THE GREEN BELT
THE GREEN BELT
Well, here it is. After eighteen years I've finally gotten round to writing it all down. Funny, so much of it was such a vivid experience that, even now, I can remember events as if they were yesterday. I guess that incidents that take place in a different physical and geographical environment are somehow easier to remember than most; who can remember last month's telly?
I may have got some of the minor details wrong but not by very much. Equally, there's a whole mass of detail about the conversations, people and places that I've left out. I've also discarded some private bits that are of no interest to anyone else.
Why am I doing it? Well, I would certainly have been interested in my grandfather's account of his time in India, or my father's service in the war. I presume that my grandchildren will be interested in one part of my life.
You'll have to excuse the periodic digressions. They are self-indulgent in the extreme and you may not agree with any of the opinions expressed in them. But I had a great many opportunities - some of them not so welcome - to just sit and think.
Here goes then...
Chapter 1 - Preparation
It was a pretty scary moment. Standing at the side of the main road and watching Ken's car recede into the distance made me realize the enormity of what I'd done. I felt elated; excited but apprehensive. Suddenly, I was alone. No-one would know where I was now for months Everything would be up to me.
My friend Ken had agreed to drop me off on the main road to Dover. It was a generous gesture on his part, especially as I knew that he would have liked to have been with me. But, at the time, he was playing with one of the top cabaret bands on the nightclub tour and freelance musicians can't easily afford to give up such well-paid work.
All I had in the world was in my backpack. I'd left all my old personal belongings - letters, clothes and so on - at my parent's house. But all the trappings of day-to-day living had gone. I'd thrown out all my bits and pieces, sold my car, cleared out my room. Over the previous three months I'd made a list of all the things that I'd have to take with me and created a countdown diary of all the items that I'd need to do in the time available before my departure. I'd been very thorough in my preparation and included:
- the haircut (very short)
- the jabs
- the dentist's visit
- the sale of the car etc
- the paying of all outstanding bills
- the purchase of everything I needed including clothes, maps, etc
I'd bought a really useful book called 'Overland to India'. I'd had to go to a type of hippy shop in Earls Court to buy it but at least it gave me some useful tips on the countries that I was to visit. These tips, plus my own common sense, had inspired the list of items in my backpack. These were:
socks, underwear, Kung Fu outfit (including black plimsolls), tee-shirts, jumper, medicine kit (containing salt tablets, plasters, bandages, water purifying tablets, anti-malaria tablets, vitamin tablets, yeast tablets, small torch, anti-sceptic cream), soap, toothbrush, toothpaste, shaver, maps, Overland to India guide, international shipping guide, pen, combined fork/spoon, address book, hitch-hiking signs, towel, swimming trunks, plastic cape, string, hat, sandals, shorts, toilet paper, writing pad, can opener, cheap camera, Spanish grammar books and knife.
As I stood at the side of the road I had all these items in my backpack and had my sleeping bag tied to the bottom of it. More importantly, strapped around my stomach - and hidden under my tee-shirt - was my money belt. My money belt contained all the items that I really needed - passport, inoculation card, students union card (my friend Lynn Baker had fixed it for my to get this card, although I wasn't a student) and money - about £180, some of it in small amounts of European currency, the rest in U.S. dollars.
The two most important items that I had (although I didn't realise it at the time) were my boots and my anorak. I had bought both recently at a camping shop in Harrow. Although the army boots weren't too bad, the Anorak was to prove totally inadequate for the freezing conditions that I would encounter later in the trip - although, of course, I didn't anticipate this problem when I bought it - it was such a nice warm day!
I'd had the vision of the trip for five years. Way back when I was 19, my best friend, Ian Denness, and I had planned to ride a motorbike across Africa. We even got as far as talking to various organisations about road maps. Although the scheme fell through, my hobby of martial arts had given me a second, and better chance, of adventure.
I'd been a member of a Kung Fu club for about three years. The club was the English branch of a Chinese school based in Malaysia. During the previous year the Master of our school paid his first visit to England with some of his top pupils. It was during this visit that I'd met the Master and some of his students, particularly a mature student called Mr Yap. During training I'd asked Mr Yap if I were to travel to Malaysia whether I could stay at the Kung Fu school there and take part in the training. He said that this wouldn't be a problem, although I don't think he took me seriously at the time.
The school in Malaysia gave me a goal - a place to aim for - and a destination that would dictate my route. Being short of money I couldn't afford to fly anywhere. I didn't want to anyway as the objective was to travel and see the world. So it was obvious that I should only be able to arrive in Malaysia by travelling overland through Europe and Asia. I intended to hitch-hike all the way.
My intention was to travel right round the world. I planned a rough route and examined which countries I needed visas for. I discovered that most visas could be obtained en route. However, I did go to some embassies to obtain visas because it seemed like it might save some time and trouble in the long run.
I decided not to constrain myself to a definitive itinerary as I thought that it would be best to see what emerged as I went along, especially if I could talk to fellow travellers. Obviously, my first step was to get across the channel.
I wasn't scared at all despite the fact that I'd be travelling alone. My martial Arts training had given me confidence that I could protect myself and, anyway, I'm an optimist by nature. I did worry a little that my parents would be out of touch with me and I tried to re-assure them on my last visit home. Dad said to send a coded signal - such as deliberately spelling his name wrong on a letter - if I got into real trouble.
Chapter 2 - Belgium
So there I was, standing at the side of the road, ready to try and hitch my first lift. I started waving my thumb hopefully. I didn't have to wait more than twenty minutes for a lorry to pull up and, as luck would have it, the driver was heading for Dover. I gratefully accepted his offer of a ride. In no time at all we were at Dover and I bought my ferry ticket. The crossing was straightforward, and, eight hours later, I set foot ashore in Ostend. I walked up the harbour road towards the town and stood at the first main road junction. I held out the first of my prepared hitching signs - 'BRUSSELS' and stuck out my thumb.
Seven hours later I was still standing there.
I should mention that I'd deliberately timed my departure so that I would arrive in Ostend early in the morning. I'd planned that this schedule would get me to my first target, the youth hostel in Brussels, before dark. As the afternoon drew on I was thirsty, hungry and my legs were aching. I couldn't understand it. It wasn't supposed to be this difficult to get a lift from here. My overland guide book had said it was easy!
At last a vehicle approached, and, wonder of wonders, it slowed down. It wasn't till it actually stopped that I realised that it was an ice-cream van. Still, beggars can't be choosers. By this time I would have hitched a ride on a manure truck.
'Bonjour, monsieur', I began. 'Je va au Brussels'. Very smooth, I thought.
The driver was a fat middle-aged man and he opened the door and pointed to the seat.
So off we went. It was with some relief that, after a few minutes, I realised the bell wasn't ringing and that we weren't going to stop in every side street between there and the capital to sell choc-ices. Apparently , he'd sold enough for the day and was heading home. I managed to swap some conversation with him - certainly enough to understand that he was heading towards a town I'd never heard of.
After about half an hour, he turned off the main road and stopped. He pointed down a side road and mentioned the name of the town that I'd never heard of and then pointed back up the main road for Brussels. I 'merci monsieured' him, got out, and walked back on to the main road as he drove off. I got out my trusty Brussels sign, ate one of my dwindling supply of sandwiches, and resumed with the thumb exercises.
This turned out to be a better spot. After five minutes some fine-looking Belgian citizen offered me a lift all the way to Brussels. Malaysia, here I come!
He dropped me off on the outskirts of Brussels and I trudged two or three miles into the town centre looking for the youth hostel. I knew the address and I'd prepared a rough map to help me get there. By now it was late evening. I still thought that I'd be OK though as I quickened my pace towards my destination. The good news was that it was easy to find; the bad news was that it was shut. Worse, it looked like it had been shut for some time. In my best Belgium-ish I managed to discover that it had fermied for the season in Septembre. Le damn.
I walked back to the town centre. By this time it was too late to stay anywhere else and, anyway, I couldn't afford to stay at an hotel. I headed for the railway station, thinking that I might be able to sleep in the waiting room given that, in the open it was tres froids. This proved to be a sound decision and I spent the night pretending to be waiting for a train.
In the morning I used some of the small quantity of Belgium francs I had with me to buy coffee and a croissant. I walked around the city until I found the tourist information office. There, I discovered that there were, in fact, two youth hostels in Brussels. They told me the address of the one I hadn't tried yet and I made for it. By this time my shoulders and feet were getting pretty sore and I had my first appreciation of the effort involved in carrying around a backpack for hours on end. However, in due course I found the new youth hostel, they had a space free, and I gratefully accepted the opportunity.
After dumping my stuff and having a wash I went for a walk around the city and bought some chocolate. I had a hamburger for my dinner and went to bed early.
I was up early in the morning and grabbed a cup of tea and some rolls before setting out to the motorway on the east of the city were I intended to head for the German border. I actually ended up walking about four miles before I found a suitable spot for hitching. I began the old thumb routine but with a new well-prepared sign - 'Liege/Cologne'.
Four hours later and I'm beginning to wonder whether hitch-hiking was some sort of peculiarly British institution. Nobody had seemed to be displaying the slightest bit of interest in me. Two cars stopped and the drivers asked me if I wanted to go as far as some town that I'd never heard of. Non merci, I replied. Eventually another car stopped and, although the driver was also going to some other town he appeared to be quite enthusiastic when I mentioned Liege. I decided to go for it.
We travelled along for a couple of hours and I managed some rudimentary French conversation. After a while a motorway junction came up and he turned off, smiled, gestured down the motorway and mentioned Liege. I thanked him and got out.
Now this motorway turn-off wasn't like junction 6 of the M1. The road that led away from it was something like the main road from Little Piddington to Brumby-in-the-Wolds. I walked to the slip road, sat down and waited for a car to come along. Two hours later and three cars had passed by without stopping. It started to get dark and I started to worry. I decided to walk along the Petit Piddington road for a bit. After a mile I came to a crossroads. The sign indicated that Belgium's answer to le Petit Piddington was nine kilometres away. I thought that this was supposed to be a small country!
I walked back to the motorway. I carried on trying to find a lift even though it was dark. A few cars went by but it was hopeless. By midnight I was cold, hungry and exhausted. I walked back up the road 100 yards, unstrapped my sleeping bag, put it on the verge, got in it and went to sleep.
I was lucky that it wasn't wet that night because the sleeping bag wasn't waterproof. I woke up at first light. Actually I woke up at first dark. I was beginning to get a call of nature of the more significant kind. There was nothing for it but to squat behind the nearest hedge. Ugh! Fortunately I did have a small supply of toilet paper so it could have been worse.
Back at the motorway again. Two hours of no lifts later and I began to realise that quite a few cars were joining the motorway on the opposite side and heading back towards Brussels. I decided that there was nothing for it but to cross over and try and head back towards Brussels in the expectation of more success the second time around. I didn't want another night in the open and I had to have a drink. I got out my old Brussels sign (which I'd nearly thrown away) and got a lift in ten minutes.
Back at the youth hostel again. I was beginning to get to like the place. Same routine as the day before except for drinking lots of water and eating double chips.
Back to the four mile walk again. This time I was determined that it was Liege, Cologne or bust. No more Little Piddingtons for me. This positive thinking must have worked because I got a lift from a lorry within the hour. The driver was heading for the German border. Easy, this hitching lark.
Chapter 3 - Germany
The lorry that I was in went straight around Liege and through the German border and I had no trouble with the passport control and so on. It dropped me off on the outskirts of Cologne and I headed for the city centre. It was only about 11.30 in the morning and I wondered whether I should try and find somewhere to stay or push on towards Frankfurt. I decided that it was my lucky day and that I should go for it. Six miles and two blisters later, I arrived on the motorway on the other side of town. I pulled out my Frankfurt sign, from the batch that I'd made earlier, and began the old hitching routine.
Now hitch-hiking is quite an art-form.
First, there is the physical technique. You can either go for the static arm and turn the wrist anti-clockwise or you wave the whole arm in an upwards/sideways movement. You can keep the hand close to your hips or hold out your thumb at arm's length and head-high.
Second, there is the attitude. You can go for the sympathy driver with a feeling-sorry-for-yourself-I'm-really-poor face and a timid, embarrassed, almost furtive look. Or you can really give it to them to show that you don't give a damn by smiling broadly and optimistically and daring them not to stop.
Third, there's the spot. You have to find a place where drivers can stop without causing a pile-up. But, of course, they need time to stop so you need the stopping place to be about a hundred yards past where you're standing. You also need to be standing in a place where the drivers have a good chance of seeing you so that they have plenty of time to make their mind up that they're going to stop. One also needs to think about whether you put your pack on the ground out in front where its easy to see, tucked around the side where it's not, or wear it on your back. The last option is inclined to put drivers off because they don't want your pack to scratch the back of their seats. You also have to decide whether you think that you stand a better advantage by appearing to be a genuine hitcher (this implies hippy for some people) or just a local traveller.
Fourth, there's the fellow hitchers. By this time I had met quite a number of fellow hitchers. There's always a best spot. Competition is fierce. There's an unwritten rule where you leave a gap of at least five yards between thumbs. Some hitchers think it's best to be the first hitcher in view if you're part of a group of hitchers. Some think it's best to be last to give the drivers a chance to think about stopping. Sometimes you stand first only for someone to stand even more first. Someone then comes and stands even more first than them until you're so close to the start of the road that you're falling off the kerb. Uncomplimentary words are sometimes exchanged. Worse, sometimes a car pulls up and a number of hitchers make a dive for it. I once saw a fight break out between hitchers trying to get a lift from a car that had pulled up smack in the middle of them - much to the consternation of the driver who pulled off quickly and thus denied a lift to either of the contestants.
Me? Well, I'm a whole arm, waist high, friendly-smile, last-spot, keep-to-myself type.
By six o'clock that evening I'd become a drooping-arm, knee-high, miserable-looking, any-spot, desperate-for-company-of-any-kind type.
At last a huge lorry stopped. My main problem was that Market Harborough Grammar School had not taught me to sprechen Deutsch. I had learnt to say 'Ich bin ein Englander' from old war films and I guess Frankfurt is Frankfurt whatever your nationality. So when I said Frankfurt to the lorry driver in a rising tone, he replied 'Frankfurt, ja', and that was good enough for me. I came out with the Englander line and that soon shut him up. He seemed a bit puzzled that I couldn't speak German and kept talking to me although I only ever smiled back at him. To tell you the truth he seemed a bit wierd.
Still, we were making good progress although, by now, it was quite late in the evening. I wasn't really paying much attention to the journey until I noticed that we seemed to be slowly drifting to the wrong side of the road. I glanced at the driver. He was asleep. I assumed that a punch in the arm is the same in any language and he jerked awake. He laughed, corrected the direction of the lorry, and we carried on.
By this time I was taking sideways glances at him every few minutes. Sure enough, he started to go again. I nudged him and made with the international sleep sign of two hands together to the side of the face. He said ja and within two minutes he had found a lay-by and stopped. Without a word he jumped over the back of his seat into the gap behind and went straight to sleep.
I hadn't really noticed before that nowadays these large lorries have a special driver's sleeping compartment in the cab behind the seats. I'd thrown my pack into this space when I'd got in and thought no more about it. Herr lorry-driver was asleep on a pile of blankets (some pulled over him) and my pack. I sat there in the cold and dark and I was freezing. As the night drew on I became even more freezing. This was the first hint that I would have that the clothes I was wearing, and the ones that I'd brought with me, were not going to be up to the job. My jeans didn't seem to keep my legs warm at all. I kept wondering whether I ought to wake Herr driver up and retrieve my pack so I could get my sleeping bag out. But he was out for the count and I had this feeling that he wouldn't take kindly to me waking him up.
It was an awful night. I couldn't get to sleep because I was so cold and I thought morning would never come. Sometimes I think about that night even now, eighteen years later.
Eventually, the autobahntruckendrivenman woke up, went outside for a pee and got back into the driving seat. He seemed surprised to see me but smiled at me anyway and said something that I didn't understand. I'm certain that he'd completely forgotten that I was in the truck. In retrospect, I've a strong suspicion that he'd been drinking.
Anyway, a couple more hours in the lorry and we arrived in Frankfurt. He dropped me at a road junction. I was lost of course. There's a good tip for travellers abroad. If in doubt, head for the station. I followed my own advice. I found the station and trudged into the concourse. Against one wall was a stall selling hot sausages. I fished out the small amount of German marks that I'd brought with me and bought a gigantic wopperwurst with lashings of mustard.
Without doubt this was, and still is, the best meal of my entire life. I can see it and taste it even now. Now I know why they call them Frankfurters. I was starving. Interestingly enough, I was to redefine this word a few weeks later.
I sat on the floor and scoffed this wonderful food. I hadn't eaten since breakfast the previous day but had been so cold that I hadn't really thought about it. I don't know why they call them wurst when it's patently obvious that they're the best. Anyway, after I ate the wurst I stayed seated and thought for ages about how marvellous it had been. After a time I bought a cup of coffee and watched the early-morning commuters. It felt strange to watch the office-types in their suits heading for work.
I used the toilet and wandered over to a large map of the city. I knew that Mannheim should be my next target and I made a note of how to get to the autobahn heading south. It was a bit tricky so I wrote a rough sketch on the back of my Frankfurt sign. Hugely fortified, I walked out of the station with a new purposeful stride.
Two hours of walking later I began to realise that the autobahn was an awful long way from the city centre. It was bit like trying to walk to the M25 from Picaddilly Circus. But, by the afternoon, I had arrived at the motorway. There was only one problem, I was on the wrong side.
I walked up and down my side for about a mile in each direction but I couldn't find any way of getting across. There was only one thing for it; I would have to run across the motorway.
I've done less stressful things. Motorists kept flashing their lights at me or hooting as I waited for the best gap in the traffic. Eventually, I made a dash for it, paused in the middle, and ran across to the far side. I set off south but, after a time, realised that my sketch map was not going to be adopted by the Ordnance Survey Department and that there was no junction where I could find a slip road to begin hitching again. It was hopeless.
I sat down on the grass and tried to decide what to do next. By this time it was late afternoon and I reluctantly concluded that it would be best to return to Frankfurt. I ran across the motorway again and walked what seemed like about ten miles back into town.
Before I started out I had made a note of the address of the youth hostel in every town or city that I was likely to visit. This precaution now started to pay dividends and I wrote down the address of the Frankfurt Junghendeberge on the back of my Mannheim sign and showed it to passers-by. With their help I managed to find the place and obtained a bed in a twenty-berth barracks-style room. I went to the cafeteria in the basement, had the cheapest filling meal on the menu, had a shower in the communal bathroom and went to sleep.
The next morning I studied the maps in the youth hostel with much more care. I made a much better sketch of the motorway network, decided to try a feeder road, and set off again. After a couple of hours walking I found a good hitching spot - only two other hitchers - and held out my weather-beaten thumb. I got a lift straight away with a posh gentleman in a very expensive Mercedes.
The driver was about fifty, well-dressed and spoke excellent English. He talked about the places that he'd been to in England. When I told him that I was heading for Munich he offered to let me stay at his house for the night and that he would take me there the next day. It struck me as a bit funny and I said that I would rather push on.
He then said that the only problem that he had was a touch of arthritis in his knees. After a pause he asked if I would like to massage his legs for him. The penny dropped.
