Pakistan (Islamic Republic of Pakistan) is the fifth largest country in the world with more than 212 million people. It was established in 1947, following the independence of the Indian sub-continent by the British, separating populations on the basis of religion. The place has a long history, even before the time of Alexander the Great who conquered it in 327 BC. followed by the less known Hellenic kingdoms of Bactrian and Seleucid, where the Greek-Buddhist art of Gandhara also flourished. In the centuries that followed Arabs, Mongols, Afghans and, of course, Britons, molded the cultural entity of the place.
Its geomorphology varies dramatically from the shores of the Arabian Sea and the deserts of the south to the forests of the north, the idyllic valleys, the Indus River and its tributaries and of course, the majestic mountain ranges of the Karakorum, the Hindu Kush and the Himalayas with the mighty K2 mountain, world’s second highest. The strategically located area was valued since the era of the silk road and still todays, two key roads, the Karakorum highway and the Khyber Pass, link Pakistan to western China and Afghanistan respectively. The road network that crosses the mountain ranges of the north is basically inaccessible in winter and frequent landslides make the task of maintenance difficult.
The population of the country is very diverse, with the largest ethnic groups being made up of the Punjabi-Indian people and the Pashto-Iranian Pashtun, as well as the Indo-European minorities, the so-called Aryans. Among them are the famous Kalash minority tribe with the unique culture of the region and primitive religion and customs. Although not quite proven, they believe to be descendants of Alexander the Great’s soldiers.
Men’s clothing in this country typically includes the traditional shalwar and hat, while womens’ vary from the feminine colored shalwar, the colorful hand-made costumes of the Kalash and Sidh mountain tribes, to the extreme conservative full-face covering burqa, as well as the westernized outfits with fashion clothes of the Pakistani elite class.
Another feature of Pakistan is the crafted trucks, a uniquely colorful moving collage. Delicious is the local cuisine, with substances common to the Indian subcontinent, many variations based on rice such as biryani, many kinds of bread-pies such as chapati, naan, roti. Meat, mainly chicken and goat, have a significant presence and culinary variety in grilled, kebab, cooked, always marinated with hot spices.
Pakistan is a country of contrasts, not only in land morphology but also social and cultural stratification.
Pakistan possesses a major military power with nuclear equipment and is in constant political and armed conflict with India about the Kashmir disputed area.
Inside this cluster of tribes, and in a country where terrorism has almost eradicated tourism, the visitor will first feel like… an alien. The surprise and curiosity of the Pakistani for the stranger, needs just a smile to transform into unprecedented friendliness, hospitality, invitations and offers, spontaneous help. But the fact of its proximity to Afghanistan and the hard to survey mountain passes, results the existence of Taliban members and other radical groups among the population, which sully the reputation of the country with weapons, drug trafficking and frequent deadly terrorist attacks.
1. From the border to Islamabad, Hunza and Chitral
North Pakistan – Photo album
The route up to Chitral
I insisted hard to convince my travel buddies for this destination. The conclusion of whether the effort was worth it, I hope is clear.
This trip started from Nepal, which was a pleasant setback to deal with my travel friends. Then through India, we crossed the only land border of the two countries that are officially in a state of war for decades. Although this border is crossed by very few, it’s perhaps the most grandiose border establishment. On both sides of the borderline, there are two amphitheatrical tiers, with the Indian being quite larger. Every afternoon, at the flag ceremony of the two countries, a military parade takes place, with a bizarre ritual act by soldiers with impressive uniforms and unparalleled choreography, provoking with their kinesiology the “enemy” and giving the “show” rather a sense of comedy. We watched the parade on August 14th, Pakistan’s Independence Day, the eve of the according day for India, and the events were even more celebrating. In spite of the initial plan, we were on the Indian side as we were delayed 5 minutes from the border gate and refused exit. This delay, due to my insistence on cheap means of transport, has disturbed the mood of our trip, added time stress and caused the anger of my travel buddies.
Late in that morning, we were the first and almost only ones to cross the border line.
