In the beginning… were travellers

From the late Sixties onward the great Asian overland road became a groove in the map, a well-worn route east from Istanbul into the wilds of Anatolia, on across the Shah’s Iran and anarchic Afghanistan, through the Khyber Pass into Pakistan and then India before reaching journey’s end at Kathmandu, where peace, love and hashish beckoned.

It didn’t just begin with the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. Right back in the post-war years, the early 1950s, a few intrepid would-be overlanders made tracks towards the Khyber Pass: Australia’s own Peter Pinney, a life-long wanderer – and larrikin – was one such.

Another, Eric Newby, famously tossed in his job in London’s rag trade to attempt a ‘A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush’, and thereby made his name as a travel writer.

Two whose travels have remained virtually unknown in the English-speaking world were a pair of Swiss adventurers from Geneva who in 1953 struck out across the Balkans in a rattletrap two-seater Fiat car. Recently I stumbled across Nicolas Bouvier’s memoir The Way of the World, masterfully translated from the original French.

Thierry Vernet, on the road in Turkey
Thierry Vernet, on the road in Turkey

It’s a story told with consistent good humour and cultural understanding, a window into a vanished epoch; a time when two penniless travellers could settle into a remote but diverse community for months at a time, eking out a living by giving language lessons, by freelance writing or selling paintings.  Islamic fanaticism was not yet centre stage, if perhaps already waiting in the wings.

The 24-year-old Bouvier and his artist friend Thierry Vernet lived by their wits in an artists’ squat in Belgrade, then in provincial Macedonia. After hauling their little car across Turkey, the pair crossed into Iran, where heavy winter snowfalls forced a six-month layover in the ancient city of Tabriz.

Bakery in Herat, Afghanistan (1974)
Bakery in Herat, Afghanistan (1974)

An epic crossing of the deserts of eastern Iran at last brought the pair and their disintegrating chariot to the Pakistani garrison town of Quetta, gateway to fabled Afghanistan.

Their encounters here include such gems as Terence, the limp-wristed former British colonel now running a seedy bar.

The 1992 English-language edition of The Way of the World comes with an enthusiastic forward by the great (and now late) traveller and adventurer Patrick Leigh Fermor. That enough is recommendation enough to look out for a copy.

Postscript: In 1957 six British students in two Land Rovers set forth on the grandly-titled Oxford & Cambridge Far Eastern Expedition.  Buoyed by generous corporate sponsorship, this became the first – and for many years the last – expedition to succeed in crossing Burma and continuing down the Malay Peninsula to Singapore.  Their story is told in Tim Slessor’s First Overland.

This post was contributed by Philip Game.