The bus to Katmandu


On yer bike - The bus to Katmandu

Train in QuettaOn a train, Pakistan

Part 5 - Feb 14 1993

In search of sanity:

Further adventures in the jungle of vanishing normality.

To Susan and Jan. How are you?. Why aren't you coming around to see me anymore? I've bought lots of tea and some curried biscuits. The sun is shining as well and the camels are whistling in the trees.

Here I am, about to to leave Tehran and charge off into the fundamental backwaters of Iran. This is a bit of poetic licence as I haven't been near the place in weeks. Tehran had been far above expectations, very civilised and a society so advanced that they still think that polo-neck jumpers and John Travolta haircuts are a pretty neat idea.


Plastic bucketsLeft alone to wander the vast complex of crumbling concrete and indecipherable Arabic script known locally as Tehran South bus station, I spotted, perched beneath a kebab-stained piece of glass, a small non-descript white aluminium can. Somewhat forlorn amongst the other flyblown products the vendor had to offer, the small can afforded me no help in determining its contents; the drunken squiggles used to write the Persian language seemed to stare back mockingly. I turned to leave, but something made me retrace my movements. Like being drawn to a link from the past, I found myself re-examining it, this time however a few words in English printed in minute letters and previously unnoticeable, drew my attention. They said simply "Malt Beverage, alcoholic tonic". Suddenly it dawned upon me, it was a can of Bavaria malt. What a slip-up or maybe the didn't know; 0.1% alcohol. A quick mental calculation revealed that a mere 840 cans would have the same effect as a whole bottle of whisky. Unfortunately there was a slight drawback to my master plan, the cans cost a Guilder each. On the other hand, perhaps there's a bulk buy discount...

Esfahan, my next port of call was a small city, famous for its many beautiful Mosques which are tiled inside and out with thousands of tiny brilliant blue ceramic tiles. They glisten most impressively in the sun, but somewhat less spectacularly when its pelting down with snow.

The main problem with independent travel in Iran was, as I soon discovered, the food. There never seemed to be a menu. Not that one would have been much use anyway as there wasn't much to choose from. In fact, there's only ever a choice of three things; bland chicken kebab, bland lamb kebab and bland chicken without the kebab; always, always served with bland rice and bland salad. The strange thing is, that wherever you go, from the sleaziest hole to the best hotel, the price is always the same. If the diners aren't much, then at least the deserts go a long way to make up for it. Cream cakes, fruit tarts and some of the most amazing milk shakes ever invented. Dentists are cheap as well.

Zahedan was my last taste of an Iranian city. Situated close to the point at which the borders of Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan converge, it was a dusty flyblown den of smugglers. To get here involved a 16 hour bus ride, crossing 1250 km of desert. It's surrounded by a mountain range, known as the Black mountains mainly because gun law is in force here. I wanted to go on a picnic, but I didn't have a gun. Best thing about Zahedan though was probably the people or rather what they were wearing. There was some serious fancy dress gear ranging from the standard issue black tents for Iranian women through to Afghanis in full warrior uniform and people in lurid technicolour silks. It also appeared to be the in thing to wear the most ostentatious thing possible on your head; pinstriped skullcaps, dishcloths or just a good old fashioned parachute wrapped around onesself. It was my last chance before leaving Iran to enjoy a bland kebab which was the only thing on the menu anyway.

Next morning early, I made my way to the station and found a seat in one of the cattle trucks waiting next to the platform. There seemed to be thousands of people camping around the train and as I studied the teeming masses, I noticed a solitary backpacker, the first tourist I'd seen since Turkey. We soon discovered that we had a lot in common, we were both called John. He spoke very good English too, especially seeing that he came from Hastings. It was good at last to be sitting opposite someone who wasn't continuously burping, spitting out nutshells or gobbing on the floor like everyone else.

According to my Lonely Planet book, this was reputed to be the most depressing stretch on the entire overland trip. Its about a 28 hour trip to reach the first decent oasis town in Pakistan and in between there's only about 3 blades of grass. The big question of course was whether they'd let me out of Iran as easily as they'd let me in, especially after all the `naughty' things I'd done. A pretty young thing, sexily clad in the latest in Iranian wrap around black bin liner fashion appeared at the border post, took a peek in the top of the bags, extended her hand slowly into the steaming mass of used underwear and socks, then withdrew it hastily, declaring that the customs check was complete. Minutes later, I had my exit stamp as well and the train was clanking slowly through the small opening in the massive barbed­wire fence. I was free.

The contrast between Mirjaweh on the Iranian side of the fence and Tartan on the Pakistani, couldn't have been more striking. On the platform in Mirjaweh, a solitary old man peddled stale biscuits, whilst on the other side in Pakistan, a barrage of money changers, food stalls and teaboys stood straining at the leash, waiting for the train to come in. More than a few couldn't wait and jumped the train as soon as it emerged through the boundary gate. Tartan is also the loading point for all the goods that have just been smuggled over the border. In this case, the goods consisted of hundreds of red plastic barrels and an enormous quantity of blankets. By the time the train pulled out of Tartan, the entire coach was packed solid with red plastic barrels from floor to ceiling, stacked everywhere in the corridor, toilets and luggage racks.

The journey was rough to say the least. There was no lights at night in the coach. A dirty old man burped incessantly next to my ear-hole. The lack of heating and nightly temperatures in the desert made for conditions that few brass monkeys these days would be prepared to tolerate. There was an avalanche of red plastic barrels every time the engine driver hit the brakes too hard. People passing in the pitch darkness kept skidding on the frozen spit on the floor, arms flailing desperately as they crashed down onto my .... The bar on the train had been closed for the last 37 years, but at least the air was filled with `wacky backy' Pakistani smoke which was better than nothing.

Finally, after what seemed like an endless nightmare, followed by an endless daydream as the hasj smoke cloud around us began to take effect, we suddenly appeared to be nearing civilisation. Mud huts, camels and stone throwing kids began to appear in increasing numbers. A brightly painted bus left the road and plunged into a ditch. The cardboard box and corrugated iron slums of downtown Quetta passed into view. The train to slacken off speed and finally wheezed around the last bend, drawing into an immaculately kept station, complete with flower beds on the platforms and looking like a scene from a 1920's film. This was to be our first taste of Pakistani civilisation - Quetta.

The first thing we did of course was to head for the nearest food house and attack our stomachs with a massive chicken curry followed by an enormous lentil curry and fried chillies just for good luck. It was anything but bland! Then of course came a large pot of tea. It was a bit overwhelming trying to take everything in, after the sedate and somewhat dull life in Iran, the sudden blaze of color and the slightly more frenzied pace of activity came as a bit of a shock. A woman walked past the restaurant window, no cover on her head. (very sexy). We climbed thankfully into bed at the end of the day and fell instantly asleep ready for a final paranoid dream about escaping the clutches of the Ayatollah.

Heading out of Quetta, the next day on a trek up to Hanna lake up in the mountains, we climbed out of the the small minibus and began to hike up the hillside. After a few minutes, a blond haired, bearded bloke wearing a scruffy denim jacket came alongside us. "Hi", he said, "My name's John" We laughed: "So's ours" we said in unison. 

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