Sunday, 30 December 2007

The Forbidden Land (Chapter 7, Kandahar and onwards, Afghanistan)

For the next two days we skirted another vast mountain range, running south of the sandstone ridges, passing occasionally through bare, scorched villages: Khurmalik, Kala-i-Kirta, Dilaram. We slept beside the scooter, dog-tired and barely able to unroll the sleeping-bags. To the south of us the heat rolled in endless blistering waves from the uninhabited and terrible Dasht-i¬Margo desert, enveloping us in an almost unbearable cloak. To keep moving was the only antidote to the fierce air; but even moving alleviated only a little of the discomfort and our clothes were constantly saturated with sweat. I could feel it running down my back and my forearms glistened until they became coated with the thick dust that we had by now learned to live with. We would ride for three hours, dismount, stiff andmsoaked in our own moisture, only to move off again after a brief rest to seek out and hold that precious breeze that was self-created. Through this inhospitable country we followed the indentations of Hyatulla's truck, anxious to put this hated stretch behind us with all speed.

On the fringe of the savage Dasht-i-Margo, the burning inland desert, I felt for the first time impatient of our friend's strict adherence to his religion. Until now the frequent prayer interludes had been welcome periods of rest from the severe strain of driving, but in the endless hell of sand and heat we began to dread the five stops each day, which left us gasping in the hundred or so degrees; shadeless, save for the shelter of the truck. Indeed, I began to wonder whether the fuel encased in the roasting tanker would explode before its destination was reached. When, therefore, we arrived at ancient Kandahar-scene of the fantastic march from Rawalpindi by Lord Roberts and his army-and Hyatulla told us, with crestfallen expression, that one of his truck springs had broken, we felt that perhaps this was a blessing in disguise.

Kandahar offered us a spider-infested rest-house, with a decrepit shower-bath constructed from old petrol cans, minus door, over which I stood guard while Nita washed away some of the fine dust. Brushed and clean, we went back to the town centre where our friend was busily searching for a replacement leaf-spring. We held a conference and discovered that Hyatulla was likely to be at least three days before resuming the journey. That settled it; we would push on to Kabul alone.

The first day out of Kandahar we made very good time. We travelled slowly but kept at it, and the tortuous miles fell in a mounting number behind us. When we pitched camp eighty-five miles nearer our objective we were in high spirits. The desert had given way to more mountains and the climate was infinitely more bearable. It was still very hot, but there was scenery other than the accursed sand flats, and even an odd patch of parched vegetation which thrust up here and there from the rocky landscape. We had only seen one other vehicle, a Russian lorry, which overtook us in the early part of the morning. As dusk turned rapidly to darkness we ate frugally and hastily, anxious only to crawl into our waiting sleeping-bags.

The next morning, still jubilant, we set off as the sun rose. My high spirits did not last very long, however, for, from the back of our overworked mount, an odd 'clicking' noise was apparent above the exhaust note. I hoped fervently that it was merely a piece of stone caught in the tyre tread, hitting a part of the frame. As yet it was not urgent in its repetition, but it was a warning not to be ignored, although on the stony road between Kandahar and Kabul, in the desolation of Afghanistan, there was little to be done. I had a horrible suspicion that it was the rear-wheel bearing cracking up, which later proved to be the case. There was no spare bearing or oil-seal with which to replace the broken parts. We would just have to keep going and trust to luck that the abused components would not disintegrate before we reached some repair facilities. Nita, whose ear was not attuned to mechanical peculiarities, rode blissfully unaware that at any moment we might be rendered totally immobile.

I glanced around at the sandstone mountains, bare and silent; at the ball of molten fire that hung in the leaden sky above; at the rugged rock-strewn track ahead; and hoped.

Wishing we had stayed with Hyatulla, I mentally calculated our food and water supplies and concluded that they would not last more than a day. Quickly my joviality evaporated. A maimed machine, food and water dangerously low, and as yet endless miles to traverse before the capital could be reached. Although we had the whole of the sun-drenched world to ourselves, which we normally loved, at that moment we would gladly have exchanged it all for a city.

The following day our lonely journey was broken. On the horizon wisps of smoke rose vertically into the breathless evening sky, and we found a party of nomadic tribesmen, surrounded by their camels and goats and all the comforting gregariousness of their kin. The men, lean and leathery, owned magnificent horses: high-spirited, jittery beasts, bright of eye and glossy of coat, despite the parched earth.

