at least 130PRs
to 100 IRs. We also find officials less impersonal and friendlier
on the Pakistan side. A couple of money changers approach
us almost immediately as we wait for immigration to make
entries in our passports, which turns out to be pretty convenient.
We also do not feel hustled at any point in the process. Pakistan
Tourism Development Corporation (PTDC) has a small
restaurant complex right by the customs counters and once done
with the formalities, we walk in to a pleasant reception
and are invited into conversation with Babar Khan, the young
manager. NBP (National Bank of Pakistan) has a counter in
the PTDC complex and is very helpful - especially in changing
some of our larger currency bills into smaller denominations.
Babar Khan wants to know about Bangalore, what its like,
and about its nightlife (little does he know that the city
has none) and is very forthcoming with information and travel
tips. He even hands us a street map of central Karachi once
he hears that that is where we are headed.
We walk out through the gates into a dusty parking area - and
are now formally 'in Pakistan'. We can't help feeling a certain
significance to this crossing - at least for us, first timers. There are
a set of shacks and dhabas on either side (mirroring, almost, what
is on the Indian side) and further up we notice a line of bejeweled
Hino trucks with Quetta, Baluchistan registration plates and
Pashto speaking drivers hanging out, by them. We are received
by very helpful WSF volunteers from PILER the large Lahore based
labor rights NGO (with a rather awkward acronym, I might add)
who have actually organized a bus to ferry us to Lahore
railway station. We spend the next several hours getting
lunch, drinking cups of chai, chatting and waiting for other Indians
headed for the WSF to cross over - so we can fill up the bus. Trains
to Lahore leave in the late afternoon - so we have time to wait
until the border closes at 3:30pm Pakistan time/4pm India time.
The food is good and the atmosphere convivial and we rest a bit.
It is a public holiday in Pakistan on March 23rd. And by about
2:30pm cars, vans and two-wheelers begin to arrive in numbers
disgorging families, students and others - all heading to see the
military charade at border-closing time. Since we are an
'identifiable' group by now, with our luggage, a few turbaned
sikhs and even a buddhist monk, in robes - we become the object
of everyone's attention and people come up to us to ask if we are
from India. There is great excitement, shaking of hands and
conversations that ensue as soon as we confirm that we are.
Everyone wants to know everyone else's names, where they're
from, what they do and then the conversation settles around
India-Pak relations, the unfortunate reality of the border,
how things on both sides are all so similar, how there should
be peace and not conflict, the importance of more people-
contact, promoting brotherhood and so on. It is quite
overwhelming and in many ways very touching.
We can't hold ourselves back for long from the luminous
beauties on the other side of the road, with all their incredible
metal work now shimmering in the late afternoon sun. They
are truly quite a piece of work. The drivers are all Pashtuns
(Baluchi registrations notwithstanding). The truckers we talk
to want to know if we eat 'ghosht' and ' do the bottle'
('aap bothal lethe ho?', 'ghoshth pasand karte ho?') and
even if we would like to smoke something interesting. One
of them digs into the folds of his kurta and produces a
little gob of hashish - to substantiate his point.