The Attari-Wagah border, Indian and Pakistani side
Border guards welcomed us with kindness, excitement and less bureaucracy than India, even though the non a.c. room was reminiscent of a sauna in that heat. Getting out, we had to wait for a while until some vehicle transfers the few people to the parking lot. Surprisingly, it was a wagon vehicle, like the touring “trains” in some cities. But the next parking was also inaccessible to the outsiders. We waited a lot of time in vain in the heat, while a cleaner wiped the soil on our luggage and ourselves. We had arranged a car to rent but had no possible contact there, so we turned to the rangers who called the next gate with an obsolete crank phone while at the same time someone offered to phone call.
At some time our guy came and exhausted entered the pleasurable air conditioned car that would carry us for the next 14 days.
The first pictures from the country are representative of chaos, poverty and an Islamic-style architectural disorder that strongly resembled Iraq.
After 300 kilometers on a state-of-the-art motorway, we reach the capital city. It consists of a twin city, the old part named Rawalpindi and the modern, Islamabad, designed by the Greek architect and urban planner Konstantinos Doxiadis. The cultural gap of the two cities is enormous. Arriving at Rawalpindi we wanted to see some of the sights and walk around its bustling outdoor markets. However, traffic chaos made our huge car impossible to pass, and the unprecedented number of men with long beards and women with burqa made the spot look somewhat inhospitable. Despite our good travel experience, we always need a little time to overcome the first shock of such a different social environment. Which turned out to be true soon. Among other things, we tried to buy a local sim card with internet, necessary for routes and hotels. The bored employee, after a lengthy passport registration process, assured us that the connection would be triggered after an hour, which never happened.
Islamabad has a totally opposite look from Pindi. Impeccable layout, organized traffic, luxury villas and plenty of greenery. It easily reminds a suburb of a European city and hardly resembles to typical Pakistan.
One of the most important monuments of the city, as well as a symbol of all Pakistan, is the Pakistan Monument, an impressive floral shaped architectural structure, with embossed interiors, on top of a hill in the city center. North of the city is the large futuristic Faisal Mosque, which was built in 1976 by King Faisal of Saudi Arabia. In the courtyard of the mosque, we began to become the tourist attraction, with dozens of people welcoming us and asking to take a photo with us. This will follow us throughout our journey, to the extent that it makes me wonder if I eventually photographed or was photographed more.
In the afternoon, once we visited the telecommunications company once again, after a lot of research, we found a relatively cheap hotel and went out for food. Hidden behind a strait was a series of local street restaurants with cleanliness comparable to a typical third-world country. A dwarf who barely reached the grill where and a transgender beggar, added to the surrealism of the spot.
Like every day of the trip, we had early wake-up, trying to catch up on the unknown route that awaits us. From now on the road will be hard, narrow, winding and with many unexpectancies. From the traffic chaos of small towns, to the snake-shaped mountain roads at altitudes above 3500m, the endless rocks and landslides. After a few hours we arrive in the city of Abbotabad, which has been imprinted in my mind as the hideout of Osama Bin Laden.
Here we will change oil for the car and have a walk around the city of friendly people. As everywhere in the country, we only received smiles and interest questions about our country of origin. It’s hard to imagine that this place hosted the head of Al Qaeda. Of course we didn’t go into the process of asking where Osama’s house is. But upon leaving the city, curiously I checked the map and to my surprise I found it! Although we are already delayed for long way ahead us, we decide to go. The massive Land Cruiser finds it difficult to fit into the narrow streets of the small village on the outskirts of the city and the driver is resentful. The road ends and we continue on foot. Osama’s neighbors smile by saying his name and showing us the direction.
On the night of May 2, 2011, US Special Forces invaded Pakistan’s airspace with helicopters invisible to radars and captured the place, eliminating their target. One of the helicopters fell into the perimeter of the building without victims. Osama’s corpse was taken to Afghanistan for verification, from there to an airliner and eventually to his wet tomb in the Indian Ocean. In addition to the corpse disappearance by the Americans, the Pakistani government demolished the house, discouraging the creation of a place of worship. It is really strange standing on a point of historical events where the terrorist enjoyed his coffee for 5 years or more, in this remote neighborhood of the quiet village, but also a breath away from a major Pakistani military academy.
