I nearly went to Afghanistan in 1975. Some friends had bought a Volkswagon Combi and were going to Katmandu for Christmas, as one did in those days. The number plate for the vehicle started VLA, so of course it soon became known as Vlad the Van. It was an old vehicle, bought from some Australians in Earl’s Court who had driven it across Europe from India. They had bought it from some English folk who had driven it there, and the general belief was that Vlad had made at least one other cross-continental journey before that. It was not a new van!
I was teaching in Harlow, a new town built to house the re-settled people from London whose homes had been destroyed in the war. The majestic dreams of planners and builders had not been able to cope with the demands of three decades of urban life, and Harlow – like many other planned communities – was commonly referred to as a ‘concrete jungle’. When I had been offered a teaching job in Papua New Guinea, in the west Pacific, the decision to exchange a concrete jungle for a real one was easy. The job didn’t start until January, so I resigned my teaching post, got some summer work somewhere, and put one hundred and twenty five pounds in to the kitty. I wasn’t sure how far it would take me, but in the autumn of 1975 we set off.
We crossed the Channel to Calais, where we were promptly pulled over and searched by the French police, who subjected Vlad to numerous indignities in their quest for drugs. After a while they left us, and we put things back together before continuing on. Through France and across northern Italy we got to know a group of Swedes who were following the same route. We drove fast, wanting to get out of Europe as quickly as possible, whereas they lingered and dawdled along the way. Vlad kept breaking down, so we would be sitting in the courtyard of a roadside garage when the Swedes would drive up, laughing, and ferry us to a campground until Vlad was ready to move again.
The last time I recall seeing them was somewhere south of Split, when we broke down and spent the night camped next to a small roadside restaurant high above the Adriatic. At two in the morning the lights of a huge truck illuminated our tents, the driver wasn’t expecting us and stopped inches from the guy ropes. Large mustachioed men carrying rifles jumped down and started unloading furniture and boxes in to the restaurant. We helped as best we could, then they left and we collapsed in hysterics. The next morning the Swedes stopped by and towed Vlad down the road, and left us at a proper garage.
We made our way across the Balkans, edging gingerly around Albania. This was still a country closed to westerners, although I eventually got there in 2004, seeing at first hand the concrete pillboxes known as Uncle Hoxha’s Mushrooms. During the 1960s and 1970s the President had insisted that each family have a gun placement, to protect them from the westerners who would soon come to invade Albania. The invasion never happened, Hoxha passed away in 1985, and now cows shelter among the ruined walls and collapsed roofs. We travelled across what is now the Republic of Kosovo, but what was then a poor province of Yugoslavia. I vividly remember the red tiled roofs, and the ladies in black headscarves walking alongside the road. In 2001 my first sight as we flew in to the NATO controlled airport at Prishtina was of the red tiled roofs of the farmhouses dotted across the landscape.
From Yugoslavia through Macedonia to Greece, and then across to Istanbul, Vlad stopping at random intervals to give us time to rest. Eventually to Ankara, where I found a letter from my mother waiting at the poste restante. The Australians wanted my passport delivered to London, so they could issue me with a visa for Papua New Guinea. She thought I should return immediately, I figured I had a couple of weeks, so I left my friends and took the train south to Lake Van, and then to Iran. When we came off the ferry on the Iranian side the size of the railway tracks changed, and we had to wait for new coaches to arrive. I played Frisbee with some Americans, while old men in turbans and billowing clothes squatted over small fires and made green tea, which they shared with us.
At Tehran I changed trains, south again to Isfahan. Ah, Isfahan, that jewel of a city, nestled along the river, blue tiled mosques shaded under huge trees. I found a campsite on one of the hills above town, it was closed for the season but a caretaker let me pitch my tent. I sat outside at night, watching the moon and the unfamiliar stars rise and fall above the city below.
