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For Pakistan, An Unmappable Road Ahead?

In Lahore, the Grand Trunk Road's dichotomy: A couple shares a motorcycle, as a horse pulls a wagon in the background.
John Poole
In Lahore, the Grand Trunk Road's dichotomy: A couple shares a motorcycle, as a horse pulls a wagon in the background.

As we finish our journey along the Grand Trunk Road in India and Pakistan, we've been thinking of how we got here.

We traveled a road across a subcontinent, and also a road through history.

The marvelous maps at offer a general idea of the path we've taken. But it's only a general idea -- much as a formal music score would give only an approximate idea of a tune played by a street musician.

We've had to weave along the road. We ducked off to one side, then the other, frequently doubling back.

The Pakistani writer Kamila Shamsie sets her novel Kartography in Karachi, where the characters note that there never really seems to be an adequate map of that sprawling city.

Probably something similar could be said of the Pakistani city of Gujranwala, where we heard there was a "Gold's Gym." We pulled off the wide lanes of the Grand Trunk Road, and into the narrow, tangled, half-paved streets of the central city.

The gym (no relation to the American chain) was locally famous. Everybody knew about it. But the first person we asked for directions didn't know how to get there. Nor did the second person, nor the third, nor even the fourth.

Each person pointed us in a general direction. The last person simply said, "Go over that way." Just when we were beginning to wonder if Gold's Gym existed at all, we looked out the window and there it was, in a row of stores, fronted by an open trench where somebody was digging a sewer.

The gym was closed, the metal gate pulled shut.

It was 2 in the afternoon, far too hot for anyone to be lifting weights. But our Pakistani colleague Sadaf Arshad went from store to store until she found someone who had the owner's phone number.

We arranged to come back that evening -- at the perfect time, it turned out, to talk with the owner and his clients. They talked about the exercise routines and about the country they live in -- a country for which, in a larger sense, there is no map just now.

In a similar way, we found the Mughal garden that was one of the final stops on our journey, in the dry mountainous country near the border with Afghanistan. Just that morning a man told me of its existence; and so we drove the Grand Trunk Road to the village of Wah, asking directions once and again until we turned off on a gravel path.

We came to a park that had been built more than 400 years ago, a sort of motel for kings, the rulers of the Mughal Empire who were traveling from their Indian dominions up to Kabul.

You could have driven the Grand Trunk Road all your life and never known the garden was there.

The building at the head of the reflecting pool was crumbling into ruins. But the pool itself was still functioning. Water flowed in from somewhere to fill the pool, and then flowed out again through a stone canal, and away through green lawns and past trees.

Scores of young people -- boys, all of them (girls would have to swim somewhere else) had come on that sunny afternoon to leap into the reflecting pool. Appropriately enough, this place was known as the Wah Gardens -- "wah" being a local expression that translates roughly as "wow!"

The children played amid the astonishing history that is their heritage and their birthright. And we stood near them, wondering where this land is going next.

How would you place that on a map?

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