Overland to India

A friend back home had been to India and raved about it. I had always wanted to go there, ever since I had read about Allen Ginsberg’s journey there (from the same city as I; we once had his father sign his own books of poems for us as presents, and he maintained that his son only acted as he did as a marketing ploy. Not sure whether that was true, or whether he was ashamed of some of the things his son did). I also loved Paul Theroux’s first travel book, The Great Railyway Bazaar, where he recounted his overland journey to India and beyond.

I had little experience with photography and only a very cheap camera, so my photos are rather lacking in quality.

So, off to India, flying to Brussels, visiting a friend in Paris on the way. I took local transport out of the city as far as possible and then hitched, getting a ride with a friendly French-African truck driver who left me off in the middle of some German city. I slept in some bushes along the entrance ramp to a highway and then continued the next day to Freiburg, where I still had lots of friends, and one of them liked the idea of driving together to visit another old friend in Salzburg.

With Heiner and Christoph in Salzburg

We continued together to Vienna and stayed there with another friend, after which my Freiburg friend drove home and I hitched to Budapest.

At that time, I had never been in place where so few people spoke English, but I managed to find the apartment of other friends (I was really traveling inexpensively, had to travel that way, since I left home with approx. $700 that was supposed to last me for at least six months). Their English was also very poor, so they could not make it clear to me that their apartment was very crowded and wound up letting me sleep there. I only had a transit visa for 48 hours, so had to continue soon to Yugoslavia, where I arrived a bit after the 48 hours had expired. They debated what to do with me, but lack of English got me through. I had no visa for Yugoslavia, and the bus driver laughed that I was a lot of trouble. I found some students in the first bigger city where I arrived, and they let me sleep in a room in their dorm after reasoning with the communist director for a while. On to Belgrade to visit a woman, who had worked as an au pair at friends’ the previous summer and with whom I had had a brief affair. It turned out that she was not there, but up in Slovenia visiting her parents. She had a room with a family in an ugly, Stalinist type of housing project. They had no intention of letting me stay there and got her on the phone. She directed me to a friend of hers in the city where I was able to stay. Upon returning to Belgrade, she told me that she had a new boyfriend and I was to leave the city the next day. She became hysterical when I tried to ask her friend if I could stay there a couple of days more to look around, telling me that it was not possible although I knew very well that it was. I took a train to Istanbul, since hitching was difficult. I stayed in a cheap backpackers hostel near the Blue Mosque where many travelers on their way to or back from India stayed

The Blue Mosque in Istanbul

There were some Afghanis there, who had bought three buses in Germany and were transporting them to Afghanistan. They offered cheap tickets to earn some money on the way, so I paid $15 dollars for a 14-day ride to Kabul, passing through Iran. We were a motley bunch of different nationalities, but all headed to India via the overland route. It took that long, because we had to stop in eastern Turkey to get visas for Iran for half of those on the bus and same situation in eastern Iran for Afghanistan. In addition, someone threw a rock and broke a window in eastern Turkey, which meant a 2-day stay in Mesched, Iran, to get it replaced. Would have like to see more of that city, but they told us as non-Muslims we would be killed if we entered a mosque. One young Iranian woman, who wanted to practice her English, tried giving me some directions, but we were immediately surrounded by a horde of men criticizing her, and she quickly ran off.

Mesched

On the road

We got at the Iranian-Afghani border after six p.m., and then had to wait until the next day to pass. The Iranian border post had pictures of foreigners who had be caught with drugs and description of their sentences (execution or many years of prison). On the Afghani side, the French from our bus were soon smoking hashish with the border guards.

Herat, Khandahar, Kabul: if I had known at the time that the Soviets would soon invade, the start of years of fighting that appears to have no end, I would have stayed longer. It was a medieval world in my eyes with women in chadors, men drinking tea and eating flat bread perched like ravens in bare hovels that passed for tea houses, horse and donkey carts, etc.

