GTR & Swat Valley

Our first trip outside Islamabad was also one of the best we ever did, in fact second only to the Karakoram roadtrip. We joined close to 20 teachers and their families on a special group tour to Swat Valley in the Northwest Frontier Province. I’m glad we did because this took place during the weekend before the devastating earthquake of October 2005.

Walji Tours, the largest and oldest tour company in Pakistan, provided two mini-buses. This allowed everyone plenty of leg room and extra seats for our snacks, picnic coolers, and bags. Our thoughtful superintendent added a security van in case of emergencies.

We took the historic Grand Trunk Road — one of Asia’s oldest and longest, when it linked Bengal (Bangladesh) and India — and made our first stop at the monument just an hour away from Islamabad.

Of course now the GTR is a modern four-lane paved highway that is busy with all kinds of traffic: from cars and vans, tricycles and trucks, to horse and donkey carts.

We passed several markets and villages, and quickly noticed that the few women on the streets were completely covered with dupattas. Even young girls in school uniforms covered their faces. Those who didn’t still refused to be photographed. We also noticed that the boys, on the other hand, were friendly and eager to have their pictures taken. Some were curious and bold enough to talk to us and follow us around when we got off near Shabaz Garhi to look at edicts of Mauryan King Asoka (304-232 BC), which were carved on boulders.

Notable places that we checked out include the Tomb of the Unknown Dancer on the middle of the highway in Attock, the Indus River, and the ruins of the Takht-i-Bhai Buddhist monastery, also a UNESCO World Heritage site.

From there we went up the dusty, narrow Malakand Pass. At times we cringed when we thought there was not enough room for our bus and the trucks that came in both directions. The road kept winding up. This site is famous for the fierce battles between the British and tribesmen. Winston Churchill covered one of the uprisings as a young reporter. Here’s our photo of “Churchill’s Picket.” We stopped to admire the view from the top of mountains.

It was already evening when we finally arrived in the city of Mingora and checked in the Rock City Hotel. It is one of the nicest, cleanest hotels we’ve ever stayed at in Pakistan. Their rates were very reasonable, too. Everyone were impressed that the hotel overlooks the beautiful Swat River. The next morning we all walked down the river and crossed it on a quaint trolleys.

We also visited the market in Mingora and the White Palace, built by the first king of Swat. It is a hotel now and we ended up buying a lot of overpriced souvenirs at the shops there. Our last stop before making the trip home was the emporium of Swati furniture and Silk Trade antiques. Our companions bought some cabinets, tables and chairs. Being new to Pakistan we decided to just admire and observe. Our best souvenirs turned out to be the photos of people, buildings, merchandise, and different modes of transportation.

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