I declined his wonderful offer in plain language that even a German would have understood. He jammed on the brakes and swerved onto the hard shoulder.
'Out', he shouted. He looked like he was about to explode with rage. I opened the car door. I only just managed to grab my pack from the back seat before he roared off. The thought of how I would've managed without it haunts me to this day.
So there I was. If you can imagine standing on the hard shoulder between Toddington and Scratchwood services on the M1, you've got the picture.
I trudged to the nearest junction, crossed over the autobahn, and headed back to Frankfurt. Hello, Frankfurt youth hostel, fancy seeing you again!
The next morning I tried again. At the same spot I managed a lift within half-an-hour all the way through to Mannheim. I was relieved to see that the driver was suitably masculine and that the car was a wreck. I felt so pleased with my success in getting a lift that I went and had a beer when I arrived. I found the youth hostel and thought that I might stay there for a few days to look around.
I quickly found though that food was too expensive. Even buying my own bread, cheese and sausage from the local supermarket was depleting my meagre funds. I resolved only to stay a day. I had a nice time though, as it was sunny, and I sat in the park most of the day watching the scenery.
The next morning I pulled out my Munich sign and set off again. I found a good spot on the autobahn slip road and stuck out my thumb according to the Monk technique. After a few minutes a car pulled up. Great, I thought.
It was a police car. Not great, I thought.
The policeman gestured to the car and I had to get in. He could speak a few words of English and the gist of it was that hitching was banned. Absolutely verboten. I returned to the youth hostel and they confirmed that hitching was indeed not allowed and that I could have faced a fine. The prospect of this horrified me as I had little enough money in any case.
The staff explained that the only way for someone in my position to get to Munich was by train. This was bitter disappointment to me because I had hoped to hitch-hike around the world. Going on the train wasn't the same. I somehow felt cheated. Worse still, I couldn't afford to go on the train. However, after chatting to other travellers, there seemed to be no way out and I ended up getting the cheapest one-way ticket to Munich.
I felt very low at this point. I could take the physical hardship but I had been inspired all along by the thought that I could make the journey without resorting to trains. Trains - that's not an adventure!
I arrived in Munich and hurried from the station. I wanted to get away from my forced association with German railways as soon as possible. I found the youth hostel and ended up drowning my sorrows with a couple of fellow travellers in a nearby bar. I explained that I didn't have enough money to buy rounds of beer and they generously provided most of the funds.
The next day I headed towards the motorway and ... you guessed it.... started with the thumbomatic.
After ten minutes a family pulled up in a Volkswagen beetle and said that they could take me all the way to Saltzburg in Austria! Wow, here we go!
They didn't tell me about the three small children in the back and the fact that one of them would be sitting on my knee all the way there. She was about three and kept poking me in the face with her little fingers. The dad of the family spoke good English and was interested in my journey. They even bought me lunch. I only put up token resistance.
By tea-time that day we were at the border with Austria.
Chapter four - Austria
The family dropped me off at the autobahn junction for Saltzburg. I hiked the four miles into town and found the youth hostel. I dumped my bag and went for a walk to see the sights.
Salzburg is a wonderful place. I had to walk past a superb castle on the outskirts. The streets are clean and the shops civilized. I had the good fortune to arrive there on the Sunday and the city centre was closed to traffic. This means that people can walk around in peace and take their coffee at pavement cafes. There are horse and cart rides for tourists around the city. I couldn't afford it of course but it was nice to see.
I stayed in Salzburg for two days. I struck up a friendship with some other blokes that were staying in the hostel and we spent some time talking about the world in general. I would like to have stayed longer but my money wouldn't let me.
On the Tuesday morning I said goodbye to my acquaintances over breakfast and set off again. I was heading for Linz in the east of the country so it was back to the autobahn. A middle-aged couple pulled up and I said Linz in my usual enquiring tone. The woman said 'Linz, Ja' and invited me to get in the back. As we moved off she asked me something in German. I explained as best I could that I was English and she went quiet. There was a heated exchange between the man and his wife.
It was obvious that the man didn't like the fact that I was English and wanted to throw me out. The woman objected. After more arguing, they lapsed into total silence. You could have cut the atmosphere with a knife. Still, I could stand it if they could, and I was eating away at the miles. It was a long ride.
I got to Linz all right and went through the usual routine except that the hostel was shut. But I managed to find a cheap bed and breakfast place after checking out three or four alternatives to find out which was the least expensive.
I sent my second postcard to my parents. I had promised to despatch postcards at periodic intervals so that they would have some idea where I had got to if I disappeared for any reason. I'd sent my first one from Mannheim.
The next morning I set off again. However, there was now one big difference. I'd run out of autobahn. From now on it was main roads. I walked two miles to the main road which would take me to Yugoslavia and Belgrade. After a while I got a lift - for three miles. An hour later I got another lift with a delivery van for about fifteen miles. And so it went on all day. I managed about a hundred miles altogether in about six different lifts.
The last of the rides took me into a small town in the early evening. I didn't even know what it was called or where it was, but I did know that the signs were still pointing towards Belgrade. I stopped at a cafe bar for something to eat. I managed to explain in a mixture of sign language and broken English that I needed somewhere to stay. The owner eventually managed to make it clear that I could stay in a room at the back of the bar for about twenty marks. Even though I couldn't afford it, I gratefully accepted.
By now I was becoming increasingly worried about my funds. I hadn't expected food and drink in Europe to be so expensive. I'd spent nearly half of all my money to get this far. I realised that I had to get out of Europe as fast as I could because I knew that from Turkey onwards all my living expenses would be cheaper.
I stayed the night at the bar and set off again the next morning after the owner had given me some rolls. Luckily, these were free.
The day followed the same pattern as the previous day except that I eventually made it to the Yugoslavian border.
Chapter 5 - Yugoslavia
It might seem at this point that I was rushing through Europe rather quickly. But in my youth I'd been a musician and I'd been to most of the countries before with the Leicestershire Youth Orchestra. It was the countries further east that I was more interested in.
I couldn't get a lift from the border for three hours. In the end I had to take a lift just a few miles from a local in an old, small car. However, he left me at a crossroads and it got dark. I trudged a few miles. I'd saved some cheese from the previous day and ate it. But I was really thirsty. I could see a ditch in the semi-darkness and the water looked and sounded like it was running fairly swiftly. I took a chance and had a drink from it on the grounds that any health risk would arise from stagnant water rather than fast-flowing streams.
There were quite a few houses strung out beside the road at various intervals but nothing you could call a village. By late evening I'd been walking for four hours. It was cold and I was cold. In the moonlight I saw a barn but it was empty and stank. But I discovered a large number of hay bales stacked outside. I heaved half a dozen inside the barn, got out my sleeping bag, crawled into it and went to sleep.
I woke up in the morning feeling stiff but in a surprisingly optimistic mood. It was probably because I had saved money on not needing to find accommodation. I felt quite pleased with myself. Although my feet were sore because my blisters hadn't healed properly, I was soon on my way again. Everything looked different in the daylight. I checked out the nearest ditch and decided to wait for a better chance of a drink.
About mid-morning, an old man in a battered car picked my up (I was waving my Zagreb sign) and we rode along for a little while trying to talk to each other in the only language that we had in common - French. He shared a flask of coffee with me; it tasted wonderful. Unfortunately, it reminded me how hungry I was.
He left me on the outskirts of Zagreb and I walked into town. I made for the station. There was a tourist information centre there, and, better still, a money exchange desk. I managed to swap ten American dollars for the local currency. I used some of it to buy some sort of soup stuff in the canteen. It tasted horrible and I would have hated it back in England. But I wasn't so fussy now, and became so used to the flavour that I had two bowls because it was cheap.
I used the toilets to wash myself virtually all over. Afterwards I sat in the waiting room and began talking to a couple of backpackers.
There's a sort of camerarderie within the backpacking world. If you're carrying a backpack you can go up to a complete stranger if they're also carrying one and strike up a conversation. You always start by asking them where they're going and then follow that with where they've been. Your fellow travellers are always ready to give advice about the best places to stay and the areas to avoid. This became increasingly important as I left Europe. In some cases, it was a matter of life and death to make sure that you didn't make any mistakes.
So you always took the opportunity to talk to anyone if they were a traveller like yourself. The couple I talked to had come from helping out with the grape-picking in France. They said it had been hard work but that they had had a great time socially. I mentally filed this away for future reference.
They gave me a book before they left. It was many-times-read James Bond novel. I sat down and read it through. I was in no hurry because the room was warm and I could get cheap food.
In the evening, I got talking to a guy who had hitch-hiked from Australia - going in the opposite direction from me of course. I talked to him for at least two hours asking him every question that I could think of.
I had to decide how to get to Turkey. I could go the long way round via Greece or the shortest route through Bulgaria. But Bulgaria was a communist state and didn't welcome tourists. I asked my temporary friend how he'd managed to get to Zagreb. His said that a train journey was the best bet because there wouldn't be many opportunities to hitch a lift through Yugoslavia and virtually no chance in Bulgaria. Besides which, the train was cheap and could take me through Bulgaria with the least hassle.
I decided to take his advice. But that meant that I needed to obtain a Bulgarian visa. I found out from the tourist office where the Bulgarian Embassy was situated and planned to get there first thing the next day. I slept the night in the waiting room. In the morning I bought a huge plain bread loaf from the railway canteen and ate the lot with water from the toilet washbasins. Obviously drinking water from taps was going to become riskier and riskier the further east I got and I made a mental note to evaluate the situation each time.
I walked to the Bulgarian Embassy, waited, handed in my passport, waited hours, and was told to come back tomorrow. I was obviously very worried to leave my passport behind in this way but I had no choice. I walked back to the station and had more soup. I treated myself to a sausage as well this time. I ate the meal and thought....
I bought a bag of apples from a stall outside the station, ate one and saved the rest. While I was hanging around the waiting room some station officials came and questioned me. They had begun to notice me and were wondering what I was doing. I told them that I was waiting for a train to Istanbul and that I needed to get my visa first. They told me that I couldn't wait there. I wandered off, waited outside for ten minutes, and then went back.
The next day I caught a train across Yugoslavia and Bulgaria all the way to Istanbul. The journey took more than 24 hours. The Bulgarian state police boarded the train at the first border and went through everyone's passports and visas. They were quite intimidating in their long overcoats and the fact that they represented an iron curtain country. There was always the thought that they could whisk you off the train for some minor problem with your documents. However, after dozing all night on the train - I couldn't afford a sleeper - I arrived in Istanbul.
Chapter 6 - Turkey
I walked out of the main railway station in Istanbul. I felt shocked. The noise, people, buildings and streets were completely different from Europe. It was the middle east and quite unlike anything that I had experienced before in my travels through Europe, either in the orchestra or during the journey so far. I walked aimlessly to the other side of the square. A person grabbed my arm and started to talk to me. I pulled away. Fifty yards away the same thing happened again. There didn't seem to be any Westerners in the square and I felt that I stuck out like a sore thumb.
I didn't really have a plan of what to do. I'd had an idea that I would stay a few days to see the sights. I wandered through some back streets looking for a cheap hotel. I consulted my traveller's guide book and this mentioned a street where most of the cheap tourist hotels were situated. I found it and, sure enough, there were a string of small hotels, each one plastered with adverts for bus travel or restaurants. Some had buses parked outside.
There were quite a few travellers like me here. Most of them were studying the menus or bus timetables or sitting in the cafes drinking coffee.
I went slowly down the line of hotels studying the room rates. After finding the cheapest, I asked if there were any vacancies, but there weren't. I selected another and the owner said he could let me have a top-floor room which was 'very good'. I paid for one night only and he led me up. He showed me a small dirty room comprising a bed and one chair which looked like it had not been cleaned for years. He gave me the key and disappeared. The room smelt bad. I shut the door and noticed another door inside the room. I opened this door and was hit by an indescribable smell. It was the bathroom. The toilet had no lid and was full to top with excreta.
I quickly slammed the door and stood there heaving. The smell was strong enough to cut me in two. After a moment I went back downstairs and said to the man that I wanted my money back and that I wanted to go somewhere else. He refused and said that he had already taken the money to the bank. Although I knew he was lying, I was in a dilemma. If I went somewhere else it would mean that I would have to fork out again. I said to him that the toilet was dirty. He said that he would get someone to clean it. I told him that I would be staying after all and that I would be back later. I went back upstairs and dumped my pack.
I wandered back towards the station still slightly dazed at everything that was going on around me. There was a toilet next to the station. I went in and was confronted by a woman who was sitting on a chair at the entrance. I thought that this was strange but walked by her to the nearest cubicle because there didn't seem to be any standing up place. I shut the door and looked around. There was no toilet! There was a small hole in the floor and two footprints each side of it.
There was nothing for it but to squat over the hole. I noticed that there was no toilet paper and had forgotten to bring my own. Yuk! On my way out the woman at the door grabbed me by the arm and pointed to a plate which contained lots of small coins. By gesturing and shouting she made it clear that she expected to be paid. Well, I didn't have any change yet and I wasn't going to reveal my money belt under my shirt where I had my few Turkish lira notes. I showed her my pockets were empty but she wasn't having any of it. A small crowd gathered. After further argument one of the onlookers explained in broken English that I would have to pay. I explained in equally broken English that I didn't know that I had to pay and that I didn't have any money. I argued some more then decided to hell with it and walked off with the woman still trying to grab my arm and the crowd murmuring disapproval.
I went back to the hotel street and sat at a cafe. I ordered some coffee and used their toilet to clean up and take a couple of notes out of my money belt. The coffee came in a cup the size of a thimble and I felt cheated. I sat there for some time and noticed a bloke of about the same age as me seated at a table on the other side of the room. He was reading a battered English paperback and I went over to him and asked him about the best places to eat.
We struck up a conversation and he turned out to be a schoolteacher from Wales and, like me, was travelling overland to India. His name was Ewan and he'd been in Istanbul for a few days and was able to tell me quite a lot about the place. I mentioned to him about the experience that I'd had in the public toilet and he explained that there should have been a jug of water in the cubicle and that I should have used this to wash my bum. Apparently they never use toilet paper but, instead, use their left hand to wash themselves clean. In fact, I was never to use toilet paper again in any of the countries that I visited. I made a mental note to look for the jug next time I used the toilet.
I arranged to meet Ewan for dinner that night in a restaurant nearby and we had interesting chat. He had come through Europe on a special bus. 'Wimp', I thought to myself. It actually made more sense, considering the aggravation that I'd gone through. We were both intent on heading for Iran and we made tentative plans to travel together in a few days time.
I spent a few days seeing the sights and being careful to avoid the bathroom in my hotel room. I was continually hassled by people asking if I wanted to change money or buy souvenirs and so on. For the first time I started to hear stories of the con tricks which would be such a major part of my experiences abroad.
Ewan and I met a guy from New Zealand. He told us that earlier in the day he had agreed to change some money with a Turk whom he had met in the street. The Turk was offering such a good exchange rate for the guy's American dollars that he was unable to resist the opportunity, especially as the Turk showed him his handful of Turkish lira as they were talking. They were just making the swap when another Turk rushed up to them shouting 'Police, Police'. The Turk shoved all the lira into the New Zealander's hand and pushed him around the corner, urging him to run. The New Zealander did as he was told. After a couple of streets he paused to catch his breath. It was at this point that he became aware that the Turk had given him 5 lira notes instead of 100 lira, relying on the similarity of the currency to avoid detection. The New Zealander was heavily out of pocket and, needless to say, never saw the Turk again.
Turkey was dirty and the people unfriendly. In fact, I didn't like Turkey at all. The Turkish men held hands with each other as they walked up and down the streets which didn't exactly endear them to me. That night, I met another traveller who had just returned from eastern Turkey. He had originally been travelling with a young couple but had left them at Ankara. He heard later that the couple had been hitch-hiking and had been picked up by some Turks. The couple had been taken to a nearby house, held for four days, and both of them had been continually raped over this period.
This story renewed my suspicion about Turkish men although my friend blamed the problem on the moral climate which made it difficult for the men to engage in pre-marital sex. So much for Turkish delight. In fairness I suppose that there are many beautiful and friendly places in Turkey and I'd just been unfortunate to encounter some less attractive features of the place from an admittedly very limited view. But as far as my journey went I could only report my own experiences.
I decided that because bus fares were cheap, I would travel on buses from now on. It wasn't just the danger. Apparently there just wouldn't have been enough traffic on the roads for me to guarantee on getting lifts, and being out in the open was not going to be feasible given that the nights were going to be very cold from now on.
While I was in Turkey I resolved to visit the one famous landmark that I had always heard about - the Blue Mosque. It was worth the visit. I had to take my boots off outside and leave them on the steps - which worried me - but they were still there when I came out. Apart from the wailing and the grandeur of the inside of the mosque, what struck me most was the segregation of the sexes and the fact that the women had to kneel at the back to pray.
The day before I visited the mosque I had been hit by 'cultural shock'. When I went to buy my maps back in London, I got talking to a guy in the shop about something he called cultural shock. He explained that this was a physical and mental condition brought on by complete disorientation resulting from being placed in an environment where nothing was familiar. I nodded at him and secretly thought 'what a weed', I was far too tough for such rubbish.
The guy in the shop was right. No matter how tough I thought I was, nothing had prepared me mentally for the shock of living in an environment that was so alien to the one that I had been brought up in. The shock of not having any familiar routines, faces or objects leads to a pseudo-nervous breakdown and you feel both mentally and physically ill. I felt shattered and stressed out but I didn't know why. It was a while before I recognised it for what it was and this recognition helped me overcome it and carry on. I'll never forget it though.
The next day I was sick. I was vomiting and had diarrhoea. This lasted about two days. The following morning I stopped in a small cafe to buy soup and bread. Although it was only lunch-time the place was fairly crowded and some of the men were already drinking beer. I had just about finished my meal when an old Turkish guy came and sat next to me and started jabbering at me in Turkish. I kept shaking my head but he didn't seem to want to know and his mates just kept laughing. He became more and more aggressive and started jabbing me in the shoulder.
Yours truly, practising the week before I set off.
The Blue Mosque
I got up to leave. He pushed me back down and started shouting. I waited a minute for him to stop but the situation was beginning to look nasty and his friends were not laughing any more. An atmosphere had crept over the room. The proprietor was staring at us. I was scared because I was a little off the beaten track and some way from the main tourist areas.
I had to make a decision. I got up again and the guy grabbed my arm very, very tightly and continued shouting. He wouldn't let me go. There was nothing for it. I hit him in the stomach (this is always the best tactic in a fight with anyone who has not been trained).
Of course, he went down like a sack of potatoes. There was stunned silence. I ran for the door, flung it open and ran as hard as I could. I didn't look back for half a mile. I was just so relieved that I hadn't been carrying my pack. I learned later that I shouldn't have been in that part of the city and I didn't take much persuading to ensure that I didn't visit that area again.
Ewan and I spent some time working out which of the bus operators had the combination of the cheapest fares combined with a decent-looking vehicle. We eventually made a choice and bought our tickets. Eventually, the day arrived when we were to catch our bus to Erzurum in the east of the country, a journey of about three days. It seems naive now, but I hadn't really thought about whether we would be sleeping overnight somewhere or not. It only dawned on me on the first night that we were actually going to sleep on the bus. Anyway, we set off and my friend and I sat together. There were two other westerners on the bus and the rest were native Turkish.