Rest stop in Afghanistan

Musician: I also tried playing his instrument, which the locals found quite amusing.

Khandahar

Kabul had a restaurant where a lot of foreigners went, since they had excellent food—which reminded me of Mexican—live music and hash pipes that were passed around.

Kabul

Across the Khyber Pass, vehicles switching to drive on the left at the top as in Great Britain, the run-down city of Peshawar years before the masses of Afghans sought refuge there from the fighting in their home country.

Peshawar bus stop

I was really without a clue on that trip, no Lonely Planets yet, and simply got on the next train to Lahore and the Indian border. A cook in the dining car brought hashish over to me and another foreigner, which we smoked with him. Later, a mean and big policeman came and shouted at us that we had smoked hashish, which of course we denied (I mean, how stupid can you be! Once when I returned to the States, a very unfriendly customs agent asked if I smoked marijuana. No, I answered. Had I every smoked marijuana? I had to laugh and said of course not. He retorted that it was not funny, and had his young, embarrassed assistant go through my meager belongings. I had some French and German books, one of them asked to show that I could read them by speaking some French. I was happy to oblige, but he immediately stopped me, since he could not understand a word I said.). The Pakistani policeman was not giving up that easily, and reiterated his question in a very threatening voice several times. Finally, a Pakistani sitting next to us, with whom we had been having a nice conversation, explained that the cook was the culprit. The policemen ran off and screamed at the cook for a long time, and the latter was afraid to even look at us for the rest of the trip.

I had a bad ear infection by the time we got to Lahore, and proceeded to visit several local doctors. They were all very friendly, and one even invited me into his home where I was served tea by his veiled wife, who quickly disappeared. He and his friend related how Pakistani was such a great country, since it was the first Islamic republic. Afterward, they asked me if I could help them get visas for the USA. I asked why they wanted to go there, since they were in the ideal state, but they replied, “Yes, but we are liking dollars.”

Hordes of vultures were perched on wires at the border to India. On to Amritsar, where travelers were given free accommodation next to the Golden Temple. The Sikhs there also provided free food, which I had once, but food was so cheap and good everywhere, that I preferred that.

It was fascinating, but I just was not prepared for India. I shared a room in Delhi with two Frenchmen, who were constantly smoking hash. The owner and manager of the place, Bob, was rather sleazy, so the Frenchmen taught him the sentence “Je sui pouri”, i.e., “I’m disgusting” and laughed when he said it. Bob realized that it was not something nice and was soon saying, “You French je suis pouri.” There was a room above ours with about 10 beds and full of backpackers, but also visited by rats.

I went with the French to Agra where there was still no entry fee for the Taj Mahal. The Frenchmen smoked hashed with a watchman, and we entered during a full moon: what an amazing sight! Years later when I visited it with my wife and daughter, entrance was strictly controlled for a fee, and the city was overflowing with touts, making it one of the most disagreeable places in India.

People said at that time that you either loved India or hated it. Well, I just could not take it and decided to leave, something I regretted later. I later visited India four times and found it fascinating. Walking down the streets, I sometimes felt that I was on a movie set with the mutiltude of different races, dress, languages, appearance, colors, sounds and scents. The downside of my visits was that I always gained weight, because the food is so good.

Rishikesh, where Beatles had been,

Simla, where Paul Theroux had been,

and Dharmsala, where the Dalia Lama was.

Bus stop on the way.

Then it was quickly back across the border to Pakistan. I hadn’t been able to get another visa for Afghanistan, so decided to travel via Quetta and Baluchistan. Got a train immediately to Quetta, 24 hours during which a huge Baluchi constantly threatened me.

