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Pakistan

Peshawar

After four long days of sitting around Islamabad, I was quite looking forward to a couple of days of the frenetic energy Peshawar might offer before I'd head over the Khyber Pass and into Afghanistan.

The bus ride from Islamabad was about two and a half hours with a pit stop in the middle. Curiously, no women, who were all seated in the front of the bus, got out. I spent most of the trip chatting with a man from Quetta. I arrived late in the afternoon to Peshawar's truly chaotic bus station, negotiated a moto-rickshaw ride to the Saddar area for 50 rupees and checked into the <gasp> Tourist Inn Motel.

Okay... let's get this out of the way. The Tourist Inn Motel is indeed an infamous place. If Pakistan has anything that resembles Khao San Road it's the Tourist Inn. Except that instead of accommodating 7,000 people a night (or whatever KSR holds each night), this place is lucky to get seven people. And Pakistan is not a first international destination so while the Tourist Inn does attract the budget set, most of the guests do have a clue and have been around a bit. However, my reasoning for choosing to stay here is I figured it stood the best chance of being the place I'd meet someone also planning to visit Afghanistan or perhaps at least meet someone just returning who could offer some good information.

The other issue with the Tourist Inn is the owner. I have read the reports and have heard the stories. Of theft. Of lies. Of deceit. That the place is dirty and rundown. The horror, the horror, yeah, yeah, yeah. Bahadar Khan is the owner's name and I got along fine with him. He is a curmudgeon, yes, but I'm sure when I'm his age I'll be described no differently. I've seen places a lot dirtier than this and no one stole anything from me. There are enough reports of problems at the Tourist Inn that there's probably something to them, but my personal experience with the guesthouse and its owner was fine and I actually enjoyed hanging out with the old guy listening to him refer to everyone he didn't like as motherfuckers (particularly the Afghans) and everything he didn't like as motherfucking. The rest of the time he was engaged in religious studies with a local mullah he was paying for private Koranic reading/chanting lessons.

Anyway, while the Tourist Inn presented no problems for me and I did indeed stay there a couple of nights upon my return from Afghanistan two weeks later if I'm ever to return to Peshawar I've heard the Rose Hotel in the Old City is a good place to stay and I'll probably head there. And it's a more interesting area.

My arrival was around sunset on Saturday May 10 and I'd be in Peshawar until Tuesday morning the 13th. Sundays things pretty well shut down but I still took a morning walk to the Old City area. I and my camera garnered a whole lot of attention and once I started clicking away everyone wanted their picture taken. I started with a group of boys playing cricket across the street from the Tourist Inn and the experience was mildly entertaining until one of the bigger boys decided he would dictate to the others who could and couldn't be photographed and when a fistfight almost ensued I decided no one would have their picture taken anymore and I walked away.

My first encounter with Pakistani women came a few hundred meters down the road when I saw about five walking towards me. Anywhere in Southeast Asia I'd smile and say hello, but I wasn't sure about that here. So I'd follow their cue, which was to raise their scarves over their faces and look away from me as they neared. So I did the same, well, I looked away, anyway. As seemed to be the custom the youngest walked in the rear of the group and as we passed despite our respective turning away of our faces I did hear a couple of giggles from the two in the back.

I reached the Old City and found a much more spastic area than Saddar and I attracted large crowds once I started taking photos. Having a digital camera really helps as you can show the results back to people which they really enjoy and then delete all the boring shots later.

There were also plenty of "hellos" and "where you come from?" which I often hesitated to answer America too quickly, preferring to say "Thailand" as technically it's the country I came from and then seeing whether the listener was satisfied with that answer. Among all these 'where you come froms', I caught a more familiar sounding, "hey, how you doing?" I turned to see several men sitting in front of a small photo studio. "How are ya'?" said one. That sounded real American so I went over and met Jabar. A Pakistani/American who's been in Texas for over twenty years but is back in Peshawar for a spell. We chatted awhile and Jabar agreed to show me around Peshawar's Old City the following day if I was so inclined, which I was.

