"You only have three days? That's not enough. You need at least six," said the bearded young man, his head wrapped in the traditional turban of a Pashtun tribesman.

It sounded like a visit to a travel agent. But instead it was the office of an Afghan rebel group in this frontier city where tribesmen were arranging tours for western journalists into what they call "liberated Afghanistan."

Members of rival groups compete to arrange the trips to gain publicity and perhaps contributions. Like any good travel agent, they try to tailor the tour to suit the customer.

In the dingy back room of the house off the main bazaar used as a headquarters by Hezbe Islami, the most fervent Islamic fundamentalist rebel group, two men were talking with French and Swedish television teams about a tour to the front line.

The television teams wanted to be guaranteed action -- a fire fight, preferably against the Soviets. They wanted to get in and out quickly -- after all, they had deadlines, -- and they needed some kind of transportation for their heavy equipment.

Most of all, they wanted whatever they got to be exclusive.

The rebels had a trip scheduled with an Italian journalist and wanted to know if the French would tag along. But the French team was holding out for a French-speaking rebel guide.

It is questionable if they ever will see the action they are seeking. The lobby of the Khyber Intercontinental here resounds with tales of disastrous tours into Afghanistan with rebel groups -- tours that have produced nothing more than long days walking or riding on horseback or in buses with no signs of any fighting men, to say nothing of actual battles.

It is not difficult to get across the open border that separates Pakistan from Afghanistan. There are an estimated 3,500 different groups besides the two official crossing points.

Once inside, the rebels claim to know a network of trails and rough roads that snake around the rugged gray-brown mountains that have made this area a historic bottleneck for invaders from the West.

The way through is the 23-mile-long Khyber Pass -- immortalized in the poetry of Rudyard Kipling -- which starts in the village of Landi Kotal, a short drive from the Afghan-Pakistani border.

"The Northwest Frontier of Pakistan has seen, perhaps more invasions in the course of history than any other country in Asis," says a chiseled stone plaque near an arch marking the eastern end of the pass, which is entirely in Pakistan.

The pass was first used by the Aryans from central Asia in their march into India in 1600 B.C. Since then Persians, Greeks, Tartars and Afghans have passed through it. During the last century, it was the British army's last outpost for stopping czarist Russia from sweeping into imperial India.

In order to keep the pass open, the British had to control the Afghan tribesmen, particularly the Afridis who roam the hills of the Khyber. The British fought three Afghan wars; the last, in 1919, was won only with the use of airpower.

In 1897 the Afridis seized the pass in yet another uprising of tribal warriors against the British, who fought back with their own specially trained scout unit, the Khyber Rifles. The Rifles were formed about 100 years ago with British officers commanding Pashtun tribesmen from this area. Like the Texas Rangers, they are still maintained as a legendary force.

Lunch at the officers' mess of the Khyber Rifles now is a must on any tour of the frontier. Lord Carrington, the British foreign minister, and Huang Hua, the Chinese foreign minister, have been guests within the past month.

Officers said they put on about two shows a week in their large dining room, complete with regimental silver going back to the days when the British commanded the outfit.

The lunch is a bountiful affair, with two roast lambs, kabobs, grilled mincemeat, rice and slabs of flat bread called nan.

"We Pashtuns are know as big eaters," said one officer as he speared a choice morsel of lamb on a wicked-looking knife.

The entertainment is a mix of frontier and British raj. A group of tribesmen perform sword dances that, according to popular tales, precede going into battle. They look quite a bit like the Cossak dances of Russia, but the Rifles also have kilted bagpipe band -- part of the legacy from their British past -- that plays for the visiting dignitaries.

The Pakistanis also lay on a tribal jerga -- a meeting of the elders -- for visitors. These are boisterous affairs when they are done for real, with the elders signaling their approval by shooting their ancient rifles in the air.

For visitors, though, the meetings are more sedate, with the chiefs sitting solemnly while speeches are made. Lord Carrington and Huang were presented with goats during their visits, but neither took them back home.