Edited version published in The Weekend Independent Magazine on 10 December 2010
I stifled a gulp and feigned casual abandon as I signed the consent form to enter the Khyber Pass. The government of Pakistan was not to be held responsible for death or difficulties encountered along the way. My guide beamed at me and said, “Now we collect the armed guard.”
Little did anyone know that the summer of 2007 would prove to be a comparably carefree one for the Khyber Agency, which had been ruled by fiercely independent Pathan tribes for centuries. According to Ahmed Rashid, author of Descent into Chaos, the Pakistani Taliban had taken control of it by the following year. Although it is believed that the Taliban is itself mostly comprised of Pathans, travellers ought to take note of one very important difference between the two groups: whilst the Pathans are exceptionally hospitable and enforce collective tribal punishments on those who commit crimes against travellers, the Taliban prefer to annihilate them. And as the Khyber Pass is the most important supply route for NATO forces fighting in neighbouring Afghanistan, the Taliban attacks convoys and kidnaps commuters with brutal regularity. Pakistan has attempted to clear the area by launching numerous military offensives, but justifiably condemned NATO air strikes for killing Pakistani troops. All this combined has turned the ancient gateway between Pakistan and Afghanistan into one of the world’s most dangerous places. Needless to say, the “Enter at your own risk” form no longer exists: the Khyber Pass is closed to travellers indefinitely. From time to time, the government of Pakistan seals it off altogether.
I sweated in the battered red hatchback as it lay idle in front of the Khyber Guards police station. To be honest, I was a bit disappointed with the vehicle. When booking the trip the day before, I’d imagined traversing the route made legendary by the likes of Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan and Marco Polo in something more sturdy and racy. Tinted windows would have satisfied me, I thought grumpily.
And when the guard appeared, I was somewhat taken aback by his appearance. Despite possessing a thick beard, solemnity and an AK-47, his features were undeniably baby-faced. Sensing my confusion, the guide informed me that our escort was 15 years old and had recently joined the service after his father was killed in action. “How recently?” I wondered. As the guard slid into the front seat without acknowledging our presence, his black woollen uniform made me wince. The only concession to the scorching heat was a pair of open-toed leather sandals. A garment resembling a sawn-off apron was fastened to his chest. It contained three plump pouches, presumably containing bullets. He barely spoke for the next five hours and I never saw him smile. The only glimpse of his personality he afforded us was to accept a few tokes on a joint pre-rolled by the driver. Fortunately, he seemed seasoned enough for it not to induce paranoia.
My travel companion and I were reminded of a few simple rules. It would be pointless to request stops for photographs – such opportunities were few and pre-designated. And while the car was moving, we were to refrain from drawing attention to ourselves (naturally). Finally, as a male, Mark was warned against gazing in the direction of females, should any be wandering freely. The Pathans are fiercely protective of their womenfolk and would shoot without warning if he were caught gawking. “As Oscar Wilde said, ‘I can resist everything but temptation,’” I joked in dubious taste.
We chugged along to our first stop, the Khyber Gate, which marks the official border with the tribal lands from the rest of Pakistan. A granite sign describes the area as “a beautiful and fertile valley surrounded by an unbroken girdle in the shape of a Roman amphitheatre.” It was soon apparent that the Khyber Pass itself is anything but fertile and thus too stark to be beautiful. Like much of Tibet, vegetation is sparse and exclusively limited to the base of grey and brown mountains. Its inhabitants live in almost uniformly unpainted clay fortresses, with slit windows and protruding rifles. Aside from an azure sky, the main source of colour was the plentiful cargo trucks, which were covered in hand-painted designs and every manner of truck-bling possible, including criss-crossed silver chains dangling from the bumper. Our guide reeled off the most common forms of contraband freighted between the border: weapons, drugs, plane parts and counterfeit cash.
We sped past the curiously named Khyber Model School seemingly just as the bell rang. Smiling boys in blue punjabis ran out from underneath its arched sign as I frantically tried to capture the rare glimpse of “normal” life. It’s unlikely that the school still stands today, as the Taliban have blown up the majority.
We made a hurried call to nature by a shallow stream that was 100 metres or so away from the disused Khyber Railway tunnel, which was built by the British for strategic reasons following World War I. When we pulled over at the 1072 metre summit in Landi Kotal, the guard patiently handed over his semi-automatic weapon to us while we posed for photographs that would justify a raised eyebrow from Interpol.
I was pleased to pick up a bargain at the Afghan border. For less than five dollars I’d acquired a complete set of Taliban-issued currency. One of the notes featured charging warriors on horseback; the others were mostly agricultural scenes. I bought the expired currency from a green-eyed Afghan teenager who spoke excellent English. We sat cross-legged against a wall decorated with love-heart graffiti as I gazed longingly at the view of Afghanistan.
“Some day,” I muttered to myself, before hopping back into the rust bucket.
I was surprised when our guide announced that we were stopping for a traditional Pathan lunch. Mark and I were ushered up a flight of steps above a carvanserai, or roadside inn. I accumulated about 20 stares in half as many seconds, before the door was shut swiftly behind me. The room was bare aside from a stack of blankets. When Mark peered out of the slit window for a view of other houses with slit windows, he was promptly told to move away. We sat on charpoys in hungry silence before a plate of chabli kebabs and flatbread arrived. The meat reminded me of my mother’s homemade rissoles – it was curious to be reminded of Australia at a time when I’d never felt so far from it.
A red pillar perched on the final bend bodes travellers a farewell from the Khyber Rifles, an irregular corps of militia recruited from the tribes of the Khyber Agency. The other side of the pillar read, “Raised Nov 1878.” Later, when studying my photos, I noticed that the pillar’s margin contained not one etching of graffiti, but two, by some joker called “Wasim.” I smiled at the seemingly limitless nature of human cheekiness.
And so it seemed that our trip had passed without incident. I tapped my feet along to the blaring Urdu pop cassette while eagerly anticipating a trip to an internet café where I would share my photographs via email attachments (oblivious as I was to the greater pride afforded by Facebook). But then our guide announced that we were making a stop, and before providing a reason, he’d leapt out of the car and into a crowded bazaar. I was chewing my fingernails within seconds. Perhaps it was this ungainly habit that caught the attention of a wild-eyed man, who strode over for a closer look. His hair was unkempt and he was sweating profusely – he was either high or disturbed – or both. He stabbed a finger in the air and began shouting, which resulted in a crowd forming around the car. The guard seemed mysteriously unmoved. The terms of the consent form flashed through my mind – this time I couldn’t stifle the gulp. I almost cried with relief when the guide re-emerged to shoo away the crowd with a guilty grin. We drove back to his office in Peshawar in huffy silence.