Peshawar (pronounced pu-shah-wur) conjures images of romance, intrigue and danger – the archetypal frontier town. Sat at the foot of the Khyber Pass, it has been an important trading town and staging post for invasions for centuries, its fortunes often more closely linked to affairs in Kabul than the flat lands of the Indus and Punjab. Even today, the Pakistani government maintains an often tenuous hold over the local Pashtun population. Recent elections have returned a provincial government sympathetic to the Taliban. West and south of the city, highways lead into the autonomous Tribal Areas where government writ vanishes the second you step off the main road: visitors to the Khyber Pass must be accompanied by an armed tribal escort.
Atmosphere is all in Peshawar. The old city is a warren of bazaars, where samovars dispense green tea into tiny enamelled pots, which are raced by eager boys to reclining merchants through an air thick with the smell of kebabs, rickshaws fumes and the cacophony of an endless parade of (mostly male) humanity. Modernity abruptly collides with tradition – there are more autorickshaws than camels and mobile phones are everywhere, but Peshawar’s past remains persuasive, tangible, visible.
Away from the throng of the old city, the British cantonment has shady boulevards, churches, army quarters and lavish high-walled homes. The city’s post-Partition face includes well-to-do University Town and the sprawling administrative-residential township of Hayatabad.
Peshawar’s close relationship with Afghanistan continues. Waves of refugees swelled the population in the 1980s, making up a sizable minority. Many still live in the refugee camps outside the city limits. Much of the city’s exotic character is derived from this Afghan connection, as is its reputation for intrigue (and occasional instability).
Modern Peshawar almost chokes on its popularity. Amid tough competition, it makes a strong bid for the most polluted city in Pakistan. Everyone seems to be in business, and politics and religion are often on the street. A conservative city, but one buzzing with life, Peshawar remains a fascinating place to get lost in.