The hippy trail: a pan-Asian journey through history

Beginning in the 1950s, young people from Europe and the US travelled east in search of physical and psychological new horizons. Brian Ireland traces the journey of those who set off on the road to Kathmandu

The city Bhaktapur looming over the Kathmandu valley

Between the mid-1950s and late 1970s, many thousands of travellers followed the ‘hippy trail’. For some, it was a ‘happening’ – an expression of 1960s counterculture – and for many of those the use of drugs including opium or hash was a key part of the experience. For others, it was just a great adventure: a chance to travel cheaply and encounter unfamiliar cultures. Young people from Europe and the US headed east, usually overland, turning their backs on tourist itineraries, passenger jets and package tours to engage with other cultures on their own terms. They took their own cars and vans, or used local public transport. A minority set out on foot, picking up rides along the way.

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The name ‘hippy trail’ is somewhat misleading. Till the second half of the 1960s many of those who took part did not self-identify as ‘hippies’. Yet the name began to replace other terms, such as ‘the road to Kathmandu’. The route from London to the Nepalese capital was the most celebrated, though many travellers stopped in India or continued to southeast Asia. What distinguished the trail from earlier journeys was the nature and intentions of its participants. As Rory MacLean notes in Magic Bus, his 2006 history of the phenomenon, they comprised “the first movement of people in history travelling to be colonised rather than to colonise”.

Young people headed east, turning their backs on tourist itineraries to engage with other cultures on their own terms

In 1957, Paddy Garrow-Fisher set up the Indiaman coach service, the first company to offer journeys from London to India. By the 1970s, there were many dozens of small outfits using coaches, lorries and even old ambulances to provide cheap travel. Most on the trail didn’t think of themselves as tourists, instead viewing organised tourism as a symbol of all that was wrong with the west: consumer-driven and fake.

Travellers tended to follow well-established trade routes, particularly the Silk Roads linking the Levant with the east. A typical journey began in London or Amsterdam, often crossing Europe quickly to rein in spending. Greek beaches were popular stop-offs, but Istanbul was the real start of the trail. It was here western travellers encountered Islam for the first time, before crossing the Bosphorus, the strait separating Europe from Asia, to launch their journey into unfamiliar territory. They would flock to Istanbul’s Lale Restaurant, nicknamed the ‘Pudding Shop’, to eat, meet fellow travellers and organise rides to the east. The nearby Sultan Ahmed Mosque, known as the Blue Mosque, was also a popular attraction.

After heading east from Istanbul towards Mt Ararat and the Iranian border, the journey became tougher. Apart from Turkey’s modern capital, Ankara, and Cappadocia, which had an established tourist infrastructure, eastern Turkey had few of the amenities to which westerners were accustomed. In addition, some visitors experienced hostility from locals, who sometimes threw stones at travellers’ buses. One person who made the journey, Chris Nicholson, recalled a “nasty atmosphere from the locals — very hostile”.

Women faced particular difficulties. In northwestern Iran, Dervla Murphy – whose 1965 account Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle, launched her career as a travel writer – had to fight off a serious sexual assault by an Iranian policeman. When she reached Tehran, she cut her hair and took to wearing a “contour-obliterating” shirt; many other female travellers adopted similar tactics.

Afghan bound

Crossing into Iran, most travellers continued swiftly to Tehran or Mashhad, Iran’s second city, close to Afghanistan. Border crossings could be tedious, frustrating, even hostile. In the late 1960s, Iranian authorities executed drug smugglers, and armed border guards were a threatening presence.

Illustration following the footsteps of the 'hippy trail' to Kathmandu
Young people headed east and set off on the road to Kathmandu (Illustration by Theresa Gribben)

What greeted them over the border came as a pleasant surprise. Afghans were largely more welcoming to westerners, drugs were commonplace and usually tolerated, and women rarely faced harassment. Richard Gregory remembers the Afghans’ “great sense of fun”, and considered Herat the “first stop on the hippy trail” after “the paranoia of oppressive control in Turkey and Iran was left behind”. Further on, hippy hotels sprang up on the Kabul thoroughfare known as Chicken Street, and travellers ventured to the cliffs of Bamiyan to see the giant Buddha statues, destroyed in 2001 by the Taliban. Foreign office records give a sense of the evolution of the trail: British tourists in Afghanistan soared from 33 in 1958 to 5,143 just a decade later.

