Along the Khyber Pass 

Mary McIntosh

© 2011 by Mary McIntosh

Photo courtesy of Pixabay.
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.


I spent New Year’s Eve, 1977, in Kabul, Afghanistan, just before the Russians invaded the country. Not too many Americans journeyed to Afghanistan at that time. Considered a remote and wild country, it was not often included in tours of middle-eastern countries.

I’d been staying in Delhi and, on the morning of December 30th, I, along with the rest of my tour group, were awakened early and told to be ready in twenty minutes to depart the airport for our flight to Kabul. We ate a hasty breakfast of rolls and coffee before boarding a bus. When we arrived at the Kabul airport, we had to wait until 12:30 P.M. before we were able to continue our journey. We were supposed to have gone to Afghanistan the previous day, but no one would tell us the location of the plane, or why we were stranded. Apparently, Ariana Afghan Airlines flew their planes whenever they chose. Eventually the prop plane arrived and we boarded through a rear door. A representative from the American Embassy in Kabul was on board, and only three other Americans––a couple from Texas and myself.

Surrounded by the Hindu Kush mountains, Kabul, at an elevation of 5,900 feet, stands at one of the highest elevations of any capital city in the world. The Kabul River, flowing through a narrow pass between two craggy mountain ranges that divide the city, meanders through the capital. Much of Kabul, a major city with tall buildings, still has many hovels. Even though Afghanistan has universities and colleges, the literacy rate is still low—51% of males, and only 21% of females can read and write. From my room at the Hotel Intercontinental all I could see were sunlit snow-covered mountains. Our tour guide told us the mountains have an ever-changing beauty in the summer, turning from deep purple to brilliant pink under the rising and setting sun. Somehow, looking at the beauty of the mountains, it was so easy to overlook the poverty that crouched among the tall buildings and busy bazaars.

On a very cold and windy day we toured the Kabul Museum, in a building with no heat. Even though we couldn’t read the signs, we were shown remnants from city walls dating back to the 5th century––artifacts from various sections of the country, some excavated from the site of the Kushan, capital of Kepisa, as well as frescoes and Islamic objects. I was glad to get out of that building, for I couldn’t remember being quite so cold before.

But the people were warm. A waiter at the Hotel Intercontinental practiced what little English he knew by talking with me. He told me his name was Gholam Sahki, and a little about his life. Many people I have encountered in the countries I’ve visited—for instance a woman in Poland, who chatted with me in her halting English for quite a long time––were eager to travel to the United States someday and they delighted in being able to talk to an American and ask questions. Movies and television have opened the world to them, and I often wonder how many of them accomplished their goal of visiting the U.S., or other countries. I doubt that Gholam did, for a few months after my stay in Afghanistan, the Russians invaded and war broke out.

While Gholam and I were chatting together that New Year’s Eve, we stood beside one of the windows in the dimly-lit dining room of the Hotel Intercontinental. He pointed out the general area where he lived, and he asked me if I would like to visit him in his home.

Part of the experience of traveling is to observe another person’s culture and to foster good relations between nations. His request that I visit his home was a little too much “fostering” on my part, so I told him it would be impossible for me to go, but I did give him my address. I thought this might help him keep in touch with the country he so dearly wanted to visit someday. He promised to write me, but neither of us ever corresponded with each other.

* * * * *

When I first thought about visiting this part of the world, I decided I wanted to take a first-class tour, and discovered a British tour that suited my needs and my pocketbook.

Upon arrival in London I was required to check in with the tour company and obtain the necessary documents for my trip. The entrance to Bales Tours, a family-owned business located near Piccadilly Circus, was a narrow doorway, situated between a shop that sold pinball machines, and a Wimpy’s Hamburger. I climbed a steep flight of narrow stairs to the second floor, and entered a small office, where I saw only a desk, two filing cabinets, and no place to sit.

A middle-aged man sat at the desk in front of me; he was talking on the phone. His hair was beginning to turn gray and his eyes crinkled as he smiled and nodded at me, acknowledging my presence. With no place to sit, I remained standing, and gazed around the small office at the many travel posters on the wall while he continued talking.

He finished his call, put the phone down, and said, “Good afternoon, and you are?”

“Hello,” I said, “I’m Mrs. McIntosh. I’m on your tour to the Middle East, and I came for my last-minute instructions.”

