Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Taking It Up The Khyber

Before coming to Pakistan the only thing I knew about Peshawar was the delicious Peshwari nans, with raisins and coconut, that I would always order whenever I would eat at Indian restaurants. I therefore imagined that it was somewhere in India. But no, it is in fact very close to the Afghan border at the entrance to the fabled Khyber Pass. Being so close to Afghanistan one would imagine this to be a rather edgy and dour town, but not at all: the people here are perhaps even more friendly than elsewhere. The only Talibanesqueness visible are a small minority of burqas and a penchant, among the men, for manicured hands tinted with henna as well as henna'ed beards and hair.

Well, seeing as I'm so close, I had to check out the Khyber because you will rarely get to see a pass as legendary as that. Going along it and up to the border, however, is slightly more complex than just hopping on a bus since the pass is in tribal territory. The tribal areas were set aside, during the creation of Pakistan, for the Pashtun tribes who wanted to retain to their traditional way of life. In practice this means that the tribal areas are de facto autonomous and Pakistani law only applies on the road and a short strip on either side. Outside of that area the intricacies of the tribal codes reign supreme and honour-killings over slights of honour are a way of life. Therefore anybody wishing to visit the areas has to get an armed escort as well as the relevant permit.

Once the relevant formalities had been sorted out we set off: me and two other travellers who I had met at the hotel bunched up in the back of a ridiculously small Suzuki taxi, our driver and our guard with his Kalashnikov resting on his lap up front. The pass, in itself, is rather unspectacular (although in some places it does get remarkably narrow), but it is the history of the place and the frontier vibe that are the main draws. Numerous forts, sentry posts and even tank obstacles litter the pass, bearing witness to its strategical importance throughout history. Many of the colonial era military remnants are abandoned, but they are more than compensated by the Pashtun houses, which resemble medieval castles, complete with crenellated battlements and gun slits. Very welcoming. You're not actually allowed to travel all the way to the border if you don't have a visa ("for your own protection"), but from the checkpoint we could clearly see the border town of Torkham and its Afghan twin in the valley below. Whilst peering over at the mountains of Afghanistan we were soon surrounded by a group of Pashtuns (a couple carrying their own Kalashnikovs) who were pleased to see us, not least so that they could practice their English. They explained their aspirations for peace and their own country of Pashtunistan, how they would like to travel abroad and how all the lorries along the road are carrying military supplies for the Americans. I wanted to stay for lunch, but our escort was getting nervous so we had to head back to Peshawar. Our little jaunt has clearly reinforced something that I have learnt during my trip: whatever your image of a place that you form through the media, it is invariably completely false and bears no resemblance to reality; not least because I still haven't been able to find any Peshwari nans.

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