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Following a shepherd through a high-altitude pasture, known as banda, in Upper Dir | Photos by the writer
Following a shepherd through a high-altitude pasture, known as banda, in Upper Dir | Photos by the writer

As I approached the outskirts of Peshawar, I contemplated two conflicting thoughts. On the one hand were stories told by two men — one 60 and the other 70 years old — back home in Australia, describing the Pakistan of the 1970s, a major stop on the so-called Hippie Trail, a popular travel route from England to India mainly through Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. They talked about the pervasive scent of kahwa wafting through the alleyways of Peshawar’s old city and the sheer myriad of goods for sale, exchanged in a hive of activity. On the other hand, were the articles that I had seen around five years ago, describing Peshawar as one of the most dangerous cities on earth.

As I stepped down from the bus, I was instantly swarmed by drivers offering to take me to various places in the city. They were speaking Dari amongst themselves and switched to Persian, transforming me from a mere potential customer to one that aroused their utmost curiosity. As I sat sweating in the sun sipping chai with two of the men, one solemnly told me that he had to go back to Afghanistan the following week. From his dejected tone, it was clear that it was not a decision of choice. He had come to Pakistan in his youth and had lived in Peshawar for the last 19 years — his roots across the border had been diminished to ashes by Afghanistan’s turbulent past.

The dichotomy between the romanticism of the city’s past and recent violence hardly played on my mind in the city itself. There had been an attack on the Frontier Corps the morning I arrived, but my friends in the city had told me that they had lived their whole lives in Peshawar without witnessing or feeling the resonances of an act of terror. Other dichotomies were much more evident to me, most notably the divide between the rich and the poor, and the liberal and the conservative. Men dominated the streets but sometimes I saw women in burqas passing by, some talking into their latest iPhones, some dressed in Western clothes. The friends I spent time with were well-educated and lived in an affluent area of the military cantonment. In contrast, I also met people who were working in incredibly hot and dirty conditions. In the alleyway outside the cantonment, heroin was being smoked openly.

A foreigner takes a low-budget tour of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in the footsteps of hippies who visited the region in the ’60s and ’70s

Everywhere I went, I was received by the renowned Pakhtun mehman nawazi, or hospitality. Two doctors on their lunch break invited me to sit with them in one of the small tea shops which characterise the old city, both repeatedly saying in fluent English how honoured they were that I had chosen to come to Peshawar. “We see very few foreigners, but you are safe and welcome here.” The only evident scars of the widely-reported attacks several years back were in their reflections, claiming that such tea shops were once more abundant but had gradually shut down. The city itself is alive with activity, colours and smells, my perceptions as a short-term visitor were unperturbed by the stigma of the attacks which ravaged these very streets.

A soldier poses for a photo at a checkpoint on Lowari Top
A soldier poses for a photo at a checkpoint on Lowari Top

I had entered Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) two weeks before via the Shandur Pass from Gilgit-Baltistan, spending most of my time in the mountains and small towns. The roads in the north are spectacular, the road to Chitral an unsealed marvel of engineering benched into the dusty and steep slopes of the Hindu Kush mountains, presided over by craggy massifs of snow and ice. In the ravines below gush torrents of water of incredible volume, fed by the glaciers high above.

I passed through Chitral quite quickly, taking a shared taxi south and up towards the valleys of the Kalash which fan out from the Afghan border. In Ayun, we stopped to pick up a local man who squeezed in next to me. “Salaam alaikum” I said, extending my hand in greeting. He took it, but blurted out “ish baater,” the Kalash equivalent, in correction. As I was thrown side to side climbing into the mountains at a crawling pace, I could see girls dressed in the traditional, brightly-coloured clothes, walking home from school.

Upon arriving in Rumbur Valley, I was immediately escorted to the local checkpoints to sign the obligatory log books to which I had become thoroughly accustomed to by now. I was offered chai and assigned armed security for the duration of my stay in the valleys. The policeman was around my age and we got on well despite being incapable of exchanging more than a few words in a language intelligible to both of us. For three days we travelled around by bike, the barrel of his Kalashnikov constantly bruising my leg with every bump in the road, exploring villages and temples, and eating with members of his family. In the context of its surroundings the existence of Kalash culture astonished me: a small pocket of paganism and associated traditions entirely encompassed by Islamic Pakhtun regions.

