Unlikely Tours in the Peshawar Plain

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August 7th 2007
Published: September 15th 2007
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Budha Sakyamuni lotus position under an Indian archBudha Sakyamuni lotus position under an Indian archBudha Sakyamuni lotus position under an Indian arch

detail of stupa base, 4th century, Mohra Moradu, Taxila

The Chinqi Driver's Taxila tour with a bang

The Daewoo departs Fezopur Rd at half past two in the afternoon. I'm seated in the very back on a raised bench with no thought to leg room, a last minute booking on a full coach. A half hour north of Lahore, a movie starts. My ear phones work this trip but the small screen is blocked by the overhead compartments just out of view. A boy two seats to my left, still a teenager, asks me the usual questions, then he ventures a series of questions about girls and sex. I gather from his statements that the vast majority of Pakistani do not have sex until after marriage. He tells me that on Valentine's Day young men and women can be seen holding hands in the park. This is the one time public displays of affection between the sexes are permitted. Westerners must seem like such lechers. The fellow seated between us lives in Taxila and offers to escort me there. At the bus depot in Pir Wadhai, sun setting, we shew away the over-priced taxis and find a packed mini-van headed east into the Peshawar Valley. Hill after hill of
stupa, Mohra Moradu, Taxilastupa, Mohra Moradu, Taxilastupa, Mohra Moradu, Taxila

hey, who u call'n stupa!
lush neighbourhoods disappear into the rear viwe mirror and the night beyond. My friend and I climb off at a busy crossroads on the Grand Trunk where I'm directed to a Chinqi. Its driver, a young man in olive green and his younger brother seated beside me, tear up the bazaar road, leading me further and further into the hills, away from the comforting sounds of restaurants and sweet shops. Several bends in the road later, I alight at Taxila Museum. In the dark I fail to realize there is a much cheaper youth hostel tucked among the trees next door. I'm shown to room 301, one of three rooms, all without locks. I am paying 12.50$us for a high ceiling, tattered curtains, a dangerous looking electrical unit to control the fluorescent tube of light and overhead fan, a fresh bar of soap and clean carpets. It's a vast improvement over Lahore. In the dining hall, I arrange with the Chinqi driver to escort me around the sites the next day. The cook serves me a small feast of a half chicken harari, chapatti, vegetables and rice, washed down with a cold bottle of pepsi. Everywhere in Pakistan, down crowded rickety village tracks, at highway crossroads, in cities beside centuries old mosques, stand walls painted deep blue, red and white with the pepsi insignia. Were I to write a book about this country, I'd call it Pepsistan.

I wake well rested and on the rooftop shaded by tall trees lining the front road, I practice my tai chi. To the west nestled in the dry hills I watch a green passenger train depart for Peshawar. The dusty brown of a hindu temple peaks above above the village. I'd arrived bouncing along in the dark, chatting to the driver's handsome brother and haven't a clue this morning where lies the Grand Trunk Rd. The roads lie hidden, etched into low crevices between the hills. The driver arrives on foot in the same olive green shalwar-kameez embroidered with black finials along the collar and chest. He walks me down the dirt track to a puddle I see is half a foot deep benetah passing cars and over twenty metres long. He runs up the bank and behind the shrubbery I hear him put the stubborn engine into gear. We cross the small lake and let on his friend, dressed in black to match his well quaffed hair and in contrast to his sparkling smile.

Our first stop. Mohra Moradu, lies in a quiet glen 6km from the hotel. The guard has just arrived and leads me up the hill to the hidden monastery, or rather what remains from its 3-5th century heydays. The main stupa stands to the front side. Around its base three friezes have been preserved. Most of the Buddhas and Boddhistavas, dancers and guardians and animal figures have been looted, damaged by time or removed to the museum but what remains conjures in the imagination a once powerful awe-inspiring sense of the spiritual community, equal to some of the creations at Angkor. I am lead to an enclosed payer area once used by a sect of Hindus. I recognize it from a ceramic model I'd seen in the Lahore Museum. Climbing a reconstructed stairway, we enter the monastery walls. Several square cells surround a rectangular pool, once filled with spring water, lilies, attracting frogs and dragon flies. It lies filled with sand.

