by Gordon King
In January 1950, when my wife Elizabeth and I, with our infant son Tom, M stepped off the “Up Mail” train from Lahore, Pakistan, into the balmy air of the bustling railway station platform in Peshawar, capital of the North West Frontier Province, little did we suspect what lay ahead on the far side of the Khyber Pass. We were en route to my first assignment as an American diplomat at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan.
A taxi at the Peshawar station took us into the city’s Cantonment area and deposited us at Dean’s Hotel, then the only European-style hostelry available for wandering westerners. A large, sprawling one-story whitewashed affair, Dean’s spelled comfort and a place to catch our breath before the final leg of our long journey to Kabul.
A white-turbaned bearer in white shalwar pajamas and white knee-length coat bound with a broad dark cummerbund escorted us to our spacious room. His fellow staff members served us good solid English meals in the large dining room and tea at one of the tables on the hotel’s wide lawn, where we had to protect our biscuits from swooping kites. We drank our tea and laughed at our son’s eyes wide with wonderment when we first met Roy Percival.
Perce, a handsome young man with black hair and an open friendly face, told us he was there from the embassy to, among other things, greet us and provide onward transport. He said Afghanistan had no commercial airport or commercial plane service—or paved roads—so an alternative way of keeping in touch with Washington, D.C., had been devised. One member of the embassy staff brought down the diplomatic pouch weekly and exchanged it at the Peshawar airport with one brought out from Washington by the Department’s diplomatic courier. Perce showed us the pouch (a canvas bag with an impressive lock) that he would be carrying back to Kabul in a green International Carry-All van—along with me, my family and our luggage.
At that moment one of the bearers emerged from the hotel with a telegram from Ambassador Louis Dreyfus instructing only Perce and me to proceed and for my wife and son to remain in Peshawar until blizzard conditions improved in Kabul and the Lataband Pass, the only road into the city until years later when a highway was blasted out of the rocky gorge of the Kabul River.
So I left my wife and son at the Dean Hotel, threw my suitcase into the big green van and joined Perce; the pouch; the driver Abdul, a bearded, turbaned man who was someone’s bearer (and looked like my mental picture of Jesus); and a Red Cross worker who needed a ride.
We made our way under gray skies and intermittent rain westward out of the city on good asphalted roads that wound through scruffy land that could have been imported from the deserts of New Mexico. We drove toward a wall of low mountains ten miles away, passing occasional tribal settlements surrounded with high gray adobe walls, looking like medieval fortresses. And then the barren, jagged mountains reared up on either side and we were in the famous Khyber Pass, itself with thirty winding miles ahead of us. On an uneven wall of rock were carved shields with full military insignia. “There,” pointed Perce, “are the various British regiments that saw action in the pass!” Shades of Kipling, I thought.
We passed the village of Landi Kotal and the fortified headquarters of the Khyber Rifles in the pass’s center, stopped for a cup of tea at Pakistan’s border post while our passports were stamped and crossed the unimposing border itself. Waving good-bye to paved roads, we bumped our õ way to the Afghan border station for our entry stamps.
We drove on, hour after hour of drumming across endless rugged plains, saw the occasional tribal village, passed the occasional Powindah nomad encampment with its camels and crude tents, and always in the background in every direction were the walls of snow-capped mountains.
It was agonizingly slow going over the rutted road. At noon, we ate a bowl of soup and used the basic facilities at the Afghan government’s hotel in Jalalabad. We pushed on through sagebrush plains and rain. It was dark and 8 p.m. when we arrived at a teahouse in the small town of Sarobi at the foot of the abrupt mountain wall between us and the high plains of Kabul.
“Have tea, have nan bread here,” Abdul said, getting out of the van. “Maybe have to stay tonight.” He walked off into the dim light and the rain.
Perce looked askance at the small gray teahouse lighted by hanging lanterns and flanked by a half dozen loaded old trucks. We all got out, stretched our bone-weary frames, walked in and wolfed down the tea and nan while Abdul engaged the tribesmen-truck drivers in animated conversation. Finally, he came over to share the information with us.
“Lataband very high pass,” he said. “Eleven thousand feet. But two trucks just go on up mountain. Trucks go, we can go.”
We all breathed sighs of relief and piled back into the van. A few hundred yards later we turned onto a climbing mountain road. After a few hundred yards more the steady rain changed to snow. But ahead of us, clear in the van’s headlights, were the tracks of the two pioneering trucks showing us the way. Higher and higher we climbed, snow clinging to the bare rocks of the mountain wall off our right shoulders, a depth of blackness off to the left.
“Abdul,” I asked, “what was that funny smell back there in the teahouse?”
He drove for a long minute silently, then gave a short laugh. “That hash, Sahib.”