The tales of the fabled Hippie Trail which provided my first, albeit vague, taste of Pakistan have vanished, killed by conflict and the associated closure of borders. This being said, the charm which once left travellers intoxicated remains today.

Travelling southward I was held at an army checkpoint for three hours on the Dir side of Lowari Top. While this may have been unpleasant elsewhere, it certainly wasn’t the case here. I was offered chai and some of the army personnel asked for selfies and wanted to be added on Facebook. Social media culture in Pakistan is very different. Everyone I met, even in the most transitory of settings, wanted to be my friend. In Australia we usually don’t add strangers, so getting messages every day or two that say, “Hello dear, how are you?” is quite unusual for us.

A magnificent Buddha keeps watch over the lower reaches of Swat
A magnificent Buddha keeps watch over the lower reaches of Swat

In Swat, I travelled with my friend Ihsan. As we walked through rice paddies and farms on the outskirts of Mingora, he told me that his role in countering Talibanisation that had plagued the valley is bringing in foreigners. As we approached the top of the hill, a Buddha sat towering above us, carved into the orange granite edifice, glowing orange in the twilight. In many ways, it is one of the most beautiful pieces of artwork I have seen. Not beautiful solely due to its carving and setting, but the history which it whispered. During the Taliban era, insurgents attempted to blow it up. However, they only succeeded in destroying a fraction of its face. Now that peace has returned to the valley, the face of the Buddha has been restored, once again it keeps watch over the patchwork of rice paddies below.

We planned to head into the mountains west of Kalam; however, a tribal land dispute was currently being resolved with guns, forcing us to adjust our plans. Ihsan taught me to ride a motorbike on a quiet Mingora backstreet and then it was straight into traffic, weaving carts, pedestrians and crazy motorists, sometimes stalling in awkward situations and struggling to quickly get moving again. As we left Mingora and followed the Panjkora River northward, I gradually got used to the bike and a feel for the intimidating chaos which is Pakistani roads.

We were headed for Upper Dir, a region that some of my friends from Punjab strongly advised that I don’t visit. The remote areas had not yet been declared clear of the Taliban and as such I took advice from friends and chose to keep a low profile. The return of domestic tourism and everything else I found suggested that the area was safe, but I wanted to be as sure as possible.

Education in the area may be low and it may be more volatile than other places, but at no stage did I feel that the Kohistanis we interacted with were the savages some alleged them to be. We were accommodated in both mosques and homes, fed and made comfortable. I knew that I should be careful, especially with taking photos when women are anywhere in sight, but because I acted modestly and was aware of the local customs I never felt uncomfortable.

We spent five days exploring Upper Dir on motorbikes and on foot, culminating with an ascent of Chambargahai (5,001m), a huge rock peak towering over an extensive banda, a local word for high-altitude pasture. The shepherds accommodated us in simple rock dwellings and gave us food, along with sharing stories about goats straying towards the top of the peaks and people going to the top to retrieve them. We had very little information and had to rely on assessing the land and the rock features as we went to find a route to the top. I was unsure if it was possible right until the final 100 metres. Standing on the summit felt surreal, with the Kohistan districts of Dir laid out on one side and Swat on the other, clouds swirling beneath and two eagles soaring playfully amongst their fluffy masses.

Kalash girls stand by a stream in Rumbur Valley
Kalash girls stand by a stream in Rumbur Valley

The tales of the fabled Hippie Trail which provided my first, albeit vague, taste of Pakistan have vanished, killed by conflict and the associated closure of borders. This being said, the charm which once left travellers intoxicated remains today. The conflicts of the near past do not stand to extinguish Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s majestic landscape, nor the warm and unconditional mehman nawazi of its people, nor the rich traditions and history which lured travellers more than four decades before me.

mjdalessandro@hotmail.com Australian

Published in Dawn, EOS, June 15th, 2018

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