A km further up the dirt track, and up a walkway leading through a landscaped hillside where a canal that I'm told supplies Islamabad
FORDs, bus depotFORDs, bus depotFORDs, bus depot

getting there is half the fun
with drinking water cuts along its base and where two boys splash into the refreshing current, lies the remains of Jaulian. Most impressive of the monastery's remains are a series of stupa bases carved with images of the Buddha, of elephants and Nymph-like temptresses.

Returning by the main road, we stop at Sirsukh, a Kushan city from the first century A.D., where a low wall now overgrown with brambles and thick grass is all that remains of the city. Our last visit is to Sirkap, a city built by the Bactrians in the second century B.C. Most of the remains date to the Scythian and Parthian emprires. The north gate, now a mere break in a half metre high rock wall brings me to a vast meadow stretched wide beneath the blazing sun where a main road travels 400m through the ruined houses and temples. I wander up the grassy lane, reading the plaques that describe the various structures, guards' house, a Buddhist apsidal temple, a Zoroastrian temple and a small stupa alongside a later house suggesting residents were careful to maintain past holy sites. Three men, guards, lie on green steel benches in the shade of a leafy billowy tree. "Don't go beyond the next tree", warns the fat one. Grass underfoot, I feel like I'm crossing a desert.

In the afternoon, before paying a visit to the town's museum collection, I take a walk-about in search of the bazaar and its humming business of eateries and chai shops. Several rolling hills later under an unceasing blaze, I return to the hotel to discover a small cart set up in the car park selling small plates of chickpea mixed with veg and spice. A young boy is selling barfi at a smaller cart next door. The perfect lunch for 50cents. The Taxila Museum houses several stone heads of the Buddha, busts of Maitreya, a boddhisatva with a dinstinct look, neither Greek nor oriental but with a profile not unlike the Mughal miniatures painted a millenium later. Rudimentary clay vessels, stone tools, rusted iron door hinges and a clay water distiller fill the south wing.

A rickshaw driver with a receding hairline and a lazy eye parks most of the day out front the hotel, asking each time I pass, "you need chinqi?" So at sunset I ask for a lift a mile up the side road winding into the hills behind the museum to the remains of Dharmarajika. A plaster model of the area displayed in the museum seemed to highlight this sight. A large mound in the centre of the sight surrounded by remains of several lesser stupas and a monastery and assembly room and svereal other structures the chowkadar's English failed to communicate, is said to enclose a stupa built by King Ashoka and believed to house the ashes of the Buddha.

I dine alone in the hotel, on mixed vegetables, rice and chapatti. The young boy from the night before sits at the other end of the table watching an American kung fu flick. His skin is a dark, dark brown , his eyes sparkle a dark grey with blue flecks, and his full lips slide into a wide grin when we look at each other. Lying atop the bed covers, wrapped in a hotel towel following a hot shower reading about a tragic hero in Lahore circa 1990, a knock comes at my door. The young chinqi driver steps inside and sits himself down on the other bed. He speaks quickly with a nervous smile and rounder, shinier than usual eyes. What the hell does he want!? "No English," he shrugs humbly. Assertively, I look him in the eyes, "This is my room." I'm wondering how he got inside so easily. "Please get out"

Aurangzeb's tour of Old City Peshawar & My Conversion to Islam

The train times have changed. Yesterday I was told half seven. When I arrive at the station this morning, I'm told half ten. I hail a chinqi for GT Road. At the junction, I alight and grab a bite to eat amid the morning commuter's mayhem. A retired University professor sees me approaching the chai shop and introduces himself to me. He pays for my breakfast and says what a pity we hadn't met when I arrived. He would have loved to show me around. He talks about his time in Europe. He crosses the street with me and sees me onto the bus bound for PeSHAwar. We stop every so often. Men in mustard coloured robes, women covered head to foot, hop on and off. Young boys climb aboard to sell cups of water, juice boxes, a man balances a tray of coconut slices like a flower's open petals. In Peshawar at the bus depot, I ask a rickshaw driver to take me to Hidayat Hotel, the same luxuriousness as Taxila but at a third the price. After a ccol shower I change into my shalwar-kameez and cross the street to a restaurant, its fan whirring at mock1. I peer into the bubbling pots and choose the spinach and a few kebabs. The meat is fantastic, the original hamburger recipe. I take a seat on the second floor, tall dusty glass panes look onto Fidaus Chowk clanging with construction and everyday shopkeeping. A husband, wife and son seated next to the stairs finish their meal and leave. A group of young men enter and sit by the windows.

