Last traveler on the Khyber Pass

Travel Journal Overview for The Khyber Pass: Please take into account this was during General Musharraf’s Emergency Rule, Iran was expecting George W. Bush to invade, Turkey was about to begin an offensive against the Kurds. And, a high ranking Afghan politican had just been assassinated a few days earlier when I arrived into Quetta. Exciting times …

Traveling the Khyber Pass is something overland travelers hold in high regard. It’s not about the view, there’s much better out there. It’s not about the culture, it’s a border.  It’s about history, Alexander the great, Genghis Khan, Britain, Russia, the U.S.A; they all tried to conquer Afghanistan through through this route. And all failed. Yes, the Khyber Pass is about adventure from the past and today, just  for the sake of it.

The Khyber Pass (click to enlarge)
The Khyber Pass - No more tourists allowed (click to enlarge)

Traveling the Khyber Pass

Ifzal arrived after breakfast at about 8.30am, thankfully without Katherine. I must say that for a prospecting tour guide he was very laid back. I was hoping for some exciting stories of past trips to the Khyber Pass, or on the history of the place. Instead I got pleasantries and a more straight laced approach. He was a friend though, so you have to take things as they come.

Step on in traveling the Khyber Pass – Bribe an official

We went first to photocopy my passport and details, and then to the Office of National Affairs to seek the vital permission document. 30 minutes later, one piece of permission giving paper, a 100 rupee gift and 200 Rupees later we were set to go.

Hiring an armed tribal guard

A little yellow charter car arrived, our ride for the day, and we were off to the Khyber Rifle’s Police station. Ifzal headed in while I

Khyber Pass Gates
The famous Khyber Pass Gate

waited patiently with the friendly taxi / chartered car man. Some time later Ifzal appeared along with a smiling Sargent and a mustachioed officer. The Sargent came over to me and his smile increased as he shook my hand while nodding at Ifzal. Had I just been sold?

The Sargent then said something and bid us goodbye as he turned back to the station. The young officer was a different type though. In his white speckled black coat he begrudgingly shook my hand and then entered the front seat. I took an instant dislike to him. Not a dangerous dislike, but a dislike nonetheless. We drove off into the suburbs of Peshawar city. Our little yellow gas powered car battling for road supremacy alongside all other other manner of traffic. Including one bright henna dyed mule.

After about one hour of trying to start a conversation, I concluded that the officer was indeed, an asshole. He was mandatory for anyone taking this trip. Free as well. I’d rather have slipping the Sargent a couple hundred rupees in exchange for a more conversational type.

Arriving at the Old Khyber Pass Gates

We arrived at the gates of the Khyber Pass and got out for the obligatory photos. This was not going to plan. I was being shepherded about as if I was a number. Eyes were watching us from the roadside. We got back into the car and headed off, the young officer still as silent as ever.

It seemed we were now in the elusive tribal lands, Pakistan was no more

Stone history of the Khyber Pass
History of people who have tried to rule the Khyber Pass (click to enlarge)

The landscape was one of light rocky desert tundra. Yet jutting up from the plains were fort like compounds, complete with ramparts and gun slots. Some were relatively small, maybe enough to house 6 three bedroom houses. Others were huge, maybe over a block in some cases, and in one case several blocks. I asked Ifzal what these were.

Welcome to the Tribal Warlords backyard

This was a smugglers area, and these were the houses of the warlords. Or rather, these were their fortresses.  My ears picked up. The Khyber pass may have been a famous trade route thousands of years ago until now, and has been written as such into history. Time had not changed much. Kings had been replaced by warlords, spices, camels and jewelery by drugs, cars and guns. This was a modern day trade route set on old principals.

I asked about the design of the houses, they looked like forts. Indeed they were just that. Gun turrets, slots for rifles and massive thick steel doors decorated the fortifications.

Some of the fort walls even bore the scarring of bullet marks. These were the signs of the fierce violent clashes that would occasionally erupt between the various clans.

I wondered a little how true to reality all this was. Until we drove past and Ifzal pointed out the vast cemetery’s outside each of the forts.

Drug lords, 007, and where all the big boys play along the Khyber Pass

Tribal Warlord House in the tribal lands of Pakistan
Tribal Warlord House in the tribal lands of Pakistan

We drove on along a winding road that cut deep into a valley. Huge trucks laden down with bags of food roared buy. An incredible amount of brand new sports cars tore by at an even higher speed.

“Drug Lords” mentioned Ifzal.

I looked at some of the custom number plates ‘Pak007’ was a white Porsche, ‘Iamgrt’ was a Lexus. It was all quite surreal. I then noted the large 4×4 escorts waiting in the wings. Whenever one of the sports cars would move, the escorts would always follow closely. Black shaded windows was mandatory here.

The old Khyber Railway comes into view

We past by a washed out bridge and tore town a dirt road. Coming into view alongside us was the old Khyber railway. It’s brown tracks camouflaging well into the high valley face. I sank into a past world mixed with this strange new bountiful one. A pounding soundtrack would bring back memories of great films about this route.

Back then the railway was one of the most important trade providers in the region. It cut through the harsh landscape and linked Central Asia to East Asia.

The Khyber Rifles Lookout Point

We finally reached the end of the Pakistan side of the Khyber Pass as we approached the Khyber Rifles Lookout point. There stretched

The old Khyber Railway, now broken
The old Khyber Railway, now broken

out in front of our high hill vantage point was Afghanistan. Along to our right the Khyber Railway tracks disappeared into the a rocky mountain tunnel.

We posed for some typical photographs and I took satisfaction in watching Ifzal grab the young officers AK-47 and handing it to me for one of the photographs. Perhaps more satisfying was the barrel was under the assholes chin.

