Carry on Camping
Leaving Thessalonika behind us, we drive east finally reaching the Turkish border which is in Europe, 60 miles west of the Bosphorus, the traditional divide between Europe and Asia. First it’s passport control and then customs. Before the internet and desktop computers, the passport control system is based on thousands of index cards in deep wide wooden drawers taking up one side of a long room. The immigration officer takes each of our passports in turn, checking it against various sections of this index of undesirables. Passport check over, we wait for a customs officer to inspect the Land Rover. He turns up after 15 minutes and we walk over to our vehicle where he asks us to open the back door.
Doing as requested, the detritus of four unkempt young men whose few belongings have been thrown into the back of the Land Rover, spill out onto the ground. Among our possessions now on the floor are: two rucksacks, dirty laundry and a saucepan. He pales visibly at the site of this and asks if we are students. “Yes” we proudly reply.
Lost for words, he takes another look at us, the chaos on the ground and the inside of the Land Rover.
“Camping?” he asks still looking a bit shaken. We beam and confirm that we are indeed camping.
He gives out a long sigh and slams the back door of the Land Rover shut, shaking his head as he walks away telling us “Just go!”
A short drive in Turkey gets us to Istanbul where we get the ferry over to the Asian side of that dynamic city. Camping is out of the question but we are able to find a hotel with a secure car park (it’s got a wall round it) where we are promised that the Land Rover will be safe – which turns out not to be the case. Istanbul seems to have a buzz that we love and while we are there we visit the Blue Mosque where we were told to remove our shoes. With the Land Rover having been broken into, we are a bit worried about the safety of our shoes. The gentlemen on the outside of the mosque do not seem to understand English so I ask them in German where I could safely leave the shoes.
“Sie können die Schuhe hier lassen” You can leave the shoes here. “Werden die Schuhe sicher sein?” Will the shoes be safe? Shrug of shoulders.
The Blue Mosque itself is a wonder to be seen and most of the floor inside is covered in carpets. In the evening, we go into town and come back quite late and not very sober – we try the raki which someone has recommended but none of us like it.
Next day we have a walk in one of the parks in Istanbul where we are accosted by souvenir sellers and lots of shifty characters. Within 30 minutes, we are offered female company (you like my sister? Hmm?) drugs (‘ashish) and for our own protection – knives (you want Blades?) At the time, this seems jolly exciting but is just a taster of what we see later.
We wander down to the riverside where fisherman fry freshly caught fish, an old woman with one leg stands eating her freshly cooked meal supported by two crutches. Further along the bank are rows of shoeshine boys some of whose boxes are works of art with ornaments and silver decorations. Predating designer stubble by 50 years, very few men shave and most of them chain smoke.
After an argument with the hotel about an attempted break-in to the Land Rover, we again set off East for the Black Sea via Ankara, Turkey’s capital and the road climbs as we drive away from the coast. After midnight, we drive past Ankara which seems to be three hills covered with fairy lights marking the roads.
A Bad Trip
Heading northeast for the Black Sea coast turns out to be the most surreal drive I have ever had. Turkish lorry drivers are a pretty macho breed – my vehicle is bigger than yours, so I own the road chum. While the Land Rover is quite large in relation to most family cars, it is quite small in relation the Fargo, Mack and other American lorries we see. The metalled part of the road and therefore the smoothest, is generally in the centre so this is where everyone naturally wants to drive. If two lorries are approaching, one of them has give way. Learning quickly, we find that if you give way, then the other guy approaching you will often graciously give you a bit more room. Some of the lorries have trailers and some do not and the Fargo ones seem to have a really long bonnet at the front.
The overnight journey is like a roller coaster ride through a sparsely populated lorry graveyard. Every 30 minutes or so, we see lorries that have careered off the road ending up on their side or upside down. It is like the home of a small boy playing with his Dinky toys who has had a tantrum and thrown them all over his room. After seeing a few of these, we have no problem moving out of the way. This driving is not easy and Anussorn says he is tired. Later when he says this again, Simon takes over. We carry on driving through the night and at dawn we see what can best be described as the inevitable.
Two lorries approach each other hogging the middle of the road, making it a deadly game of chicken and one of them has to move out of the way – eventually. This time, maybe it was the smaller guy who said I ain’t moving, but both lorries have hit each other head on. In another example of Newton’s First law of Motion (sometimes called the Law of Inertia) the steel pipes in one lorry slide forward upon impact crushing the driver’s cab in front, neatly decapitating both drivers. We drive past them where they are still locked in their fatal embrace – perfectly lined up, as neither had tried move out of the way at all. The pile of wreckage blocks the road and lorries are backed up for hundreds of yards. The other lorry had been carrying tinned fish. Cars and the Land Rover are just able to weave through. We pass a group of drivers and soldiers standing around a fire. They are smoking, laughing and we can smell the fish cooking.
