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India to Scotland Overland (Murdoch MacKenzie) PDF Printable Version E-mail


By Rev Murdoch and Mrs Anne MacKenzie
Glenrothes, Fife    
8 October 1978

Introduction: This is an excellent account of the 7,000-mile journey by bus, train and ferry from Madras (as was) in India to Edinburgh in Scotland by Murdoch and Anne MacKenzie, with their three children Ruth (12), Catriona (10) and Iain (8). After their bus crashed and was written off in the Khyber Pass, they continued travelling by public transport, passing through Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey, Greece and Western Europe.

This account is also published on the MacKenzie's own website at:


The three children, Ruth Catriona and Iain produced their own account of the journey which is an example to us all of travel writing at its very best. It makes the contemporary blog appear bland, unaware, unexciting and monotone by comparison:


As everyone knows, air travel is a boring business except, of course, if you happen to be high-jacked, burst a tyre or find the traffic controllers working to rule. As even former Archbishops of Canterbury are denied the luxury of the VIP lounge, the only alternatives are either to gnash your teeth at 'them' or else to go overland. Armed with instructions from all those who had done it before, we boarded the Tamil Nadu Express for New Delhi early on the morning of Saturday, 3 June. It was an emotional moment, marking as it did the end of our 12 years in India. The platform was crowded with friends and well-wishers and someone said jokingly that they had often wondered what kind of people received such a big send-off, to which we replied that it was usually 'Ministers'! As the train pulled out and we reclined in the comfort of the second-class air-conditioned chair car, we each had a lump in the throat and tears in our eyes. The group on the platform had just sung “Shalom, my friends, Shalom! Shalom!” and so it was in peace that we left Madras.

Travelling air-conditioned in June is like travelling in a space capsule. All around are the hot dusty fields, people in saris or dhotis covering their heads from the fierce rays of the sun. Yet inside the train is another world. The quiet undisturbed murmur of the air-conditioning, punctuated occasionally by bouts of Carnatic music when the TV could be coaxed into action. But this sense of false security was soon to evaporate when we stepped out into the furnace of New Delhi railway station at noon on the Sunday. Mind you, we had been amply warned that Delhi was having its hottest summer for many years. Joan Nolting, on whom we were about to descend, had sent us “Greetings from blistering hot Delhi. It is over 46 degrees on my terrace right now and 41 degrees inside the flat. The lowest the temperature has been since I got back from Kodai is 40 degrees. The fans just stir the hot air around, there are frequent power cuts and the water supply is limited.” We arrived to find Joan covered in dust. Everything in the house was covered in a thin film of dust blown in from the deserts of Rajasthan. Even the sun was hardly visible except as a pale white ball beyond the shimmering haze.

Thus for us Joan's flat was quite literally like an oasis in the desert. She boiled gallons of drinking water and the fridge worked overtime. The only way to sleep at night was to take a shower and go to bed dripping wet, cooling by evaporation. This process was repeated four or five times during the night. From the flat we made occasional sorties: to the bus office to book the bus; to South Block and the Ministry of Defence with Johnnie Samuel to again discuss the St Andrew's Church compound in Madras; to see our friends Ellen and Knut Vollebaek at the Norwegian Embassy; to Agra to see the Taj Mahal and the Red Fort – a most exhausting day in which we must have consumed about 30 bottles of a variety of spurious brews. Fortunately we were able to board a bus bound for London on the evening of Friday 9 June and the real overland journey was about to begin.

This first bus was British Leyland but owned and driven by a Dane, whose co-driver was French. We discovered that they intended to do the whole trip in about a fortnight, as they were contracted to take a football team round Europe in the last week of June. We therefore decided just to book tickets as far as Istanbul. So there we were in Connaught Place on that hot Delhi night, an air of expectancy amidst the buzz of conversation as rucksacks and boxes were loaded in the boot, sipping fresh lime and soda with Joan Nolting and Johnnie Samuel, who had come to see us off. Soon we were on board and set off for the overnight drive to Amritsar near the Pakistan border. Thunderstorms over the plains of Punjab had reduced the temperature somewhat and we slept comfortably through the night.

Thus began a journey which was going to take us on and off 15 buses, 2 trains and 2 ferries; a journey of 7,000 miles, through 10 countries and such historic cities as Peshawar, Kabul, Tehran, Istanbul, Thessalonica, Athens, Corinth, Rome, Paris and London. We eventually arrived in Edinburgh and were happy to see our favourite furlough house in Juniper Green looking as fresh and delightful as ever. We had left Delhi on 9 June and reached Edinburgh on 10 July.

