Token White Friending in Lahore, Day 4: Whistle-Stop Tour

With Anaab’s wedding over (for now, at least), Venu and I could get down to a bit of sightseeing. I had a long list of things I wanted to see, but only 6 hours or so to see them. I realise now that trying to squeeze an amazing city like Lahore into a one-day experience was a stupid idea. Probably one of the stupidest I’ve ever had, but at least it gives me an excuse to go back there.

The bride’s brother, Usman, generously offered to show us around. He’d worked as a tour guide before, so knew exactly what he was doing – and like me, he’s a massive history buff. We first went to the hotel to pick up Venu and to say hello to the now-married Anaab and Faizan. I sat in the front seat, and as we drove through the gates, Usman used my pasty face and overall harmless demeanour as a replacement for actual security clearance. They waved us through, no bother. Wow, white privilege is everywhere, you guys.

It got weirder, though. Dressed in a salwar kameez, I walked through the door with Anaab’s family, and was confronted with – shock horror – other white people. I thought it might be the way the light poured in through the doors and hit their faces, and it took my eyes a couple of seconds to adjust, but nope. Just a group of white people hanging out in a hotel lobby in Lahore. I’d become quite used to being the only whitey for miles around, and frankly I was quite enjoying the attention that brought, so I really was rather startled. So startled I loudly gasped “Aha! Other white people!” and they turned around. I smiled, but I don’t think that helped the awkwardness. I found out they were also British so I wanted to have a chat with them, but they weren’t interested. Oh well.

The first stop on mine and Venu’s rapid-fire adventure was Wagah, the place where India and Pakistan meet once a day to host a military parade filled with one-upmanship, patriotism, and guards doing silly walks. We sped the 15 miles or so along the historic Grand Trunk Road (a trade route originally built in the 3rd century BC, running from all the way from Bangladesh to Afghanistan) to the Indian border.

Amidst the colour and life of the city, we realised Pakistan traffic truly is something else. Despite the numerous warnings, nothing quite prepares you for it. From his seat up front (I was far too nervous), Venu saw all manner of hazard perception test nightmares – anything from unstable donkeys pulling carts, to stray dogs, to entire families on tiny motorbikes, crazy rickshaw drivers, and cars coming straight at you up the wrong side of the road at 50mph. You have to be a brave soul indeed to drive in Pakistan, possessing lightning-quick reactions, otherwise you might find yourself in a nasty entanglement with a horse-drawn fruit cart.

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You’re never really sure where the road ends and the pavement begins.

Aside from its manic drivers, Pakistan’s roads are also graced with vibrantly painted lorries, trucks, and buses. I didn’t manage to get a properly good picture of them, as we zoomed past them faster than my fingers could work the phone camera, but I did get one from behind:

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They’re known as ‘jingle trucks’, but I didn’t hear any jingling bells – after all, I’d left the naff Christmas carols at home.

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The Dorset version – a brightly painted tractor.

Here’s one I stole from Google, to give you a better idea.

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Now THAT’S one hell of a jingle truck.

If you’re thinking of heading to the Wagah ceremony, make sure you get there early. We got there about 3 or 3:30 for a 4PM start, and we rocked up at the checkpoint only to be turned away because the stadium was full. This is because there are a crazy amount of security stops along the way, causing traffic jams that back up for miles. But it’s worth the wait – Anaab watched the ceremony herself a couple of days later, and she said it was very impressive to view, with the Pakistani and Indian border guards basically trying to see who could growl the loudest or kick their feet highest in the air. The bitter rivalry is just one of the legacies of the traumatic Partition of India in Punjab.

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The final security checkpoint – but still nearly 500m to the Indian border.

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Stolen from interwebs, because we didn’t see it ourselves. Pak in black.

We headed back into the city as the sun was starting to set, the perfect time to see the iconic Mughal landmark in Lahore’s beating heart – the Badshahi Masjid (mosque). Before that, however, we took a quick detour to drive past one of the city’s modern constructions, the Minar-e-Pakistan.

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It seems to be in the middle of a roundabout, so we just drove round it rather than getting out to have a proper look, owing to lack of time. Built in the 1960s to commemorate the creation of Pakistan, it was thoughtfully designed to recreate the story of this new nation, inscribed with important speeches from Muhammad Ali Jinnah and poetry from Allama Iqbal.