The road gets worse and becomes mountainous. It was an utopian scenario to reach Gilgit on the same day, but with so many delays it is unlikely that we will even reach Chilas. Rain begins, making the route even harder. At some point we reach the town of Naran, a mountain resort with beautiful hotels and nature activities such as rafting. Unfortunately, we do not have time to stay, but a few kilometers after we are notified that a landslide happened and the road is closed. We insist to continue on to the point to judge the situation. The road has turned into a mud river, hard to reach on foot. Many people are gathered, there is worry. In the background, we see giant rocks fallen on road, cars trapped, unknown if there are victims and the torrent that has broken a part of road downhills. The initial shock gives way to frustration. We are blocked with a sole solution to return to Islamabad and miss northern Pakistan. We return to Naran, we find a hotel and we satisfy our hunger in a nice barbecue restaurant. We place two alternative trip plans on paper considering time safety. One for the – unlikely, despite local assurances – road fix possibility and one for returning back and visit only the Kalash area. Unlucky factors may overturn a trip, but I had a good feeling. And miraculously, in the morning the road was open. And as it turns out, every obstacle adds something to the adventure and unique experience of an independent trip that tests the traveler’s versatility, determination and inventiveness.
The road continues alongside the river, in mountain landscapes of infinite beauty that would have not seen if we crossed it the night before. Moreover, the route is not easy, with many turns, landslides and altitudes reaching 4100m at some point. Police checks and registrations are frequent from now on. We are also given a compulsory armed escort, which does not makes us happy because we have to get less space in the car.
Indus River runs through the barren landscape. This important ancient river flows here before the creation of the Himalayas, with its current course starting from its sources in Tibet, passing through Ladakh, continuing through Pakistan and flowing in the Arabian Sea. At one point it joins the Gilgit River and this marks the reconciliation of three of the world’s largest mountain ranges, the Himalayas, Karakorum and Hindu Kush.
The armed escort gives changes duty with the next one and we continue on the Karakorum highway leading to China’s border, this important pass of the silk road. With the funding of the Chinese government, the road is in excellent condition, with a big tunnel, but curiously without a noticeable commercial traffic. Immense mountains, some with snowy peaks and altitudes over 7,000 meters, surround the Hunza Valley, the “paradise on earth” as the locals call it. It is difficult to describe or capture in photos, the awe that feels between these gigantic earthly volumes. The spectacle is unreal and recalls similar memories from Ladakh.
Hunza, this northernmost valley, has been an independent state of the Mir dynasty for 900 years, until its conquest by the British in the 19th century and eventually its incorporation with Pakistan just in 1974. People here do not look like those in the rest of the country. Light skin, hair and eyes are common here.
After the tunnel, suddenly a lake with a turquoise fluorescent shimmers. The Attabad Lake, 21 km long, is a rare phenomenon since it was only created in 2010 from a large landslide that displaced a population of thousands and swept part of the Karakorum Avenue till 2015 when the new tunnels were delivered. The place is a summer resort for the Pakistani, but nevertheless we met few tourists mostly locals and only two westerners on bicycles.
We drive to Passu, with the same named glacier, looking for accommodation. But the area, beyond the mountain scenery, did not offer a better view than the lake and so despite the fatigue we returned and we found clean rooms with a blue view.
It is the first moments of respite since we entered Pakistan, here in the isolation of the mountain giants, in the pleasant climate away from the humidity of the summer monsoon. It is the moments of the journey that I regain strength and bless the craziness that led me to this idyllic paradise, away from the beauties of my homeland, my friends and my loved ones. I feel so happy in my temporary loneliness!
Early in the morning we start to browse the area, with the Passu glacier being the first target. It belongs to the seven biggest, non-arctic glaciers of the world, 4 of which are here in northern Pakistan. An uphill narrow dirt road leads us to the beginning of the path. The driver is clearly stressed with the road, the Land Cruiser’s owner rents it for weddings. The foot path leads us higher, giving an amphitheatrical view of the valley and the village, as well as the imposing frozen river with the sharp white spikes. It is a strange phenomenon of glacier coexistence next to trees in the temperate zone as well as the temperature that allows you to wear t-shirt. We decide to continue the uphill path for a few more miles. After 3 hours of walking the view becomes even more impressive and if we had no time limit, we would definitely continue. Suddenly we hear a buzz and looking behind us we see a landslide, almost at the edge of the cliff where we had stood before. Returning, we met some students of the last village before Afghanistan, on their school trip.
