Stage 16 – Pakistan & Afghanistan: Across The Khyber Pass [1/3]
Since well before leaving on this journey, Afghanistan had been the destination I was – nervously – most excited to visit. In 2007, I had wimped out, for a lack of good information, and in 2008 it had already become impossible to access the border from the Pakistani side – or so I thought. I’d not met (or even heard of) anyone who had entered Afghanistan from Pakistan since meeting Oliver in Bishkek in 2007. The problem lies not with the border crossing itself, which is technically open to all, but in the forty kilometres of road which separate the city limits of Peshawar and the border; the legendary, romantically wild Khyber Pass. This stretch forms part of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), which in reality is a wild and rugged swathe of territory sitting along the Afghanistan border, and which is not under the control of the Pakistani government, but of the various native Pashtun clans who inhabit the area. FATA is considered one of the most wild and dangerous areas on the planet, filled with militants seeping in and out of Afghanistan’s porous eastern border, and the Pakistani authorities are very keen indeed to keep foreigners out – for their own safety. However, having learnt of one other foreign driver being given permission earlier in the year to drive to the border, I am optimistic that I may reach it, and finally fill in the hole in the map which is Afghanistan, fulfilling one of my greatest ambitions.
I leave my home, my sedentary lifestyle and my Pakistani family in Hyderabad on the 10th September 2009, Day 859 of the journey. Although I am sad to leave Aly and his family, all my friends, the teachers with whom I’ve been working, and the comforts of the family home, I am at the same time itching to be moving again, to experience the thrill of being in a totally new country, and go beyond to new parts of Eurasia. If I can cross Afghanistan, then I will have seen nearly everything I wish to in the region, and can move on without any regrets.
It’s also great to be behind the wheel of the truck again, which following a rather lengthy engine overhaul is smoother, torquier and more powerful than ever before. I cross the Indus Bridge at Kotri one last time, then head north up the Indus Highway, through Amri, Sehwan, and Dadu, reaching Larkana in the evening. The following day I drive out to Shahdadkot, where I get onto a track which is rumoured to wind up to Khuzdar in the mountains of Baluchistan. This will apparently one day be the M8 Motorway, connecting the distant port of Gwadar to the main transport artery of Pakistan, but for now it’s nothing but a rough, bulldozed track through the scrubby plains. Not wishing to drive for hours up this rough track only to be confronted with a dead end, I opt to turn around, heading through some squalid Sindhi villages and across the Baluchistan border to join the conventional route to Quetta via Sibi and up the Bolan Pass, arriving in the city at dusk.
The weather is perfect in Quetta, my favourite city in my favourite country. The mountain air and deep blue skies are wonderful, but it is the people who are the real highlight. The majority Pashtuns are perhaps the most charming and endearing people I have met; super-friendly with wide bellies and wider smiles, in their array of impressive dress; elaborate turbans, beautiful, intricately patterned sashes, vast, neatly crafted beards, ornate shoes with upturned points, jewellery set with large, colourful Afghan gems, hennaed hair and eyes often emphasised by kohl (antimony). Lying very close to Afghanistan, Quetta’s population is Afghanistan’s in microcosm. As well as the Pashtuns, one sees Mongol faces; Hazaras, some of whom have lived here for up to 300 years, some refugees from Afghanistan, and Uzbeks with their deeply Central Asian features, who seem to be on the bottom in Quetta; litter pickers, street-sweepers and cleaner. As my good friend Abdul Nasir who lives in the city said, ‘These men, who used to be airforce pilots and top government servants, are now pushing trolleys with potatoes and onions through the bazaar’. Is there any greater tragedy than war?
