Crossing the Indus Valley towards Peshawar.

Young man in a bakery, Peshawar.

My journey along the Grand Truck Road, the legendary route linking Delhi with Kabul, had filled me with such bittersweet emotions.

I had travelled along a section of this road many years before but much further east. Back then I was deeply in love, back then I looked to the world with an almost childlike fascination as those in love so often do. I felt safe I guess you could say.

Many years have passed since then as I travel the road of emperors once more. Since then my eyes have absorbed many mountain ranges, rivers and valleys and I have changed beyond recognition,. Those type of changes on the scale of the melting of polar ice caps, tsunami, drought and fire and now within me the first sign of life once more, a resilient wildflower clinging onto the cracked surface of a barren cliff face, fearless and sure, as the sun rises from the horizon once more.

The custom official seemed concerned about my safety when he found out I was entering Pakistan alone. I must admit I had to look away and had a little giggle to myself, if only he knew. Living in northern Africa i’m often “invited” into the offices of security officials for polite conversation. I think this is partly due for my security but more so I think they are just curious as to why a woman would be travelling through such fly ridden towns. I think they see me as a lady from the Victorian era, gloves, smelling salts and all.

Old man in winter clothes. Peshawar.

I instantly loved Peshawar because it filled me with a “maybe I have bit off too much than I can chew” kind of feeling. I love that kind of feeling. I love extremes whether good or bad, I love challenges, they make me feel alive. I can’t sit in boring cafe’s in New York and London anymore, I just can’t.

Peshawar is the last city before reaching the border with Afghanistan and has a frenetic frontier town kind of feel to it. I found it invigorating that I was so close to Afghanistan. I feel the great explorers and my idols Freya Stark and Isabelle Eberhardt would be proud.

It was approaching nightfall as I checked into my hotel. After my long day crossing Pakistan ideally I should have rested but the infectious energy of the city had already gotten to me. A Pakistani English language channel was showing breaking news of an “incident” unfolding and I realised it was the city I was in.

Within my first few minutes exploring the city I found myself crossing a bridge looking out to a fading pink sunset choked by smog and dust when suddenly an elegantly dressed man started talking to me. I could tell he was highly educated from the way he spoke and the words he used. I remember asking him where I could buy reading glasses and he said he would show me. That was the beginning of The Magical Night.

Peshawari street scene.
Old Mosque near Yagdar Square.
Streets of Peshawar.

After buying reading glasses the man asked if I would like to see the shrine of a revered holy man nearby. I didn’t so much as want to see the shrine but rather to listen to his eloquent almost 1950’s British Broadcasting Corporation English so I agreed to walk with him. I could hear the traffic of the main road fade as we walked further into Old Peshawar, it’s empty lanes overlooked by intricate wooden balconies, lit by many lanterns, a myriad of color, the cold earthy smell of buildings and of the hot spicy foods cooking within. In those hushed lanes I just remember thinking everything was so old and so precious and so very beautiful.

At first glance I thought Peshawar as a man’s city, on a frontier, tough and ready for anything, afterall there were men on the backs of trucks everywhere carrying guns and rifles, but now here at night, in it’s maze I realised the city was feminine and mysterious, a great lady and I felt as if the elegant man walking with me was merely an envoy sent to collect me.

On arrival in Peshawar I had been aware I might never meet the women of this city as they are concealed under burkas, a large blanket like covering with only a mesh of fabric where the eyes can see out. This had saddened me as I wanted so badly to talk with them but due to their dress found them unapproachable. Now walking at night I could feel their presence, the presence of women. It felt as if there were thousands of them, whispering behind their mashrabiya screens, lovingly showing me and welcoming me to their small but magical city. I was on my way for an audience with Peshawar itself.

I think this man is carrying a typewriter on his head.
Old Peshawar.

