Monday, 11 February 2019

London to Kathmandu by Truck.


1978 - Travelling London to Nepal with Exodus Overland Travel


I apologise that some of the typing is in small print. I didn't change the setting at any time and haven't been able to rectify the problem.

In April 1976, I travelled to London on a one way ticket. I had long held a dream to travel, fuelled by my cousin’s 3 years of nursing in London and her letters home telling of her adventures. I set off tentatively, not sure I had the courage to make my dream come true. 

Three magic years followed, with each adventure leading to the next. My close friend Jocelyn joined me in London at the beginning of 1978. We flatted together in London and did temp work during January, February and March. The Spring months then saw us travelling together to Norway, Ireland, Holland and the Shetland Islands. Through the summer Jocelyn explored Europe, but had expressed a desire to travel home overland. I found work in a hunting and fishing lodge in Scotland, saving enough to join her on this adventure to take us home.

My  letter's introduction.
September 12, 1978 saw us boarding ‘The Ghengis Khan Bicycle’ truck at Dover, with fellow travellers on our 3 month journey home. A fitting finale to my European adventures. On board were 2 Canadians, 4 Americans, 9 English, 2 Kiwis, 1 Norwegian, 1 Dutch and 4 Aussies - 23 in all. It really was an amazing journey. Each day was full of excitement, with not enough time to absorb all we were seeing and experiencing.  [It saddens me to listen to the news today and hear of the turmoil in so many of the countries we passed through.]


Below is the letter I wrote to friends, on a very old typewriter, when I finally arrived back in Australia, telling them of my overland adventure. Today's technology was unimaginable. Thankfully our latest printer /scanner, has done an incredible job of converting, my mostly 2 X 2 inch aged photogrpahs, into digital print. Its wonderful to be able to intersperse these photographs throughout this letter. It has been done as much for me, as for you the reader. My camera was only a small Kodak Instamatic and you will note, that at times I tried to be creative to capture the amazing things I was seeing.

Continuing the letter.
In contrast to the expectations of many, the truck proved to be a perfect way to travel overland. It wasn’t luxury and it definitely wasn’t uncomfortable however, from its open sides, we had an uninterrupted view of the countryside and its people. [Perhaps there was some snoozing and reading done as well.]

Arriving 24 hours late for its departure, because of mechanical problems, we were rather dubious about its capabilities for the long haul.Thankfully this was the only major problem it had. As we neared colder climes, there were several mornings where we quickly got our blood circulating, as we pushed hard to awaken its cold battery. On one occasion we ran out of petrol in the middle of nowhere [desert] and had to flag down infrequent vehicles to beg for fuel.


The truck certainly gave us more interaction with locals. We sometimes felt like royalty as we returned waves to the intrigued and surprised faces of locals in passing vehicles and  those by the roadside. We rarely had a lunch stop without a crowd joining us to stand and stare. It was amazing - 90% males, aged from 3 to 73, just silently standing and staring, occasionally a whisper amongst themselves. Our biggest crowd was a good 200 on our last day in India. As we pulled off the highway there was no-one to be seen. Within 5 mins of the truck stopping, we could hardly move for the throng of silently staring bodies. In the smaller villages of India, we would pass open air schools and the children would cheer madly as we passed.





Part of the magic of the journey was that on all but 6 nights, we camped, and quite often, not in designated campsites. [2 nights in a hotel in Kabul for security reasons. 4 nights in luxury, on a Kashmir houseboat] During the 1st week, as we crossed Europe, the weather conditions were appallingly cold and wet. We weren't convinced that camping all the way was going to be fun. Putting up your tent in the pitch dark at 9 pm, with the rain pelting down, after you have just cooked dinner for 23 in the men’s loo, wouldn’t be fun if repeated too often. Thankfully, on reaching Turkey the skies cleared. We hardly saw a cloud, let alone rain, for the remainder of the journey. This in itself brought me unlimited joy, after an extremely drab English summer. 


