('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 14

 UNLIKELY PROPOSITIONS

Down the darkened lane we run, getting Yolanda away from the house of the two stoned foreigners who seem to have gotten too interested in her and most worryingly of all seem to harbour homicidal tendencies too.

'Just keep going!' I shout encouragement to the others, but I realise we all lack the stamina to keep on running for very longer.

'What are we to do? We can't keep going like this,' comes Yolanda's anguished voice from the gloom.

'We need to get the hell out of here. We've got to get away.'

I worry that we do not know the area, we are running blind, and we could easily come to a dead end.

I hear the sound of a vehicle approaching, due to lack of visibility I can barely make out whether it is a car or a truck.

'Let's try and get a lift,' I shout to the others.

So the four of us stop still, blocking the road.

To my relief the lorry stops and the driver gestures us to climb into the back of the vehicle, so we hurriedly clamber on. As we pull away I hold on as best I can, in fact we all cling on to back of the cabin for dear life as the lorry lurches and bounces as it negotiates the uneven track. The dust thrown up by the spinning tyres throw up clouds of dust that fairly fills the air. Coughing and spluttering we cover up our faces with our sleeves.

The lorry moves on at quite a pace and at the end of the long track we turn a corner and get on to a proper road. Here the driver brings us to a sudden halt calls to us. Bruised, choking and dazed we stumble back, lower ourselves on to the road and go to speak with the driver. By the light of the headlights I survey my companions who look truly comical, like extras from a Buster Keaton comedy, plastered as they are from head-to-toe with fine white dust.

The lorry driver cannot take us any further so we stand stranded, nursing our eyes and coughing incessantly. Here we are in God knows where, sore, tired and desolate in almost pitch-black darkness.

'What next?' I ask, hoping that maybe Yani can think of a way out of this dilemma.

'Go to the police?' he suggests.

'We can't go anywhere, in this darkness I can't see a thing, let's just wait for another lift. ' I answer Yani.

As we stand about waiting in the darkness, occasionally I strike a match, as by the flashes of light we are at least able to get glimpses of one another's faces, from time-to-time.

'You know, we take our eyes for granted, we've got a lot to be thankful for,' Yolanda muses. 'Think what it would be like to be blind!'

How long we wait here I don't know but it is only a matter of minutes before the lights of an approaching car brings forth a loud cheer from us all. And as luck would have it the car stops and the driver gestures for us to open the door and get in. It is a tight squeeze as the man has his wife and child with him. As we get on our way the family prove themselves exceptionally hospitable, passing us soft drinks and nuts, and chatting away excitedly, and I notice Yani in particular looks as though he thrives on the attention.

We are fortunate as lift with this the family is a long one, but I am tired and I would really prefer to be able to go to sleep somewhere. I am not at all sure of our whereabouts but I am now way past caring. We journey onward through much of the night, until eventually the car comes a halt and it becomes apparent that this is the town these people hail from, so we leave them to make their way home.

The prospect of sitting at the roadside for the rest of the night is not a big problem; at least we are out of the danger we were fleeing from.

***

The local community in the town we find ourselves in awakens early in the day and all of us are soon filing into a local chaay shop where the silver-tongued Yani quickly ingratiates himself with the owner. He makes a show of drinking his tea out of a saucer, to the applause of the other customers here, so I rather gather it is a local custom. As a young child I watched my grandfather drink his tea like this in order to cool his over-hot drink.

The teahouse also sells fresh halwa; a sweet preparation made of honey and crushed sesame seeds. Yani is full so full of praise for this and so we all tucked into a piece. I find it pleasant enough, though strangely dry and hard to swallow.

'Cigarette?' Yani asks.

Has he no money whatever, I wonder? Has he no shame?

I purchase a packet of cigarettes by the name of 'Homa' (which are actually closer in size to matches, short and thin) and these I hand around. Yani now focuses his attention on the other customers of the café.

'Pool naderi,' Yani announces.

Whisperingly he explains to me that this short phrase means simply 'I have no money'. He is lucky in getting a little cash from the locals after which he shows his willing to pay for his tea but the owner waves him away (though he does not hesitate in accepting payment from Yolanda and myself). I am beginning to have strong reservations about travelling with Yani, his patter is just too well oiled, but for the moment I decide to keep quiet about my concerns.

