Magic bus, p.1
Magic Bus, page 1
By the same author
The Oatmeal Ark
Under the Dragon
Next Exit Magic Kingdom
Falling For Icarus
On the Hippie Trail from Istanbul to India
an imprint of
Published by the Penguin Group
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First published 2006
Copyright © Rory MacLean, 2006
The moral right of the author has been asserted
In order to protect identities some names and details have been changed by the author
The acknowledgements on pp. 283–4 constitute an extension of this copyright page
Map by Andrew Farmer
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To the original Intrepids
‘From this hour I ordain myself loos’d of limits and imaginary
–Walt Whitman, Open Road
Hot wind ripples across the blood-red earth. Airy waves wash over the scorched stones, ruffle the ashen mountains, stir the fabric of elements as a pebble flicked into water. The distant, shimmering vision stops me in my tracks. I stare toward it, past the shells of burnt-out tanks and fusilli twists of thick armour plate. The object seems to be suspended in space like a bird or a feather. It is a camel and rider, a helicopter gunship, a levitating Valkyrie. I’m alone in this raw, empty place and it’s coming toward me.
As I watch, the spectre transforms itself, reaching down to touch the boiling tarmac road, extending black legs, sprouting tyres. Its flashing eyes become a split windscreen. Its phantom limbs are the arms of men. I bend my ear toward the horizon and the familiar Leyland tick-tick rents the absolute stillness of the deserted valley.
The bus rolls out of the heat haze, two dozen Afghan heads craning and calling out of its broken windows at the sight of me by the roadside. Its engine brake thunders the ancient Bedford to a stop, enveloping me in voices and dust. When the cloud clears, I’m staring up at the riders, responding to their invitation, about to step onboard.
Then the metal body catches my attention. On impulse, I sweep a strip of grit off its mottled surface. I see the crude ‘Flying Muslim Coach’ logo has been painted over flaking portraits of sultry beauties, their faces scratched out years earlier by Taliban fanatics. I brush away another coat of dirt and discover Russian words beneath the portraits, faded reminders of the Soviet occupation. With both arms, I rub again, pushing back another decade, reaching deeper into the collage and discovering that the Cyrillic characters themselves efface psychedelic, Day-Glo peace symbols.
In the blazing heat, I’m looking for clues, wanting to identify the transiting dreamer who brought the vehicle from Europe to Asia in the 1960s. Then the driver sounds the horn. Arms reach out to me. Voices beg me to stop cleaning the dirty old bus, assuring me that others will do the job in Herat, asking me to honour them with my company. The conductor, a laughing man with midnight-black hair and a glass eye, pulls his Leili Leili jann cassette out of the old stereo. He rifles in the bottom of a chest and clicks another tape, worn and stretched, into the machine.
‘Music for you! For you!’ he calls in English, cranking up the volume, filling the Valley of Fear with the sound of The Who.
I’m disorientated, laughing with the other men. I hoist my pack on to a shoulder and step onboard the four-wheeled palimpsest, setting off between the war ruins on the road which so many once believed led to a better world.
1. I Get Around
My wonder at that first step moves me still, that stride into the unknown, that grasping for stars; the open road before me, the Blue Mosque at my back, the Beach Boys in my ear. Ahead stretched six thousand miles, six countries, three world religions spanning West and East along the world’s wildest and oldest trail. I was leaving ordered Europe, crossing Turkey and chameleon Iran, reaching through reopened Afghanistan, falling into the ferment of India and lifting myself toward the pure, clean Himalayas, to Nepal and the trail’s end.
All my life I have wandered. When I was a boy, I rambled away from home after school, straying along unfamiliar streets, roaming off into parks and meadows to climb trees, build camps and talk to strangers. The world felt vast, diverse and safe. I was as free as a leaf in the wind, as long as I came back in time for supper. Day after day I discovered the wonder in my neighbourhood, in the streets and fields beyond, spiralling ever further away from the familiar.
My father, too, loved to roam. Night after night, he came into my room and told me to get dressed. We climbed into the car and started out for Florida, California, even Mexico, with me aged eight or nine driving on his lap. He cranked up the radio and hurtled us on our way with ‘I Get Around’, ‘Magic Carpet Ride’, ‘Gates of Eden’. Together we sang along to Dylan, the Stones, ten dozen Golden Oldie stations along the endless dark Interstates. The next morning, when I awoke, we found ourselves blinking in the sharp daylight of Times Square or the Eire shore, hundreds of miles from home.
