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Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Reminiscences – The Navy Lark Up the Khyber – 4

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

These reminiscences were written down in 1969 shortly after the events. I was twenty-one; a long long time ago!

Many of the bends were blind to us; Bill honked the horn, hoping for the best most of the time. It wouldn’t be much fun driving here in the dark.
Higher and higher, twisting and turning, a dizzy view over the road’s edge.
The pass, rill upon rill, meandering to conform with rock formations, stark, possessing a moonscape aspect and every bit as lonely.
On a wide bend we drove to the edge and braked to survey the way we’d come. Framed by the “V” of the pass entrance, the plain lay blurred in the distant gap, with no horizon and an empty cloudless sky. The road we’d travelled wound drunkenly, hewn out of the limestone, raised above the moondust, in places level with the molehills of rock and forts.
From this vantage point too we spotted the railway, which had persistently wended its way from Jamrud, sometimes above us, sometimes below. It was opened on November 2, 1925 and traversed the entire pass up to the Afghan border. The rails ran on tightly packed scree, through tunnel after black tunnel.
                                                    Railway tunnel and scree in Khyber Pass

We drove on.
Now we began to descend. Ahead, a lorry approached us. Fortunately, there was enough room for him to pass. The driver revved his engine maddeningly. It was a market truck, Bill explained, returning from the day’s bargaining. Onboard were numerous tribesmen and villagers. Standing, lying, sitting, sprawled, until hardly any of the truck’s superstructure was visible. The bonnet and mudguards, radiator and bumper, everywhere they crowded. Because of this overloading, the driver had a limited field of vision through the windscreen – about twelve inches square, I reckoned. He must have known the road well. 
                                                                             Khyber Pass

As the lorry passed us, the tailgate appeared, also crowded. And, squeezing and clambering among them all, a ragged man with extended hand, obtaining rupees in payment for the journey; must be the conductor, I guessed.
                                                    Khyber Pass - view over Afghanistan...

