The International Steam Pages

Steaming up the Khyber 2002

Steam has returned to the Khyber Pass... The following article is reproduced by courtesy of  the author, Jonny Bealby of Wild Frontiers If you like what you read, their 2002 tour dates are: 15th Aug to 26th Aug; 26th Sept to 13th Oct; 17th Oct to 3rd Nov; 4th Nov to 11th Nov. The first and last of those are specifically aimed towards the Khyber Steam Train. For details on Wild Frontiers itineraries, please call +(44) 1400 251637 or e-mail .


First published in the UK's Daily Telegraph 5th April 2002

The whistle blows, the iron wheels creak and the Khyber Pass steam train lumbers slowly forwards. On the platform, those passengers that haven't yet boarded giggle nervously and, with great excitement, hurry towards the open doors.

Six months after it was taken out of service as the war in Afghanistan escalated, the old train whistles again - eager to be on its way - and with black smoke belching from its chimney, begins its thirty mile journey from Peshawar in north west Pakistan towards the foothills of the Hindu Kush and the Afghan border.

The Khyber railway, which opened in 1925, is a miracle of engineering. Built to carry troops defending the British Raj, it took 40 years to build and cost Britain over two million pounds. The undulating track passes through more than 30 tunnels, over 90 bridges and climbs over 2000 feet in 21 miles. The two British-built locomotives that drive the train, push-me-pull-you fashion, really are the Little Engines That Could.

As the 40 or so Western tourists settle on to the padded bench seats and point their cameras out of the windows, it is hard to tell from their animated faces that we are travelling into one of the most troubled corners of the world. Notwithstanding the Khyber Pass's troubled history as a trade and invasion route from Central Asia, since September 11 it has seemed that tourism in this part of the world has all but died - the final straw seemingly being the grenade attack on a Protestant church in Islamabad last month. My small adventure travel company, Wild Frontiers, which has run tours of the Hindu Kush for several years, had all but ground to a halt and I had been seriously considering abandoning the region and turning my attention elsewhere.

But then I received a phone call from Zahoor Durrani, a long-time colleague in the Pakistan tourist business, who confidently informed me that things were looking up. He had not only managed to obtain permission from the local government to start running trips on the famous Khyber steam train again; he had even started to receive bookings from plucky western tourists.

'Who on earth are they?' I asked, amazed. 'Steam buffs? Adrenalin junkies? Or just a bunch of nutters?'

'Actually,' he chuckled, 'they are 65 British school children.'

I was dumbfounded. The Khyber steam train travels through the hostile Tribal Areas of the Northwest Frontier, a wild and lawless, semi-autonomous Pashtun region with close links to the Taliban; quite possibly the most dangerous corner of Pakistan.

'Are things really that safe?' I asked him.

'We think so. Perhaps you should come and see for yourself?'

How could I refuse? And how could I doubt that Khyber Pass train would find a way to carry on? Forget excuses about leaves on the track and the wrong kind of snow: this is one rail service that refuses to be derailed.

The railway was first closed by the Afghan government in 1932, which the British would use it for an invasion. It opened briefly in 1947, but was closed following Pakistan's partition from India. In 1965, it lost its engines to the war with India. After the 1973 against Afghanistan's king, bandits and the Mujahideen forced it out of service.

Then, in 1994, the railway was restored and reopened as a unique tourist attraction, only to hit the buffers again last autumn as the American bombers moved in. But now, normal service has resumed. As we set off, I ask the train's driver, Nizamuddin Kazi, if he thinks the journey is safe.

'Insh Allah,' he replies. God willing.

The train shudders to a halt on the edge of Peshawar airport to allow a plane to land (this is the only train in the world, Durrani proudly informs me, to pass through the middle of an international airport) and I glance around the carriage. I am rather disappointed to notice that there are no school children on board.

'Oh, they cancelled,' says Durrani, with a shrug. I am hardly surprised. What right-minded parents would send their children on a holiday to the notorious Khyber Pass at the moment? 'They could not afford to take the train,' he continues. 'So they took minibuses instead.' I laugh, incredulously. Is everyone here so blasé about their safety?

