The Trabzon border station into Iran from Turkey was chaotic. Turkey was contemporary in 1975 compared to Medieval Iran. It was as if we’d slipped through a time portal into a world that had passed thousands of years before. Turkey was a nation built on mud brick, Iran had been snatched from the dust. These people had nothing, not even shelter. At the ragged lean-to that Eddy, our intrepid driver, assured us was the border station, a wretchedly filthy and toothless man was butchering a goat on the sidewalk , bleeding the carcass into the street. The Magic Bus from London to New Delhi had arrived.
“Welcome to Iran,” Eddy called back to us. This was everyone’s first experience with the brutal poverty of Iran , a state which would entertain us for the next several thousand miles across the bleak section of the world called Asia Minor. The big silver door had just been opened when a wild eyed young man in a ragged tunic jumped aboard wearing a military looking peaked cap as if blown in by a desert scirrocco . He shouted ‘Passport, Passport,” in a thick accent and waving his arms.
Eddy promptly turned him around by the scruff of his neck and eased him out the door without argument. “Your passport’s worth a thousand dollars in these parts,” he said. “Never let it out of your sight.” Instead we waited in the baking heat for several hours behind a train of trucks and trailers at the border for the real guards to finish whatever they were doing and get to us. I had a brief chat with some lorry drivers and they told me that depending on what they were carrying they could be here for days, “In Shah Allah,” God willing. When the border agents did finally come our way they were intercepted by others trying to jump the queue who insisted the Muslims should be allowed through first and that seemed to carry some influence with the guards.
The collection of shacks on the border was the last sign of human occupation for a thousand miles. We were in the deep desert, uninhabited except for the occasional nomad caravan of camels and shadow people in the distance. The sand had swallowed everything that had come before us. Heading towards the capital of Tehran was a grinding process because of the heat. We had to drive slowly so as not to bake the engine. At night an incredible view of unblemished constellations was visible from our stand on the ghostly silent road. The phrase ‘in the middle of nowhere’ took on a deeply profound new significance. After a day and a vigilant night a white city began to loom in the distance. I thought I had been transported back to ancient Babylon.
As we entered the outer city limits, grey desert began to transform into lush greenery. Paved roads replaced the dirt track highway. White low rise buildings were hung with layers of flowing leafy creepers, window ledges crowded with flowering pots in red and purple. The streets were deserted, shadow women in wraith like burka’s darted in and out of sight, we were in the empire of the Shah Reza Pahlavi, a brutal and repressive dictator. His close friends and regime supporters had surrounded themselves with a decadent island of civilization not shared with the rest of the country. Eddy knew of a parking lot fairly close to the center of the city and we stopped there.
It was a walled caravansarai in every sense of the word except that these wandering merchants were not leading camels, they were the drivers of truck convoys laden with goods destined for hinterlands far beyond Tehran. Open air cold showers and roast mutton were welcomed by all but the women who had to bucket bath behind blankets and couldn’t eat within sight of the men’s camp. Sorry girls, that part of the world is still mired in proto-modernity. We men sat around an open fire swapping travel stories under the moon as travelers had along the silk road from the time of ancient kingdoms that time had long since swept into oblivion. I slept in the open that night under a pantheon of stars. I thought that this scene had welcomed travelers on this spot for perhaps thousands of years. It was like Marco Polo, in the 20th century.
Loaded with provisions we were road savvy zealots by the time we headed off to Meshed on the Afghan border. We would cross at Herat. Little would we know the storm of war brewing in the Kremlin and how Russia would invade Afghanistan within 18 months plunging the brutally impoverished country into a murderous no mans land for travelers . The farther east along the highway we sped, the farther back in time we traveled. When we came to the Afghan border the Tardis stopped spinning somewhere around the 6th century. It was the first time I had encountered troglodytes, cave dwellers along the hillsides. The border guards didn’t have shoes or shirts under their threadbare uniform jackets let alone any obvious sense of the 20th century about them.
I had read about places like Herat in the journals of Marco Polo and the famous Arabic scholar/traveler Ibn Battuta. The red mud of the desert had been made to stand up into rudimentary one story hovels on a simple frame of tortured wood poles. The peoples costume had something of the Aladdin flair. The extra large turbans Afghan men wore and the long beards were something I hadn’t seen before. Their curled toed leather sandals were brilliant. I bought a pair.
It was only here where women wore netting over the eye’s so that nothing of their appearance could be seen by an outsider. They held the netting tight to their eyes to see where they were going and not trip over the full length hems of their blue or grey burkhas as they picked their way through the rubbish strewn and sodden streets. Raw meat dangled on hooks in shop fronts, but none made me hungry. Butchery seemed more like an act of tearing flesh off a dead animal in ragged strips rather than the linear precision we’d call presentable in the west. Flies were ubiquitous , no attempt was made to curtail their dominance.
