A 1970 Overland Journey to India
This is the first part of an amazing overland journey from England to India and back again. I am really honoured to be hosting this story by Reverend Stephen Barton on Selims Raasta – off the beaten path travel interviews
Stephen is a very special family friend, an inspiration to Ashique and I, a comforting presence in our lives during our 11 years in England and in these dark days of religion and race intolerance all over the world, it is refreshing to meet a man of faith, who is open-minded, worldly, full of humour and a humanitarian above all else. He did this overland journey back in 1970 before he was ordained, and it is a fascinating story to read now – in the days of smartphones and google maps – of how he rode on the back of trucks through countries like Afghanistan and with £100 for the whole journey! Without giving anymore away, here is the first part of this series. Very few pictures from the first part but it will be made up by the incredible images of the later parts of the travels.
It was in March 1970 that I met my best friend one day in Cambridge, where we were students at different colleges, and asked what he intended to do in the long vacation (June to September). He said he was thinking of hitch-hiking to India and I asked if I could come too. A phone call home secured the promise of £100, which was the budget for each of us. (This was the equivalent of £1300 in 2013 calculating by Retail Price Index, £2270 by average earnings. I realise only now how generous my father was.)
We bought maps, found out how to obtain visas, consulted a doctor who advised Cambridge expeditions to tropical places, and off we went. We began and ended the journey apart. I wanted to revisit Gallneukirchen, north of Linz in Austria, where I had worked for five months in 1969, and my friend wanted to travel through Czechoslovakia, so we agreed to rendezvous in Gallneukirchen on 25 June.
Communication with folks at home was entirely by letter. We made an estimate of where we would be on what dates and asked friends and family to write to Poste Restante either at the GPO or at American Express in those places. We wrote when we could. We did not attempt phone calls, though a kind Indian bishop once made one on our behalf. Communication with each other at the many points when we separated (for ease of hitch-hiking) was impossible, so we depended upon an agreement to meet at the railway station in the next major town or city.
This account is compiled from some notes made on the journey itself, letters written home, either to parents or to a friend, and from some notes written up soon after return. The whole has been supplemented by some present memories, which are printed in italics. The photographs were all taken at the time or, for Gallneukirchen, in the previous year.
I had to give my ramblings some order, so chose to do it by date and location. On the journey towards India, my location at night was not always the same as my friend’s!
The world has changed. Yugoslavia is no more, and I doubt if it’s advisable or even possible to bum a ride over the Khyber Pass these days.
Friday 19 June: Home to Cologne
Left home at about 9.30 am, excited but with little idea of where India was. Hoped Mum would not worry too much. Friend of Mum gave me lift to the Kingston bypass. I had a hitching sign which said simply “India”. Did not arrive in Dover till 3.00 pm. One interesting lift with lorry driver who voted Labour but doesn’t think nationalisation stands a chance in this country, owing to the selfishness and short-sightedness of your actual working man. This driver was really the most articulate I’ve met and we had quite a lengthy conversation, me all the while concealing the ‘orrible fact that I voted for Fred Teeth (Edward Heath)– may I be forgiven! Every driver talked of the shock of the election and I first began to wonder why I had voted Tory. Just missed the ferry at Dover, owing to difficulty in finding the right docks! Embarked at about 5.00 pm. No one to wave to, but I didn’t mind. Customs officer not too sure whether he would see me again in September. Met two Scottish students who were to go camping in Germany. How strange it was to be heading for India. My letter to another friend says the sunset was “terrific”; I hardly remember it, for I have seen so many since.
Disembarked after smooth crossing at about 8.30 pm and was lucky in getting a lift very soon which took me right into Holland near Maastricht. The two girls and the boy were Dutch. I flattered myself that I could understand something of what they were saying. I had slight hopes of staying the night with them; already I had come to expect too much.
Saturday 20 June: Cologne to Wiesbaden
Several short lifts, including a splendid old MG, open-top, which got a puncture and was on the road again in a couple of minutes, and another from two young Germans in a Ford Capri. Picked up a Croydon fellow on one lift and was with him till midday. We raced madly about Koln at 2.00 am looking for a cheap locale for beer, but no luck. Instead we saw only prostitutes and drunkards and ended up on a piece of parkland where we slept a few hours.
The countryside was magnificent – fabulous castles. I remembered coming through the other way by train on the return from Austria. We stopped at one castle but did not enter. My knowledge of the region’s history is non-existent. I loved watching the barges plying up and down this mighty river, as I had watched them earlier in Koln and last year in Budapest. Oh boy, what a way to start.
When nobody stops to pick me up I wonder if it’s worth it. When I’m on the road again, then all is fine. But it’s beginning to seem further. Roads are much longer than lines on a map! And when shall I be fit enough to think of anything except where the next car’s coming from? One is supposed to concentrate better when hungry – I hope so. But when tired as well … we shall see. I’m not miserable, still as strangely cool as I seem to have been for ages.
Sunday 21 June: Wiesbaden to Innsbruck
Slept about 10 hours and it cost about 3/6 (20p)! Woke up feeling real bad – very lonely. When in the countryside it’s OK, but in the city, amidst people, it’s possible to be lonely. How little loneliness has to do with being alone. Surrounded by others in the Youth Hostel I was isolated, and would not have been very sociable even if invited. And how easy it is to be overcome by present mishaps, entirely forgetting previous success and with no hope for the future. I wonder at the easy way in which my feelings change. Perhaps the concern with myself was the reason for forgetting my socks! I wonder if I’ll have anything left by the time I return!
The warden explained how I could reach the autobahn, but I still ended up walking a long way between buses. Eventually I got on and at a small Parkplatz I obtained a lift from three hearty Germans. They made me feel very young. Met a hippy who had been waiting for ages. Travelled with them almost to Karlsruhe, stopped for petrol and as I got out I saw an American car and asked the driver if he’d take me. He did, and was going to Oberammergau!
The American was going to the US Army School–Europe at Oberammergau (NATO training school for Europe). He’s 50-odd and as hard-bitten a son of a bitch as you’d find anywhere in this goddam world. He’s been in the Indo-China War, 2nd War, Korea, Vietnam (3x) and is now to be director of this school where commandos go for various courses. Those avoiding the draft are yellow. The army is a great life. Got a doctorate in history. Wants to teach at university when he retires. Loves Germany and Japan. Can’t stand the French (lost every war they ever undertook). Gave me a snack and a couple of beers – all I’ve had to eat today – and some insight into the life of a German hunting coterie. He’s mad on hunting – all sorts of exciting creatures like wild boars – and belongs to a very select company in Germany which seems to be a first-class old boy network. He was carrying with him 10 letters of recommendation from friends in N. Germany to friends of theirs in the south.
On the road in Oberammergau, a beautiful village, I met two English teachers, and we exchanged a few phrases in German! It was wonderful to be in the mountains again, the red rocks against the sunset, and the cool air. Walking through the last village before the border I found everywhere deserted; they were all watching the World Cup. Then one lift to Innsbruck, which I found I did not know as well as I had thought. But it was lovely to walk those streets again. Tried to help a poor English boy who had lost the rest of his party. How helpless he seemed
I spent ½ hour trying to find a non-existent youth hostel. Was shown a patch of grass where I slept quite well.
Menu: Friday – Mum’s sandwiches; Saturday – 2 apples, 2 ½ rolls, 1 sausage; Sunday – (so far) 1 apple, 1 ham snack, 3 beers, 1 milk. And I’m still alive! On reflection, I think I was eating too little at this stage.