The capital of northwest Pakistan, Peshawar borders the tribal regions which reach Afghanistan (an area into which state law does not stretch). The road into that area is blocked by an innocuous sign, which warns foreigners not to enter. On the lawful side of that sign, is the legendary ‘Smuggler's Bazaar’. I hopped onto a brightly-coloured bus to get there. On the way, we drove past the remains of an Afghan refugee camp…
Under pressure from George Dubya, who is having nightmares about Osama again (and the White House simply can't afford the laundry bills caused by those little night time accidents. The senate won't release the funds, you see) President Musharraf has been evacuating those camps, on the spurious claim that they are home to ‘terrorist cells’.
Driving past the mud shells of former houses, roofless and lifeless, I felt a genuine sadness for the unimaginable horrors that must have taken place there. Many Afghan families lived in those crowded enclaves for decades; first fleeing the Russians, then the Taliban, and finally the Westerners. Whole generations had been born there. They’d lived their entire lives in those mud shacks. Then the Yankies came, and those poor, innocent, hard-working people were all evicted. They were deported back to a land they could barely remember, where they knew no-one and had nothing. Fifty thousand people were evicted from that camp. Many won’t survive the Taliban stronghold that is east Afghanistan.
Peshawar is one crazy city. Known as the ‘Wild West of the East’, if it wasn't so unlawful it'd be illegal. You even have to cross to the other side of the tracks just to get there. Which isn’t so easy, given all the market stalls on either side:
SOUTH ASIA BLOGS
Back in 2007, aged 25, I was in a sort of cul-de-sac. I'd graduated from university with a top degree, but I didn't want to commit to the wrong career. So I went to India to 'find myself' instead.
As I travelled I uploaded a series of random blogs to my new MySpace page (remember that?) From the mystical Kumbh Mela festival to Delhi's Toilet Museum, these include a mixture of humour and insight, fact and emotion. I'd like to think there's something for everyone here. I hope you find something you enjoy...
When we pulled up to the 'border', a friendly local pointed me towards the accessible part of Smuggler's Bazaar. Contraband, stolen from Westerners in Afghanistan, or faked locally, lined every alley. Glass-fronted shops sold everything from sports equipment to electronic goods, alongside an unusually plentiful supply of stationary.
It took approximately two seconds for me to be invited to buy some ganja.
After passing a row of closed shops, we arrived in a room which contained two mattresses and a third of a door. Having crawled beneath it into the kitchen, and then through another small door into a real shop, we sat behind the counter, below shelves which were full of CDs and VCRs.
The budding entrepreneur started by unveiling the entrées; crumbling hash, squidgy charras, and rock opium. But he couldn't wait out to bring out the main-course. After ducking back into the previous room, he returned with a brown envelope, and proudly showed off the fake money he had for sale. There were $100US bills, and notes with security lines as good as the real thing.
The next day I returned to Smugglers Bazaar. I was well-armed. Hussein, a local 'guide', was my weapon of choice. Skilled in the workings of nine languages, he had the perfect ammunition to make the correct 'baksheesh' payments. (It really is amazing what you can get away with, when you pay the officials who are blocking your way.)
We crossed over to the ‘other side’, where we were welcomed with green tea and handshakes. Then the sale speeches began, and a pen was laid out for all to see:
If you can move your attention away from the branded bricks of cannabis, which have been pre-prepared for export, you'll notice that this pen has become a gun:
The lower section of those dens all looked dark and dangerous. So I climbed up onto the upper tier, where I was met by a bag of heroin, and a guy who was boiling some illicit substances. Despite our guide’s encouragement, I decided it would be better not to partake. Instead, I returned to the original room, to relax with a nice cup of opium green tea. On the way, we passed a couple of alcohol shops. (Alcohol is illegal in Pakistan). I was informed that alcohol is a very naughty substance indeed!
We left Smugglers Bazaar and went to visit a refugee camp, one that was supposed to be operational, but which still felt rather empty. Pakistan’s government intends to deport all five-to-seven million Afghan refugees eventually, and it seemed like they had already made a start on that camp.
I was keen to hear what the remaining refugees thought about the British occupation of their country. That wasn’t easy. Hussein, who seemed apprehensive, warned me that the locals hated Brits and Yanks. And anyway, most locals were sheltering from the midday sun.
Eventually someone did speak to us. He had fled during the Russian invasion, and said that he'd like to return. But, when pushed on a time frame, he said that he wanted to wait for peace. He said that things were fine under the Taliban, the ‘best period in recent Afghan history’. But he claimed that the British ‘kill everyone’, and have no respect for life. He wished the Brits would leave.
(A couple of days later, I spoke to a second Afghan refugee on the bus to Quetta. He had just spent two years teaching in his native village. But he was returning to his family in Pakistan, because he’d gotten scared when the local Taliban sent him two human heads. One was of a villager he knew.
That man said the allies had left the east of the country to the Taliban, having originally expelled them in 2001. He supported Western attempts to destroy the Taliban, but believed public support is against them. US/UK troops are considered warmongers, who supply weapons to both sides, and prolong the bloodshed.
And I also spoke to a third person. He told me: “I have eight brothers, five sisters, and three mothers”.)
On a (slightly) different note, we also visited a gun factory that day:
They copy the designs from authentic European models, using this eighty year old British Machine. Then they finish the job by hand:
It's all very James Bond:
They like their guns here. This is me with a Kalashnikov:
We left the first room and walked along the streets on 'the other side'; narrow allies lined with mud shacks, most of which are crack dens. Inside, proprietors sit cross-legged on raised platforms, facing incoming customers. Armed with scales, they’re only too willing to show off their produce. Behind them are two levels, with sitting space only:
Peshawar is also famous for the Khyber Pass; the historical gateway to the East. Alexander the Great, Muslim invaders and British colonialists, have all used this route whilst searching for new kingdoms.
Pakistan is a country in transition right now. There were protests here last week. There are ongoing deportations of Afghan refugees. And there are natural disasters too. Flooding recently killed a number of Pakistanis.
The Khyber Pass, which is guarded by magnificent mountains, was not immune:
We were allowed to take pictures of this gnarly railway, located between destroyed villages. But we weren’t permitted to photograph the five burned out oil tankers we passed. That would have been a threat to ‘government security‘, and so our armed guard was having none of it. (Those trucks had been taking oil to American troops, and had been destroyed as part of the war effort.)
We continued past a series of armed compounds, each of which contained a giant mansion - home to drug-barons and warlords alike. Then we reached the end of the pass, where we gazed out towards Afghanistan:
I'm off to the safety of Iran now. Here are some pictures of teeth, which are on sale in all good Peshawri dentist shops: