by: Zakir Rashid Khan 



18th May, 2003.  

Today was the once a month Sunday when the Khyber steam train makes its run through the historical Khyber Pass. As usual, my friends at SEHRAI TRAVELS & TOURS and the running staff extended an invitation to take a ride with them on this ever exciting safari. I made it a point to be in time to board the train at Peshawar Cantt. However, as a contingency plan SEHRAI would arrange a transport at the hotel where I am lodged by PIA on a layover.
I was to land at Peshawar airfield at 0830 LT, and if was lucky enough I could board the train at the west gate where the train makes its exit after crossing the active runway. 

At 0615 LT, I was in transit at Islamabad and the departure for Peshawar was scheduled at 0750 LT. Now, if the traffic staff could expedite the departure, I stood a good chance of boarding the train at the west exit at Peshawar. But due to the joining load, it was not possible to ensure an early departure. 

So , if we departed at the scheduled time then I would have to follow the trail of the Khyber Steam Safari(KSS) by road. To avoid that hassle, I requested Ejaz Jadoon at our Islamabad operations to talk with our Peshawar operations who in turn would request the air traffic control tower of Peshawar aerodrome to hold the Khyber Steam Safari(KSS) until our flight had landed there. Saleem of our Peshawar operations did the needful through the courtesy of the air traffic controller. 




We took off from Islamabad at 0750 LT and our ETA Peshawar was 0815 LT overhead. When we were overhead Peshawar I enquired about the status of the KSS . It had left Peshawar Cantt. at 0730 LT and had arrived at the east gate at 0745 LT. Another phone to the Pearl Continental(PC) hotel through Saleem revealed that my transport had not reported as promised. 

"It gives you a feeling of nostalgia. A diesel loco on this tract does not affect the animals around the track. But the fright of the approaching steam locos makes them run for their dear life. Just as..."

Now I had to switch over to contingency plan II. It envisaged that now the KSS would only be allowed the passage once I am comfortably placed at the west exit. The air traffic controller and Saleem being train enthusiasts themselves assured me that the train would be released only be given the clearance once I report at my pick up point. 

When we crossed the threshold of runway 35 I could see thru the corner of my right eye the KSS awaiting the green , the gates open for the train release. Captain Mumtaz-ul-Haq let me disembark at the earliest in a bid not to detain the KSS any more.

The aircraft was on blocks at 0830 LT. I disembarked and after completing the arrival formalities hopped on to the PIA transport which took me to the west gate. The time was 0850 LT. Ten minutes passed and the KSS wasn't moving. Of course it was only to be allowed passage once it was confirmed that I had reached my pick up spot. 

At 0910 LT the sweet whistle of the leading and trailing locos' echoed and the belching smoke indicated that 'black gold' was on the move. 


The KSS exits the west gate of Peshawar airfield.  

So I got on board into the guard's compartment. Almas, the guard gave a meaningful smile when he saw me. The 00:30 hrs detention after the landing of the Airbus from Dubai now made sense to him. 

The drivers Qazi and Ghulam Fareed made good time and made Landikotal at 1205 LT. i.e. only 5 minutes late. Good handling in the typical terrain.

At Landikotal I saw a foreign film crew. Durrani of Sehrai told me that the foreigners were in fact the BBC team who were taking the return journey to Peshawar. Then I saw Michael Palin of "Pole to Pole with Michael Palin" fame. I asked him if he was making a documentary ' In Alexander the Great footsteps.' He chuckled and said," don't tell anyone". 


Watch video

On the way back Michael chatted with the travelers and filmed some portions of it. When the action was cut, he eased off at his place.

In the later part of the journey I struck a conversation about his exploits as an actor and a traveler. He was more  satisfied with his being a traveler rather than an actor. While we were engaged in our discussions the producer saw his chance of getting some more footage. In an instant the camera and microphone were in place and Michael shoots his first question.  

"So what brings you here?"

"My passion for the trains brings me here. I came this morning from Dubai. Saw the train at the airport and hopped on to it." 

"From Dubai ! that's interesting. So what do you like about the train?" 

"It gives you a feeling of nostalgia. A diesel loco on this tract does not affect the animals around the track. But the fright of the approaching steam locos makes them run for their dear life. Just as we have read the confusion of the cattle when George Stephenson drove his 'Rocket' for the first time." 

"Have you traveled on any other steam train ?" 

"Yes. I had the chance of traveling on the Meter gage on the MirpurKhas-Nawabshah section." 

" Good. Thank you very much. You covered a lot in few words." 

Michael and the BBC Wallas disembarked at Jamrud. 

At the Pearl Continental hotel, I presented Michael the calendars printed by the Khyber Rail Preservation Society.

He appreciated our efforts.