|A Diary of my overland journey from England to Australia||
By Steven Abrams
From Liverpool to Istanbul.
At last, the big day was finally here. Louis arrived at my house very early having travelled through the morning rush hour from his home in Hoylake. He had come on public transport wearing his "man pack," much to the pleasure of his fellow travellers.
My father had agreed to drive us to the first service area on the M6 heading south. We loaded our packs into the car and I kissed my mother good-bye and all got into the car. At the end of the road I suddenly realised that I had left my camera behind, so we turned around. Good start! Letting myself in I found my mother still standing where I had left her a only few minutes earlier; she was crying her heart out. My only brother had left home to go to university a few days earlier and suddenly she had no children left at home. At the time I hadn't realise how sad she would be, but looking back some 26 years later and thinking of my own children I can appreciate how she must have felt.
My father dropped us both at Knutsford Service Area. We then got out our best thumbs and in no time at all we had got a lift to the end of the motorway in a lorry loaded with timber. At the time the motorway finished at Cannock, just north of Birmingham and drivers had to travel along ordinary roads to join up with the M1 when heading south. Almost immediately after getting out of the lorry we were given a lift by a monk who took us all of three miles before turning off. Within 15 minutes we had a lift in another lorry loaded with paper. He was heading for Dartford and not being sure of his way across London was grateful for our navigation skills. All went well until half way around London's North Circular Road when he broke down causing a massive traffic jam. The breakdown only delayed us by forty minutes, though I dare say it delayed others for much longer. Our next lift took us right to the door of Dover Youth Hostel where we spent our last night in England.
The next morning we left the Youth Hostel at 7.30am and headed towards the ferry port. On our way we visited a supermarket and bought a few packets of Kraft processed cheese so that we could make ourselves some sandwiches for lunch each day. While travelling down to Dover
We had told everybody that we would be away for a year. In the end I would spend almost three years travelling. It was more than a decade for Louis.
The ship arrived in Belgium at 16.30. Instead of lining up with the foot passengers to get off we both went down to the car deck and went around the drivers asking for a lift. I found us both a lift to Munich and excitedly ran to get Louis. He was just as excited as I, having found a converted ambulance that was heading to Istanbul. This was indeed luck. The former Welsh ambulance had been converted into a mobile home by a married couple from Canada, David and Marilyn Glovers. The inside was very comfortable and they had done a good job with the conversion, but one vital thing they had overlooked was insurance. As we passed through Belgian customs they were unable to produce a green card (International motor insurance certificate) and so had to pay to take out a policy before we were allowed to pass.
We travelled straight through Belgium that afternoon and shortly after midnight crossed into Germany, also having to take out a German insurance policy. This was a pattern that was to repeat itself at every frontier.
At about 2am we stopped at a Rastplatz on the Autobahn somewhere between Aachen and Cöln. Dave & Marilyn occupied the only beds in the ambulance so we had to sleep outside. It was pouring with rain and the only place with cover was under the awning of a kiosk. That was where we bedded down for the night, on the pavement at an Autobahn service area. It was not the most ideal place to sleep and throughout the night we kept getting woken up by people walking past making comments and laughing at us. Shortly after 0700 the kiosk owner arrived and spoke to us. I didn't understand a word he said but by the tone of his voice he wasn't very pleased to find us sleeping there.
Shortly after, the Glovers awoke and made some coffee. This was most welcome as both Louis and I were feeling very cold from our night on the "tiles", or should I say, paving stones. We
That evening we crossed the border into Austria and headed towards Salzburg, intending to stay in the Youth Hostel (YH) there. The YHA book showed it to be open but when we got there the doors were locked and the place in darkness. Outside there where a number of other would be hostellers who had already settled down to spend the night in their cars. On exploring the area we found an empty outbuilding that was not locked, probably a cycle shed, and that is where we decided to bed down for the night. After having slept on the pavement the previous
It was at this point that we decided to part company with The Glovers. Coming from Canada, It was their first visit to Eurpoe and they wanted to do a bit of sightseeing on their way through. They wanted to head up into the mountains and see a bit of Austria. For them Europe was a place to be explored whereas to us it was a place to get through as quickly as possible. We were not going to start our sightseeing until Istanbul.
They dropped us out of town on the road to Graz and we bade our farewells, agreeing to meet outside the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. We were going to miss them; The four of us had had loads fun over the last few days. I stood and watched as the ambulance turned around to head back into Salzburg and it was then that I started to feel the first pangs of homesickness. Things had gone so well since we set out that I hadn't had time to think of home at all. Now standing at the side of the road in Austria without receiving a lift for over an hour, things didn't look so rosy. The lack of sleep over the last two nights didn't help matters either.
