CLUTCHING a banner emblazoned with the crescent flag, three children dressed in crisp green and white step out of their car outside the Bab-i-Iman entrance to the Quaid-i-Azam’s mausoleum. Also present are several news channels’ DSNG vans, and Rangers and police vehicles. We all await visitors from China.

“We got these clothes for Independence Day,” says Ayesha Tahir, one of the children. “Today we decided to wear them again to welcome our friends here.”

Their father smiles and explains that Junaid, his youngest son, has been following the Pakistan-China Friendship Car Rally, or the Ningxia Car Rally as it is also known as, right from when the 20 or so white FAW vehicles entered Pakistan through the Khunjerab pass a week ago. “He is the one who got us all charged up as well,” says Tahir Sardar, an engineer by profession. “We just had to come here to meet the visitors. China is Pakistan’s best friend, after all. How could we have passed up this opportunity?”

But the guests are yet to arrive. It is hot and humid but the family doesn’t let this bother them — unlike the grumbling media people that aren’t too pleased at not having been given the correct itinerary. Still, all is forgiven as two long coasters carrying some 53 Chinese nationals finally come into sight amid tight security. The gates open just enough to allow them inside, then quickly close before any of the media vehicles can pass through. Journalists, however, are allowed inside and one by one walk through the metal detector. The cheering Tahir family is pushed aside.

These guests have driven to Pakistan following the Silk Road to promote tourism while highlighting the significance of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Wang Wei, the female driver of one of the coasters and who comes from Ningxia, tells me that they want the world to recognise the importance of Pakistan. “Today, we have come here by road,” she says. “Tomorrow perhaps more people will drive through the same way.”

Pearl Zhou, from Shenzhen, says she took turns at the wheel as she also had to take care of her four-year-old son Ryan Wen, the only child in the group. “But it was a pleasant drive all the way,” she says. “We spent a night in Gilgit soon after entering Pakistan and travelled to Naran, where we stopped for lunch before heading off to Islamabad. This was followed by a two-day stay in Lahore and a short breather in Multan. We also visited shines and food streets in Lahore and Multan. This is my first time in Pakistan. Your country is beautiful.”

Someone informs the guests that the maintenance work under way at the mausoleum is also all thanks to Chinese cooperation, which the guests are pleased to learn. The chandelier in the main chamber was a gift from China, and it is now being replaced by another, also a gift from China. The guests mingle freely, although some speak through interpreters.

Ri Cheng Rong, the team leader, also here for the first time, says that basically their group is comprised of writers, reporters and photographers. “Being good drivers is an added asset,” he grins. How was the drive along the Silk Road? “Smooth as silk,” he says. Even so, according to the medical team accompanying the travellers, the ride did turn a bit bumpy when they entered Sindh as one among the guests suffered heatstroke and had to receive treatment for it. The team leader doesn’t mention that, though. Asked what he finds similar here to back home, he smiles broadly and replies: “Your smiles.”

Meanwhile, the family of five remains standing outside the mausoleum gates; their smiles slowly vanish, and frowns began to develop on their perspiring foreheads.

The visitors plan to spend two days in Karachi. Their own vehicles, in which they travelled all the way here, are safely parked at the hotel where they are staying at. Right now, they all make a beeline for Jinnah’s shining black 1947 Cadillac and his white 1938 Packard that are preserved in showcases in the adjoining Quaid-i-Azam Museum at the mausoleum. Out come the cellphones and selfie sticks.

Making the most of Saturday, their first day in the city, they have already spent some time at the beach followed by yacht rides at the Marina. Later, they expect to visit other historical buildings, including Karachi’s National Museum. The Pakistan leg of their visit ends here. From here, their cars will be shipped to Oman as they head to Muscat by air on Sunday night to carry on with the next phase of their journey to Arab states.

Published in Dawn, October 23rd, 2016

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