Walking back from where I came, I ducked into a local music store staffed by a group of lively teenagers. They had a few laughs with me and it didn't take long for the conversation to turn to women. I was rather curious on how the male/female dynamics work in a conservative Islamic society. I had already figured out that photography would prove difficult, though Jabar would make a few good diversions the following day, but I could only imagine the frustrations of being a seventeen-year-old with raging hormones and no outlet. Well, they find their outlets as they can and the teenagers here proudly explained with plenty of laughter that the big mirror across from their counter was so that they could all watch the high school girls walk down the street each day at 2:00 p.m. If anything, it's indirect.

A moto-rickshaw back to the Saddar area and I then set out to explore that area a bit. It was quiet, it being a Sunday, but I found an internet place, dirt cheap at something silly like 20 rupees an hour.

There's an old guy that hangs around the Saddar area accosting foreigners trying to sell tours to wherever he wants to take you. He seems harmless enough if not a little persistent, as he follows initial rejection with pleads of how scarce foreigners are these days and would you just let him do a little work and make some money for once. At least he's honest about it.

May 12 I began with a trip to the permit office to sort out my paperwork for the trip over the Khyber Pass to Afghanistan I had planned for the following day. I figured out by this time that Pakistanis have a fairly low opinion of Afghans and had to endure a few minutes of complaining from the officer whose permission I needed, as he criticized every last detail of how incompetent the Afghans were, using the smudge marks on my visa as an example. I kept my mouth shut and nodded a lot as he then wondered out loud why anybody in their right mind would want to visit such a country inhabited by such animals. A number of possibilities entered my mind none of which I figured he wanted to hear so I began counting the spots of mold on his wall reaching nineteen when he returned to me my passport along with his signature on the requisite forms.

I returned to Saddar and headed down to the main commercial area for a bite to eat. I would meet Jabar in the Old City after lunch. I ducked into one kebab restaurant, not realizing that one, it was actually Afghan food, and two, I was about to order and enjoy a meal which would be just about the only thing I would eat for the next two weeks, and what I enjoyed now I would later have nightmares about... kebabs! pulao! and bread! oh my! kebabs! pulao! and bread! oh my! But it was a good meal and a man sitting across from me quietly introduced himself as a resident of Washington, DC only back in Peshawar to see the family for a bit.

Back in the Old City I met Jabar who led me around Peshawar's noisy and chaotic back alleys. Like most any bazaar/market area in Asia, the goods are more or less the same - an area for textiles, an area for electronics, for spices and other foodstuffs, for plastic bowls, etc. In the accompaniment of a local I drew a little less attention though there were plenty of conversations as Jabar knew a lot of people. And I continued to hear the recurring theme of the local's desire to separate those crazy redneck extremists up north from any of their own feelings which weren't the least anti-American, etc.

I photographed a lot of people. Boys were easy, they'd run up to me pointing to the camera, begging me to take their photo. Girls, however, would shriek and run away.

As Afghan money was so readily available here, I decided to change a hundred dollars, or as the case was, about 5700 rupees into Afghanis. Jabar got right on it and spent twenty minutes checking with a number of money changers to find the best rate. Oh this one's 1.21 but this one's offering 1.19, no wait, the 1.19 is the buy rate, his sell rate is 1.21, wait here's one that's 1.20 so after twenty minutes of walking around we settled on a money changer who gave me Afghanis at 1.20. So I got 4750 Afghanis instead of 4711 Afghanis, a savings of about eighty US cents for twenty minutes of haggling. Personally, had I been by myself, I would have just taken the Afghanis at 1.21 but it was kind of entertaining watching Jabar haggle with the moneychangers and you do have to appreciate the hospitality involved in the effort.

Back at the Tourist Inn the battery charger for my digital camera crapped out. This was a major cause for concern. I was heading over the Khyber the next day and really wasn't sure what kind of repairs I might be able to get in Afghanistan and I wasn't going to make it through the rest of the trip with only half an hour of usable time left on the camera. Crisis! It was already around six, maybe seven in the evening that I optimistically walked down to the main commercial area in Saddar hoping I could find a repair shop. Though optimistic, I was also trying to be realistic.