At first I thought our reception was going to be hostile. The men glared suspiciously at the scooter and at us. They were, of course, all heavily armed. We pulled up, warily, and dismounted, smiling brightly and eyeing with undisguised envy a huge joint of meat which was roasting over an open fire. A number of ragged though healthy-looking children stared unwinkingly at us and retired behind their mothers; one or two burst into tears. But we continued to smile and approached confidently, despite the growls of huge, fiercesome Afghan dogs.

An old man rose from beside a cooking fire and approached us. He ignored Nita, and stared hard at me for a long moment. The rest of the tribe made no movement, simply hanging on the old man's actions. I began to feel somewhat uncomfortable, with those two gimlet black eyes boring into mine, and had almost capitulated in the game of nerves when he slowly raised his right hand. I shook it eagerly and heaved a mighty sigh of relief.

After the old man had greeted us, the scene changed miraculously. The women bustled about their work and smiled in friendly fashion at Nita, scarcely bothering to replace their veils, which constantly fell away from their faces as they bent over their cooking pots; they were, however, careful to keep their backs turned to me. The menfolk crowded around, smiling and appraising everything concerning our unorthodox expedition.

Regarding the circle of bearded faces with the kohl-smeared eyes, I felt it would have been difficult to assemble a more villainous, murderous-looking bunch. But I have long since learned not to judge by appearance alone. They offered us some of the choicest cuts from a freshly killed beast, and for the second time in our lives we drank camel's milk from a gourd. As neither party could understand the other's language we talked in mime, showing our appreciation of the welcome food by rubbing our stomachs. They in turn imitated us astride the scooter, and mimicked the sound of our engine with surprising accuracy. Everyone laughed, as the humorist of the tribe excelled in his entertainment and went scarlet in the face imitating the tortured sound of an over-revved engine. They implied, with much pointing to the far horizon and with hands cupped to ears, that they had heard us long before we had seen the smoke from their fires.

We finally increased our popularity by giving short pillion rides to some of the younger lads. While we were manoeuvring for the twentieth time between the camels and goats, one passenger, waving exultantly to his brothers, let go with both hands and fell into the dust. I almost expected a hail of bullets from the quick-tempered tribesmen, but an almighty cheer rang out and they laughed uproariously at their companion's mishap. Apart from a few abrasions he was unhurt and, if anything, more friendly towards us from that moment than were the others.

We camped that night between a couple of smelly camels, with our gear huddled around us as a precaution against the many goats who devoured anything within reach.

As is the custom with all nomadic tribes, their day started well before dawn and long before the sun rose they had broken camp and the women were tying the last bundles on to the horses and camels, while the men crowded around a communal hookah, smoking gravely and intently. The young lad who had been thrown from the scooter on the previous evening pressed a piece of well-roasted goat-meat into my hand as we said our formal goodbyes. We watched our entertaining and colourful hosts disappearing obliquely from the main track, a little self-contained hand, bound for some remote corner of this cragged country. Tough as nails, the women as well as the men, it was a mystery how they ever wrested a living from this barren, scorched earth.

The 'clicking' noise of the machine grew steadily worse; even Nita remarked on the irritating, persistent noise. When the speedometer needle crept past the 35 m.p.h. mark the clatter was horribly pronounced. The hours went by and at 30 m.p.h. we negotiated the rock-strewn track, conscious all the time of the fierce sun striking down from almost overhead. We spoke little during those hours, our mouths parched and muscles aching, yet almost frantic to reach Kabul as quickly as possible.

Briefly stopping for food I gulped down my share of meat, smoking, pacing up and down the while, quite unable to sit and relax, anxious only to remount the scooter and put more and more of those arid miles behind us. I felt that if we could only complete the stretch with all possible haste we could do it before the back wheel collapsed. Any motorist will know the feeling. The commonsense side of my sun-dazzled brain said slowly, slowly, but my throttle hand was working independently and the whole time our speed range was right on the edge of the danger mark.

At three o'clock that afternoon I realized, to my horror, that even travelling at 30 m.p.h. the 'click-clacking' was becoming louder. There was a respite of a few miles and the hateful metallic tapping began again. At five o'clock we had, seemingly, the whole of Afghanistan to ourselves and a vehicle that was out of action. Molten grease, oozing from an almost red-hot rear hub, ran in depressing rivulets through the thick alkali dust, in visible, final revolt against the beating it had taken.

