Tea at the Frontier

At the northwest edge of Peshawar is the Khyber gate and Jamrud Fort that marks the beginning of what we in Pakistan know as Ilaqa Ghair, or ‘ungoverned/lawless territory’. This is Khyber agency, one of several agencies that comprise FATA, or the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.

The Khyber gate guards the Khyber Pass, several kilometers outside of Peshawar just past the Smuggler’s Market. Nineteen years ago, when I first wandered through the Smuggler’s Market, it was an open field, a collection of haphazard vendors selling smuggled goods in no particular order. The market today is organized, roads have been built and vendors have moved into brick and mortar stores. The government has checkpoints set up just before the market to ensure that the vendors don’t venture into the city itself, for their wares would then be subject to customs and excise duties. Customers are free to buy what they choose and come straight back without paying any taxes on the goods, but the vendors can’t sell within the city limits.

Today, the Smuggler’s Bazaar is a legitimate tourist destination, offering goods at low rates and even warranties (from the smugglers themselves) for electronic items. The government, rather than fighting a futile war on smugglers (because Peshawar’s borders are too porous to effectively control smuggled goods from entering the city), have placed them just inside the city borders, about 10 minutes away from the Khyber gate and given them their blessings. Clearly a smart move.

Every day, smugglers make a two-hour trip (by car) from the Afghanistan border into the Smuggler’s Bazaar, known locally as ‘Bara’. When I sped through Bara in the car provided by the hotel, I was heading for Khyber Pass, that historic trek that led the British into Afghanistan in the 19th century, that was the entry point for Pakistan’s mujahideen when they fought the Soviets in the eighties, and the route that currently supplies NATO troops in Afghanistan. I was going into the mountains, heading towards Landi Kotal, Pakistan’s final frontier before the border at Torkham.

Right after the Khyber gate, the buildings change. From the red brick and cement buildings common in Peshawar, we were seeing mud walls without windows, just small black crevices and fortress-like indents on the roofs of the houses. They were spread far apart, interspersed between green farmland, fields and fields of graves (a menacing welcome to the tribal areas, and a somber reminder that the area was considered dangerous for valid reasons) and dry river beds. The river bed would be full, we were told, in spring, when the ice melted from the mountains and flowed down to join the Kabul River. The Kabul River flows onward to fill up the Indus River, and like our connection to India via Kashmir, Pakistan is forever linked to Afghanistan because of this vein of water.

We travelled, for the first twenty minutes, on paved roads, weaving with maniacal speed in between slow-moving trucks. The path wound around a range of mountains, so steep in places that trucks barely moved beyond 4-6 kmph. I was initially disappointed; we had to constantly ask the driver to slow down so that we could take in the incredible scenery, but the road was wide, the tar held up to the weight of the trucks lumbering through. And we went through so fast that we barely felt the terror of the sheer drop, often just inches from our car’s tyres.

And then the road changed. We went through a series of arches holding up a railway track that was clearly abandoned. A swirl of dust went up in front of us, and before we knew it, the smooth ride turned dusty and the driver slowed down. While Pakistan is slowly paving the pass, creating alternate routes to accommodate the massive traffic that crosses the mountains every day, the pass was still under construction.

Despite the air-conditioned luxury of the Corolla we were travelling in, as we moved deeper into the mountains, I began to feel every bump, every stone and every ditch in the road. Because this is a route that needs a four-wheel-drive, not a sedan used to city roads. And yet, I didn’t see a single jeep or four-wheel-drive on the way there. There were mini-vans, hatchbacks, taxis and sedans, weaving in and out of the narrow path to overtake the long line of trucks carrying goods to and from Afghanistan. Like a caravan of giant elephants, they patiently and carefully avoided stepping on the puny mice scurrying in between their feet and occasionally blocking their path.

As the road became narrower, my husband pointed to small brick towers set up on mountaintops along the way—remnants of British outposts set up when, defeated by Afghanistan, their army retreated into the mountains. The outposts, or guard towers, started almost immediately after we crossed the Shagai Fort, currently in use by the Frontier Corps. The fort watched over a valley of houses that led down to a thin stream of water flowing with furious ferocity along dirt banks. Women and children dotted the banks of the stream, carrying silver pots gleaming in the sunlight. Our car went over a small ridge and took a steep dive straight towards the stream. For the next thirty minutes, we were to follow the stream along a valley primed for an ambush. The driver locked the doors. The previous night, we had had dinner at a restaurant on Ring Road, which borders Bara Agency. The finger-licking fish that we feasted on was accompanied by intermittent gunfire in the distance. Arms and ammunition, my husband said, being tested before sale.

We didn’t hear any gunfire on the Khyber Pass, but the red granite of the mountains showed us glimpses of black cave entrances where fighters from the agencies, and the mujahideen who fled from Afghanistan, would hide out for days without being found. The glimpses were brief, and if we hadn’t been travelling at snail’s pace, we would not have seen them. The valley along the stream was rough. In places, I could have reached out and touched the sides of the mountain. The water from the stream, bright green and sparkling with light bouncing off the granite walls, wove through a path of pebbles and rocks, still moving furiously fast. Little children splashed through the stream, unconcerned with the line of traffic disrupting their lives. Towards the end of the valley, I saw two men using what looked like a giant wrench on the arm of an earthmover. The machine was running, it’s caterpillar wheels propped up against giant rocks that they had clearly dislodged. The mountain face behind them carried straight, man-made marks of a rock face being carved to make way for the new road.

To my right, the abandoned railway tracks we had seen so long ago wove in and out of the mountains. I could see arched black tunnels in places where the rock was too hard to cut. As we came out of the valley, we were still surrounded by mountains, but they were distant, moving back to allow for more buildings, more towns, more villages. I saw familiar ads and graffiti for schools and colleges, local services available anywhere in Pakistan, and I wondered at the moniker of Ilaqa Ghair, because, with the exception of the mountains and the mud-style houses, this could have been anywhere in the country.