Looking around the carriage, my companions certainly don't appear especially anxious. A mixture of expats and tourists, they seem to be thoroughly enjoying the trip. Sitting just behind me are a middle-aged Dutch couple; Gerald and Claudia. They are on a back-packing trip, heading overland to India. 'The Western media only gives you one side of the story,' says Gerald. 'If you stay in Europe too long you think you'll be killed by terrorists as soon as you step out of your front door.' I know what he means. Having spent the last six month in London, newspaper reports about the region have left me with a distorted view. Since returning to Pakistan, I have seen nothing at all - besides increased security in Islamabad and Peshawar - to remind me that anything of global significance had happened last September. 'We've found everything here to be fine,' adds Gerald. 'Just as charming as the last time we came.'

The train picks up speed and passes out of federally administered Pakistan and into the Tribal Areas. Colourful stalls selling fruit and vegetables, sweetmeats, nuts and sultanas are immediately replaced by dingy shacks; guns and great blocks of oily black hashish hung behind the windows. Overhearing my conversation with Gerald, an elderly gent in the seat in front of me turns around and says: 'I'd say security here's pretty good.' He points out of the train window to a truck carrying 15 soldiers from the Khyber Rifles (the traditional guardians of the Pass) that is tracking our progress along the Grand Trunk Road, guarding us from attack. 'There are 20 more on the train, I believe,' he says. He introduces himself as Retired Air Commodore Oliver Green. He and his wife, Cicely, are in Pakistan for a month, visiting their son who works in Islamabad. 'We were due to visit last September but obviously had to cancel then. When the grenade attack happened a couple of weeks ago, we thought we just couldn't cancel for a second time.' He pauses for a moment. 'We did have some reservations. I mean, who knows how many Taliban there are still up in the hills. But, in the end, I don't think you can live your life in fear of these things. You'd never go anywhere if you did.'

Soon we leave the towns behind and trundle sedately across a plain of bleached earth that stretches away to the distant hills. Sparse, dust-coated thorn trees and tamarisk line the track. Scattered villages of mud brick, flat-roofed dwellings occasionally sprout out of the barren dirt. Men wander about carrying Kalashnikovs.

After an hour, the train pulls into Jamrud Station at the foot of the pass. Greeting us is a ten-piece, tartan-clad pipe band, marching up and down the platform playing a bizarre rendition of Early One Morning. Mr Durrani, an illuminating source of local history and trivia, takes great pleasure in explaining that each year there are more bag-pipes sold in Pakistan than there are in Scotland.

I am handed a cup of tea and find myself standing next to Victoria, a 26-year-old computer programmer from Putney. A lone girl travelling around Pakistan at this time really seems quite brave. 'I'm here on holiday, but my dad's an engineer working out here,' she says. 'Even so, my friends back home did think me a little crazy for coming to Pakistan, but I've found it wonderful. Everyone's so polite. I haven't felt in danger for a moment.' Another girl approaches us. 'This is my sister, Charlotte,' says Victoria. 'She came here last summer as well.'

'Really?' I said, 'and have you noticed any differences?'

'No, not really,' answers Charlotte, 'except that there are fewer foreigners around. But the locals seem to really appreciate that you're here and so are even more friendly than usual.'

'Honestly,' says Victoria, 'I know it's a cliché, but I really do think I'm in more danger in London these days than I am out here.'

With the band blown out, we climb aboard the train again and creak onwards. The track begins to climb steeply between the craggy rocks and narrow defiles, through more tunnels and over countless bridges, with the train's engines struggling to push and pull the carriages up the steep gradient. Staring out of the window at the dramatic barren cliffs and jagged ridges, dazzling under the midday sun, it appears a cruel terrain, resonating with a ferocious history.

At the frontier town of Landi Kotal, the train shudders to a halt. We transfer to minibuses for the final few kilometres to the head of the pass. Reaching our final destination, we are ushered to a platform to enjoy the startling views of the Afghan plains and to listen to Captain Farooq talk about the significance of the pass. 'Alexander the Great, Tamberlaine, the Mongols, Moghuls, Afghans and the British have all passed this way,' he eloquently informs us. 'And if Osama bin Laden tries to follow suit, we will add him to the list.'

It's a useful reminder that there may be more chapters to add to the long and colourful story of the Khyber Pass. Just a few miles away from where we are standing are the battle-scarred Tora Bora caves, with Gardez and a dangerous war, raging just beyond.

With just a faint whiff of danger in the air, we head back to Peshawar. It has been an exhilarating journey, but it would be naive to suggest that westerners are not at risk in this part of the world, especially after last month's church attack. But some things, like the unstoppable Khyber railway, do not change. Pakistan is still a beautiful, friendly, fascinating country. It's people are as irrepressible as its locomotives. British tourists just need to be persuaded to get back on board.

Rob Dickinson