Posted On 20 Mar 2024
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This entry is part 32 of 33 in the series AusMotorcyclist Issue#24


The signs change, but their intention is the same: to stop you from entering the Khyber Pass. “Foreigners are not allowed beyond this point unless specially permitted by the political agent Khyber Agency”, “Foreigners are not permitted to leave the highway”, “Entering tribal area”.

And so on. None of them mean anything because, beyond the sign, you are beyond the influence, and help, of the Pakistani and indeed any national government. Maybe the US Special Forces could help out, but they won’t.

The Pakistani Khyber Agency is kidding itself if it thinks that it controls anything much. Perhaps as a token of that impotence, they made no attempt to even check Charlie’s or my XL250 or papers when we rolled up to Shadi Bagiar at the Jamrud end of the pass.

Anything of any value that goes through here, such as a NATO fuelconvoy, does so under heavy guard. As a private traveller, you’re on your own.

You don’t quite realise what that means until you reach Landi Kotal, the only town on the Pakistani side of the pass. Before that…

Imagine a narrow gorge winding its way into a limestone and shale range a thousand feet high. You share this with a narrow (usually dry) stream, a railway line (!) and a camel track. On many vertical surfaces there are large, carved regimental badges commemorating the service of British, Indian and Pakistani troops. It’s possible that they even got out alive – or at least some of them did. We couldn’t help glancing up apprehensively every now and then at the ridges above the gorge…

The all-weather road, which is in generally good condition (who maintains it?), rises fairly steeply on the way up into the range. We were comfortably faster than the other traffic going our way, which is not surprising when you consider that it was mostly hugely overloaded trucks or cars and utes with their doors missing and passengers clinging to every handhold and sitting on the roof. One thing to note with Pakistani or Afghani road users: they will wave happily to a small Honda, even at the risk of losing the grip on their steering wheel.

We passed an old and now derelict fort, and the road opened up onto a dry, empty plain. It’s not long before it enters another gorge less than a couple of hundred metres wide. Here it clings to the side of the cliff, and oncoming traffic typically does not give way in, or even acknowledge, the many blind corners.

I spoke to a Pakistani truck driver about this at Torkham while he approvingly tried on my helmet, and he said, “My fate is written in the book.

When Allah – the victorious, the merciful – wants me he will take me.” Interesting place to run a road safety campaign…

So far, the only sign of human presence had been the occasional fortified tower on a hilltop. From the village of Zintara, the valley widens and we began to see other small villages and signs of agriculture, as well as more forts. This is tough country, and it breeds tough people. The Afridis, whose tribes have held the Spin Gar Range since time immemorial, are not ones to trifle with.

This becomes pretty obvious in Landi Kotal, the area’s main market town and the only settlement above the size of a small village. Every male above puberty seemed to be strolling along with a rifle over his shoulder, and it was pretty obvious that many also carried pistols.

The younger kids had only long, well-used looking knives in their belts. Phew.

Despite their general air of hardness, the tall, grey- or blue-robed figures thronging the streets of the market didn’t exude any particular aura of threat or menace. You don’t have to, I suppose, when you’re carrying that sort of firepower. We were effectively at anyone’s mercy. Nobody would complain if someone had blown us away. Europeans have disappeared here, but we didn’t know that – or at least we hadn’t taken it on board, and felt pretty much okay. Ignorance is bliss, and our casual attitude only changed after the owner of the ‘hotel’ in Torkham had given us some statistics…

But while the Afridis are tough, I think they would also consider it beneath their dignity to bother with a giaour – unless you insulted them. Yet another gorge leads down to the border at Torkham, surely one of the most…

remarkable towns anywhere – even among border towns, which have a dubious reputation anywhere in the word. But I’ve written about that at another time… Peter “The Bear” Thoeming

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Australian Motorcyclist Magazine is Australia's leading motorcycle travel magazine.
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