The Hippie Trail

Imagine a teenager deciding to hitchhike their way from London to Kabul. Now imagine thousands of them. What sounds crazy for 2019 was happening with surprising frequency in 1969, on a route known as the Hippie Trail.

Between the late 1950s and 1970s, young people took to the road en masse to visit what we now know as some of the more closed-off and dangerous locations in the world. Today, the so-called “hippie trail” sounds wild, daring, and practically inconceivable, but fifty years ago the trail flourished, as intrepid travelers departed Western Europe and made their way overland through countries like Turkey, Syria, Iran, Afghanistan — going as far as India and Thailand.

The hippies’ eastbound treks are a funhouse mirror version of their contemporaries’ brutal journeys to Vietnam — and today they stand as a tragic alternate history of the now war-torn places they often visited, highlighting for a contemporary audience how enchanting these regions were, and could be again, for global tourism and cultural appreciation.

In its time, though, the trail, like the hippie movement itself, was a form of rebellion against the strict conformist culture imposed by the Greatest Generation. Their parents took jets to Paris and Rome. They took a VW bus to Tehran and Kathmandu.

That, and drugs.

Freak Street
Freak Street in Kathmandu, so-named for the hippies who flocked there, as it stood in 2009.

Eastern Promises

The earliest inspirations for the trail can be traced back to the beatniks. Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs are sometimes lauded as the first inspiration to the trail-ers, coming to Morocco as they did in the late ‘50s. But had he not even moved an inch from his desk, plenty would have been influenced by Kerouac’s philosophy, espoused in On The Road, that travel itself could provide inner revelations and unmask outer truths about the world around them.

In the 1960s, as Beats gave way to hippies, the growing popularity of Buddhism and Hinduism bent the trail eastward. See, for the most famous example, the Beatles’ influential trip to see Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in India.

Kumaon Trees
The area of Kasar Devi ridge, also called Crank’s Ridge thanks to some colorful guests.

Another Indian hotspot called Crank’s Ridge attracted even more celebrities, having earned an interesting reputation as a “power centre,” due to what we’ll sum up as a type of blah-blah Van Allen belt blah-blah metaphysical pseudoscience. Everyone from Timothy Leary to Cat Stevens visited, with one local remembering the foreigner “who used to sing a lot with his friend and [roam] around the area with his guitar.” That was Bob Dylan.

Not all of the travelers wore long hair and listened to rock and roll. Not all of them read Allen Ginsburg’s ode in The Atlantic to smoking legal marijuana in India. And not all of them did drugs themselves. But in general — and with the trail, as sprawling as it was, you have to generalize — they did.

Dylan & Ginsberg
Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg in 1975, together for Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue show.

There Will Be Drugs

In some ways, the search for drugs seemed not to hinder the experience, but to actually facilitate interaction between the cultures. Stay with us.

In one of the few attempts at a comprehensive history of the trail, “The Hippie Trail” by authors Sharif Gemie and Brian Ireland, you can find a 1967 Daily Express report estimating that a quarter of the pilgrims were addicted to drugs; the Observer in turn described “an annual flood of tens of thousands of young people in search of Afghan opium and heroin.”

The authors call these reports sensationalized, and it’s hard not to sense a tabloid’s desire to paint hippies as no-goods out to destroy respectable society. Still, drugs played a role on the trail, and were especially available in certain locations. As Gemie and Ireland record, one traveler remembered that “there were many… who had made Afghanistan their final destination, because of the abundance and cheapness of the marijuana.”

The instinct might be to condemn the drugs as representative of a superficial experience, one that clouds any other travel objectives. Not all travelers did drugs or sought them out. Some were properly terrified by the attitudes of some the governments on the trail towards drugs, including Iran, which actually displayed an exhibit of assorted failed smuggling devices on their side of the border with Afghanistan. And if you’ve seen Midnight Express, you’ll be familiar with Turkey’s zero-tolerance drug policies.

But looking for drugs, as crass it might sound, led to communication and shared experiences.

“Many travelers felt intimidated by their new, strange surroundings,” write Gemie and Ireland, “and therefore stuck to the coach, to their group, or to the cafes and hotels frequented by a white, traveling clientele.” Quite the opposite, “it was the dope-smokers who went further, who took initiatives, learned key phrases in foreign languages, met local people, and then followed them through winding lanes and dark alleys.”

You had to learn some language, take some risks, and meet some locals — admirable goals that weren’t always in the sole service of scoring. For the most intrepid, living as down-to-earth as you could was something of a contest.

Hendrix in Morrocco
Jimi Hendrix took a famous trip to Essaouira, Morocco where a cafe still bears his name.

Fear and Loathing on the Trail

In 1957, the Indiaman Bus Company likely became the first business to offer trips from London to Bombay, the popularity of which led to copycats like Swagman Tours and the iconic Magic Bus, shuttling hippies and anyone else to and from the various trail hotspots across the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent.

