Peshawar, Taxila & Rawalpindi Sat. 4 th to Mon. 13th February 2012
We delayed leaving Islamabad by a couple more days as we both went down with "the stomach flu from hell." You'd think after all this time we'd be immune to anything ..but the odd bug still seems to sneak in ..so we spent a couple of grotty days recovering at the camp site finally leaving for Peshawar on Tuesday 7th February.
After India (and particularly the huge marathon drive from its south to north at the need of our trip) it surprises us how manageable the distances here are, the roads (so far!) are good and though we had a late start we were in Peshawar by early afternoon. We'd decided to save the Buddhist sites of Taxila for the way back when hopefully we'd both be 100%.
It was a sunny day but pretty cold and as we drove up the M2 there were a number of dams full of icy blue glacier water straight down from the mountains …brrr!
As Peshawar is a busy city, it's the depths of winter and the security situation is a bit more uncertain ..being right on the edge of the tribal areas and closer to Kabul than Islamabad - we'd decided to forget car camping and take a room for our time in Peshawar. Finding one turned into a bit of a mission. The lonely planet offered quite a few cheap hotels but most of them in the chaotic old city so no hope of being able to park there. At Lahore Backpackers we'd met Kausar Hussain who with a colleague Prince Mahir Ullah Khan runs a tour company Untamed Borders see www.untamedborders.com and they had said to get in touch with any questions we had as we approached Peshawar but unfortunately on the day we rang we couldn't get through.
One budget hotel that someone mentioned which had a parking area was the Rose Hotel, so we aimed first for there. Peshawar wins the dubious honour of bring the most polluted city in Pakistan and the main roads around the city were choked with traffic. We found the Rose Hotel straight away by luck more than anything but whist there was a really good parking area the entrance into it was too narrow and low to let us in..damn!
Driving on we went past the Peshawar Museum and noticed the tourist information next to it, so we pulled over to see if we could at least get a map of the city. We were so glad we stopped ..Mr. Muhammad Ali Syed and his 2 assistants were incredibly helpful with maps & advice as well as a reviving cup of green tea. On a practical level they rang around to try and find us a budget hotel with parking. The combination proved a bit tricky I guess in a city where space is so scarce only the expensive places have parking room. The budget hotels were full (or didn't take foreigners) so in the end the best we could do was the Amin Hotel which was a perfectly fine mid-range type of Hotel on GT Road. At 1400 PKR or $14.40 this was way more than we were used to paying and a bit of a shock to our systems but at least we were sorted! Thanks guys for all your help.
Looking at all the incredible information about northern Pakistan we made a firm decision to definitely return in the summer ..the Chitral region and particularly the Kalash Valley looked particularly amazing. These people (the Kalash)are a beautiful tribal people living in just 3 remote valleys who are thought to be in some part the descendants of the army of Alexandra the Great, though they predate him having lived here since 200BC. They still retain their traditional dress and pagan beliefs and festivals. At the moment you can only get in by plane -and that's a bit hit and miss and weather dependent as well as being expensive so reluctantly that can go on the list for another trip. I enclose the local tourist office's website for interest. www.kptourism.com
So we had a quiet night at the Amin Hotel. There's definitely a different feel up here. Peshawar is a real frontier town with a bit of a wild west vibe, bordering as it does the remote tribal areas next to Afghanistan where tribal (rather than government) law prevails and it has had a few security problems over the years. Thus we had been in 2 minds as to whether we'd come here or not. Obviously we decided to come but were advised to ditch the car for a few days -way too conspicuous and on a practical level a nightmare to park - and get around by taxi. The local people are predominantly Pashtun, a very proud handsome race who often fought with the British. Their culture is quite conservative and based on honour & defending it particularly in regards to women.
I knew all this but it was still a bit like being on a movie set to see all the tribal men in reception decked out with guns. Andrew rode up in the lift with a couple and the husband told his burka clad wife to face the wall so she wasn't looking at Andrew. The city has a feel of being simultaneously in 2 centuries - the brand new cars contrasting with the burkha clad ladies getting into little horse drawn carriages.
Bright and early the next day we set off to our first destination here the passport office -which was a 300 PKR taxi ride right across town. There are a few road blocks as you drive around town and we were asked to show our passports. The town is overlooked by the imposing Bala Hisar fort -dating from the 16th century this is in excellent condition and is still used by the Frontier Crops. Our LP said you could enter parts of it to look around but when we tried we were turned away and not even allowed to take a picture, so the one taken from the taxi was the only one we ended up with and in no way does it justice. Had I known this I'd have made a bit more of an effort! Unsurprisingly I guess using your camera is a bit more sensitive hereabouts and we missed out on quite a few really good pictures, when we weren't sure how well received it would be.
