Overland to India in 1960
On September 18, 1960, I and my friend Wolfgang took the Orient Express to Istanbul in Munich. We had travelled to some Balkan countries, Turkey and Syria by motorbike a year ago, but this time we planned big: from Germany all the way to Australia!
We hoped to make it through Persia before the onset of the cold late autumn and reaching Pakistan before the onset of winter. We spoke a little Turkish that we had learned from Wolfgang’s young Turkish colleague Mehmet, with whom we spent most of our leisure time. Like Easter 1956, when we bought a lamb and drove in Mehmet’s car to Lake Starnberg. There he butchered the lamb according to Islamic law and we roasted it on a spit over a fire – it tasted terrific.
With our basic knowledge of Turkish we were able to get around in Turkey and even in parts of Persia. After a few days in the historic heart of Istanbul we crossed the Bosphorus aboard a small boat and disembarked at Haydarpasa Station, where we boarded the train to Van. We covered the last leg by ferry across Lake Van. From Van we continued with trucks operated by Turkish traders. We drove through a magnificent mountain landscape to Tabriz in Persia. On our way we passed the majestic Mt. Ararat at the border of Turkey and Iran. In the markets we were rather impressed by the huge selection of fruits, some of them – such as pomegranates – I had never seen before. On our way to Tehran, bright red and yellow trees and forests showed us that autumn was approaching fast. Transportation in Persia was by truck, the fare had to be negotiated with the driver. We had to sit on top of the loaded goods, like rice bags and boxes and we had to share the space with twenty or more men – including luggage … It wasn’t easy for us to get used to the driving style of the truckers. It happened frequently that they engaged in private races on the wide desert tracks of Persia. However, we enjoyed an unobstructed view ‘from above’ of the landscapes, villages and the hustle and bustle on the streets and markets of the cities. Finally we reached Tehran where we bunked down in a small hotel in the old part of town.
Those days the country was ruled by Shah Reza Pahlavi II, and there was a lot of building activity in Tehran. With major projects and upgrades of the country’s backward infrastructure the Shah’s government was trying to catch up with the West. We paid a visit to the National Museum and marvelled at the beautiful paintings and exhibits. On our way South the landscape changed from the green plains of the north to barren regions with sand deserts and bare rocky mountain ranges. Occasionally, we saw a green splash of colour in the vastness of the desert – an oasis.
The jail in Zahedan
They asked us why we didn’t have Persian vaccination cards. We had to follow them to the police station. There we tried to explain to them that we had only our German (international!) vaccination documents. Much to our displeasure they didn’t accept our explanations. It seemed that they only knew Persian documents. Unfortunately, one of the officers came up with the idea to send a radio message to the check post that we had passed hidden in the cargo area of a lorry. Now we were in trouble!
One day we stopped for lunch in an oasis. Most of the houses were made of mud as it hardly rained in that region. In the oasis restaurant, kitchen and furnishings looked as they dated from the 19th century. Nothing seemed to have changed. The customers sat on carpets, next to them spittoons. As there was a lack of water, the tin plates for the guests were turned over several times in sand and considered ‘clean’ thereafter. After a while we saw a caravan of camels emerging from the surrounding rocky desert heading for the oasis. That was exactly the ancient Orient we had dreamed of when we read the books of the famous German author Karl May. Such encounters became increasingly rare. Millennia old caravan routes had been replaced by roads and trucks took over the work of the camels. Instead of camel drivers the oasis was now welcoming truck drivers. We ate pita bread fresh from the earth oven, served with rice, vegetables and sometimes mutton and washed it down with bitter red tea, which is drunk with a lot of sugar. The crockery was made of pewter or brass. After the meal hookahs made their round and we felt as if we had been time warped into a romantically glorified, long gone world, such as described in the famous poems of Omar Khayyam …
There was a police check post at the end of the oasis where we had to show our vaccination certificates. A policeman refused to recognize our international vaccination cards. He told us to go back to Tehran to get a Persian vaccination certificate. We tried to explain to him that we’d already got two cholera shots in Munich two months ago and were not keen on another one. But he didn’t give in and threw our backpacks off the truck. We had to turn back and took a truck to the next town. Two days later we headed south again. This time we hid between the crates and sacks in the cargo area of a truck after giving the driver an extra tip. This time, we passed the check post without problems and enjoyed a beautiful drive through fantastic desert landscapes until we reached the outskirts of Zahedan. Those days, it was a mediaeval town that resembled the backdrop of a Karl May movie. In a ‘chai evi’ (tea house) we ate flatbread, drank tea, inhaled the cool smoke from a hookah and felt comfortable in the ambience of the old Orient. Alas, as foreigners we were easily recognisable and after a while word had spread that there were two strangers in town.