We eventually got a lift to Bad Ischl in a Volkswagen, followed quickly by another lift to Plochen where for almost two hours we exercised out thumbs without success. Louis, who by this time was desperate for the toilet decided to go behind a bush. No sooner had he gone than an empty bus stopped. Louis was still fastening his fly as he ran from behind the bushes. The bus was returning to its base in Yugoslavia with just the driver and two others. Although we couldn't understand a word they said the crew were very friendly, and a few hours later they dropped us outside the door of Graz YH.
At the YH we met somebody else from Liverpool. Together we went to the railway station where we were able to get a good reasonably priced meal. There we got friendly with an Austrian man who spoke good English. He listened to our travel plans and thought them so outrageous that he laughed until tears rolled down his cheeks. He asked us all about our plans and the more we told him the more he laughed and the more beers he bought for us. We were sorry to leave but we had to be back at the YH before it closed at 2200. As it was, we made it just in time.
At Graz YH we met for the first time somebody else with the same plans as ourselves. Ashok Agarwal was from Calcutta and he had already travelled overland to England. Having been refused entry at Dover he was now on his way home again by the same route. It was encouraging to know that despite the misgivings of our friend at the railway station we were not such a rare breed after all. We got much valuable information from him, places to stay, places to eat, problems to avoid, best place for visas, etc. This was our first encounter of the "grapevine" that exists amongst overland travellers.
Having slept on concrete for the previous few nights it was so marvellous to sleep on a mattress that neither of us awoke until after 9 o'clock the next morning. By that time all the others had left for virtually all the four corners of the world. When we eventually set out it was already late morning and we assumed that all the best lifts had gone.
Within 10 minutes a ramshackle Fiat van of Yugoslavian registration stopped for us. In the back much to our surprise was the Indian we had met the previous night. Our luck was in, he had been waiting hours for his first ride of the day and there was us, hardly having to wait at all.
The van chugged along at a snail's pace, crossing the Yugoslavian border and eventually reaching Maribor in the early afternoon. The driver stopped outside some very impressive and official looking building. He said something to us that we didn't understand, then went inside, leaving the three of us sitting in the back of his otherwise empty van. It was more than an hour before he returned and without any explanation, not that we could have understood if he had tried to explain, carried on his way. The van belched out a blue /grey cloud of oily exhaust fumes leaving a trail to blazon our route all the way to the centre of Zagreb.
We said good-bye to the driver and the Indian and caught a tram to the outskirts of the City where the map said there was a motorway to take us all the way to Belgrade. The Yugoslavs call it the Autoput and seeing it for the first time we renamed it the Auto Phut. It was a narrow, two-way road that cut its way across country in a straight line as far as the eye could see. That was not very far as a fair percentage of the traffic was emitting similar fumes to our previous lift.
While waiting for our first lift, a crowd of school children gathered around us and obviously seemed amused by our appearance. One young girl who spoke English very well told us that we looked very funny with our large packs on our backs. The children were very friendly and brought us some delicious hot cheese cake. Seeing we hadn't eaten since breakfast the cheesecake was very welcome and the time we had to wait for our next lift was most enjoyably spent. The girls wanted Louis' address so that they could write to him so he gave them my address so as not to upset his girlfriend, Michelle, with letters arriving from strange girls.
We were making new friends with the children when along the Autoput came an old friend - the same empty bus that had taken us to Graz YH stopped for us yet again. I don't know where they had been all day but they were a very welcome sight indeed. We travelled for quite a way with them, at one point stopping at a roadside eating place where we enjoyed some hot soup and bread. The homesickness I had felt yesterday was definitely a thing of the past as we enjoyed our time laughing and joking with the bus crew. Language didn't seem such an insurmountable barrier after all.
At the turn off for St. Brod the bus left the Autoput and we had to exercise our thumbs again. A short lift took us to a quiet roadside stopping place. It was getting late so we started to look for somewhere to sleep. The owner of the eating place let us spend the night in his wood shed at the back of his building. Inside it was pitch dark and we stumbled our way across the wood to find a place to set our sleeping bags down. We found a number of old wooden pallets that we laid out to make a flat area and to keep us clear of the cold ground and settled down for the night.
The next morning we awoke, feeling as though we had fed the entire insect population of Yugoslavia during the night. We spent the first waking half hour scratching, scratching and more scratching. We had been bitten all over.
