It wasn't until a journey back to a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan that I finally had the opportunity to visit Pakistan.
As Kabul fell on August 17th, 2021, I left Afghanistan with a heavy heart on an evacuation flight arranged by the Indian government. I approached my seat on the C-17 military plane and took one last look at the mayhem I was leaving behind, vowing one day to return. Thus began a five-month-long harrowing process to re-enter Afghanistan, culminating in a road trip from Delhi to Kabul via Pakistan.
For many Indians, Pakistan is an elusive country with its doors tightly shut. I have always looked across the wired fencing along the border and tried to imagine the other side. It was a dream of mine to see Pakistan and experience the hospitality that so many have gushed about.
The first time I made an attempt to go to Pakistan was in December 2019. Armed with all the documents required for a non-related Indian to visit, I entered the embassy with hopes of getting a visa. After trying to convince the visa officer for more than 40 minutes, he squarely told me that there is nothing he can do for me unless I secured a No Objection Certificate (NOC) from Pakistan’s Interior Ministry. If there is one thing I have learned from bureaucracy in India, it is never easy to get such documents, especially if you’re an Indian trying to enter Pakistan without a “solid reason.” It goes without saying, curiosity doesn’t count as a solid reason.
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I began to push my host in Lahore, Pakistan, near India’s northwest border, to get me the NOC so that I could again apply for the visa. But the world came to a standstill with the COVID lockdown, suspending my efforts. Due to frosty diplomatic relations, the Indo-Pak border was closed until further notice. I started losing hope and dropped Pakistan off my travel bucket list. As the world started opening again in 2021, I instead shifted my focus to Afghanistan.
A Journey Back to Afghanistan
India and the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan share a diplomatic friendship, which means that a visa is not only easy but free. I arrived in Afghanistan on March 25th, 2021, amid raging conflict and a riot of spring colors. The growing security situation meant that I could only travel to a few places without being in the crosshairs of the warring Afghan National Army and the Taliban. I spent close to three months in the country, reporting actively on the war that was unfolding at a manic pace. The Taliban was making serious territorial gains, which lead to the democracy’s collapse on August 15th and my frantic evacuation.
After I got home, I worked feverishly for a month on coordinating evacuations, meeting tight deadlines, giving interviews, and working 25 hours a day. I was still traumatized from what I saw in Afghanistan and still reeling from vilification at home for speaking out against the Indian government’s lack of planning for the safe evacuation of its citizens. I was distressed, overworked, and anxious, but my heart and mind were still in Afghanistan, so I started planning my return trip.
With flights suspended following the Taliban’s takeover, the journey back into the country looked increasingly difficult, if not impossible. I began by knocking on embassy doors that had borders with Afghanistan, starting with Tajikistan. The land borders were closed and so were the embassies due to COVID restrictions and travel bans. The next step was the Uzbek embassy, but they didn’t even let me into their gates.
My last reasonable option was Iran. I called the embassy and they told me to come and apply. I gave them all the documents and they instructed me to check back. After a month, my application was rejected. All doors seemed closed. Until I decided to knock on the very last one: Pakistan.
A Mission Complete
I arranged a meeting with the visa officer at the Pakistani embassy to plead my case. The officer had seen my coverage on the Indian news channels and, recognizing me, agreed to help. Around the same time, my friend in Pakistan invited me to a wedding. I submitted my application to attend and waited patiently for the results.
Another month passed and on December 8th, I received the good news: I was issued a visa to attend the wedding in Lahore and could then use the rest of the time to transit to Afghanistan from a Pakastani city on its western border, Torkham.
I shook with excitement. But there was still one more step before I could finally cross that border: I needed permission from India’s Ministry of Home Affairs. It took another 20 days and endless calls to finally receive my authorization. I missed the wedding, but it didn’t matter anymore, I was headed for both Pakistan and Afghanistan.
On January 5th, 2022, I finally crossed into a territory completely unknown to me.