Soon, two policemen appeared and demanded to see our vaccination cards. They were not amused and made short work of it. We were sentenced to eight days in prison followed by an expulsion order. Our cell was a medieval vault that resembled a wine cellar – unfortunately without wine … Solid iron bars made sure that we stayed inside. We felt like we were trapped in a lion’s cage. Our cell was fitted with two iron bedsteads and we were even provided with mattresses and sheets. There was a shelf for clothes on the wall. Our daily diet consisted of rice, vegetables and tea. Our prison guard Ali liked my hat very much. I gave it to him and in return we were granted the favour of getting an unlimited supply of tea.
After a week they brought us to the city walls, pointed east and declared: “Pakistan is over there”. As we learned later, a cholera epidemic had broken out in our destination Balochistan – that must have been the reason for carrying out those strict controls. We followed the desert tracks and walked all the way to the first village on the Pakistani side of the border, where we arrived in a village consisting of mud houses in the evening. It was the border town and the terminus of the ‘water train’ that brings water from Quetta to various stations in the area once a week. We were extremely thirsty after our march through the desert and drank water from the first available well. Later we realised that it wasn’t a good idea as we were stricken with a terrible bout of diarrhoea. There was no pharmacy in that village and in our first-aid kit we only had adhesive bandages. In remote places like that, one had to be in robust health to survive. In small towns there were no restaurants, but mostly a ‘mom and pop shop’. We explored the area during the day and asked repeatedly if the water train would really arrive on Tuesday and go to Quetta the next day, as we’d been told in Persia. At night we made bivouac in the nearby desert. If we wouldn’t have suffered from diarrhoea, we would have really enjoyed the spectacular view at the star-studded sky more intensely. I’d already heard a few stories about the notorious and arid desert of ‘Wild Balochistan’ – and now we were excited to be right in the middle of it.
By water train through Balochistan
After two days the water train arrived. It consisted of an old steam locomotive, several cistern wagons (now empty) and a goods wagon attached to the end of the composition. The return journey by water train across the hilly and partly mountainous desert landscapes to Quetta was spectacular and reminiscent of bygone days when rail travel was still in its infancy. The rails were simply laid on the sandy ground without a solid foundation. Thus the train could not go faster than 30-40 km/h. Mostly it travelled at a speed of 5-20 km/h. If there would have been any flowers, we’d have been able to pick them while the train was moving.
Some stations along the way consisted of an iron post with a number plate; at some of those ‘stations’ the team locomotive had to take on water. The villages were usually a little further away, tucked between hills. There, millet and vegetables were grown on barren fields. The train did not carry any passenger carriages, only the freight car behind the cistern cars. We sat on the floor, together with about a dozen local men, both side doors were wide open. When the train slowed down, we got off and jogged alongside for a while, as we thought that exercising would speed up our recovery, as our stomachs were still giving us trouble. We had to pay attention to the terrain, as one wasn’t allowed to stumble. We always had to keep an eye on the train’s pace and jump up when the train drove faster. Rice was cooked on a fire on the floor of the boxcar and together we roasted a goat that one of the men had brought and slaughtered. At night we slept on the floor of the boxcar. We travelled through changing desert landscapes until we reached the fertile valley of Quetta. We admired the soldiers of Alexander the Great, who must have endured much more than we had to when they marched through this desert on their retreat from India to Persia. In the picturesque town of Quetta we first encountered the people and cultures of the Indian subcontinent. The hustle and bustle on the streets, chunky carts drawn by camels, alleys with coppersmiths, tailors and colourful bazaars with an uncountable range of exotic spices fascinated us.
No contact with the outside world
Our diarrhoea had shown us that it was impossible to organise outside help in the countryside, if you were seriously ill. You were on your own. Except for the big cities, there was simply no way to get in touch with the outside world. Telegram and telephone services were only available in larger cities, but they were rather expensive and often didn’t work at all. When I tried it once from India, all I heard was my echo instead of the interlocutor. Back then, in rural areas, you were simply ‘out of the picture’, inaccessible – like being on the moon. Sending letters required special care. One had to make sure that the stamps were not being detached – and later resold – by the post office workers. While your letter ended up in the waste bin. Therefore, you had to take precautions. You had to see with your very eyes that the stamps were postmarked properly. This would improve the chances of your letter to reach its destination. Your chances would increase dramatically, if you’d send the letter from a post office in one of the bigger cities. In the main post office weary travellers could go through the letters in the ‘poste restante’ box, hoping to find letters addressed to him or her. I guess that for today’s ‘internet generation’ this must seem completely incomprehensible.