Lifts proved hard to get on the Yugoslavian Autoput and eventually, like buses in the rain, two cars stopped together. It seems that they were a group of men who were travelling together. They had room for one extra person in each car, and most important of all, they were going all the way to Belgrade. Although we were reluctant to split up, the lack of lifts and the chance of getting all the way to Belgrade in one lift was tempting enough for us to accept their offer. We arranged to meet outside the Hotel Moskva in Belgrade centre, then Louis sped away in the first car while I was still loading my bag into the other one.
Apart from the car heater being on full heat with all the windows closed,
the ride went quite smoothly until about 50 km before we reached Belgrade.
One moment the engine was running smoothly when there was suddenly a shuddering
feeling, followed by what can best be described as a series of crunches.
It appears that something quite major had failed, and in a spectacular
way. The car glided to a silent and smooth stop into the side of the road.
Behind us the Autoput was littered with an assortment of car parts that
had probably been the result of the crunching noises we had heard. Something
big had fallen out under the car and was now many little somethings all
over the road. It was obvious that I was not going to get to Belgrade
for a little time yet.
On the journey into Belgrade I travelled in the Mercedes and managed to strike up some sort of communication with the driver. It transpired that he was driving to Tehran. I tried to persuade him to take us along but he refused. He indicated that the car was going to be smuggled across the Iran border to evade duty, and that it could be dangerous for any passengers. I had already heard about this smuggling route where stolen cars from Western Europe are driven to the Middle East to be re-registered. No questions asked and high profits were the order of the day, so I decided not to pursue the matter.
We eventually arrived at a back street garage somewhere in Belgrade. Once the tow rope had been removed the Mercedes driver left in a hurry. Fortunately the Yugoslavs arranged for a driver to take me to the Hotel Moskva in a little Fiat 500. By the time I arrived there, Louis, who had an uneventful journey, had been waiting for over an hour and a half. He was just beginning to worry about me when I turned up.
We celebrated our safe arrival with a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice bought at a street stand, and then caught a bus to the outskirts of Belgrade. After all, there was no point in hitch hiking in the city centre.
It was only about 1230 by the time we started hitching on the road out to Ni, even though it seemed like we had been going all day. By 1400 we were still in the same spot and the "never going to get out of here" feeling was starting to set in when a lorry stopped and took us all the way to Ni.
It was early evening when we arrived in Ni, so we walked around the town looking for a place to eat. In Southern Yugoslavia they use the Cyrillic alphabet and that made it quite difficult to understand the signs over shops when looking for somewhere to get a cheap meal. Fortunately we met a group of boys who spoke English reasonably well who showed us to what could be best described as a transport cafe. They then bought us each a very welcome bowl of stew, and while we ate they sat and talked to us. It was an ideal opportunity for them to practice their English and we enjoyed their company for a few hours.
By the time we left the restaurant it was dark. We walked out of town and hitched as we walked. After we had travelled about 2 km we gave up and set our sleeping bags down in a field on the edge of a wood. We were both exhausted and were sound asleep by 2130.
Shortly after 6am we both woke up - soaking wet. It hadn't rained during the night and the wet was restricted to our head and shoulders. We could only assume that the humidity of the early morning dew combined with our breath had caused the condensation on the ground sheets.
Heading back to the road we started hitching. Within half an hour Lafayette Bosman entered our lives, an American Negro hippie who was driving a white Opel bearing oval German International registration plates. He had a boot full of leaflets about crockery and was on his way to Turkey to try to sell expensive sets of dishes to the United States servicemen based there.
He had been driving all night and was going to stop in Sofia for a sleep. In the meantime we were welcome to ride along. Laffy, as he liked to be known, had spent his time in Europe bumming from one job to another making a buck where it could be made. He was now heading east to make his fortune. He was looking forward to Istanbul to get a bit of hashish, a commodity he was quite partial to. Fortunately he didn't have any with him in the car, for if he had, I have no doubt that the Bulgarian customs would have found it, with catastrophic consequences for all of us.
At the Bulgarian border we all had to go to a small office to get visas before we could start with any of the formalities. Once we had obtained the visas and had our passports stamped, then the customs officers had their turn. They asked us to open the boot and when they looked in and found the leaflets all hell broke loose. The leaflets were in German and that only made matters worse. As neither they nor us spoke enough of the language to be able to translate, another customs officer who was more senior was called. He in turn called another customs officer who was yet more senior. Convinced that the leaflets contained anti-communist propaganda a number of more senior customs officers were phoned for. We waited for them for more than an hour and when they eventually arrived they gave an order for the car to be searched. They went through all our bags and gave us all a thorough body search, looking for goodness knows what. Eventually we were all allowed through, leaflets and all.
