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Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Reminiscences – The Navy Lark Up the Khyber – 3

Way back on 13 March 2014 I blogged the first excerpt from an article featured in the book Under the Queen’s Colours (Voices from the Forces 1952-2012) by Penny Legg (2012). Rather belatedly, here is a second excerpt, which ties in nicely with more recent blogs. That blog can be read here

As stated before, this was written in 1969, shortly after the events, when I was twenty-one, a long long time ago!
At just before 7am, I was woken up with a very welcome cup of tea. Oddly, tea was expensive here.
After a shower and breakfast, we were taken to Chaklala airport.
We didn’t wait long. “Flight No. 618Y” was called at 9.20. We strolled out to our aircraft. It was a Fokker Friendship F-27 and seated forty with room to spare for comfort.
 Joining our plane

Again, massive slabs of concrete dazzled us while the hills receded into a mauve blur, fringed with emerald. The plane had two props, a black nose, the rest of it a scorching white broken up by a green PIA dart running the length of the fuselage and stringing the windows together.
This take-off was more impressive than the Trident’s. My seat overlooked the wheels and, as we sped down the runway, I felt the pull into my seat, and my stomach lurching on lift-off. The props blared, the engine droned and the shell of the hull vibrated steadily. Sun glinted on the wingtips.
Thin streamers of low cloud curlicued past. Land was always in view. Everywhere was parched, almost white, glaring, with patches of scrub, communities of flat rooftops, a few roads, narrow gullies and dried-up streams. Distance was indistinct, no verifiable horizon. Most of the area covered was flat, featureless. We passed a particularly arid section, all canyons and thirsty riverbeds; huge chasms, the earth cracked and baked, rent asunder and harshly beautiful.
Photographs from the plane were not permitted. I wondered what there was to hide out here in the wilderness.
Flying at 10,000 feet, we encountered air-turbulence when crossing the Vail of Peshawar, a girdle of mountains in the shape of a Roman amphitheatre that encircled Peshawar, the capital of the North West Frontier Province. We bounced quite alarmingly.
Shortly after leaving the Vail’s rugged tract, we lowered from the sky, circling, and I imagined a bird of prey might soar like this.
On touching down, we were greeted at the barrier by our guides, Bill and Dave, up-country friends of our hosts. Bill had lived out here quite some time. His family had recently returned to England, but he remained, fascinated by the place. He had extensively studied the area, understood and loved the people. Dave was an exiled Geordie who had worked out here for three years.
We were driven to Bill’s bungalow and enjoyed tea and plums on the veranda overlooking his magnificent garden. Crocus, jacaranda, forget-me-nots, gladioli, roses, tulips, and daffodils. It seemed that here in the valley the climate was comparable to Kew Gardens. A crate of ice-cold bottles of water and cans of beer were covered by a wet blanket in the rear of the Escort. The Corsair led and we followed. Dave’s personal cook and odd-jobs man jumped clear as gravel flew out from under our tyres.
We drove through the barren terrain outside Peshawar, and the Khyber hills loomed ever nearer. Rifles and bandoliers abounded at the checkpoints – erected since Martial Law was declared on deposing Ahyub Khan, though primarily used to deter smugglers.
We were rapidly leaving Peshawar behind. The city itself lolls near the left bank of the Bara River, eleven miles from Jamrud at the entrance to the Khyber Pass. The metre-gauge railway runs through, at this point some 1,600 miles northwest of Calcutta. Here for many centuries the Providahs or Afghan travelling merchants brought their caravans from Kabul, Bukhara and Samarkand every autumn, bringing horses, wool, silks, dyes, gold thread, fruits, precious stones, carpets and poshtins (sheepskin clothing).
The district of Peshawar covers an area some 1,550 square miles with a population of around 900,000. Except on the southeast where the Indus flows, it’s encircled by mountains inhabited by the Mohmand, Utman Khel and Afridi tribesmen – Pathans.
I’d heard of these tribesmen from my father, who served in the army out here before the Second World War. Altogther, the Pathans inhabit southeast Afghanistan and, in Pakistan, the northern part of Baluchistan, plus the greater part of the North West Frontier Province. Their language is a branch of the eastern Iranian group, consisting of two main dialects. Bill knew both well. The north-eastern form has its centre at Peshawar and is called Pakhtu. The south-eastern dialect radiates from Kandahar. Pakhtu is harsh and guttural while the Kandahari dialect, Pushtu, is soft and sibilant.
Bill explained that the word “Pathan” is probably an Indian corruption of pakhtana, the Pakhtu-speakers.
The Pathans are Muslims, normally of the orthodox Sunni sect. Extremely fanatical and superstitious, they abide by a code of honour, the pakhtunwali, which imposes on them three obligations. To grant to all fugitives the right of asylum (nanawatai); to proffer open-handed hospitality (melmastia) even to their deadliest enemies; and to wipe out dishonour by the shedding of blood (badal). The latter leads to blood feuds originating over disputes concerning money, women and land. They seem perpetually at feud, tribe against tribe, clan vs. clan, and family against family.
 As an illustration, Bill told of one incident. A criminal had escaped into the Khyber Pass. The police wouldn’t dare go in after him as it was felt they’d trespass onto tribal land – a deadly offence in the eyes of the tribes. The criminal was originally captured for murdering a fellow tribesman and on escaping had subsequently sought asylum at the house of that same tribesman. They were obliged to shelter him. But the head of the house was also obliged to wipe out dishonour. When the police left, the first obligation of asylum had been met; there remained the second obligation to be settled. The criminal’s blood was shed.
Magic place-names such as Kandahar, Kabul, Chitra, Gilgit are not far away. And there, the Khyber hills, the Hindu Kush, spreading into the Karakorum Range and Kashmir.
Old disused stone hovels without roofs littered the roadside. Choking dust billowed up behind us. At last the solitary road had a limit. A checkpoint.
The entrance to the Khyber Pass. In the middle of nowhere, a couple of houses, and then to right and left vast stretches of wadis, gullies and nothing. Tribesmen pedalled through.  The outpost guards checked off our chits of authority. Strange, our friends called any piece of paper a chit, even money, any denomination.
Pistols and rifles flourished lazily and we were ushered through. Old Gatling guns perched on top of the crenellated towers either side of the arch that spanned the road. A potted history of the Khyber had been carved into the walls. 
 Khyber Gate

