Adventurous then, impossible now: my journey along the Khyber Pass

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Edited version published in The Weekend Independent Magazine on 10 December 2010

Striking the standard tourist pose on The Khyber Pass

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.

My 15-year-old armed guard at the Pakistan-Afghanistan border

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.

The Khyber Pass

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.

Fortress homes

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.

Khyber Model School

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.

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18 thoughts on “Adventurous then, impossible now: my journey along the Khyber Pass”

  1. Hi there. I happend on your blog by chance. I too travelled the Kyber back in 1979, when backpacking on my way to Australia (Took me 7 months to get here). You bought back some great memories of that trip through the pass, which I did by bus. Back then, there were no waivers to be signed, just a big sign, as you entered the pass, saying they took no responsibility for you, in a dozen languages. On top of the bus (laying on top of all the goods, chickens, etc) was an old man with a rusty .303 rifle. A token defence at best. Thoroughly enjoyed your pics and story. Thank you. Regan

    1. wow, what a trip that must have been Regan. I met a couple who had done it by bus also – they called it the hippie trail back then. How things change huh. Glad you enjoyed it and do come back here to visit!

  2. Great picture and great article. One day I will visit that portion of the world. Wonderful history and the beautiful scenery makes a great experience.

  3. Hi Jessica – great article!

    I’ve been really hoping to make a trip through the Pass from Pakistan into Afghanistan, but it’s starting to look impossible in 2015. Have you any advice? Thanks!

  4. It’s so funny and kept me reading this when I was looking for something else and stumbled upon this article. You look so nice with the AK47! I used to live just near the khyber Gate and before 9/11, there used to be hundreds of foreigners coming to visit Khyber but now, even I can’t move freely. Wish there was that peace now. The thing is as the author has explained, the Pathan people will never harm a guest even if that is an enemy and even though the Taliban are mostly Pathans but this phenomena is a very complex and we don’t know what is going on and who is behind all this.

      1. Thanks Jess but fortunately I’m living in the UK now. Last month visited Khyber after 6 years and things were much different. Hopefully, by the end of this year life will come to normal. Let’s see!

  5. I’m not so hopeful, though. The prevailing perilous scenario in both Pakistan and Afghanistan doesn’t augur well for either of us to venture near the Khyber in the near future. But I’ve been to Pak before: Lahore (my favourite), Islamabad, Karachi and the wonderful Murrey. I love the constantly chilly winters in northern Pak. And the food..and the music. Too bad, life there is ruined by the politics, bigotry and violence.

  6. Riveting read, Jessica. I still dream of trekking through the legendary Khyber Pass myself. Alas, I haven’t done it yet, and don’t know if I ever will. But reading of your own illuminating and exciting experience here only inspires me anew to try to go there in the near future. Glad you lived to tell the tale. 😉

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