A Tale of Three Borders
I flew in to Pakistan from Singapore. It was a solo backpacking trip but,
travelling overland, it has brought me to the borders of Pakistan's three
neighbouring countries. This is a tale of three borders.
The Pakistan-India border closing and flag-lowering cermony takes place daily, and draws quite a crowd. It's quite an interesting, and erm, amusing watch.
The border town of Wagah is accessible from Lahore by an hour of public bus ride, which can be an adventure in itself. Of course you can hire taxis or auto-rickshaws too.
The ceremony can be seen from the Indian side as well, where the spectators usually come via Amritsar, the closest city. I did not cross the border, so my view and experience is only from Pakistan side.
The viewing gallery is split to 2 sides, one for the ladies and one for the guys. There are additionally 2 viewing platforms for tourists on the ground (yes, for the ladies and men as well) and you'll be unceremoniously ushered into your corresponding platform.
All the while, you can hear the crowd chanting "Pakistan!", "Pakistan!" ... Of course, you could hear some noise from the India side as well... From my position, I can barely see the gantry gate, and the crowd over at Indian soil (which I see a fair share of tourists as well...)
The locals seems largely "patriotic", with lots of cheering going on. There is even an official "cheerleader" motivating the crowd :) Everyone is generally enjoying themselves.
|The parade itself consists of many quick marching and drills.. The exact significance is beyond me... and probably those cheering around me as well. As long as the soldiers do something, it is probably very impressive and worth shouting your lungs out for.|
But the amusing thing is their comical mix of exagerrated movements and actions in their drills (amidst roaring cheers of approval)! The stony faced machismo, the sudden twist of their head or bodies, the stomping of the feet... These are probably worth grinning your jaw off... The last I've seen of someone slamming their feet so hard was when a friend was trying to kill a resilient cockroach....
|Finally, the actual flag lowering ceremony (thats the border gate, and beyond that is India). Again, interesting movements, with throwing of flag lines to and fro between the Indian and Pakistani soldiers. And as abruptly as their actions go, once the flag is lowered, there was an air of quiet uncertainty as if all the spectators were wondering "Thats it?!". Then everyone started moving out, with a large number of them requesting photos from the soldiers and erm, "cheerleaders"...|
Well, while there are some serious political issues between India and Pakistan in the disputed Kashmiri states, at least its friendly rivalry between the 2 countries here... and tickled appreciation from foreigners..
Pakistan-Afghanistan : Khyber Pass
Khyber Pass is perhaps one of the most historically legendary passes. It is the western gateway to the south-asian subcontinent in the olden times. Dividing and yet linking people and cultures, it has seen Persians, Greeks, Moghuls, Afghans and the British. It is an important pass not only as a trade route but also an invasion route, for the likes of Alexandra the Great and Genghis Khan etc.
And oh, Singaporeans too...
|A special permit is required to visit the Pass and an armed escort will follow you all the way... and back (and no, that armed escort, the head on the lower left, doesn't like his photo taken... ;p) This permit can be arranged in Peshawar, a city worth visiting in its own right. Theoretically, this can be done yourself although practically, it is probably easier to go through a reputable travel agency.|
|Visitors to Khyber Pass are not here for the views or the sceneries. It is the imagination it generates and romanticism of the place that draws people. Most of the pass is hot arid mountainous area, and the roads are long, curvy and dusty. This is viewed from the highest point of the pass.|
|Along the way, we pass by many Pathan settlements, the tribal race of people that make up majority of the people in North West Frontier Province of Pakistan. Midway through the pass lies Ali Masjid, a mosque, and above it, Ali Masjid Fort. This is the narrowest point of the pass, and the fort defends this pass with a superb view of the area. Now, there a sign showing the list of the races and dynasties that have used this pass. In olden times, the pass is supposedly only 3 metres wide...|
The truth of the matter is, Khyber Pass is not at the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan. The furthest point a visitor can go is Michni checkpoint. From here, the border town of Torkham can be seen at the far left end, but you're not allowed any further without an Afghanistan visa. But as mentioned earlier, the history of the place simply overwhelms you... in a journey of only half a day...
Pakistan-China : Khunjerab Pass
At 4730m, Khunjerab Pass is believed to be the highest paved border crossing road in the world. It is also the highest point of the Karakoram Highway, a spectacular road that connects Islamabad in Pakistan to Kashgar in China.
Most travellers attempting to go through Khunjerab Pass inevitably land up in Sust, the border town. From here, there are both buses and jeeps that cross the border to reach Tashkurgan, the border town on the Chinese side. Sust was developed probably as a by product of the cross border trade and its needs, with a main road cutting through town to the immigration gate. On both sides of the main road are a mix of shops and guesthouses. While the town developed to include some hotels, the immigration counter could do with some upgrade...
|After immigration formalities (which strangely, I had an opportunity to go back to town to buy some bottled water), the jeeps and buses would start the journey into Khunjerab National Park. The Park was established with one of the reasons as protecting the rich wildlife found at the Khunjerab Top. Among these are the near extinct Marco Polo sheep, Himalayan ibex and snow leopards etc. So while I didn't have to pay departure tax on leaving Pakistan, I had to pay the park entrance fee...|
However, there were controversies over the use of the fees and the overall implementation of the Park. While protection of the wildlife was a grand enough goal, the locals and their livestock were driven out of their traditional grazing grounds, with no plans or thoughts about their future. Indeed, along the drive through the amazing landscapes, there was nothing really I could see on where the park fees were used on....
Khunjerab Pass is surrounded by snow-capped mountains whole year round and the road is closed during winter as it will be totally snow-covered. Here lies the clash of 2 titan mountain ranges, the Karakoram and the Pamirs - certainly a befitting high point of a journey along the Karakoram Highway!
The actual border itself is just a fence and some officers...
While these stone tablets signify which side is China and which side is Pakistan, it magically possess magnetic properties, drawing travellers to them as bees would to honey. And their photos are probably taken more times than the mountains surrounding them!
|There is a customs checkpost after the gate, and all passengers are to unload their luggage for customs check in a small hut - a "breath taking" exercise. While I did not get hit by altitude sickness, something else hit me as we continue our journey. I have jumped 3 hours ahead of time, and I'm now in Xinjiang China....|
Photos and Text © Wu Swee Ong