Sunday, September 05, 2004

Pakistan: Taxila - Part 2

Almost a year to the day after my first visit to Taxila, I went back to finish it up. This time, I went with my good friend Nenita.

Taxila is about a 45-minute drive from Islamabad, down the Grand Trunk Road toward Peshawar. We left late in the morning, and, as it was my car, I got to drive. Driving the GT Road rocked like it always does. Most everyone flies down this beat-up road with the pedal to the metal, but there is always a tractor or donkey cart or bus or slow motorist or broken-down truck disrupting the flow. Nothing slows traffic for long, though, thanks to a little thing called the kamikaze pass. We had a few close calls where I would complete a pass seconds before the on-coming car passed. It was like a well-choreographed Hollywood stunt sequence. And we survived, so it’s all good.

Goldie, the little Honda Civic that could, was roaring like a lion.

We left for Taxila late in the morning, and we arrived in time for lunch.

We went to the main restaurant, across from the Taxila Museum, and at the time, we were the only ones there. The staff was busy setting up a buffet. We ordered the buffet, but it had been specially ordered by a tour group that would soon be arriving. The waiter shot us down, and we ordered off the menu.

While we were waiting for our food, the tour group came in – a few bus loads of Japanese people.

Nenita, who is Filipina, was joking that she should infiltrate and partake of the buffet.

After lunch, we decided to start our tour by hitting the museum. When we walked over, though, we were informed that the museum was closed until later in the afternoon for some reason. Maybe it was for lunch break. We decided to hit the ruins and go to the museum last.

There are several archaeological sites in Taxila, and our plan was to head down the road toward the farthest site and stop at all of the sites we passed along the way.

The first site we went to, Sirkap, was one of the most popular, so the entry road was in good shape. There were some other tourists there, as well as the guy from the government checking tickets. Also present were the usual entrepreneuring locals – the guides and the hawkers who were selling supposedly authentic artifacts and coins.

A guide wormed in and started showing us some features of this site. His English was not good. At one point, he was describing a find of human bones at the site. At first I thought he was saying “bomb” instead of “bone”, so his spiel wasn’t making a whole lot of sense. I finally realized what he was saying, but a few minutes later, Nenita turned to him and asked when the site was bombed. Obviously I wasn’t the only one who couldn’t understand this guy. We brushed him off and explored the rest on our own.

Then it was off to the next site.

The roads leading to most of these sites were awful, and pretty much required 4-wheel drive and a good clearance. Goldie had neither, so it was a bit dicey at times.

I was driving up 45-degree rock slopes, through creeks, and through large crevices and troughs in the road. I was going slowly and maneuvering so as to try to keep from dragging the bottom of the car, but several times it would take a hard blow from a root or a large rock or a dip in the road. And of course, once we would finally make it to a site, we’d have to go back over the same stretch of road to get back to the main road. I spoke to Goldie as we drove so as to boost her confidence. To make things more interesting, many of the roads weren’t marked very well.

One of the hairiest drives was to the site called Mohra Moradu, a former Buddhist monastery. It was worth the trouble though. The ruins were nice and there were several young boys playing in the canal. Goats were trooping around like they owned the place. As Nenita and I were poking around, we saw a woman walk behind a small shed. Nenita asked the woman if there was anything to see back there. The woman looked sheepish and nodded that we could come over. When we went over, there were a few other women and a bunch of naked young children. I don’t know if it was bath day or if they were just trying to beat the heat. Whatever was going on, I think this woman was embarrassed – and rightly so – because she thought we wanted to gawk at them. She still accommodated us, though. We were interested in ruins or vistas, not invading peoples’ privacy, so we excused ourselves and went on to the next site.

We only skipped one site, and that was because it had a huge puddle stretching across the whole road. If we had gotten stuck there, we would have been in a pickle.

Of the rest, some were better than others. Some of the sites were purely architectural ruins like columns and such. Those were OK. The cool ones, however, were the ones with the statues.

The best one of all is the Jaulian monastery. It contains many stupas (ornate mounds said to contain relics of Buddha) and Buddhist statues. Some are originals, but most are replicas of originals now housed in the museum. To get to the Jaulian site, we had to climb probably a hundred and fifty steps. There were several goats perched around like they were guarding the place. Near the entrance of the site itself, there was a goat in a tree eating the leaves. Being tourists and city-slickers to boot, we felt obligated to stop and photograph the goat in the tree.

We toured Jaulian and on the way back to the car the hawkers swarmed on us. We sent them packing and had a few cokes in the scorching heat.

By now, it was late afternoon, so we drove back toward the museum.

As I’ve mentioned before, mirrored objects (like disco balls) are probably the most famous and unique of Taxila handicrafts. Of the mirrored objects, the disco cats are the coolest of all. They make a huge size (over 3 feet tall) and a small one (about one foot tall). Nenita and I stopped at a shop. The shopkeeper had one of the huge disco cats, and he wanted 1,500 rupees for it. Nenita told him she would give him 1000 for it. He started whining about how the heat had been keeping tourists away and how business had been slow and how it was late afternoon already so he would soon be closing for the day. It was unclear to me why he was telling us all this since it only strengthened our bargaining position. We told him that for exactly all the reasons he was complaining about, we should get the good price of 1000 (about $16.70 USD). And just like that he agreed. It was almost too easy, which led us to immediately realize we should have offered him 8 or 9 hundred. It was too late for that, so we took the cat for 1000 and loaded him in the car.

A little way down the road, we stopped at another shop since both Nenita and I wanted a huge disco cat. This time we tried going for 900 right off the bat. This guy was more resistant, so we went back to 1000. We didn’t have all afternoon to argue over 2 dollars. He still balked, so we walked. When we fired up the car, it struck him that we were actually leaving. He quickly relented, and Nenita and I each had our Taxila trophy.

The only thing left to do was hit the museum. Photography was not allowed inside. Since we were carrying cameras, they pointed this out to us specifically.

Nenita and I went through the museum, and it was fun. We both do museums pretty quickly and we were both cracking up over some of the exhibits. A group of Pakistani tourists kept staring at us.

When we had entered the museum, there was this one guard who complimented my shalwar kamiz in the usual manner, “Sir, you are looking smart in your shalwar kamiz today.” So I thanked him and we continued looking.

He came up again, asking where we were from and so forth. We had a nice mini-conversation and went back to looking. Then he tracked me around the whole museum.

He would point out things to me about statues or about things in exhibit cases. He was bordering on annoying.

At one point, he called me over to an exhibit that was in a separate room. I went inside, and the guard and I were the only people in the room. He closed the door leading back out to the main exhibit and was like, “OK, Sir, hurry – take a few pictures.” He, meanwhile, went to the door to keep watch so I could break the rules. The only problem was that there was nothing to photograph in that room. It was a room showcasing buttons and coins, neither of which I cared a lick about. Not to mention, neither would have been a very interesting photo subject. I’m not above breaking no-photo rules, per se, (without flash, of course) but it would have to be for something cool, like the Elephant Man’s skeleton, for example. But buttons? Not even close.

I thanked him for his gesture and left.

We finished up at the museum right around closing time, so we had a few sodas at the snack bar outside and hit the road.

Goldie had had a rough day, so I had an uneasy feeling when I first brought her up to highway speed. She did fine, though.

There was more road construction on the return trip, so the pace was a bit slower. It was just as dangerous, though, if not more so.

Not to worry, though. We made it home without shedding so much as a single mirror from our pair of disco cats.

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