By JUSTIN DUNN
THE Khyber Pass connects lawless areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan - and is by far and away one of the most dangerous places on earth.
Part of the ancient Silk Road it’s one of the oldest passes on earth, is constantly in the crosshairs of various warring factions and is peppered daily by gunfire and exploding mortar.
But British cousins and “danger tourists” ANDY DRURY and NIGEL GREEN wanted to see where their late great-grandfather had been stationed in the 1890s, so went there anyway on HOLIDAY in 2008.
It was just one of many edgy, life-threatening journeys the builders, from Guildford, Surrey, have taken over the last twenty years.
Here, in more adapted extracts from their journals, Weekend Sport reveals how during their trip they stayed at one hotel not knowing that just yards away hid the world’s most wanted man – Osama bin Laden.
OUR great-grandfather Serjeant James Henry Simons served with the Royal Scots Fusiliers in Pakistan – then called the Punjab – and Afghanistan from 1896 to 1907, and we were eager to see what it was like.
We have a good contact in Peshwar, Prince Ullah Khan, who always helps us when we’re travelling in the dangerous North West Frontier Province (NWFP).
He’s an interesting, well-connected character and claims to be related to former cricketer turned politician Imran Khan. We don’t know – but you have to be VERY well connected to operate successfully in that part of the world.
Pakistan is pretty lawless everywhere, but mentioning Peshwar as our destination to any Pakistani other than Pashtuns, the NWFP’s dominant tribe, brings cries of horror and advice to avoid it at all costs.
On our first morning, Prince took us to a Sikh temple where five or six “priests” were lounging around, communing with god by smoking ultra-strong ganja and singing at the top of their voices.
Later he somehow got permission for us to enter the main Sunni mosque in Peshawar, the Qasim Ali Khan, where foreigners aren’t normally permitted.
A year earlier 11 people died there as a result of a Shi’ite suicide bomb. Prince explained that the mosque was the centre of all Taleban and extremist activity in the area.
In the afternoon he took us Kalashnikov shooting at an abandoned fort in the middle of nowhere – slightly worrying, as it was rumoured to have once been a training camp for pro-Taleban groups.
Back at our hotel Prince had arranged for the “beer man” to knock on our door and supply us with a few cans. Booze is illegal, so this was the equivalent of entering into a drug deal.
The beer man had a secret knock, the door was answered and the plastic bag containing beer passed through at ten dollars, about six quid, a can. We were told to dump the cans in bins outside.
Ironically, Pakistan has its own brewery in the town of Murree and the advertising slogan is just brilliant: “Eat, drink and be Murree.”
We visited the former British Garrison Church – St John’s Cathedral – in Peshawar as our great-grandfather would have undoubtedly attended services there.
As we took pictures, we were oblivious to a machine gun emplacement in a building across the road that overlooked the cemetery, where Muslim graves were immaculate and Christian graves in ruin.
They didn’t seem happy and began shouting, and when the machine gun was swung menacingly in our direction we decided it was best to stop taking photos!
As we continued to wait for the Khyber Pass to open, we first attended a cockfight at the invitation of one of the hotel waiters, and then went to a local gun factory where 15/20 men sat on a floor making surprisingly high quality automatic shotguns and handguns – many of which make their way to the UK.
Next morning, we learned the Khyber Pass was actually OPEN. It was a manic rush to get packed, locate drivers and pick up our escorts.
The scenery is dramatic but it’s the idea of the pass which really had an effect on us. Thousands of years of turmoil and fighting gave us a feeling of being in the midst of real history.
The danger is still ever present to this day. There is nowhere else in the world like it. It wasn’t hard to imagine tribesmen lurking in the high rocks waiting to pick us off – probably not far from the truth anyway!
And this was where our great-grandfather had been stationed, at Landi Kotal on the pass and at Dakka in Afghanistan.
It took us a while to get across, mainly because once you’re stuck behind a truck on the narrow and winding road it required almost suicidal overtaking to get past – something our driver was more than happy to do.
Coming back across was a gamble – but we took a chance again, even though there’d been trouble when Pakistani paramilitaries had freed two aid workers who’d earlier been abducted.
We had two armed escorts but they sat stony faced and there was none of the banter that we’d had with them previously. They made our driver go flat out but at the town of Landi made them stop – then jumped off and ran away!
