Living in Quetta, generally the conversation in social circles is about politics and terrorist attacks or cars and property matters. But when my friend started to talk about his uncle’s road trip from Germany to Pakistan in 1967, I became interested in hearing about this trip first hand from the 85-year-old Syed Mir Ahmed Shah, a businessman from Quetta.
In this age of technology, would you think of planning a road trip without Google maps and GPS? Probably not. Moreover, an international trip would be almost impossible because of security issues and visa restrictions. But perhaps it was easier in 1967, when Syed Mir Ahmed Shah from Quetta, along with his three friends Iqbal Shah, Ghulam Muhammad and Izhar, drove all the way from Germany to Quetta.
At 30, Mir Ahmed had already been to Iran and Iraq by road in 1962-63 but this was to be his first excursion to Europe. Living and working for two years in Germany, he had set aside some cash and bought a Mercedes while his three companions had purchased double-cabins so they each drove their own cars.
“The first time that I went to Germany, it was through agents who transported you from border to border via bus, so I had some idea regarding the roads and we chose to head out to Pakistan. We drove right from Germany to Austria, Bulgaria, what was then Czechoslovakia, then to Turkey,” says an excited Mir Ahmed who had been informed that I was visiting him to hear him narrate his road trip. “Europe was really wonderful back then. The lavish green trees, astounding streets and distinctive campgrounds made it an ideal journey by road. From Europe we entered Turkey, then to Jordan, Iraq, Iran and through Afghanistan to Pakistan through the Chaman Border. ”
Through their journey, they met different kinds of people. “We reached Czechoslovakia and stopped at a cafe for breakfast. I asked the waiter in German to bring omelettes cooked in margarine as we specifically didn’t want butter that may not be halal,” Mir Ahmed recalls. “Some people sitting nearby who turned out to be Muslims from Bosnia [not an independent state at the time] stared at us and asked if we were Muslims. They said, ‘We guessed by your order for a halal breakfast that you must be Muslims.’”
Four friends drove down from Germany to Pakistan in 1967, when there were no security issues, visa restrictions, Google or GPS
It was late at night in Antakya and it was pouring, narrates Ahmed, when they arrived in Turkey. They chose to remain in the city for the evening as Iqbal Shah had had a little accident on a roundabout.
Looking for a place to stay, Mir Ahmed spotted a lodge and went inside. There were some “Turkish men preoccupied with twirling their mustaches” and not offering much help. Back outside, he was still thinking of where to go when someone approached him.
“A man clad in a dervish’s outfit came up to me and asked me in Persian “Farsi meedani [Do you know Persian]?”
“Baalay meedanum [Yes, I know Persian], I answered,” Ahmad says.
The dervish said he would help them find accommodation and led them down narrow lanes similar to those in the old city of Lahore.
“Soon we arrived at a spot where a couple of men were sitting,” Ahmed says. “They promptly stood up as a mark of respect for this dervish who spoke to them in Arabic, requesting them to give us lodging for the night. To my understanding they were his mentees. They quickly obliged him by finding us a place to stay. When the dervish was about to leave, I took my wallet out to pay him some cash at which he became irritated and told us that he hadn’t helped us for money.”
It was Hajj season when the friends reached Jordan after a few days from Turkey and Arabs and travellers were everywhere, preparing to head out to Saudi Arabia. As they wandered around in Jordan, a policeman came up to them and asked them if they wished to go to Jerusalem, known as Jerush in Jordan. At the time, Jerusalem was under the administration of the Jordanian government. “We told him that Ghulam Muhammad’s car had had an accident in the hills while entering Jordan,” says Ahmed.
Fortunately, the hills were sandy so the car was not badly damaged and Ghulam was safe. They decided to get the vehicle repaired and proceed onward. But the repairs took longer than they anticipated. “Because of the accident and repairing the vehicle, we had to stay in Jordan instead of utilising that time to visit Jerusalem.” Ahmed still regrets he could not visit the Al Aqsa mosque.
The next destination was Iraq but, on the way to Iraq from Jordan, there was a sandstorm. “I had never seen a sandstorm like this one,” says Ahmed. “We couldn’t drive over 20 km/hr and I still regret not taking photographs. I had a Leica M3, one of the best manual cameras of those times, but as we all were in separate cars and since everyone was driving, we couldn’t take pictures. Manual cameras were not as easy to use as digital ones used these days.”
After driving for a few hours, they reached Baghdad from where they headed out to Kazmain. “It was a small city at the time compared to present-day Kazmain,” says Ahmed. “Our next stop was Najaf and then Karbala,” he adds. “In Najaf, some Tibetan explorers told us to visit Masjid-i-Salah which has great historical significance as Prophet Ibrahim, Prophet Idrees and Prophet Khizr are supposed to have visited this place of worship several times and offered prayers there. In Karbala, I went to a photography studio to get my photo taken,” recalls Ahmed, with a smile.
After roaming around in Iraq for a few days, the group finally set out for Iran. As they drove towards Iran, Ahmed recalls that there was no divider on the border; “Just a steel gate had been installed,” he says. At the border, the police officers told them that since it was night, the gate was shut. They had been driving non-stop for almost ten hours. Tired and annoyed, Ahmed lashed out at the guards in Persian. “The minute they heard me yelling at them, they promptly opened the gate,” he chuckles. “While the custom officials were checking our vehicles, I advised my companions to converse in English and soon I heard one of the officials saying ‘they are not smugglers’.”
They next drove to Afghanistan through Islam Qilla on the Iran-Afghanistan border and reached Kandahar by nightfall. “We stayed in Kandahar only for a day or two as it had been almost two months since we had started this journey and we were sensing signs of fatigue because of travel and our two acidents in Turkey and Jordan which had delayed us a bit,” says Ahmed. “In Afghanistan, we met with the Pakistani Consul General and when we told him we were from Pakistan and travelling on German passports, he helped us to get the exit stamp quickly.”
As the four friends reached the Chaman border, Shah caught a bus and left for Peshawar but we met his father who had come to pick him up and he drove the remaining three friends to Quetta, ending the road adventure from Germany.
Ahmed made an excursion again with his siblings to Europe but the friends’ road trip of 1967 is the one that is still fresh in his mind decades later. Youth, adventure and risks certainly create beautiful memories.
Published in Dawn, EOS, January 26th, 2020