Road safety clearly wasn’t a high priority for those living in Pakistan’s northwest frontier. However, our minibus, skillfully driven by our resolute guide in 35 degree heat, somehow weaved its way through battered trucks and ancient cars, all belching forth thick black diesel fumes. We were on route from Islamabad, the country’s capital to the ancient Silk Road city of Peshawar, near the Afghanistan border.
The fabled Silk Road was never a single highway but a network of overland routes that stretched from China to the Mediterranean across some of the world’s least hospitable lands. One of these routes, linking the civilizations of Persia and India, crossed Afghanistan, over the Khyber Pass and into the valley of the River Indus, an area now known as Pakistan.
In what is normally a very troubled region, all was peaceful, so we were privileged to be able to explore Peshawar and visit the Khyber Pass – perhaps the most famous pass in the world.
We stayed in the city’s Pearl Continental Hotel, which provided comfortable accommodation and served some excellent beer at what was allegedly the only hotel bar in Pakistan! Peshawar’s fascinating history stretches back to Alexander the Great. His army conquered Gandhara (the ancient name for the city and kingdom of Peshawar) in 327 BC, leaving behind clear genetic evidence of its occupation in the form of the many blue-eyed and blond-haired people we saw around the city.
Persians, Aryans, Mongols and later the Mughals in the 17th century also wandered through its antiquated streets, the most famous of which is the Qissa Khawani, the Street of the Storytellers. It was here that the merchants would conduct their business during the day-time and at night gather together to swap yarns and stories. For the curious western tourist, Peshawar was a visual if not chaotic treat – and we couldn’t resist testing out the archaic facilities of one of the street dentists!
We were allowed to visit the main mosque, which was built in 1630 during the Mughal period of Shah Jahan, and has an unusual Hindu influence with castellated parapets and a highly decorative interior. However, it is the Peshawar Museum which successfully puts the city’s history into context for the visitor.
Opened in 1907 during the British Raj Regime, it was then known as the ‘Victoria Memorial Hall’. It hosted dances and parties in its heyday and internally still has the look and feel of an English village hall. The Museum is renowned for its huge collection of objects from the Gandharan era when Buddhism reigned supreme in this part of Asia. The artistic style of the Buddha statues is Greco-Roman, probably influenced by Alexander’s visit and the subsequent European influence along the Silk Road.
The following morning, before our drive to the Khyber Pass, we were ordered to collect two guards from the nearby army camp. They hailed from one of the local Pashtun tribes, and although only about 17 years old, were able to wield their AK47s with considerable alacrity.
The Pashtun people have long been dominant in this part of Pakistan and Afghanistan. They are mainly Sunni Muslims and have a ferocious reputation as fighters. However, they also live under a firm code of honour that includes provision of hospitality and asylum to all those who need help. Some historians believe that the Pashtuns may even be the forefathers of both the Arabs and the Jews.
The Bab-e-Khyber (the Khyber Gate) was our first stop after leaving the manic Peshawar traffic jams. Once through this so-called Freedom Gate, we entered tribal country and nearby was the entrance to the gigantic Afghan refugee camp with its half-a-million occupants. Neither we nor the local Pakistanis were allowed to enter the camp.
The Pakistani Army had been granted ‘defence’ responsibilities, but the Afghan tribes were permitted to run the camp exactly as they wished. Our small minibus steadily rattled its way up the well engineered Khyber Pass, passing old forts and tiny decorative mosques, to its summit at 1,070 metres.
There was little traffic heading towards Afghanistan, but coming eastwards was a steady stream of bicycles and heavy wagons indubitably laden with contraband - hashish, opium and electrical goods. We were reliably informed that the brand new tyres on the trucks and the shiny new bicycles themselves were also being smuggled!
To emphasise even further that this really was ‘bandit’ country, we were shown (from a distance) an enormous heavily fortified concrete structure which was home to one of the world’s biggest drug dealers – a person said to have a profound influence on Pakistan’s political decisions.
During the three wars with Afghanistan in Victorian times, the British military had many troubled encounters with Pashtun tribes, the most infamous of which occurred in the Khyber Pass itself. In 1842, a 16,000 strong Anglo-Indian expeditionary force was massacred in the pass during its retreat from Kabul. Just one British army doctor and a handful of Indian sepoys survived this horrendous carnage!
After gazing towards Afghanistan from the busy border post at Khyber’s summit, we admired the enginering prowess of the British-built railway line over the pass. Built in 1925 for the movement of troops and emergency supplies, it was sadly not operating at the time of our visit. However, we did manage to view the dozens of carved British and Pakistani regimental badges on the rockface at the roadside. It was a ghostly reminder of just how many soldiers had marched to and fro across this famous frontier, only to later lose their lives in yet another futile battle to try and gain control of Afghanistan.
Khyber Pass’s recent history shows that little has changed over the centuries. It is still an important military trade route for NATO operations in Afghanistan and in 2010 a supply convoy was ambushed by Al Qaeda extremists, destroying dozens of oil tankers and killing several soldiers.
Both Peshawar and the Khyber Pass are presently regarded as dangerous destinations for the western tourist and the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office strongly advise against all travel in Pakistan’s northwest frontier. We can only hope that peace may soon prevail and tourists can once again enjoy safe exploration of the fascinating ancient kingdom of Gandahar.
The Khyber Pass scenes of the film “Carry on up the Khyber” – possibly the funniest of the “Carry On” series - were actually shot on the slopes of Snowdon in N. Wales. The film is a brilliant spoof about the British Raj and its skirmishes with the ‘natives’of the region. If it had been filmed on the Khyber Pass itself, we are sure that the story would have had to be re-written. Neither Syd James, Kenneth Williams nor any of the “Carry On” team would have survived even a minor altercation with real Pashtun warriors!
By Nigel Wright
Nigel Wright, and his wife Sue, moved to Portugal eleven years ago and live in the countryside near Paderne with their three dogs. They lived and worked in the Far East and Middle East during the 1980s and 90s, and although now retired, still continue to travel and enjoy new cultural experiences. His other interests include tennis, gardening, photography and petanque.