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Published: December 10th 2007
'Welcome to the North West Frontier Province - Land of Hospitality', a big sign proclaims as we take the Grand Trunk Road from Islamabad to Peshawar. I have met Abdul, our Pakistani driver, and my British travel companions at Islamabad airport, and together, we are heading towards Peshawar and Pakistan's North-West Frontier in a minibus. We are eight people, including Stanley, our guide. As soon as we leave Islamabad, the atmosphere around us changes. Everything feels lighter and softer here: I see smiling faces, waving children, and intrigued gazes, although the weapons are still ever-present. Colourfully painted trucks pass us on the road on this grey foggy and dull day. I notice that the petrol stations all have mosques or prayer places attached to them. On the sidewalk, I see a woman wearing a full white burkha, with even her eyes fully covered by a bar-like net. I see only her sandalled bare feet. To my western eyes, it's a slightly disturbing sight, and I wonder what life is like for her. Is she happy? Sad? Indifferent? After a while, I see the white, ghost-like burkhas everywhere, and grow used to the sight.
I can't keep my serious persona up
for any longer, and am back to my usual self, smiling and waving at the people we pass. It's strange for me to be in a group, after travelling independently for so long, but it also has advantages in a country like Pakistan. Everything is organised for us, which makes the trip quite relaxing and safe - the pay-off is that I have to stick to schedules and see certain things I'm not particularly interested in.
We reach Peshawar after three hours driving and check into the wonderful Khan Klub, a boutique hotel in the old town, in which every room is tastefully decorated and themed after crystals. Needless to say, I stay in the 'garnet' room, which is situated on its own on the roof, about seven flights of narrow stairs in the sky. Everything is dark red, including the velvety blankets, and I love it. The only disadvantage of the room is that I am closer to the mosque, which means I am woken up at 5 am by the daily singing of 'Allah-oh-Akhbar'. It starts quite soft and low, with a man almost whispering prayers into the microphone, and then becomes an ear-shattering crescendo at about
5.30 am, when several men sing the prayers in unison. I smile wrily and am thankful that, unlike in Nepal, the worship stops after an hour.
We wander through the markets and bazaars of Peshawar and I note the exquisite hospitality here. Almost all the traders and many other people invite us in for a cup of chai (milk tea) and involve us in conversations, eager to practise their English: you could easily while many an afternoon away here having endless cups of tea.
This morning, we leave our hotel at 8.30 to drive to the legendary Khyber Pass, which borders Afghanistan. The streets are busy - here, the old mixes with the new. We pass donkey pulling colourfully decorated carts and men wrapped in brown blankets perching at market stalls. They catch my passing glance, wave at me and smile. The men here are beautiful (I am sure the women are too, but we don't get to see many of them): striking features, and deep piercing mysterious eyes. We eye each other with mutual curiosity. Things feel relaxed here at the NWFP, despite the fact that the men wear their rifles and machine guns like handbags.
After a while, we stop to collect our armed escort. Because Pakistani law does not apply to the NWF tribal areas, we can only enter with a permit and two armed soldiers, who, much to my delight, travel with us in our vehicle and make sure we a) don't get kidnapped, and b) don't do anything we're not supposed to, like get out of the car in the wrong places. One of our armed soldiers has big soft brown eyes, a warm smile and the longest eyelashes I have ever seen on a man. He smiles as he gets into the bus and takes the front seat, machine gun perched between his legs. The other one, who, with hawk-like features, looks a bit like a rough & ready bandit, sits in the back. We pass the ruins of Afghan refugee camps from the 1990's on the outskirts of Peshawar, and the remains of many kites - I am told that the Afghans love to fly kites. Men decapitate sheep by the roadside, and I see the red blood spilling from the headless necks, running onto the dusty sidewalk. After we pass the Khyber Agency checkpoint, we drive by various gun and hashish shops. Bearded men wave at me from behind large shop windows decorated with rifles and AK-47s. The soldiers won't let us stop, unfortunately. When we do get out a little later to look at some commemorative British plaques, the soldiers follow us around like shadows - they even stand guard outside the toilet.
As we drive up the Khyber Pass, which is the 40-odd km long road leading to Afghanistan, the landscape becomes desolate. Rugged mountains rise up all around us, covered with rocks, rubble and dry bushes. The landscape is brown, green and grey, and we pass numerous stone ruins and houses. I see women working, carrying wood and pots. Groups of men sit cross-legged on the ground. A beggar sits in the middle of the road as big trucks pass him by, holding his hand out for alms. We get out and the soldiers pose for photographs, and Abdul, our driver, shoves the young soldier's gun into my arms and says 'Take gun! Photograph! Haha!' I hope the security catch is on.
When we reach the last fort before the Afghan border, which is as far as we can go, we are welcomed by a commander. From the fort, we have sweeping views over the valley across to Afghanistan. We have a rest, chat with the stationed soldiers and the colonel, and a man with two caged birds which he says he will have for lunch, walks past. Afghanistan feels alluring, and I ask whether it's possible to visit at this time. Possible it is, with a visa, but, sadly, not very safe for foreigners at this point of time.
We're heading off to Chitral and the Hindu Kush mountains tomorrow morning, getting ready for the Kalash's big winter solstice festival which starts in a few days time.
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