Islamabad is a relatively new city, designed by a Greek architect, it was built in the 1960s to replace Karachi as the capital of Pakistan. The city is situated on the Pothohar Plateau, bordered by the Margalla Hills to the north and the Rawalpindi District to the south. Islamabad is the political seat of Pakistan and the city with the highest cost of living in the country. The city is renowned for its greenery, offering the populace a chance to explore various parks and forests including the Fatima Jinnah Park and the Shakarparian Park. It is also interlaced with an abundance of vegetation threaded throughout its grid-like layout.
Finding a comfortable hotel with air conditioning, Wi-Fi and to our amazement, a television with USB connectivity was a luxury. We even had free use of a communal kitchen, and this meant unlimited coffee. We had a to do list as long as our arms but had plenty of time as I was at the mercy of the Indian High Commission, waiting for the approval of my Indian tourist visa. It took two application attempts as there was very limited information about how to officially apply for an Indian visa as a British citizen whilst in Pakistan, therefore I spent an extra day compiling and printing all the relevant documents. Our other tasks included: washing clothes, washing panniers, inspecting and cleaning bikes, repairing equipment, resupplying tea, coffee and other essentials, I also needed to find a tailor to repair two items of clothing, we had plenty of photo editing and blog writing to finish and a few items we needed to buy, of which included a portable USB chargeable speaker that would provide a more sociable morning atmosphere than individually plugging our ears with ear phones and listening in solitude.
Worryingly, during our bicycle cleaning and inspection session I found that one of the bolts holding my rear pannier rack to the frame, which supports the weight of the bulk of my baggage, had rusted, weakened and broke. I was left with a hole in my frame. I was horrified, Victouria the Fuji Touring Disc had been so reliable thus far. I immediately contacted the retailer in pursuit of a warranty claim, I feared the worst but was reluctant to attempt a substantial repair until I had received feedback as I didn’t want to permanently modify the frame and void the warranty. So in true cycle touring fashion I temporarily lashed the rack to the frame with cable ties.
Spending time in a developed city meant that we had access to most of the luxuries that we take for granted living in a modern city such as Leicester in the United Kingdom. That said, we went on a coffee rampage sampling coffee from cafes around the city. The Burning Brownie, Loafology, and by far the most superior with the indulgent selection of cake and brownies and the fact that they practically served coffee by the pint, The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf. The taste of freshly brewed espresso coffee was divine, accompanied by a warm chocolate brownie and then a slice of carrot cake, I was in heaven. We returned again and again, our appetite for a real coffee simply could not be sated. One particular day we sat drinking coffee all afternoon until 20:00, which inevitably lead to an extremely late night watching a movie and a terrible night sleep.
The optimistically advised “three working day“ processing time for my Indian Visa that was in fact four working days and incorporated a weekend meant that our time in Islamabad started to drag. As sumptuous as the coffee drinking and movie watching was, I couldn’t help the cabin fever setting in. I felt that I had stopped living in the present moment, days started to blur into one. Back home I find it uncomfortable to be killing time in one place, I always have to have a plan action or busy doing something productive to occupy my time. That said, despite being relieved to finally leave the comforts of our air conditioned ‘condo‘ with an aching lower back from our temporary hermit lifestyle, I did enjoy the time spent in Islamabad. As midday and early afternoon in Islamabad was hot and humid, most sights were best enjoyed at dusk. We visited the Faisal Mosque one evening, the 5th largest mosque by capacity in the world, we cycled to Rawal Lake and also strolled through Fatima Jinnah Park, which gave me a sense of walking through the gates of Jurassic Park. Of course, I then couldn’t resist but to hum the tune aloud as we strolled up the main walkway.
From the perspective of a tourist Islamabad felt relatively safe, though the ever present armed guards in all public areas were reminders of past violence. Supermarkets were guarded with pump action shotguns, ATMs by a semi-automatic assault rifle, even The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf hired armed security with a rifle, though at least our bikes were safe.
Islamabad also offered some enjoyable cycling and it was a relief to enjoy riding without the baggage. The roads were largely in good condition and surprisingly flat considering that the city was surrounded by hilly terrain and jungle. Though it is important to remain extremely alert at all times, there appeared to be absolutely no driving laws, cars would drive the wrong way down the highway, vehicles would stop anywhere that suited them, indicators were non-existent and headlights, if used, were permanently set to full beam.
