Perhaps, you may think, I suffer from an overdose of Rudyard Kipling inflicted upon me by my address on Kipling Road, but there were some other reasons than the adventure of it that had enticed me into the legendary Khyber Pass--none as powerful as the adventure itself, I must confess. In the rental car with driver, we had pulled up to the Khyber Gate and waited there at the fortress of the Khyber Rifles for our escort. If you, as I, were thinking that this would be some uniformed officer with a side arm, you underestimate the Khyber Pass. Two Toyota pick up trucks pulled up to convoy us fore and aft, each with eight swarthy men in varied Pushtan or Pathan dress and head dress. Whatever the dress code was, there was one invariable part no self-respecting man would dream of going without--for even a few seconds, while attending to some other necessary function--each cradled AK-47's with full clips. But these were merely "small arms" carried by each of the attendants, whose principle escort function was to sit in the back of the pick up trucks and belt-feed the swivel-mounted 50 caliber machine guns, This weaponry is the so-called Somali "technical." And off we went, as quite atypical, if not quite "accidental tourist."
As we were in the pass, and I was taking furtive photos from the hip of interesting scenes passed in this stark landscape, some shouts were passed from the truck behind to the one in front of us. I was admiring the "labor intensive economy" example: a pick up truck with a flat was being repaired by a tire change. Seven of the eight men picked up one side of the truck while the eighth changed the tire, not one of them letting his Kalashnikov out of his other hand or slung on his back. The exchange of Urdu back and forth got intense between my escort vehicles, and my driver was getting tense. Abruptly, the Toyota truck behind us passed us on one of the hairpin switchbacks, and both escort trucks withdrew, leaving our vehicle alone in mid-Khyber. The next thing looming on our horizon was a road-block with Kalashnikovs raised overhead of a man who ordered us to halt in Urdu and English--a bad sign. My driver was first frightened, then especially expert when he heard a call in Pushtan. He executed the most adept at-speed bootleg turn and we roared off down the switchbacks as the rattle of glass and tires bursting almost drowned out the more ominous sounds.
The photograph you see here is at the Khyber Gate after returning to it after a very rapid exit from the Pass. The message he had heard in Urdu was that the malik who was to be my host was jailed that morning, and that Allah was delivering a princely hostage for exchange. At this point he may have been thinking "Drat! There goes my fare and tip!" But the message he heard in Pushtan was more ominous: "We need the Anglo, but I want the car; you waste the driver!" The driver got both his fare and a very generous tip for his expert bit of broken field running, and he took the rest of the day off.
Read the essay in its entirety.