“Let’s get a new engine from Peshawar” and so begin a weekend of adventure. Our faithful red Joy with whom we had traveled the length and breadth of Pakistan had finally stopped in the middle of the road. Simply given up, died. But ours is not a family, not even a nation that gives up. We sought to rejuvenate our eleven year old bride and Peshawar was chosen due its centuries old bazaars which sell every conceivable thing under the sun, its close proximity to our home and of course a couple of friends and places that awaited our presence. It was spring; the weather helped us endure the non-air conditioned, slow journey as our baby was pulled behind the bigger car. Later that night a set of friends suggested a visit to the famous Karkhano Market, a hub of duty free imported nonsense at the gates of the Khyber agency but to make the visit more meaningful another set of friends recommended to extend the visit along a road as old as time and a journey as ancient as man.
The next morning we piled into the bigger car as our bride was getting a new life in the Kabuli market and onward it was into the Khyber agency and then the Spin Ghar or Safed Koh mountains. Crossing the gate into the agency the road is modern but the bazaar on both sides is rustic and consists mostly of very small grocery stores and very large restaurants with cut up carcasses of lambs hanging outside, their boards showing the now cut up lambs gamboling shyly in vast green fields, ready to be fed to a multitude of meat lovers in search of authentic Khyber and Shinwari cuisine. In the midst of this haphazard bazaar we crossed the famed Bab-e-Khyber a symbolic entrance to the ancient pass which is also illustrated on the ten rupee banknote. Immediately after it towards the north of the road we were confronted by the famous outpost of the Jamrud Fort whose foundation stone had been laid by the Sikh General Hari Singh Nalwa in roughly 1836 in commemoration of the Sikh victory and subsequent takeover of Jamrud. A largish fort is now surrounded by fortress like houses on all sides. The population of Khyber still builds high walled houses although more recently constructed and filled with modern amenities.
Through the Plains of Jamrud the road starts to climb and curve around the mountains. The giddy ride was made even more amusing by the amount of modern shops including a pizza parlor with a free home delivery option. The Khyber agency was trying to keep abreast of world too. The valley started closing in on both sides and one could now imagine how armies of invaders all the way back to Darius had traversed through these very ancient walls of the prehistoric mountains. Alexander, Ghengis Khan, Mongol and Muslim rulers had all come down this path in lust of the jewel called India. Millions of caravans had measured its dusty roads as it has been an integral part of the eventful and imperative Silk Road and remained The road into subcontinent until the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and the country’s subsequent downfall. Although it currently still is an important trade route as well as a NATO supply route.
The British had built a railway line on which until about a decade ago a steam engine would trudge tourists along its historical turns. However a recent takeover of the agency by armed insurgents has resulted in their blowing up of its sturdy tracks in some places. The government it seems is still busy with other things it considers more important than preserving a potent heritage and an important trade route. The interrupted track still snakes along the road as we move in the entrails of the Spin Ghar range, several tunnels stand with their gaping mouths, each has something written on its entrance, relics of their British builders.
We also pass a large bulbous Stupa on top of a hill to the north, guardian of the pass’s Buddhist past. Shagai Fort then looms large on to our south, an extensive fortification overlooking the road. The pass then narrows down further, to as legend has it, so slim a path that two laden camels could not have passed one another, this point is called Ali Masjid. The road has now been widened but the steep walls of the mountains still rise ominously close over the road. The road now crawls in the belly of the valley as the Ali Masjid Mosque and Fort look down upon it. The strategic placement of the fort is clear, here was where (if they could be) the conquerors would have been defeated and many were while those whose names live on made it through. Local legend that the Prophet’s (PBUH) cousin Ali led a congregation at the location of the mosque; hence its name. The valley walls are decorated by the shields and the insignia of the valiant’s who have fought here over the past two centuries. Until now a slight river had been flowing along the road but now turns south and the cliffs are dotted here and there by green shrubs and spring wildflowers.
The narrow file then suddenly opens up into a flat plateau; this plate is the ancient city of Landi Kotal. On our way to the border we bypass the city and continue up the road until we see an fort like building atop a cliff overlooking the road. East of the border this is the highest point, this structure is Michni Post. We stop for a wondrous view of the pass as it opens into a large valley. From the viewing room of the post we enjoy peshawari kehwa and drink in on the horizon, the still snow clad mountains around Kabul while below us the truck and trailer dotted road snakes into Afghanistan. Further west of the post on the mountain side we can see Charbagh Fort and Taimur Lung’s prison, the children shrink in horror as we are told of the steep passage in the prison fitted with blades on top of which enemies were asked to confess or fall in. We also find out the origins of the Khyber Rifles the formerly paramilitary force organized by the British which still maintains law and order in the pass and the agency. The Muzail, a type of rifle was the weapon of choice in the area and when the British thought it prudent to organize the locals into a force to be used in the Afghan wars they asked everyone with the rifle to register; hence the birth of the Khyber Rifles.
It was a treat to view the valley from the calm of the well maintained post and in the care of our very generous hosts. It is a clear day which adds much charm and depth to our view. After which we took a small sojourn on Afghan soil as we crossed the border and turned around. Next stop was the famed Khyber Rifles Mess back at Landi Kotal. We had to ask quite a few people until we finally made it to the mess. Passing several restaurants with ready to barbecue tikka’s wrapped in sheets of fat. It was lunchtime to be fair, hence the drool worthy observation. On entering the Mess gates we were greeted by lush green lawns, an oasis in the center of the dusty frontier town. Peacocks strutted around as long legged cranes sheltered from the sun in green groves. By the mess entrance we saw a huge centurion tree which had been put under ‘arrest’ by a drunk British Officer one night and remains to this day ‘under arrest’.
Inside the mess had an old world charm of dark wood paneling and starched white waiters with perfect manners. Decorated with hundreds of old pictures it required quite a few hours of study which we did not have at the time. We did however view the suite that had been occupied by HRH Diana Princess of Wales on her visit here in the early nineties. Lunch was typical mess fair (our taste buds were still tingling for the fatty lamb we had viewed outside) but the silverware, the crystal ware and the service was like eating in a royal palace; a pleasant experience that added to the old world feeling.
After that it was goodbye to Landi Kotal, not able to visit its famed railway station we had once enjoyed on a former trip, leaving something for next time we turned towards Jamrud and the waiting Karkhano market then towards the vibrant city of Peshawar. Until next time when we will come to sit by the abandoned railway tracks eating barbequed lamb and Shinwari Karai; the pass will remain haunting our memories time and again.