Part 1 of the story:

Day 2: Lahore Local sightseeing

I got up just before the morning Azaan call. The view of the city early morning was beautiful. It somehow resembled Delhi. The start of the winter chill, those misty mornings, those revealing streaks of sunlight from clouds…a white smoggy environment…mesmerizing. I was filled with nostalgia. A sense of deja vu. However, it was time to get ready and explore the city. I decided to let the XUV rest for another day and explore the city on foot or use public transport. I still lay on the bed thinking about my last night’s journey and entry in Pakistan. By the time I got ready to leave after breakfast, it was already 10.00 hrs. Perhaps, I had all the time in the world to explore the city. Everything – from the roads to buses, from people walking on road to bill boards, everything was similar to India. There were plenty of road side shops offering tea and breakfast. My first stop was Badshahi Mosque. It is a huge and iconic mosque, bigger than Jama Masjid of Delhi. It is known for its magnificent architecture and royal grandeur. My DSLR was working overtime already.

Badshahi Mosque, Lahore

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The Badshahi Mosque or the Imperial Mosque is one of Lahore’s most iconic landmarks. The construction of the mosque was commissioned by the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb in 1671. The mosque attracts thousands of visitors from all over the country as it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is a great destination to experience and learn history and culture of the Mughal Era.
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Jama Masjid, Delhi, India

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By the time clock struck 11.30 am, I started for my next destination Lahore Fort, which was in the same vicinity. It is also known as Shahi Quila. The fort has a grandiose structure and I bet you can’t click a bad picture here, unless you spoil the backdrop introducing yourself in the picture frame. This Fort is a marvellous symbol of the glory of Mughal era.

Lahore Fort, Pakistan

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This citadel of Lahore (Lahore Fort) was built in the 17th century with construction starting in 1566 during the reign of Emperor Akbar, however the first record of the fortified structure at the site dates all the way back to the 11th century. The Lahore Fortis spread over 20 hectares and every corner of it gives tribute to the architectural and cultural history of Lahore.
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The Fort is spread over an area of 20 hectares and after walking for a while I got tired owing to my vitamin D deficiency. While resting on a bench my mind wandered to the era of mughals about which I recently read in a fictional book by Alex Rutherford – The Empire of Mughals. Though it was fiction, still it was based upon true life events. I wish I could travel back in time and witness the glory of this fort in full splendor. Mortal emotions like hunger brought me back to the present. Perhaps, a long walk and almost lunch time pushed me to walk out of this hustorical site and look out for a restaurant…naah, maggi stall…remember, the promise I made to myself. I inquired from locals about the places to have reasonable and filling meal… they guided me to Gawalmandi street food area. Time read 13.00 hrs. I boarded a local rickety overloaded bus, just like we have in India. The only grace was that price was cheap and the distance I had to cover was hardly 4 km. Elbowing my co-passengers, I reached my destination. Gawalmandi is a congested area which resembled Chandni Chowk of Delhi.Old shops, narrow lanes, aroma of street food all around. I ordered a modest flour coated fried fish with Lahori paratha. Few shop owners migrated here from Amritsar during partition and since then were selling this speciality fish… coated with flour…, locally known as Sardar Fish. It was delicious though if one is fussy about impeccable hygiene, stay away. With both tummy and tongue satiated, I started for my next stop, the famous Shalimar Gardens. Local time read 15.00 hrs.


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Shalimar Gardens is one of the most beautiful and impeccably maintained Gardens of Lahore on the GT Road. I must have crossed it while driving from Wagah Border but perhaps had overlooked it owing to night time and unfamiliar roads. Since it was about 8 km from Gawalmandi, I decided to take an auto. As advised by locals, I negotiated the price before stepping in. Everything looked so familiar, similar to Delhi. The radio FM was playing an old Hindi song from the 1964 release Door Gagan ki Chhaon mein.. “Koi lauta de mere beete hue din”… was this song being dedicated to Lahore…to revisit, re-experience those old days of glory, of comfort, of good times? Well, it just took the auto guy about 20 mins to reach the gates of Shalimar Gardens.

shalimar bagh lahore
Shalimar Gardens, Lahore

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Shalimar Gardens The most famous and visited garden in the city of gardens. The Shalimar Gardens were laid out as a Persian paradise garden by the Emperor Shah Jahan in 1637. It is located near Baghbanpura along the Grand Trunk Road some 5 kilometers northeast of the main Lahore city.
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The garden looked withered and in dilapidated condition perhaps due to much restoration work of Lahore Orange line Metro going around it. There was no water in the pond and the grass and shrubs weren’t manicured to the best. Judging from the old photographs, this was one of the biggest lungs Lahore had. It seemed a great destination for people looking to take a break from the hustle bustle of the city and want to relax in a nice peace and quiet environment. Alas, ~~koi lauta de mere beete hue din, seemed apt song for Shalimar Gardens.
It was around 10.30 hrs when I left Shalimar Gardens. I wanted to cover Changa Manga, a forest area on the outskirts of Lahore, but owing to shortage of time, I had to drop the idea. I’d see it on the way back, if time and energy permits.

