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Published: October 12th 2006
Warning: crazy men with guns around
You know you're in the Tribal Zone when you see this sign.
Saturday September 23rd
Another though ride ahead of us, but at least it would be the last before India. Technically it should be 11 hours to Peshawar but we'd been told this was about as optimistic as a "welcomed with roses" statement coming from georgie before the Iraq war.
It started badly as they told Samuel it was full. He hadn't bought his ticket the day before so he was out of luck. It seemed a lot of people were missing and after a ride around town he went back to the station and picked Samuel as well as a few chitralis. There were still a bunch of seat missing in front but we figured it was for women who would join on the way.
Sylvain and I were close to the front and luckily our neighboor weren't big so the ride wasn't too uncomfortable. Samuel was in the very back with 3 big pashtuns guys, all of whom wanted to lean back. There was no space for Samuel to lean back so he had to lean forward the whole time. He had to fight his way the whole ride to have any place at all. Poor guy. After
The classic picture
about 30 minutes we stopped to pick up some women. The whole family seemed to be there to wave off 2 burqaed women and the accompanying man. One of the woman seemed to be only a teenager. She was crying which made us comment: "Ah non pas une pleureuse" (Oh no, not a crybaby). The other woman was older and seemed to be the grandmother, or at least a figure of authority. The young crybaby spent the whole ride in the arm of the grandmother. I wonder why she was so sad. Maybe she was being married or something and was leaving her family.
A few minutes later we picked up 2 other women, who were *gasp* travelling alone and one was only wearing a veil. We commented on the lose moral of that woman! No burqa, what was she thinking? She even had a coloured veil. They also picked up a couple (woman in a Burqua) with a kid who sat in front. We stopped in Drosh, 2 hours from Chitral for a tire change. The man next to me talked with me for a while. He was going to Dubai on some business and spoke pretty good
My escort, a random guy and my driver
I'm ashamed to say I forgot their name. Cool blokes though.
english. He was educated and had more conversation than the average Pakistani but stilll it was hard to keep it going.
We kept going to before the Lowari Pass and the road was alright until then. There was a bit of construction which slowed us down but nothing too big. As we get near the Pass however, the roads become horrible. Very rocky. We had to sign our name at a checkpost again to show we were leaving Chitral safely. Again no hassle. We stopped at a little village for chai before the real pass began. I sat down and started talking with a friendly afghan naan maker. He didn't speak much english but he was a friendly bloke and it was fascinating to see him make the bread. He took a litttle ball of dough in his hand and then quickly spin it between his hands, making it larger and thinner with each rotation until he judged it was the good size. Then he threw it on the wall of his oven, a cylindrical hole in the ground with a fire at the bottom. He did a few of these then picked them up with a metal object.
Plenty of stuff to kill peope
Most of these guns are produced locally in Darra by blacksmiths (as crazy as it might sound). This shop is a few meters away from the non-tribal area yet nobody cares.
He gave me a chapati and offered me chai all the while refusing payment. I thanked him when the minivan departed.
Before the pass we see a big tunnel being built by South Koreans. It will be the longest tunnel in Asia at 25km and should open Chitral to the rest of Pakistan year around, or nearly so. The guy who is going to Dubai told me there is gonna be a conveyer belt running 24/7 so that people will not drive (and hence cause accident) in the tunnel. I don't know the details of the thing but it seems another of those aid project that will fail a few years after it's over because no one thought about maintenance and the cost that this conveyer belt will bring. Maybe I'm overly skeptical but if in 10 years that conveyer belt is still running I'd be suprised.
We had to leave the van (not the women) and push for a slope that was too steep but after that it was a painful (it sounded painful from the noise the engine was doing) way up. I felt bad for Nico. He probably did some though pass before but cycling
You're not welcome here
I went anyway. About 30 centimeters in.
this one, even though it's not high in absolute altitude (3100m) looks hard. Especially since the road is so bad. After about an hour we finally made it to the top where we had to sign our name again. The official wasn't too sure whether me (in my new shawar kemaaz) or Sylvain were foreigners. He just gave us the book when other passengers told him we were.