The day takes an upturn when a lone driver picks us all up and seems genuinely pleased to have our company. But we have not gone very far before we stop, and the driver makes it clear he has some business to sort out before we go further. As it happens he is not gone for very long, and on his return he invites us to pick some nuts from a nearby tree. Now why is it that do things taste so much better when they are picked fresh? At home we usually only had nuts at Christmas and they were usually dry and brittle, but when I crack open my first fresh walnut the contents are surprisingly warm and oily.

'Delicious, fantastic. I don't usually like nuts,' I remark.

Yolanda doesn't reply. Her mouth is too full of nuts.

I get chatting with our driver.

'Where are we?' I ask.

'Near Caspian Sea. Next we go Amol then to Babol.'

Amol and Babol! They sound to me like Biblical names and Caspian, well; 'Prince Caspian' was the name of one of C.S.Lewis's inspiring and imaginative Narnian books. I check my map and establish our location. To my surprise I find we have not actually travelled very far from Teheran. After all the travelling we have done, we must have been going around in a circle or something!

As the day wears on, the effects of our sleepless night really start to take their toll and when our lift came to an end we are all desperate to get our heads down. Yani claims that he will be able to get us all a free night's lodging in a hotel. I do not openly doubt him, preferring instead to see what tactic he intends to use.

He leads the four of us all the way to the local police station and after Yani appraises the police of our situation we are all escorted us to a local hotel who give over two rooms for our use. In truth, I would sooner have paid but clearly for the sake of the others it is better to work on the basis of 'all for one and one for all'. My feeling is that the hotelier is not that greatly enamoured with our presence, but he refrains from giving voice to his feelings.

After sprucing ourselves up a little we make ourselves a meal of bread, tomatoes and grapes after which we decide to turn in for the night.

* * *

The windows of our room are covered by wicker blinds, which are hardly sufficient to keep out the new days' sun, so none of us lie in bed for too long. When the four of us regroup I am glad to discover that the night's rest has worked wonders on us. The tension that was beginning to mar our relationships has abated somewhat.

'Do you reckon we'll make it to Meshad today?' I ask Yani.

'Sure, and we must get to the Afghan Embassy, but we might have a problem there though.'

'How's that?'

The news is that we all need visas to visit Afghanistan, which we can pick up whilst we are in Meshad, no problem. But rumour has it that the Afghans will only allow people entry who have lots of money to spend. So, apparently they require that everybody show them the equivalent of $100, which is a problem, something to reflect on ahead of time.

Our luck is not holding up so well today. Nobody seems to want to give us a lift so we split up, standing as two pairs on the roadside hoping this will give us a better chance. When nobody stops to give us a lift, Yani waves down a bus that comes speeding towards us. And when it slows to a halt he calls he up to the driver his standard lament, 'Pool naderi, pool naderi.'

The driver smiles and gestures us aboard where we sit down alongside the other passengers. We immediately become objects of attention and then of amusement. One man in particular is intent on making his presence felt.

'Pool naderi?' he asks pointing at us. We all affirm, what else can we do after Yani has told the driver we have no money?

'Pool ma dharam, pool ma dharam,' he states repeatedly gesturing with his hands the meaning being abundantly clear, he has pots of money and we don't, this seems to amuse him wildly.

By the time we the bus arrives in Meshad it is well, well after nightfall and after debating the subject we all agree that we will camp out on a patch of lawn we chance upon. But after only a short time we re-think our position and decide to deliver ourselves up once more to the police. But tonight there is no hotel offered to us, all that is available is in the prison cells.

Yani and Jorg disappear into the first cell, whilst Yolanda and I take another. The door is left unlocked and I notice that shortly after we lie down on the floor, a police officer joins us and soon falls asleep clasping a stengun tightly to his chest. I hope, wish and pray that he has correctly secured the safety catch. Though I don't exactly sleep, I lie resting and at least feel very safe here, better by far than lying out near the street, under the eyes of passers by.

* * *

When I awake it is at the break of day and I am mightily relieved to see that I am still unscathed, as I really had been concerned about the machine gun pointing at us. We do not delay at the police station and are soon up and out, but what with hunger, weariness and an overall disinclination to walk, we are all a little 'difficult' and 'prickly' with one another. We all plod along until quite suddenly Yolanda sits herself down with a bump, on the pavement, and looks up at us belligerently. We say nothing (well what is there to say?) so she bounces up again, and walks on as though nothing has happened. Like the rest of us, she has had enough and this is her way of showing it. This is the only sign she gives of her feelings. The episode takes only seconds, but it speaks volumes about what we all feel. She has been a brick and has so far endured everything with resignation, with the utmost patience. Now she is embarrassed and tries to hide her face from us.

