Welcome from Jan

Hi there!
This blog is for those who love both books and travel. I'm starting by travelling back in time to the 1970s and the overland trail to India which I took as an 18 year old. Have a look at my daily diary entries and photos. Some of these places are impossible to visit at the moment, but I can give you a flavour of what they were like in the golden age of the hippy trail.

The experience has inspired my new mystery novel, THE VANISHING OF RUTH, which is out now as an ebook. Find details and extracts at The Vanishing of Ruth

To buy: The Vanishing of Ruth

Also take a look at Facebook Page Overlanders for more memorabilia.

Cheers, Jan.

Saturday, 7 November 2009



"Everyone feeling smelly and filthy (dust rises up through the floor from the roads - less in Iran - E. Turkey worst).

Got into Esfahan about 10.30.  Drove up main boulevard - very wide street with rows of trees and paving down the centre with seats.  Dropped in Shah Square outside Shah Mosque [now called Imam Square and Mosque]. 

Really incredibly beautiful Mosque - covered in tiny, intricate blue tiles both outside and in.  Passed through huge wooden doors, plated in silver with gold trimmings; passed under cool archways, again decorated in blue tiles.  Main courtyard was huge and magnificent - arches and minarets and huge dome; some very delicate smaller arches in one corner (ten of them) and all were reflected in a rectangular pool, so 20 could be seen at once.  Really warm in sun and peaceful inspite of a few tourists.  Various little men squating under columns - one washing himself by the pool.
Two little courtyards off from main one, either side of dome.  One was fabulous.  Rectangular in shape, enclosed with wide arches causing shaded raised pavements all round.  Up the middle were trees and lovely white and purple flowers and at the centre was a little pool with goldfish.  (Tiles here were blue but largely yellow too).  Then there was the area under cover of the huge dome.  At the centre the echo bounced back at you.  Jan and I stood stamping on the stone floor.  2 Iranians asked us to pose with them!
Then me, Jan and Rob made for main street and post office.  Went down arcade with fantastic shops with material prints, miniatures, jewellery, silverware etc.  Asked way from lad who gave us dry figs and pointed us in right direction.  Looked for place to eat through arch, down steps to small courtyard with store houses and restaurant.  Ordered chicken and rice; served up with chunks of raw onion and flat bread (loads of it) and yoghurt, glasses of water and loads of ice.  Sprinkled kind of nutmeg (sweet) on rice - delicious.  Really filling meal for 90 rials (less than 90p).
Staggered across street into sticky cake shop!  Biggest we'd seen - rushed from huge cakes to date biscuits wondering what to buy!  Bought 3 different types - cocoanut cake, chocolate covered bun and date biscuits.  Felt too full.  Rob stopped on way back to square to have shoe mended - Jan and I escaped man wanting us to buy his sticky cakes (!) then a carpetseller who wanted us to drink his cay! 

Met up with others coming out of bazaar.

 Had a fresh banana milkshake at stall in square - saw it being made.

Then me, Julie and Paul wandered up street, beckoned into miniature shop by artist.  He did little drawings on his name card and wrote our names in Farsi.  Showed us lots of photos of girls who'd come into his shop and were now all his girlfriends!
Entrance to covered bazaar, Esfahan

Outside one shop, where a metalworker was banging away at a plate inside, was an incredibly big teapot - made Balnagown teapot [of Edinburgh Gorrie Granny] look doll's size!
Fred back again!
Back to camp after post office stop - 6 letters!!
Had a shower (cold), washed clothes etc.

In evening made up punch (supposed to be for Nov 5th) - red wine, dashes of spirit (my cherry brandy), cinamon, orange.  Very nice - especially hot.  Had session in the bus until quite late."

Packs down at campsite, Esfahan - chaos in bus

Friday, 6 November 2009

FRIDAY FIRSTS - does the first line of a book grab you?

