The legendary Khyber Pass from Kabul to Pakistan – Rick Steves’ travel blog

As Afghanistan fell, I was thinking about my travel experiences there as a 23-year-old traveler on the “hippy route” from Istanbul to Kathmandu. Yesterday and today, it is a poor but formidable land, which foreign powers misunderstand and insist on underestimating.

In this final journal entry from 1978, turn away from me as I travel from Kabul through the legendary Khyber Pass into Pakistan.

Friday August 4, 1978: From Kabul to Rawalpindi, Pakistan

This was the morning I was excited about. I don’t think I could have woken up feeling bad and I didn’t. Jane and I were satisfied. We had our last big breakfast at Sina Hotel and rode the 8:30 minibus to Pakistan.

This bus was the way I wanted to do the Khyber Pass. I’ve been dreaming of crossing this emotionally and historically dangerous romantic aisle for years and it was at the top of my life’s checklist for things to do — in the top five for sure. Now I was sitting on this strange, bright old man, but poorly drawn, by a splendid open window that would let me out half of my body if I wanted to. Our seats were big and tall however it was crowded and the bus was full of Pakistanis and ‘Road to India’ travelers.

I was happy to get out of Kabul, and we were almost immediately on a picturesque mountain pass. From here to the frontier, while nothing by Pacific Northwest standards, it was the closest thing to lush we’ve seen in Afghanistan. We even passed a lake, but I didn’t see boats. I wondered how many or how many Afghans were once on a boat.

We stopped in Jalalabad for a quick lunch break, back on the road in 20 minutes. We were approaching the border and fears increased. We were hoping it wouldn’t be too much trouble but now nothing has surprised us.

The Afghan border station was easy, though time consuming. We just sat eating watermelon and wished we had the money to buy a coke. In fact, we planned our cash reserves very well and did not leave without an Afghani. We waited our turn to be searched, filled out the form, stamped our passports – the usual process, then reloaded again only to stop 100 yards later for presentation to Pakistan.

This place was very unruly. We crowded into one room after another and were called to the table. The customs official “chased and entered” our vital statistics into his record and stamped our passports.

In possession of the passports, we knew we were in the middle of the process, but we weren’t sure where to go next. We wandered about one dilapidated building, and into a darkened room, two men jumped out of two beds and greeted us to lie down. no thanks! We got out of there and passed the doping dealers and black market money chargers. Everything was so open and blatant that it seemed almost legal. We bought 10 dollars or Pakistani rupees and then tried to check our bags until we were done. Frustrated in the chaos, we boarded the bus and skipped the baggage check. At our window we enjoyed a lot of retailers and a particularly persistent guy with a small bottle of cocaine – 4 grams for $30. I took his picture and told him to get lost.

Finally we were loaded and ready to do it – to cross the Khyber Pass. I was overjoyed. Physically, it was just like any other rocky mountain pass, but when you wonder, dream and think about something for so many years, it becomes special. Up and up boarded the bus. As we hung from the window, I tried to absorb everything–every wild bend in the road, every castle-crowned hill, every stray goat, every merry-coated truck passing us by, every mud hut. I looked at the rugged people who inhabited this treacherous passage and wondered who they were, how they lived, and what stories they could tell. The hillsides were strewn with dry, rocky tombs topped with wind-swept flags. Clouds threatened. We were moving from the arid Arabian side of South Asia to the humid Indian subcontinent. From now on we’ll feel the heat – but we’re enjoying the green countryside.

We crossed the Khyber Pass and passed a tribal village to pay for the concession. I could see the men with their rifles ignoring the bus and gathering in circles trading merchandise and stories.

We were in Peshawar in a few minutes and found that a direct train to Lahore was leaving in an hour. We saw nothing to keep us in Peshawar, and the allure of India was getting stronger as we got closer and closer. We’ve walked around trying to decide how to buy our tickets and what and where to buy them. This was a new experience – learning how to handle the Pakistani train system. A little baffled and not sure what our best move would be, we bought a $3.50 (first class) ticket for the 12 hour trip, had a quick 60 cents dinner, and found a spot in a not-so-classy first class car.

The only difference between the first and second classes was the padded seats and $1.50. We figured that for 12 hours it would be a good idea to have pads. Our car was very crowded. I was glad to be near a window blowing in the hot, humid air. We pulled up at about 5:50 on time, and I enjoyed the breeze.

The countryside was flat, lush, and pleasant. After a while, I started reading Orwell’s Animal Farm. It was good and time passed well. Then it was dark, and the insects came. The lights worked like they would on my old bike – the faster I went, the brighter they were. This was not a very bright train. I was afflicted by insects so to speak and made a bloody proclamation of “death by ruthless crushing of any insect that lands on me from now on”. I decided I was just going to mash them up with my thumb or fingers and roll them through the hair of my arms and legs until they were gone – either rubbing them in or falling off.

The trip continued. We decided to separate the trip to Lahore in Rawalpindi, halfway, and catch an early morning train to complete the trip.

It was nearly midnight when we entered the muddy streets of Rawalpindi. There was a 5:15 train to Lahore in the morning so we could sleep four hours – if we could catch the hotel. It looked so bad – everyone was full and the other people looking for a place were also disappointed. Luckily I found a guy next to him with one hole and a shower (Jane didn’t tell me about lizards until much later). Otherwise, it was a hole barely worth the 10 rupees ($1) we paid. But it served its purpose. I took a cool shower and found a comfortable spot between the bumps and curves of my bed and quickly worked myself to sleep. Today was a good day – many miles and I and a new country crossed the Khyber Pass.

(This is Journal Entry #5 in a five-part series. If you missed anything along the way, skip back to Tuesday, August 17th on my Facebook page.)

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