Lowari Pass cannot be crossed during the night. Not because the road is too dangerous but because of robbers who come frmo the Tribal Area or Afghanistan. During the day it is mostly okay but it was still interesting to be in rober territory for the first time. I looked at every stopped car as a possible ambush. The road was really bad because of the construction. It really slowed us down, making us easy target. Fortunately for me, but unfortunately for the reader who wants to read some action, we didn't get attacked.
About an hour after the top of the pass when we were still going down the mountain, we had a slightly nasty curve to go through. It was almost a complete 180 and the road was
The official entrance to the Khyber Pass
fairly narrow with a big pool of water close to the edge. However, 2 big colorfull truck managed to get through without problem. So we went, but at some point one of the wheel dropped into the pool of water. We were not even close to the edge, it was like 30 cm away but the woman up front with the kid freaked out, opened her door and jumped out with her kid. It took a few second to realize what was going on. The husband, totally ashamed, told his wife to go back on but she refused at first. She eventually got back but she had the door slightly opened and was ready to jump at the first sign of fall.
You can say whatever you want about muslim men not respecting the women but they were the only ones who managed not to laugh at the situation (probably to preserve the man's honour). I did try hard not to laugh but to no avail. In the end the muslim men did exchange some smile with me, but made sure the husband wasn't seeing them. So it turns out we have a "pleureuse and a peureuse" (a crybaby
They're built like fortress, in strategic places. It's still the Law of the Jungle here.
and a scared one) in the car. We managed to get out of the mountains to Dir without falling in a precipice.
After Dir the road was better and we were full of hopes to get to Peshawar not too late. Our driver also seemed to want to do that as he just wasn't stopping for lunch. It was 12:30 in Dir but he didn't stop and when asked where we'd stop he said there was "no restaurant" in Dir. Yeah right, he was just getting some commission somewhere. We were pushing him to stop as we were very hungry but that just got him angry at the man going to Dubai (whom we had asked to ask him where we were stopping). The man going to Dubai told us that was because of corruption like that that Pakistani wasn't doing anything good. The driver was driving better when angry, a bit too fast and crazy though.
Sylvain got pissed off after another hour and started banging on the window telling him to stop which he eventually did. He told us the restaurant was 5 minutes away and we had a pee break there. Some man came to
Another Afridi house/fortress
Back in the day (not too long ago), Afridis would raid and pillage anyone that tried to cross the pass and didn't seem strong enough. These fortress on hills were used to keep a watch.
greet the driver when we finally reached the restaurant, they obviously knew each other and the driver was gonna get some commission. The food was pretty good. Afghan rice, chapatis, vegetables and yogurt. Women were not dining in the same room as the men. They had their own room and we never saw them eat (we could get sinful thoughts I guess). In fact it was the only time we saw them get off the car (except for the one who liked to jump out with her kid).
The woman in front who had gotten scared had beautiful eyes. She had quite a lot of makeup but still you could see that her eyes were naturally beautiful. Having nothing better to do and nothing to look at, I was imagining her very beautiful based on the eyes alone. My fantasy was rudely interupted when I saw her at the stop without the little thing hiding her face. God. She had a humongous nose, acne and was just extremely ugly. I guess burqa is not a bad thing for every women, it does hide uglyness better than a tight shirt and tight hugging jeans (that's a joke for people without
At the far side of this valley is Jalalabad, the big town in the middle between Peshawar and Kabul. From where I was it is about 2 hours to Kabul.
a sense of humor, I do not think burqa is good for any woman).
The driver cooled down so he wasn't as good as a driver for the rest of the ride. The road got worse. We just kept crossing similar towns which were becoming much more frequent now as the land around looked more fertile than the semi-barren terrain of the north. We realized we were really behind schedule and we wouldn't reach Peshawar until several hours after sunset.
