It was the 12th of November and, by some miracle, we managed to wake up early. We hurriedly splashed our faces with icy-cold water, paid the hotel bill and made it to the bus with time to spare. Ever since we had arrived in Kabul, at around 7000 feet above sea level, the days had gradually been getting colder and on this particular morning the temperature was well below zero. There was a thin crust of ice on the puddles in the streets and our exhaled breath exited in white clouds. At the bus stand the men rearranged their long turbans so that they wrapped around their faces, leaving only the eyes visible. Now looking like a bunch of bandits, they shuffled, stamped their feet and clapped their hands together to keep warm. Two policemen in outsize, blue-grey, serge greatcoats with tight belts and turned-up collars watched the comings and goings, bright pink ears projecting from each side of their peaked caps. We paid 4Afghanis coolie-charge, supervised the loading of our bags on to the bus roof and, still with half an hour to spare, went off in search of breakfast. There was hardly anywhere open at such an early hour but we managed to get a glass of chai, a stale sticky bun and some boiled sweets for the journey.
The Pakistani owned bus was considerably more comfortable than the DIY Afghan variety that we had previously experienced and, much to our amazement, departed punctually at precisely eight o’clock. Twenty miles to the east of Kabul we followed the river into the towering grey rock slabs of the Tang-I-Gharoo, the Kabul Gorge. The twisting road clung to the sides of the mountains with a sheer drop to the river, crashing over the rocks far below. It was spectacular and terrifying, one slip of the steering wheel and we would have joined the rusting wrecks occasionally visible at the bottom of the gorge. At times we could glimpse the road winding its way into the distance, a thousand feet below us. This was an incredible feat of engineering. As we descended further there were small villages and farms often connected to the other side of the river by rickety, rope and timber bridges strung between the rocks. In two places the river was dammed creating wide lakes that perfectly reflected the cloudless, pale blue sky and then, before we’d even had time to absorb the mornings drive, the bus arrived in Jalalabad and stopped for lunch.
Compared to Kabul, Jalalabad at under 2000 feet above sea level was hot and humid. The dusty, unpaved streets were lined with citrus and peepul trees and the people were mainly Pashtuns. In the restaurant we ordered rice and nan, as the bowls of greasy stew that others were eating obviously contained large, stringy-looking lumps of mutton or goat. But we were served the same as everyone else, the meal of the day, and ate it after picking out the largest pieces of fat-laden meat and giving them to a constantly complaining American guy with an over-loud, whining voice. The food was delicious and cost 35Afs for both of us including two china teapots of chai. This was a fraction of what we had been used to paying in the tourist eating places in Kabul.
Back on the bus we carried on through more spectacularly wild and mountainous countryside to the Afghan border post at Torkham, arriving at about 4.00pm. Though the Afghans were more efficient (and the border itself slightly more contemporary than the one at Islam Qu’ala), the process of exiting the country was interminably slow. It was clear that the officials were meticulousy looking for out-of-date vaccination certificates or overstayed visas, in fact anything that would enable them to threaten to send people back to Kabul. The choice was to pay a ‘fine’ (10US Dollars was the going rate for an expired visa) or to remain in the country and face the consequences, which could be harsh. This was how the border officials supplemented their meagre wages… and who could blame them? Eventually we were on our way, entering Pakistan and the Khyber Pass at Torkham. The Pakistanis were courteous and our entry was efficient and hassle-free, apart from being besieged by money-changers waving thick wads of Rupees in our faces as soon as we alighted from the bus.
We wound our way through the pass, driving on the left-hand side of the road for the first time since leaving England. Unfortunately, sitting on the wrong side of the bus, we didn’t see too much of the scenery until we reached the summit at the smuggler’s town of Landi Kotal, infamous for it’s counterfeit arms industry and hashish factories. This was a wild and lawless looking, mud-built frontier town full of bearded Afridis going about their business with rifles in hand and heavy cartridge belts slung over their shoulders. It was how I imagined the American wild west but with embroidered pillbox caps and turbans instead of Stetsons.
Arriving in Peshawar, the capital of the North West Frontier Province at dusk, we fought our way through the yelling throng of taxi drivers and walked off down what we took to be a main street. All the cheap looking hotels we called at were full but just off the main drag, in a small square, we found a double room in the shabby Taj Hotel for 10Rupees. Janette washed her hair, I splashed my face and we went out to dine. Now we were on the Indian subcontinent and although Peshawar still had the wild feel of Afghanistan about it the food on offer had radically changed. In a small restaurant we ate a meal cooked with so much chilli that it was impossible to taste the other ingredients. The chai had also changed, no longer was it a refreshing pot of black tea but was now strong-brewed and served with dirty grey milk. At a nearby table were three guys who kept glancing in our direction and were obviously talking about us. Feeling a little uncomfortable at the attention they were paying us we paid the bill and left. Walking back to the hotel along an almost deserted street we heard a loud ‘pop’ and the ricochet of a bullet close by. This was a bit of a shock. I had no idea how to react. I mean I’d never been shot at before. In a very English manner I grabbed Janette by the arm and at a quick pace, but not quite breaking into an embarrassing run, we headed in the direction of the hotel. My brain was attempting to process the situation. Was the bullet intended for us? Was it simply a Northwest Frontier joke at our expense? An accidental discharge? We tried to act normal, though I had no idea what normal might be in a situation like this and anyway, the speed our legs were moving was a bit of a giveaway. We made it back to the Taj safely and were joltedt back to some kind of normality by having to fill in two extensive registration forms each.