Through the maze I was led up some broken stairs, covered in dried out candle wax, flower petals and broken decorations, the same as you might use to decorate a Christmas tree. I was told the shrine was of a man who had lived there and afterwards we said a small prayer. Early evening was underway and many people in the residental neighbourhood were out. I was then led further into the maze where I was introduced to some men and children sitting in a shop. I drank tea with them and ate cube shaped sweets which tasted like candy floss. I was introduced to alot of people sitting there. They shouted a name and a woman came over to say hello. Unlike the other women she was wearing jeans and a t-shirt and the men were referring to her as “he” and “him”. I waa later told that the woman was a transvestite and much loved in the neighbourhood but I was left with a lingering feeling that the men were taking advantage of her and she seemed in a way a victim of her predicament.

That friendly first night set the scene for the rest of my stay in Peshawar. The city doesn’t have cafe’s like Starbucks so when tired I would normally find a shopkeeper who spoke English,, preferably an older man for my safety and would notify them that I would like tea. I quickly learned so much of the city and life in Pakistan just by doing this. My number one tip for Peshawar is just to sit with a shopkeeper and drink tea and talk.

Peshawar was intense. I remember walking along one very crowded street crammed with shops, spices, cheap electrical goods from China, and beggars when turning I saw an elderly caucasian man sitting on the back of a motorbike. He was the first and only caucasian I saw in Peshawar and to be honest he looked a bit shell shocked and bewildered. I don’t know what he must have thought of me walking alone through such a place but he spoke and he told me he was Canadian. We both nervously agreed that Peshawar in all it’s chaos was fabulous.

There was always an underlyimg sense of imminent danger though. One night I was having the time of my life, ofcourse I had no idea where I was but a large crowd of excited men had gathered around me talking. At that point two militia looking men in red combat style uniforms, I think it said IFEA or something on them approached me carrying some serious weapons. These were not policemen at all. They asked me where my security team was and I told them I travel solo and that’s the way I want it. They then almost bundled me into the back of a taxi and were speaking to the taxi driver so sternly telling him the name of my hotel. The militia even followed the taxi for a while on motorbikes, I guess to make sure I didn’t try and make a quick exit.

Meat being delivered to the butcher shop.

One night I found myself in a school giving an English lesson and was even amazed to be able to chat with a student in Dutch as he had lived in Belgium for sometime. Another time I turned up at the Peshawar Museum to view their world renowned collection of Gandharan art only to find the museum was closed. I spoke to a doorman and imagine my surprise when he let me in. Imagine that at the MOMA, Louvre or Tate. Switching the lights on and having a huge museum all to yourself.

My English students.
At the local bakery.
Street Scene Peshawar.
Boy delivering tea.

I have been to a number of cities in Pakistan but Peshawar, even with it’s sense of danger was by far my favorite. I found out that the people are Pashtun and they live in this region but also across the border in Afghanistan. They are famous for their hospitality. Even the manager of my hotel had (strangely) remarked that I reminded him of a young Prince William (I think he was trying to say classy) and if I ever return to Peshawar he will buy me gold and dresses. This was just a small talk type of conversation when passing him in the hotel!

I might well return to Peshawar one day, but not for dresses or gold but rather just to sit with a shopkeeper again and talk about life while drinking that incredible Peshawari tea.


The Ghost at the Mirror Pavilion.

My time in Lahore was drawing to a close and I knew I had to return to the Emperor’s fort just one last time. The Mirror Pavilion a place of serene melancholy, built during the reign of Shah Jahan. The Shah was born in this very fort in 1592, the son of Jahangir. Shah Jahan would later commision the world’s most beautiful building, the Taj Mahal in 1631.

During my life there have been certain places, town squares and buildings that I have been, for some inexplicable reason, drawn to. I would return to these places and stay for many hours in reflection often wondering to myself why it was so hard to leave.

In Milan it was the cloister of Santa Maria della Grazie, in Bucharest the Romanian Patriarchal Cathedral, in Vrindavan a stretch of the Yamuna River near the Laksmirani Kunja temple where I would try to catch the reflection of the moon in it’s waters at night.

