The Tracing Tea research expedition,
by Michael Pye
Illustrations by Fiona Scoble
All university students, as they near the end of their degrees, find themselves having to come to terms with an alarming prospect called The Real World. Many find a way into it; some find the concept unappealing and beat a hasty retreat into academia; few however, one imagines, can have orchestrated a more elaborate way of avoiding it than the student members of Tracing Tea.
The concept was, on the surface, very simple: drive two tuk-tuks 11,000 miles from Darjeeling, India, to London. How difficult could it be? Well, in fact, rather hard indeed. The tuk-tuk, also known as an auto-rickshaw, is a strange beast, more commonly found on the busy streets of India and Thailand than among the hallowed colleges (and, lets face it, icy winds) of Cambridge. It has three wheels, an engine similar in size and design to that of a ride-on mower, and, when racing downhill on a good road with a tail-wind, can reach the giddy heights of 30mph. This obviously made it the perfect vehicle for a trip across 18 countries, 2 continents, the Himalayas, two other mountain ranges, and a number of deserts. Crazy the idea may be, but no one was foolhardy enough to risk the failure of the project; two years of planning were required. The highlight of this planning period: Tracing Tea ‘The Preview.’
A plan was hatched that Andrew Daynes and I would, in advance of the main, filmed expedition to attempt the same journey, but with a smaller group and in a more sensible vehicle. We would also do the route in reverse. Our role would be to ‘recce’ the route in full, reporting difficulties encountered and ways to get around them, meet important persons and generally record information likely to smooth the passage of the actual documentary crew the following year. Added to this brief were demands from the rest of the crew that we shoot highlight reel films and video diaries, as well as writing promotional travel articles.
The first choice to be made was which car to do the journey in. Looking at expeditions of the past, the obvious answer would have been a small campervan or Landrover, but even 2nd hand versions of these proved beyond our limited budget. Andrew, seizing the moment, spent a fruitful hours avoiding exam revision on the Autotrader website, narrowing down his preferences to a Robin Reliant and a retired Rolls Royce fire engine, an apparent steal at £3000. Pragmatism did however prevail when I suggested a London Taxi. Not only would this be an iconic British car, but from an expeditionary point of view it had a number of advantages. First, they are extremely spacious, perfect for the mounds of equipment we looked set to carry; second, they have diesel engines, making for greater reliability and lower fuel costs; third, they are robustly constructed in the traditional British fashion, with bolts rather than welding and so are easy to repair; finally, they are designed with high mileage and constant usage in mind.
We found a second hand dealer conveniently located about one hour’s drive from Cambridge and for the princely sum of £1800 got our hands on a manual 1995 Fairway cab, with a decent supply of spare parts and tyres. Its bodywork left a lot to be desired, particularly on the wheel arches and it had nearly 260,000 miles on the clock, but not to be deterred we figured, with our innate arts student mechanical wisdom, that it would do what was required and so indeed it did, mostly. The garage owner, perhaps out of guilt in the knowledge that he was selling us a turkey, grudgingly agreed at my request to have an MOT and necessary repairs done, free of charge. To our delight and his presumed consternation, he shortly afterwards received a £700 bill from the garage he sent it to - evidently there was more wrong with the thing than either we or he suspected. The initial MOT fail certificate, which the mechanic forgetfully left under the driver’s seat, noted such minor problems as ’nearside left indicator not working’ and ’severe corrosion front left adversely affecting braking or steering.’ We were grateful to have avoided the bill, which included amongst other things fitting a new generator. To add to our good luck, I persuaded the manufacturers of London cabs, London Taxis International, to sponsor us £500 and a hapless property development firm in my native Cumbria to do the same for £1000. The latter was interested, one suspects, purely in the kudos of being able to present themselves on their website as a corporate sponsor of Cambridge University Expedition’s Society, a delusion of which I certainly had no intention to deprive them.
These financial successes and the film crew investment in us notwithstanding, it was apparent that over the course of a five month, ten thousand mile taxi trip things could get pricey and Andy and I might grow weary of each other unless we could find someone to share costs and keep the peace. I approached Fiona, a pleasant English student and also from my college. I explained our plan excitedly, but sincerely doubted my ability to persuade her to join at what was by then a very late stage. To her lasting credit, and my complete astonishment, she agreed. Somehow, quite literally in the middle of her final exams, Fi made a decision to travel on epic half-year journey, in pursuit of tea, with two men she barely knew, in a strange vehicle and without another female, from the UK all the way to India. All this for someone who, in stark contrast to Andrew and myself, had barely ever travelled outside Europe before. With Fi on board, we were faced with the sudden realisation that we had to get visas for eight countries and as many weeks before our agreed the departure date in which to get them. Thankfully, I was already deeply familiar with the procedures and quickly got the ball rolling.