There were two drivers and there was no doubt in my mind that they had been chosen for the job on the grounds of a unique qualification; they were complete lunatics. They drove like men possessed, blaring their horn at anything that moved. They habitually drove in the middle of the road and overtook regardless of whether anything was coming the other way or not. They shouted and gesticulated continually at any traffic that got in our way. My friend and I were petrified. After a while I stopped looking in the direction that we were travelling in because it was too stressful. We debated getting off. But when we looked at other buses we realized that the drivers of these buses were also members of the same lunatics club. In fact, the worst scares were when two buses met up. I don't know whether it was rivalry between the bus companies or Turkish macho pride, but they never gave way - confronting each other along the centre of the road like some absurd game of 'chicken'.
We stopped about every two or three hours for the drivers to change over and for us to buy food at roadside stalls. We could also use toilets at these stops but the rural toilets made the ones that I had used in Istanbul look like the Ritz. The smell!
I decided at this point to stop shaving. I had reasoned that it would be an advantage to look reasonably neat when trying to get lifts and accommodation within most of Europe, but I now guessed that it would be safer to grow as much beard as possible because I was sure that they would be more common in the middle east. And anyway, shaving conditions were not ideal.
The first night we slept in our seats as the bus roared along. I think that the bus stopped about 2 a.m. for both drivers to sleep before driving on again at dawn. On the second day we had only driven for an hour or two before we had the usual game of 'Turkish chicken'. This time there was no backing down and the buses 'sideswiped' each other. I was sitting next to the window and it suddenly shattered and showered me with bits of glass. I was stunned but not badly cut. The glass in the windows in front and behind me had also gone and the driver stopped the bus.
The other bus had carried on and after some arguing amongst themselves, the drivers decided to continue. I'll never forget the rest of the journey as long as I live. My friend and I were bloody freezing. The wind came in through the broken windows at 60 mph and chilled us to the bone. All the other seats in the bus were taken and the best we could do to avoid the worst of the cold was to take turns to sit in the aisle.
The drivers continued as if nothing had happened. We stopped at Ankara, Yozgat, Erzincan and other towns on the way. The other passengers were just as freezing as we were but seemed to accept the situation stoically and mostly ignored us. I was desperately willing the journey to end and had completely lost track of time when we eventually arrived in Erzurum.
Ewan and I found a cheap place to stay the night. There were about ten of us on bunk beds in a room that was smelly and had bed bugs. Fortunately, I slept in most of my clothes inside my sleeping bag and wasn't too badly affected. Ewan hadn't bought a sleeping bag with him on his journey and wasn't so lucky.
We had to catch another bus the next morning to the border with Iran just past Dogubayazit. We duly arrived at the border and all had to leave the bus. It took us hours to get through customs and passport control. I sat on a bench and waited for someone to call me forward and thought....
...... After a while I got up and used the time to wash myself thoroughly in the toilets - which were quite good for Turkey.
I ought to say how I was doing physically at this point. First of all, I had lost about three-quarters of a stone to weigh in at around eleven and a quarter stone. I had some spots caused by either bites or poor diet (I couldn't tell which) and I hadn't had a bath or shower for nearly a month. My groin and bottom were sore but the blisters from my previous long walks were beginning to get better. I had tried to clean my teeth regularly but it was difficult. My gums had bled the last time I had done it. My hair - forget it.
Still, I was in quite good spirits. That is until a customs officer took me and my friend into a room and showed us a series of pictures of men and women. It turned out that the people in the snaps were drug smugglers that had been caught trying to cross the border with different types of drugs. They had all been caught and given huge jail sentences. The guards showed us pictures of the objects that had been used to try and hide the drugs - tooth paste tubes, shoes, back pack frames and so on. If I had concealed any drugs on me I would have nipped to the loo to get rid of them faster than a local currency-exchanger would swap my U.S. dollars for Turkish lira.
We could see Mount Ararat, which is where Noah's arc is reputed to have come to rest. But although the scenery was interesting, as we left the customs post on our way to Tabriz, I wasn't sorry to leave Turkey behind.
Chapter 7 - Iran
The bus sped onwards and after a few stops we found ourselves in the first major town in Iran - Tabriz. We wanted to stay a few days because we hadn't slept properly for some time and we had to change buses anyway. The bus driver told us where we could find a cheap hotel and we walked through the main square together arousing the usual stares from the natives. There appeared to be some sort of market going on although it turned out the streets were always full of traders selling clothes, vegetables, and lots of food. Everywhere, people sold Coca-cola. We had been drinking coke at nearly every meal for the last few days depending on our judgment of the quality of the water. Just about every food shop sold coke alongside the same things - kebabs, rice and beans.
We found a drab-looking hotel and checked in. The room was bare but surprisingly clean. For dinner that night we ate as many kebabs as we could for about £1.50.
My money supply was getting lower and lower. I decided that I couldn't afford to wait around in Tabriz for any length of time because I'd heard that I might be able to earn some money in the capital, Tehran, and that jobs for westerners were highly paid. Ewan wanted to stay for a few days and sightsee and we parted company.
I caught the bus the following day for Tehran and we promised to meet up again there when he eventually arrived. From the bus the scenery was mostly flat desert interspersed with mountains which we had to drive around. There were small villages set away from the road at regular intervals. The houses were made of some sort of mud and often surrounded by livestock.
I arrived in Tehran. Surrounded by beautiful scenery, parts of the city are quite nice - wide streets, nice squares, trees and so on. Unfortunately, the city has been completely spoiled by the invasion of the motor car. The traffic is choc-a-bloc and the noise from thousands of cars and taxis is horrendous.
At the time that I was there, the Shah still ruled and western ideas, goods and fashions were the order of the day. The place was rushing towards all the materialism of the west and old ideas were being replaced. Looking back, it's easy to see how the seeds of the revolution, which was to happen in a few year's time, were sown. People who were essentially peasant stock couldn't cope with the pace of change and upheaval in their values and reverted to the familiarity and comfort of religion.
Anyway, I knew that there was a large well-established youth hostel in the city and I left the bus terminal and walked a couple of miles to the city centre to find it. As I'd hoped, the hostel had a place for me at a reasonable rate in a dormitory of about twelve bunk beds. Almost the entire clientele comprised western travellers like myself - New Zealanders, Australians, British, American, European, and so on. It was one of the major stopping off points for people travelling overland to India and for the first time in many weeks I felt able to relax.
I had dinner in the canteen and talked to some other packers. After I got back to the dorm I met two Irishmen who were working in the city. They were loaded with money from the incredible pay rates that westerners were able to command in the middle east. One was working on a pipeline and the other had landed a job as a paste-up artist on a newspaper. As I had about twenty pounds left in the world, they offered to take me out the following night for a big drinking session.
Crazy Englishman abroad in strange land. The Irish guys.
I spent the next day sight-seeing and finding my way around. That evening the Irish guys and myself went to a bar called (believe it or not) the 'Chelsea Pub'. Inside it was just like being in the West End with predominantly westerners inside and familiar beer on-sale. It was great night and, for the first time since I left England, I met a girl that I fancied. She was Australian and we had a long talk together.
The city was nothing like I had imagined and was completely different to the third-world-like backward towns that I had spent time in since I left Istanbul. Everything western could be bought if you had U.S. dollars. There were even supermarkets like Tescos! However, in the back streets you could sense suspicion and resentment at the rapid change that was going on. I was often on the end of disagreeable stares.
I spent the next day looking for work. I didn't have anything particular in mind as long as it made good money, although I didn't want to work outside Tehran so that meant that I couldn't do pipe-line or oil work. What was particularly annoying was that they wanted lots of English teachers but you had to be qualified - which I wasn't.
That night we went out again and I began to realize that this was a great place to be as long as you had money. I ate a type of kebab called chello-kebab and this appeared to be main dish eaten by locals. It was always served with rice, butter and red onions. But what I really remember is the bread.
Each street has a small bakers shop. Each shop has a large oven and people queue up early in the morning to buy large flat, oval loaves of bread a bit like nans. But these loaves were unbelievably delicious. I got into the habit of buying one each morning and smearing it with jam for my breakfast and meat for my lunch. Marvellous!
It had taken me about five weeks to get this far and I read my first newspapers in all that time, albeit a week old. I was struck by how trivial all the articles were. Still, Leicester City were holding their own in the first division and that was the most important news.
The dormitory in the hotel was fairly horrible. Well, make that pretty damn horrible. Although it was clean, it was cramped and noisy and you could never get to sleep. The Irishmen used to come back late every night and wake everybody up by turning on the light and talking. These were rough guys who would do anything for a laugh. I had to stop going out with them at night. I told them it was because I didn't have any money but the real reason was that I couldn't drink 15 pints every night!
An English language newspaper was published every day and I checked out all the vacancies regularly. I found an advert for a secretary wanted who spoke fluent English and they agreed to see me the next afternoon. I did well at the interview but my typing speed wasn't up to it and I didn't get the job.
I spent the next two days looking for work without success. On the third day I noticed an advert in the paper for proof readers. A group of us ended up being put through a qualifying test that evening. With my Grammar School education, and compared to the other candidates, I breezed it and was told that I could start the next day. In fact it was the next evening because, of course, the paper is put together in the evening for publication the following morning.
That night I found myself on my first night-shift. The job entailed reading articles before they were typeset, marking up spelling and grammatical errors with special symbols so that the printer could see any text that needed correcting. After the corrections had been made it would come back to a different proof-reader for a second reading. There were a group of six of us sitting around a long table; two indians, two Iranians, an Australian and me. On some occasions the proofs had to come back five or six times before they were suitable for publishing. The main problem was that the proofs came hot of the press reeking of fumes from some sort of typesetting fluid and it made me feel sick.
The pay was good and I began a long spell at the newspaper. The main drawback was that working the nightshifts curtailed my social life; we only had Saturday nights off because the paper wasn't produced on the Sunday. We were paid every two weeks. I had to borrow money for food and rent from one of the Irishmen until my first pay day.
One of the Indian guys turned out to be a Sri Lankan. His name was Jani and he was tiny. He was also living at the youth hostel and we began to walk back from work together. We ended up being pretty close friends.
The nights started to get colder and colder. It was early December. Our main problem was that the youth hostel shut at night. If we finished our work early there was no point walking back until 7:00 a.m. because we couldn't get into the hostel. When we did set off at 6:30 to walk back, it was freezing. I had all my clothes on under my anorak but I was still freezing. I'll always remember those walks with my nose and ears frozen and tingling. Jani will remember them more. He came from a climate where the temperature never fell below medium warm and he had never experienced cold like this before. I swear he turned blue on each of those walks.
Sometimes, on our day off, Jani and I would take a sightseeing walk together. On one occasion we both bought a cheap digital watch each from a shop selling western goods. Digital watches had just been invented and were a great novelty in those days. I was a little more confident about buying goods by then as I had learned to read Farsi numbers (which, of course, are not represented by western symbols) very well. It was more important than learning the language because you could see from the numbers how much things cost.
Whenever I got back to the hostel I never had a decent sleep. Because everyone else was up and about during the day, I was constantly woken by noises and people coming and going. At mid-morning the cleaner always came in and woke me up. The youth hostel didn't really approve of my working when I was supposed to be a temporary traveller and constantly threatened to throw me out.
At the end of the second week I got my first pay - over three hundred pounds! I now had more than I started with. I went out with the Irishmen to a party that they had been invited to.
There were Iranian women at the party. Now, there's no getting away from the fact that Iranian women are gorgeous. They have dark eyes, dark hair and are invariably pretty. Unfortunately, they are guarded like Fort Knox by Iranian men. For Iranian women to socialize with westerners was frowned on. Despite this, most girls loved to meet westerners and were very keen on relationships if they could get away with it. However, if you walked down the street with an Iranian girl you were asking for trouble. Minimum would be dirty looks; usual would be insulting comments and being pushed around; maximum was being knifed. I met one chap in a bar who had been stabbed in the shoulder because he was seen in public with an Iranian girl.
Anyway, in due course, we arrived at the party house. I walked into the room. There were about four western men and twenty drop-dead gorgeous Iranian girls. Honestly, I told myself, I couldn't fail. I chatted to two or three of them before selecting the lucky girl. I got myself a large vodka from the kitchen where the drinks were situated and felt so great that I invited Miss Tehran 1976 to dance. I vaguely remember doing my bit to Carl Douglas's 'Kung Fu Fighting'.
The next thing I remember was waking up in a bedroom. It was 11.00 the next morning. There were only two people left in the house. I managed to glean from them that I had been in full flow when I'd collapsed. They dragged me off the floor and put me to bed. Never was my dumb more founded. Me, veteran of a hundred parties and a hundred women, had failed like an apprentice teenager. The shame of it.
To this day, I can only put it down to the drink. I had spent six weeks without drinking hardly anything alcoholic and had only had two or three nights out on the town two weeks previously. My system just wasn't used to spirits and the vodka had done for me. I often wonder what happened to Miss Tehran.
During the day, and when I couldn't sleep, I used to walk around the city and see the sights. It was difficult to catch buses anywhere because of the language problem and the fact that they seemed to operate some sort of weird taxi/bus system. Taxis appeared to follow pre-arranged routes and you would shout out if you wanted a ride. As a result of this, and because it was within walking distance, I spent a lot of time in the British Consul library.
British Consuls are a marvellous institution. World-wide, they provide a haven of civilization, decency and safety when everything else about you seems to be in constant chaos. I spent hours in the library reading up about nutrition, planning my route and learning Spanish.
Before I had left home I had been going out with a Peruvian girl named Estella. She was serious and didn't want me to go on the trip but I was determined to go ahead with my plans. I had promised to keep in touch and had begun to learn Spanish from a couple of books that I had taken with me. I had had so many opportunities to study the books that my Spanish was now quite reasonable and I was able to write to her in the language once a fortnight.
Over the next few days I was ill again, presumably because I had eaten something that wasn't quite right. Interestingly enough, I had always had problems with excess stomach acidity but this seemed to disappear now that I was eating less. There may well be a lesson there somewhere.
A week passed by. I saw some amazing sights including a religious festival which involved all the people going through some sort of fast and repentance. To this end, groups of them would walk up and down the streets wailing. Some of the more extreme in the group would lash themselves. I saw one individual who had stripped to the waist and was lashing himself with chains while walking up and down the street doing a good impression of someone who was bleeding to death.
After another week or so I heard something about a show or ritual called 'Zurkaneh'. I found the building where this took place and sneaked in to watch. About twelve men were stripped to the waist and were parading around the floor of a large room shouting phrases and slogans. After a bit they formed a circle and started doing press-ups while chanting a religious theme of some sort. They followed this with assorted club-swinging and other exercises. It was pretty strange stuff.
Two more weeks went by and it got colder and colder. My anorak was pathetic protection but I couldn't afford to buy a coat - I was saving my money like mad. Everywhere I went people were constantly kneeling and saying prayers. This was fine but when they are doing it five times a day next to your bunk in the dorm when you're trying to get to sleep, it can become a little tiresome.
I discovered the baths. It appeared that most Iranian houses don't have baths or showers. Instead, they visit public baths houses. By baths I don't mean swimming pools but Turkish baths. You pay a small fee to go in and receive a large towel. The attendant shows you to a large cubical where there is a hot shower.
After so many weeks without a bath it was heaven. I used to sit in the shower for about an hour. The only problem being that I had to put my dirty clothes on afterwards. I started taking some of my things with me to the baths to wash them but I had to be careful to hide them on the way out because you weren't really supposed to do it.
I sent my first postcards to my friends. Although I had sent letters intermittently to my parents and Estella, I hadn't been in touch with anyone else and now sent a batch of postcards to friends and colleagues that I used to work with at Oxford University Press.
Just before Christmas I had a good experience and a bad one. My bad experience was that I had gone to bed in my lower bunk after my nightshift when I was woken by some horrible sounds. A Frenchmen who was sleeping in the bunk above me had been violently sick. Fine, except that he had leaned over the side of the bed and been sick on me and into my backpack. It was everywhere. I was furious and he apologetic. When you've been so far with personal items they take on a special significance and you become very attached to them. There was nothing for it but to take everything to the washbasin and clean each item one by one. I then had to clean the pack out itself but it still smelled. Typical bloody French.
My good experience was that when I got to work that night, I was promoted to sub-Editor. Because my proof-reading was pretty damn good I was invited to edit articles and decide on storylines and so on. The pay was even better. But I still had to walk home in the freezing cold.
By now it had started to snow on most days.
My biggest problem was about to surface. From day one on the newspaper, they wanted to register me as a permanent member of staff. I had told them that I would be there for a year at least. The trouble was that to be registered officially, they wanted my passport. Understandably, I was reluctant to surrender my only means of travel and freedom. My boss at the paper, was a small guy with a bad attitude. He had been taught English in America and picked up all the obscenities along the way. He was continually asking for my passport. I kept coming up with excuses for not producing it and that I would bring it in the next night. This went on for about a month.
Back at the hostel we had a crisis. A drug-crazed hippy had managed to get himself a bed in our dorm. The guy was Canadian and suffered amazing mood swings. One minute he was as nice as pie, the next he had raging furies, shouting and screaming against all the injustices of the world, especially those in Iran. We were all terrified of him because, although most of us felt confident that we could handle him in a punch-up, there was no telling what he might do at night when we were asleep.
The Irish guys and myself had a conference. It had gone on for three weeks now and we considered all the options, including physically throwing him out, wounding him so that he had to go to hospital, or reasoning with him. We tried the last option first but it didn't work. In the end we told the hostel owners that he had stolen money from everyone and he was chucked out. But I still remember vividly lying awake and listening to him muttering crazily under his sheets.
Christmas came. I was in a dilemma. I wanted to get out of Iran and to continue my journey but I needed all the money I could get my hands on. Worse still, I was under incredible pressure from Attila the Boss to give him my passport. Even worse still, I was enduring the walk of the freezing dead every night after work; and, my God, it was cold.
Some said it was minus fifteen degrees centigrade. I wasn't sure but I had never experienced cold like it. I thought that Iran was a hot desert country!
The day before Christmas I went down to reception in the youth hostel. As I walked down the stairs a figure came through the outside door.
He looked at me and I looked at him. We both cried out simultaneously
'What the bloody hell are you doing here'
It was Paul Hamer, the base trombone player in my local brass band.
I don't know who was more astonished. Of all the gin joints, in all the world.....
I couldn't believe it was him. It turned out that Paul had driven a car through Europe and down to Tehran. In those days there was a roaring trade in imported cars and he had been paid well to bring a car down and fly back. I bought him nine drinks and we talked about old times, especially the characters in Market Harborough Town Band.
Paul only stayed two days and I was sorry to see him go, especially as I couldn't go out drinking in the evening with him because of my job. I began to get frustrated. I didn't come all this way to be tied to a regular job. I could have done that back in England.
I spent Christmas at work. For a short time I felt homesick, especially when I read that City had lost. However, I still had so far to go that I couldn't get hung up on it. My boredom with the work landed me in serious trouble. One night there was a commotion in the office and the mad boss started screaming for me. He dragged me into the office and threw a raging fit, swearing at me in every describable obscenity that you can think of. It emerged that I'd allowed an article to go through to production where I'd failed to notice that the Empress Farah had been spelt with a small 'e'. This was bad news. The boss wanted to know if I'd been deliberately disrespectful to the Shah and threatened to call the police. I'd heard that the jail in Tehran was the worst hell-hole imaginable and I thought for a minute that I might end up incarcerated there. It took me half an hour to calm the guy down and convince him that it had been an accident.
