If you are still sitting on the fence about visiting Pakistan and, in particular, Lahore, here are a few reasons to help you make up your mind. Now, go out, put the negative press aside, fight for the hard-to-get visa, save up for that potentially expensive flight and see for yourself. You will be rewarded with the perfect cake made of a thick slice of heritage, a filling of delicious cuisine and a toping of unwavering hospitality.
Here are my ten reasons to visit Lahore. They are not the only ones, but they are enough to guarantee an unforgettable journey which is sure to challenge your pre-conceived perceptions of such a misunderstood country.
1. Uncover mysteries from the past at Badshahi Mosque and the Fort
I knew little about the history of Pakistan, or Lahore in particular, and was soon taken aback by the explosion of architecture, art and displays of grandeur of the historical Empires that ruled the area.
Starting from the little known Hindu Valley civilization who inhabited Earth some 5,000 years ago, concurrently to the Egyptians, and continuing towards the Mughal Empire, the Persians, the Sikh, the British, the Indian and today’s modern-day Pakistan, wandering around the main sites is like strolling along World History.
Firstly, I visited the Lahore Museum. The 13 halls contain an incredible amount of artifacts and art from all of these civilizations. But the museum also includes a few rooms devoted to 19th and 20th century Pakistan, from the freedom movement to the independence from the British, both of which are still alive in people’s minds. The Museum gave me a chronological overview and a reference point to revert to during my visit.
In the days that followed I visited to the Crown Jewels: Badshahi Mosque and the UNESCO Heritage listed Lahore Fort. A walk through the Old Walled City was a revealing and magical experience and Fakir Khana Museum a treasure trove of discoveries.
Lahore, and the history of Central Asia from the 14th to the 19th century, is a bottomless source of soap-opera worthy stories that would provide the perfect plot to the Game of Thrones producers. The best insights into royal life can be found at Badshahi Mosque and the Fort. They can both be visited through a morning tour. Look for Anjum Butt (mob. no. 0300 425 0874) at the door or ask among the guards to see if they can find him. He was extremely knowledgeable, friendly and fun. I had a very entertaining visit with several sound tricks being demonstrated. The domes and archways at Badshahi Mosque were used to amplify and beautify sound. Standing at several exact points throughout the buildings I got to experience echo, sound speakers, and walkie-talkie like effects. He was not only a joy but also the gateway to the areas that are closed off to the public like the Room of Mirrors, the Summer Palace or the minarets.
The Badshahi Mosque was one of the last constructions built under the Mughal Empire and it was designed with large congregations in mind. It is not as beautiful as Wazir Khan or as much of a showcase of richese as the Fort, but its size, one of the largest in the world, gives it magnificence and elegance. Wear socks as the floor can get extremely hot under the sun. Or follow the wet paths lined up with carpets to that effect. The mosque and courtyards can accommodate almost 100,000 people during the main days of the Muslim calendar such as Eid Al-fitr and Eid Al-Adha.
Inside the main prayer room the walls, columns and ceilings are carved off white marble and encrusted with precious stones although most are today gone. It is worth to sit down and take a moment to process the detailed embellishments.
The Fort is UNESCO-listed for a reason. The various rooms, minarets, towers, rooftops, constructions, archways, courtyards and gardens are relatively well-preserved, although most of the gold and precious stones were stolen by the Sikh, and a maze of architectural wisdom and grandiosity. It is a majestic construction that transports you back to the time of Empires gone by.
2. Enjoy the yummiest of foods
If, like me, you enjoy the richness in flavor and complex spices of Indian food but have too weak a stomach to process its heavy sauces on a regular basis, Pakistani food is a great alternative. Inherently agricultural and relatively self-sufficient due to unfriendly borders on all sides, Pakistani food is almost always locally sourced. Expect extremely fresh ingredients in season and the most tender of meats. Fish was a rarity, as the sea is far from Lahore, and although large rivers pass through, culturally, it is not a common dish.
The lamb, beef and mutton cuts were cooked to perfection. The meat was so tender I did not need a knife. Although some of the dishes can be quite heavy and the deserts are extremely sweet (overpowered by lots of sugar and condensed milk) I found it much lighter than its Indian counterpart.
Tasting the local flavors and enjoying the fresh fruits like falsa, a berry similar to blueberries, was a delight and a sure way to get to the heart of a country’s culture. Ask for the stories behind some of the most common dishes to get some additional views on the ways of life.