The road was bad, dusty and full of cars. There was a traffic jam on a little hill because there was construction work and no one wanted to let the other side cross first. It required a policeman to come and regulate the circulation to get the traffic going again.
In the end we arrived in Peshawar at around 8:30, more than 14 hours after leaving. We got a rickshaw to our hostel Tourist Inn Motel, which the LP didn't recommend and the Footprint basically said it was the worst place in the country and you'd get involved in a heroin trafficking scam just for staying there. Sylvain had been there and liked it and one thing
I never thought I'd see such traffic on the road to Afghanistan.
you realize after travelling is to trust other traveller over guidebook.
The Motel was nice, a bit overpriced for the dorm but it had a kitchen, a communal hang out spot with good couches and a TV with National Geographic channel. Furthermore there were a bunch of interesting people. I didn't care about the people at first all I wanted was some food so I asked where the supermarket was because I wanted chinese noodles. Hmmm, this is THE meal I miss from China. The chinese guy whom I had taken the bus to Sost with was there. He showed me the way to the supermarket. He was here to go to Afghanistan but was waiting to find a travel partner first as he was too scared to go alone. He was wearing shorts and t-shirt and made absolutely no effort to try to blend in in notoriously conservative Peshawar so he wouldn't be the first person I'd want to go to Afghanistan with (where blending in IS an advantage).
I did find some chinese noodles in the supermarket but they weren't the real deal from China just cheap imitation. Still it was better than nothing. I went
Me at the border
In my salwar kameez. Could almost be a Pakistani
back to the hostel and boiled myself water and ate the noodles while watching a mind-numbing show on TV. Soon enough I started talking with Carlos, a funny older columbian and not too long after we had started talking I took out my "wine" bottle and we started drinking. It's always nice to chill out with fellow travellers with a little bit of alcohol after a ass-numbing bus journey.
Sunday September 24th
First day of Ramadan and it's a Sunday. I was hoping to get some money out as I was running dangerously low on rupees. So I walked around town for several hours, trying every ATM I could in vain. Most were closed, half were non-functional and the rest said my card wasn't good. It was incredible how everything in the city is closed. No restaurant, no food and since it was Sunday, most stores were closed also. It felt like the town had been abandoned. On my way back I managed to find a place that sold food. I got some beef rolls but ate them only when i got back at the hostel. There was no electricity at the hotel and I soon found out that
All women I've seenhave Burqa in the tribal area. Little girls don't need to until they're a bit older. I had to take this shot from the running car as taking pictures of women is a big no-no in this part of the world and this place has lots of angry men and no laws.
it was almost a nationwide cut. The heat was hard to bear without ventilation.
The Tourist Inn has a wierdly attractive feeling. It seems the couch instinctively draw you and it is hard to leave it. It is so comfortable, the TV has some boring thing on and there's always one or two people with whom you can talk with. Since everything was closed there wasn't much to do. After a while sitting on the couch, Samuel I and a kiwi guy decided to go to the Smuggler's bazaar, a bazaar on the edge of the Tribal area where you can find everything: electronics, tupperware, food, cosmetics and if you cross into the Tribal area guns, hashish, heroin and alcohol. But it is forbidden for foreigners to get in the Tribal area, with good reason.
The Tribal Areas are zone inside Pakistan that are outside Pakistani law. Basically the government cannot control them so they give them de facto independance. So if you go in the Tribal Areas and get killed no one will ever be punished. If you get robbed the police will just say well that's too bad but there's nothing we can do about it.
On the side of the road
Just a view from the car of a perfectly normal, uninteresting place in the tribal area
I had heard the story of a man who had decided to go in one of those agencies alone to "meet the local". People were friendly at first because they thought he wanted to buy heroin but when he said no to the blocks of 1kg of heroin they started getting angry. A man which appeared to be the leader of the village came to him with a japanese passport with a picture of a young girl. He motioned that he had cut her throat and then told the guy to get away. Needless to say he didn't stick around to interact with the friendly local. He managed to escape with his life to tell the tale. A lot of people asked me whether Pakistan was safe. The answer is of course it is, just don't go to certain places. And when I say places I mean mostly the Tribal Areas.
