Big Mosques and a Really Long Bus Ride

Before leaving Lahore we felt that we had to visit the beautiful Badshahi mosque in the Old City. We raced there and spent an hour walking around the grounds. Right when we entered we were greeted by an absolutely adorable old man who offered/forced his guide services. He was so cute that we let him lead us around, as these things usually do, it turned out badly, with him demanding a huge payment for his 20 minute tour. We gave him what we felt was a fair price but left feeling frustrated, especially when the shoe minders also tried to charge us too much. In the early afternoon we boarded a bus to Rawalpindi, this is Islamabad's twin city, the uglier one that no one has really heard of. Islamabad is a planned city, a huge grid, more of a quiet diplomatic enclave, with green lawns, wide streets and districts with names like F-6. Rawalpindi, or Pindi as its locally referred to is the real thing, noisy polluting rickshaws (not as bad as Lahore), kebab vendors, crowded streets...

We arrived in Pindi after dark and started looking for a hotel. The first one on our list refused to take us, claiming there were no rooms, even though we could see every single room key hanging on the wall behind the counter. We were sent down the street to another hotel from our guidebook. The manager spoke good English and we began checking in. This usually involves filling out a form with personal information such as passport and visa number. The manager/used car salesman inspected our passports and began telling us that our visas weren't valid for the area we wanted to visit, which was of course total bullshit. Then he told us that Pakistani hotel rules dictate that he had to hold our passports for the night, also total bullshit. When he refused to let us keep our passports we had to walk away, even though it was late and we didn't really know where else to find a cheap hotel.

It took us a taxi ride to two different neighbourhoods and an inspection of 4 different hotels before we settled on a cheap room somewhere. The staff didn't really speak English but they were friendly and helpful. They communicated to us that "lots of tourist, Guh-man, Aus-lalia stay here". Our guess is that the raised prices at the guidebook-listed hotel next door forced alot of budget travellers to check out the rooms at the grungy Al-Hayat like we did. We got a window-less room and the power failed frequently throughout the night, causing us to wake up covered in sweat without the fan blowing on us. It seemed like the other hotel patrons had completely given up on getting any sleep while the power was off and they assembled in the lounge next to our room and discussed loudly until about 4a.m. I got up a few times to have cold showers in an attempt to cool down. The "shower" consisted of a small tap about a 2 feet from the ground. "Showering" consisted of me crouched in a ball attempting not to touch my skin against the absolutely filthy wall or floor. At night the monster cockroaches joined me in the bathroom for my bathing, appearing in the squat-toilet on the floor. Adding to the room's decor was a single dirty sandal, left in the middle of the floor.

We woke up/we're still awake early in the morning and we hired a taxi to visit Islamabad. We wanted to visit the Shah Faisal mosque, the largest mosque in the world (area wise), built with donations from the Saudi Arabian King Faisal in the 1970's. Actually, before going we didn't know it was a modern structure so we were pretty surprised to see the geometric oddity. After circling around it for a while it grew on us, it's supposed to be modelled after a nomadic desert tent and is quite spectacular. In the evening we headed to the bus station to catch the 'VIP' air-conditioned government coach to Gilgit, a 20 hour journey north. As most of our bus rides have been, this one was also pure pain. Here are some of the reasons why:
-Three hour Hindi movie starring Salman Khan playing at full blast until midnight (I actually watched the whole thing, ok I admit it, this was a GOOD part of the bus trip)
-Punjabi music playing for the rest of the night
-Drivers taking hair-pin turns so fast that it would rip you from your pathetically fragile sleep
-Drivers periodically deciding that they would turn off the air-conditioning, until it was so hot that someone complained
-People in front of us completely inclining their seats the ENTIRE 20 hour trip, even though two of the passengers were small children that weren't even using the seat
-Air-conditioning with only one setting; too cold at night and not cold enough during the day
-Finishing off the trip with army passport registrations a few kilometers away from each other, in a final attempt to make me completely lose your mind

Needless to say, when we arrived in Gilgit we were pretty exhausted. Yann has trouble staying too long in one place without doing anything, but we vowed to take one day of recovery in the town after two nearly sleepless nights in a row.

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