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People say that life is the thing but I prefer reading

Logan Pearsall Smith, "Myself," Afterthoughts, 1931


Resplendent in their new gear, Blackie and Whitey boarded the Erzerum Express, which meanders at a leisurely pace through the not-especially-lovely countryside of central Turkey. This was the classic, or direct, version of the Trail. Other alternatives included taking a boat ride along the shore of the Black Sea, attempting to hitch-hike the coastal road (possible but usually more expensive, since slower), and brazening the Turkish bus system; this last may have been a mere bagatelle for veterans heading west who'd cut their teeth on Afghani and honed them on Nepali approximations of the long-distance coach, but it represented a considerable challenge for the inexperienced heading towards the depths of the Mysterious Orient for the first time.

Buses in Iran, however, were something else. Say what you will about His Most Unbelievably Imperial Majesty Reza Shah Pahlevi, King of Kings, Lord of Hosts, Lackey of Langley, Master of Creative Genealogy and Elevator Shoes, under his absurd and vicious régime the buses ran on time. They put Greyhound to shame, too, with their scrupulous cleanliness, air-conditioning, piped-in pop music and comfortable seats. It was a function of the country's development status: Too poor (as was Greece) for widespread car ownership, it was rich enough to invest oil revenues in roads on which to burn it – ideal conditions for the growth and development of internal combustion engines. Add in a national beautification project sponsored no doubt by the lovely Mrs Shah, a not-very-statuesque sort-of-stunner who sat down for all official photos so that her diminutive husband could stare commandingly over her shoulder, and you had a really charming transportation system, featuring fountains to herald the main towns with hosannas before the statues of His Immaculate Parent, the descendant of a hundred generations of monarchs, ninety-eight or so of whom had languished in self-effacing oblivion until the time would come when the brothers Dulles might restore their heir to his rightful place on the Peacock Throne.

Yes, well, Mrs LBJ campaigned against billboards while her hubby flung beer cans over the desert. We all have our bullshit to bear.

Teheran was a town of contrasts – the crossroads of the ancient world, they were surprised to discover – that had developed an efficient system for housing Western wanderers. It directed them to the Amir Kabir, an inconveniently situated hotel above a spectacularly enormous tire store. Once the weary had picked their way between the retreads and the ersatz Michelins, they were surprised to discover hot showers, English menus and tolerably clean rooms for six bob* a night. There were other places to stay but they generally cost more, provided less, and demanded knowledge of Farsi. Shocking as it may seem, even in those pre-revolutionary days, the Persian proletariat simply didn't like Europeans. Money alone just didn't cut it. Plenty of eminently intelligent Iranian restaurateurs would pass up a sale rather than sully their premises with infidel lusts. Meshed was worse, since it is a holy city – it was not uncommon there to spend hours searching for a café that did not put up the shutters on sight of a tourist – but Teheran was not wildly accommodating. Unless of course you were seriously rich, in which case, as a presumed close personal friend of the Shah's, the Rolex was your oyster, and heavily discounted too since you didn't need the money. Off in the backstreets, a tumbrel was being constructed with your name on it, but please don't give it a thought. No one else did.

All this was still a blur to our young protagonists. They soaked it in, they absorbed the experience, but mostly they tumbled by rote from seat to bench and back on the bus. The land flew by, the people, strangely recognizable and recognizably strange, approached and withdrew, taking money, providing food and shelter and a way to move. It was like living behind a fish-eye lens. The outside world slid into focus and bent away, its moment past. And all this sober as a defendant (the judge probably being half-crocked). No wonder they called it a trip.

Shell-shocked in the Amir Kabir, they opted to head east with all due dispatch, in other words as soon as the underwear dried. South was Isfahan, legendary home of poetasters and holy mosaics (and beyond question the crossroads of the ancient world), but the call of the hookah was more insistent than the wail of the muezzin. Iran was unusual but what they wanted was flat-out weirdness. When the rush comes, the only thing to do is to ride it all the way out.

They would have taken the train, a well-recommended overnight service, but it was booked for days, so they roughed it by road. Pausing in Meshed long enough to get the picture and, eventually, a surprisingly good omelet, they headed off by degenerating buses to Taybad, the Iranian border post, to Islam Qala, the Afghani border post, and finally to Herat, the most western of the three cities of the then kingdom of Afghanistan.

Geographically, that is.



*Six bob was about 70¢ US at the time, and became 30p in the UK after decimalization some sixteen months later. Strange that, changing from a time-honored duodecimal-cum-vigesimal system understood by every British schoolchild (how much do you get back from half a crown if you buy two big chocs at fourpence-ha'penny? one and nine, of course ... no wonder they built an empire) to one under which no one can make change without consulting a computer. Might as well have gone straight to binary and cut out the middle person.