Generally, when anyone visits sleepy old Peshawar, we have no problem entertaining them. Since they are often in these backwoods in search of smuggled goods, all we have to do is to take them to the Karkhano Bazaar. Forgetting about them until the closing of the shops. When Rizzy said he was coming to Peshawar, I knew the markets were not his idea of fun. Wanting it to be a memorable trip, I wondered how to entertain him. Asking around for ideas, I soon learned of the 'shack hotels' that had mushroomed on the banks of River Sardaryab on Charsadda Road. The only item on the menu of these hotels, I was told, is the tastiest fresh, fried, river fish you ever had.

Sardaryab is one of the five rivers that flow near Charsadda, making it the most fertile area of the NWFP; and fried fish has always been available on the river banks. Early this year Mr. Ejaz Rahim, the then Chief Secretary of NWFP, made it his business to direct the concerned authorities to supply the area with electricity. Business has been booming since then, and every week more shacks sprout up, creeping ever closer to the river. Since it is only a thirty-minutes drive from Peshawar, Sardaryab has become something of a hot spot, especially on weekends;with many of the customers coming from out of town. Understandably, winter is high season for these riverside 'hotels'.

When we got there, the place was already crowded, and we found ourselves in a bit of a dilemma. The shacks lined both banks of the river, and we could not decide which side to choose. On the left bank the shacks had crept right up to the river. There were more people there, and their cars were parked next to the river. Some cars were even being diligently washed. Regular customers had brought rugs and chairs with them, adding comfort to pleasure while the children splashed around in the river. We opted for the right bank. It was less crowded. Besides, since it is on a slight incline, it gave us a panoramic view of the river. There were no garish brick and concrete structures anywhere in sight; if for no other reason but because the fishermen are too poor to afford them. The quaint shacks are an environmentalist's dream come true. They are made of wood and sugar-cane leaves, and the only furniture they boast of are two charpoys with a rickety table between them.

I was glad to see that Rizzy was totally fascinated with the place. The service was excellent. The moment we settled down the hotelier was there, asking for our preference of fish. There seemed to be quite a variety on the menu, so we asked the hotelier for his opinion. He said that Sher Mahi was the best of the boneless fish while Masher was the best variety amongst the bony fish. Besides these, he also had China fish, Malih, Singara, Rahoo, and Swati fish on the menu. The prices varied from Rs. 90 for the less popular, to Rs. 115 for the fish that were in greater demand. Some shops also stock fish from Karachi, for the customers who prefer it. After giving our order we noticed that a couple of boatmen, taking advantage of the popularity of the spot, were offering boat rides in their gaily painted boats. The names painted on the boats though, were not very imaginative, they simply said `Pleasure Boat'.

We decided to take a boat ride while waiting for lunch. This would not only help whip up a good appetite, but would also give Rizzy a chance to indulge in his passion for photography from a different angle. So off we went, with the fresh river breeze in our hair and the warm winter sun on our faces.

While passing near the left bank, we noticed that many of the cars were from out of town; and that there were a number of Iranian and Afghan families amongst the visitors. This showed that the popularity of the place has already spread beyond the narrow confines of Peshawar. After going up and down the river in the rowboat for about half an hour, we finally returned to our shack. The trip cost us a well-spent fifty rupees.

By the time we returned, lunch was ready. The fish, coated with a special masala recipe, was just right. Fried until it was crisp on the outside and lusciously juicy on the inside. We barely tasted the salad and na'an that were served with the meal. Busy doing justice to the delicious fish we dispensed with small talk until all that was left was a pile of fish bones. It had been a lovely meal, and we washed it down with a leisurely pot of Qahwa, a necessary follow-up for any meal in Peshawar. The open air meal, with none of the frills of a regular hotel, had made the outing more like a picnic and we were in no hurry to leave.

While Rizzy ran off to photograph a shepherd and his flock, I took a good looked around me. I realized then, that besides the tasty meal, half the charm of the place was its rustic air. Once larger businessmen get wind of the potential of the place, it is sure to change. Before you know it, coke cabins will be set up, concrete buildings will take the place of the shacks, and the atmosphere of Sardaryab will never be the same. We were lucky to be here before the place was 'developed'.


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