The worst had happened. The big question mark that had hovered over our heads from the beginning of the adventure had resolved itself. We had broken down in the middle of Afghanistan.

Sunday, 23 December 2007

The Forbidden Land (Chapter 7, Shind-Dan to Farah, Afghanistan)

(In the village of Shind-Dan) The samovar bubbled and we sat on the still-warm sand, sipping hot sweet liquid and absorbing the pungent atmosphere of the night. Stars, glittering in their icy millions, roofed the dark shapes of the nearby sandstone mountains, making a powerful and compelling background to the murmur of the hill village, with its clink of brass ewers, soft chatter of voices punctuated by the howl of a dog or the bray of a disturbed mule. The supreme tranquillity of the wilderness was briefly ours. Very briefly, for we had barely finished our second glass of tea when a disturbance a little way up the road brought us rapidly to our feet. A couple of shots rang out, shattering the peace and reverberating along the rocky valley. Everyone rose and trotted along to see the cause of what Nita and I hoped was a waste of precious bullets.

At the other end of the village, where a hasty barrier had been erected across the track, it was apparent that the shooting had been in earnest. A heavily loaded truck lay slewed across the main street and there was a group of turbaned tribesmen gathered round a central figure.

As we drew nearer I noticed that the front offside tyre of the immobile truck was in shreds, in the best film tradition. Hyatulla motioned us to stay in the background as he went forward to the edge of the crowd. We waited and watched, mystified by the proceedings which were evidently coming to a head, for everyone was talking at once and there were some angry gestures and much fingering of knives and rifles. As we stood, apprehensive though intrigued, another posse of men strode past us, headed by a tall figure, wearing with his robes, glossy riding-boots and a French-style military cap. His henchmen were armed to the teeth, though more orthodox in their dress; these latest arrivals burst through the group without ceremony and dragged the protesting central figure to one side. Nita grabbed my arm and suggested we return to the peaceful end of the village, but I was far too engrossed in this little drama to leave half-way through the performance.

Three of the officer's band broke away, swarmed on to the back of the truck and started to slit the bags of merchandise with their knives; the plot was beginning to unfold. Back in the centre of this very late-night performance, the police officer was dealing out summary justice.

He questioned the lorry driver curtly, pointing to the truck frequently. The driver was vigorously shaking his head in between anxious glances at the stem men surrounding him. The climax came when the officer motioned the biggest of his men forward, who promptly cuffed the agitated driver with great force across the side of his head. The suspect cowered but remained silent. The officer signalled again. Once more the wretched prisoner had his protecting arms dragged away and again a slap, almost equal to the rifle shots, echoed on the night air. This last herculean, perfectly delivered clout did the trick; the prisoner spiralled into the dust, scrabbled dazedly for a moment, then hastily sprang to his feet to start talking and gesticulating at great speed. At the end of this rapid tirade, the officer, who had listened patiently, making occasional notes, had him led away down the street-still babbling his innocence-presumably to the police station.

When it was all over, Hyatulla told us the story. The slapped one had been ferrying contraband across the border from Pakistan. Our friend showed us a sample from one of the sacks: a hard white substance in pellets about the size and shape of granite chips -he could not give it a name in English-but said that it produced a milk-like substance when fermented. I can only surmise it was hashish or some similar narcotic; I still have the little nugget which has turned greyish with time and perhaps one day I shall have it analysed. Hyatulla showed us the cunning way in which the stuff had been distributed throughout the rest of the load; half the bags containing rice and the other-the forward bulk-contraband. The driver, who had at first disclaimed all knowledge of his dangerous cargo, was soon persuaded with the good old-fashioned lie-detector that perhaps he did know a little more about this illicit traffic than he at first allowed.

The truck was roped off and guarded and the officer, with Hyatulla's help as interpreter, apologized to Nita and me for the somewhat forthright manner in which he had dealt with the errant truck driver. He assured us, however, that his treatment was absolutely necessary, for without the show of force he would be laughed out of his position within a month. Looking at the tough crowd around us, I could understand that perfectly.

The anger of the villagers towards the drug-runner was not due to social righteousness: it was only that the procuring of the forbidden fruit would now be made considerably less easy. Hyatulla implied that the prisoner would probably have a very thin time for the next few weeks for being caught red-handed. Someone had obviously tipped off the police and the man with the outsize headache was probably wondering glumly just where he'd been too garrulous.

