It is gone now, extinct as the passenger pigeon or the great auk, but at its peak, from the mid-'60s through the late '70s, the overland route from Europe to Asia was one of the truly unique travel experiences on the globe. You could start out in Munich, Thessaloniki or Innsbruck with a couple of hundred bucks in your pocket and a rucksack on your back, and three weeks later be standing in front of the Palace of the Living Goddess in Kathmandu or lying on a beach in Goa. It seemed almost like an act of wizardry.
Tens of thousands of people did it: mystics, dopers, artists, fugitives, mountaineers, adventurers, runaways, wild-hair eccentrics. There was the German fashion model who had a revelation in Calcutta, gave away everything she owned to the poor and was hitching home in winter wearing only a blanket, barefoot, carrying nothing but a passport. There was the young Pakistani who dressed like a Dodge City sheriff, ten-gallon hat, silver star and all, homeward bound to the Sind after acting in a series of Spaghetti Westerns. There was the elderly upper-crust British Hindu gentleman, gently daft, on his way to the Ganges to find Enlightenment. There was the expedition of Yorkshire mountain climbers, burly beer-swigging proles, heading for the mountains of Afghanistan in a disintegrating Hillman, to climb a 20,000-foot peak. Amazing characters; and they were matched, more than matched, by the scenery, the backgrounds: ancient cities, bazaars, caravansaries, bandit-infested mountains, remote border posts, cold-water hotel rooms and buses painted like Orozco murals, which barely ran. A grand show, indeed.
I made the journey in the summer of '72, starting out on the Capital Limited from Washington to New York, flying Icelandic Air to Luxembourg, then riding another series of trains from Luxembourg to Munich, where I picked up the Orient Express, bound for Istanbul.
Despite its glamorous reputation, born of a hundred vintage movies, the Express was a grim and seedy affair. You slept, if you slept at all, on hard wooden benches, and there were no dining cars; you survived on whatever you could scavenge from station platform vendors along the way, a weird 2 1/2-day smorgasbord of sausages, stuffed cabbage, warm beer and wacky Eastern European soda. Needless to say, there were no glittering contessas or bored elegant diplomats on the real-life Express; 90 percent of the passengers were Turkish Gastarbeiters (guest workers) on their way home after years of toil in the factories and sweatshops of Europe. The rest were low-budget travelers like myself, with a smattering of railroad cops, threadbare traveling salesmen, commissars and small-time crooks on the lam. There actually was a murder on this particular Orient Express, the first night out of Munich, but it wasn't the stuff of Agatha Christies and Alfred Hitchcocks: One Turk stole another Turk's boom box, and Turk No. 2 stabbed Turk No. 1 to death, was promptly caught, taken off the train and clapped into an Austrian prison.
Alps gave way to prairies, Balkan cabbage patches, dusty hills; the cozy greenness of Europe disappeared, replaced by something rougher, wilder, poorer, more exotic: Eurasia. Crossing Bulgaria, I saw Millet's "Man With a Hoe," thousands of him (and her), toiling eternally in the fields. We had entered another space, another time.
Istanbul, on the third evening. This was the first major stopover on the overland route; people spent days, weeks, sometimes months here, planning the next leg of their journey, savoring the fine maritime air, prowling the covered bazaar, gathering to socialize and trade stories and information at places like the Blue Hotel and the Pudding Shop. Listening to the travelers returning from the East, you began to get a feeling for the romance, the ubiquitous beauties and occasional dangers, of The Road.
A German lad joined up with a nomad caravan in northern Afghanistan and rode away into the sunset with them, never to be seen again. A Hindu holy man who looked like Keith Richard and claimed to be 2,000 years old was giving people instantaneous Enlightenment at a tent encampment in the remote wilds of the Rajasthan desert. A lucky Aussie bought a cobblestone of jade from a peddler in northern Thailand with his last hundred quid and resold it to a gem dealer in Bombay for $25,000. Three (or four) Germans (or Italians) were nabbed at the Afghan-Iran border with a van full of hashish and were summarily executed -- lined up and shot, some said, while others claimed they were hung, and their corpses left dangling above the customs shed as a warning to other would-be smugglers.
