('On-line' text of)

'VIA RISHIKESH - A HITCH-HIKER'S TALE'
An account of hitch-hiking from England to Europe,
North Africa, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan & India in 1970

by Paul Mason
© Paul Mason 2006

Chapter 12

UP IN THE CLOUDS

Since this is only a domestic voyage we very much doubt that accommodation will be provided for us deck class ticket holders. So we assume that by getting here earlier than the rest of the passengers we might find a comfortable niche for ourselves. We manage to arrive in order to board the boat in Istanbul harbour but it is already very busy and we find a line of Turkish passengers queuing for information about sleeping quarters. When it comes to our turn, our tickets are inspected and I am dispatched below deck, but I find it very hot and extremely claustrophobic with the smell of laundry permeating everything. After the steward has shown me about the cramped dormitory I find the bed that has been allocated for me and I return to where Yolanda is waiting, still holding my baggage.

'You have a look, see what you think,' I suggest.

Yolanda disappears down the other staircase to the women's quarters but is not long; she reappears with a look of disapproval writ over her face.

'It stinks of damp clothes, I don't like it,' she moans.

We exchange uneasy glances.

'Well let's look around the rest of the ship,' I suggest.

As we wander about on deck I get an idea;
'What about the lifeboats? Maybe we could hide in one of those.'

'It's worth a try,' Yolanda agrees.

Checking first to see that we are not being observed we climb into a nearby lifeboat. There is easy space enough for the two of us to make a comfortable camp here, but concerned that we might be discovered and thrown out, we crouch down low in hope of avoiding detection. It is pleasant enough just staring up at the sky, but I am interrupted by the sound of someone's voice…

'Oh sorry, I was just looking around,' he says. 'You've got a good idea staying up here.'

'It will be nice to sleep under the open sky,' I answer him.

'I think I'll find my bag and get in one of the other boats. See you…'

We miss the actual departure from Istanbul as unfortunately someone else has discovered our quarters.

'No, you find your own place. We got here first.' I tell the intruder, but he climbs in anyway, deaf to all objections from Yolanda and myself. He hauls his luggage his luggage into the life craft and sits facing us; resolute, determined and belligerent; never in my life have I come across someone more thick-skinned. I get really furious with him, but undeterred he moves to sit on the side of the boat and, belatedly, tries to make friends with us!

'My name his Fritz. Vhat is yours?' he asks in a strong German accent and offers his cigarettes around. His efforts are met with measured politeness and eventually he gives up working on us and decides to go off in search of his own boat.

'Good riddance,' I mutter after he has gone.

'Rude sod. Arrogant swine,' remarks Yolanda.

We get visits from other passengers too, and before long there are a fair amount of western passengers keen to move out into the lifeboats.

I had wondered why the Black Sea was so called. Was the water really black? Now I am in a position to check. It appears very dark to the eye but I don't think this the actual colour of the water. More likely is that the rock that lies below the surface gives it this appearance. The huge inland reservoir of still water that is the Black Sea resembles a vast unending still lake. Fortunately, we keep the coastline in view at all times and maintain a fairly steady speed.

Although the views are of no great interest, they hold a certain amount of interest, the journey looks as though it will restful and undemanding. We have prepared ourselves with some basic provisions, which we are determined to eke out with care.

We get become friendly with the few other Europeans on board, even with Fritz. Our fellow travellers are without exception joy riding, for after Turkey they are all going home.

Back in Istanbul I had met a couple intent on getting to India.

'Where are you from in London?' I had asked.

'Richmond, Man,' he answered

'What a small world. Of the two other people I've met going to India, they're both from London and from places I know well.'

'That's the way it goes..' he replied knowingly.

Since we had nothing to tie us together other than this thin thread of coincidence, we soon parted. The peculiar thing for me, of meeting folks from England was that it is very much a love-hate thing. On the one hand it is a relief to speak in English, but on the other it usually puts my back up to be reminded how 'cool' they are. Anthony being a notable exception.

Our first stop is to be the port of Sinop, and when we dock I am eager to explore the place. Yolanda and I and a motley handful of others go ashore, but being a port there is precious little of interest besides the usual industrial sights of cranes, loading bays and what have you. Our main purpose lies in replenishing our food supplies and soaking up the local atmosphere, so we forge on and are repaid for our efforts in that we find some good shops. The walk has done us all good and we return to the ship refreshed and sharpened by the exercise.