I take a siesta back in my room. At half past two the streets are still too hot but I am anxious to explore. The fort's red-brown walls loom above the road into the Old City. I hail a chinqi to the museum. CLOSED ON WEDNESDAYS. I walk back across the tracks that head to Khyber Pass, the fabled gateway to the subcontinent and now a tribal area of unwanted Afghan refugees. The Old City walls have long since crumbled. Khabuli Gate now refers to an intersection. I skirt the Khyber Bazaar, dodging the multicultural traffic, rickshaws, tongas, suzukis and towering painted, decaled Bedford trucks. Along Bajori Rd chicken tikka cooks over fire pits, whole chickens skewered on an iron cage above a ceramic pot. Over coals in long barbecues roast various kinds of kebab, an Afghan specialty. I turn down Cinema Rd in search of an internet cafe that will elude me most of the day. The hotels look abandoned, the shops half empty. A large billboard painted with movie stars, a wicked villain, a hero, a damsel, shouts above passers by where a wide open hall steps down to the theatre lobby. I give up my quest and meander through the side streets of the bazaar, discovering a quiet courtyard where men recline on bed frames strung with rope, sipping chai with their friends. Painted wood signs hang above the curb, drawings of dentures advertise abaove a row of small dentistry shops. Their tools in the window send a shiver down my spine.

Qissa Khawani, the Old Street of Storytellers, and now the street of shoe shops, dentists and ice cream stands, or kulfi with vermicelli noodles, leads into the heart of the bazaar, a curved road with one shop after another selling fragrant teas, a back lane of mobile shops, the nut and grain shops of Pipal Mandi. Yadgar Chowk is a spacious court in the centre of the city, a narrow bridge passes a white pavilion where children play up and down the steps. Ander Shahar, a narrow lane climbs up the west slope past dim light shop windows displaying gold jewellery and shopkeepers witheir heavy heads resting in their palms. Mahabat Khan Mosque lies tucked behind the shops. I sit at a stool by the ablutions fountain and wash my hands and feet. Young men with wavey dark hair dressed in smoothly pressed soft blues and whites face towards Mecca, bowing, kneeling, submitting, a ritual unchanged since over a millenium. Inside the hall, fans whirr and old men nap.

Climbing a narrow alley light by the windows of jewellery shops, I hear a voice calling to me, "Hello, How are you?" A man with a sunken face and round light eyes approaches me from across a crowd of children gathered in front a sweet shop. "Come. Sit down. Would you like a cold drink?" I sit on a stoop, surrounded by the children's wondering eyes, their numbers swelling. I'm passed a bottle of 7up with a straw. There is some confusion about its payment. I pass a boy a 10RP note. The bill is later returned. Their treat. The man inbtroduces himself, Aurangzeb. "Aah, like the last of the Mughal Emperors." "Would you like some tea?" He leads me further into the bazaar. I'm introduced to several shopkeepers. Each time, "This is my brother." We sit inside one of his brother's shops, an immaculate swept floor, a clean counter and a pile of flour in the back surrounded by stacks of burlap sacks each filled with flour. Aurangzeb and I sip hot milk tea from little cups, the tea poured from the everpresent green pots seen hung in the chai shop above the kitchen counter. The shop owner watches us with an amused and confused distance. My friend points to a poster on the shop wall, the face of a local man, a Mujahadin, a freedom fighter or as the West would say, a suicide bomber. Aurangzeb praises the man whom I'd mostly consider a terrorist.

I'm led by the shop owner and Aurangzeb to a little mosque tucked among the cubby hole shops, a humble place of prayer hidden in the shadows in the back of the market. We leave our slippers at the door and enter the cool bowls of the hall. Aurangzeb contniues his loud ceaseless chatter disturbing the men who are woken from their nap on the marble tiles. I'm taugh to recite the calligraphy on the wall, "La Ilaha Ila La Ho Muhammada Rasulula." There is no god but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet. "Allaho Akbar" God is great. He points to the calligraphy indicating each syllable. I recognize the latter expression from the muezzin, the calls to prayer that pierce the sky at timed intervals throughout the day. We pose for pictures. Aurangzeb and his friend, a holy man dressed in rags who has been to all the holy sites of the subcontinent hand me business cards and I'm explained where to mail the photos. I write a false address in Canada for them.

