Into Pakistan – Crossing the border

Border crossing days aka clean top days (it always helps to look half presentable when asking to enter a country) are always a mix of excitement and nerves about the unknown. We love crossing borders, nothing beats walking into a new country with the locals.

Despite having a lot in common, India and Pakistan’s relations have been difficult since partition. When the two divided they did so along religious lines; Hindus went to India and Muslims to Pakistan. It was one of the largest human migrations ever seen, and sparked riots and violence across the region. This was followed by the Kashmir conflict and numerous other military conflicts fought between the two. In fact they still regularly take pot shots at each other over the border.

Overall their relationship has been plagued by hostility and suspicion. Since their conflict in 1965 the border has been kept rigid. There is surprisingly little by way of movement of people, culture and goods.

There are only 5 crossing points, but the Wagah Border crossing between Amritsar (India) and Lahore (Pakistan) is the only one that is open to foreigners, albeit few actually use it. It one of the most infamous border crossings in the world thanks to its nightly closing ceremony (more on that later).

With the border not opening until 10am and the journey from Amritsar taking about an hour we got a lie in. Rickshaws/tuk tuks are noisy and dirty, you can smell and taste the air, or rather the dust, dirt, smells and pollution. We love them, so naturally that was how we got to the border. Our rickshaw driver was allowed through the first checkpoint to drop us at the terminal building, which unexpectedly saved us a reasonable walk.

Unfortunately what looked like a Pakistan tour bus had just beaten us, clearly returning, everyone had done a heap of shopping. After clearing immigration we queued behind them for a detailed bag check. If it wasn’t for them the terminal would have been basically dead. Two guys were managing the queue and one managed to get us jumped ahead a bit which put us in a better position for the Pakistan side.

Then they bus you to actual border and you walk through the stadium where the border closing ceremony takes place and into the Pakistan terminal a little way behind. We’d got ahead of group as they unloaded their luggage from the bus. We’d been really worried about the heat and humidity as it’s been a killer and walking in it with rucksacks and queuing in hot buildings is always a challenge. But it happened there had been a monsoon shower that morning (we could see it in the distance) and the breeze had picked up with it, making it far more tolerable.

We got to Pakistan immigration second in line but when we were given forms to fill in some of the returning Pakistanis got ahead. An immigration officer jumped us ahead when the person at his desk hadn’t filled in a form. After clearing immigration and heading to the bag scanner we had our passport checked. We thought we were done but then a guy in plain western clothes pulled us aside and recorded our passport details and plans on a blank sheet of paper. The secret police had picked us up already, we’d done plenty of research and knew they would but hadn’t thought about it happening as early as the border. We knew it wasn’t anything to worry about, with tourist numbers low their role is basically to protect you, in fact there are numerous reports of them being too over-protective and travellers being made to stay in expensive (perceived safer) hotels or told to move on from towns they don’t consider safe enough. Being at the border our main concern, was being turned back. But we answered his questions and he carefully wrote our answers on his sheet of paper. We were then free to go.

From the terminal to the carpark Pakistan operates a toy train so you don’t have to walk. Yes, literally a toy train…. we definitely were not complaining.

To get a visa you need to get a Letter of Invitation from a registered Pakistan tourism company. You can outright buy them but this has got more difficult as one of the main providers has had hassle from the secret police as they’re not supposed to do this. So now you can buy one off them if you also buy a couple of other services. For ours we’d decided to buy a border pick up, given you always get ripped off paying to leave borders and we’d been worried about handling the weather. Our pick up wasn’t at the car park, but since we didn’t know how long it would take us we had not agreed a set time, we’d just told them we’d cross when the border opened.

A couple of guys at the car park who help to unload luggage and a couple of drivers were helpful in offering to call our pick up for us but we didn’t have a number. We hung out for half an hour. Other people were picked up and dropped off in the car park but we decided it didn’t feel right ours wasn’t there so explored out in the road and saw another gate farther down. The autorickshaw driver at the car park said he’d take us down for free and we negotiated with him to take us into the city if our ride wasn’t there. It was. Turns out most people aren’t allowed past that gate.

We learnt quickly that people are pretty brazen, they have no qualms about staring (often par for the course when you’re off the beaten track so we expected that) but also if they want to know something they’ll ask. Like a guard at the border who happened to be walking next to us asked Emma if she is a man or a woman. There was no suggestion or intent behind his question, and there was no reaction when she replied. He was just curious. He wanted to know so he asked and we don’t mind that at all. We’re lucky there is an easy fix for solving that here, we just put a headscarf on.

Initial impressions from the journey into the city was that Pakistan is pretty much like what you’d imagine – an Islamic slightly calmer version of India. As the temperature increased rapidly and the morning rains steamed off it was also as hot and humid as we’d been braced for (36C and 80% humidity). It’s the hardest weather to travel in so our plans are to only spend only a few days in the low lying cities and get up into the mountains where it is still hot but hopefully cooler at night and less humid.


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