What did you do last summer? We went for boating in Pakistan. We could not miss a relaxing boat ride on a big traditional wooden boat in the turquoise lake, surrounded by the peaks of Karakorum.
The village of Karimabad (or Baltit) is the capital of Hunza. A picturesque village with several shops selling semi-precious stones and handicrafts of the area. The Baltit fortress, which was the residence of the monarch, dominates the top of the village and has been restored by the Aga Khan Foundation. Pakistani monarchs still maintain a prominent social position and business activity in the country and abroad. In the village there was a wedding and a football match together. The majority of the population are Ismaili Muslims, with progressive attitude and loose dress code, while the head scarf for women is not often seen.
Gilgit – Phunder – Mastuj – Chitral
Next stop from Hunza, arrived at Gilgit late evening. The capital of the northern Pakistani province bordering on Indian Kashmir, Xinjiang and Afghan Wakhan was lower than our expectations. Built on the banks of the same name river, it hosted us in a dirty hotel with moderate food.
But the adventure begins the next day, on the longest and most difficult part we traveled. The road outside Gilgit was a narrow asphalt, parallel to the river, with frequent landslides as everywhere in the country. But it soon gave way to an endless, rugged, mountain dirt road that is the only link between the northeast and northwestern Pakistan. The scenery became alpine soon, with stunning scenery, snowed peaks, plains with horses and yaks, with very small settlements such as Phunder and Mastuj. Police blocs have become routine for us, even more at this isolated point and unfortunately their information on the state of the road is disappointing. Despite of the route that was tiresome for both vehicle and passengers, the driver was no longer much stressed about the car, even when the rear bumper struck the ground and deformed, on a river passing. At the 3500m elevated desolate plateau, we were relieved by the presence of other jeeps on duty of public transport. It is terrifying to think of a mechanical problem in such a remote place. For the 400 km of the journey, we spent 13 hours and our driver Akhtar, with a little switch we offered, made it through, non stop, offering us valuable time for the rest of the trip.
Arriving late night in Chitral, we were looking for a decent hotel. There was no courage to search much, but neither was mood for sleeping again in junk rooms. Fortunately, after fruitless questions about a good hotel in the city, someone suggested following some unmapped alleys towards the river bank. Indeed, there, next to an old fortress, is the Pamir Inn riverside hotel, both owned by the Chitral mukhtar. An idyllic place beside the river, with a lush garden, blooming roses and comfortable rooms with a lounge. The price we negotiated was the same we paid everywhere in the country, which generally did not seem cheap to us in terms of accommodation. My daily cost for the single room was €20 or a little less.
Chitral is a beautiful village and is predominantly inhabited by the indo-aryan Khoo tribe speaking Khowan dialect. There is also a minority Pashtun (Afgani).
2. The Kalash tribe
Kalash tribe – Photo album
The Kalash valley
The Kalash is an Indo-aryan tribe of northwestern Pakistan. Their cultural identity, which is unique in the area, fascinates anthropologists, with many claiming to be descendants of Alexander the Great’s soldiers. Unlike the Islamic populations that surrounds them, Kalash retained their unique characteristics over the centuries. They speak their own language, women wearing every day their traditional, colorful, embroidered costume decorated with beads and shells. They have their own peculiar beliefs and myths that many compare with those of ancient Greece. Their religion is peculiarly equally, with some scholars considering as animist, while others claim that it’s an expression of ancient Buddhism with pagan influences. There is open interaction between the two sexes, and weddings are decided of free choice, mainly between two different clans to avoid incest. Unfortunately, today a big percentage has switched to Islam, still maintaining the remaining traditions.
Kalash today live in three isolated valleys of Hindu Kush, in the province of Chitral, in a short distance from the Afghan border line. Their economy is pasture based, but tourism is beginning to offer a marginal financial benefit, with part of the government entry fee paid by visitors, used to preserve their culture. In this fertile area, also called Kafiristan (land of the infidels), they have been displaced since 30 years ago. Previously they lived near the city of Chitral paying taxes to the local mukhtar (local monarch) and earlier in the 19th century lived in Nuristan of present-day Afghanistan where they were being forced to switch to Islam. Being a minority in an extreme Islamic region are often subject of proselytism, even bloody attacks by the Taliban and other paramilitary fanatics. Because of this, their population had shrunk to just two thousand people, but thanks to funding, government protection and military presence in the region, as well as health facilities, they begin to recover. Also, modernization slowly but steadily alters their culture.
