Our entry into West Pakistan is via the spectacular Khyber Pass and our first stop is Peshawar. The drive itself is uneventful, with Anussorn asleep in the back having caught some sort of lurgi, a clear sky, other vehicles for company and no drama, so what many would consider to be the most spectacular part of the trip is a pleasant half-days drive. After the previous countries, Pakistan feels like being back home with double-decker buses, English names and signs plus everyone speaks English.
Accommodation is cheap, so no point in camping and we end up in a cheap hotel.
Meet the Dhobi Wallah
There are showers and a dhobi wallah to wash our clothes. As the price is reasonable, we give him most of our clothes which he promises to return the next day. They are returned clean but look as if they have been cleaned with sandpaper as the collars and cuffs of the shirts are frayed. We are not happy and the dhobi wallah is confused – he feels he has done us all a great favour by getting the clothes spotlessly clean but it is a perfect example of a clash of cultures. Driving through rural areas, we often passed groups of women washing clothes – winding them into long shapes and whacking them against the rocks before rinsing them out in the river – something that always amused Anussorn.
Years later, my Indian wife tells me that dhobi wallahs always beat the hell out of clothes. In the UK, she is amazed that bed linen lasts so long and does not have to be thrown away after a year. We pay the dhobi wallah but go back to washing our own clothes.
Trip of a Lifetime
During our journey to Peshawar we pick up an Australian couple and for some reason the conversation in the Land Rover turns to drugs – this is the hippy trail, after all. The hashish from Nepal has opium in it? to help the monks there with their meditation? Only a few minutes later, they ask to be dropped off and casually donate a small foil-wrapped dark brown lump the size of a sugar cube “Someone gave it to us, we don’t need it, goodbye”. Unlike some, we have not come on this trip for drugs and debate what to do with it. On reflection, we decide to try it sometime soon as it is not the sort of stuff we want to carry round for too long.
The occasion comes a day or so later one evening at Peshawar after we have eaten. Two of us smoke it, whereas I decide to eat mine after which we lie back to see if this has been worth the fuss. We wait. Insect sounds of the evening start to acquire an echo and brightly coloured images and thoughts come into my head – rather like the end of Stanley Kubrik’s 2001-A Space Odyssey a film which I have seen four times. All jolly good fun but after a while, another voice in my head says “Can we go home now?” But the film is inside my head, I cannot leave by the exit and leave the cinema. It just goes on…and on…and on. The thought that I can’t get out of this cinema starts to scare me. Easy to see why people jump out of windows and off high buildings on a bad trip or one that is never going to end. Eventually it wears off and we manage to function normally the next day. I have no wish to repeat it – definitely the trip of a lifetime.
Our AA notes tell us about the Kohat and Kolat passes which are tribal areas about 3 hours drive away from Peshawar. These places are famous for their replica guns which some people display on their walls as ornaments – makes a change from the usual flying ducks, one wag said.
Pakistan is being ruled by a military government so we are used to seeing soldiers everywhere, but after driving to these places for a while, they are conspicuous by their absence. The drive is along a valley with hills either side. Getting near to our destination we notice large areas of white flowers. Someone mentions that they are poppies.
Funny, but aren’t poppies usually red?
We then notice that they are cultivated neatly in fields rather than growing wild at the edge of fields or roads, as with European poppies. The penny finally drops……they are opium poppies! Definitely not mentioned in the guide book.
We get to the village and park the Land Rover. It is a warm clear sunny day and we walk towards a thumping sound coming from the nearest building, which turns out to be a hashish factory. The contraption to make hashish from the marijuana leaves consists of a pit into which the marijuana leaves are thrown where they are pounded into paste. It is a cross between a mortar and pestle and a see-saw. A man presses his foot down on one end of the see-saw and lets the pestle bit fall onto the leaves and stalks in the pit. Once at the right consistency, a lump is removed and cut down into a kilo slab reminding one of a large bar of chocolate. Last touches are searing the sides with an iron roller kept in a tray of red hot charcoal and a gold seal is imprinted on this still-warm block of hashish. This “seal of quality” is kept with some gold dust in an old tobacco tin on the earthen floor. Among the guys is a tall young man who seems to nibble on the hashish much of the time. Probably an addict, his eyes have a glazed look and he laughs and grins at us, but he seems harmless enough. In spite of the very low price (only a few per cent of the UK street value) we decide to go and look at the gun shops instead.
