ONLINE ONLY: 24 Hours in Peshawar

The historic city in Pakistan’s North West Frontier — home to the Smugglers’ bazaar, Khyber Pass and Grand Trunk Road — is seeing its rich culture eroded by religious fundamentalism

Features Pakistan
Smugglers' bazaar: The Karkhano market in Peshawar, on the Grand Trunk Road

Pakistani friends in Lahore and a Western diplomat in Islamabad warned me against visiting Peshawar, the rough and tumble capital of what was long known as the North West Frontier Province but has been renamed Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. A friend living in the area told me that of course I should come. Bombs do go off here, she said, as they do in other places in Pakistan and elsewhere but it would be sheer bad luck to get caught by one. 

I was actually more worried by the spectre of kidnapping. The papers here in Pakistan have been full of kidnapping stories including those of a police inspector abducted in Islamabad (his captors mistook him for a non-Muslim according to press reports, but decided not to murder him after all once they realised he was of the faith) and the son-in-law of a former army chief of staff. Both are being held in Northern Waziristan pending payment of ransom.

But my friend who has run an NGO in the province for many years and whose staff have their ear to the ground in the city, laughed at my hesitation. So I put my trust in her and their judgment, and took a flight from Karachi, having first put on a local shalwar kameez to try and be a little less conspicuous. (Not that the latter made much difference. I still stood out on the plane as the only foreigner and the only man without a beard. Indeed it felt like the entire plane stared at me in astonishment as they walked past my seat.)

The two hour flight took us from Pakistan’s largest city over a vast and mostly uninhabited dry and mountainous wasteland. As the jet finally approached Peshawar and the surprisingly green farms that radiate from it, the frontier capital looked peaceful enough.

But as the Airbus banked in the direction of the airfield from which Gary Powers began his ill-fated U-2 flight over the USSR back in 1960, the plane neared a strange dark cloud amid scattered fluffy white ones. The black cloud grew bigger and bigger and turned out to have a tail — a funnel of smoke heading down thousands of feet to the ground.

An hour or so after I had landed it became clear what the smoke was from. It was dusk by then and my hosts and I were heading out of Peshawar city on our way to the famous Karkhano market — what the guidebooks used to call the smugglers’ bazaar.

The Kharkano market is on the Grand Trunk Road, the fabled highway to the Khyber Pass (it actually runs all the way from Dhaka to Kabul).  Indeed the Karkhano is the main stopping place between Peshawar and the Pass, and in its weird anarchic way probably the most important retail destination for more than a thousand miles in any direction.

As all readers of the vast literature of the North West Frontier know, it has been the case for more than a century that the writ of the central government applies only to the main road once you have left Peshawar and entered tribal territory. Therefore everything you buy at the smugglers’ bazaar is tax and duty free — and significantly cheaper than in Pakistan proper, whose government is heavily reliant on exise duties for its income. Moreover, because smuggling is so important to the local economy, the Smugglers Bazaar is apparently safe, even for the odd obviously foreign visitor like myself.

On the drive to the market we passed the vast open plain where the refugee camps once stood. The rough flat land now hosts hundreds of games of cricket. The only structure still standing is a roadside workshop making rough-hewn coffins.

On the other side of the highway is one of the more bizarre sights of the region: a score or more of large plant nurseries, each one fronted by rows of pots. The wild men of Peshawar and the Frontier are, it seems, fanatical gardeners.

As the traffic thickened on the way to the bazaar, (Peshawar, despite Pakistan’s economic travails sees several thousand new cars a month added to its already busy roads), so did the haze in the air. Then the traffic, much of it heavy-laden, garishly decorated heavy trucks headed for the Afghan border, ground to a halt as an antiquated-looking fire truck came racing down the other side of the road.

Police vehicles with flashing lights hurtled down the sideroads into the haze before us, and my hosts, acting on instinct honed by years of living in Peshawar decided it might be best to return to the city. Before we could turn around, a policeman directing traffic explained that an oil tanker had been blown up right next to the Karkhano bazaar and that the explosion had set three others ablaze, causing subsequent explosions. Several stores had also been destroyed.

