THE KHYBER PASS

Many, many, MANY years ago now, I spent two years in what was then East Pakistan. I have many stories still to write about my time there, and some of them will get written soon, and some later, and some maybe never. But one that must be written is of a visit to West Pakistan and the experience of traveling through the Khyber Pass. My time there was many years before the war in Afghanistan, and slightly before the war that separated East and West Pakistan into two separate countries, and there was a state of normalcy which vastly enhanced the travel experience. I am glad I saw more than a few places before they were bombed and mangled and crippled by wars and bombs and hatred.

Even before I came to the subcontinent, the notion of the Khyber Pass filled me with great excitement, born of wonderful adventure tales of the exploits of the Khyber Rifles. It did not occur to me as a young girl reading those tales that the glorious victories enjoyed by those brave men may have well been gained at the expense of other people with a very different agenda , people who not impossibly didnít understand why they were being shot at. Even with the reservations that come with maturity, however, I must tell you that finding myself and my companion in a car traveling north from Peshawar into tribal territory was extraordinarily thrilling.

The north-west frontier begins about ten miles north of Peshawar, and, at least in 1964, one was required to have a permit to enter the area, which was a sort of no-manís land. The Pakistani government paid the tribal groups to keep the peace, but the frontier, in real terms, came under the jurisdiction of neither Pakistan or Afghanistan: it was controlled by its proud and fiercely independent tribesmen. Tribal men, mostly Pathans, were all armed, and had no particular qualms about using their guns if they thought the occasion warranted. In fact, however, from my time in Peshawar, I knew them to be courteous and just, and had no particular fear of being used for target practice. Nevertheless it is true that if you were taken for the enemy and shot in the territory, the Pakistani government assumed no responsibility - just your tough luck. So, although there were many times when we were tempted - or, at least, I was tempted, to get out and poke around, I contented myself for the most part with a view from the window. The tribal villages were highly and strongly walled, the country rugged and barren, and the whole area oozed of the sense of tenacious resistance born of long and bitter memory .

The Khyber Pass begins about fifteen miles inside the frontier zone, when the plain gives way quite sharply to high, barren hills. It is easy to see how dangerous was the task of the British to police the area, where every nook and cranny provides camouflage for a possible hidden marksman. Caves had been dug into the dry, rocky hillsides, and people were still living in them. There was a British-built pumping station about ten miles up in the mountains, right beside the roadway; the water pumped from China to this station, and piped from there tp open wells, provided almost the only source of water in the entire frontier area. On the tops of the hills were small forts - it was impossible to tell if they had been built by the British or the tribesmen, but they added considerably to the wild, fierce aspect of the land. Scattered among the hills the length of the Pass were the plaques identifying many of the regiments that served in the area: the Cheshire Regiment, the Hindoostan Rifles, the Khyber Rifles. Shaggai Fort, which had been the headquarters of the Khyber Rifles, was still, at that time, an imposing landmark, located, as you may recall from a Kipling poem ďat the gut of the tongue of JagaiĒ : on a hill surrounded by higher hills forming a narrow neck of land. Many outposts of the Khyber Rifles were located all over the frontier and in Peshawar.

The Pass ends at the Afghan border. Here we got out of our car to take pictures. We were allowed to photograph the Afghanistan side, but not within Pakistan, for although the Pakistan military was most noticeably absent within the tribal territory, they maintained a military post at the border, which they treated very seriously, as if to make up for their helplessness deeper in the hills.

On the way back to Peshawar, the driver stopped the car in what appeared to be an empty widening in the road, with no humanity in sight. As we got out, however, a whole town appeared below the level of the roadbed. A large town, with the bewilderingly complex streets and lanes and alleyways that are characteristic of any Eastern market town. The town had been a former caravansary, and was now a very hot spot for trading very hot goods - watches, radios, record players, alarm clocks - anything western, which had been smuggled either through Afghanistan, or through Iran to that astonishing settlement. We bought some film while we reflected on the changing world, and worried for the fate of those brave, independent frontier men and women and their lovely, wild land.


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