I have always known the importance of the Khyber Pass of Pakistan in the history of ancient India, primarily in stopping invasions from the West. What I did not realize were the legends associated with this narrow mountain pass on the North Western edge of Pakistan, with Afghanistan.
My trip to the Pakistan-Afghan border from Peshawar was to experience what mighty conquerors, courageous travelers, and brave soldiers saw when they reached this narrow gorge in the Spin Ghar spur of the Hindu Kush mountain range.
I will try to summarise the experience for you:-
The Khyber Pass at 1073 m is a 53-km gorge that extends from Torkham town on the border with Nangarhar province Afghanistan to Jamrud town near Peshawar, Pakistan.
Because any route south or north of this pass is so treacherous and impassable, historical greats like
- Darius I
- Alexander’s general Hephaestion
- Genghis Khan
- Chandragupta Maurya
- The original Aryans (indo Iranians)
- Babur and
- Mahmood Ghaznavi
All came through this pass to ravage Ancient India which included present-day Pakistan.
This pass is traditionally protected by the Shinwari and Afridi tribes of Pakistan, although Orakzai has spilled blood to protect their freedom too. Even the much-hyped Sikh Hari Singh Nalwa General of Ranjit Singh could not get into the mouth of the pass from the Eastern Jamrud side, despite a European nod.
Not even the colonial British could fully subdue the tribal of this area and had to launch expensive campaigns like
- The 1st Afghan War 1842,
- 2nd Afghan War 1879 and
- The Tirah campaign of 1897
To force a treaty with the tribes, in the end, the British had to induct Afridi tribesmen into the Khyber Rifles and pay Malik as protection money for their supply lines.
In the 1st Afghan War, the complete British force was annihilated while they retreated through the Khyber Pass, in the 2nd Afghan War, the British surprised the tribal fighters who had laid siege on the Ali Masjid fort by appearing behind their lines from a narrow gorge, unpassable for the military. In the Tirah campaign, Afridi had burned every fort in this pass and entered the Landikotal garrison, to force the British to retreat and come to terms with them.
Nowadays, this pass is with the Khyber Rifles of the Pakistan Military and is the safest conduit of drugs, arms, stolen vehicles, and smuggled contraband anywhere along the Pakistan border. Driving through the pass, you don’t feel much has changed since the last 150 years since the pass, as every 100 meters has a security outpost. There are more security posts on every ridge along the route than the people on the roads. It seems that every government department has set up a check post to fleece traders and travelers
What you do not find are quality schools and hospitals – Pakistan Zindabad.
Just a few years ago, the lawless tribal area of Pakistan started right at the edge of Peshawar city at the Khyber monument at a place called the Karkhano market of Hayatabad. Now, the tribal areas have been legally merged with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province.
I have been buying quite a few of the commandeered NATO supplies from this market but now there is nothing much interesting here anymore since the American troops left Afghanistan.
The moment I left the western edge of Peshawar city, the spin Ghar mountain range of the Hindu Kush appeared towering in front. The entrance to the pass can be seen from tens of miles away.
Jamrud fort, established by Hari Singh Nalwa is the last bastion of troops before entering the formidable valley with peaks 700 m in height on both sides and a stream of water running across half its length. Hari Singh, despite a nod of approval from the European colonists, could not enter the Khyber Pass and built a fort right at its entrance. Nowadays, this fort is a no-go area for every Pakistanis, somewhat like Area 51.
The last government check post before the start of the Khyber Pass is the Baghyari post and very soon after appears the Shagai Fort. Shagai Fort is so close to Ali Masjid that you can visually communicate from any of the watch towers along its periphery. Shagai is the most recent (1927) of the several dozen forts and guard towers erected by different rulers of India and Afghanistan along the length of the Khyber Pass. Even the British Indian Railways built their own guard posts.
Shagai Fort is rectangular with firing points opening up inside soldier barracks so that they can shoot while lying down in their beds. There is a 3×3 ft. cell inside the fort that has housed many famous personalities that fell out with the powers of the time. The interesting thing about the fort is that its gangway along the periphery wall spirals upwards to the top floor. The British even had their ice block factory inside.
Just beside the mosque is the turning toward the cliff overhead that has the famous Ali Masjid fort. This fort is so strategically placed that it not only overlooks the narrowest part of Khyber Pass, which was once only 3 m wide but also keeps an eye on the road that brings in smugglers from the Tirah valley towards the southwest.
It was here that Brigadier Dyer outflanked the Afridi fighters who had besieged it in 1879.
Ali Masjid Fort has an ingeniously built military field hospital dug into the mountainside, 25 m deep. The field hospital is so well preserved and safe that it can sustain a direct hit from artillery rounds. The temperature down in the recovery rooms is so chilled that a soldier would want to be injured to get some recuperation It’s good that the Army is converting this work of genius to a museum and moving troops to Shagai fort close by.
The colonial British managed to expand the Ali Masjid bottleneck wide enough to accommodate a two-way road and a tunneled railway track.
