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The longest bus journey I ever did was in Sudan. I remember dossing down at night next to the vehicle out in the bush. When the inevitable breakdown came, the driver rummaged around in the gear box, ripped out a part then said he was popping back to Khartoum for spares. He was gone for a week, but at least he did return. Bus journeys, and their resultant stories, are the stuff of first youthful adventures out into the big wide world, and what could be more adventurous than a 12-day marathon from Birmingham to Pakistan? Are they insane, one wonders. Well, maybe, but I for one would be willing to give it a try. Anyone who survives deserves to dine out on the tale for many years afterwards. And I absolutely guarantee that those stories will be better than anything picked up on a plane or even a train.
Long-distance bus journeys, you see, force you closer to both fellow travellers and locals than any other form of mass transport. The further you go, the more bizarre and surreal things can get. In Iran a few years ago, called on to change buses at Hamadan, I stood in the bus station and marvelled. This city was old when Alexander the Great arrived. It was where Avicenna delivered his pearls of wisdom, where the Parthians had a summer capital and Esther, the Jewish heroine, married Xerxes I. And what chariot did the bus company dig out for the next stage of our epic journey? It was an orange coach that had previously been the team coach for Milwall Football Club. It still had the insignia on the side. I photographed members of the Revolutionary Guards standing beside it. A few did grumble and express extremist doctrines, but that was because they were Arsenal fans.
When we boarded, there was George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones in Intolerable Cruelty on the video. There was no sound, the audio system was reserved for a dodgy cassette of Elvis Presley hits, and in any case I was deep in a discussion about Jewish culture with one of the guards.
Tea stops in that part of the world were a joyous introduction to Persian short-order cooking, but there have been places where I stared in disbelief at the horrible disgusting mess that one was expected to shovel down. I recommend taking up smoking. Even if you don’t inhale, the exchange of cigarettes at the bus door has become a cultural rite akin to the lost art of snuff (although the Mongolians still keep it alive, I discovered, on a bus out of Ulan Bator once). Do not consume alcohol. Do not be tempted to shove large quantities of narcotics where the sun don’t shine. Do not read or play video games. Talk. That’s all. Just talk. The stuff that comes out will amaze you. I’ve heard confessions of terrorism, smuggling, adultery and – worst of all in the circumstances – incontinence, all on one trip through the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh.
In the end, of course, speech is no longer possible as the long-distance bus slowly shakes its passengers into a state of meditation that mellows into insensible stupor and finally a persistent vegetative state. You are woken briefly to shuffle outside, wondering if your bag is safe, wondering how long you’ve got, wondering if the chef washed his hands and if so, why they are covered in flies. You stare at weird fruits, pans of unidentified frying objects, sachets of dubious intoxicating liquids and your fellow travellers. Finally someone speaks to you. A local speciality is recommended. Sometimes it’s called Coca-Cola, but other times it is new and delicious. “Bat kebab?” I was asked once. In Afghanistan they gave me a packet of sugared dry mulberries. In Thailand I learned to eat fruits with salt and chilli.
Yes, a 12-day bus ride to Pakistan is a great idea, the trip of a lifetime. I’d recommend anyone to try it. Once will be enough.