May 21st: First Impressions of Peshawar, North Pakistan
Peshawar is hot. Everywhere. On its summer climb to 50 degrees, the needle's already pushing 45. Here I am in a brick room, tucked away on the rooftop floor of the Khanis Hotel. I'm reminded of the words our school physics teacher once issued in his thick Welsh accent: 'Hot Air Rises.' Mr Marten would no doubt have been delighted to see theory put into such effective practise. The walls are hot, the bed is hot, even the pillow is hot.
Rosal's picked a bad time to be ill. 'I think I'm going to be ill,' she sighs with resignation, nipping across the hot stone floor from our sauna to the bathroom. She, the squat loo and the cockroaches are soon well acquainted, as the world seems to melt around us...
Having stored our bikes in Gilgit, we've survived the gruelling 17 hour bus ordeal back to 'Pindi - just. We now have a few days to spare while our China visa is processed in Islamabad and I await the arrival of a new rear wheel - yet again Security Despatch's Paris has coordinated an emergency red cross parcel to ailing Possum. Time enough to revert to backpacker status for a side trip to Peshawar, close to the border with Afghanistan. Whisked in the unexpected cocooned luxury of an aircon Mercedes people carrier, we're unloaded into this historic, frenetic and atmospheric town.
Back on public transport, I'm missing my cycling legs but enjoying this alternative lifestyle. The motor rickshaw which flags us down is decked with bright colours and an extensive hall of mirrors. Its driver -henna beard and skullcap, pleased with his catch - gleefully calls to his friends as we tear by in a puff of smoke. Seems like our haggling skills need a little fine tuning... Cutting through the sticky, dusty afternoon air, we peer out of this cramped eggshell, racing past the solid old fort, weaving amidst throngs of men in lilac pillbox hats and the ever popular fist-length beards. All the way to our humble hotel, whose hot rooftop room we now call home.
It's dusk and we venture out to sample various vendor dinners - 'Goat's balls?' queries Rosal - washed down with fresh mango milkshakes. The tandoor oven routine, where naan life begins, always provides a fascinating side-show; dough discs expertly flipped and flapped into perfect frisbees, too hot to hold. Men, sinewed muscles showing through old torn vests, working in such stifling conditions, forever joking and smiling.
The shops are on strike in retaliation to a sales tax reform, so the streets are relaxed and quiet. Close to the border with Afghanistan, Peshawar exudes the tone of a frontier town, with its meld of races and traditions. A few chirpy Afghani kids shake my hand, but homeless women are a reminder of the refugees who have fled their war torn country.
For all the warnings of the city's conservative code, families wander the streets casually, the most we've seen since arriving in this male dominated society. The incredible hospitality that embodies this land seems particularly pronounced, here in the territory of the fiercely independent and welcoming Pashtun tribespeople. Snacks with a local trader, an invitation to an army captain's home and the omnipresent slogan: Can I do anything for you?
Sleep comes with difficulty. Before long we're driven out of our own tandoor oven into a corridor bunkbed. Our bedtime story is told by the zealous outcries of a religious sermon, emitted from outdoor loudspeakers. Azans, calling the faithful to prayer, take over at dawn. Soon, Sadar Bazaar is alive with a breakfast feeding frenzy as condensed milk bubbles in cauldrons, sesame naans puff into shape in ovens, and various mysterious delights are thrown, flicked and twisted into unusual looking feasts. Vats of oil are reheated -the not-so-secret ingredient of all nourishment in Pakistan, washed down with a healthy slug of famous Afghani green tea. Boys are sent on teapot filling missions, running amidst crowds compressed by narrow sidestreets, hemmed in by main roads heavy with technicoloured buses, windows wide open, bodies dangling out to catch any hint of a breeze.
It's still early, and already brows are beaded with sweat. Looks like it's going to be another hot day in the city...