A Visit to Peshawar and the Tribal Areas of Pakistan

This article is part of a series presented by Cannabis Culture featuring the international adventures of Zorro Red Eye – world traveler, connoisseur of fine cannabis, and former editor of England’s Red Eye magazine. Click here for the full photo gallery on Flickr.

Karachi International Airport has a real cosmopolitan ring to it doesn’t it?

Well nothing could be further from the truth. The arrivals area reminded me of Victoria Bus Station on a bad day! My baggage was in a lost and found room, which was totally disorganized and filled with bags from floor to ceiling. The attendant, wearing half a uniform, didn’t seem to know where anything was, or for that matter care! I couldn’t help but notice how slovenly and uninterested all the officials looked. I vaguely heard a voice over the intercom saying something about no smoking or “bartering(!)” within the airport terminal!

But the worst was yet to come. Airports in Pakistan do not allow the general public access without a valid ticket, so inside the airport is relatively calm by comparison to what goes on outside.

Five, four, three, two, one, the doors flew open and I was immediately hit like a hammer by the intense heat and humidity. People were milling everywhere. Swarms of dirty looking characters dressed in green coats with greasy hair, foul breath and reddy orange teeth from chewing a form of red snuff. Calling themselves porters, they hit you three at a time trying to get your bags from you in order to demand an extortionate tip. Some try to win your confidence by offering you help in finding tickets for your onward destination, or assistance with money changing kiosks. Others try to sell you taxi rides and tours of Karachi, even though it was one in the morning!

Armed with a smile, in this instance, was the wrong way to be!

On inquiring about flights to Peshawar, I was informed that there were no seats available for the rest of the week. This proved itself to be a scam that was being worked between the national airline ticket agent, and one of these characters that had been following me around trying to tell me how much he wanted to help me! For a small additional fee (of course), they could find me a seat! I suddenly got my “belligerent bastard” head on, which proved, in the end, to be the easiest way to deal with these scavengers!

I highly recommend that approach to anyone who travels through airports in Pakistan. Treat them like you’re going to bite their nose off and spit it back in their face, and they quickly stop harassing you.

A free bus (unadvertised in the terminal for some reason), to the local airport hotels brought me a night’s sleep and a fresh start in the morning.

On returning to the airport armed with my new attitude, I had no problem acquiring a ticket for the next flight heading north.

The flight to Peshawar took only an hour and a half and other than a few peculiarities, such as chanting a prayer from the Koran over the loudspeaker system before the plane took off, (doesn’t inspire confidence!) and a warning that drug trafficking was a “capital offense” in Pakistan, the plane took off without a hitch.

A very dodgy looking meal was served with a choice of tap water, or tap water! The water came in clear disposable plastic cups that looked like they had been well chewed on, and probably not washed after about sixty or seventy people had used them! Complimentary prayer mats were available for praying up against the wall of the central service area. That same wall had a “no shoes” sign on it, much like the standard no smoking signs that we see in the west. Just a shoe instead of a cigarette!

For some reason I was neither hungry nor thirsty, so I opted for reading a Karachi newspaper instead. In the two days leading up to my arrival, three bombs had gone off, a multitude of people had been assassinated or murdered, another had been tortured to death, 300 cars a day had been stolen at gun point, various large drug busts had taken place, a top ranking Air Force official had been caught selling a couple of kilos of heroin to the DEA in New York, and a bus had been shot at by men armed with Kalashnikovs on a main through road. I was now beginning to understand why so many people had warned me that it was dead dangerous out here.

Of the multiple drug busts that had taken place, it seemed that most of the drugs had originated from the Tribal Areas around Peshawar. Well at least I was heading in the right direction.


I arrived in Peshawar late that evening, and after the usual harassment by porters and taxi drivers, I managed to get myself booked into a relatively comfortable hotel. The Rose Hotel in the Khyber Bazaar, located in the old city. For $7 a night I had a private bathroom, (a hole in the floor with two foot rests), a shower, and a complimentary spittoon!

