Hippy Trail 1975 London to Afghanistan
From a journal written on the road between England and the East in 1975. I had just turned 20; my girlfriend Liz was just 17.
Tuesday March 25th
Leaving England on the 6.30 boat from Dover, stoned on the beach with L, watching myself watching the scene. Remembering walking painfully with all our gear through suburban New Cross to the first hitchable point on the main road out of London and the dismal wait for a first lift. As the saying goes: „The journey of a thousand miles (actually five thousand to our destination –India) begins with a single step.“ In fact it begins at New Cross roundabout on the A2 and it’s over two hours until we finally make it out of London. At this rate how long can we expect to Istanbul??
A mild evening in Ostende: we crawl under some bushes and spread out our stuff, plastic sheeting, double sleeping bag, layers of clothing, a goodnight pipe finishing off a tiny well-secreted stash and –snore.
Wednesday March 26th
L is always sleepy in the mornings and takes ages to wake up and get anything together. Ostende hummed, bustled and finally roared around us before we emerged from our bag and into the world. Passing pedestrians must have noted our choice of resting place with a smile: the front garden of the local Police Station.
Brussels, Liege, Aachen: the Continent’s fine autobahns and amiable drivers took us on through appalling weather. A kindly German detoured us round Koln for a sightseeing tour and then regretfully dropped us in pouring rain at the city’s edge for our journey south. Rain turned to snow as, soaked through, we finally got a ride to Frankfurt. So here we are, drying out in an expensive pensionne.
Friday March 28th
Scene: an expensive (£5) and snowbound gasthaus in Spittal, Austria. About a hundred miles off our intended route.
Aschaffenburg. I hope I never have to hear that name again. Twelve hours, morning to evening, standing in rain, sleet and snow at the edge of town beside the autobahn. Not even a hint of a lift. Bus back into town to a Youth Hostel (overheated and segregated by sex) then bus back out to autobahn this morning.
Three winning lifts later we find ourselves in a snowstorm in the Alps, somewhere near the Austria/Yugoslavia border. Our driver (no English) points out a choice of roads, and gesticulates that we can get out if we want the left fork, or continue with him if we want the right. We have no idea, but obviously getting out of the car would be mania, so right it is. Next thing we know, we find ourselves being asked for our passports at the Italian border. Italy?? This isn’t part of the plan at all!
We walk back into Austria and reluctantly pay up here.
Saturday March 29th
Unable to bear a day cooped up in the gasthaus, we decide to walk out of Spittal through a meter or so of snow and take the first ride we can. It turns out to be headed for Italy again; oh well, anywhere is better than nowhere. Treviso sees us drenched in a veritable blizzard and the road into Yugoslavia deserted. We wait in a cafe for a promised bus, but two hours later it is announced that the bus has in fact already left. By nighfall we manage to get one that is going as far as the border.
The Yugoslav authorities look at us with undisguised hostility. Or perhaps we are simply too cold to read them properly and they are in fact looking at us as if we are completely mad. The border is a desolate scene of grey snow, with a few parked lorries looking like they would have a hard time managing to pull out over the dirty ridges of ploughed snow that block their access to the icy road. Yet there is a bus, and it takes us to Ljubljana, where a fellow passenger offers to help us find a room. He takes us to a dingy bar and introduces us a guy whose stare in L’s direction we don’t like the look of one little bit. Mumbling excuses we hasten off to the train station and at the Information desk there, just about to close for the night, are given an address on a scrap of paper.
We bang on a door on a dark street and a woman pulls us hastily inside with a panicy look around; i she checking that we haven’t been followed? There’s no heating to dry our clothes; the washbasin emits only a sludge of rusty water and then pulls off the wall to lean out into the room at a drunken angle.
Sunday March 30th
We trudge off through melting snow and pick up a couple of easy lifts to Zagreb. There a lorry driver offers us a lift to Beograd. After six hours of fending off his paws as they reach across me to fondle L’s (well-wrapped up) legs we have obviously had enough of each others company and he drops us at a service station well short of the city where we put down our sleeping bags for the night.
