The Triplegem Afghan Expedition I – Peshawar, Pakistan

The Triplegem Afghan Expedition: Peshawar

Peshawar, Pakistan

5-7 August 2005

Peshawar Street
Peshawar Street
I flew into Lahore from Bangkok late on the night of the 5th, it was raining – hot, muggy rain. I stayed at the notorious Regal Internet Hotel. It reminded me of the Paragon Hotel in Calcutta – freaks on the roof (Japanese, Scottish, German) and dorm-style accommodations. I slept on a mattress on the floor in a room with three others for 150 rupees/night. We stayed up till 3:00 a.m. smoking and talking… Most of the others were headed for Northern Pakistan and China, a couple were on the way to India. Even though these were the cutting edge of young backpackers, light-years beyond the punks who swagger around Bangkok’s Kao San Road, I was the only one crazy enough to be headed into Afghanistan.

Early on the 6th I walked over to the bank and took 40,000 rupees out of the ATM. On the way I met a guy from New Zealand who was also staying at the Regal Internet. We shared breakfast – channa dal and paratha – and talked. He was traveling to Europe and I was headed for Afghanistan. Then I caught an air-conditioned bus to Peshawar. I left Lahore at 11:00 a.m. and arrived in Peshawar at 6:00 p.m. The Grand Trunk Road – better and faster – was much improved compared to three years ago.

I checked into the Rose Hotel, in the Khyber Bazaar, and they gave me the same room as before – even the door still stuck – room 402 at 450 rupees per night. It was 100 rupees more than the last time because a tiny TV had been added to the room.

The 7th was Sunday, which is the legal holiday in ‘secular’ Pakistan, rather than the Islamic Friday, so the Afghan Consulate was closed. I walked from Saddar to the Peshawar museum – a very hot (over 40º C) walk. The Raj-era museum houses an excellent collection of Gandharan art, though it’s still hot and sweaty inside despite the thick wall and high ceilings. The fee was 100 rupees for a foreigner, only 10 for a local. They have an excellent collection of old seals and coins and several rooms devoted to ethnic crafts. Before looking at the ‘new antiques’ in the bazaars it’s always a good idea to see what the authentic pieces look like for comparison. The Lahore Museum is even better, but I wasn’t there long enough this trip.

I then walked to the Spogmay Hotel in Namak Mandi – the Salt Bazaar – and trudged up the six floors of winding marble stairs, but the metal gate to the top floors were locked. They informed me at the reception desk that my friend Attaullah was in Afghanistan. Then I strolled the backstreet bazaars and saw some nice, but very expensive, old beads. I drank a mango shake and returned to my hotel by 12:30. There I relaxed, showered and washed my clothes.

I went out again at 5:30 to buy naan and pakoras from a street stall for dinner. As I was walking, I noticed a familiar side street. I took it and discovered the Namak Mandi gem-cutting bazaar, one of several places that I had been looking for in the morning. It was half closed because it was Sunday, but I still saw some nice specimens. Vowing to return when more shops were open, I strolled back to my hotel in a very good mood. I had another mango milk shake, bought my dinner, then returned to my room. I ate and relaxed, and then came a surprise visitor. It was Ruhaullah, Attaullah’s son. He told me that he still had the killims and sozeny I had left with them to be repaired three years before. We made arrangements to meet for dinner at the Spogmay the next day.

8 August 2005
I was at the Afghan Consulate when it opened at 9:30, but they only take visa applications on Tuesdays and Thursdays. To get it you need one photo, a photocopy of the main information pages of your passport and $30 US cash. I had everything ready for the next day. I stopped at a cyber-cafe but still couldn’t get into my .mac account, so I used Hotmail – bummer! This only ever happened to me in Pakistan, both this trip and the one before. Next I returned to the Namak Mandi gem bazaar and spent 12,000 rupees on gems and specimens. When I went to the Spogmay to meet Attaullah’s son, no one was there! Weird.

I must have eaten something bad, because I woke in the middle of the night puking and shitting. I had a slight case of food poisoning – bacterial dysentery – which was the usual malady in Pakistan. I took some golden seal and homeopathic nux vomica, and went back to sleep.