On through the night, we traversed more barren mountains over a track of treacherous scree and soft sand. Frequently our guide vehicle slowed down and we followed it delicately through precipitous detours round washed-out bridges. Some of these chasms were twenty or thirty feet deep, marked only on either side of a black yawning pit by two or three little stones laid across the track, signposts, of course, being non-existent.

However, the pace was now much more leisurely, thanks also to Hyatulla's consideration. As the sun rose over the horizon, we crossed a vast desert plain and arrived in the historic town of Farah, as the first smoke wisps were rising from the cooking fires.

For the whole of one day we rested in the centre of Farah, drinking tea and demolishing small bowls of rice and chicken, which Hyatulla delightfully described as 'meat of hen'. As the morning of that day wore on, the sun struck down ferociously. We lay on a carpeted chai-house floor which was roofed with thatched reeds. Periodically a small boy with an earthen pitcher would dowse the roof above us with water, when magically, the oven-like heat would drop steeply for a few blessed moments and the clouds of sleeping mosquitoes which were disturbed in hordes were easily tolerable in preference to the heat.

Farah was very hot indeed, because the town lay in a desert basin almost at sea-level. On any journey of this nature there are bound to be places and situations that retain a dream-like quality in the memory of the traveller. For me Farah was one such place. I remember lying in a half-waking, half-sleeping state on the hand-woven rugs, looking out through the opening facing up the main street. The turbaned figures, stray dogs, children (energetic despite the blazing sun), swirling wraithlike in the shimmering heat, all seemed to be the visions of a dream. Nita lay sleeping beside me, completely unconscious as she always was after a night ride; but sleep would not come completely to me that morning and I could only gaze at that primitive street scene, with the scooter wheel intruding before me. I remember distinctly studying the tyre and marvelling that the tiny structure could carry us across such wild country without being cut to shreds on the jagged flints. I drank deeply from the pitcher standing at my elbow and waited impatiently for the cool of evening.

Sunday, 16 December 2007

The Forbidden Land (Chapter 7, Herat to Shind-Dan, Afghanistan)

(After arriving in Herat) Our first need was money, and changing a traveller's cheque proved to be a bit troublesome. The bank, a long, low white building with an armed warrior standing guard at the door, offered us advice never heard in England.

'Don't change your money here, you'll get a far better exchange in the market.'

This proved an excellent tip. The banks in Afghanistan are poor establishments and the manager told me that no one entrusted his money to other people, preferring to bury it somewhere safely.

So, armed with a fistful of the currency-afghani-we pottered off along the dusty streets to look for accommodation. The scene was much the same as usual: parched, undernourished trees; thin, overworked horses dragging tinkling tongas; the ubiquitous turbaned crowd. There was an hotel, but it was difficult to find. We drank much tea at innumerable chai houses before we gained accurate directions and eventual access to the traveller's rest.

On the edge of the town stood the hotel of Herat, a huge place, a cross between a fortress and a palace. Through imposing gates and laid-out gardens we drove, ravenously hungry now that our anxieties were temporarily over and looking forward to sleeping for a night in a comfortable bed. The place looked very impressive and we were in high spirits.

But the whole establishment was merely a facade. The vaulted, echoing corridors and huge reception rooms were sparsely furnished and empty of guests. There was one other visitor, a Pakistani traveller. We were given a room which contained, simply, two bare beds. No mattresses, indeed no furniture of any kind save these two forlorn iron bedsteads. That we did not mind so much; we were self-contained so far as sleeping was concerned. But food: the visions of chicken and piles of rice began to fade, and soon died altogether. There was no food whatsoever in the hotel.

The mock hostelry appeared to be staffed by two young men. One, with lanky hair and a matching moustache, drooped wearily against the wall and tried to explain; the younger stood back a pace, gazed vacantly into the middle distance, and industriously picked his nose. By six 0' clock that evening it was all too clear that we would get nothing to eat until the following lunch-time. All food had to be ordered at least eight hours ahead. A fatalistic outlook is more than necessary in the Middle East, but it was almost impossible on this occasion not to explode with exasperation.

Back in our room, Nita was sitting listlessly on the sagging bedsprings, completely fatigued and hungry to the point of weakness. I told her the news and it was the last straw. She burst into tears and flung herself across the bed. The tremendous strain of the past days, the lack of nourishment, and the thought of what was yet to come were more than she could bear; now we were without food for another long period. It was miraculous that she had not folded up before. I raved and ranted up and down the room cursing the expedition, the scooter, the Afghans and their accursed, blistered land and the whole of Asia in general. I was very close to tears myself.