For the best foodie experiences, try street food across the city. Enjoy dinner, and stunning views over Badshahi Mosque, from the rooftop at Cooco’s Den. For breakfast, head to Capri for puri halwa made with a sweet mixture of semolina and sugar. Feast on a vegetarian lentil burger at Liberty, there are a few burger joints by some of the roundabouts. Try all of Pakistan’s recipes at The Village restaurant, staged to look like a traditional village and serving a large spread. For absolutely mouth-watering meats BBQ Tonight is the place, their signature lamb is finger-licking good – literally. Oh! As an Indian friend admitted, the Pakistani Biryani is particularly good. Don’t forget to savor everything with a refreshing glass of mango lassi!
3. Travel like a local
International media has succeeded, Pakistan is a place where there is nil tourism. There is no such thing as infrastructure, tour guides (well, just a couple maybe at the Fort), or signs explaining what you are staring at so you have no option but to immerse yourself and ask around. Chances are there will be someone willing to give you an informal explanation standing nearby. Ride along the traffic-jammed streets of the city on a ching chi (or shared rickshaw), on your own rickshaw, on a horse cart, on a donkey cart, on the metro (made of buses instead of train carriages) by taxi or by train – and ask about things that look unusual, or anything for that matter!
By Shahdra Road I saw a bundle of stalls with printers out in the open. I asked what that was, it seemed an excessive amount of printing facilities. Little did I know that those were lower-level courts and lawyers dealing with small crimes such as petty theft or cheating. Stop by, ask around, take it all in. Locals are extremely friendly and so unused to seeing tourists that they will not only greet you but likely offer you some tea. Sign language can be extremely telling!
And, for the extra bonus points, sit on one of the ledges and platforms that are on either side of the streets in the Old City and watch life go by. I was told they are built for people-watching and this is what Pakistani youth does in the evenings.
4. See for yourself
Traveling should always be about seeing for yourself. Even if you have read about a place a million times nothing can replace the real life experience, the touching, the smelling and the feeling of being there. Everyone will have their opinion about a place, you should have yours too.
In places like Pakistan, this is even more important as the stereotype and the image portrayed is nothing like reality on the ground. The media grossly over-hypes the dangers of a trip to this beautiful mountainous country filled with history and nature and rarely does it showcase it in the richness and complexity it deserves.
Did you know that Pakistan has 6 UNESCO-listed sites?
Did you know that Pakistan is the birth of one of the most ancient civilizations, born during the Bronze Age?
Did you know that it was Mughal Emperor Jahan who ruled over Pakistan the one who built the Taj Mahal?
Not to talk about the many prejudices about the country which are simply, untrue.
No, locals don’t walk around dressed like Islamic fanatics blowing themselves up. Of course there are parts of the country that should be avoided but with little care you can have a wonderful holiday with no tourist in sight. The beauty of the place and the friendly hospitality of locals will not only win you over, it will make you feel both privileged to be there and ashamed to admit that you, too, had prejudices before coming.
5. Get lost in the walled city
Lahore’s Walled City is contained within 13 ancient gates or their replacements. Only one of them survived the British defortification of the city, Roshnai Gate or Gate of Lights, which stands between the Badshahi Mosque and the Fort and was used by royalty to enter the city. It is beautifully bright and polished. Several of the original gates have been reconstructed since the 1847 uprising that destroyed them, including the two most famous ones: Bhatti and Delhi Gates.
Delhi Gate used to be the only entrance to the city from Delhi and has been restored to its original glory. It is the entrance used to reach Wazir Khan’s Mosque. Bhatti Gate is known for its food and for being the entrance to Fakir Khana and the Red Light District, referring more to dancers and performers than to sexual workers.
I would suggest you start off by joining one of the walking tours that Farhan, from Old Lahore Walkabouts (page here), organizes and then getting lost, on your own, among “elbow” alleys where only one person can pass, and buzzing markets filled with the noise of the workers, the shouting of the sellers, the smoke of the scooters and the smells of fresh food, fried delicacies and animal poo.
With Farhan I discovered to the story of the once world’s largest diamond, today part of the British Crown Jewels, Koh-i-noor or Mountain of Light, as it was stolen from Mughal Emperor Jahan (famous for building the Taj Mahal) by Persian Emperor Shah in the Haveli where this all took place. His mesmerizing story-telling ability keeps the audience engaged and wanting for more. I would go back to Lahore just to spend the days listening to his stories and to the real life of Millennials in Pakistan.
6. Hold century’s old art at Fakir Khana
At Fakir Khana, one of the largest private art collections in Asia, the largest in Pakistan and the only recognized by the Government, Farhan, the same one who runs walking tours of Old Lahore and nephew of the owner, gave me a private tour of the treasure trove found in the main rooms. The Museum is managed and maintained by the Fakir Family and is housed in a tall building. Each of the floors can only be reached by climbing sets of very steep stairs.