Monday March 31st
Joy of joys! The day dawns hot and sunny. While I hide behind our packs, L hitches what little traffic there is amidst the dust and smells. A racy-looking car with German plates offers us a ride all the way to Istanbul! The Iranian driver tells us he’s taking the car to Teheran for his brother. But even with L on the rear seat he can’t seem to keep his hands from reaching back to try to stroke her knee. Irritation sets in again on all sides and we are dropped at Nis. By now I’m beginning to feel unwell, so we take a bus to Skopje, sleeping most of the journey.
A fellow-passenger takes an interest in us and offers to put us up for the night at his student digs. Lo and behold as I collapse in a corner the nitwit tries to grab L, so off we go again, wandering the town in a daze until we find a spot in some ruins in which to kip down.
Tuesday April 1st
We are awoken by policemen with hands on their holsters demanding passports. Perhaps it is our inane early-morning grins that relaxes them, but without a single word of mutual comprehension, we manage to part laughing.
We pass through a tumbledown shanty town on our way to the main road, watched by assorted peasants and dogs and escorted at a discreet distance by a couple more policemen. Then we’re off smoothly towards the Greek border. Having been dropped off some kilometers short, we discover that there is simply no proper traffic on the road at all! We walk a bit, ride a bit on the back of a tractor, walk a bit more, find a bus going a few kilometers, meet up with a couple of English travellers bound for Athens and eventually arrive with them in rain at the border on sore feet.
From there a bus takes us to the bright lights of Thessaloniki, a cheerful town that offers us a hotel room with hot bath for £2. Hot water has been our main dream this past week, and after a long soak, a tasty meal and a stroll among the town’s noisy and excitable evening street scene, we sleep like the dead.
Wednesday April 2nd
Bustling around town, buying bread, feta, olives, ouzo etc. How good it feels to have left the North behind! We hit the Istanbul road by noon, and are carried 100 km by a Greek who stops to buy us coffee. On to Kavala with a French-speaking lorry driver carrying bales of tobacco, who insists on treating us to the full details of the trade at top volume. Here we abandon our no-longer-needed coats and pick up a lorry for Alexandropolis. The driver hasn’t a word of any language we speak, but insists on treating us to a fine meal of fish, bread and tomato, washed down with beer, before dropping us off.
We wander the desolation of Alexandropolis’ railway yards looking for somewhere to bed down, and end up passing an ugly night beside a road overlooked by a farmhouse, disturbed by barking dogs and the silhouette of a peasant passing by gun in hand.
Thursday April 3rd
A few short rides along the customary deserted road to the border; a long walk between customs posts and a lot of bored-looking soldiers at the Turkish end. Fortunately there’s a nice open air cafe, in which a family are tucking into what looks like a delicious feast, dominated by a large bowl of lettuce center-table. We gesticulate to our waiter to indicate that we want what they’re having. Half an hour later he appears with a bowl of lettuce. Nothing else seems to be forthcoming, so we pick up a lift on a drinks lorry, and squash into its cab, already filled by three Turks. It has great difficulty negotiating the frequent hills, so after a while we opt to walk as a quicker option.
We are soon taken in by an equally decrepid twin, and many hours and torturous hills later we are dropped into the mediaeval chaos of what is obviously not our intended quarter of Istanbul.
Tiny winding streets with mud and sparce paving as road surface; ruts and puddles and horse shit as pavement; and muck and metal and old tyres spilling out of the mechanics workshops lining the way. Through this winds a melee of small boys carrying car parts, beaten up taxis horning incessantly and horses and metal-wheeled carts clattering to deafen us.
We bunder through asking ‚Sultan Ahmet?’ from likely-looking fellows and being pointed in various directions, until finally a packed bus, sporting a jagged hole in its roof, deposits us in a square bearing more resemblance to a twentieth-century city.
By sunset we are ensconced in a Youth Hostel and surrounded by fellow-travellers and their tales. Emaciated ones are returning West, fresh-faced ones like us are optimistically pointed East. We meet a friend of a friend –small world- then L and I go out for a cheap and uninspiring kebab and find ourselves overindulging in the famous Pudding Shops’ honey cake on the Hostel landing before parting in a vague state of despondancy to our separate beds. Is it just a little too small? A little too reminiscent of Camden Town here?