The complete railway track from Peshawar to Landikotal Garrison contained 32 tunnels and 97 bridges and this engineering marvel was taught in universities of the day. When the British left Pakistan, the geniuses who ran Pakistan didn’t feel it necessary to develop local brains big enough to run these tracks. Now, the last Khyber steam safari ran through in 2007 and the tracks are unusable.
Half an hour further ahead are ruins of Sphola stupa. The artifacts and tablets found at the Buddhist stupa site have been displayed at the Landikotal Museum. The most interesting among these is the plaster cast of some holy monk who was buried in the stupa. There was another stupa up ahead, but that one has been completely raised to the ground. There is a walking track going up to the Sphola stupa, in case you are interested.
Very soon after the Stupa comes the notorious Haji Ayub Afridi’s compound. I am told the compound had its own water system, power system, and pools. The total compound must be a few acres in one direction along the road, all walled up 20 feet high. Ayub Afridi was Pakistan’s most prolific heroin smuggler, with the help of dubious elements of the deep state, during the height of the Afghan war with the Soviets. Some of the drug proceeds were used in funding the disastrous war. Ayub Afridi had once asserted that he could wipe out the foreign debt of Pakistan, which was about $20 billion back in the 90s, and the guy soon after disappeared from public view.
A few kilometers later, you have to take a right turn to reach the Landikotal Garrison, which is supposed to be impenetrable. This garrison is probably the highest settled point of Khyber Pass. Well, the Afridi penetrated it pretty easily in the 1897 war and killed the local Muslim Subedar who was honorable enough to defend it while his British officer abandoned the post and ran to safety in Peshawar. God bless the few honorable and self-respecting people left in Pakistan, who work silently to protect the weak against systematic cruelty.
Not only do the leaders of the Tribal rebellion, need to be honored but also the supporting Mullahs, Akbar Khan Afghan, and the Muslim soldiers who tried to defend their Gora Sahib – at least they were Ghairatmand (honorable).
- The current Landikotal Garrison has walls full of pictures with Western dignitaries like Robert De Niro, George Bush Senior, Margaret Thatcher, and Lady Diana, etc. who would love to see their tyrannical colonial culture still going strong in absentia.
- If this wasn’t enough, they still had a tree chained up to the ground because a drunk colonial British officer ordered them to do so.
- I even got to see the legendary Jazail long-range rifle built in the gun factories of Darra, which won the Anglo-Afghan war.
- This garrison also has the original Sun Dial timekeeper and a unique rock with Allah’s name inscribed in it naturally.
- The military is building another museum here.
Finally, driving out of the Garrison we reached the parking area of Michni post which has one of the best views of the surrounding hills, deep into Afghanistan. On a clear day, we can see the snowcapped mountains of the Hindu Kush and a glimpse of Kabul.
Panning left to right,
- We get to see the original blast walls built by the British to protect their border troops from mortar fire from Afghan posts that are even higher.
- Further right is another solitary peak with Tamer Lane’s (Taimur) prison. Legend has it that Taimur would slide his opponents down the Shute on one side of the prison that had sharp metal blades along the side of the Shute. These blades would cut open the poor unfortunate fellow as he slid down to the abyss below, due to gravity.
- Looking straight ahead from the Michni post is the Torkam border of Pakistan – Afghanistan and the swanky new trade terminal.
- Towards the left of the Torkham border post are the ruins of the fort of an ancient dynasty (Kafir Kot)
- Torkam is where Pakistanis bring their rundown Toyota land cruisers and have them refurbished with non-custom paid vehicle bodies. This is the non-custom paid car market.
- Someone mentioned that you can get the finest drugs that include, meth, heroin, hash, and Western weapons from Torkham. Just pay the middleman to get you one. One guy I know bought a concealable Beretta 9 mm pistol from a USA-trained commando for a mere Rs 50,000.
More than 1000 heavy-duty vehicles wait for their turn to take their cargo into Afghanistan.
Jalalabad and Kabul are so close to Torkham, I wish we had an easy visit policy with this neighbor at least. Considering both countries are basket cases anyways, so bird of a feather, will do pretty well flocking together? And I have heard nice things about Kabul too.
There were many other sites to hike around the Michni post, especially the one closes to the Pakistan – Afghan border, but it left that for next time.
The notorious gun makers of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, who know how to imitate even the best weapon, are not located on this pass, but down South at Darra Adam Khel (another mountain pass)
Driving back to Peshawar city, it hardly took me 40 min to reach the city Centre and get a delicious lunch of Taru Jabba Chappal Kabab.
How to get a permit to visit Khyber Pass?
The final permit to visit Michni post and Landikotal Mess is granted by Frontier Constabulary at Qila Bala Hisar, but you need to approach the tourism department through their website https://kp.gov.pk/page/contact#
It is quite difficult getting a permit to visit the Pakistani-Afghanistan border and might be expensive, but I assure you if your guide is well-informed, it will be worth it.
If you need help in visiting Khyber Pass, please text me at +923005111523