Introduction – over the Khyber


In planning my trip to Afghanistan I was frequently asked the simple but thought provoking question, “Why? Why Afghanistan?” As evidence of my exhaustive pre-departure research my initial reply was a well rehearsed, “Why not?” So I’d be asked the same question a second time to which I’d give a modified albeit equally rehearsed response of, “Because it’s there.” Queried a third time, I’d further clarify my position offering, “To have a look.”

Why not. Because it’s there. To have a look. Three reasons to visit Afghanistan. Probably a tourism authority slogan in there somewhere.

My departure was delayed a couple of times for a variety of causes which need not be detailed at this time, but I eventually flew out of Bangkok shortly after midnight May 7 on a Pakistan International Airways flight to Islamabad, Pakistan (PIA’s motto: Great people to fly with. My PIA motto: Great people to fly with once. Standard motto: Please Inform Allah). If I had to do it again I’d fly Thai Airways to Lahore, but Islamabad seemed like a sensible idea as I needed an Afghanistan visa and I needed to convert my Pak visa into a re-entry and Islamabad is the place to do this.

In theory, to be issued an Afghan visa one is supposed to have a letter of introduction from their embassy or an official letter from an employer or organization, or at least the Afghan embassy in Islamabad requires such a paper (apparently the Afghan consulate in Peshawar does not). This bit of bureaucratic silliness is basically a one sentence letter that says, ‘please issue this person, a passport holder from our fair country, a visa’, but can be implied to say, ‘we charged this guy $50 for this silly little piece paper, what a sucker!’ Being the detailed oriented kind of guy I am I gave not a second thought to actually bothering with this stupid piece of paper and I simply presented myself at the Afghanistan embassy and in my best Oliver Twist imitation I asked, “Could I have a visa, please?” The man behind the window was a friendly enough guy who flipped through my passport for a few seconds before responding with the dreaded, “Do you have a letter from your embassy?”
I scrunched my lips a moment, lips left – eyes right, lips right – eyes left, then looked back at him, laughed, shrugged my shoulders and said, “Of course I don’t have a letter.”
“And you want a tourist visa?”
“Well, I want something.”
“So you’re a tourist?”
Suppressing the urge to say, “No, I’m a traveler,” as I don’t think he’d catch the joke, I replied, “In a manner of speaking,” and I explained I was also a travel writer/photographer and intended to visit Afghanistan to get some stories and tell the world what a great place it is and that everybody should come visit and soon.

He seemed to like that answer and dismissed any further ideas in respect to an expensive piece of paper from my embassy instructing the recipient that I’m indeed a citizen of said country and should be issued with a visa herewith and forthwith. Said country would be the United States and I can only imagine what nonsense they’d tell me had I turned up at the embassy informing them of my decision to visit Afghanistan. “We are warning all citizens not to travel to Afghanistan,” they’d tell me, “it’s dangerous.” I’d have no doubt looked askance at the drone and replied, “North Philly is dangerous, but you never tell anybody not to go there.”

I was given an application form which took about thirty seconds to fill out and I returned to the window.
“Come back tomorrow morning and at that time you can pay the $30 (US) fee,” he tells me.
“So I get my visa tomorrow morning?”
“No, you pay for it tomorrow morning, you get your visa tomorrow afternoon.”
“Well, can’t I pay for the visa now and pick up my passport tomorrow morning?”
“No, you come back tomorrow morning, pay the fee, and get your passport in the afternoon.”
For the second time I scrunched my lips for a moment, lips left – eyes right, lips right – eyes left, but declined to apply any further comment to this seemingly illogical procedure, thanked the man for his time and promised to see him in the morning, Inshallah, wondering if the fact that I had no receipt or any kind of proof that the Embassy of Afghanistan was in possession of my passport was relevant or not. Still, I doubted they had too many pending visa applications from US citizens so I wasn’t too concerned about my passport disappearing in a blackhole of blue-covered passports.

