Throughout history, Peshawar, Pakistan, has gone through many changes. It has been an imperial capital, a base for the Mujahideen, and a center of trade, education, and religion. Persians, Macedonians, Arabs, Afghans, Sikhs, and the English have all ruled it at different times. Peshawar has also been a destination for Buddhist pilgrims, Christian missionaries, American hippies, and Afghan refugees. These details show that there are multiple layers to this city, which can sometimes be confusing for travelers. That said, if you’re willing to step out of your comfort zone and take the time to understand its eclectic culture, you’ll be greeted by a place unlike any other.
Although most historically rich places are busy with tourists, this is not the case in Peshawar. Up until the 1980s, the city was only known to Westerners as a stopping point on the so-called hippy trail — the overland route used by longhaired youngsters in bell-bottoms to get from Western Europe to Southeast Asia. But the route’s popularity waned when countries such as Iran and Afghanistan began experiencing revolution and war, causing the flow of foreign visitors to Peshawar to dry up.
Today, the image of Pakistan as a hotbed of Islamic terrorists further promotes the stall in tourism. While calling Peshawar an absolutely safe place would not be accurate, as terrorist attacks do happen here, this is not a place defined by violence. With so many cultural and historical offerings, Peshawar welcomes all and is home to a number of architectural wonders that are used for museums, mosques, and forts. So long as you follow some simple rules and respect your surroundings, you’re bound to have a memorable trip.
It’s important to remember that Peshawar is in Pashtunistan — the land where strict and conservative Islamic law meets even more strict and conservative local traditions. To honor these religious customs, avoid wearing shorts or tight clothing and drinking alcohol outside. Gender segregation is also noticeable in this region and is strictly followed. It is common for local men to only see the faces of a few women in their lives: their mothers, sisters, and wives. Following these customs means respecting a woman’s privacy. For example, you shouldn’t take photos of a woman, or at least don’t point your camera directly at her face. Female travelers may start conversations with local women, though there can be a language barrier as not all Pashtu women speak English. Another thing you should better to avoid is criticizing Islam and making jokes about it. But of course there are exclusions — maybe you’ll be lucky enough to meet an open-minded and even atheist person.
One other thing you should prepare for when visiting Peshawar is the attention and endless generosity you’ll receive from Pashtuns, as warm hospitality is part of their cultural code. Even those who can hardly speak English will try to cordially greet you and offer assistance in some way. If you show up with any apprehension, locals will quickly erase it. Pashtuns enjoy conversations with people from different countries and ethnic backgrounds, but also expect those visiting to abide by their cultural norms and customs.
This hospitality is not the only thing that makes Peshawar one of my favorite cities, though. The city’s eclectic and vibrant spirit is refreshingly unique. And it stems from a mixture of influences: Asian street markets, British architecture, Buddhist monuments. Here, local vendors sell handmade jewelry made from Afghan and Iranian coins; incense is burned in Islamic sanctuaries as if they’re Hindu tombs and Christian churches have Arabic domes and minarets; and you can find other religious shrines such as an old Sikh temple or a fig tree which is believed to be an offspring of the sacred Buddhist Bodhi tree.
Present-day Peshawar is far different than its past, but no less exciting or attractive. It is a city full of winding streets and bustling markets, striking architecture and iconic cuisine, and cheerful and hopeful people that have survived all that history has thrown at them.
Want to learn more about respecting Islam while traveling? Click here.