changa manga
Changa Manga, Lahore

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Changa Manga is one of the oldest and largest man-made forest and nature reserve in the world. The forest is home to 14 species of mammals, 50 species of birds, six species of reptiles, two species of amphibians and 27 species of insects. The forest was originally planted in 1866 during the British rule. Its named after two bandit brothers, Changa and Manga who would rob passing traders in the region. It is located in the outskirts of Lahore. It is a popular picnic and recreational destination for visitors.
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Before leaving for Swat Valley tomorrow, I needed to buy a few essentials, both for myself and XUV. I boarded a bus to Lahore city and got down near Lahore Railway Station. I bought myself a local prepaid SIM card of SCO which I was told works best in Gilgit-Baltistan area. It cost me hardly Rs 300 in PKR with some free data. My cell phone would get a new life tonight as Jio was already dead.

SCO SIM… 4G ; Jio’s brother from another mother!

I also bought a puncture kit, a sleeping bag, a Jerry can of 20 L, some dry fruits as they were available at a reasonable price, much cheaper than Gurgaon. Also, I bought a few candies, two crates of mineral water, got some PKR from ATMs, got a few photocopies of my visa and passport. I think I was all set to start a new road trip. I wished I had absorbed more of Lahore, but I had to head to hotel due to paucity of time. Before taking an auto, I grabbed two cuppa-noodles and a coke, as this would balance out the splurge I did last night over dinner. By the time, I reached back hotel it was already 20.00 hrs. I asked the receptionist to get the bill prepared and paid the amount. I had planned to leave early by 05.00 hrs to avoid traffic. The route chalked out was Lahore- Sheikhupura – Bhalwal – Rawalpindi – Mardan – Saidu Sharif. It was a journey of about 600 km with driving time of approx 9 hrs. I just needed to take Motorway M-2. With these thoughts in my mind, I slept peacefully.

Day 3: Lahore-Swat Valley
I was up before the dawn (not referring the Pakistan newspaper daily here, but actual morning). The excitement within me was electric. Hurriedly, I loaded my stuff in my beast XUV, adjusted my rear view, reset the odometer reading counter, rechecked the map and waved back at the gatekeeper. Since new XUV has Android Auto feature, I decided to check it out. I entered Saidu Sharif as the destination and started to drive. Time read 05.00 hrs when I had left. Lahore city was still asleep and morning dew was still falling. I won’t call it foggy, but it was a bit misty on long stretches. The traffic was really thin. Road seemed to be broader than it actually was. I forgot to fill up Diesel in the car. The estimated distance XUV could travel was around 400 km, approximately till Rawalpindi interchange, from where I would have to turn for Mardan. I wanted to travel maximum distance before the cities and towns wake up and chaotic traffic engulfs roads. Within an hour, I crossed Sheikhupura and around Kamalabad, I had the first glimpse of river Chenab while crossing tolled Talibwala Chenab Bridge. Since the traffic was thin, I pulled over and got my DSLR in action. Water in river has come all the way from Himachal Pradesh, India…this is real life… flowing at will…unstoppable…sometimes its gushing through rocks, cutting & pushing through them, sometimes it acquires a tranquil gaze. The life gets over, once it mingles with Ravi and Satluj and finally merges with Indus.

The River Network… still treats Indo-Pak as one entity…

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Chenab River: Two streams namely Chandra and Bhaga rise on the opposite sides of the Baralacha pass, Himachal Pradesh at an elevation of 4,891 meters and meet at Tandi at an elevation of 2,286 meters to form the river Chenab.
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After clicking a few snaps, I resumed the journey. Time read 07.00 hrs. I decided not to stop further and shoot the video through my action camera while driving. While driving on the motorway, I observed that people are strangely looking at my car. This made me a bit uneasy. It was then when it dawned upon me that XUV is from Mahindra which is an Indian automobile brand, and it is not available in Pakistan. This fact, coupled with a strange looking number plate from India raised a few eyebrows of the onlookers. This got me worried. What if something goes wrong with the vehicle? There are no Mahindra service centers available across the border. Amidst this anxiety, I turned for Rawalpindi at Chakri interchange and continued driving. The motorway M-2 was left far behind and by the time I realized this mistake, I had already entered Rawalpindi.

wrong route
The route in RED is the one I should have taken, but ended up with the longer one!