Before leaving Chitral, we stopped at the police station to issue the required license for the area. Along with the license, we are given (free of charge) compulsory escort by an armed police guard for all the days in the valleys. For the 35 km distance to the first village it will take us more than two hours. The last part is a dangerous road that hardly fits our massive car. On the one hand, carved rocks “embrace” the vehicle and from the other, steep cliff that ends up in a river. We were keeping our heads out of the window to watch the wheels stepping on the edge of the loose, water-eroded dirt road. Any encounter with another vehicle needed a difficult bypass plan.
Finally, we reach the first of the three valleys, the Rumbur village. Because of the upcoming Kalash festival, we are worried about the availability of the limited vacancy in the village. Fortunately few tourists were there, and an accommodation superior to our expectations hosted comfortably us, the driver and the police guard. We will wander in the village where the locals do their daily work, while women adding colour to the landscape with their intense costumes. The elaborate female traditional outfit with a hat woven of thousands of small beads is worn daily by youngsters, elders and kids of the Kalash. Young girls washing clothes in the stream flowing through the village and spread them on the bushes to dry. Women greet passerby men in the typical formal gesture of gentleness, a hand kiss, that men retaliate as well. In each house there is a sewing machine and women care patiently in the making of their costumes, with elegant embroidery and hats with beads and shells.
Locals are shy, hiding in sight of the camera. We try to break the ice and tell them we are Greeks, compatriots of Athanasis. Athanasios Lerounis is a teacher and activist who has devoted part of his life in preserving the Kalash culture. Among other things, he has secured funding from the Greek government and private institutions for building of a museum, cultural center and school in the region. But, in 2009 he was kidnapped by the Talibans who fled him to Afghanistan, captive for 7 months. Following negotiations led by the Kalash Society and the Pakistani government that agreed an exchange including ransom and release of two detainees, Lerounis was released. Since then he has not visited the area again. Wherever we mentioned his name, we caused a smile and excitement. Atanasi, Atanasi, his name was heard around. The institute is located in Bumburet, the village we will visit on the following day. Rumbur is very authentic, not tourist, so women are quite shy and less expressive. Nevertheless, some will also call us in their homes. The children of the village are unruly and unused to foreigners. Some instant photos we took them were a precious gift.
The physical characteristics of Kalash are indeed special. Light skin, straight noses, some with blue or light colored eyes. It’s easy to identify with ancient Greeks, even though DNA tests have not confirmed it. Kalash people produce wine, something also unique throughout the Islamic country. The one we tried in Rumbur was sour, but we found better one in Bumburet. Their characteristic temples are not much more than a wooden room with sculpted columns and a roof opening. In addition, on the top of a hill there is an outdoor temple with some zoomorphic totem, which is allowed only to men. The events of the 3-day festival start at night time. Turnout is small and minimal light does not allow photos. Groups of young boys and girls in row, holding each other by the shoulder, under the sound of a drum, are engaged in a basic dance flirting with each other. The influence of wine causes stupid behaviour to the boys pushing each other. Visitors are mostly Pakistani, many of them attracted by alcohol and the most liberal women. The following day, we drive on the same scary road to Bumburet, hoping for bigger festivities. This village is considerably more touristy, with many accommodation options and visitors mainly in organized groups. The museum and school is the most imposing building in the village. We wished to visit it but it was closed. The news spread quickly in the small village and the museum director appeared in our guesthouse and offered not only to open the museum especially for us (and afterwards to a Greek tourist group) but also to tour us all day in the village offering all the valuable information for his proud tribe. He was also between the negotiators who risked his life going to Afghanistan, where the Talibans held the Greek teacher. He described them as uneducated and primitive people who had no contact with culture, they had not even seen television in their lives. The museum building is impressive, a three-storey structure made of stone and wood, respecting the local architecture. The exhibits preserve traditional cultural elements, clothes, jewelery, utensils and some burial sculpted statues, which managed not to been stolen or sold. In one of the halls we find an album with the action of countless Greek NGOs, active not only here, but in any forgotten country of Africa and the planet. In a more prosper era for Greece, the party of these organizations was anything but altruistic. The abuse of public funds and private money laundering, was processed easily through the supposed awareness for those in need. The pages of the album featured well-known Greek politicians, some of them prisoned for corruption.