So it is with the next port, Samsun, a name for me conjures up the longhaired lover Samson who lost his mane. Samsun has another association; it is also the name of the most popular brand of Turkish cigarettes - how exciting?! Actually, as the trip draws to an end I find myself clutching at straws to find entertainment as the trip is getting decidedly dowdy. I really hope things pick up soon, but we have only night more on board before we are due to arrive at our destination.

*

With only minutes to go before disembarkation at the port of Trabzon we make the rather rash decision to order breakfast in the onboard cafe.

When our food arrives I stare in disbelief for in front of us are two glasses of tea, a plate of large black shiny olives, dry white cheese and a hunk of bread. It seems I am destined for disappointment as I yearn for a breakfast of cornflakes, toast and marmalade.

'Is there something wrong with this bread?' I ask Yolanda.

'There is no salt in it. Strange isn't it?'

'It's disgusting, it all is,' I snort, 'what a waste of money!'

Strangely though, the more I eat the more I enjoy it.

I am aware that the ship has now docked and there is a rush to clear the ship. We disembark and walk slowly through the town before sitting ourselves by the roadside at a likely looking spot to hitch a ride.

'Do you realise we haven't hitched since Africa?' I point out.

'Yes you're right it's simply ages.' Yolanda seems to be very surprised at this reminder.

'Our last lift was the truck from Tunisia to Tripoli. That was a near thing at the wash house wasn't it? I think they were out to lynch us you know? We got out in the gee nick of time. That driver was brilliant.'

'But what did we do wrong though?'

'Perhaps it was our singing,' I suggest.

'The weather's getting colder isn't it?' Yolanda points out.

'It's not so bad, but I see what you mean.'

Waiting for a lift depends on one single factor - that of a driver actually stopping with the intention of offering a lift. I suppose in theory it is possible that this might never happen, there had certainly been times when it looked as if it wouldn't happen for us, perhaps we will have to find some other means of transport to the border of Iran?

A car screeches to a halt and the occupant looks out at us, it is almost as if he expected us to be here! The driver resembles one of the villain types we had seen in the movies although he seemed friendly enough. To be back on the road feels exquisite; as far as I am concerned you can keep all your mod cons, tickets, reservations, queues and all that jazz. There is something special about hitching a ride, after all, no one has to give a lift and by the same token no one has to accept one. Ergo, it's by choice, mutual choice.

As we move further away from Trabzon the scenery becomes more and more pleasant, so much so that I begin making comparisons to Merry England, and in particular to Cornwall. Our car climbs a fairly steep incline and at last come to the top of the hill. The view fairly blows me away for nestled here in this valley are beautifully rustic dwellings, rolling countryside, fields of waving crops and to the sides of the lane, curbside flowers.

'My mum would love it here,' I enthuse.

'It's beautiful,' gasps Yolanda breathlessly.

I am distracted from the stunning view by our driver fumbling in his jacket pocket, and now he produces the fruit of his search, a shiny gun! As he brandishes the revolver I struggle not to shit myself as he holds tight the steering wheel and fixes me with a defiant unwholesome grin and nods gently.

I gaze back at him as nonchalantly as I can; it is sheer bravado, as I feel powerless to deal with the situation.

He jabs his finger on the chrome button of the glove compartment before me, and then throws the weapon inside, but in the process is less than attentive over his steering and nearly causing the car to run off the road. After arighting the steering wheel he snaps the glove compartment shut, with the gun inside.

Whether our mustachioed driver really is a villain is a matter of conjecture, but he makes no further show of his gun nor does he make us feel uncomfortable again

As ever, all good lifts come to an end, and today we find ourselves rediscovering our legs again, as we take to walking along the country roads. Rambling our way through the beautiful countryside, we pass through the occasional simple hamlets and sometimes we attract the attention from local children. We stop off in a village café for a cup our tea. We also stop to purchase some bread and tomatoes before proceeding along the road, eating the food as we go. I notice we are being followed by a group of children; after smiling at them we continue on our way.

An object strikes the ground in front of us, it is a stone, and is followed by others all seemingly aimed at us! The children continue to pelt us with stones, paying no heed to shouts of disapproval. It is an uneasy situation, but we try to ignore them in the hope they will stop, but they do not. As I become increasingly concerned for our safety I start to pick up stones to arm myself. When Yolanda sees me do this she pulls at my arm.

'Don't do it Paul,' she shrieks, 'You'll get their families killing you. That's what they'll do. Paul, don't!'

