Deep in the Moroccan Sahara bordering Algiers

Tuesday, 1 March 2011


Having driven down from the Karakorum Highway, we were heading for the next major town of Peshawar, just a few miles from the Khyber Pass, the gateway to Afghanistan.  Just outside Peshawar, the traffic came to a standstill.  In the distance we could just make out a railway crossing with the barriers down.  As we patiently waited in the traditional English way, (Pakistan drives same side as UK) we watched in amazement as vehicles fed up of waiting on the left side of the road, started clogging up the right side of the road.  Alan turned to a coach driver who was now alongside us on the wrong side of the road facing the wrong way and asked, 
‘Tell me what happens when the train has gone and the barriers are lifted and traffic coming the other way has the road blocked by you?’ The coach driver smiled.  
‘This is Pakistan.’ Came the reply and added as an afterthought.  ‘Don’t you have railway crossings in England?’  
‘Of course we have railway crossings in England.’  Alan told him.  ‘We invented them!’  
We found The Tourist Inn Motel in Peshawar and parked up in the grounds.  The motel was offering jeep trips up the Khyber Pass, but being very independent we wanted to take our Sherpa.  To do this we had to have a vehicle pass and an armed guard, both quite easily obtained from the Political Agent’s Office at a cost of RS100 (£2).  Our armed guard’s name was Puja, who carried a machine gun and knew only four words of English.    Puja took care of our safety and presented our paperwork at the frequent checkpoints.  Part of our journey out of Peshawar was through the huge Afghan refugee camp, which started back in the 70’s when the Russians invaded Afghanistan and sent Afghanis fleeing from their homeland into neighboring Pakistan.  The camp looked full to bursting point holding over a million refugees and was growing daily as Afghans were now fleeing the harsh rule of the Taliban.  I tried to imagine the feeling of being forced out of your homeland into a strange country that doesn’t really want you, to live in some awful camp, with very basic necessities.  The faces of these people spoke volumes.  Despair, loss of dignity, little hope.   
Apart from a couple of photo stops, we snaked up the winding road without incident to the brow of the Khyber Pass, where Puja motioned us to stop.  
‘Taliban.’  He told us, as he sat in the passenger’s seat fingering the trigger of his AK45.  He sat nervously scanning the surrounds for any possible threats.  We couldn’t see any threat, only a rugged vista of the Suleiman Ranges that is the Khyber Pass.  We had stopped at Michni Checkpost, high on the range with a stunning view of the Durand Line, better known as the Khyber Railway on the right, built by the British during the 1920s.  Ahead beyond the pass was Afghanistan a troubled country of tribal warfare.  
As we sat soaking up the tense atmosphere on a crisp but warm day, I couldn’t help noticing along the left of the pass and in full view of a police check point, a steady though sparse line of men almost bent double under the weight of some cripplingly heavy items.
‘Who?’ I asked Puja. 
‘Smugglers.’  He told me with a surprised look on his face. Didn’t I know?
We were astonished to see these men staggering up the rocky terrain away from the roads humping all manner of household items fridges and televisions in the most torturous method on their backs.  Smuggling was a thriving industry, a necessity it seemed through the Khyber Pass, all to do of course with evading taxes, only these smugglers were passively encouraged.  Goods brought into Pakistan from as far away as Karachi, were driven up into Afghanistan and then smuggled straight back into Pakistan, laboriously, item by item, paradoxically avoiding crippling taxes.  It was like something out of comedy sketch, with heavily overloaded, yet highly decorated Bedford trucks trundling into Afghanistan, the contents of which were then strapped to the backs of men who staggered back into Pakistan, as the empty trucks returned to Pakistan for another load!  The lucky ones were smuggling Chinese bicycles and had devised a system where they tied two bicycles to a third, which they freewheeled down the hills of the Khyber Pass.  They were paid Rupees 50 (£1) per bicycle. 
I watched as the men, not all of them young, staggered over rocky and unforgiving terrain.  Why couldn’t they hitch a lift back on the empty trucks instead of walking all that way?  It was a strange set up born from need, yet convoluted in its execution.  