Just past the archway, on our right, brooded Jamrud Fort, looking insipid with its colour squeezed out, bleak and surrounded by desolation and dust. It seemed so much like a ghostly edifice, nary a flicker through the tiny slits in the walls. Parchment leaves of the few balding trees inside drooped. Wooden telegraph poles peeked above the drab featureless walls, the only sign of our times.
“The variations of climate and scene are extreme – a pass of biting cold and scorching heat,” the carved rock warned us. “The average annual rainfall in the pass is about 14 inches with occasional snowfall.”
Snow was the last thing we expected, as we drove the three miles to reach the actual opening to the pass at Shadi Bagiar. Immediately, rock walls towered on either side, dwarfing us. Hemmed in and separated by craggy peaks and ridges once seamed with glaciers, now terminating in empty moraines. Above, long uneven sweeps of patchy upland strewn with boulders; the sparse quilt-work of furze, a yellow, grey or livid green, according to the sunlight’s mood. Fold upon fold, in interminable succession, their bleak monotony only relieved by the infrequent grace of wild flowers and mosses.
The road snaked for mile on heavy mile, with a channel for the camels and one for autobuses. Bill remarked that the overall length of the pass was about thirty-three miles.
After a steep ascent through cheerless, hard and craggy mountains near its mouth, the pass rose gradually to the narrows of Ali Masjid.
All the way, Bill had emphasised that we ought to remain on the road and not wander. Three yards on either side of the road was considered no-man’s-land. Beyond that was tribal territory; walking on this land meant the risk of being shot at.
On the entire journey, it was the same: arid, with numerous little forts in seas of dust, glowering atop islands of rock. The type of land and people on which Joseph Kessel partly based The Horsemen. I could easily imagine Uroz the proud young chopendoz riding his magnificent horse Jehol through the insufferable mountain passes.
Casting a glance back, I could see that the pass was barely a narrow defile winding between cliffs of shale and limestone six hundred to a thousand feet on either side, straining up to more lofty mountains behind.
No other pass in the world has had such strategic importance or so many historic associations. Constant punitive expeditions were undertaken by the Moguls and the British against the tribesmen of these tortuous hills.
We didn’t stop at Fort Ali Masjid – 3,174 feet up – as stopping was presumably prohibited for security reasons.
Eventually, we pulled in at the Khyber stream, a dismal little oasis, where we refreshed ourselves.
The sky was a weak blue. Rugged rocks were all around, punctuated by masses of scree. The shallow stream ran along the western wall, high and pitted, honeycombed with caves. From these caves women would climb down to the stream and fill their urns with water then commence the arduous return trek. Beyond a scree we spotted another crag where an ancient fort glared darkly, resembling a wartime pillbox. Strategically, it commanded an admirable and unassailable view.
There was little vegetation for an oasis but more than we’d encountered up to now. The few patches of emerald green contrasted strongly with the parched earth. Fresh clear water bubbled and gurgled over the smooth rocks, the edges of the stream a wet brown. Massive boulders partially protected a couple of solitary trees from direct sunlight.
                                                          Khyber stream stopover

As we drank I sensed eyes from the caves were watching us. A carrion crow dislodged a rock high above and flew into another shadowy cleft.
My mind flashed back, imagining a troop of British soldiers halting by the water’s edge, the Lieutenant posting pickets to scour the pitted rock walls for any sign of movement while the rest drank. The unbearable heat. Sore feet, chafed arms, thighs and shoulders. The rattle of accoutrements. The startling crack of many flintlock rifles. The dust spouting about their boots, tongues rasping in suddenly dry mouths. Red tunics darkening with blood that leached into the stream. Bloodcurdling yells, barked orders. Weapons reloaded. Cries from the wounded. Volley after deadly volley…
We moved on.

To be concluded…

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