A week after Christmas the Nazi boss called me into the office and said that if I didn't bring my passport in soon he would report me for working illegally and implied that he would get the secret police to investigate my background and reasons for visiting the country. That decided me. If I could hold out to the following Saturday, I could get the last of my wages and disappear. I prepared a plan. I told my pals that I was going, arranged to pay my rent up until the Sunday and got Jani to cover for me. Jani was a real star and gave me his watch to deliver to his family when I arrived in Sri Lanka. I was touched by his honesty and faith in me and the trust that he had shown in my declared intention of visiting his country. He had not seen his family, including three children, for nearly a year. Basically, what he was earning in freezing Tehran would support his family for many, many years back home and he had decided with them to make the sacrifice. He had a terrible time of it and I've never seen anybody so homesick.
I held out till Saturday and received my last salary. I went back to the hostel and got my pack. I then headed to the bus station and bought a ticket for Mashad in the east of the country. I had eight hours to wait. I was absolutely terrified that the Attila boss would find out that I had left and bring in the secret police to arrest me. It was the longest eight hours of my life.
The bus duly turned up and I boarded, still looking over my shoulder. All the people on the bus were natives except a black guy from East London. I was amazed to see him. I hadn't seen any black people since I had left London and, judging by the reaction of our fellow-passengers, neither had they.
We got to talking, his name was Pat, and we decided to team up. It turned out that he was a drummer in a band in one of the top hotels but his visa had run out. He needed to leave the country and re-enter it to get a new stamp. He had decided that Afghanistan was nearer than Turkey and he was heading there the same as me.
Pat and I were on the bus together for two or three days. At the first small town we all disembarked for food and toilets. It was an occasion that I'll never forget. As we got off the bus a group of children started shouting and pointing at Pat. It was obvious that they had never seen a black person before - not even in books or on the telly. In a matter of minutes we had a crowd of about a THOUSAND people gathered around us. We couldn't move.
It was a humbling experience for me. At his side I felt as if I too were an object of curiosity and could feel his unease. It brought home to me the way that some black people must feel in white societies. It gave me a whole new perspective on what it feels like to be really different.
Poorly taken picture of a temple in Mashad
Another poorly taken picture of a temple in Mashad
We ate inside a cafe with hundreds of people trying to stare in at us through the window. It wasn't a relaxing meal. We didn't feel unsafe; it was more a matter of embarrassment at being the focus of attention.
We stopped at three or four towns and the reaction was the same. Eventually, we arrived in Mashad. As we got off the bus a young lad came up to us and offered to be our guide. Although he spoke English well, we automatically declined - assuming there would be the inevitable catch to it. But the kid wouldn't go away. He was called Abul and followed us around, and, when it became obvious that we were looking for somewhere to stay, said that he knew a cheap clean hotel. We thought we might as well go and see as long as it wasn't too far off the beaten track.
Amazingly enough, Abul did find a good place for us and also did us a deal on a really good meal of stew stuff. As we had anticipated, the next day he was waiting for us as we left the hotel and offered to show us around. We really wanted to check out the place for ourselves but relented just to shut him up. He took us to a marvellous temple with a golden dome. It was spectacular and I couldn't help wondering what the dome was made of. Abul said that it was beaten gold leaf. We had a good day's rest while managing to see quite a few places of interest.
I got cleaned up. By now I had developed a large boil beneath my ear. It was worrying - especially when I thought of having it lanced by a native doctor. In the meantime, I had decided what to do with my new-found wealth. In total, I had nearly nine hundred pounds. I decided to set aside £250 for flights during the trip, the same amount for a flight home, £250 for living in Malaysia and the rest to get there. I went to a large bank and got the air fare money changed into American dollars. Everything went carefully into my money belt. I had not taken it off since I left England except for my weekly visit to the baths in Tehran.
The following day Abul was waiting for us again. He took us to the market. We went deeper and deeper into the sidestreets until he ushered us into a small carpet shop. Two men seemed to be expecting us and had examples of their best carpets spread out for us to view. I explained to Abul that I didn't have any money to buy carpets but he wouldn't listen and suggested that I could send money from home or use a credit card. We were a bit stuck because without Abul we were lost and would be unable to find our way back to the hotel. I eventually agreed to come back the next day after seeing if I could get some money from home via the local bank.
Obviously I had no intention of buying the carpet and was anxious to get moving. I was very worried that the horrible newspaper boss had alerted the border guards that I had been working illegally and that I would be arrested at the border and brought back to Tehran to face the music.
The following day we told Abul that we were leaving and that we wouldn't be buying carpets. I gave him a few coins for his trouble and explained that I couldn't give him any more. We walked to the bus station - a grand title for patch of mud outside someone's house - and bought a ticket for Herat, the first town inside the Afghanistan border.
Back in England I had had the foresight to get my Afghanistan visa and, about five hours later, we set off. The bus was worse than previous ones, the road was worse, and the weather was definitely worse. After driving for a while we got stuck in the snow. Some local passengers piled out and dug us out. This happened twice more before we reached the border. I was never quite sure whether to get out of the bus and help or not but the locals didn't seem bothered one way or another.
We arrived at the border later in the afternoon and we all got out of the bus. We all queued up to file through passport control. The customs officer examined my passport carefully and asked for my red paper.
'What red paper?', I asked.
'The red paper given to you when you came into Iran', said the officer.
'But, I wasn't given any red paper', I said.
'No red paper, no leave', he said.
'How do I get a red paper?', I enquired politely.
'From where you came into Iran', he said.
'But I came in at the Turkish border', I said, less politely.
'Your problem. No red paper, no leave'.
I argued with him but he wouldn't have it. He turned to the next person in the queue. I was SHATTERED. The thought of retracing my steps all the way back to the Turkish border was a nightmare beyond my wildest nightmare. The cold, the bed bugs, the bus rides, the toilets, the BLOODY NEWSPAPER MAN'. Aaaaaargh!
I sat down on a chair by the wall. I was in shock and close to tears. I asked Pat if he had a red slip. He showed me his and asked why I hadn't got one. I said that nobody had offered me one. He said that all foreigners entering the country were given one and had to hand it back when they left. Well, I wasn't given one!
Pat said that he was sorry but he had to go on without me. He had to get to Herat, stay a day, and come back. He had already taken longer than he wanted to get this far and he was anxious to get back to Tehran to re-join the band. I watch him re-join the bus and, except for the guards, was left as the only person in the whole border station.
I was completely desolate. The more I thought about the time it would take me to get back, the expense, and the worry that there may well be a problem when I got back to the Turkish border anyway, the more I despaired. I was utterly dejected. I tried the border guard again. I went through the whole routine. He was having none of it and insisted that I turned back.
The was no food available in the station and it was bitterly cold. The guards had an electric fire in their room and seemed to have a good supply of food and tea.
Pat surrounded by natives
Pat in one of the rare moments that he escaped from the crowd
It got dark. I didn't know what to do. Even if I wanted to go back there didn't seem to be any buses going the other way and I couldn't walk back to the nearest town on the Iranian side because I knew I would freeze to death out on the desert with no protection.
I shivered. After a while a van arrived and some guards got out. It dawned on me that it was the night shift come to take over from the other guys. I engaged brain and thought about how I might sweet talk the new guards into letting me cross the border.
The new guard looked horrible. There was only one thing for it. I waited a few minutes and then went up to him and told him my story all over again. His first reaction was the same as his colleagues. Then I showed him my passport. I had placed a American twenty dollar note in it. He took the note, stamped the passport without a word and gestured for me to move on.
Chapter 8 - Afghanistan
What relief! I was absolutely ecstatic. My emotions had trekked from the base camp to the summit of Everest. I hurried out of the station before the guard changed his mind.
Back to the base camp again. The road stretched ahead before me in pitch darkness. It was freezing. I stood there debating what to do. If I went back to the station the guard might not appreciate me sitting there as a constant reminder of his duplicity. He might change his mind or one of his colleagues might object or want the same bribe. On the other hand, if I carried on I might freeze to death.
I decided to carry on. I reckoned that if I kept walking at a reasonable speed I would keep fairly warm. I had forgotten to look at the map when I had had the chance in order to see how far the nearest town was, and it was now too late because I couldn't see the wretched thing in the dark. I strode on. It was about 10.00 in the evening.
I walked a couple of miles. Two vehicles went past me but in the wrong direction. Although I had a woolly hat, I had not previously been convinced that I needed to spend some of my precious funds on gloves. So my hands were freezing - as were my feet.
I became colder and colder. I would have been able to see my breath if it hadn't been so dark. No cars went by and I hadn't seen anyone except the border guards for six hours. If only I knew where I was going and when I would get there. I walked for another hour. I had long since lost any feeling in my feet. In the darkness up ahead I saw some lights. I pushed on. As I got close I could make out a small village of about ten houses. I walked through and stopped at the other end.
I couldn't see anything except the road on the other side of the village. I hesitated. There was only one thing I could do. I would have to try one of the houses with lights on. I doubted whether I would be able to walk all night in such cold.
I chose a small house and knocked on the door. After a minute the door opened. and an Afghan man appeared in the doorway. He looked worried and jabbered something at me in Afghanese (or whatever they call it). I said 'English'. It didn't mean a thing. I shook my head. He jabbered some more, louder this time, and a woman appeared. I had a brainwave. I got out my map, pointed at Afghanistan, said 'Afghanistan'. I pointed to Iran and said 'Iran'. I pointed to Turkey and said Turkey. I pointed to England, pointed to me, and said 'English'.
My cunning plan completely failed. The bloke just kept babbling on and another man appeared behind the woman. They exchanged words and the first man pulled me in and shut the door. I stood there as the three of them jabbered at each other. The new man took my map and studied it. After a minute he pointed at Europe and said something to the others. They began to get the message. The first man guided my arm forward and gestured for me to sit on the floor. Fortunately, this particular bit of floor was in front of some sort of stove/chimney thing.
I began to thaw out. It smelled awful in the room but I didn't care. The others were still talking. The room was quite large and only had one other door. There light came from an oil-lamp and I could make out a low table and some squashed chairs that looked like they were made out of leather with straw inside. The woman brought me some tea. It was like all tea in these countries; no milk but with a sugar-lump. I accepted both the tea and the sugar and said thank you even though it was obvious that she had not heard this useful phrase before. I repeated it in Farsi. She got the drift and I drank the tea.
They talked about me for another twenty minutes. The first man and the woman then disappeared through the other door and didn't come back. The other man produced two blankets. He gave me one and then lay down on the other side of the stove/chimney thing and pulled the blanket over him. I used my pack as a pillow and did the same. I thought about getting my sleeping bag out but decided against it. I had learned not to display western-type things to local people unless absolutely necessary.
I fell asleep and woke up in the morning although it was difficult to tell that it was morning. The woman had woken up and was making something to eat. Eventually all the family appeared including two little children, who stared at me open-mouthed.
The woman gave me a bread/cake thing and some more tea. I was starving and it tasted wonderful. I wanted to pee and wasn't quite sure what I should do. I wanted to give them some money but although I had a few Afghan notes in money belt I was reluctant to reveal them or it. I looked through my pack. I had a can of coke in there which looked like it might have frozen solid the previous night. I gave it to first man, put my pack on, said thank you in Farsi, opened the door and stepped outside. They all stood at the door to see me walk down the street. As soon as they went back inside I went to the toilet.
It was still very cold. I walked a mile and a car went past. I held out my thumb but it ignored me. Then a bus came up behind me. I waved this time and the bus stopped and picked me up. It was lovely and warm inside. Even though there were no spare seats and I had to sit in the aisle, I was grateful to get the ride. I had taken some Afs (Afghanistan money) out of my belt when I had gone to the toilet and now congratulated myself on my foresight as the driver's mate wanted some money from me. Another trick I had learned by now was never to keep all your money in one place. I took out the single Af note that I had put in my right pocket and gave it to him. I had no idea whether I had paid him too much or too little but he seemed satisfied.
By mid-day we had reached Herat. This small town made me realize that I really had left civilization behind. It was another world. As I walked through the town the first thing that I noticed was that there was an open ditch running alongside each street that acted as an open sewer. A man was crouching down and peeing into it. Wow.
There were a few dodgy-looking places with hotel signs and I chose one at random. The price seemed right, about £1, and I accepted the room. The room was dingy and I went downstairs straight away to what laughingly passed for the dining room. The owner served me my first curry-type meal since I began my journey. Although I had no idea what was in it (it was curried goat I think), to me it tasted fantastic. I had three helpings and as much bread as I could eat.
I went to bed exhausted and the next day I had diarrhoea. As if this wasn't bad enough, when I woke up my body was absolutely covered in bed bug bites. There were thousands of them and they itched like crazy. I showed the owner. It's fair to say that he didn't appear to be worried that my condition would affect his three-star rating.
I left the hotel and moved to another further down the street. I couldn't move on until I felt physically OK because I knew that the next part of the journey - to Kabul - would be tough.
I wandered around the town and everyone stared at me. In fact everyone had been staring at me for weeks but I'd become accustomed to it by now so that I rarely noticed it. But they were staring at me more than ever here. It couldn't be me. I had grown a light beard and was fortunate to have black hair which made me less obvious. The problem was caused by my clothes which were obviously western in style. Out here the locals were dressed as tribesmen with baggy shirts, loin cloths worn over their trousers and turban things on their heads.
I discovered that there were no railways in Afghanistan because although the British had introduced railways in most parts of the old Empire, they had tried but never conquered the country. I checked out the bus timetables, sorted out an early departure time for the next morning and went in a cafe for two curries. When I say cafe, I don't mean a restaurant with a sign outside. There were no signs of any sort in this town, very few cars and very few tourists. In fact I didn't see any beside myself. It was a completely different scenario to Iran. It was true third world for the first time and I felt that I was indeed now seeing a real non-Westernised native population for the first time.
The weather was pleasantly warm during the daytime but bitterly cold at night.
I'd learnt quite a bit of Farsi, which was the Iranian language, during my time there and I was fluent in all the numbers and most of the common phrases. I used my verbal repertoire to order and stock up on spare bread, biscuit stuff, dates, and other bits from what I presumed to be a shop.
We set off the next day. The bus was quite small and looked like something Del-boy would have bought and I was the only non-native on it. As usual, the driver insisted that I put my pack in the luggage hold. I was always worried about this. I was never quite sure that I would see it again - but I had no choice. I sat next to a native who was clearly blind in one eye. I had noticed previously the appalling incidence of blindness in the local population which seemed to be caused by cataracts or something similar.
We drove for two hours along terrible single track roads. We kept having to back up if something came the other way. Suddenly, in the middle of the desert, we stopped and everyone got out. The driver beckoned me to do the same. All the passengers wandered ten, twenty, or fifty yards out into the desert and squatted down. They were all going to the toilet. I remembered that Afghan men do it squatting down. I felt that I might as well go as well as I didn't know how long it would be before I got another chance. To squat or not to squat? When all said and done, I am English.
I decided to squat. I had learned through a number of unpleasant experiences not to antagonise the locals and to do everything to blend into the background as far as possible. I figured that they might object to any attempt on my part at a standing pee especially as the nearest tree was fourteen miles away.
We got back on the bus. At noon we stopped again at a small village and, without a word to me everyone got off and trooped into a large house. I guessed that it must be some kind of eating place but I wasn't sure. It might have been some kind of building for worship and I might not have been welcome.
I decided to stay on the bus. I ate a little of my bread and some goat's cheese. After an hour the other passengers got back on board and I could tell that they had been eating. We pushed on again. The weather changed and it started snowing again. The roads got worse and there had recently been a heavy fall of snow. Inevitably, we frequently got stuck. After an hour of trying to free the bus, they gave up. The bus became lodged in a snow-drift. After some discussion, they all trooped off up the mountainside. Some of them had taken their bags out of the luggage compartment.
I didn't know what to do. Nobody had said a word to me (in fact, they had ignored me since the start of the journey). I was in a dilemma. I had to make up my mind quickly as they were now some distance away. I decided that I had no option but to follow. I ran after them and followed behind the main group at a discreet distance.
We climbed slowly through snow that was two feet deep and worse in places. We started to walk in single file to make things easier. After about half an hour we came to a village of about fifteen mud and brick houses. All the other passengers seemed to disperse in front of my eyes into various houses. I was left standing there by myself. I didn't know what to do. After a minute the door to one of the houses opened and a man shouted at me and beckoned. I walked over and went inside.
The warmth was marvellous. I was in a low-ceilinged room full of smoke and quite dingy. There were about fifteen people in the room - about half looked like they lived there, the others I recognised as some of my fellow passengers. They were all sitting on the floor. I did the same and took off my pack. At first, they didn't seem to take any notice of me but after a while I began to notice them glancing furtively at me and there would be the occasional whispering.
The floor was warm! We were all sitting on a mud floor but it was lovely and warm. I learned later that the house had a fire underneath in the cellar which accounted for the heating but at the time I was completely baffled by this phenomena. After a while everyone was given a bowl of soup, including me. I gratefully accepted. As I did so a native came over and sat beside me.
'American?', he asked.
'No, English', I replied.
'Ah, Anglais', he said. 'Vous parlez Francais?'
'Oui, un peu.'
He pointed to himself. 'Moi, parlez Francais', he said proudly.
We struck up a conversation in extremely bad French because he couldn't speak English. His French was far worse than mine but I began to establish that he had learnt some French at some point in time when he was in Kabul. He asked me questions and translated to his friends although none of them smiled. He was interested in where I was going and where I had come from.
After a while he fell quiet and then went over to a group of other men. They were obviously discussing me. After fifteen minutes he came back.
'Nous restez ici. Mes amis.. le sac.', and he pointed to my pack. He then looked at me very seriously, pointed at my chest and touched the handle of the knife that was tucked into his belt. The inference was obvious and I froze. It dawned on me that they had been discussing the possibility of killing me. All sorts of things flooded through my mind in seconds... Nobody knew where I was...they could bury me and nobody would ever find me...I couldn't fight all of them, there were too many...
They were all watching me in silence. I opened my pack and began taking out the contents. They watched every move without saying a word. My clothes weren't anything special. I showed them my toiletries and made an elaborate mime of cleaning my teeth with the toothbrush. I pretended to eat the pills. I showed them my fork/spoon, pens and so on. I passed my knife to the French-speaking native and he passed it round. It didn't come back. I made a great show of spreading one of my maps on the floor and pointed to Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Pakistan, saying the names of each country out loud. I left three things in my pack; the two digital watches which I had bought in Tehran and which were in a side pocket, and my camera which was wrapped in a cloth and in the main part of my pack. I took a gamble with these and reckoned if they found them I could have bluffed it out and given them away.
After I had finished I looked at them. They still looked unfriendly although one or two had taken a couple of items and were examining them. I took a gamble. I took all my Afghanistan money out of my trouser pocket, opened the hand of the French-speaking chap and put it all in his palm.
'Pour le manger', I said, and then turned out my pocket to show him that there was nothing left. He took the money and shared it out with the others.