Telling Nita to try to sleep, I stormed out of the hotel determined to get food from somewhere. 'Surely,' I told myself, 'these damned people must eat at some time or the other.' After roaming half-around Herat I managed to get hold of a packet of biscuits (tea biscuits imported from England) and a can of tomato soup. Not much, but better than nothing. When I got back, Nita had recovered in part from her despondency and had assembled our cooking equipment and made the room look as inviting as possible.

Over the soup, into which we dipped the sweet biscuits, I looked closely at my wife for the first time in days. Beneath the dark tan she looked drawn and thin and her eyes were large. This malnutrition was getting beyond a joke. For my part, I was noticeably weaker and found it a great effort to lift our valise, or even manipulate the scooter. Since leaving home, our health had improved steadily, reaching its peak in eastern Turkey. From Teheran, however, we had begun to deteriorate; particularly Nita, who had suffered the debilitation of 'Teheran Tummy'. The ghastly track on which we were driving and the anxiety of the journey all added to our troubles both physically and mentally. We started one of those alluring' never again' discussions, which alleviated some of the strain. Yet curiously, we had known before we started that it was to be an extremely tough undertaking. We had experienced heat and deserts and anxiety in Africa; it was nothing new. What struck us as so strange was the fact that we had been aware that there would be times of great emotional stress and real hardship, yet we had started unhesitatingly. The road to the horizon is inviting enough to overshadow all the pot-holes along the way.

It is sometimes necessary to plumb the depths in order to reach the heights. On any expedition of a modest nature, the rise and fall is frequent; luck has a pretty big role. In Afghanistan and in Herat particularly, we experienced utter misery and elation in the space of one short day. Somehow we lasted through a long foodless night, kept awake by the howl of pariah dogs and the protestations of our stomachs, and we kept our self-control through an interminable morning, tormented by the savoury smells floating from the kitchen of that gaunt mausoleum.

At noon, our hunger was appeased with enormous bowls of rice and what I think must have been three or four small chickens, with many side dishes. Eating slowly, we gradually increased our intake, until, after an hour and a half of practically conversationless feeding, we withdrew, heavy and replete. And so our fortune turned.

We met Hyatulla at the petrol pump, where, after many flourishes of our British passport, the reluctant and militant keeper (attendant would be a gross misnomer) grudgingly gave us two gallons of the precious, rationed liquid. Hyatulla was the driver-owner of a brand-new petrol tanker, bound for Kabul. Rotund, jovial, about thirty years old, he possessed an instantly likeable open face, olive-tanned under a well-fitting astrakhan cap. From the moment of meeting this modern hillman, most of our worries vanished. Fortunately for us he took it on himself to become our host, guide, and protector. It was very dangerous, he informed us, to travel alone through the mountains and deserts to Kabul. We would do better to go in convoy with him; that way we would never lose the track and most of our baggage he would carry in the cab beside him. It sounded very attractive. We would be able to throw our less heavily laden scooter around more easily, keep up a higher speed, and perhaps spend many more miles in an upright position. Nita politely but firmly refused a seat in the tanker, preferring the wilderness to the possible amorous advances of a hot-blooded Afghan. Her initial fears and my uneasiness regarding such a possibility were soon allayed. Hyatulla was a gentleman.

We spent the rest of that blistering day languishing in the hotel that provided cool shade if little else, while our new-found friend completed his business. Then, as the sun set and the sting went out of the air, we set off; probably the most unusual motor convoy ever to leave Herat: a long pencil-shaped silver tanker, followed at a respectful distance by a buzzing scooter carrying two people very anxious not to lose sight of the rapidly moving dust cloud ahead. This, apart from resolving into a patch of dancing, hazy light as darkness fell, did not reveal itself again as something tangible until, having covered seventy-eight miles, we stopped at a thatched chai house in the village of Shind-Dan.

Put like that it sounds easy, smooth, and uneventful. But those seventy-eight miles were a nerve-racking ordeal. It would almost certainly have been easier to have kept up a twenty-mile average around a ploughed field. Somehow we managed to keep our marker in sight and amazingly our scooter covered the distance at the fierce pace without disintegrating. The prospect of another hundred miles repeat performance after a half-hour break was not over-appealing. Beating the clouds of dust from our clothing we stamped in front of the cosy charcoal fire where the samovar was steaming, stretching audibly, while I tried to straighten my reluctant arms from a handlebars position. There would have to be a change of tactics.