Somewhat bleary-eyed, we reach the coast of the Black Sea at Samsun and enjoy the drive along Turkey’s north coast – it is a beautiful clear sunny day. Before long, we come to a town where there appears to be a rally going on so we stop for petrol and go into a café for a late breakfast. Here we bump into an Irish guy, British Consul for the area. Asking us how the Land Rover is going, we say fine. Oh you’re lucky he says. Land Rovers are full of weaknesses and rattles off a list of things which includes just about everything except the engine – finishing this list with half-shafts which “snap like pencils”. Spares are expensive here and by the way, have you got snow chains? Other advice includes:
- Don’t look at the women
- Two people got shot here last week – this area has one of the highest murder rates in the world. This item is linked to the first!
More helpfully, he quickly fills us in on the political situation in Turkey which then consisted of two main parties, the leftish Republican People’s Party led by Bülent Ecevit and the moderate right wing Justice Party led by Süleyman Demirel which had just resigned the day before – hence the rally.
Continuing east along the Black Sea Coast, we see a little more political activity in the towns, but no one takes much notice of us except for kids who chuck stones at us as we drive past.
In order to get to Iran, the next country on our itinerary, we have to turn inland into east central Turkey. After the whole day driving east, we reach Trabzon where we turn south and begin the climb through the mountains heading for Gümüşhane and then Erzurum. Not long after dark, we park outside a village where there seems to be a well. The lights of the village are just visible in the distance. We cook our evening meal eating naan bread as a supplement to the rice. We are able to drink fresh water from the well and fill up a bottle for us to take with us next day. We set up camp and sleep. Next morning however, is a repeat of the squid meal in Corfu and I fly out of the tent heading for a tree or anywhere away from my companions. All explained when I return to look at the bottle we have so carefully filled the night before which has a family of little creatures swimming in it.
Through the day we carry on climbing and soon the roads are covered in snow. We engage four-wheel drive and some of the bends are so tight we again need to do 3 point turns to get round. Even so, the Land Rover slides about. Months later, we meet an American who did the same journey at the same time of year in a VW Camper that has a rear engine and only two wheel drive. We put on snow chains but progress is slow. One problem we encounter is the effect of the falling temperature on the engine temperature and heater. Climbing all day in low gears would make any engine overheat, but it is so cold we are worried that the temperature is affecting the running of the engine and only cold air is coming out of the heater. Dave hops out spreads some newspaper over the radiator grill that is soon frozen into place with the snow that is falling. Engine temperature climbs and heat returns but now the engine is overheating! He hops out again and carefully tears a round 2-inch hole in the newspaper, which allows the heater to function but the engine is still too hot. A small enlargement to a 4-inch opening keeps the engine within operating limits giving us a small bonus of some heat which we direct onto the windscreen. Alas, the output of the heater is no match for the cold outside and Anussorn is reduced to crouching down and peering through a postcard-sized ice-free portion just above the screen heater nozzles while Dave still has to scrape ice off the inside of the windscreen to stop this shrinking. This makes things very slow plus the road has lots of bends in it. Huge lorries come down the road groaning in low gear (effectively using the engine as a brake) with their snow chains jingling and life is getting dangerous.
Nightfall comes with snow everywhere and we pull over to the side of the road to sleep next to three-feet high piles of snow cleared by snow ploughs. Pitching the tent is out of the question so we all crawl fully-clothed into our sleeping bags. Anussorn stretches out on the front seat, I stretch out as best I can on the passenger seat behind while Dave and Simon sleep on top of the junk in the back. It is cold and Anussorn turns the engine on every hour or so to run the heater. Sleep is not good and because of Anussorn’s position, he keeps banging his nose on the steering wheel when he turns in his sleep. Dawn finally arrives with about an eighth of an inch of ice on the inside of all the windows and drops of frozen condensation on the ceiling. There is a knocking on my window. The swear words from my companions make it clear that they are not going to see who has disturbed us. Staying in my sleeping bag, I struggle upright, unlock the window and slide it back. Outside stands a local man with fur hat, fur coat, fur gloves, fur everything and his arms are full of furs to sell. When we see what he is offering we all groan and I shut the window in disgust. Had he been there the night before, we would have bought everything.
We carry on towards Erzurum eating some naan bread. The only food in the Land Rover is this and some garlic. I eat some of this raw with the naan bread but it is so cold inside, no one says anything. The windows are all shut and the heater is blowing away full blast keeping the post card-size patches in the windscreen clear. In Erzurum, some children chuck stones at the Land Rover and rip off some of the letters. Soldiers only keep a minimal amount of order although there seem to be a lot of them about. Saddest sight is a man struggling down the street with two walking sticks and his legs completely crossed, indicting severe hip problems – the so-called X-walk.
We are glad to get away from Erzurum and continue east. We find three Turkish guys sitting beside their short wheelbase Land Rover parked on three wheels at a crazy angle at the side of the road. A wheel has come off and the studs onto which the wheel nuts are screwed, have come out. The normal round holes in the wheels have become oval. There seems little we can do for them other than offer to take one of them to the next town. They speak very little English but one of them mentions “Tomorrow, shops closed, holiday – Turkish Christmas”. He mentions the name of the holiday but it means nothing to us. After a meal at the next town, we continue east towards Iran.