As ever time has flown and amazingly our first Pakistan visa was coming to an end. We had been told that Peshawar -being a bit off the beaten track for most foreigners - was a better place to extend a visa than Islamabad. When we arrived we were amazed at the size of the queue and very relieved to be waved to the front! The queues were 99% Afghani - all refugees there is a huge community of at least 3 million living in Pakistan, and in addition a great many who also have overseas passports -mainly for Canada or the USA judging by the people we spoke to.
We were waved in to see the Director who was very nice to us and let us wait for our visas whilst drinking tea. We asked for 2 months extension, more than we need or plan to use but so that we'd have leeway in case of any car problems etc and we got it with no problem…and no cost!!! Other countries -notably India - who make anything to do with visas a living hell take note!
After this we headed to the Peshawar Museum -and got there just 10 minutes before it shut! So we postponed that for the next day and walked on to explore the bazaars of the old city. It's hard not to stick out, as we were the only foreigners but also I particularly stuck out as there were very few women out and about ..and those that were were generally wearing burkas but we got a very warm reception. Australia tends to be quite well received ..particularly having beaten India in the cricket ..and whilst everyone initially thinks we're American it still doesn't seem to be a problem. The constant attention can be a bit wearing though, as are the very kind offers for tea/refreshments you have to be firm in rejecting them or you end up a -slosh with tea with nothing done!
The old city was hugely atmospheric -all narrow laneways bustling bazaars, shouting vendors and an exotic parade of Afghani and Pashtun men with the odd burka clad lady ..like something out of a movie. There were some lovely old wooden havelis -sadly in disrepair now. We wandered into the Qissa Khawani (or "Street of Storytellers"-great name!) into the brass and copperware shops. Khan is THE Pashtun surname (i.e.) Imran Khan and the shop was run by a Mr. Khan and his 5 sons. I asked the boy in our picture his name "they call me Small Khan."
Dodging cups of tea we meandered around the maze-like streets -really fascinating. I particulalry liked the Ander Sahar or jeweler's bazaar - lined with exquisite gold work - particularly full now that wedding season is approaching.
We got to the Mahabat Khan Mosque just in time for a look around before prayers. Built in 1630 by the Governor under Shah Jehan you could see his (SJ's) touch everywhere -really gorgeous ornate painting.
We emerged out in a renovated square Chowk Yadgar -where old meets new -the banks next to ancient shrines -and headed on to the Cunningham Clock Tower -a little bit of England built to commemorate Queen Victoria's diamond jubilee.
All in all we had a great afternoon looking around and as it got dark we were just about to leave -Andrew was getting a taxi - when we had a bit of a "James Bond moment." A man in full tribal gear approached me and hissed urgently "Madam you must leave this place at once you are in grave danger." All very surreal! He disappeared into the crowd before I could say anything so I've not sure if he meant that place especially or Pakistan -but we left anyway! A bit funny in retrospect but quite unnerving at the time!
Next morning we headed back to the Museum which thankfully was open. It really was a great display particularly of local Gandhara art. Gandhara was the old name for the Peshawar Valley which was predominantly Buddhist from 200 BC onwards and a lot of very fine art was produced around this period, a lot of it showing a Greek influence.
When Alexandra the great came here in 326 BC some of his troops stayed on and the huge influence in art can be seen i.e.) the Buddha's started looking very Greek in dress, footwear and features, and even started sporting mustaches!
The strongmen and wrestlers also showed a really strong Greek influence -fascinating stuff. Also on display were a number of ornate Qurans, and an interesting section on local tribal peoples. The Kalash people mentioned above apparently build wooden replicas of people when they die- the lucky man I'm pictures with was rich I guess ..the only one with 2 horses!
After seeing the Museum we met up with Prince and Kausar of Untamed Borders (see above). We had hoped to visits the Smugglers' Bazaar. This is a Bazaar a bit out of town full of goods brought through from Afghanistan through the tribal areas without paying duty. Whilst illegal this market thrives -probably because when they tried to stop it the policemen who lead the raid was shot soon afterwards! Now they let them get on with it!