In the mornings I walked down the hill to the bazaar, an old and dusty place straight from the Arabian nights of my imagination. Built by Shah Abbas in the early 1600s, it had narrow passages under domed and vaulted roofs, swathes of cloth and piles of beaten brass plates, food and chai stalls, carpet sellers and weavers, a constant press of people. I met a couple of guys my own age and we sat on a wall near the entrance to the bazaar, talking and smoking, watching the tall nomadic Bakthiari women carry carpets through the crowd. Now and then someone would drive a donkey laden with sacks of grain or spices in to the bazaar, or a man would push a handcart on which were piled boxes of pomegranates and melons. We would buy chai from a stall, and roast lamb kebabs wrapped in flat bread. In the late afternoon I would find the bus that took me back up the hill, where I would sit on the sand and watch the stars again, mesmerized.
There is a saying that “Isfahan is half the world”, in Farsi “Esfahan Nesf-e Jahan”, and I would not argue. The amazing double-arched bridge across the river, the minarets and mosques, the Grand Bazaar, the wide shaded streets, it truly is an amazing city, and to a 22 year old from northern England, it was half the world I’d never seen.
But I had to return to London, so one morning I went down the hill and instead of going to the Bazaar I went to the bus station. Eventually I found a bus heading north to Tehran, and clambered on, wedging myself in between two other passengers, one of whom had me hold a cage with a chicken in it as her lap was already filled with bags and a baby. The driver climbed on, and yelled something in Farsi, ending with “Insh’allah!” The crowd roared back as one, “Insh’allah!” He yelled something else, and they responded again, and then he called out a third time. By now I’d figured out the sequence, so I joined in, much to the amusement of my neighbours. We set off with a jolt, and raced at what seemed to me insane speeds along narrow roads, up and down mountainous hills, around hairpin bends, through the hills and trees to the holy city of Qom. When we got there we stopped for lunch. I found a fellow who spoke English, and asked him what the driver had been saying.
“Oh, that. He was just saying that he was the driver and he would take us safely to our destination, if it was God’s will. And we all responded, if it is God’s will.”
“But he said it three times?”
“Well, the second time he said, if ‘I have an accident, it’s not my fault, it is God’s will’. And we all agreed. Then the third time he said if he had an accident and we were hurt or killed, it wasn’t his fault and our relatives should not chase him down, because it was God’s will.”
“And we all agreed to that?”
“Yes, of course.”
We got back on the bus, and took off again at a huge speed, and I wondered how that kind of cautionary warning would go down on the number 24 bus between Leeds and Crossgates.
In Tehran I found my way to a campground which I’d heard was frequented by long distance lorry drivers. I was hoping to catch a ride in to Greece, as I didn’t want to hitch-hike through eastern Turkey on my own. The streets were absent of cars, but full of men butchering sheep. The drains along the empty boulevards ran red and the only noise was the chanting of the men, and the bleating of the sheep. I now know that I was there on the feast of Eid-al Adha, which celebrates the sacrifice of Abraham, but at the time I didn’t know this. It also explains why the campground was full, as the lorry drivers were stuck in Tehran for the national holiday and could not get the necessary exit permits to travel.
I found a small corner where I could pitch my tent, and headed to the café area. To my surprise I saw Vlad, and went to say hello to my friends, who’d just arrived after a harrowing drive through the mountains of Turkey and across the northern Iranian desert. They were next heading to Herat, then across Afghanistan to Kabul, over the Khyber Pass to Pakistan, and then through northern India to Nepal. One day I’ll get there, I thought. We sat and chatted, and told stories of our adventures, and then I went over to the café.
Inside I found lorry drivers sitting around playing pont-et-un and drinking tea. The room was thick with cigarette smoke, and some of them had been there for three days. They understood that the offices were opening again tomorrow and they would at last be able to get their permits. I went back and spent the evening with my friends.
The next day I was at the café again. A group of drivers were waiting for another to get his paperwork finished, so they could leave in convoy. I asked if anyone would be able to give me a ride to Greece.
“Can you drive?” said one.
Not an eighteen wheeler truck, no!
“That’s not much use, then.”
“Do you have any money?” asked another.
“About five pounds,” I replied, truthfully.
“That won’t get you far,” he laughed.
A third driver asked, “Can you cook?”
“Yes, I can do that!” I replied, and he just laughed.