Peshawar, home of the Pathans, is in its purest sense, a frontier town. It lies less than 30 miles from the Afghan border and only a few kilometers from the Tribal Area, at the southern end of the Karakoram Highway. This highway is in fact, what used to be the Old Silk Road linking China to the western world via the Khyber Pass through Afghanistan.

As a result of the war in Afghanistan, about six million Afghan refugees have fled to Pakistan seeking asylum. Many of them settled in Peshawar and the surrounding areas. The estimated legitimate population of Peshawar is 800,000, but that figure in reality can probably be doubled (plus a bit) as a result of the Afghan invasion.

During the day Peshawar hums with the hustle and bustle of frontier life. The place is alive with tiny kiosk type shops, street merchants and hawkers, money changers, horse drawn carts, multi-colored buses all beckoning people on board, motor bikes and rickshaws revving their engines, flying buses (colorful Suzuki pick-ups with bench seating in the back), all calling out the names of villages that they are traveling to in order to attract custom.

Thousands of pedestrians everywhere, hundreds of limbless beggars of all ages, (a result of the Afghan war and the 2,000,000 unmapped mines left behind by the Russians and Mujahadine alike), all of them dragging themselves crab like on their bellies, backs and sides, through the dust and mud with an outstretched hand begging for a couple of rupees for food. People are carrying exotic carpets from one place to another, or herding goats, cattle and oxen through the main streets. Combine this with the loud hailer call to mosque five times a day, the dust flying everywhere, the traffic that appears to have no rules or regulations, except of course, to beep your horn continuously warning people, cars and animals that you are approaching! The total overall picture of life here takes some getting used to, especially in light of the fact that there is no visible sign of other Westerners anywhere.


To find a good, trustworthy person to score from, or what the Pakistanis would call a person with a “Clean Heart”, is difficult to say the least. Although a large percentage of Pathans smoke, and you could often smell the pungent wafts from the rooms in my hotel, only the “untrustworthy” approach you. The good guys are not dealers, but solely consumers by nature, and the penalties for selling to a Westerner are too high for many to risk.

Luckily I had “forgotten” to throw out the small piece of Moroccan hash that I had bought in Amsterdam. That piece saw me through the first few days here until I met Mohammad (If the name’s good enough for a prophet, it’s good enough for my son!). Mohammad was a man with a truly clean heart who sold me top quality hash at the local going rate of $2.95 for a ten-gram tola, or indeed just under $13.50 US for just over an ounce.

En route to Karachi I had met a Canadian, working with Medicines Sans Frontiers in Afghanistan. She lived part of the time in Peshawar and the rest in Afghanistan. This woman had warned me of the rickshaw drivers here. They sell you hash and then turn you in to their police friends for a split in the baksheesh that you would have to pay to avoid arrest.

On my first night out, one such rickshaw driver approached me. He offered me some nice brown Afghan hash at the ridiculously high price of $20 US for one ten gram tola.

While he was giving me his sales pitch, I noticed two policemen on a bench across the road. They were discretely watching the whole event taking place. As he tried to push the hash into my hands, they started raising themselves from their seat thinking that I was just about to take it. But this old hippy Gonzo Cannabis Reporter had already spotted them. I also noticed how calm the rickshaw driver seemed to be, about their presence, only four or five yards away. I walked away immediately.

Over the next week or so I was to learn that this rickshaw driver, who also offered me white heroin for $12 a gram, and brown heroin for $10 a gram, was, together with one other rickshaw driver, in cahoots with these cops. I became a prime target for these guys because, not only was I the only white person in town for most of my stay, but I had long hair too. It got to the point that I couldn’t leave the hotel without being harassed to buy their dope. In the end it took shouting at them in the street and threatening to call the police before they finally gave up and left me alone.


On my third morning in Peshawar, everything came to a dead stand still for the celebration of Eid. Eid is the equivalent of the Muslim Christmas. This festival celebrates the memory of the age-old Muslim belief in the story of Hazart Ibrahim and his son, Hazart Ismail.

Allah, “Peace be with him”, as everyone out here seems to say, came to Ibrahim in a dream and instructed him to take his son to the desert and slaughter him by cutting his throat with a knife. Ibrahim was tormented by these instructions, as he obviously loved his son very much.

