Ever since I was a young boy and had read about the ferocious exploits in and around the Khyber Pass, it had been my dream to visit this historic place.
Forty years later my dream became a reality. However, even in my wildest fantasy, I had not envisaged it would be in a vintage steam train with a send-off to the sound of an Indian Army bagpipe band. The stories of the Khyber Pass involve so much colour and romance, so much tragedy and glory that fact really looks stranger than fiction in this case. As I travelled through the Pass my imagination unfolded pages of history and intrigue.
As we boarded the train amidst much fanfare at Peshawar the emotional consciousness kicked in. Finally, after 40 years, the trip through this desolate and inhospitable land was an actuality. After crossing the flat plains to Jamrud the scenery changed to barren rugged hills, the dryness and desolation is wonderment, its magnificence is enigmatic. It is here, as the British called them, the callous pagan attacked intruders with ruthless vivacity. In fact they were only defending their territory in the only way they were familiar with. Until today, no one really gained the upper hand over the people of the Khyber. Their dedication to their native soil is one of the reasons the Khyber Pass is so intriguing. Today that devotion can be seen on the cricket pitch when Pakistan plays against India.
As the railway climbs so steeply, there are two switchbacks on the line when the engine at the back becomes the lead engine. After the switchbacks the train passes mud-covered houses, built in a fort-like design, the children come rushing out to see the Khyber Express. Their warm smiles and waving arms belies any thought that these people are the lawlessness tribes people that some misguided people want us to believe.
As Shagi Fort came into view we stopped for refreshments at the station on the highest point on the railway line. We disembarked to the accompaniment of musicians playing traditional music. I met Syiad, a local, who was more than happy to explain about their lifestyle. Syiad told me that Khyber’s main area had a population of about half a million and their main crops were wheat, maize sugarcane and rice. However, with a wry smile he told me that their main income was from smuggling. True or not, it all added up to the intrigue of the Khyber Pass.
Back in the train we headed towards the Afghanistan border. The barren hills continued to surround high above the railway line as the train steamed onwards. All along the track young children ran towards he train, out of curiosity or just to greet the travellers, whatever, their smiling faces were a warming feature against the harsh scenery. This was typical of the hospitality we received from the people in this area. Where the railway line was quite steep and the train travelled slowly some of the more adventurous boys tried to jump on board the train, some succeeded, only to be ordered off by the train officials.
Twenty-five kilometres from Jamrud, close to Zarai is the Khyber stupa built in the second century. This three-tiered Buddhist stupa was excavated in the early 1900’s and is one of the many Buddhist sites which, to me shows the Muslim Pakistanis’ tolerance to other religions.
So, after three hours, 33 kilometres, 34 tunnels and 90 bridges and culverts we arrived at Landikotal, 615 metres above Peshawar.
We were then taken up to the Michni Post, manned by the Khyber Rifles, which is strategically located 1,100 metres above sea level overlooking the western portion of the Khyber Pass and the Durand Line, the boundary between Pakistan and Afghanistan. After a briefing by the Commanding Officer we were taken to the Khyber Rifles Officers’ mess for lunch, followed by a visit to their museum and we were entertained by a local cultural group.
Our journey back to Peshawar was by bus, escorted by heavily armed army vehicles. The Khyber Pass road passes through many villages and in many there were cricket matches in progress with all the boys dressed in their shawal khamis, some of the pitches were no more than cleared clay with large rocks as wickets. Perhaps the opportunity to represent Pakistan in a test series is what drives these boys to use whatever is available.
Our Khyber Pass excursion ended as we passed through Bab-e-Khyber (Gates of the Khyber) and onto the NWFP Governor’s Palace for high tea.
I was fortunate on this trip that I was part of a foreign press group invited by the Ministry of Tourism, otherwise the visits to Michni Post and the Khyber Rifles Mess and the special train journey would not have been possible.
However, it saddens me when I see on television all the strife that is currently taking place in this extraordinary part of the world but I smile to myself when I remember Syiad’s comment and wonder if “business” is good.