Sunday, December 19, 1999



The founder of easyJet recalls his life-transforming encounter with Luton airport
Interview by Jeremy Atiyah 
Sunday, 19 December 1999
The place that changed me? It has to be Luton. If I hadn't found Luton, easyJet would probably have flown out of Athens or Gatwick or some such place, with high costs, and I would have become bankrupt within three months.
I got into the airline industry by flying between London and Athens all the time on airlines that were running out of capital and looking for investors. (I also used to think: "Shit! If I buy an airline I won't have to buy a ticket anymore!")
But my initial ideas were still very mainstream, and my heart still told me I should do it in Greece. Except that when I looked at the business plan, I realised it was impossible. The next opportunity was London. I spoke English of course, and I felt comfortable there. I also already had a shipping company office there, in Mayfair of all places. Can you believe it, I came here to set up a low-cost airline with offices in Mayfair?
I was sitting in that Mayfair office trying to work out where to start. We applied to Heathrow and Gatwick but they were both full. There were no slots. So I had two options, Stansted - which I had been through once in a private jet - or, as one of the interviewees for the job of operations director suggested, Luton - where I had never been at all.
In fact that was practically the first time I had ever heard of the place. I knew it had a football team, but that was all. Anyway, the next day, I jumped on the train from Kings Cross to Luton airport. Within a couple of minutes of arrival I thought: "Yes, this is it."
In those days, Luton airport was very different from what it is today. It had a run-down, industrial-town sort of railway station, which in fact has only just been replaced. One of the false promises that they made me then was that the station was about to be renovated. It was a taxi ride to the airport. I literally only took a couple of hours to decide. One of my English colleagues said to me, very Britishly: "Stelios, I think this is suitably downmarket."
You used to get into the airport the wrong way round; that was before the road was built. What today is our office used to be a blue shed used as the executive-aircraft departure lounge used by billionaires and Saudi kings. You see, contrary to popular belief it's not just bucket-and-spade people who use Luton, it's also rich people in private jets, which I suppose says something about the proximity of Luton to London.
Anyway, I remember walking into this empty terminal. There were a couple of charter flights about. I asked the airport director: why should I fly out of your airport? He said: because we can give you a deal. The only problem was that the guy left shortly afterwards and since then we have not had such good relations.
I resisted buying a flat in Luton, but I've spent quite a few nights in a hotel there. One of the local hotels. The best hotel in Luton, I might say. A measure of my affinity with the locals is that when people recognise me in the airport, they say: "Thank you very much." They thank me for having made commuting affordable to the south of France for the weekend, or working in London and living in Scotland, or whatever they want to do. We employ nearly 1,000 people in Luton, and if you include subcontractors it's a lot more.
The airline series about easyJet on ITV has probably done more for Luton in a positive way than anything since the Bacardi advert featuring Lorraine Chase. I suppose you could say I'm Luton's most famous fan since Lorraine. But unfortunately these idiots who run the airport today want to make us a high-cost airline. The reason why people come back again and again to us is because we are low-cost, which is how I want it to stay.
In fact, my attachment to Luton isn't sentimental. Luton is good for us. But my affection for the place is that it taught me what people really want, namely, low prices. I've learnt a lot about the airline industry by talking to off-duty crew members. I'm not used to spending time in provincial places but I've spent a lot of time in that town. I've eaten more Kentucky Fried Chicken there than anybody could handle - and don't forget I'm the kind of person who is used to dining at the Savoy.