A wave of nostalgia overcomes me in the wonderful autumn light, and I’m reminded of my first visit to Pakistan, more than six years ago. I remember arriving at the New Muslim Hotel at around 03:00 after the gruelling desert journey from Taftan which I had undertaken with Tomasz, a Czech traveller whom I had befriended the previous day whilst ill in Zahedan, and a Pakistani student returning from Kazakhstan for the summer holidays. Tomasz and I found a room, a little basic, but we were far too tired to care. Next morning I awoke to all the delights of Quetta and my first taste of the Subcontinent. Realising I wasn’t going to get bacon and croissants for breakfast, I headed out of the hotel and found breakfast in a small bakery next door to a laundry shop, inside of which were hanging the iconic shalwaar kameez, the ubiquitous dress of the Pakistani male.
Today, on the surface little has changed. I am the same curious traveller, perhaps a little less wide-eyed and naïve, and preferring the shalwaar kameez over Western dress. The New Muslim Hotel is still there with its grassy courtyard, as is the bakery, the laundry shop and the bus companies luring Shia pilgrims to Iran. But the city has lost its atmosphere as one of the stops on the Great Eurasian Overland. Today, this old bastion of a hotel refuses to take foreigners, as pressure from the authorities has made it too risky. As the owner told me: ‘All the foreigners used to come here. Sometimes we had forty or fifty at a time. Now, if anything happens to those foreigners, here, or on the road after they have left, we are responsible. We have to foot the bill of the investigation’.
Quetta suffers at least three degrees of tension; from it’s proximity to the most dangerous southern provinces of Afghanistan, for the insurgency of the Baluchistan Liberation Army which has taken recently to killing ‘non-local’ Pakistanis (i.e. Punjabis), bombing busy city streets, and kidnapping foreigners, and from the age old sectarian violence between Shias and Sunnis. It’s rather difficult to reconcile the friendly and welcoming face of the city with its dark and dangerous undertones. Today therefore, tourists are down to a tiny trickle, usually escorted and cosseted by Police (something I manage to avoid simply by dressing and behaving as a local). Even the locals are afraid to go out too much. Few hotels are taking foreigners, the Police are more than a little jittery, and foreigners are being kidnapped. I’m still happy however to sit on a bench on Jinnah Road and simply watch the world go by; the swarthy and elegant Pashtuns, the old buses with boys hanging out, shouting ‘Sariyab! Sariyab! Double Road!’ The train still hoots past on the far side of Zarghun Road on its way to the Bolan Pass and further, down to the sweltering plains; a journey I made in 2003 which was, regardless of my rose-tinted spectacles, an ordeal of heat, dirt and discomfort.
My route out of Quetta is a new one, and I have chosen it for two reasons; firstly, it is one of the (few) areas of Pakistan which I have not seen, lying away from the main transport corridor up the Indus Valley, and secondly it is an area known for insecurity, with frequent bomb and rocket attacks, and military operations. This will be something of a water-test for Afghanistan. If I feel comfortable in these areas, then I will feel fine in Afghanistan, for this western corridor of Pakistan is probably not much safer than the worst parts of Afghanistan. The difference is that, should things get hairy, I can (hopefully) siphon myself off to the east, back to home territory. The same might not be possible in Afghanistan.
In Quetta’s huge car parts bazaar I purchase for three US Dollars a a set of license plates for the truck, with my UK registration number set out in such a way as to look like Pakistani plates on brief inspection. Together with my native dress, and a Pashtun complexion enhanced by my green eyes and (rather sparse) reddish beard, I pass on first sight in my Toyota Hilux as a native. Until I open my mouth at least.
I leave Quetta one morning with that wonderful excitement one gets when entering the unknown, though I initially miss my turn and drive most of the way to the border town of Chaman, on the road to Kandahar. Doubling back a short way, I start my journey north-east along a perfect road, in the gentle autumn warmth, under deep blue skies. There is little traffic on the road, which reminds me of the east of Iran and passes irrigated oases of verdant orchards and vineyards. The otherwise rocky and barren plain is dotted with scruffy white nomads’ tents, against which large piles of hay are stacked, attended by a compliment of livestock and wild-looking children.
