What Happened To The Hippie Trail? The Legacy Of The Asia Overland Route

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Ken Klein left Philadelphia in 1973 with the $800 he'd saved from his  bar mitzvah. He wanted to see the world but ran out of money in Istanbul and went back to the United States to work in telephone sales with the goal of raising $5,000 and buying a one-way ticket back to Europe. A year later, at the age of 24, he set out east from Istanbul along the overland route through Asia. Five years later, still in Asia, he proposed to his Dutch traveling companion, Marjon. They wed on Jan. 1, 1979, in Kathmandu, Nepal. The "hippie trail," he said, changed his life.

Like Ken, thousands of rebellious Europeans, Americans and Aussies in the 1960s and 1970s threw caution to the wind and traded their suburban upbringings for sarongs, sandals and the allure of the East, marching along the overland route on a journey that would forever alter the course of history.

Jack Kerouac, father of the Beats and grandfather of the hippies, may have had something to do with it. He published "On the Road" in 1957, inspiring a generation to hit the road on a journey of self-discovery. Then Beat poet Allen Ginsberg moved to Varanasi, India, in 1962, heralding the wonders of Eastern philosophy and calling it "my promised  land" and "a new earth."

Soon, The Beatles were in Rishikesh, India, with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and Cat Stevens -- who would become Yusuf Islam -- was in Kathmandu. Dylan said the times were a-changing, Peter, Paul and Mary were leaving on a jet plane, and Ray Charles told a generation to hit the road and don't come back no more, no more, no more, no more.

The seed was planted, and the overland route through Asia quickly became the journey of a generation.

The Hippie Trail

There were fashionable precedents for the pilgrimage. Coming out of the conformist 1950s, the hippie movement galvanized youth in the United States and quickly spread through Europe all the way to Australasia. Its fundamental ethos -- communal living, harmony with nature, experimentation and recreation drug use -- found an ideal match in the East.

The hippies cut ties with their jobs and rejected materialism and money. Their objective was to know themselves, and the deep spirituality of the East provided the perfect outlet for self-discovery.

"Previously, people had been somewhat fearful of the unknown: the unknown cultures, food, people, and customs. But the hippies put themselves into situations where they could only experience the unknown. It was almost a grounded form of astral travel," said Dr. Robert Muller, who received his PhD in sociology at Flinders University in Adelaide, South Australia. He's done research in the field of global trends as a sociologist since 1993 and maintains several blogs about hippie culture.

"The 'overlanders' changed perceptions of travel to one of people being able to take their adventures into their own hands and see, and more importantly, to experience life on their own terms, and to their own guidelines," Muller said.

Generally, the term "hippie trail" describes a popular, though varied, route through parts of Asia from the edge of Europe to India and Nepal. For many, Istanbul, Turkey was the starting point and Goa, India, or Kathmandu, Nepal, was the end, depending on the season. Aussies and New Zealanders began their route in Bali, Indonesia, and worked their way across in the opposite direction, but the idea was the same.

It was part Silk Road and part caravan tracks, but it became a cultural freeway.

Inspired by the British overland scientific expeditions of the mid-1950s, the Indiaman Bus Company, established in 1957, is considered the first commercial operator to have carried passengers to Bombay (Mumbai) and back from its location in Kings Cross, London. Swagman Tours (dubbed the Asian Greyhound) and Magic Bus were among other operations that soon followed, arranging buses from various points in Europe for the wild roads of the "mystic East" through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and into India and Nepal. These buses shared the road with a motley crew of private cars, vans and minibuses, many of which puttered out amid the scorching deserts and high-altitude mountain passes of the over 12,000-mile round-trip journey.

"Overlanders," as they were known, spent months, even years on the trail. Some of these latter-day Marco Polos sought adventure and spiritual enlightenment. Others sought drugs and an escape. Whatever the reason, their journey through Asia was one for the history books.

