Afghanistan – Torkham border crossing to Pakistan. Independent travel

Afghanistan – Pakistan, Torkham Border

Kabul to Torkham Border

We rose at sunrise in Kabul and hailed a taxi to take us to the local share taxi location to catch taxis headed towards the Torkham border with Pakistan. Here we boarded another taxi which took us to another location in Kabul. One that everyone thought had a better chance of filling up quickly. With 3 people inside we were off towards the south. 30 minutes into our journey we were waved down at a Taliban checkpoint. One of the passengers was replaced with a Taliban leader, a young man with long hair who sat in the front seat. He looked back at me suspiciously and we drove for barely 5 minutes before he demanded our taxi stop at another checkpoint where they handed him an Ak-47. Now that he had his gun we were off for the border, or so we thought. 10 minutes later we stopped at another checkpoint where he picked up an additional US made M-16 automatic rifle. Sitting in the seat in front of me was a Taliban commander with two automatic weapons. We were now ready to continue our journey towards the border! He turned around and started asking me a series of questions, which I had become used to at checkpoints and in encounters with Taliban in Afghanistan. They were suspicious, and this was their way of sussing out whether I was a threat or could be trusted. As long as I answered them casually and honestly (mostly), with a bit of a carefree spirit, things seemed to end up well and in the end they would generally decide I was OK. Getting to this point was stressful, but it was also a good interaction as it allowed me the chance to ask questions of my own. I learned a lot from these interactions. Once the Taliban decided I was good, afterwards their demeanor would change and they were suddenly very friendly.

After about 20 minutes of questioning I had finally convinced this Taliban commander that I was an OK guy, aka not a spy and generally non-threatening. In the process I had learned that despite his young age he held a powerful position in the Ministry of the Interior – he was head of the country’s anti-crime unit. The Kabul to Torkham border route was particularly crime ridden, a smuggling ground for all sorts of contraband passing between the countries. He was on a work trip. This was going to be an interesting journey. Fortunately once I had convinced him I was “cool”, he took it upon himself to stop the car whenever there was a beautiful spot.

As the self appointed tour guide it was hilarious to see this Taliban commander bark at our taxi driver to stop at various points for me to take a photo. “Stop!” We didn’t know if something was wrong, criminals lurking? He would then say, “nice spot for photo…and direct me where to go” Hysterical. At one particularly beautiful lookout point he asked for a selfie. At one point we passed a beautiful lake and we stopped to have lunch. At lunch we were chatting with locals and one of the men liked my afghan style and said I looked too thin. Another man announced that he only speaks English, ”at home with his wife, some sensual words”. Eventually we made it to the border in one piece.At one Taliban checkpoint the other two men in our shared taxi were taken out for 10 minutes…because they didn’t have a beard. They were then lectured on how they needed to have a better beard like me. I was ok because I had a beard. Hysterical.

I will admit, checkpoints are much easier when the Taliban is riding in the front seat. It’s a beautiful windy road through canyons along the river to the border crossing with Pakistan, and I was about to cross the most chaotic stretch of land between two countries in all my travels.

Crossing the Torkham Border from Afghanistan into Pakistan

As I entered the border things seemed relatively normal, albeit very crowded and chaotic, until a soldier spotted me and ushered me past the hoards to a special booth. 20 tense minutes passed as they studied my passport, looking at each page in various angles, and making several phone calls. For those at the border post, this seemed to be their first American Passport. After a lot of questions, and more phone calls, suddenly all was ok, and I was stamped out and allowed to pass. I was leaving Afghanistan! OR so it seemed. I walked 50 meters to another passport control of sorts. They looked at my passport, made some phone calls, and something was not OK. They sent me back to the first passport area. I was back in Afghanistan. 30 minutes later they had finally resolved the problem through a lot of phone calls and many questions on why I was a tourist in Afghanistan. I was passed along 50 meters to the original spot where I had been turned away and this time I passed through successfully. I failed to mention that during this entire experience there are perhaps hundreds of Afghani’s rushing back and forth. Soldiers are beating them back from the Pakistan border with sticks. Large canes. An Afghanistan soldier was assigned to escort me through the madness. On arrival to the Pakistan side they had a look at my passport, and picked up the phone. Oh no, more phone calls! Again something was wrong, and they sent me BACK TO AFGHANISTAN. I walked all the way back to Afghanistan and entered the same border crossing building where I had started my journey an hour before. I was back in Afghanistan, now my “third” visit. The border seemed now comfortable with my presence and casually recognised my existence while processing other people. One of the Taliban soldiers offered me tea, so we sat and chatted as they did god knows what with my passport. Many phone calls and radio chats later, I was stamped again, and free to leave…again. This time I passed both the initial 50m check, fully exited Afghanistan again, and entered Pakistan where I was assigned a (very surprised) Pakistani police escort to navigate the border. At this point there seemed to be a stampede of sorts happening where the Afghans seeking to enter Pakistan had mounted a “rush the blockade” charge of sorts. Well it worked for about 10 m before the border gates were closed and they were beaten back by sticks. I’m not sure I have ever witnessed people being beaten with sticks. It was overall a sadly confusing yes energetic emotional experience.

Entering Pakistan

With my new Pakistani border guard we proceeded to a random building wherein I have absolutely no idea what was accomplished. We waited there for 20 minutes where they did whatever with my passport. We left and then proceeded to another building and I rounded a corner and was met by a big man in a white lab coat. “Open your mouth and stick out your tongue,” he demanded. In the hysteria I complied and he placed 2 drops of a salty liquid on my tongue. It was bizarre and unlike anything I had experienced. I asked, “what was that?” and he handed me a certificate for an Oral Vaccination of Polio. I stared at the certificate bewildered and shocked as a range of emotions overcame me. In the end there was nothing I could do and I wasn’t fully opinionistic on the subject because my biggest concern was exiting Afghanistan and entering Pakistan. 1 of these things had happened, but the entry into Pakistan wasn’t a sure thing. Lots could go wrong. And when things go wrong the typical response is “start over” which means go back to Afghanistan. I proceeded to another booth where I handed a soldier my passport. He asked for my visa, and I showed him a screenshot of my evisa. This all worked. They passed me to another booth where I was stamped into Pakistan, and upon hearing that che-chunk of the passport stamping mechanism a rush of stress flowed off me in a palatable way which I will never forget. I was free – and then assigned to another Pakistani soldier who would escort me to Peshawar. He introduced me to his coworkers and they offered me tea. I was free and had successfully journeyed through one of the most fascinating, beautiful yet heartbreaking countries in all my travels. For weeks the emotional rollercoaster of emotions and memories was still fresh in my mind, but first – we had to overcome the notorious Khyber pass – one of the most famous mountain passes in the world. And, one of the most dangerous.

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