'Let's find a chaay shop,' I suggest.

'Where else?' Yani responds affably.

Here we are in another town, sitting in another chaay shop and here we have another chance to dwell on a portrait of the Shah of Iran. I cannot fathom why every shop here seems to sport a portrait of the king. I study the photograph, the Shah has his hair swept back (in the style often associated with the actor Tony Curtis), and is pictured in uniform with a broad light blue sash across his dark high collared jacket, simply dripping with gold braid, sashes and medals. He is flanked by his attractive wife and young son.

'He divorced Soraya, his other wife, as she couldn't give him a son, only a daughter,' explains Yolanda. 'That's the Empress Farah and the boy's name is Reza.'

Reza's mother looks faintly Italian; perhaps that might explain why Yolanda knows so much about them and may explain why she is not required to obtain a visa for Iran.

'We need to get cleaned up before we go to the Afghan embassy,' I point out.

'Definitely! My face feels unreal. I'm filthy,' Yolanda admits.

'Yes, we should do that,' agrees Yani. 'I must get some money sorted out too.'

This sounds interesting, I wonder how is going to suddenly get some money?

When we track down some washing facilities, we are surprised at how modern the arrangements are, but then we find we are expected to pay.

'A sauna bath! That's a bit unexpected, I never had one of those before. I thought they only had them in Sweden,' I puzzle.

'Meet you guys back here in an hour,' Yani calls before disappearing, clearly he is going to look for somewhere to wash where he doesn't have to pay. I am thankful that he didn't expect me to pay for him (on second thoughts, maybe he did!).

We purchase some soap and shampoo and are issued with towels and wooden sandals, which we slip on before being shown in. The sauna room has hot and cold water on tap and a raised surface to recline on. I slip off the sandals only to discover the floor is heated from below and is very, very hot. Soon the temperature in the room gets unbearably high, which encourages us to get on with the business at hand. We get though a half bottle of shampoo and a whole cake of soap before satisfying ourselves we have cleansed ourselves of all the foreign matter we have accumulated whilst on the road. When we emerge from the sauna we are both squeaky clean.

We find Yani and Jorg outside so I share my enthusiasm for this new experience.

'Brilliant. You should try it. I feel really so-o-o clean. Fantastic Man.'

'Oh yeah? We cleaned up too. So, are you ready to go to the embassy?' Yani asks.

He has already sussed out whereabouts we have to go. We go in and obtain the necessary papers to apply for our visas and are soon sat in the local café filling out our forms. The embassy requires photos too, fortunately I still have kept the remainder of the strip of photos I had taken to obtain my passport.

Yani is still worried that we will have to front up a lot of hard cash at the embassy.

'Some guy says he'll lend it to us if we need it,' he informs me. I am impressed that he has already found a possible solution to this problem.

We are all in agreement that Yani and Jorg, and Yolanda and myself will visit the consulate separately.

'Let's go Yolanda, the earlier we get the forms back to them, the sooner we'll get the visas.'

Everything goes well for us with the Afghans, very smoothly, not a hint of a problem. Mind you, had they seen us a few hours ago things might have been very different! On our return to the café, I reassure Yani and he and Jorg now scuttled off.

The visas will not be ready until late afternoon so we have some time on our hands as it not even mid-day yet. Yani sets off to do some hustling and soon returns with a satisfied look on his face, so by the looks of things he has got himself a bit of money.

We all sit ourselves down in a chaay shop and attempt to order some food. To my surprise we are directed to the adjoining shops where we buy some bread, vegetables and fruit. I wondered just how irate the owner would get. To my surprise the owner of the café not only agrees to us eating our food in his shop, but he even offers us some salt and the use of a knife. Imagine being able to do something like this back in England! It would be begging for trouble.

After our improvised meal we have another surprise in store for us, Yani pulled out a pack of cigarettes and offers them around! It is such a relief to find that Yani is looking to deal with his financial problems and is apparently sorting them out. I really don't like to think that I ever buy friendship and so I much prefer to see these Yugoslav cats independent of us. Hey, with his newfound wealth Yani even starts to pay for a couple things for us - his way of balancing things out.