Obtaining visas, especially for Central Asian countries, can be rather trying for the uninitiated. With a sense of humour however, it can even be mildly amusing. One such example of this occurred when I went to London to collect our Uzbek visas. After negotiating an elaborate series of security gates, Fi and I found ourselves at the front of the collection queue being grilled a diminutive functionary with immaculately combed hair, precious little time and a sumptuous leather chair. “Xh-where iz thiz Andrew Daynes?“, he intoned icily. “I’m afraid he’s at a meeting”, I lied: at a meeting with his mattress, as I recall. Silence. “Xh-why you want going Uzbekistan?“, asked the leather chair. “To visit Bukhara and Samarkand“, again we dissimulated, feeling somehow disinclined to mention the fact that we worked for a film company, took a dim view of the Karimov regime, and intended to investigate and film the environmental disaster of the Aral Sea. He sighed perceptibly, perhaps bemoaning the injustice of the Byzantine office hours that forced him to deal with tiresome visa applicants for almost two hours per day including lunch break. He eyed our papers suspiciously, then, looking me in the eye conspiratorily, “Xhwhere did you xhhear about O’ozbekiston?” It was all we could do to suppress our sniggers, as I formulated possible answers in my mind - “well, I heard of you during a pub quiz where of the questions was about which two countries in the world are double-landlocked.” Answer: Lichtenstein and Uzbekistan, that is to say, landlocked countries bordered by countries that are in themselves land locks. In other words, now that the Aral sea has all but dried up, an Uzbek citizen would need at least two visas should they ever feel the need to drive to seaside.
Experiences such as these aside, we eventually succeeded on the visa front with some careful planning, culminating in a heroic three-days’ worth of embassy queuing by Fi. We got all the paperwork we needed before setting off, with the irksome exception of the Turkmen Embassy who, for reasons best known to themselves, refused us transit visas, perhaps on the basis that they could extract more money from us for the tourist permit. Fortunately however, this happened to be the one visa we could pick up along the route, so we weren’t impeded greatly.
The rest was a blur of frantic revision, post-exam elation, drinks parties, punt trips, nervous awaiting of results and graduation formalities, followed by non-convalescence at home amid more frenzied preparations. Andrew spent a painstaking week patching up holes in the car’s bodywork and waxing the exterior to a shine worth of the Strand or Covent Garden. At the end of it all, somehow, after less than two month’s preparation, we found ourselves on a baking mid-July morning boarding the ferry at Dover bound for Dunkerque, armed with a boot-full of camping equipment, a rough itinerary, sundry expensive cameras and a laptop computer. Our route through Europe took us by way of Belgium and the Netherlands to Amsterdam, where we went in search of the old tea-warehouses of the Dutch East India Company, now converted to rather seedy flats, and pretended to be scandalised by the far seedier attractions of the infamous red light district. Onwards from there brought us to Aachen where Andrew, a keen mediaeval historian, admired the cathedral and educated Fi and I about Charlemagne. We then made a beeline across Germany to Austria, where, while in pursuit of my own personal pilgrimage to Schubert’s summer residence in Steyr, we suffered an incident that was to profoundly affect the rest of the journey.
Andy was driving. A car in front of us indicated to turn left and we braked to allow it to do so. Without any warning, a terrifying screech issued from behind us and we found ourselves unceremoniously shunted by, of all things, an Austrian post van. The driver of the van was thankfully unhurt, a situation which Andy and I had to restrain ourselves from rectifying. Her van was written off, with oil and radiator fluid spurting from the mangled bonnet. Our boot, which Andy had spent nearly a week painting and patching up, was caved in. The fuel tank, which we had filled up all of five minutes previously, rested perilously on the exhaust pipe and the smell of diesel was pervasive.
An ambulance arrived and briefly cheered up proceedings when its driver emerged and in wonderfully camp English intoned “iz every von OK?”. Having established we were, he departed just as a policeman arrived on his motorbike, a colossal seven foot skinhead with dark sunglasses and faultless, gruff English. “Here in Austria”, he explained matter-of-factly, “the police do not apportion blame, but we can make a report and then your insurance company can decide what to do.” Well, that’s just great, we thought. As we glumly rescued our belongings from the boot, Andy noted that his umbrella had been snapped by the collision. This we were to keep for the remainder of the journey, as a saddening reminder that all the planning in the world won’t save you from lunatic inattentive post ladies.
