Flirting with Afghanistan: The Smugglers’ Bazaar
It was a dangerous idea to try to go to Peshawar, but its Siren’s call promised romance, intrigue, and adventure: a legendary Silk Road city of traders, warriors, and poets, a place where a hairy Pashtun might offer you four camels and a carpet for your sister, and then cut off your nose for giving him a funny look.
Atmospheric appeal aside, my quest to Peshawar had a much more concrete purpose—just beyond the city limits, where the rule of government disintegrates into the lawless tribal agencies of Afghania, lies the notorious Smugglers’ Bazaar.
The bazaar was established by smugglers avoiding duty fees by exporting their goods to Afghanistan, stealing them back across the border, and selling them in the lawless tribal agencies. Shoppers are offered a wide array of electronics, clothing, and appliances, as well as machine guns, rocket launchers, and shopping bags full of heroin. Perhaps the most intriguing contraband for sale are the goods stolen from NATO forces in Afghanistan—heartfelt letters and care packages from home, space-age instant military meals, and pilfered Army equipment.
In 2007, Pakistani police trespassed into Khyber Agency to launch a crackdown on the bazaar, and a portion of it was demolished. It was quickly rebuilt however, and the official who ordered the raid was murdered two weeks later.
“You should go,” cheered Amin, lifting his teacup. “I think it is very nice, interesting place for tourists.”
Amin was an exuberant, balding tailor I met in Islamabad, who invited me for tea and insisted I visit his home city of Peshawar.
“I thought foreigners weren’t allowed into the Smugglers’ Bazaar,” I queried. “We get stopped at the checkpoint before entering Khyber Agency. “
Amin grinned. “But you wear beard and salwar and pakol hat, like Pashtun! If you say nothing, you can walk through the checkpoint and the police won’t bother you.”
“And what if the Afghanis find out I’m American and decide to kidnap me?”
“No, Afghania people is Pashtun!” scoffed Amin. “Pashtun people is very, very good people in all of Pakistan.”
I knew Pashtun hospitality wasn’t a myth, but I wondered if I’d receive a warmer welcome from the drug-runners, the arm-dealers, or the bargain hunting terrorists. Perhaps I’d receive the same ‘warm welcome’ as the Chinese tourist who visited a month ago—someone shot her in the face while she was taking pictures in the bazaar.
Troubled with conflicting safety reports, I made the responsible decision to go and assess the situation myself. After a month of unruly neck beard growth, it was time to put my Pashtun disguise to the test.
The old, Afghani proprietor of Shan Hotel peered up from behind his desk with a look of surprise. He quickly informed me why—he had only seen three foreigners in the last three months, and in the week preceding my arrival, Peshawar had suffered bomb attacks on a daily basis.
“So is it safe for me to walk around the bazaar?” I sputtered.
“Is it safe?…” he pondered. “I think it is safe if you stay in hotel room.”
And so, I spent the day in my stinky, threadbare hotel room, writing by the windowsill and staring out at the crumbling old city of Peshawar. It was a dull, monochrome place, the only color belonging to the tiny, painted vans with people piled on the roofs and hanging off the sides like nightmarish, third world clown cars. Veiled women in burkas shuffled through the concrete decay, past bullet holes and soldiers with assault rifles. Even from the safety of my hotel room, I could feel an inescapable tension in the air, roiling in the haze with the exhaust fumes, kebab smoke, and cry of the muezzin. Cartographically, I was still in Pakistan. But for what it was worth, I might as well have been in Kabul.
Night fell. After foraging the last stale cookies from the bowels of my backpack, I mustered enough courage for a kamikaze dash to the nearest kebab stall, where I inhaled a pound of mutton in three enormous, terrified bites, before scurrying back to the hotel.
Around midnight, I heard a knock at my door.
“Come down to reception,” ordered a voice.
“Why?” I shouted back, but there was no response.
The power was out, and so I blindly fumbled out of my room, down the hall, and down the stairs. In the dim candlelight of the lobby, eight armed police officers gazed up at me. Their imposing chief stepped forward, with one eyebrow raised nearly to his hairline.
“So it is true,” he barked. “What the fuck are you doing here?”
“I’m on vacation,” I said.
The officers stared in incomprehension.
“Come over here,” snapped the chief. “Look out this window.”
I timidly peered out to where the chief was pointing.
“You see this corner across the street? Just down there, where the rickshaw is passing?”
“There was a bomb blast there. Seventy-two people were killed,” he sighed. “I don’t want to scare you,” he said. “I don’t want to make you nervous or uncomfortable—but Peshawar is a very, very, very dangerous place. Where are you from?” he shouted.
“America,” I murmured.
The chief laughed, “Ha Ha Ha! A very, very, very dangerous place for you, Ha Ha Ha!”
Over the next hour, the police sat me down on the sofa and did their best to scare the piss out of me.
One of the officers handed me a newspaper, emblazoned with the mug shots of two white men and the Urdu headline, ‘Police Capture Two American CIA Spies, Seize Illegal Weapons Stash.’