Sunday, December 5, 1999

A South Pacific storm in a teacup

A South Pacific storm in a teacup

The date line's there, but don't expect a Y2K party in Fiji, writes Jeremy Atiyah
Jeremy Atiyah 
Sunday, 5 December 1999
It seemed unbelievable to me that anybody ever went to Fiji. From the UK there were only two ways to approach. The very slow way, via Los Angeles; or the extremely slow way - via Australia. I finally chose the latter, partly in the belief that nowhere on earth could seem bad after 30 hours in the air.
But flying over the Pacific, looking down on blue nothingness for hour after hour, I still doubted I would ever reach Fiji. What the devil had those Melanesians been up to, setting out 3,000 years ago over uncharted waters? How many random, failed journeys into the blue had it taken to find these islands? How many shipwrecks? How many maroonings? How was my pilot going to locate a spot of land in 50 million square kilometres of ocean?
Funny, really. Later on I would see that the Pacific had become rather a crowded place. Royal Tongan Airlines, Air Nauru, Air Marshall Islands, Solomon Airlines, Air Caledonie and Air Pacific were all hopping about in the sunshine over Fiji. Distances were not so large. My own flying time from Sydney, indeed, was less than four hours. As the sun sank, suggestions of dry land began to appear: coral glowing turquoise from below the ocean surface, exposed sand bars, the white crests of breaking surf. Before I knew it I was looking over red earth tracks, brown rivers, corrugated- iron roofs and piglets. This was Viti Levu, Fiji's main island.
In Nadi airport I was amazed to see several Boeing 747s fresh in from Tokyo and LA. Getting here had not been such a miracle after all. I followed hand-painted signs through the airport, beneath churning overhead fans and a picture of the Queen. Storms beat on the corrugated-iron roof while lorikeets flitted about the baggage hall. I set off in a taxi through the rain, dodging foliage, potholes, cows and half-built garages. Viti Levu, I noticed, was similar to Bali - just not as beautiful.
Fijian resort hotels, mind you, could be quite something. Mine - the Sheraton Royal Denarau Resort - was located in a tropical forest park. South Sea masks and statuary sprang out at every corner amid dripping flowers and fragrances. Fake? Yes, but alluring too. Palm trees at fetching angles decorated the beach. Geckos snorted. Birds jabbered. Pawpaws and papayas burgeoned. All that was missing were the nubile bodies, say, of island girls, or the smouldering crew of HMS Bounty.
Instead I saw lots of staid-looking tourists like me. Mainly Americans nervous at being spoken to by men in skirts (the staff), and Germans enjoying long breakfasts, unaware that every time they rose to collect more food, finches were swooping in to sip at their cups of tea. The best people in Fiji, I soon discovered, were the Fijians, who smiled, and shouted warm greetings to perfect strangers. It was worryingly easy, in fact, to view them as though they had been born to serve in resort hotels, apparently uninterested in anything beyond making tourists happy.
But was this the real Fiji? Obviously not. The next day I bounced in a little plane over the clouds in search of something more authentic: the small northern island of Taveuni, where the first roads were being built, and where the interior was a jungle. My intention was to stand on the opposite side of the globe from the Greenwich meridian - the only piece of land on the planet (outside north-western Russia and the Antarctic) crossed by the 180th line of longitude.
I strolled past coconut plantations to the beacon marking the spot, only to discover signs of a brewing South Pacific storm in a teacup. A rain- beaten signpost stood in long grass by a deserted beach, indicating the point where each earthly day began. "The west side is yesterday," it announced. "And east is today."
Not strictly accurate, of course: a good century ago, the International Date Line was diverted to the west of the 180-degree line, partly for the benefit of those Fijians who would otherwise have had to change their calendars every time they walked down this road. But in a certain theoretical sense it was true, no? That this remote beach overlooked by dilapidated plantation houses was a pivotal point for the timekeeping of the entire human race?
The Fijian ministry of tourism would like to think so; indeed the whole South Pacific has been huffing and puffing for years on the subject of being "first" to 2000. In Taveuni, the first Mass of the new millennium - allegedly - is to be celebrated in the Waikiri Mission, a few metres to the east of the line. The BBC is planning a presence. There have also been plans to put fairy lights along the 180-degree line, and dole out crates of muddy cava-root beer for tourists. But a fat passer-by in bare feet and a T-shirt shook my hand and told me to forget about huge celebrations.
With the sun setting low over the sea, he gave me the sad reason: that the old tribal chief of Taveuni had just died. Out of respect for the deceased, he explained, all activity would be forbidden around the island's reefs for the next 100 nights, well beyond the millennium. Traditionally such bans applied to fishing, and were restricted to a small area of the reef; this time the ban was to cover diving and snorkelling as well, and extend to the entire island. Given that most tourists came specifically to dive (the local Rainbow Reef is among the finest dive-sites in the world) this meant a brewing storm.
"What? You've flown me halfway round the world to see the Rainbow Reef, and now you are telling me that some old tradition is going to stop me from diving?" I could imagine tourists reacting like that. Glenn Dziwulski, the American manager of the local dive-operation, the Garden Island Resort, told me later that he believed the ban had indeed been aimed at tourism, as a means of extracting money from the dive-operators in the run-up to the millennium. He would respect the ban to the letter but he wasn't coughing up.
Back at the 180-degree line, another old day was fading fast. The fat man shifted his weight from one side to the other and grinned. "But don't worry," he said. "We'll celebrate in our usual way, even without tourists. If it's daylight on this side of the line, it'll be daylight on that side of the line, too. Just like everywhere."
Jeremy Atiyah travelled as a guest of Qantas (tel: 0845 7747767) which has return fares to Fiji, via Los Angeles, from pounds 820 (valid from 16 January).
Bridge The World (tel: 0171-911 0900) has a seven-night break (if you book a six-night break you get an extra night for free) in May at the Sheraton Denarau from pounds 917 per person including b&b accommodation and return flights.
One week at the Garden Island Resort (tel: 00 679 880286; e-mail:; net:, with full board, accommodation in an ocean-fronted room, including five days of diving, costs about $1,000 (pounds 625). Flights are extra.
Note that independent travel in Fiji can be very cheap, with plentiful facilities for backpackers. Flights, however, even for students and those under 26, are not much cheaper than the price quoted above. For example, STA Travel (tel: 0171-361 6262) has return fares in January for pounds 748, flying to LA with Virgin Atlantic and then on to Fiji with Air Pacific. The best deal around for all travellers to Fiji is with Bridge The World Travel, from pounds 747 per person. See '12 Best Pacific Holidays' (opposite page).
Contact the South Pacific Tourism Organisation (tel: 0181-876 1938; net: for brochures and information on various islands and hotels throughout the South Pacific.