Unless we were in a town, we did not use campsites. Dave, our incredibly resourceful and reliable driver, would start looking for a suitable campsite from about 5pm. Once spotted, we’d quickly pull over, organise the cooking equipment and pitch our tents on the nights when it was too cold to sleep under the stars. The truck carried water and everything necessary for cooking. Dave regularly found us amazing locations. If we didn’t have a mountain to climb to witness a magnificent sunset, then there would be either a steam or the sea to swim or paddle in. Some nights were quite chilly, but always with clear starry skies. The moon quite often wove its cycle of magic. I had never known such perfect peace as on these evenings. We slept on beaches, in olive groves, in a 13th Century castle ruin, on the rooftops of wayside Inns and Caravanseri [camel train Inns in the desert], on a police station patio, 5th and 6th century cave dwellings and so on…………. We were always up at 6 and on the road by 7 am. If one was feeling out of sorts on rising, then the glorious sunrises would soon have you in-tune with the day.

We slept in one of these  - Goreme, Cappadocia

Slept on the roof top of this Caravanseri.


Our camp below this peak. Looking for sunset colours.


Foodwise, the truck carried stores of tinned meats, soups, rice, porridge, instant puddings, jams, coffee, tea, etc. An hour a day was allocated for shopping locally for fresh food items. We were organised into groups of 3 for the chores of  loading / unloading the truck, washing up, and  cooking / buying food. Each chore was just once a week, so it was no great hassel for anyone. It was just another opportunity to communicate with the locals. There were many funny incidences as we tried to mime to the locals what it was we needed.  It was great to have money to spend in the markets.  So much to entice us. On leaving England, we had expected not to be tempted food wise, because of uncleanliness. This was not the case at all. We spent a lot of time nibbling and sampling local foods. The fruit and vegetables, all the way to Nepal were amazing. Huge grapes and peaches caught our attention in Turkey and as we went further, melons of all descriptions, oranges, bananas, apples, pears, guavas, pineapple, pawpaw and an endless  variety of wonderful vegetables.    

My cooking group.



Remember this was the 70’s. Food in Oz was pretty basic then.

We found the markets surprisingly clean. The produce was always very clean, even if there was litter on the ground. Most areas were swept, but garbage collection was quite often an issue in the streets. We loved their hessian bags and woven baskets overflowing with rice, sugar, wheat, barley, dried fruit, nuts, spices, and herbs. The weighing of these was still on the ageless balance scales. Of interest to me was seeing collections of firewood, also being weighed on huge balance scales. The further west we travelled the scarcer the wood became and no doubt more expensive to buy. Women and children were seen ‘turd’ collecting. Ugh! What a job breaking them up, mixing with water, shaping into patties and plastering them to the sides of buildings to dry. Reforestation schemes were in evidence, especially in India, with large stands of fast growing eucalyptus. Often the roads were tree lined to save productive land areas.




We had very few problems with language. In fact, everywhere we went, people would call out 
‘Hul -lo’, ‘What country are you from?’ ‘Come into my shop’, etc. 
Even in isolated villages, there was always someone who spoke enough English to help us, and what’s more, to make us feel welcome. How spoilt we English speaking travellers are and how much we just take it for granted. The friendliness of the people where ever we went, really impressed me. So often the locals had  so little, but were prepared to give so much. In Turkey, when we were exploring the local area, we would be often given fresh fruit or vegetables, or be invited in for a cup of chai. In one teahouse, the owner joined us as we sat drinking our beer. He offered us cigarettes as we conversed in mime for about 20 minutes. On leaving, he wouldn’t allow us to pay the bill. Service in one Turkish bank consisted of being given liquid freshener to splash on our hands and face, then lollies and a cup of chai while we waited our turn. This was the normal service of the bank. The invitation to dinner wasn’t and we declined.

 In central Turkey - Cappadocia, the land of volcanic tuffs, eroded cones, columns and canyons, my friend Joc and I were wandering through the village of Goreme. We stopped to watch a group of women busy with large cooking pots over a fire pit in their garden. Through mime, they invited us in and tried to explain that  they were making wine from local grapes. Amazing to see this part of their daily life. 


