Eastward Ho! From Zurich to Pakistan

Portsmouth-based writer Joan Farnell recalls an eventful trip she took from East to West during which the former blended with the latter in curious and eye-opening ways. 

‘I think these people must do this every year,’ I said to Zafar my husband. I was referring to a large Turkish family who’d galloped onto the ferry and quickly set up camp in a large square space between rows of seats. They seemed to have brought everything necessary for the three-day journey from Ancona in Italy to Cesme in Turkey: sleeping bags lay neatly rolled up, hampers of food and thermos flasks of tea waited on the floor ready for consumption. When I saw the price of meals on board the ferry I wished we’d brought some provisions with us too.

We were on our way to Pakistan by road. I can’t fly, as I suffer from claustrophobia, so it was the only way to get there. We’d left Zurich early one morning in August and headed south over the St. Gotthard Pass and then down into Italy. And now we were heading east across the Ionian Sea to Turkey. It was a very enjoyable time: the sun shone from a blue sky and the sea remained pleasantly calm. We could just lie around being lazy.

On our second day out there was a definite buzz of excitement in the air.  

‘What’s going on?’ I asked one of the passengers. (No, I don’t speak Turkish). We found, whilst travelling the whole length of Turkey, that German was the lingua franca. Half the country must be working in BMW’s car factories!

We’re coming up to the Corinth Canal,’ the young man said. ‘You must stay on deck to see this.’

‘Where’s this canal? I can’t see it?’ I queried.

‘Over there!’ he pointed.

I strained my eyes and could just make out a very narrow slit in the coastline of Greece. We’d never make it through there, would we? Of course, we did but I swear there were only twenty centimetres of water between the ship and the steep sides of the canal. Nearly all the passengers were up on the decks and I got the impression we thought by holding our breath we’d help the man at the ship’s wheel to keep a steady course. When we eventually emerged into the Aegean you could hear the whoosh of a collective exhalation – no joke!

That was the only bit of excitement until we reached the Turkish port of Cesme. It came home to me as we neared the coast that this stretch of sea is not only a crossing point between Europe and Asia but also between the Christian world and the Islamic. I heard the sound of church bells ringing, probably from the island of Cos, and realised it would be the last time I’d hear them for a long time. It gave me a pang of Wehmut, which is usually translated as melancholy but really conveys many more complex emotions all associated with longing and sadness. The feeling didn’t last long as I have a great spirit of adventure.

Landing in Cesme we were confronted with the usual rigmarole of checking passports and papers. The officials took their time and a disgruntled German behind me in the queue muttered something about Turkey having to get its act together if it wanted to join the EU. We all got through eventually though and we set off for Iran.

The main roads through Turkey are amazingly good and we only diverted from them if Zafar needed a rest. Once, we parked in a narrow country lane under some trees for shade and settled down for a snooze. A wind came up and suddenly a loud hammering could be heard on the car roof. I was still awake and went to investigate. Unknowingly, we’d parked under an apricot tree and fruit was raining down on us with every gust of wind. I tried a couple. They were small but very sweet so I gathered up some for later. They made a lovely little picnic.

The further east we drove the less influence the west had on the world around us: women wore long skirts and headscarves and fewer and fewer jeans were seen. One thing’s always puzzled me about Turkey: it’s proudly Muslim but alcoholic drinks are on sale everywhere. We stopped in a small town for me to buy a scarf to cover my head and a long-sleeved blouse. The dress code in Iran was quite strict and I wanted to be prepared. While I was thus occupied Zafar bought a cup of coffee and started talking with some local men who were sitting watching the world go by. Of course, the whole conversation was conducted in German; they seemed to find a lot to laugh about.

We passed many small villages and towns on our way to the Iranian border, one I remember clearly. It was perched up on the side of a hill with grey stone houses huddling around a mosque clad in beautiful sea green tiles.

On the last stretch to the border I kept seeing signs announcing some fantastic view ahead. I dug out our map of the area from under the back seat to see what could be coming up. It was Mount Ararat. We rounded a corner and there it was before us, visible from peak to base in all its majestic symmetry. As mountains go, it was very impressive! I wished I’d brought our camera with me, but I hadn’t deemed it a necessity so it had been left in Switzerland. At the frontier I had ample time to take the view in though, on both sides, as it took ages to get clearance.

We’re not used to hard borders anymore in Europe so this one was a bit of a shock to me. Giant double gates and tiers of armed sentries guarded this point of contact between Iran and the West. Quite honestly, I felt intimidated but Zafar was very relaxed. He’d been to this country before. There were about fifty people wanting to cross, mostly Shia Muslims making pilgrimages to holy places. When we finally got beyond those gates I only had one thought: Frodo enters Mordor.

It took so long to get through customs that I watched the sunset and the moon rise over Mount Ararat, idly wondering where Noah’s Ark might have landed, assuming of course the Bible’s account was correct.

