Modifying plans: My original plan was to cross from Bulgaria to Turkey, then go down to Syria and Jordan and through Iraq to Iran. However, because of a disease outbreak in Syria, the Turks had closed the border. This is why I decided to go down through Greece, then Cyprus and take a boat from there to Lebanon. In Vienna, I had met a young American named Bob. He was intrigued about my plans to go to the Middle East and we decided to travel together for awhile. While we had originally planned to meet up again in Athens, we bumped into each other in Sofia, and traveled together for the next six weeks, as far as Teheran.
By boat to Beirut in 1977
The boat we took from Limassol, Cyprus to Beirut was eerie and rather ominous. While the capacity of the ferry boat would have been for at least 300 passengers, there were less than 20 of us on the boat, which made the crossing at night. As dawn broke, we could see the skyline of Beirut amidst the distant haze. As we got closer, however, the site became increasingly disturbing. Damage from the war was clearly visible, the bombed out Holiday Inn notable on the skyline. The closer we got to port, the more dramatic and devastating the damage. Just as we pulled into the port and the boat docked, Bob turned to me and said “Did you ever arrive in a place and want to take the first possible transport out?”
Beirut descended into civil war in 1975, but there was not active fighting at the time we arrived.
That said, Bob and I traveled out of the boat accompanied by two other backpackers as we tried to get our orientation and to figure out what to do next. Any hotels around the port area were semi-destroyed or pock marked and we definitely did not like the “vibe” of the place. After a couple of abortive attempts to find a reasonably secure place to stay, I suggested taking a cab to the Canadian Embassy on Rue Hamra. After a couple of kilometres of driving through a devastated urban wasteland we crossed what was the “green line”, then manned by Syrian troops, and headed to a different part of the city. By the time we got to Rue Hamra, it was like we were in a completely different country. There was virtually no evidence of the war, there were lots of shops and cafes, and it looked like any other normal busy urban centre.
And on to Syria
A couple of days later, we headed back into the “war zone” for an hour or two, only because that was the departure point for taking a collective taxi to Damascus. Driving out of Beirut, and almost all of the way to the Syrian border, scenes of structural damage and devastation were everywhere. And once across the border in Syria, all evidence of war and damage totally disappeared.
For whatever reason, in my experience in visiting “pariah states” in the Middle East, such as Syria or Libya, the level of inquisitive interest and hospitality was among the warmest I have found anywhere in the world. While I only visited Damascus, my memories of interpersonal interaction with the Syrians was universally polite and positive. At the youth hostel in Damascus, I met two blonde Austrian women who were hitch-hiking through Syria. I asked if they considered it dangerous. They said they were “street savvy”, were aware of the cultural context, knew how to avoid trouble, and did not believe themselves to be at seriously greater risk than a male, if they took appropriate cautions.
From Damascus, we took a bus down to Amman, Jordan. Two of the great highlights are Petra and the Dead Sea. The Dead Sea is so saline that one floats above the water more dramatically than in any other body of water. Petra is one of the greatest archaeological sites in the world. Jordanian truck drivers were great at giving lifts to hitch-hikers, even two males traveling together, though we did have a three hour wait in the midday heat at the turnoff for Petra. We stopped for a bite of dinner at a hotel at the entrance to the Siq, then proceeded at sunset to walk through the Siq, a narrow canyonlike defile that is the entrance to Petra to arrive at the first and most impressive temple of all, the Treasury. We decided to sleep in our sleeping bags inside the Treasury overnight. At about 0300 in the morning, I could see a shaft of blue light entering the Treasury from outside. I woke up Bob and we both walked outside. What we saw was not the moon, but the most intense display of stars and the Milky Way that I have ever seen in my life.
Quandary in Amman
Getting a visa to go east out of Jordan proved to be a rather vexing problem that took some time to resolve. Saudi Arabia did not give tourist visas, and was only prepared to give a 3-day transit visa if you already had a visa for the next country. Kuwait and Iraq, the two countries en route east towards Iran were petroleum wealthy. Their Embassies were overwhelmed by Jordanians and other Arabs from less prosperous states trying to get visas to work there. But the biggest problem was that the Gulf countries were very conservative in orientation, and had enough petroleum reserves that tourism, especially from backpackers, was irrelevant and usually unwanted. We had to give up on Iraq, then give up on Kuwait. Then we checked with the Embassy of Bahrain. The officials said that if we flew into the country, we could get a three day transit visa on arrival. So a few days later we boarded a Lufthansa flight from Amman to Bahrain, en route to Bangkok.
