Those surprised at the selection of the topper in the ministerial super league challenged him to undertake a tour of Lahore to Peshawar on GT Road to see for himself how good is the good old highway. Whether he did or not I do not know, but a forced diversion from M2 to GT Road due to heavy fog let me to remember times past and see what has changed overtime. Driving from Lahore to Gujranwala is like driving through Lakshami Chowk in Lahore or Raja Bazar in Rawalpindi — traffic- as well as food-wise. All the fast and desi food chains are there. Unlike the motorway, you can rest anywhere and eat whenever you feel the need. No wonder there is a kachra mountain right after what stands there as Gujranwala toll plaza. Both sides of the road have all things that big cities are known for — marriage halls, hotel chains, multi-story parking plazas, shopping malls, fashion stores. Other familiar signs are empty overhead bridges, airport directions, housing societies and DHAs. Motorbikes were visible on the overhead bridge in Lalamusa. Except for Wazirabad, the bypasses hardly bear the description. The old joke that the bypass is the only interesting thing about Gujranwala holds no more. Old factories survive in their dilapidation, besides the shining modern units.
All this on a road that doesn’t look like one. Its condition suddenly improves from Ojla, signalling the start of Rahwali Cantt. Wazirabad bypass, Kharian Cantt and Military College, Jhelum are good patches. Railway track still runs parallel to the road, but with no train appearing for six hours and a half. From Lahore to Rawalpindi, one keeps hoping to see something green between the urban centres at least, but the brick and mortar is a never-ending spectacle. The tree lines and the farmlands beyond have all gone, replaced at places by the trees from the desert. Sufaidas are few and far between. Jinnah Park of Gujranwala, Ghakhar Sports Complex and Shahbaz Sharif Park in the Chaudhri’s Gujrat have to count for green sites from a distance. At the Chenab bridge, the fresh fish khokhas have disappeared. Fish is there at a modern Palatial Restaurant, though not as modern as to give a receipt for entry into the GST lottery.
While crossing the Jhelum, one used to see namazis doing wuzu at the riverside mosque. Now a lot more stands between the sight and the traveller. Jhelum city was then the normal stopover for buses and wagons, with many restaurants. In place of the old restaurants, taste buds now have Modern bazar, Kaptaan market and Major ki shandar fruit chaat. The road starts deteriorating again after Dina, although modern structures like the Mall of Dina and small skyscrapers attract attention. Wild greenery starts here, but from Sohawa to Rawat is a jungle of concrete. There are too many CNG stations in Gujjar Khan, besides ugly buildings.
Too many people j-walking, too much traffic left to manage itself are the problems, but the major stretches of the road in a state of disrepair for years are the main cause of the longer travel time. Sadly, like the good old rail travel, the romance of travelling on a peopled road is also gone. GT Road is old, but not good anymore. As somebody said, M2 puts you to sleep, GT Road keeps you awake — for all the wrong reasons. Perhaps the visit by the minister will make a difference to do the necessary repairs, but it cannot restore the romance that was once GT Road.