75 miles in the saddle for fun
Where the straight two-lane highway leaving Islamabad actually ended up we never found out. It felt very out of character with all the other roads we experienced in Pakistan. Quiet silken smooth asphalt. Everywhere else was quite the opposite, busy with every kind of traffic raising dust and picking its way around potholes on roads that definitely went places but didn’t look it.
Islamabad is the capital of Pakistan in much the same way that Canberra is the capital of Australia, a compromise of conflicting interests ending up with a neatly laid-out grid of concrete blocks. Somewhere recently I came across a description of Islamabad as being 40km down the road from Pakistan. The highway reflects the atmosphere of the city itself — quiet, smooth and peaceful — and on our mission to obtain visas from the foreign quarter, where huge embassies hide behind high walls, the blazing heat got the better of us and that ribbon of relief called us back to bustling Rawalpindi. As Lynne, baby Louisa in the bike seat and myself sped smoothly along the new asphalt, the breeze cooled our bodies and our temperament before we turned off the mystery highway onto the local roads towards the old city.
Roads crowded with animals, horsedrawn taxis, buses, cars, bicycles, pedestrians and trucks. Not just ordinary trucks but venerable old Bedfords with such ornately carved wooden cabs replacing the originals that only the unmistakable shape of the bonnet indicated the pedigree. The bicycles were the ubiquitous Chinese Flying Pigeon brand, the like of which are supposed to carry more freight in the world than motorised vehicles. Buses too competed for road space, a travelling cacophony of horns and blaring Pakistani pop music, with as many passengers hanging on the sides and the roof rack as were inside.
Past the bus station as dusk fell the traffic congealed into a packed flowing mass of humanity and machines, the luridly lit buses and trucks and the open cooking fires of the food stalls on the side of the road sending beams of light through clouds of diesel fumes and dust. The aroma of curried delicacies, grilled meat, spices piled up in myriad alluring coloured cones and less desirable smells from the gutter combined with the noise produced an unforgettably surreal sensory overload.
Jostling forward towards the city centre among the huge array of vehicles we felt strangely at ease. The feeling of intimidation often experienced on our ordered and policed roads wasn’t evident. There was no macho motorcar posturing — it was everyone for themselves, but in a somehow peaceful way. However, we couldn’t help but wish for an extremely loud multi-toned horn!
Suddenly it was completely dark. We didn’t have any lights — but neither did any of the other bicycles or the horsedrawn taxis. I realised I’d lost Lynne and Louisa and had no idea whether they were behind or in front of me. The road was lit by the occasional working street lamp but mainly from the shops and food stalls at the roadside. And the hand-painted cinema billboards with swarthy, bearded, gun-toting heroes and villains leered over the street creating the best lit sections of road.
At junctions everybody moves at once, flowing together and separating like a slick, well-trained motorcycle display team in slow motion. The trick is to keep moving in the most direct line and consistent speed as possible — behind that bike, in front of that truck, around that horse and cart. It works and just goes to prove the chaos theory.
The traffic came to a halt, enabling the bicycles and pedestrians to filter through the immobile mass, defying horses hooves and damaged eardrums — the bus drivers with no other controls to operate but their array of horns took full advantage. I squeezed through the gaps to the front of the hold-up to discover a policeman standing in the middle of the crossroads directing proceedings.
We had come across the phenomenon of a policeman gesticulating wildly and blowing madly on a whistle many times before. With one big difference, though — this was the first time anyone had taken a blind bit of notice. Instead of completely ignoring him as usual, this time everyone waited patiently until some subtle difference in the movement of his arms and shrill blasts was picked up by the traffic around me and we moved on.
I was unsure of the route back to our hotel but picked up familiar landmarks as I neared the centre of Rawalpindi. I arrived just a few minutes behind Lynne and Louisa.