“Yes, I have your file right here. I’m pleased to see you. Come out on the landing where there are comfortable chairs, and I’ll go over theses details with you. My name is John Leland.” I learned later that this man was Mrs. Bales’ brother-in-law. I found it odd that such an expensive tour company would seat their customers on a chair on the landing outside their office. I’d been in many travel agencies, and none were quite as sparse as this one. It did make me wonder what the tour would be like, though the brochure said we’d stay at first-class hotels, which was the main reason I’d chosen it. Normally I opted for tourist-type hotels, but since I would be going into a part of the world where I knew the standard of living was different from what I was used to, a more expensive tour than I normally took seemed important to me. I hoped this didn’t portend a mixed-up trip.

* * * * *

The group I traveled with was British. Most of the members were affable, but there were two spinster friends, Louise and Anna, traveling together whom I, a former Britisher, secretly labeled as “Right Proper English Ladies.”

Basically, I try to be a good person, but occasionally a little devilishness comes upon me.

The day following my encounter with Gholam, I told these two ladies I’d been invited to visit an Afghani man’s home. They frowned at me, and tut-tutted.

“Oh my,” Louise said, “I do hope you didn’t go.” The shocked looks on their faces were worth all of my devilishness. How many people have had a similar invitation in such a remote part of the world? It was too good an opportunity to resist. I behaved myself for the rest of the trip.

The following day we were scheduled to go up 11,000 feet to the Salang Pass. Even though a blizzard was raging outside, we were comfortable in the warm bus. Sometimes the snow blew so hard it was difficult to see out the windows, but when the snow subsided, I noticed we passed many squat brown houses scattered around the hillside. At the summit we continued through a two-mile-long tunnel, built by the Russians, to the Pass. The hotel had given us our lunch of eggs, cold hamburger, cake and fruit, with the intention that we would have a picnic by the side of the road. Because of the snow, we had to eat in the bus.

After our short stay in Kabul, we headed toward Pakistan. Our lunch stop was at Jalabad, just across the border, and the start of the thirty-three mile long Khyber Pass. Next stop Peshawar, where we’d spend the night.

In Afghanistan, cars drive on the right side of the road—in Pakistan, the left, so after lunch our driver made this switch. As time in Pakistan is one-half hour ahead of Afghanistan, so we all had to adjust our watches.

We were now traveling in nomad country, where people lived in mud-brick homes. Clusters of squat brown houses clung to the mountainside, sheep and goats wandered around the pastures, and smiling children waved at us. Several caravans of camels and mules, carrying wood and other commodities, passed us. On very narrow parts of the road, the bus pulled over and stopped to let these caravans pass. Our driver carefully drove the bus over this rugged terrain.

I was excited about this part of our tour. The words Khyber Pass represented to me such an important part of the history of the British Empire. It became the best land route between Pakistan and India, conquering armies used it as an entry point for invasions, and it was a major trade route for centuries. Camel caravans, always traveling together for protection, brought goods over the Khyber Pass to trade such treasures as silk and porcelain between China and the Middle East.

Passing the Shagi Fort, I could “see” the British soldiers of the Khyber Rifle Military regiment defending the Pass for the glory of their Empire. As we descended into Peshawar I began to visualize Alexander the Great and his army in 326 B.C. marching toward India. It was so easy to picture these events unfolding as I snapped photos from the moving bus.

Our arrival in Peshawar in time for dinner brought me back to reality.

The next day we toured the city, passing bazaars where brightly colored clothing, pots and pans, and rows of grains in shallow dishes were sold. Tiny, gaily painted green and yellow taxis that couldn’t have held more than three people, one of whom would have been the driver, the beautiful Muhabat Khan Mosque, and camels hauling wood and sacks of turnips on their backs were fascinating sights. Racks of meat, probably sheep or goat, hung in open shops by the side of the dusty roads, and chickens ran around everywhere.

In nearby Dara we visited a gun factory where replicas of all the guns in the world are made. I wondered who bought these replicas. No one told us, and I’m not sure anyone asked. Later, we were taken to an unusual cemetery where the upright headstones facing each other belonged to men, and those flat on the ground were women. I never learned the reason for this difference, but I’m inclined to think that, even in death, men were still thought to be the dominant gender.

The next day, January 2nd, I left this remote part of the world and headed back to the bustle of London, and my onward journey back home, but I would long remember the Khyber Pass, Kabul, the Hindu Kush mountain range, the nomadic countryside, the Afghani people, and especially a man I met in Kabul.

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