It seems there was some kind of insurance missing for our car, that was what had taken up so much time, but the Iranian authorities were willing to compromise: we just had to follow a certain route through the country and get stamps from the police in each city. That was fine by us as we were only in transit anyway.

At least my attire had passed muster: loose trousers, long-sleeved blouse which covered my backside and headscarf. Iranian women had to cover up completely when outside the home. Usually they wore a black chador, a cloth that enveloped the whole body but left the face free. It was very late when we managed to get to a hotel and go to sleep.

The border might have been unwelcoming but the Iranian people were extremely friendly. Everyone wanted to chat with us – even the police! It was at one of the control posts – this one happened to be a booth with an open counter – that I witnessed the strange lengths to which people would go to converse with one of us. I was sitting in the car watching Zafar get the document stamped, when his feet suddenly left the ground! I was amazed, as I didn’t know my husband could levitate! Then I noticed two pairs of hands had appeared, grabbed him by the shoulders and were hauling him into the booth. I sat there, my eyes and mouth wide open, but since I didn’t hear any cries for help I just shrugged my shoulders and decided to sit and wait. 

I was fiddling with my headscarf, which could get very itchy, and watching people pass by when a bus drew up on the opposite side of the road. A group of young ladies sitting near the windows spotted me in the car. I saw them pointing and smiling, then they waved. I smiled and waved back. This seemed to delight them – I felt pretty good too. It was a shame our encounter was so brief.

After half an hour Zafar returned, exiting the booth through the door this time.

‘What was going on there?’ I asked. 

‘The police wanted to chat. They gave me a cup of coffee too, though,’ he answered.

So we’d both done our bit to foster international relations. 

The capital city of Tehran lay on our route but all I can remember of it was the absolutely crazy drivers, beautiful fountains in front of the main railway station and surrounding mountains that were so steep and high I felt afraid they could tumble down any minute.

The landscape became more and more arid the further south we went. Towns became large oases surrounded by desert. It could get a bit monotonous so we were glad to pick up a hitchhiker now and again. One was a young man who ran a chicken farm: not the battery kind, he assured us. His English was excellent. In fact nearly everyone we came in contact with spoke the language to some degree.

In Yazd we were looking for a hotel for the night and ended up asking two young people if they knew of one. They informed us there weren’t any in the city but, if we could take them to Rafsanjan, their parents would be happy to welcome us for the night. It meant another hour’s driving but Zafar said he was up for it.

The brother and sister were on holiday from Brussels where they were studying community health and hygiene, or something in that line. We were made to feel very welcome when we arrived at their home, although it must have caused some inconvenience for the women in the family. Having a male stranger present meant they had to don their chadors. They showed us the greatest hospitality though – even going as far as converting one of their eastern style toilets into one they assumed would be more comfortable for me to use. What more can one offer? Well of course, they did offer us food.

All through Turkey we could eat at service stations where a variety of salads, vegetables and kebabs were on offer. They were a bit expensive so we often cooked meals on our improvised barbecue. This consisted of an old oven shelf and any stones we found lying around to balance it on. In Iran, no matter where we went, the food always seemed to be the same: fried tomatoes, chips and hamburgers. When I saw our hostess heading for the deep freezer I feared the worst. Within a very short time she’d rustled up a true Iranian meal of – I think you can guess what. Still, we were hungry and grateful for her consideration. After eating we settled down for a couple of hours of chatting. When we eventually got to bed it was getting very late.

The house the family lived in was so huge it was more like a palace!  It seems they made their money from pistachios. I had a little walk round the plantation the following morning before we set off again; there were acres and acres of nut bushes as far as the eye could see. I wondered if I’d ever eaten any of their produce without knowing it. I vowed in future to scrutinize the ‘place of origin’ on any packets of pistachios I’d buy; after all, they could be from Rafsanjan.

We hoped to reach the Pakistani border the following day and were making pretty good time when I noticed we were approaching a city called Bam. The name seemed familiar but I couldn’t think why – until we reached the suburbs. Then it became only too obvious – an earthquake. I remembered hearing about it on the news a couple of months previously. There weren’t many people out on the streets but, although the place was in ruins, life still went on.

Driving slowly down a main road that had been cleared, for the most part, of rubble, I noticed one ruin in particular: one wall was still standing upright but another had fallen in a slant against it, leaving a triangular space beneath. Here a barber had set up his shop and was attending to his customers. Well, he wasn’t going to give up easily! 

I really wanted to look around Bam a bit more and maybe speak to the people, ask them how they were managing after such devastation, but we’d been given a strict timetable by the authorities and had to press on.