Wearing minimum clothing and each carrying only a small bag and a water bottle, we were never cold until we reached Paris where the temperature was about 61ºF. The journey took us through some magnificent countryside. Most memorable perhaps was the Khyber Pass and then the great ranges of the Hindu Kush, rising to over 20,000 feet opposite Kabul. The Kabul River system bites deep into the plateau and the roadway hugging the sides of the precipitous Kabul Gorge has to be seen to be believed.

Contrary to expectations, Iran was not the uninteresting desert which we had expected. As the name suggests, it is the country of the Aryans, the meeting point of Persian and Sanskrit culture, lying between the Plain of the Tigris in the west and the Valley of the Indus in the east. On the journey from Meshad to Tehran we passed through gorges and across rivers in what seemed to be carboniferous limestone, rather reminiscent of parts of Derbyshire except for the grandeur of scale.

One of the most beautiful sights was that of Mount Ararat, its summit gleaming white with snow. A volcanic cone, 16,916 feet high, it is the loftiest of the Agri Dag group on the frontier of Iran, Turkey and Soviet Armenia. The resting place of the Ark, it is sacred to the Armenians. Sloping westwards, the Anatolian plateau, which comprises most of Turkey, displayed outcrops of barren limestone and then mile upon mile of stepped tertiary basalt, looking for all the world like the spine of Trotternish in the Isle of Skye. Our overnight journey by moonlight through this truly lunar landscape, with the moonbeams dancing on the turbulent river waters, will live on in the memory. So too will our crossing of the Bosphorus over the Galata Bridge. It marked our taking leave of Asia and, as we entered Europe, it was as though our link with India had somehow been snapped. The next day we could not resist taking the boat back to Asia and we all felt better after that!

After the mountains of Asia, the hill country of Thrace seemed rather tame but we enjoyed the sunsets over the classic landscapes of Greece, not to mention the beaches and deep blue of the Aegean where we celebrated Anne's fortieth birthday with the freshest of Mediterranean fish. Late one evening, after passing through some real maquis vegetation with broom, oleander, bay, holm oak, olive, myrtle and juniper, we crossed the deep cut of the Corinth Canal and, having set sail from Patras, awoke the next morning to see the sun rise over the mountains of Albania.

The drive through the Apennines left us with the impression that Southern Italy was not so poor as it used to be, and the Italian and French Riviera bore testimony to the ongoing opulence of those who still try to break the bank at Monte Carlo.  Putting our watches back for about the fifth time, we headed north up the Rhone Valley to Paris.

In spite of all that we had seen, it was still quite a thrill to glimpse the white cliffs of the English coast and, 10 days later on a gloriously sunny evening, we were convinced that the Teviot between Langholm and Hawick took a bit of beating. At the end of the day, Arthur's Seat and Salisbury Crags looked as majestic as ever and we were glad to be home.

But we were also glad for the rich variety of cultures and peoples with whom it had been our privilege to travel and through whose lands we had passed. This was symbolised above all in the Khyber Pass. At intervals there were monuments, the regimental arms of more recent armies. To think of those who had passed this way was like thinking of human history itself. The Pass has echoed and re-echoed to the sound of marching feet of the armies of many great conquerors. Aryan, Scythian, Persian, Greek, Bactrian, Kushan, Hun, Turk, Mongol and Mughal have learnt that Herodotus was right when he wrote in 430 BC that the people of Peshawar, guardians of the Khyber, were “the most warlike of those in the country of Paktues”. In 327 BC the legions of Alexander the Great were held up here for 40 days. The great Babur, who conquered South Asia in 1526 and set up the Mughal Empire, was humbled here and forced to share his spoils with the custodians of the Khyber.

Our raggle-taggle bus party seemed rather cheap and tawdry in such a setting. Hippies in all shapes and sizes passed round their little clay pipes for a drag. Tim from England, with his ice bucket and bottles of beer, who summed us up in a moment at Delhi by confiding that he was glad to see that we were not all freaks. Liz from Australia, with her 9 items of luggage, which needed more than two eyes and two pairs of hands to look after. T Bangsbo Andersen, the Danish bus driver with the ice-cool temperament. Steve, the boiler-maker from Montana, almost at the end of a round-world trip (and a nicer guy you could not hope to meet). The five Japanese. Jules from Switzerland, whom we learnt later was something of a whizz-kid with a brand new sports car and five-star chalet in the Alps. Then Tina and Rena, who have since visited us in Edinburgh and again in Glenrothes: lab technicians from Canada, born and bred in the Rockies and yet with a wanderlust which keeps them perpetually on the move. These, and many more, shared the journey with us for quite a bit of the way.

Of course, we had our adventures. Afghanistan had just experienced a military coup of the left-wing variety. We were amongst the first people to be allowed into the country, which fairly bristled with tanks and bayonets. Special visas had to be obtained in Peshawar and, while en route in a tonga to have the inevitable photographs taken, the tonga-wallah offered the reins to one of the girls from the bus and then quickly turned his attentions to the girl! He soon had the reins back firmly in his hands.

