THE KHYBER PASS TRAIN-SAFARI.
`Khyber' or `Khaibar', its local pronunciation, is an ancient Hebrew word for `fortress'. The inhospitable terrain lives up to its name. The twenty-three mile long Pass in the northwest of Pakistan, begins near the village Qadam (a place of Buddha's footprint). A narrow, treacherous cleft in the Suleman Range of the Hindukush Mountains, it twists through the wild and desolate hills rising 3,500 feet above sea level; stretching to Torkham, thirty-five miles northwest of Peshawar. An ancient caravan route, a winding metalled road and an extension of the NorthWestern Railways traverse the Khyber.
Since the Aryans, every northern invader has taken the caravan route to the subcontinent. The Kushans, Scythians, Parthians, Afghans, Mughals, Mongols, and the White Huns came through the Khyber; some bringing fire, death and destruction in their wake, others setting up mighty empires. Concrete, antitank obstacles still litter the Khyber, a reminder of the threat posed to British India by Hitler's Panzers.
Captain McDonald surveyed the possibility of extending the railway to Landikotal in 1885. In 1901 it was extended upto Jamrud, and by 1905 it ran through the Kabul River gorge to the Shalman Valley. After an alliance with Russia decreased its political importance, the railroad was abandoned in 1909. After the Third Afghan War, the Khyber railroad became strategically imperative. Planned by Colonel Gordon Hearn and implemented by Mr. Victor Bailey the railroad, terminating at Landikhana, was completed in 1925-26. A woman, the engineer's wife, was the first person to travel on it, and in 1939 Sir Charles Innes formally inaugurated the Khyber Railway.
Threading its way through 34 tunnels [an aggregate length of five kilometers] and over 90 culverts and bridges, the railroad is a feat of engineering. With a gradient of 3 percent between Jamrud and Landikotal there is a rise of 2000 feet in 21 miles; and drop of 872 feet in 4.5 miles down to Landikhana, where the gradient is narrowed to 1 in 25. The sector from Landikotal to Landikhana is presently inoperative, and from what I saw of it, I do not think it will ever be operative again.
As part of the Pakistan Day celebrations, Sarhad Tourism Corporation, Pakistan Railways, and Sehrai Tours and Travels arranged a special trip. It was special because the Khyber Service has been discontinued since 1985. Restarted as a tourist attraction in December 1993, few people knew of it. The recent popular response is a result of Mr. Zahoor Durrani's efforts.
Besides the hundred and sixty paying passengers and children, sixty guests had to be accommodated, and a third carriage was added to the train. Disappointed tourists made advance bookings with Sehrai Travels for the next trip, scheduled for April 20th.1996. One of the luckier ones, I was at the American Club car park (the meeting point of the University Town group), at eight O'clock in the morning. Piling into the waiting Coaches, we drove off to join the train that had set off from Peshawar Cantonment Station. It raised quite a laugh when we found that the train was parked on Railway Road, just round the corner. The bunting and banner festooned train added a dash of colour to the air of festivity.
Our first stop was at Jamrud Railway Station, a small building in the middle of nowhere. The last group joined the train here. Everyone tumbled out, excitement was high and cameras were out, clicking the old steam engines at either end of the train, the looming foothills of mountains, and the station. The benches on the engine fenders evoked special attention. They were for the lookout that makes sure no `freebies' climb on. The puffing, panting train is often slow enough for people to hop on and some boys did manage a free ride.
Over the years some level crossings have lost their gates. Instead, a piece of wire held by a cheerful railway-man, did the job just as well. Since a train on this route is a novelty, the sound of its tooting brought the children out, waving and cheering us along. Women took a peek, with their backs chastely turned to the tracks, or through their curtained doorways. The men merely tried to look urbane. We had been warned not to photograph the women and houses, although I am sure the women would not have minded.
The terrain changed after Jamrud and the first tunnel caught us unawares. We sat in stunned silence, as it suddenly became pitch dark, while smoke and ash poured through the open windows. A sheepish attendant turned on the lights after we had chugged out of the tunnel. The cheering and hooting had barely died down when we entered another tunnel, and another and another, until I lost count. The train kept disappearing into the cliff to emerge higher up, crossing and recrossing the road. At some points the gorge was so narrow that I felt I could almost touch the rough-hewn rocks.
Everyone got out again at Medanak, stretching their legs and taking more photographs. When the train started off again, it went in the wrong direction! This caused some consternation until Aziza (from Sehrai Travels) explained that four reversing stations were a salient feature of the railroad.
Reversing and changing track, the engineers had developed a novel technique for trains to negotiate the sharp bends. The stops allowed mechanics to give the ancient engines a thorough examination, and the passengers to photograph the many-hued wilderness. The rear engine derailed once, but within the hour the crew had it back on track, and The Khyber Pass Safari continued on its merry way, forward two steps and back one step. The old engines screeched and screamed on the rusty tracks; protesting, no doubt, at being dragged out of their retirement.