My only memory of Quetta, not exactly a bustling metropolis at the time

I didn’t have enough cash for the bus to the Iranian border, but the bus company said I could change travelers’ checks in the next town, which turned out not to be true. I got a good seat on the bus, but then a man got on with his veiled wife, and I was delegated to the last row, where I sat below a loudspeaker playing loud Pakistani music from five cassettes for the next two days. People got off the bus in seemingly nowhere and walked off into the dessert. There were five goats in and on the bus at times and way too many passengers. The bus stopped at night, and I ate flat bread and tea and slept on the floor of some hovel.

Short break

And then off again

Place for spending the night

On to the Iranian border, and I wondered what I would do about paying the rest of the fee I owed, but they had forgotten about it and probably had just tried charging me too much anyway. I rushed off the bus to the border while the driver and conductor were talking, only to realize that I had left my sleeping bag on the bus. Snuck back on, grabbed it and went through customs. On the Iranian side, they first said my beard was bad (the Shah was still in power), and then laughed that I had already used my visa and could not enter. Fortunately, I had a multiple entry visa, and they had to let me in. I and two other foreigners then traveled by bus and train to Teheran, then two-day bus ride to Istanbul following by a two-day bus ride to Munich. The Turkish bus going to Munich had sold tickets to several Egyptians and told them they were going to Italy. They kicked them off the bus somewhere in Yugoslavia, laughing about how they had tricked them. One Turkish man was constantly hassling me, but the German border guards refused him entry. I did not say anything to him, but he could see in my face that I was not sorry. The Germans kept us at the border for approx. six hours, searching us and our belonging twice, once with a sniffing dog. They were not very polite, and at one point one guard pushed me from behind because I had not moved quickly enough in his mind. I started yelling at him in German, something he did not expect at all from an American, continued yelling at him following him around until he hid behind some other guards.

From Munich, hitchhiked to Freiburg, and a German picked me and then a Frenchman up who had been on the bus from Istanbul too. The German was just returning from some rock concert, and the Frenchman pulled out some hash from his sleeping bag. It had stunk so much from travels to India and back over many months that even the dogs had not detected it. I spoke German in a heavy American accent at the next two rest stops, which always assured me of getting a ride quickly and arrived back at my girlfriend’s in Freiburg totally stoned and zoned out from 14 days of almost non-stop traveling.

Needless to say, I had totally changed by the time I returned.

17 thoughts on “Overland to India

  1. I felt like I earned something, like a vacation that became a gap year, an introduction to the real world, it gave me a boost in confidence, a Master’s in mundane knowledge and a Phd in suffering.

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  2. I can’t believe all of that happened in only 14 days! I thought it was going to be over a couple of months! What a different world it was then. I think the people are much the same, but the politics and security would never let you do all of that now. Great story.

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    1. Although it was 14 days Istanbul to Kabul, and then 14 days back from India to Europe with six weeks in India in between. Then I was mostly just thinking about how I wanted to go to France and improve my French for graduate school the next fall.

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      1. Yes, spent 4 months at Aix-en-Provence with people I met there, who have remained good friends. I wrote about that in my blog post “Parley-vous français”. We only spoke French the whole time, so I was finally able to attain fluency in the language, something I had struggled with for years.

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      2. I haven’t been posting in chronological order, just what came to mind and trying to maintain a mixture of continents and thoughts. Looks like you are back in Canada after a very long journey; hope to hear (i.e., read) your thoughts about how it was to be on the road for such a long time, how it is to be home, and your thoughts about travel in general.

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      3. It’s very nice to be home, although it’s very cold! I still have a month’s worth of India blogs to post and then I will do a couple of blogs about full-time traveling etc. I think I’ll continue with previous trips too. My memory is not like your’s though, I don’t know how you remember details from some of your trips from years ago.!

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      4. Looking at photos from trips brings back a lot of memories, but I do have problems at times remembering where something was. I often use the internet to look at pictures of places and try to find ones that match places where I took photos. Over the years, I often related stories about trips to the few people interested, although most would ask something like “What was India like?” and before I could say more than two sentences, they would ask “But did you see the game yesterday evening?”

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