I heed her words and hasten our pace until we are all but running. The air becomes thick with ever-larger stones being hurled at us, and although many hit their targets I resist the burning temptation to retaliate. But although I feel that Yolanda is right, I resent having to let the kids have their way. As luck has it they tire of their sport and we get away with no more than minor bruising.

Why had they picked on us? Yolanda is convinced she has the answer, and explains that it is on account of their seeing that she has hair under her armpits! I wonder, personally I think it is simply that we are strangers to them and they need no other excuse.

We make it on to a fairly big town by which time it is getting dark so we seek out a cheap hotel for the temperature is getting exceedingly cold and we see no point in sleeping rough tonight. The room that is provided is ill lit and run-down but it does have plenty of blankets, so at least we get to have a sound night's sleep.

* * *

A bright new morning dawns and after freshening up we set off again for fresh adventures knowing that with every pace we are getting ever closer to our goal. Studying our map it appears that Persia is but a day or two's travel away.

Before we find a place to hitch a ride we take a quick shufty around the town. There are the usual facilities available, a bank, a post office and handful of shops. I'm not sure what a Citadel is but I am convinced that the unusual building on the skyline must be one, for it looks like a place of worship and is like no other church or mosque that I have seen.

But I wonder that these people are particularly religious? If they were why would they let their children throw rocks at strangers? Today we are involved in another such incident of stone throwing which is altogether as intense and dangerous as the day. One of these rocks could kill so again we take flight only narrowly escaping severe injury. I really start to wonder if we are not being warned off?

Bob Dylan sang that 'Everybody must get stoned'. Has he been to Turkey? What does he know?

We could really use a lift to get us out of this district; it is about time we got a move on but we sit it out anyway.

I notice a van winding its way down the road; it is a Dormobile camper van driven by a young western woman. The flash of a thumb brings an immediate response, the vehicle stops. Brilliant!!!!!!

The van belongs to an English couple who offers us a lift. Once we are settled in and on the move we tell them of our recent escapades. They respond very coolly. 'Yes, common practice in these parts. Haven't you heard the biblical story of Stephen the martyr? He was stoned to death?'

'Here? Really? So they've been at it as long as all that have they?' I muse that this means they have been at this stone throwing business for at least two thousand years!

'Where are you going?' the English guy asks; he has a somewhat aloof air about him which makes him sound a little like he has some sort of superiority complex.

'To the border,' I answer simply.

'And after that? Are you going to India?'

'If we survive that long! Yes, we hope so. Hey, isn't that Tyrannosaurus Rex you're playing? But it can't be the radio, where on earth is the music coming from?' I ask, my flabber well and truly ghasted.

'Cassette tape machine,' he says nonchalantly.

'Well I'll be jiggered!' I say, genuinely amazed.

'The machine has these tiny tapes, quite unlike conventional reel-to-reel,' he explains.

He has a stack of these tapes with some of their favourite music on them. Very impressed I am. Mind you of choice; although they're more compact, I think I would still much prefer to have the records. Something you can see, locate the track and 'Bob's your uncle'. And what about the record covers? I have been known to buy records simply for their covers, crazy but true. No, I can't see people enjoying tapes in that way but I have to admit they seem ideal for travelling. I eagerly drank in the music.

It's nice to hear Marc Bolan again. I had met Steve Took his percussionist just after the duo split. Nice guy, very nice guy. And now Bolan has 'gone electric', I love this new stuff, lots of energy and of course, still lots of his quaint poetry.

This was the life, motoring along catching up with the new releases. This couple has got it all sewn up, they've kitted the van out with all the necessaries (and have even taken the precaution of bringing along a vast supply of toilet tissue). In fact they appear remarkably well informed about all sorts of odd things, such as how it makes good sense to take chewing gum to India where apparently a good black market exists.

'I'll chew that over,' I assure him, but it raises not the faintest smile.

As the journey gets further under way conversation dropped, and we just listen to the tapes. The girl throws back the odd comment to us; her chap sits reading a book packed with lots of pictures, facts and information on India, which I guess will all make his journey more worthwhile.

When we arrive at the town of Agri we break company with our friends in the camper van and sort out a hotel for ourselves. It is too cold to sit about yapping, so we wrap ourselves up in eiderdowns and blankets, and are soon sound asleep.

* * *

Before leaving town we have a bit of a look around, with a chance meeting with the couple who own the camper van, who it appears are buying further provisions for their journey. I think it best not to presume on them. However, as luck has it we get no chance at a lift for hours but decide not to wander off blindly down the road, as we don't fancy getting stoned and becoming today's tourist casualty news report.