A Life-Changing Experience

Klein, now 60, spent more than five years in Asia, much of it on the hippie trail. "But I never knew it as the hippie trail," he said. "I never considered myself a hippie. I had a business degree and was never a druggie. I was there for the experience of the flow of cultures -- for the geography and anthropology. I was never 'lost.'"

Klein remembers the joy of crossing the Iranian border into Herat, Afghanistan, and making his way over to Kandahar, the garden city. Like many on the trail, he held a special place in his heart for Afghanistan and lamented how much time can change a place -- how these names are now signifiers for something else entirely.

He also spent weeks in an Indian ashram, took a meditation course outside of Bombay, and studied at a monastery in Nepal. He still practices Buddhism at a center in Philadelphia, the city he returned to with Marjon to run the family business, a supermarket downtown.

"A lot of us older folks did this trail and it really changed our lives. It changed our lives for the better," Klein said.

Dutchman Hans Roodenburg set out along the "Grand Journey" from Amsterdam to Kathmandu in the autumn of 1967. The nostalgia-filled entries in the guestbook on his hippie trail website are a testament to the effect the journey had on a generation of travelers.

A slew of others like Briton Tony Walton are, more than four decades later, posting their accounts of the Asia overland route online -- though many are quick to show contempt for the Internet and a hunger for a simpler time.

"We were young, naïve, and living the dream," Walton, who traveled from Amsterdam through Istanbul over to Kathmandu and Delhi in 1973, says on his website.

"By 1973 the colors were fading. The house of love and peace was being demolished. The dream was over. We hungered for new horizons... new dreams."

Creating Guidebook Empires

There were no guidebooks for the hippie trail in the traditional sense until the early 1970s. The first real "guide" for the "dollar-a-day" journey was the appendix of Richard Neville's jumbled 1970 manifesto "Play Power." It acted as a de facto instructional on how to do the overland trail.

The hippie trail would, however, become a platform for several young entrepreneurs. Englishman Tony Wheeler met his future wife, Irish-born Maureen, on the overland route and together they penned "Across Asia on the Cheap" in 1973. It had a section on dope that was larger than the one on food and within a week the couple had sold 1,500 copies. Lonely Planet was born.

The route also gave birth to American Bill Dalton's first Moon Publication handbook and Philippe Gloaguen's Guide du Routard. Like the Wheelers, both would go on to create guidebook empires after their trips on the overland route.

Traditional publishers had completely overlooked the budget-travel movement and a new generation of travelers set out to write what they lived and sell it to the masses.

Some credit these first guidebooks with the eventual downfall of the hippie trail. In the 1960s it was all about discovery: finding a hidden cave in Cappadocia, stumbling onto a secret beach along the Caspian Sea, or walking alone into the Hindu Kush. Now, the travelers were spoon-fed itineraries. Instead of do as you see fit, it became do as the author tells you. The "beaten track" was born.

It's a model that the travel industry has never looked back on.

The Asian Effect

The ways in which the East changed the hippies is well documented in popular culture, but how the hippies changed the East is often overlooked.

For many Easterners, these long-haired, free-spirited wanderers were seen as ambassadors of a liberal society they knew little about.

Muller believes the hippies had a negligible effect on the East, largely because they didn't wish to.

"Today's travelers tend to trample through and change their surroundings," he said. "The hippies tried as much as possible to blend in and to respect the local cultures. Undoubtedly, many young people in the East started to also travel with a similar mindset through their own regions, but ultimately, the hippies chose to not have a negative effect."

To critics, however, the hippies were naïve, even cultish -- and in several cases, that was a fair critique. An overlander interviewed in David Tomroy's "A Season in Heaven: True Tales from the Road to Kathmandu" journeyed from England under the impression that in India "you could live in the forest, eat berries, meditate in a cave, wander around naked or do whatever you felt like and nobody would take a blind bit of notice because everyone innately understood what you were doing."

