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Islamabad to Peshawar to Kabul

by Christine Dimmock

Why do international flights both arrive and depart from Islamabad in the small hours of the morning? I pass through immigration, collect my pack and find a seat. Half terrified, I snooze until 6am then wander outside - easy prey. I want to go to Peshawar on the Flying Coaster, but a taxi driver has other ideas. Too tired to argue, I sit in the taxi. Immediately the young driver gets out and is replaced by a white-haired grandfather. Whatever. I’m sure grandfather can get me safely to Peshawar. The trip passes in a blur.

At the Rose Hotel in the Khyber Bazaar, bad timing thwarts my attempts to find someone to travel to Kabul with me. I arrive just in time to wave goodbye to three young men who are leaving Peshawar at 11am for the long days’ drive, unaware they will arrive in Kabul well after dark having boiled in the hot sun for two hours with a broken down taxi.

In a baptism of fire, I spend two days in Peshawar, a fascinating but uncomfortable location for my first visit to an Islamic country. Souhail, a local guide working from the Rose Hotel, adopts me and my dollars. As an enthusiastic Indochina traveller, I must see the ancient Buddhist ruins at Takht-i-Bahai and the associated artefacts in the Peshawar museum. We wander the streets of old Peshawar, eating freshly roasted corn kernels from a newspaper packet while I get used to the staring men and learn how to avoid eye contact. Souhail asks me several times why I’m shaking. It’s just my adrenalin levels alternating between elation and terror. Bravely, I cross the street in front of my hotel to buy some bananas alone.

The following day we go to the village of Darra Adam Khel in the Northwest Frontier Province. It costs a fortune, because I still have no travelling companion to share the cost, Souhail has a sick mother and a lifestyle to support, and the words “will pay too much” are indelibly stamped on my forehead.

Darra is a place where firearms of every description are manufactured illegally, as a sort of cottage industry. We’re shown into a small room to drink tea with our host, an attractive, authoritative man in a long coat. Over his shoulder, a Kalashnikov dangles comfortably. A sudden burst of automatic gunfire nearby almost sends me through the roof, the men snigger quietly and I resolve not to react again. Naturally, firearms need to be fired. No cause for panic or alarm.

A second man enters the tea room and the two begin a barely controlled argument. Even Souhail looks uncomfortable about the body language, and I wonder if I’m about to witness the famous Afridi rough justice. But tension falls and I’m led outside to a further burst of gunfire, right beside me. I even see the red flashes, but this time I don’t flinch. We wander through what seems like a surreal gun-making folk museum. Photography is actively encouraged. These men are artisans and proud of their work, especially one individual who has carved intricate patterns on the wooden bits of an automatic. The weapon is lovingly placed on a chair for my camera to immortalise it in still-life. I begin to see the gun as a work of art!!

After a lot more money changes hands, we reach the highlight of my visit – I get to fire my host’s Kalashnikov. It’s an original, not a copy, like the locally manufactured weapons. After being shown what to hold and where to aim (a distant hilltop), I squeeze the trigger. Some people are easily amused, especially me!!

The setting is changed to continuous fire, but in a moment of cowardice I ask about the recoil because I bruise like an over-ripe fruit. I’m told the Kalashnikov, being the Rolls Royce of guns, has no recoil. In fact it operates simply and smoothly, having no faults whatsoever apart from its unfortunate habit of killing people. I squeeze the trigger again, emptying the entire magazine in several bursts rather than one quick maniacal release. Then, it’s over. My host offers me the hospitality of his house, his wife, his goats – but suspecting that it’s just a pleasantry, I decline.

Back on the road, Souhail and the taxi driver are hungry and search for a restaurant where the food won’t make me sick. They stop to buy delicious locally made caramels made from mare’s milk. For lunch, we eat small crispy fish and chicken, hygienically deep fried, the most delicious meal I eat in Pakistan. Of course, I’m expected to pay for everyone’s lunch – not just my own.

Back at the Rose Hotel, a Pakistani family with children is booking into a room. Their luggage includes a shiny new white plastic baby walker with colourful gadgets and a very large toy rifle. I can’t suppress a hysterical giggle, but they don’t get the joke.