We soon saw why – trucks full of Lashkar fighters suddenly appeared either side of our car. Our driver looked petrified but didn’t panic and drove slowly past them. Lucky escape.
Next day we visited the Swat Valley – an - out of bounds area run by a “parallel government” – and as we stopped for lunch, immediately knew something wasn’t right.
Prince suddenly shouted that we should put our scarves on and our heads down. Pick-up trucks full of black-turbaned Taleban fighters appeared around us on the street.
Our driver again stayed cool and calmly drove through the middle of them. They were celebrating the release from prison of one of their local terrorist leaders – and the danger wasn’t over yet.
Down the road we decided to stop, but as we entered the café we saw more Taleban fighters sitting at a table drinking tea.
After they noticed us we left quietly – but not before Prince got up and spoke with them. We have no idea what was said. We were just grateful for whatever strings he’d pulled.
After that close shave we had lunch in Mardan, right next to the market where three days later a huge bomb blast was to kill three people and injure dozens more.
Prince took us to the “law courts” – rows of lawyers sat down while, behind them Wild West-style, sat inmates crowded into a barred prison staring wide-eyed at the police.
We were told they were murderers, rapists, drug smugglers and terrorists, many of whom would find out their fate – including the death penalty – that day.
One man told us through Prince that he had shot his wife for nagging him – but who are we to make judgements on that!
Prince then took us to his main home in Peshawar, where he showed us his collection of 26 guns – the icing on the cake of which was the American M16 with laser dot sighting and an expensive scope.
Then he took us to the infamous Smuggler’s Bazaar where we were introduced to the market’s Chief Haji Qalandar Shah, a short but amiable man in his late 30s.
We couldn’t help wondering how ruthless he must have been to reach his position, this being one of the most lawless and violent places on the planet.
His lieutenants sat in wrap-around shades and carried guns, but we weren’t that worried until the chief began snorting pure crystal meth while holding a locked and loaded AK47 in our direction. It seemed the right thing to move out of the way…
His den was full of American goods such as “Operation Enduring Freedom” clocks and an Apache Helicopter mug. Turned out one of his sidelines was selling stolen US goods bound for GIs in Afghanistan.
Before we left, the chief asked us to pose with him and showed us the remains of a rocket powered grenade that had blown the leg off one of his friends just a day earlier.
While in Peshawar we also checked out the Pearl Continental Hotel, where we’d considered staying. A year later a huge suicide truck bomb detonated by the Abdullah Azzam Shaheed Brigade obliterated most of it.
Instead we stayed that night at the Metropole Hotel, where we finally lost our rags after being continually woken up by jabbering on the roof next to our rooms at 2am.
We ran out of the door and shouted at them to shut up, then realised we were only wearing boxer shorts while surrounded by half a dozen local Muslim women in full burkhas.
You should have seen the horror on their faces – but at least it shut them up for a bit.
Next we travelled along the main route to Abbottabad, where we stayed in a hotel on the outskirts of town. There didn’t seem much to see, although the chilli chicken in the hotel was good.
What was interesting – although we didn’t find out until three years later – was the identity of one of our neighbours living literally just yards down the road.
It turns out that holed up in a compound minutes away from us was none other than Osama bin Laden. Pity – that $25 million reward would have come in very handy!
Eventually we would make to Rawalpindi, where we eventually found a hotel called the Akbar International.
We visited the local bazaar which didn’t have a patch on the Smuggler’s Bazaar, but in any case took a couple of pictures of a gruesome butcher’s stall where the produce seemed to consist of nothing but goat heads and bulls’ bollocks!
While eating at our hotel, we noticed across the road there was a monument to something or other and asked Prince what it was for.
He explained it was a shrine - built on the exact spot where former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto had been assassinated in 2007. She’d been shot in the neck and then blown up by a suicide bomb.
It summed up what we’d seen on our trip - whenever a bunch of moderate Pakistanis tried to make progress or found something good to make a difference, a bunch of mentally unstable religious zealots would come along and destroy it.
* ON WEDNESDAY - NIGEL AND ANDY WITH THE REBELS IN CHECHNYA
* FOLLOW DANGER TOURIST ANDY DRURY ON TWITTER @andrewdrury