Along every street, there are workshops and gunshops. In the former, guys sit on the floor seemingly chiselling a replica Walther PPK or Luger out of a lump of mild steel. The finish of the replicas is excellent and they all work. Anussorn buys a fountain pen gun which fires .22 cartridges. We all gladly try this in the street outside and it does fire real bullets with a strong recoil as there is not much to hold on to. Closer examination shows that the sides of the cartridges are slightly blown out after firing rather than straight. Not wishing to have any fingers blown off, I decide not to buy one.
In another street I see a young boy of about 4 years old with eye makeup sitting quietly in a doorway. At another shop we are shown a lethal cane. This looks like a swish gentleman’s cane or walking stick but removing the tip uncovers the barrel and turning a metal collar, releases a trigger to fire a 410 shotgun cartridge. We forget to ask how popular this revengeful little item is. While we are being shown round the 30 or so shops, we hear gunfire as customers try out different pieces. Although replicas, there is even a factory that does the barrelling.
After Peshawar, we head south west to India passing through Gujranwala where one of my bus depot chums came from but do not stop. Simon suggests having a look at the new capital Islamabad which is then under construction, but since building sites are not high on our list of attractions we carry on.
A Woman’s Face
In India there are few veils and it is lovely to see a woman’s face again. Apart from one small part of south west Afghanistan, not seeing a woman’s face feels like a kind of punishment.
Otherwise we notice little difference between India and Pakistan and for the last time, end up camping in someone’s front garden – The Delhi Model Airplane Club. Here we cook ourselves but sometimes eat out. When we make a stew, Anussorn boils it up every day to stop it going bad. One day he forgets, and when he looks at it, finds that it is bubbling away on its own and has to be thrown away. Couple of times we go to a small restaurant down the road with Formica-topped tables. Food tastes OK, but I always need to go to the loo soon after returning. On our third visit, we get an idea why. We are waiting for our meal when a strong gust of wind blows the back door open. The “kitchen” proves to be a few bricks on the ground in the dirt yard at the ground with the cook squatting on the ground with his two saucepans.
My digestive troubles continue through most of the trip to the amusement of my companions, in contrast to Dave who proudly announced that in our four days in Turkey, he had not had to sit down once!
Around Dehli we visit a few sites including one red stone tower on the outskirts, notorious for suicide couples who are in love but their families won’t let them marry.
It is now April and Simon is worried about his preliminary course for forestry starting in June. Relations have been difficult at times, inevitable with four young men confined in one vehicle. Instances include his driving slowly along a road then speeding up at corners? His answer to this when questioned is “Oh well, they’re only Indians are they?” and sitting in the Land Rover in a busy street slowly going through our cash, does not seem sensible either. We agree that he should leave and off he goes shortly after arriving in Dehli.
My coming of age is memorable, but not in the usual way. Dehli has partial prohibition at this time meaning that you cannot get liquor Tuesdays and Fridays and fate determines that my 21st birthday falls on the former. Since we can’t get drunk, we go to see Ice Station Zebra based on Alistair MacLean’s book. Cinemas in the UK still play the National Anthem before each film, where maybe half sit through it. Indian cinemas do the same with a film of the Indian flag being projected on the screen and we get dirty looks for remaining seated.
The film itself is a wide screen one but the projector light source has not been changed and the screen image is noticeably darker at the edges. Reviews of this film mention that it has no female parts, but while I had enjoyed reading several of Alastair MacLean’s books, Patrick McGoohan‘s (famous for his TV series The Prisoner) performance is terrible with his slurring of his lines – was he drunk?
Film over and it’s hot, so let’s have an ice cream. Dave who now is our Treasurer, has met an Australian guy who knows and Indian guy who can get us a fantastic exchange rate. This ends with him and Dave waiting for “the man” in a restaurant. After a while, Aussie guy says “give me the money” as he is in the kitchen and I will bring it out to you. Dave hands over our cash and the guy does not return – Dave finally checks the kitchen where there is a back door and that’s it, money gone. Fortunately, I still have some Royal Bank of Scotland Group travellers cheques purchased from my account at Williams Deacon’s Bank. These are not well known like American Express or Thomas Cook ones and when we go to the agent bank, the clerk spends ages checking them.
Emergency telegrams and a phone call result in new funds being sent while American Express do their job of reimbursing Anussorn quickly. Other telegrams have been sent to one of Anussorn’s school friends in Ceylon. The Land Rover can shipped over to Singapore from there too.