On a more benign note, an Indian woman customs officer at the Indo-Pakistan border reputedly had psychic powers; she could ferret out contraband simply by staring into your eyes, your mind, and seeing the Truth. Wild, wild stories, most of them true. They made you want to keep moving, wandering east forever, across that dreamlike territory out there. The messages on the bulletin boards in the cafe's and cheap hotels added to the romantic, vaguely risky feel of life on The Road:
Has anyone seen GABRIELLE? from Montreal. Last seen in Kandahar in May. Tell her John and Dana are going back to Katmandu, too many hassles in London ...
WANTED: FREE RIDE TO GOA in time for full moon party in July. No money but good vibes ...
FOR SALE: SITAR, new, hardly played, paid 4,000 rupees in Delhi, must sell immediately or WILL TRADE FOR ONE-WAY TICKET ANYWHERE IN EUROPE TO NEW YORK! URGENT!! From Istanbul, I took a shabby cruise ship called Der Ege through the Black Sea, $8 for the two-day voyage to the city of Trabzon, deck class, sleeping in my sleeping bag under a lifeboat. In Trabzon, I caught a minibus, my first authentic Asian bus ride, over the mountains to Erzurum. The scenery along the way was astonishing, totally unexpected: lush pine forests, rushing streams, snow-capped peaks, rustic hamlets out of "Heidi" or Hans Christian Andersen. The bus' stereo system serenaded us with Middle Eastern pop music, throbbing drum, serpentine flutes and incendiary erotic voices, as we rolled along. The bus driver's assistant, a tiny boy in an embroidered skullcap, splashed our hands with rosewater and served us sodas from a basin full of ice. It was the loveliest of rides.
Erzurum lay on a high plateau below the mountains; it had a harsh wintry feel, even in June. Horse-drawn tongas rattled through the potholed streets; there were gypsies with dancing bears in the bazaar and mountain Turks with flat faces and epicanthic eyes, descendants of Mongols and other ancient raiders from the East.
Erzurum had a very definite rough edge. Jalopies full of scowling men prowled after dark, looking for trouble, and children threw rocks at you, big, serious rocks, if you wandered into the wrong neighborhood. You could sense the history of the place, a history of barbarians, border wars and lost empires, as you walked the streets; it was all there, in the crossed bloodlines, the pride and suspicion, the dust blowing in off the Central Asian plains and the clouds billowing over the cold brown hills to the east, toward Persia.
From Erzurum I hopped one of the shah's deluxe air-conditioned Mercedes-Benz buses to Tehran, a two-day journey past the great white mysterious dome of Mount Ararat, over the Turkish-Iranian border and on across the plateau country of northern Iran, with a night in Tabriz along the way.
The 20th century seemed to have established itself uneasily and unhappily in Iran. The highway to Tehran was marvelous, a real autobahn, but the bus driver smoked hashish and drove like a manic lemming, screaming through villages at 100 miles an hour and avoiding accidents through sheer unadulterated luck. The bus terminal in Tehran was brand new and magnificent, but the men's lavatory consisted of an adobe bunker in a dusty yard out back; the "plumbing" was a single hole in the floor that looked like it hadn't been cleaned since the reign of Darius the Elder. Theater billboards advertised European soft-core films, while on the sidewalks young men in pomaded pompadours and stiff three-piece suits ogled hopelessly inaccessible women shrouded in chadoors. All dressed up and no place to go, and no one to go with anyway.
I sped through Iran as quickly as possible: I spent a day in Tehran getting an Afghan visa, rode the overnight train to the Shiite holy city of Mashhad, and, three days after I had crossed over the border from Turkey, I found myself on a crowded Afghan minibus, rumbling toward the border of Afghanistan.
This was where the journey east became really crazy, and wonderful. The minibus had been designed to carry maybe 30 passengers, and there must have been 60 people on board: half were vagabonds like myself, and the other half were Afghan tribesmen, men in huge turbans, carrying assault rifles and carbines. I was sandwiched between a green-eyed Italian woman with a ring through one nostril and PAIX ET AMOR tattooed on her left wrist, and an Afghan the size of an NFL nose tackle, armed with a Chinese AK47. We hurtled across the desert, past the last Iranian checkpoint, out into No Man's Land, a free-fire zone between the two borders, established by the shah to discourage smuggling. It was a barren, empty place, devoid of habitation, vegetation, anything at all, and it shimmered in the oven-like heat like a terrible mirage.