In this romantic city of high drama and quiet reflection for me it was the Pavilion of Mirrors within Lahore Fort that would not let me go. There was just something so hauntingly beautiful about this building, it’s silent distress heartbreaking in it’s own way. The sunlight trapped behind black clouds that were crossing the plains of the Punjab would now and again elongate the building’s shadows, shadows that have been confined here for centuries, and the rain, the rain like a million teardrops, the teardrops that must have been shed here throughout the centuries.

Now and again a tourist would pass through or the occasional school group but for the most part I was alone. After much pondering I concluded the people passing through were on tight schedules or just caught up in modern living. They were passing through, making selfies and looking at the pavilion, but actually I feel they never saw it at all, their time too brief to ever having been there in the first place.

I was in Lahore to honour my mother, we had a magical connection to this city, a distant city that we had never visited. The first time I realised that our world was beautiful, that life was beautiful, that my mother was beautiful was trudging through the snow one night as a four year old and her crouching down beside me and pointing telling me to look at the night sky for there was a falling star to behold.

I remember many years later seeing a clip of a man setting fire to newspapers just through sheer willpower, holding his palms above the paper until it ignited. There is so much of the metaphysical realm we do not understand. I feel that mirrors have, at times, the capability to capture energy.

Once while rummaging through an antique shop in Amsterdam I caught sight of my reflection in an old mirror and in angst fled the store for I knew within every part of my being that that mirror had witnessed something so evil, so cruel, that to this day the energy was still caught there.

As the tourists passed through and left again my eyes would wander across the old kangal murals, painted onto it’s walls during another era, it’s gold leaf portraying the magnificence of days gone by, of emperors and kings, of dancing girls and elephants, all those who must have passed through. I had visions of sultry nights of long ago, the palace lit in the moonlight as the string music from sitars drifted through it’s halls, the love stories and betrayals, births and deaths, whole life spans passing infront of the mirrored glass.

There is one room within the pavilion, it is away off to the side, rather forgotten and very dark. In weak light I remember looking into the mirrors within that room, looking at my reflection and trying to look beyond the glass, trying as hard as I could to see into another world but there was nothing there, just my lonely reflection standing in an old palace, just another person with their tragic story, just another future ghost.

Feeling dejected at least I still had the beauty of Lahore and what it had given to my soul, a sense of closure, at peace now with the memory of my mother.

I don’t know why but I took out my phone, the light of the screen capturing my face in the dark room. I noticed the light from the phone screen reflected in the mirrors beside me. Feeling rather silly I switched on the phone’s torch and pointed it to the celing and that’s when I started to cry for infront of me it seemed like a thousand twinkling stars all lit up and as I moved the phone to an angle it made the stars move, as if they were falling, a thousand falling stars in the night sky.

As with the pavilion the murals are in a state of disrepair, here are a few of my favorite one’s I was able to photograph, here are the other ghosts of the Mirror Pavilion:

Shot to death in Lahore.

Men infront of Badshahi

It seems I have crossed a vast ocean, maybe I have crossed time itself. I find myself living in northern Africa now. I, infact, have lived here for years, in a world I no longer recognise, in a world I no longer understand, within a person I almost no longer know.

My memories are like rocks on this ocean, islands, the summits of an endless mountain range that stands submerged somewhere within me. Those memories are the landmarks of my life that I cling to when the currents seem to want to pull me under.

On one of those islands I remember a far off city called Lahore, I remember being four or five years old, the snowy nights. I try to recall my mother’s voice on those nights as she read to me about this exotic city, about a boy called Kim who lived there, the books of Rudyard Kipling.

The Imperial City

It has been many years, decades infact since my mother, in torment, so brutally left this world and my memories of her seem to fade more as the years progress. I have never forgotten those nights though, they are still vivid, how beautiful she had seemed. I have never forgotten about that magical, faraway city called Lahore.