It also faces the Badshahi Mosque, one of the most famous Mughal sites in all Pakistan, and our next stop. This place was #1 on my list of sightseeing priorities from the get go – I was drawn to its burnt red stone, hand-carved floral patterns, and its general magnificence.

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Before we went in, we picked up some chaat (at least, I think that’s what it was. Something involving chickpeas) and walked right into the middle of a cricket game – though we didn’t know that’s what was happening. People shouted at us to get out of the way, but we were oblivious. Too busy marvelling at the mosque’s majesty… or perhaps too busy taking photographs.

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I like to think this is the Pakistani version of that classic British night out photo which was compared to a Renaissance painting. But I give my photography skills too much credit.

We took off our shoes and carried them with us, rather than leave them at the door, because our host was under the impression someone might steal our stinky sandals and trainers. The unassuming side door gave way to a vast walled courtyard, with the mosque on one side, a wudu basin in the middle, and a grand gate on the other.

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Do you think anyone’s noticed we’re tourists?

We walked into the mosque to see what it was like on the inside. I loved how the cream-coloured walls contrasted with the red sandstone outside – it really made the patterns pop. There were also a number of nikkah ceremonies going on at the same time, so we could see four different grooms huddled together, hurriedly signing paperwork with the imam.

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A history lover’s paradise.

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Such lovely colours… the attention to detail is stunning.

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Beautiful chaos.

Stepping out onto the courtyard now, we wandered around as Usman talked us through the history of the mosque. It’s about 400 years old, built by the domineering Emperor Aurangzeb, and is one of the most important examples of Mughal architecture anywhere in the world.

But apparently, that wasn’t the only interesting thing about the mosque that day. People were also staring at us. We were an odd group – a local, plus two Brits in Pakistani gear (a tall British-Sri Lankan bloke in a kurta, and a short white girl in a salwar kameez), chatting away in English. At one point, a group of girls took their phones out and started snapping pictures of us, with not a hint of subtlety. Perhaps they mistook me for Taylor Swift – one of Anaab’s cousins almost did (yes, I am bringing that up again, for it strokes my ego). I should have asked if they wanted a selfie, it might have gone viral.

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If Tay Tay does want to hide away from the world, she should come to Pakistan.

Next to the mosque was the stop Usman had been waiting for – Food Street. This is a gentrified part of the old city (which used to be the red light district), where dilapidated buildings have been restored and revived as restaurants and cafés, serving Lahore’s famous foodie treats. We picked up a cup of pink Kashmiri chai to start, which I promptly spilled all over myself while attempting to take pictures.

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Hells yeah we do.

Usman then took us into this restaurant called Haveli, which is quite famous in Lahore for its roof terrace – offering panoramic views of the Badshahi Mosque, the Lahore Fort, the Sikh temple Dera Sahib, and of Lahore’s Walled City. Sadly it was slightly foggy that evening, so we couldn’t enjoy the best views – but then again, we didn’t actually order any food at the restaurant, we literally snuck in to take photos. So we can’t really complain.

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Imagine munching your way through some naan with this view.

On our way out of Food Street, Venu stopped and exclaimed “Look, Alice! Other white people!” I turned around and there was, indeed, a small group of backpackers lapping up all that Food Street had to offer. It was surprising to see other tourists in Pakistan, but also very pleasing. It’s recently been voted one of the top untapped destinations for adventure tourism due to its incredible natural beauty, so if that attracts people to go there then the more the merrier. It didn’t stop me from feeling mildly jealous, though – I like to be the only gori (pasty face) around!

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I hope to meet Food Street again soon.

Before we left, Usman got us this delicious dessert called firni, which is kind of like an almond-flavoured rice pudding. It’s served in earthenware pots, and it sticks to both the lid and the base of the pot, so you get two desserts for the price of one. You also get to keep the pots, though they’re designed to break as they’re so cheaply made. But mine have survived the journey from Lahore to Dorset, somehow.

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From the back of a car in Lahore…

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To pride of place on my shelf in Poole.

We had to eat the firni in the car because we were hot-footing it to our next destination. I had a shopping list of things I needed to buy in Pakistan. Not from my Asian friends, mind, but from my white ones. There were special types of tea (Johar Joshanda in particular), clothing, jewellery, etc. etc. To pick up these items, Usman took us to a place called ‘Fortress’ – which isn’t as scary as it sounds, but the security checkpoints outside made it feel like a fortress.