Since no more travellers have turned up at the hotel, I’m off to Kabul alone the following day. Souhail insists on arranging my permit and armed guard and accompanying me to the border at Torkham – for the usual fee of course. Mercifully he can’t find the Afghan guide he wants to send to Afghanistan with me. The Khyber Pass is spectacular, in a civilised kind of way. For a start the road is sealed and wide enough for two vehicles to pass. Forts perch on hilltops and the insignia of legends such as the Khyber Rifles are painted on hillsides in white rocks. Souhail points out a walled compound enclosing the residence of a smuggling millionaire. Nearby is a private airfield and warehouses for storing the smuggled goods.

The border at Torkham is a hive of activity, but subdued in comparison to Gordon’s favourite – the border between Thailand and Cambodia at Poipet. At Torkham, there are no touts, no scams and no endless forms to fill in. I sit in a special chair for foreigners while an official writes in a book and stamps my passport. Souhail ‘helps’ by finding me a taxi to Kabul. Before I finish haggling with the first prospective driver, he’s found someone else who will take me for less.

The young driver speaks little English, has one wandering eye and looks like a terrorist, but I must abide by my travel motto “no problem”, and my back-up travel motto “no regrets”. I dump my pack in the boot and sit in the front seat, the only passenger. A border official thoughtfully writes the number plate of the taxi on his hand in case I’m never seen again.

In Pakistan they drive on the left and the steering wheel is on the right – just like Australia and other former British colonies. In Afghanistan it takes me half an hour to decide which side of the road we’re driving on. The steering wheel is still on the right, but both sides of the road are fully utilised for overtaking and undertaking slower vehicles, confrontations with oncoming traffic and veering around potholes and other obstacles.

Soon, I settle into a pattern familiar from years of road travel in Cambodia. As the driver pulls out to overtake, the front seat passenger has the first sighting of each potential head-on collision. If I was a man, who could speak Dari, I might provide some warnings to the driver, instead I sit unflinching until he can see for himself. Afghan fatalism pushes everything to the limit. Time after time a similar scenario unfolds. At the pivotal moment when we must lurch into an impossibly small space to avoid a crash, the unbelievable happens. In slow motion, an old man on a bicycle, or a boy on a donkey, or a speed bump appears in our path.

Instead of accelerating, unbelievably, we brake. Somehow, I don’t know how, disaster is averted time and again. My brain struggles with the mechanics of how it works. My own car is a Toyota corolla the same model as this taxi, but I’ve crashed through a windowpane into another world where the laws of physics have changed.

“Jalalabad, don’t stop in Jalalabad”, said an Afghan friend in Australia. As we approach the town, my driver asks, in bad English, if it’s OK for his brother, who lives in Jalalabad, to drive me to Kabul. At least, that’s what I think he’s asking. I’m speechless, but decide that it’s to be “no regrets”. Making a fuss won’t help and usually, I like to travel where events take me. Driving around the outskirts of Jalalabad for a long half hour, I really hope events aren’t taking me to Kandahar. We don’t find any brother and continue driving – west, towards Kabul – not south, towards the unthinkable.

The journey is too much to absorb in the space of a single day. Fleeting impressions jostle for my attention - a long avenue of tamarisks, endless dust, trucks, barren browns, agricultural greens, abandoned tanks, camels and nomads, fuel pumps on lonely hillsides. Emotions seesaw from apprehension to relief and back. Stomach-tightening exercises caused by hours of face-to-face confrontations with oncoming vehicles leave me feeling slightly ill.

The steep climb up the Kabul gorge takes on an apocalyptic atmosphere when my driver goes into a house and comes back smoking hash. With a mellow smile, he puts a new tape in the player. It’s readings from the Qu’ran in Farsi, thoughtfully interspersed with the English translation:
“When the she-children who have been buried alive shall be questioned”.
“When the she-camels shall be neglected”.
On the tape, there are thunder and lightning. In the distance, over Kabul, there are black storm clouds. We reach the top of the gorge in a cloud of dust so thick we have to stop driving until it clears. Meanwhile, nothing crashes into us.

Finally, much later, we enter the outskirts of Kabul. The driver asks where I want to go. The Mustafa Hotel. Que? I suggest finding a Kabul taxi. There are 40,000 to choose from but we find a driver who says he knows the hotel. First I have to pay the terrorist with the wandering eye. The price has changed but I pay up, grateful really for an unforgettable drive and for a safe arrival. God is great.

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