Just before a fork in the road we came upon dozens of regimental crests carved into the sheer rock walls. The crest of every regiment ever to serve in the Khyber Pass. There! My father’s Cheshire Regiment! Thirty-two years ago, when he was a young man.
After that, the rest of the way was downhill. We arrived at Landi Kotal, stopped and got out to stretch our legs. Here, a small hotel beckoned, opposite a couple of mineral water shops, advertising Coke and 7-Up and ice cream. A shaded square led off the one main road, evidently used by caravans, hobbling posts in evidence. At the side of the square, the communal tap. Under its splattering ribbon a young white hippie washed his hands and soaked his face and matted beard. Nearby, an oxen loafed, eyes drooping. We continued walking towards the frontier and noticed two more men and a lithe young woman had joined the hippie. They spoke French. In a crumbling doorway a wizened old native wrapped his full lips around his nargileh and its cooling water bubbled.
Turning off the frontier road, we climbed up past a number of hillside houses and sauntered onto a cultivated escarpment. Skeletal and weak, the saplings were the beginnings of an orchard, commanding a view of the barren plain. The nearest hills were carpeted with campion and willow herbs. Cut into the opposite hillside crouched the border fort of Haft Chah. Apparently, there had been numerous disputes over its ownership. Below us, in the centre of the narrow road stood the frontier post. Through here cars and light trucks run to Kabul. This is the area particular to the Khyber Afridis, Bill explained.
“The outpost here is primarily to thwart smuggling,” he said. “Arms and gold and that sort of thing. Yes, drugs too.” He added, “They go about it in a peculiar way, really.”
The four French hippies walked up to the outpost. They halted. Then walked on, unhindered.
“The three yards of no-man’s-land territorial rule applies here,” Bill said. “If someone has something to hide, he just simply walked off the road before he gets to the customs post. At risk of being shot at by tribesmen, he walks round the post in plain view and rejoins the road on the other side of the barrier. They let him go. You see, he hasn’t actually passed through the checkpoint with contraband!”
On the journey back to the market village, we passed many a bedraggled character on the road. On noticing one Muslim with ginger hair, Bill said this indicated that the man had been to Mecca. That explained why the ginger-haired member of our group had received so many awed looks in the various villages!
Landi Kotal seemed to be predominantly inhabited by Pathans. Bill told us that they’re easily identifiable, being taller than average, erect and proud looking, sporting beards and turbans. They wore very large heavy-duty sandals and usually carried inlaid and damascened rifles, their cartridge pouches criss-crossing the backs of their caftans.
The bazaar itself was below the level of the street shops and road. It was almost entirely covered-in with rich and gaudy cloths, straw matting and heavy carpets. The air was close and musty, rancid and overpowering. The eyes on us seemed full of craftiness, swiftly estimating our bargaining potential. We’d had some practice in the markets of Mombasa, but I doubt if we were much good at getting a good deal. We were repeatedly accosted along winding lane upon lane of stalls. It was reminiscent of Bahrain’s Manana market. Drains were mere shallow gullies that ran down the centre of the alleyways. Virtually unchanged since Alexander the Great’s day.
Overhead, holed tarpaulin let in streaks of sunlight, lancing into shade, lighting up amused and ironic eyes, dust motes cascading, flies glistening and buzzing.
Copper samovars and urns gleamed; red raw joints of meat hung, ragged edges dried and black. Grapes and apples, apricots, fully ripe; split peas; indeed, all sorts of fruit and vegetables. And in contrast, the intrusion of Western civilization: stack upon stack of bras, trilbies, patent leather shoes, mechanical toys galore and floor mats and rugs, all unwanted and unpurchased.
Tribesmen passed by covered in strangely smelling astrakhan, tattered silks, and smeared and muddy sheepskins. Their feet were bare, trousers straggly and flounced, toenails crusted in dust. Some swung goatskin backpacks on their broad shoulders, others trailed ornate rifles behind them. Mangy dogs growled and darted underfoot. There were few native sandals in evidence – it seemed Western influence had advocated the wearing of rubber flip-flops in pastel shades. I tried to obtain a pair of flip-flops to replace those I’d broken onboard, but in vain. Here, the language barrier wasn’t great, though even a quick doodle of a pair of flip-flops didn’t help. The merchants studied the drawing intensely – and shook their heads. Strange, these Englishmen…!
            My attention was drawn to a fountain pen in a heavy wood and glass showcase. The proprietor was proud of this exhibit. His grin showed yellow teeth and his weather-beaten skin was wrinkled. Scratching pitted cheeks with a gnarled hand, he handed me the pen.
            It was a homemade pen-pistol. Both ends of the steel case could be removed, and the lead ball and cartridge went down the barrel’s throat. It was cocked at the rear and a tiny trigger ignited the powder cartridge and the ball sped on its lethal way.
            Through this fascinating revelation we learned from Bill about the Afridis of Dara Adam Khel who were expert craftsmen and weapon-makers. They could make an exact duplicate of any gun in the world. Some people who had brought rifles to be copied in every detail couldn’t distinguish the original from the copy. Others had tried marking their guns before having them copied, but of course the gun-makers simply duplicated the identifying marks too.
            Reluctantly, we left the pen-pistol behind – we reckoned it would never get through customs – and headed across the dirt track to our waiting cars.
            Steam hissed like a nest of cobras. The Escort’s feedline to the radiator had burst.
            As the steam subsided, it was discovered that the rubber pipe had a six-inch gash along its underside. Immediately, everyone realised something was amiss and we were swamped with onlookers. Of all the townspeople so eager to assist, none seemed to know what to do, except for one. With a swift and sure expertise, he lashed up a torn sack around the pipeline, twiddled with a few bolts and it was serviceable.
            While the helpful villager had worked on the car, we sat and watched the folk milling around. Then a ten-ton truck rumbled in, laden with people. Half of the passengers scrambled off, a tall fellow unloaded three mattresses and some reels of wire. Then the others heaped on again. And yet more clambered up. They’d stopped, disembarked, unloaded, re-boarded and driven off within the space of five minutes.
            With the radiator fixed, we set off, our guides going faster than before to make up time, negotiating steep gradients rather hastily, while attempting not to strain the wounded vehicle. We’d actually lessened the load by cramping one extra body into the other car. That left more room for those in the Escort, lucky devils!
            Once we got to Peshawar, we all enjoyed a succulent meal of lobster at a restaurant where the manager kindly cooled our cans of beer. When the meal had settled, we went to the market famous for its copper ornaments. Here, flip-flops were finally located and purchased. All stalls seemed to contain identical merchandise; the proprietors good-humouredly argued and bargained. One fellow wouldn’t budge from his original price, which was commendable and honest of him, perhaps, but on observing the shop full of unsold goods, I wondered just how he managed to subsist at all.
            As always, time was against us. We had a plane to catch. “Flight 623Y for Rawalpindi,” boomed on the speakers. It took off shortly after 7.20pm. Flying was becoming second nature already. I missed the newness of the sensation. I reflected that we might never see Bill and Dave again. They made us so very welcome and used up their own free time in order to show us a small part of this land.
            That evening, after dinner we repaired to the club by the swimming pool and rested with a few beers and talked. A midnight swim and finally bed in the early hours. The candle was definitely beginning to smoulder at both ends.
            Sunday was, fittingly, a restful day at the pool, once again renewing acquaintances from last night. On our stroll back to the house for dinner I noted a lorry delivering water. And, a short way to our left was a building site. I asked about it. Apparently, it was going to be a bank, but the construction work had stopped – they didn’t have enough money to finish the job.
            Our dinner, served piping hot, was the traditional English Sunday roast and delicious.
            In the evening, they showed a film of the trek across the Antarctic because the scheduled film hadn’t been flown in as planned. Anyway, it tended to cool us down.
            On the way back to the house that final night, it rained and thundered so loud it was as if the Hindu Kush were tumbling apart. The early monsoons had arrived. Rain lashed and bounced, hail and sleety drops whipped about us with the tremendous gales. Winds bent the trees eerily, thrashing leaves, while grit and wet dust darted into our bare legs.
            I could barely see. Thunder pounded and echoed behind the sombre greyness of the mountains. Flashes in the sky illuminated everywhere fleetingly, starkly. There would no longer be a water shortage, I thought.
            We were glad to get inside.
            All night the storm beat about the house, but there was no chance of it keeping me awake. Before I dropped off, I thought, “I hope the plane is grounded. I like it here.”
            Next morning at 8am we all reluctantly bid our fond farewells.
            Bernie gave us his phone number – “Just in case you have to come back due to a failure on the aircraft.”
            “Thanks, Bernie,” we said, and every voice held that hope.
            The return journey was an anti-climax. We stopped off at Lahore, briefly.
            In that weekend I gained many varied insights. I trod in my father’s footsteps, thirty years after him. I discovered an ennobled people, their attitudes and habits no longer quite so remote. [Now, some forty-seven years later, I’m writing a thriller set in Afghanistan, the third in the Tana Standish psychic spy series].
            As our plane descended, my thoughts were of the unstinting friendship and hospitality offered to us while in that foreign and paradoxical land. I vowed to remember them – always.

The end

Under the Queen's Colours by Penny Legg
Amazon sites here

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