We hang around the chaay shop, using it as our base until it is time to go back to the embassy. In the meantime we sometimes go off for a walkabout from time to time.

We set off for the embassy again, but we are all still apprehensive whether or not we will get our visas, we need to keep our fingers well and truly crossed. But we need not have worried ourselves, all our passports are ready and waiting, complete with transit visas, valid for a week, 'Via Islam Qala'. Only a week to get across Afghanistan, we can but try!

'How are you getting to the border?' Yani asks me.

'Hitch I suppose. Why?' I query.

'We're catching the bus, you should come!'

Yani amazed me.

'But how can you afford it?' I ask him.

Yani merely raised his eyebrows.

Actually, Yani is spot on about the bus, it's great not having to wait for a lift, it feels like pure luxury and I settle down to enjoy the ride which is likely to be quite a long one. As we race towards the border the last light of the day faintly illuminates the barren wastes.

All night long we travel, through the towns of Torbat-e-Jam and Tayebad, and eventually get processed by the Iranian customs post. We now hurtle on, through the desert until at length we approach the Afghan border post. When we arrive dawn is just breaking, but already the place is seething with porters and with difficulty we try to keep possession our meagre belongings.

It is exciting to be entering another country, so close to our destination. But first we have to complete the monotonous labours of filling out all the necessary entry forms. We have to queue for the forms, fill the damn things out and then queue again when they are completed! When we hand in our forms the customs official looks at us attentively. He is wearing a white turban tied loosely round his head; his face is wizened and his beard is long. Ill fitting khaki clothes hang loosely on his slight frame.

He attempts to speak to us in his own language and appears highly amused that we do not understand what he is saying. He tries again, this time in broken English very courteously wishing us a good visit. He makes his mark in our passports, his hand tracing a spiral pattern in the shape of an egg.

'Salamun alaikum,' he says to me, his dark smiling eyes looking deeply into my own.

I smile mutely

'Okay?' he asks.

I nod. He turns his attention to the next person in the queue, apparently we are free to go now. We change some money and then walk a distance onwards where we come to a barrier, here we hesitate until the barrier is raised, and under the scrutiny of a group of officials we walk on through.

'Wow, we're in Afghanistan,' I say, 'Look at their coins, they all have ears of wheat on them.'

Yolanda and I look about only to find that Yani and Jorg have not yet been let through and after a short wait we decide to walk on slowly without them. As we walk we look about vaguely in search of a lift, but there are no vehicles, perhaps it is a bit early yet?

Before we have gone very far we see a row of camels tethered to some trees, which are surrounded by a colourful troupe of travellers. We settle down nearby them, ostensibly to put our passports away but in truth to get a closer look at these desert animals and their owners. The camels have on their backs enormous mounds of baggage and their expressions seem to spell out their dislike for their burdens. When they see us looking at them they respond aggressively and bellowed loudly as we approach. I notice swarms of flies swarms buzz about them, and settle on their matted coats and unkempt bodies. Near the camels and seated in a neat row are adults and children with clothes in tatters and disheveled hair, they are scarcely in better shape than their beasts and they stare intently at the two of us. In response I smile, first at them and then at the camels. In response they maintain the same steady stare.

'Let's go now,' I suggest to Yolanda who readily agrees with me.

But as we got up to leave, a crowd of eager faces surrounds us. By their gestures we understand them to be offering us to join up and travel with their caravan. They really are quite persistent. It is a novel idea but it is not a practicable answer to our needs. It is only with much difficulty that we are able to peel ourselves away from the camel train (all the while wondering what we have turned down).

Onward we walk, on and on and on. We have had no breakfast so we are becoming somewhat desperate to find somewhere to eat. We wander aimlessly but seem no nearer a café, so I when I see an Afghan on a bicycle I stop him to ask directions. He dismounts from his bike and gazes long and hard at us, with apparent interest. I use a mixture of basic English words and easy-to-comprehend gestures (I point to my mouth and clutch at my stomach) to indicate our need of food and drink. For his part he nods and motions for us to wait. Then he cycles off along a path, tangential to the road and disappears.

