Mahindra’s invitation to blog on my life-changing road trip took me back in time , to Kabul. Not to the strife-torn Afghan city, but a hippie-happy, ‘wheeling-n-dealing’ Kabul of 1960s. The place was then a bustling staging post for hippies, hitch-hikers, and adventure tourists from Europe, heading East beyond Khyber Pass.
This was in 1967, when I was 29, unattached, and doing Europe overland. We were seven – a mixed group, aged between 10 and 50 – traveling in a 12-seater van on a London-Delhi run. Because of a nationality issue with Pakistan, Kabul turned out to be the end of the road for me. Denied a visa to transit Pakistan, I flew from Kabul to Amritsar. Our tour organiser Brian, and two other Brits in our group took the van through Khyber Pass to Peshawar, Lahore, crossing the Wagha border post into Amritsar.
Alone, and on loose ends, I spent four days in Kabul, waiting for India flight. Ariana Afghan Airlines flew to Amritsar twice weekly. Not being a sight-seeing type (didn’t even own a camera then) I spent much time in cafes watching host of other young men and women doing the same thing. Most of them were youth-hostellers on adventure trip, ready with their back-pack, hoping to hop on to the first available vehicle offering a free ride to some place in the general direction they were heading. Back-packers met in cafes to swap travel experience. Those heading towards Europe, having done India and Pakistan, exchanged notes with European hitch-hickers heading East. Hitch-hicking was a done thing among youths those days. Passing motorists had no hesitation in picking up back-packers thumbing a lift. Some made good company, on long road trips. Cafes in Kabul town were peopled , besides back-packers, with hippies, unshaven, unshowered, and lingering over their coffee waiting for hash-dealer or a vacancy in the toilet.
The vehicles parked outside the cafes had European number plates, and carried windshield placards offering a seat to London for 50 pounds sterling. Vans, Land-Rovers, and bigger coaches on their return trip from India usually had seats going. In our van Brian was the only one doing the return road trip to London. He would have picked up a few fare-paying passengers on his home run to London. Brian, then on his first trip East, said he planned doing the trip on a regular basis as an overland tour operator. We were his first customers – two males, three ladies and a 10-year-old schoolgirl. And Brian found us through an ad. he gave in the New Statesman personal column.
Joan, a middle-aged wife of Norfolk businessman, bored with golf and country life, wanted to do the world overland, if only to be able to send picture-postcards home from exotic-sounding addresses. Carol, a student nurse from London, joined us for ‘some fun and a bumpy ride’ to Bombay, from where she planned to take a ship to Sydney to join her Australian boyfriend. And then we had this young Indian couple, with a 10-year-old girl, heading home for a long vacation in Bombay. I believe they were close to the business family that owned the ‘Parle’ brand of beverges. Point is, even regular guys took to overland trips those days. And Kabul of the hippy, happier days was Mecca to road-trippers from all over Europe. More on my Kabul, a few paras. later.
To begin at the beginning, my road trip started, as I mentioned, with a New Statesman personnel column, wherein Brian said he wanted to hear from those wanting to do India overland in May, 1967. I was then a journalist on the staff of The Northern Echo, a daily published in Darlington, North-East England. After three years in the UK I thought it was time I returned home, to turn a fresh leaf in life. And I couldn’t have imagined a better way to start on it than what the New Statesman ad. offered.
Advertiser Brian, when I got in touch, cautioned that his trip was not for those who expected to be ‘carried’ by others; or those not prepared to accept some heat and discomfort; and, definitely, not for the type that didn’t ‘get along’ with strangers. Brian bought a 12-seater van, funded, presumably, through our contribution, as down-payment on a vehicle loan. I can’t recall how much I paid, but it was less than 100 pounds. This didn’t include our motel stay en route, and visa fees for transiting Belgium, Germany, Austria, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan.
Irony was , such exciting journey across continent had a pretty pedestrian start, at the parking lot of London’s Waterloo station. It was a Sunday morning, 7ish, when the parking lot was deserted. Brian was already there, and waiting. So was my friend Sushil Nangia who had come to see me off. I was surpised to see him there, on a Sunday morning. Besides being a dear friend one had to be bit of a nut to be up and about to see off someone, so early on Sunday morning , when most of London preferred to stay in bed, reading their favourite paper – be it the Sunday Times, Observer, The Sunday Express or the now-closed News of the World. Nangia was, and still remains, both – a dear friend, and bit of the N-word.
Our road trip involved two car-ferry crossings – Dover-Ostend on the English Channel, and across Bosphorus in Istanbul – motoring across the Black Forest; stopping by at picture postcard towns of Munich, Cologne, Baden-Baden, Salzburg; driving up Kop Dagi Highland in Turkey; crossing Iran, taking in en route Tehran, Tabriz, Mehshad and many other small towns to make it to the Afghan border post; and from there to Herat, through a moonscaped barren expanse to Khandahar and then, to Kabul.
After four days on loose ends in Kabul, I couldn’t wait to leave town. As I reached the airport I was told I didn’t have ‘exit visa’. Immigration official suggested I get my passport stamped at the city police station, some 20 mins.away. He offered to get me a taxi. I wondered if it was possible to get my passport exit-stamped at the police station and still make it back to the airport in time to catch the flight. The official at the immigration said it was worth a try – for my flight wasn’t leaving for another hour. A taxi-driver was ready to take me to the city and back. And the next flight was three days away. I had the decision made for me – to make a dash to the city police station. And the Kabul cabbie managed to bring me back to the airport some ten minutes before take-off. As the Afghan Airlines Dakota took to the air with me in the plane, I couldn’t help wonder if there wasn’t nexus between the airport counter staff and the cabbie.