The Khyber Pass

This post has absolutely nothing to do with sailing or boats.

Many, many years ago I was a fresh faced young apprentice engineer at a company that built grain mills all over the world. A need arose for a commissioning engineer to go to Peshawar on the northwest frontier of Pakistan and by a stroke of good fortune I was available when all the other more likely candidates were occupied elsewhere. My boss took a chance and sent me. I was there for three months. As part of a bigger project I’m working on, I recently wrote this snippet about my visit to the Khyber Pass:

For some time I’d wanted to travel through the Khyber Pass to the Afghanistan border at Torkham but so far had been too busy with the mill. Throughout history the Khyber Pass has been an important trade route between Central Asia and the Indian Subcontinent, part of the Silk Road, and I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to see it. One day Salahuddin told me that Marooh and Hammadi wanted to go to Landi Kotal, a town at the highest point on the Khyber Pass, to buy some duty-free goods. He suggested I go with them and while they shopped the driver would take me another three miles to the border so I could look into Afghanistan. I quickly agreed and we set off early the next morning to cover the thirty or so miles to Landi Kotal, me up front with the driver and the odd couple on the back seat, holding hands as usual.

From Peshawar we took the Asian Highway up through the Spin Ghar Mountains, through the Khyber Pass. The road snaked this way and that as it gained altitude, a precipitous drop to one side, my side, a steep rock wall to the other. Down in the valley I could see concrete anti-tank structures strewn like giant children’s jacks, a legacy of the Second World War. We passed convoys of gaudily decorated buses belching black smoke, their roofs piled high with baggage and bicycles and boxes, and trucks staggering under massive loads of timber, scrap metal and grain sacks.

At Landi Kotal, the western end of the Pass and highest point at 3,500 feet above sea level, we dropped the boys, made arrangements to meet them in an hour and set off for the border. Parked at a spot just off the road I looked down into Afghanistan, the valley floor broadening out to an endless plain framed on each side by mountains. In Pakistan they drove on the left and in Afghanistan they drove on the right. This conflict was resolved at the Torkham border post below us where a sort of miniature spaghetti junction directed the opposing flows of traffic across each other to continue their journeys on the other side of the road.

Back at Landi Kotal the driver went off to round up the others and I wandered through the town in the increasing heat as noon approached. The bazaar appeared to have grown haphazardly over the years with crude structures erected here and there with no logical layout. There were stalls offering leather goods such as Peshwari sandals, belts, holsters and bandoliers, there were colourful mountains of fruit, piles of exotic eastern spices and bolts of material in every hue. Goat carcasses hung from steel hooks outside the butcher’s shack, the proprietor occasionally flicking a whisk to momentarily interrupt the gorging of the black flies which encased them. Men squatted in groups drinking green tea, smoking and chatting, their eyes following me as I strolled by, an alien interloper.

Further on I came across some rough brick buildings and in these were several gunsmiths. I watched a worker boring out a metal rod by hand to make a gun barrel and stacked against a wall were several completed rifles. This area had a reputation for producing unlicensed, homemade copies of firearms using whatever scrap metal was available. They’d make anything from a perfect copy of a British Army revolver to a musket and the quality would vary from superb to dangerously rubbish.

Pashtun tribesmen with Kalashnikov rifles slung over their shoulders strolled in twos and threes. The pungent smell of hashish was all around, mingling with the tang of wood smoke from the small bakeries churning out coarse chapattis. I returned to find Hammadi and Marooh cuddled in the back seat of the Toyota enjoying the air-conditioning, surrounded by boxes of electrical appliances and stainless-steel pots and pans. Then we were wending our way back down the Khyber Pass to Peshawar, dust billowing behind the car and the boys chattering happily together.

I hope you enjoyed this little excursion away from the sea and boating.