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Thursday, 8 November, 2001, 11:55 GMT
Road to Pakistan's troubled borderland
Peshawar street scene
Peshawar was transformed by Afghan immigration
Daniel Lak

The trip from Pakistan's heartland to the Northwest Frontier, from Islamabad to Peshawar, follows an ancient road dating back 2,300 years to the time of Alexander the Great.

The British called it the Grand Trunk Road, but aside from naming it, the colonial authorities made only minor improvements to a route that traditionally brought conquering hordes to the subcontinent.

A man in traditional Sikh costume
Sikhs still visit the sacred town of Hasan Abdul
Alexander's Macedonian legions, various groups of Afghans including Sher Shah Suri who actually built the first road, and Babar, the Kabul-born Turk who founded the Moghul dynasty in India - all passed this way.

These days, the GT road, as it is known in Pakistan, is a trade route between two of the country's major urban areas.

But it also spans cultures and retains a strong sense of history.

Ancient crossroads

Islamabad and its sister city Rawalpindi, where this journey begins, are in Punjab, Pakistan's most populous and politically dominant province.

These are new communities but just 40 kilometres along the Grand Trunk Road is a place that was, literally, a crossroads of the ancient world.

Taxila is a World Heritage Site, recognised by Unesco.

There are at least seven different archaeological eras here.

From what could be an outpost of the 7,000-year-old Indus valley civilisation to various Buddhist sites related to pre-Islamic Afghanistan and India, all span northwards from a road lined with stonecutters' stalls.

A woman dressed in a burqa
Across the Indus River, women are covered from head to toe
Some cultural historians believe there have been stonecutters here for thousands of years and these roadside craftsmen are their modern descendants.

Beyond this meeting place of culture long dead is a town that once thronged with religious devotees from all across India.

The town of Hasan Abdul is still a sacred place to the Sikhs of South Asia, but only a fraction of the millions who once came here are able to get visas and keep the faith alive in this overwhelmingly Muslim land.

Once this was near the centre of the Sikh Kingdom of Punjab - a place that resisted British colonial occupation for generations and fought Afghan conquerors to a standstill time after time.

Now it is a lonely outpost that is visibly decaying from neglect.

Linguistic gulf

You pass from Punjab to Northwest Frontier Province at Attock on the Indus River.

The brooding Attock Fort, built more than half a millennium ago, sits on a bluff overlooking the Indus.

North of the road bridge, its crystalline waters run parallel with the murky flow at the mouth of the Kabul River.

It is a mere trickle in the Afghan city that gives it its name, but its load of silt and mud taint the Indus for more than 20 kilometres downstream.

A Taleban fighter
The town of Khora Khattak is considered the true home of the Taleban
On the east bank of the Indus here, people speak Urdu and Punjabi.

Just across the span, it is Pashto, the language of the Northwest Frontier.

The few women that may have been visible on the Punjab side have by now largely disappeared, or they wear the head-to-toe burqa.

This is a conservative place.

No music, no movies

Halfway to Peshawar from the River Indus, the town of Khora Khattak seems just a shabby market town.

Its weekly cattle sales are famous around the Frontier.

But this is home to one of Pakistan's most well-known religious schools, a madrassa that is considered the home of the Taleban.

Run by Maulana Sami ul-Haq, the purist and hard-line version of Islam that brought the Taleban to international infamy began here.

There are no women, music and movies are frowned upon, and all males wear the pyjama suit known as salwar kamiz.

Transformation

Finally, Peshawar, another city from thousands of years ago.

Before the Afghan war in the 1980s, it was a pleasant, green and quiet backwater.

Merchants made money from cross border trade, legal and illegal.

Then, more than two million Afghan refugees came here to flee the fighting of that era, and transformed a sleepy place into a frenetic, polluted and overcrowded metropolis.

There is a crumbling fort that broods over the snarled streets of the old city.

It is more than 500 years old.

Qissa Khwami Bazaar, the market of the story-tellers, was a place where traders told tales of the road over cups of cardamom scented green tea.

Now you go there to buy familiar international products or haggle over Afghan antiques with men from Kabul who came as refugees and grew rich as their homeland crumbled.

The newest refugee crisis is causing great alarm in Peshawar, even among settled Afghans who fled the fighting in the 1980s.

This is a troubled, unstable community and events over the coming months are not likely to be kind to this ancient city at the end of Grand Trunk Road.

See also:

13 Oct 01 | From Our Own Correspondent
Living in exile
22 Sep 01 | South Asia
Pakistan's fear of refugee flood
20 Jun 01 | South Asia
Timeline: Pakistan
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