Several decades ago, in this month, two young men, who’d escaped from school and had started to enjoy their gap year, decided to go east.
One of them had managed through his mother’s work to obtain a free airline ticket. He was to act as accompanist to a mentally-ill Sicilian person who was to be repatriated to his family in Catania.
His friend joined him a little later and, after a train journey to Messina, they crossed the straits and started to hitch across the heel of Italy. In some respects this was the most dangerous part of their journey since they were warned of a confrontation with a mafia gang at the booth of a service station where they had been invited to spend the night. Reaching Brindisi safely the two took the ferry to Patras and touched Athens where they stayed in the city’s youth hostel,
The next part of the journey took them through Northern Greece to the border with Turkey. The weather at this stage was getting colder and colder and by the time Istanbul was reached it was positively freezing.
Istanbul was the first taste the two had had of the mysterious east and they enjoyed visiting the City’s old quarters, Hagia Sophia and the Blue mosque.
The longest, and perhaps most uncomfortable, train journey either had taken took them across the Anatolian plateau through Syria, where they visited the great mosque of Damascus,
and finished up in Beirut.
At this point money problems stared to afflict them and one of them took a job as a barman at a ski resort in the Lebanese mountains. Baalbek was visited:
A meeting with a Swedish guy who drove a Volkswagen van enabled the two to reach a still-divided Jerusalem.
A dip in (or rather a float on) the Dead Sea was a must:
Amman’s Roman theatre was also explored:
Then it was a journey through Jordan past the H4 border post and into Iraq where they arrived in Bagdad. After a few days in the thousand and one nights city the next stage took the two to Basra where they were hosted by the British consul there.
A journey to Kuwait was rewarded by a chance to gain some extra money, both through giving blood and also by writing up travels so far and broadcasting the script on the English-speaking section of Kuwait radio.
Another van, this time driven by an English person, took them through the unstable Iraq-Iran border past the amazing ruins of Persepolis
and the graceful architecture of Isfahan and Shiraz
to a Teheran still ruled over by a Shah.
Thence it was towards Afghanistan via Meshed and past Herat and Kandahar to land up in Kabul.
The descent down the Khyber Pass to Pakistan was accompanied by ever warmer weather. It was now March and the torrid heat of the Indian subcontinent plains was building up. A stay at the hill station of Murree was welcomed.
From Lahore a train was taken towards New Delhi with, of course, the obligatory border transport hiatus where one had to walk a mile across no-man’s land to India.
A stay in Varanasi (Benares)
was followed by a crossing into Nepal and Kathmandu where a full month was spent at the mythical blue Tibetan guest-house and restaurant. Cycling and walking around the Kathmandu valley recharged one’s batteries before starting the return leg.
More of Northern India was visited, including Jaipur and Agra.
Then it was a return crossing into Pakistan and back to Kabul. Here a truck with a home-ward bound expedition in the Hindu Kush Mountains took one directly back through Iran and Turkey to Istanbul. Thence it was through Greece and Italy to come home to the UK from Catania airport.
This was a journey of a lifetime and one which changed the outlook of both protagonists for ever. The world’s diversity was opened out for them, the exposure to different cultures was seminal and the encounter with some of the world’s most amazing and often strangest sights was stunning.
It was also the journey of a lifetime because it would be difficult to repeat such a hitch-hiking trip today. Parents would have been dissatisfied with just an occasional post-card and no cell-phone calls. Certainly, the UK’s foreign office would have strongly discouraged such a voyage, especially by two teenagers.
Yet such an expedition was all the rage in Sergeant Pepper year. The hippy trail was a central experience for the youth of that distant decade and one which laid the foundation of social changes which radically transformed attitudes and views.
It’s so sad that practically every country journeyed across then has since been torn apart by inner conflict and exterior meddling. Some of these have been worse than others. Will one ever gaze peacefully on the ruins of Palmyra for example? And as for the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan…
There are no prizes for guessing who one of the two who came back, changed and chastened by their oriental voyage, was….