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Introducing The Khyber Pass

It’s less the view but the idea of the place that attracts most people to the Khyber Pass. For centuries it has divided and linked empires and peoples, marking a watershed between Central Asia and the subcontinent. Darius the Great, Babur, Buddhist travellers, Scythian warriors and soldiers of the British empire have all been drawn through the pass. Other passes to Afghanistan may carry more importance but none more romance.

The Khyber isn’t at the border but weaves through the Suleiman Ranges for many kilometres. It’s a long, winding and barren passage – at the end you look through the haze at the border town of Torkham and over the Durand Line to Afghanistan, which at this point looks more or less like Pakistan. It’s not so much arriving at the Michni checkpoint (the end of the line for those not proceeding to Afghanistan) that is exciting, but the entire trip starting at Peshawar. The anticipation as you collect your permit and armed escort, the nervous excitement as you pass the sign announcing ‘Foreigners not permitted beyond this point’ when you enter the Tribal Areas, the fortress-like Afridi homes, Buddhist ruins and old forts all combine to make you feel like you’re playing a role in a Kipling novel.

Near Peshawar you’re in the government-administered lands of the Khalid tribe. About 18km west of Peshawar is Jamrud Fort, built by the Sikhs in 1823 to mark the western edge of their empire (one of the few to expand westward to the Khyber). Its trademark stone arch (built in the 1960s) over the road marks the formal entrance to the pass. By now you’re in Khyber Agency (one of seven agencies that make up the Tribal Areas), populated here mainly by the Afridi tribe. Pakistani law gives way to tribal law not far from the main road, which is the reason why there’s an armed guard from the Khyber Rifles regiment sharing your vehicle. The villages here are like clusters of forts – the largest compound (you can’t miss it) belongs to the family of the ­notorious drug-smuggler Ayub Afridi.

Little stone sentry boxes mark the hilltops; they are deserted now, but were once manned by the Frontier Force of the Pakistan army. About 6km from Jamrud, as the road climbs in a series of switchbacks, there are excellent views back east over the road and the Khyber railway as it winds its way through numerous tunnels. Massive, fortress-like Pashtun houses with high adobe walls pepper the hills, and scattered concrete ‘dragon’s teeth’ (tank obstacles on the valley floor), are a reminder of WWII British fears of a German tank invasion of India. About 13km from Jamrud, Shahgai Fort (another British legacy) was built in the 1920s and is now occupied by the Frontier Force and closed to the public.

Near the narrowest point of the pass, 15km from Jamrud, is Ali Masjid (Ali Mosque). Above the mosque, Ali Masjid Fort commands a view over this strategic sector of the pass. A small cemetery here contains the graves of British soldiers who fell in the second Anglo-Afghan war. Before the pass was widened to 3m, it’s said to have been too narrow for two fully-laden camels to pass each other. The valley walls bear insignias of regiments that have served here.

Ten kilometres on, in a broad valley by the village of Zarai, is the ruined Sphola stupa. On a promontory overlooking the road, it dates from Kushan times, an incongruous and oddly poignant reminder of the region’s Gandharan past. The villages in this area were badly damaged in flash floods in June 2007 that also washed away several bridges.

A further 7km on is Landi Kotal, at 1200m. With the growth of the Smugglers’ Bazaar near Peshawar, Landi Kotal has lost some of its status as ‘contraband city’, but the labyrinthine bazaar, to the left and downstairs of the road, still houses several gun shops – surrounded by shops selling more mundane vegetables, toys or plastic buckets. Your armed escort, if he’s worth his eventual tip, should let you wander around and have a cup of chai (tea). This is also the home of the Khyber Rifles Officers’ Mess, with a small museum chronicling the Rifles’ history and its many famous visitors.

The last point for foreigners without an Afghanistan visa is Michni checkpoint. From here you can see (depending on the level of haze) the Durand Line, marked by large numbers, as it snakes across the ridge marking the border, and the border-crossing town of Torkham, 58km from Peshawar. While you’re admiring the view, no doubt you will be assailed by young boys selling Afghani bank­notes – a great souvenir (even if the exchange rate is outrageous).