After one garage declared the car ‘kaput’ we mercifully found another that was more optimistic, naturally for a price. It’s proprietor, Martin, treated with ridicule our assertion that we were travelling to India “in zis car!?” but for three hundred and fifty euros was more than willing to humour us and dispatched us to a campsite on the Danube to recuperate. Four days later, the taxi was somehow mended, with a new mounting for the fuel tank. The boot was still a sorry sight, but at least capable of being closed and even despite our lack of rear bumper we were just grateful to be able to continue, which, due to the lost time, made for an epic five hundred mile slog down to Belgrade, through Hungary, suffering then from a heat wave that had killed some three hundred of its citizens. Speeding on down Serbia’s poorly maintained and outrageously taxed roads we made Sofia, taking a side trip to the beautiful Sumela monastery before joining the E80 down to Plovdiv and Edirne. As we crossed to Turkey and juggled our paperwork the most tremendous thunderstorm lit up the famous Semiliye Camii mosque - surely Turkey’s most beautiful - in an other-worldly glow against the dusk.
In Istanbul we had difficulty finding accommodation. After several false starts we found ourselves in the arrestingly entitled Hotel Sultan’s Eye Comfort, this name an apparent ploy to distinguish itself from the Sultan’s Eye Hotel a few streets away. It was however wonderful and had excellent rooftop views over the sea of Marmara and the Bosphorus. Fi went out for a walk and, as was to often happen, found herself befriended by a local man. Yilmaz, as it turned out, owned a boat, so capitalising cynically on his infatuation with Fi I persuaded him to take us both out on it so we could film the landmarks of Sultanahmet from the sea. While engaged in this, we met a friend of Yilmaz’s, a kind and peaceable, elderly fisherman of Algerian extraction. I spent a very pleasant few hours fishing for horse mackerel with him, most of which he sold but keeping a few that we gave to a nearby restaurant to fry for us in some recipe or the other. The resulting dish was excellent. While I was engaged in eating it a very cute-looking cat appeared by my feet and begged pitifully for scraps. I obliged it for a while before bending down to pet it: error. It lashed out at my hand ferociously as if I had tried to chop off its tail. Istanbul is overrun with cats of this sort, who have cunningly learned how to ingratiate themselves with naïve tourists, further proof, if it were ever needed, of the superiority of dogs.
We ploughed on through Turkey without major incident until we reached the fishing port of Trabzon, on the Black Sea coast. Our fuel tank, battered from our Austrian crunch, had begun to leak. As it was a Sunday, no mechanic with welding equipment was to be found so Andy and I experimented with it and succeeded in finding the crack, intelligently making it leak more in the process. We discovered however, to our satisfaction, that the problem could be surmounted by parking with the bonnet pointing downhill, and the right side lower than the left. Turning our attentions to dinner, we selected a standard Turkish eatery and ordered a number of dishes at random from their hot plate, including a sardine pizza, which we perhaps assumed to be a local speciality. What is meant by ‘sardine pizza’ is that the pizza was divided into six pieces, with a nicely filleted sardine on each slice, but tasting unremarkable.
The full horror of this aesthetically pleasing dish - a kind of culinary Russian roulette - did not become evident until I was woken at two am by Andrew, creased up in stomach pain on the end of his bed. His condition being quite severe an ambulance was called and carted him off, clutching his sides, to a hospital where the single ward was alarmingly full of people suffering from the same complaint. At last, a serene lady doctor appeared, looked on pityingly and, after prodding various sections of his abdomen to see which bit hurt the most, diagnosed gastro-enteritis. Being a Classicist by training, I understood this to mean roughly ‘inflammation of the bowels’, and therefore a description of the problem, not its cause. This did not fill us with confidence in her medical abilities, nor did her ordered remedy, which insofar as I could ascertain involved hooking him up to a saline drip and returning intermittently to hold her hand to his forehead and look suitably sympathetic.
