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Twelve Border Crossings

January 19, 2023

I shared a new poem in a Zoom workshop earlier this week.
Some of the poets were interested in hearing the story behind the poem. Here it is.

Martin and Ama’s journey home from India in the spring of 1977.

Our last night in India was spent in the Golden Temple at Amritsar. Our last supper in India was dhal and chapattis. Hundreds of us sat in rows cross-legged on the floor and lifted our bowls as the Sikh servers came past with their buckets and ladles. Food was given with grace and a sincere but abstract kind of love. We gave thanks in imperfect Hindi. Having spent much of the day negotiating the purchase of our train-tickets to Lahore, we gave away the last of our rupees.

For the first fifty miles, and the border crossing into Pakistan, we rode a slow train to Lahore, where we spent one night in a hotel with intermittent supplies of tap-water and electricity. Then another slow train for the long overnight journey via Rawalpindi to Peshawar and an early morning bus which jostled with gaudily painted trucks on the Grand Trunk Road under a fortified arch and into the Khyber Pass, Kipling’s “sword-cut through the mountains”.  We were on the two-thousand-year-old Silk Route.

The local men wore Chitral caps of felted wool and did not make eye-contact with us foreigners. Many carried firearms, some of which looked home-made. A young American was concerned for the safety of his sitar, wrapped only in a bedspread and stowed on the roof with the rest of the luggage – rucksacks, bedrolls, baskets and calico bundles and suitcases. Spring was beginning. Almond-trees were in blossom on rock-ledges high above us as we rumbled along the switchback road through the Hindu Kush into Afghanistan.

West of the mountains, we crossed a high plateau.  The few houses were square with domed roofs, built of mud bricks and blending perfectly into their surroundings. Petrol stations and roadside cafes were of the same construction: no garish signs, no neon tubes, nothing incongruous to detract from the austere and heart-stopping beauty of this place. We saw the occasional encampment of black felt tents. Flocks of fat-tailed sheep grazed nearby. The men wore long striped robes and plain turbans in pearl grey, sandy brown and dusty olive, the colours of the landscape. We came to Kabul at dusk: at the end of every street, a view of mountains.

At that time there were Nazi fugitives living comfortably in Kabul. We stayed one night in a German-owned hotel and then moved to an Afghan establishment across the street. Our room was whitewashed, with a vaulted ceiling. We had a hot bath, the first since leaving London five months earlier. The portable galvanised bath was filled with buckets of scalding-hot water. We paid per bucket. It was bliss. Afterwards we washed our travel-stained clothes in the bathwater. When they were dry, two or three days later, we rose before the sun and caught a bus to Kandahar, a day’s journey south-west on a dirt road. One night in a tiny hotel, then another bus at dawn westward to Herat.

We met Uwe while waiting for the bus from Herat to Masshad across the Iranian border. At home in Germany he was a wanted man. His Indian visa had expired and his passport would soon be out of date. The fleshy young man in the photo was dark-haired and wore a sour expression. The person we got to know over the next week was lean and sun-bleached and serenely Buddhist. Years of exile had changed his outlook. He was dependent on providence, not drugs. Now he was heading for Europe, hoping to slip back through the same porous border he’d crossed when first he went on the run. He wanted to see his mother. He needed a new passport and a new name.

Cars and trucks queued for miles, for hours, perhaps for days, at the Iranian border. At the customs building all passengers got off the bus and walked down a long corridor lined with glass cases displaying dissected vehicle parts, with captions stating what quantity of drugs had been found hidden inside them and how many years the smugglers had spent in prison. We had to empty our rucksacks for inspection. My bar of Chinese laundry-soap was cut in half. Eventually we re-joined the bus.

We spent one night in Masshad, in a dormitory room above a cafe; mattresses covered the floor with barely a hand’s-width between them. In the morning we ate breakfast downstairs: soft cheese with honey poured over it, and a glass cup of clear rose-scented tea, known as chai from India to Turkey. In India and Pakistan it was thick, sugary and milky, in Afghanistan green or black, sweet and often flavoured with cardamom, and served from Russian porcelain teapots seamed with breaks that had been glued and riveted. In Turkey it was black, sometimes mint- or apple-flavoured, served in a small tulip-shaped glass with two sugar-lumps resting briefly in the neck before they dissolved.

KABUL, MARCH 1977

On a doorstep half in, half out of the sun,
white beard, dust-coloured turban,
he drills holes in a rose-patterned shard
held between his boot-soles,
the drill spun by a gut-strung bow.

From the Khyber Pass westward to Iran
I didn’t see one china teapot
that had not been glued and riveted:
a map of fine lines overlaid
on the field of flowers.

I have heard that Chinese enamelware has now replaced the Russian porcelain.

Months earlier, in Madras, we had been warned by an American who had taught English in Tehran to avoid the new-year holiday, Nowruz. We failed entirely to stick to our plan.We arrived in Iran at the end of the holiday season, and trains to Tehran were fully booked. Ticket-clerks at Masshad train station treated us with the contempt we so clearly deserved; our request for tickets met with the standard dismissal – an upward and sideways jerk of the chin, attention directed to the next person in the queue.

Eventually Martin, Uwe and I succeeded in buying tickets to a station one or two stops along the line. When we reached that point we vacated our seats and moved along to the restaurant-car, where a steward who was keen to practice his English befriended us and allowed us to stay for the remainder of the overnight journey to Tehran. Once there, we made for the bus station and booked tickets to the Turkish border near Tabriz. The waiting-room was crowded with families. We sat on the floor and waited for our bus. It was very early the next morning when we reached the border.