9 August 2005

Peshawar Market
Peshawar Market
My stomach was better in the morning, but I sure didn’t feel like breakfast! Too woozy, too weak, but I went to the Afghani Consulate anyway. I didn’t want to wait until Thursday. Tough it out, I told myself. There were five other Westerners applying for visas. A lot more than three years before. I made friends with Stephan, a German computer engineer on his way back to Europe overland via Afghanistan and Iran. He was staying near me in the Khyber Bazaar, but at a cheaper hotel. We drank tea and talked, then I went back to the Rose to rest. In the afternoon I picked up my Afghan visa at 2:30 then went over to Chowk Yaghar, the Black market money-change area, and changed 18,000 rupees for $300 US – 60.4 rupees to the dollar. I rode an auto rickshaw to the Mall in Saddar Bazaar and tried to use the ATM at the Standard Charter Bank. It was broken, off-line in Karachi, so no more money today. Back at the Rose I hired a notorious local tourist guide/hustler in a floppy, canvas hat named Prince Mahir Ullah Khan to get my Tribal Area Permit and a taxi to the border for 1,500 rupees. I was still a bit sick and didn’t want the endless tea-drinking hours of hassle in hot Pakistani offices. If you have the money it’s a good idea to delegate the duties to a local professional. Doing it once for the experience is fine, but always doing it verges on masochism.

That evening Stephan came by with Jacque, a Vietnamese Australian, and a tall, bearded and ponytailed American guy from Florida. We talked about the trip to Afghanistan, then went out at about 9:00 p.m. to a great little side street restaurant for Kabuli pillou and green tea for dinner.

10 August 2005
After breakfast (a Pakistani omelet, naan and milk tea), I caught a three-wheeler back to Mall road in Saddar Bazaar and finally was able to use the ATM… What a relief. I took out 40,000 rupees (about $350). I walked the short distance to the Belour Plaza – the ‘Akihabara’ of Peshawar – and used the cyber-café. Finally, I could use my .mac account. I could use my Hotmail account anywhere, but the Apple account was always difficult in Pakistan. It took me two hours to catch up with five days of back email. But good news – I had my reservation at the Mustafa hotel in Kabul for a $15/night room. Three years before they had not only cost $35 for all the rooms, they had also been full. So on that trip I’d stayed in the Kabul River area at the old government hotel, the Spinzar – $20 per night. My friends John and Kim were going to fly into Kabul for their latest Wakhan trek for the Aga Khan Foundation on the 11th. That was perfect timing. That’s when I’d get there as well.

I caught an auto-rickshaw to Chowk Yadghar, where the moneychangers had their places of business. I compared prices, played them off against each other for a bit so that I could get the real exchange rate. I changed Pak rupees for $100 bills, I also changed 20,000 rupees for 16,240 Afghanis (100-123). From the moneychangers, I caught a ride to Namak Mandi and the Spogmay Hotel. I talked with a Japanese guy named Shen while I waited for Rahaullah to return. Shen had studied Urdu at Peshawar University for a while and was an old friend of theirs. We had a pleasant chat until Rahaullah returned. I arranged for the kilims and suzeny I had left three years before to be cleaned and stretched. I returned to the Rose hotel to rest during the plus 40º C (100º F) heat of the afternoon.

I arranged for the taxi for the Torkham border to leave at 8:00 a.m.

Peshawar Market Vendor
Peshawar Market Vendor
After dinner I was called down to the office to meet two foreigners who had just arrived and who were interested in traveling to Afghanistan. The guys in the office knew that I was happy to share my Afghan travel information. Molly was a 24-year-old, blond, American glassblower from the mid-west. She had already traveled extensively in Africa, especially the Sudan, a country notoriously difficult to get around in, so I didn’t think she’d have any trouble in Afghanistan. She was traveling through Central Asia solo, but she naturally hooked up with guys for companionship and protection. She had just come down from Chitral on the bus with an Irish guy. Afghanistan definitely seemed to be her idea and he was following along. They seemed like responsible, funky travelers, so I explained the easiest way to get a visa and tribal area permit, and told them what Afghan travel was like – the risks, the scenic beauty, the wonderful people. I neither encouraged them nor tried to scare them off. Just provided information so that they could weigh the dangers and make a more informed decision. I lent them the Xerox of Paul Clammer’s Afghan section of LP’s Central Asian guide. I had bought the book through Amazon, but only needed the Afghan section, more because Paul was a friend than actually requiring any of the information. I especially appreciated the small versions of the maps of the main cities. Molly made a copy and returned it to me later that night. We talked some more about what they could expect on their travels, then I turned in. Maybe we’d run into each other again in country.

Yahoo! Kabul, here I come!