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.
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