Journey to the East (1)

What it was like to travel from Hamburg to South India over land, fifty years ago — adventurous!

Studying in a German university in the 1960s meant you had a three-month vacation in the summer. This was used by many students to earn some extra money for living expenses, but by a majority just to travel and see the world. In 1969 I decided, together with my girlfriend Ingrid, to undertake the latter, in truly adventurous style.

It was instigated by a mutual friend, a folk singer named Lee, who had travelled from Hamburg to India by land the year before. Lee had given us four pages of handwritten instructions to use as a road map on the journey. So one day in early summer 1969 we set out, by train.

The first leg of the journey was from Hamburg to Istanbul, which took us two full days, travelling in what was essentially a student train. On the way through Austria, Yugoslavia and Bulgaria I started wandering through the compartments, asking travellers if there was anyone intending to take the trip we had in mind. In one I found three bearded lads who had tied ropes across the compartment. Turned out they were headed for Nepal, but were so ominous-looking I left without asking much more.

But nobody else was headed in our direction — most were on the way to Antalya and Greece. There was one scary incident I must relate:

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The train journey was blistering hot, and when we stopped somewhere people would get out of the sweltering coaches and cool off at water taps. When the train stopped at Niš (Yugoslavia) a German student got off in his underwear and was splashing himself with water, and when the train slowly started to move he jumped on. But he could not find his compartment: the train had split with one half going to Turkey and the other to Greece. And he had got into the wrong half, with his bags and clothes in the other half! We did not know what to do with his things, and never found out what became of him. It was a warning for us: whatever you do, just watch your step.

In any case, later that day I picked up my courage and went back to the burly, bearded Germans, and in a short while discovered how looks can deceive. Peter was a vet, his brother Wolfgang and their friend Michael were university students — all very cultured. We quickly made friends and agreed to look for quarters in Istanbul together. There we spent a couple of days and travelled as a group all the way to Afghanistan. We stayed in touch for a number of years, and I was especially close to Wolfgang, who was a left-leaning, highly educated pacifist with a breath-taking vocabulary (his mother would admonish him: “Red’ net so g’schwolln” — Bavarian for “stop talking so pompously.”

I am not going to describe all the mosques and cultural monuments of Istanbul we visited. Instead I want to describe one experience. We walked across the Galata Köprüsü — the Galata Bridge, and in doing so crossed from Europe to Asia.

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Along the bridge were many fishing boats where you could buy fresh catch
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Some had small coal ovens on which the fish and bread were roasted.

We couldn’t resist and I ordered sandwiches: the vendors roasted the freshly caught and filleted fish and pita (Turkish bread) in front of our eyes, added some fresh onions and green herbs, and a paste sauce. It was one of the most delicious meals of my life. And we paid one Turkish lira for each. You got around sixty lira for a dollar at the time.

Decades later I was in Turkey again and asked my host whether it was the case that little children would go to their parents and say: “Mummy, can I buy myself an ice cream? Will you give me a million lira for it, please, please?” Ali Nihat answered: yes, that can happen. It was the result of hyperinflation, which, according to the Guinness Book had made the Turkish lira the world’s least valuable currency. In 2003 the Turkish government implemented radical redenomination by striking six zeros from their currency — once again children could buy an ice cream for one “new Turkish lira”.

One of the things needed on a trip like this was photos (for students’ IDs and other official matters).

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Above you see a roadside photographer making a passport photo of one of our group. The intriguing part is the technology he used. Inside the camera box is a complete photo lab — a set of vessels with developer + fixer liquids. After exposing photographic paper he did all the processing manually inside the camera. The result: usable black and white pictures for our IDs.

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From Istanbul we used trains, buses, dolmus (shared minibus) to undertake the 36-hour journey to Teheran.
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If you were lucky you had a berth in the train, if you were hardy you slept in the luggage rack or on the floor between the seats.
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A dolmus (the name means “filled”) is a car or minibus that waits until most or all of its seats are filled, and then sets out. Passengers can get out anywhere along the way, or ride all the way to the final destination.

Ours was Teheran. A Persian friend in Hamburg had a sister who lived there, and I had her address. We arrived at her house, exhausted, and found a room and food ready for us (the brother had written to her telling us we were coming).

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We spend a few days in the Shah’s Iran, wonderfully looked after and shown around by the family. In the end the sister gave us a package with a kilogram of pistachios and a lot of dried fruits — she had carefully kept track of the thing we had clearly eaten with relish. And she had one request: if we had not enjoyed our stay in the family we should not tell her brother in Hamburg.

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The next leg of the journey was well over 1000 km and us took two days.
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This part of the journey was mainly by road, in curiously overcrowded buses and minivans.
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At one stage we hitched a ride with a Persian student, but after a hundred km or so his transmission broke down and we were all stranded, in the middle of desert landscape. But not to worry, the student stopped an army truck that took us to the nearest village.

There we spent the night in a small inn, and proceeded in a regular bus the next day. That brought us to the border between Iran and Afghanistan. We were headed for Herat.

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In this modern Google maps image the journey is timed at under five hours. It took us considerably longer. What you can see in the satellite map is that it is all desert.
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The bus from Iran stopped in the middle of 40 kms of barren no man’s land. The border to Afghanistan was marked by a few barrels.
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There, in the middle of the desert, we were told to disembark — and were not told what would happen next. The sun was blisteringly hot, not the smallest bit of shade. One of the travellers held a suitcase on his head, to shield himself from the sun.

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Well, I’m smart, and found a little road bridge, and everyone crawled under it for shelter. Smart, but not smart enough. When I was not looking one of the other passengers took my water bottle and drank it all, even used the water to wash his face. “You know that this is attempted homicide?” I asked him. Nobody had a drop of water left. How could we survive?

Just as things looked very bleak, a bus suddenly turned up from the Afghani side to pick us up. And they had water! In a couple of hours we were in civilisation again, in Herat — alive and well.

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In Afghanistan at last! Breakfast outside our nice little lodge, safe and sound.

I will tell you about the next leg of the journey in part two of this travelogue.

Written by

Frederic Alois Friedel, born in 1945, science journalist, co-founder of ChessBase, studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford.

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