Sunday, November 21, 1999



You can't package a burning, feverish passion for adventure into a guidebook...
Sunday, 21 November 1999
Oh no, a horrible apparition has just arrived on my desk. A guidebook - not to a place, but to a "passion".
"Venture deep into the heart of your interests, with a new approach to travel planning ..." breathes the back page. "This guide summons free- spirited travelers [sic] enchanted by the supernatural mystique that shrouds locations throughout the United States ..."
Oh dear, so it's that kind of passion. Not a burning, feverish desire, then. But a dreary, little suburban interest. A hobby. A trainspotterish pastime. The guidebook I see before me, entitled Haunted Holidays, is one of a new series of themed guidebooks from Insight Guides, in conjunction with the people who own the Discovery Channel.
It is certainly making me feel ghastly. The opening pages of the book are packed with photographs of "ghosts", such as the transparent woman in a wedding dress standing in a cemetery in Arizona on pages six and seven. I don't know who she is supposed to be, but she is certainly not a person I have the slightest expectation of meeting on any earthly holiday.
Nor does Haunted America strike me as a brilliant place for self-proclaimed "information-providers" such as Discovery to start its new series. The introduction to the book after all - following immediately after the photograph of the headless man by a tombstone holding a three-cornered hat - does refer to Discovery Communications as "the world's premier source of non- fiction television programming".
But I'll put aside the question of whether or not ghosts are supposed to be fictional. What really depresses me is that guidebooks to the world are seeking to become more interesting than the world itself.
In search of the unknown? Longing to seek the mysteries of the universe? Don't expect to have an adventure looking for it. It's all meticulously recorded in this book for you, along with the telephone numbers of the local chambers of commerce. The best place to hear the disembodied voices of Capuchin priests for example (outside St Louis Cathedral on rainy nights). The ideal location to detect the screams and groans of the victims of the St Valentine's Day Massacre (a nursing home in Chicago). Even the right spot to observe the shades of Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Jackson (the White House). And underneath you'll even find details of where to stay and how to get there.
Having reduced the entire planet to a tourism commodity, guidebook writers (I confess I'm one of them) seem to want to move to another level altogether. It is as though we have already decided that the real world is not interesting enough any more. That we are bored of it. Bored of the same old continents, the same old countries, the same old stereotypes - clogging up our maps and guidebooks year after year.
Is that it? Is that why we now need maps larger and with more details than the places they purport to map, and why we need to fill our guidebooks with mumbo-jumbo about bodies in wells and pirates in pits? Because India and China - and dare I say it, the United States of America - are not mysterious enough in themselves?
If so I suggest that the solution might be to throw away all guide-books ever written to date. Then wait a few years. Eventually we might start getting up our passions (of the burning, feverish variety) for this world all over again.

Sunday, November 14, 1999

The lords and ladies of the realm need not fear - they still have vital role to play

The lords and ladies of the realm need not fear - they still have vital role to play

Now that the hereditaries have lost their day-jobs, I understand that a lot of them are planning to go into tourism, where they will once again have the chance to shine for Britain. This time as an asset for the British Tourist Board.

For this purpose all lords, even the young ones, will be required to dress up to look their age by donning tweeds, monocles and fob watches and carrying canes. They will sport wild thatches of hair on the sides of their heads, and sit motionless in rocking-chairs while American tourists are brought in quietly behind their backs, being instructed by their guides not to talk too loudly or throw food.

Some of the clever lords will renovate their suburban homes to resemble atmospheric castles, with deliberately engineered draughts whistling in under the doors and around the stairwells at all times of day and night. The more energetic ones will wrap themselves in ermine and commandeer small punts to take Japanese visitors on fishing expeditions from the banks of their rivers.