To this day I'm not sure what saved me. In retrospect I think that it was the fact that I was dirty, smelly and looked as poor as they were. I had been very careful not to wear rings or jewellery of any kind since I had left England. I suppose that they had decided that I just wasn't worth it. Of one thing I'm certain; if they had discovered my money belt I would not be writing this now. They were so poor that the temptation of hundreds of American dollars would have been too much for them.
I ended up staying in the house for ten days. I didn't really move from the spot where I first sat down except to go outside to the toilet. This, of course, was up a path and a hole in the ground inside a hut. All the passengers from the bus stayed in the village because it wouldn't stop snowing; it just went on and on, sometimes accompanied by strong winds, sometimes just the snow.
Gradually, the locals started to become used to having me around. It was desperately unfortunate that I couldn't speak to them in their own language because I'm sure I could have won them over to accept me more if that had been the case. If I wanted to communicate at all I had to do it through the French-speaking chap and, as I said, he had an extremely small vocabulary. On the fourth day he took me to some of the other houses to 'show me off'. There was no doubt that some of them had never seen a 'westerner' before. They asked questions which the French-speaking bloke tried to translate and I tried to answer.
When we got back to 'our house' I tried to ask him how long we were going to be there. I pointed to my fingers and suggested 'un jour', 'deux jours', etc, but he just shrugged. In practice, it didn't matter. I was totally in their hands. How could I go anywhere myself?
Although, I had sort of made friends with some of them, especially some of the children, needless to say I was very happy when the day came to move on. After some conversation all the bus passengers moved out of the house and beckoned me to come with them. It had stopped snowing and we went back down the mountain. This time a number of locals came with us carrying spades and mats. When we arrived back at the bus the snow was axle-deep around it and I didn't see any way that it would start. But start it did and the combined efforts of all concerned eventually got it moving a few yards.
We all got on but the road ahead looked just as bad to me. So it proved, as we continued to get stuck in snow drifts every twenty, fifty or a hundred yards. Each time we had to dig ourselves out. I even helped! I thought that it would take us a lifetime at this rate but after a while the road started sloping downhill and, while we skidded alarmingly, we did seem to be making some sort of headway.
In the afternoon the condition of the road seemed to improve and we managed to crawl into a small town. We were all glad of the rest and, after finding out (as best I could) from the driver what time we were leaving in the morning, I managed to find somewhere to stay. It turned out to be someone's house more than an official hotel and about half-a-dozen of us bunked together in very cramped conditions. There weren't enough beds and I volunteered to sleep on the floor by virtue of the fact that I had a sleeping bag.
We continued on at about 11:00 the next morning. Some of the passengers that I had become familiar with had been replaced by new faces. We were travelling in the desert now and the snow had virtually disappeared. The day took it's usual form - toilets, prayers, tea and roadside food. I was pretty tired by the time we rolled into a large town at about midnight. We all got off the bus. Even now, I still can't explain how one minute I was standing there and looking around, the next, I was all alone. The bus driver had locked the bus and disappeared. So had everyone else. I couldn't understand where they had all gone.
You see, this wasn't your average English town. Afghanistan towns don't have street lights. The place was pitch black.
I looked around but all I could make out were wide dark streets and dark houses. There was not another soul about, and worse, it was absolutely freezing.
That night will stay with me for the rest of my life. I couldn't really walk anywhere because I couldn't see. I might as well have been stranded on Mars.
Now when I say freezing, I mean freezing. I wasn't shivering, I was shaking in great body-twitching jerks. I'd never experienced cold like it in my life. I can only guess that it must have been twenty degrees below centigrade or something similar. Despair, hello old friend.
I didn't have the nerve to knock on a door. Instead, I took off my anorak, took all my spare clothes out of my pack, put them on, and put my anorak back on. I lay down in the doorway of the nearest house, crawled into my sleeping bag, and zipped it up over my head. I tried to go to sleep. I couldn't, I was too cold. I sat/lay there all night shaking, my teeth chattering. I haven't experienced many nights lasting about fifty hours but this was one of them. It went on forever. I was constantly putting my head out of the bag to see if dawn had arrived.
Slowly, ever so slowly, some light began creeping into the sky. My surroundings began to take shape. I was in the doorway of a large building. I put my head back into the bag, deciding I would wait another ten minutes before it got properly light. Suddenly, I felt a hand shake me. I popped my head out and a native guy dressed in a huge coat and turban had grabbed my shoulder. He pushed me aside and I realized that I was in the way. He leaned past me and opened the door. I realised instantly that it wasn't locked and I could have been inside instead of out in the street. I went inside and it dawned on me that this was actually the bus station.
The old guy started getting an ancient stove working. After an hour or so it began to throw out some heat - wonderful, wonderful heat. In the meantime he had made some tea. I could hardly hold the cup but, my God, it tasted fantastic.
I discovered later that day that I was in a town called Kandahar. I was disappointed to see from my map that I was only about half-way between my starting point of Herat and my next major destination of Kabul. In the middle of the morning I watched the driver of the bus arrive, fill the bus with petrol, turn it around and head off back the way we came.
I eventually established that I had to board a new bus to get me through the rest of the journey. To my dismay I was told that I would need a new ticket. I explained to the man in the bus station (there didn't seem to be a ticket office as such) and anyone else who would listen that I had bought a ticket in Herat for the whole journey. After a while I gave up. I'd obviously been swindled and they knew that the chances of me going back to complain were as high as me winning the Best-Dressed Man of 1976 Award.
I managed to determine that the bus to Kabul left each day at midday. I resigned myself to buying another ticket and thought that I'd stay for a couple of days to see the sights before catching the next bus. I didn't fancy another night like the previous one. I had something to eat in a nearby cafe. An omelette! A grey omelette perhaps, but by then it could have been blue and I would still have eaten it. At least the bread was white.
My boil beneath my ear was giving me considerable cause for concern. It was the size of a boiled sweet (perhaps that's why they call them boils). I found a place to stay that was listed in my guide book and decided to pierce the boil myself. I bought some matches and sterilized my sewing needle. The rest I'll leave to your imagination.
Afterwards, I used some of my sterilizing tablets to sterilize a sink full of water and used my towel soaked in the water to bathe my wound. When it had stopped bleeding, I reluctantly stuck a plaster on it. I say reluctantly because I hadn't seen anyone with a plaster on in these parts and I had to follow my own rules about not standing out from the crowd.
Well there wasn't much to see in town. I decided only to rest the one night and continue on the next day. I had some sort of curry to eat that night. Very little of it remained inside me by noon the next day.
We set off again, following the usual routine. The bus was a bit bigger this time but there was still only one driver. However, there were some spare seats on the bus and I was at least able to spread out a bit. Better still I was able to keep my pack with me.
The scenery was mountainous again. We didn't meet many other vehicles on the road, mostly only lorries transporting various goods. We stopped that night in another place - perhaps Ghazni - and this time we actually pulled up outside a hotel, although there was no sign. Everybody seemed to expect to stay there and they had food waiting for us. After the last few weeks I was used to eating virtually anything but this time they beat me. The stew stuff had something revolting in it which smelled worse than my socks. As I hadn't changed my socks for two weeks this was really saying something. But I did manage to eat lots of bread and some funny sorts of beans so I didn't go hungry.
I awoke in the middle of the night. Someone was bending over my pack and undoing the straps. I jumped out of bed and pushed him over. The commotion made a lot of noise and woke everyone up. The man responsible behaved as if nothing had happened and just got up and walked off. I knew that it might not be wise to make a fuss and left it at that.
Out on the street the next morning, a local who spoke pidgin English tried to get me to come with him to see 'nice souvenirs'. I had real trouble with him because he wouldn't take no for an answer. It looked like it might turn nasty until another local intervened and helped me get rid of him. This guy couldn't speak a word of English but was remarkably good at explaining what he meant with sign language and gestures. I found a shop that sold bread and cakes and replenished the stock in my pack which I'd eaten ages ago.
I was worried now because I'd nearly used up my Afghan currency and needed to find a bank to change some dollars into Afs. There was no obvious bank nearby and it wasn't long before I had to get back on the bus for the next leg of our trip to Kabul.
My health wasn't great. A man on the bus had been coughing his lungs up and I'd been worried that I might catch some horrible unknown disease from him. I had enough to contend with anyway. Apart from my boil I had bites and spots everywhere. I had a rash in my groin - probably caused from sleeping in my clothes - and my bum was sore. I hadn't washed my hair for weeks and was constantly checking to see if I had contracted head lice, although I never found any. I hadn't been able to clean my teeth as often as I'd have liked (because of the state of various water supplies) but at least they weren't giving me any pain. I wouldn't have wanted to smell my armpits for all the bedbugs in Herat.
local man peeing into public gutter
The view of Tehran from my attic bedroom
My weight was low but I wasn't sure how low. I had tried to eat a varied and nutritional diet but it had been hopeless. The only fruit and vegetables I'd had for weeks had been red onions. They seemed to do the trick as far as vitamin C was concerned, and they also appeared to suffice as far as providing the locals with this vital nourishment although they also ate a lot of beans and peas. Even nowadays, I'm partial to red onions.
We finally made it to Kabul. This was the capital and had many of the trappings of a large city, including banks. We disembarked from the bus in the early afternoon right in the centre and I was fortunate enough to find a bank straight away. I had to be careful about calculating how much money to change because I was near the Pakistan border and I didn't want to have too many spare Afs with me when I crossed over.
I picked out a hotel from my Overland To India guide, asked for directions, and headed for it. I walked into the reception/cafe/bar area and the first people I saw were the Canadian couple that I had been friendly with in Tehran. I was overjoyed to see them. I hadn't realised how much I'd missed a friendly face or someone with whom I could speak English. The hotel was quite full but the manager said I could sleep on the roof! I went upstairs with him and it turned out to be an attic type room for two and not too bad. The room was already occupied by a Pakistani chap and we developed quite a friendship over the next few days.
I had promised to meet the Canadians downstairs for dinner that evening. I now had a chance of a shower, yes, a shower. Fabulous. The could almost feel the dirt coming off me and my hair almost thanked me personally. I took the opportunity to wash some of my clothes.
I must have looked good when I came down for dinner. I say that because I felt so good, that I must have done. I had four glasses of beer until I started to feel slightly drunk and then an enormous bowl of chicken curry. I must have talked non-stop but, in reality, we were all able to swap stories about how we hade made our respective journeys from one city to another. They'd had an easier time overall than me although Cindy, the Canadian girl, had had some hassles from the locals.
I went to bed and slept till the following afternoon. When I got up I decided to stay for a week and explore the city, the people and the shops. I could easily afford it. I don't think any of my hotels so far had cost me more than £1 a night since I had left Iran, and some a lot less.
I had a nice time over the next week. I saw Cindy and her boyfriend regularly, chatted to the Pakistani - whose name was Asim - and made some new friends. I discussed exploring the interior of the country with an Australian chap who I'd met in the bar. Although he was keen I decided against it given the prevailing weather conditions.
I went exploring with a general feeling of safety. I got the usual hassles but no more than I expected. A lot of locals seemed to sit around during the daytime smoking 'Hookah' pipes. These were long black pipes filled with some sort of opium derivative. I was offered a puff on one or two occasions but felt that this was something I could live without.
For the first time since I left Tehran I went shopping. Except for food, the shops mostly sold clothes, small hand-made souvenirs and weapons. After much exploration I bought four knives of a type which I'd never seen before. I thought that they might make good presents to take back home.
The food was good and I began to get rather used to my evening glasses of beer. On the second day I was approached by a young lad of about twelve who was selling Afghan socks. These were splendid affairs of warm wool uppers stitched to leather soles, the whole thing coming nearly up to one's knee. I though that these were just the job for me and decided that I would have to have a pair. I asked him how much and he said thirty Afs (less than a pound). I said 'too much' and walked off. He was still there the next day and I asked him how much for the socks. He said twenty-five Afs. We argued a bit and I told him that they were still too much.
This went on all week. On the day before I was due to leave I asked him again how much the socks were. This time he replied that they were only fifteen Afs. We haggled for ages. In the end I got the socks for twelve Afs. I was mightily pleased with my bargaining prowess.
I got back to my room later that afternoon and was startled to see that Asim now possessed a pair of socks identical to mine.
'Where did you buy those?' I asked him.
'From the boy outside with the brown coat' he replied.
'How much' I said.
The next day I sent a postcard to my parents so that they would know how far I'd got.
For the last few weeks I'd drunk - almost exclusively - chai, which is black tea. I reckoned that it was the safest because the water had to have been boiled. I'd become quite used to it now; I always ate the sugar lump because of the calorific value, even though I didn't take sugar in my tea back home. On the day before I left I treated myself to a cup of coffee. When you've not had one for a long time, it's bliss...
I spent the last day sitting around, chatting to friends and drinking chai. I went to the bus station to buy my ticket for the following day. I was strangely excited by the next leg of my journey because I knew that to get to Pershawar in Pakistan I had to travel though the Khyber Pass. Like most English people, I had heard of this famous landmark. Despite this, I knew that the British army had fought here in the nineteenth century and that it had earned a special place in our military history.
I said goodbye to Asim and set off the following day. The weather was good and I quite enjoyed the bus ride to the border. There was quite a delay when I got there. Along with the other luggage, my pack was unloaded and I was anxious not to let it out of my sight. The bus wasn't continuing through to Pakistan. While we were waiting to go through the border I wandered off the road fifty yards to go for a pee. I was happily doing what comes naturally against a tree when the bark of the tree in front of me suddenly moved. I swore and jumped back. I had been peeing about a foot away from a lizard clinging to the tree trunk which I hadn't noticed because of it's extraordinary camouflage. It scuttled away but not before I had wet my trousers.
Chapter 9 - Pakistan
I got through the border and spent the last of my Afs buying oranges and sultanas from the roadside. When we emerged on the Pakistan side we were greeted by a long line of taxi drivers standing in front of a row of amazingly old American taxis. I say amazing because they were originally black but had now been painted with flowers, slogans and all sorts of patterns.
The ride from hell started off nicely enough. About four of us piled into the nearest taxi and I thought that we were a bit squashed. However, the driver insisted that there was room for two more inside and two on the roof! I ended up in the back jammed against the window on the drivers side. The vehicle was right down on its springs. I noticed that three or four other taxis were being overloaded in the same way as ours. So we set off.
At first it was OK, if a little cramped, but then we started winding our way downhill until we entered the pass. The pass is a deep canyon and the road twists all the way down the side. I looked out of the window. The drop was about five hundred feet. A lorry came the other way and the driver steered the taxi to the right until the front wheel was about six inches from the sheer drop. I was terrified.
The taxi was only making about twenty miles an hour. This was fine but it made the journey down the side of the pass last forever. Every time another vehicle approached us my heart leapt into my mouth. I couldn't believe that the driver was so relaxed as he drove to within inches of the drop. This was worse than anything that I had experienced so far.
I sighed with relief when we reached the bottom. That was until I saw the wrecks on the valley floor of all the other vehicles that had gone over the side in the past. Aaaaaargh!
We went up the other side. The taxi was absolutely knackered. If ever there was a one million-mile service for a car, this was a prime candidate. If anything it was worse this time because I was on the side next to the cliff. I couldn't see how near the other side of the car was to the drop but, because I could only see space through the far window, it looked terrifyingly close. The journey probably only took an hour but it seemed like a lifetime to me.
However, the gradient eventually lessened and we made our way upwards to the top of a large hill. We turned a corner past a large boulder and the sight that met me is one that will remain in my memory for the rest of my life.
Below us, spread out for miles, was the Indian sub-continent. A truly magnificent vista if ever there was one. And there, set back just off the road, was a huge fortress with massive letters painted on even more massive walls. The letters spelled 'FORT KHYBER'.
I cried. Even now my eyes water when I think about that moment. I don't know why I was so emotional. I think perhaps that it had been so long since I had seen anyone from my own country. And here right in front of me was the most tangible evidence in the world of the British soldiers that had been here before me. I can't explain the feeling. Even though I knew that the fort must now be occupied by Pakistan's own military personnel, I felt a strange sort of retrospective, ancestral kinship with the troops of the British army who had defended this strange outpost so far from home. Again, perhaps it was partly this kinship, partly a perverse sort of schoolboy pride in such a demonstrable monument of the Empire.
In a strange sort of way I felt I had come home from a foreign land. I know it sounds absurd but I had travelled so far through countries which had magnificent scenery and friendly people but I didn't feel I belonged there, no ancient ties, no natural inclination towards the inhabitants. But Pakistan and India were somehow different.
No-one else in the taxi appeared to take any notice of me and we chugged on towards Peshawar. The surroundings seemed to me to be quite different. For a start there were more people. Furthermore the terrain soon began to change and it was obvious that more cultivation was in progress.
Within a couple of hours we were in Peshawar. I paid the taxi driver with one of my new Rupee notes and wandered around. I was in the centre of the town and it seemed alive with people dodging between cycles, motor-cycles, rickshaws and people. A Pakistani guy came up to me and asked me in quite good English whether I was looking for a place to stay. I said no and that I was going to catch the train that afternoon. He said he could arrange transport to the station for me - an offer I also declined.
I was to experience this sort of hassle throughout my stay in Pakistan. Although I met some nice people, I was always wary about an offer of unsolicited help.
What you have to understand is that the main topic of conversation of all travellers across Asia is the 'rip-off' or 'con'. Every occurrence of fraud, greed and double-cross is passed on by word of mouth. This results in some of them being hopelessly exaggerated while I knew from first-hand experience or talking to the individuals involved that some of them were absolutely true. The sheer ingenuity and scope of all the possible con-tricks that could befall an unwary traveller is impossible to under-estimate.
I heard of hotels where you paid in advance but were asked to pay again when you left. Of course the chap that you originally paid the money to was nowhere to be found and the management claimed that he had never worked for the hotel.
Don't get me wrong. The con-merchants were far outweighed by the vast majority of ordinary friendly Pakistani native people. Many of them went out of the way to help travellers and tourists, especially British ones. Unfortunately, all western travellers stuck out like sore thumbs and it made us an easy target for the more unscrupulous traders.
Many people spoke English, and for the first time I was able to find people that could help me no matter what my predicament because they understood what I was saying. Evidence of the previous British occupation was everywhere and many signs were in English as well as Urdu.
I decided to stay a day or two and consulted my overland guide for a recommended hotel. I settled on the 'Rainbow Guest House' and waved at a old horse and cart taxi guy to take me there. He moved surprisingly quickly for a man of his age, but there again, the chance to charge special tourist fares was probably the highlight of his day. Of course, apart from the fact that I knew it would be cheap, I had no idea how much the fare should be. I could have played the xylophone on the ribs of the horse and I secretly hoped that he'd spend any excess fare that he received from me on the nag.
In the end the fare was reasonable (well, to me it was) and I booked in to the hotel for 4 rupees, about 60 pence. As we had worked our way through the town we were constantly bombarded with Urdu pop music blaring out from dozens of shops which had speakers mounted on the outside walls. It was very loud and, although I found it a little irritating at first, eventually became quite used to it and even began to enjoy it. I went for a glass of chai and some chapati-type bread with dhal. It was pretty good.
I met a couple of other tourists and we talked for a while. Afterwards I thought about the next stage of the journey. I would have liked to visit some of the villages in the northern hills but I was a bit worried about spending too long in Pakistan when I would have preferred to use the time to better effect in India. Besides which, the place didn't seem particularly friendly, not hostile mind you, but it seemed to me that I was either ignored or stared at. The atmosphere was much busier than Afghanistan and quite different.