No painkillers were forthcoming. Poor Andy coped stoically, in stark contrast to a large, topless and grotesquely hairy patient at the other end of the ward - another apparent victim of fishpizzaritis - whose pain was evidently unbearable as he declaimed loudly in Turkish like a stuck CD. After several hours, a young lady in a headscarf came over and asked if we were English. We nodded. She was Turkish, but recently had emigrated to the UK with her husband and spoke broken English fluently with an exquisite cockney twang. “Izzit hurtin’?”, she asked. Andy emitted the appropriate noise. She laughed knowingly when I explained about the fatal sardine pizza and was, I suspect, about to deride our foolishness when we were interrupted by another spectacular outburst from Loud Hairy Man. I requested a translation. She giggled and produced what I suspect was a remarkably faithful rendition in English, decrying the inattentiveness of the doctors and the sardine preparation skills of his compatriots, spiced with a liberal selection of four and eight letter words unprintable here. Finally, the doctor produced an antibiotics prescription for Andy and pronounced him fit to leave. He wasn’t, but we had both grown weary of Loud Hairy Man and, when no nurse was forthcoming to remove his drip, he did it himself and staggered through the corridors to a waiting taxi.
The next port of call was Rize, our first tea-growing region. A placid sort of a place, the valleys in this area sit in a kind of subtropical microclimate caused by the dry heat driving in from Anatolia to hit the wetter climate of the coast. The higher rainful resulting from this makes the region, just, suitable for growing the tea bush. Our enduring memory of Rize was a visit to Chaykent (Turkish: ‘Teatown’), a small village nestled in one such valley, and home turf for Turkey’s state-owned tea company Chaykur, which produces tea to cover an astonishing 90% of domestic demand. Stepping from our car, we were immediately mobbed by curious locals, who led us to the village’s epicentre - the teahouse. We produced from the car a box of our English Breakfast teabags, to present as a gift. Astonishment ensued. One gentleman, perhaps the village boss, took charge and examined one of the teabags critically. Breaking it open, he rubbed the substance from inside between his thumb and forefinger for a moment. With a derisive snort he swept it aside, signalling expressively that the grade was the lowest of the low. He gestured to the teahouse proprietor to show us how it was done in Turkey, that is to say, from loose leaf tea, brewed in manner that can only be described as outrageously strong and served in small curved glasses - only marginally bigger than a shot glass - with two cubes of white sugar. The effect of several of these is truly electrifying and highly recommended by this writer.
Our ‘Turkey leg’, as Pete, a university friend who had joined us in Istanbul called it, was now coming to a close. As we reached the end of Turkey’s Black Sea coast and prepared to turn south towards Kurdistan and Iranian border, somehow I missed the turning – a not infrequent occurrence I admit. Mildly amused for a change, a now fully-recovered Andy wondered where I was taking us. Maps were consulted and produced the answer: Georgia. Further inspection of our guidebooks revealed that British citizens do not require visas to visit Georgia and so, considering this our good luck, we resolved to go there for lunch. As the immigration queue crawled comatosely forward, we began to question the wisdom of this decision, but eventually emerged gleefully to the other side and went for a swim in the Black Sea amid swarms of Georgian women, whose limited attire, just two hundred meters west would doubtless have attracted censure from Turkey’s devout Muslim inhabitants.
After drying off we again examined the map and noticed that it was possible to travel through Georgia for someway south from Batumi and re-enter Turkey by a different border post, an exciting possibility that also would obviate the need to backtrack. We set off in high spirits on the appropriate road, marked by a fat, promising, mendacious, red line on The Map. The scenery was breathtaking, with the steep river gorge carpeted in pine forests and dotted with precariously perched villages, tiny orthodox churches imperiously surveying their magnificent domain. The road began to climb and, consulting The Map, we noted with some alarm that there was 9000ft pass to be crossed. Undaunted we pressed on and reached the top with dusk encroaching and rather behind schedule, the road having deteriorated considerably. The border post closed at eight pm and it was already five-thirty. Backtracking was however unfeasible. On the wild side of the pass, the road nose-dived into what might generously be referred to as something out of a 4x4 advert, a single dirt track, beset by landslides, ruts and, to its left, a precipitous drop into the pine-shrouded abyss, having fallen down which, should we have survived the drop, we might almost certainly have been eaten by the waiting bears. Some heroic driving however, by an Andy who despite his pretensions to worry was manifestly enjoying himself, saw us emerge, in the pitch black, into a tiny village which we knew wasn’t far from our target. After several abortive attempts to extract coherent directions from some drunken petrol station attendants we finally found the border, jubilant to have just made it time - firmly closed. And no wonder: Georgia is, after all, two hours ahead of Turkey.