To Bahrain and the Emirates
Our “free form” travel came to an abrupt halt on arrival in Bahrain at 0130. Without an onward ticket, immigration would not let us leave the airport. We waited a few hours for everything to open and about six hours later bought a ticket to Shiraz in Iran. The cheapest hotel rooms in Bahrain were running around $25 per night. So we asked around at a couple of churches and a missionary kindly offered us a place to stay. Two days later, one of the missionaries arranged for us to participate in a meeting with Bahrain’s then head of state, Sheikh Isa Bin Sulman Al Khalifa.
Later our benefactor mentioned that he had a friend named Bert, who was living in Ajman in the United Arab Emirates. To close the story, Bert met us at the airport, we spent a few days in Dubai, Ajman and Sharjah, then changed our flights to Bandar Abbas in Iran. In the late 1970s, the Emirates were one vast construction zone. I estimated that in many parts of the country there were at least as many modern buildings under construction as completed buildings. Compared to the comparative austerity of Eastern Europe, Syria and Jordan ( indeed almost anywhere else I was to visit over the following year in Asia), the material wealth and excess was remarkable. We flew from Dubai to Bandar Abbas across the Gulf into Iran. Shortly more than a decade later, the shooting down of that aircraft brought the long war between Iraq and Iran in the 1980s to a close.
Iran and joining the “Hippie Trail to Kathmandu”
The cultural shift from Arabia to Iran was dramatic. In my experience, the hospitality to strangers in the Arab Middle East was replaced by hustle, and even a certain amount of aggression. There were also many beggars. Demonstrations against the Shah had already begun, which may have accounted for the palpable tension in the air. Once into Iran, and throughout the rest of my time in Asia, I no longer hitch-hiked, but traveled by local transportation. Iranian busses between the major cities invariably traveled overnight, usually arriving inconveniently at around 0400 in the morning.
Overland travel through Asia in the late 1970s was popular and well established. Global political and security developments wax and wane over time. However, the major events in the 1960s to the mid-1970s which rendered parts of Asia inaccessible all occurred in Southeast Asia. The expanding war in Indochina first put Vietnam, then Cambodia, then finally Laos off limits. The convulsions from Portuguese Timor and the Indonesian occupation broke the cheapest “overlanding” route – island hopping through Indonesia to Dili, then capital of Portuguese Timor, then catching a cheap flight to Darwin, also off limits. Yet the huge convulsions which were to envelop West Asia and continues to this day, were only just beginning. Within a year of my trip, these well established and widely used backpacker routes were no longer accessible.
And the cheapest trade routes were the most traveled. Once we had left Athens for the Middle East, for the most part, there were very few backpackers. In the few weeks we traveled in the Arab Middle East, I could have counted the travellers I met on the fingers of both hands. Starting in Shiraz, more notably in Isfahan, and overwhelmingly once I arrived in Teheran at the famous Amir-Kabir Hotel, this was a well trodden route and on almost all local transport, Western backpackers were a significant contingent of those traveling.
Travelling on the cheap in West Asia in those days was different than in Europe. With the “Eurail/Interailpass” mentality in Europe, you constantly met other travelers. Yet for the most part, save for remote parts of Scandinavia, there was such an array of choice for your next destination, that while you might bump into the same people from time to time, it was not a constant feature. From Iran to Kathmandu, however, I was constantly meeting the same travelers over and over again. While the comfort of other travelers provides an always stimulating way to experience travel, it differs in solo travel in that your encounters, save for the transactional, tended to be with other travelers..
To Afghanistan: I followed the “thick red line” that went across to Mashad in eastern Iran, then across to the border town of Islam Qala. We arrived in Afghanistan just after the border had officially closed for the day, though the customs official also ran an inexpensive hotel next door. We were processed the following day. About a dozen of us eventually took a bus to Herat. The amazing thing about entering Afghanistan was the sense of almost literally going back to the 13th century. Herat had a wonderful reputation in the 1970s. To me, it was a relief of getting out of Iran, combined with the quiet Wild East, where you saw more people on horseback than in vehicles. Afghanistan was a very popular adventure destination in those days. In a typical bus ride in Afghanistan in those days, between 20 and 40 percent of the passengers would be Western backpackers.
Local buses were good. Afghanistan had used its neutrality during the Cold War to have a series of paved roads built by the Soviets and the Americans during the 1960s and 1970s. As late as the 1950s, places like Bamian were only accessible after horse or foot journeys lasting weeks. By the time I went through, the main trunk roads from the Iran Border – Herat – Kandahar – Kabul – up to Mazar-i-Sharif, and from Kabul, down through Jalalabad to the Khyber Pass and on to Peshawar were all along good paved roads.
