Stage 16 – Pakistan & Afghanistan: Across The Khyber Pass [2/3]
I arrive in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad on the 16th September 2009, and set down my tent at the ‘Islamabad Campsite for Foreign Tourists’. The days are rather humid, but the nights cool and pleasant and I enjoy fresh doughnuts for breakfast and lunches and dinners of fresh dal, chick peas, pakora curry, or kebabs; life is pretty comfortable. There is a clutch of other travellers camped here; a German couple heading back to Germany with their young children after three years driving around the world, an older Dutch couple in an enormous mobile home lorry-conversion, Walter and Lori, a German couple whom I had met last year, on the road for nine years in their mobile home, and Simon, a Swiss traveller whom I had met earlier in the summer in Gilgit, who sadly had been turned back from the Chinese border with his donkeys (with which he had been planning to walk back to Switzerland), and was now trying to replace his broken passport and dissuade his girlfriend from flying home.
The less pleasant part of my time in Islamabad is all the running round from office to embassy. I request a second visa extension, and am told to leave Pakistan by a pompous Punjabi at the Ministry of Interior, who eventually agrees to give me a three week final visa extension (marked ‘FINAL’ in my passport) on the grounds of my appeal that I had no way out of the country at the time.
I also need to extend the duty-free period for the truck, to avoid it being confiscated (something which has befallen a few oblivious travellers), at the Federal Board of Revenue. Here I have a wonderful stroke of luck, in meeting Sadiqullah, a marvellously intelligent and entertaining middle-aged Pashtun from North Waziristan, whom I immediately befriend. He helps me sort out my documents, and we meet in the evening for dinner. Although his name rings a bell, it’s not until he starts to tell me of his previous postings that it strikes me that Sadiqullah is a long-lost friend of Aly in Hyderabad, who is very happy to hear from him when we call a moment later. In a country of 170 million people it’s quite a coincidence.
On another evening, as we are strolling through a park, I tell Sadiqullah of my recent journey through the rather unstable North West Frontier Province (NWFP), close to his family home. We move on to the subject of why the country has become so destabilised, particularly in the regions inhabited by his fellow Pashtuns. Sadiquallah spreads a little light on the incredibly murky and impenetrable subject of politics in Pakistan, as follows. Persian was previously – for a long time – the second language of Pakistan, a language he remembers learning at school. It was the language of the court of India, of the Moghuls. During Pakistan’s upheavals under the military government of Zia ul-Haq in the 1970s, Arabic was introduced by an administration of Punjabis, a people whom Sadiqullah describes as “having no culture, and who have never been rulers”. Whilst Persian was a language of poetry, with close links to Urdu, Arabic was the language of religion, a language which virtually nobody knew. Thus came increasing control from the Mullahs and medressahs, which infiltrated Pakistani society. In the case of the Pashtuns, it sat especially easily alongside an extremely strict and rigid code of tribal values which has given rise, with the help of US sponsorship of the Mujaheddin in the 1980s, to the current situation of Islamic ‘extremism’ which blights the life of so many Pashtuns, both directly as a threat from bombings and counter-insurgency, and in an increasingly widespread mistrust of Pashtuns. Sadiqullah would love to take me to his native North Waziristan, but explains that to do so would be a threat to both our lives. He’s a man who fears returning to his native home, thanks to the machinations of geopolitics which have destroyed so many lives in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
I receive news from the Iranian authorities that I have been approved to apply for a visa, and I also receive a visa for Afghanistan with little fuss. The largest piece of paperwork remains however; the permit to drive from Peshawar to the Khyber Pass. For this, I must speak to the right people in Peshawar, an ancient city which was the Kushan capital Purushapura. Despite having travelled widely in Pakistan, I have somehow never managed to visit Peshawar, something I regret slightly on arrival as it’s an immediately endearing place. I am here primarily for paperwork however. At the office of the Khyber Political Agent, I am immediately refused a permit to travel to the Khyber Pass, though on explaining that I have a vehicle and must pass this border, I am directed to speak to a Mr Munir Ullah, at the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) Secretariat across town. Mr Ullah, who turns out to be ‘Head of Narcotics’ is a patient and helpful man, who listens sincerely to my case that I have a visa which is due to expire, no visa for Iran, and must therefore return to my home via Afghanistan. I leave his office optimistic.