Our tour continues. Aurangzeb leads me to a sunny courtyard where the grave of a famous religious scholar lies under a trellis strung with vines. I'm instructed to sit. A man with a big face, crystal blue eyes and golden brown hair sits across from me. He can't speak, Auragnzeb explains, gesturing to his own tongue. My stomach takes a jump at the sight of his tongue, white and green and bumpy like a calloused foot. Aurangzeb rolls a charas, takes a long toke before it's passed among the motley crew under the trellis. For many reasons, I decline.

Aurangzeb's tour continues. I'm lead into a main street, gathering stares as I repeat after him, "Lailaha Ila la Ho." We cruise the shoe shops. My made in Canada flipflops are coming apart, unable to survive the hot and sandy roads. I'm fitted with several leather sandals that look all the same to me, the same as what everybody is wearing in the market. I insist my sandles are alright for today. Auragzeb finds me an internet cafe, a dark open doorway on a curve in the lane leadiung up from Khyber Market. While I read the news from back home, my friend is coming and going, fetching a cold juice for me, a cup of chai, getting himself another spliff. The young man at the next computer warns me with a raised hand to his temple, that Aurangzeb is a little mental. I had sensed as much. While he is off pursuing a smoke, I gather my things and leave the shop, walking briskly, keeping to the side of the lane should I have to duck behind some display. Aurangzeb does not find me.
From Khyber Rd I cross into another market where three lanes meet in a small courtyard filled with children, a pick-up truck unloading and and a group of men seated at a drink stand. They request that I join them. A young man in long brown beard and a wool hat rolled up on the sides as everybody wears it, fitting like a saucer, greets me. He is from Afghanistan, an English teacher. He passes me his business card. I give him a false address in Canada. It is growing dark. We pose for a picture together and I leave the people in the small courtyard, feeling like Don Quixote with yet another tale under my belt. Some of the children follow me, leading me through the lanes, a left, a right, left then right again. I find my way to the tikka restaurants on Bajori Rd.
Aurangzeb's friends, PeshawarAurangzeb's friends, PeshawarAurangzeb's friends, Peshawar

teaching me to chant 'Allah is the only god and Muhammed is his prophet'
The power is out the lenght of the block as though one of the city's neighbourhoods were preparing for an air raid. Charcoal fires and headlights light my way. My stomach as usual feels uneasy. I hail a chinqi back to the hotel where I order dinnner a safe distance from toilet. A fellow named Roman sits next to me, says he is the restaurant manager, although he ignores its operation, chatting with me whilke I enjoy a half chicken karahi. I order a glass of sweet lhassi just as my stomach starts to cramp. I request the drink sent to my room. Balanced over the toilet composing a symhony of comic farts, a knock comes at the door. "Just set it in the doorway, thank-you." Roman pushes the toilet door open and gives me a quick head to toe. "I'm taking a shit, man! What are you doing! Get out!" My bowels emptied for the moment, I wash. Sitting the other side of the bed, my money belt and camera in plain sight, Roman sits next to the lhassi on the table, making himself at home. He smiles at me. "Get out, man1" I call in a loud voice, opening the door and gesturing for him to leave. "Sorry, sorry," his voice trails, slipping out of a misunderstanding.

Buddhism held hostage

Before eight the next morning, the rickshaw has dropped me back at the bus depot at the platform serving Mardan. I grab a mineral water and sit in the stuffy van to wait until it fills. There is little traffic headed east along this strip of the Grand Trunk. The van turns off at Nowshera, crossing the Kabul River, a line that divides language and culture. I'm shown across the small town centre to the mini-van headed to Takht-I-Bahi. We cover 50km in an hour and a half. The fare is equal to what I paid for a three hour journey, little over a dollar. The hills rise above the road. Dust brown ranges climb above the shop signs and corn fields. My eyes catch the glimmer of cooking pots in the road side canteens. I alight and grab my bearings. From passive bus rider to potentially scammed tourist hailing a rickshaw into the mountains outside of town, is like waking suddenly from a dream and not knowing where you are. I'm wearing shorts and a t-shirt, lugging a big rucksack. Somebody will know why I'm here and know where to take me. A bystander sees me approach a dimwit rickshaw driver and leads me further through the parked rickshaws to a young driver, his hair slicked back, a glossy light reflection. He has three passengers. We scoot down the wrong side of the road along the shoulder and pass up a side road, a gravel path between two high walls. We bump along a back road past sleepy shops and shaded verandahs. The road begins to rise. At a crest in the hill, the two boys hop out and enter an empty walled school yard. The driver and I continue up the hillside, the road becomes a dirt track.

