Fifty years after Pakistan's creation, Lahore is still at a cultural crossroads, as Michael Church discovers
Are there tourists in Lahore? Not on the hot summer day when I made my first sally into its streets. This is Pakistan's cultivated antidote to the severity of Islamabad, and it's the most picturesque of Islamic cities - where Kipling cut his teeth as a journalist. It's drenched in history, resplendent with amazing buildings, yet the only Western visitors I encountered were a film crew. Not that I'm complaining: the exoticism was unalloyed.

The first thing that struck me was a sight common to all cities on the Indian subcontinent (the Indian border is only 20 miles away). Every straining vehicle carries a self-contained world. Four or five people to a scooter, eight or 10 to a small horse-drawn cart; when a minibus disgorges its human contents, you lose count. Motorised rickshaws weave like dodgems round plodding mules and camels; giant haystacks seem self-propelled, so completely do they obscure their beasts of burden.

But the atmosphere on Lahore's streets is immensely jolly. This is in every sense a city of kites: live ones wheeling in the sky at dawn and dusk, and man-made ones wheeling among them, or draped over telephone wires, or leaving their strings to get entangled with your feet. Rat-catchers run about with painted placards depicting their exploits; wedding cars are plastered with flowers, while wedding bands tout for business by playing at roundabouts; young ravers, their cars stuck in traffic, get out and disco-dance alongside. Big buses like galleons trail a long black rag to deflect the evil eye, as though trying to counteract their own multi- coloured gorgeousness. Some of the messages beamed from hoardings are waggish: "The Boss Is Always Right!" proclaims a power-dressed baboon. And many are arrestingly hermetic: "Retire debt, beautify country", hovers over a shop selling grave coverings.

My way to the 17th-century mosque of Wazir Khan took me past the indestructible Mogul-Gothic remnants of the British Raj to the mouth of the Shah Alam bazaar, where I felt like an interloper. This maze of crumbling, ornate Islamic buildings - with dark sheets hanging everywhere for shade - seemed not so much foreign as secret. English is not spoken; I was viewed with benign amusement.

This is a place where children are put to work, but where they are still allowed the pleasures of childhood: there are all manner of swings and roundabouts in open courtyards, and a terrifyingly homespun big wheel. No pictures may be taken of the young girls praying at an underground shrine, but the clasp of boys under Koranic instruction were cheerfully permitted to face the lens on the day I was there. The atmosphere in the mosque itself is wonderfully serene.

As befits a city where three legal systems co-exist - civil, religious, and martial - Lahore reflects many historical incongruities. Its main square is known as Charing Cross, and boasts a miniature Albert Memorial which houses a big Koran in a glass case. The main street is known both as the Mall and the Quaid-i-Azam (Great Leader, aka Pakistan's founding father Mohammed Ali Jinnah). And the Mall's most notable landmark is the cannon whose original name meant lion's roar, but which since Kipling made it famous has been known as Kim's Gun. Opposite this gun is the Lahore Museum - the best art gallery in Pakistan - beside which you find the National College of Art, one of whose founders was Kipling's father.

As its director explained to me, this college has been the focus for much inter-communal strife. When Pakistan was in the grip of full-blown martial law, she was leant on by the authorities to ban the teaching of anatomy; her students had to pass picket lines of students from the Islamic college across the road. Things have eased now, and some of her students are meshing with current concerns in interesting ways: producing traditional miniature paintings, but with contemporary themes - Kalashnikov warriors, and pimps and prostitutes in the red-light district.

This latter place is notable, in that buying and selling sex is legal only between 11pm and 1am: local friends warned me not to go there alone. But I did go to a local theatre - the Mehfil - where a popular farce was drawing packed houses. "Almost all businessmen," explained the manager proudly, as he surveyed his bright-eyed young clientele (the tickets cost pounds 3 - which will otherwise buy you the services of a chauffeur-plus-car for three hours). It was a quintessentially Pakistani event, but curiously familiar too: everything turns on marital deceptions and impotent old men. But this is the city recently made famous by the case of Saima Waheed, forced into hiding to escape her father's wrath for marrying the man of her choice; this is the city where Imran and Jemima live in sedate connubiality.

I also made a foray to the open-air Qaddafi Stadium, where a visiting British company was doing Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors. The audience clearly knew its Bard: during pauses the man behind me loudly anticipated the lines to come.

On the lawn outside the vast Badshahi mosque was another impressive crowd. Here I discovered that a film crew had roped in hundreds of extras for a scene from Jinnah, Pakistan's epic answer to Richard Attenborough's Gandhi. While Christopher Lee impersonating the great leader orates from a platform, the descendants of the crowd who hailed the real-life Jinnah, on that very lawn 50 years ago, watched in their thousands. The mosque forms part of the Lahore Fort, which is a magnificent agglomeration of gardens, fountains, and richly ornate architecture.

I had joined one of the few groups of tourists in Lahore, which included an Englishwoman whose tight-fitting attire broadcast the fact that she was in an advanced stage of pregnancy. In this buttoned-up place she was - to put it mildly - a sensation: men stopped in their tracks, teenage boys fought for the best view. Finally one of them found words for it. "The sun never sets on the British Empire!" he quipped, and pointed with a grin at her swelling stomach.


Getting there: Pakistan International Airlines (0171-734 5544) flies non-stop from Heathrow to Lahore on Wednesdays and Saturdays. The lowest official fare for travel in August is pounds 689 return, including tax. KM Travels (0181-993 5420) has the same flight for pounds 460. Sundowners (0171-839 5159) specialises in discount fares on Saudia via Jeddah or Riyadh and is offering Lahore for pounds 445, including tax. It is often cheaper to buy a ticket to Karachi and then get a connecting flight to Lahore (even cheaper if you wait and buy the connection in Karachi, although you can't guarantee availability). Bridge The World (0171-911 0900) has a fare of pounds 358 return, including tax, on Qatar Airways but it involves a lengthy change in Doha.

The lowest fare to Karachi is pounds 280 including tax on Azerbaijan Airlines (0171-493 2281) via Baku, but you have to stay 48 hours in Azerbaijan (at your expense) on the return leg.

Visas: British visitors need a visa to enter Pakistan. A normal tourist visa is valid for three months from the date you enter the country. For recorded visa information call 0891 880880. To get a visa in person go to the High Commission of Pakistan, 34 Lowndes Square, London SW1X 9JN (0171-235 2044). You need to take along two passport photos, your passport and pounds 40 in cash. If you get your application in before 12.30pm you can collect it between 4.30-5.15pm the same day. By post the process takes about two weeks. Visas are also available from the Consulate in Bradford (01274 721921).

More information: Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation, Suite 433, 52-54 High Holborn London WC1V 6RL (0171-242 3131). The tourist office in Lahore is on 00 92 42 871 800.

More on Lahore: overleaf, Heather Bolton drives there in a Morris 1000; next Saturday, The Independent magazine features Pakistan and India 50 years after partition.