On Journey Part Five

The next part of my overland journey took me across three borders. Iran – Afghanistan – Pakistan – India. Deeper into cultures that were far different from western ideologies. And one where as a western woman I needed to keep my wits about me. To state that at this point I was beginning to regret not buying an airline ticket direct to Australia would be an understatement.

Afghanistan.

Whilst Afghanistan was on the Hippie Trail there was not much information available about the country. The only thing I knew was that there was only one actual road through from the west to the east via Kandahar in the south.

After spending hours at the border we all arrived safely in Herat. Alexander the Great once occupied the country’s third-largest city. Enormous defensive walls and earthworks remained from ancient times. Destroyed in the early 13th century by Genghis Khan, it was later rebuilt.

Herat is famous for its hand-blown blue glass. Artisans can be seen creating delicate works of art in the shop across from the Friday Mosque with its fabulous mosaic tiling, though for some reason we never got to see it.

I found it a disquieting place. There were very few women outdoors in the dusty, streets and I felt exposed and constantly stared at despite covering myself up. It wasn’t a place I wanted to remain in any longer than necessary. Jon and I found a room with twin rope based beds (instead of mattresses) that were shorter than European beds, but surprisingly comfortable (and no bed bugs!) and then we went out to find out about transport through to Kabul, the country’s capital. We discovered that there was really only one bus company on the 1,400-kilometre Kabul-Herat route, the Wardak Bus Company.

Something that really caught my eye were the brightly decorated trucks. Reminiscent of Romany caravans these are highly decorative, brightly painted and very attractive and unusual. I don’t think we will get a lift in them though.

At 8 a.m the following morning we set off via Kandahar, the nation’s second largest city. We were supposed to go all the way to Kabul with only a brief stop and change of driver in Kandahar, but to our non-amazement the driver called a halt. We were then forced, naturally, to stay for a night in the Khyber hotel, which no doubt paid Wardak a commission. Not surprisingly we (as in the foreigners) were very angry with this, but there was little we could do. There was no other place open that we could stay in and anyway, if we did not stay here, our onward tickets would become invalidated. Needless to say the price of a room was not included in the ticket. I was getting quite used to all the scams being practised by now to relieve us of our money.

We left for Kabul at 7 a.m after a breakfast of stale bread and water. The road surface improved, but the traffic was crazy! The drivers zoomed along in the middle of the road, probably because the middle of the road had fewer potholes. This gave them an excuse to play chicken with those travelling in the opposite direction. Seeing your vehicle hurtling itself along the road towards another large vehicle is quite disconcerting. I hadn’t planned on dying here.

Unfortunately our driver lost one such encounter. We suffered minor damage (I and several other passengers were covered in shattered glass from a window which was caved in by the opposition’s wing mirror) and plenty of verbal abuse was exchanged as the two drivers climbed out of their vehicles and faced each other. I thought at one point the two drivers were going to start throwing punches, and vaguely wondered which of the passengers would drive the buses if there were serious injuries inflicted. A lesson to be learned: travel in the aisle seat.

A little further along the road we were forced to a halt by armed bandits blocking the road. They were dressed completely in black with turban style headgear that covered much of their faces. As the bus groaned to a stop, several more bandits came slithering down the barren hillside beside the road and came on board carrying Kalashnikovs (or some kind of automatic rifle) and those evil looking sabres. I avoided eye contact with them, I didn’t want to be bartered over again, and I had a feeling that what these men wanted, they simply took. I am only glad to report that whoever or whatever it was they were looking for was not on our bus. Finally, after much poking and prodding and searching under seats, we were waved on our way. I didn’t realise how tense the atmosphere was until I heard the collective sigh of relief as the bus continued on its creaking journey.

Three thousand year-old Kabul is set atop a plateau nearly 6,000-ft/1,825m high in the Hindu Kush Mountains. We arrived at 4 p.m after another long day of travel and found comfortable rooms in the Atlantis Hotel. Later we went out to explore the immediate area along with Diane and Graham. We had a couple of beers that night with our friends and finally were able to relax.

Kabul is a city that is much larger than Herat and Kandahar and grander too, as across a very narrow river we discovered a more luxurious suburb where we happened to come across a hotel with a large chess set in the gardens. Sitting in the sunshine and watching the gentle game unfold whilst sipping thick Turkish coffee in glasses was the height of luxury after the last week.

Again there are very few women on the streets and most of those that are outside are covered from top to toe in beige chadaree with only their eyes showing through and even those have a meshed panel in front (burka ). It is of course still Ramadan. Diane and I make sure we are well covered in jeans and long sleeved loose tops, before going onto the streets, and even wearing a scarf wrapped around our heads (we both have very long hair). This does not prevent the male population from staring at us and occasionally touching us, but oddly we feel less threatened here than in Tehran or Herat.

