An Auspicious Arrival

Yes, I'm in Pakistan. Decided it was time to visit the place I'd read so much about so I found a couple stories to cover for DevEx, who were willing to cover half the travel costs, and off I went, on a very fast...bus. Not wanting to lay out $400 to fly the 300 miles or so between Delhi and Lahore, I instead dropped $75 on matching 12-hour bus tickets.

But first I should tell you about getting my visa. I dialed up the Pakistan High Commission and asked for the Press Minister. “One minute,” said the operator, putting me on hold. What song did proudly Muslim Pakistan offer callers to its Indian embassy? None other than the bouncy piano theme song from the movie The Sting. On ominous sign, I thought. But Press Minister Khan was very helpful, not to mention rather pleasant, although he had his doubts about journalists. “I know you journalists,” he said, smiling. We were chatting in his spacious office, waiting for his assistant to make copies of my passport. “You go in, do all of your reporting, and then you come home and write whatever you want.” I smiled and said I'd return after my visit.

The bus departs at 6am but travelers are advised to arrive at the station two hours early, so there I was long before sunrise with dozens of Pakistanis in skullcaps and headscarfs, checking bags and getting patted down before taking a seat in the lounge. The relatively high price includes full meals, so we were treated to coffee and biscuits. The woman next to me offered her whiny toddler a sip and the kid cried for more. “It's her first time trying,” she told me, smiling. “She seems to like it.” The half pound of sugar may have helped the medicine go down. Either way, I hope I'm not sitting next to these two on the bus.

We load up and set off on time, positively zipping through Delhi as a red-orange sun rises over the horizon. I've never seen the streets of the capitol so empty, so calm and peaceful during daylight hours. It's eerie, almost apocalyptic, to see chaotic Delhi, a sprawling metropolis of nearly 20 million, the world's fastest growing city over the past three decades, suddenly without its people, nearly transformed into the artful, tranquil burg it was a half century ago.

Except, that is, for the wailing sirens of our police escort. One SUV each in front and back, they will be with us the entire journey, most likely for safety, to avoid the deadly bombing that last year hit the Samjhuata Express train, which linked these same two cities until it was stopped, after the bombing. We are not inconspicuous.

Stop for breakfast. Stop for gas. Stop for mutter paneer lunch before arrival at Indian customs around 2:30pm. Unload all bags and then back on and then stop for same on other side of border, which is much quicker and more efficient in a sleeker and more modern building. They essentially wave me through – “With bus?” they ask – and I'm in Pakistan.

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