Whilst talking with them, we heard local music being played and the sound progressively came closer. One of the women raced inside and brought out her wedding dress to make us understand that the music was for a wedding procession. We were then made to join the group as they passed. The procession stopped in an open area of the village, but the dancing continued with only men. The women moved to the brides home near bye. Soon other members of our group arrived and we were all asked to participate in the dancing. They made us feel that we were honouring them by being present. Later in the evening we were asked to share in their food, wine and more dancing until late into the night. This celebrating was to continue for 3 days. 
 



The lovely wine makers allowed us to take photos, but only after they had put their socks on. We observed with these women and so many others, that they won’t smile at the camera, as it is too serious an occasion for them. Such a shame, as they love to laugh and they have such expressive faces.


Talking of women, I don’t envy them their lot. We rarely saw a Turkish woman, but the men, no matter what time of day fill the chai shops and sidewalks, sitting, drinking, smoking and conversing. The Afghanie women were out and about, but completely enshrouded in their chaderi, with just a small, bulky insert for them to see through. In India and Pakistan, they were  much freer but still living a hard life of toil.

Road workers - India.

The roads on the whole were not bad. Out of 11,000 miles [17,700 kms] there would only have been about 500 miles unsurfaced. Once we left Istanbul, we saw very few cars, but the roads were extremely busy with manic, horn blasting drivers, of highly decorated and gaudy buses and trucks, all filled to capacity and overflowing. Passengers hung from the doors, windows and at times rooftop. From some distance away, they’d start blasting their horn just in case you were going to be foolish enough not to move over. 



It was rather frightening to constantly see smashed trucks and buses by the side of the road. They really were wrecks. The chances of anyone coming out alive must have been nil. Dave our driver assured us that these accidents mostly occurred at night, and we would only drive during the day. What’s more, he assured us, he had been driving this route safely for 6 years and wasn’t about to ruin his record. 


In both Turkey and Iran, the donkey was the main means of transport locally. From Afghanistan on, it was a variety of camel, horse, oxen, water buffalo, bicycle, rickshaw, scooter, and even elephant. The confusion of these in the cities was mind boggling. I’ll never forget one intersection in Lahore, where there were 4 policeman all waving and blowing whistles to direct the traffic chaos. They had to keep jumping out of the way, as no-one was taking any notice. The donkeys and oxen were often completely lost under their heavy loads. It was a strange sight to see camels pulling ploughs and carts.


Istanbul was fascinating, but in comparison to the cities that followed, very westernised. We travelled south through the Gallipoli Peninsular, crossed the Dardanelles at Canakkale and then followed the coast to Mersin. My Father’s uncle fought at Gallipoli, adding to the significance of of our visit here. As we journeyed on, we visited both Troy and Ephesus. The latter stunning in its preservation of its amphitheatre, roman baths, city hall and Arcadian Way. 

Istanbul

Gallipoli

Troy

Amphitheatre at Side on the Turkish coastline - self supporting.

The scenery along the coastline was spectacular. Australia may have sandy beaches and surf, but I’ve never seen the sea so rich and clear in colour, as in the Mediterranean. The mountains were ever towering, then dipping dramatically to the shoreline of sand or heavily pitted rock. Lovely forests and farms in the most amazing places. We spent 2 glorious days swimming and sunning ourselves on the beach of the small village of Fethiye, hemmed in by rugged mountains. It was so peaceful and beautiful, but sadly its utopia was shattered with the murder of the Austrian Ambassador’s wife and daughter when sun baking in the next cove. Five of our group [ nurses] were asked to give medical assistance. We were all left feeling pretty stunned.


Coastline between Kas and Anamur

Fethiye

Eastern Turkey was quite barren and I found it difficult to believe that the numerous herds of sheep and goats of the nomadic Kurds, could possibly find enough to survive on. Whenever we spotted a stream, there was always very efficient drainage and channels for maximum crop watering. Throughout our journey, we spotted people gathering in hay from whatever grass available for winter fodder. It appears an obsession, but I fully realise, after driving through the Iranian landscape, how totally necessary it is for their survival. It was through this area that we had stones [fist size] thrown at our truck by young children. Fortunately no-one received an injury.