It was as if we had somehow driven into Act 2 of a Samuel Beckett play, a feeling that intensified when we came upon a pair of vans pulled off the road, with an awning rigged between them, and a group of disconsolate Britishers sitting in the narrow patch of shade. Their story went something like this: They were returning from a year-long journey through India, and when they showed up at the Iranian side of the Afghanistan-Iran border, it turned out that their vaccination cards had technically expired. The Iranians decided to make an example of them, and refused them entry. When they tried to go back into Afghanistan, the Afghans wouldn't let them back in: Their visas had been canceled when they exited, and to get new visas they had to go to the Afghan Embassy in Tehran.
They finally persuaded the doctor at the Afghan border post to vaccinate them and stamp their cards, but there was a one-month waiting period before the vaccinations were valid. When we ran into them, they had been quarantined in No Man's Land for two weeks, paying the Afghan bus drivers to bring them food and water every couple of days. They laughed about it, but their eyes were unamused, full of angry cracked light. Two weeks of starring in a Beckett play in 110-degree heat was obviously more than human beings were meant to stand, and they still had two more weeks to go.
We finally made it to Eshlam-Qaleh, the Afghan border station; after various shenanigans there, during which the Afghan Army colonel in charge tried to raffle off a two-kilo slab of hashish, we were ready to go again, on a different bus, even shabbier than the one we had ridden from Mashhad.
The sun was setting over the wastelands to the west as we set out for Herat, the nearest Afghan city. It was still hot, and the driver decided to crank open the windshield, which was mounted on a ratchet device, to cool off the interior of the bus. We sped along the narrow, rough road toward Herat.
All seemed well, until moths and insects began flying into the driver's eyes through the open windshield. He reached back and snatched a pair of dark glasses off a Frenchman who was sitting just behind him. The Frenchman howled in protest, but to no avail. The driver grinned triumphantly, but then discovered that he couldn't see in the night with the dark glasses on. Before he could react, he had driven off the road into the desert. This infuriated one of the gun-toting Afghan passengers; with an oath, he leapt from his seat and clobbered the driver in the back of the head with his rifle butt, knocking the dark glasses off onto the floor.
It was the driver's turn to howl in anguish as he frantically twisted the wheel and pulled the bus back on the road. The rifle-wielding passenger reached down, picked up the offending glasses and threw them out the window. A cheer went up from the rest of the passengers, Afghans and non-Afghans alike, as we zoomed through the night toward Herat, under brilliant stars.
The rest of Afghanistan was just as gorgeously mad. At sunset in Herat, the call to prayer echoed from minaret to minaret, and flocks of pigeons rose from the ancient gardens, catching the topaz light with their wings. There was a saint's tomb outside the city that was so holy, so charged with spiritual power, that if you lay down on the ground 30 feet away it was said you would roll irresistibly toward it, like a piece of iron drawn by a magnet.
In Kabul, the sidewalks were crowded with Pathan chiefs down from the mountains to negotiate with the Afghan government; they were huge men, with huge beards dyed in wild chrome yellows and neon oranges, and they strolled like natural kings, knocking other pedestrians aside as if they weren't really there at all.
The last leg of the journey east had a few more twists and turns. I booked a flight on Ariana Airlines, Afghanistan's national carrier, from Kabul to Lahore, Pakistan. We took off two hours late, and then, when we should have been arriving at our destination, the pilot announced that he couldn't find Lahore -- there was a heavy dust storm below -- and that he was returning to Kabul. We did a U-turn in the sky and flew back the way we came. There was a wind storm in Kabul when we landed, and the pilot used up half the runway trying to touch down and nearly ran into the terminal building before he managed to bring the 727 to a halt.