We wait, we wait a very long time during which we seriously wonder if he will ever return, but we are heartened when we see a figure come cycling from the direction of a clump of low flat dwellings in the distance. His face shows sign of exertions as he cycles towards us. Coming abreast of us he hands me a paper packet which I open at once. It contains hardened dark brown stale flat bread. I bite off a corner of bread and chew it until it becomes moist. The man watches as I repeat this with several more pieces. It is as though time has ceased, many minutes passed by with no conversation.

'Well thank you,' I say, and start to pick up my bag with the intention of walking off, in the hope of getting a lift.

'Wait!' he says. I look at him in surprise wondering what he has to say, after being so quiet for so long? As he pulls something out from his shirt pocket he looks over at me, and slowly gathers his words.

'Forů. Five, yes, five minutes, with her,' he says pointing to Yolanda, 'and I, I give you this.'

He hands me a huge block of jet black hashish weighing well over a pound (about half a kilo).

'What?' I look over at Yolanda, I find it hard to believe his offer is for real, she looks stunned but maintains a stiff silence.

'No,' I tell him, 'No, no,' I shake my head.

He becomes thoughtful for a moment and then he comes to me with another suggestion.

'And the bike!' he adds, pushing the heavy framed machine towards me.

What a bizarre situation this is turning out to be, and I hadn't even realised he could speak English. It is his coolness that unnerves me. He actually seems to really think that I will accept? I guess that by his own standards he is offering a lot. But even thenů.!

I shake my head vigorously, but then I remember that both Anthony and Yani have warned me that in Iran the meaning associated with the nodding and shaking one's head are reversed. So by nodding one is saying 'No' and by shaking the head one is saying 'Yes'. I just hope that here in Afghanistan my gestures will not be misread.

We gather our things and I say goodbye to him and he makes no attempt to stop us as we resume our journey.

'What a bloody cheek!' Yolanda fumes. 'Why did he ask you? Are women bought and sold here? Huh, are they? Bloody cheek!'

As we walk onwards, no sight of a lift offers itself.

Should we get another bus I wonder, it could turn into a costly habit. But so far today the only offers we have had have been to get on a camel or a bicycle; perhaps we have passed up our chances.

'We could have cycled to India though, at least it would have been quicker than the camel train,' I quip.

Yolanda laughs at the idea. I am relieved that she hasn't become that upset by the episode. Well, it was all so matter-of-fact so neither of us felt threatened or felt that we were in any kind of danger. But by the time we actually get a lift we have hours to contemplate these offers of transport to the full. We walk long and hard before any vehicle stops for us, however we eventually get offered a ride in a jeep. We lose no time in climbing aboard where we join a fellow passenger who is an Afghan, apparently a member of the military for he wears a khaki jacket.

I observe the low mountains to our left as we storm along in a cloud of dust; we cross a river though it is all but dried up. Altogether the journey to Herat is uneventful and as we are in an open jeep we are unable to hold any proper conversation or even light our cigarettes. As we approach the town of Heart, the sight of it lifts my spirits for the skyline is packed with domes and minarets and is pretty staggering by any standards. The minarets stretch high into the sky like enormous columns or chimneys, to me they seem to belong to an older world, broken relics of some former dynasty.

We have no desire to sleep rough here, the order of the day seems for us to find a cheap hotel where we can leave our bags and go in search of food. For us the choice falls between Nawasi Behzad, Grand Behzad and the Super Behzad. We don't feel like scouring all over town to check every last hotel and we discover that for just a few coins we rent a comfortable enough room and there we to drink tea for awhile.

Securing our room we leave the building with the intention of looking about Heart, but no sooner are we out of the main door than we bump into someone we know. It is none other than the very lads we had left back at the border. I notice their eyes are now most unusually fixed and staring.

'We just got a room here, really nice, and you?' I ask them.

Yani smirks.

'The manager he gives us his own room for free. You wouldn't believe what I found under the carpet?'

Actually I have my suspicions.

'Hashish man, wall to wall hashish! Wow!'

'Looks like you've smoked your way across the room,' I tell them.

They grin, so I reckon they have made a good start anyway. Good for them, probably just what they wanted, unlimited supply of smoke. For myself right now I could just use some food.

'Hey, look, Yolanda and myself are starving, we've really got to get something to eat, so, see you later huh?'