Sunday Arpil 6th
Two days wandering the bazaars of Istanbul, unsucessfully searching for sandles and hats. Finally make do with flipflops and an old felt hat (part exchange for L’s jeans). At one point perhaps the heat and frustration had got to us, but L and I find ourselves having a long consoling hug and look up from it to find a circle of incredulous watchers has formed around us.
We arrange to meet Heidi, an Englishwoman friend of my mothers. who has been living for almost forty years in Turkey. She is married to a ninety-three year old Turkish gentleman, who we meet at their beautiful residence on the banks of the Bosphorus. He entertains us with stories of his meetings as part of the new republic’s diplomatic service with Ataturk, Stalin, Trotsky and the ex-Kaiser Wilhelm.
Today we lunch in the old couple’s garden overlooking the Bosphorus before Heidi drops us near the new bridge that joins Europe to Asia to pick up an overnight bus for Izmir.
Tuesday April 8th
Arrive in Izmir tired and in poor spirits after a tough night on the bus and, beach calling us, pick out a local bus for Kusadasi pretty much at random. The beach is a disappointment and then sun far too intense for our pale Northern skins. For reasons known only to himself, a man chases us out of the rocks where we are trying to hide in some shade. For the first time a hint of a question is beginning to creep over us: what are we doing here?
Three local lads rescue us from our despondancy, and joined by a huge Californian negro by the name of Keith, we are taken along a coastal path to a tourist village with a perfect sandy beach. By evening the boys are promising us a smoke back at their home, and we all squeeze in to a room alraedy occupied by grandparents, parents and two kids. The smoke doesn’t materialize, but as we leave we are treated to the sight of the nine of them bedding down together in that single room.
We sleep on the beach nearby and spend a day tanning and swimming, before getting together with Abidin, Hussein and Gengis again. We buy a load of food and take it back to the family to cook. By the time the food is served there are twenty people crammed in there. The boys play Turkish pop on a battered old gramaphone and we three foreigners (Keith with reluctance, his huge size completey unmanagable in the confined space) dance for our supper.
Thursday April 10th
A couple of minibus rides bring us south down the coast to Didim and another uninspiring beach. A chance meeting with a couple of Germans in a cafe results in us being invited back to their campsite, five kilometers along a rough track beside the coast. There’s a camper van, tents, a guitar and nine travellers altogether. We wine and dine in luxury and put our sleeping bags down nearby.
Today is a laze around and eat too much day. Good to see that we’re not alone on the food trip front, as the Germans seem to spend a lot of time eating it, talking about it and planning their next meal. In the evening four of us go off to play football in the village match. After ten exhausting minutes I’m reduced to giving up the chase and standing and waiting for the ball to come my way. At one point a herd of cattle is driven across the pitch, at another a minibus. Neither stops play. The village policeman, in full uniform, acts as referee, and is not adverse to hanging around one goalmouth and attempting to score at every opportunity.
Friday April 11th
Bump bump rattle on the minibus to Bodrum through pine forests and jagged mountains, buying saucepans and food to cook en route. A lorry rescues us from our trudge out of town towards the beach and takes us along the peninsular on a hair-raising ‚road’ for half an hour to a tiny village, where we are pointed in the direction of the ‚pilage’ (beach –the French seem to have influenced the language here somehow). The path vanishes into a peasant’s front yard and they are delighted to watch us build a ring of stones and gather wood for a fire on the sand nearby. We cook a meal of rice and vegetables and they bring us out some fresh yoghurt as a gift.
Saturday April 12th
We wake to the sound of rain, which worsens until most of our stuff is drenched. Back by minibus along the track to Bodrum, where we book a pensionne to dry out and spend an aimless day wandering up and down the streets buying foodstuffs to munch on. L finds a nice pair of sandals and I order a pair for delivery tomorrow. There isn’t another foreign face to be seen in this town, and limited French seems to be the only foreign language spoken. Everyone greets us with „OK, English, OK!“ but that’s it.
Sunday April 13th
We have found a far out spot to camp on top of a hill overlooking the town. The sun has come out at last and in the evening light the mountains shine in stupendous colours. We are nestled out of a strong wind among boulders and shaded by twisted oaks. I take a long walk which leads me to a huge Cyclopean wall of closely-fitting stone blocks. Following high along the ridge above it, I chance on a series of concentric platforms, half buried under earth and roots. At their center is an ancient wizened tree.