Steaming onwards past Mt. Ararat, a magnificent sight, we considered the imminent prospect of entering Iran. This meant no beer for the boys and mandatory headscarf for Fi, but other than that we knew little of what to expect. Indeed, any prospective tourist to Iran will invariably find themselves confused by what you have heard - that they hang homosexuals, that women are still stoned to death for adultery, that their drivers are among the worst in the world - and what people who have been there tell you - that it was the highlight of their trip, that the driving isn’t all that bad, that its people are the most friendly and hospitable anywhere in the world. While it is of course true that the Islamic punitive system is unpalatable and the driving leaves much to be desired - namely, a valium prescription - we can happily report that all the good points couldn’t be more true. Nowhere on the trip, with the possible exception of Pakistan, have we experienced the kind of selfless kindness shown to us by the people we came across. Particularly, when asking directions, people would often go miles out of their way to help us, including one lady who pursued us around Ardibil for nearly an hour helping us to find a hotel, then assisted us with parking, then negotiated the room price. Religion most certainly has something to do with it. Iran’s Muslims are Shias, and the respect and assistance to be accorded to foreigners who travel to a Muslim state is enshrined in Shiite law.
The tale of our time in Iran would lack something without a brief word on the nation’s driving skills, alluded to above. Andy, Fi and I share the view that Iranian drivers are not all that bad, ‘bad’ being a relative term. If nothing else, their skill levels are high, with aggression being their bad point, thus while Indian drivers are moronically erratic, their Persian counterparts are at least recklessly predictable. Three quotes will serve to further elucidate the general experience. One came from a friend, while driving me through Tehran. As she approached yet another busy intersection at full tilt, steering with her knees and readjusting her makeup, she sensed my terror: “Don’t worry, driving is just like a computer game. Except the difference is, if you mess up, you die.” Andy, summing up the Iranian tendency to drive two inches from each other’s bumpers, coined the apt description ‘loneliness can kill’. Fi however has the final word on the skill of negotiating the country’s highways: “Never has it been more true to say: he who hesitates is lost.”
Sticking as we were to the north of Iran to investigate its tea industry - it may come as surprise that there is a subtropical region on Iran’s Caspian coast where rice is also grown - we regrettably never made it to Isfahan or the other tourist must-sees. For what we did see though, the assassins’ castle at Alamut was surely the highlight. Hassan Sabbah was a radical young man of the late 12th century, who, being as he was not terribly happy about the Turkish Seljuks who lorded it over Iran at that time, gathered about him a band of followers and moved into the Alborz mountains north of Tehran to capture a number of naturally impregnable forts, used then by the ruling elite to keep an unruly region under the thumb. From these he was to launch a series of highly successful assassination missions on key members of the regime; in essence, he was a 12th century terrorist. He became famous, however, for the manner he recruited his followers. Luring applicants to his castles, he drugged them on hash-laced food, under the influence of which they were introduced to Hassan’s garden, filled with fruit trees and obliging, naked girls. In this fashion he persuaded his followers that he held the keys to paradise, thus his success. The Persian term hashisheyun means ‘hashish-eater’, and from this is derived the modern English term assassin.
After leaving Tehran we sweated east across the desert to the city of Mashad. This city is home to one of the most important Shia shrines in the world, second only to Karbala in Iraq, and a truly splendid sight. Andy and I, however had other designs to visit an old caravanserai in the desert nearby. Caravanserais are magically atmospheric places, roughly the Asian equivalent of an inn along popular old trade routes, though much more elaborate. Typically they are near a source of water, and are quadrangular in shape, centring around a large well for pack animals to drink at and fringed by a mosque, the centrepiece, and kitchen-cum-living quarters for both the wealthy and less wealthy merchants. Rubat Sharaf Caravanserai, forty kilometres east of Mashad, is an especially fine example, but in our haste to set off, we neglected to pick up our passports and therefore when stopped for a routine inspection at a police checkpoint, you might say we had some explaining to do. Not only were we driving a strange vehicle, but were apparently coming from Turkmenistan, with no passports, and possessed of various video equipment.
The officers were not amused. We insisted on our innocence, and explained that our passports were at our hotel in Mashad, which however we had no number for, augmenting their already considerable suspicion. An escort was ordered from Mashad, and we were shepherded to the forbidding Ministry of Information, where I was kept as collatoral as Andy cheerfully went off with another official to find our homestay and produce our passports. He came back half an hour later, clutching our various documents, with our positively quivering homestay owner, which, it had emerged, was operating below the eye of the law, and not registered. Nothing to my mind so aptly sums up the contradictions of our Iranian leg as the contrast observed between Andy and I, fed melon and grapes by cheerful policemen, apologising frequently to us for the inconvenience, expressing their hope that this experience would not blight our view of Iran and the abject terror of Veri, the proprietor of our lodgings, told in Persian that unless he shut down his operation he would ‘disappear and never come back’ and feverishly accused of having sexual relations with Fi, a prosterous accusation as he was at least sixty.
