On Journey Part Six

Kabul – Jalalabad – Lahore – Amritsar

We have managed to arrange a lift with a tour company – Swagman Tours from London, England. We are asked to pay 4 ½ US dollars from here to Lahore in Pakistan; this includes overnight camp and food!  The tour bus has several empty places, so we are lucky to get this deal. Also it is good to have English spoken all around us again. You forget how much an effort it is to concentrate on foreign languages and especially trying to communicate in Pidgin English. We left Kabul at 2 p.m. and made our way towards the border with Pakistan. Half way there we stopped and spent the night in a campsite. It was great fun setting up large tents (such luxury) and getting the food prepared for dinner. We sat around the campfire and talked to our new companions, some of who admired our independence in going it alone through this territory, whilst we just reflect on how mad we are.

The Khyber Pass is one of the world’s most notorious passages. It winds 35-miles/56 km through the Himalayas to link Afghanistan and Pakistan. As has been the case throughout history, very serious and brutal bandits frequent the pass, and certain periods are worse than others. The pass itself makes for an interesting drive through the mountains—not as spectacular as the Swiss Alps, perhaps, but its history, the fortresses of Jalalabad and the people combine for an unforgettable experience. You can see colonial-era observation towers on every peak and the badges of former British and Pakistani regiments painted on the walls of the pass.  This area has a lot of history.

We set off early this morning for the Khyber Pass (border at Landi Kotal), which we reached at 11 a.m. We were amused to pass a taxi on the way with so many passengers they were seated on the bonnet and the roof! We counted 13 men on board, but there may well have been more inside!

We drove on through Peshawar and Islamabad before stopping near Lahore in the early evening and camping for the second night. I could get used to this life. No having to make decisions about where to go next or how to get there, hot food that you can recognise as food and hot coffee – it is all sorted for you. Toilet stops included! I am feeling thoroughly spoiled.

Campsite packed up and we are off again!

On route to the border between Pakistan and India we stopped off in Lahore and visited the bazaar, where I had my first taste of peppermint tea. Absolutely delicious and on a scorching hot day there can be nothing better. We were also offered some hashish to purchase. The market trader who offered us the tea suddenly disappeared into the back of his stall only to re-appear with an enormous block of hashish! There must have been at least 1 kilogram of the stuff. My companions and I looked at it with widening eyes, but knowing the penalty for possession if caught at the Indian border we shook our heads and returned to the bus empty handed.

We only just made it to the Pakistan-India border at Ganda Singh Wala before it closed at half past three and bumped into Diane and Graham again. It was very good to see them. The border crossing was in itself a bit hairy. We were searched very thoroughly, or at least our belongings were, and one stupid Australian guy was found to have hashish hidden in the headband of his hat. Last we saw of him he was being marched away to a police car. I was slightly worried about the amount of Indian Rupees I had on me, obtained illegally on the black market, because you are not allowed to exchange Indian Rupees in Pakistan, but of course it is a better exchange rate.

Safely through the border at last the four of us grabbed a taxi to Amritsar that turned out to be the most hair-raising journey of all, though thankfully the shortest! The driver just pressed his finger on the horn and drove as fast as he could, bikes, cars, taxis, people, carts, everything had to move out of his way; only when he met a scrawny cow did he swerve to avoid a collision.

A much more recent photo – but the chaos was the same back in 1973

Nerves jangling, shaking and sweaty, we paid the smiling driver once we arrived in Amritsar and made our way to the Golden Temple, where we had heard we could sleep for free.

Siri Guru Arjan Dev Ji envisioned a temple that would be made the repository of the Sikh religion, a reflection of its resoluteness and its strength. It would become the hallowed symbol of the indestructibility of the faith. It would be known as the Harmandir. The plan he conceived for the Harmandir was designed to reflect the clarity, simplicity and logic of the new movement. Its location in the centre of the pool would symbolize the synthesis of nirgun and sargun: the spiritual and temporal realms of human existence. Siri Guru Arjan Dev reversed the prevalent practice of designing high temple plinths. By building the Harmandir at a level lower than the surrounding land, he wanted to emphasize the inner strength that was provided by the faith, rather than draw attention to its external manifestations. Descending the marble stairs (teaching humility to mankind) to the parkarma, you have your first sight of it, the golden facades and domes surrounded by still waters.

The temple is really beautiful – glowing deep gold in the setting sun. We respectfully removed our footwear and lay our sleeping bags on the marble corridor, and sat at the edge of a pool to watch the sun go down.

Golden Temple 1194
This work has been released into the public domain by its author, Vrlobo888 at English Wikipedia.
In the peaceful early morning silence of the following day the pools are still and glassy and capture an almost perfect reflection of the extraordinary buildings within.

India – I have arrived!

Counting the Cost in Camels

Iranian / Afghani border @ Maschhad / Herat – November 1973

Having failed to reach the border in time (it closed at 6 pm) we found ourselves spending the night in a huge warehouse on the outskirts of Maschhad, Iran. I was amused to see an Australian couple roll out their rather large and lovely Persian carpet to sleep on. Goodness knows whether they ever managed to get it back to Oz.

Early in the morning we caught a bus to the border where we had to walk through no man’s land to the other side where we could catch an Afghan bus to Herat. It took hours to get through the border. The bored Afghani border guards were very keen to have some fun by offering to buy some of the females amongst us with anything from cash to camels!

Although in my head I knew (well hoped) that these border officials would not do anything illegal, I have to confess to being slightly worried at their comments. When half a dozen men with thick beards and black piercing eyes surround you, you begin to feel uncomfortable. When these same men are holding Kalashnikovs and sabres in sheaths at their sides you start to feel even more vulnerable and when one of them grins at you and strokes your hair with the end of his machine gun, you become decidedly jumpy. If he really fancied you for a ‘wife’ what could any of the dozen or so westerners actually do to prevent him?

Smiling inanely at the guards (I did not wish to offend) I handed over my precious blue British passport to be stamped. The man behind the desk looked at me for what seemed like hours studying my face and then the photograph. I tried not to feel embarrassed, but could feel the heat rising from my cheeks. He spoke aside to his colleagues who also looked at me and grinned fiercely. I have no idea what they were saying, but I knew I was blushing. Suddenly the main guy pointed at me and said,

Thirty five camels

his face breaking into a huge grin showing black and broken teeth amongst the mass of facial hair. Was he really suggesting that my travelling friend sold me in exchange for nasty, smelly, spitting camels?

My friend coughed nervously. He shook his head before glancing at me to gauge my reaction. I frowned – was I being undersold? Was he even serious?

Fifty camels then, a very good deal

I raised my eyebrows. How far was he prepared to go? The guard closest to me stroked my hair once again, grinning mindlessly and I was beginning to wish I had covered it as it seemed to be attracting too much attention. I was definitely not keen on this machine gun at my temple.

Eventually sensing my discomfort the main man stamped and handed me my passport back. Still grinning he asked my companion if he would accept the fifty camels. Uncertain of giving the right answer and not wanting to cause offence to me or the guards, he kept his gaze on the floor and muttered that he really didn’t need any camels. I held my tongue even though I was starting to feel quite annoyed. Eventually, roaring with laughter at our embarrassment, the guard shook his head and beckoned us to leave the room which we did in haste.

To this day I still wonder whether fifty camels was an insult or an honour.