As we sat down to enjoy a glass of cool mango juice with pathoora (deep fried bread filled with minced meat), khatai (crumbled biscuits), lentil dumplings in yogurt and green tea with spices, the current curator of the Fakhir family explained the story of the museum and how his ancestors and grandfathers started accumulating such precious artifacts.
Like a child rummaging through the grandparents attic, I climbed to the top floor with Farhan, who was eager to show me the most valuable pieces locked in a cabinet and chest of drawers. He is so passionate about the history and the beauty of the art pieces that he can’t wait to tell the visitor all about it. He asks me what I think each artifact is but can’t wait to hear my guess. You could spend an entire day at Fakir Khana listening to Farhan explain the trials and tribulations of the Mughals. The battles, the succession disputes, the love affairs, all depicted on the various art pieces on display. He admits that he has yet to see all of what is available in the Museum and that every day, he discovers something new.
Fakir Khana will soon be partially included in Google’s Cultural Institute and available for virtual tours but nothing can replace the feeling of touching a robe that belonged to a 16th century Mughal Emperor or fantasizing about the stories depicted in the incredibly intricate miniature paintings, carved with gold on 80-year old elephant ivory.
The Fakir family is also the owner of some of Prophet Mohamed’s relics including a hair. Part of the relics are held at Badshahi Mosque whereas the rest are in Fakir Khana’s Museum but not available for viewing. I did see an ancient manuscript that certified their ownership. The seals of the various families who had passed the relics down were all included at the bottom of this rolled-up piece of history.
The Museum also holds a large collection of Mughal coins and the finest of Chinese porcelains that is so thin it sounds like a fine Riedel wineglass. The historical treasures and heritage pieces date as far back at the 18th century, when the Fakir brothers were part of Maharajah Sanjit Singh’s Court as his Physicians. The rooms and the house as a whole is something taken out of a James Bond movie.
I felt honored and privileged to interact with the family members, the art itself and its history. It is as unique as it is incredible. One of the most outstanding art experiences to be had.
Visits to Fakhir Khana are by appointment only as the Museum is not open to the public. Do call ahead to arrange a visit and you will get a tour by one of the family members. Talk about personalized treatment. Total magic.
7. Wagah Border
Coming from a state (Catalunya) that does not have the freedom to choose its own future I can sympathize with those who fiercely celebrate their independence and identity. Pakistan and India are two of those places and, when confronted with the never-ending animosity between them, the synchronized military “show” that takes place every day at the border is something that cannot be explained. Even if you don’t speak Urdu you can feel the intensity and the patriotism that floats in the air.
Wagah is about 30min outside of Lahore and it is know for being one of the border towns with India. Every day, at about 6pm, the flags are lowered and the gates are officially closed among much fanfare and an incredible display of strength and patriotism of the military on both parts: the Indian Border Security Force and the Pakistan Rangers.
Getting permits to visit as a foreigner is a Kafka-esque process. There is basically no channel or way to get it so, unless you know someone who knows someone that can track down a way to get clearance you are unlikely to be able to go. And don’t even consider showing up, there are not one but 3 police and army check points which will no doubt send you back. The protocol is strict and includes background checks to make sure that you are not a spy. No joke. Ask the hotel or look for a local guide that can get the permits for you and apply well in advance – it is worth it!
What goes on at the border?
Both military teams will start with singing of anthems and displays of force and superiority. Who can raise their legs highest, who can yell the loudest, who can blow the horn the longest and eventually, the two sides will open their gates and the flags will be lowered in a synchronized movement. At the end, the two main soldiers will shake hands and the gates will be closed for the day.
On both sides, there are grandstands where anxious-looking crowds waving flags cheer on. The Indian side has no nearby town so visitors are fetched by the bus load for a day excursion. There were significantly more visitors on the Indian side than the Pakistani. But then again, India is almost 10 times bigger than Pakistan. Women and men are segregated on the Pakistani side, except for the VIP first row seats which are mixed. You want to sit on one of those and, as a visitor, you are likely to get permits for that part.
It is a historical representation of recent Indian-Pakistani relations that is very much alive today. Don’t forget to take a selfie with the Rangers, they are friendly and approachable despite their large frame. For a sneak peak, check this YouTube video from the BBC. Although the video is from 2007 changes in the ceremony itself are minimal.