Daylight has now all but faded and our way through the alleyways is lit only by the occasional paraffin lamp lending which only adds to the atmosphere of this place which has an aura of enchantment, tainted by a faint tinge of menace. Full of curiosity we peer into all the shops as we pass by in search of a good restaurant; in the clothes shops are hung countless woolly skin jackets hanging (which appear to have just been ripped off the sheep) embroidered waistcoats, shirts and skullcaps. There is silver jewellery on sale too, chunky pieces, some set with turquoise and others with orange stones. Everywhere we go we breath the smoke of burning wood fires, and the smell of kebab meat cooking permeates the air.

We find somewhere to eat that looks reasonably clean and tidy; a barn-like restaurant with pitched roof supported on great solid wooden beams. We sit ourselves down and look about us; A man comes over to our table and looks at me enquiringly.

'Rice? Kabuli rice?' he suggests.

We order some rice, some bread and some yoghurt. As we sit waiting, we look about us at the other customers, all ancient looking bearded Afghans, some wearing turbans, some skullcaps, all attired in baggy shirts (many of which are army surplus).

First to arrive is the rice which we find contains carrot and raisins and is topped with strips of tender meat.

'This tastes brilliant,' I enthuse. Yolanda nods appreciatively, her mouth full of rice. We demolish the heaps of this mouthwateringly delicious food between mouthfuls of fresh warm unleavened bread and gulps of water. When we have finished the main dish we turn our attention to the yoghurt and crush some crystallised pieces of sugar into it; the yoghurt is just so-o-o creamy and tasty. To round the meal off we have a pot of tea (without milk, we have not been offered milk tea since so, so long ago, long before we got to Turkey!). The food and drink gives us back some much needed strength, now fairly well satiated, we make our way to our hotel room for some much needed sleep.

* * *

The new morning sees us ripe and ready for a new day's travels and adventures. Today our destination is? As ever, as always it is the next big town, which according to the map is somewhere called Kandahar. We find the right road out of Herat but there is precious little traffic to be seen, but we are not about to get disheartened for the day is yet young. We prepare ourselves for a long wait and are pleasantly surprised when a car draws up. I am surprised to note how small the car is compared to those in which we have travelled in so far; it is a Mini Cooper, a little town car. I am surprised too that the driver speaks passably good English; I get the impression he is still doing his studies.

We have not gone very far towards Kandahar when our driver takes a turning to the right. I soon ask him where we are going and he explains that he is taking a short cut. I am concerned, as from my dim understanding of the local geography I feel convinced that if a short cut exists it must lie to the left of the main road. As we tumble on down the pitted, rutted minor lane, I begin to nurture misgivings about his intentions towards us. I cannot work him out, he seems affable enough and he smilingly mentions that he intends to pick up some friends along the route. Indeed, we end up picking up several other travellers, all friends of his, but my concern deepens for the car is becoming totally overloaded.

When the car breaks down everyone gets out and stands around looking under the bonnet, looking under the chassis, standing around talking. Yolanda and myself start to walk away, and call out to them to say we are walking back to the main road.

'That was a close shave,' I confide with a sigh. 'Where on earth was he taking us I wonder?'

'I didn't trust him,' Yolanda mutters suspiciously, 'What did he want to pick up all those people for?'

'I think we should stick to main roads in future.'

As we put our best forward and retrace our way back to Herat I hear the noise of a car drawing up behind us, so I turn around to see the Mini bearing down on us. The driver stops the car and jumps out, and calls for us to get back in the car.

'Car fine, no problem.'

'No thanks,' I answer decisively.

'You get in my car!' he demands.

'No, no thanks!'

I see that same murderous expression that I noticed on the faces of the opium smokers in Iran. Yolanda lets out a scream,

'Look out Paul, he's got a knife.'

'You're too crowded,' I point out, 'your car broke down. We'll take our chances on the main road thank you.'

The young Afghan then lunges at me with a knife and I notice with horror that it is held in his hand by a set of rings, it is a 'knuckle-duster' knife. He lunges at me, again and again the knife flashes before me, each time he gets dangerously closer to stabbing me.

'Stop it! Stop it! Stop itů.!' Yolanda shouts.

Instinctively I flail my feet at his outstretched hands which at least serves to keep the blade away from my flesh; and he appears sufficiently impressed that I can defend myself to stop trying to fight with me. He staggers back towards his vehicle.