“But no money to buy food, eh, and we eat in restaurants.”
They continued playing cards, and I went to the washroom. When I came out the first driver I’d spoken to was standing leaning against the wall.
“I’ll give you a ride if you want,” he said, “but I’m leaving in ten minutes.”
“Let me get my gear.”
“Ten minutes.” He stubbed out his cigarette on the floor, and walked away. I dashed back to my tent and tore it down, rolled up by sleeping bag, and stuffed everything in to my backpack. I jogged back through the campground, yelling goodbye to everyone as they sat drinking tea outside Vlad, and in to the car park. A huge truck was rumbling away, and the driver threw open the passenger door. I clambered in, tossing my bag behind the seat, and he put the truck in gear.
“I’m Dave,” he said.
“Tim,” I replied, and we shook hands as we moved out of the campground and pulled on to the street.
We cleared the city and headed west on the Tabriz road. Dave was carrying forty tonnes of Caspian Sea raisins, a luxury item in those days, taking them back to England. He was a private long haul trucker, and this was his seventh trip to Iran in just over 2 years. As we drove along we marvelled at the caravan trains we passed, and the mud-brick houses in the small villages beside the road. About an hour out of Tehran we pulled over to a small chai stop. After we’d had the tea Dave climbed up in to the back of the truck. I watched as he carefully lay four or five Afghan coats, the embroidered sheepskin jackets so much a symbol of the 1960s and 70s, on to the floor, and covered them with boxes of raisins. He closed the doors and looked at me.
“Christmas gifts for the wife and kids,” he said.
I nodded. We drove on, and at Tabriz the Iranian customs people came and opened the back of the truck. They looked inside, seeing only raisins, and slammed the doors closed before applying the customs seals.
“Those stay on until England,” Dave told me, “to make sure nobody tampers with the cargo.”
Cargo sealed, we drove off, and followed the sun across the wild mountains of eastern Turkey. I remember fleeting vignettes. After one chai stop Dave made me go around and check under all the wheels, he’d heard that the villagers in that particular area would sometimes put a baby – usually a girl – under a wheel, so that the truck would drive over the infant. The aghast driver would then be accosted by a screaming mob, and only escape by paying a huge fine as blood money. That people could be so destitute that they would even consider this as an option appalls me as much now as it did then.
At another point we were driving in a convoy of five trucks when we were all pulled over by the police, ostensibly for speeding. The drivers had to relinquish their passports, which were taken away to be examined. On the spot fines were then levied, but no receipts were given, Dave just jotted the amount down in a small book he carried.
“Baksheesh,” he said, and sure enough when the convoy stopped for tea we discovered that everyone had received a different fine. For the new driver who was on his first trip, the fine was nearly triple what had been levied on Dave.
“They check the passports to see how often you’ve been here and how much you might know about the local customs,” Dave explained. “Next time tell them the fine is too high and they’ll just drop it down. It’s OK to bargain for everything here, including fines!”
The bemused driver just shook his head. We drove on, winding our way up and over mountain passes, and down long hills on to the central plains. Near Sivas I saw an eagle floating lazily above us, and in the mornings we would have to scrape frost off the windshield.
At night we would pull into a truck stop, usually one that was fenced and patrolled by guards. The truck had two bunks, a double one below and a single upper bunk. I slept on the top bunk and Dave on the bottom – he needed the extra room, especially after we picked up a young Australian girl who wanted a ride from Istanbul to Germany. At the Bulgarian border we spent the night in a compound and in the early morning hours there was a knock at the window. There was no response from the bottom bunk, so I leaned over and wound down the glass. Immediately the muzzle of a gun was pushed through the gap and pointed at my face.
“Whisky,” a voice hissed.
In the dark I could see the general outline of the man, but not the details.
“We have no whisky.” I said, making things up as I went along. “We’re not allowed to drink and drive.”
The gun didn’t move. I held my breath, then I heard another voice whisper something. There were two of them, the second standing to the back of the cab.
“Cigaretten,” said the first voice.