Britain will become known as the land of the smiling lord. Every foreign visitor will pick up leaflets in Heathrow Airport decorated by photos of mysterious and alluring lords who will do for Britain what geishas do for Japan and koala bears do for Australia. Tourists will study the behaviour of this indigenous tribe of people, unique to our shores, any encounter with which will offer visitors ... "a rare and precious insight into a uniquely British way of life".

Prices will be high, of course. A tour of a stately home is already expensive. For those willing to pay for the pleasure, even closer encounters will be possible. American businesses will take their best-performing sales staff on incentive trips to serve tea to lords, to sit in baronial halls with lords, to watch lords hunt stag, to have their accents derided by lords. In short to be lorded over, in the good old-fashioned way.

Such a potentially profitable business will raise its share of problems. Unscrupulous 
lords will employ their cooks and gardeners to stand in for them while they themselves fly off to take part in unlordly activities such as yachting on the Costa del Sol or shopping in New York.

The British Tourist Board will issue warnings for tourists to be on their guard against the possibility that the gentleman with the coat of arms and the pedigree may in fact turn out to be a fraud or an impersonator. Any person claiming the right to sit in the British parliament - it will warn - cannot possibly be regarded as an authentic British lord.

Saturday, October 16, 1999

Art'otel Ermelerhaus, Berlin

24-Hour Room Service

Art'otel Ermelerhaus, Berlin

Jeremy Atiyah

Published: 16 October 1999

Don't get this place wrong: it is not a design hotel but an "art" hotel. It has been designed to display the private art collection of a wealthy German investor and collector, Mr Dirk Gadeke.

Mr Gadeke told me how owning hotels was a simple way to satisfy himself, the artist and the public. Put the works of name artists in every room and you have a hotel that is a gallery.

His theory is that this will encourage a certain kind of international clientele: sophisticated, arty and hip. To this end he has opened similar hotels, each dedicated to different artists, in Potsdam and Dresden. He plans to open more in Paris and London.

The artist for whom this central Berlin hotel has been designed is none other than Georg Baselitz, a German painter and one of the world's leading contemporary artists. Every one of the 109 bedrooms houses one or two of his works and the breakfast room contains several large Andy Warhols.

The "Ermelerhaus" building at the back of the hotel, incidentally, is a rococo palace dating back to the 18th century (which was moved to its current location from a nearby street in the 1960s). The Ermelerhaus contains a restaurant which was the most famous in the former GDR; Erich Honecker himself often dined there.

Location, location, location
Art'Otel Ermelerhaus Berlin, Wallstraße 70-73, d-10179 Berlin-Mitte. Tel: 00 49 30 240 620. Fax: 00 49 30 240 62 222.

On paper you are close to the centre of the city, but this is the old East Berlin. You have a 10-minute walk through bleak, dark and empty streets to the commercial centre, Alexanderplatz, and the view south from the upstairs windows approximates to Stalin's dream of the industrial future. Not that you won't like it. You're facing a quiet street on one side and a leg of the Spree on the other. And the underground train station is right outside.

One advantage of living in a city which was surrounded by a wall until just 10 years ago is that the main airport (Tegel) is relatively central - reckon on about £15 for the 12km ride in a taxi to the hotel. Otherwise, using Berlin's ultra-efficient public transport system, you can approach the hotel on subway line number 2. The stop outside the hotel is Markisches Museum.

Are you lying comfortably?
The rooms are sleek and chic and minimalist - designed not to distract attention from the art. Decadent extras such as room-service are not available.

The television carries a Pay-TV option but if it's pornography you are after, you won't have to pay a thing. One of the channels on the normal cable network, Sat-TV, shows soft porn round the clock.

Keeping in touch
Telephone and modem link.

The bottom line
Double rooms range from about £100 to £120; singles start from about £80; both including breakfast. Considering what you get, this is cheap.

If you love art but detest famous names, try the Propellor Island Lodge (00 49 30 891 8720) far away in the old West Berlin. Comforts have been pared away to almost nothing but the visual experience of waking up in an entirely bare room where every millimetre of wall, ceiling and floor space is painted in black and white symbols is novel to say the least.

