Through Asia's Berlin Wall

Steve Percytakes the Peace Bus from Lahore to Delhi over a border double-fenced with coils of cobra

Lahore. It's 5am and I'm standing with my bags outside Faletti's, a musty, colonial-style hotel that has seen better days. Ava Gardner and Stewart Granger stayed here in the 1950s, when they filmed Bhowani Junction. Today, it's the starting point for ordinary citizens waiting for the air-conditioned bus of the Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation that will take us from Lahore, a historic Moghul city and capital of the Pakistani Punjab, to Delhi, across one of the world's most restricted international borders.

Lanky coolies load grubby cases on top of the so-called Peace Bus that travels the 12-hour journey along the GT, or Grand Trunk Road. "Commercial luggage strictly prohibited," says a sign. My 40 or so fellow passengers are a mix of Pakistanis and Indians, mainly Muslims. Some women wear traditional black burqas; men are in baggy shalwar-kurta; children cling to their parents. Most are travelling to meet relatives, to do a little business, on what many of their compatriots believe is enemy territory.

Escorted by armed police rangers, we leave an awakening city with a soothing recitation from the Koran playing on the radio. Outside the city, farmers make their way to their fields. We soon clock up the 30 or so kilometres to the Wagah border post - the only official land crossing-point between Pakistan and India.

It was here, not long after both countries exploded nuclear devices, that the Indian prime minister, A B Vajpayee, arrived by another bus to meet his now deposed Paki-stani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif. They signed the Lahore Declaration in early 1999 to rekindle bilateral relations.

The bus service was started as a mobile confidence-building measure. But the declaration soon became a dead letter, buried in the Kargil war fought hand-to-hand last year on the snowy peaks that form the jagged Line of Control which separates Indian- from Pakistani-administered Kashmir. Relations became extremely strained. "We hope that India", Pakistan's foreign minister, Abdul Sattar, told me in Islamabad, "will sooner rather than later come to the conclusion that the policy it has adopted of scuppering opportunities for bilateral dialogue has paid no dividends and has only served to increase tensions."

Such uncompromising language is pumped out of both capitals and is further exaggerated in much of the media. It has, in the eyes of some, only elevated the symbolic status of the continuing bus service. "The bus creates a brotherhood," says Mohammad Rafiq of the Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation, sitting alongside me, next to the driver. "We need to get to know each other, and the bus helps to bring people of both sides closer together."

The fierce horns and bustle of the GT Road come to a sudden end close to the Wagah border post on the Pakistani side. The bus pulls up next to a row of government bungalows and officials. It seems strangely quiet, a shaded rural setting where the noise of crows mixes with the rustle of the eucalyptus trees. Passports are produced, visas checked.

"It wasn't any problem for me to get the papers," says Bali Ram, a Hindu who lives in Pakistan's Sindh province and sells pesticides for a living. But others have experienced tedious delays. And nationals of either country without relatives on the other side can easily be turned down. Things are slow on a border that is officially open from 9.30am until 3.30pm each day.

"Apart from the bus, there's little tourist traffic in the hot season - perhaps the odd car with special AA permission to travel around the world," says Ahmad Saeed, the newly installed superintendent of customs, who sits below a portrait of Paki-stan's founding father, Mohammad Ali Jinnah. Other ritual journeys are also taken. A week after I passed through, the body of an alleged spy was carried over to the Indian authorities.

We're back on the bus and the steel border gates swing open. It is here at sunset that the flags of both countries are lowered in a military drill in which soldiers on both sides ritually scowl at one another. There's even a grandstand on the Indian side from which to watch it. We cross the short stretch of paved no-man's land, dividing 140 million Pakistanis from one billion Indians, who, until partition more than 50 years ago, shared centuries of history.

This local version of the Berlin Wall is double-fenced with coils of cobra wire and built-in alarms, which are triggered by even the tiniest movement. It differs from the original, however, in that neither government wants to tear it down, nor does anyone want to risk life and limb by attempting to cross it. Sikh farmers tend their wheatfields in a kind of no-man's land. Buffaloes graze near the wire. Lit up at night and manned by the armed border security force, it extends for hundreds of kilometres across the Punjab.

