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Thursday, 28 April 2016

Writing – research – To the Frontier!

While researching for my work-in-progress, The Khyber Chronicle (book #3 in the Tana Standish psychic spy series), I was reading To the Frontier by Geoffrey Moorhouse (1984),  and came across some fascinating passages that evoked memories of 1969 (see my blog dated 13 March 2014 -

I’m unlikely to use the following information in the book, but it is still of personal interest. As can be seen in the accompanying photos (photos of old slides!), I was fortunate enough to travel through the Khyber Pass.

Here’s a photo of Jamrud fort with its khaki battlements. 

Built by the Sikh Governor of Peshawar, Hari Singh, in 1836.  Beyond was a notice: ‘Foreigners are asked not to leave the highway in the Khyber Pass.’ It stood ‘in the shadow of the amateur theatrical Bab-e-Khyber, the stone gateway with two cannon perched on top, which Ayub Khan had built in the 1950s to mark the start of the historic traverse.’ 

Here’s the photo of the gate (Bab). 

On the other side of the Bab was a long marble slab which in English and Urdu bore a potted history of the pass, engraved at the same time as the gateway was installed. It included an excerpt from Kipling’s ‘Arithmetic on the Frontier’.

And here’s a photo of me in front of the gate.

Another marble slab at Fort Jamrud stated: ‘According to the British, it was here they met their equals, who looked them straight in the face and fought against them up the last day of their rule. But when the British quit, after a rule of over 100 years, the two great peoples parted as friends.’

The Khyber was entered through a defile along the dry bed, tributary to the Kabul River, which in season would be a foaming torrent. Entering the defile was like going through a fortified gateway itself. ‘One minute we were driving along the flat with open space on three sides, the next we had crossed the threshold, rounded a bend, and were totally enclosed.’ (p219) I would endorse that feeling, having experienced it fifteen years earlier.
The Khyber’s surrounding peaks rose to 6,800ft. Fort Jamrud stood at 1,670ft, and the village at the end, just before the border of Afghanistan is Landi Kotal at 3,373ft, so it was a steady ascent over twenty-odd miles. Hence the phrase ‘up the Khyber’?

The narrowest part of the pass (50yds in width) is commanded by one of the oldest forts, Ali Masjid, built on a cliff, with only one turret visible from the road. Not far beyond it was a collection of regimental badges decorating the rock faces beside the road. Blocks of concrete moulded, sculpted – the Dorset Regiment, the Royal Sussex Regiment, the Essex Regiment, the South Wales Borderers, the Cheshire Regiment and the Gordon Highlanders. And still maintained. ‘This spoke of an uncommon bond, a curious comradeship formed even by antagonists, that had endured.’ (p221) [My father’s army crest was there – the Cheshire Regiment.]

It was a hot day and our vehicles stopped at a stream where we could stretch our legs (see photo) and I was very aware of the injunction at the Khyber Gate not to leave the highway! 

Here’s a photo of a fort overlooking the stream.

The pass widened and levelled out before we came to Landi Kotal. Besides the road access, there was a train that ran from Peshawar to this village: its platform only a bare stretch of concrete, half a mile from the town. A marvellous engineering feat, the rail track traversed a multitude of tunnels in the rock and here’s a photo of one.

The village was not big, perhaps a half-mile in length, a collection of mud or brick buildings, stalls selling drinks and trinkets. I saw Pathans draped in bandoliers of bullets, forbidding proud-looking characters.  We bought bottles of 7-Up. Moorhouse called it ‘a scrofulous little place… a desperately enervated place.’ In the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979-1980 (the time of my novel) refugees flooded into this village and buildings began to spring up; many families then made their way down to Peshawar. Pathan tribesmen would spend time regrouping and then re-enter Afghanistan to wage war on the Soviet interlopers. Refugees from war - sounds depressingly familiar...

We climbed the short distance to take in the view to the border and the plain beyond. Kabul ahead, and the snow-capped mountains on our far right. (No photos, alas!)

Moorhouse was a prolific author of non-fiction. He died in 2009, aged 77. See his obituary here

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