2007
12.20

2-Guide at Joulian with Stupas and Stucco BuddhasSYNOPSIS:  Nicola arrived – a bit about who she is and how I found her..  A full day at Taxila.  About Gandharen art, Buddhas and the Taliban.  About Saeed and how he makes us feel like family.
This time it was me who called out Nicola’s name, grabbed her luggage and raced her out of the crowded airport terminal into the jeep in which Saeed and Shabir were waiting.  We did not lose a beat and continued to our first cultural destination of this trip:  Taxila.
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Taxila… I can still hear the voice of my beloved professor Kane pronouncing the name:  Taxila, one of the oldest and most important Buddhist universities dating as far back as the 2nd century BC.  It was located on the trade route between India and the West.  Buddhism and many goods traveled back and forth on this road.  To be here seemed once again unreal.  Here it was Ashad, our guide, who explained the site to us.  He is a Pashtun from the Peshawar area and a scholar of archaeology.  He is also related to Saeed in some way and so is Shabir, our driver.  Both of them will accompany us for the next two weeks.  We will be in good hands.
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An exquisite, small museum was located at the heart of the Taxila area equipped with numerous Buddhist sculptures and Stupas (funerary monuments).  The style of this art is referred to as Gandharen Art.  East meets West here in a most curious way.  Alexander came this way and with him came  reportedly the artists from the Greek world.  They brought their ideas and ideals and superimposed them onto the indigenous Buddhist art which resulted in a unique synthesis:   A Buddha at times looked more like an Apollo.  🙂
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This style traveled across Afghanistan, too.  There, the most famous example of this art found its expression in the gigantic Buddha figures (125 and 175 feet tall) at the Bamiyan Valley.  They were cut into the living rock and had attracted a whole group of monks living in their vicinity.  After the Taliban blew up this monument, it became clear how fragile the survival of this art is.  Most of the remaining Gandharan art now is in the care of Pakistan.  So far so good.  But if the Taliban is gaining ground here too, then what?!
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Traffic in Pakistan is dense.  We observed shared taxis licensed for something like 8 passengers, perhaps 10.  I counted up to 19 people on a single one!  It came at no surprise that we passed an accident involving one of those colorfully painted Pakistani trucks… No use in dwelling on this.  We are putting our fate into Shabir’s trusty hands and into his driving abilities.  As we were fighting our way through congested city roads, we could see the colorful election posters which had been pinned on about every telephone pole and every house front.  Election times are tense and the battle for political power is fierce in Pakistan.  As everyone knows, it is not a good time to be in the country…
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But we had no time to think about that.  Both Nicola and I were too absorbed in the mystery of this ancient art to worry about much else.  But who is Nicola?  She is my travel companion for the next two weeks.  I found her online through Saeed, the travel agent.  She had approached him some time earlier to inquire about a trip to Pakistan, but nothing came of it.  I pleaded with her to join me on this trip – we could keep each other company, we could share costs and as it turned out we shared similar interests in the ancient civilizations.  We were even of nearly the same age!  I was  locked into my short semester break; the middle of December through the beginning of January.  Nicola was a retired police officer and could plan her time abroad freely.  What could be better?!  There was no question we would get along on this trip.  I was so relieved to hear that Nicola wanted to sit in the back of the car to stretch out her legs.  I needed the front seat next to the driver to have maximum access to anything of photographic interest.  Even that worked out.  And when Nicola opened her luggage at the end of the day and pulled out a bottle of whiskey which would  provide us with a night cap every day, I could not believe how well matched we were.  Online!  Try to do better than that among your closest friends!  🙂
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In the evening Saeed’s wife put on a fantastic dinner.  We are treated much more like family and guests than like tourists and clients.  We are so fortunate!  We met some of Saeed’s Christian friends: Albert and Clare.  Now I understand where the beer and for that matter the whiskey, Saeed drinks every night, come from.  Non-Muslims – Christians, in other words, have a contingent of alcohol per month they are allowed to purchase.  A fun little black market so develops among friends.  Lucky those who have a Christian friend.  If that is not enough there is always the real black market and access to foreigners who are able to purchase alcohol at designated hotels and stores.  Very interesting system.
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And so our first day together in this unusual adventure, went.
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Good night.