I knew one thing; I'd had it with buses. I'd enough bus rides to last me a lifetime. So I went to the train station to look at timetables and so on. My next main stop would be the capital, Lahore. I debated whether to stop at Rawalpindi, which was another major town en route. I asked at the station and was informed that the train journey to Lahore was about 11 hours in length. The guard said that I could break my journey in Rawalpindi and I decided to go along with his suggestion. I bought a third-class ticket and obtained extra discount by using my Students Union card. The ticket cost 50 pence (British Rail - eat your heart out) and I decided to leave the next morning.
There were separate waiting rooms for different classes of passengers. I was amused to see the original English signs including one that said 'Waiting Room - Ladies and Clergy'. We got on board and moved off. The countryside was fertile in some places and everywhere there were people busying themselves with work of some kind.
I got off at Rawalpindi and wandered around the city. It was interesting but I hadn't gone far before I had some persistent hassling from a variety of locals. One wanted to show me around, another wanted me to buy souvenirs and another offered to show me the best local hotel. I got fed up with all this and went and had dinner in a cafe. I decided not to stay and caught the evening through train from Peshawar instead. I couldn't afford a sleeper and spent a rather uncomfortable night trying to sleep upright instead.
During the whole time I had firm hold of my pack. I'd heard stories that while you were asleep, thieves would slit open your pack and take things even while you were clutching it or sleeping on it. I was taking no chances.
We arrived in Lahore and I decided to stay awhile and headed for the youth hostel. The hostel was quite pleasant and they offered me a bed for a few days.
The next day I had a bad attack of diarrhoea. I couldn't leave the hostel and spent most of the time in bed trying to drink as much chai as possible. I still felt weak the next day but managed to eat some bread and vegetables. The hostel management assured me that my pack would be safe with them and I decided to risk sight-seeing around the city. The Urdu music was everywhere. I browsed around the local shops and sat in the cafes.
I spent three or four days in a similar manner visiting temples, markets and such like. During this time I met a local woman working in a cafe near the hostel. She wanted to know what England was like and where I'd been. I would go there each day for something to eat and we would chat for a while even though I received disapproving looks from some of the local men and women. I think she got into some sort of trouble over her friendliness towards me.
Some locals were very friendly; some were much less so. But eventually I decided that there was nothing else I particularly wanted to see and that I would therefore move on.
My next target was Amritsar in India. I particularly wanted to visit the famous Golden Temple at Amristar, which I'd heard so much of. The border with India is quite close to Lahore, and also only 20 miles from Amristar. I caught a bus to the border. I got on and shared the journey with a dozen natives, a pig, four goats and two cages of chickens. It wouldn't have been too bad if the pig hadn't wanted to sit next to me.
Anyway, we arrived at the border in less than an hour; the fare was less than ten pence. I was quite relieved when the animals got off the bus before we arrived at customs; I couldn't imagine that the owners would have wanted to take them across. The usual searches took place by the customs officers but I was used to this by now. Anyone looking like me, i.e. a westerner, i.e. a hippy, i.e. a dopehead, was automatically given the big search. So far I'd managed to avoid a strip search but this time they went through my pack with a fine-tooth comb.
After I'd repacked all my stuff, I bought some Indian rupees with some of my American dollars and gave all my remaining Pakistan Rupees to an old lady. Like all the other travellers, I caught the bus to Amristar.
Chapter 10 - India
I got off the bus in Amristar and picked up a rickshaw to the hotel that I'd decided to stay in from consulting my guide book - the Majestic hotel. If ever there was a misnomer this was it. I booked in and found the usual standard of comforts. I was walking out of the hotel when I met an Australian chap that I'd been pals with in Tehran. Although I didn't know him well we were both pretty pleased to see a familiar face.
I told him that I was off to visit the Golden Temple. He said that he'd been here a week and already seen it but would be more that willing to go again. We hired a cycle rickshaw to take us to the temple. I felt terribly guilty about the ride. There was me in my prime, fit and healthy - well almost healthy - and I'm being ferried around by a chap old enough to be my father. I was persuaded later on that this was pointless guilt since everyone had to make a living and the old guy would be grateful for the fare. I still remained to be convinced.
The Golden Temple is a place of great religious significance. I took my boots off outside and went in. The interior was fascinating and, regardless of your religion, made you feel quite humble. We stayed for nearly an hour before heading for the nearest place to eat. We chose what looked like quite a reasonable cafe and ordered a nice curry.
Well, it should have been a nice curry. Basically, the meal, especially the meat, was pretty poor. I was very disappointed. For weeks now, I'd been looking forward to the moment when I would eat my first authentic Indian curry. My expectations were really high and now they'd been dashed.
But, later on, I took some time to think about it and realised that one of the most important factors in quality cuisine was the ingredients. Put simply, I don't think that the local restaurateurs had the range and quality of ingredients that existed in England. My conclusion, ironic as it was, was that the best Indian restaurants existed in Leicester!
Anyway, I slept well that night and spent three days in Amristar. After I had seen all the sights I went to Delhi on the train.
Indian railways are fascinating. For a start, there are no windows. This seemed amazing until it occurred to me that most of the time it wasn't cold. When you pull into the station the chai wallahs descend upon you. Basically, these chaps sell tea. While the train is picking up passengers they reach in through the open window and give you a cup of milky sweet tea in a china cup with a saucer. You get five minutes or so to drink the tea and pay for it. The train then starts to move off and there is a mad scramble by the chai wallahs to retrieve their cups. During my train journeys I saw them fail to get their cups back more than once. I'll never forget the sound of them chanting like English market traders as we drew into each station.....'Chai, Chai, challalla, challalla, Chai'.
Then there were the dogs. Each station had dogs who lived on the platforms. Invariably, they were mostly skin and bone, because they lived off scraps thrown to them by passengers. I was shocked to see that in each station there was almost always one or two which were missing legs. When I asked about this strange sight I received a fatalistic explanation that the limbs had been severed when the dog concerned had, at some time in the past, failed to get out of the way of a train in time.
I think that all English people are shocked by the way that animals are treated in most other countries. They can never quite come to terms with seeing mangy cats, starving dogs, or horses that are all skin and bone. There's a morbid fascination to it. It's easy to be critical until you realise that in some countries food is not as plentiful as back home. Animals are bound to be the last priority in these circumstances. It makes you think of all the food the western countries throw away. It's also a case of different traditions and culture though, and you can't criticise others for that. I always threw food to the dogs if I had it. Other Indian passengers looked at me as if to confirm their suspicions that all English people are mad.
I quite enjoyed the ride to Delhi through the Indian countryside. Most of it was under cultivation. There always seemed to be thousands of people everywhere. Whenever I think back to India now my most outstanding memory is of the millions of people. No matter where you were there was the inevitable crowd of men, women and children from all walks of life. Each one seemed to be going somewhere, sometimes in a hurry. I seemed amazing to me that any country could grow enough food to support such an enormous population.
I duly arrived in Delhi and checked into one of the hotels recommended in my guide book - the Khushdil. It was only forty pence a night for a room in a dormitory and so money wasn't a problem.
I spent the next few days in Delhi exploring the city. There are two parts to it - old Delhi and New Delhi. On the first day I walked around the markets and shops of old Delhi. I hadn't gone far before I began to be followed by two or three Indian children holding out their hands and chanting 'paksheesh, paksheesh'. No-one else appeared to be taking any notice of them. It was obvious that they wanted me to give them some money but I was reluctant, especially as I didn't think that I could share out equally what little change I had. They kept pace with me down the street and they all fell away except for one boy who walked by the side of me still saying the same word over and over. I relented and gave him all the paisa (100 paisa = 1 rupee) that I had. He smiled for the first time and clutched the money. But instead of going away he started crying paksheesh even louder but in a more excited and optimistic way. Within seconds I was surrounded by a crowd of children twenty strong all chanting the same word. Within minutes I had over a hundred children crowded around me! I couldn't move.
The local parents couldn't fail to notice this spectacle and two or three of them eventually came to my rescue and chased the children away. One of them spoke to me in good English and told me not to give the children money in future. His advice was superfluous.
That night I went out for something to eat. I had intended to find a cheap cafe. But as I walked along the street there were various stalls on the pavement selling all sorts of wonderful smelling food. This food was being cooked on an assortment of fires or stoves and looked very appetizing indeed. I took the plunge and stopped at a likely-looking stall. I pointed to the rice, the curry pot and the dhal and asked 'kidna paisa' (how much)? Two rupees came back the reply. Fifteen pence! Who needs the Taj Mahal in Leicester High Street.
He produced a large green flat thing and dolloped the food onto it and handed it over. I couldn't quite work out what it was he was giving me as I tried to balance it on two hands. I asked him what it was. 'Banana leaf' he replied. This was a first and no mistake; they use banana leaves as plates! What a great idea. I scoffed the food by mushing up the rice and curry into a ball with my hands (as I'd been taught) and popping it into my mouth. I sat on the pavement and slowly ate it all. I looked around me and noticed that previous diners had just thrown their leaf into the gutter when they had finished. What an even greater idea. Talk about environmentally friendly. I waited five minutes and then repeated the whole process all over again, figuring that one had to take advantage of such cheap food when one could (euphemistic phrase for greedy). I made a mental note to avoid joining an Indian dishwasher company.
I met fellow travellers and local people. I made friends with two Americans called Greg and Andy and we swapped stories with each other over cheap beer in the evenings. I bought some cheap novels from a second-hand bookshop and got real enjoyment out of sitting in a cafe reading them while drinking sweet milky coffee.
My friends and I had already spent our first evening in the traditional pastime of travellers through Asia - trying to outdo each other with tales of rip-offs and con-tricks. My best effort was the tale of the time that I met someone who had been sitting on a train in a station when a local chap had reached in through the open train window and snatched his pack and run off with it. In a piece of exquisite timing the thief had done this just as the train was moving out of the station and had reached ten miles and hour. Of course, there was no way that the traveller had been able to get off the train in time to give chase.
Pickpockets and over-charging were so common that they weren't really worth mentioning. One of my friends had been taken on a rickshaw ride miles out of his way and the driver had then demanded twice the fare to take him back again. Pretty tame.
The other one had heard of a chap that had booked into a hotel and when he returned in the evening his stuff was missing and the person that had originally given him his room was nowhere to be found. The hotel refused to acknowledge that he had ever stayed there and the bloke had called the police. The police said that he must have been mistaken and had surely booked into a similar hotel and had gotten them mixed up. Not bad.
Of course, the people of India and the other countries that I had visited weren't inherently dishonest and the vast majority of them were more trustworthy and honourable than most westerners. It's just that when local people are very poor, it's sometimes a great temptation to steal something that is of relatively little value to us but represents perhaps a year's income for them. If you think about it, many taxis, ice cream vendors and so on overcharge visitors to England, but in their case the motivation is greed.
The weather was pleasant in the day-time but still quite cold at night. It wasn't what I expected of India because I had pre-supposed that it would be perennially hot. But Delhi is situated in the north of the country and it was early February after all.
I had to make a major decision. India is such a large country and there's so much to see. But I couldn't see everything. I was desperate to visit Nepal, dearly wanted to see the Taj Mahal, and fancied lounging by the sea at Goa. I also felt obliged to visit Poona where my father was born. Set against all this was the object of my journey, the Kung Fu temple in Kuala Lumpur. In truth, I was missing the training and dying to get back to my martial arts. Furthermore, my money wouldn't last forever and there was always the chance that my health would deteriorate. There was one other vital factor to consider - I needed to get fit again.
So, what was I to do? After agonizing over the various options, I decided to go to Calcutta before making my way south to Sri Lanka. In 1976 all Westerners really had no option but to avoid journeying overland to the Malayan peninsular via Burma. Burma was very much a no-go area. All land borders were closed and the only way in was by air or sea. So the only practical way I had of reaching Malaysia was by flying from India or Sri Lanka. I decided to fly from Sri Lanka after first spending however much time it took to get fit. It meant missing a lot of places that I wanted to go to but, when all said and done, I could always come back!
The following day Greg and Andy came back to the hotel in a furious mood and with a big problem. Apparently they had met a local chap a few days ago who had been helping them with advice and so on. This man had offered to get them a very special deal on changing currency at a rate that was much better than the official one. Although they were sceptical at first the man promised that it would be at an official well-respected bank.
They went to the bank with the man who advised them to wait outside the front door because he didn't want the transaction to be too conspicuous. After parting with a hundred dollars they hung around the entrance waiting for his re-appearance. When he hadn't returned after ten minutes they went inside to investigate. All the bank staff denied seeing the local man! He was nowhere to be found. In retrospect it was obvious that he had vanished through a rear door probably after bribing a local official to say that he hadn't been seen. Despite remonstrating with the manager, Greg had lost his money. After all, what could the manager do if all his staff denied seeing the local man?
I sympathised with the Greg. It was awful to mistrust everyone when there were so many friendly local people around, but travellers were targets and always would be.
After another three days had passed I said goodbye to Greg and Andy and took the train to Calcutta.
The Indian railway system is a real enigma. It's well-organized to the point of being bureaucratic and still manages to retain some of the methods and style of the old British colonials. It's both interesting, frustrating and cheap and still by far the best way to get around the country. On the day before I was due to depart I booked a 2nd class sleeper for the long journey to Calcutta. I had to decide whether to go for the 4-berth sleeper or the 6-berth. In the end I chose the latter. With my student card it was only about £2 for the thousand-mile trip. I had to fill out a form for my sleeper reservation in advance.
The following day I arrived at the station and wandered down the platform. I had been told that my name would be written on a blackboard on the carriage where I was to sit/sleep and, sure enough, it was. Six of us were sitting on long wooden seats as the train pulled out. We stopped at what seemed like a great many stations even though it was supposed to be an express. At each one we were exhorted to buy food and drink by the usual chai-wallahs and food-wallahs. I bought some bits and pieces from the wallahs during the day. In the early evening we were served with our first meal. This was a marvellous affair with a tray of different things including purees, dhal and pastry parcels similar to samosas. It cost about twenty pence.
Later in the evening it had grown dark. As if by some pre-arranged signal, the guard entered the compartment and said something in Hindi to the other passengers. We all had to get up and the seats were turned into the bottom bunks. The middle and top bunks were folded down from the sides of the compartment to make the extra bunks. I'm not sure what I expected the sleeping arrangements to be but this wasn't exactly what I'd imagined. I was on the top - which may or may not have been preferable - and space was tight. I was amused by the thought that you very rarely find yourself in a position where your bedtime is dictated to you.
The conditions weren't too bad if you could have got a walk-on part in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, although the bed was obviously a bit hard. Anyway, the motion of the train ensured that I slept well and I didn't have to worry about my pack because the guard was literally living up to his title and no-one could enter our compartment while we were asleep.
I woke up in the morning but couldn't get up until there was some sort of communal will to change the bunks into seats again. It wasn't long after we had done this when breakfast came. I was intrigued to find out whether they served curry for breakfast. They didn't but came pretty close it with spiced pastries, etc.
Unfortunately, the other passengers didn't appear to speak more than the odd word of English and I was soon gazing out of the window again. We arrived in Calcutta around noon and I left the train. I was immediately struck again by the sheer number of people in the city. I headed for a hotel that one of the Americans had told me about in Delhi and splashed out (fifty pence) on a room of my own.
Calcutta is poor. Well, it certainly seemed poor to me. There were even fewer tourists here and I was constantly stared at. But the majority of people were still friendly and I began to find my way around.
That night I was bitten by mosquitos for the first time. I had been taking my anti-malaria pills since Pakistan because they take a little while to become effective. I was now glad that I had taken the precaution even though it didn't help with the itching.
I had my usual meal in the street. I sat with my back to the wall next to a stall in one of the main streets. A woman sitting on my left nearby was nursing a small child. She glanced at me occasionally. I took my time with my dinner and then sat for a bit. I noticed all through this time that the woman and child had hardly moved. I got up to buy some more bread and, as I returned, instinctively, offered some to her. She gave me a strange look but accepted and began eating the bread. The child didn't look well. I asked in simple nouns whether she wanted roti (bread) for the child. She didn't say yes or no so I bought some more from the stall, added a large tin plate of curry and rice, and gave it to her. She ate the lot but didn't smile much and eventually I had to leave. I've thought about the woman and child a lot since that evening.
I wasn't really happy in Calcutta and left after two days. While I was there I had a couple of rides on the tram to buildings such as the cathedral, and so on, but the noise of the city and the smells and people made me feel claustrophobic. The city made you long for your own space. I noticed an increase in the number of Buddhists, a subject and religion that I was interested in, and it reminded me that I was moving further east.
I decided to move to Madras. This time, I thought that I would take the 4-berth sleeper. This turned out to be a poor decision. Two of the sleepers were permanent but the rest doubled as night seats for other passengers. People were constantly getting off and on and the seats were very crowded in the daytime. I was squashed in with my pack on my knee and couldn't even take in the scenery with any pleasure. The journey seemed to last forever and when I eventually got off the train I resolved that this would be my last train journey for a while.
Madras was nice. The city gave the impression of being more spaced out and less crowded than Calcutta. I settled in to a cheap hotel and explored my surroundings. The various parts of India are very different from each other. Calcutta was different from Delhi and I now found Madras to be dissimilar to both of them. The culture is somehow different; the food is distinctive with more rice than bread and an increase in vegetarian dishes; the local people are usually darker-skinned and dress differently; the atmosphere is distinctive, probably because it's warmer and the overall impression is that buildings and clothes are whiter as a result of being bleached by the sun.
I walked down a long road with small shops on each side. I managed to avoid most of the customary invitations to spend money but was intrigued by one shop owner's offer to make me a shirt. By coincidence I had been thinking about clothes generally because of the change in climate. I decided to throw away my jumper and one of my pairs of socks. Most of my clothes were nearly worn out anyway and I needed some alternative things to wear. From now on I presumed that I would need light and comfortable shirts and shorts and that I might also try wearing native garments as worn by the local population.
So the man in the shop had caught me at just the right time. He offered to make my a white cotton shirt for 10 rupees - about 70 pence. I agreed and he took my measurements. He told me to come back in two hours and the shirt would be ready. He was as good as his word and I was duly presented with a floppy white shirt which came down to my hips and had long, thin sleeves. Well, I thought as I proudly walked towards my hotel in my best outfit, it beats taking out all those little pins from shirts in cellophane bags.
I spent a couple of days soaking up the atmosphere and planning the next stage of the journey. Although Madras was next to the sea I felt no great urge to visit the beaches and decided to wait until I got to the south coast. I only saw two tourists during this time and felt that I was off the beaten track but perfectly safe. I needed to get to Rameswaram at the very southern tip of India in order to catch the ferry to Sri Lanka. I thought about the possibilities and decided that I would try hitch-hiking again for two reasons. Firstly, I had just about had enough of buses and trains. Secondly, I felt that I had spent most of my time in cities and consequently hadn't seen much of the countryside or met rural inhabitants.
So two days later I found myself walking out of the main road heading south towards Madurai. At a good spot I began signalling in the usual manner and extracting some very strange glances from the local people. Within 5 minutes a rickshaw taxi driver pulled up and asked me where I wanted to go to. I explained that I was hitch-hiking and didn't need his services today. He reluctantly gave up after two minutes of futile attempted persuasion.
