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By: Mark Johanson
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.