The next day I make a phone-call from a chaikhana in the bazaar, and speak to Mr Ullah, who tells me: “Mr Daniel, there are two districts which you must pass through in Khyber Agency, Torkham and Jamrud. We have received permission for you to proceed from Torkham, and once we receive the permission from Jamrud, we will be able to issue you a permit. Please call tomorrow at 10.” I begin to believe that the impossible is possible; one must simply ask the right people in the right manner.
The very next day I have my permit in hand, to drive from Peshawar across the Khyber Pass on the 10th October. I don’t think I’ve ever valued a piece of paper as much as this simple typed document. Years of dreaming of Afghanistan are about to come to fruition. But with the final barrier dropped, permit in hand, visa in passport, the doubts and fears seem closer. I’m about to enter what, to all intents and purposes, is a warzone, for nothing more than to satisfy my curiosity about the country. Afghanistan has become more than just another country and a string of sights however; this isolated, savagely beautiful, wild and war-torn country has become something of a Shangri-La. It is to me what what Bukhara was to Alexander Burnes, or Tibet to Francis Younghusband. I simply must see this country. I have become obsessed by it, and will happily risk my life to see it. A fear of death is perhaps more a fear of wasted life, for death is inevitable. If one is doing exactly what one wants in life, perhaps death becomes less frightening.
Returning to Islamabad that evening to collect the last onward visas and take stock before moving off, a storm comes over the plains. Beyond the city, to the west, a band of late-afternoon light from beyond the stormclouds picks out the mountainscape of the Northwest Frontier in a jaundiced silhouette, low but immense, occupying the entire horizon in a broad mass of sharp, overlappng, barren peaks. These are not the rolling green hills which give Islamabad its pleasant backdrop; these mountains form one of the wildest, most lawless and dangerous areas on Earth, and my feelings in anticipation are of equal parts delight and terror. I’ll certainly breathe a sigh of relief once I reach the safety of Kabul.
The days in Islamabad pass easily; it’s a city of relative comforts, and something of a shock after the rest of Pakistan with its orderly green streets and relative cleanliness; a world away from the filth, chaos and noise of every other city in the country. For all its slightly characterless suburban pleasantries however, it is a city gripped by security paranoia and stacked full of barriers, security gates and concrete bollards. Near any diplomatic building or major government office will be a plethora of guards behind sandbags, checking with mirrors under incoming vehicles and otherwise sitting down and passing time doing very little at all. Tens of thousands of men spend their days sitting about with nothing to do. The most shocking of all these defences is undoubtedly outside the Marriot Hotel, which is barely visible behind four-metre high walls of sandbags and numerous security checkpoints. Islamabad’s neat grid-plan of streets, designed for easy access, has been jerrymandered into a complex system of blocked roads, U-turns and bottlenecks at security checkposts. The huge, almost Soviet-looking Constitution Avenue, which runs past many high-profile government offices, the Supreme Court, Parliament and disgracefully lavish Presidential Residence in ten neat lanes with manicured lawns and trees, is virtually empty thanks to strict police checks. Islamabad is a city on the frontline of the War on Terror, or rather the terror which results from this war.
I have two visas to collect in Islamabad, in no particular order. I had planned to visit the Uzbek Embassy this Monday morning, but at the last moment change my mind and go instead to the Iranian Embassy. When I get back I learn that there was a bombing in the headquarters of the World Food Programme which killed five. The office is directly opposite the waiting area outside the Uzbek Embassy.
I drive to Peshawar on the Thursday, back into the clamorous Old City. When I was here last week, I had a light-hearted look around the bazaars; this time it’s the last stop before I take the plunge into Afghanistan. I have all visas and permits in hand, and am pretty much past the point of no return. I discover new joys in Peshawar however, finding a truly wonderful section of the Old City with just enough old charm and not quite enough smoking rickshaws and furious motorcyclists to make the place every bit as enchanting as Damascus or Shiraz. It’s a delight to sit sipping kawa (zesty green tea) on a charphai (rope bed) in the old Storyteller’s Bazaar, where merchants would come from India, Inner Asia, Persia and beyond to spin yarns and exchange information, as well as sell their goods. All around is the faded elegance of the old buildings; tall, elegant town houses of the rich old Hindu and Sikh merchants who are long gone, their splendidly faded abodes with carved wooden balconies and shuttered windows a leftover from old India, British India, a past era which has been utterly and irrevocably consigned to history.
