Almost all epic travels begin in innocence. The prospective miseries, perils and vagaries of a journey are dwarfed by promise: of discovery, breathless tales, companionship, of besting challenges. So it was that four school-leavers from an Indian boarding school began dreaming of a Eurasian crossing in the winter of 1965.
Our imaginations were aflame with the stories told by flower children from the West who were trekking eastward in hope of finding harbor for restless souls. (After all, peace might await in Varanasi, Dharamshala, Badrinath, Kathmandu or beside some hookah in a nameless bazaar. Later, the Maharishi even brought the likes of Mia Farrow, Donovan and the Beatles, to his ashram in Rishikesh at the foot of the very hills where we had completed our studies.) Many of these seekers – pilgrims, really – hitch-hiked as an act of faith. Better-heeled ones traveled in Bedford lorries or in 4 x 4 Unimogs emblazoned with the itinerary, ‘London to Sydney’. They brought assurance of the viability of our schoolboy dreams, offering florid accounts of the very roads we hoped to follow.
Take the tale of Dutch youngsters who during a bar binge wagered that a certain VW Beetle could never make it to the Taj Mahal and back to Amsterdam. Sealed with hiccups and a handshake the venture was joined. Surviving mishaps of all kind, mechanical and spiritual, the much-abused Beetle with its two passengers mastered the potholes the mountains and the vast distances finally limping into the great city of Agra on the banks of the holy Jamuna River where the Taj holds court.
Now, to contrive confirmation that they had arrived at the destination. They told their story of the outlandish wager, of hardships on the way, to bystanders in the bazaar, who, being sympathetic neighbors allowed as how they would be willing to help clinch the confirming evidence. After all, they said, it would be a shame to have come such a distance to return without proof. So a plan was laid that a score of able-bodied men would help to carry the little VW on to the monument’s pedestal at the foot of the reflecting pools. (All this, according to one telling, on the evening of a crescent moon arced above the minaret.) Whereupon a little box camera was produced and a black-and-white snapshot taken to prove the feat accomplished. There followed profuse handshakes, ‘salaams’ and cosmic satisfaction.
But, of course, the wager had not been fully redeemed. There remained the matter of a return leg to Holland. At some point, the story goes, the vehicle had so collapsed, that it had to be carried on a lorry to the next city. But at each stage, clever mechanics and improvised solutions kept the Beetle rolling, across the Tigris and Euphrates, over the Bosporus, past the cities of Macedonia, under the snows of the Alps and along the Rhine until it finally laid down its life along some canal in Amsterdam.
The winnings did not cover the fearsome cost of a round-trip into travel lore. Even the friendship of the two venturers was cashiered in the process. But the story is forever entered – its folly, its perseverance and ragged triumphs – in the romance of the hoary Silk Route.
Now, if only schoolboys might enter their story in that saga. That dream set our own journey in motion.