After Qilla Saifullah the road becomes narrower and almost devoid of traffic. Stark, rugged mountains close in on either side, and I climb slightly before reaching the town of Zhob. The 1998 Lonely Planet guidebook, which I used on my first trip to Pakistan, described Zhob as a town for those ‘with a death wish’, which as I have now come to realise, most likely meant that the ‘author’ had never been there. Zhob is a quaint town quite unlike any other I’ve seen in the country; a wonderful old place of traditional wooden houses with ornate balconies, and colourful bazaars. The police have the presence of mind (an unusual presence) to keep cars and bikes out of the bazaars, which gives them a wonderful relaxed atmosphere. As another day of Ramadan fasting comes to an end, the bazaars are full of eager Pashtun men purchasing their ifthar, the greasy snack of fried potatoes or pakora which is traditionally taken to break the fast at sundown. A sizeable crowd of inquisitive men gather around me once I pull my camera out and give myself away as a foreigner, all of whom are friendly, with the exception of one man who after inquiring if I am a Sunni or Shia, is unimpressed to be told that I am not a Muslim, and walks off.
I am befriended by two provincial education inspectors who are visiting schools in the region, and who take me out for dinner. ‘There is only a small Taliban presence in the area, no foreigner has ever been kidnapped here’ they tell me. That might have something to do with the fact that about one foreigner per year makes it here. I stay in a comfortable hotel in the city centre, sleeping under a blanket branded ‘Tora Bora’.
From Zhob, the road climbs gently into the Suleiman Mountains which at this time of year are teeming with Kuchi nomads making their way down from high pastures to the plains around Dera Ismail Khan. Like people from another world, they guide their livestock of camels, sheep, goats and donkeys. The men have colourful and elaborate silk turbans, whilst the women have startlingly brilliant dresses of pinks, yellows, reds, blues and purples, and guide the camels, often with gawky juveniles of their own in tow, careful to cover their heads, and often their faces in their luminous headscarves at the sight of a passing motorist. Once I catch a glimpse of one young woman; tall and slender and alluringly beautiful, her face somewhere between South and Central Asian. Perched on the camels, upon red and black nomads’ rugs with bold and simple designs sit children, with white skin and shocks of tousled, deep red hair. Occasionally there are men on horseback, deftly in control of their steeds, a skill no doubt honed through generations of nomadic life. They amble along the road, or along the gravelly plains beyond, a riot of animals, nomad colours, alluring faces and earthy, ancient smells, funnelling into the narrow passes which take them from the borderlands of nomadic Central Asia to the sedentary plains of India. The scene is so timeless that it might be a re-enactment of the original Aryan incursion into the Subcontinent, all those millennia ago.
The road twists up and over some short passes and defiles as I approach the border into what I think is the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), where the police stop me. I’m nervous at being turned around and escorted back down to the lowlands by the officers who speak to me first in Pashto, then Urdu, then finally English after I say something. They are surprised, so much so perhaps that they allow me to pass, and I am loosed into what I would later learn was South Waziristan, one of the most dangerous places on Earth.
The scenery is epic and truly takes me by surprise, twisting through river beds and across wide plains with distant mountain vistas, over gravel plains with isolated yet pleasant-looking villages, whose existence is evidenced by the greenery surrounding them. Eventually, an immense valley opens up along a twist of the river, with mountains plunging over one thousand metres to the valley bottom. On one ridge sits what looks from a distance to be a fine Tibetan-style fort, but turns out to be a Frontier Corps stronghold, still in active use. The road then descends into a stupendous gorge so deep and narrow that the sun is completely blocked out, and the road hacked from right out of the mountainside. The area has the grandeur of parts of the Karakoram Highway, albeit without the snowcapped peaks and apricot orchards. Once through the gorge, the land starts to soften, and the bleak, beautiful aspect of the mountains submits to the pale skies and vegetation of South Asia. Scrubby plants start to appear on thin soils, and small villages become more frequent as the road descends around the last ridges, down onto the plains of the Northwest Frontier.
