Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Five Days in Khyber-Pukhtunkhwa

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Swat was where I began my yatra of a number of archaeological sites. Hussain Qazi and I arrived in Mingora to dull grey skies and a pissing drizzle. Our dear friend Colonel Zeeshan Faisal Khan had arranged for us to put up at the Circuit House in Saidu. Or is it Mingora? The two towns on either side of the now polluted stream can only be figured out on the second day.

The Circuit House is now like a fortress to remind all and sundry of the terrible time the terrorists gave to this once beautiful and much visited valley. The windows of the first floor room that opened onto spacious terraces on all sides are now sheltered behind high walls and a tin roof so that no one can see the terrace from the surrounding mountains. The raised walls have rifleman’s openings – not real loopholes, but square openings. It was sad to see this reminder of bad times.

In the streets, other than the very obvious military presence, it seems to be like the old days. That’s Pukhtun resilience for you. Once again, even though we passed through Green Chowk, I tried hard not to think of the new name it acquired during terrorist raj: Khooni (Bloody) Chowk. But the memory of those countless innocent men and boys who were beheaded here refused to leave me. It is clear that this memory has not left the locals either. The bazaars had a markedly subdued air.

To add to the grimness, which was never the Swat character, the frequently barricaded roads and the upper storeyes of houses turned into bunkers are stark reminders that trouble is only just being held at bay. Although I did not speak to anyone on this trip, I know from my past visits, that locals no longer hold the army in any esteem. Some even out rightly blame the army for the tragedy that befell this beautiful land.

Of no help is the strict checking of all comers that the army does at one checkpoint below Malakand Pass. I have no idea how many tourists ended up in Swat before the Ramzan slump, but I do see that once these checks are removed, the traffic will dramatically increase. At the same time, I see no hope of that happening in the foreseeable future.

It cleared for a bit and the sun shone weakly. Hussain and I made a dash for Udegram. Our driver, Noor Mohammad, a Yusufzai from Mardan, arrived and we set off just as the first drops of rain began to fall. Within minutes it was deluge. And, strangely, Noor Mohammad had a peculiar thing about driving only and only in the back alleys. Though I pestered him to tell me what he hated about the main roads, he just kept smiling.

But the smile left his face when we got caught in what was an old road and a new canal. I thought we were done for and I was worried about my only pair of shoes getting soaked. I could see good old Noora also nervous as he manoeuvred his Corolla through the fast current. We fortunately made it out of the stream but since the rain continued, we aborted the trip to Udegram and returned to the Circuit House.

Item: We had agreed to his charges and when I asked him how much he wanted for the aborted journey, Noor Mohammad refused payment. That was mighty principled of this good man. In the end I had to force some money on him.

The next morning it remained as dismal as ever and I managed to escape to Peshawar.

Since the afternoon was nice with a warm sun shining and great suds of cumulous in the sky, I hired a driver to take me Takht Bahi. By the way it is not Takht e Bhai or Takht Bhai. It is Bahi or spring in Pashto. What a glorious place this is. This was a visit after twenty-eight years and I was pleasantly surprised that two new excavations had revealed additional ruins on hills adjacent to the main monastery.

Ejaz, the driver, was a Punjabi from, he said, Jhelum. But his accent was clearly Sialkoti and he said he was on the run from his creditors. He was unkempt, unwashed, unshaved, wore smelly clothes and his car was an atrocious mess. He hated being in Peshawar but the creditors were bad business in Jhelum (or Sialkot?). So he stayed.

Since he had given me a long song and dance about his lack of means to repay the loan, I asked him to drive me the next morning to Jamal Garhi and Rani Ghut as well. As we were parting for the evening, I told him to please get the car cleaned – and himself as well. And to come with a fresh suit of clothes on. The time for our departure was to be 5:30 AM.