After Kabul, overlanders tended to whisk through Pakistan, which was often unwelcoming to westerners, and on to India. For some, this was the final stop; for others, a chance to regroup. Agra’s Taj Mahal and Amritsar’s Golden Temple were major attractions, while the sacred city of Benares (since renamed Varanasi) drew travellers seeking a spiritual experience. In 1968 the Beatles visited Rishikesh, another holy city high on the Ganges, to study under Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and many followed in their wake. Goa, meanwhile, had a ‘freak scene’, its coastline of largely empty beaches home to an improvised hippy republic founded on music, drugs and spirituality.

Yet there was another side to India, especially in the big cities, where poverty and squalor were rife. Coach traveller George Bulcock recalled how a fellow passenger who had gone for a short walk in Delhi described it as “terrifying: the streets, the houses and the people were absolutely filthy. The poverty was indescribable. The people just didn’t seem to care about the squalor they were in. They had just lost all hope. [He] couldn’t get out quickly enough”.

In the late 1960s the Nepalese capital, Kathmandu, also had a semi-permanent hippy colony attracting thousands of young westerners, including prominent figures from American and British countercultural scenes. For those seeking a spiritual experience, Nepal was Shambhala (a mythical Buddhist kingdom) and Kathmandu their Shangri-La. Peter Maddick recounted that Kathmandu conjured up “mystique, ancient riddles with green-eyed idols, legends and exotic dreams”.

International comradeship

The ‘hippy trail’ attracted people who would usually never call themselves hippies. In fact, the route – and other similar journeys to destinations such as Marrakesh – was followed by people from all walks of life. Some were celebrities: Graham Nash evoked his experiences in the song ‘Marrakesh Express’, for instance, while Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and Robert Plant and members of The Rolling Stones visited north Africa. But most were ordinary people.

They had a variety of motivations, but what these travellers, hitch-hikers and spiritual seekers found was a sense of togetherness – “a vast, unconscious international community”. One, Michael Hall, stopped at a beach in Thailand, met some young people and felt “a sense of international comradeship, which was strangely reassuring”. Another, an American travelling to Singapore, encountered what she called “international youth culture, 1970. On the deck the young travellers from the US, Canada, Australia, South Africa and… the UK lounged, grooved, rapped and laughed as never before. This was the life”.

The trail opened up routes to the east, later exploited by more commercially minded companies. It contributed to a deepening western fascination with eastern religion, specifically to the development of western Buddhism, reflected in trends in popular music, particularly when the Beatles embraced Indian styles. The travellers represented a post-colonial generation that was largely able to put aside the distorting lens of the imperial legacy to look afresh at the east, often displaying a refreshing openness towards other cultures.

Political unrest, war and terrorism in the late 1970s and early 80s made the overland journey a dangerous, daunting undertaking

There were darker aspects, from sexual harassment, prostitution and violence to corruption, drug smuggling and ill-health. Travellers did not have an entirely positive effect on the cultures they met, either: it may not be coincidental that a trail map resembles a guide to some of the world’s most conflicted places. It was only when thousands of westerners arrived in the late 1960s and early 70s that Afghanistan became a major producer of heroin. In general, though, evidence suggests that most travellers’ interactions with locals were based on a sense of rough equality.

Political unrest, war and terrorism in the late 1970s and early 80s made the overland journey to India a dangerous, daunting undertaking, effectively closing the trail. When the route was blocked in 1979 by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Iranian Revolution, travellers found other routes and other destinations. But the trail’s continued influence – on both travel from the west and the lands through which its participants passed – is still palpable today.

Brian Ireland is a historian of modern America and co-author, with Sharif Gemie, of The Hippie Trail: A History (Manchester University Press, 2017)

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This article was taken from issue 08 of BBC World Histories magazine