8. Jahangir’s and Nur Jahan Tomb
Jahangir’s Tomb was not built by the Emperor himself but by his son and, most likely, his latest wife, Nur Jahan. The Tomb is housed inside a building made with red Sikri stone and white marble that is so representative of Lahori architecture. The design is extremely intricate outside but it is inside where the true skill of the Mughal Empire is showcased in the frescos and tiled mosaics. It is said that the building was famous in the whole Mughal Empire.
Needless to say you are bound to have the 1.5 sq. km garden and Tomb to yourself. Do make sure that the gate keeper opens the door to the Tomb itself for an explosion of color and incredible mosaic work that you will not see anywhere else. As soon as the doors opened, even in the darkness of a room without any natural light, I couldn’t help but react in an exclamation of surprise. This is one of the most impressive rooms I have ever seen. Not a single inch was left to decorate from the tiled floors to the ceiling the beautifully intricate flower designs were magnificent.
The inner room where the Emperor was laid to rest is made in solid thick marble encrusted with precious stones and designed in a way that “rain and dew from heaven might fall on it”.
Jahangir was known for having a true appreciation for the arts and the culture and was said to amass large collections of manuscripts and commission studies on flora and fauna. He also had a real devotion to his wife, Nur Jahan, who is believed to have ruled the Empire for a few years after his death.
Nur Jahan’s Tomb did not have the same fortune as Jahangir’s. There is little left today of the beautiful construction it once was. We managed to find it after asking for directions a few times. It lays on the other side of the train line and off the Gran Trunk road that once connected the entire Mughal Empire from Afghanistan to India. There is a sign that provides a little history of the place and a group of conservation workers trying to re-build it to its past glory. Nur Jahan is the only Empress to whom receipts were issues and coins minted.
Today, the tomb remains as bundle of rocks and ruins but it is being restored to look like the original. There is little left of its grandeur. Ask the guard/keeper/worker to open the access to the sepulcher underground for a truly Indian Jones experience. Descend the stairs to where the remains were laid to rest for her and her daughter and see how the tomb was constructed to let the rays of the sunset and sunrise pour in. Bring a torch (or use your phone) there is barely any light inside
9. Shopping for beautiful tunics
Alright so I couldn’t help this one.
Aided by my hosts and by the imperative need to get an engagement party ready outfit I walked all of the shops and markets in town for a beautiful kurta.
The difference between a regular day-to-day kurta and a dress-up one was the material, Farwa tells me. She was my own personal shopper. At age 21 she stood classy and sophisticated for her age. Silk and sheer indicates a special occasion and cotton or linen are for the fresher attire needed under the scorching sun. We had to find a common ground, and an outfit that would suit me, as I like pastel light colors for my fair skin and Pakistani women are darker hence wear brighter more intense colors. Eventually, I ended up with two outfits, one with a silky finishing and longer for the party and another one to be worn during my stay to blend in. Kurta are worn long, well under the knee, and they have apertures on the sides to help with the walking. They usually come in an A shape narrower at the top and wider at the hip. The neck can have a vertical aperture or a slight narrow V-shape and your head will barely fit through. The opening is made for you to put it through your head not to show any bit of flesh. I tried the first one I liked and my head didn’t get through. I must be big-headed!
Underneath, you need a pair of leggings or pencil trousers in linen or cotton. They must come down to your ankle, not above, so forget about three-quarter lengths.
To top-of the outfit you need a scarf, not necessarily to be worn over the head, although it may double as that, but to throw over your shoulders hanging at the back. Whereas the pants should be in one solid color matching the kurta, the scarf can be, and usually is, of a different pattern. The result is a supremely colorful outfit with layers and layers of clothing. It was useful to protect from the sun but extremely hot once you add the various parts.
Aside from being very useful clothes for Pakistan they will also come in handy for any other Muslim country and for India. Take the opportunity to buy a couple, Pakistan is an eminently textile country so they come in great quality and affordable prices. Drop by any of Khaadi’s stores for the most beautiful and fashionable ones (take a peek here).
As you can see Lahore did leave a strong imprint in my heart. I had an incredibly fun time and an enlightening trip that confirmed my fears that the country has been unjustly chastised and demonized. I hope the above clears some of the questions and encourages more than one of you to go.
As a final note, I would recommend that anyone wishing to visit steers clear of the northern more dangerous parts closer to the Afghan Border and that he or she hires a local guide. Not because of safety but because a lot of the experiences I had would not have been possible without a host to help me navigate the bureaucracy, to get the permits for the best activities and to know when a small tip could get me access to the most magical places. Pakistan is a place one should travel to, but with informed caution.