I saw more earth movers, orange machines against the red mountains. The flora on the mountains was green, but closer to ground, they were silver from the dust swirling off the roads. The few towns we passed through were walled, often overlooking the track we were on. They were stone and mud walls, with small crevices and ridged tops, like a medieval castle. Most of them had no windows, and I saw no glass anywhere at all. If it weren’t for the metal and plastic pipes jutting out from them, I could easily have imagined that I had entered a time warp.

As we got closer to our destination, I began to see markings on the the mountains of the different regiments that had come through or fought to defend the Pass, some as old as 1933, carved into the mountain face. Some 15 minutes away from Landi Kotal, a stupa stands in semi-ruinous condition on a small mountaintop. Right opposite is a small village built around a massive tomb—unmarked, but well-preserved. And not far off from both the village and the stupa was another British outpost. They looked abandoned, desolate, alone, but no one had knocked them down, and in one or two of the outposts, we saw the Pakistan flag waving proudly in the mountain air.

On our way back, the mountaintops would be a rich golden colour against the dying sun. For now, they were a deep maroon, marked with ridges where water from streams and melted snow obviously flowed. When we finally bumped our way into Landi Khotal, it was almost 5 in the evening. The narrow roads of Landi Kotal were lined with small cafes, drug stores (Afghani hashish is available fairly openly this close to the border) and general stores. We had passed a Frontier Corps (FC) garrison on the way into town with a large sign for the Army Public School and College, and another mountain carving signalling their presence in the area. But the town itself was devoid of FC presence.

The Frontier Corps is the official policing and peace-keeping force for Ilaqa Ghair. Despite their footprint in the area, foreigners have to get special permission to enter Ilaqa Ghair as the government of Pakistan cannot guarantee their safety. I should probably have been worried for my own safety, especially when I exited the vehicle at Landi Kotal and saw that I was the only woman in the small market. Shopkeepers quickly averted their eyes, but I saw them take furtive glances when they thought I wasn’t looking, and as I moved through the stores, I could see some of them go into a huddled conference, probably to find out what I was asking about. However, my initial discomfort faded almost immediately. They were enthralled that a woman had travelled all the way from Karachi to see the Khyber Pass.

My husband and I had tea at a small ‘hotel’ (just a cafe, but they’re known as hotels here) in the center of the small market. The cafe had a giant vat for samosas outside, and inside, there were no chairs or tables. Instead, a platform had been built in a u-shape along the walls. It was carpeted, with a thin strip of leather laid down like a runner through the length of the platform. There were one or two men inside, seated cross-legged on the platform on either side of the leather runner, so I took off my shoes and mimicked them, while my husband ran across the street to get something to eat with the tea. A young boy sat at the end of the platform, a cellphone glued to his ear. I don’t speak Pashto, but I understood enough to know that he was telling someone that a woman had come to town. At my grin, he blushed a bright red and ducked his head down.

Another young man brought two small bowls and a green metal teapot and set it on the runner in front of me. When my husband came back, he had a bag of the most delicious sweet breads I have ever had in my life. The crisp mountain breeze flowed into the tea shop and we sat contentedly sipping tea out of bowls and leaving crumbs from the crisp fried bread (or was it pastry? I couldn’t tell) all over the carpeted platform.

By the time we stepped back outside, the town’s population had gotten over their shyness and shock, and spoke naturally in response to our questions. A red flag waved from the roof of a building—not, as it turned out, a Turkish flag, but a political one. A long, run-down building that we glimpsed just behind the market separated Landi Khotal from the Torkham border. I would have gone to see it, except that the driver was getting jumpy at the thought of driving back in the dark. It was almost six, and maghrib was almost upon us. More trucks, he said, travelled in the cool of the night, and getting stuck behind one of them would mean unnecessary delays. There are no lights along the Khyber Pass, not even on the paved sections, and despite the friendly reception we got, we were still in Ilaqa Ghair.

With some reluctance, we waved goodbye to the small boys running down the streets, and the polite gentleman who served us tea with such nonchalance. Our driver, a young man from Jalalabad who had married a Pakistani and was now settled in Peshawar, drove back with even more speed, especially since the way back bypassed the valley by the stream. We were back at Khyber gate in less than an hour and fifteen minutes—a miracle in some ways as it had taken almost two hours to get to Landi Kotal. We had travelled just inches away from the abandoned train tracks along the mountain. In some places, the ground beneath the tracks had worn away, leaving metal exposed and weakened. It obviously hadn’t been used in decades.

The trip was exhilarating, enthralling. For a city girl like me, the mountain air was intoxicating, going straight to my head and energising me in a way I haven’t felt since I lived in Saudi Arabia (where we routinely made a hair-raising trip up a mountain to the city of Taif from Medina). Based on the things I’ve heard, and the Frontier’s reputation as a hub for the Taliban, I hadn’t expected to find such serenity. I hadn’t expected to find a stupa, clearly not vandalized, guarding the road leading up to Landi Kotal. I hadn’t expected to see the stone posts that highlighted the structures of historical significance along the way. I hadn’t expected to notbe fired upon, or set upon, even though we did see the occasional masked group of men, not unlike the pictures of ISIS fighters, travelling in open trucks with rifles in the air.

I will come back again. This trip was rushed, and we misjudged the time it would take to travel the pass (we were told an hour or so). Next time, I will stop. I will get out and walk along the stream. I will take better pictures of the forts and castle-like towns. I will climb to the stupa and walk among the ruins. Next time…

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