Pakistan Was the Missing Puzzle Piece
Many Indians grandly imagine the moment of crossing the Wagah-Attari border between Pakistan and India. After all, we’ve stood there many times to witness the flag-lowering ceremony—the daily military practice engaged by both countries with great fervor.
But the day I stood at the gates, it was pouring rain. There was no audience to bid me farewell. The stands were empty and the guards were impatient and couldn’t understand my excitement. I stood there like a little girl, drenched, feeling weak in my knees. My reverie was broken by a Border Security Force guard asking me to cross quickly. Within five seconds, I was on the other side. The anti-climactic climax ended too soon.
I walked Pakistan’s streets wondering: Why is it all so similar? Why is it not starkly different? Even my phone had Indian network connections at least three miles inside the country. I waited to lose that network, for something that would tell me that I had left my home behind. I took each step slowly, savoring that walk in the rain, looking around with excitement.
India and Pakistan have unique visa arrangements. Unlike other visas that allow you to visit all parts of a country, a Pakistani visa only permits you to go to the cities listed on your visa, which in my case were Lahore, Islamabad, and Peshawar. Friends from far and wide traveled to Lahore to meet me with bags full of gifts and hearts filled with love. My heart was full, too, grateful for the hospitality I received every step of the way. After discovering I was Indian, the Pakistani people didn’t want me to pay for anything. People sent food to my table because they heard I had come from India. A bus conductor refused to take money for my ticket and a coffee shop gave me free tea, all because I was from India. What did they want in return? “Just tell your friends and family back home that we don’t hate India.”
My days in Lahore breezed by. I met people every day, learned new things, and unlearned old ones. The history, architecture, and vibe of Lahore reminded me of Delhi, my own city. It felt as though I had never left home. I fit right in. Like a missing piece of the puzzle. It is impossible to tell us apart. Know how? I paid the local ticket price at a national monument and got away with it when I told him I was from Karachi, a city in Pakistan.
Every sight, smell, and sound of Lahore reminded me of home. Yet, the city was so different. While Delhi is fast and unstoppable, Lahore stops at every bend of the road and just breaks into poetry. Some days I laughed so much that my stomach hurt. I listened to impassioned discourse about Pakistan’s politics, a discussion that took a whole new dimension when I added an Indian perspective, and suddenly the picture was more complete. A rare occurrence.
My 10-day visa gave me enough time in each of the three cities to get a feel of the place without over-familiarizing itself. For now, it was enough to satiate my hunger for exploring the unexplored. Just when things in Lahore got comfortable, it was time to leave.
Islamabad Is No Lahore
Islamabad, Pakistan’s manmade capital city, is practically lifeless compared to Lahore’s cacophony and vivacity. I was amazed at their perfect motorways, which are designed to reduce travel time. The distance of nearly 250 miles between Lahore and Islamabad can be covered in four hours.
The cosmetic beauty of Islamabad is pleasing. The tree-lined avenues and beautiful burst of flowers at every square were a welcome sight. I loved the city’s urban spirit, but it did not have Lahore’s character. It was too business-like and formal for my comfort.
Meeting the career-centric people from Islamabad gave me another perspective on Pakistani politics. Many people who live just outside of the Punjab border feel largely forgotten by the government. I was immersed in their conversations, hanging on to their words, educating myself like a fly on the wall. I just spent a night and two days in the capital because the days were running out and I still had one more milestone to cross before I reached my final destination.
A Run-In With Police in Peshawar
My friend from Islamabad offered to drive me to Peshawar, an offer I readily accepted. We sped through the night, listening to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan Saab’s qawwali (Sufi Islamic devotional singing) which is an hour and 40 minutes long—the exact time it takes to travel between the two cities. Just when the song hit its last note, we entered Peshawar.