Even before leaving India, we had had trouble with the bus. There was something wrong in the fuel pipeline and at the Indian border near Amritsar it had refused to start. We therefore had to push it into Pakistan or else remain in India for an extra day. While we were pushing it through no-man's-land there was a tremendous hailstorm, with hailstones as big as pebbles which fairly stung when they hit you.

The trouble in the fuel line continued, making it difficult to control the bus by using the gears, and in the Khyber Pass the brakes overheated and failed and we went hurtling into the back of an enormous great lorry. Fortunately no-one was hurt but the bus was a write-off and was promptly sold for a thousand dollars to the local tribesmen! Thus we trudged across the Tor Kaam border into Afghanistan with the sobering thought that, had the lorry not been there to block our descent, we might have plunged down several thousand feet onto the rocks below.

Fortunately we obtained a lift in a Dutch minibus into Kabul but others, who were not so lucky and who arrived after the curfew, spent the night in the notorious Kabul jail, which had been built in 1626 by King Babar, the cells being simply holes in the ground. Kabul presented a tense situation and it was evident that people were still being eliminated by the new regime.

While filling in the visa forms, we had had to add in the world 'Democratic' to the official name of the country - a word which these days covers a multitude of sins - and we heard that even the export of Afghan Hounds had been stopped, due to their association with the royal family. A diplomat, supposedly in the know, said that the Russians would be there within 2 years.

In retrospect it is difficult to know which was the more frightening – Kabul after curfew or Tehran in broad daylight. Crossing the street in that car-strangled city was quite literally to take your life in your hands. Someone told us that there were a million cars and that they added 500 new ones each day. Of course, we had known in India that all was not well in Iran. His Imperial Majesty Muhammed Reza Pahlavi, Shah of Shahs, Light of the Aryans, is now seeing his dream of a 'Great Civilisation' turning into something of a nightmare. There was a certain brashness, almost to the point of rudeness, in shops and in banks, which was indicative of people who had become too rich too quickly. At the national level, Iran does not have the infrastructure to cope with the economic ambitions of its master. In the midst of all this, we were only too happy to retreat to the comfort and kindness of Colin Blair and his first floor flat. There we were able to do all our washing and, much to Iain's astonishment, could drink water straight from the taps!

After Tehran, Istanbul seemed extremely civilised but several of our hippie friends said that it was being spoiled very rapidly as it tries to meet the needs of more and more tourists from Europe.

Once in Greece we were soon in the footsteps of St Paul and passed the end of the road to Philippi in Macedonia. It was Thursday 22 June and we arrived in Thessalonica in the middle of the night, only to find that three-quarters of the population had fled the city as a result of the previous day's earthquake which had registered 6.5 on the Richter scale. Thessalonica was only 30 miles from the epicentre and it took the brunt of the quake. Many people were camping in tents and we were held up for 2 hours, surrounded by rubble and the crumbling walls of buildings.

Our final adventure was in Paris, where we arrived after midnight at the Hotel de Laval, close to the Place Pigalle. We were all in the one room and awoke about 4.30 am with the noise of somebody trying to batter the bedroom door down. In response to our enquiry, the intruder announced that he was from the French police and that we should open the door. This we did, only to behold a man brandishing an empty wine bottle in each hand, and so the door was quickly slammed and locked again while he renewed his attack on the flimsy panelling with increased vigour. Having barricaded the door with one of the beds, we sought an alternative way of escape via the windows and soon discovered several other windows open and heads leaning out. Soon a police van arrived, the man with the bottles emerged from the hotel and there began a chase down the street. He was eventually captured and taken away. Apparently he was deranged and had tried to strangle the concierge. Thus ended an eventful night!

But such adventures were the exception rather than the rule. In most places people were kind and considerate and there is certainly no difficulty for those who travel overland. Bus transport is readily available in most places and can be booked there and then. Trains are also a possibility but take longer and are more expensive. Had we taken the one bus from New Delhi to London, it would have only cost $185 (£90) per adult and half price for children. You have to pay your food and accommodation expenses en route, but these are minimal and for about half the nights we slept on the buses which were reasonably comfortable. If you want luxury, then do not go. But if you are prepared to take the rough with the smooth, there are no problems. There is also a variety of minibuses available in many places, plus local variations on auto-rickshaws, tongas, taxis, lorries, boats, donkeys, mules and even camels. From Pakistan, through Afghanistan and into Iran, we were definitely in the world of the camel. The mule and the donkey are even more ubiquitous, patiently bearing their burdens from India to the Riviera.

