Peshawar, that exciting frontier town close to the border with Afghanistan, was just as I remembered.
Of course, a lot has changed in practical terms since I was last here 14 years ago. There are new high-rise buildings, beneath which snake new flyovers – one carrying a swanky new electric tram service – and new Qingqi Chinese tuk tuks now fill the streets where horse drawn tongas used to ply their trade. But beneath the surface the town still carries the same edgy character it always has.
The sky is still white, rarely blue – whether through mist, dust or pollution I have never been quite sure. A strong breeze still blows down from the Afghan frontier and the Khyber Pass. Red tailed kites still fly above the rooftops looking for something to scavenge. And get into the old town, walk through the famous Qissa Khwani – or Storytellers – Bazaar and you’ll see the same dark bearded faces, looking at you through sharp, narrow and thoughtful eyes. Not unfriendly, indeed many will bid you warm ‘most welcome’ and throw you a beaming smile. But like many frontier towns, Peshawar is oppressive and mysterious but also very exciting.
Keen to see how things were in this famous old city, and if we should start bringing tourists back, we spent the afternoon exploring. First, we visited the Peshawar Museum, housed in an old British Anglo-Moghul palace, which has been renovated since my last visit and is now home to a fine collection of Gandharan Buddhist artifacts, some fine Kalash and Nuristani carvings and some curious relics from empire – like two giant portraits of Queen Mary and King George. From here we stopped at the train station for a nostalgic look at the old Khyber Steam train. Back in the day, before security issues closed of the Khyber Pass to tourist, we used to take groups on the train as it ran once a month from Peshawar, through the Khyber Pass, to Landi Kotal on the Afghan frontier. It hasn’t run for more than a decade. It’s hard to see how it ever will again.
From here we visited the Qissa Khwani bazaar. Peshawar was on the one of the southern arteries of the old Silk Road where caravans laden with goods from Afghanistan and Central Asia would meet other traders and travellers heading north from India. Once they had onloaded their stock and put their camels to rest in one of the many city’s many caravanserais, they would meet in the old bazaar to tell their traveller’s tales. It’s still a lively place, full of noise and colour and a great place to just watch life going on. Here we visited the Mohabet Khan Mosque, built in 1670 by Moghul governor of the city, which has the most exquisite interior. We visited the Cunningham Clock Tower, that had been donated to the town in 1900 to commemorate Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee. And we explored a couple of the towns old and magnificent havelis.
I ran Wild Frontiers’ last trip to Peshawar in 2008. Back then the region was in a mess. Multiple extremist attacks on the supply routes into Afghanistan had caused the closing of the Khyber Pass. The Pakistan Taliban were causing havoc in the nearby Swat Valley. And bordering self-governing Tribal Areas were in a state of unrest. I remember very clearly being with a group at the Khan Klub in the old town and thinking this does not feel right. I rang my friend the chief of police and asked for extra security, which he duly delivered. We left for the mountains the next morning and haven’t been back since.
So what has changed? Well, other than Pakistan’s general security situation being a million times better, the Swat Valley is now peaceful and completely under government control. The Tribal Areas are no more, again now completely under government control. And extremist issues have all but faded away. I don’t think I’ll be rerouting our group tours back to Peshawar yet, without the Khyber Pass, in my opinion, the time is better spent in Hunza and Swat. But if anyone wants to go there on an extension or tailor-made itinerary, I really don’t see why not.
I thoroughly enjoyed going back.