By the summer of 1974, the overland hippy trail from Europe to South Asia was a well-established route. Thousands of travellers had stuffed backpacks with tents and tinned food, ready to experience this extraordinary journey, and Mary Doble – a recently married hairdresser from Guildford – was one of them. Now the owner of a popular B&B in Sherborne, she tells me her story.
“I met my husband, Pete on the passenger liners. I was working in the salons and he ran the ship’s sweet shop. Two years later we decided to get married, but Pete had always said he didn’t want to settle down straight away, so we planned a trip as an extended honeymoon. I was 27 and had seen a lot of the world through my job but never really considered any other kind of travel. When Pete found an ad in a magazine – Time Out I think – saying ‘Catch a Budget Bus to Kathmandu for £90’, we decided to go for it.
“Arriving at Totteridge Tube Station didn’t feel like a very good start as the bus had broken down and we and the 30 other passengers had to wait for the owner, George, to fix it. The youngest was a six-year old girl, travelling with her Canadian father as a way of helping them get over the loss of her Japanese mother in a car crash. Then there was 76-year old Joe from Mauritius. Bless his heart, he had to keep washing his long johns out.
“We first travelled across Europe into Greece, and it was two days before my birthday when news came on the radio that the country was at war with Turkey over Cyprus and they were going to divide it.
“George was a black belt in judo, ex-army and tough as old boots. He immediately shouted at us to pack up. I shall never forget it. We stuffed our tents and everything else into the back of the bus, then he drove – like a bat out of hell really. It could have been the end of our lives that day. It was a rough, mountainous area and we had to get through a barrier into Turkey where there were tanks, guns and soldiers all lined up. George had said we’d be fine, and we believed him, but after we’d crossed the border he continued to drive through the night and at some stage fell asleep at the wheel. I was the only person awake and luckily I saw him veering and shot out of my seat screaming ‘George,’ ever so loud. Yeah, that was scary.
“In Turkey I pretty quickly realised that I was wearing all the wrong clothes. I wasn’t at all political before I went, quite naïve really, for there was nothing about these countries on the news and I’d not really seen any pictures. So I’d packed things like short halter-neck dresses, plus a royal blue trouser suit thinking I’d need something smart. After a rather nasty incident with a local man I bought some long skirts and just wore those and trousers from then on, my long hair scraped back in a ponytail, no make-up.
“Beirut was a brilliant place; the people were wonderful. We were often invited into people’s homes: beautiful houses built in layers for each generation. It seemed like everywhere we went they were juicing carrots and I was amazed that they all smoked pot: Grandma, Grandad, everybody. We met a family who also had a home in Damascus, Syria, and when we arrived there we took them up on their invitation to visit. They were a lovely family. I often wonder what’s happened to them now.
“In Iran I was desperate to have a good wash, as most of the time we just used bowls in our tents. There was a café on the shores of the Caspian Sea and I asked the owner if he had any facilities I could use. He sent me round the back, and there’s me, my towel on my arm, all excited at the thought of a shower. I went to step into it and realised it was a heaving mass of bright green frogs. Bloomin’ great big things and far too many to scoop out.
“I remember Iran mostly for having loads of mosquitoes and being wet, damp and cold. It was pretty primitive and rough as well, and I didn’t really enjoy that bit of the journey. But it was still really fascinating. The local people were equally interested in us; they always wanted to buy my jeans. Whenever you got to glimpse into people’s homes you’d see the young girls in families listening to pop music, wearing jewellery and makeup. I realised that behind their doors they’re just like us. They put on a cover when they’re out, because that’s just what they do. It’s the way they’ve been, for thousands and thousands of years.
Arriving in Afghanistan my first impression was I’d walked into a scene from the Bible. The men were like something out of a book: warrior-like on horses, with their big turbans, guns and machetes, and this was the only place where I felt the people were a bit hostile. One day we decided to walk up to an old army cannon that blasted off every day at noon. We were quite a long way out of town when about 35 kids appeared and literally started stoning us. The elders came out and stopped them but it was a bit nasty. This was remote Afghanistan after all and I was a woman, showing my face.
This was also the country where I experienced my most unforgettable sight. The shops were just wooden shacks with padlocks on the doors and in one, a baker’s, there was a round hole in the floor where the fire was, with four teenage boys sitting around. They beckoned us to watch as they prepared dough for the oven and I saw that the one whose job it was to remove the bread had no skin or fingernails left on his fingers – everything was burnt away. They suggested I make some bread, so I did. And as the boy with the burnt hands took it off and handed it to me I just wanted to keep that bread forever. I just thought, these poor boys, this is their lives. They were all high as kites – probably because of the awfulness of their jobs.
Next was Pakistan, via the Kyber Pass, which was spectacular, all the regimental badges carved out of rock. Our arrival at the border wasn’t great. Not only were we strip-searched but we were stuck there for ages, all really hungry. The bus was about 120 degrees, no air conditioning and everyone was sweating like mad. And then there’s me, eating a tin of sardines. I was not popular.
Arriving in Pakistan I seem to remember I thought I was driving into Aldershot. Honestly, that was my first impression. We came into this wonderful leafy area with beautiful Victorian houses and men in cricket whites batting on a green.
By the time we got to India we’d been on the bus for over two months and things were getting a bit fractious, so four of us decided to do the rest of the journey by train. And I’m so glad we did. We were at one station and a little boy appeared and asked if we wanted the next train and ‘I get it’. When the train arrived he was leaning out the window shouting, ‘I got you carriage’. We paid him, bless him. And then we’re sat there and people are piling in and piling in and then they’re all at our feet: mum, dad, aunty, uncle, grandma, granddad, kids, you name it. And they got all their cooking pots out and shared their food with us and it was just wonderful.
In Kathmandu we met a boy working as a cook, who’d make us omelettes for breakfast. He was originally from Tibet, where his whole family had been killed. I asked if he earned enough money and whether he was ok on his own and he replied, ‘I have enough food in my belly and clothes on my back, that’s all I need.’ And do you know, that’s always stayed with me. He’d lost everybody and yet as long as he was warm and fed, he felt he was all right. And for me, with so many riches in my life that he could never hope for, his wisdom has influenced me to always try and feel the same way.
The journey took three months, with the same people on the bus the whole time. It was definitely the most amazing experience of my life. It made me grow up and become so much more aware. Before I went my life was basically all about going out with boys and what should I wear on a Saturday night – even though I’d been on the liners.
But it didn’t particularly change me as a person. I think the thing I learnt most from the experience is that essentially we’re all the same. People label people as foreigners, comment on different coloured skin, different religions. But really we just all want the same: family, friends, shelter, food; all those kinds of things, although obviously some have so much more than others.
We did the whole trip on a shoestring – we had to. Most of the time we slept in tents, often on beaches. Except in India, where we once slept in a converted prison with geckos climbing across the ceiling. We ate as cheaply as we could, street food or stuff we bought from the markets and cooked ourselves. Sometimes we even pinched stuff from the fields. I don’t remember anyone getting really sick, although Pete did get ill in Srinigar when we stayed on the houseboats.
During our time on the bus of course we got to know people really well, but strangely we didn’t stay in contact with any of them. I think that’s because when we came back we started having children and life changed. Now, forty years later, it’s the places that still stand out for me and I do feel it was a real achievement.
After all it’s not many mothers of two small children who, while she’s standing at the kitchen sink doing the washing-up, can say, ‘I remember going through the Desert of Death in Afghanistan, and we’d been travelling for quite a while when…’ “