The following morning Ibrahim confronted his son Ismail with these instructions. Ismail insisted that his father must carry out the will of Allah, (“Peace be with him”). So father and son went out to the desert to set about carrying out Allah’s instructions. Ibrahim could not bear the thought of killing his son, so as he put the knife to his son’s throat, he closed his eyes before cutting.

At that moment, Allah (“Peace be with him”) sent down the Archangel Gibrail who quickly replaced Ismail with a sheep.

Ibrahim cut deep, but when he opened his eyes to see his dead son, he saw that he had actually killed a sheep and his son was standing by his side laughing. Ibrahim’s faith was only being tested.

In celebrating this festival each year, every household, after morning mosque, slaughters a hallal animal. This is usually a sheep, but also they slaughter bulls, goats and camels. The streets and gutters of Peshawar ran red with blood!

After butchering these animals, the hides are sold to local dealers for about 11 dollars. The money is then donated to the mosque.

Unfortunately for me, my hotel was right smack in the middle of the old city where most of the skins were being brought to be sold. The street in front of my hotel was a hive of activity. People were arriving on foot, on bicycles, by rickshaw, horse drawn cart and even by bus; all carrying bloody animal skins to be sold to the dealers here. There was blood, guts and skins everywhere. By the time I had finished my morning’s photographic shoot of this event, I too was covered with blood from head to toe. The sickly smell of rotting blood hung in the air outside my hotel for the next three days.

I established with some French foreign aid worker friends that I met with later that evening, in one of the only two licensed bars in town, (you need a government permit to drink in Pakistan), that about 20 million hallal animals had been slaughtered in Pakistan that morning! All of them between the hours of 5:30 am and 8 am! That’s a lot of dead animals and blood in a country with little to no sanitation!


These French foreign aid workers had worked in war torn countries worldwide. They thrive on the adrenaline rush attached to the fear of working under fire and they certainly know how to party!

I was invited to one such party at which one of the guests might just as well have been “the door mouse” from Alice in Wonderland fame. He was a Japanese minesweeper working in Afghanistan. He always drank vodka by the pint when on leave, and was famous for passing out continuously. He actually disappeared at the party and no one saw him again for the next three days!

These French workers smoked some excellent hash. It was given to them regularly by the locals, with whom they worked in Afghanistan. When they found out that I was a writer, Jean-Claude turned to me in his best English, which he had learned in Kenya from an African, and told me about two of the heaviest stones that he had ever had.

Both of these are bar room challenges and involved swallowing venom. When someone feels brave enough to take the challenge the whole place erupts with bets being made left, right and centre. Needless to say, you gain the respect of one and all if you have guts enough to do it. Jean-Claude had done them both and he had witnesses there to prove it. The first was in Cambodia, the Cobra Cocktail, and the other was the Camel Spider on the border of Sudan and Kenya. Both are like swallowing 20 caps of mescaline, but the Camel Spider can make you sick for up to two weeks afterwards.

Once the Eid celebrations were over, it was time to get cracked on with the task at hand. To get into the tribal areas and find out what is going on as this is where most of the hash, opium and heroin which makes its way to the west, comes out from.


Before we go any further it is important to understand the Tribal Areas and how they originated, as they have remained virtually the same to this very day.

When the British established the Durand line in 1886, thereby creating the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, they accidentally divided the tribal nation of the Pashtun, or Pathan People in half.

The Pathans were fierce, extremely warlike people who had lived a barbaric way of life for centuries. These tribesmen formed the backbone of the Mujahadine and are practically always the first ones to take up arms for Allah.

The Pathans have observed their own code of honour and conduct throughout history. This code imposes on them three chief obligations; “Nanawati” (the right to asylum) were you are honor bound to grant asylum to anyone who asks for it, including even your worst enemy; “Badal” (the old doctrine of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth) and “Melmastia” (hospitality to all).

