We took the well-built highway that links Lahore to Islamabad and hit the local traffic before we'd left the off-ramp. We had been forewarned about what to expect but it doesn't really pay it justice.
The traffic contained a mess of cars, happy to push their way into anything resembling a gap or, as true stock market tycoons, anything that might become a gap in the future. Motorcycles flowed around these cars like a liquid. The colourful shalwar kameez clothing of the women riding sidesaddle on the back seat billowing behind them like a sail or drifting perilously close to the back wheel. Truck-arted tuk tuks added to the melange, spewing their two-stroke fumes into the air and providing a sport to us, as we looked out the window wide eyed and bewildered, looking for the most populated ones. I was too excited watching to get any photos that do this first experience justice.
The next few days were similarly filled with sensory overload. We inhaled the smell of spices in the old city with new friends, crossed the warm red stone of the Badshahi Mosque with our bare feet and made a young girls day by starting a waterfall at the Shalimar gardens.
There are restaurants that line the Badshahi Mosque. Our first view of this impressive building was at night while sampling delightful Desi food at Andaaz restaurant. Rising three stories above the street we were treated to a spectacular view of the mosque while trying the Dal Makhani (recommended) and other punjabi foods. The next day we returned and went inside the mosque to get a full appreciation of the immensity of the complex.
The building is constructed with a keen appreciation of sound projection. Standing where the Imam would preach from projects your voice across the room, sounding like it is coming from above. In other sections we would try talking and could hear our own voices reflected back to us, sounding deep and mighty, a disconcerting experience.
The stone courtyard was pleasantly warm to our bare feet on this mild spring day. Temperatures average over 35C five months of the year in Lahore, we asked how people can handle it during the summer. Hessian mats are rolled out along the walkway. Water is poured on these throughout the day to keep them cool enough to walk over.
Looking out one of the windows we could see a dozen cricket matches being played in the field below, fielders overlapping. The cricket fever is intense here, even down to competing with the cows for the grassy median strip in the middle of busy roads. The mosque must provide one hell of a backdrop.
The Shalimar Gardens date back to Mughal times, constructed in 1641. The fountains are powered by an elaborate hydraulic network that fills the lake reservoirs and can be arranged to cascade down the levels of the garden. We were asked if, for a small fee, we would like to see these magnificent fountains in action. It's hard to say no. A small trickle of water emerges as they start to open the valves, we eagerly await the show. As the man returns we realise this is as fountainy as it gets and express disappointment at the trickle. 'They are gravity fed fountains from 400 years ago' we are informed, 'what did you expect?'. At least the nearby kids enjoyed playing with the waterfall. I suppose there was no television back then.
Feeling a confidence boost after discovering Marsala flavoured potato chips we decided to try some street food. Gol gappe are hollow fried spheres that you tap to break the top and load up with fillings such as tart tamarind juice, yoghurt, chickpea and mint. I ate tentatively expecting the tamarind water in particular to do us in. It was nice but I would have appreciated it more if I had been able to get past the feeling that I was dooming myself to food poisoning. As it turned out we were fine for the next few days at least so that meal was safe. Turns out we would all have a turn with food poisoning to one degree or another but we survived (though that outcome was, at times, doubted).
Entering via the elephant gate we rose up the broad, shallow steps, past bullet holes installed in the wall during the British Raj, to our first view from the battlements. Our guide tells us stories of the Queen and her requests to her husband, the Mughal ruler, for her entertainment.
First she wants him to bring the stars of the sky inside to her. In response he has a room of curved mirrors built. When you light a candle in the middle of the room, or in our case an iPhone torch, the mirrors reflect thousands of specks of light like stars.
Having conquered the night sky she wishes to walk on the clouds themselves. Consulting his creative architects he refloors the courtyard with marble tiles that look like clouds. Under the tiles runs water to cool them to the touch. The water was scented with jasmine or rose to give the entire courtyard an pleasant feel.
I felt perhaps her brother was the architect and she was trying to keep him employed. Shan pointed out she was probably not allowed out of the fort very often, a long trek for a Queen back then was over to the Shalimar gardens so perhaps the constant renovations kept her entertained.
The old city
Our Lahorian friends took us out to breakfast in the old city. It's not where they would have had breakfast, in fact they'd rather be asleep like the rest of the city but we'd sounded keen and they'd obliged. With the knowledge that anyone 'authentic' wouldn't be having breakfast before 12 we proceeded with our quest for authentic Pakistani breakfast. I head upstairs to small restaurant. Out the window, perilously close to some creative power line design, I watched as the rest of our entourage crossed the relatively quiet street.
Food began arriving from downstairs. Puri, a fried bread, accompanied by chick pea curry and halwa, a sweet made of semolina, clarified butter (ghee), sugar and spices. Very tasty. I was less tempted by the goats feet curry with the cartilage and bone flavouring the dish, though the sauce was very good. It soaked well into the puri of which I ate far too much!
After breakfast we walked towards one of the gates of the wall that used to surround the city. Holding hands we crossed the traffic on a busy street, dodging the motorcycles and entering a zen state of Frogger. I found that quite fun.
All too soon our time in Lahore was up. After three days, countless tasty snacks and meals, miles of walking the dusty streets and the incredible border crossing ceremony we packed our bags and began the journey back to Islamabad. I really enjoyed Lahore. It is a city with vibrancy and activity, plenty of character, friendly people and amazing architecture and history.