Neither of us slept very well that night, it was hot, and sometime between three and four in the morning cockerels began to crow, dogs to bark and the call to prayer echoed across the city. The previous evening, in a cannabis-induced attraction to a combination of unnaturally bright colours and sugar, I had foolishly bought some fluorescent yellow sweet-stuff from a street stall and eaten it before going to bed. On rising at nine o’clock I violently regurgitated it all, now nicely mixed with the chilli curry, which was just as hot coming up as it had been going down. I felt really crappy and would have appreciated a shower but, apart from a slow trickle from the washbasin tap, there was no water. We had breakfast of fried eggs in the hotel restaurant, paid the bill and, hoping to save a few rupees, (whilst somehow managing to forget our experiences in Iran) we set off with the intention of hitching to Rawalpindi. We were both feeling a bit under the weather and this wasn’t helped by the increasing heat. The streets were full of people, mostly men going about their business, and we were a major attraction. It was like being back in Iran but ten times worse. Janette in particular was gaped at as if she were a creature from another planet, men froze and stared open-mouthed as we passed and cyclists lost control of their machines as they approached us. Every time we stopped to ask the way a huge crowd would gather either to simply stand and stare or to try to outdo each other in being of assistance. Unfortunately, in their over-enthusiasm, they all gave conflicting directions. After an hour of this madness we came, by accident, upon a rusty old bus waiting to leave for Rawalpindi and, even though it was already crowded with people, we abandoned the insane idea of hitching and climbed aboard, managing to squeeze ourselves in next to a young couple with four small children, all of whom looked ill and half-starved.
As we passed through the greenest and most fertile countryside we had seen in a long time the journey was regularly interrupted by the Pakistan army as the bus was searched for guns and drugs being transported down from the North West Frontier. At a lunch stop in a one-street, nowhere-town we were harassed by a mass of street-traders attempting to push their wares between the bars of the unglazed bus windows. This first day in Pakistan was a bit of a culture shock after the sedate, (or should that be sedated?) pace of life in underpopulated Afghanistan. We crossed the Indus and, just as Janette was raising the camera to her eye, a sing-song male voice from behind warned her to be very careful about taking photographs, particularly of bridges, as this was illegal because of the situation with India.
We arrived in ‘Pindi’ in the early afternoon and found our way to the Railway Station. There we discovered that there was an overnight train to Lahore leaving at 7:20pm and arriving at 6:00am the following day. I tried to reserve a couple of bunks in second class but was told that this was not possible. When I asked why it wasn’t possible the reply was, ‘because it is not possible’. You can’t really argue with that can you? I could, however, purchase unreserved tickets but not until five o’clock. I didn’t ask why I had to wait until five o’clock; I had a pretty good idea what the answer would be. We placed our bags in the left-luggage office and went out to try and find a post office so that Janette could send a letter home. Sitting on the steps of the post office with an attractive, fair-skinned, unveiled, young western woman while she completed her letter was not a good idea. We were like magnets to the inquisitive. A considerable crowd quickly gathered to watch our every move with wide-eyed amazement as if we were putting on a performance especially for them. In the West this would have been considered incredibly rude but here it seemed to be quite normal to be so uninhibited in displaying curiosity. Nevertheless, it was a most uncomfortable feeling to be at the centre of so much attention. Janette quickly terminated her letter and we retreated into the building to post it. We spent the remainder of the afternoon wandering the streets, drinking chai in a dingy café and buying bread, bananas and, to our great surprise, Marmite. At five o’clock we bought our train tickets and retired to the station’s restaurant to dine on vegetable curry and rice followed by bright pink blancmange and thick, sweet chai made with boiled buffalo milk.
As the platform was beginning to fill with people we collected our bags in readiness but unfortunately were waylaid by a group of students who, whilst completely ignoring Janette, wanted to ask me a multitude of questions like, ‘What is your name? Where are you going? Where are you from? What do you think of Pakistan? What is your profession? Who is this woman? Because of them we were not in the first wave of porters and passengers fighting to get on the train when it arrived and were forced to sit right next to the doors and the stinking toilet. If I had been less polite in answering the students inane questions we would have had a reasonable chance of grabbing a bunk each but, as it was, we had ten and a half-hours perched on uncomfortable wooden seats to look forward to. The train left thirty minutes late, moving very slowly and stopping every fifteen minutes for the first couple of hours. We tried to sleep where we were but it was impossible so I stretched out on the floor, leaving Janette the two seats. We both slept in fits and starts as the train stopped at every little station with people getting on and off at what felt like every village and hamlet in the Punjab.