But the part we wanted to see of the Smuggler's bazaar was just the legal one. We took a bus for a few rupees. The buses in Peshawar are amazing. They're decorated like the trucks (look at my Gilgit blog, there's a picture) but the interior is also
This is a gun. Locally produced. Use .22 caliber. Can kill a man if well aimed. All that for only 6$!
decorated the same way. It was worth going to the bazaar just for the truck. After 25 minutes the conductor told us to get out.
We had been told the bazaar wasn't too impressive and those who had said that were right. It is difficult for the untrained person to make a difference between that "Smuggler's" bazaar and the countless bazaar I had seen all over Pakistan. Furthermore, being Ramadan there were very little food stalls which removes a lot of the atmosphere of the place.
We wandered in the shops for a while, electronics (those who describe this place as a mini Hong Kong got it half right... they only mention to say that it's Hong Kong in 2000. For the electronics anyway they're a bit behind), cosmetics, drugstore (lots of the packages look like they've been open and reclosed). People weren't too friendly around here. Lots of stare, hostile stares. Mybe it's because it's Ramadan and everyone is pissed off and tired because of the lack of food/drink but it wasn't the most comfortable feeling. After about an hour we hit the end of the bazaar before the Tribal area. We took a picture of the sign saying the entry is forbidden to foreigner, crossed over (a good 30 centimeters) and came back in the Land of the Law.
Samuel was thirsty so he headed to a cornerstore to buy something to drink. I realized what he was doing just before he was going to buy. I told him not to buy here but he said why and just asked for water anyway. The guy stared at him for 5 seconds and said no. Samuel was about to insist but I pushed him away. He had forgotten it was Ramadan and that it might nto be the most brillant thing to drink in front of highly conservative men a few meters away from a lawless area.
We took another highly colored bus back to the guesthouse. We took a wrong one and ended up walking and taking a rickshaw to get back. When we asked a pakistani on how to get back he expressed his surprised because he thought I was a local with my shawar kameez. There was still no electricity at the guesthouse. Along with Carlos we decided to head the the Old City for sunset so that we could see it at the ramadan break. We invited the japanese girls (Mika and Mikako) along. Somehow, we managed to fit 6 in a rickshaw motorcycle. It was like an arm workout for me as I had to push hard during the whole time on the metal frame to not fall on the pavement since I had so little space.
By the time we reached the Old City it was dark already. There was no electricity yet but some places had generators to keep a few lights going. We stopped at a food stall because Carlos wanted some kebab which he shared with everyone (but being a latino gentlemen, he started with the ladies). The kiwi guy tried some beef meat patty in naan thing at another street food shop which looked good so I went and bought one also. The guy at the food stall said my clothes were nice. I guess getting compliments from the guys is the next best thing to getting one from a cute girl. Mika also went to buy that thing, but she didn't get complimented on her dress!
Mikako showed us her wild side by getting brain curry. I must admit I was a bit reluctant when she offered it but ended up eating it. It was pretty good. I guess all those prions give it a nice texture. The electricity came back as we were finishing eating the brain.
After our dinner, we decided to wander in the Old City, or as Carlos says it: "Let's do Operation Penetration" (as in, penetrate the old city). It was very fun because the girls didn't get the joke, they just nodded and repeated.
Operation penetration was thwarted by another blackout, only a few minutes in. However, before pulling back we decided to go in the meat alley. This was one of the coolest thing I've experienced. It was like a horror movie scene.
