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Khyber Railway

In addition to road building, the natural landscape was also altered by the construction of the Khyber Railway during the early twentieth century. The tracks of the Khyber Railway weave between and over the old and new roads. This railway was a stupendous feat of imperial British engineering and construction. The effort to construct it with its dozens of bridges and tunnels, switchbacks and block houses is reminiscent of the construction of the city of New Delhi or perhaps even the Suez Canal. It is a monument to what an absolute ruler can achieve with unlimited resources and free labor.

The original idea of the railway was to be able to move troops quickly to the border to stop advancing Whoevers from penetrating the exposed northwestern flank of British India. In fact, it may have done as much duty as a quick getaway from the same Whoevers, if the results of the first couple of Anglo-Afgan Wars are any measure.

Today, a train still occasionally runs to the village of Landi Kotal, halfway to the border, for touring railway buffs, but there the tracks stop and the remainder of the line is in a state of abandoned disrepair with collapsed trellises and caved-in tunnels. It is the "Ozymandias" of imperial civil engineering.

Futility in a Land of Strife

Landi Kotal itself is worth one trip. It is a small trading town on a desolate mesa where donkey herders transfer title in smuggled goods to pick-up drivers and then disappear back into the mountains. Business here is conducted at the primordial level: You put down your stuff, you pick up the money and you back away with your hand on your gun. People move around in small groups. Even the soldiers cluster together. The air is opaque and sickening from the exhaust of rows of idling trucks.

It might have been oxygen deprivation, but in the middle of all this I strangely recalled a scene from the first Star Wars movie. It was that bleak, threatening galactic outpost where Luke Skywalker first met Han Solo and chartered the Millenium Falcon. The transport available in Landi Kotal is a little slower and there are a lot more Wookies; but there are eerie similarities in landscape and chaotic intensity and in the irrespressible desire of an outsider to make a quick exit.

Beyond Landi Kotal are only more checkpoints and more donkeys until you reach the end of the tour at a vista near the border town of Torkhan, as far as a foreign tourist can travel, even with Masbooq. If you peer out from there through the haze onto the arid plains of Taliban Afganistan and reflect back on your short passage and the long history, the potential for melee suddenly becomes palpable.

The pass has always been a battleground simply because it is navigable – because it is the way in and the way out of the subcontinent. It is the escape route the British army was seeking in 1842 when they retreated from Kabul and were slaughtered at Gandamack. It is the place where they fought the Pathans to a bloody standoff thirty years later when modern warfare technology first met its match in determined Islamic resistance, and, as Kipling noted, “two thousand pounds of education drops to a ten rupee jezail.” It is where Russian tanks and gunships could not subdue the Mujahideen, and where U.S. Tomahawk missiles now only temporarily shatter the camps of those early tribesmen’s descendants, who will return just as they always have.

Even today on the Pakistan side, everyone in the pass is armed. The soldiers, the smugglers, the chai sellers, the cyclists, the camel drivers, all strap automatic rifles on their backs.

When they pause at the roadside’s continuous comfort station and lift their kurtas, you notice they also conceal handguns. They shout at each other and argue over small slights. They look at you furtively, indirectly, and as the only Westerner around, you quickly comprehend the futility of fighting these people.

And then you remember that old Protestant church at the edge of Bombay and its sad inscription. And you remember the non-commissioned Officers and Private Soldiers, too many…

And then, finally, you remember that hotel bar in Peshawar and that two o’clock tee time.

*in 1998

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