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Day 1: Up the Khyber

Michael Palin - HimalayaDespite the silver-painted crescent moon and star of Islam on their noses, the breathless pair of geriatric locomotives that gasp to a halt beside me were built in Britain, in 1916. They draw two tankers of fuel and two coaches, from which descends a well-behaved group: workers from a bank in Islamabad, an imposing white-haired Welshman who is headmaster of an exclusive private school in Peshawar, prosperous-looking businessmen with cameras and binoculars and their unveiled wives. A band, immaculately turned out in plumed hats, tartan scarves and white gaiters, dismounts from the train. With a flourish of the bandmaster's silver-topped baton, the sound of drum and bagpipe mingles with the sighing of steam engines and the polite chatter of disembarked passengers. Only the presence of black-clad Pathan policemen with rifles spoils the powerful impression of having been transported back to an Edwardian house party.

A short, harassed man, carefully turned out in polo shirt and slacks, seeks me out and introduces himself as Zahoor Durrani, the man whose travel company keeps the Khyber Railway alive. He has organized today's outing. Included in the price of the ticket is a lunch and, there being no facilities of any kind at the station, Zahoor buses us to the Khyber Rifles Officers' Mess, where this normally arid landscape of rock and scree is cloaked with green lawns, rose-beds and ancient maple and walnut trees. A buffet lunch is served from a tent, after which we're entertained by military dancers in local costume. The dance seems a little camp at first, with much tossing of heads and raising of knees, when, quite suddenly, from among scarves and voluminous tunics the dancers produce rifles, which they loose off in time to the music. This, I'm assured, is how they celebrate in the Tribal Areas, and I'm just relieved that there are no US warplanes within range.
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  • Series: Himalaya
  • Chapter: Day 1: Up the Khyber
  • Country/sea: Pakistan
  • Place: Landi Khotal
  • Book page no: 13

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