5 out of 5 stars
If you were to consider a trip from Geneva to the Khyber Pass these days you would need a lot of planning, visas and even if you were trying to do it on a budget, a reasonable wad of cash. Back in 1953 Nicolas Bouvier and his friend, the artist Thierry Vernet decided to do this very journey in a convertible Fiat Topolino. They had no idea how long it would take and they only had enough money for four months travelling.
This limited budget would come to define the trip and the rich experiences that they gained from it. Rather than charge across the landscape, glimpsing sights and the people as they drove past they were forced to go slowly, stop and take time to earn more for the next stage of the journey and move slowly on again. The lack of funds meant that they have to find the cheapest possible places to stay and eat, this brings them into regular contact with people that if they had been sightseeing on a bigger budget they would have missed completely. It gives them a much better insight into the character of a city
In some of the places that they stopped they were there for a considerable length of time, arriving in Tabriz they were quizzed by a police colonel who gained permission from the local general to stay as long as they like. With their passes stamped, they could rent rooms; they were to be in Tabriz for some time. The Armenians told them many bad things about the Turkish families at the other end of the village, so they thought they would pay the head a visit just to see if any of it was true. He was an interesting character who it turns out had lived in France for a few years and he filled them in about the history of the place. They made friends with the postmaster too, collecting the letters would involve a chat and several cups of tea, but he never lost one and it was a lifeline to the outside world.
You think you are making a trip, but soon it is making you – or unmaking you.
They were to stay in the village for around six months before trying to leave. They had tried to leave earlier, but couldn’t make it through the water and were pulled behind a peasant and his horse, but they did eventually make it away and onto the next stage of their journey, through Mianeh and onto Tehran. The attempts at modernisation were a bit half-hearted and seemingly carried out without anything resembling a plan. But there were plane trees on some of the avenues that offered cool shade over cafes where you could spend the rest of your life. What really struck them was the blue that was used to colour everything. Its intensity in the sun lifted their hearts.
They left Tehran for Isfahan with heavy hearts and were driving along tarmacked roads that were pitted with potholes, making it a slightly perilous journey. They arrived at the place they were staying tired from the journey and weary from Tehran. They were their briefly and then onto the next town, Shiraz, but what they really wanted to do was leave Iran. They were asked to wait at the customs post until the superior officer arrived. The register was duly signed, and now they needed a push from the soldiers to get going again into Pakistan.
They reached Quetta and found a whitewashed hotel to stay in. They drank whisky on the roof terrace and listened to Mulberries drop onto the courtyard below. Just reaching here was enough. One rebuilt engine later and they were ready to move on to the final part of their journey.
After all, one travels in order for things to happen and change; otherwise, you might as well stay at home.
I had read Bouvier’s collection So it Goes, about his travels in the Aran Isles and Xian late last year but not read this even though I had had a copy for a while now. I now wish that I had read it earlier, as it is an absolutely superb travel book. Even though it was written a decade after they began their journey, it still feels of the moment. They take everything as it comes, rough and smooth, savouring the good experiences and taking the lessons from the failures and setbacks. The book is liberally scattered with the art and sketches from Vernet, they are full of energy and bring and extra dimension to the text. It is the sort of journey that I could imagine that Patrick Leigh Fermor would have continued with after his great trudge had he had the opportunity. Very highly recommended.