Click here for the full photo gallery on Flickr

No one could tame or police these people who refused to recognize the new British borders or indeed, British sovereignty itself. The Brit’s answer to this, after many failed attempts to control the Pathans, was to leave them to their own devices and to let them carry on with their own way of life. In order to do this, the Brit’s established six separate “Agencies” or “Tribal Areas” along the Afghanistan border. Most aptly described as a border within a border.

These Tribal Areas would be independent of British occupied Pakistan without ever being recognized as part of Afghanistan, or indeed, an independent country of their own.

To safeguard their position, in the event of kidnappings, murders etc. in occupied Pakistan by the Tribal people who would then retreat back into the relative safety of their homelands, the Brit’s established The Frontier Crimes Regulation to police them.

Each Agency or Tribal Area was the sole responsibility of one Political Agent who was appointed by, and directly responsible to, the British Governor himself. The Political Agent was to represent the federal government of Pakistan in each area.

The Political Agent had his own police force, “The Rangers”, who’s responsibility it was to keep the main through roads open, and to retrieve men wanted for crimes committed in British occupied Pakistan. The Rangers are the only police force that has any power in the Tribal Areas. The national police of Pakistan have no jurisdiction in these areas at all.

On one of my visits to a tribal area, my bodyguard, himself a Ranger, refused to go any further than half way to the Afghan border. This was because the Rangers had shot and killed three tribals the day before and he feared retaliation!

No Westerner can venture into the Tribal Area without an armed bodyguard as their life could literally be in extreme danger. Indeed foreigners are forbidden from entering these areas without a government pass stamped by the Political Agent who keeps a record of your passport number and photograph in case you disappear. It is a prerequisite that you take one of the Rangers as a bodyguard with you.

No photographs are openly permitted in this area other than in designated “tourist areas” along the Khyber Pass, which had only been open to Western visitors a few months before my arrival.

Within the Tribal Areas everyone owns, and carries a Kalashnikov, and they will use it at the drop of a hat. In fact the only rule applying to guns here, is that you can’t take your Kalashnikov to school until you’re in grade nine (13 to 14 years of age)!

Many of these people are wanted by the Pakistani Police for various crimes ranging from murder to highway robbery, smuggling or kidnapping.

You, as a Westerner, represent many hundreds of thousand rupees, or indeed, about a half a dozen of their friends or family out of jail if they managed to kidnap you and hold you for ransom. Each year at least a few Westerners are kidnapped here. You also stand a good chance of being shot by fanatics just because you’re a Westerner and therefore an “Infidel” (non-Muslim). They don’t like journalists either, and they even went as far as beating a local guide half to death, (seriously half to death), for escorting a group of journalists into the Tribal Area! Doing it again would certainly get him killed.

I met an English schoolteacher one evening, who was working in the Tribal areas. While he was in town at a meeting, his house was mortared by the locals and razed to the ground. His crime?… He had called a doctor in for one of his sick students against the wishes of the local people. These people would rather watch their wife die in childbirth than call a doctor in to help. If Allah can’t help, then nobody can!


The Tribal Areas are the homes of the gun shops and hashish shops, marijuana plantations, and the heroin trade, although much of the opium poppies are grown within the Afghan border through which the Tribals can pass unhindered.

Children start to learn the trade of growing marijuana, making hashish, running hashish shops, smuggling, or mending and dealing in guns from as early as nine years old. These are all considered to be honorable professions here.

I made many trips into the Tribal Areas both through the official channels as well as unofficial channels with the aid of a little baksheesh. My aim was to get into the hash and gun shops that both the Tribals and the Pakistani government didn’t want me in… especially armed with my camera! Each time that I entered the Tribal Areas the Muslim expression “Enshala”, (if God is willing), became the theme for the day.

On one occasion I was able to enter a hash shop without my camera and inspect their wares. On another, they brought the hash to the car for me to photograph. The owner refused my camera in his shop and insisted that I stay in the car, as it wasn’t safe for me in that village.

Finally someone gave me permission to take one picture inside his shop. Enshala, I was going to get more than one.

I entered his shop which had hash, both in slabs as well as piped into a form of string and made into decorative designs of flowers, hearts and spools, all wrapped in plastic and hanging on the walls.