Monday April 14th
Pick up sandals in Bodrum and then head Milos-Mugla-Fettye. We are getting the hang of the minibus thing. Main point is to avoid taking the back seats, which have more legroom, but endure the worst of the bumps. And carry a polythene bag, as do all the locals (who use them too!).
A windy night on the beach, spending hours cooking an unspectacular curry with a lot of sand in it. Spectacular sunset to make up for it, but after dark boredom sets in. L and I could be spending too much time alone together. We decide to push on faster towards Afganistan and other Westerners.
Tuesday April 15th
No buses out of Fettiye and we have to get a shared taxi out of town to a village where, to the amusement of the locals, we set ourselves down on the deserted road towards Antalya to autostop. Several hours later a car finally putters by and stops. Two likely lads, chainsmokers with Turkish music on the cassette player and a smattering of French, offer us a lift all the way. We stop for lunch in a tiny village, drink raki and eat boiled eggs, fresh bread and yoghurt and everything seems to be going along cheerfully.
By late afternoon something has turned sour. We’ve been cooped up with them too long and long since run out of jokes to make in French. But they insist on taking us all the way, promise to pay for our hotel and to take us out for a meal, with ‚Turkish dancing’ later. We simply don’t know how to read all this.
Antalya: a hot shower and a bourgeois restaurant but our companions, who had such a hearty appetite at lunchtime, are now picking at their food and talking to each other in a worried-looking way. An awkward hour passes. L and I say ‚no’ to the disco, „back to hotel s’il vous plait!“ Lo and behold they turn the wrong way out of the restaraunt and next thing we know we’re heading away from the town center. „Promenade on pilage“ they insist. Rising panic. „No promenade. Hotel!“ we scream and bundle out of their car into a taxi.
Back at the hotel, from the other side of our locked door, we hear soft knock, pathetic voice: „Monsiour, parle un moment…“ „Demain“ I tell them, and eventually they go away.
Wednesday April 16th
We meet them again on our way to the bus station, and neither of us can figure them out. Are they undecided nasties, bad-intentioned but bungling? Or misunderstood niceguys who found themselves trying to keep face after having promised more than they really could comfortably deliver?
L and I talk it out on our long bus ride to Alanya. Fact is she is getting tired of all the stares and fending off men’s wandering hands.
It continues in the same vein this evening. After a lovely day wandering the vast castle dominating the town from its perch on sheer cliffs, we get picked up by a well-fed looking puppy, who follows us to the cheap cafe where we have left our stuff. The weather is worsening rapidly and some local guys invite us to come and sleep in their front room. Perhaps it’s paranoia to refuse but we head off into a gathering storm towards the beach, dog in tow, and bed down under our inadequate plastic sheeting. Puppy joins us in our bag out of the rain.
Thursday April 17th
We exchanged warm and wet for windy and cold last night as the rain let up and a howling gale took it’s place. Doggie has chewed my sandal. We are heading fast for the train at Mersin today; might as well spend this money in Afganistan or Nepal rather than here.
Saturday April 19th
Scene: a railway carriage halted somewhere in the middle of nowhere.
We got on this train twenty-eight hours ago in Adana, bound for Elazig. We have now been stopped here for eight hours. No-one has a clue what’s going on, or enough English to explain if they do.
The journey started well (if late: we had to bed down on the platform at Adana after the promised 1am train failed to arrive until 4am). We slept in a compartment with one young guy the only other occupant. He woke up and immediately claimed to have has 150 Turkish Lira (£4) stolen from his top pocket. In came the guards, the guy produced tears, and suspicious looks were given us as the guards heavied us for tickets, student cards, passports etc. They soon had enough of him though, and began to relax and exchange cigarettes with us. All the while the train was pottering throug the fields, making innumerable long stops to give the locals a chance to peer at us through the windows and offload crates of chickens, bags of oranges etc.
Later, after a change of guards and compartment (rid of Mr Victim at last) we were again asked for our tickets. Puzzlement: we can’t find them!