We crossed into Iran in the north, near Rezaiyeh, travelling direct to Isfahan through Kermanshah. Here diesel was 13p a gallon.We were a week ahead of all the really bad riots  and except for tanks and sub machined armed soldiers on every street corner, we didn’t realise the country was in such turmoil. We felt no tension at all. The soldiers often waved and smiled at us. The day we were in Mashed, a riot had taken place in the morning. We felt the affects of the tear gas used to disperse the crowds, but no other indication of the morning’s troubles. Other groups that we met up with later, had had their buses mobbed and couldn’t pass through quickly enough. In Isfahan, 3 of us worked in the campsite bar for the evening sift. Our job was to circulate, take drink orders and clear the tables for 1 pound an hour plus a meal. Most of the customers were American working for Bell Helicopters on 2 year contracts and BIG BIG money, It was quite neat being able to earn money plus tips, while socialising, dancing and having drinks bought for us. I left with 10 pound after 3 hours. With this I bought 3 miniature paintings of Omar Khayan painted on camel bone. They are just so beautiful and delicate.

Watching the helicoptors circling, Isfahan, Iran.


 From Isfahan, we drove south to Persepolis - just incredible to wander through its ruins. 

Note the complex in the background. Thus is where, in October 1981, The Shah of Iran celebrated his country's 2,500th anniversary and his own glory, bringing in 18 tons of food to entertain the Emperors, Kings, Presidents and Sheikks, from all over the world.

Then it was north driving across the desert for 3 days. This was really enjoyable, dust and all - barren yet so alive! We passed slowly through Tabas, hit by the September earthquake. It was completely crumbled to the ground. No wonder the death toll was so high. Shortly after leaving Tabas, we hit a wide crack in the road. Soon after, although there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, it started to rain. It wasn’t a hallucination, the whisky stored in the cab roof had smashed. What a waste! 
          



The border crossing from Iran to Afghanistan was memorable, taking 5 hours. Apparently this was a record for Dave. It can take up to 3 days. The border scene was quite unreal. Mud huts around a dusty, dirty square, crowed with overloaded vans, turbaned men and cargo, all making an incredible din and getting nowhere fast. The turbans were amazing. One was unwound as we watched and must have been a good 8 ft long. The toilet facilities I won’t even begin to describe.

Once we were allowed to pass through it was like stepping into another time era. The Afghanie way of life had changed little over the centuries. I loved it. Tiny shops with their contents spilling out onto the pavement and at the back of the shop, the family industry of weaving, sewing, fabric printing, lace making etc was being undertaken. We were forever being invited in to view and take chai with them. Progress on our explorations was very slow. We learnt so much by taking chai with them. So many alleys and streets to enthral us, as we watched them making almost everything that they needed in their daily lives. It was magical to see such wonderful craftsmanship.The bazaar in Kandahar will not be easily forgotten, with its maze of lanes selling knick-knacks, gaudy jewellery, beautiful fabric, carpets,  brass wear, spices etc. Camels and oxen were all part of the traffic. Lying on the pavement amongst the fruit and vegetable stalls, dust and rubbish, were the bloodied heads of sheep and goats, along with their lungs, hearts and hoofs. At 1st they were unrecognisable because of the thick, buzzing mass of flies, occasionally swiped at with a cloth, as the locals came to make their purchase. UGH!






As we drove from Herat to Kabul, we constantly passed the camel trains of the Kutchi nomads, migrating south for the winter. The camel trains varied in size form 10 to 50 camels, heavily loaded with tents and skins. Sometimes a lame sheep rode in state atop a load, but everyone else was on foot. Men at the front and the colourfully dressed women dragging behind, herding the sheep, goats and children. We stopped to watch them pass. A strange experience, with the camels holding themselves grandly, just silently and rhythmically passing by. Perhaps a dog barking, a lamb bleating, stare for stare exchanged, giving a feeling of complete timelessness.


  

   

In Kabul, I was extremely fortunate to attend the national horse game of Afghanistan, called Buzkashi. Several of our group were invited to attend the event as the guests of the owner of our small hotel. Another example of the generosity of the people we met. The tickets cost $10, a large sum back in 1978.

