It would’ve been just another boring weekend if I hadn’t insisted that Anwar and Lincoln stay for another half an hour that Friday night, for in those final moments of our reunion, Anwar came up with this beautiful idea of making a quick trip to his native Rahimyar Khan. I have such fond memories of his hospitality from our first visit nearly three years ago. I literally jumped at the idea before even making necessary calculations and the plan was made. We cajoled a hesitant Lincoln into it and completed the quartet by calling Waqas and taking promises from him against the wishes of his family. The rest is adrenaline.

On Sunday morning, we were all set to leave before the sun was out, but the sun never came out because an intense fog had enveloped the plains for a few days. The train was more than three hours late. Now it seems ungrateful to complain because the very next day all trains were cancelled for the next few days owing to zero visibility. There is something strangely romantic about the train journey. The air of sentimentality comes out of this balloon as soon as you board the train and come across untidy cabins, poor service and filthy toilets. From the windows, you witness somber scenes of poverty stricken, pollution ridden cities, towns and villages of Punjab. Still, standing in the compartment door, passive smoking with your pals, watching the landscape rushing past, and listening to the rhythmic sound of the fast moving train and an occasional whistle like horn makes the experience romantic enough and totally worthwhile. In the afternoon we went to the dining car for a nice cup of tea. It was totally dark when the train finally reached Rahimyar Khan after a journey of ten hours.

A sumptuous feast was laid at Anwar’s dining table for us. By 9 pm we had freshened up and were ready to hit the road again, this time for Cholistan Desert. Streets of Rahimyar Khan were mostly deserted at this time. A mild fog had started descending outside the city. We left the massive Abu Dhabi palace with its miles long walls behind and crossed into the desert through a military check post. It felt like there was nothing else in the world except the star studded sky, the road and the endless wilderness called Cholistan. Sheikh Zayed’s desert highway stretches across Cholistan and leads all the way to Derawar Fort in the heart of the desert. A little further from the check post, we went off road on a brick soling path which took us into the desert.

Unlike my last visit to Cholistan, there were a lot of visitors. A huge group from a nearby manufacturing plant were winding up their picnic and leaving. We chose a spot nearby, set up chairs and started building a fire. I went a few steps further on my own and tried to find some magic in a classical Arabic song. When I returned, the fire was ready, hookah was prepared and clouds of fragrant smoke were dispersing in the air. The picnic party had left and we finally had the desert to ourselves. But these moments of peace were few, for just a few minutes later some three dozen college boys arrived at the scene and started preparations for a barbeque. They were very loud and rather uncouth. In the heat of their friendly conversation laced with abuses, our short lived ecstasy melted away. Anwar got up, asked the boys to take care of our jackets and the hookah and led us into the wilderness.

It was a full moon night. We were walking away from the crowd and into the desert. Anwar and Lincoln were a few paces ahead of us and I and Waqas were lagging behind. It was difficult walking in the desert and our feet were sinking deep in the sand. Waqas found his breath to talk and made the lamest of observations “Why does it feel like those two are walking on firmer ground and we are damned like Majnu”. Noise from the crowd was reduced to a distant murmur. Anwar stopped after leading us for about two hundred meters in the desert. We were standing on top of a sand dune. The desert, bathed in moonlight was spread under our feet as far as the eye could see. A gentle breeze was flowing through the desert. There was such deep silence that I could hear blood flowing in my veins. We were in the heart of wilderness, in the wasteland of solitude. It was one of those rare moments when you can feel the pulse of nature. My words shy away from describing its beauty and serenity. I didn’t realize for how long we stayed there in a trance. Was it just a moment or an eternity I can’t say for sure. The desert talked to us in the language of silence. It was the night of nights.

We walked back to our chairs and fire. The barbeque party was in full swing. We added some dry bushes to the fire to keep it burning. There’s something infinitely beautiful about sitting around a fire and talking about random things or pouring out your heart or simply remaining silent. Anwar played a heart piercing violin instrumental and it felt like the desert has finally got its voice. Laughing, shouting from the crowd didn’t feel as annoying as it did before and we started enjoying their raw humor. Usually, a single party doesn’t stay in the desert for too late in the night but it was because of their presence that we stayed well after 1 am. Indeed, it was the night of nights.

Anwar told me that whenever the fast pace of life in Lahore gets on his nerves, he makes this ten hour journey just to spend the night in the desert, refresh his heart and soul and catch the next afternoon train back to work. Indeed, desert has a magic in it, as Ghani Khan beautifully describes in one of his poems “The desert I wouldn't give up for the gardens of Iran...”