Peshawar, Buddha & ditching the police

I’m sitting in the forest with a view on the mountains while in the distance I hear drums. For the first time in a very long time Yuri put on his sweater and I wear my hair loose without feeling too hot. 

Peshawar, off limits for tourists

A week ago we were staying at the border of Iran and Pakistan and now we are about 2.000kms north of that. It feels like ages since we crossed the border. So much has happened, of which I already wrote and you hopefully read. 

We’ve followed more than 40 different police security vehicles and we’re all the time surrounded by police until we reached Peshawar. Little did we know is that Peshawar is actually off limits for tourists. Well, tourists can visit but only with explicit invitation of the police, which we didn’t have. Nonetheless they let us enter the city and we are so happy they let us. 

Takht-i-Bahi

Takht-i-Bahi, is an Indo-Parthian archaeological site of an ancient Buddhist monastery in Mardan, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan. The site is considered among the most important relics of Buddhism in all of what was once Gandhara, and has been “exceptionally well-preserved.”

The Buddhist monastic complex of Takht-i-Bahi (Throne of Origins) was founded in the early 1st century. Owing to its location on the crest of a high hill, it escaped successive invasions and is still exceptionally well preserved.

A part of Buddha’s ashes is burried here. 

Making friends in Peshawar

We stayed at the Shelton guesthouse, a nice basic guesthouse with good food and delicious mango smoothie. For most of the day we stayed in the hotel because we had to work a bit. But at the end of the day we decided to go for a walk, even though the police told us it ain’t safe. But what’s safety? I’m sure more people get killed in car accidents than from a bombing. We actually saw an accident on the road and the truck drivers surely didn’t survive. Anyway, as always we listen to the police but do something else. So we had a walk to an Afghan restaurant where they served Afghan burgers. It’s just fries and egg rolled in naanbread. It was good though. Of course we ordered a mango smoothie to go with it. And then we met Waleed and Muneeb, two friends who were so incredibly kind to pay for our diner! Without asking or offering, they just did it. So we asked them to sit down with us and drink another mango smoothie. 

Waleed lives in Finland for five years now but came back to Pakistan for a couple of months. Muneeb works as an environmentalist. Both of them are bright and smart and we had such interesting conversations about religion, politics, environmental and humanitarian issues. But also about food, clothing and languages. As we weren’t nearly done talking we decided to meet up tomorrow for lunch. Apparently, when in Peshawar you need to eat Charsi Tikka (lamb pieces cooked in the tail and buttocks fat of that same lamb). 

So the next day Waleed and Muneeb picked us up from the hotel and we went to the one and only charsi tikka place! It’s not the only one but it’s the best one. Because they only cook it when you order it, it takes a while for it to be ready. But again we had nice talks about a lot of different things; waste management, refugees, terrorism in Pakistan. It’s fun to talk with Waleed and Muneeb because they give us a good insight in the country and we learn a lot from them. They’re also incredibly kind and hospitable. And again we weren’t done with each other so decided to visit Takht-I-bhai together. A Buddhist monastery 1.5 hours from Peshawar.

OMG, we just ditched the police!

So to get here we ditched the police that we had to follow but when we arrived at the monastery they were there waiting for us. And then we started our hike through the site with our friends and got a guide. We had so much fun and learned so much about the site. We saw the place where a little bit of Buddha’s ashes are buried. What’s not to be found are the Buddha statues that were here a long time ago. Those can be found in the British (of course 🥴) and the Peshawar museum. It would be great if some replicas would be placed here to give an idea of how it was. This special place where Buddha’s ashes are resting can only be visited by tourists. “The locals don’t respect a place like this, they would sit and stand everywhere, disrespectful”. I don’t like the distinction, even though it’s probably based on experience I have seen too many tourists (westerners like me) who disrespected a place by taking selfies in inappropriate ways. And I don’t like to be treated differently from the locals, even though that has been the case since we entered Pakistan.

The escort we got is only for tourists, the staying at the police station is only for us (and I mean not in a cell but in our car) and we don’t have to pay for the tollway. “It’s because you are our guest and we welcome you” they say. But however a guest someone is, in the Netherlands you have to pay for everything no matter where you’re from or what you’re doing there. The hospitality and kindness of Pakistanis exceeds the one of Iranians. We get tea everywhere, are waved hello by everyone and are feeling like VIP’s wherever we go. Also at the monastery. We get to see places locals have to see behind locked doors, we get information they either have to search on Google or pay extra for and in the end we get offered some tea.