Our waiting pays off and we are eventually offered a lift in a large modern truck, driven by a very friendly man, accompanied by one of his fellow countrymen. Apparently they both hail from Armenia.

'Never heard of the place,' I say truthfully.

'My blouse comes from Rumania,' Yolanda chirps 'perhaps that's near there.'

The men are in cheerful mood and I reckon their secret lies in the bottle of raakhi they pass back and forth. To say they are drunk would not be far short of the truth but they handle it well.

Our road seems to be ascending steeply, in fact our journey is beginning to look quite perilous as the winding road is largely unfenced and we now seem to be climbing into a range of low mountains range. From time to time one or other of the Armenians look down the steep slope to the side of the road apparently in search of something. Actually it transpires that they are looking to see whether they can spot any lorries or buses that have crashed lately. This is a dangerous road all right!

Things get worse, I notice that ahead of us is shrouded in thick cloud, white and fluffy, but the lorry doesn't even slow! Forging ahead with almost nil visibility seems somewhat desperate and I fear for the worst for our safety. It is a nerve-wracking experience!

A few minutes later we emerged from the cloud, with no more evidence of the dangerous episode than a thick layer of moisture on the windscreen. What an experience!

To the left of the road a great mountain rears, a vast cold wall of rock, broad and imposing. Most of the mountain visible to us is covered with snow whilst the higher reaches are covered with snow, the peak is totally obscured by clouds.

Our driver grins maniacally, 'Arrarat. Arrarat,' he shouts.

'Really!' I gasp in surprise.

'I don't believe it!' Yolanda enthuses.

The name Of Arrarat has been etched on our minds; it is the mountain where Noah is said to have landed after the 'Great Flood'. And the driver seems to have heard this too as he explains (with the help of gestures) that wood has been found there. Wood from a ship.

'Wow!' I exclaim.

The Armenians nod and smile at us.

Having lost the opportunity of going Israel I had assumed we had missed out on visiting anything to do with the lands of the Bible. But not so, for here was one of the most important bits! But actually, Anthony had told us that it was a good thing that we had not visited Israel. 'You wouldn't have been able to get any further. Can't go to any Arab country after going to Israel. Only way is to have two passports, that's how journalists cope.'

The Armenians have taken us a long way, and despite their inebriation we have travelled safely; now they drop us off. We have some way more to get to the border and fortunately, before too long, we are then picked up by a party of Britishers and speed the few miles to the customs post.

The door of the customs office is locked shut so it looks as though we will have to wait outside until the morning, but not so easily deterred we hammer on the doors, hoping someone will open up. It works, the door is opened and we are let in, but from their manner they appear to be very annoyed and huffy, however they get on process our small party through the formalities of form filling, passport check and baggage control.

Afterwards I notice my passport has been stamped 18-9-70, which is a mistake as today is the nineteenth of September. How the days and weeks roll by!

The English guy who drove us to the border nudges me on the arm; 'Wrong date on the passports!' he says.

'Yes, I know. But we're through and that's the main thing isn't it?'

I wonder that he is going to make something of it with the customs people, I decide to leave the matter and get on, so Yolanda and I walk onwards across the divide, towards the Iranian customs point. With suppressed excitement I realised that we will soon be entering that fabled land of magic and beauty, the fairy tale land of Persia.

Unfortunately we find our way barred by locked gates, we turn to check out what the party of Britishers are going to do but we find ourselves alone. I check the nearby restaurant café but it is closed, so we have little choice but to settle ourselves down next to the road and wait.

As the hours slip by but slowly I gain some reassurance from certain knowledge that eventually the night will give way to a new day.

There is no sleep for me here for as usual I am awake to the dangers that lurk, particularly in the form of strangers who get over interested in my girlfriend. I notice one of the soldiers smiling rather strangely at me and I drew Yolanda's attention to him.

'I think he's got his eye on you,' I whisper to her.

'Actually, I think he's smiling at you,' she says, smirking, 'I've heard they prefer men in these places.'

The man stands by the toilet door beckoning me to join him. Instead I turn away and make idle conversation with Yolanda, whilst out of the corner of my eye I keep tabs on him. In time he disappears from view.

It turns out to be a very long cold night. Oh my, how it drags!

 

To 'Via Rishikesh' Chapter 13

 

To 'Via Rishikesh' index