If anyone ever asks you to drive three donkeys and a foal for twenty four miles through the Karakoram Mountains, be very firm and refuse to do so … This is the advice given by Dervla Murphy in her book ‘Full Tilt’, written in 1965.
The book is a record of her journey by bicycle cross country basically from Ireland to India. On the way she went through what was then Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Persia (Iran), Afghanistan, Pakistan and then into India – according to her reckoning a journey of about 3000 miles / 4,800 km including several significant detours into the mountains of Afghanistan & Pakistan.
Dervla Murphy is a travel writer that I found accidentally. One of her books ‘Eight Feet in the Andes’ was in the ‘South America’ section when I was just about to go to Chile to live and was doing a bit of research. (Unlike me!). Her adventures are mind boggling, and she makes it sound so easy. Even in the mid ‘60s cycling alone through Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan was a bit dodge apart from the fact that there are mountains i.e. uphill cycling.
Into the Hindu Kush
In Full Tilt, the adventure started in 1963, one of the coldest and worst winters in Europe of the 20th Century. In Yugoslavia she pushed through blizzards and black ice with frost bitten hands and feet and defended herself from an attack by starving wolves with her pistol. And that was in the introductory chapter to the book, before the real journey began.
Unless you have a good grasp of the geography of the region, it helps to have a map next to you when you read the book. The description of the journey through Italy, Yugoslavia and Bulgaria is fairly cursory and Persia/Iran is fairly brief as well. From the border city of Herat in Afghanistan she travels up through Kabul and then north west to Bamiyan and north into the Hindu Kush, and from there back to Kabul and south east to Jalalabad. From Jalalabad she goes through the Khyber Pass and into Pakistan to Peshawar.
Once in Pakistan, Murphy headed north to stay in Saidu Shariff with the Wali of Swat, a kind of principality in the north west of Pakistan that has since been absorbed and is now known as Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Just prior to Murphy’s visit the young Queen Elizabeth II also stayed with the Wali and named Swat ‘the Switzerland of the East’. Murphy described it as having pine groves and flowering wild shrubs and herbs.
From there the journey goes back down to Rawalpindi then to Abbottabad, back to Rawalpindi and from there a round trip to Gilgit. After reaching Lahore she crossed the border to India. It is a bit of a geographical zig zag across the northern half of Pakistan.
A reminder here that the bicycle called Roz was not made from a tricky titanium compound, or Kevlar. There were no gears and it was heavy.
Arriving in India seemed to be an anticlimax – an easy cycle down through Kashmir and into Delhi.
The Garden of Eden
Before I read this book, a cycle ride across Afghanistan and Pakistan seemed in my mind’s eye to be basically a trip of endless and relentless desert and rocks. There is that, but the beauty of the landscape in some of the northern areas sounds wonderful.
On the cycle-ride out of Kabul, the Ghorband Valley is described as the Garden of Eden, with its wheat fields, vineyards and orchards growing apricot peach, almond, cherry, apple, and groves of willow, ash, birch and sinjit trees, plus proud youths guarding herds of cattle, horses and donkey with gambolling foals, kids and donkeys. In the distance the snow capped mountains on the Hindu Kush rising to 6,000m.
Where the highest peaks of the Hindu Kush crowd the horizon in every direction and one begins to understand why some people believe that gods live on mountain tops. – Describing the scenery two days cycle ride out of Kabul.
As noted above, Swat is described as having groves of pine forests and at Sher Quila Rakaposhi / Punial Mountain State, in Gilgit (Karakorum Mountains)
“We went through fields of golden barley being harvested by women and girls I scarlet gowns and silver and blue caps, then climbed up by very narrow paths beside sparkling streams through woods of walnut, apricot, plum, pear and peach trees to where we could look across at the pine woods on the summit of the opposite mountain and see, through binoculars, the ibex grazing …”
Murphy was so happy in the Punial Mountain State that when she was offered a small plot of land in the by the Raja, she was tempted to stay so she could live out her days.
A Moment in Time
It would be safe to say that things have changed drastically in this region since 1963. The Russian and American wars in Afghanistan, the Taliban and the radicalisation of Pakistan.
Chapter 4 includes a visit to Bamiyan in Afghanistan. Murphy talks about a visit to the City of Sighs, where the king of Bamiyan was successfully besieged by Genghis Khan in 1222. It is the site of the giant bhuddas that were originally carved in the 6th Century AD. She describes the statues which have since been destroyed by the Taliban.
Tehran, Herat, Kandahar, Kabul, Jalalabad, Lahore, Peshawar and the Khyber Pass. The names of the Afghani cities in particular provoke images of a horrific war rather than a fierce and friendly country that everyone should visit.
In Pakistan she often stayed with the families of high ranking Pakistani army officials and their families. These seemed to come about because of a chance meeting with these army officials in Tehran. While in Rawalpindi and staying with the ‘Aurang Zebs’ she had dinner with Ayub Khan, the President of Pakistan whose daughter was married to Aurang Zeb’s son.
The partitioning of Pakistan and India took place in 1947 and 1963 the country of Pakistan was very young. And one point Murphy says that she feels sorry for Pakistan because they started with nothing, while India retained the whole infrastructure of government. At that time, Bangladesh was still called ‘East Pakistan’, and still part of the same country.
There are frequent philosophical and political elements in the book, and Murphy is aware that things are changing.
A Walk in the Park
Fleas, bedbugs, sand flies, heat stroke & frost bite. On one side of a mountain pass she eats clover for three days and on the other the animals are being fed apricots. After her clothes fell to bits she was given a pair of Pakistani men’s army trousers to wear by the Wali of Swat. To these she added a tribal sheepskin coat that had not been cured properly so stank.
During a bus trip on the way to Bamiyan, Murphy got whacked by the butt of a rifle as a bystander (bysitter?). A fight broke out between the bus conductor and the passengers over the price of the fare and as everyone except her was carrying a rifle, she was hit and broke three ribs.
Towards the end, she describes her journey over the Babusar Pass. She and a group of villagers on horseback were the first over the pass after winter, and they crossed nine glaciers. On one of the bigger glaciers she was ‘wearing Roz (the bicycle) as a necklace’, because this was the only way to traverse it. Finally they had to cross the Kagan River over a disintegrating snow bridge before making it to the village on the other side.
It is written in such a way that it seems like this could happen to anyone and then you think, hang on I’m pretty sure I couldn’t carry a bike around my neck, let alone carry it across a glacier, and let alone sleeping in a bed full of fleas and bedbugs without even noticing.
Other Books by Dervla Murphy
This is the third book that I’ve read – the other two being ‘Wheels within Wheels’ about her childhood and early adulthood in Ireland and ‘Eight Feet in the Andes’ when she crossed the Peru section of the Andes with her young daughter and a donkey. I loved all three. Anyone who wants to feel like they are on an adventure should read them.
Oh, … and now I want to go to Afghanistan. Who’s with me?
‘Full Tilt’ is available on Kobo, Amazon and also via Eland Books – ‘keeping the classics of travel literature in print.
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