In this bazaar can be found many of the most sensuous delights of South Asia; the wafting cry of the muezzin echoing around the labyrinthine rooftops; the smell of spices, tea and roses wafting from stalls whose wares have remained unchanged through the centuries; and the momentary glance of a woman’s dark, beautiful eyes from an otherwise veiled face of deepest black, as she flits silently through the raucous crowds. I could sit here for hours in this richest and most enchanting of environments. The local residents of Peshawar are similarly charming; outrightly friendly, with even the most fierce or vagabondish face erupting into a gentle, genuine smile on hearing the most passing politeness or gesture of greeting from me. I find myself flitting from shop to shop, learning and absorbing the interactions. These warm Pashtun shopkeepers are acutely aware of the negative image which Pakistan, and Muslims in general have in the Western media and it troubles them (and frankly myself) that the extremists who have hijacked a peaceful and humanist faith are the darlings of this media, something which is degrading to these people both as Pashtuns and Muslims.
The Old City exudes a genuine, centuries-old essence of having been lived in since time immemorial; a woven tapestry of small interactions so perfectly balanced and immensely intricate – the cool bargaining of merchants and customers, the errand boys running between shops and the teahouses with trays of pots and bowls, the old men pulling carts laden with boxes, and the craftsmen at work in open-fronted rooms; tailors, goldsmiths, watchmakers, printers and cobblers. The place must have run like this for centuries, and there’s not a trace of soulless, glass-fronted ugliness, no multinationals, no e-shopping. It’s timeless, and deeply, intensely human, an enclave of the old Silk Road frozen in time, a showcase of a pre-globalised world. The murmurous patter of all the human interactions is the very essence of the Asian Bazaar, which must be as old as civilisation itself.
The 9th October is my final full day in Pakistan, and together with Kausar, a native of Peshawar whom I had met earlier in the year, I take advantage of Peshawar’s well-stocked Khyber Bazaar to stock up on some last minute clothes and supplies. We leave the bazaar in a rickshaw, and ten minutes later switch on the television in his office to learn that a bomb had gone off. Moments after we left the bazaar, a minibus carrying 100 kg of explosives detonated at a busy crossroads – exactly where we had been – killing 49 people. It’s the second time this week that I have narrowly missed being at the site of a bomb attack though strangely, the fact hardly affects me at all.
In the evening I meet Shahab, a Pakistani Pashtun who moves between Peshawar, where his family live, and Kabul where he works. I’m hoping to stay with Shahab in Kabul, and looking forward to being shown around Peshawar by him this evening. We agree to meet in the Rose Hotel, which is on one corner of the crossroads where the bomb went off earlier today. The area is closed off to vehicles, and has been sanitized, though rubble and twisted wreckage remain, drawing huge crowds of curious locals and a few foreign journalists.
I arrive early in the hotel, where I meet Keith, one of those unashamedly eccentric characters one seems only to meet when travelling. Tall and well-built, loud and flamboyant, Keith, half Geordie and half Turkish has long, flowing hennaed hair and wears an Egyptian jellabiya which stands out from the ubiquitous shalwaar kameez of Pakistan. Keith had been teaching music in Lahore, where I had initially met him last year, and on joining him for dinner one evening had realised that he seemed to be on very good terms with most of the young men in the neighbourhood. I meet Keith this time fleeing the lobby of the Rose Hotel, chased by a young man brandishing a cane, whom he had presumably fondled. He wouldn’t be out of place as a character in a Graham Greene novel. Being just outside the bomb site, Keith had gone out and immediately witnessed the aftermath, and was shocked not only by the carnage and gore, but at the reactions of the local people, walking around casually taking photographs of the dead and dying as if it were some kind of art installation. It seems that one can remarkably quickly become desensitised to appalling violence.
