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At the Khaiber Pass

There is nothing spectacular or even dramatic in the climb or the mountains but the air is almost tense in its silence so insolently indifferent to me and my times here: all is awe and hush far beyond the Pass: Kabula and Samarkanda, all that the urban imagination conjures in nostalgia, the mainsprings of conquest, That flooded the fat lands this side of the Pass: Delhi and Agra the irresistible lakes journey's end the ear strains to hear, and almost does, the distant din of battle the clang and clamour of men at war steel ringing on steel cries of death and victory of hooves galloping hard from Ghor for the secret treasures of the Ganges kingdoms rising as swiftly as the stroke of a scimitar and vanishing as swiftly these putty-coloured mountains seem to suggest with supreme indolence, you who would stride and strut and swear look on us and wonder. They say there was en Empire once. And that recently. On which the sun never set. Today its legacy is a toy train, some cement blocks in tidy heaps (to stop German tanks, if you please) and some insignia and escutcheons scratched like military badges on the shoulders of wayside rocks: fading and exotic memories of Gurkha and Sikhs, plump, open-mouthed, lizards sitting so still the could be part of the regimental emblem. Like wind they came, like water they left, the thousands of soldiers, the thousands of years, passages long gone, long forgotten is this catacomb of desire and history. Afridi and Shinwari and before them old Tahtrra watch from eagle eyes oh conqueror gaze on these and wonder oh traveller be warned and step softly the hills seem to know and the air whispers this evanescent journey this mad rush will continue will remain as desperate and as passionate as of yore but to this end must we come? silence beyond and silence behind; to this end teasing imagination leads us; must we endure?

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