“So when did you last see a tourist”? I asked the man, a resident of Battagram, a Pashtun town in NW Pakistan. “Ummm….” he pondered, eyes to the sky, deep in thought, “15…..17,18 years ago, when I was at school”. His answer probably explains the slack jawed gawping from just about everybody l passed in the street. Needless to say, those who managed to stop staring were incredibly friendly. A few days earlier in the small Swat Valley town of Bahrain I’d got the answer of nearly twenty years for the same question. Obviously that’s not to say that there hadn’t been other tourists, the local police said the last one was three months ago but even so it might be a while before the Swat Valley Hilton opens its doors.
Bahrain police were so overjoyed to have a visitor I was invited in for tea and biscuits with the Chief of Police and the Commissioner, where we had a most pleasant chat for an hour. One can only assume that since the ousting of the Taliban in 2009 their workload has decreased somewhat.
In the Top Ten of words liable to put a dent in a tourist industry we can safely say that Taliban is fairly secure in the Number 2 spot, right behind ISIS, despite several years of relative peace in the area. I say relative because they haven’t totally disappeared, as a suicide bomber at an army base elsewhere in the valley proved only a couple of weeks before my arrival. By virtue of the fact Pakistan doesn’t like making a big deal in the news about such pesky little events, I was blissfully unaware of it at the time. Given how protective the security forces are about us tourists and the fact that they had lifted the requirement for special permission to enter the region back in 2016, they must be pretty confident about the level of risk. At times however, there is a strange disconnect with the police: they will be eager to tell you how all the problems are over and how safe the area is but still insist you must have an armed guard with you because of security issues. The guard I was assigned in Bahrain provided a level of entertainment by virtue of sounding remarkably like Borat, including a matching moustache, although I suspect he was almost certainly unfamiliar with the film in question.
The region’s stunning scenery of snow-capped peaks and steep green valleys was always a big draw for Pakistanis as it was for the more adventurous backpackers in the time before the shit show in neighbouring Afghanistan caused problems to spill over. Discovering that the Pakistani Secret Service had arranged a holiday home for Osama bin Laden just down the road in Abbatobad didn’t exactly do the holiday profile of the region much good either. The aforementioned home has been bulldozed, which is unfortunate, at least in terms of providing some tourist potential for the otherwise unremarkable city, although adoring fans making pilgrimages might have been a bit of an issue.
The other big attraction for the region is that Pakistanis’ already legendary hospitality and generosity steps up yet another gear. On three of the four bus journeys I took, the passenger next to me insisted on paying my fare; food stalls and restaurants sometimes refused any money and of course there was always tea. Although it was only in Battagram that the staring reached endemic levels I found people everywhere to be immensely helpful and eager to chat.
Until stability comes to Afghanistan it will be impossible to rule out the potential for problems, the border here being an absurd, British, colonial imposition of complete irrelevance to the Pashtun people living either side of it. This region now renamed Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province may only be at the beginning of a long slow road back to reclaiming its tourist industry but its wonderful people and outstanding scenery certainly merit a full recovery. Lets hope the people I spoke to don’t have to wait another twenty years to see their next foreign tourist.