Eventually the charge of espionage levelled against us was rescinded, it having been proven that both we and taxi were in Iran legitimately, and we were freed to proceed north into Turkmenistan, a country famous for the personality cult of its bizarre, recently deceased president, his bizarre, malevolent, chubby-cheeked successor and bizarre capital city, with its white marble-clad buildings and bugged hotel rooms. Crossing the border into Turkmenistan Fi took her headscarf off, which she had waxed extremely disenchanted with, and stamped it jubilantly into the ground in full view of the Iranian guards across the fence. They seemed unmoved, perhaps they even sympathised; they could do nothing.
Turkmenistan’s salient feature and attraction, in our view, is a giant hole in the middle of the desert. Not just any old hole, however, as this particular hole is manmade, two hundred meters wide - and on fire. Some eighty percent of Turkmenistan is occupied by the Karakum (aptly ‘great sands’) Desert, and somewhere in the middle of it, in the 1970s, the Soviets were drilling around for gas. They found a lot – with forty three billion cubic feet of proven reserves Turkmenistan is essentially sat on a giant bubble - and wasted no time making a dreadful mess trying to extract it. At one site, things went a bit wrong, and the a whole section of desert they were exploring collapsed, creating a considerably large pit. Then - who knows but probably - someone flicked a cigarette in and, to cut the story short, it has been burning ever since, Turkmenistan’s admirable contribution to the Kyoto Protocol and premier tourist attraction. Quite an eyebrow-singing spectacle it is too.
Onwards through Uzbekistan, and first to visit the tragedy of the Aral sea, now some eighty miles from its original shoreline, its diminishing size due to the inefficiency of Uzbekistan’s largest industry and monumental Soviet legacy - the cotton industry. Through the ancient cities of Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand, the not so ancient sprawl of Tashkent and a small, desolate corner of Kazakhstan home to world’s largest vodka factory (Taraz), saw us arrive in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, where the car needed some attention. In the first instance, the boot sill was sagging down, which meant the boot lid kept jumping off its catch (the latest victim of the fallout from the Austrian debacle), and secondly we had sheered a suspension spring in half, possibly all the way back in Georgia, we weren’t sure. In any case it needed replacing and promptly was, with a Mercedes 500 spring. These are in very plentiful supply in Bishkek, owing to a suspiciously high population of ‘imported’ Mercedes.
Kyrgyzstan is spectacular country, and we did a loop around Issyk Kul, the world’s second largest freshwater lake after Titicaca in South America. At its eastern extremity, Karakol, Andy and I went trekking and Fi did some drawing, but the real team challenge lay ahead in the form of the Torugart pass, one of the world’s highest and famously bureaucratic passes, and it was starting to snow. I spent a morning trudging around car shops, but taxi tyres are unwieldy things and in the end I could find just one pair that even vaguely fitted. In the event we didn’t need them, the pass just free of snow, and we presented ourselves early in the morning at the Kyrgyz post with cigarettes and papers for the guards, various documents and letters, and three pairs of crossed fingers. We had to pay a $50 bribe for a dubious looking ‘transit’ document, but the real bureaucratic problem isn’t the Kyrgyz side, it’s the Chinese.
To enter China with a car is an exercise of such forbidding expense and paper-filling trouble that it seems perfectly crafted to put people off, and so it is. For a start you must apply, forty days in advance, with precise entry and exit dates that are not changeable in case of delay. You are required to hire a guide, who will accompany you at all times wherever you drive, and that guide must have his own car, not sit in yours, an regulation with expensive implications. In addition to this, having actually got to the border, the guards were of the most pedantic sort, insisting on seeing the car’s engine number (like much else in the cab of course, half rusted), as if somehow we would seek to defraud the Chinese government by covertly smuggling in a Ferrari engine inside a decrepit London taxi. Satisfied with the car, the guard poked around the interior with his stick, full of carefully concealed and probably taxable electronic equipment. In the end, he confiscated a Bishkek Times. Free media is not permitted in China.
