We wake up ready for a day full of improbable events and incredible people. How is it possible to travel only three weeks and live thorough millions of things that usually a person experiences for a year? We feel like living in a magical fairy-tale.
In this mood we rush to issue visas for India. First we hop on a mini-bus to the centre of Rawalpindi and from there to catch another mini-bus to Islamabad. Alas finding transport from Rawalpindi to Islamabad resulted to be not an easy task. We ask some people for directions but part of them don’t know and the other part tell us it’s behind the corner. When we reach the said corner and ask other people, they tell us to go back to where we just came from.
As always the street is total madness – tens of mini-buses pass by and there are many people standing on the sidewalk waiting for transport. The moment we say to the drivers we want to go to Islamabad they rev the engines up and leave us. Finally one more intelligent driver tells us that the other drivers lie to us. It results that almost all of the mini-buses go to Islamabad but the distance is very long and they don’t take us because short distance travels are more profitable for them.
Finally a traffic patrol forced one driver to take us and this was the end of our odyssey of finding transportation. The distance is pretty long and it takes us one hour to reach Islamabad.
Here I want to explain in more details the crazy transportation system here. Firstly in Islamabad (and not only here) there is not any public transport like city buses or metro. The only means of transport are taxis (that are expensive for the Pakistan standard), rickshaws and mini-buses – smaller like pick-ups for shorter distances and bigger with closed carriage for longer distances. The price varies from 15 to 30 rupees (around 25 euro cents).
Every single mini-bus has a caller who shouts loudly out the names of the upcoming stops, gets on the vehicle while still moving and often traveling with half of his body being out of the mini-bus. Since all the transport is private the mini-buses do not leave till they are full. Sometimes they stop in the middle of the road and the caller leaves to search for passengers, shouting around the itinerary of the mini-bus. The competition is strong, there are thousands of mini-buses and everyone tries to attract passengers to his vehicle. One must always get on the fullest mini-bus because it is the one to leave most promptly.
Another specialty of the mini-buses is driving in a suicidal manner with high speed in the chaotic traffic and then stopping abruptly if there is a potential passenger in sight. In rush-hour is another extremity – the mini-buses do not stop at all or only choose passengers for short distance trips (example: from point A to point B there is a passenger who pays 30 rupees. But if the mini-bus takes instead of him four other passengers who pay 15 rupee each, then for the same distance the driver makes 60 instead of 30 rupees).
We were very lucky that the police helped us. We show a map to the people in the mini-bus but nobody gets the idea of where we want to go. Finally we get off the mini-bus at as we consider it strategic position where we supposedly will catch another transport to the diplomatic enclave which is in the outskirts of Islamabad.
It results that this place called Zero point is literally in the middle of nowhere. The people from the mini-bus smile at us in a cunning way, wave us good-bye and leave. Till we get our bearings (at the map this place looked like the center of the diplomatic town) the mini-bus leaves.
We flutter about but the clock is ticking and we decide to stop a taxi which takes us to the diplomatic enclave for 2$. The place is enormous and unauthorized cars are not allowed to pass the barrier of the town. It resulted that the taxi left us at some entrance that is not the central one.
As usual these days we haven’t eaten a thing today. I don’t know why but since we are in Pakistan we eat nothing or very little. Usually we don’t have a breakfast, first meal is around 2-3 o’clock in the afternoon and for dinner we eat few bites and we feel full. Strange thing is that we don’t feel hunger though sometimes we feel faint.
This time is one of the occasions we feel faint because we got up at 7 in the morning, we haven’t eaten anything and now is around 12 in the afternoon. Finally we reach the embassy area which too is very big and is heavily guarded. The guards don’t want to let us in because we come from the wrong direction and want to enter the side portal. Finally they take mercy at us.
At the embassy they tell us that in order to enter India we need to first fill an online application and to vaccinate ourselves against poliomyelitis. Discouraged we leave. We find an internet cafe and a hospital but they tell us that the vaccinations are made only in the morning.
The guy we got to know yesterday when we shared a rickshaw taxi calls us and invites us to dinner. After a very long and arduous journey back to Rawalpindi we meet him and his friend who results to be medical person who does poliomyelitis vaccinations (isn’t it a crazy world?!?!). They take us to different places – first they treat us to fresh juice, then we go to a restaurant specialized in cooking rice and finally they call us a taxi to our mini town and on top of it they come to send us off to the portal (and the distance is pretty long!).