As we neared Shagai Fort there was a burst of gunfire, our guards returned the compliment. The tour operators explained to the decidedly uncomfortable tourists that this was a traditional tribal welcome. The guards had thanked them on our behalf. While this 'conversation' was taking place between the firearms, I studied the crenellated parapet of the Shagai Fort. Built by the British to defend the opening at Ali Masjid, the home of the Khyber Rifles has an alien look. Originally an irregular force, the Jezailchis (from the Jezail, a long local gun), the Khyber Rifles became a regular force after an agreement between the Afridi tribes and the British. Disbanded after the tribal uprisings of 1897 and 1908, the Khyber Rifles were raised again after the fighting was over. The hilltop pickets, a system of protecting the Khyber developed by Colonel Mackeson, are a common sight all over the Khyber.
During the short stop at Shagai a crowd of locals gathered near the train silently watching the antics of the passengers. Some passengers had climbed to the benches on the engine fenders; others had clambered into the engineer's cabin.
There is a fascinating story about Ali Masjid, the narrowest part of the Pass. The story is that Hazrat Ali (The Holy Prophet's cousin) had come to the Khyber Pass and proposed to a beautiful kaffir, Khaibar Bibi. She refused to marry anyone unless he could move a huge boulder on the mountaintop. Hazrat Ali, being brave and strong, threw the rock right off the mountain. Converting to Islam, Khaibar Bibi married Hazrat Ali. A boulder with the impression of a palm stands by the stream near Ali Masjid.
The Khyber is not altogether a wilderness. Modern technology has entered the turreted, fortified houses; although the discreetly placed dish antennas look almost apologetic to be there. They underline the incongruous yet changing lifestyle of the tribes. Some homes along the railroad track were actually caves, while others were built like fortresses, with high walls and turrets; and then there was Ayub Afridi's palace, visible in the distance. Besides its' size, the greenery made it stand out in that dry, barren landscape.
Standing on a hilltop was another landmark, a Buddhist Stupa. The Sphola Stupa or Khyber Tope, stands 15-20 times the height of an average man. The Buddha's ashes are said to have been buried there. Yes, the fierce tribes of the Khyber were at one time ardent followers of the gentle Buddha.
Finally, after three hours of the savage, awe-inspiring landscape; of unrelenting, unchanging, rocks, boulders, mountains and tunnels, we arrived at Landikotal Railway Station.
Landikotal Station is unique among Railway Stations. It is built like a fortress, with no gates or windows on the forbidding facade facing the platform. A settlement near the station more than made up for it; the entire male population had turned up to receive our train.
Transferred to the waiting Coaches, we were taken to the Michnikandao checkpost. With the snow-capped mountains in the background, it presents a sweeping view of the valley below. A distant clump of trees marks the Afghan border at Torkham. Also visible from Michnikandao is Burj Hari Singh. Built by Hari Singh Nalwa, one of Raja Ranjeet Singh's commander in chiefs, it was the scene of many battles between the tribesmen and the Sikhs.
With the help of charts and a model, Captain Nadeem Aamir of the Khyber Rifles told us about the Khyber's turbulent history. The most recent threat from the north, Russian missiles fired at the checkpost in 1986, are laid out in a row at the checkpost.
A sumptuous lunch was served at the Khyber Rifles Officer's Mess at Landikotal Cantonment, the highest point in the pass. Before lunch we were entertained by the Guardians' brass band; leopard skin, tartan, swirling bagpipes and all. The incongruity of the Scots tartan and bagpipes under the Pathan kula-dastar was more noticeable in the shadows of the Hindukush!
During lunch the regiment's musicians serenaded us with popular tunes, but everyone was much too busy to appreciate the melodies. Lunch was followed by the inevitable, emasculated version of the Khattak's war dance. The vigour was there, but the fervour of the real thing was missing. Where there are officials, a round of speeches is inescapable; luckily they were short.
I asked Captain Nadeem about the curious sight of a chained tree in the Mess gardens. In his clipped army accents, and with a perfectly straight face, he informed me that the tree was haunted. It moved on nights of the full moon. They had chained it down to keep it from toppling over. Naturally I disbelieved him; and naturally, like any good ghost storyteller he told me about the time he had seen it move.
The return journey was an anticlimax. All the photographs had been taken. The excitement, the fresh air, the vibrating, quivering, quaking of the ancient train, added to the Pullao and Chapli Kabab at lunch, had made everyone sluggish. Something about the return journey saddened me. I had seen a sharp contrast between the behaviour of the Pukhtoons of the rugged mountains, and those of the plains. As we got closer to civilization the filth and stench first assailed us, then came the catcalls! It was as though the Pukhtoons are losing an important quality of their character; a quality, which had made them, stand out. Is the alien `civilization' corrupting the proud tribesmen?
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