At the appointed hour, the man was not there. I walked to the main street, grabbed a rickshaw and went to the Saddar rink where rent-a-car wallahs wait. There was only one car with a driver about my age. I told him I wanted a man from Mardan and Sarfraz said he was the one. He knew the places I wanted to visit and so off we went.

Sarfraz, a Saafi Pakhtun from a village near Charsadda, was a man remarkable. He had only six grades of education but he surprised me with his knowledge of the rule of the Kushan king Kanishka who once ruled over his part of the world. He referred to Asoka as Asoka e Azam and was reverential about Jalaluddin Khwarazm. The last because he had read the worthless work of Nasim Hijazi. Sarfraz, clearly a man without an inferiority complex, heard me out when I told him that Hijazi was no historian and Jalaluddin no great hero.

Oh, to have lived at Jamal Garhi when it thrived up on the hill! I have seen other sites of this period, but this monastery is outstanding for the quality of the construction of its buildings. Long ago, it would have been a most beautiful place. Pakhtun ancestors who raised its buildings had the finest hand in stone carving and laying. And when the city lived, how it would have hummed with the sound of chanted prayer.

Failing to find Meha Sanda (not far from Shahbaz Garhi) we returned to Peshawar. Later in the day we set out again. Now it was to Rani Ghut (The Rani’s Rock) in Buner. Past Swabi, we were guided to all the wrong roads because no one knew that the road along the canal was completely destroyed by the rains of the past three years. We trundled along the canal thronged by virtually thousands of young and old men. They dived, swam, frolicked in the water that Sarfraz said was ‘ice cold’. He did not like it that these men were ‘spoiling’ their fast by remaining submerged in water.

I was despairing about the slow journey and worried about not getting good light at Rani Ghut, but we made it in time. In 2002, it was a long walk up from the village of Naugram. Now we were able to take the car up half the way. But the high humidity and the sharp sun made it a hellish afternoon. While he had had enjoyed the sights of Jamal Garhi in the morning, Sarfraz now remained in the car. And that was just as well, because I must have sweated a litre on the way up.

Only a few years ago, Buner and this part of it were in the grip of terror. But we found friendly youngsters killing the last few hours of the fast. They were helpful when Sarfraz asked for the way up. The trio was all clean-shaven and I could not help wondering if they had been under pressure from the terrorists to let their facial hair grow. I know from some young men in Swat that the terrorists insisted everyone stop shaving.

By the way, the Pakhtun is the best guide around. He gives you exact right and left turns with approximate (generally correct) distances. However, you have to catch one man alone. If there are three, there will be three speaking simultaneously. And if a passerby happens along, he will stop and merrily join the lively chorus so that you understand nothing. God help you if you ask a group of ten men!

Since we are on the subject, Sindhis are the worst ever guides to be found on the planet Earth. They point with the left hand to turn you right and vice versa. If they are in the back seat of the car they will never, never, never, ever, despite serious admonition, say saajay (right) or khaabay (left). It will always be ‘Heday vunj, heday!’ as if they expect you to have sprouted eyes on the back of your head. ‘Furlong’ for the average Sindhi on the street is any distance from an actual furlong to 70,000 miles. And they don’t have to be country bumpkins; they can be well-educated to do this too.

On the way back we took the blacktop road from Naugram to Swabi and Mardan and the journey was a cinch.

My hopes of getting to Udegram were dashed again when I woke the next morning at 2.45 AM to make ready for the trip. Peshawar was under a thick overcast. But Sarfraz and I set out nonetheless. At 6.00, an hour and half from Peshawar, we were on the Malakand Pass. Beyond was a depressing grey landscape of thick clouds. I called Zeeshan and he confirmed that it was no good. We turned around and headed back for Peshawar.

I noted above that Sarfraz was a remarkable man. Seeing my interest in antiquity, he said there was an old Mughal bridge just outside Peshawar. So he took me out on Pandu (aka Hazarganji) Road and at Choa Gujjar turned left for Chamkani. The bridge sits across the Bara River. And what a handsome structure it is! A structure to suit the grand old Rajpatha or Royal Road that we today call the Grand Trunk Road.

