Hearing stories about traveling on the Hippie Trail from Western Europe to India in the late 1960’s and 1970’s always makes me jealous. I can’t even imagine traveling in a time when Americans weren’t despised in other countries or when violence and terrorism weren’t issues that crossed a young traveler’s mind thousands of miles away from home. When I hear about how beautiful and fun Afghanistan was back then I wonder if any of us will ever be able to see it again without being interrupted by soldiers or the Taliban.
According to Hans Roodenburg’s website “On the Hippie Trail”:
In the late nineteen sixties and early seventies, hundreds of thousands of youngsters from both sides of the North Atlantic took the journey overland from Europe to India, Nepal and beyond. Simultaneously, quite a few travellers from Australia came in via Southeast Asia and made the trip the other way round. From Western Europe the road led through former Yugoslavia, Greece or Bulgaria, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Nepal. The one-way distance along this so-called ‘Hippie Trail’ was approximately 11.000 km (7.000 miles). An old Volkswagen van was the favourite choice of those who provided their own means of transport. Trains, cheap buses and hitchhiking were the modes of transport open to the others. Along the Trail, specialized budget hotels provided shelter and a place to meet other travellers.
Once a person made it to Turkey, whether by hitchhiking through Europe, driving some questionably competent vehicle, or taking a boat from Marseilles, the Hippie Trail really began. The Magic Bus booking agency used small private bus enterprises picked up travelers in London and Amsterdam to make the overland journey. The place to find travel mates or advice about where to go along the way was the Pudding Shop, a cafe in Istanbul near the Blue Mosque owned by two brothers, Idris and Namak Colpan. One UK bus owner offered to advertise the Pudding Shop on his bus, rechristening it The Pudding Shop Bus. The cafe’s bulletin board was the early DIY version of BIT and Lonely Planet guides.
The trail led through, unbelievably, Iran and its Great Salt Desert, Tehran, and then Afghanistan. Some stayed in Kandahar or Kabul, and others went on to Nepal, Tibet, Bangkok, or to Goa, India, where a hippie commune was set up near a stretch of beach. Kathmandu’s street Jochen Tole is still nicknamed Freak Street thanks to the colorful characters who went through.
The U.S. and Soviet Union had jointly built an amazing, incredibly smooth highway that ran through central Afghanistan. Once in Kabul, there were like-minded hippies everywhere, especially around Chicken Street and the Street of Green Doors. Some hippies did a decent import-export business in handmade Afghani wedding coats, which were fashionable in the UK and Europe in the very late ‘60s. Others were attracted by plentiful drugs like hashish and opium. One way of smuggling hash back through Iran and Turkey was by having it sealed inside a jam tin before heading home, jokingly referred to as “Kandahar jam.”
Richard Gregory wrote in his “Brief History of the Hippie Trail”:
While other travellers—those who were not “freaks”—quite reasonably refer to the route as “the overland”, there really was a distinct hippie trail. In every major stop along the way there were hotels, restaurants and cafes that catered almost exclusively to the pot-smoking westerners, who networked with each other as they wandered east and west – there were no Lonely Planet guides in those days, and (of course) there was no internet.
This influx of long-haired western youth must have been a curiosity to the locals, who were largely unaccustomed to tourists of any sort back then. But they were generally hospitable, and many found welcome ways to derive extra income. Their experience was caricatured in the 1971 Bollywood movie Hare Rama Hare Krishna, which featured a scene involving chillum-smoking hippies, accompanied by the enormously popular Asha Bosle song “Dum Maro Dum.”
The hippies tended to spend more time interacting with the local population than traditional sightseeing tourists—they had no interest in luxury accommodation, even if they could afford it (which few could), and some would “go native” after a fashion, particularly in India. Of course, they were still tourists really, albeit of a different sort, and hedonism was the primary aim.
This idyllic time ended with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and the Iranian Revolution, in addition to civil war in Lebanon and tensions in the Kashmir region. The overland route was closed to Western travelers. Enterprising travel agencies have continued facilitating travel from Europe to Asia, but they have had to be resourceful and come up with alternative routes on a regular basis.