We walk in this very narrow alley, with wooden stalls on both sides. The only light come from candles, one at each stall. On both sides we see men with knifes and since the light come from below their faces have wierd apperance. There are pieces of meat everywhere: whole carcass of goat or sheep, intestine, lungs (including the trachea), kidneys, hearts, brains of various sizes and shapes and lots and lots of blood. We see dogs and cats feed off meat remains on the floor. The pakistanis were having fun by making animal noises to scare us but we just reply back.
It was a pretty cool experience but we didn't want to go too far in the dark so we go back to the main street. Just before we're about to go away electricity comes back so we try to resume Operation Penetration but we're forced to pullback because of another blackout. It goes like this for 2 more blackouts until we're tired and we leave.
We realized that 2 policemen had been following us in the last hour. They were quite a bit worried by these foreigners walking around the Old City when it is pitch dark. It wouldn't be a problem if it was lit they say but it might be a bit dangerous now. We get the hint and eventually leave. They accompany us to the rickshaw to make sure we leave safe. This time we decide to take 2. I'm with Carlos and the kiwi guy with an insane rickshaw driver. He's just singing to himself and zigzag in the road. We manage to make it to the hostel in one piece. After that we chill for a while at the hostel. Carlos and I had a quite lively discussion about politics and economics. We both didn't manage to convince the other.
Monday September 25th
My mission for the day is to get money out. If I can't I won't be able to pay the room more than likely. So I again spent few hours in the morning trying to get money from banks but it just seems none of them work. In the end I go back to the guesthouse to ask for advice, thinking maybe I'll go to Islamabad just to get money out. On the way back, Sylvain tell me some Ozie guy passed by, which is probably Jason.
I bought some beef roll from the little shop that is still open in Ramadan and ate them at the guesthouse while reading the guidebooks (Samuel has the Footprint). I think I'll be able to get a bank but Jason appears so we start talking. He arrived in Peshawar yesterday after his trip in the Swat valley where he didn't see a single foreigners but many internal tourists. He said it was lovely.
We discussed about going to the Khyber Pass and I agree to go but only if I can find money. The owner of the guesthouse, Mr Khan, comes in and talk to us. He's been running this place since 1978, which means he was in the business when Iran-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India-Nepal was part of the hippie route and Peshawar was right on it. He told us some crazy story about what happened to some stupid and unlucky people. If you pass by ask for the story "Water Buffalo Pussy" and "Lovely wedding in Tribal Area" because I'm not rewritting them here, they're a bit too graphic (but I'll give you a hint, don't go for a wedding in the tribal area with a newfound "friend").
I go out to get that money one more time. On the way there some touts starts talking to me in perfect english. I ask him if he knows where I can withdraw money and he takes me there. It was the good place and I finally get the money, after a few days of desperation. I thank him and nwo he wants to bring me to his office. In the end I agree because he helps me. He wants to bring me to Smuggler's bazaar and shows me pictures/commentaries of past customers. He's really pushy so I tell him I'm going back to the guesthouse and will think about it.
Back at the guesthouse I look at the board and what worried me proved true, there's a sign that says that the guy who tried to sell me this tour (Hussain something) is a cheat and a liar, something which is confirmed by Mr Khan. I'm happy I managed to avoid getting ripped off.
Jason and I manage to convince an australian guy to go to the Khyber Pass tomorrow so we sign with Mr Khan. We go to Pizza Hut with that guy that night because Jason and I had a little craving for western food. Then we go back to the guesthouse. Cillia, the freelance french journalist I had met in Gilgit was there so we talked about what was bringing her here. Apparently she was doing an interview tomorrow around here which meant being stuck all day with devout muslims (meaning she had to follow ramadan). She wasn't too happy about it but hey, that's her job. We talked about Afghanistan/Pakistan and the live of a freelancer here. It seems interesting but very random and stressful. She went more than 10 times in Afghanistan, sometimes in the south (Kandahar) and since she's a freelancer there's no fancy escort: she's on her own. She showed me some documentary she made on her laptop which was pretty interesting. She said yesterday during the big blackout there were intense rumor of a coup detat and it took several hours before everyone calmed down in the press (and in the government apparently). Some people think it was the work of "terrorists" who try to destroy the coutry's infrastructure.
