One down with half a game to play

Trip Start Nov 17, 2005
Trip End Dec 04, 2005

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Flag of Pakistan  ,
Tuesday, November 29, 2005

If it existed, I reckon the hardest job in Faisalabad - along with street sweeper and civil rights lawyer - would be the manager of the Abused Donkey Refuge. In Lahore however there is a better class of poor who can afford horses and even the occasional ox to transport their goods. I think it was an ox that the bus nearly hit as we entered the city but it would have been the ox's fault as it went through a red light and was in the outside lane.

Lahore is the capital of the Punjab region and is as close to cosmopolitan as I'm going to get (it has a museum! And a zoo!). I travelled up with Wigan Rob and a few lads from F------bad and after finding a suitably grotty hotel we headed off to the renowned (apparently) Food Street. Well, what a disappointment. By Pakistani standards it looked quite appealing, with tables and chairs set out on the road, which was thankfully closed to traffic. As I've been eating chicken, rice and naan bread since I've been here (and one Pizza Hut which has been the only thing to give me severe intestinal discomfort) I thought I'd try something else. Now I know you probably shouldn't eat fish in a city miles and miles from water but it was quite tasty. When I asked where the fish was from the waiter replied enthusiastically 'freshwater!'

The next day was Saturday, but I was still woken at 4am by the loudspeakers announcing the first Call to Prayer of the day. Now I'm sure that most good Muslims know when to get up and have a good pray. Why they have to wait to be told by loudspeakers reeks of laziness to me.

One of the fans travelling from England grew up in Lahore and has spent the last 30 years in Leicester. He had arranged for a free minibus tour of Lahore for 20 people and somehow I managed to sneak on. First off we went passed the museum (where Rudyard Kipling's father was the curator) and had a quick look at the 18th century gun Zamzamma, now more widely known as Kim's Gun from Kipling's book.

Next up was the Lahore Fort, initially built in the 1560s and subsequently destroyed and rebuilt a few times by the Mughals and British, and now getting a much-needed facelift from UNESCO. Opposite the fort is the magnificent Badshahi Mosque. It's the second biggest mosque in Pakistan, capable of accomodating over 55,000 worshippers. Back on the bus and the call went up to close the curtains: the bar was open. Hasan, our organiser, had procurred some beers and even a bottle of gin. So a merry - if dark - time was had supping a cold brew as we weaved our way through the traffic up to the Shalimar Gardens.

There aren't many, but the gardens are one of Lahore's main attractions. It was disappointing then that they were rather shabby. It would have looked wonderful if the fountains worked and the flowers weren't dead. Hasan had a few words and probably slipped someone a few rupees to get the fountains turned on, but they were still a bit lame by my standards - or anyone who has watered the garden with a hosepipe.

After a KFC in the park watched by hundreds of schoolkids, it was back to the booze cruiser and our journey to the border town of Wagah. I'd heard about the border closing ceremony with India before (I think it's also featured on Michael Palin's Himalaya show). This is the only road crossing between the two countries that is still open, and every day at 4:30pm there is a theatrical ceremony on both sides of the border where the flags are lowered and the gates closed.

Both countries have built grandstands for the locals to come and sing patriotic songs and to good-naturedly shout and jeer the other side. There must have been at least 3,000 on the Pakistani side (more in India) with the men and women naturally segregated. As foreigners we were given the best seats in the house close to the gates. Music and flag-wavers whipped up the crowds on both sides, then the bugles sounded and the spectacle began. Everything is a competition with the opposing side: who had the tallest guards, who marched quicker, who had the highest goose-step and who banged their feet on the ground the hardest. It was a comical sight watching them trying to outdo each other, as the attached video clips attest. Then the flags are lowered at exactly the same rate and the gates are closed, and everyone rushes forward to say hello and wave to their counterparts. Great stuff.

The last couple of days I've been wandering around the old town, though the myriad bazaars and alleyways, prompting more stares and handshakes. While there has been a few more 'Osama Bin Laden is Muslim hero' comments the vast majority of Lahorites are still very polite and welcoming. They don't know the whereabouts of the Lahore International Club though, and it took us nearly two hours to find the only legal bar in town. It was, however, worth the wait!

The final cricket match begins on Tuesday, but with the start put back to 10am because of dew and the light fading fast by 4:30pm the prospect of getting a positive result out the game look slight. But with many more English supporters expected to arrive at least we'll go down singing.
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