Cohorts of officials gather, while I scurry back along the train to search our original compartment, and look in vain for one of our original guards who could vouch for us. Finally a cleaner appears, who has found them in the toilet. General relaxation all round; the guards show us to their own compartment and produce chai for us. This is spoiled by the re-appearance of Mr Victim, who repeats his stolen money story with accusatory stares in our direction. This seems to be briefly entertained, for there are serious looks and I have a momentary vision of a Turkish jail, but as suddenly as he came he is gone, and there is another round of chai.
Our second night passes alone in the guards compartment, with fitful sleep interrupted by heavy footfalls outseide the door, which is thrown open at intervals and a torch shone in on us.
Sunday April 20th
Our stopping halt turns out to be called Dogansehir, and we are stuck there for 22 hours. Crowds surround us as we head into the nearby village to buy oranges and yoghurt; we feel like film starts as hordes of boys examine our every move and are escorted down the muddy streets and back to the inert train by the village elders.
Somehow the hours pass and eventually we move off and arrive in Elazig (journey distance around 350km) at 11.30 at night, after 44 hours on the train.
Monday April 21st
Little relief in Elazig, as our hotel owner wakes us three times during the night, banging on our door and shouting that the hot water for our shower is ready. He is oblivious to the abuse we hurl at him from the bed we have no intention of leaving for a small hours bathe.
Via Mus to Tatvan by bus, across plains surrounded by snow-clad mountains; flocks of sheep, goats, cattle, buffalo, a solitary stork or two. The locals, dressed in hides with dark skins and thick beards, look more and more earth-coloured as we progress.
Here in Tatvan we get a hotel with a nice hot bath for £1 and a full-on meal of shish kebab, bread, salad, tomatoes, honey cake, chai and cigarettes for 15 English pence at a restaurant run by a local gay (at least we assume he must be by his mannerisms) who commands a charming smattering of English.
Tuesday April 22nd
Afternoon ferry across the huge lake to Van. The officers invite us for chai, and then the Captain takes us up to the bridge to watch the departure. Then the crew have us into the mess for a big meal and ply us with sickening quantities of beer before we manage to extricate ourselves and plonk ourselves on deck feeling ill. One of them, pretty drunk, follows us up and offers us a cabin for the night, free. Suspicious, we check with the Captain, who informs us that in fact the ship will be returning to Tatvan straight after reaching Van. Something weird we avoided there for sure.
The walk from the jetty into town is long and L is feeling increasingly unwell. We crash in a pit of a hotel room for 50 pence.
Wednesday April 23rd
L is now sick and groaning in bed. I roam the town fruitlessly trying to locate a bus to Iran, then hitch to the train station and back, but there is no train until Friday. I decide to join L in an oranges fast for the day and the long hours pass. Takes some adjustment this Eastern ‚doing nothing’.
Thursday April 24th
Our autobus to Iran steers us through bare hills and snowy mountains and then dumps us in a godawful village some 40 kms before the border. The taxi drivers shout „Hundred Lira!“, the wind blows cold, and the street kids are hostile enough to throw some stones our way. We make a good show of being prepared to hitch until a murderous-looking pair in a taxi relent and offer to take us for thirty.
Darkness is falling in a wasteland of mountains and snow as the taxi suddenly stops and the two get out. ‚This is it!’ we feel, exchanging frightened as hell glances, and clutching our moneybelts tight. For a long moment I endure visions of robbery and rape, but then having relieved themselves, the two get back in and on we continue to the border.
„Bye-bye Turkey‚Alas Maladuk! Choc guzel! Gule gule!“
Iran snapshots: Arabic lettering and numerals everywhere mean we are suddenly illiterate; Teheran – the shock of a Western-style city after the squalor of Eastern Turkey, yet where breakfast for the locals appears to a whole sheep’s head in a plate of soup; the Hotel Amir Kabir, where the travellers’ talk is always about where you’re headed for, or where you’ve just come from, and the only time spent in the present seems to be to order some more to eat.
From the Afgan border on (the local Chief of Police joins us in a crowded shared taxi into Herat and sells us a lump of local charas) things become far too trippy to keep a regular journal. Patrick Marnham faced the same problem in his classic ‚Road to Kathmandu’: from Herat on it’s all fragments and decoherence.