As I grew older, the world changed. People became suspicious of unfamiliar streets and lonely parks. We no longer trusted in the kindness of strangers. We eyed our fellow man warily rather than looked out for him. We divided society into ‘them’ and ‘us’, our optimistic innocence lost as we exiled ourselves from Eden at home and abroad. Those dazzling, high-volume night flights with my father had left me both enchanted by and wary of spontaneity. But I hungered for the perfect destination that he and I had never reached. I still wandered along the trail of wonders, believing in a family of man, yearning to complete the greatest journey bopping to the best songs of all time.
I knew of the historical importance of the Asia overland route: part Silk Road, part web of desert caravan tracks, above all, a critical cultural highway. For over 1,700 years the trail had been the principal link between Europe and Asia, before it was closed by sea trade and the Ming dynasty. Alexander the Great, the Persians, Mohammed and Marco Polo had all t
Those hard, old journeys then carried me forward to the Now, or Nearly Now, to the original independent travellers, the Beats, hippies and Intrepids, the kids who adopted the trail in the 1960s. They were the ones whose freedom I envied, whose spontaneity attracted and haunted me, whose bewitching optimism today seems as lost as my once-safe world. I wanted to know why this route became the journey of their age. I needed to put my finger on the triggering events which shot them – and so us all – along the road. I had to understand how that decade affected the countries traversed, sweeping the region through extraordinary changes, casting such long shadows over our own fearful and protective era.
Then spring came, the great time of travelling, and I flew to Istanbul. I stood before the Blue Mosque and the Milion, the lone stone Roman pillar, worn and fragmented, from which all road distances were once measured. I took that first step. I didn’t realize this Journey to the East would be my Pilgrim’s Progress ‘from this World to that which is to come’. I couldn’t see yet that I was Goldmund cutting free of Narziss. Sal Paradise running down the razor-edge of time. A Merry Prankster on the bus, tootling the multitudes, rolling up for the real Magical Mystery Tour. I simply trusted that my hidden somewhere lay on the road ahead; the perfect place somehow always known to us. All I had to do was reach out for it, to outrun life, to follow one great red line across Asia to the wild beating of my heart.
I looked up at the blue sky into which the swallows were rising and thought: Here it began. Here I begin.
2. Hippie Hippie Shake
The Bosphorus surges between the tail of Europe and toe of Asia, dipping, rising, rushing from the Black Sea to a silver-mirrored Marmara. Dancing ferries defy the noon-hot current, cutting between churning tankers, skeins of shearwater and two continents. Their almond-eyed passengers wash ashore, over decaying sea-walls caked with moss and mussels, around bobbing skiffs of fishermen flogging fried-fish sandwiches, into the great, jumbled capital of three empires.
Istanbul is among the oldest inhabited cities, a metropolis founded on the advice of Apollo’s oracle, the western gateway of the Silk Road since the sixth century. Its pivotal location, astride the Bosphorus, flanking the scimitar-shaped Golden Horn, was the most strategic in the ancient world. In its time, ‘the City’ was occupied by Persia, Alexander and Rome, rising to Christian glory after Constantine, defying Muslim invaders for almost a thousand years. Under the Ottomans it held sway over territories stretching from Hungary to the Persian Gulf, from North Africa to the Caucasus. Today, this is where the modern world’s fault lines meet: between rich and poor, democracy and the authoritarian, Islam and the West.
At Topkap1 Palace, I’m scribbling descriptions of the rushing faces of the city. Silver sunlight flashes off the dark waters. The muezzin calls the faithful to prayer. I’m deep in thought, minding my own business, when an astoundingly beautiful woman limps out of the crowd and says to me, ‘There should be a candle…’ Radiant green eyes. Purple tie-dyed blouse. Ebony walking-stick. ‘… an eternal flame burning where a desiccated girl first popped her cork.’
‘Popped her cork?’ I ask, stopped in mid-sentence. The sign says no open fires are permitted near the pavilions of the Imperial Terrace, but the luminous stranger seems to spark with pyrotechnic energy.
‘Use your imagination, Jack,’ she snorts, turning away her hoary head and letting loose a raunchy laugh.
She’s pushing seventy. Her thick grey hair is the colour of a seal’s coat. Her long, soft features seem to have been cast in wet clay by a Cubist sculptor during a monsoon. Her gravelly London accent has been smoothed by Californian surf and sand.
‘At night we’d steal over that wall, sneak through the harem garden and make love here,’ she coos, stroking the sultan’s divan with a lingering touch, grasping hold of one of the domed canopy’s slim bronze pillars. ‘So the first eternal flame goes here.’
I look away from her love-nest iftariye, dazzled by opulent sweeps of marble so white that I have to screw up my eyes, but the bright old bird points across the shallow mirror pools to the Baghdad Kiosk and goes on, ‘We made love there too.’ The Terrace of the Favourites. ‘And there.’ Sünnet Odasi, or the Circumcision Room, built for Sultan Ibrahim in 1642 to celebrate the circumcision rites of his first son, the future Mehmet IV. ‘And there.’ I hope at least the Pavilion of the Holy Mantle – with its relics of the Prophet (Peace be upon Him) and Moses’ walking stick – had been spared her enthusiasm.