Laffy eventually dropped us on the far side of Sofia before heading back in to the town to find a place to have a few hours of sleep. He promised that if we were still there later when he came passed, he would pick us up again.
It didn't take long for us to get a lift in the back of a lorry going to a village just after Plovdiv. The lorry trundled very slowly along, and whenever it went up a hill it almost came to a stop. What little traffic there was built up behind us along the winding road between Bulgaria's two main cities. We also noticed that most of the cars that passed us were Mercedes with their German oval registration plates. We later found that most of the drivers were paid to drive the cars to Tehran where they were much in demand. Most of them were quite legal, but some were stolen cars and some would be smuggled into Iran.
By the time we reached Plovdiv it was dark. We had stopped on the way and the driver had given us some food. This was not out of the ordinary as we found the Bulgarian people very friendly. It also turned out to be one of the easiest countries to get a lift. As we travelled through Bulgaria we would find ourselves getting into another lift almost as soon as we had been dropped off from the one before; unfortunately they were all short distance lifts but what we lacked in quality we more than made up for in quantity.
In Plovdiv the lorry stopped for a short while. It was while we were stopped that we saw Laffy's car overtake us. I jumped down and tried to run after him when he stopped at a set of traffic lights, but they changed before I could reach him and he went on his way before without us.
Our Bulgarian friend took us another 70 km beyond Plovdiv before dropping us off. It wasn't too long before we got another lift that took us into Haskovo. Not realising how large a town Haskovo was, we started to walk out. We soon realised that this was a bit larger than any of the other villages we had passed through and so we decided to stop for a rest and something to eat at the side of the road. While we were stopped, a Mercedes bearing oval plates stopped and offered us a lift to Istanbul for £1 each: we refused.
By the time we had eventually walked our way out of Haskovo it was after 2200 and apart from the occasional car with oval plates, the traffic had stopped. Bulgaria was now asleep and we decided it was time we were too. For the second night we found a comfortable field and bedded down.
I didn't sleep too well that night, as it was freezing cold. The cold from the ground was permeating through the sleeping bag from below, and the cold air was cooling me from above. The misery was compounded by condensation on the ground sheet and it not surprisingly we were up at first light feeling miserable and hungry. While we were packing our sleeping bags we were joined by some of the local farmers who seemed very happy to have had us sleeping in their field. A brief attempt was made to converse with them, but I regret that my Bulgarian was not up to much and neither was their English. One of the farmers offered me a 10-lev note (about £2) in exchange for my camera. I declined the offer.
The day's hitching started well with a number of lifts in an assortment of vehicles. Once the sun came up the air got warmer and so did we. I remember feeling the heat from the road through my shoes and the wonderful feeling of finally thawing out. One lorry stopped to pick us up, but before we had chance to get on board a policeman on a motorcycle stopped and gave him a ticket, presumably for stopping. That was one lift we didn't get, but it wasn't long before the next ride came along. At one point we came across a border style checkpoint where everybody had to show their passport or identity card. After we had passed through that checkpoint the volume of traffic became a bit lighter but it was still easy to get lifts, until we reached Svilingrad.
Riding on top of a lorry load of bricks we arrived at Svilingrad, the last town before the Turkish border. We were dropped off at the beginning of the town and had to walk through. On the other side of town we started to hitch hike. Apart from a number of foreign registered vehicles who didn't stop, local traffic was non-existent. Obviously there was no need for Bulgarians to travel to the border.
We waited at the side of the road for about 3 hours without so much as a hint of a lift and we were getting desperate. Eventually a Dutch registered Triumph Herald came along and started to slow down. Whether the driver had second thoughts about picking us up we don't know. We were so desperate that we ran out into the road forcing him to stop.
The Triumph Herald was not a very large car, and with the driver's luggage filling the boot there was not too much room inside for both our giant packs and us. The driver protested that there was only room for one of us but after Louis and I spent the next few minutes rearranging of the driver's luggage we eventually succeeded in making enough space for both of us. I sat on the front seat with my pack balanced on my knee and Louis sat on top of his bag in the back of the car.