Ten minutes later a lorry came by with three native people in the cab and half a dozen on the back. They stopped and one of them asked me where I was going to in surprisingly good and rapid English. I told him and was invited to climb onto the back. Two chaps helped pull me up and onto the top of the lorry! We were sitting on what felt like rice or wheat sacks. I put my pack down and we were off. I was able to exchange a few words with a young chap about fifteen years old and he was very interested in where I'd been and where I was going to. In turn, I asked him what he was doing and where they were going. He explained that the men in the cab were delivering the goods while those on top of the sacks were merely hitching a ride to another town. This was confirmed when some of them got off at regular intervals and were replaced by new passengers.
We stopped a couple of hours later at a cafe. I had rice pancakes with spicy filling which nearly blew my head off. I thought I was used to Indian food by now but this was a killer. I was determined to finish it though because I didn't think that leaving food was a particularly fine example of western culture. I was wary of drinking the water but decided to take the risk and drank about three pints of it even though I knew that it wouldn't help cool down my mouth. I'd tried asking for yogurt with the word that I'd learned in Delhi but it just drew blank looks.
We were soon back on the road and I estimated that we must have made another 100 miles before the lorry stopped and we all got off. I asked another chap (my previous correspondent had got off the lorry a long time ago) where we were. I couldn't understand his reply and got my map out. Within thirty seconds I was surrounded by about six locals all pointing at the road and talking at machine-gun like speed. It turned out that we were in a town called Tiruchchirappalli. Obviously!
I spent the night at a local bed and breakfast-type place. It was much warmer than previously and I sat outside a cafe at night for my dinner. I was the object of much fascination and children would come up and stare at me for minutes on end. The food was hot again but at least I managed to get some sort of lentil paste stuff that neutralized the spices.
During the day I had been annoyed by flies and bitten by all sorts of strange creatures. It was worse at night and I was glad I was taking my malaria pills. The little blighters seemed to pick me out for some reason.
The next morning I walked to the outskirts of the town and tried hitching a ride but with no luck. After two hours I sat down by the side of the road...
Of course, I couldn't sit there forever and stood up to try hitching again. After an hour had dragged by, a bus pulled up and the driver asked where I was going to. When I replied Madurai he said 'get in, get in' and I accepted because, by this time, I was hot, thirsty and tired of standing by the road.
I had to pay of course. But although we seemed to make dreadfully slow progress we did indeed roll into Madurai. I stayed the night in a really awful place full of disgusting smells, mosquitos and bed bugs. If I had previously had any doubts about whether to stay in town for a day or so, this made my mind up and the following morning saw me down at the bus station.
I was on my last leg of my journey through India and was looking forward to arriving in Sri Lanka so that I could regain my fitness, some of my lost weight and start doing some Kung Fu training again because I had had no opportunity to practice during the previous four months.
So I caught the scheduled bus and duly arrived in the seaside port. I wandered down to the beach and gazed at the sea for the first time since I got off the ferry at Ostend. A peculiar mixture of emotions welled up in me when I thought of the land mass that I had travelled through. I now had a clear perspective of how big the world was and how many millions of people existed in its countries. I knew that I would never make the same journey again even though I felt that I hadn't done India justice and that I would like to return again one day. I felt an overwhelming urge to paddle in the sea and dumped my pack on the sand, stripped to my shorts and waded out to my knees. It felt wonderful and clean and I spent fifteen minutes splashing around.
That night I was severely ill. I had completely underestimated the strength of the sun and the fact that my skin had been covered up for so many months. If I ever needed a piece of real luck on the journey, then it was now. I had booked into a small bed and breakfast place as soon as I got back from the beach and before I had realized that something was wrong. The Indian lady that owned the place kept it nice and clean and was very friendly. When it was obvious that I was becoming ill I found her and explained my situation to her. It didn't take much explanation because I was as red as a beetroot.
She took over. She bathed me, gave me drinks (I've no idea what), and put wet clothes with some sort of ointment on them on me. She literally nursed me through the night as I shook with the effects of the sunburn. Blisters appeared and she summoned a doctor. What sort of doctor and where he came from, I'll never know. I remember thinking that he wouldn't have the faintest idea what to do because of my pale skin and that surely the local people never suffered from this sort of problem.
I think he gave me some kind of tablets but I can't be sure. I think perhaps that the lady owner gave them to me with my drinks. I had a terrible bout of diarrhoea and messed up the sheets on the bed before I could make it to the toilet. She didn't seem to mind and cleaned me up and so on. I'll never forget her kindness towards me.
I was in a bad way for about three days. By the third day I was well enough to eat a bit more regularly and stand up. At night I went for a short walk in the darkness and was surprised at how weak I felt. The next day I sat up and was generally able to get out and about although I was careful to keep covered up, including a sun hat, whenever I went outside. I began to be visited by the lady's son, a teenager who brought me English books to read and who spoke excellent English. Again, he wanted to know about my travels and when I was going to Sri Lanka.
He was especially interested in my digital watch because he'd never seen one before and it was a source of great fascination to him. During our talks he told me that some goods were much cheaper in India compared to Sri Lanka. He said that I could buy sarees in India and sell them for three times the price in Columbo and offered to supply them to me. I asked why he couldn't do the same thing and he replied that local citizens were not allowed to make such trips with these particular items. He also told me that I would get a very good exchange rate on my Indian rupees because the Sri Lankan government were trying to encourage tourists to visit the island.
I thought about his offer over the next few days as I continued to recover from my sunburn. I checked it out with his mother and she confirmed the veracity of his statement regarding the saree deal.
I began to build up my strength again by going for some fairly long walks in the early morning or late afternoon when the sun wasn't too fierce. Unfortunately, I had a problem whenever I did this. As I walked into the village, one of the local dogs would go wild, barking at me and charging at me as if to bite me. I was terrified of this dog. I knew that I could have kicked it or hit it with a stick but was fearful of the reaction of the natives to such measures. On the other hand I was horrified at the thought of being infected with rabies from such a mangy-looking animal. The thing that really got to me was that the animal appeared to distinguish that I was a stranger. Whether this was simply a matter of the colour of my skin or whether I exuded a different smell to the natives, I don't know. But the wretched dog did not pay the slightest attention to other people walking into the village but went crazy every time I returned. Even when I varied my route and went to the north of the village it would still be waiting for me to return, charging at me, growling and baring its teeth at me from a few feet away before one of the locals called it off.
I decided that I was well enough to catch the next ferry in three days time and told my landlady. That evening I had a visit from her son and we did a deal for the sarees. He wanted my watch for four sarees. After some haggling we shook on six sarees.
The day came to leave and I spent some time with my landlady before I left. I had bought her a small gift and had given her a ten dollar American note for her help. It was the only time since I left England that I had hugged or kissed someone.
After the usual formalities I caught the ferry to Sri Lanka.
Chapter 11 - Sri Lanka
The ferry crossing was quite enjoyable and reminded me of my trip from Dover. The setting was perfect with a clear blue sea and the weather was nice and warm without being too hot. I saw a number of travellers and tourists for the first time since I left Madras.
We arrived at the Sri Lankan port of Talaimannar and went through the usual customs routine. I got the extra bonus on the exchange rate for my Indian rupees and, although the officials commented on the fact that I was carrying sarees, they didn't object to it.
When I was clear of customs I headed straight for the train to Columbo. I was determined that I would spend however long it took to recover my health and fitness and, most of all, relax. From what I'd heard from fellow-travellers I knew that this was my one chance to turn the journey into a holiday. I wanted to start straight away and the minute the train arrived in Columbo, I headed for a recommended guest house. This was about five miles out from the city and proved to be clean, cheap (70 pence a night) and friendly. Even though I was sharing a room with three other people, I felt uplifted.
There were a number of other travellers around and I met a couple of Americans and an Australian on my first night. I chatted to the owners attractive daughter and was reprimanded for it, as was she.
The next day I got out all my clothes and completely unpacked the contents of my pack. I spent an hour in the guest house showers and washed my clothes at the same time. I threw out the rest of my warm gear including my remaining socks and my underwear. This was particularly sad since I had worn the same pair of underpants for three weeks at one point in the journey.
I caught a bus into Columbo city centre. I found a tourist office and asked where I might do some weight training. They told me that the youth hostel had facilities - which was ideal for me seeing as I was youth hostel member. I went along and signed up. I got into the gym and stood on the scales. Two stone lighter than when I left England. Ah well, Bruce Lee was skinny.
I began to do some light weights and felt light-headed. I did some heavy weights and felt heavy-limbed. I decided to try medium weights. I was terribly out of condition but the other Sri Lankan guys in the gym were in good shape and offered me encouragement and support. I was to become quite friendly with them.
Later that afternoon I lay on the beach and fell asleep. In fact, I behaved just like a real tourist from a package holiday. Eventually I woke up and wandered back to the guest house to get showered and changed. In the evening I went into Columbo on the bus. As usual, the bus was crowded but nobody appeared to take any special interest in me.
I found a nice restaurant and ordered the works. The works cost 4 pence. I was ecstatic. I could handle this no problem. In fact there was a problem because when I went to pay I found that twenty rupees was missing from my pocket. It dawned on me that I hadn't lost it but had been pick-pocketed in the bus.
Over the next few days I got into a routine. I would get up in the morning and have breakfast. I would then catch a bus into the city and get pick-pocketed. I would curse and then go and do weight-training. In the afternoon I would lie on the beach and in the evening I would go out.
My two American friends in Delhi. Note the usual means of
transport in the background.
Blurred picture of a mad dog out in the noon-day sun. Note the hand-made shirt.
On my second day I was pick-pocketed again. I was absolutely dumbfounded as I had taken particular care not to stand too close to anyone and had been very wary. I just couldn't understand it.
On the fifth day I was pick-pocketed again. I had deliberately kept my hands in my pockets for the whole journey on the bus and was completely mystified. I could only conclude that they had struck when I grabbed the door rails as I went to get off. If I hadn't been so angry I would almost have admired them.
I decided that there was only one thing for it; I would have to go native. I bought a lungi, which is a piece of cloth that you wrap around your waist and which comes down to your knees. I gave up wearing my western clothes and took whatever money I might need for the day into town wrapped in a towel. Try pickpocketing that!
I showered and bathed each day after training and ate fruit - paw-paws, mangos, and pineapple. Every afternoon, as I lay on the beach or went swimming, an old lady would walk the length of the sands with a basket of pineapples on her head. I would buy one each day for 5 pence and she would chop off the sides and top of for me. I ate until my mouth was sore from the acid.
For the first time for a long time I was really free to do as I wished without any form of hardship or discomfort. I worked out that I could live all year in Sri Lanka on the money that I could earn in one month in the UK.
At the end of the first week I met four swedish travellers, two men and two women. We made friends and it transpired that they weren't couples but just travelling together. I fancied one of the women and I knew that the feeling was not entirely one-way. On the Saturday night we all went to the cinema together - 6 pence each. To my amazement the curtain went up to reveal 'Pathe News'. The first item was that chap with the funny voice introducing an item about a model steam engine exhibition at Wembley. It seemed very strange indeed to have gone this far just to see this unique bit of England.
We all went for a meal afterwards and walked back together along the beach. The girl's name was Lisa and we had a long chat about all sorts of things.
During the next two weeks we spent a good bit of time together and I used to arrange to meet her at the beach in the afternoons. The other Swedes didn't appear to mind too much that I was interfering with their tour or breaking up their group, especially as we were often joined by other travellers for the odd night or two.
To cut a long story short, the suppressed urges were slightly out of control after all this time without sexual liaisons and Lisa and I became an ..er... item on the beach one night. I don't know what she thought about it but I was certainly very impressed. Anyway, she didn't seem to object to my suggestion that we walked down to the beach every night after that.
One day, I chatted to the lady who ran the guest house and told her about my hidden cache of sarees. She sounded quite excited, told me that she could sell them for me, and wanted to look at them straight away. I took them to her room and she unfolded them on the floor.
'These are lungis' she exclaimed.
'No, they're sarees' I replied.
'No, they're lungis, look...'. She held one up and I began to see that she was right.
So, I'd been done again; another con-trick. Of course I had examined the material before I had handed over the watch and it had looked perfectly genuine to me but, of course, I couldn't tell that they were lungis - which were only half the length of sarees - rather than sarees. I was never much good at clothes.
The lady was half-laughing at me for being taken in and half-sympathetic. She offered to sell them for me anyway and, in due course, I received about half of what I was expecting. Still, I consoled myself, I hadn't lost all the money that the watch had cost.
The following day I was in the post office to send a postcard back home. As I glanced around me on the next counter I saw Cindy, the Canadian girl that I had made friends with in Kabul. We were both amazed and delighted to meet up again and we immediately went for a drink together to swap stories. When the time came to say goodbye we exchanged addresses and promised that we would visit each other if I ever made it to Canada or she to London.
A lot of this type of thing went on between travellers. I had all the addresses of the people whom I had met on my journey so far and we all promised to keep in touch. We rarely did. It's just like a holiday romance really, you're just in a certain place with certain people at a particular time. It's just one of those events in life that you can't replicate.
The next day I sat on the beach eating a pineapple....
I believe in Christian values. There's no doubt that such values have been good for civilization. After all, they've provided us with the moral and ethical code that has stopped us destroying ourselves. The paradox is what would be the substitute for religious values? Worse than religion would be to find that in the world of the future all notions of right and wrong are contained in thousands of citizens laws issued by some kind of world parliament. I'd rather not steal because I know through religion, culture and upbringing that it's wrong than to be taught in school that it's contrary to paragraph 3, sub-section 24 of the Euro laws.
After two weeks of training I was beginning to get back in shape. I really enjoyed the routine of training each day combining my Kung Fu practice with lifting weights, and relaxing on the beach during the afternoons. I decided that I would explore the island a little more before I thought of leaving for KL (Kuala Lumpur). One day I caught a train down the coast to a small village outside a place called Hikkaduwa. I took some overnight things and explored the beach. I was astonished to find that the only people on the beach were tourists and that they were all naked! Well, if you can't beat them....
It was marvellous swimming in the water without any clothes on. It made you wonder why we ever wear clothes in the first place except to keep warm. I spent the night in a cheap hotel and, on the following day, explored the beach a bit further down. I was shocked to find a native village situated right on the beach and to see local villagers going to the toilet in the sea. I'd never seen such a thing before and it hadn't occurred to me that it made sense to use the sea in this way in a tropical climate and in an area where there would be no western-style sewage system. I gave up the nude bathing.
I returned to Colombo that evening because I didn't want to interrupt my training schedule. I pondered the question of my desire to explore the island further on the one hand as against my training and seeing Lisa on the other. In the end I decided to stay put in Colombo; after all, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.
One day I decided to visit Jani's family (my colleague on the Iranian newspaper). Using the address that he'd given me I found my way to a typical local estate and found his house. The family were astonished to see me - they didn't get English visitors very often (like never). I explained who I was and gave them Jani's watch which I had carried with me all the way from Tehran. They were even more astonished.
I ended up staying for dinner and so on while I told them all about their breadwinner and our life together back in Tehran. I think that they were a little upset when I told them how cold we had been and I could tell that they were desperate for Jani to return home. They hung on my every word and wanted to know all the details. Apparently Jani was due home in two months and they were hugely looking forward to his return (and, I guess, the money he would bring with him).
Although I was enjoying every moment of my stay in Sri Lanka, as the days wore on I kept dreaming of what it would be like when I got to the club in KL. At the end of the third week I resolved to leave on the following Monday and began making all the arrangements. I said goodbye to my friends at the gym (there's a strange sort of camaraderie between people who take weight training seriously), to my hosts, to my other friends and to Lisa.
I made for the airport vowing to come back again one day.
Chapter 12 - Malaysia
I landed at the airport, made my way through customs, and headed for the bus station. I had decided to make for the Youth Hostel rather than descend on the Kung Fu club straight away. I caught the bus to the centre of KL and established which bus I'd need to catch to get to the hostel, which was on the on the other side of the city. I arrived there without too much trouble and booked in.
That night I went into KL to explore the city. It was a strange mixture of old and new. The small shops were packed together on most streets with many of them selling food or groceries of some sort and therefore exuding wonderful strange aromas. But some parts of the centre of the city were completely westernised with one particular shopping mall looking just like a replica of ones that you would find in most English cities. Even some of the shop names were familiar.
The next day I walked a few miles around the hostel to see a bit more of the countryside - which at least looked at bit more like I'd expected the far east to look like. I had eaten rolls for breakfast and snacks from small food shops for lunch. I got back to the hostel at tea time, took a deep breath and, using the phone number that I'd carried all the way from England, called Mr Yap.
At first he was surprised to hear from me but then remembered our conversation back in the UK club and sounded genuinely pleased that I'd made the effort to get there even if he was somewhat surprised that I'd kept my promise. I realized that when I was in Sri Lanka I probably should have warned him by post that I was coming. However, he said that there would be no problem with me living at the club headquarters and agreed to pick me up the following afternoon.
He was as good as his word and I recognised him immediately when he pulled up outside the hostel. He was about fifty years old, three inches shorter than me and had a very friendly and pleasant personality. He often smiled as though he found life perpetually amusing.
We set off for the club. I was intrigued to see what awaited me because I wasn't sure what to expect. It transpired that the club itself was situated on the outskirts of town nearby called Petaling Jaya. It was a two-storey square block in a strange sort of architectural style, almost like a small version of a southern United States cotton plantation house.
He took me inside and showed me around, including the training room, washing facilities and a weapons store complete with a fearsome array of swords, spears and nunchaku (fighting sticks). There was no-one else about and, towards the end of the tour, he showed me upstairs to a large bedroom where I was to stay. There were four wooden beds in the room and I could see that two of them were already in use. I put my pack on one of the spare bunks underneath an open window. None of the windows had glass in them but they did have shutters which could be closed in bad weather.
He left me then and told me to be ready for training at 6:30. I wandered into the outside training area in awe. Here was I strolling around a Chinese Kung Fu temple like I owned the place. I felt unbelievably privileged, a part of an organization that I'd dreamed about so often. I felt that if a rival gang of fighters had invaded the place I would have beaten them all off single-handedly in order to protect the honour of the school, just like in the Bruce Lee films.
I sat down in the yard and tried to meditate.
At this point I have to explain a little about the martial art that I'd become involved in so that the reader might understand some of the narrative to come.
I had joined a Karate club when I was nineteen. I had trained hard for three years and become reasonably proficient. Karate is all about power, technique and strength. One learns how to punch, kick, block and stand. It's a very useful discipline and is not unlike other sports which require such physical skills.
During the third year of my training, some senior members of the club that I was in were taking part in a tournament at Crystal Palace and I went along to support them. Although the contests were fascinating, away from the main show there was a small demonstration of some of the other martial arts, Kung Fu, Ju-Jitsu and Tai-Kwando. I watched these with interest and became particularly absorbed in the Kung Fu demo. Afterwards I asked the Kung Fu teacher where he trained and for permission to attend one of the sessions. From the first practice, I was hooked.
Kung Fu is an altogether different discipline to Karate. Kung Fu emphasises the use of the body's internal force; the Chinese call this 'chi'. They believe that this internal force is the power and energy that controls the body and its internal organs. You can appreciate that acupuncture works along similar principals.