‘I’m working,’ I tell her, trying to revive my train of thought.
‘There must also be lights in the park,’ she insists, her iridescent eyes changing colour as she steadies herself on the carved balustrade. Jade green. Liquid turquoise. ‘As well as at the Gülhane, up the Maiden’s Tower, in Cappadocia, on Mount Ararat…’
With wheeling gestures, she flings imaginary candles off the palace walls. The flames, fiery points of passion burnt in time, trace a line between the needle minarets and golden domes, over the plane trees and the fast-flowing sea, up the low stone hills of the Asian shore and away to the East.
‘Everywhere,’ she says, excited by her memories, pulling off her feathered felt hat, embracing the vista in slender arms and pivoting on her toes.
‘We named our positions after the cities of Asia: riding the Kabul, up the Khyber, doing the Bam-bam-bamiyan. Check it out, Jack; you have to figure out which one was which.’
I ask her, ‘When was this?’
‘My Summer of Love.’
And she starts to cry. Great, crystal raindrop tears glinting in the sun, collecting in little pools where her spectacles rest against her cheeks, ruining her mascara, hissing on the searing white marble. I look down at my notes to cover my surprise as much as her embarrassment. Then I smell smoke. I turn back to the woman. ‘My name isn’t Jack,’ I say.
But she’s gone, leaving a single tea-light twinkling on the divan.
In the early sixties, the first Intrepids began arriving in Istanbul in small numbers, finding a sweet, melancholy city of ramshackle wooden houses and crumbling city walls, without tourists or touts. Old men in baggy trousers idled away afternoons in backstreet coffeehouses. Taxi drivers wore ill-cut Western suits, chewed gum and drank opiate wine. Fearsome razor-sellers worked the piers. Diesel smoke rose from weathered freighters. The oily air smelt of charcoal and mackerel. Along the cobblestone pavements, pedlars stirred steaming cauldrons of sweet corn cobs. Tailors slithered on the heels of their slippers, bent under the weight of dozens of leather jackets. The bazaar – where public letter-writers typed on Coronas – wasn’t yet a gift-shop warehouse. Sultanahmet hadn’t become a sightseers’ ghetto. The neighbouring slopes and hills were still bare of buildings. With rainbow patches on their jeans or maple leaves on their backpacks, the travellers hung out at the first hostels, played guitars together on the steps of the Blue Mosque, smoked hubble-bubbles under the cypress trees before driving their battered VW Campers and Morris Minors on to the rusty Bosphorus ferry.
To catch a clearer glimpse of those years, I take a city bus along the Golden Horn, past shattered remnants of Byzantine sea palaces and fragments of yali boathouses. Ships’ whistles and nasal love songs echo off the few remaining timber buildings, their blackened ‘gingerbread’ lattices pressed and cracked between new concrete tenements.
Ersin Kalkan is a lean, fifty-five-year-old journalist with deep-set brown eyes, rough porous skin and fleshy boxer’s lips. In the dusk, we sit in his compact walled garden of orange trees and damp old stones, drinking coffee beneath the darting swallows.
Istanbul, he tells me, marks the point where Asia and Europe bot
In return, I tell Kalkan that the city’s tangled marriage of East and West has already moved me: in Byzantium’s ruins overlaid by Mehmet’s serene mosques, along the narrow, cobbled streets where Janissaries once walked and now flashy European Union kiosks stand, in my fleeting, time-warp encounter on the Imperial Terrace.
‘Are you sure she wasn’t a ghost?’ he asks me with a sudden smile. ‘There are many ghosts in Istanbul: Trojans, Crusaders, Californians.’
I shake my head. ‘We didn’t dwell on the spiritual. Her main interest seemed to be fornication.’
Kalkan tips back his head and stares for a long moment into the sky. Then, he says in a voice filled with feeling, ‘To us, hippies were the fireworks of freedom. They were… exotic.’
‘As you would have been to them.’
‘Every night I went to Sultanahmet to meet them.’
‘To practise your English?’ I ask.
‘To see what they were reading,’ he says, surprising me, lighting another Marlboro. ‘Ginsberg, for example, who had the courage to put up his head and insult the American system, a system which to us was Protestantism and God.’
Allen Ginsberg was the bearded Beat poet whose enduring anti-authoritarianism made him a spokesman for the generation. His prophetic work – like the hippie trail itself – would come to link the Beats to the Beatles, On the Road to ‘The Long and Winding Road’, karma to Coca-Cola, transcendence to terrorism.
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