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In 1963, like most young men of my background and generation, I found myself in Great Britain. Carnaby Street, the Beatles, Harold Wilson, satire, Ravi Shankar. Four-letter words on television had just been discovered in London. It was a great time to be in a country in the throes of a social revolution.
Nine years later, no wiser or richer, I decided to return home. I had just enough money for an air-ticket but for reasons I cannot quite explain, I was persuaded to take the hitch-hikers’ route to my native town, Lucknow.
From London to Istanbul I relied entirely on the kindness of strangers in cars. Since time was of little consequence, the journey took over three weeks. In Istanbul, however, hitch-hiking was no longer an option. Between the capital of Turkey and the capital of Afghanistan, I travelled by train, bus and foot.
It was called the Land Route. In the early 1970s, adventure, not to mention danger, was ensured on it. I started alone from Victoria station in London, but by the time I arrived in Kabul we were a diverse band of hardened travellers. Hippies, now virtually extinct, made excellent travelling companions provided you didn’t ask them for their money or their girlfriend.
Chicken Street in Kabul – it still exists – possessed a café called Pudding Shop. There 10 of us met with maps, compasses, guide books and visa-forms, planning our journey through the Khyber Pass into Peshawar, then to Lahore and finally to the Wagah Border.
Money was running out fast. We lived in a ‘sarai’. It was incredibly filthy, a large hall with dormitory-style beds. The bed-sheets had six inches of grime and the mattresses had bugs. Goats and cockroaches added to the squalor. Happily, such living conditions were by now the norm.
I first ate at the Pudding Shop, but on the second day I could not resist the smell of hot naan and kabab. The Afghani naan is three times the size of its Indian counterpart, the mutton kabab smaller. I indulged myself shamelessly.
Thirty years on my memory is slightly hazy. I remember posters of Hindi films, crowded bazaars, few soldiers, plenty of rotund women…. Politics and the state of the nation was the last thing on my mind. The only concern you have on an inter-continental journey is how cheaply you can get to the next town.
With naans and kababs in my belly, I fell asleep. Just after midnight, I felt an earthquake in my stomach. I rushed to the bathroom. I had the shits. I spent the night and the next week between bed and bathroom. I thought I was going to die. Bananas, a local white powder, soda water, prayer… nothing worked. The group I was with waited 24 hours, then left. So I was all alone in a squalid ‘sarai’, clutching my stomach and crying.
Miraculously, on the tenth day, the dysentery was gone. On the eleventh day I was fit to walk. My first port of call was the barber shop. I had a beard longer than Mr bin Laden’s. The barber gave me a massive hair cut and shave, with marked reluctance. I then had a bath, wore clean clothes and headed for the only 5-star joint in town, Kabul Hotel.
Clean plates, clean table cloth, clean napkin, fancy menu, a big buffet. This was luxury. I was going to treat myself, having of course carefully calculated the damage to my budget. The waiter suggested I try the speciality of the day: naan and kebabs!
I needed a visa to continue. The official at the Pakistan High Commission looked harassed. He was stamping passports with scarcely a glance. I discovered a group of 20 Brits. Could I smuggle my passport through with their bunch? Alas, the subterfuge didn’t work. The official spotted my passport, looked at my face and refused the visa. He offered a cup of tea in exchange.
My hitch-hiking thus came to an abrupt halt. For a land routewallah I did the indefensible: I took a flight. I arrived at Lucknow railway station via Amritsar, with four rupees and 13 annas in my pocket.
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