Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Into the Khyber Pass

On the wall of my farmhouse in Somerset just inside the front door is a framed sheet of typed paper. The paper has yellowed with age but holds many memories. It was my first permit to travel into the Khyber Pass a very long time ago.

The permit was valid up to Torkham, the border crossing into Afghanistan. This was before the Taliban had taken control in Kabul, but the instability that was their precursor was already evident and the rest of my next journey into and across Afghanistan was to prove quite eventful.

The Khyber Pass is one of those places that fully lives up to the hype. It is everything those frontier of  Empire stories tried to capture and more. The railway built to rush British troops forward is an engineering marvel and the drive through the narrowest defile in the pass is unforgettable. Here the many regiments that were stationed in the pass have laid their regimental colours into the rock face to mark their passing.

You can see  why it was and is such an impossible place to defend. Towering pickets are built on endless peaks and the whole place exudes a sense of drama and history. The stone below at the entrance to the pass records the opening battle of the second Afghan war at the fort of Ali Masjid in 1872 .

You wander from the road without a guide at your peril as this is the tribal territories where the rule of law is the Pathan's tribal code of  Pashtunwali  and everyone is armed to the teeth.