Thakt-I-Bahi lies between two hilltops, straddling the north side looking towards Malakand Pass, and hidden on the south side by ythe neighbouring peak. We stop in a dirt parking lot to the side of which stands a small white wood roof sheltering three men sitting watching our approach. The youngest one stands and motions for me to climb the path up the right. I read a blue PTDC sign summerizing the history of the monastery,
Aurangzeb, PeshawarAurangzeb, PeshawarAurangzeb, Peshawar

insisting I needed to replace my footwear
of King Ashoka and the German archaeologists in more recent times. The men in the parking lot help translate to the rickshaw driver that he is to wait one hour until I come back. A five minute climb leads to a series of red stone walls, almost two stories, jutting above the steep hillside, their masonry a recent reconstruction. A tall man in moustache and mustard brown shalwar-kameez stands in the way of the path. He is my guide. His English escapes me. He points at the wall, to a curving line that seperates original and reconstructed masonry. Steps climb through a thick wall to a prayer hall of several stone stupa bases encircling a raised platform on which stands the main stupa base. Along the outer wall lie several cells long emptied of their holy images. One statue remains, breathtaking in its original location after all these centuries. I'm lead down stone steps into a dark hall with a honeycomb roof, each stone cantilevered over the next. Sun seeps in through a door broken into the wall allowing access into a courtyard surrounded on the other three sides by a two story wall. Last, I'm shown to the back corner of the site, to a caged shed, door unlocked, where stone statues have gathered, their purpose and place lost, sitting amputated like prisoners of war. Behind the last stone bust, a well dressed Maitreya bodhisatva, leans a long musket, as though Islam had taken Buddhism hostage.

On more than one occasion I discuss with Pakistani hosts the diffrences between the two religions. In one situation we are eating roti. In Islam everything comes from and returns to the One, to Allah. In Buddhism, the One is an illusion, all matter, energy, space, time are unrealities. My host tells me bread comes from wheat, the two are the same. The man who sews the seeds and reaps the grain, are one. It is all one, only different shapes. In Buddhism, I respond, the soil, the plant, the sewer, the reaper, the truckdriver, the baker, the oven builder, the birds, bees, insects who are part and parcel of the creation of this bread and me who is enjoying it, are all one. And together we are nothing. The point is to give thanks and awareness to all the parts, to all life put into making this bread.

A narrow strip of concrete concentrates the noise and shipping line of passengers and cargo headed north of the Peshawari Plain. I listen to the young man who holds to the rail of the van's side door, hanging his head over his shoulder, calling destinations en route. His words trill like a strange bird, "Dargai, Chakdara, Timargarha... Dargai, Chakdara, Timargarha." Towns twenty, forty and sixty kms up the road lie steeped in over two thousand years of history, successive empires, states or districts, their borders attacked, conquered, erased, redrawn, rebuilt, brought to flourish, only to fall to new attackers, repeated by invasions from east and west and north. Our van is packed and I am squished in the middle. Over the pages of a novel, my attention half burried in a tale of India and Pakistan's bloody seperation, the traffic slows as the road climbs up Malakand Pass. Construction crews and rock piles stagger the busses, cars and cargo trucks in caravans of eight or so, taking turns on the backtracks and hair rasing edges. The green rectangles and brown boxes of the valleys and villages shrink far below.

Additional photos below
Photos: 31, Displayed: 31



somewhat of a dangerous look to him but damn sexy

the only remaining intact stone sculpture - and perhaps one of the finest examples of Gandaharan Buddhist artwork

Buddhism held hostage

18th September 2007

sounds amazing
I think you've outdone yourself on this trip, you really are taking off into the unknown and throwing yourself head first into the backpacking across the world mentality!
17th April 2011
cinema Rd, Peshawar

hello for peshawar

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