We did manage to reach the border the next day. Iran doesn’t present such a forbidding face to Pakistan as it does to Turkey. There were no giant gates or rows of armed soldiers. It was just a simple crossing point. The passport control on the Pakistani side back then was a rather primitive affair. It was a large brick hut with no computers or air-conditioning and all our details were written down by hand in a giant leather-bound tome. The problem of some missing car insurance turned up again and we were informed we would have to report to Quetta where the officials would decide if our car would be impounded. Great! We had to take a customs official with us to make sure we didn’t abscond. This wasn’t such a bad thing since we could let him drive, after all he knew the road – and the potholes! We’d had smooth, wide motorways to drive on all the way through Turkey and Iran but now the pampering was over as Pakistan’s roads are, for the most part, in a terrible condition.

The sun was setting by the time we set off. It was a long way to drive at night but things were enlivened by the periodic appearance of beautifully decorated lorries. These lit up like Christmas trees when they came within range of our headlights. Just as well they did too, because there were never any street lamps around; the roads were pitch black. Anyway, we managed to reach Quetta and the next day our car was impounded. Oh dear! And a few stronger expletives. There was nothing we could do about it, so Zafar found a taxi driver who was willing to make the long journey to Rawalpindi. His name was Tariq and it seems he had a wife in that area.

‘A wife in Rawalpindi? ‘ I queried.

‘And another one in Quetta too, probably,’ Zafar answered.

No matter, we were on our way again!

It took us another three days to reach our destination. Our journey took us over mountains and through deserts; one part of the road was actually a dried up riverbed and full of rubble. I wondered how the car didn’t fall apart it was being jolted about so much! Actually, I wondered how we didn’t lose bits of our anatomy into the bargain. It was a very hot, uncomfortable, journey and I spent a lot of time dozing.

My tiredness wasn’t solely due to the weather or the bumpy roads: it was also because I wasn’t getting much sleep at night. There were few good hotels on our route so we had to make do with what we could find. Sometimes people tried too hard to make me comfortable. At an inn in a place called Lorelai, the proprietor was so intent on making sure I wouldn’t overheat he put two air coolers in my room. These are big square contraptions, a primitive form of A/C, that make an incredibly loud clackety-clack noise when in operation. It was impossible to sleep with the racket, but impossible to sleep with the heat if I turned them off. I wasn’t feeling very refreshed in the morning, so my mind was in a bit of a haze when I had breakfast in a chaikhana, or teahouse, the next morning. Zafar insisted we sit at the very back away from the street as Lorelai was in a very conservative area of the country and women were rarely seen in the streets; my appearance could have attracted unwanted attention. We had the typical Pakistani breakfast of chapatis (called roti here), omelettes and tea.

The next night was even worse as none of the hotels we encountered had any vacant rooms. In the end we slept in the staff quarters of some hostelry. Heaven only knows where the poor servants spent the night! Their room was large but full of mosquitos and hot. It was a case of beggars can’t be choosers, so I had to tough it out. Needless to say, I didn’t get much rest. Zafar seemed to sleep no matter what the conditions.

We were still in the south of the country and I was fascinated to see camels hitched up to carts. Their reined muzzles at the end of those long necks seemed to me to be too far away from the driver for him to exert control over them, yet they galloped around the streets at a fine pace.

Somewhere, in an isolated wild region we saw some nomads. There were about twenty of them with all their possessions loaded onto mules or donkeys. The women really caught my eye as they were wearing calf-length, embroidered round skirts made of some heavy material. This was so different to the traditional shalwar kameez (loose pants and long blouse) worn by most Pakistani women. They were heading up a mountain maybe following some ancient tribal route, who knows? I wondered what that kind of life must be like and how long it would survive in this modern world.

Pakistan does have a couple of motorways and things of beauty they are too. There’s a toll to pay, so most people don’t use them; also they’re policed and you’re expected to keep to the rules of the road, something many Pakistanis are not used to doing. We were able to complete the last two hundred kilometres to Rawalpindi on one of them. Tariq had never been on a motorway before, in fact we had to explain to him how to use the lanes. He gazed around with shining eyes like a kid in a halva shop; he’d never driven on such a smooth surface in his life! During the whole journey he’d been smoking nearly non-stop, but when a police car overtook us he suddenly looked as guilt-stricken as a schoolboy caught puffing in the loo, and threw the cigarette out the window. That was cause for hilarity although he looked rather embarrassed when we explained it wasn’t an offence to smoke on the motorway, so the police weren’t after him. He grinned sheepishly and lit up another cigarette.

And so at last we reached the sprawling city of Rawalpindi and plunged into the labyrinth of narrow streets so common to cities in this part of the world. My stepchildren Imrana and Raheel were waiting at the door of the flat we’d rented.

‘We didn’t think you’d really come!’ they both cried, flinging their arms around me.

‘Well, here I am,’ I replied. ‘Now let’s see what happens. 

Photo ‘Lar’ by Alireza Javaheri licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license