Peshawar, being close to Afghanistan, was always something I expected to be more rundown and less urban. But I saw glitzy malls, a robust transit system cutting through the city, and wide roads. So few Indians have traveled to Pakistan that it is nearly impossible for us to know what to expect in this country. I took it upon myself to show that side. I received a ton of messages on my social media accounts from people who were amazed to see this aspect of the country.
The fact that we were in a dangerous region first occurred to me when I arrived at a friend’s house and found it protected by armed gunmen. The security was unnerving and the conversations serious. I realized I’d left my safety net soon after I left Islamabad. But I again received a warm welcome at my host’s house in Peshawar. The next morning, I got up early to explore the old market, Qissa Khwani Bazaar, known for its tradition of green tea and storytelling. The market is located at the crossroads of Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent. It still held on to its caravanserais—traveler inns from the bygone era—that were known for these long storytelling sessions. Travelers would stop for a night and share their tales of love and valor from the road. I listened to these glorious tales over green tea prepared with much care, the fragrance of cardamom hanging thick in the air and interlaced with smoke from the men’s hookahs, talking about everything from life to politics—just like old times.
I spent a delicious few hours exploring every nook of that old market before returning exhausted before sundown. Preparing to leave the next morning for Kabul, I decided to go to sleep early that night. But at 11 pm, my host hurriedly woke me. The police and intelligence department were at her doorstep, inquiring as to who I was. Her mother hurriedly covered me with a dupatta (headscarf). I was confused, still delirious with sleep, and met the authorities.
It unnerved me that they’d found me at a private residence and was exempted from reporting at police stations. I didn’t like the fact that I was likely tailed throughout my journey. Moreover, I was flustered at the hour they chose for their investigation.
The other families living in the complex started gathering outside their houses to watch the drama unfold. They flipped through my file of documents and started asking about a No Objection Certificate. Furious, I told them I was never informed by the embassy to carry such as document, and that I had permission to cross from Peshawar into Afghanistan. When they couldn’t find anything amiss in my papers, they left. I returned to my bed, unable to sleep. The next morning, I left. It would not be the end of my troubles.
On to Afghanistan
The road to the Pak-Afghan border in the city of Torkham cut through the Khyber Pass, a beautiful 90-minute drive from Peshawar. As I arrived at the immigration counter, a whole new set of problems awaited. I slid my passport across the counter to the immigration officer’s confusion—he didn’t know what to do.
“I have never in my entire life seen an Indian passport here. What is your purpose at this border?” he asked me. I was getting impatient as the line of desperate Afghans swelled behind me. He gathered more officers and they all looked at my passport with confusion. They made frantic telephone calls. It took them 45 minutes to clear my immigration and stamp my passport.
As I gathered my luggage and walked towards the Afghan border, police officers again cornered me. This time they took me inside an office and inquired about the length and breadth of my journey. They took the phone numbers of all my hosts in every city, my home address in India, my address in Kabul, a copy of my editor’s letter, and copies of my passport, all of which went on for another hour.
I was furious at being subjected to this level of scrutiny and told them that if I am being held up for being an Indian, then I will be sure to make noise about it. I showed them that I am a journalist and had a valid visa for Afghanistan. They finally let me through, profusely apologizing for the “inconvenience.” Exasperated, I made the last stretch to the Afghan border without incident.
Unlike Pakistan, where I was scrutinized exhaustingly, Afghan immigration was so quick that I didn’t even realize that I had entered the country. An uninterested Talib looked at my passport and asked me just one question: “Where do you want to go?”
“Kabul,” I said. He looked up for a second and stamped my passport. And just like that, I re-entered the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
I could see a huge line of people desperate to cross into Pakistan, trying to flee from their new rulers. The impatient Talibs talked with their guns more than they did with their tongues, sometimes using the butt of their Kalashnikovs to manage the unruly crowd. I watched in despair.
A taxi drove me to Kabul, all six hours of the mountainous journey from the border, but I had finally made it. I became one of the few Indians to take the ultimate road trip from Delhi to Kabul and experience the beauty and hospitality of Pakistan along the way.