Having driven about 350 km, there was just enough fuel to cross another 50 km or so. Instead of turning back, I decided to take another route, though a bit longer, but scenic one through Muree, Abbotabad and Besham city. But the first priority was to get the tank full. I promised myself that from now on, I’d be extra careful and will get the tank refilled at 50% level. While driving, I saw a Shell petrol pump on the way, which had a small tuck shop too. I got the tank filled to the brim. The pump attendants were surprised to see an Indian car driving on the highway. I got myself a chicken sandwich from the shop and resumed my journey. Time showed 10.00 am. The next stop was Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan. The roads grew a bit wider and cleaner from now on. In the backdrop, I could see some hills. Weather too turned salubrious. This was a good omen. I have a habit of pressing accelerator too hard at times and once my driving license was confiscated for three months in Delhi for overspeeding. Here, in a foreign land, that too in capital, I was extra cautious. Soon, I crossed Islamabad without any incident. Then road slowly narrowed down and soon the hill started. XUV effortlessly climbed those serpentine inclined roads. Soon, I was at Murree. This tiny hill station itself needs atleast a day to explore the attractions, but I was running out of time already. Saidu Sharif was still 10 hrs away. I decided to push the accelerator and skip the lunch. The road was not very wide and I had heard this closes down during heavy snow. Thankfully, it was early November and the road was devoid of any snow. On one side, road hugged mountains and on the other side there was a bottomless gorge. I wasn’t even sure whether my car insurance was still valid in Pakistan. There were a few stretches where XUV grunted but continued climbing without losing any power. Soon I entered Ayubia National Park in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa region. The scenery was getting more beautiful with every turn.

Ayubia to Besham
Ayubia to Besham City

Ayubia is a protected area located in Abbottabad District in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan. It is also known as Ayubia National Park and was called a national park in 1984. It is a small natural park 26 km from the Murree hill station. Ayubia was named after Ayub Khan, the second president of Pakistan. It is managed by the Wildlife and Parks Department of Government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

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The traffic was really thin and I was all set to drive faster than usual so as to reach Abbottabad soon. My action camera had already captured my speed on these curvy roads. I started thinking how my dad would react on noticing my ‘rash’ driving in a foreign land. As I neared Abbottabad, traffic picked up, slowing me down. I did not stop as I heard from locals that road from Battagram to Besham city was in a bad shape and it will take longer time than usual to cover this distance.Time showed 15.00 hrs when I reached Abbottabad. The road from Abbottabad to Kashgar in China is also known as Karakoram Highway. It was amazing to drive on the so called Eighth wonder of the world… though a bit narrow at certain stretches, the quality of road is excellent. I was still driving faster than I should have but with XUV in AWD mode, I was confident of this beast’s prowess. The scenery along the highway was stunning. It was indeed an engineering marvel. My action camera was still working overtime to capture all peaks in the vicinity.

karakoram highway_Hunzukutz Kahn
Pic Courtesy: Hunzukutz Kahn
KKH_Asad Khan
Pic Courtesy: Asad Khan

The Karakoram Highway (often abbreviated to KKH and sometimes transliterated as Karakorum) is the highest paved international road in the world; it connects Western China and Pakistan. It is one of the very few routes that cross the Himalayas and the most westerly of them. Historically, this was a caravan trail, one branch of the ancient Silk Road. More recently, the Chinese and Pakistani governments have built a highway.
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By the time I reached Battagram, it was already 18.30 hrs. I was tired and hungry and sleepy and worried…all mortal emotions combined in one. I stopped the car at a roadside shop for tea. While I rested on a charpoy, I checked my phone. Fortunately there was a feeble signal. In India, it would be 19.00 hrs. tried calling home but the call did not go…grudgingly, I dropped a whatsapp message about me reaching Battagram. Besham city was still about 1.5 hrs away. I was awake since early morning and it seemed a day which will not end. After resting for sometime, I resumed my journey to Besham city. The sun was setting and I looked out for beautiful twilight. It was then when I took my eyes off the road for a split second. The road suddenly curved and I had to slam the brakes hard to put avoid hitting the edge of the road. Oh, it was so close. Last thing I wanted to happen on this trip was to go down the cliff crashing in some unknown land. It was then I decided to take a halt at Besham City and not go further to Saidu Sharif. The last leg of the journey was done in pitch dark conditions. Being early November, winters had just begun and the sun started setting a bit early. Evenings had started to get slightly cold too. However, when I entered Besham City, the markets were still open. The sign boards were mostly in Urdu which I could not understand. I was hungry so I thought of having dinner first. I parked my car near bus stand and walked across the street into the hustle bustle of market. Near Besham City hospital, there were many big and small restaurants serving variety of Non-veg items. I settled for kebab rolls with Afghani parathas. It was delicious. Time read 21.00 hrs when I finished my dinner. As I was walking on the road post dinner, I came across a petrol pump just next to river Indus. Locals suggested I should drive to PTDC Besham for stay and also fill up my car tank as the next petrol pump would be miles away. I went back to the parking, and drove about 5 km to find PTDC board (in English). The tariff was about 3500 PKR. The rooms were clean and had a view of Indus river. After a hot shower, I called it a day. Time read 22.30 hrs. A long, tiring day, finally came to an end.

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To be continued…

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