WELL-READ REVIEWS have a weekly look at first lines of novels.  This is bookgroupies choice:

Death is outside life but alters it: it leaves a hole in the fabric of things which those who are left behind try to repair.

This is the opening line of Miss Garnet's Angel by Salley Vickers.

I had to read the opening a couple of times before I got the gist of it, and the opening continued in the same vein - wordy and slow.  If I hadn't been reading it for a local reading group I probably would have given up by page 40, but when it's for a group discussion I get this I-must-finish-my-homework mentality!  So I persevered and was glad I did.
The book is about a retired teacher who decides, on the death of her one close friend, to go to Venice and live there for six months.  She is gradually seduced by the place, its history and culture, and meets some mysterious characters.  In parallel runs a biblical story of Tobias and the Archangel Raphael, and gradually you discover how the two stories overlap.
I suppose the opening warns you that this is not going to set a fast, breathless pace - it's more reflective and you have to work your way into the novel at a stroll.  In fact the main character, Miss Garnet, does a lot of strolling around Venice.  It's very atmospheric and will do wonders for the Venitian tourist board.


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"Lovely sunrise.  Lots of kids came to watch us with great amusement.
Shopping stop at Hamadan - oldest city in Iran.  Lots of bananas!  Wandered round market with Sally, Fran and Adrian.  Saw them making kidney kebabs; bought little buns.  Looked in ceramic shop - lovely cups and jugs.

Afternoon stop at Arak.  Newspaper bought - Carter President of U.S. - first news for weeks!
Incredible amount of western shops.  Went into one that sold peanut butter - about £1 for tiny jar.  All products were British and foreign, like being back in Britain - even had Colman's Mustard!

Stopped at sunset by the road to have supper before driving on.  Sat at front seat changing tapes while everyone else slept.  Cay stop at bus terminus to Tehran - not very nice, but cafe was warm and pleasant.  Second stop at row of shops open late - bought nuts and nougat.  People watching telly in big cay/restaurant place.

Camped at midnight on large plain off the road - not much loo coverage.  Made cup of tea and burnt some wood and bush."

Thursday, 5 November 2009



"Freezing morning - hands nearly dropped off.  Same scenery - plains and hill ranges.
Sat at front for first time!
Stopped for shopping at Sanandaj.  Lots of men dressed in Kurdish costume - super turbans with tassles, cummerbunds etc.  Had cay in place where men were smoking hubble-bubble pipes.  On walls were pictures of the Shah and Empress and carpets with Mecca depicted.

Walked around - saw bread being made.  Big vat of dough - first man shaped in into rounds, second man rolled them out, third man slapped them around and spread on padded sack, then bashed them onto sides of oven until slightly brown, then sold thin wafery bread straight away.
Policeman chased people away from the bus.

Diana did a headstand in a cornfield, so I had a go - managed a quick one before keeled over!  Lunch stop by a river - had a paddle - very cold and refreshing.

Cay stop by wayside - people sitting crosslegged under trees.  Sat outside - loads of cay and great argument over prices, so probably half not paid for.

Camped near Kermanshah.  Lovely sunset over hills - orangy-yellow, with pinky violet sky in east over light brown hills with a big silver moon rising.  Camped off road near little village under a hill.  Locals (or lurcals) came to inspect us again."

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

INTO IRAN - Thurs 4th Nov 1976

On a day when Iran is back in the news with reports of demonstrations against the regime in Tehran and other major towns, it is strange to re-read the first impressions of my 18 year-old self, this time 33 year ago to the day -  curious, excited, naive and glad to be there.

"Breakfast outside customs house, to amusement of lorry drivers.  Iran!
Small villages below hills - the hills and plains are very light in colour.  Dress is different - men with jumpsuits and boots and striking turbans.  Women with veils down to the ground, very light floaty material, often with jeans on underneath!
Rezaiyeh - first stop for money.  All banks closed because of festival of burning of prophets.  Lots of flags etc.  Towns seem to have ornamental rounds in middle of them, with statues and plastic animals etc.  Fountains not working.  Nice town, found money changer in bazaar.  Had a cay and first Iranian sticky cake! (Thurs - Neva's gutsy day!)