A mega complex that includes a stadium, shopping mall, open-air market and restaurants galore (including a Nando’s in case you fancied a cheeky one), it’s a popular place for the cosmopolitan Pakistani youth to hang out. Promptly ignoring all UK Foreign Office advice to avoid ‘shopping malls’ and ‘places where the Pakistani elite congregate’, we dived straight on in to shopping. However, I only had about 20 minutes before we had to go out to dinner, so it was a bit more like Dale’s Supermarket Sweep than a leisurely browse. Doesn’t matter – I got most of what I needed to, plus more besides. Things are much cheaper in Pakistan than in the UK, so I could buy gorgeous three-piece outfits for just £15. Not bad! Plus, I enjoyed surprising shopkeepers with a cheery ‘assalamu alaikum’, my by-now expert knowledge of Pakistani clothing, and haggling skills (as if).

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Usman also got Venu and I to try a traditional Pakistani (also Indian and other desi countries) snack called ‘paan’. It was a sweet concoction of various fruits and nuts, binded by a syrup, wrapped in a betel leaf. It can work as a palate cleanser, but some reading on Wiki tells me it’s also got some naturally occurring stimulants in it, so that probably adds to its appeal. It was an explosion of flavour, but because it was quite sweet I couldn’t eat too much of it at once.

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Stolen from Google. Please assume any good photos on this blog are not actually taken by me.

We met up with Anaab, Faizan and the rest of my new family at home, before doing something totally Pakistani – we went out for a Chinese. Pakistan has a growing Chinese community, and with the massive investment China is pouring into the country at the moment, the Chinese population in Lahore only looks set to grow. So that’s created a culinary trend, an unusual but yummy hybrid of Chinese and Pakistani cooking – with a whole lot of spice added into the mix.

Something very odd happened in the restaurant. As the waiters were going around giving out the menus, they took one look at me, opened up the page to the vegetarian options, and handed me the menu without saying a word. I hadn’t mentioned the fact I was vegetarian at all. Anaab thinks my whiteness and overall hippy vibe gave it away. But I was wearing Pakistani clothes and staying unusually quiet, for a change! I think that guy and I just had a psychic connection. In the end, it didn’t really matter, as they’d run out of tofu anyway. The only vegetarian option they had.

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Hanging out with the missus (and the sideman mister, #sorryfaizan).

After filling my belly with all the egg fried rice I could eat, we rolled back into the car and went for a late night shopping trip. I wanted to pick up the last couple of things I had on my list – namely, some mehndi powder and as many boxes of Johar Joshanda as I could carry (shoutout to Anaab’s dad for being my previous supplier). Shops in Pakistan don’t run on the same hours as they do at home – things start picking up about midday, and go on well into the night, so popping to a pharmacy at 10pm wasn’t at all unusual.

Nor was stopping into a fancy scarf shop to buy myself one last treat with my remaining rupees. It was quite the experience – I went straight over to the shelves to have a browse, but was promptly told to sit down with my new aunty and cousin. When I described what I was looking for, and Anaab’s mum translated, the shopkeeper picked out intricately embroidered textiles – the likes of which I have never seen – from stacks upon stacks of gorgeous material.

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Too much choice! Can’t decide! Argh!

Aunty did the talking for me, and gave me some suggestions. We chose a bright blue scarf, in the hope it will match my eyes, but it almost seems too nice to wear…

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All hand-embroidered. Also, look how huge this thing is, that must have taken work!

In the traditional Pakistani way, Anaab’s mum also managed to negotiate a discount. Don’t mess with an aunty, people.

With my wallet now empty and energy levels decreasing, we went home. I sat up for a while before bed to enjoy my last evening in Lahore, chatting to the family and reflecting on my experience. We also invented a fun new game called ‘make the white person attempt Urdu words and phrases’, which entertained Anaab no end at university, and I’m pleased to be able to extend the fun to her family now, too. “Say Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa!” said Anaab’s dad. “Oooh, ooh, say ‘Wagah’ again! You said it so wrong last time you sounded like a crow!” said Usman. You’re not really a part of the family if you don’t get a proper roasting, right?

The next day, we’d have to leave Pakistan and head back to the UK to get home in time for Christmas. Tune in for the next blog to experience Pakistani airports for yourself, and help Venu and I wave goodbye to our new adoptive homeland.


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