A visit to Pakistan during Chinese National Day Holidays
A friend of mine was posted to Islamabad the same time as I was in Beijing, so one Chinese National Day holidays (early October), a friend and I decided to visit Pakistan to see my friend. After a five hour flight we arrived at Islamabad Airport aboard Pakistan International Airlines. Unfortunately no alcohol on the flight due to it being a Muslim airline.
Islamabad is an extremely interesting place but the first thing we did after we arrived at my friend’s home was to have a glass of wine and discuss what we intended to do over the next six days. Several glasses of wine later, we heard that my friend had arranged a driver and car for us to travel to Lahore the next day. We travelled in an armoured vehicle [for safety] for four hours until we reached Lahore. Lots to see along the way with some very interesting and colourful forms of transport, including one’s feet.
My friend had purchased tickets for the border closing ceremony between Pakistan and India which is called the Wagah border closing ‘lowering of the flags’ ceremony, or The Beating Retreat ceremony. It is a daily military practice that the security forces of India and Pakistan have jointly followed since 1959. What a magnificent experience; such an incredible performance to close the border.
Men sit on one side and women the other and we were very fortunate at the end to have many women approach us and shake our hands to say hello in Urdu (Salam/Assalam-o-alaikum) and request photographs with us.
Thousands of Pakistani people come to see the border closing, especially on the weekend, and it was an incredible sight to hear the men singing loudly and see the women wearing brightly coloured shalwat kameez.
The ceremony takes place every evening before sunset at the Wagah border, which as part of the Grand Trunk Road was the only road link between these two countries before the opening of the Aman Setu in Kashmir in 1999.
The ceremony starts with a parade by the soldiers from both sides, and ends up in the perfectly coordinated lowering of the two nations’ flags. One infantryman stands at attention on each side of the gate. As the sun sets, the iron gates at the border are opened and the two flags are lowered simultaneously. The flags are folded and the ceremony ends with a retreat involving a brusque handshake between soldiers from either side, followed by the closing of the gates.
At the end of the performance, we had the opportunity to have our photographs taken with the border guards and see the sun set as we departed with thousands of people to drive home or for visitors like us to go to our hotel.
We were also kindly provided with a police escort from our hotel in Lahore to the Pakistan/India border closing ceremony. Our armed escort consisted of a police officer driving a peculiar looking van which had the absence of windows and another police officer in the rear with some sort of machine gun. The Pakistani police use a similar method to the Chinese Ministry of Public Security to move traffic and that is waving one of their arms out of the window to advise the other drivers to move out of the way. One particular occasion our Pakistani police officer used a similar method albeit with a stick!
We had many fabulous photo opportunities in Lahore and the streets were very crowded with cars, donkeys, camels, horses and small trucks – never again would I complain about Beijing traffic!!
Other great sights included the Lahore Fort and the Badshahi Mosque. The Fort is located in the northwestern corner of the Walled City of Lahore in Iqbal Park, which is one of the largest urban parks in Pakistan.
The Bahshahi Mosque was spectacular – it was constructed between 1671 and 1673 and is the second largest mosque in South Asia and the fifth largest mosque in the world. It is Lahore’s most famous landmark and a major tourist attraction, hence the reason we made the visit.
The courtyard which spreads over 276,000 square feet, can accommodate one hundred thousand worshippers and ten thousand worshippers can be accommodated inside the mosque. The minarets are 196 feet (60 m) tall.
In Lahore we had dinner at a fabulous rooftop restaurant (Coocosden) which served genuine Lahore food and our table overlooked parts of the city and the Mosque which was even more spectacular at night. To reach our table we had to climb some very steep stairs as the restaurant is located in what appeared to have been a home many years ago. Truly beautiful.