A potentially even more formidable obstacle lay ahead in the shape of the Khunjerap pass, some seventeen thousand feet above sea-level. We had planned our crossing for October the 24th, a week before the pass officially closes for winter. Luckily, it was largely snow-free and, having crossed it, we joyfully reverted to driving on the left, that admirable legacy of empire in the subcontinent. For having a right hand drive car in right side-driving countries is in truth a challenging, perhaps dangerous exercise. Through the sixteen or so countries where this was the case, Andy, Fi and I had operated an exhilharating driver / co-driver system whereby the front passenger would guage oncoming for the driver’s benefit ‘Ok…ready…go!’, thereby learning to trust each other’s judgement, or not!
The extraordinary Karakoram highway that cuts down through the jagged roof of Pakistan to Punjabi plains was constructed as a joint venture between the Chinese and Pakistanis in the nineteen seventies, took ten years to build, cost hundreds of lives and is rightly asserted by its creators to be the eighth wonder of the world. Covering some of the most forbidding terrain on earth, including the singularly vertiginous Indus Khoistan, it rises some nineteen thousand feet from its origin north of Islamabad, over some eight hundred kilometers, a lifeline to the countless communities that lie along its path. It is also, with its hairpins, precipices, landslides, lunatic Natco buses and general downhill tendency, a fairly unfortunate place to have your brakes fail.
The undoubted highlight in mind of this monumental road is Passu, an amphitheatre of collosal peaks and glaciers. Its tourism centrepiece is a five hour trek taking in two unbelievable pedestrian foot bridges, strung a cross the roaring Khunjerap river, and loosely constructed from steel cables and woodern slats. When we attempted it, guided in Homeric fashion by some god or the other, the wind was incredible, and I took some footage of Andy in particular crossing one bridge worthy of insertion into an Indiana Jones film.
Meanwhile, a brake cylinder seal had finally cracked on one of the back wheels - yet another apparent victim of our Austrian incident - and it was slowly leaking brake fluid. It made for a nerve-wracking drive, with judicious use of handbrake and gears, down to Mansehra, home to Pakistan’s nascent tea industry. Pakistan, despite some of its regions having a climate reasonably suited to tea production, is the world’s second largest importer of the stuff after the UK, a situation they are trying to rectify with some difficulty. Although tea is the most lucrative cash-crop per square foot known to man, it takes five years for the camelia bush which produces it reach maturity, so it is hard persuading farmers of the long term benefits, when their short term profits are significantly reduced through space used up by the tea bushes. It was to be interesting to compare Pakistan’s fledgling tea research to fully blown operations later in Darjeeling.
Just west of Islamabad we joined the infamous Grand Trunk Road. This similarly astonishing achievement of the British stretches from the Khaiber pass into Afghanistan all the way to Calcutta in India, a distance of two thousand five hundred kilometres. It was to be our home for the next two thousand. By way of Islamabad, newly under martial law to our parents’ combined disquiet, then Lahore, Amritsar, Delhi, Agra and Varanasi, Andy and I arrived, exhausted, in Calcutta; Fi had sensibly left to go home from Delhi. Probably the most pleasing on the eye of India’s ‘golden quadrangle’ cities (Delhi, Calcutta, Mumbai, Chennai), our taxi felt unusually at home amid the colonial pomp of the Victoria monument and surrounded by Ambassador taxis. Rickshaws are forbidden in Calcutta owing to the pollution they cause, so the Ambassador, India’s yellow and battered version of the Fairway cab, rules the streets.
Our final drive of note we, perhaps unwisely, decided to attempt in one go, the six hundred kilometre stetch from Calcutta to Siliguri, just south of Darjeeling. Setting off at an extraordinarily antisocial hour, we didn’t arrive until twelve midnight, a result of bridge repair work somewhere causing us to take a series of detours so horrific as to be almost amusing. At one stage, Andy discovered to his irritation the horn was becoming too quiet. Then, during my shift, the engine started pulling – a broken generator? This was the last thing either of us needed, but a stroke of luck or divine providence decreed it was merely the lead that had come out, discovering which fact however added yet more time. Of the nineteen hours we were on the road that day, Andy, characteristically, insisted on doing at least fifteen, glued to his wheel with a stoic grimace and a packet of Parle-G biscuits.
In an almost surreal contrast, the journey’s worst drive, its penultimate, was followed by its last, an unmitigated joy. Winding up through jungle, tea plantations and picturesque hamlets following the even more picturesque Darjeeling-Himalayan railway, the taxi proceeded gracefully, even majestically, towards its destination. In Darjeeling, we opted to donate her to a disabled childrens’ charity, London taxis being suitable for wheelchairs and that sort of thing, a state of affairs the Indian customs authorities, ever gracious, have subsequently taken issue with. The customs officer in Calcutta even had the chutzpah to inform me, when I politely suggested that a hundred and eighty one percent import tax was unreasonable given our charitable intent, that the British government had been responsible for the duty rate in the first instance. The battle is ongoing.