Sunday, September 19, 1999

The itinerary is as follows

The itinerary is as follows: leave airport, crash plane, avoid death narrowly, then proceed as usual to the hotel pool and bar

What amazes me about last week's Britannia Airways crash in Spain is that so many of the passengers seem to have decided to stay put and continue with their holiday anyway.
On Friday, a couple of dozen were reported to have flown back home, but the rest, it seems, are still out there. Some of these, no doubt, are hospitalised, and others may be quivering in their hotel rooms at the mere thought of having to board another flight home. But a fair number, I guess, have decided to plant themselves by the swimming pool as planned, despite the unfortunate circumstances of their arrival. If that isn't the bulldog spirit I don't know what is.
"How was your flight over then?" people will ask. "Oh well, the landing was pretty rough," they'll say. "Didn't you think, Fred? But it was worth it. Definitely worth it. We really needed this holiday. The people have been so nice. We don't mind in the slightest having escaped from a hideous death by a mere whisker. The end is never more than a heartbeat away anyway. The fact is, we're here now so let's just stay and make the best of it."
I don't know whether to admire this attitude or not. It reminds me of those stock British characters who get served flies and maggots and cockroaches in their soup but then decide to eat them all up anyway because they don't want to cause any unpleasant situations with the scary- looking waiters.
But on the other hand, anyone these days who can possibly emerge from a plane which has just broken into three pieces, and go on to resume normal life almost at once (by walking into a bar on the Costa Brava and telling everyone that they've got this unbelievably brilliant crap-flight-story to tell, for example), strikes me as a highly commendable individual.
After all, this is an age in which the attempt on the life of a mouse by a cat can provoke human witnesses into seeking urgent psychological help. If the attack happens somewhere within the confines of a holiday resort, the chances are that it will become a legal matter as well.
In fact, complaining, I thought, was all part of the great British holiday. The terrible food. The stupid receptionists. The slippery floors. The uncomfortable seats. The stale coffee. The wilting flowers. The hot weather. The barbaric children. The noisy neighbours. The incessant road-works. The delayed flights. The faintly dirty marks behind the washbasin which you can see if you look carefully when you are sitting on the toilet.
But crashed planes? Hey, no problem! Take it easy! Just sit down and stop getting so worked up about nothing! (And if that is how British holidaymakers are going to respond to near air disasters, I suggest that a good old plane scare might be the secret for getting people to appreciate their holidays.)
But I don't know. I suppose it helps that the flight was outbound rather than inbound. I would certainly view the breaking into three pieces of my plane during a landing back into the UK as excellent grounds for not coming into work for several weeks, or indeed months or years, into the future.
Sitting down by a swimming pool in Spain for a couple of weeks with a cold towel on my head, on the other hand, might be just the job to help me recuperate from my nasty little trauma.

Sunday, August 29, 1999

Is a holiday in Turkey after the earthquake such an appalling idea?

Is a holiday in Turkey after the earthquake such an appalling idea?

Some people have asked me whether it can possibly be a good idea to go on holiday to Turkey at the moment. Will it not be in the most appalling bad taste to go in search of sun and fun to a country where hundreds of thousands of people are in a state of mourning for their dead ones, and camping out in the rain beside the ruins of their homes?

I suppose the answer has to be yes. Before leaping in to snap up the latest bargain break to Turkey I would ask myself whether there wasn't something deeply unpleasant about capitalising on a drop in demand for Turkish holidays caused by an earthquake which had killed thousands of people. It would look as though my gain were the result of other people's pain.

Except, of course, that it wouldn't be. My gain would be the result of other holiday-makers choosing to visit, say, the Canaries instead of Turkey this autumn. And whose fault would that be? If nobody took holidays in countries which had problems, I doubt anyone would ever visit anywhere in the world, except for possibly Switzerland or New Zealand.

The people who are deserting Turkey out of respect for the dead may be causing far more pain for a country which relies so heavily on revenue from international tourism. The Turkish government itself is keen to point out that the popular coastal resort areas were not affected by the quake, so there can be no self-interested excuse for cancelling your holiday.

I think that wraps up the taste question - as long as you behave yourself while you are there. But perhaps that is the crux of the matter. It is a drag having to look respectful and sombre while on holiday. And it is difficult to guess the mood in the bars of Bodrum and Kusadasi. Perhaps the English are still getting drunk and the Dutch are still doing funny dances and the Germans are still taking their clothes off. But perhaps not. Perhaps the local people are in trauma. Perhaps the ambience is too depressing for northern Europeans who have just worked for 48 weeks in order to spend a fortnight living in total carefree freedom.

No. I fear that if you want to insulate yourself from other people's worries, then even the Canaries won't do the job. Tenerife has CNN as well. Perhaps you need to take a holiday from the world itself. And I am not thinking of a fortnight in the Mir space station.

Sunday, August 15, 1999


The TV presenter takes the tough with the luxurious, from cobras' hearts to bath tub panoramas


The most exotic stamp in my passport is from Papua New Guinea. I went up to a village in the highlands of the interior. It was a place where we look just as exotic to the locals as they do to us - and they are wearing wigs made out of their own hair entwined with bird of paradise feathers. They look quite fiercesome but they treated me well. I was the first white woman to stay there - they dressed me in a grass skirt and painted my face and asked me to join in a local celebration. I regarded that as a privilege.

