Origins of the Hippie Trail

Map of overland route from Europe to IndiaIt would be true to say that many people have taken the overland route between Europe and the Indian sub-continent over the millennia. For most it would have been a slow process of migration taking decades if not centuries.

And, with the rare exception of conquerors like Alexander the Great, the general direction of travel would have been East to West. (Although in the early 1600′s there was also an Englishman called Thomas Coryate who apparently walked from Italy to India in a desperate attempt to ingratiate himself with the ruler of any court – Eastern or Western.)

Even the architects of the British Empire would have sailed most of the way, leaving the West-to-East land route largely unused.

But this began to change in the early 1950′s, when European archaeologists started to make overland expeditions ever further East-ward. And then, on April 15th 1957, a pioneering spirit called Paddy Garrow-Fisher launched the Indiaman, a coach that took relatively well-heeled travellers on a 20,000-mile round trip from London.

Map of Indiaman's route from London to India and return

This extract from the September 1957 edition of the AEC Gazette describes the first part of the journey.

A later extract from 1958 gives a more detailed description of both the coach and the journey. The second part of the article is here.  Somewhat intriguingly, facilities included airline-style seating, radio and public address system, an Espresso machine (!), and on-board cooking facilities.

Those early adventurers were soon followed by many, many others. For the majority the mode of travel wouldn’t have been half as comfortable as the Indiaman (not that any 20,000-mile coach trip could be described as comfortable): as the India Overland site puts it:

Using old buses, converted fire trucks and double deckers, companies were springing up everywhere. The options ranged from the deluxe trips run by Rotel Tours (Des Rolling Hotel) based in Germany and Penn Overland from London, down to Magic Bus from Amsterdam which offered a 4-day 24-hours a day trip to Delhi for as little as $45.

And there were even individuals with their own buses and trucks who plied their trade along the route, advertising in well-known traveller haunts such as Istanbul’s Pudding Shop. Such was the haphazard nature of ‘organised’ overland travel.

But even the dozens of carriers that sprang up over the years only transported a percentage of the hundreds of thousands of overland travellers. Many travelled the whole route using only local transport, hitching a ride from other travellers or locals when the local timetable failed to deliver.

Others travelled in clapped-out second-hand vehicles, making running repairs along the way. And when they reached their destination they’d simply sell the vehicle to some other adventurous souls setting out on their journeys.

Such options were far too risky and time-consuming for me. I took the relatively easy option of booking a seat on one of the overland buses. In my case it was Budget Bus, but there were many, many others (see The Buses for more details).

And despite it’s moniker of ‘The Hippie Trail’, not everyone who went was a hippie or aspired to hippie ‘ideals’. To many (myself included) it was better described as ‘adventure travel’ – a market that seemed to take seed in the 70′s and really take off in the 80′s.

It was certainly about experiencing and exploring different cultures but in a more structured and time-limited way than some of our fellow travellers. We weren’t seeking enlightment but we were seeking a type of adventure that wasn’t possible in the cotton-wool holiday packages in the West.

Maybe that’s how that route might have developed – fewer and fewer hippies and more and more ‘adventurers’ – had circumstances not intervened and shut it down completely in 1979.

That was the year that the Russians increasingly militaristic interference in the government plunged Afghanistan into years of armed conflict.

It was also the year the Shah of Iran was toppled and the US Embassy staff taken hostage in Tehran.

Some brave souls did undertake the trip in the very early 80′s. It was possible to skirt around Afghanistan and Iran was still open. But the increasingly anti-Western stance of the Iranian government made it an increasingly dangerous place to be. The Welcome mat for Westerners had been well and truly withdrawn and the Trail grew cold.


Origins of the Hippie Trail — 15 Comments

  1. Interesting what you say – I was one who went Overland to India by car via a place called Yugoslavia, Greece, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon (then ‘Paris’ of the Arab World),Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and what might be called ‘Punjabistan’-which magically becomes INDIA- A country I love and will never forget. I cam bach from Bombay to Kuwait by ship (to save my car) – Iraq – Jordan, Syria, Turkey and zoom straight home!