We do not hang about longer than it takes to pick up our bags again. We have not walked very far up the lane before I hear a wild revving of the engine as the car speeds towards us, and I turn just in time to see an arm leaning out of one of the windows, Yolanda's black fur coat is snatched from it's place on top of the sleeping bags she carries.

A roar of laughter issues forth from inside the car.

'Idiots, give it back right now, give it back!' Yolanda shouts, but the car is soon out of sight.

If she has no longer got a coat I think it only reasonable to jettison mine, as I don't like any inequality between us, so I offer to dump mine in an adjacent field. Though she appreciates the gesture, she won't hear of it and we argue over this as we walk along. When we turn a bend in the road I catch sight of the car once again, it has broken down once more. As we approach we glare at the embarrassed looking occupants. One of them throws the coat out across to us and we continue on our way to the main road.

We arrive back at the crossroads hot and bothered with the fury we feel over the happenings of the last hour fuming in our heads, so we seek refuge in an ancient looking chaay house here. We enjoy a pot of tea and some cake as we sit bemoaning our fate. And when we have finished our tea we walk through the smoke-filled room and leave without paying!

As we wait for another lift we wonder if anyone from the chaay shop will come and ask us to pay our bill but before that happens we have a proper lift again, a large Afghan truck this time. Apparently Afghanistan buys British-built Bedford chassis and local labour adds the rest, building up high slatted wooden sides and back. The individual panels are then painted with compelling images of landscapes, people, flowers and machines. The inside of the cab is surprisingly roomy and spectacularly colourful with mirrors adorning the decorated walls; worry-beads dance merrily as we zoom along the well constructed highway.

Up until now I have hardly been aware of the rings on my fingers, but they had not escaped our driver's keen gaze. In all our travels we have never once been propositioned by a driver to sell anything. But this is Afghanistan and we have already found that things are rather different here. He hassles for them by writing numbers in the dust on the dashboard. It is a reasonable way to idle away the time (I resolve to take them off at the earliest opportunity after the lift is over).

I see a community with dwellings spread across several small hillocks; there are more houses and shops lining the road. But there is something wrong here, for not a soul stirs as we drive by, the place is totally deserted. Where has everyone gone? It looks as though they abandoned their homes very suddenly.

'Ghengis Khan again?' Yolanda suggests.

'Huh?' I puzzle.

At length we draw into a pull-in where our driver orders up some food and beckons us to join him so we help ourselves to the water jug on the table and to the rice, meat and bread when they are brought to us. And when we are all finished we are back on the road again.

At our next stop Yolanda needs to use the toilet and though she followed the directions given her she returned looking bewildered. The instructions are repeated but this time it is made clear that anywhere at the back would do. In other words, there is no toilet!

As the evening is fast approaching I wonder whether we should strike out and find ourselves a hotel. But as it turns out, our driver is set to drive on through the night, so we decide to stay with him. The lorry stops only occasionally and only infrequently do we see any other trucks amidst the gloom. Our driver is a man of few words, and having found out that we cannot understand him very well, virtually gives up trying to communicate with us entirely. It occurs to me that during the whole journey our driver never once tries to introduce us to any words of his language, surprising, since up until now it has been routine that our drivers would try to educate us.

We travel on the entire night, but at the first cold light of day we pull into a yard where many other trucks are already parked, where our driver signals to us that he is going no further.

From the truck-park we amble out wearily along the lonely road, drinking in the fresh cold morning air. All of a sudden there is the puffing sound of a locomotive engine, but I am sure there is no railway anywhere hereabouts or anywhere in Afghanistan for that matter. To my big surprise I see coming towards us around the next corner, a steaming smoking vintage traction engine. Stunned, I watch the approaching vehicle with disbelief. On the front of the engine is a bucket which swings back and forth, keeping time to the machine's lurching rhythms, and on the side amidst a mass of brightly polished brass pipes is a painted sign, bold and clear advertising 'Lipton's Tea'. A pair of grimy faced westerners in serge boiler suits and shiny black engine driver hats stand on the footplate and drive the engine.

'Hello there!' I shout to them.

'Morning,' they answer somewhat glumly in heavily North of England accents, and soon the wonderful old machine is lost to sight, chuffing, chugging and clanking off around the bend.

 

To 'Via Rishikesh' Chapter 15 

 

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