Remembering the Hippie Trail

On August 7th, 2015

TomoryFor independent travelers just now beginning to travel in Asia, the legendary overland “Hippie Trail” of the ’60s and ’70s is a natural source of fascination and envy. Unlike today’s Lonely Planet-toting backpackers, the counterculture wanderers of the hippie era pioneered their Asian routes by word-of-mouth and trial-and-error. Hence, in indie travel terms, Hippie Trail travelers are to present day backpackers what the Ancient Greeks were to the Ancient Romans: larger-than-life legends, who once wandered a wilder world.

Legends can exaggerate, however — and that’s why it’s nice to have a book like David Tomory’s A Season in Heaven: True Tales from the Road to Kathmandu, an oral history that sheds a personal, realistic light on the Hippie Trail. In interviewing 35 people who once wandered the roads between Istanbul and Kathmandu, Tomory reveals the complexities within the travel culture of this era. After all, the Hippie Trail wasn’t the first independent travel phenomenon in modern Asia; it was the first mass independent travel phenomenon in modern Asia. And, like any mass movement, the Hippie Trail was defined as much by its reputation as its reality.

Thus, while hippie-era wanderers were creative, intrepid pioneers in a certain sense, they also tended to be petty, competitive, self-ghettoizing, and self-deluding. In short, they had the same charms and weaknesses as any self-conscious, authenticity-seeking counterculture movement of the last half-century — including the travel-hipsters of today. Behind the pretensions of the “movement”, however, were real travelers, having private, inspiring, life-changing experiences — and that’s what Tomory’s book best reveals.

Before I get into the narrative details of A Season in Heaven, I might point out that the book represents a purely Western-slanted look at the Hippie Trail. Asian locals at the time — while friendly enough — were not known to have been terribly impressed with hippie seekers: Indian writer Gita Mehta has referred to the Hippie Trail as “that long line of loonies”, and V.S. Naipaul wrote off hippie fascination with Hinduism as a “sentimental wallow”. Western expatriates and Asia-experts living along the Hippie Trail at the time were just as sardonic — and the New York Times had reported as early as 1968 that “Laos has grown disenchanted with the flower power folk, Thailand will not let them in without a haircut, and Japan now requires a bond of $250 as proof of financial stability.”

Thus, in interviewing only the Westerners who took part in the Hippie Trail, Tomory’s account is more of a nostalgic dialogue amongst middle-class travelers than it is a balanced social history of the movement. Still, it vividly captures the mindset of the young people who dropped all in the ’60s and ’70 to optimistically wander across Asia.

Much like travelers today, the motivation for Hippie Trail wanderers was the allure of exotic countries (Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal) and the opportunity to get away from the politicized environment of home. Unlike current travelers, there wasn’t much practical information available about Asia, or what to do when you got there. One of Tomory’s interview subjects journeyed off 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 expectations like this, it’s no wonder that the people of India were baffled and bewildered by their young Western guests.

Though the quest for Eastern spirituality is a big part of the Hippie Trail myth, Tomory writes that the movement was more about seeking freedom from the moral and social restraints of home. True to the rock-n-roll ethos of the time, the presumed availability of sex and drugs in Asia was a big travel motivation — and this naturally lent to the hipster allure. “It you were really hip — it was like being the first to wear a minidress — you went to India,” recalls one German interviewee.

With the hipster reputation, of course, came hipster pretensions. “In Kabul you saw all the people on their way back from India,” reports traveler Carmel Lyons. “The fashion was prayer shawls, the whole look, pyjamas and beads and drifting fabrics and waistcoats and bare feet and harem pants. And god, they were arrogant.”

The root of arrogance, it seems, was often money — the lack of which was seen as a sign of true travel experience and virtue. Naturally, this attitude ignored the fact that relative economic prosperity in the West was what enabled all those temporarily jobless young people to travel in the first place. Thus, Tomory notes, the Hippie Trail travelers who had money pretended not to, and legends abounded as to how cheaply one could wander across Asia. One storied Englishman is said to have hitched from Damascus to Delhi on just $6. In theory this was indeed a remarkable feat, though it infers that people happily exploited Asian hospitality in order to facilitate subcultural pissing contests. (After all, that storied hitchhiker could well have stayed an extra month in England washing dishes and traveled from Damascus to Delhi in a way that benefited local bus drivers and restaurant owners).

At the root of this traveler onedownsmanship lurked the fact that Hippie Trail travel was unavoidably difficult; dangers and sickness abounded (“Ah, Kabul,” one traveler remembers people bragging, “that’s where you found the real dysentery”). Unlike the travelers of today, travelers had to carry all their cash with them at once, and they often languished for months in flophouse hotels waiting for money transfers to come through. News from home was hard to come by, and travelers’ families often gave them up for dead (at times — far more often then than now — travelers did wind up dead). According to one of Tomory’s respondents, travelers had to contend with “traffic accidents, robbers, corrupt officials, bisexual rapists, filthy quarantine camps, Russian cholera vaccine, loss of sanity and, of course, their own penury.”

By comparison, today’s travelers — warned, wired, and ATM-ready — have it easy. Still, it would be an exaggeration to say (as many veterans of the era do) that the hippie epoch was peopled by purer, nobler travelers than we see today. Like present-day backpackers, Hippie Trail wanderers frequently stuck to traveler ghettos — often the same hotels in the same cities: Gulhane or Yener’s in Istanbul; Amir Kabir in Teheran; the whatsisname in Kabul; the Crown in Delhi; the Modern Lodge in Calcutta; the Matchbox and the Hotchpotch in Kathmandu. “Every city of the route had a budget foreigner quarter,” writes Tomory, “and everyone passed [hotel] names to everyone else.” Indeed, as exotic as the scenery was, the Hippie Trail was often a static succession of dorms, drugs, and familiar faces.

Moreover Asia may not have been in the grips of globalization during the ’60s and ’70s — but there is ample evidence that the young travelers of that era were the ones who first introduced it. By the early seventies, Bollywood had produced a hippie-themed Indian musical called Hare Krishna, Hare Rama, and travelers were reporting Jimi Hendrix-style Afro wigs for sale in the furrier’s market of Kabul. (And, for all the disdain heaped upon the pizza-n-burger menus of today’s Asian guesthouses, the anomaly of Western food in Eastern settings may well trace its origin to the likes of Siggi’s Restaurant in Kabul, which served schnitzel and potato salad for homesick hippie palates.)

Ultimately, then, Tomory’s book reveals that the Hippie Trail was not the stuff of legends, but of normal, curious, intrepid people who were making do within the travel conditions of their time. Asia has certainly changed a lot in the years since then — as has the technology that helps us travel there — but the discoveries it offers are still found on a personal level, apart from the labels that attempt to define the experience.

Image: Patrick (flickr)