Pakistani frontier, with the Afghan portion situated on a low ridge at the opening of the Khyber Pass. After we got out of the car, Issa told me that he didn’t have a valid passport, just an old expired one from a previous Afghan regime, but that it was no big deal since the border agents could routinely be bribed. On the surface at least, the crossing seemed to be only vaguely policed, and the people who lived in Torkham were allowed to go back and forth between the two sides at will. Some 20 yards before the gate, a short man in a suit came up to Issa, and the two spoke for a moment after which I saw Issa slip the guy a 1,000-Pakistani-rupee note (worth around US$40) inside his defunct passport. I guess this was much more than the typical bribe for sneaking into Pakistan, because — to my amazement — the border agent immediately hugged Issa, kissed him on both cheeks, and said in English, "Oh you are a good man!" As an obvious foreigner, my immigration situation was a little different. The moment I got to the gate that marked the border, a uniformed guard pointed me toward a white awning on the Pakistani side. Sitting on deck chairs underneath the canvas canopy were three men in dark suits, kicking back and observing the foot traffic. They were the only people there wearing Western clothes, beside myself and the border agent who had accosted Issa. The guy in the middle seemed to be the boss and was eating hard candy from a small bowl. Speaking perfect English, he asked me where I was from and what I was doing there. I explained about the missed flight and that I was returning home to Islamabad. At first he was going to send me back to Kabul — to pass through the Pakistani tribal area, foreigners are required to travel with a military escort, which I had not arranged. But I was apologetic, and after a short discussion among the three men, they decided to let me through. They had one of the border guards rustle up a couple soldiers to accompany us to Peshawar, and they directed me to a customs house abutting the castle-like fort that straddled the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Inside, a smiling 40-ish man in a black turban and round spectacles stamped my passport.
Kabul to Islamabad, 2003
International Airlines (PIA) flight that ran between Islamabad and Kabul had to have been one of the sole remaining flights on earth to allow smoking. By 2003, I’m not sure there was anywhere else you could hear: “Ladies and gentlemen, the captain has turned off the no smoking sign. Passengers seated in rows 2 through 12 may now ...” etc., which they announced in both Urdu and English. The problem about that route for PIA, however, was that while the flights into Kabul seemed to always leave on time, the return trip was wildly unreliable. It wasn’t unusual for the plane to just not be there, and the passengers forced to travel by taxi back into the city and find the PIA office to book a new flight out.  And by the way, I mean no ill will against PIA, after all there was a war going on. In fact, famously at that time, the grassy median between the airport’s two runways featured the wreckage of an ill-fated military plane that had never been moved because the median was mined. It made it kind of unsettling to arrive in Kabul and touch down next to a crash site. Anyway, sometime later the U.N. finally demined it and the plane wreck was removed. It was early October, and I was supposed to fly back to Islamabad where I was living, but the plane didn’t show. Luckily, an Afghan journalist I was friends with — let’s call him “Issa” for the purposes of this blog — was getting ready to travel by taxi to Peshawar in Pakistan where his wife and kids were living under refugee status. I asked to tag along and was able to arrange for the driver who worked at the bureau to come meet us on the Pakistani side of the border, so we wouldn’t have to find a second taxi.
(From late summer 2003 to the spring of 2005, I covered Pakistan and Afghanistan for a radio news service.)
The Pakistan
Kabul International Airport’s lone terminal, with “Have a Nice Trip” in English and Dari painted above the entrance, and a billboard in memorial of Ahmad Shah Massoud —“The Lion of Panjshir” — who was assassinated by Al-Qaida in 2001, two days before the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S.  (Mouse over photos for detailed view)
We headed 
off at 4:30 in the morning, Issa, me, and a third colleague also going to see family in Peshawar. Along the way, Issa told me the story of his career, and about his time as a political prisoner during the Najibullah government, and about Afghan culture. He said, for example, that in his hometown in the northeast of the country, one of the ways a man would show he was macho was by eating an entire goat on his own, pretty much the entire animal except for the bones and the hide. The trip to the border took us through some pretty spectacular scenery: There were wide grassy meadows, rocky desert, mountain gorges with Soviet-era roads cut out of the rock, and then expanses of cropland where, my friend told me, miles upon miles of opium poppy was grown. (Though since it was now after the harvest, the fields were empty). All along the route, there were tiny villages, and sometimes in order to make sure the occasional passing truck or car slowed while driving through town, they would lay old tank tracks across the road to act as a kind of speed bump.  For most of the way, you could see mountains looming in the distance — at one point, just after passing through the northeastern city of Jalalabad, there was an especially magnificent crest of snow-topped purple mountains towering on the horizon off to the right. I asked Issa about them, and he told me it was “Tora Bora, the vacation place of al- Qaida." (I guess more properly the mountain range is called Spin-Ghar, and Tora Bora are the caves there.)
The village of Torkham, on the Afghan side of the border — the old fort on the ridge and the wall leading down from it mark the start of Pakistan. It seems that the locals seen here can mostly come and go through this pedestrian border crossing without being stopped or asked for a passport.
In Afghanistan they too have Shell gas stations, though the only pump at this one just outside Kabul was powered by a surplus motor installed next to it.
Barely visible in the distance sit the Spin-Ghar mountains, location of Tora Bora where Al-Qaida hid early in the war.
By midday, the taxi reached Torkham, the town on the Afghan-
we met up with the bureau driver, and he, Issa, our colleague, and two soldiers wearing the black uniforms and berets of the Frontier Corps and carrying rifles all crowded into a light- blue Land Rover and headed off through the Khyber Tribal Agency.  The journey took us along the Grand Trunk Road, which had been used for 2,000 years by traders between India and the West, and which turned out to be a skiny, two-lane paved path cut into solid black rock, so that the mountain was like a wall on the left and a vertical cliff downward to the right. It looked like the mountain road to a vampire’s castle in a cartoon, and it was jammed with trucks — Pakistani trucks painted with elaborate sceneries and good-luck symbols and the like, all carrying tons upon tons of supplies to the troops fighting in Afghanistan. The trucks in the cliff-side lane all seemed  inches from tumbling off the edge and into the abyss, but fortunately we were traveling the other way, next to the rock wall of the mountain. After some miles, the road met level ground as we passed through Landi Kotal, the capital of Kyber Agency, which to me looked not very different from any other northern Pakistani town — small and jumbled, but relatively clean. There was one tourist attraction too: the enormous mansion of Ayub Afridi, purported father of the Afghan heroin trade. We drove alongside one of its outer walls for what seemed like several miles. Around mid afternoon, we arrived in the city of Peshawar, dropping off the soldiers at a local army post and my traveling companions at their destination. As we drove on to Islamabad, I told the driver about how in Issa’s  hometown, they would prove their manhoods by eating a goat. The driver, himself a Pashtun from the tribal area, was unimpressed, explaining: “In my village, we have some who are a two-goat man.”
The trucks that haul freight across Pakistan and large swaths of India are generally covered in murals and various designs, some meant to provide good luck, as in this picture. Note that the “license plate” is actually painted onto a wooden fender — vehicles in Pakistan weren’t always issued with license plates, just license numbers, and it was up to the owner to get a plaque or plate made, or in some cases to just write the number on a piece of cardboard and tie it to the back bumper. Here, the truck owner has painted the license in the style of a U.S. plate, including the names “Baluchistan” and “Quetta” in Roman letters to show the province and city where the truck comes from, though most drivers went with more European designs. I’m told this has since changed and that now all vehicles need government-issued plates.