I flew into Lahore from an international flight for the first time ever. Upon disembarking, I was ushered into a hall with a mob of people holding name signs. For a moment I was perplexed thinking that perhaps the immigration and customs formalities had been skipped and I had been ushered into arrivals.

After negotiating the mob, however, I did find immigration kiosks in the back with a clear sign stating, ‘No Protocol beyond this Point’. It was an interesting reminder to a Rawalpindi/Islamabad (PindIsloo) resident, of the contrast between our political and cultural capitals.

The Lahori excitement continued after leaving the baggage claim. The Radio Taxi person took me to the taxi and was then accosted by other Radio Taxi drivers. Some earnest negotiations took place and after changing two taxis I finally got in a taxi that got me to my destination in Lahore. The Lahori penchant for chaos even infected the relatively simple matter of taxi line into an intense personal negotiation.

Lahore and Karachi get compared all the time and enough has been said about our two great cities. But there haven’t been as many comparisons between Lahore and the twin cities of PindIsloo. Of course comparing Islamabad or Rawalpindi alone to Lahore would be absurd. But together the twin cities can probably mount a respectable comparison with Pakistan’s cultural capital — Lahore.

Lahore, as the late Pitras Bukhari once said, is surrounded on all sides by Lahore. There is a lot of truth to that observation. So overwhelming is the physical urban sprawl, but more importantly the cultural strength of Lahore that it absorbs and morphs every immigrant into a recognisable Lahori identity in less than a generation.

That of course makes for one of the largest relatively culturally homogenous metropolitan area in the world. You will only find a Lahori in Lahore, unlike PindIsloo which would feature perhaps one of the most recognisable cultural diversity outside of Karachi in Pakistan. Thanks to its status as the national capital there are vibrant communities of Pathans, Shinas, Baltis, Chitralis, Balochis, Kashmiris, indigenous Potowaris and down country Punjabis. In Islamabad one may even find a smattering of retired Sindhi civil servants who have decided to make the twin cities their home.

The food is good in Lahore, but then there is only one kind of dominant cuisine, constituting charghas, fried fish, meat karahis, lassi, halwa puri and assorted other ingredients. There might be odd western or Chinese fusion restaurants on M. M. Alam Road or Defence in Lahore, but the dominant culinary mood of Lahore is certainly central Punjabi. That is a contrast to PindIsloo which features a smaller but much more diverse restaurant scene of Afghan, Balochi, Lebanese, Fusion Western, Chinese, Kashmiri and of course the standard Punjabi culinary fare.

The garrulous Lahori mood is not just limited to speech it shows in its traffic and public behavior. There is no question of a Lahori not jumping the cue at every available opportunity. If there is a fender bender a Lahori would swing first before finding out who hit who. There is no question of somebody skipping cue in PindIsloo. In fact, invariably I can tell a car from Lahore in PindIsloo at night because it won’t dim its beam driving towards you.

In terms of quality of life though the Lahore and PindIsloo have very different offerings. PindIsloo does not hold a candle to the vibrancy of the Lahore cultural scene. With its armies of artists, including the ones in the Shahi Mohallah in the old city, a strong theatre, film and music scene Lahore is definitely King.

PindIsloo on the other hand though, is a heaven for people interested in outdoors lifestyles. A hike on the incredibly well maintained trails through the lush Margallas with its variety of wild life can energise even the most tired souls. And if one wants to get away, the cool hills of Murree are 45 minutes away, Nathiagali is 2 hours away, Muzaffarabad 3.5 hours away, Peshawar is 1.5 hours away, and Abbottabad is 1 hour away. Unlike Lahore, there is a lot that is not PindIsloo around the twin cities.

I love Lahore — in small doses. I love the food, the electricity of the culture and the perpetual carnival that street life in Lahore seems to be. But I choose to call PindIsloo home, because I like the relative order of the twin cities, their more diverse culture, the wonderful outdoors opportunities and well — the relatively languid pace. Won’t give up the sunset view from Pir Sohawa for all the charghas and artists in Lahore. So — see you at Trail 5 and let the hike commence.

Daanish Mustafa is a Reader in Politics and Environment at the Department of Geography King's College, London. He has seen the world but still maintains that hot corn flat bread (makki ki roti) with mustard greens, butter and lassi on a hot summer afternoon is the greatest pleasure in life. He can be reached at daanish.mustafa@gmail.com


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