Shahab soon arrives and takes me around town briefly in his Landcruiser, to the vast Islamia University College which exemplifies the pink sandstone fusion of Moghul and Gothic styles found in the Subcontinent’s grandest Raj-era buildings. We then drive west to the edge of town and into the salubrious suburb of Hayatabad – a mini Islamabad – with orderly streets and opulent mansions. We visit a good friend of his, who is picnicking on his lawn in the pleasantly cool evening, and have tea brought to us by a servant. We then pick up Shahab’s brother-in-law to-be, Ali, and I’m taken to an upmarket restaurant on the city’s Ring Road. Here we are served some Pashtun fare, eating masses of meat; huge slabs of lamb flame-grilled with no accompaniment; just the taste of pure, fresh meat, a carnivore’s heaven. As we sit on the manicured green lawn, served by fawning waiters in tails, large trucks pass by frequently, supplying NATO forces in Afghanistan. Just earlier that day a number of them had been set ablaze by what the local media called ‘miscreants’.
After eating we head to Ali’s thirteen-bedroom mansion. “This is our town house; it gets too tiring to drive from our village every day”. The family own a large amount of land a few kilometres beyond the city limits of Peshawar, in a village which I suspect effectively belongs to them. Outside this palatial town house, which would not look out of place on the French Riviera or on a Caribbean Island is a flock of luxury cars and SUVs, though Ali bemoans that he prefers not to use the black, S-Class Mercedes, as one becomes a target for kidnapping.
We drink more kawa from ornate, bone china cups on the lawn. Just at the end of the road, a stone’s throw away from this luxury begin the Tribal Areas; Khyber Agency, an almost medieval society of fortified mud-brick buildings and strict tribal codes which include violent inter-tribal conflicts, honour killings and a huge drugs trade. With alarming regularity these days, rockets rain down on these opulent western suburbs of Peshawar, on the very limit of government-controlled territory, from the restive Tribal Areas just beyond. I’m awestruck by Ali’s house; I don’t think I’ve ever been to a more impressive home. “In England, we can only dream of living in a house like this” I say fawningly. “You’d be surprised how many of us would trade it all for the safety and security you enjoy in England” Ali counters sincerely. Many have, of course. I wonder how many of these rich landowners and warlords have left such wealth and power to live in grey and dowdy cities in the UK.
As often happens with Pashtuns, the conversation turns to guns: “They are part of our culture, part of being a man. Everyone here has at least one gun, even the simplest, most peaceful man will have one… you never know what can happen. They are cheap, it’s like having a mobile phone, a basic of life for us. And it keeps petty crime down; nobody will try to steal you wallet or mobile phone in case you have your gun with you”. Ali and his uncle regale me with stories of horrific weaponry used in tribal wars; these aren’t noble horsemen who fire muskets at each other, but born-and-bred fighters who are heavily armed with modern weaponry, all manner of assault rifles, high-calibre cannons and anti-aircraft guns. “In the tribal areas, they mount them on top of the house and during times of war, fire at people as they approach. Once we bought an old Russian tank from Afghanistan; it was cheap, only 130,000 rupees. We kept it and used to drive it round and fire it ocassionally. Then one day the Political Agent in Peshawar wrote to us, and asked kindly that we surrender it, which we did”. Shahab drives me back to my hotel in the city centre, my head spinning with the days events; a major bombing followed by an amazing insight into the life of the rich and powerful of the region.
On the morning of the 10th October, I drive to the Khyber Political Agent’s office where I am to pick up my levies; members of the Khyber Khassadar Force (KKF), who are picked from Pakistan’s tribal areas and provide some semblance of security along the road to the border. In reality they are the subject of frequent attacks, and spend much of their time behind thick walls of sandbags, in fear of their lives. I’m feeling a little nervous; despite Shahab, who has driven the infamous Peshawar – Kabul road several times, reassuring me that it is fairly safe at present, I’m still about to enter a country where I have few contacts. I am also nervous in case this all comes to nothing, that something happens at the last minute which will prevent me from reaching my goal, after all the preparation and anticipation.