Still we are careful not to be on our own.

On Journey Part Four

tehran – Mashad – Afghan border

This journey was even worse than the train in Yugoslavia. The bus was packed to bursting with families with half a dozen noisy children each and packets of food, accompanied by goats tied onto the roof, chickens and a duck or two in baskets. In addition there were a small odd assortment of Western travellers including us.  A few hours into the journey and the constant loud Middle Eastern music was giving me a headache. It all sounded the same. On top of that was the noise of the people talking (or rather shouting) at one another – even if they were sitting side by side. Were all these folk deaf?  The children ran around the bus as if it were a playground, pushing and shoving each other and yelling and fighting and screaming. Then there was the noise and smell of the old diesel engine and the sound of our driver crunching his way through the gears as we wound our way up the mountains and down again. In addition to the noise is the smell. Stale sweaty bodies, curry spices, decaying food and animal shit. I tried hard to concentrate on staring out of the grimy window, hoping to take my mind off my personal discomfort. And forget toilet breaks. It appears that only the men in this country need to go to the toilet as we never stopped at anything like a service station and I never saw a solitary woman crawl into the stunted shrubbery along the way as I was forced into doing. It made me wonder what they had underneath the voluminous black garments. (I paid severely for this journey as it resulted in damaged kidneys that I suffered with for a number of years).

Finally, almost 24 hours later we pulled up at Mashhad where we met up with Graham and Diane – a Scots couple whom we had bumped into at the Afghanistan Embassy. They had travelled to the border in a more luxurious coach and had no idea of our suffering. OK, I shouldn’t really complain given that this journey was “free” but I did. I was realising that Jon was a bit of a tight-arse.

We all caught the 2 p.m. bus to the border crossing, arriving at six thirty only to discover that the border had closed at six. We had to sleep in a huge empty warehouse along with the rest of the bus passengers including an Australian couple carrying a very large Persian carpet between them. I’d love to know if they managed to get it home, but at least they had the most comfortable and luxurious mattress for the night.

The rest of us were on dusty concrete.

Early the following morning we caught a bus to the border .

The story about that experience can be found here.

On Journey: Part Three

tehran

My first sighting in Tehran was one of sheer astonishment. A row of red double-decker London buses parked outside the railway station was not what I expected to see. We were so filthy and tired that all we wanted to do was find a room and collapse. We found one directly across the road from the station and dropped with exhaustion. Cockroaches? Bed bugs? We were too damn tired to even care.

The next day I took the opportunity to do some washing which turned out to be a big mistake. When I went outside to go to the shops wearing a short-sleeved T-shirt I was grabbed by a man in uniform (police? military?) and yelled at. More or less pushing me back into the hotel we were staying in. Apparently it was the month of Ramadan and by bearing my arms I was being sinful. I knew not to show too much skin and dress modestly, but I thought I had covered up sufficiently by wearing loose jeans and not showing any cleavage.

[Remember at this time Iran was still ruled by the Shah and not the Islamists. He was trying to modernise the country by a series of economic, social and political reforms with the proclaimed intention of transforming Iran into a global power and nationalising certain industries and granting women suffrage.]

Unfortunately there has been resistance to his regime of modernisation and the people are constantly demonstrating against him. It looks as if he too will follow his father and go into exile; the question is when? (Actually happened in 1979) I think that those who have been educated to Western standards will more than likely leave too, emigrating to Europe or the USA if they can obtain visas. I get the distinct impression that women will lose any rights they have at present, and the way some of the Muslim men stare at me is very frightening. I make sure I keep close to Jon when we finally venture out.

I am surprised to see how western the young women of the city dress. Beneath the Chadors that they used to cover themselves they openly wear mini-skirts and tight tops and full make-up. The older women however are completely covered with only their eyes showing.

We wandered around the market place and along the two main streets in Tehran agog at the wonderful jewellery stores, the aquamarine and turquoise stones, the Persian carpets (not less than 500 knots per inch are worth buying) and the brass-ware. The city is a bizarre mixture of modern office blocks and apartments alongside rabbit warren bazaars and markets, along with wonderful scents of spices and the jewel-like colours of saffron and chilli and cardamom.

Jon at this point was becoming very irritating. He was determined not to get his hair cut in order to enter Afghanistan and I was equally determined not to use the Pakistan route. Because of this we struggled to secure tickets on any of the buses heading for the border and we were in danger of separating at this point. Eventually I managed to convince him that his hair would soon grow so he accepted a trim to above the collar before we went to the Afghanistan embassy for our visas and with them safely stamped into our passports we went on to enquire about transport to Afghanistan.