There is a huge difference between local people suggesting I join some activity and a TV director pushing me into something. I am conscious of the fine line between sampling the local culture and dressing up in silly costumes. I will not do anything that my director and producer are not willing to do themselves.

One of the less pleasant things I did for TV was to dine in a snake restaurant in Vietnam. You had to choose your own snake from a tank - I went for a cobra. The difficult part was being presented with the drained blood of the creature decanted into a glass with alcohol. I was then served the snake's heart, still warm and beating. I had to pick it up with my chop-sticks, drop into the glass of blood and alcohol, and down it in one. My director got the gall-bladder. I was in no position to complain or protest - after all, we were being treated to great luxury.

On filming trips I do everything, from the ridiculously opulent to the extremely tough. My favourite hotel was probably in Vancouver, where one wall of my 20th-floor room was made of glass. I took a bath in the window overlooking the city.

Some people assume that when filming in less comfortable circumstances (a tent in the Andes for example), we get air-lifted off to five-star hotels every night. In fact, it's very important that we do stay in those places, so we know what we are talking about. And so I can be filmed waking up at dawn on some freezing hillside.

I've never lost my passport but a while ago I made the mistake of having my married name put into my passport and forgetting to tell my office about it. They bought all my tickets for a filming trip across America and the Pacific in the wrong name. Travelling with your tickets and passport in different names is no joke: there was a huge panic to get all the tickets changed at the last minute.

Other than that, the only mistake I've made was to travel to Germany on an expired passport. I was in a panic about how I was going to get home, but in the end they didn't even bother to look inside my passport. Strange, because I must have had such a guilty look on my face. I'd never make a criminal.

Having said that, I did once inadvertently carry some coca leaves back into the UK, which could theoretically have been used to make cocaine. We had been shooting in Peru, where I had brewed coca leaves before a trek, in the local custom. It never occurred to me that there would be any harm in bringing a few leaves back with me.

Anna Walker is presenting `Holidaymaker' today at 7pm on ITV.

Sunday, August 8, 1999

All the repose of 1,000 miles in a city square

All the repose of 1,000 miles in a city square

The passage across India is a journey everyone must make, writes Jeremy Atiyah
Jeremy Atiyah 
Sunday, 8 August 1999
It was something that every sane and rational human being had to do once in their lifetime: cross the Indian subcontinent, from Lahore to Kathmandu. That was what a guru told me in 1983. He had long hair and spoke more slowly than weeds grow. But he lived in a coffee shop in Freak Street, and I was inclined to agree with him.
I was only 20 at the time and had completed the journey in question, which helped. I had also just had a meal of muesli, chocolate cake, spaghetti bolognese, lemon meringue pie, red wine, lamb chops and cappuccino. Mogul monuments were all very well but, when it came to home cooking, Kathmandu was tops.
My pilgrimage had begun two months earlier in the rain in Lahore, a city containing Aurangzeb's Bedshahi Mosque, as well as the tombs of Jehangir and Nur Jehan, but not the barest whiff of lemon meringue pie. Instead I ate biryanis in the railway station, plotting routes to Delhi.
Lahore and Amritsar were barely 60 miles apart, but the journey took hours. The border into India was marked by gangs of uniformed men on either side of a road, spitting at the thought of each other. My passport was stamped so viciously by one official that a table leg cracked. I arrived in Amritsar and walked all day amid mud and flies before arriving, bewildered, at a hotel guarded by a man with a scimitar.
At night I slept with frogs croaking under the bed. When the fan stopped turning, I stopped sleeping. For breakfast I drank tea so sweet that it made me retch; only by telling myself I was drinking a form of hot chocolate did I learn to swallow it. But then there were the cool marble and still waters of the Golden Temple of the Sikhs: the repose of a thousand miles confined to a city square.
If Amritsar was hot, what would Delhi be like? I spent a night queuing for a ticket on the daytime train and then fell unconscious with tiredness. On arrival I found Delhi railway station so full of rigid sleeping bodies, I could not avoid them. It didn't matter. The city was asleep. Outside, only the deranged and the all-night barbers stayed on two feet.
In the morning I took a tour of Delhi, which cost pounds 1, including lunch. I didn't know where they were taking me, because I didn't understand the commentary. The Red Fort. The Mahatma's Memorial. The Qutb Minaret. And all of India in between. The lunch was good though.
Back then, New Delhi was a quiet place. Connaught Place was empty and losing its paint. Old Delhi, with its teeming millions and rickshaw traffic jams, was the centre of life. But it was monsoon season. With black storms beating on the trees, I lay by an open window, reading train timetables and histories of the Moguls. I understood neither.
From Delhi I travelled east along the Ganges plain. The land was all aflood. Palm trees were knee-deep in the rice paddies. On the train I was drip-fed sweet tea in small clay cups passed through the window bars. The city of Patna, when I got there, resembled a leprosy camp. I spent a day roaming the bandit territory of northern Bihar, asking people for the bus to Kathmandu.
The border post to Nepal was lit by candles. The official conducted his business in Y-fronts; he asked if I would promise to send him a letter. I spent a night on the border, under a mosquito net that prevented the mosquitoes inside from getting out. Who cared? The next night, if all went well, I would feast on lemon meringue pie and buffalo steak.