The tension eases as I pick up two armed levies and head out of the city. At Khyber Gate, the symbolic entrance to the Tribal Areas, I am joined by another Toyota Hilux, full of KKF levies. Immediately, we go back in time; all around are scattered village buildings, squat, mud-brick enclosures with fortified towers which would not look out of place on a Medieval British castle. The road is busy however and doesn’t feel hostile, but my escort puts on sirens and flashing lights, stopping traffic at the roadside as I’m whisked up like a VIP. I am a huge responsibility for these men, but at the same time their presence and haste make me a conspicuous target as we wind up the mountains into forbidding, rocky territory.
Like the Bolan Pass, the Khyber is less of a marked crestline between two valleys, and more a winding passage through a rocky defile which snakes around the base of much higher mountains. The scenery seems to be inextricably linked with the toughness and austerity of the people here; small nondescript villages and fairly wild-looking towns give it a wonderful frontier atmosphere; wild and romantic with the old ways of tribal vendetta. Every turn seems to offer a new position for ambush from the slopes above. Shortly after the village of Ali Masjid, where the road enters a narrow, twisting valley, looming above the road is the Kushan Sphola Stupa, somewhat incongruous against the backdrop of tribal warfare, but a reminder that this artery has been the gateway between India and Central Asia for millennia. Alexander’s Armies marched through here and shortly after, it was the conduit through which Buddhism left India, spreading into Central Asia, Tibet, Mongolia, ultimately reaching Korea and Japan. I am truly privileged in this day and age to have the chance to drive myself over this historical divide.
Shortly after, I pass the huge, fortified complex of drug-warlord Ayub Afridi – Asia’s Pablo Escobar – who lives a life of vast wealth derived from drug-trafficking (it’s widely rumoured that the CIA used Afridi’s network to supply money and arms to the Mujaheddin in the 1980s), wholly unmolested by any authority. I pass through the wild-looking town of Landi Kotal, which looks to have been built specifically to withstand a siege, and shortly after, the road turns at Michni Post where the land rolls away steeply to reveal a narrow valley choked with lorries and other indiscernible chaos in the hazy distance. This sprawl is the cross-border town of Torkham. I have crossed the Khyber Pass.
Heading down into town with my escort eager to have me off their hands, I first must visit the customs office to have my truck stamped out of the country. Outside, it’s bedlam with dozens of people milling around, forms and payments changing hands, huge old ledgers and walls stacked high with decaying old papers. A foreigner is not a common sight here, and so I’m led off to a beautifully serene courtyard out at the back, where the senior customs officer sits under a tree amongst voluminous bougainvillea. An enormous old ledger is brought out in which are recorded all foreign vehicles crossing this border, with records going back to the 1970s. It’s an incredible historical document charting the end of a golden age of travel, the Great Overland Trail, or Hippy Trail, which saw people routinely driving cars from Europe to India, passing a beautiful, pre-war Afghanistan. How times have changed since then. I am taking the fourth foreign vehicle across since the area was officially closed to foreigners early last year, and the seventh since my Austrian friend Oliver crossed in 2007.
I drop Sadiqullahs name to the officers, which is a good move as they all know him, and the paperwork is processed quickly. They comment that I have considerably overstayed, but Sadiquallah’s letter seals any problems. After tea and biscuits, my force of levies, which by now has grown to a small troop, take me to the immigration window, where my passport is stamped in deep red: ‘EXIT PAKISTAN VIA TORKHAM’, and I’m bundled past the last gate and onto the border line. I have reached Afghanistan at last. Ahead of me lies a transect through some of Central Asia’s least visited places, and I can’t think at present of any trip, anywhere in the world that appeals to me more than this.
Adding up my three visits during this journey, I had been in Pakistan for exactly 365 days. At once I was eager to leave and see new places, but at the same time I was still sad to leave. I could spend weeks sipping tea in the bazaars of Quetta or Peshawar, or relaxing in the mountains in Gilgit, enjoying meeting other travellers, for Pakistan attracts a small but interesting crowd of visitors. Such inertia could occupy a lifetime, but I realised that in Pakistan I had finally, found somewhere I could call home.