Our drive up to the Khyber Pass was unforgettable and without problems, until we entered back into Peshawar, where we became caught up in a rather unfortunate little incident.  We were driving along a dual carriage way on the inside lane and Alan stuck his hand out of the window to indicate that he was overtaking a donkey cart.  No one in Pakistan used vehicle indicators, instead they seemed to re-wire such lights to make their vehicles more decorative.  As Alan signaled, he noticed a Toyota car in the distance behind us.  Knowing that he had time to pull out, he made his move, but the Toyota driver had other ideas and speeded up to our bumper blowing his horn, flashing his lights and intimidating us.  Alan gave him the finger thinking that it might quieten him down.  Unfortunately it had totally the opposite effect.  Road rage it seemed was a global problem.  As we pulled back the Toyota driver came up alongside us and could be seen shaking his fists and shouting angrily.  I just hoped that he didn’t have a gun!   In an attempt to lose him Alan made a sharp left turn, which gave us a short reprieve, but a few blocks down the road he caught us up again and carried on the pursuit with renewed fervor.  This chap wasn’t friendly and I sheepishly looked to our armed guard for some guidance.  It was then the Toyota nutter abruptly pulled up in front of us, causing us to skid to a halt.  Alan jumped out, closely followed by our armed guard, and me.  The Toyota nutter was a well dressed, over fed, fat bastard and spoke very good English and I hated him from the minute I saw him.  
‘Why didn’t you use your indicators?  You didn’t use your indicators and you gave obscene gestures to my brother.  No one gives obscene gestures to my brother.’ He said shaking with rage and waiving his finger provocatively in Alan’s face.  His brother an equally well dressed man and positively skinny, probably due to his big brother ensuring that he had the larger portions, timidly stood in his brother’s shadow, with a ‘Don’t look at me I’m invisible’ expression on his face.  
‘Actually, I did indicate, I stuck my hand out of the window, but you chose to speed up and I gave the finger to you and not your brother.’  Retorted Alan.   
‘How dare you do this?’  Said the nutter gearing his self up ready to strike the first blow.  ‘I’ve travelled the world and everyone uses their indicators.’  ‘No they don’t.’ I chelped, as I bravely positioned myself between Alan and the nutter.  ‘I’ve yet to see anyone use their indicators in Pakistan.’  
‘Darling, let me handle this.’  Interrupted Alan as he protectively brushed me aside.  For just a moment the possessed Toyota nutter stood lost for words with a look that said, ‘Can’t you keep your wife under control?’  He turned to his brother for some back up.  Support was not forthcoming.  His skinny brother remained silent and invisible.  We were now attracting quite a fast growing audience, with pedestrians and road users unable to overcome the urge to stop and see what all the commotion was about.  
‘You made obscene gestures to my brother…’  He was some rich kid having a major tantrum. I was expected him to start stamping his feet and roll around on the ground because he wasn’t getting his own way, but with my camera in hand ready to capture the moment, he sadly disappointed me.  The whole scene was beginning to turn ugly, mainly due to the Toyota nutter not having a sense of humour.  Our armed guard put his hand on Alan’s chest and gestured for us all to get back in the Sherpa and go.  As we did we left the Toyota nutter chuntering on to an unsympathetic audience, who were walking off and leaving him and his brother to it.  Our armed guard summed it all up with one gesture.  ‘He was mad!’  Of our 6 weeks in Pakistan, the Toyota nutter was the only hostile person we had the misfortune to meet.
Pakistan was a fabulous place for those who had the guts to try it and I am glad that we were not influenced by unfounded western precautions and preconceptions which would have totally spoilt our visit by creating barriers.  I realized that there are many people in the West, who spread rumors about other countries, of which they know nothing about, nor have ever visited, even calling themselves “experts.”  In the West we have become so reliant on these “experts” that we fail to even try and see things for ourselves, in the process failing to see anything at all.  It is this ignorance that creates religious and cultural barriers, often denying us wonderful friendships and adventures.
Peshawar market. Pakistan.

Peshawar town Pakistan.

Police check point up the Khyber Pass. Pakistan.

Sherpie and our guard up the Khyber Pass.

The Khyber Pass, Afghanistan in background.

Khyber Pass.

1,000 Afghani note.

Smugglers up the Khyber Pass.

3 local boys came to say hello.

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