There is a separate roped off "No Foreigners" sections where drugs and guns are openly for sale. We had planned to have a look at this, as Prince can organize a special permit to get you in (it's who you know!) but we didn't give him enough time so we gave it a miss. Actually some people warned us off going there -I guess you're more likely to run into trouble in an illegal gun/drugs market than in the museum! - so maybe it was as well.
It was nice to meet up with Kausar and Prince, please see their website above and below for details of the trips they can organize. http://www.untamedborders.com
Sadly we didn't take a photo of them -slack of us! Prince very kindly gifted us some money produced by the Taliban In Afghanistan, which is now defunct but an interesting keep sake nevertheless.
Andrew had done some research and next stop was the car parts market …honestly we're probably the only travellers who hit these in every City..I bet I know Khan market in Delhi more than most Delhites! Anyway we quickly found a helper who ran around and got a lot of diverse spare parts (things always need replacing on a car so old and we always keep a list!) Amazingly we got everything on our list -far cheaper than elsewhere we'd tried..we'd been told to wait for Peshawar -good advice! Thanks to the guys for their help and tea.
Next we headed off to Saddar Road to have a look at the Afghani Carpet Shops. As mentioned there is a huge Afghani population and many refugee camps around town. Mr. Iman- ud-din who runs the Khurassan shop has been here for 30 years and so has his own home. The young man in his shop was actually born here though he still feels Afghani rather than Pakistan -guess there will be a whole generation like that. Mr. Iman said he'd love to return home..maybe one day.
In the meantime he has a great shop here - full of wonderful Afghani handicrafts -handmade carpets, clothes, jewelry etc. We bought a small carpet for what seemed a really good price. We just need a floor for it now!
We were invited to stay for dinner and we had a delicious traditional Afghani meal of lamb, kebabs, rice naan and salad..sitting on the floor Afghani style ..a little bit like being there. Hopefully we'll go for real one day..fingers crossed!
Mr. Iman kindly drove us back to the hotel after dinner, and by the time we reached there it was dark..about 8pm. To our surprise we had a reception committee…2 guys from the Internal Bureau (IB) i.e.) Senior Special Branch Police and a car full of uniformed police! Apparently they had arrived not long after we left that morning…at 9 am ("all day they sit in my reception") as the poor harassed hotel manager told us!
The problem was that the copies the hotel had taken of our passports showed that our visas were about to expire. Also it didn't show an entry date and unusually by a lot of people's standards we'd entered on the last possible day of our visas, so they were concerned our visas might have expired.
Once they saw we'd got a new visa it was all ok ..though we got a drilling on where we'd been and particularly where we'd been in India ..which was a big one as we've been all over! I think we look pretty harmless as they were quickly reassured and no doubt pleased that we were leaving the next day - we just got a pep talk on not being out after dark. Big brother is watching us!
Next morning (once Andrew had got on the roof for a spare wheel adjustment to the amazement of al!) we drove south back towards Taxila.
Stopping for tea on the way I went to take a picture of the man who leapt up to clean our windscreen ..all part of the service ..when a man walked up and asked "photo, photo" I nodded and carried on taking the one I was half way through and he demanded "now!" pointing at himself. So I took it "me 100% pure Pashtun " he said, before walking off without even looking at the picture, so I felt I had to put it on the site so you could all be suitably impressed!
The road went over the Indus River the centre of the Indus Valley -one of the world's most ancient civilization which we'd seen on "the other side" when in India.
Taxila, just 50km out of Islamabad is a real "must see" being one of the best archaeological sites in SE Asia. The Museum was incredible though sadly no photography allowed though the curator did say we could take a few as we were "special guests" of course he then wanted a "special fee" !! Twas ever thus.
Anyway, there were a wealth of great statues with very Greek faces, and all sorts of jewelry, and artifacts found at the nearby sites. Our pictures show one of the world's first water condensers, and also a 1st century AD folding chair ..not unlike the ones we've got so that had to be pictured!
By the time we had finished it was getting late so we were lucky to pick up a guide at our first stop who helped whiz us around the most important sites. Mr. Yasir Ali was very knowledgeable and we'd recommend his services, also his English was really good. Contact him on 03009803965.
First stop was Sirkap a city built by the Bactrin Greeks in the second century BC though it was added to by later generations. A lot of the jewelry in the museum was found here, all together in the ancient equivalent of the old jewelry bazaar we'd visited. There was an ancient Buddhist monastery, a KIng's Palace (Ashoka the famous Hindu King who converted to Buddhism apparently lived here) and very interestingly what was once a Christian church. Apparently the apostle Thomas whose grave we saw in Chennai actually travelled this way and there is evidence he visited this church ..not sure how accurate this is but a good story! There was also a temple with very Greek looking columns.
