American Fool in the Khyber Pass
Travel Stories: To impress a girl, Les Braunstein bought a horse in Afghanistan and set out for Pakistan. It was 1971. He was sure he'd be OK.
07.13.10 | 9:58 AM ET
I was riding up a long hill when I saw something ahead that looked like a military roadblock. It was the Pakistani military. I drew up to them and, as usual, the soldiers were amazed.
“Where are you going?” asked the tall young Pakistani officer.
“Peshawar,” I said.
“You plan to ride this horse through the Khyber Pass?”
“We do not control the road from here until the other side of the pass. You cannot go through here. It is not safe.”
“Is there a law that says I cannot go?”
“No, there’s no law, but we cannot guarantee your safety.”
The soldiers had now gathered around, inspecting me and my horse and pack.
“It is better that you return the way you have come,” the officer said.
“I’ll be going this way,” I said, pointing up the road toward the pass. “I take responsibility for myself.”
“All right then,” he said. He stood back and began to smirk. “As long as you understand we do not guarantee your safety.”
I began to ride past them. They all started to laugh. Why? These are sometimes a cruel people. They were laughing at me because they believed I was riding to my death.
It was 1971. I’d been traveling in Asia for several months, and to have an adventure, and to impress a girl, I’d bought a horse named Herat so that I could ride through the Khyber Pass from Kabul, Afghanistan, to Peshawar, Pakistan.
This was more complicated than it sounded. I would be passing through tribal regions. I would be taking a horse out of Afghanistan, which was illegal. I’d probably have to bribe my way across the border. Beyond that, I was advised that bandits in the pass would shoot me and take my horse and valuables.
I didn’t think they would. Also, I had decided, against advice, not to carry a gun—I wasn’t going to out-gun a Khyber tribesman. Anyway, I was sure I’d be OK. I was a young American fool.
The road wound its way up around higher and higher ridges. The sun was bright and less and less vegetation grew the higher I went, until sand and rocks and sun were all I could see.
Around midday I crested a hill, and I could see from mountain to mountain to mountain. The land was almost completely barren except for a stunted tree by the side of the road. Next to the tree was a flat rock. I dismounted and went over to examine it. It looked like a tombstone set flat into the ground. The words were worn and indistinct and I would not have been able to read them anyway, but the respect that had brought a people to honor this spot and maybe lay one of their own here was clear to even my Western eyes.
I went over to Herat and pulled down some hay for him to eat. Then I pulled out the food I had left, some naan, and began eating.
I heard a sound and looked up. On a knoll above me, perhaps 15 feet away, were two men. Bandits. I assumed they were bandits because each one had a large rifle on his back. It was Ramadan—Ramazan, they called it out there—a time when only an infidel eats while the sun is in the sky.
“Salaam Alechem,” I said.
Without saying a word one of them came down, walked around the horse and considered the bulging saddlebags. He was the taller and younger of the two, and handsome. His sidekick was older with a scarred and twisted face. The two of them circled me. I carefully avoided chewing what was in my mouth.
“Markino,” said the young bandit.
He was pointing to the tree. I didn’t recognize this word. I was trying to think fast, but all I could think of was maraschino. I looked at the tree, and it was filled with cherries. Had to be just a crazy coincidence. Outlaw one grabbed a handful and held them out to me. What could this mean? It was Ramazan. Was it his plan to have me take the cherries, then to shoot me when I had them in my mouth?
“Ramazan,” I said.
“Man Ramazan, tu nishte,” he said, or something to that effect. I took it to mean: For me, Ramazan, for you, not.
So I put the cherries into my mouth. They were ripe and sweet. I was hungry, and food had been scarce. He handed me some more.
“Tashakoor,” I said, and I started to put them in my pack. Then the two tribesmen smiled and began pulling down large handfuls until there were obviously more than I could carry.
There were suddenly a dozen men circling me, each with a rifle. No smiles. These were serious bandits. I felt the bottom falling away.
“Hello,” I said.
This is the moment I had been warned against, had not believed in. Their eyes were cold. I felt fear, panic, start to rise inside me, up into my throat. And then, clear as day, I had a vision: that my panic would burst out on to the surface, that they would see it, and it would cause them to lean in further until everyone was in a whirlpool that descended until I was lying dead on the ground. A death spiral. I saw my end. I forced that panic back down into my gullet, my trembling gut, and I faked a smile. I nodded and greeted them, and although they did not respond, they did not attack.
We stood there and regarded one another for a long moment. I decided it was time to go. At least to try to go. I finished packing my horse and got up on him. They stood in their silent circle around me. I started to walk my horse through the circle, past the men and the guns. I imagined a bullet hitting me. I felt the pressure of their stares behind me. I turned to look back at them. They had not moved. Their eyes remained locked on me. I waved. They did not wave back. And with that pressure and that expectation unrelieved, I rode on for a few hundred feet, always with the pressure of the bullet, until I turned the curve of the next hill and left them behind.
I do not know for sure why they did not kill me, but here’s what I think: These are honorable people. They saw that I meant them no harm, so they gave me safe passage.
One year later, two American brothers were walking around the world with a donkey and a wagon, and had arrived at a place very close to this, when they found themselves being approached by a group of armed men. As had been suggested to them, they took out a shotgun and fired it once into the air, and were immediately cut down in a hail of bullets, one seriously wounded, one dead.
This story is an excerpt from “Lucky Monkey,” a book the author is writing about his travels.