In one of the many travel agents we were privately asked whether we would do a deal with the manager, who was desperate to obtain foreign currency. The deal was for us to exchange an amount of local currency (rials) into US dollars for him and in return he would get us seats on the bus leaving tomorrow for Mashhad at no cost. Jon was very keen to do this, but I have to confess to being absolutely terrified of being asked to see the US currency by the border officials as the amount was stamped into our passports and of course we didn’t have it. Not on a par with drug smuggling, which I would never attempt to do, but non-the-less risky and if we had been caught we would probably be facing a prison sentence, especially as foreigners.

In the end I was glad to leave Tehran. The city had an undercurrent of turmoil and fear and the cockroaches in the filthy squat toilets were the biggest I had yet to see.

At 3 p.m we boarded the bus to Mashad, expecting to arrive at 12:30 the following afternoon. Another tiresome journey ahead.

On Journey: Part Two

Athens – Istanbul – Tehran

A week later and we were back in Athens. Leaving the busy port of Piraeus behind and the islands where we had spent time swimming and exploring coves and churches we headed back north to the city of Thessaloniki and found a camp site on the eastern side of the city. Thessaloniki is much more modern European than Greek, probably due to the fact that most of the ancient buildings from the Roman, Byzantine and the Ottoman periods were destroyed in the fire of 1917. Buildings of rare architectural design were completely ruined. Tired after a long day travelling, we remained in the campsite that evening sharing a beer and watching the sun set over the sea.

Tomorrow we would be heading east to Istanbul, formerly the more exotically named Constantinople and the furthest east I have ever travelled to.

The journey itself was unremarkable, lifts were harder to come by and usually only for a short distance so we hopped along the coastline camping by the shore when it became too late to continue. Other than seeing a camel train alongside the road and the elite Greek soldiers at the border wearing the intricate Evzones costume and carrying out their unusual routine it was quite boring. Shortly after crossing the border we decided to catch a bus into Istanbul as the ticket was extraordinarily cheap, but it still meant we arrived in the city very late at night and were forced to take the first hotel we could find.

What a dump. The already minuscule rooms had been partitioned off to create more ‘rooms’ so you could practically hear your neighbours breathing and the beds were so disgusting we slept in our sleeping bags on the floor close to each other for warmth. The following night was no better. Discovering after a long and pointless day that hitch-hiking once over the Bosphorus was pretty much a no-goer we realised we would have to buy rail tickets to Tehran and that train didn’t leave for a few days. So back to the western side to find another hotel.

Welcome to Utopia. Don’t let the name fool you. If that was Utopia then I hate to think what Hell must be like. Most of the residents, including us, took their sleeping bags onto the roof to sleep, leaving the beds to the bugs. Travel on the cheap most certainly has its disadvantages. I think we should have been paid to stay there.

Istanbul is a busy city built on the hills of Asia and Europe. It is the capital of three empires, a city full of romance and traffic jams. It is much more exotic with the towering minarets of the many mosques puncturing the skyline. Sultanahmet Camii ( the Blue Mosque ) is one of the most magnificent building in Turkey and well worth visiting. When we went it was between prayer times and very quiet.

We stayed in the Eminönü district close to the harbourside. Here you will find the Egyptian Bazaar, or Spice Bazaar, which has stalls full of fruit, teas, and spices, while the halls of the Grand Bazaar are a colourful jumble of carpets, fabrics, lamps, and jewellery. The Grand Bazaar with its 4,000 shops on a series of covered streets all lead to a central avenue. The oldest sections are the Sandal Bedesten (cloth auction) and Cevahir Bedesten (jewellery market).  The streets are named according to the trades, such as gold and silver sellers, carpet sellers, slipper sellers, boot sellers, booksellers, purse makers, etc. It is an electrifying space, one in which you are assaulted by traders wanting to make a quick sale. I dare not let my eyes rest on anything for longer than a second if I wanted to keep on moving, and tempting as many of the wares were, there was no room in the rucksack for trinkets. Walking around the aromatic smells of spices, sweet Turkish delight, grilled kebabs and petrol fumes assault your senses.

The Pudding Shop is probably the most well known place in Istanbul, at least where travellers are concerned. A very plain restaurant which had a reputation for traditional Turkish cuisine along with the famous rice pudding dish sprinkled on top with sugar and cinnamon. With its comfy sofas and piles of books, music playing in the background it was a central meeting place for travellers to get information about transportation in Asia with a bulletin-board full of messages and advice where people could schedule rides with fellow travellers or leave messages for friends and family.

By the time our train departed three days later at 20:45 I was ready to leave. I could almost feel the bed bugs burrowing into my skin. One problem with travelling on the cheap is that you don’t want to spend money doing the usual tourist things, so although a boat trip up the Bosphorus to the Black Sea was tempting, it wasn’t feasible. Basically our days were spent walking around the city. All this hustle and bustle could be exhausting and given we had had very little sleep over the last few nights I was looking forward to getting some on the train.

