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23 August

A Letter from Peshawar

August 23, 2005

Dear friend,

Trust it finds you well!

The recent four weeks saw me travel along the ancient silk road in northwestern China, from Lanzhou via Dunhuang, Turpan, Hotan to Kashgar. I then took the Karakoram Highway (KKH), the highest highway in the world, to cross into northern Pakistan, where I spent three days in the beautiful Hunza Valley with the 7790m Rakaposhi and 7388m Ultar snow-peaks shining my hotel courtyard. After a short transit at the historic town of Gilgit, I took a miserable journey across the Hindu Raj Range to Hindukush region, visited the unique (and dirty!!) Kalash people and arrived at Peshawar on Aug 21.

So, let me share with you my two days stay in Peshawar.

As Pakistan’s “Wild Wild West” border town, Peshawar is only one hour drive from Afghanistan. If one reckons that Pakistan stands for terrorism and chaos, an image efficiently concocted by propaganda of western free media, Peshawar would definitely be the worst place to visit in Pakistan.

Well, Peshawar does have huge number of Afghan refugees (the National Geographic cover girl, for example, lives here), thanks to cold war and post-cold war; Peshawar is unsafe, with more armed police patrolling at night than pedestrians; Peshawar is highly polluted, with no blue sky nor white cloud at all; Peshawar is terribly crowded with pre-owned Jap cars, gaudy buses, fancy trucks, auto-rickshaws, horse-carts raging around; Peshawar is dusty, dirty, noisy……

None the less, Peshawar is fascinating: it’s dynamic.

I don’t like to wander around Peshawar’s narrow streets, maze-like alleys and crammed bazaars. I love it. The bazaars have a full spectrum of colors, oh excuse me, lively colors only. Imagine jewelry shops shining your way, woman fully covered behind black chador peeking you from her veil, and an old man with three goats slowly walking in front of you. This is merely a corner in this theatre of life.

More moving are Pakistanis.

Pakistanis are such hospitable people that a Japanese traveler commented that in the sense of sincerity, Pakistan vs India is like Heaven vs Inferno: The Pakistani wishes to do all he can to help you without wanting any reward, whereas the Indian wishes to get each penny out of your pocket (and your credit card as well:-) without providing any service.

Well, his “Indian” might merely refer to Indian touts.  But it’s fairly true that “Pakistani” are generally warm-hearted.

In Peshawar, I am always greeted with “Hello”, “How are you” or even “Ni Hao Ma” (Mandarin for “How are you?”). Once I told people my nationality, they would always say “China?! Our sincere friend!” I was once dragged into a cotton shop and was invited to have chai (tea with milk) with the staff. I joked that in India I would never dare to accept such offer: even if I was lucky enough not drugged or ripped off, I might end up having to pay US$100 for it. Everyone laughed gaily.

Before my departure, they asked how much my camera was. I told them it’s about US$300.

“That’s very expensive!”

“Well, it might be. But in India it only worth three cups of milk tea” 🙂

20km to the west of Peshawar is the Suleiman Range, across which the Khyber Pass locates. Its narrowest part, before widened by the British to 3m, used to accommodate only one camel to pass. Khyber Pass is famous (or infamous) because this is the watershed between Central Asia and the Subcontinent. Once cavalry from Afghanistan crossed this last barrier, the defender of South Asia was left with no chance but massacre. Alexandra the Great, Darius, Nadir Shah and Babur, to name a few, all drew through this pass to conquer north India. No wonder that Hindukush, the mountain range to the north, means “Kill the Hindu”.

I was at Khyber Pass this morning. From the Michni Checkpoint I could see Afghanistan, which is now under new order brought by the States. For a moment I had an impulse to cross the border and explore the legendary Kabul bazaar, yet the hope to return safely prevailed. I went back to the car escorted by a bodyguard and returned Peshawar.

Oh I forgot to tell you: Peshawar is an oasis in an ocean of “no law, no rule” (by my local guide) region. It is surrounded by Pashtun tribal area that 10 meters off the highway the Pakistani Law no longer exists. That’s why to visit the Khyber Pass one needs to apply for a special permit from the government and hire a bodyguard through the entire journey. In the tribal region, you can see common people walking around with AK47 on the back. Every household stay in its fort for self-protection. They all have tall watchtower with gun-holes facing each direction.

Besides car, one can also take the, give me a moment, once a month train to Khyber Pass. Legend has it that when the British India government decided to build this railway, the tribal chiefs refused the track from crossing their land until a British engineer reminded them that the train ran so slow and was therefore easy to loot.

Khyber Pass is on the so-called Durand Line, the demarcation between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Like others, such as the McCartney-MacDonald Line and the McMahon Line, it was made by the British colonist to mark the boundary of British India. Understandably, when the British arbitrarily drew these lines they tended to push it further upon traditional border so as to obtain more territory. This buried the seed of regional clashes decades later, such as the skirmish between China and India in the no man’s land alone Himalayan in 1962, when China firmly insists the traditional foothill border whereas India proudly claims the British heritage of the crest demarcation.

However, the Durand Line is more or less along the traditional border after the British attempted three times to conquer Afghanistan in 19th & 20th century but all resulted in bloody, I mean literally, massacre and fiasco. Afghanistan survived as an independent country wedging between British India and Tsar Russia during their century-long Great Game until another great game between USSR and US, better known as Cold War, started.

Whereas Afghanistan survived imperialism, I survived Peshawar’s heat, humidity, pollution, and manage to be sitting in a tiny Internet cafe, using dial-up service and basking in the happy South Asian rhythm. Tomorrow I am leaving Peshawar for even hotter, humidder and dirtier cities such as Lahore and Karachi, before I cross border to the most democratic country in Middle East, Iran, which the States would run all out to sabotage.

OK. It’s getting late and this is the end of my travel tale about Peshawar. I shall talk to you again soon.

Take care!

Wang Yi

The Rogue Nation Traveler

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