Whilst in Islamabad we got in touch with Kamal, whom we had a brief encounter with in Deosai National Park at the Kala Pani camp grounds. Kamal and his friend had broken down whilst driving through a river and had to abandon their car and await rescue. Aware of our love for the outdoors, Kamal planned a day trip to the Yubia National Park to hike the highest peak in the region, Miranjani, which stood at 2,992 metres. It was a pleasant hike along a dirt track, the fresh mountain air was a relief from the busy and somewhat polluted roads of the capital. We enjoyed moments of solace atop the peaks looking out at the vast blue skies and distant summits before heading back down the track where we passed a relentless string of Pakistani tourists wearing relatively casual clothing and equipped with huge speakers. We could only assume that they were planning a summit sunset party though barely any of them looked as though they would make it to the top before dusk. Kamal was such a genuine, down to earth guy, we enjoyed conversations away from the typical questioning we had with other natives. He was interested in our trip, our mode of travel and our philosophies about travelling. After treating us to dinner he kindly dropped us back at our hotel.
After the allotted processing time had passed for my visa approval I cycled anxiously to the Indian High Commission in a hope that my visa had been approved and to my relief, it was approved earlier that day and was awaiting collection. With a beaming smile, I pounded down the highway back to the hotel to find Jacob, I flashed my passport “Let’s get outta here!” We made plans to catch a bus the next morning to Lahore. As as we departed Islamabad, I gazed longingly out of the window in contemplation, 69 days had passed since leaving Osh, Kyrgyzstan, I felt we had experienced so much in a relatively short amount of time but couldn’t help the feeling that recent days were passing with an ever increasing frequency. Perhaps this was just an irrational fear and I suspected that this was also due to our sedate state of inactivity. We had brushed aside the rigours of the cycle touring lifestyle and in its place rewarded ourselves with a bounty of opulence.
I would be lying if I said I wasn’t excited to have moved on from Islamabad but arriving in Lahore was quite the shock. As we walked out of the bus station we were hit by the turbulent chaos of the street. Tuktuks, motor cycles, cars, buses and the occasional donkey pulling a wooden cart all maniacally shared, or rather, fought over the road. It quickly became clear that you have to be boisterous, move into a space and own the few metres of clear road in front of you before a neighbouring vehicle intercepts. You have to expect to be cut up at all times from the left or right, anticipate oncoming traffic even on your side of the road and expect any vehicle to stop directly in front of you. Follow these basic steps whilst returning waves and shouting your response to constant questioning and you should be fine.
Although the roads in Lahore were atrocious, the food made up for it. Jacob and I had been confined to eating daal and mixed vegetable curry for the last seven weeks, the food streets of Lahore offered much more. We sampled puri, pakora, samosas and some form of aloo cake with a type of yoghurt sauce. Every meal we tasted was a delight, new sensations that revitalised our brain receptors. Unfortunately, we paid for it with a week of bowel trouble, suspected cause was the yoghurt.
We spent three days in Lahore and as stage two of the cycle tour was imminent, I had no choice but to seek out an emergency means of repair for my frame. After a seemingly professional bike repair job with an ancient welding machine for an extremely reasonable fee of 50 rupees or in relative terms, 29 pence we picked up some naan and pakora before heading back to the hotel. We finished lunch, had a coffee and relaxed while the midday heat passed. We deliberated about what to do that afternoon, whether to visit the historical monuments, places or worship or even hit the high street in search of coffee. After making a few minor adjustments to my bike and rear pannier rack we simply sat content in the dust and pollution free comforts of our hotel room and read in silence. This was perhaps a reminder that big cities rarely played a major part of my travelling experiences and in fact, the quiet isolation of our hotel was more appealing that fighting the traffic and the busy streets. That said, we couldn’t leave Lahore without visiting the typical tourist attractions. We planned to wake early the next morning while the bulk of the city’s 11 million inhabitants were rousing and head towards the walled city.
The next day, as typical tourists, we explored the tight, twisting busy streets of the walled city where tuktuks and motor bikes rushed past blasting their horns. We visited the Badshahi Mosque and the Lahore Fort, both teeming with tourists and groups of school children. We later walked to the Wazir Khan Mosque that was situated directly in the centre of a bustling, noisy market. Although not as grand as the Badshahi Mosque, it felt much more sacred. I sat at the back of the prayer hall admiring the intricate, floral paint work and quietly observing the rituals of religious men. It was such a disparity to find a quaint, peaceful place of worship in an environment of such disorganised chaos.
After a long day on our feet, we couldn’t resist jumping in the back of a tuktuk to the high street where we enjoyed an iced coffee and to our amazement, found a Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf where we sank yet another pint of coffee. That evening we made final preparations for the next leg of our journey, crossing into India and cycling to Kathmandu for Christmas. I felt slightly melancholic, I couldn’t quite put my finger on why. Perhaps it was leaving Pakistan, a country that had given us such a memorable experience, perhaps it was stepping into the unknown after two weeks of comforts or perhaps it was a little homesickness. My thoughts went out to my family and friends back home as I settled down in bed.