I ended up taking the bus over the Khyber Pass into Pakistan the next day. It was an adventurous crossing, to say the least. At the border station of Torkham-Khyber, peddlers peddled every imaginable kind of contraband under the sun: machine guns, grenade launchers, 22-caliber derringers disguised as fountain pens, tear-gas pistols, jars of German pharmaceutical cocaine, forged passports, stilettos, opium. The waiter in the teahouse sported not one but two assault rifles, as well as a pistol and a knife. Bandit country, in spades.
I spent a few days in Peshawar, took the train to Rawalpindi and caught what purported to be a first class bus on to Lahore. This turned out to be the worst part of the entire journey. The driver was a demonic-looking character with a black beard and mirror sunglasses, dressed entirely in black; a Third-World Charon, he seemed determined to conduct his passengers, body and soul, to the Land of the Dead. He wove through the confused traffic of ox-carts, bicyclists, trucks, buses and pedestrians at entirely unsafe speeds. When another bus had the temerity to pass us, he went into a supernatural rage, stamped the gas pedal to the floor and roared off in pursuit.
There followed a bus race that lasted all afternoon, over most of central Pakistan. At one point, the two buses were screaming down a mountain road side by side, barely a foot between them; I looked out the window, down the mountainside below, and saw a wrecked bus, totally smashed. It had burst like an egg, then burned; there couldn't have been any survivors. Worst of all, the ornate lettering on its side said WAZIRI BROTHERS FIRST CLASS EXPRESS COACH LINE; the same words were inscribed on the side of the bus I was riding.
I don't know how we survived that dreadful day. Time and time again we headed straight for a precipice, or a towering truck, or a herd of water buffaloes, doom in a myriad of guises, only to swerve miraculously out of harm's way at the last possible split-second. The Pakistani businessman next to me pulled his coat over his face and spent the last hundred miles moaning prayers to the Almighty. Who could blame him? When we finally pulled into Lahore at dusk, those dank green fields, humid towers and crowded streets looked exactly like the Promised Land.
The dry airy spaces of Central Asia were gone now; this was the Indian subcontinent, wet, fecund, jampacked. The end of The Road, or close to it.
I had met up with a couple of Swedish students, Anders and Sobah, who were on their way to Kashmir for a summer of trout fishing. The next day, the three of us took a taxi out to the Indo-Pak border. We checked out of Pakistan, walked across a strip of unkempt jungle and brush, and there we were, in India.
The two Swedes had bought a small fortune in Indian rupees in Kabul, on the black market, to beat the legal exchange rate; Anders had them stuffed under his shirt. Too late, we remembered the rumors of the psychic border policewoman. We filed into the customs shed, and there she was, a gentle-looking matron in a sari and khaki sweater. She waved Sobah and me past, then took a long look at Anders and held up her hand. He stopped in front of her. She looked him up and down, and then smiled: "You shouldn't buy rupees on the black market," she said. I thought all three of us were going to faint in our tracks. She laughed softly, and waved Anders on into Mother India. A few minutes later, we caught a horse-cart into the holy Sikh city of Amritsar. The next day, Anders and Sobah headed for Kashmir on the bus; I caught a train to Pathankot, bound for a Tibetan monastery in Dharmsala, in the Indian Himalayas. Three months later I was in Kathmandu, on my way to Mount Everest.
When I made the trip again, in the fall of 1975, things were already changing along The Road. Iran was more unfriendly than ever, and signs of political instability were growing. Somewhere west of Tabriz, on the Istanbul-Tehran Express, Savak agents arrested a professional-looking man and dragged him off the train, while the man's family screamed and wept. An ugly, scary scene. The cafe's in Kabul were full of Eastern Bloc functionaries in shiny gray suits, shouting at the waiters and muttering among themselves. Dark signs and portents were everywhere.
By 1980, the Soviets were in Afghanistan, and Iran was falling apart at the seams. A few more buses still plied the Europe-to-Asia route, traveling south through Pakistan's Baluchistan and Quetta to avoid Afghanistan, but for all intents and purposes the era was over, finished. The Road and its magic were gone.
A frequent visitor to the Indian subcontinent, author and journalist Rob Schultheis has reported extensively about the war in Afghanistan for Time magazine.