The bureaucracy, strange as it was, worked fine, I returned in the morning, paid the money, was issued a receipt, and in the afternoon my passport bore a smudgy rubber stamp that said I was allowed a fifteen-day stay in Afghanistan anytime in the next ninety days.

After dealing with some Pakistani bureaucratic matters (most notably a costly re-entry permit), I headed over to Peshawar where I’d stay for a couple of days before making the trip over the nearby Khyber Pass and on to Kabul.

Getting over the Khyber is not as simple as it ought to be. The NWFP (Northwest Frontier Province) of Pakistan is a predominantly tribal area under limited government control. Foreigners are prohibited from the Khyber area unless in the accompaniment of an armed security detail and a permission paper issued by the Secretariat in Peshawar. Travel must be in your own hired vehicle. Foreigners are prohibited from taking a bus.

The paper is free, the guard is supposed to be free but going in this direction, never is. Usually they want 200 rupees (about $3.50), however, arguments made on my behalf by the infamous Bahadar Khan, the curmudgeon that runs the Tourist Inn Motel in Peshawar, brought it down to 120 rupees. Enough effort could probably someday have brought the illegal fee down to zero, but sometimes the effort required isn’t worth the savings.

Halfway to the Khyber are a couple of checkpoints with large signs with big letters yelling to all that foreigners are prohibited from traveling any further without permission and an escort. And to be sure, the guards do randomly check the occupants of vehicles. The landscape then turns dry and desolate, something I’d get quite used to over the next two weeks. We made our way up the mountains to the border town of Torkham.

The Khyber Pass isn’t so much an awe inspiring place in respect to the scenery as it is for its history, or at least the perception of that history. The Khyber Pass has indeed been an active border crossing for several centuries though other local passes have proven just as useful to the various invading forces that have crossed over these mountains throughout recorded history. But the Khyber Pass was Britain’s main gateway to the region and on the Pakistan side of the Durand line (the arbitrary border demarcation drawn up by the British in 1893 dividing Afghanistan and what was then the Indian territory of Britain) a number of forts dot the mountainside. Here and there one encounters remnants of the railway which would appear to be out of use at the moment as several large gaps presently mar the track.

Torkham is a typical border town, meaning a lot of activity, chaos, children running around begging, picking pockets and making a general nuisance of themselves. Torkham can be a bit of a headache, albeit an interesting one. Slightly more diligent boys push carts around hoping to carry your bags in exchange for a most reasonable 20 Pak rupees (about 35 cents). Trucks and more trucks push their way through as so many supplies in Kabul originate in Pakistan. Numerous border guards try to contend with the mayhem, reverting as necessary to smacking unruly Afghans with a baton.

The Pakistani immigration is a small room where several bureaucrats with fifty-year-old typewriters chronicle the details of all who cross. Almost everyone using the border is either Pakistani or Afghan. Some deference is shown to us outsiders as my passport was processed ahead of a number of Afghans and Pakistanis already waiting ahead of me.

That sorted, I walked into Afghanistan and had my first experience with Afghan officialdom. Some young guy in a uniform stops me, smiles and shakes my hand, offers me a big “welcome” followed by suggestions that I should give him something. I thought of a number of possibilities none of which were what he had in mind so I feigned stupidity and incomprehension and politely excused myself leaving the fellow standing alone with his empty hand out.

The next adventure came in the form of taxi touts, the ubiquitous presence at borders throughout the developing world. Transport onward to Jalalabad and Kabul is plentiful with share taxis (Toyota Corollas), Town Ace vans (capacity of seven), Hi-Ace vans (capacity of fourteen), and buses. Supply appears to exceed demand though that doesn’t allow you to assume cheaper prices, only that you shouldn’t have to wait long to leave.

I had two checkpoints to contend with. First a man sitting in a chair under a tree with a registry fills in the details of all non-Pakistani, non-Afghans who cross. I was the first in about three days. A little further up the road stands the passport office staffed by a man who was about the rudest government official I would encounter in twelve days in Afghanistan. There, I had to fill out another registry as was done a couple of hundred meters back. The only difference is that the first registry is filled out by the official in Farsi, this one is filled out by the individual in English. I was still the first foreigner in about three days.