A nation of survivors

A nation of survivors

Armenians suffered centuries of massacres and oppression, but now their land is their own, reports Jeremy Atiyah
Jeremy Atiyah 
Sunday, 8 August 1999
What bad luck! To have been born between two such big and unfriendly powers and in a chronic earthquake zone to boot! I'm talking about the peoples of Mount Ararat. All but exterminated by Turks and suppressed by Russians, the Armenians surprise me today by having a country at all.
I fly to Yerevan, the Armenian capital, to find out what they are doing with that country. My Swiss Air flight from Zurich is nearly empty; when I arrive it is 4am local time and Soviet-looking military men are standing on the tarmac. I'm met by a representative of a local tour firm: a dark, glamorous woman called Shakih with big hair and nasal voice. One of those admirable Soviet people who has learnt English without ever having met a native English speaker. "Welcome to our improving country," she declares in a proud voice.
I'm back in the former USSR all right. By most people's standards, Yerevan is a dump, though I find this an attraction. The air is yellow. Probably these are what toxic chemicals smell like. The town rises and falls - mostly falls - across brown hills and valleys. Pretentious police Ladas career about with loud-hailers and flashing lights. Some local storm in a tea cup, I suppose.
Around my hotel I notice the ruins of mud huts with feral cats picking over them; it is as though nobody has bothered to remove the wreckage of previous civilisations before building the new ones. Does this mean, I wonder, that Soviet civilisation will never disappear?
The vast and gloomy Hotel Dvin is a perfect example of an unreconstructed Soviet hotel. It is attended by a somnambulant Russian staff who cannot grasp why there are no guests any more. The pillow on my bed is so heavy and bulky I can hardly lift it. The toilet has a plastic seat that falls off when touched. The television breaks into a loud humming noise just as I am getting to sleep. I nominate floor attendant in the Hotel Dvin as the saddest job in the world. Was there ever a time when these bedside lights, sofas and curtains seemed new? When the sculptured totem poles, tile murals, wooden ceiling panels, dark maroon table cloths and plastic flowers in the dining room looked funky? When the two Russians drinking vodka for breakfast looked out of place? Come to think of it, did the designers of the great square fountains and pools (now defunct and rubble filled) in the city centre ever feel good about themselves or their work?
In the morning I drop by the office of my tour firm to meet Shakih and her boss; they seem to be squatting at a desk in someone else's office. Either that or they combine their tourism business with trade in agricultural machine spare parts and fishing rods. But more endearingly honest people you could not hope to meet. What might a tourist want, they ask me? What does a tourist do? What in fact is a tourist? I tell them everything is lovely. They look pleased. Perhaps too pleased. Outside, the city looks like nothing has been repaired or painted since the death of Stalin. Tomorrow we will drive round half of Armenia and it will cost me only $55.
Later I am watching TV in my room. It's Euronews, in English. Suddenly the channels start to change by themselves. Polish TV, then Romanian TV, then BBC World. Then a sexy woman taking her bra off. Then TV Espana. Then back to the sexy woman. Finally I get it. The channel controller is trying to decide what to transmit next.
I go out for my first meal in Armenia, tiptoeing out into the scary Yerevan night. There is a smell of smoke and there are no street lights. I keep falling into invisible holes. I hope, very fervently, not to get lost here. But not to worry: the smoke merely represents a generation of New World entrepreneurs cooking shashliks on open-air grills. I enter one restaurant and am served excellent grilled mutton in flat bread at a table in the front room. Other people eat aubergines in the bedrooms. The washing-up is done in the bathroom, and the cooking in the porch. The waitress looks like a sad tart.
The guests all wear black coats, black jackets, black waistcoats, and black polo-neck sweaters, as though they have entered a fancy dress competition as mafia thugs. "Normally drunk is half-litre vodka, really drunk is one litre!" one of them shouts. "How much blood is there in your alcohol?" shouts another.