We heard later from a friend with a friend in the internal security agency  that the initial explosion had not been a mine or an IED. The bomb had somehow been planted on the tanker between here and the port in Karachi. It was not clear if the vehicle’s cargo was indeed fuel intended for US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, though this road is the allies’ main supply route, and apparently the Afghan Taliban and its local counterpart simply assume that any fueler coming this way is part of the allied logistics effort…

It was dark and dinner time by the time we arrived in Peshawar’s leafy and relatively secure University Town district, where local gossip has it that the US military contractor/mercenary outfit Blackwater/Xe has rented a villa. Back in the old days I would have gone to one of the city’s excellent barbecue restaurants or the Chinese one that was only place in town where you could see women serving food. Instead of that or making our way to the American Club — which I remember from the 1990s as serving the best and only bacon cheeseburger for many hundreds of miles in any direction — we dined at home amid the gloom of one of the power cuts that are a fact of life everywhere in Pakistan.

It was a quiet night, at least until the early hours when there was a distant bang and the sound of sirens. In the morning the news said that a police checkpoint on the outskirts of town had been blown up and another machine-gunned. It is impossible to know if the attacks had a political/terrorist content or were related to crime and the drugs trade.

But besides that distant bang, and predictably heavy security at the airport where the striking staff of the national airline were holding a noisy demonstration, and from which Pakistan Air Force Mirages went roaring off to the frontier, I did not get a vivid sense of a city under siege. There were plenty of people — well men anyway — shopping in the bazaars and markets and mini-malls, and the police and paramilitary presence did not seem much more intense than that in other Pakistani cities — and was certainly not as overwhelming as the Indian security presence in Kashmir’s Srinagar.

There is no question of course that Peshawar has seen its share of deadly attacks on foreign interests. A combined suicide bomb and ground assault on the US consulate there in April last year killed six people, and the Pearl Continental, the only five-star hotel in the city and a focus of expat life suffered a similar attack in June 2009. The latter horror prompted the UN to withdraw its staff from the city.

On the other hand, my own connections in Peshawar have always assured me that some of the more melodramatic reports, such as one well-known magazine reporter’s 2008 claim the city was a “war zone” with trucks full of Taliban fighters openly tooling around town were simply false.

This would make sense given that it is forbidden to carry weapons openly in the city and that the Pakistani government has the capacity to enforce that ban in the form of the 60,000 strong 11th Army Corps and the Frontier Corps both of which are headquartered in the city.

I first came to Peshawar in 1994. In those days there were still vast refugee camps full of Afghans between the city and the Khyber Pass but it was a safe place to visit as long as you respected the somewhat strict local norms.

I remember how the driver of a taxi I took to Torkham, the town at the top of the Khyber Pass grew terrified when he thought I might take a picture of a walled compound a hundred yards or so back from the highway. Photographing someone’s fortified house (as in Eastern Afghanistan, all dwellings in the area seem to be mini-forts with high walls and towers) was as offensive and dangerous as photographing one of his (veiled) women. Pakistani federal law only applied to the road itself; so you really did not want to annoy people living alongside it.

Still, the tribal areas, for all their tradition of banditry, blood feuds and kidnapping, were secure enough in 1994 for my then girlfriend and I to make a day trip out to the Afridi-dominated gunmaking town of Darra Adam Khel where we engaged a local policeman to take us shooting with rented weapons including a Kalashnikov and an RPG launcher. (The latter are much harder to shoot accurately than you would imagine from the movies.)  

Even when I came back to Peshawar twelve years later, although the frontier areas were tricky, Peshawar was still safe to walk around in, though there were occasional bomb attacks against the police. Indeed we could hardly go anywhere in the Old City without being stopped and virtually forced to have a seat and a cup of tea with sundry storekeepers. Though the cinemas had closed down, there were still shops where you could buy Hollywood and Bollywood DVDs (pirated of course, as are almost all DVDs in Pakistan — including those on sale in smart Islamabad and Karachi shops). These have all been bombed or forced to close by the local Taliban and its sympathisers. On the other hand, I am told that Peshawar remains a hub of the Pakistani porn industry, just as it is a centre of drug smuggling and indeed drug addiction. Here as elsewhere violent fundamentalism is compromised by greed, lust, corruption and extreme hypocrisy.

Another contradiction also implied something about the resilient force of human appetites. American fast food chains remain as popular here in Peshawar as elsewhere in Pakistan. Indeed as I left the city in a suitably non-descript, seat-belt-free taxi, keeping my camera well out of sight of heavily bearded guys on motorbikes, I looked up to see the goateed visage of Col. Harland Sanders smiling down onto the Grand Trunk Road from an enormous billboard, not far from a huge, packed Kentucky Fried Chicken. Apparently even the much trumpeted tribal anger at drone attacks and even the bizarre but increasingly popular conspiracy theory that holds US contractors, specifically Blackwater/Xe responsible for recent bomb attacks on Peshawar markets, are no match for the Colonel’s secret recipe. I am not sure why but there is something comforting about that.