That I could do, as both Dave and I smoked and had bought some cartons in Istanbul. I reached behind me and pulled out two packets, and passed them through the window. The gun barrel jiggled a bit.
I handed over another packet, and said that was all I had, and the gun disappeared as they slipped away. In the morning Dave was matter of fact.
“They’re the compound guards,” he said, “you should have pretended to be asleep. That’s what I did.”
He burst out laughing, and we drove in to Bulgaria. I made an entry in my notebook, and kept it open as we went through the gate. We’d agreed that when asked I would say I was a writer developing a story about long distance lorry drivers, but I was only asked once, as we entered Belgium. Nobody ever asked the Australian girl what she was doing in the truck.
It was Friday when we got to Stuttgart, and trucks weren’t allowed to drive in Germany on the weekend, so we waited overnight for the train. It got bitterly cold and we lit a small fire under the fuel tank, to keep the diesel from freezing. To me this didn’t seem to be a particularly good idea, but I was reassured by the fact that every driver was doing the same, and I enjoyed the strange sight of a row of articulated lorries, all with smoke billowing out from under their chassis.
There had been a storm in the channel and at Zeebruge there was a massive backlog of trucks, parked three deep along the road in to the port. We pulled in behind the last one, and then went for a meal in the cafeteria. As we sat there an announcement asked the driver of truck registration so and so to please report to the port master’s office.
“Isn’t that our truck?” I said. Dave listened as the announcement was repeated, and agreed it was. We went to the office. A man in a shirt and tie was sitting there, his jacket draped on the back of his chair. He pointed out of his window.
“Are all English drivers crazy, or just you?”
We looked out. While we’d been having our meal a ferry had come in, and all the trucks except ours had been loaded. As a result, we were parked in the middle of the road, three truck widths from the curb. We looked at each other.
“Go away, “he said, “and get ready for the next ferry.”
Eventually we arrived in Dover. At the customs terminal the officer clipped the seals and opened the door, then clambered in over the tailgate. He looked at his clipboard.
“Raisins, driver?” he asked.
“Yes,” replied Dave, “forty tonnes of them.”
“My wife likes raisins,” said the customs man, and from where I stood I saw that the boxes had shifted, and he was tapping his shoe on an embroidered Afghan coat.
“My wife really likes raisins,” he repeated, “but they’re so expensive.”
Suddenly I realized what he was saying. I rolled my eyes and pulled faces at Dave, trying to get his to understand what was happening, but from where he stood he couldn’t see in to the truck.
“Give him a box,” I hissed.
The penny dropped.
“I don’t suppose they’d miss a box, if you’d like one for your wife,” said Dave.
The customs man smiled.
“Thank you driver, I’ll take two,” he said, and he did. Then he jumped down, stamped the forms, closed the door, and walked off back to his office, the two boxes clutched under his arm.
Dave and I drove over to the parking area outside the customs compound. He looked at me.
“Even in England,” he said, “baksheesh is baksheesh.”
We locked up the cab and went inside the café.
“A cup of tea, please”, I asked the lady behind the counter. Short and stocky, she personified every cliché of British tea ladies, with a stained once-white apron and a flat hair net.
“That’ll be one and six.”
I’d been in the east too long.
“Will you take a shilling?”
Dave snorted into his tea, and she looked at me like I was something she’d prefer to scrape off her shoe.
“This is England,” she said. “One and six means one and six.” I sheepishly paid.
From Dover we drove up to London, and Dave dropped me outside the Liverpool Street train station. We said our goodbyes, and I thanked him for what had to be one of the longest hitch-hikes on record. He said he’d enjoyed my company, and I’d made him laugh.
We promised to keep in touch, as you do, and exchanged addresses. I caught the train back to Harlow and moved into my old flat, and found a Christmas job with the Royal Mail. In January I flew out to Papua New Guinea, to begin what turned out to be an eight year period in the Pacific. I sent Dave a couple of postcards, and once he wrote back to say he was heading back out to Iran for more raisins, but then I got busy with other things, and he never wrote again.
Previous: Afghan Letters
Next: The Second Time I Didn’t Go to Afghanistan