Overland to Bangladesh 1973 – Part 1: London to Istanbul
When I graduated from university in 1972, I didn’t have a job lined up, but there was a vague possibility of work in Bangladesh. This was through a Bengali friend who had arrived in the summer of 1971 as a refugee from the genocide of Pakistan’s clampdown on the pro-independence movement in what was then East Pakistan. The world was outraged by what happened and independence for Bangladesh became a cause célèbre in the west. In August, George Harrison arranged the world’s first major benefit pop concert in Madison Square Garden – Concert for Bangladesh.
My tutor introduced Hassan to me and said we must all be kind to him. We became friends and through him I became interested in Bangladesh, a place I knew nothing about. Towards the end of my third year, we discussed what we might do when we finished. I had no clear idea and Hassan suggested that I came to Bangladesh. He might be able to use his connections to get me a teaching job. I was enthusiastic but did not really expect anything to come of it. However, by the end of July 1973, I had given up my stopgap job working in a record shop and was, according to my journal, beginning a ‘private crash-course on becoming an English teacher’. This involved going to London and spending hours reading in the Language-Teaching Library in High Holborn, as well as meeting people from the British Council and contacts of Hassan.
I was somewhat daunted to be appointed Assistant Professor of English at Rajshahi University in the west of Bangladesh – I had no idea of what I was doing. My motivations were a desire to travel and a love of English literature. I knew nothing about teaching and certainly not about English language teaching. But I craved adventure and the world was then a big place that was just opening up to long-distance travel. The Indian sub-continent, South-East Asia, the Arab world, Turkey, Iran were all accessible to adventurous travellers. There were, it’s true, were some no-go areas: the Soviet Union, China, Vietnam were, to say the least, unwelcoming towards western visitors. But this was the era of the hippy trail, which led from western Europe to India, finishing up in places like Goa.
Travel in the 1970s was very different from in the 21st century. The internet did not exist. There were few guidebooks (Baedeker and the like) and those were mostly aimed at the rich. The Wheelers published Across Asia on the Cheap, the first Lonely Planet guide, in 1973 but I had not seen a copy. There were exchange controls, which meant that you could only take small amounts of currency abroad. Cheap air travel had not begun. Borders were policed, passports were stamped and visas were needed in most countries outside western Europe. Travel was inherently more of an adventure then.
Preparations for travel
My researches into living conditions in Bangladesh, courtesy of notes from British Council officers, revealed that very few mod cons would be available. The country was in the early stages of reconstruction after a devastating civil war and hardly any foreign goods were being imported. If I wanted coffee, cosmetics, recorded music – you name it – I would have to take it with me. So I packed everything I could think of, including a cassette player and cassettes, into my old school trunk – it weighed 75kg.
I had also been warned that sending anything by sea to Bangladesh was risky. The port of Chittagong was chaotic and things often went missing. I had already decided that I would go to Bangladesh overland and had concluded that sending the trunk unaccompanied by air was too expensive. So I rashly decided to take it with me.
I was not travelling alone. I had joined an accompanied overland tour from London to Delhi, led by Ashley Butterfield. There were about a dozen of us, mostly in our twenties. Ashley was probably not much more than 30, but seemed older and wiser. He was slight, shorthaired, dressed in shorts and flip-flops and travelled with just a small shoulder bag, which seemed to contain not much more than a change of underwear and a copy of the Daily Express. A distinctive feature of the tour was that it only used scheduled public transport.
The journey begins: London to Ostend
We met at Victoria Station on 20th August to catch the grandly titled Orient Express, bound for Istanbul.
The first part of the journey ran to Folkestone or Dover (my journal doesn’t record which) on a Southern region train. Southern region was the state-owned version of what is now Southern Railway: its trains were antiquated and uncomfortable, but slightly more reliable than Southern Railway’s. We then took the ferry to Ostend and boarded the Orient Express there. This train was a mere shadow of its former – and I understand, current – glories. It consisted of couchettes, was mainly used by ‘guest workers’ travelling between Turkey and Germany and had no buffet car. Any food you wanted you had to take yourself.
It quickly became clear that my trunk was a complication. I tried to push it onto the train, but was immediately told that it had to be registered and go separately as checked luggage. This process cost what seemed to me the exorbitant sum of £20 and almost caused me to miss the train. To add an element of worry, I suspected that the trunk was not going by the same train.
Ostend to Istanbul
We reached Munich at 9.15 the next morning, having snatched some hours of sleep in the hot, stuffy couchettes. Ashley told us we were stopping for 15 minutes and I got off with John, a fellow overlander, in search of coffee. When we returned seven minutes later, we found that the train had already left. Fortunately, we knew that we were changing trains in Salzburg and could catch up with the group there. This we did at the modest cost of £3 each and were reunited with them at Hellebrunn Palace, where we toured the ornamental gardens and got caught in a thunderstorm.
The journey resumed at 7.30pm on a Yugoslav train with dirtier couchettes. However, the resourceful Ashley produced a key which locked the washroom. He had also cultivated good relations with the carriage attendant through some clandestine deal involving smuggled radios, with the result that we all received a free cup of Turkish coffee. On the down side, one of our number found his wallet had been filched.
We reached Istanbul at 2.30pm the next day, enjoying the final half hour running alongside the Marmara coast. We repaired to various hotels in the Sirkeci district near the station.
I should explain that although Ashley was the tour leader, nothing was pre-booked. He had a good knowledge of the route and the places on it. He knew where reasonably priced hotels were located and which bus companies to use, but all arrangements were made on the hoof when we reached each place. This may seem like poor planning, but actually was inevitable. There was no way advance bookings could reliably be made.
We enjoyed the exotic sights, sounds and smells of Istanbul. We went to the Blue Mosque, had a Turkish bath and partook of a wonderful dinner on the hoof, moving from a stew shop, to a pudding shop and finishing at a teashop under the Galata Bridge where a hookah was passed around. The next day I went to the station to collect my trunk, but it had not arrived.
I went on a boat trip up the Bosporus with the group, admiring the newly completed suspension bridge, which was not yet in use. We got off at Beykoz on the Asian side where we had lunch of stuffed green peppers and a quick swim witnessed by lots of small boys. That evening I again checked for my trunk, but it was not there.
The group was leaving for Trabzon by bus the next day (25th) and I now realised that I would not be going with them. Ashley left me three sheets of foolscap paper with sketch maps showing the towns where the group would be staying: Trabzon, Erzerum, Agri, Tehran, Mashed, Herat, Kabul and Peshawar. Each map showed the location of a bus company, of the hotel they planned to stay in and not much else. He also supplied me with a list of names of the bus companies they would use between Istanbul and Peshawar. From there on, it would be by rail. I was to try and catch them up at Erzerum.