“Hash? You mean, like marijuana?”
“Right, Sahib. That hash.”
I thought for a moment. “And who was smoking it?”
He snorted again. “Truck drivers. Otherwise no drive up pass.”
By this time the snow was howling past us in the night, a real blizzard, but the tracks still showed clear enough for Abdul to see. We all leaned forward as if to help. “Coming up 6,000 feet,” he said after some time. And just at that juncture, as we negotiated an “S” curve between pinnacles, the space to our right suddenly plunged into the dark depths. One set of truck tracks disappeared off the edge of the road.
Abdul stopped. Perce rummaged through some things and produced an old five-cell flashlight. We all piled out, as Abdul searched the depths with the powerful beam.
And suddenly, as if on cue, the howling snow held its breath and there, hundreds of feet below, we caught a glimpse of the truck jammed between massive boulders on the mountain’s flank.
Wordlessly, we all jumped back inside and Abdul drove on. “Other truck’s track still clear,” he said. Soon he pointed ahead. “We coming to 6,000 feet. Top of pass.” And then he jammed on the brakes. Ahead of us, there could be no doubt, the second set of tracks disappeared off the edge. Again, we went through the torch routine and again, the well-rehearsed blizzard held its breath and we saw far below the remains of the second truck.
Back inside, Abdul said, “Can’t go back. Can’t stay here. We go on.” And we did, moving slowly ahead through the crags and heights and defiles, sometimes at a crawl but moving until, after what seemed a tense eternity, we were clearly on the broad six-thousand-foot Kabul plateau and the van began edging ahead slightly faster even though, unabated, the blizzard continued howling in from the north. “New road,” Perce said. “Unfinished—but the Afghans are finally beginning to come out of the dark ages. Straight shot from here to Kabul. Watch out for the ditches, Abdul.”
“Very deep,” Abdul agreed, peering ahead into the night.
And then we came to the first abandoned truck, crawled carefully around it, soon a second, a third, fourth and fifth.
“Bad sign,” Perce said. The words were no more than out of his mouth when we came to yet another truck carcas—and this one was sprawled sideways across the road from ditch to ditch.
Silence. Finally Perce said, “Oh God. Okay, Abdul, how far from here to the city?”
“Maybe seven mile.”
“And how much petrol do you have?”
“Have much petrol. Extra jerry cans.”
“Okay. Here’s what we do. King Sahib and I are going to take the pouch and walk to the embassy and send someone out for you. The rest of you wait here. You’ll be quite comfortable. Abdul will keep the engine going so the heater will continue to work.”
Somewhere in the van’s rear we found two blankets that Perce and I wrapped around ourselves. We set off looking like a pair of Afghan tribesmen with the five-cell torch and the pouch. The cold cut like a knife (we learned later that the temperature sank lower than 15 degrees Fahrenheit); the blizzard drove the snow so hard that it streaked from right to left. The road moved into the dark, thickly frozen with rutted creviced ice.
We slipped occasionally but managed to grab each other and stay upright as we trudged on. Finally I tapped my companion on the shoulder.
“Perce!” I shouted. “Would you tell me what those dogs are doing?”
Across the snow-packed ditch to our left four large dogs were methodically pacing us. They positioned themselves about twenty feet apart, then, as we passed one, he moved to the head of the line. Very neat. Very orderly.
“Perce!” I shouted again. “Will you listen? What are those crazy dogs doing?”
Perce suddenly scooped up a chunk of ice and hurled it across at the nearest animal, which retreated a few yards.
“Those aren’t dogs,” he shouted. “Those are wolves!”
I joined him in scooping up and throwing the occasional chunk of ice. From then on we didn’t talk. We just looked to our left and walked faster. The wolves inspired us. Suddenly, ahead, materializing out of the blackness, the city walls loomed up and a guard post and a huddled guard who waved us past. I glanced back. The wolves stopped, formed a small group and watched us.
We walked a long frozen streets lined on both sides with walled compounds. We made several left- and right-hand turns before reaching the embassy. Inside the compound, the embassy building was well lighted. Waiting to greet us were Ambassador Dreyfus, Counselor Fritz Jandrey, and others in the ambassador’s big office, warmed by a roaring pot-bellied stove.
A van was quickly dispatched to pick up our stalled colleagues. Calls were made to the police and the Interior Ministry. The ministry sent rescue vehicles the next morning and found the three men in each of the wrecked trucks hundreds of feet below the Lataband Pass. They were injured but alive.
Perce winked at me. “The hash!”
That was my introduction to Afghanistan and my first diplomatic post. When an embassy van brought my wife and infant son to Kabul a week later, all seemed right with the world.
Republished by permission from State Magazine, June 2002. The illustrations are courtesy of Gordon King and State Magazine.