All the time we quarrel who will pay the bill and they never leave us to pay. I wonder if you can imagine meeting anyone from the Western world who will spend 30 euro for you (have in mind this is a lot of money here), send you off to the other part of the city, invite you to sleep at his house and all this just to make you feel at home in his/her country without expecting anything in return.
While we walk from the portal to our home (which is around 1 km) it starts raining lightly. A passing by brand new Toyota stops beside us and a smiling young rich guy says: “I saw it started to rain. Do you want me to take you to your home?” It really is like a dream.
We go home. The mice are living “la vida loca” at the kitchen. They can’t get out of there and when we try to chase them away they hide in some holes behind the cupboards. During the day we leave them apples and water. When we go we plan to leave the bedroom door and window open so that they can go back to their dumpster home.
We get up full of energy and we leave early for the embassy. At the stop of the mini-buses to Islamabad is total horror. We wonder how we can get in without help from a policemen; but luck is on our side again. One half-empty mini-bus insolently passes by the multitude of people waiting to go to work and one guy starts beating the vehicle with his fist, respectively the driver gets mad and gets out to fight the man, at this moment we and some other people squeeze in the mini-bus in under 5 seconds.
We manage to arrange the vaccination (all the hospitals make them and they give you a certificate; the vaccination itself is a drop under the tongue) and at 12:30 we are at the embassy (we used the illegal way to enter again). The Indian guy who takes the visa forms is eating behind the desk and has his windows covered. The Pakistani guys knock on his window and finally he goes out really pissed. He takes a glance at us and immediately says we have to come tomorrow because his working time has finished (in fact he works till 13:00 o’clock and yesterday someone told us it is open even till 16:00).
We protest but with no success. All the normal foreigners (even the Pakistani) apply for visa through some special company (TCS) and like this save themselves corssing the enormous distances form Rawalpindi and at the embassy complex. But we are firm we want to save the fee (10$ each, which 20$ for the two of us – this is our budget for 3 days) and we are not in a hurry and the region is green and nice.
We leave disheartened again. When we go out the embassy we see a shuttle bus that goes to the main entrance. The driver requires some ticket they haven’t given to us and after a while waves a hand and stops asking for it. The shuttle bus takes us to the main portal and when we get out we see a young couple who were with us at the bus and we ask them for the direction.
In Pakistan you only need to ask for the direction and the fun begins. They offer us to take us to the city with their car and after a short while we become friends. They are from Lahore and look quite rich. They came here to apply for visa for Turkey. The women wears jeans and at the end they invite us to their home at Lahore when we visit it.
Today we have time left to look around and we go to Faisal Mosque – the only landmark in Islamabad. The mosque is new and it is a gift form Dubai – it is quite big and impressive, in futuristic style. It is situated near Margala Hills – a national park, so we start trekking immediately.
All day long we walk through the forest – it is very beautiful and there are monkeys and all kinds of birds. Up in the hills there is nice view to Islamabad – the city without city. They call it like this because it had been built in the sixties and it consists mainly of government buildings, luxury villas and is quite small. It is divided in quadratic sectors and wide highways, has many parks and forests; some sectors do have living areas with bazaars but you get the feeling that you are in some gigantic park intersected by highways.
After 4-5 hour trekking without a rest and 3 hours spent at the minibuses, we go home exhausted.
We prepare to storm the embassy. This time we leave at 9 o’clock and miss the rush-hour. I made a decision: today I am not gonna walk even 10 meters, so we hitchhike to the portal of out small town. We know the road and we slyly get off at a bus-stop where there are no people. Today is the first of May, it is a holiday and there isn’t much traffic on the streets, so we reach the embassy in no time.
This time we decide to take the official road because yesterday they almost didn’t let us in. We reach the main portal and they search us thoroughly. The phones and all the electronic devices are deposited at the gate and they give you a ticket with the number of your passport on it.
When I see this I am bewildered how they let us in the last two days with our phones and cameras and all on. Now it seems impossible to me. Finally we apply for visas and when we come back from the mountains where we plan to go now, we have to come and get the visas stuck on our passports.
He second part of the day we spend at Internet clubs making photos of the maps of Karakorum. Tomorrow starts the epic journey through one of the highest mountain massifs in the world.