Up on the King's palace there was an incredible view over the surrounding areas. The stone work -apparently Taxila actually means "cut in stone" -had stood the test of time and was still pretty impressive.
The area all around the site is still used as farm land and when the land is ploughed particularly after the wet season a lot of ancient artifacts rise to the surface ..old pottery (or bits of it ) can be seen everywhere, and we were lucky to meet a farmer with a handful of coins to show us. Obviously he'd found these over some time (and was trying to find a buyer) but there was one with a picture of Alexandra (it's thought) ..very interesting.
Next we saw the Mohra Moradu monastery, which was a few kms drive away with little signage so we were lucky to have our guide.
Dating from the 3rd-5th centuries this monastery has an intact huge Stupa in one monastic cell which was actually a copy of the one in the Museum. The site was a monastery with monks' cells and a kitchen well bathroom etc. all very good stonework again. There was also a lot of carving -mainly figures of the Buddha though a lot has been removed to the museum for safety.
Finally we drove out to the Jaulian site on a hill to the east and the site of what our guide called the first Buddhist university which was also a monastery. It was a steep climb up the hill of over 200 steps and at the top was a very well laid out large monastery -which would have been a great peaceful spot for studying.
Apparently in more peaceful times Westerners often come to camp here -good spot. There was a great deal of carving around the base of stupas, mainly lots of finely detailed Buddhas. One really interesting aspect was the "Atlantis carvings" -one whole layer of the stupas being dedicated to these representations of the City under the sea of Greek mythology -another Greek influence.
We spent the night at the local PTDC motel -which seemed to be the only place around with a heater so as it got colder it filled up with the doctors from the local hospital on night duty as well as the police! They let us camp in the garden.
Next morning the reason why the police presence was so heavy came to light-the President of Sri Lanka was about to visit -this being a big site for Buddhists obviously. We had run out of light the night before and so had been saving one final site the stupa at Dharmarajika for that morning but due to security measures they wouldn't let us go that way. As the policemen I asked said "you cannot go there so you must go anywhere else which isn't there' …ok. We'd have liked longer here, but we felt that we'd had a reasonable look -Taxila's definitely worth a visit.
We drove back to Islamabad stopping on the way at its chaotic twin city of Rawalpindi "Pindi." This has a totally different feel to Islamabad being a typical frenetic Asian city, and we drove through the crowded bazaar seeing the odd remaining Hindu temple -before partition there was apparently a big Hindu population here.
We headed next to Railway Workshop road a busy area where we found a few of the workshops which specialize in the Pakistani truck art. Most work now is in the form of cut outs and stickers the painting is a dying art being both more expensive and less hard wearing, We wanted 7 panels in all done & ordered just 2 hand painted ones from a Mr. Al-Habib Ejaz who has been doing this for 30 years . In keeping with our Aussie theme we're having an Emu and a Kangaroo done, hope they turn out ok!
In addition the other 5 panels -some quite small l-will be covered in other art work- they should all be ready in 10 days or so…pictures will follow.
As our old car will need re-spraying at some point we didn't want the painting and art work to go directly onto the vehicle so Andrew had to buy some stainless steel, to cut into panels which he'll then fix on the car. We were helped here by Mr. Asif Hussain Shah a local tax driver, with a painted up taxi. Mr. Shah has written a book on his experiences as a taxi driver "For Hire" which is available on the internet. Thanks to him for his help whizzing us around the narrow back roads to buy our steel, and interpreting our needs to the shocked steel men!
Andrew then got his tools out to round off the sharp edges before the art work went on. This was a huge crowd puller - not sure if it was the tools themselves or Andrew working them ..maybe the whole thing but we ended up with such a crowd we had a sort of ad hoc market around us with vendors selling snacks and drinks to our "viewers" !!
After all this it was back to Islamabad and our camp site for a quick shower and bed. It's not for cissies camping in February!
As I write this, next morning on Monday 13th February it's a miserable rainy day in downtown Islamabad and I'm sheltering in Toyota's warm Wi-Fi enabled customer lounge whilst Andrew goes to pick up our snow chains.As soon as this is done (best case an hour or so, worst not until tomorrow) we begin the drive north to the Karakoram Highway (KKH) the world's highest paved road.