Stamped in, I dealt with the taxi drivers having no idea what a taxi should cost as nowhere on the internet had anyone bothered to post the information as to how much a seat in a taxi to Kabul should cost. So here’s the info: 400-500 Afghanis is the correct cost ($8.35-10.40) per seat. I bought the whole back.

There was one young guy in the front seat plus the driver, both seemed to be around 25 years old. They spoke only very basic English but that is more than most Afghans speak. The road from Torkham to Jalalabad and onward to Kabul is like most roads in Afghanistan, quite scenic and quite dusty. 5000-meter snowcapped mountains line the horizons both north and south while the immediate landscape is of rolling hills and a fertile valley where tall trees line the highway for some distance. Beyond Jalalabad the landscape becomes more forbidding ending with a trip through a narrow canyon before finally coming out of the mountains and into Kabul. The stretch between Torkham and Jalalabad is fairly well settled with numerous villages of mud-brick dwellings fronted by a generous supply of drink stands lining the roads. Beyond Jalalabad the population thins out a bit.

The road from Torkham to a bit beyond Jalalabad is mostly good tarmac but littered with potholes. Much of the road to Kabul is unpaved but it has been recently re-graded and travel times are pretty quick. A good driver and minimal stops can cut the Torkham to Kabul drive time down to about four to four and a half hours. We needed five and a half hours which included a lunch break in Jalalabad and a second break nearer to Kabul.

It didn’t take long to notice the numerous legacies of war. As I was to see regularly for the next twelve days, along seemingly every road in Afghanistan lie numerous bits of military hardware in various stages of decomposition. Tanks, artillery cannons, assorted vehicles, guns, small bits of UXO, the stuff is everywhere. For tanks alone I probably saw some two hundred remnants in my time in the country. Land mines are also prevalent. Mine fields are marked not with signs but by painting rocks. An area known to be mined is marked with rocks painted in red. When the area is cleared, they are repainted white. Numerous such fields line the road all the way to Kabul with many of the marked areas reaching right up to the side of the road. There are especially dense concentrations of mines around culverts and bridges.

Another legacy of the war is the numerous police and military checkpoints along the way. We were stopped roughly ten times for random vehicle searches and occasional requests to inspect various passenger documents. From the numerous checkpoints I encountered over the next twelve days, I gathered that more often than not, it’s an advantage for a vehicle to be carrying a foreigner. At no time were any cash demands ever made, nor did I ever experience any kind of search or interrogation that exceeded what I felt to be reasonable security measures given the present status of the Afghan countryside.

The other passenger and driver were a likable pair and as well as we could communicate they expressed their own hatred for the Taliban and their strong dissatisfaction with the continued US military presence in their country – like most Afghans they say thank you for getting rid of the Taliban and could you please go home now. Two recurring themes I was to hear throughout my stay were a growing sense of dissatisfaction, disillusionment, impatience, and annoyance with the military presence, both US and ISAF (International Security Assistance Force), and the lack of accomplishment on the part of the international aid community who are seen very negatively by almost every Afghan I broached the subject with, or more often, broached it with me.

My companions also commented that it was their belief that Osama Bin Laden, Mullah Omar, and Saddam Hussein are all being housed comfortably in the United States. This was not unique commentary but in fact another recurring theme I heard both in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

We stopped for lunch in Jalalabad, a rather unremarkable town and one not worth a layover unless absolutely necessary. Outside of the restaurant several ruffians made a persistent nuisance of themselves trying to beg money off of me and given the chance, probably stick their fingers in my pocket, lift my bags, or steal anything else they could get their dirty paws on. Upon leaving, dissatisfied at my refusal neither to hand over some baksheesh nor facilitate theft of any of my personal belongings, I was rewarded by having a piece of sugar cane flung at my head which bounced off of my left ear.

Mid-afternoon we arrived in Kabul where this story continues.

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