It is clearly from the early part of Jahangir’s reign, or perhaps even from Akbar’s. Twelve spans wide it has eight tall mock minarets, each bracketing three spans on either side of the bridge. The minarets are topped by fluted domelets. Similar minarets rising only as high as the brink of the bridge, flank each span giving the whole a very sturdy and aesthetically pleasing appearance.

Then it was back to the Museum, easily ranking among the first two museums in Pakistan and certainly the best for its Gandhara collection. Someone surely put in a lot of love in making it what it is. There I met one priceless personality of Khyber-Pukhtunkhwa: the grand old Fidaullah Sehrai, historian, archaeologist and Gandhara expert par excellence. Into his eighties and still as bubbly as a forty year-old Mr Sehrai regaled me with stories which is the mark of the true master. Here is one person to return to again very soon.

By noon I was on the Daewoo to Rawalpindi where I had left my car. The bus ride was time to reflect. My dear young friend Ali Jan who once was the powerhouse working Sarhad Tourism Development Corporation strived hard to turn things around in the troubled province. I hear some few tourists did venture into Swat over the past two seasons, but I don’t think anyone can still go trekking around the valley as we once upon a time did.

The feeling in Khyber-Pukhtunkhwa is that terror is not going anywhere in the near future. Some even say that it is the army itself promoting it! And with army backing it, they believe, the entire country will eventually succumb to terrorist rule. To this I said, ‘Is it because they want the terrorists to take over the country so that the army can then establish its Defence Societies in Waziristan?’

The laughter of the good man that cracked the grey sky was the affirmative answer.

Postscript: As I entered the Peshawar Museum, I saw in the porch a flex sign hanging on the right side. It is official, put up by museum authority and it lists all the FOREIGNERS, I repeat, FORIEGNERS who subjugated the Afghans and ruled over their lands. This list, incidentally, coincides with my post ‘Foreign Invaders Through Afghanistan’. To all the Pakhtuns (real and phony) who went ballistic after my post went on, I say this: instead of turning blue in the face, frothing and the mouth and uttering/writing senseless rubbish, read. Read history. Become enlightened. You will realise that your behaviour only evinces a very deep-seated insecurity and immaturity. If you don’t, speak to some good psychologist and they can expand upon the reasons of this insecurity. Either you do all this or you go into the museum and destroy the flex sign that encapsulates the history of the ‘invincible’ Afghan.

Post postscript. One Zia ul Islam (obviously a Pakhtun) has this to say on my FB page: since all the invaders came through Afghanistan they became Afghans – even if they did not speak Pashto!
I rest my case.
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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 11 August 2013 at 00:30, Anonymous Kausar Bilal said...

Nice album of memories, where every memory is a vivid photo.
Thanks for sharing it.

At 11 August 2013 at 03:38, Blogger mansoor azam said...

Lovely piece, though a sprinkling of pictures would have been loved.

At 11 August 2013 at 11:00, Blogger Salman ali said...

When did u goto swat. i went there in june uptil kalam and didnt feel the security threats that you were talking about.i along with 10 friends also trekked from utrot upto Kandole lake as well. it was great to see kalam full of tourists and families were also present there as well.

At 11 August 2013 at 11:19, Blogger ssp786 said...

Thanks for bringing my memory back to the sixties when working at Mardan & visiting historical sites in this region.

At 11 August 2013 at 12:40, Blogger mxt said...


At 11 August 2013 at 14:42, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you, Kausar.
Salman Ali, through there is no apparent threat, but the remnants of the trouble are still apparent. I refer to those.
Mansoor, the images are reserved for the assignment I am working on. But will try to get one of the bridge in.
ssp786. Mardan truly is paradise for anyone seeking Gandharan history.


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Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

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Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

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Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

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