A duo of military types from the actual look out post invited their only guests up for a better look. They had rows of confiscated weapons out on display. Mortars, heavy machine guns, rifles, grenades and what I hoped were disarmed missiles.

An old Afghan prison

I looked down at the dusty valley that opened up before us. The start of Afghanistan was marked my a mountainous hill where an old prison was perched. Rather unusually it looked like a rectangular wing of the palace was falling down one of the sides of the hill.

It turned out that this was the prison section of the palace, and it had been built like that on purpose. Doomed prisoners would be thrown down this its a perpendicular corridors into waiting swords at the bottom.

Modern day kidnapping and death

The two guards at the lookout post were questioning Ifzal about me a little. It turned out a Turkish tourist had been kidnapped at the border yesterday by bandits and his driver shot. Where they quite went, I couldn’t figure out.

The guards said the bandits no these mountain better than anyone.

To me a sheer cliff face was a dead end. To them it was a stone staircase.

A story of another death slowly began to reveal itself as well. Another foreigner, this time one that was selling weapons. His fate was more certain. Quartered, this body parts were left around Peshawar market as an example to others.

Back on the Khyber Pass where the warlords rule

I decided then and there I needed more out of the trip. So as we approached the warlords fort houses I asked them to pull over for a pit stop. I got out and walked back a bit from the car and started taking photos of the Fort like houses. In hindsight this was really a very stupid thing to do. But, at the time it was the thing to do.

It sent the taxi driver into a bit of a panic, which in turn had the asshole guard out of the car looking around for any onlookers to my photography. My job was done, I headed back.

Ifzal wasn’t to fazed my all this. The warlords were essentially untouchable. This was tribal land, and not even the Pakistani government could touch them. It was their law out here, and as they ruled, they didn’t fear anything or anybody.

Gun shop stop with some hashish thrown in

We stopped by some gun shops on the way. Rifles, pistols, machine guns the works. They were all on display. A small grey bearded man offered a pistol for me to fire. I knew if I did it he would charge me, and Ifzal was being silent as I asked probing questions as to where the weapons were destined for. I lost interest. It may be a boyhood fantasy to fire off lots of AK-47 rounds but this could be done in other places. I wanted to know a little more about the place.

The Khyber Passes winding road before the valley
The Khyber Passes winding road before the valley

The hashis shop was next. This seemed to get Ifzal and the driver a little more excited than anything else. Bales of marijuana, opium and other illicit substances lined the the dusty shop. A hippies dream, bar the gun factory next door.

Ifzal at last came into his own and began reading off prices, quantities and qualities of various merchants he knows. Pashtun Hashish is the best in the world they all confirmed. I would have rather gone back to the gun factory. As strange as it seems, but standing in a wooden tin roofed shack surrounded by rice bag bales of mid inducing substances really is not that exciting. It could have just been wheat in the bags. The skinny man tending the store did have a lump of brown sweet smelling hashish to tempt customers with. But that was it. Maybe a better place to come pre stoned.

Along the roadside

A row of women in red were seen scraping at a roadside wall. It looked almost as if they were digging scares into it. I asked why? But was given no answer. Road widening? Or punishment. The bright red clothes were so different to the indigo burkas most women out here seemed to wear.

Again another woman along the road walked alone. She looked tired. Her face not fully covered. Then a man with a missing leg in a little wheel cart appeared.

The Khyber Pass was either their route of mercy, or route to the end.

Peshawar Aftermath

Back in Peshawar we pulled up to the Khyber Rifle Police station and let the silent asshole out. It was here that the prick let his true colors show as he started to demand payment from Ifzal. Thankfully Ifzal was ready, and told him where to get off or he would have no problems reporting him. The asshole left in an undignified huff.

If I could redo the trip, I’d have wanted a different guard. It wasn’t a game changer, but this guy …

It was lunch time, so Ifzal took me to a great looking open air kebab restaurant. Seated outside were two large bearded fat men in front of giant iron skillets with many many giant burger looking patties sizzling onto. We walked in with the driver and each enjoyed the tasty food. I went for seconds, breakfast had been small and the burger kebabs were tasty.

Those that walked the Khyber Pass to escape death

The day was still not over. I wanted something that would bring me a bit more than what the Pass was meant to. Afghan Refugee camps was something that I had been mentioning to Ifzal for the last few days, and today seemed like no better day. The driver seemed to know where they were.

We were now going to meet the people that were forced to flee their homes …

Some related links from this website that  you might like: (including a lot more photographs from Pakistan)

Seeing the Unseen Stories: The Pakistani Truck Painters

Travel Stories: The Last Khyber Pass Journey (read this for a more detailed account of this journey)

Pakistan Travel Guide

Resources: How to Guide – Iran to Pakistan overland

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2 Replies to “Last traveler on the Khyber Pass”

  1. hey dave… u know any one who is getting over the Khyber pass these days? i so wanna go….

    1. Hi Trevor, to the best of my knowledge it’s still closed to independent travelers. Rumor has it that if you have a vehicle you may be allowed to pass through to Afghanistan or visa versa – with all the paperwork and some cash.

      Other than that there are still allegedly some off record “guides” that can arrange for trips to the gun shops and opium shops enroute. But they are unofficial, meaning the Khyber Rifles will not have any note of you passing through tribal land. Meaning you’ll either end up with a fake guard or a real one which you’ll have to pay separately to let you in (protect you). Which in turn means a lot of unwanted attention.

      I have someone on the ground out there an will send them a email in case things have changed very recently. I imagine things will remain like this until there are no more foreigner troops in Afghanistan/Pakistan etc.

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