The reactions were always the same when I told people I was travelling to Pakistan. Worry, suspicion, drama. I would often hear “…..but no one goes to Pakistan”. I could only reply “for the mountains!” and that seemed to quieten them. Yes, it is true, it was for the mountains indeed but not the Himalaya, it was for other peaks far greater than them.

Inside Badshahi Mosque at night.

“Towards the Land of the Giants” I thought as I swept in from the Gulf of Oman, the mountains of Beluchistan like huge steps, climbing upwards across distressed patchworks of yellow and gold.

I remember when I arrived in Delhi in 2009 the utter shock I felt being out of my comfort zone. My life before that had been a series of beautiful hotels, restaurants and museums in what was supposed to be the greatest cities of the world. To see dead animals – and even a dead man – lying on the street had for me been highly upsetting. I think living in Africa now has changed me in alot of ways. Driving into Lahore late afternoon, the vibrant, noisy streets and life, the chaos and endless car horns framed in a gentle fading sun, felt no different from my daily African life and I guess you could say I was in my element.

The shadows in Shalimar

They say that Lahore is the most polluted city on Earth but to me it was, to put it simply, beautiful. Walking through the old gardens of the Mughal emperors early in the morning was very moving. To experience shinrin-yoku (forest bathing), to smell the flowers and soil and hear nature was unbelievably soothing.

Shalimar early morning

I found myself alone in what seemed like a flooded section of the gardens, dense with trees and quite dark where birds were swooping down from the branches, their reflections in the water. It was rather sensational and dramatic, a precious gift from the natural world. If I had to make an ukiyo-e print of an experience in my life it could be that very moment.

Zamzammah – Kim’s cannon from Rudyard Kipling’s book “Kim”

Rudyard Kipling called Lahore “The City of Dreadful Night” having spent his days along it’s dark alleyways, brothels and opium dens but to me the city was majestic, far more than Delhi or Isfahan. I feel that Lahore had been a city that reached it’s zenith away back in time.

Inside the Lahore Museum where Kipling’s father was curator, the locals call it “Ajaib-Gher” The Wonder House

I have many moments in Lahore that I will never forget, some good and some bad. Walking through the gardens of Jahangir’s mausoleum and admiring it’s impressive architecture a police constable insisted he walk with me “for my own safety” and even though a few times I told him i’m perfectly safe by myself he would not leave me alone often asking if he could come to my hotel. It became so unbearable I had to leave the mausoleum just to get away from him.

Jahangir’s Mausoleum

I was in a deeply reflective state while I was in Lahore and to be honest I didn’t want to talk to anyone at all. I wanted to enjoy the memories of my mother, it was because of her that I was in Lahore in the first place.

One day I wanted to observe the light and shadows across Badshahi Mosque as the hours progressed, instead I was harrassed hundreds of times for selfies. sometimes by large groups. I would gladly make photos but after hours of this it became unbearable, some people were so disrespectful or would just make them anyway. After a while their camera’s seemed like weapons, shot to death by camera lens indeed. If you ever see someone famous please just let them be.

I could not refect as deep as I wanted that day because of those interruptions but I do vaguely remember the great mosque in changing light until after nightfall when it’s domes seemed suspended, I felt they were like moons and I almost could touch them.

Badshahi in fading light
Almost Night

Walking under Delhi gate and along crowded lanes, through elaborately painted hammams and past exotic spices, colorful mosques like jewellery boxes, laughing children and the curious elderly where every man would stare, the scruffy street dog staring at the butcher shop and me going in and buying it breakfast, smiling boys driving my rickshaws and taxi’s, strange delicious sugary sweets and burning hot parantha, puppet shows, milky tea – actually the best tea in the world , the skylines of emperors and kings and through it all memories of my beloved mother whom I felt in some way was with me spiritually.

Inside Wazir Khan

Lahore, millions of people have passed through your streets across hundreds of years and i’am just another one of them with just another story, but like you, I also have a history that is bittersweet and just like you, I continue to survive through it all.