Then I came across an electronics goods shop - selling generators and chargers and transformers and things. Somebody spoke pretty good English and handed my charger off to a technician who returned a few minutes later announcing that he was pretty sure he could fix the charger except there was no way to properly open the charger as there were no screws accessible from the outside. I suggested if he could fix it he was welcome to open it by any means possible and I'd be happy even if he could only tape the thing back together again with duct tape. He disappeared for twenty minutes and returned with the announcement that the charger was repaired. He had drilled some holes through the outer case which revealed some screws beneath. How he knew where to drill is beyond me. Or perhaps he simply called up a friend who sells/repairs Sony digital camera battery chargers and asked him where to drill to find the holes... anyway, I asked about the bill, prepared to pay, I was expecting maybe anywhere from 300 to 700 rupees. Nope, wrong. 50 rupees. Gulp! That's less than a dollar. And the charger, with its several drill holes in the casing, still works fine and in fact it was an Electronics 101 second day of class repair problem and opening the charger rather than fixing the charger took up the lion's share of the time and effort. I also considered that the request for such a paltry sum was also indicative of the general honesty of the people here.

Still... walking back to the Tourist Inn, at the intersection nearest the Inn almost without fail someone would run up to me offering me "whatever I needed", which would include hash, opium, and assumedly heroin. Bahadar Khan suggested I be the one to help rid the town of those characters and make friends with the police by filing a police report on them. I considered that was probably not a very good idea as I wasn't yet sure who were and weren't the police when the uniforms were off and who was already friends with whom.

The following morning I headed over the Khyber Pass to Afghanistan which can be read about in the Afghanistan section of this website.

I returned to Peshawar on the 24th of May. Walking out of Torkham immigration I was met by the requisite armed security agent for my escort back to Peshawar. On the trip back the guards would change every fifteen kilometers or so which eliminates any demands for baksheesh. The taxi driver in Torkham agreed on 500 rupees for the ride to Peshawar. Once the last guard left the vehicle the conversation went like this:
"I am a poor man," driver says.
"Well," I say, "when we get to Peshawar you'll be 500 rupees richer."
"Oh I'm a poor man. You can give me more, okay? I'm poor man."
"If you wanted more than 500 rupees you wouldn't have agreed to 500 rupees when you picked me up."
"I'm a poor man."
"So am I. And in Pehsawar you'll be 500 rupees richer and I'll be 500 rupees poorer. So there."
And this went around and around. I wasn't trying to be cheap, but I don't appreciate people agreeing on one price and then asking for more later. He offered and agreed to 500, a price I did not haggle over and therefore that's what he's going to get.

I <gasp> returned to the Tourist Inn, paid the complaining driver 500 rupees and walked away. I made a few quick comments to Bahadar Khan in respect to the driver's pricing strategies to which the Tourist Inn resident curmudgeon walked over and gave the guy an earful of obscenities in several languages and the driver quickly left.

There was a young Brit who had ridden his bike from Britain and had been hung up in Pakistan trying to take the Karakoram Highway into China. With all the SARS nonsense the border was still closed and he had to turn back. Justin said Pakistan, northern Pakistan, anyway, was his worst bike-riding experience since he left the UK. The main problem was having kids constantly throw rocks at him as well as less often accusations made at him for being an American, even though he was not. In the Kohistan region he had to have a police escort. And kids still threw rocks at him.