The next day I'm in the car with Shakih. She's wearing her regal expression. "You see how much better we live now. Before it was really bad." We pass burned out tractors and other agricultural wreckage, rusting under walnut trees. But first things first: when the clouds retreat I want to see Mount Ararat. And there it is! Like a stray planet, an interstellar object that has floated near to earth by cosmic error, filling half the sky. It is not the same as worldly objects. Down below I see green fields with smoking chimneys in them. But up there, hanging like an ancient god, are vast crevasses and snow-filled fissures.
Suddenly we're sliding in mud. The roads are so pot-holed that they are half way to becoming raw earth and gravel. We need a Toyota Landcruiser and we've got a Lada. All the old women of Armenia are selling vegetables and toffee apples by the roadside. In the shadow of Mount Ararat, I see picket fences, apricot trees, marshes, nuclear power stations, country houses, electricity pylons and grassy orchards.
Whoa! Just bombed in and out of the biggest pothole I've ever seen. But how's this for odd: a relic from the ancient world, miraculously marooned in the former USSR! I can see it on high, like an eagle's nest. Wild cliffs and mountains loom all around, distant waterfalls roar. But the 2,000- year-old temple of Garni looks like, and indeed is, a Greek temple.
If that isn't odd enough, a group of college kids from Los Angeles suddenly rolls up in a tour bus. Out they step, tanned youths with backward baseball caps and smiles wide as Caucasian republics. It turns out they are all Armenian by origin, exiled first to Lebanon, then to the US. And now they are coming home at last. I look down and there's a mosaic floor depicting fish and ancient sea gods; I look up and there's a luscious Californian girl rewinding her camera.
The sun's coming out and I'm feeling hot. We drive past apple orchards to another eagle's nest: this time it is the Monastery of Geghard, lurking in the mountains. Ornate crosses have been carved by hand into cliff-faces. I scuttle into a small church building to avoid the hot sun, only to find that the entrance leads into a series of hidden chambers, hewn out of solid rock.
Deep within the monastery, the Californian kids are piously burning candles and praying. The walls are wet and streaked. Lurking high above my head I see inset carved columns, ancient reliefs of lions and eagles seizing goats by their talons. The innermost spirit of Armenia? Later I meet a priest in black, one of only two remaining, who has been living up here close to God for the past 22 years. "This is a holy place," he tells me, gently. "Not an Armenian national place." Shakih is a little contemptuous: she tells me he loves God more than his own mother.
Back in Yerevan we intensify the search for Armenia. We eat lahmajun, thin flat breads with meat toppings, washed down with a yoghurt drink just as in Turkey. "Armenian food," insists Shakih, between mouthfuls. She drives me up to Madenataran, a shrine to Armenian letters, where the entire canon of Armenian literature is held safe even from nuclear attack. She marches me through the national museum to examine the 8th-century- BC cuneiform inscriptions of King Argistis, the ancestor of the Armenian people.
Finally, on a bleak hill overlooking the town, she takes me up to the Memorial to the Victims of the Genocide of 1915. A wall records the names of long vanished Armenian communities: Trabzon, Zeitoun, Adana, Erzurum, Beyazit, Bitlis... Shoddy recordings of funereal music waft ceaselessly from between the blocks where an eternal flame burns. "Yes, we have a lot of difficulties here," says Shakih. "Everything gets destroyed here in the end." Well, I wanted to point out, at least you have a country now. But her hair is looking dishevelled. She blows her nose and trudges back to the car.
Jeremy Atiyah flew to Yerevan as a guest of Swiss Air (tel: 0171-434 7300), which flies on Thursdays and Mondays via Zurich. Fares from pounds 356. Access to Yerevan is also possible by train from Tbilisi in Georgia, or by bus from Turkey.
The author's hotel booking in Yerevan was made through Interchange (tel: 0181-681 3612). They can put together a package including five nights' b&b accommodation in the Hotel Dvin, plus return British Airways flights, for pounds 599 per person, based on two sharing. The writer booked tours locally with a company called Avarayr (tel: 00 374 2 56 36 81, or via e-mail at One day outings to Garni and Geghard, including car and English-speaking guide, cost less than US$100 for a complete day.
Visas can be obtained in advance or on arrival in the airport at Yerevan. Either way they are expensive, up to US$100, depending on where you get it. Contact the Armenian embassy in London (tel: 0171-938 5435). There are still relatively few guide books to the Caucasus region, though Bradt's Georgia guide (pounds 13.99) contains a chapter on Armenia, as does Trailblazer's Asia Overland Guide (pounds 13.95). Good travel literature includes The Crossing Place by Philip Marsden