At the border the Bulgarian guards took everything out of the car and searched it thoroughly. Tapping all the door panels, inspecting underneath the car and under the bonnet before letting us out of the country. On the Turkish side the formalities were much less strict and we passed through quite quickly. From the border to Istanbul the road was good and we made it in no time at all. It was just as well that we did, as the pack balanced on my knee was very heavy and my right leg went numb quite early in the journey. It turned out that our driver was also heading to
For the rest of my life the 10th October will always be remembered as Istanbul day. As I have already said, our intention was to rush through Europe as quickly as possible. Now the sightseeing was to begin and we wouldn't be in such a hurry to cover ground.
Our journey to Istanbul had taken us just one week and had cost £4:10:2 (£4.51) out of which £2:12:0 (£2.60) was for the ferry from Dover to Zeebrugge. We had travelled over 2058 miles and had 21 lifts in a vast assortment of vehicles. This part of the journey had been through relatively civilised country. The next part was to be a step into the unknown. We were still in Europe, in a few days we would set foot into Asia for the adventure of a lifetime. For now we had to find out as much as we could about the route ahead and at Yucel Hostel we were in the right place. It was to be our first contact with "the grapevine."
The guests at Yucel Hostel consisted of quit a mixture. There were students on extended vacations getting a civilised taste of the East, as well as a number of overland travellers on their way to or from India and other points beyond. It was also to be our first encounter with drugs.
Just inside the entrance to Yucel Hostel there was a poster that read "Do you like it in Turkey? Would you like to stay here a bit longer? You can quite easily! The penalty for possession of Hashish is 2½ years in prison. You have been warned." Despite this warning the place was overflowing with the stuff. One English boy on his way home from an overland trip to India showed me a 250-gram slab of Hashish. (It was usually referred to affectionately as "shit".) He had bought it in Pakistan for just US$5. It even had the manufacturers stamp and a serial number on it, just as a bar of gold would have. He intended to have two such slabs made into the soles of his shoes and walk them into the country. I don't know if he was successful or not. Others had the stuff hidden inside a hollowed out brass Buddha as well as a number of other such ornaments.
This was 1968 and the world was a little more tolerant to hashish. Within a few years the prison sentence in Turkey would increase to 10 years, and places like Iran would introduce a death penalty, effectively cutting the overland supply route. Although drugs like heroin and crack were around then, they were not as predominant as they are now 30 years later.
For me the best part of staying in the hostel was "the grapevine." Travellers going in the opposite direction would pass on advice as to the best way to travel. Details of places to stay, where to change money, get visas and other such useful bits of information that made overland travel a lot easier than it would have otherwise been. Within hours of arriving in Istanbul we already had a list of hotels and places to eat in all major cities between here and Delhi. We had also been given advice as to where to change money (legally or black market), and the best cities to apply for our visas for Iran and Afghanistan.
We spent all the next day sightseeing with a vengeance. Starting early in the morning we headed off to see the sights of Istanbul. It was an almost magical experience walking around or travelling on the old trams and buses. We checked the American Express office in the Hilton Hotel for any mail but it was too soon to be receiving anything from England yet as we had only been away a week. It was while walking down the hill from Taxim Square to the Galata Bridge that we met up with Laffy.
The three of us walked down to the bridge together while Laffy told us all about his wonderful get rich quick schemes. He had a plan for selling to American servicemen and their families who were based all over Turkey. On the bridge there was a man cooking freshly caught fish and making them into the most delicious sandwiches. We all bought a fish sandwich and while we ate them Laffy managed to persuade us to come with him and do some selling; on commission of course. We were so convinced that we were going to be making a fortune that we had another fish sandwich, hang the expense.
We said good-bye to Laffy, arranging to telephone him at his hotel for details of out departure the next day. It was time to continue our tour of the city. Istanbul, like Jerusalem, was a wonderful place just to walk around and watch life going on.
By the time we got back to the Blue Mosque it was early evening and closed to tourists. After our evening meal at Yenners we decided to visit the Pudding Shop. This was a place where all the back packers met. Sitting in the Pudding Shop was Ashok Agarwal, the Indian boy we had met in the Salzburg youth hostel. We spent the next two hours talking, comparing notes and getting information from other back packers of all nationalities. We also met a man from Leeds who had driven to Bulgaria on business. Having successfully concluded his business he then decided to spend a few days touring in Istanbul before driving home again. He would have been good for a lift if he hadn't been going in the wrong direction.
It was after midnight before we were thrown out of the Pudding Shop and we had to say our good-byes to everybody in the street outside. The businessman took our parents phone numbers and said that when he got home he would give them a call to let them know he had met us and that we were safe and well. I later learned that he did as he had promised. Receiving such a phone call made my parents a lot happier about my safety, as he arrived back in England ahead of my first letter home.