I wish we would be equal and the treatment we get here would be for everyone, everywhere. But the world isn’t like that. The world is divided and the fact that everyone wants a selfie with us here because we’re tourists shows just that. We are at this incredible Machu Picchu like monastery and the men are in line to take a photo with me. With me!? I’m not special, I’m not a celebrity and I’m certainly not more interesting than Takht-I-bhai. 

Inequality is something im fighting for a long time. Whether it’s between gender, nationality or religion. The inequality gives me, because I’m white and Dutch, a privilege of visiting places locals can’t. We often hear “wow you’ve seen more of my country than I have”, which is because inequality exists. Inequality and privilege go hand in hand and I would lie if I’d say I never take advantage of it. I can wave my passport and all is good, I say I’m from The Netherlands and it opens doors, I can travel because of the inequality that my ancestors used to become wealthy. 

In Buddhism there is only equality. No lifeform is lesser than the other, no Buddhist more important than another and no person treated differently. The more East we go the more we learn from different religions. We dived deeper into Christianity, the Islam and Jewish religion. We learned about Zoro-Astrianism, Ba’ahri and Assyrians. And now we’ve entered the realm of Buddhism, Taoism and Sikh. Of Hindu’s and the Kalash.

From ancient religions to the three big modern religions. That’s the great thing about travelling, you learn so much more than from books. As Gandalf said “the world is not in your books, it’s out there.”

Visiting a Buddhist stupa

So, here at this ancient site of which only 30% is excavated at the moment we learn about Buddhism. Every student learned from one teacher in one tiny room. They meditated in a dark room so they had no distractions. Scholars lived without possessions, everything was shared and they devoted their life to Buddhism. A simple life, without worry, without stress, without greed. A simple life devoted to one cause. I know someone from The Netherlands who decided he wanted to live completely like a Buddhist. He ditched all the technology we are addicted to and instead started meditating. He let go of things that aren’t important and found his way to a stress free and devoted life. It’s a huge change and something I’m not able to do. But, living a bit more like a Buddhist wouldn’t cause any harm I guess. Living a healthy life without too much food and alcohol. Living with less possession, embracing minimalism. Listening to nature, your body and mind. I can’t wait to learn more about Buddhism and their way of life. Here and now I felt honoured to visit a holy place like this, a place Buddhists found worthy enough to spread a piece of Buddhas ashes. 

We spend three hours at the site, walking up and down the many stairs, talking and learning. The police officers were waiting below to escort us to the police station where we would stay the night. First we went to have some diner. We have Kabulu pilao (rice with raisins, greeneries and some beef). This didn’t go well with my stomach. I’m still not fully recovered from the heatstroke and can’t eat much. So, after two bites I suffered again from stomach pains. 

Time to say goodbye to Waleed and Muneeb and park Alexine at the police station. Which was safe but also a mud bath any pig would find heaven! Nonetheless we stayed here. It was freaking warm but there were so many mosquitos we were afraid to open the windows. The later it got the more ill I felt. While sweating and not knowing how to lay down it started to rain. And not just a bit of rain but so hard that a river started to appear below us. We opened the windows so the cool air could enter but soon the rain came in as well thus closing up again. At 1 I was still not asleep and felt like I had to throw up. But the river around us kept me from going to the toilet. So I just closed my eyes and thought of something that made me happy. Volleyball, mountains, Alexine, food. Ai, don’t think of food please. 

Staying at the police station a last time

At 4 I woke up to the sound of what felt like one giant mosquito just circling around my ear. Go away! I was in pain. My stomach, my head, my back. Everything was hurting, is if I was lying on a bed of needles while a sumo wrestler sat atop of me. In my head someone was surely hitting my brain with Thor’s hammer. And my stomach hurt as if an ogre squeezed it inside his hands. You can imagine I didn’t sleep much. 

This morning wasn’t my best. But we had kilometers to make. One week in Pakistan already and we haven’t seen any nature yet. Well, not without police escort. 

Never not exploring

We left the police station without saying anything. We were afraid that otherwise they would give us an escort again. “It’s not safe” they keep telling us. But as I said before; what’s safety? We can get hit by a car in our own street. We are to explore the Swat region today. Known internationally as the home of Malala (the girl who got shot in the head by the Taliban for going to school), but locally as the Switzerland of Pakistan. More about that in our next blog!

Hope you enjoy our blogs. Please do let us know 😘

Love, Milene & Yuri

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