Houses and shopfronts were interchangeable, like fortresses with heavy gates to bar forced entry . The courtyards were filled with animals, mostly goats and small donkey’s. Larger area’s had pens of bound camel , waiting on their knee’s for who knows what. The most memorable characteristic of the town was the incredible stench of sewage and blood. Guts were left to lay in the sun under black blankets of buzzing flies and ringed by snarling curs.
I would come back to Afghanistan in the months before the war to visit the Lapis blue lakes above the Bamiyan Valley to see the incredible statues of Buddha carved into the cliff walls. The lakes are still there, the Buddha’s have been blown to smithereens by the Taliban after resting in the sleepy valley for 2500 years. Kabul was a flyblown shotgun setting of one miserable treet gilded by a single hotel, the Holiday Inn. It was such an anomaly we had to stop and have a drink in the bar. It was the only place serving alcohol for thousands of miles in either direction. The rectangular building looked like a space machine had landed in the midst of a 7th century biblical ghetto.
I fended off many offers to buy large and small firearms from various merchants in the Kabul Bazaar. It was a country where every man young and old was armed to the teeth with pistols, knives, swords, muskets and modern weapons of every sort. Being a man and unarmed in this country was unusual , they wanted me to load up for my own good. Looking back I should have know that something was up. The gun shops in the back lanes of Kabul were cranking out knock off weapons like a war was coming, it was, three decades worth and counting.
I was looking forward to the Khyber Pass crossing into Pakistan. We’d be retracing the footsteps of Alexander the Great, Darius, Genghis Khan the Moguls and the British Expeditionary Force. The police told us we’d have to join a caravan of vehicles to cross through Pushtun territory. Unruly tribesmen could make short work out of a busload of unarmed hippies. Afghan tribal leaders have been murdering foreigners who dared cross into their territory since Alexander. We’d stay with the caravan through the border region, past Peshawar and well on the way to Islamabad where the tribes no longer had the gun power to flaunt the national fantasies of the State of Pakistan.
I talked my way onto the roof of a loaded lorry so I could ride through the Khyber in the open. It was breathtaking, I was sitting on the shoulders of my heroes, the great explorers. We wound through the winding pass on razor thin tracks cut into the side of raw mountain. Rock falls were evident , down in the valleys below at the worst corners, evidence of misfortune lay glinting in the unforgiving sun. Eddy assured us that Pakistan was nothing but filth and squalor, we took him at his word, and sped right through towards India. We would cross at Waguh, on the colonial Grand Trunk Road, the only passable land border between the feuding states of India and Pakistan.
The scene I met at the border stuck in my mind forever, The Punjabi Sikh border guard met me as if I were a long lost relative being rescued from an ultimate evil. The impossibly tall man in full regalia shouted “Welcome to India Sir” and ushered me under a stone arch that divides the two mortal enemies. It was a strange feeling, but after so much time on the road I actually experienced an emotion of ‘home coming’. Every subsequent visit to India has brought back that memory. I feel very much at home there to this day. I answered his invitation with , “I’m really happy to be here”. Stamp stamp and I was a native of India for the next six months as stated in my well used passport.
I can describe a state of mind where bliss and happiness, satisfaction and wonder are all rolled up into one beautiful moment. Amazingly, my companion travelers were all of the same persuasion. Even the usually talkative and boisterous Eddy was pensive and contemplative as we made a bee-line towards Delhi. Everyone had their own plans around what they would do once we left the Tardis…ahem…Magic Bus.
The countryside was hypnotic. The Indians have chosen colour as their weapon against drab clay and rusty earth. Everything was new, words, food, deeds, people, livestock, architecture. Fantastic ziggurat temples rose out of the flat soil, painted in every bright hue . The gods they housed were every bit as fantastic as the temples that housed them.
The city of New Delhi begins a thousand miles away from it’s epicenter. The build up in population is only a precursor to the crowded streets in the city. It reached a point where we were constantly shoulder to shoulder inside a seething mass of humanity. I was elated, afraid, in wonder, amused, all in a day. Our journey as a clan of intrepid travelers ended in a nondescript parking lot in the Pahar Ganj district close to Delhi railway station. This would prove fortuitous to me as I would ride the trains for months to discover this great land in a way that many Indians envy . I went everywhere, north-south-east-west , no matter the distance or hardship.
Eventually I found a virtually secret little place along the coast south of Bombay called Goa. There were only four other westerners there, no where to stay and no restaurants. Just an untended beach along the Arabian Sea.
I was fortunate to be introduced to a fisherman who agreed to move his family out of his comfortable mud and cow dung thatch roofed shack with outside well and pig cleaned outhouse, for the princely sum of sixteen cents a day. I had to get up early if I wanted fresh fish from the boats on the beach. I bought a kerosene cooker to make rice with the only two vegetables grown in local gardens, tomato and onion. My journey to India had just begun.