We will then visit the village temple and we pass nearby the “house of maternity” that is considered “dirty” and can only be approached by pregnant women and those who take care of them. The Bumburet cemetery is one of the most bizarre ones to meet. Dozens of coffins made of solid wood are lying open everywhere. Until a few years ago, Kalash did not bury the dead but put them in coffins overground along with their belongings, honoring the deceased for 3 days with dances and animal sacrifices. An integral element of the burial was a sculpted statue, but few remain now. The burial is now underground, and it is completed with the deceased’s bed put upside down.
The Bumburet villagers are much more social and open to contact, and many enjoy posing for photos. Of course the escort of the museum director is more than helpful to us, while himself feels obligated to the Greek nation who offered so much to the community. The festival celebrations unfortunately take place at night as well and they’re even less participated than in Rumbur. Tourists are even more than participants! We leave in disappoint but no one has given us the information that the crescent of the festival takes place the next morning at Rumbur. We could have visited the two villages in reverse order, but now we have to change our trip plan by extending our stay in Kalash valleys, and cross the awful road again.
The celebration was impressive indeed, despite the large number of tourists. Numerous women in formal costume and double hat with shells are added to the colorful mosaic. Older men at the center of the dance floor recite poems, while under the sound of the drum, groups of all ages roam around the peculiar ecstatic dance. The presence of the anti-terrorist service with a dog, is intense. At the feast we also met the Greeks traveling with a travel agency, mostly were elderly people. The economic situation in our country, unfortunately does not allow young people for an expensive organised trip. Also, fear together with lack of knowledge discourages independent travelers like us. Some ladies were kind and keen to learn about Hunza and the other places they didn’t visit.
Kalash is another rare, endangered tribe of our planet, that has impressed us not only with their traditions and culture, but also their character and ethos. It’s of little importance whether they are actually containers of Greek DNA. This ancient race that has survived in such a hostile environment is an anthropological treasure.
3. Swat valley, Peshawar, Lahore
Swat, Peshawar, Lahore – Photo album
Swat, Peshawar, Lahore route
Swat – Peshawar – Lahore
It was past noon when we left the Kalash, once again crossing the steep dirt road and starting to descend to the valley of Swat. The paved road, at some points gave place to an under construction dirt road. A brand new modern tunnel, the 10.5 km Lowari tunnel reduces transport time to a half. Prior to its delivery in 1017, the route from Chitral to Peshawar was shorter through Afghanistan! So far, there is no modern motorway on either side of the tunnel but a narrow dirt road.
Night found us in the unknowns town of Timergara. We got in a good hotel with nice food and bargained down to our price. The manager told us that there is compulsory guarding of tourists in the province, something that reminds me of an identical situation in Burkina Faso. So there came a non-commissioned officer and a politician and they assured us that they would stay in the next room to guard us. However, at 2am I went down to find water, I saw them on the couch and a kalashnikov together with a pistol resting loosely at the neighbor.
In the morning we woke up in relaxing pace, cause despite our longer stay in Kalash, we had still enough time till our flight back home. I had a different perception for Swat Valley in my mind, influenced by the memorable valley of Hunza. Swat’s interest isn’t just the natural beauty, far uphill towards Chilas and back to our previously crossed route. ,Equally important s the history of the place, depicted in ancient ruins and Buddhist antiquities. However, I encountered monuments in a very poor condition, desecrated Buddha rock sculptures, wrecked Buddhist stupas, flattened monasteries.
Swat didn’t excite me, but heading south to Peshawar, I visited the imposing Takht-i-Bahi archaeological site. It is a complex of Buddhist temples and a initiation center for monks, which flourished from the 1st to the 7th century AD. We climb in stifling heat the 300 steps up to the top of the hill where the monument is built . A large crowd clutters the area, cause it’s the second of the three-days celebrations of Eid-al-Adha, the second Muslim holiday after Ramadan, honoring Prophet Abraham for his son’s sacrifice. At the entrance, they also gave us an armed escort of Anti-terrorist squat. Perhaps it was the only place that seemed useful. Curiosity of the locals-who gather in hundreds- for the weird westerners among them, evolved into a narrow ring of mob around us. The policeman duly justified the term “cop” as he began to strike a wood with the world indiscriminately, restoring the order immediately. The fortified city, built in levels, I could characterize with a dose of exaggeration as Machu Picchu of Pakistan. It has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Many of the statues of Gandhara art for which we will talk below are in the Peshawar Museum but also in the British Museum!