I stared at paper in incomprehension, before the Chief explained that the bust had reignited anti-American sentiments, and that by his predictions, backlash was to be expected. If I happened to be tromping around the bazaar and flaunting my camera at the wrong time, that backlash might involve me.
“You will leave tomorrow,” he decided.
“I will,” I nodded. “But I was wondering… If I dress in Pashtun clothes and go very, very quickly in the early morning to the Smugglers’ Bazaar, would that be safe?”
The Police Chief thought for moment. “If you go very, very quickly, and just to a few places that you absolutely must see, then… No, you would be martyred.”
My face fell.
“I mean, I don’t know, you look like maybe Pashtun,” he offered. “If you are very, very fast, then maybe possible.” He tore off a scrap of newspaper and began scribbling a note. “My name is Chief Inspector Kamal. Here is my phone number. In case you decide you absolutely must go to the bazaar, please call me if you find problems. I will send you officers.”
I softly thanked him as he folded the note and slid it across the coffee table.
The electricity never came back on that night, and for several hours I lied over the bed covers with my shoes still on, staring up into the darkness. Eventually, I slipped into vivid dreams, of the Smugglers’ Bazaar and the Chinese tourist who was killed. I dreamed that she was twenty-four, that she had a blog and an awesome Pashtun disguise, and that she wasn’t afraid of anything until her assailant pulled out the gun.
My bag was packed for the bus by sunrise. I was no longer humoring the idea of sticking the fork in the proverbial toaster.
But then I rediscovered Kamal’s folded note in my pocket, and was overcome with a surge of pig-headed bravado.
I hesitantly reached for my pakol cap.
My heart thudded as I strode through Kabuli Gate into Qissa Khawani, the ‘Street of Storytellers,’ and the bazaar announced itself with a powerful waft of tea and spices. My pace quickened as I entered the dusty tangle of lanes, passing dazzling treasure troves of brassware, spilling out onto the streets with trays and teapots studded in silver grapevines and arabesque design.
A donkey cart bayed past, creaking under the weight of a turbaned man porting a dozen Afghani carpets. Bejeweled daggers glistened. Bearded men haggled in Pashtun, Farsi, and Urdu. Three women in burkas sifted through dresses they would never get to wear in public.
I could taste Afghanistan. Everything was alien and exhilarating and profoundly photogenic, yet I couldn’t reach for my camera, lest I expose my cover.
My hands trembled with adrenaline. I kept my face down. For the first time in my life, my mortality no longer seemed an abstraction, but instead something very real, something very tangible and impermanent. I could realistically die at any moment—these might be the very last fleeting moments of my life. I waited for the screech of a motorbike or the pop of a gunshot, and then: no more adventures, no more worrying about the future; I would never have to complain about soul-crushing commutes on the LA freeway; I would never plan an outlandish honeymoon; I would never get to use my senility as an excuse for deplorable misbehavior.
As sobering as this idea was, I felt disturbingly indifferent. If I did die, I would suffer a few seconds of horrible chaos—but then there would be nothing. Unless you’re subscribed to some divine faith, where god whisks away your soul for Free Ice Cream Wednesdays in heaven, death is only numb, dark silence. You are fertilizer, reclaimed by the earth. There is no pain.
If I died, the real victims would be my family.
I imagined my mother and father waking up to a phone call in the middle of the night, telling them they needed to fly halfway around the world to identify their child’s body. I imagined friends and neighbors visiting my family to offer condolences, cluttering the kitchen counter with cellophane cheese baskets and crockpots of Hamburger Helper. I imagined my two brothers driving my parents into Boston. I imagined my mother breaking down in the airport.
As I wandered deeper into the bazaar, towards the Khyber checkpoint, all I felt was suffocating dread—the same dread, I realize, that keeps my parents awake at night whenever I vanish into the third world in the name of adventure.
I was starting to feel more selfish than scared.
I passed a man in a skullcap mumbling over prayer beads, beneath a wall of shrieking birdcages. A Herati boy with one leg offered me a ruby from of a newspaper parcel.
I was barely fifteen minutes into the bazaar—nowhere close to the Khyber checkpoint, the entrance of the Smugglers’ Bazaar proper—when my shame outweighed my courage and I turned around to flag down a rickshaw.
“Shobha Chowk janaa. Shan Hotel,” I muttered to the driver. “But please go east, out of Lahori Gate.”
“Kya ap Engreezie hai?!” the driver laughed in shock. You are English?!
“Naheeng, mayng Afghanistan say hoong,” I explained. No, I’m from Afghanistan.
“Ahhh,” he grinned, “Al-humdulillah,” and the rickshaw lurched forward.
Later that night, I called my mother and told her that I loved her and that I missed her. I also told her that I had finally decided to leave Pakistan; that I’d had enough whimsical, near-death adventures; that the road to China beckoned.
For an equally reckless, gun-toting Pakistan adventure, check out Walnuts & Machine Guns: A Taliban Tale
For practical advice on traveling in volatile regions, check out Steve McDonald’s Guide to Not Dying in Scary Countries
To hear my rally cry for independent adventure travel, check out The Backpacker’s Manifesto