I spent the next day doing little except sorting out a few money and plane details. The Tourist Inn had a number of guests now and a few more hangers-on. There was a young Japanese women staying somewhere else but hanging out during the day hoping some guy would turn up she could accompany to Afghanistan to which Bahadar Khan made all sorts of comments about none of which need repeating here. There was another Japanese guy who lay around and did nothing except come out to the common area every few hours to turn on the TV which he would watch for about three minutes before returning to the other room not bothering to turn the TV back off again. There was a well-traveled Yugoslav who I would meet again in Lahore, an Iranian heading off to Afghanistan, an Australian I had met prior to my own trip to Afghanistan, and that evening a French Canadian turned up who had opinions on a lot of things, facts on almost nothing, and somehow kept coming up with stories of how he was robbed/ripped-off/scammed/overcharged, etc. just about everywhere he went... ever wonder why some people seem to have all the bad luck?

After sitting around the Pakistan Intl Airways office for an hour trying to get my flight to Bangkok sorted, there weren't any problems, they just don't do things very quickly here, Justin and I ducked into a convenience store in Saddar to buy some ice cream. Nothing new, the man behind the counter asks me where I'm from. I ask him to guess. He makes a few guesses all of which were wrong. I suggested that maybe I was American.
He laughs, "No, you are not from America, "I can tell American. I hate American."
I laughed, paused and glanced at Justin who started laughing as well.
I turned back to the young man, "Why is that?"
"Government bad. People bad."
"Are people bad because the government is bad or are they both just bad?"
"No, government bad so people bad."
"All of them?
"Sure, the people made the government so they are bad."
Hmm... I continued, "How about Pakistan, is your government ever bad?"
"Oh, yes, sometimes our government is bad!"
"So then the Pakistan people are bad?"
"Oh, umm, no, um, no..."
"Well, if all Americans are bad because of their government, what about Pakistan?"
"Umm, okay, umm, I understand."
"So do you think I might be American?"
"I still think you are not American. You don't act like American."
"You've met Americans before?"
"No, but I know. I see and hear about them."
I looked at Justin, shook my head, reached into my bag, pulled out my blue passport and dropped it on the counter.
"I am very sorry," he says, "okay, maybe American not all bad. Here, the ice cream is free."
"No, not at all," I said, "I will pay for this." And I handed him the money, no way he was having anything on me, and I retrieved my passport which I touched to my head in a parting wave which was met with an embarrassed smile.

We had dinner at some local place across the street from the Tourist Inn which did some kind of meatball/kebab thing and did it quite well as it was remarkably different from the crap I had been eating in Afghanistan for the previous two weeks. I had a double order along with some thick tea.

The next morning I slept in, then dragged my feet around and finally decided around 11 a.m. or so to head off to the bus station for a ride to Lahore, which I was anticipating to be about five to six hours via motorway. I grabbed a moto-rickshaw out on the road and as we neared the bus station, in the right lane of a divided highway, a bus comes roaring up behind us, changing from the center lane to our lane. He sideswipes the rickshaw sending us flying into and over the center curb, missing a wide lamp post by a few inches that would probably have brought us to a sudden and uncomfortable halt. We land in the far left-lane of on-coming traffic fortunately not being run over by anyone and miraculously, there are no injuries and minimal damage to the rickshaw. The driver makes a quick inspection, apologizes, hops back in and finishes the job, depositing me a few minutes later at the bus station. I was hoping to track down one of the luxury Daewoo buses as I had told my driver to take me to one, but somehow I ended up with the regular A/C buses and coasters. Got a ride, okay, but it wasn't the five to six hour ride I had hoped for, but rather it turned out to be nearly nine hours before we reached Lahore, in part thanks to the bus exiting at almost every exit of the motorway to pick up and discharge passengers.

Peshawar is certainly a lively place that still maintains the frontier edge that has attracted travelers for ages. I had planned to head north to Chitral and maybe Gilgit or Gilgit and maybe Chitral, well, somewhere up north where the mountains are big and the scenery supposedly some of the most spectacular on the planet. Well, there were rockslides blocking roads, I had a visa which I had already spent over $200 on, soon to expire, and if I wanted to see the north I ought to do it properly. And besides, it gives me a good excuse to come back to Pakistan. So I will.

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All text and photographs 1998 - 2006 Gordon Sharpless. Commercial or editorial usage without written permission of the copyright holder is prohibited.