Fortunately, Hyatulla had among his other qualities the gift of observation. He told us that, as he was in no hurry to reach the capital, we should be travelling slower on the next lap. We accepted this statement graciously and blessed him silently for being the perfect host that he was.

Saturday, 8 December 2007

The Forbidden Land (Chapter 7, Afghanistan)

Pumice mountains, somnolent and brooding, almost animate in their opposition to our progress, surrounded us on every side. They were a perfect heat trap which engulfed us on the last miles of Persia and over the border into Afghanistan. Two days on the track and we were already thinking longingly of the piles of rice left untouched in the hospitable haven of Meshed. For two days now we had eaten nothing but water-melon; refreshing, cool, but far from satisfying as a food.

Our hunger, however, was but a secondary consideration. There we were, two very small figures with an equally diminutive machine, on the threshold of one of the most wild, remote regions on earth. The prospect was frightening, yet fascinating.

The very first Afghan to whom we spoke emphasized that this stretch of our journey would not only be a battle with nature. Tall, heavily bearded and squinting at us with eyes tightly narrowed against the glare of sun and sand, he dropped his official tone once all the passport and paper-work was completed. He spoke passable English.

'You must be careful between towns,' he said, fixing us with a steady eye. 'We have some trouble with criminals.'

'What sort of trouble?' I asked, more casually than I felt.

'Oh, trucks being ambushed, drivers murdered; but usually it is only when the freight is worth pillaging.'

To Nita and me that was cold comfort. He added for good measure, 'It always comes in spurts. We might go three or four months with no trouble, then suddenly there are a whole series of incidents; like this month when we have had three hold-ups already. You will probably be all right, they would have little use for what you are carrying, except perhaps your rifle.'

I glanced at my gun sticking out conspicuously, temptingly, from the baggage. I laughed, somewhat nervously, uncertain whether to break the weapon down and hide it, or keep it out of the case, loaded and ready for instant action.

'Well,' I said, with a hollow cheerfulness, 'let's hope that St Christopher will keep along with us to Kabul.'

'St Christopher?' queried our brigand-like customs official. 'There are three of you?'

'No, two--and I hope we stay that way.'

'Oh, I see, a figure of speech, ha, ha,' he laughed, secure in his mud fortress, surrounded by friends and ammunition. 'Well, have a good journey.'

The shimmering, parched landscape, utterly still, completely silent, swallowed us at once. In five minutes we were in barren desolation. The ribbon of rough track before us looked hostile and formidable. I began to wish we had gone by some other route. The frontier village, Islam Killah-which Nita thought a most unfriendly name-fell behind us and with it the last security of people and the comparative safety of Persia. We began our midget assault on the wild mountains.

The track-if one could call it by so flattering a name-to Herat tried both ourselves and the machine to the absolute maximum. It was a nightmare. We were incessantly bogged down in thick sand, and hurled violently from the scooter innumerable times by the barely definable track when it suddenly splintered into deep fissures caused through erosion and savage floods.

By all the laws of nature, the scooter should have disintegrated at least a dozen times on the way to Herat. We were burnt black by the sun during the day and lay huddled and shivering in our sleeping-bags during the night, almost frozen by the rarefied, high-altitude atmosphere. For hours on end we picked our way along river-beds, riding between boulders and constantly paddling with our feet to stay upright; average speed, ten miles an hour. Into Rahzanak, an impoverished village, we fell exhausted and hungry to the point of starvation.

Since the ample feeding of Meshed five days previously, we had eaten nothing but melon and grapes. Lean, hawk-faced tribesmen, all armed to the teeth, strode about or squatted in groups under the shade of dusty, scarred trees, noisily sucking tea or puffing communal hubble-bubble pipes. There were no women to be seen. I managed to cadge a bowl of rice and a miserable scraggy chicken and we fell wolfishly on to this poor fare. It took an hour to eat; with our digestion in a normal condition, we could have finished it in ten minutes. It was fortunate that I had enough petrol to get us to the town of Herat, for there was none in the village.