The rest of the route is on good road, entering the N5 motorway (Lahore-Islamabad-Peshawar) on the last part. Arriving at our destination, we went to a Mc Donald’s for refreshing ice cream at a price equal to the daily income for the average citizen.
Just 50km from the Afghanistan border crossing through the famous Khyber Pass, Peshawar does not have laurels in the security sector. This conservative city is often the target of terrorist attacks and with an internet search you may read about a suicide bombing every two months, including busy places like the main bazaar. The time we were there, during Eid ceremonies, was risky for another one. The impression we finally made was even friendlier than all the places we visited. People invited us in the mosques where they opened the interior halls especially for us, buying juice to offer us, even from slums people came out to offer us something to drink without ever accepting money. At the main bazaar, most shops were closed during the Eid holidays, but walking around the old town was still quite interest. Among sights, the municipal museum with poor exhibits and the old fire station with beautiful antique vehicles. The main attraction, however, was also closed on that day. I’m not a fan of the museums, but this is of special importance. Despite our persistence, the guard couldn’t open a public museum specifically for us. So we had to extend our stay here and visit on the following day.
We returned to the same hotel and given the previous rooms to discover that they do not change bed sheets, keeping the same stains. We also visited the luxury Pearl Hotel, for a chance to kill time by the pool. In addition to excessive guarding, which rather targets than protects, the place was dull and boring. We preferred to wander in various parts of the city, some strongly guarded. Even in some of the city’s small parks we were asked for data recording and body search, which had become somewhat annoying. I had an idea of crossing the Khyber pass, just to see the Afghan flags waving since we did not have visa for that country. However, in addition to tedious checks and possibly mandatory escorts, the road was mountainous and difficult, in an unscrupulous tribal area, with heavy truck traffic which, among other things, were carrying supplies to the US army bases of the neighboring country and were often attacked by Talibans. To be honest, in the city of Peshawar most people had a Taliban look.
In addition to the Mc ice cream, our dinner was at local street stalls serving delicious biryani rice.
The Peshawar Museum is an architectural gem blending British, Hindu, Buddhist and Mughal styles, built in 1917, at the time of British colonialism. It hosts some rare masterpieces of the little-known Greek-Buddhist art of Gandara. The sculptures of the collection present a unique style, a mix of a Hellenistic statue, with the posture, the creases of the chiton, a face with straight nose, but at the same time the appearance of Buddha. This art flourished for about 1000 years, from the conquest of Alexander the Great in 4th century b.C, and afterwards the Greek-Bactrian kingdom and the Seleucids. Significant is the collection of coins of this Hellenistic era, while on the upper floor we are transported to later periods of the Arab conquest, the British, till the recent tombstone relics of the Kalash.
Lahore, the starting point of our trip into Pakistani territory, is our ultimate destination, having left the city sightseeing for the end of trip as a safety margin. The second-after-Karachi city, with more than 11 million population, is of the most robust economically, socially liberated, progressive and cosmopolitan across the country. Large avenues with enough green, but the unbearable heat and humidity resembled to Nepal and India at the beginning of this journey. The main attraction, the majestic Badshahi mosque attracts a masses of pilgrims who follow a particular ritual in their visit. We initially became entangled in these unknown to us rituals. Neighboring the mosque is the fortress of the city, which despite its size did not excite me, maybe because of the impressive monuments I had already visited in Nepal and India.
Accommodation in Lahore is pricey! We do not want to overcome the usual budget even on the last day. The city is enormous and the few economic hotels are distanced between them. In the second attempt, we were luckily found a brand new, budget hotel, a short walk from Emporium Mall, the country’s second largest and one of the biggest worldwide. The place is full, to the point of surprise about the numbers of elite Pakistani society, modern and liberal, people you do not meet in the streets. Enjoying a last, comfortable sleep before the three consecutive return flights, the storm of images and experiences I gathered in the 25-day trip, are starting to settle in mind. I hope you enjoyed the journey too.