Aside from that I played a little bit of card with the boys, watched National Geogrpahic, and said goodbye to Samuel who's heading to Lahore at 10PM before heading to bed.
Tuesday September 26th
Today we're going to the Khyber Pass, the road to Afghanistan. This is the road that every invader from Cyrus the Great to the descendant of Genghis Khan used to invade India, including of course Alexander. Carlos left this morning to Chitral so I said goodbye to him. He was one of the friendly bloke I met on this trip, I hope I'll see him again. It's nice to see 50 something people still backpacking, people that are still young despite their age.
Mr Khan show us our driver and tell us to follow him. The Pass is in the Tribal Area so we need an armed escort which we go pick up at the Khyber Rifle office. He looks like a friendly bloke but he's not too talkative. We head toward the Smuggler's Bazaar, the start of the agency, enter Khyber Tribal zone and then keep driving, on the road to Afghanistan and Kabul.
We stop at a little arch called the Khyber Gate where there's a little history of the Pass written which is fairly interesting. We stop just long enough to read and then we're on our way again. The land is very dry and not much grows. The houses look like fortress, and with good reason since this place has no law. Those who survive know how to defend themselves, or they have friend who can defend them. Sometimes we see Afridi (the tribal people living here) houses on the top of the hills, strategically placed to look at the traffic coming. The afridis used to be well-known looter up until not too recently.
The pass is truly beautiful, the mountains aren't high but they're impressive. The barrenness of the landscape and those afridis fort give us a feeling that this place doesn't exactly belong to the 21st century. A look at the road contradicts that however. It seems half of the Pakistani trucking industry is heading to Kabul. I never thought the road to Afghanistan would be so packed. At least we know where our taxpayer money is going. We pass over a few forts from the british era, a few ramshackles towns and then we're at the border with Afghanistan. We can see Jalalabad, the town midway between Peshawar and Kabul over the horizon. It is interesting to be there. I had originally thought about going to Afghanistan but decided against it because of the worsening situation. Now I am a bit ashamed at my cowardice. It is so near, it looks so easy. I could blend in, spend a week or two. But it's too late, I don't have a visa.
On the way back I try to get sneak shots of people on the road but it's hard to shoot burqaed women because if someone catch me they won't be happy. When we reach back the Smuggler's bazaar we ask the driver to drop us at a arms dealer. He doesn't want at first but we manage to convince him that we have an escort so everything will be fine. When we pull over in the arms shop section there's a guy trying a big handgun (I'm not a gun pro so I can't name it). We go over the shop for about 15 minutes but the driver is stressed out. He keeps saying "dangerous, dangerous".
A totally stoned Pakistani starts talking to me. He asks me where I'm from and when I answer he says: "Canada man, that's like so cool". He tells me he has a shop on the other side of the street: "Heroin, hasish? I can sell you 15 kilos of each. You like alcohol *laugh nervously, while looking around*, I got chinese beer, brandy and whisky. Black Label.*. The driver tells me not to go to his shop but I'm tempted. In the end we decide to stick to the guns and then leave as the driver keep saying it's too dangerous on the other side, he says we'll get kidnapped even with an escort.
So we left the tribal area unscathed. After getting lost around we finally get back, drop the escort and then get to the hotel. I then spend the rest of the afternoon in the Old City (but not before eating a little something in the hotel), walking around in the shops and talking with a few friendly pakistani.
At around 6PM, Cillia came back. The first thing she did was to drink a 1.5L of water one-shot without stop. She had been forced to do Ramadan as she had been with devout muslims all day. We chilled and talked a bit during the evening, playing card. The usual. To anyone reading this: don't listen to the guidebook, Tourist Inn Motel is awesome. Go there you won't regret it.
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