The starting point of the game is a large circle in the centre of the field with a goat’s carcass resting in it. 20 horses circle the ring. When a whistle blows, they all jam in and try to grab the carcass by the leg, as they whip their horses, wildly calling amongst other rearing horses, grabbing at the head of another’s mount. Eventually someone manages to to gain a hold of the carcass and set off to ride around the flag and back, depositing the carcass in their goal. The teams wore colourful red and orange gear, looking very barbaric. A lot of nerve and strength plus skill, to remain mounted during all the buffeting and fast riding.The horses were well looked after. At interval, the Moslem crowd entered the field to pray. 

From Afghanistan on, there was just so much in the bazaars to tempt us. What fun we had bargaining. The story went something like this.

“My shirts are the best made shirts.”
“All handmade.” [ not impressed]
“Nowhere else will you find shirts like this.” [true]
“You are my friend, so a special price for you with no backshee for me.”
“You tell me your last price?” [ half of what he is asking.]
“No. What is your price?” [same]
“Ah, you make a joke. I am just a poor man………………”

It was amazing the number of times we bought things we had not intended to and came away with out the items we really wanted.

From Kabul we descended the Kabul Gorge. It was an incredibly winding road and dropped a good 1000ft, through a narrow ravine, dominated by massive and violently erupted mountains. It made the Kyber Pass look very insignificant in comparison, when we travelled through it the following day.

Kyber Pass

Once we crossed into Pakistan, the soil became far more productive. The countryside was a patchwork of small fields of crops of maize, peanuts, sugar cane, citrus, bananas, cotton and vegetables. The soil was very rich here. In India we could tell that if they missed the rain, famine would result. We had 2 hectic, fascinating days in Lahore. The city was alive with people and animals.

We crossed into India near Amritsar and drove north to Kashmir. A country of spectacular scenery, snow capped peaks, mountain terraces, forests and nestling villages. 




The Kashmir Valley



In Kashmir we spent 4 luxurious days on a Srinagar houseboat. Built of sandalwood, with carved arches, doors and frescoes, they were about 120 ft long and 15 ft wide. They had a large lounge, a formal dining room and 2 bedrooms with private bathrooms. We were waited on completely. Given 3 course meals with coffee to follow in the lounge. Tradesmen called by in their canoes and spread their wares on the lounge floor for us to view - paper mache, exquisitely embroidered tablecloths, Kashmir shawls, jewellery and wood carvings. It was fascinating to sit on the entry steps of the boat and watch the profusion of small boats coming and going trying to sell their flowers, fruit and vegetables, sweets and cookies to the tourists on the other houseboats. “It’s the cookie man!” was an ever heard cry.  

Indira Gandi had stayed on our houseboat when she was Prime Minister.

Our houseboat - Argunut.

Guffoor and his father and daughter.


The Cookie Man


From here we drove to Delhi - not a memorable visit for me as for 2 days I just wished I was dead, suffering from a combination of a violent stomach bug and the flu. This was the only time I had had an issue for the duration of the journey, so I can’t complain. We continued to Agra and the Taj Mahal - absolutely magnificent with its simple lines, the stone so pure and its totality full of serenity.  Next was Khajuraho and its temples of erotic carvings and then on to Varanessi. Here we went out onto the Ganges before breakfast, to watch the Hindu pilgrims bathing in this sacred river. A little further on, bodies were being cremated and the ashes spread on the river. This was the only city we saw with beggars everywhere. Many street scenes were quite depressing.

Delhi - Tomb of Humayan, 1556 AD.

Varanassi

Khajuraho

I am just so thrilled at how well my photos of the Taj Hahal have been revived.