We pushed on well before dark and camped about twenty miles farther on in a wadi. We would dearly have loved to continue through the night. The warning of the frontier guard and the appearance of the Afghans in the village of Rahzanak kept the warning of bandits fresh in our minds. But night driving was impossible. As it was there was really no track, just odd signs and tyre ruts pointing the general direction of the route. Almost impossible to trace at times during the day, it would have been fatal to try after dark. Once lost, one could die of thirst, or go mad in the heat of the ensuing days, or fall foul perhaps of some wandering band of hillmen. No, tempting though it was-for in such a predicament movement soothes the nerves and shortens the period of potential danger-we just had to wait impatiently for the dawn.

On the third morning, all the tension flooded from us as the city of Herat suddenly appeared on the horizon. I now had some idea of how American frontiersmen must have felt as the safety of the stockade loomed ahead.

Saturday, 1 December 2007

Persia (Chapter 6, Meshed, Persia)

The market-place was swarming with throngs of different nationalities, and Moslems from Egypt, Afghanistan, and Arabia rubbed shoulders with the Persian residents over the riotously coloured silks, skins, leather-work, and spider-web silver. The noise, the smells, the jabber of multi-lingual tongues were unabating despite the tremendous heat: the Holy Month in the Sacred City was in full swing. It is here that part of Mohammed's body is said to rest. The city was, we felt, little different for the passing of the odd thousand years.

Such were the activity and excitement that we puttered into the heart of this cosmopolitan oasis almost unnoticed, which really made a pleasant change. We could dismount and stretch luxuriously without being hemmed in on all sides, and take a good look at the bustle around us in the dusty, sun-baked streets.

Meshed absorbed us into its life. I remembered the warning of the British Embassy in Teheran. Nita was wearing a sleeveless blouse and slacks, wrists and arms uncovered, her face and hair exposed; she had pulled the scarf from her head and was shaking some of the sand from her locks. I didn't see so much as one fanatical glance. Several smiling faces, looks of passing interest at our strange transport, that was all. I wondered how long it was since the Embassy secretary had visited this lovely city. It had a throbbing vitality, excitement, and jubilance that were certainly peculiar to the Orient. But here was no sign of fanaticism. Everyone seemed too happy to be concerned with such fervour. My apprehension regarding infidels being put to the knife, or being disposed of by any other unpleasant method, in this Moslem stronghold, faded and died.

Accommodation was at a premium, naturally, and having tried a couple of hotels without success, Nita and I were idly speculating whether to drive out to the desert and camp, when we were accosted by a most villainous-looking individual. He had an aggressive black beard, preposterously hooked nose, and piercing black eyes, while a dagger hilt protruded from his voluminous robes. He stared at us in silence for an interminable time and I began to shift uneasily, for he had all the attributes of a first-rate fanatic. He tore his glance, with apparent reluctance, away from our faces and his eyes travelled over our battered machine.

'German, isn't it?' he said, conversationally, in almost perfect English.

‘Er, yes, of course; German,' I replied, taken aback at this chatty remark in my mother tongue. He hawked ferociously and spat with great force into the dust. There was no inference in this; he did it every few minutes with disconcerting regularity.

'I'm a truck driver,' said our brigand amiably. 'I know Pakistan, Persian Gulf, Iran-you know, oil companies-all over.' He waved his hand in an expansive gesture.

'You have your own truck?' I asked, fascinated by the luxurious turban he was wearing.

'No, but my brother owns two-Internationals. Very good trucks, better than English, well, perhaps not better, but we can get good delivery, and spare parts too we can get. If one of yours breaks down it is finish.' Incongruous though the conversation was-Arabian Nights characters with upturned slippers and jewelled daggers just don't talk about trucking and spare parts-the shaft got home. Why should these countries, admitting that so far as quality went, Britain was still best, buy American and German products in preference to our own? We ourselves were mounted on a German machine, simply because the British manufacturers did not make such a vehicle-and this, five years after Britain had been flooded with Continental scooters and the general public had accepted them as a permanent institution! I changed the subject hastily; even the infidel could become fanatical over some subjects.

'My wife and I are very impressed with this beautiful city,' I said. 'Is it always so crowded and lively?'

'No, but it is a very important centre for us Moslems and there are usually some visitors who come to worship. You are staying for a few days to have a look?'

I said we should certainly like to but, with the hotels full, this did not seem very likely.

'Then you could stop where I do. It is full, but there would be ways to admit you.' He hawked again, and I began to fear for the hotel proprietor's life, until I remembered this was merely a form of verbal full stop. .

'Done,' said I.

