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!

On Journey Part Five

The next part of my overland journey took me across three borders. Iran – Afghanistan – Pakistan – India. Deeper into cultures that were far different from western ideologies. And one where as a western woman I needed to keep my wits about me. To state that at this point I was beginning to regret not buying an airline ticket direct to Australia would be an understatement.

Afghanistan.

Whilst Afghanistan was on the Hippie Trail there was not much information available about the country. The only thing I knew was that there was only one actual road through from the west to the east via Kandahar in the south.

After spending hours at the border we all arrived safely in Herat. Alexander the Great once occupied the country’s third-largest city. Enormous defensive walls and earthworks remained from ancient times. Destroyed in the early 13th century by Genghis Khan, it was later rebuilt.

Herat is famous for its hand-blown blue glass. Artisans can be seen creating delicate works of art in the shop across from the Friday Mosque with its fabulous mosaic tiling, though for some reason we never got to see it.

I found it a disquieting place. There were very few women outdoors in the dusty, streets and I felt exposed and constantly stared at despite covering myself up. It wasn’t a place I wanted to remain in any longer than necessary. Jon and I found a room with twin rope based beds (instead of mattresses) that were shorter than European beds, but surprisingly comfortable (and no bed bugs!) and then we went out to find out about transport through to Kabul, the country’s capital. We discovered that there was really only one bus company on the 1,400-kilometre Kabul-Herat route, the Wardak Bus Company.

Something that really caught my eye were the brightly decorated trucks. Reminiscent of Romany caravans these are highly decorative, brightly painted and very attractive and unusual. I don’t think we will get a lift in them though.

At 8 a.m the following morning we set off via Kandahar, the nation’s second largest city. We were supposed to go all the way to Kabul with only a brief stop and change of driver in Kandahar, but to our non-amazement the driver called a halt. We were then forced, naturally, to stay for a night in the Khyber hotel, which no doubt paid Wardak a commission. Not surprisingly we (as in the foreigners) were very angry with this, but there was little we could do. There was no other place open that we could stay in and anyway, if we did not stay here, our onward tickets would become invalidated. Needless to say the price of a room was not included in the ticket. I was getting quite used to all the scams being practised by now to relieve us of our money.

We left for Kabul at 7 a.m after a breakfast of stale bread and water. The road surface improved, but the traffic was crazy! The drivers zoomed along in the middle of the road, probably because the middle of the road had fewer potholes. This gave them an excuse to play chicken with those travelling in the opposite direction. Seeing your vehicle hurtling itself along the road towards another large vehicle is quite disconcerting. I hadn’t planned on dying here.

Unfortunately our driver lost one such encounter. We suffered minor damage (I and several other passengers were covered in shattered glass from a window which was caved in by the opposition’s wing mirror) and plenty of verbal abuse was exchanged as the two drivers climbed out of their vehicles and faced each other. I thought at one point the two drivers were going to start throwing punches, and vaguely wondered which of the passengers would drive the buses if there were serious injuries inflicted. A lesson to be learned: travel in the aisle seat.

A little further along the road we were forced to a halt by armed bandits blocking the road. They were dressed completely in black with turban style headgear that covered much of their faces. As the bus groaned to a stop, several more bandits came slithering down the barren hillside beside the road and came on board carrying Kalashnikovs (or some kind of automatic rifle) and those evil looking sabres. I avoided eye contact with them, I didn’t want to be bartered over again, and I had a feeling that what these men wanted, they simply took. I am only glad to report that whoever or whatever it was they were looking for was not on our bus. Finally, after much poking and prodding and searching under seats, we were waved on our way. I didn’t realise how tense the atmosphere was until I heard the collective sigh of relief as the bus continued on its creaking journey.

Three thousand year-old Kabul is set atop a plateau nearly 6,000-ft/1,825m high in the Hindu Kush Mountains. We arrived at 4 p.m after another long day of travel and found comfortable rooms in the Atlantis Hotel. Later we went out to explore the immediate area along with Diane and Graham. We had a couple of beers that night with our friends and finally were able to relax.

Kabul is a city that is much larger than Herat and Kandahar and grander too, as across a very narrow river we discovered a more luxurious suburb where we happened to come across a hotel with a large chess set in the gardens. Sitting in the sunshine and watching the gentle game unfold whilst sipping thick Turkish coffee in glasses was the height of luxury after the last week.

Again there are very few women on the streets and most of those that are outside are covered from top to toe in beige chadaree with only their eyes showing through and even those have a meshed panel in front (burka ). It is of course still Ramadan. Diane and I make sure we are well covered in jeans and long sleeved loose tops, before going onto the streets, and even wearing a scarf wrapped around our heads (we both have very long hair). This does not prevent the male population from staring at us and occasionally touching us, but oddly we feel less threatened here than in Tehran or Herat.

Still we are careful not to be on our own.