"It's the politicians who always put things in the way," says a passenger, Qamar Saleem, who runs a small leather business in Madras. Together with his wife and four daughters, they travelled to Paki-stan's former capital, the port city of Karachi, to visit their eldest daughter who was married to a Paki-stani seven years ago. This is their second trip to Pakistan. Saleem's daughters tell me they have made lots of friends on their visits. As Pakistanis say: "People carry you in their hands."

The bags are hauled down for the third inspection. Only the week before, a gun was found in the false bottom of a water-carrier. Customs officers tell me that this was probably a simple attempt to smuggle a weapon. But there were suspicions that it could have been an attempt to test security. All the baggage is X-rayed and the bus is closely examined. It is potentially a moving target for extremist groups on both sides.

This was something that passengers, including an American tourist, found out recently. Our driver tells the story: "We were driving through the Indian Punjab when a car blocked the road. A mob of 40 to 50 people tried to stop us, carrying placards like, "Musharraf Murdabad" - death to Musharraf. The escort pushed them back and I just had to keep my foot down and drive through." Reports say that the right-wing Hindu group, the Shiv Sena, was behind the protest.

After a one-hour delay at the border post, we finally get under way. An Indian video is shown - popular fare in Pakistan. Turbaned Punjab police in a Jeep escort wave wooden lathis at lorry drivers if they don't pull into the side fast enough to let the bus overtake. Police at every intersection hold up traffic for us. Keeping the four-day-a-week service on the road seems to be a costly business.

We reach up to 80kmph on a dual carriageway separated by blossoming pink bougainvillaea. We bypass the holy Sikh city of Amritsar - sadly, no sighting of the Golden Temple.

The bus has become a popular vehicle for peace activists. In March, a group of Indian women spreading the peace message made the first border crossing after the Kargil conflict and the bloodless military coup in Pakistan. As well as staying in the houses of local people, tracing relatives and talking to the media, the women received a message from India's foreign minister, Jaswant Singh, and met Pakistan's military leader, General Pervez Musharraf.

People-to-people contacts, often referred to as an informal track II approach to peace, are growing among trade unionists and human rights groups; even retired army officers are joining up. A week after the women visited Pakistan, the Pakistan-India People's Forum for Peace and Democracy met in the south Indian city of Bangalore. When it was formed in the mid-Nineties, its members were vilified as traitors. Things are a bit different today. "We're having an important impact," says the founder member and trade unionist Karamat Ali from Karachi. "Visas were once given only to people who were going to visit their relatives. Now the authorities have been forced to give visas to people who are visiting for the purpose of spreading peace."

More importantly, Karamat Ali believes that their messages are denting what he calls the poisonous propaganda of both governments, which has been the staple over the 50 years since independence. High-visibility tours that are widely covered in the media, such as those of the women, help. "Internally, we have been able to project a different perspective on relations between the two countries," says Ali. "We can say that we are not each other's enemies, that we have no abiding enmity. Of course, there are disputes, but that means we should talk to each other."

Kashmir remains the flashpoint between the two sides. Every day, the newspapers have their column inches of shells hitting villages along the Line of Control, mujahedin attacks on security forces in Indian-administered Kashmir, the killing of Kashmiri separatists by Indian security forces in an insurgency that began back in the late Eighties and has claimed thousands of lives.

Some passengers are firm in their belief. "I'm not a politician," exclaims Shamin Ahmad, who runs a cardboard-box factory. "But if we can resolve Kashmir, then things would be much better between us." Many peace activists say this is an oversimplification. They point to a web of problems, including an erosion of democracy, a culture of violence, militarism and fundamentalism.

Coming into Delhi as the summer sun sets, we are joined by more police Jeeps, their blue and red lights flashing and sirens blaring as we speed through the crowded streets. We are greeted with another extensive bag-search in a sealed compound, and then the gates are flung open and relatives besiege the passengers with open arms.

At the time of the Lahore Declaration, Pakistan's former prime minister Benazir Bhutto said: "The bus service is yet to be fitted into the larger peace plan involving the two countries."

That looks some time in coming; but, in the meantime, the truth that travel broadens the mind isn't lost on those who cross the formidable Indo-Pakistan border.