With these sorts of expectations, it's easy to understand how baffled many were by the hippies.

Indian writer Gita Mehta referred to the hippie trail as that "long line of loonies," while V.S. Naipaul dismissed hippie fascination with Hinduism as "sentimental wallow."

Critics further argued that the overlanders were self-ghettoizing and self-deluding.

Esteemed British travel writer Bruce Chatwin claims in his essay "A Lament for Afghanistan" that this movement of ideas stirred an Islamic reawakening. Chatwin says the arrivals from the West (who, he says, drove "educated Afghans into the arms of the Marxists") paved the way for the 1978 Communist coup, which led to the Soviet invasion, which, in turn, prompted Americans to support the mujahideen and so on.

The hippies, in many locations, preceded television, western consumerism, and the warned and wired tourist masses that would soon alter vast swaths of the planet. But one could argue this was inevitable, and who better than a gaggle of peace-loving hippies to be the face of the West.

Travel writer Rory MacLean documented his modern journey along the overland route in his book "Magic Bus: On the Hippie Trial From Istanbul to India" with both a measure of cynicism and dash of wonder, calling its original journeymen "the intrepids."

One of the more notable tales in the travelogue is that of Rama Tiwari, a bookseller and publisher in India who rose from rags to riches as an entrepreneur along the hippie trail. For Tiwari, the hippies walked far and wide but never understood their own Achilles heel.

"You and I are not so different from hippie seekers," he tells MacLean in the book. "Or Indian wanderers of the first millennium B.C. All want just to be happy as children. But hippies made one mistake, and it broke them. They imagined peace of mind was not with their families or in their home countries. They didn't see we can only live in happiness if we conquer the restless dream that paradise is in a world other than our own."

The End of an Era

Historians look at the 1960s and '70s as a blink in the eye -- a miraculous time in history when all of these nations were in relative peace. Countries like Iran and Afghanistan were stable societies at the time with long traditions of hospitality. But that tranquility didn't last long.

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's Revolutionary Council officially closed the overland trail through Iran early in 1979 and chased the hippies out. By the end of the year, Russia had invaded Afghanistan, effectively shuttering the overland route. At the western end, marijuana haven Lebanon had lapsed into civil war. The region of Kashmir was no longer safe -- even Nepal lost its luster as a peaceful Himalayan hangout.

The jumbo jet boom of the late 1970s fostered the idea of mass tourism. The last hippie hangout in Asia, Goa, quickly burgeoned into a package-tour destination. By 1980, the hippie trail was dead.

But perhaps the trail never ended. Perhaps it shifted over to Southeast Asia once the wars and genocides in the region ended. It can be argued that the tropes of the overlanders are found in modern-day backpackers -- that elite-minded group of wanderers who consider themselves travelers, not tourists.

But don't tell that to an original overlander.

"It's just not the same," Klein lamented. "When we went overland, we had this growth aspect of change -- and a growth from within. When you fly around you are transported from one place to the next. You just drop in."

Klein's 26-year-old son just returned from six months in Indonesia, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia on the so-called Banana Pancake Trail. He posted his experiences on Facebook and called home on Skype. When he ran out of money, he emailed his dad for a transfer.

"We were probably the pioneers of adventure travel," Klein said. "A huge industry grew up around us. Now you have adventure trekking in Nepal, expeditions into the jungles of Asia, the eco-tours ... I think a lot of those came up because of our experiences."

Today, the hippie trail has seen somewhat of a revival with the rise in popularity of low-cost airlines and more accessible travel routes. The path, however, is anything but peace and love. Difficult visas, closed borders and sporadic civil unrest make portions of the journey next to impossible.

Though the traditional route may be lost in a haze of history, the legacy of the overlanders remains in the guidebooks we read and the tourism industry they unknowingly pioneered. They may have wandered a wilder world, but they made that wild world easier for Westerners to explore ... with all the karma, good and bad, that comes with such an exchange.

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