Mount Ararat’s snow-capped peaks loomed above the crossing-point. Once again there was a long queue of traffic waiting to pass through. On the Turkish side we had breakfast – a satisfying sort of savoury rice porridge or soup – at a small cafe. It was very good. From the nearby town of Doğubeyazıt we travelled by bus to Erzurum, a busy city. Both places have a history going back to pre-Roman times. We bought bread and fruit in the market before boarding another bus heading through the mountains northward to Trabzon (Trebizond) on the Black Sea coast.

Here we waited two or three days for the next boat to Istanbul. We spent the time exploring the town and a nearby Byzantine church. Turkish hospitality was such that it was hard to pay for a cup of tea or coffee. We would sit down and order, and someone would come over and talk to us. When we rose to leave, the waiter would tell us our bill had already been paid. Later, in the thoroughly modern cosmopolitan city of Istanbul, it was a different story. Television sets had replaced conversation, and foreigners were two-a-penny.

The ferry took a day and a night, stopping at a couple of places along the coast. We sailed into Istanbul at dawn. The waterfront was lined with tall wooden houses with balconies overlooking the Bosphorus. The city’s beauty took our breath away.

Our German companion Uwe set off homeward then, and Martin and I spent a few days in the city. We were invited to lunch with his great-aunt Merope in her elegant flat in Yeşilköy, a resort on the Marmara Sea. She was the last remaining member of a Levantine Greek family who had stayed on in Turkey. Our conversation was in French.

The next morning we took the train to Yeşilköy again. We hitchhiked from here on a road that ran straight to the Greek border. As we walked across a wooden bridge into Greece the air seemed to grow warmer. The main road followed the coastline towards Thessaloniki. By nightfall we had got as far as Kavala. There was little traffic, and we were looking for a quiet spot to unroll our sleeping-bags when another car approached. The driver stopped and offered to take us to Thessaloniki. He had a two-way radio and we wondered if we’d hailed a taxi by mistake. Auto-stop we told him – we are hitchhikers. He grinned. Politsai! he said. After stopping in Thessaloniki to ring his mother, he drove us all the way to the Yugoslav border, where he bought us supper, and a puzzle-ring each in the souvenir shop. He was one of the angels on our journey. There would be many more.

It was a long wait before the next lift. The driver dropped us outside Skopje and we walked around the ring-road until we saw a signpost to Beograd. A family with two children took us most of the way there, and gave us two Easter eggs that had been boiled in something to colour them – coffee perhaps – and a folk-art design had been scratched through to the white shell. That was our supper. We camped in a half-built car showroom. In the morning we got a lift to Beograd and once again followed the signs, this time for Zagreb.

In the cities, people were stylishly dressed and there was at least one hairdresser on every street. In the countryside we saw ox-drawn carts and an Archimedes Screw to raise water from a well. The roads were rough and the driving was fast and frightening. Roadside shrines marked the sites of fatal accidents.

Two cheerful young women in a Fiat 500 stopped for us. We crammed ourselves and our rucksacks and bed-roll into the back seat. Car is small! said our driver. We conversed in a mixture of English, French and Russian. When their route diverged from ours, they left us by the roadside with a parting gift of bread and cheese. We spent the night in a stable, listening to a horse moving about in the next loose box.

The next day we reached the Austrian border, where we were lucky enough to meet the driver of a minibus.  The vehicle was returning empty to Dortmund and he offered to take us all the way, warning us that he would be stopping for nothing but petrol. In fact he stopped for more hitch-hikers, a group of German students who were returning from an Easter break in Italy. We chatted happily all the way. Hearing that we were from Liverpool, a girl called Martina asked if we knew John Brady, who had been busking in Germany the previous summer. Oh yes, said Martin, he lives in the flat above mine! Give him my love, said Martina.

We crossed Austria without stopping. The countryside was incredibly tidy. All the rest of that day we travelled through Germany on the autobahns. The driver left us at a service-station near Dortmund sometime after midnight. We sat in the cafe and made each cup of coffee last as long as possible. At first light we started hitching on the slip-road.

A French woman and her grown-up son stopped for us in their dented 2CV. We soon realised that they could read neither the road-signs nor the map, and Martin took over as navigator. We crossed Holland and Belgium and entered Northern France. We waved goodbye to them in light drizzle at a roundabout just outside Arras, their home town.

To our astonishment a sleek black car with tinted windows and diplomatic numberplates stopped to give us a ride. The driver was an Italian returning to work at the embassy in London after a visit home. At Calais we bought our ferry tickets and shared a sandwich for lunch. The amiable diplomat, with us two dirty hippies in the back seat, was waved through Customs and Immigration at Dover. He dropped us off at an Underground station in central London. The record time for hitchhiking from Istanbul to London was said to be three days. We were happy to have done it in five.

We arrived at Martin’s parents’ house in Woodford Green late that afternoon, heads full of stories, pockets empty.

This is a book of twelve Turkish map-fold pages that I made to contain the story. I later gave it to Martin, my travelling-companion.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. Mary Bolton permalink
    January 19, 2023 11:22 pm

    What an amazing story!
    What an astonishing memory you have. Thank you for writing it down, it was such a pleasure to read.

  2. Nina Fenner permalink
    January 20, 2023 9:46 am

    Wow what a fabulous story I really loved reading that.

  3. January 20, 2023 12:15 pm

    What a wonderful and evocative story – a proper adventure!

  4. January 22, 2023 2:21 pm

    Amazing adventures were possible back then, for those willing to risk them… I love it that you did this together and it explains a lot more about you. Thank you for the memories xxx

  5. January 28, 2023 6:27 pm

    This was beautiful to read. My grandmother was born in Lahore and lived there until she was 7 years old. We have some fragments of the story of the family’s time there, so anything as vivid as your story always seems to attach itself to what I know about her. Thanks for sharing. x

  6. January 31, 2023 8:54 pm

    How interesting, Julie. Have you ever been to see her birthplace?

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