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Carry On Up the Khyber


With some young smarmy chancer doing his best to dictate our lives at the Park Hotel, it unfortunately proved too convenient to give into the leech. We headed off on his combined tour, joined at the last minute by Mannfred the Berliner, and were soon heading up the Khyber Pass with the intention of going onto a gun factory. The intended trip to Darra, a small town infamous as the source of only one thing, was now prohibited due to the poor security situation but this being the North West Frontier Province, there was undoubtedly no shortage of places to handle and fire guns. With me and Mannfred in a tiny Suzuki excuse for a car, we stopped off at Khyber House to pick up our permits, you had to get special permission to travel outwith the vicinity of Peshawar since it was officially recognised that national law gave over to tribal law, it was the only way for the government to maintain any semblance of influence at all. We started out through an affluent neighbourhood where large individually designed villas were a stark contrast to what I had expected and so far seen of Peshawar. You had to be cynical and wonder where all the money had come from in this part of the world, and guns and drugs were the likely candidates. And Bin Laden, who knows? Soon a sign declared "No Foreigners Beyond This Point" and the scum factor mounted again as we entered another world with insufficient different rules no-one seemed to know. As we passed through a ceremonial archway which acted as the nominal start of the Khyber Pass, the one we were reminded of was not to photograph "womenfolk". The most notable feature of the tribal areas was the size of the houses however, though this time they were very different. Families with money lived in massive fortified complexes with walls maybe 10 metres high and sometimes hundreds of metres long, with guards and cameras evident. As the road began to climb, the buildings petered out until we reached the narrowest point of the Pass, only just wide enough for the road and adjacent river. It must have acted as an ideal ambush point in the past and a large hanging rock at this point was predictably the source of some bullshit legend, where a hand print in it showed how its fall had been stopped by some warrior hero. We passed an excellent former British fort built in bright red stone and looking very Beau Geste, still in use now as an outpost of authority by the Pakistani army. We also crossed the Khyber railway a couple of times, a now little used engineering wonder inspired by fear over a Russian invasion during the "Great Game" era, and in places the river bed and railway sidings were also studded with tank traps. Amazingly, way up here the Brits had built defences against a feared German tank invasion of India during WWII, just imagine if they'd managed to link up with the Japs! On cliff faces nearby, regimental shields had been painted on to commemorate the battles and tours of countless passing armies. Another short climb and we reached our furthestmost permitted point, a police checkpoint known as Michni Point. It has a fantastic view overlooking the escarpment down which the road descends into a valley, with the border town of Torkham clearly visible at its base. Numbers painted large and white here on the ridgelines define the Durand Line, as the border is sometimes referred to. Afghanistan lay clearly visible ahead of us, not so different from the Pakistani side of course but the rugged mountains interspersed with desert scenery really did provoke the frontier mood in me.

With Darra out of the picture we had hoped to visit a gun factory and shoot off some rounds in this nick of the woods. It was later explained though that our assuredly wimpish looking police escort was a woose and wouldnt allow it, baksheesh or no baksheesh. Back down the Pass and into Peshawar then and we found ourselves trailing some suitably grungy backstreets where we pulled up outside some anonymous red brick buildings which could have been anything. They turned out to be workshops where a line of guys sat cross legged, rasping away at pieces of metal held in vices. These guys were making parts for pistols, copied from the original in every detail and it was a point of pride that these guys could copy any weapon you cared to ask for within a matter of days. We had been looking forward to trying a few of the stereotypical widowmakers like the M16, Uzi, Heckler and Koch MP5, you name it. I had a particular desire to rake the crap out of something with AK47 fire I must admit, maybe it was months of pent up tension living under Islam! Sad to say though, the factories within the city tended only to deal in the more popular demand for pistols or shotguns and so that was our choice, the spoilsports! We baulked at the asking price of 100 rupees per round, that was exhorbitant even for Europe and as we swiftly pointed out, I doubt very much if thats what the Mujihadeen pay. Young guns Matt and Alex were smitten though and so went halfers on a 14 round mag. And the weapon of choice? A Baretta 9mm pistol which was remarkably heavy and with a heavy trigger action even more of an effort to fire. Mannfred and I got sucked into trying just one round apiece, and so resisting the urge to cry out "Youre dead meat cop!" or something similar, I squeezed the trigger and yup, it went bang just like in the movies.

Next pit stop was to a truck workshop, where guys got a hold of trucks straight off the boat from Japan and went about turning them into the works of art I had seen so many times harrying the streets of Pakistan. Incredibly, a truck here goes for around 1 million rupees, not so much actually, but 40 percent of that is just to pay for its decoration. Though some are hand painted the finer artwork tends to be ready made stickers applied to chrome plating. It was explained that if the trucks werent suitably adorned then nobody would hire them, which kind of summed up why this country wasnt going anywhere fast, there was just too much bullshit getting in the way. As an unexpected bonus we then went on to visit another factory of sorts, a brickyard where a cement/mud mixture is shaped into blocks using a wooden mould. It was something I had seen on a news report once and had wanted to catch in India, it highlighted a case study in child labour whereby the kids are employed for little or nothing to turn the bricks as they dry in the sun. Of course we quickly became the focus of the young boys' attention, they all seemed exceptionally happy it had to be said. For strengthening, some bricks are buried deep in large porous piles and baked using underground fires of ferocious heat. A local boy lifted one of the metal caps to reveal the flames underneath and it was as if the gates of hell themselves had been opened. Certainly, it must be a living hell doing that job in the summer.

Posted by andyhay 00:00 Archived in Pakistan

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