Allied with this, Kung Fu also encompasses meditation, Chinese medicine and, in some cases, Zen Buddhism. Tai-Chi is also strongly related to the art. Therefore, small, gentler, weaker people are at much less of a disadvantage than they would be at Karate. Technique is still important but, by harnessing one's chi, one can deliver a considerable blow to an opponent without relying on physical force. Kung Fu also has its roots in the natural movement of animals and various schools adopt the styles of monkey, tiger, stork and so on. My school, Chen Sui Kwan, takes movements from all animal styles and adapts them as necessary. Even more important than all these aspects of the art, Kung Fu teaches a philosophy - a way of thinking and a set of values designed to make the student into a better, more knowledgeable person, free of aggression and full of self-awareness.
I had been a disciple of Kung Fu for nearly fours years by then. I had used my three years of Karate training to good effect and integrated it into what I had learned from my Kung Fu teacher. Furthermore, I was physically at my peak, strong, supple, fast and in good shape from my training in Sri Lanka. So I was greatly looking forward to my first lesson at the home of our school.
After an hour or so, I got up and made myself some Chinese tea from the bits and pieces which I'd found in the kitchen area. I wondered about what I'd do for food since I hadn't brought any with me, but, to tell the truth, food was the last thing on my mind. A few minutes later a Chinese youth came in and introduced himself as Lee. He seemed to know all about me and was one of the other students living in the room with me. His English was quite good and he was able to explain a few things to me. Soon, more students began to arrive and the school started to fill up with activity - people stretching, getting changed and chatting to their friends.
I went upstairs and carefully unfolded my kit which had travelled with me all the way from England. I had my black trousers, Chinese slippers, white tea shirt with club logo on it and my green belt (which denoted the grade that I'd obtained in England). I went downstairs and joined the others in the yard. A certain amount of astonishment registered on the faces of my fellow students as I began my warm-up exercises. Others smiled and some said Hello or Welcome.
One of the senior students began the session and we performed exercises that were familiar to me from my training back home. There were about thirty of us and I automatically began inter-mixing with them because of exercises such as 'knocking arms' where one moves up and down a line of students practising blocking techniques. After half an hour the master arrived accompanied by Mr Yap.
The Master was short, plump, and old. He wore ordinary trousers and a Chinese style long shirt. I'd met him in England although I doubted whether he remembered me because we hadn't spoken because he didn't speak English. My Yap acted as his assistant and translator. Mr Yap wore his full Kung Fu outfit with a red belt. Most of the other students wore a black or grey belt and I could only see one other green belt like myself. This puzzled me slightly since I found it hard to believe that some of the younger students could have gained black belt status at such an early age.
Eventually we were ordered to split up into pairs and began practising various techniques with each other. The master began wandering around between all the pairs, stopping to correct a flaw in the technique or style of a student, occasionally demonstrating himself how a particular move should be performed. After a few minutes he arrived in front of me and Mr Yap introduced us. The master shook my hand and Mr Yap spoke quietly to him for a minute. Mr Yap said that he had explained to the Master that I was from the branch of the school in England. He said that the Master was pleased to see me.
The Master said something to Mr Yap and he told me to take up my stance. I did so - my feet shoulder-width apart with one foot in front of the other, and my arms raised in front of me with my hands open. I knew that it was a strong stance and that I was perfectly balanced. The master stepped towards me, placed his palm on my chest and pushed me gently.
I scrambled up off the ground. I looked around just in time to hear the Master utter a single word and move on to the next pair and to notice that most of the other students were laughing at me. I was mortified. I didn't know which was worse, the embarrassment at being the object of amusement or the indignity of having to brush all the dust from my trousers and shirt. I'd come all the way from England to be humiliated. I just couldn't understand it. I'd trained for seven years. How could I have been pushed over like a child?
I quickly stepped over to Mr Yap.
'What did the master say?' I asked him.
'Beginner' replied Mr Yap, and walked to catch up with the Master.
I carried on with my partner as we practised the routines but my mind wasn't on the job. It just didn't seem possible that Leicester's answer to Bruce Lee had turned out to be such a pushover. Beginner indeed!
We carried on for another two hours. The Master came back to me twice and made adjustments in my technique, especially when I was doing my free-form exercises or 'sets'. I had to do one of these in front of the students because it was a set that only English students practice and they hadn't seen it before. They clapped politely when I had finished and I could see that I had at least aroused some interest rather than merriment.
After the session we drank tea. Mr Yap and another student a little younger than me walked over and we sat down together.
'You cannot wear green belt' he said.
I was a little annoyed. I had earned that belt and I didn't take kindly to being told that I couldn't wear it even from Mr Yap. He could see I wasn't pleased.
'Beginner at Chen Sui Kwan wear black belt' he said. 'You beginner, you knocked to ground. You knock to ground; you get dirty; black belt you don't notice dirt'.
'When you practice every day for five year, then maybe grey belt. You don't get knock down so much. Grey Belt.'
'After you practice another five year, maybe white belt. You learn to stand up. Not knock down. White belt OK.'
He drank some more tea.
'When you practice another five year, maybe green belt. You springtime of learning'.
'When you practice another five year, maybe red belt. You autumn of learn Kung Fu'.
My fellow student and I listened intently as he paused before continuing.
'When you practice another five year, maybe yellow belt. Yellow belt mean sun. Sun high in sky'
'When you practice another five year, maybe blue belt. Blue belt mean sky. Nothing higher than sky'.
'When you practice another five year, maybe purple belt. Purple, Chinese royal colour'
'When you practice another ten year, maybe black belt. Black belt mean beginner again. Learn full circle. Start again'.
I mentally calculated - 45 years.....
'But the master doesn't wear a belt!' I exclaimed.
He gave me a look of utter pity.
'Master is Master'.
He got up and walked away. I looked at the ground for a minute then rose and went upstairs. I took off my green belt and put it in the very, very bottom of my pack.
Lee came in and said that I should get changed because we were going out to a restaurant for dinner with some of the other students. It turned out that there was to be a dinner in my honour. Well, not so much in my honour, more to mark my arrival at the school. We went to a local restaurant with about a dozen other students. They were obviously regulars at this particular restaurant and they were all chatting away. After a few minutes the Master and Mr Yap arrived and the Master spoke to the waiter at some length.
What followed was a giant meal with a great many different dishes, the whole affair lasting for two hours. Obviously everyone ate with chopsticks and, as I attempted to grapple with the implements, I noticed that they all held their rice bowls up to their mouths and used the chopsticks to shovel the food into their mouths. As far as manners went, it looked disgusting. However, I was having trouble keeping up with everyone else and I found that holding the bowl to your chin was by far the most practical way of managing things.
Eventually we were all full (well I was, I don't know about the others). I offered to pay my share but they wouldn't hear of it. Lee and I and five other students walked back to the school. I went to bed and lay awake most of the night thinking about events. Now I understood why the other students had looked surprised when I walked out to the lesson not because I was a stranger but because I was wearing the green belt. No wonder they had laughed when the master had pushed me over! I must have confirmed all their stereotypical opinions that Westerners couldn't really know about martial arts like theirs.
I woke up the next morning and found that some of the other students were doing light training in the yard and I joined them after doing a great deal of stretching and warm-up exercises. I wasn't used to the training and the previous night had left me very sore and my arms, in particular, were very bruised.
Later on, Lee and the others had left and I found myself alone. I walked down the street and found the nearest bus stop. Lee had told me about a nearby open air swimming pool and I was quite keen to try swimming as a sort of overall loosening exercise. A local told me which bus I could take to get there and the driver told me where to get off the bus. The pool was great and I spent an hour swimming and an hour sleeping. Later on, I recognised another student from the school - the one who had been with me when Mr Yap had told us about the belts. His name was Kim and we quickly became friends. His English was very fluent and he asked me lots of questions. Ironically, he wanted to go to England and train at the English Kung Fu school!
The Kung Fu school. Note the punchbags in the background.
Kim and Dieter
That night we trained again. The Master wasn't there so Mr Yap took the class. I was taught how to use the swords and the punchbags set up in the yard.
The next few days all followed this familiar pattern; light training in the morning, swimming and lazing around the pool in the afternoon; the main training session at night. Some times the Master would be there, some times not. Some nights we would eat with other students but often Kim and I went off together.
We met a German follow called Dieter at the pool one day and we often used to meet up with him at night when we went to eat.
At the end of the second week I was invited to Mr Yap's house. This was a great honour and I felt very humble. Judging by his house, he was quite well off and I had a lovely meal with his family, including his son and daughter who were, as you would expect, also students of Chen Sui Kwan.
Mr Yap told me some of the story of the Master. Apparently he had been a Kung Fu student at a Chinese temple but had fled China during the cultural revolution. Afterwards he had settled in KL and established the school. Little was known of his family. It appeared that the Chinese authorities knew of him and disapproved of him and the school for reasons that Mr Yap was vague about.
After our meal had settled Mr Yap took me out onto the patio and helped me with my 'chi' lessons. He explained how to feel this energy and use it. He also taught me more about my technique concentrating almost exclusively on the crane style of defence. I asked him about that first night when the Master had pushed me over.
Mr Yap took me into the garden and gave me a long thick piece of wood. He invited me to hit a large rock with it. I did so and Mr Yap asked me if it had jarred in my hands and I said that it had. He asked me to hit the rock again but harder this time. I did so and the wood jarred even harder in my hands. He explained that the more force I applied to the blow the worse the jarring became because the rock did not absorb the blow. He said that the master had learnt to harness and project his chi such that his body did not absorb a blow but repelled it instead. So the harder any attacker hit him, the worse it would be for the attacker. In my case, although I hadn't hit him, he had used his chi to push his own energy against me while I had not used my chi to push back.
Of course, I've over-simplified for the sake of this text but you may perhaps understand the principles involved. I remembered an illustration of this point during the Master's visit to our London club. A small number of cynics from a nearby Karate school had heard that this famous 'Kung Fu expert' was visiting and had managed to get themselves an invitation to meet him. One of their black belt teachers had been invited to hit the Master as hard as he could. Although at first reluctant to hit an old man, he was eventually persuaded to attempt the act. Ken and I were present and witnessed the incident as he was thrown to the floor although the Master had not moved. The Master had simply used the Karate guy's own strength against him. I was to learn later that the other guy had had a severe headache for two days after the event.
I was reminded of this now as Mr Yap explained the rock principle. Although it was a little cheeky, I asked Mr Yap about his own chi. He said nothing but put his palm next to my cheek. Although his palm was six inches away I could feel the warmth of the energy that he had directed to this part of his body. Feeling is believing.
Anyway, for the purposes of this little tale I won't go into further details about the art. Most of the aspects of the training are only of interest to martial arts aficionados and probably quite boring to the ordinary well-balanced citizen.
I loved my time at the school. I was surrounded by either friends or students and there was a lively social life. I was doing what I really enjoyed, i.e. the training, and was making great progress in my own standard of accomplishment in the art. However, my arms and legs were taking a bit of a battering and Mr Yap would rub foul-smelling brown Chinese medicine into the bruises every two or three days. For a cut of any kind, he'd use a special Chinese plaster.
Some days I would walk into the countryside and think about home for, despite my enjoyment of the lifestyle, it was now April 1977 and I'd been away a long time. I bought two tee-shirts as souvenirs to take home. One evening I decided to eat lunch by myself at one of the many stalls set up in the road. I was eating my noodles (everyone eats noodles rather than the menu you might see in a Chinese takeaway) when I noticed a sudden movement near my foot. I looked under the table and saw a big rat crouching near my chair leg. The Master would certainly have been impressed by a leap which contrived to be both high and sideways.
I had made friends with two or three Chinese girls and considered taking things a little further than friendship with one in particular. For once in my life I did an honourable thing and didn't pursue the matter because I knew that the school would disapprove. I was tempted though, especially when we started going to the pool together.
One day she took me to the cinema to see a Kung Fu movie (what do you expect?). It was interesting to say the least. The soundtrack was in English, which meant that I was probably the only one in the cinema who had the language as their native tongue. For the rest there were five layers of subtitles. These subtitles were in three dialects of Chinese, Malay and Indian (Gudjerati I think). This meant that the subtitles reached half-way up the film!
I quite liked Malaysia although I found that Western values and materialism had permeated nearly all of their culture and it appeared to me to be slowly becoming less 'oriental'. I would have dearly liked to have visited other parts of the country especially the places by the sea but I was unwilling to leave the school. I decided against it in the end because my time was limited and opportunities like mine didn't come around too often.
After a few weeks I had to consider my position. Although I wasn't paying to stay at the school, my money was running out fast because I had to eat. I considered working but you couldn't obtain permission on an ordinary passport. I didn't want to take any risks for fear of offending the school. Reluctantly, I decided that I would have to push on and try and find work in Australia. If I could save enough money I could always return.
Eventually I made my mind up to leave the following week. I told Mr Yap and he understood the situation.
The evening before I left Mr Yap spent almost the whole lesson teaching me individually and going over what I had learned from him. It was just as well that I was going the next day - I got some jealous looks from some of the other students. At the end of the lesson Mr Yap said that I was to go and eat with him. When we got to the restaurant the whole school was there, including the Master, to join me in a big celebration meal. It was a very, very emotional time for me. They presented me with a club tee-shirt similar to my own but with the Malaysian version of the Chen Sui Kwan emblem. I've still got it now. They also presented me with too much Chinese rice wine and I got pretty well drunk as a result. It was a night I'll never forget.
The next day Mr Yap took me to the station and I said goodbye. I thanked him profusely for all that he'd done for me and especially all that he had taught me about the art. I made a mental note to write to him when I got back home.
I boarded a train to Singapore and tried to look forward instead of back.
Chapter 13 - Singapore
I arrived in Singapore and went through the usual immigration routine. I had already decided that I wasn't going to stay for any length of time since I had already planned to work my passage on a ship to Australia. Accordingly, I made straight for the docks.
I arrived at the waterfront and wandered down the quay. I asked a chap about the possibility of working on one of the boats and he pointed me in the direction of an office. I entered and explained to a man at the desk that I wanted to work on a ship bound for Australia. He asked whether I was in the union. I said no and he said no chance of working on the ship - on any ship. I asked if I could join the union and he said no.
So there I was then. I sat down on the concrete outside the office and weighed up the options. I had enough money to get a flight to take me home and nothing else. I considered using the money to fly to Australia instead. I considered going back to Malaysia to try and find a boat going to Australia or to America. I thought about flying to America.
I decided to fly home. The point was that whatever I did would seem like an anti-climax after the school. The school had been my goal, the pinnacle of my journey, and, like any peak, downwards was the only direction left. In truth, I was missing England too. It would just be coming up to summer and long warm evenings with Fullers beer and girls. You can only travel for so long before one bus, train or hotel begins to look like many of the others that you've seen before. Besides, unless I went to South America, I was unlikely to see any countries that didn't have a culture derived from Britain, or at least Europe. After Kabul, Los Angeles didn't seem quite as enticing as it might have done if you'd asked me a year before.
I went back into the city and searched for a big travel agency. I found one and asked for the cheapest possible flight to the UK. It turned out to be a seat on the Russian airline, Aeroflot, changing planes in Moscow. I paid for my ticket which left me with about £18 in the world. I walked to the airport and sat in the lounge until it was time for me to board the plane. I was relieved when they called the flight.
Chapter 14 - Russia
I fell asleep on the plane thinking only of home and my friends and family. I was woken to find that we were being asked to fasten our seat belts. I could sense that we were losing height although I could see from the time that we couldn't possibly be in Moscow yet. It seemed obvious to me that we were going to land. An announcement to that effect was made in Russian, French and English and I looked below. I could see an airfield surrounded by buildings but with no city or town in view.
We touched down, taxied and the pilot switched off the engines. At last, we were told what was happening. It appeared that Moscow was fog-bound and we had been forced to land at a military base somewhere in the Soviet Union. A comprehensive groan went round the cabin.
We sat on the runway for five hours. We couldn't get off the plane. Mind you, there didn't seem much point in getting off given the surroundings. Eventually, we were given the all-clear to carry on and we took off. About three hours later we arrived in Moscow.
We all got off the plane and were shepherded into an airport lounge. Only a dozen of us were scheduled to fly on to London and we were segregated from everyone else and shown into a small room. An official explained that because of the delay we had missed our London flight and the next one didn't leave until the following day. He proudly announced that we would be able to stay in a Russian hotel for the night at no extra charge. He led the way.
We were all put on board a bus and it set off for the city centre. In other circumstances it would have been quite an interesting sight-seeing tour but I just wanted to get home. We duly arrived at an hotel that didn't look too bad and our official explained that we would be confined to the hotel because none of us had Soviet Union visas.
We were all shown to small rooms and left there. By the evening we were hungry and I thought that I'd look around to try and find something to eat. I went to the lift to go downstairs and there was no down button!
I checked and there were no stairs either. I realised that they'd virtually locked us in. There was no telephone in the room and no way of making any contact with anyone. God knows what would have happened if there had been a fire. So that night we went hungry.
They collected us the following morning as if nothing had happened. We got back onto the same bus and were ferried to the airport. The airline meal, even Aeroflot standard, was most welcome.
Chapter 15 - England
I looked out from the plane window as we flew over London. It all seemed so familiar yet unreal. I thought of all the miles that I had walked and all the new friends that I had made. I thought about all the places that I knew I'd never see again.
Most of all I thought about what I'd learnt about myself, other people and their cultures and what I'd discovered for myself through having so much more time to think than one ever does in the rush of one's day-to-day lifestyle.
I weighed myself on a machine in the concourse at Heathrow. I'd lost one and three-quarter stone. As my Mum was to say when I saw her three days later - 'You've lost your bottom!'
I walked out of Heathrow airport, strode to the M4 slip road, and put out my thumb in my own whole-arm, waist-high, friendly-smile, last-spot, keep-to-myself style.
In retrospect, I didn't see as much as I should have. I think it may have been different if I hadn't been heading for a special place within a specific time frame. To really explore Asia you need to able to spend as much time in as many places as you want. There's just so much to see. All I had had was a flavour of the continent.
I still want to see Nepal, the Taj Mahal, and Goa. I don't feel any overwhelming urge ever to go back to Iran or Afghanistan because I feel that there's a limit to what these countries can offer me again apart from the marvellous scenery and some of the mountains and valleys. But the countries didn't develop with tourism in mind and the distractions are limited.
Would I recommend anybody to do the same thing? No, not really. Ideally, for safety you need to travel in a group rather than alone as I did. Certainly a woman shouldn't attempt a journey like mine alone.
Iran and Afghanistan have changed since my visit. I would always tell people to visit India. It changes your perception of life and alters your values. To a large extent Malaysia is too civilized to do this.
The culture of different nations is to be respected. But I don't believe that this culture will last for ever because of the increasing technical nature of the world that we live in. The influence of TV, McDonalds, the Internet, and computers are bound to have a flattening effect, ironing out the differences between countries and peoples.
I would tell people to take a risk once in your life and travel without the tour operator's package to insulate you from the real people. I guarantee that the journey will be spiritually rewarding and uplifting if you give it the chance. You'll find that you have to be particularly stubborn to avoid learning about different cultures and even more stubborn to be prejudiced about anything and anyone afterwards.
Unfortunately, many of the lessons that I learnt on my journey have become blurred as each successive year diminishes the effect of the experience. Maybe I ought to go on a refresher journey every five years!