I took the first photograph, then another. No one had said anything, so I continued as fast as I could. I barely noticed when my driver said “Last picture, we go now”, as I kept on shooting.

At this point, both my driver and bodyguard, whose gun had come off his shoulder, and whose face was beaded with sweat, were pulling me backwards out of the shop. They dragged me through the crowd that had gathered outside, and into the waiting car.

It turned out that one of the onlookers had suggested that I was a government agent, taking photographs with the intention of causing the shop owner trouble! This story had spilled out to the Tribals who had gathered outside the shop and they were not happy. My bodyguard had dragged me out of there before things got out of hand!

The hash in these hash shops, although still very good, is for the most part of a lower quality than that which I was getting from Mohammad. It was softer to the touch, blacker on the outside, and when cut with a knife, a greeny-brown on the inside. Not at all like the brown hash that I was getting from Mohammad.

My driver explained to me that this hash is made commercially in big heated pans, adding a little water. The pollen, which is of average quality, is kneaded and blended using a large stone weight. I tried a small piece of it later that evening. The taste was not terribly different from that which I was getting from Mohammad. Perhaps a little more waxy. This hash was much softer to the feel than Mohammad’s hash as well. I would guess that this was as a result of adulterants like perhaps ghee.

On my next visit to Mohammad, I asked him to explain the difference. It turned out that his Mujahadine friend Izad, the village dealer, did not buy his hash from the tribal shops. He bought better quality pollen, direct from the growers and rubbed up the tolas himself to order. I asked Mohammad if his friend would show me how and he said that he would ask.

The gun shops were easier to photograph, although my presence did create a stir and we were escorted out of the village by the entire tribe. I was able to establish how ridiculously cheap it was to buy one of these deadly Kalashnikovs while making conversation with the shop owners. A Pakistani made Kalashnikov would run you 6000 rupees ($170), a Chinese made one costs 8-9000 rupees ($250), and a top of the range Russian one will run you anywhere up to 15000 rupees ($420). Forty-five caliber and nine millimeter handguns go for about $85. It seemed to me that the price of death in Pakistan is very cheap.

I was told by my driver that you can get a Kalashnikov even cheaper if you’re in the right place at the right time. Blood feuds are commonplace in the villages on the outskirts of Peshawar, as well as in the Tribal Areas. When someone is killed, which happens often, it is almost customary to relieve him of his weapon. The weapon is sold cheap for fast money with which to escape.


Although guns are outlawed in the center of Peshawar (even though many people carry concealed pistols), in the surrounding villages and Tribal Areas where there is no policing, everyone owns a Kalashnikov. Most people carry them during the day but absolutely no one would dare to go out in the evening without their trusty weapon strapped to their back. The reason for this is simple. Anything can get you shot! And why bother using just one bullet when a Kalashnikov will expel thirty, four-inch cartridges in about twenty seconds. Disagreements over land, grazing areas, money and even just being seen walking in the Bazaar with someone’s sister is enough to get you shot.

The concept of an eye for an eye is an age-old tradition in this part of the world. So if you shoot someone’s father, his son will shoot you! Then your son shoots his son! Then his son’s brother shoots your son! Then your son’s brother shoots his son’s brother and this can go on until entire families are exterminated, or until the village elders “The Gergar” step in for the benefit of the community, and settle the dispute through diplomacy. Usually this involves a financial settlement by the family who did the first wrong. The settlement is sealed by all parties placing their hand on the Koran and the agreement is binding.

This system is so steeped in tradition that even in the courts, if a prisoner is held for murder, there is a Gergar room in which they can negotiate for an out of court settlement. If an agreement has been reached amongst the parties, the Gergar will approach the judge and assure him that the matter is settled. Then all parties including the prisoner can go home in peace! Mohammad’s family were involved in one such Blood Feud and during the time that I was there, his neighbor was shot with thirty bullets leaving not much left to be buried!


On my return to the hotel, there was a message from Mohammad inviting me to lunch the next day. I organized a taxi to take me out to his village on the outskirts of Peshawar.

I was greeted, and after a cup of green tea, both my taxi driver and I were ushered into the Hoojra (guest reception area) for lunch.