Just outside of Dera Ismail Khan I rejoin the Indus Highway and head north, through an area which I deem to be potentially unsafe; towns such as Bannu are in the newspapers every week without fail for bombs, shootings and murder. Rather ominously I pass an army convoy, which causes all nearby cars to stop at the roadside. The country looks unassuming; sparse, rather arid farmland not unlike Sindh. I bypass the town of Bannu, passing the outliers of the mountains – the isolated ripples and ridges of a mass of rock which stretches north to the edges of Siberia – here dry, dusty eroded forms. Winding up onto the Potohar Plateau, the Police stop me once again near the town of Karak, this time on the grounds of my fake Pakistani number plate, assuming mine to be a car illegally smuggled from Afghanistan. They are immediately satisfied once I explain that the car is British (what a wonderful asset it is to have pragmatic law enforcement), but are rather surprised to see me, explaining that before the recent ‘operation’ in the area, it was too unsafe for them to be there.
The road is in good condition, lined with young eucalypts. The landscape is a red soil plateau, with small streams and lush, verdant grass. Small patches when flat, are cultivated, and messy villages huddle around these fertile swathes. The locals are all Pashtuns and look very conservative though friendly, but I heed the advice of the Police and refrain from stopping. It feels safe and pleasant, and is rather beautiful. I enter Kohat around 17:00, a messy city nestling at the base of a belt of mountains which separates it from the provincial capital Peshawar, and contains the tribal area of Dara Adam Khel, once famous on the overland trail as a place to fire a few guns and watch the gunsmiths at work. It’s a tempting place to visit, but I refrain, on the advice of my Pashtun friend Zia who now lives in Hyderabad; a friend of Zia’s, local to the area, was murdered in Dara Adam Khel not long ago.
I find a hotel run by a friendly old Pashtun with a long white beard and blue cat-like eyes, who is more than a little surprised to have a foreigner check-in. Behind the hotel, right under my window, is a raucous fruit market with boxes of grapes and piles of apples in truly vast quantities, sold wholesale. One grape-seller, an ebullient Pashtun with a rich black beard and round white topi (cap) stands upon a house-sized stack of grape crates and bellows prices down with an accusing finger to thronging customers in a kind of reverse auction; ‘SAAT-SO’, ‘CHE-SO’… (seven-hundred, six hundred..). His appearance and manner would be more suited, I can’t help feeling, to delivering fiery sermons at a local mosque. Despite being Ramadan, the market starts up again at about three in the morning, reaching its climax between six and seven when most Pakistanis have long since retired to bed after Sehri (pre-dawn Ramadan breakfast).
I break the fast that evening in a local restaurant with an ice-cream salesman from Peshawar who is visiting the city on business, and warns me that it is dangerous. Everyone I meet in Kohat is friendly, warm and kind, and the place feels fairly safe, with little tension. But that was my misconception. I later learn that earlier in the day on which I had arrived, a number of grenades (which didn’t go off) were thrown at the police station directly opposite the hotel I would check-into that evening. Two days later, a massive suicide-bomb ripped through a portion of the city on the same street as the hotel, killing twenty-five people.
The road east, into the Punjab winds through the rolling uplands of the Potohar Plateau, synonymous with the Greco-Buddhist civilisation of Gandhara, with scattered small farming communities and hazy views of colourful hills. I cross a small river over a narrow bridge and, without realising it, I’ve crossed the Indus and am in Punjab, whereupon the land flattens out, becomes more populated, but feels more relaxed and secure. The road climbs steadily towards the Margalla Hills, joins the Grand Trunk Road for a few kilometres, and then I’m in the capital.
I’ve rather enjoyed the edgy drive up here from Hyderabad, and feel emboldened to make my way across Afghanistan. All I have to do now is sort out permits, three visas, a visa extension, and a customs extension. Simple.