In Darjeeling, meanwhile, we could not have found a more apt home for our taxi. A former British summer residence – a place to escape the monsoon heat – Darjeeling is a town in which, as I think Andy put it, homesickness is given free reign, with botanical gardens, a parish church, town hall and numerous tea cafes. The tea industry here prides itself on being the ‘champagne of tea’. It is currently applying for something called GI status (Geographical Indication), which would mean that only produce from its relatively small area may be labelled ‘Darjeeling’, like Licolnshire cheese or Scottish whisky. While Assam, India’s vast and mysterious North East is the work horse for the Indian tea industry, producing some thirty two thousand metric tons per year, Darjeeling produces just a third of that.
We visited Makaibari, an estate just south of the town of Kurseong, around 1,500 meters above sea level. Founded by G.C. Banerjee in the 1840s, during the region's first great wave of tea cultivation, Makaibari remains a family operation, run by Banerjee's great-grandson Swaraj - better known as Rajah. Rajah is a Darjeeling legend: he's arguably done more for Darjeeling tea than anyone else in the district. In 1988, he took the estate organic; four years later, it was fully biodynamic, the first in the world.
Rajah is in a sad minority one feels when it comes to taking an active interest in the well-being of his – mostly female – workers. While tea owners in Assam recently attracted censure from the Indian government for a wave of cholera deaths among workers precipitated, wholly, by their insanitary working conditions, Rajah has revolutionary ideas about the empowerment of his womenfolk. Amongst his numerous and admirable schemes include biogas for cooking created from cow dung and homestay ‘stay on a tea plantation’ scheme, to help villagers create a secondary income. One lady showed us her visitor’s book, full of beaming remarks from clearly satisfied guests. His estates are also famous for another reason: it holds the current world record for the most expensive brew in Darjeeling and indeed the world, a ‘muscatel’ that sold for 50,000 rupees a kilogram ($1400) at auction in Beijing last year, picked by only his most experienced workers by the light of the full moon on such and such a month after the first rains and so forth, Rajah explained, a little sheepishly.
And that was the end. Andy and I, unwilling to return home in our state of near nervous collapsed brought on by close encounters with India’s unique drivers, retired to the Andaman islands to snorkel, drink coconut milk and forget about tea and taxis. We had covered some thirteen thousand miles, according to our dashboard odometer and, in the view of one company I consulted, needed to plant seven trees to offset our carbon tyreprint, as it were. In these scientific times, where one is required to intimately dissect ones experiences to show off all your admirable skills to prospective employers, I suppose I ought to tell you what we learnt.
For my part, I learnt first that a degree in Classics does not necessarily qualify you to choose a second hand car for a trans-global expedition. Referring to our finance records, I note that we spent a total nine hundred and ninety nine euros ($1450/£700) preventing our beloved cab from, sometimes quite literally, falling apart. While a large section of this expense was undoubtedly due to our misfortune in Austria, much of it could have been avoided by choosing something less decrepit in the first place. Still, for what it did, the amount we ended up paying I suppose does not represent bad value, and life would have been considerably more boring without the ever-present need to fix things.
Second I learnt that travel does not teach tolerance in any regard whatsoever, either of one’s fellow team-mates, the constant proximity of whom only serves to illuminate their failings and obscure their merits, or indeed of mankind in general, given, as it always seemed to be, to arranging pretty profit from our misfortune, dispensing infuriatingly vague directions and feeding us perilously diseased food. Perhaps I exaggerate, but at any rate, greater understanding yes, tolerance I’m afraid not.
Finally I learnt that anything is possible, even thirteen thousand mile car journeys, with a heady mixture of uncompromising determination and near sectionable lunacy. Above all, as a team we feel proud to have added ourselves to a long list of similarly afflicted Cambridge alumni, and done justice to our forbears, the pioneering first-overlanders to Singapore in the 1950s. Safely back in the UK, in between other commitments I had lunch recently with a group of friends, among them Lord Chorley, a graduate of Caius college who listened, eyes glinting, as I related highlights from the tale above. How remarkable this sort of thing is still possible today, he enthused, “After I graduated, some friends and I from the mountaineering society drove a campavan to Pakistan.” Why, I wondered. “To climb Rakaposhi, you see”, he replied, “then we drove back again.”