The Khyber Pass is the main route between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The pass is entirely within Pakistan. The nearest major cities on the route that goes over the pass are Jalalabad in Afghanistan and Peshawar in Pakistan, with Torkham as border crossing point.
Crossing the Khyber has always been something of an adventure. Even in peacetime, this was a fairly wild region where banditry and tribal warfare were part of local history and almost every adult male went armed. Today, with the region in the center of an ongoing armed conflict, it is clearly far too dangerous for most.
The area is inhabited by Pathans or Pashtuns, rather fierce Pashto-speaking hill tribes. On the map, it was a border region of the British Raj and is now part of Pakistan, but neither the British nor the Pakistani government have ever fully controlled it; Pathan tribal chiefs run everything. Pashtun territory spans the border. 60% of them live in Pakistan, 40% in Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, they are the largest ethnic group at 40-odd% of the population and have often dominated government and business.
The Pashtuns have twice defeated the greatest armies of their day. When Alexander the Great wanted to cross the pass, he could not manage it until he bribed some Pashtuns to assist him against others. Later the pass was the border of the British Raj; Britain fought several wars in the area and never completely subdued it. In the first Afghan war (1839-1842), at the height of British power in Queen Victoria's reign, a force of 16,000 (4500 soldiers plus grooms, cooks, etc.) went in and one man came out alive. Flashman is a fine historical novel about the campaign.
Pashtuns were also recruited into the British military, where many of them were excellent soldiers. There were several famous regiments, mainly cavalry, that were entirely Pathan except for the British officers. Today, the Pakistani military includes many Pashtuns.
The Pashtuns provided most of the adherents of Taliban. That movement originated in Pakistan and only later — with help from the CIA and Pakistani Intelligence, who saw it as a counter to Mujahideen warlord power — took over Afghanistan. Among its strongest influences are the traditional Pashtun code of ethics, Pashtunwali, and the Deobandi branch of Islam. Deobandi is a fundamentalist Sunni movement emphasizing Shari'a Law which arose in India in the 19th century and is now common among Pashtuns. At one time it was heavily funded by Saudi Arabia because it resembles their own Wahhabi style of Islam and was seen as a counter to the influence of Shi'a Iran, especially in Afghanistan.
Since 1980, Pashtuns have been fighting Russians, various other Afghans, American and allied forces, the Pakistani army, and sometimes each other. Many — both pro and anti-Taliban, and on both sides of the border — are still (2019) fiercely resisting various efforts by US and allied forces and/or the Afghan and Pakistani governments to control their area.
Closed to foreigners?
The Khyber Pass was considered closed to foreigners for some years, however, since 2017 there have been a few reports of successful crossings from Afghanistan to Pakistan. There is little information in the other direction, though theoretically the border is open to third-country nationals. Permits are required to enter the area - which may well only be granted if actually crossing the border if at all. In any case, be prepared for a significant logistical challenge and to make alternate plans if you must visit Afghanistan. One should bear in mind the security situation in the area - it's not a recommended destination as of July 2020.
Except for trails which only locals can use safely, the only way in or out is via the main road through the pass.
From Peshawar to Torkham (the border town) you are required to obtain a permit and travel with an armed guard, and you will receive a similar escort in the opposite direction if arriving in Pakistan via the pass.
The pass is on the Istanbul to New Delhi over land itinerary, though the current recommended route avoids it.
The pass forms part of the Grand Trunk Road, a historic highway that runs through parts of four countries — Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
At the top of the pass is the town of Landi Kotal, famous for smuggling everything from consumer electronics to AK-47s. Attractions for the intrepid tourist include weapons factories and hashish warehouses.
Afghan men often carry guns, at least in the countryside. Older Afghan weapons might interest gun collectors.
- Jezail. These are long-barrelled muzzle loaders, often with brass or ivory inlay work on the wooden parts. They were widely used until the Russian invasion of 1979 when most of their owners acquired AK-47s, often by shooting a Russian.
- Pass rifle. Guns are manufactured in the Khyber Pass, mostly by hand and mainly in Landi Khotal. These are copies of foreign guns, most commonly British military weapons such as the 19th century Martini-Henry or 20th century Lee Enfield. Many take different ammo than the original; for example guns with the Martini-Henry design are often chambered for 7.62 NATO.
One of these might look fine hanging on a wall, but in most cases firing it would be extremely unwise. The steel is mostly salvaged from whatever comes to hand, often things like leaf springs or engine blocks of scrapped trucks, so it is much inferior to what other gun makers use. Ammunition is also made in the pass, often with less powerful explosive than the original. Most of these guns can handle pass ammunition, but some would be likely to explode if used with other ammo.
There is a small restaurant at the Torkham border post with good cheap Pakistani food.
Alcohol is forbidden to Muslims and is frowned on throughout Pakistan. It is tolerated to a considerable extent in some of the cities, but much less so in this conservative tribal area. Do not bring booze here or, if you decide to take the risk, then keep it well hidden.
As of mid-2020, this area is considered extremely unsafe, as has been the case for well over a decade. It should be avoided where possible. If it is not possible to avoid the area, see War zone safety for suggestions on how to remain safe.
On the Pakistan side, the pass leads to Peshawar which is well-connected to anywhere else in the country. Important tourist destinations reasonably nearby are the archeological site at Taxila and the Mughal city of Lahore.