Night arrives and we drive half a mile south away from the road to camp for the night – no snow now so we pitch the tent. Morning next day is clear and sunny. Looking north, we see a beautiful mountain far on the other side of the road. It has snow on its peak and is very striking. My instinct tells me this is Mount Ararat, which proves to be right. In the distance, the locals are emerging from their huts or tents, the ladies have their fine coloured dresses in contrast to the usual drab dress of the few women we have seen only fleetingly. To this day, I don’t know what the festival was and whether the man meant Turkish or Kurdish Christmas. Since it is a holiday, we are in no hurry to drive away from beautiful Mount Ararat and the warmer weather is a relief. But checking under the Land Rover reveals 2 inches of ice remaining.
Welcome to Iran
The road descends to the Iranian border and after some hours, we pass from primitive eastern Turkey into Iran which seems very modern by comparison. The AA notes remind us that there are border stops where the road gets close to the Russian border. We come across some of these at night where a log is placed across the road until an armed soldier has inspected our vehicle. The first big town we come to in Iran is Tabriz, famous for its silver ware. As Anussorn and Dave wish to buy some, we park the Land Rover behind a row of shops. We are guided to our parking place by an old man who is trying to say something to us while pelting stones at a dog. The animal squeals pitifully while it sits there under the assault and I finally understand what the man is trying to say to us. “Nofukengood, Nofukengood”. Presumably his opinion of the poor animal.
Long negotiations and cups of tea result in Dave and Anussorn buying a couple of beautiful silver-inlaid boxes.
We set off down a beautiful motorway for Teheran and somehow find a campsite called Gol-e-Sara. It is a new kind of camping for us, right next to a railway with a 10 feet high wall all round it and showers – all very civilised. There is a fascinating guest book and it is here that we hear about an American professor who has taken a sabbatical and is driving round the world with his wife and 5 children with the intention of getting to the world fair – Osaka 1970. His vehicle is a VW Camper. All across Asia, we hear of this remarkable man and I always wonder if he reached his destination or not. Whenever we hear of him he is always 2-3 weeks ahead of us. Another interesting overland vehicle we see is a white Honda Panel Van (354 cc engine!) driven by two young Japanese guys, but we don’t get the chance to talk.
The Monkey Brain Restaurant
Round about this time, we hear again about restaurants somewhere in Asia that have live monkey brains on the menu. The give-away is the 3-inch hole in the centre of the table through which the creature’s head is poked after having had the top of its skull sliced off – the brain is eaten raw apparently. We first hear of the story in England before setting off and here in Teheran other people have heard of it too. The collective wisdom of the travellers is that it is to be found a bit further east and this subject always gives us something to talk about with other people we meet along the route.
The AA notes give us two choices for getting to India which we discuss with fellow travellers. The northern route carries on east to Meshed, into Afghanistan then down through the Khyber Pass into West Pakistan and India. The other route goes south through Istfahan and Shiraz then east into West Pakistan but his route is very sandy and much of it is desert.
We decide to visit Istfahan and Shiraz first. Istfahan is famous for its mosque which legend has it, has seven echoes. Parking near this mosque, we happen to bump into a local gentleman who is very friendly and speaks perfect English. With hindsight, he was probably from Savak the notorious Iranian security service, but having a guide who patiently explains the wonders of the town and the mosque is wonderful. Istfahan seems to be full of orange taxis, which a tourist booklet tells us are the cheapest in the world and all are full. These vehicles are the old boxy Hillman Hunter. Strangest sight is Persian carpets lying in the middle of the road with the traffic driving over them. The reason for this is thoroughly commercial, since the effect of the traffic running over them is to make them softer and thus more highly priced.
We camp in a car park near the outside of town and carry on south the next day. Our drive south takes us past the Great Salt Desert and Great Sand Desert on our left. Camping is a cinch since we drive for 20 minutes across the flat terrain and pitch camp. When we do this near the Great Salt Desert, the landscape stays exactly the same with no change in perspective at all. It is very strange or it must have been very far away from us.
The final drive into Shiraz is spectacular as the road descends through a gap in the mountains. We camp again and spend a couple of enjoyable days there doing very little. Here I finish reading Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge and we visit the ruins of Persepolis before driving north and back to Teheran.
Shiraz is as far south as we drive in Iran, and we head back north camping about a mile off the main road which takes a couple of days.
My First UFO
One evening just before bed, something very strange happens. For my evening ablutions, I take my toothbrush, water and loo paper out into the desert and find a comfortable stone to squat down on. A white eerie light starts to appear over the mountains to the east. There is no noise apart from Anussorn calling me and trying to highlight me with my trousers down, using the very powerful adjustable searchlight from inside the Land Rover. The light on the horizon gradually gets bigger. The air is warm, I am quite comfortable and there appears to be no danger, so I just watch and smoke a cigarette. With an interest in astronomy and having been an avid reader of UFO books, am I actually going to see one? Minutes pass and the light is noticeably bigger, though somewhat distorted. Finally, I realise that I am watching the moon rising up through the jagged mountains on the horizon where the distortion is caused by the refraction of the light through the atmosphere – rather like a mirage in a desert. Mystery solved, I walk back into camp and when my companions ask me where I have been, I say I have been watching the moon come up – but no one believes me.