A travel story from Peshawar

Hot steam from the large brass samovar. At the old tea house, in green-colored pots, tea is being prepared. My friend Awais and I have just arrived in Peshawar. 

Before I taste the tea, I try to get a taste of the name. Peshawar. I can’t interpret it, but it sounds distant. Exciting. Exotic. It is only afterwards that I get to know the meaning. The city of men, in ancient Sanskrit. And I guess there is something in that…

We meet our contact here. Kausar. A local guide and fixer. A friend of a fried. We agree to meet outside, in one of the streets of old town. I’m happy we both have mobile phones. With internet. For a foreigner like me, a local sim-card is invaluable. 

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2500-year-old. Layer upon layer. Of history. Town planning. Streets and building. With signs I don´t understand. I speak 5 languages. Understand a few more. I write 2 alphabets, but the Arabic alphabet in its Urdu or Pashto version (or any other version for that sake) is not one of them. The cafe is up a narrow staircase. I would not have found it without Kausar.

So here we are. Small talking about who we are and what we do. How did I end up here?. In the same city as the conqueror, Alexander the Great, and the explorer, Marco Polo. Through Peshawar travelled Babur, who later would become the first Mughal emperor. Here was a trading center. The caravan road from Kabul to Lahore and further down towards the Indian subcontinent.

So what is the answer to the question? How did I end up here? The simple answer is of course by bus. From Lahore, on my third visit to Pakistan. I’m a traveller. A tourist. 

The more complicated answer to the same question is my search for what I haven’t seen. Searching for the stories I never heard. What for me is alien, foreign and different., And therefore also alluring. I love meeting people. Of all kinds.

We agree to meet Kausar again the next day. But now time for a meal. Karahi at the restaurant Namak Mandi. Pieces of meat with bone, which have long been simmering for a long time in hot oil along with chili and tomato. 

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We sit on a large bed in the courtyard of the restaurant, with a table between us. No backrest, we can both sit and lie down. Namak Mandi is popular among the men here. There is a sweet scent in the air. Mixed with smoke from the grill and the smell from meat and spices.

I’m attracting attention. I am used to it in Pakistan. Not in the unpleasant way, that happens very seldom, but rather in the curios and friendly way.  – You have to taste this, says a man who comes to our table with a piece of bread between his fingers. It is the best bread in Peshawar!

It is now it gets a little difficult. Who is this man? On the one hand, he apparently works here. On the other hand, he is not like everyone else. He leaves our table, but comes back in a minute with another kind of bread that he gives me. His eyes at me, as if to make sure I actually eat. He points at a ring on my finger. I get explained to me that he wants it. But also that I should not give him anything. He seems insulted. Another man comes along. Tells the man with the bread that he won’t get the ring. – Disregard him, I´m sorry, but he is like that. – He doesn’t mean anything bad. It´s just the way he is. Me and my friend talk to some other people. We finish our meal, go for a small walk, and then back to our room for the night.

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At three o’clock I wake up. My stomach. This is not good. Hours pass and night becomes morning. I diagnose myself. Food poisoning. Probably the bread. Or the fingers that touched it.

I drink water. Awais brings me some pills. They work. It is now past lunchtime. We are going to meet Kausar. Later than originally planned.  And he is going to show us old Peshawar with its bazaars and the old merchant houses, the havelis.

We stroll the streets. I’m losing direction. This is what happens when you are new to a 2500 years old city and follow a local guide who knows every alley by heart. We don’t have much time. After all, I’ve been sick half the night and the whole morning. And we don’t have more than 24 hours in town. In total. So now, Kausar will show me as much as possible. We speed up. Hurrying slowly.

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Masjid Mahabat Khan. The 17th-century mosque is the only mosque in Peshawar that remains from the Mughal era. The others were destroyed by the Sikhs in the early 19th century. Through history, there have many different powers here. Behind the gates, I see the geometry and the floral patterns. We are almost alone. It is not prayer time. Kausar explains and points at things. His words go in one ear and out the other. Ok, my shape is not the best.

We continue our walk. Again hurrying slowly. Looking at the facades of the various houses. Different eras, different owners, different conditions. Stopping and talking to people. A guy sells locally made sandals. Women waiting for alms.

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I meet a journalist and a cameraman. Just by coincidence. It results in a small interview that ends up on local tv. I guess.  – What do you think of Peshawar? Can you say something beautiful about our city? Luckily, I do like it here. And I do find beauty.

Continuing. Gor Khatri means the warrior’s grave. Here, in the 17th century, there was a caravanserai, a hotel for travelers and traders, before tourism became a concept.  Archaeological excavations have shown that before the caravanserai, there was a citadel here. Findings from Greek and Buddhist times. From outside a fence, I look at the excavations.

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In the spice bazaar I learn that the dried seed capsules from the opium poppy can be boiled and turned into cough medicine. They are taken here from Afghanistan. If taken means smuggled or imported I do not know, but they are sold openly at the market. Among the teas and herbs, food and medicine. I dare not buy.

Fresh fruit, meat and cheese. Rings with various stones such as turquoise and lapis lazuli, the ultramarine blue stone that also has its origin in  Afghanistan. Carpets and fabrics. We walk up and down the narrow alleys. It is afternoon in December, so it gets dark early.

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At this point we have said goodbye to Kausar. He has shown us his hometown. Or at least parts of it. I am grateful. And sorry I got sick. 

My friend Awais is hungry. We find a place with chapli kebab. Another of Peshawar’s many specialties. Deep-fried minced beef steaks with a hearty bone marrow in the middle. Juicy, fatty and well-seasoned. Awais loves it. I can’t eat, and that saddens me. 

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I buy more medicine. Pills for my stomach. Our time in Peshawar is over, and a two hour bus ride back the way we came is waiting. Not to Lahore, but to Islamabad. From there, our plan is to travel the Karakoram Highway. 

24 hours in Peshawar have passed. There was a lot I didn’t see. Fort Bala Hisar. The archaeological Museum. More of the old havelis. More of the bazaars. All the people I didn’t meet, and everything I didn’t taste. Like the chapli. 

I guess that only means one thing. I have not only one, but many reasons to come back. As if the chaplis weren’t enough? I will be back. For sure. I hope the brass samovars will still be steaming.

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