Food and other costs are reasonable until you reach Italy, and $5 a day is quite enough while in Asia. It is best to carry dollar travellers' cheques, as these are the most acceptable form of exchange in most places, though even the dollar is by no means steady and overnight in Kabul it dropped from 42 Afghanis to 36. But travel can be cheap and you can still take a Consolas bus from Eolou Street in Athens to Shaftesbury Avenue in London for £32 – and this includes almost 24 hours sailing up the Adriatic. In most places food can be bought locally and, apart from a passport, if one carries a few spare photographs, some water sterilising tablets, a couple of padlocks, and some games and books to while away the time at various customs posts that is about all that is necessary.

According to the strictures of your purse, accommodation of all kinds is usually available. Ours varied from sleeping under the stars in the grounds of the Dak Bungalow at Peshawar to the relative comfort and cleanliness of the Hotel Liz in Istanbul and the Blue House Pension in Athens. If you happen to be stuck in Tehran, the Hotel Amir Kabir is most friendly and helpful and figures on the hippie route. For food, the Steak House in Kabul takes a bit of beating if you are on a tight budget. From Pakistan through to Greece, one is definitely in the 'tea zone' but the glasses become progressively smaller, the nearer to Europe. Often beer is cheaper and better, being a local brew.

From Pakistan to the Turkish/Greek border, one is also in the Islamic world, though one is aware of considerable differences within Islam from one country to another. By and large, women are in purdah but the tensions of western secularism are very evident in the big cities and some of the school and college girls in Kabul are as 'mod' as any we have seen in the UK. Throughout Afghanistan the bus kept stopping for prayers, but not in Iran or Turkey. Each Sunday we shared worship with groups of Christians, ranging from an Urdu service in the Roman Catholic Church in Peshawar which was rather dull, to the magnificent colour and vitality of the Armenian service in Tehran, to the enthusiastic and helpful service of the Anglicans in Athens, to the empty Anglican church in Devon, and finally to the full United Reformed church in Birkenhead.

Some of the religious buildings were magnificent. We were to see some of the most famous buildings in the world. The Taj Mahal – the most exquisite of them all. The Golden Temple in Amritsar – the holy place of the Sikhs. St Sophia (Aya Sofya) in Istanbul – built in 532 AD by the Emperor Justinian the Great, in the belief that he had at last outdone the great Solomon himself, and finally captured by the Muslim Sultan Mohammed II at the fall of Constantinople in 1453, with the accompanying demise of the last Byzantine Emperor Constantine XI. For many years a mosque, St Sophia is now a museum. Just opposite is the equally lovely Blue Mosque, built at the beginning of the 17th century by Sultan Ahmed I. From Istanbul to Athens and the sheer majesty and power of the Parthenon; and so to Paris with the flying buttresses of Notre Dame and, to the north, the Sacre Coeur gleaming in the sunlight.

As one saw so much of beauty dedicated to the glory of Almighty God, one could not help reflecting that the world of the Prophet and the world of the Christ must increasingly meet, praying that as they do they may meet in Peace, with the words of Shalom on their lips.

Compared with all this, there is no doubt that air travel is a boring business and our memories from OVERLAND will last for a long time. The copper bazaar of Peshawar, the setting sun over the nomadic tents of central Afghanistan, the puzzle rings of Istanbul, the snow of Mount Ararat, the sheepskin coats of Kabul, the cars driving along the pavements of Tehran, the goose-stepping soldiers changing the guard in Athens, the 372 steps to the first stage of the Eiffel Tower, which we counted so meticulously – these and many more will be with us as we look back on the journey overland.

On arrival in London we were met by Roy Newell and spent the night with the Newells in their flat in Stepney. You can imagine how tongues wagged into the small hours! Next day we paid a surprise visit to Devon - and just think of the look on the faces of Anne's sister Jean, husband John and children, when we suddenly arrived on their doorstep, especially as that very morning they had just received a card from us posted in Istanbul!! After a couple of days there, we travelled to Birkenhead for a short time with Anne's parents, and so on to Edinburgh – all by bus.

Since then Murdoch has been called to St Ninian's Church in Glenrothes, Fife, which is a new town about 30 miles north of Edinburgh. We moved in 3 days ago and have already had 2 visitors staying – Rena White from Canada, one of our travelling companions on the overland journey, and Lalitha Manuel one of the elders from the Kirk in Madras – so it is still a small world. We hope that many others will follow them, especially any of you reading this letter. You are welcome. For those nearer at hand, the Induction will be on Tuesday 24 October (1978) at 6.45 pm.

With the various demands of a new situation about to press in upon us, it is doubtful whether we will be able to produce another letter for Christmas and so this comes with the prayer that we may share together in the Peace of the Prince of Peace.

Anne and Murdoch MacKenzie