'Good, then you follow me and go slowly, it is only a few minutes away, but rather hard to find if you do not know the city well.' We threaded our way through the million-or so it seemed -stalls and bustle of the holiday-mood crowds, never letting the sight of the flowing grey-flecked robes of our guide disappear entirely. Endless turnings; contrasts of sun and shadow; streets narrowing progressively; till finally our guide stopped before a
little door set in a high, whitewashed wall. He drummed heavily with his beringed knuckles and we waited expectantly in the brilliant sunshine, smiling affably to fill in the pause. Eventually the door creaked open to reveal a heavily veiled woman who gave us only a brief glance before opening the door wide and motioning us through.

I don't know quite what Nita and I expected to see on the inside of the walls; certainly the exterior did not look too prepossessing. However, we were almost staggered at the contrast of scene. Here were no poky little overcrowded rooms, airless and cramped. Nita gave a little gasp of surprise at the interior of the hotel. Before us was a large square compound, paved with cool terrazzo and studded with palms which surrounded a pool of crystal water rippling under a fountain. Around the pool, languishing on rugs, were three very beautiful women and a couple of young men. On every side of the compound, balconies led into cool bedrooms.

The three women hastily replaced their veils as we entered, but that was the only concession they made to the appearance of the two unbelievers. Nita and I were shown into a lovely room, cool and dim, windowless and furnished only with an abundance of hand-made, ornate carpets and rugs which decorated the walls and floor. We laid out our sleeping-bags and other belongings in this cosy lair elated at this lucky conclusion to our past days of hardship. We began our own belated siesta ten minutes after arrival.

Our friend, Mahmud, had an inspiration the next morning; we must see the Mosque of Meshed. We fell in promptly with this suggestion and riding in a broken-down droshky, driven by a drowsy old man, arrived some time later in the centre of the city with its smell of leather, pepper, human sweat, and the acrid fumes thrown out by the open fires. Everywhere, blinded and scarred donkeys kept the air jangling with their neck bells, and the veiled women, virtually beasts of burden, carried huge loads on their heads and gossiped in shrill, high-pitched voices.

The mosque stood aloof from the main stream of humanity, a huge golden-domed temple, secure behind high walls. We had an outsider's view through giant gateways of the imposing edifice, all porcelain blue and glittering gold, but that was our only glimpse for we were not allowed inside. Mahmud was crestfallen but not dismayed. Instead we drove around the city at a leisurely pace and away from the market there were some cool avenues, tree-lined and still wet from spraying. We went from this serene atmosphere to the hubbub of the Street of Silversmiths. There I really bemoaned our tight budget: superb, solid silver cigarette cases, snuffboxes, delicate filigree jewellery, all quite cheap and very desirable-but we could only look.

Our Arabian Nights hotel kept us well fed. Too well, really, with copious piles of rice and cuts of goat meat which we ate with the other guests, digging into the communal bowls with our fingers. For our three-day stop we never used a chair, a table, or cutlery. The first day was strange and we found it difficult to adapt ourselves, but by the third morning we began to wonder if perhaps our own society was bogged down with too many accoutrements.

By the time we were ready to leave Meshed, Nita and I were entering the second phase in the mental metamorphosis that comes with travel. The first phase, which had remained with us through the Balkans, Turkey, and most of Iran, had consisted of a somewhat superior attitude to the countries through which we were passing. This was an intangible, almost unconscious feeling, which neither mentioned to the other. But it was there nevertheless. We were British-people from one of the 'dynamo' countries of the world-and even in 1956, this influence radiated a long way from our little island. It carried us on the crest of its wave nearly into Afghanistan-that nasty little amused, indulgent air, which I found hard at times to suppress. But then, in the sacred city of Meshed, the second cycle began.

'The Mosque is beautiful and the sun is warm,' they said. 'But what are these things beside your modern, organized world?' What indeed? We in Britain had all the advantages. Now, almost overnight, 'all the advantages' seemed to lose their value. Now, when an enthusiastic visionary, with sparkling eyes, told us how one day Teheran would be the first city in all the Middle East and all the towns and villages would be modernized-the veil swept away, emancipation of women, health schemes, television, with all the throb and urgency of an imported New World-I recoiled in horror. Silently and perhaps selfishly, I hoped that day would be a long way off. So much for changes of attitude; we had fallen under the spell of the East. We were now sufficiently mellowed to appreciate Afghanistan.