There was something magical about traveling through one of the oldest trade routes in the world. The mountainous Khyber Pass, part of the ancient Silk Road, was a passage that saw history being made. The Spin Ghar Mountains bore a silent witness to the processions of Darius I, Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan. They saw invasions that changed the geography of the world, traded goods that brought prosperity as well as wars, and watched how religions developed and spread.
In the 1960s and 70s Khyber Pass welcomed the alternative tourists – adventure seeking hippies, making their way from Europe to India. In the era of terrorism and fear, the existence of the Hippie Trail seems almost impossible. And yet there they were – happily stoned dreamers hitchhiking cheerfully through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Their journey was a statement. It screamed: “we’re done with wars! We want the world of freedom and love. We say no to the exploitative capitalism and choose the depth of spirituality instead”. Many traveled from Kabul to Peshawar, Rawalpindi and Lahore searching for the Sufi-shrines, before entering India and Nepal.
Despite the flowery philosophy of the hippies, the world decided to once again turn to violence. The revolution in Iran, political unrest in Pakistan and the invasion of Afghanistan put an end to the Western tourism. Gradually, Afghan and Pakistani women began to replace their minis with long skirts; men exchanged the bell-bottoms and colourful shirts for more traditional clothing. The beer-serving liberalism of the Bhutto era gave way to religious conservatism. Khyber Pass’s tourists gave way to armed soldiers. The land became a Taliban hideout and its villages filled with the tough gaze and dark burqas of the Afghan refugees fleeing their country.
Passing through this land today one can feel the uneasy history of the region. Looking at the faces of the people we passed on the road I could sense their mistrust, so typical for those who have been through a lot. According to the UNHRC, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, in 2015 the country had 1.5 million registered Afghan refugees, making Pakistan a nation with one of the highest refugee populations in the world (and that’s after the UN already facilitated a return of 3.8 millions back to Afghanistan).
Living mostly in the proximity to the border, many of the Afghans travel between the countries, contributing to the local trade and filling Pakistani jewellery stalls with beautiful silver bracelets and necklaces. Although both countries have many cultural similarities that make refugee’s life here easier, due to the alleged drug smuggling and terrorism the newcomers are not always welcome. According to the government of Pakistan, the majority of the terrorist attacks in the country are traced back to the refugee camps by the border. Despite regular checks, the mountains provide opportunities to cross illegally, making it difficult to regulate the traffic in and out of the country.
Before I was going to see the border with my own eyes, we stopped at the Michni Post, the last check-point before the Torkham crossing into Afghanistan. The post has been guarded by the Khyber Rifles, a unit of the Frontier Corps, since the 1800s, policing this tribal region.The place was a strange mix between a small military base and a tourist attraction. As we arrived, we were greeted with various nuts and freshly squeezed fruit juice. The air filled with the soft scent of cardamom coming from kava, green tea mixed with a hint of delicate spice.
We sat down on the traditional woven rugs covering the seats of the tiny auditorium and a seriously looking man in a uniform began to give the presentation outlining the history of the passage. In front of us was a glass wall providing a panoramic view of the Western end of the Khyber Pass. After our “guide” finished talking, I went towards a telescope from which you could see tracks and people at the border. We stepped outside to take photos of the stunning view. We were tourists in this world. Just like the hippies…