When I carried on up the Khyber!
For anyone familiar with the ‘Carry On’ films, there’s one of the best (it helps if you have an appalling taste in humour) called ‘Carry on Up the Khyber’. Which I am using to segue from my title to my actual post here.
2004, as part of my crossing from Dhaka to Europe by land, I managed my way across Pakistan to the somewhat regarded as ‘wild’ town of Peshawar. It’s a frontier town not all that far from the Khyber Pass, and that’s why I went there. To be honest, I think all the documentaries I had seen about this region made me a little uneasy. I took a room on the seventh floor of a pretty cheap hotel, and at reception I met Sohail.
He was keen to be my guide on the Khyber Pass. By 2004 the tourist trade hadn’t really recovered from tensions in the region and war in Afghanistan – the country at the other end of the Khyber Pass. On my tour down the pass I did see where the refugee camps had been, but the camps were now just dusty pieces of ground. People had moved back to Afghanistan.
I’m not sure how safe this part of Pakistan is now. I know that generally it’s not considered that safe as a country right at this point in time, more so than when I went. I was a little uneasy about going through Pakistan, but apart from when I was in Peshawar, I was pretty relaxed and I certainly had no issues.
Sohail invited me out to a local restaurant for kebabs and more meat to try and woo me into accepting his offer of 2400 rupees for the day trip down the Khyber Pass. It was supposedly a great restaurant, and perhaps in days gone by it was but with few foreign visitors at the time it was empty bar the two staff, Sohail and myself and the meat disagreed with me. I barely made an impact on the price either for the trip, but decided I might as well take his offer as he would organise permits, a driver and car, and a guard with a big ol’ gun to hopefully keep us safe. The Afghan side had a far worse reputation than the Pakistani side, but still, there were meant to be bandits out there.
The meat made my night not the best. Digesting it was tricky to say the least. I finally fell asleep by 2am. Then at 4am, I was woken by an earthquake. At the time it was the biggest I’d felt, it was 60km away in Afghanistan, but on the seventh floor I really felt it. I left my room and so did a few others. My neighbour told me after five minutes of stillness that ‘that was it, go back to bed’, but I’m not sure I got much more sleep.
I was reluctant to go the next day, but Sohail arrived at 7am or something and wasn’t going to be delayed for 24 hours. We already had out jeep, we went to the police station and signed a bunch of things, money changed hands, we were soon on our way. It was a bit of a drive past the abandoned refugee camps until we passed under a sort of gate, officially this was the Khyber Pass.
What can I say about it? Well, it was wild and very dusty! There was a gorgeous railway track that followed the road with so many awesome tunnels. It looked in really good nick, but at the time the train wasn’t running. Prior to 2001 it was, and since 2004 it may have started and stopped again depending on safety. Hopefully one day it is up and running a passenger service again, it would really be about the most special rail journey imaginable.
There were small villages here and there, and the road was a little windy, but you could usually see where you were going thanks to lack of vegetation. And of course, we were slowly rising so the temperature got a bit cooler too. Then we stopped, about two kilometres from Afghanistan. Photos were taken of course, the guard offered me a chance to fire his rifle which I declined, and we headed back.
We stopped at the smuggler’s market which was interesting. I saw numerous guns for sale including a pen that could fire bullets, drugs and other things that might be considered naughty. I wish I had had sleep and wasn’t feeling so bad – I would have got a lot more out of the day. Then we stopped at Islamia College – full of amazing buildings, on the way back to Peshawar.
The price was too much. The tour was fine, and everything I wanted to see, but Sohail I have to say was creepy and I didn’t trust him at any point. I later, by pure coincidence, met a guy who had done the same thing as I had with Sohail, the same month even, and paid less than 1000 rupees. That’s probably about $35 versus the $100+ I spent.
Still. The most expensive thing I spent money on in Pakistan. And ten years down the track I doubt I would have done anything else particularly interesting with the rest of the money. Nevertheless, I recommend asking about at your hotel for reputable guides whatever the situation and wherever you are, and not doing as I did and going with the first guy you meet. Everything he said we/he would do, happened. So I can’t fault that. But I know I got ripped off.
Still, that shouldn’t detract from the amazing place that it is should it? And it doesn’t, honestly! Have you ever felt ripped off by a guide? Tell me about it!