  2. I’m Thai, me and my German friend travelled from Germany to India by self-modified camping mini van (used German post & parcel van) in 1977 via Austria, Yugoslavia, Greece, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Nepal. We left Munich in June 1977 and I spent 228 days altogether travelling and visiting places, before I flew back to Thailand from Madras in Februay 1978. My German friend continued exploring India alone (because of unexpected driving accident) until after the outbreak of Russian invasion of Afghanistan. Fortunately, he was lucky having finally got permission to drive through Afghanistan within the time limit of 10 days to return safely to Germany.

  3. I am just looking at photos of my grandmother setting off on an Indiaman trip – London to Bombay in 1958. Sometime in the past I remember seeing some fabulous photos taken by someone on the trip, beautiful black and white ones, of the scenery along the way. Have no idea where they are now.

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  7. I’m looking for any images of vehicles used by travellers on the trail which I could use freely use for an article. The more varied the better.

  8. I travelled overland to India in 1977 in an Bristol Albion bus, I have a photo of the bus if its any good to you

  9. It was June 1970 when I along with an American named Mike started our travel from Frankfurt to Kabul through Austria, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Turkey , Iran and Afghanistan. We did this journey in Renault 4, which we bought for US $ 600/- only. We started our journey on June 22, 1970 and reached Kabul on July 9 or 10, 1970. There were three punctures and one case of broken wind shield. We slept in the car or under open skies except one night in a Hotel in a city near Tehran. We attended as guests the 4th of July American function in Tehran. I had to fly over from Kabul to Amritsar (India) as being an Indian, Pakistan would not approve of my overland journey. Total expenditure food, petrol, car repairs and one night in hotel was only US$ 94.00 per person. I crossed two countries without valid visa. To come out of Turkey, I had to bribe US$ 5.00 only to immigration staff. We allowed two couples (one in Turkey and other in Afghanistan) and one doctor (most likely a spy -in Bulgaria) to hitch hike with us. The young French boy in the unmarried couple we allowed to travel with us in Afghanistan turned out to be a psychic case. Except me, my friend Mike and the French boy and the French girl smoked Hashish in the basement room of a Daba in Afghanistan. The journey was an experience and I have many stories which have enriched my life. I am now 75+ years old and want to do a similar journey once again- may be across Latin America.

  10. From July up to mid September 1970, I was traveling overland from north France up-to Kathmandu and return with a friend. We had no car or whatever means of transportation, but hicking, bus, train, trucks, whatever … May be 200 $ in pocket, but we did it finally.
    A great and quite hard experience indeed. We saw few of these buses coming from London passing by, all refuse a space, a driver even steal a bite of our little money ! It took 6 month to recover upon return. However 5 years later was on the road again, for few year from Europe to Cape-Town purely overland again almost without anything except my teeth and legs. The hippie trail spirit is still there.
    All the best to all, PHL

  11. I travelled on the Penn Overland coach tour early 1965 that started in Bombay to London: I did leave the tour in Jerusalem as I loved the place & part hitched & local transported by myself later to London. Penn had over booked and put on a mini bus as well which I was mostly in. The coach had a break down in the Buluchistan desert. To which I and two other young travellers stayed with the driver for two days & nights waiting for repairs.While still held up back in Quetta Pakistan three of us took a local bus up into Afganistan to Kandahar. I was actually on my way from NZ: already sampled Malaya & Thailand indendently. This trip was in fact a reverse migration for me for I had originally been shipped to NZ in 1952 as a British child migrant. See my: “The Boy in the Lifebuoy” documentary film. on This is an Australian maritime museum’s online web site. My film under its “Oral Histories” page. In 1966/7 I travelled independently but with my new Spanish wife overland from New orleans to Panama also a reverse migration back to NZ. At one stage in an Indian dugout canoe off shore Central America between two countries and in the wrong ocean to get to NZ. Part of the way we travelled with the good Tica bus company that goes from Southern Mexico to Panama via all countries expect Belice. We had first cargo American shipped out of Liverpool. Later another cargo ship out of Panama on a British one~~~~: for this we had been given to our suprise the owers rooms up next to the Captain… we were the only passingers. This was the time when only forwarded postcards told your family & friends roughly where you were when sent but not where when they arrived.

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