It was a slow train. A very slow train. We were lucky to have only 5 people in our compartment which meant we could take it in turns to lie down and sleep, using the floor as well as the seats. The windows were not very well sealed and we soon found ourselves covered in a film of dust as we travelled south to Ankara. There didn’t appear to be anything around for miles only a glimpse of a light in the distance through the grubby windows.

It even snowed during the first night! After Ankara we went south to Kayseri, then northeast to Sivas, south to Malatya and then east to Tatvan.

Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38655

Eventually we reached Lake Van Golu where the train went on board a train ferry to cross over from Tatvan to Van. We all piled off the train and went to find the bathrooms so we could wash off the filth. I even managed to wash my hair in the hot water – luxury! After a stroll around the ship to stretch the legs we headed back to the train and the First Class carriages to sleep. Passengers travelling first class got a berth on board the ship included with their ticket.

The next morning it was back to second class. After passing through Tabriz we hit a sandstorm. The train was completely covered so it was impossible to see anything through the windows after that. So much for the wash – we breathed sand and ate sand; there was so much of it about.

Four days after leaving Istanbul we arrived in Tehran. Who knew Turkey was so big?

[apologies for the dreadful quality of these photos – they haven’t scanned well, but even so the composition on some are cringeworthy. Of course in the pre-digital days you never knew what your photos would look like until they were developed and this was often many months later.]

On Journey: Part One

London – Athens

After a shaky start getting out of London we made good progress down to Dover where we caught a ferry over to Zeebruge. Another lift and another lorry got us to Harleen where we stopped for a couple of nights with Jon’s cousin. It was cold in Harleen in October and I was more than ready to head south. Autumn is not the time of year to be lingering in northern Europe especially as we were intending on camping along the route. Waking up with frost on the tent is no fun and the further south we headed in Germany, the colder it got. An overnight stay with another relative of Jon’s in Braunau am Inn near Salzburg gave us a break, though I shall never be a fan of sauerkraut. Best known as the birthplace of Adolf Hitler, it was not a place we wanted to stay long in. Salzburg gave us an opportunity to visit the castle, and explore the maze of tiny narrow alleys, which criss-crossed each other. The tantalising aroma of freshly roasted coffee, steaming hot chocolate and the sight of heavenly cakes and tortes made our noses twitch and our mouths water – the prices made us wince.  We spent a pleasant evening sharing a couple of beers with two Canadian lads who were lucky enough to be travelling around in a VW camper van. Unfortunately they were heading in the opposite direction to us.

A cold night in the Austrian alps found us staying in a hostel and the following night in what is now the capital of Slovenia, Ljubljana, we were forced to stay in a guest house as the weather was appalling. Hitch-hiking was slow going and eventually a train got us to Skopje where the weather was much warmer. This was an incredible 17-hour journey via Beograd and Nis through some of the most depressing countryside I have ever seen. Glimpses of bullocks pulling  ploughshares with farm-workers following behind, scattering seed by hand looked more like a Turner painting than life in the 20th century. All the while, the sky remained overcast, grey and depressing until it became dark and we could see nothing at all, except for our reflections in the grimy windows.

After a brief stop to buy bread and tomatoes we started to hitch hike out of Skopje towards the border at Gevgelija / Evzoni. We had no troubles at the border crossing and quickly picked up a lift from a lorry driver going south towards Athens, passing through Katerini, Larisa, Volos and Lamia. Unfortunately he wasn’t going all the way, but at least it was in the right direction.

Arriving in Athens felt like arriving home. I had spent some time in the city two years before when a girl friend and I hitch-hiked around Europe. Although we had mainly camped at the south of the city we had also used the youth hostels which are always bustling with people from all around the world.

Athens is glorious – hot, hot, hot and very dusty and much polluted, notorious for the nefos (smog) and the high-rise apartment blocks, built to home the thousands of refugees who arrived from Asia Minor in 1922, but I love it! Almost every house and apartment has a balcony bulging with geraniums, and many of the city’s streets and squares are fringed with orange trees. The traffic is horrendous, the noise is incredible, but it has a kind of dilapidated charm, it is so different to anywhere else I know.

We had to visit the Acropolis and the red-tiled Plaka district which nestles into the northeastern slope of the Acropolis. This is virtually all that existed of Athens before it was declared the capital of independent Greece. Its narrow labyrinthine streets retain much of their charm despite gross commercialism. I’m happy to be back, to smell the delicious meaty aroma of souvlaki in the streets, drink the pungent black Turkish coffee, taste the creamy Greek yogurt topped with honey and feel the heat of the sun on my bare arms even though it is mid October.

So very different to the little Yorkshire city I call home.