And so to Nepal, where I long to return. It is just so beautiful. Unfortunately we were delayed crossing the border, with the result that we crossed the mountain range to Pokkara in darkness. We camped very late by a lake. The following morning was a sleep in day, but at about 6 am I groaned as I woke with the need to take a walk. As I put my head out the tent door, my feelings rapidly changed to sheer ecstasy. The view before me was magical. The lakes surface was capped with dancing mists, which shrouded a tiny tree clad island. There was row upon row of forested mountains dipping to the lakes edge, with a crisp clear blue sky etching their lines with great precision. As I watched, the dull grey predawn tones changed to the pinks, reds and golds of a glorious sunrise. First a tiny wisp of cloud caught the red glow. Soon the snowy mountain peaks were bathed in colour. As the sun rose higher, the mists lifted above the lake - small dug out boats rowed to and fro, people called to one another, birds sang, and someone whistled. Gradually the reds and golds softened to yellows, giving a special glow to all that the eye could see. Such an amazingly peaceful and rich awakening to the day. Thank goodness nature had called.




The following morning, 3 of us set off at 5 am, to climb one of the lower ranges, to have an uninterrupted view of the Annapurnas. Even at this early hour, in the predawn light, there was much for us to absorb - boats fishing, locals beginning to stir with much coughing and expectorating, cooking fires being lit, breakfasts cooked, and the women and some children already shouldering their heavy loads of wood and hay. One cheery chap called out and asked if we would like a joint. [at this hour?!] A 14 year old girl and a 12 year old boy, carrying huge bundles of hay on their backs, climbed with us. They had come down the mountain at 4 am to collect their loads and had to be back and ready for school at 9 am. My friend Jocelyn, without a load, swore after the 1st 50 yards, that she would never make it. After numerous rests we were more than rewarded for our efforts by the spectacular panorama before us. We had climbed Sarangot, at just 5 000 ft - 1524m, however, dominating the scene before us, looking very grand and imposing was Macchapurchhare at 22 000 ft - 6705m. Hmmmmmmm!



We had carried breakfast with us and Yankee Glen, soon cooked us an absolutely superb meal consisting of 10 eggs scrambled, tin of bacon, 2 loaves brown bread,4 cups of tea and a shared mandarine. We had been ravenous.

Jocelyn, with the backdrop of the Annapurnas and Macchapuchhare on the LHS.

It was a days drive to Kathmandu, where we reluctantly said good bye to our truck and moved into a hotel. Jocelyn and I were booked to visit a wildlife camp at Chitwan National Park for 3 days, but due to the aircraft being out of order one day and the weather conditions atrocious the next, we missed out. This allowed us time to see more of the Kathmandu Valley, as we cycled  to various points of interest. On my last day, an American [Glenn] and I climbed to Ngargkot at 7000 ft - 2123m. We left our hotel in misty fog at 7 am. We had to walk through the market area to catch the bus to the base of Ngargkot. There was much activity organising the fresh vegetable, weighing sacks of rice, rickshaw bells rung, cattle being shooed and of course, the eternal nose and throat clearing. Ugh! I’ll never get used to this habit of so many countries. 
We were again unbelievably lucky to have a blue sky day, once we were clear of the city. The climb wasn’t too strenuous, with the path winding its way along terraced slopes and through tiny villages with thatched mud houses, people threshing rice, washing clothes, feeding animals etc. Again our hard work was spectacularly rewarded . In the distance our eyes were drawn to a semi circle of  massive snow capped Himalayan Peaks. They towered over the lower, blue tinged ranges and in the fore ground, were velvet textured, terraced ridges. The day was so clear, that with binoculars, we could see Mt Everest. I was spellbound.

Kathmandu




My attempt at capturing the spectacular panorama of the Himalayas that revealed itself, when we reached Ngargkot. The arrow points roughly to the position of Mt Everest, seen from here, only with binoculars.

The letter is now concluded.

There was a very strong tempatation to stay the night at Ngargkot, watch sunrise and sunset and then high tail it back to Kathmandu in time to catch my late afternoon flight back to Oz. Common sense prevailed and we dashed to catch the last van back down the mountain. The only room was to sit, with others, on its rooftop. 
I quote from my diary. "Just great. Wind blowing in one's hair, sweeping round the corners, now right, now left and of course at each turn, more fabulous views." Crazy!

I don't think I can add any more words to convey what an amazing, exciting and sensational journey this was. I can never thank Jocelyn enough, for asking me along.

I very recently spotted this caption. So very true.

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