People curious not pressing like Turks.  Lunch was flat waffery bread and tomato - bread a bit like cardboard.

Stopped later in smaller town for few minutes - nice biscuits and cakes and lots of nuts.  More picturesque costumes - people friendly.  Little boy saluted me as I got into bus!

Camped by river as sun going down - lovely orange sky, and pink in east.  Herds of sheep and goats.
Iranians came and looked round bus - perhaps looking for drugs.  Stood around while we ate.
Cut up melons and hollowed out faces for Guy Fawkes Night.  Didn't have fire."

Tuesday, 3 November 2009



"Camped by Lake Van - deserted hotel right on shore.  Very cold - ice on flysheet again.
Beautiful situation, clear cold morning.  Lake and mountains divided by a light mist, brilliant sunshine on Lake.  Behind were snow capped mountains. 

Turks swimming and hunting near us - very noisy as usual.  Geoff [driver] told us as we left that often wolves and bears here in Nov in the area!  Lovely view along Lake, climbed higher - 7000 ft up.  Above snow line later in day.

Stopped to spend last lire in little town - great curiosity.  Booze shope discovered - but I'd spent mine by then!  Veiled woman fell in river - couldn't see where she was going.

Road blocked because of blasting - one blast, then we gathered to take pictures of 2nd go.  Made us all move back - general chaos.  Little man climbing about on rocks, no one seemed to take much notice.  Had to wait after blast for bulldozers to move in; then followed sheep trucks etc over rickety new road.

Last stop in Turkey for cay - after dark, men appeared from nowhere, pressing all around, especially in cay shop.  [Geoff ordered back on bus.]  On way out, all got touched up, really horrible.

Drove late to get over border because of what happened to other trips on that road.  Dossed down in customs hall for night!  Had some lovely cherry liqueur!  Vicious looking sheep dog - in fact not aggressive.  (Can hold own vs wolves)."

Diary of an Overlander

How many people out there went on the overland trail to India - from London to Kathmandu or beyond - in the heydey of the 1960s and 70s?  I was one of them!  The summer of '76 was known for its heatwave and water shortage; I had just left school and was singing School's Out For Ever along with Alice Cooper.  I was off to India - the place where my mother had spent her early childhood and my grandparents had worked and lived in the '20s and '30s.  I had flared jeans, a rucksack, new sleeping bag from Blacks Outdoor Shop, an instamatic camera, a bright orange cagoule with the flexibility of chainmail and a bottle of Kaolin & Morphine to ward off the squits. 
Nobody seems to remember that the autumn of '76 was one of the wettest.  My family waved me off from a rain-splashed Durham station.  The next day - a drizzly, cold early Sunday morning in late September - I embarked on a three month camping adventure across Asia with a group of total strangers.  The coach was an old Bristol bus; I sat in a seat facing backwards.  The company, Asian Greyhound: Swagman Overland Tours, was run by an Australian known as Uncle Norm.  Looking back, I'm amazed my parents let me go.  My Dad said he prayed a lot.

With over 30 years of gestation, the experience has moulded itself into a novel; a travel mystery called OVERLANDERS.  But more of that later.

This week, one of the former passengers, Rob McKay got in touch wanting to trace our group and call a reunion.  So I want to share some diary entries and photos - and hope that some of my former Swaggies might get in touch.

I'm taking up the action six weeks into the trip, so that I can give a daily flavour of what was happening this time 33 years ago.  It's a vanished world - a privileged one for Westerners who could travel at will, strike up transient friendships and drink in all the amazing sites en route (or in some cases just drink).  I never stopped being amazed at the generosity of strangers or the persistence of kids.

Travel back in time with me ...