Using Kabul as a base, I went up north for a few days to Mazar-i-Sharif and Balkh, then back, then into central Afghanistan to Bamian and the lakes of Band-i-Amir and back, then down through the Kabul Gorge to Jalalabad, across the border at Torkham, and into the tribal regions of Pakistan to Landi Kotal, through the Khyber to the Indo-Gangetic plain and on to Peshawar.
I find it difficult to write about Afghanistan given the calamities that have fallen upon that country since I passed through. I looked recently at some of the comments I made in my journal at the time:
From Islam Qala
“In the evening, had chai, talked to a few pleasant Afghans and slept on the floor for 30 afghanis. God it feels good to be out of Iran and into Afghanistan.”
“Afghan scenery along the way is great – mud and straw villages, lots of camels wandering in the desert, bleak and rugged brown low mountains, women completely covered in chador, huts packed together with disc-like formations on top…Walking around the charming, mellow slow city of Herat, which retains the atmosphere of a small town. There are vastly fewer cars and life is harder, but people are much friendlier”
“Afghanistan is already on my list of “must return” countries”.
4 In Kabul
“Yet another fine day in Afghanistan”.
“Crossing the Salang Pass into northern Afghanistan I passed what were perhaps the most spectacular mountains I have ever seen”
“Bamian is absolutely one of the greatest sites in Asia”
“Such an magnificent mountain topography en route to Band-i-Amir which looked like a one sided Grand Canyon – with a series of crystal blue lakes at the bottom”.
Yet even then, Afghanistan was the Wild East and while popular, was far from risk free. While many young travelers spent time in Afghanistan, it was very obvious that you were in a place with tribal rules, not rule of law. There were considerable risks if your behaviour was inappropriate or if one was overly naive. In the pre-Internet, pre-CNN era, one relied much more on discussions with fellow travelers. I had heard oral stories of travelers occasionally being killed in Afghanistan. Some comments reflected this. “First impression of Mazar was not at all positive. There is a somewhat sinister atmosphere here, with almost no other travellers” “In Band-i-Amir “One of the owners came out yelling at the other and smashed a chair on the ground. Just as we were leaving a serious fight broke out between the irate Afghan and the fellow who ran the Deer Hotel – a rather heavy experience”
Through Pakistan to India and Nepal
Many travelers at the time lingered for weeks in Afghanistan, then usually scooted quickly through Pakistan to India. Once in India, there was an enormous amount to explore, but the overland route generally headed across the north to Varanasi and then on to Kathmandu. I too, did not linger long in Pakistan. However, I did take a flight from Rawalpindi up to Skardu in Baltistan for a few days. For me, Baltistan was even more austere toward women than Afghanistan. On the streets in Afghanistan, you would at least see the burqas wandering along the street (I am excluding my experiences in what was then the comparatively cosmopolitan city of Kabul). In the bazaars and along the street in Skardu, there were only men.
The cultural change crossing from Pakistan to India was also dramatic. Suddenly, not only were there women on the street, they were also police officers, directing traffic and running commercial shops. India always invokes strong reactions in travelers and will not leave you indifferent. For all its contradictions, I am a great fan of India. I coined a phrase that for me sums up the reality of first coming to India. “The rest of the world is in black and white, India is in technicolour”.
My route to Nepal followed a fairly typical route at the time, from Amritsar up to Srinagar and the fabled houseboats of Dal and Nagin lakes. Then along the well traveled route to New Delhi, Agra, Varanasi, and then by a combination of trains and buses across the border to Raxaul and Kathmandu.
For me, and for a great many other travelers in the 1960s and 1970s, Nepal was the ultimate Holy Grail. The Kathmandu Valley, Pokhara and the lake of Phewa Tal, and going trekking in the Himalaya – the Annapurna Circuit, Annapurna Sanctuary, the Everest Trek, Langtang and Helambu were the most popular choices at that time. Because of the great restaurants and cheap prices, and people coming back from and heading out on treks, Kathmandu was the place where I bumped into many people I had seen along the way. When I first got there, I met those who had been going at a faster pace than me, and after coming back from my trek I once again saw those arriving who had been going at a slower pace. I spent the better part of a month in Nepal, some of it exploring the Kathmandu Valley, some of it chilling with other travelers, as well as a sixteen day trek in the Annapurna Region to Mutkinath and the Thorong La. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life. Trekking in the Nepal Himalayas had been, for me, the most anticipated part of my entire trip. It did not disappoint.