Having completed all my visa formalities in record time (only four days when I was advised it could be 1-2 weeks) I find myself with a lot of time to fill in. So today I decided to take a daytrip to Taxila – about 35km west of Islamabad.
Taxila’s main claim to fame is that it is was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980. It contains ruins from a series of different ancient civilisations dating back to the 6th century BC Achaemenid empire of Darius. Alexander the Great then conquered Taxila in 326BC and left an astonishing legacy of Greek culture and architecture that survived for many centuries after his departure. Next in the long list of famous rulers was the Mauryan king, Ashoka, who converted to Buddhism and made Taxila the capital of a Buddhist empire that ruled most of what is now present day Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. Most of the ruins are related to successive Buddhist civilisations including Scythians, Parthians and, finally, the Kushans before they were obliterated by the so-called White Huns from Central Asia in the 6th century AD. Taxila never recovered and remained undiscovered by the Western world until the early 20th century when British archaeologists began excavating the ruins.
Taxila Museum was very well laid out and, as I was the only Westerner there, I had the luxury of my own private museum guide, Zaheer – better than an iPod and headset anyday: Zaheer could answer questions! The museum contains thousands of artefacts that had been excavated from the various sites. The ruins are actually spread out over seven main sites and a number of smaller sites covering an area of about 30 sq km.
Some of the sites, like Mohra Moradu, are 5-6km from the museum, so I hired a motorised rickshaw to take me to some of them. These rickshaws are commonly called QingQi after the Chinese manufacturer and appear to serve no other worthwhile purpose than to act as mobile chicanes in the heavy traffic in Islamabad. After spending 5 minutes in one I realised why they are such a menace on the road. With only 100cc motors and a 3-speed low range gear they couldn’t pull the skin off custard. At one stage, going up a moderately steep incline, I thought the driver was going to fry the clutch on the spot as the pathetic engine screamed to red-line while we started to roll slowly backwards down the hill. That, along with the apparent lack of any rear suspension, made the travel to the various sites a feat of endurance. The morning’s trip to the various sites had taken nearly two hours and I was happy to get back to the museum with all of my anatomy intact.
After a short break for lunch, I hired a different rickshaw, hoping that the first QingQi was just a dud. Nope! The second one was just the same. I knew that the second trip would be much shorter and less arduous but I was still relieved when we returned to the museum for the last time.
By this time, I had well and truly overdosed on ancient temples and was keen to head for my haven at the NCG back in Islamabad. As much as I had enjoyed my day out in the countryside (well, maybe not the relentless hawkers selling “genuine” artefacts for 200 rupees – about $2! Genuine – yeah, right!) I was happy to say good-bye to Taxila.
Back in friendly and familiar surroundings, I decided that a chicken curry would make a nice change from all the other chicken curries I’ve had over the last 3-4 weeks. However, I made one minor mistake. Absent-mindedly I had replied “hot”, as I usually do back home, when asked how I would like my curry. It wasn’t until after the second mouthful that I appreciated the true consequences of my error. These dishes were not toned-down versions for Western palates. These were traditional dishes and I had just ordered a “hot” version of a local dish. To say it was “hot” would be a massive understatement. It was eye-wateringly, nose-runningly, lip-blisteringly, brow-sweatingly HOT. With lots of chapatis and about a litre of water I finished my dinner and waited for the A/C to kick back in at 10pm.
And what of tomorrow? Perhaps another day-trip to the hill station town of Murree for a bit of cool weather? Or perhaps just a day slothing ’round the NCG in preparation for leaving the following day (Monday)?