It 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.
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.