Unbeknown to me, Izad had also been invited and had brought some pollen with him to rub up. I could have shot myself for not having brought the right lens to take close-ups of Izad in action. I had only brought a wide angle in order to take some pictures of Mohammad’s family. I had to make do with what I had, but asked Izad to leave me a little pollen so I could try and rub it up myself later.

After lunch Izad, who had been wounded in Afghanistan and had lost his sight in one eye, started rolling joints one after the other. This he did by emptying the tobacco from a cigarette, mixing it with hash, and then refilling it. By the time we had finished, six joints had been smoked in about half an hour!

After our lunchtime smoke, Mohammad, the taxi driver and myself, bid farewell to Izad and went off to visit the local villagers.

We ended up at the home of one of his uncles, where we were ushered into the hoojra for some more green tea.

It was there that I discovered the true meaning of paranoia!

Mohammad’s uncle’s son had been shot by a neighboring family. In retaliation, he and his four brothers had shot to death eight of the neighbor’s family and had vowed to kill them all. (If you do not retaliate in this culture, your neighboring villagers and family will hold you in disgrace).

As a result of all the shooting, this family, farmers by trade, could not leave the hoojra to tend their fields for fear of being shot. They could only sit there all day armed with Kalashnikovs waiting for the neighbors’ retaliation. I was getting worried! I had visions of the gates flying open and suddenly hearing the sound of machine gun fire. Mohammad assured me that there were armed lookouts in the towers around us.

I was invited to spend the afternoon with these people, but I declined the invitation, as my nerves could not take the strain! After another cup of green tea, we took their picture and we left.

On returning to my hotel I was pleased to see that another Westerner had booked in. An Englishman at that!

It turned out that he was working for a well-known guidebook, and he was here to update the information in it. I invited him to visit me in my room later for a drink of “green” bootleg whiskey! I had already made sure that he knew how to focus a camera.

When he arrived in my room, he became a bit nervous when I started covering the cracks in the door with towels and tissue paper to insure that no smells leaked into the hallway outside. It was my intention to have him use the close up lens on my camera while I rubbed up some good Border Afghan just to see if I could produce anything of quality myself.

When we had finally finished, it looked like he really needed a drink! I found it very strange that people, who travel to places like this for a living, often don’t smoke. Having seen the inside of one of their jails by accident when applying for permission to visit the Tribal Area (20 foot square with no windows, beds, toilets, or even drains, and housing about twenty five prisoners), I can understand their reluctance. And that’s to say nothing of the torture that goes on at times.


After a couple of days of walking the streets of Peshawar looking for something to do, I headed back to Karachi where I boarded my plane back to England via Amsterdam.

The flight from Amsterdam to London was on a tiny 60 seat aircraft full of early morning businessmen on their way to all sorts of important meetings. And then there was this old hippy Gonzo Cannabis Reporter, Captain Scarlet T-shirt, long hair, in need of a shave, with Karachi plastered all over my bags. So guess who got a tug from customs?

They were trying to make me nervous by aggressively cross quizzing me. They continuously checked the palms of my hands, which go pink and blotchy if you’re nervous. They emptied everything from my bags and went through every seam of my clothing. They X-Rayed each empty bag several times. They drilled one bag and sent some of the dust from the cardboard within to be tested. They did the same with the dust from the inside of the tubing in my backpack. They litmus tested the sweat from the palms of my hands; litmus tested the inside of my bags, and even took my lighter away to be tested. The lighter test came back positive. The test proved that my lighter had been used to light cannabis!

Into the back room we went for a good old-fashioned strip search and a look up the bum (twice!) before I was finally released some two and a half hours later.
I smoked some really excellent hash when I was in Pakistan. I wouldn’t want to risk being caught smuggling from there though, as I’m fairly sure that the jails there would kill a Westerner, but I’m certainly pleased that some people are doing it, as it allows us to smoke some of the best hash in the world, and for that I thank them.

Pakistan is not anyone’s idea of a sun, sand and sea holiday, but it certainly is an adventure. I met some really good friends in Pakistan, and one day I shall return to see them. “Enshala”.