Whether it’s true or not, a trail-er might consider a fellow traveler on a coach bus as experiencing the world more as a “tourist,” being shepherded from experience to experience, sometimes confined to government-approved hotels. “Riding along in the bus with not so much as a pothole to jolt us into reality was almost like watching television,” wrote author John Worrall, on the trail to Kathmandu in ‘72.

More adventurous explorers drove themselves, or took trains, and plenty also hitchhiked. Their ultimate goal: be a “traveler,” not a “tourist.” It was natural for them to resent the bus-bound, even if the guided tours often acted as a starting point where a traveler gained the self-assurance to branch out and do the rest of the journey themselves.

But without a coach bus, and with guidebooks hardly in existence until the 1970s, how could you know where to begin? How could you know of any dangers to avoid? With so many on the trail, travelers relied on word of mouth at common pit stops — “lodging houses, campsites, cafes, teashops and borders” — for information. A community had formed, and in some cases, had threatened to destroy the very thing it professed to adore.

Kerouac and the Beat Generation, the inspiration of many on the trail.

In Tangiers, Morocco, visits from all the big-name Beat writers like Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, and Tennessee Williams likely lured the hippies to the city. The Beats themselves were drawn to Tangiers by American expat writer Paul Bowles, whose friend Mohammed Mrabet lamented the hippies’ attraction to people like Kerouac and Burroughs. In an interview with Washington Post , he blamed their writing for attracting “crazy people” and “drug users.”

One of those writings was Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, which itself describes a scene from Tangiers that seems to confirm the basis of Mrabet’s scorn:

“Through open doors, tables and booths and bars and kitchens and baths, copulating couples on rows of brass beds, crisscross of a thousand hammocks, junkies tying up for a shot, opium smokers, hashish smokers, people eating talking bathing, back into a haze of smoke and steam.”

As a harbinger of the changing character of a city due to tourism, the hippies may have set an unfortunate precedent. Even so, there’s something you can’t help but admire about their life on the trail. At their highest aspiration, they were a community of explorers, inspired by each other’s stories, striving to have the most authentic, life-changing travel experiences possible. It’s something we could all aspire to today.

A scene from Tehran in 1970.

This Is The End

Afghanistan is consistently described as one of the most laid-back spots on the hippie trail. It was such a draw that in 1973, the writers who would eventually launch the Lonely Planet travel guide wrote that Kabul was losing its character, in danger of becoming a “tourist trap.” Another described the country as evoking the same connotations that “Bali or Bhutan” does today. Outside of Kabul, he wrote, “true hippies especially enjoyed communing with the giant Buddhas carved out of a hillside in Bamiyan.”

The Soviet invasion in 1979 ended all of that.

Strife in the rest of the Middle East ramped up, too, in the late 1970s. The revolution in Iran meant its borders were permanently sealed off from western travelers. One writer put the cultural change best, explaining that “radio stations swapped Blue Oyster Cult for speeches by Ayatollah Khomeini.”

Elsewhere, a civil war raged in Lebanon. Kashmir was becoming more dangerous. The landscape was changing. In 2001, the Taliban blew up the Bamiyan Buddhas.

The hippies, in so many ways a reaction to war, had their trail destroyed by it.

A Buddha of Bamiyan, before and after its demolition.

For What It’s Worth

Some don’t see the hippies as victims of a changing world, but the agents of change themselves. It’s easy to see their legacy in today’s backpackers. And the very proliferation of cheap flights that would one day overwhelm the still-peaceful hippie hotspots means that budget travel still thrives today.

Others have gone so far as to blame the traveling hippies themselves for the revolutionary changes in Afghanistan, with one travel writer, Bruce Chatwin, claiming that the mass of freaks, and their ostentatiously signaled countercultural values, drove the people “into the arms of the Marxists,” an argument summed up as a chain of dominoes leading to the 1978 coup, the Soviet invasion, and on and on to the American invasion.

If that seems extreme, it probably is. The hippies couldn’t overhaul society in America, and they couldn’t overhaul the world. Hunter S. Thompson, in a memorable passage from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, suggested the end of their usefulness might have come as early as 1966, the “high-water mark” when “the wave finally broke and rolled back.” The hippies had their limits, their restrictions, their downsides.

But, as a symbol of the intrepid traveler, searching out the journey for journey’s sake, living freely at the mercy of the road? As the embodiment of an ethos that strives for making connections through authenticity and openness? As a reminder of the cultural gifts of the Middle East, and a testament to what’s been lost there to the ravages of war, ignorance, and extremism?

They’re about as good as it gets.

Interested in learning more? Check out Sharif Gemie and Brian Ireland’s The Hippie Trail: A History, from which much of this article was sourced.