Before leaving and following my Uncle’s advice, I get First Overland an account of the 1955-56 Oxford/Cambridge overland journey to Singapore from the library. This journey was much more arduous than ours, involving hacking their way through the old Stilwell Road from WW2 and reading between the lines, caused the Burmese government some embarrassment. No one has done it using that route since. He suggests we take an easier route
We have a booking to ship the Land Rover 6th May, so are told to get down south ASAP meaning goodbye Delhi but want to see the Taj Mahal first. This is a wonder and the guides shine pocket torches on the walls to highlight the inlaid stones. Every few minutes, they ask for baksheesh “Sahib, I have six children….” ignoring notices placed every 20 feet telling tourists not to give them anything.
Taj Mahal seen, we camp outside Agra for what is the worst night’s camping of the whole trip. Now April, Agra is HOT and we sweat like pigs trying to sleep. Worst though, are the mosquitoes which get into our ears and everywhere even after checking the mosquito netting for gaps. They drive us mad and Dave resorts to spraying fly spray on his skin.
Early, we have a quick breakfast and set off south in a wide arc that goes south-south-west from Agra passing Poona on the west side of India before gradually turning east again to reach Madras. Till then The Deccan has just been a sort of reddish area on a map of India in school geography lessons. In real life it is an oven which the Land Rover takes in its stride. The heat reduces our appetite for food but not for liquid. Opening the vents on the front of the Land Rover results in a blast of hot air very much like putting your face in front of a fan heater and it actually feels less hot with them closed. Each day we drive till late afternoon staying in Dak bungalows which are cheap. Where there is more wind, there are fewer airborne insects and more creepy crawlies, but anything is better than the damned mosquitoes at Agra.
At our most westerly point near Poona, we see the coast in the distance but just carry on south. Bangalore proves to be a prettier town than most while the AA notes mention that some Indian breweries are based there.
Last night before reaching our destination, we are having a beer and fish curry which is hot but bearable. On the next table is an Indian guy who is plainly struggling with his food. We start chatting and he is from the Indian Oil Company, his tiny company car parked nearby. Can’t eat this hot southern food he says, as he is from north India.
After five days we reach Madras where we manage to find accommodation at the AA Club. At Madras station which is a horrible place being full of beggars – some of them horribly disfigured, we ask about tickets to Ceylon and are told that we can catch the train that night to Rameswaram for the boat to Ceylon. This leads to a panic as we have only just checked in, but we keep our stuff at the AA Club and park the Land Rover safely. Another taxi to the station where we queue up for tickets:
“Three tickets with seats, to Rameswaram please.”
“What about first class, second class?”
“What tickets then?
“Third Class unreserved”
We have no idea then what this means, but at least it’s a ticket. Strolling down to the platform, the train with its first class, second class then third class carriages, backs in with two extra carriages stuck on the end – third class unreserved. Well before the train has stopped, two men dive in head first through open windows as the doors are already crammed with people scrambling on. Children are hauled bodily through the windows together with suitcases, white muslin bundles the size of small armchairs and other family members. A rugby scrum is pure gentility in comparison. We are a bit slow here and can barely get standing room. As the train pulls out, people are hanging out the doors and I finally get a half seat with one buttock resting on the end of someone’s suitcase on the floor. There is a loo and when one guy who has been lying down in the luggage rack returns, Anussorn has grabbed it and will not budge. During the night, passenger numbers thin out plus there are stops for engine changes. Warm, milky chai served in solid cone-shaped metal cups, is available on the platforms – a surprisingly refreshing drink when it is really hot.
Next day, we have seats and can talk to some of the passengers who are curious about our travels but embarrassed by the circumstances on the train. An old man dressed in a loincloth and not much else, is smoking an old clay pipe stuffed with something from a dirty linen cloth, gabbling away in a language no one understands. This puzzles the young man we are talking to who explains that in some parts of India, it is not unusual to know three or even four languages – India has over 200 of them. The old man rambles on in his unknown dialect eventually smoking the linen cloth as well.
Afternoon and a handful of us get off the train at Rameswaram. Immediately, we are accosted by three guys telling us that we have missed the boat. But it is there in front of us with black smoke coming from the funnel. This really spoils our day but going down to the beach shows the thatched open-sided huts where passport and customs formalities are done, all empty. Everyone has gone home. This is obviously a scam with Madras station involved and it takes a while for us to calm down. Apologising for our rudeness, we are shown to a humble but decent hotel where we are told we have three days to wait for the next boat.