Asia's overland route
Hit the road, Jack
Jul 20th 2006
IN THE 1960s, thousands of free-spirits set forth on the world's wildest trail, stretching 6,000 miles across six countries and three religions. The Asian odyssey began in Turkey and, barring mechanical (or mental) breakdown, took in Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan before ending up in the revered destinations of India and Nepal.
Rory MacLean retraces the steps of these "intrepids" to find out why the hippie trail became the journey of the age. The original flower children, he explains, wanted to swap the conformism of the 1950s for spiritual enlightenment. Inspired by the music of the Beatles and Bob Dylan, the works of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, and the social revolutions of the time, they flocked east aboard a patchouli-scented convoy of psychedelic buses, Bedford trucks and VW campervans.
Thousands took to the road, fuelled by dope and the dream of nirvana. In 1968, the year the Beatles were meditating with the Maharishi in Rishikesh, there were 10,000 young foreigners in India. Five years later, that number were crossing the border from Pakistan each week. By the mid-1970s, Afghanistan, an easygoing paradise, welcomed 90,000 visitors a year.
Mr MacLean is an entertaining guide, conjuring the flavour of the trail: the Pudding Shop in Istanbul catering for the travellers' "sugar-craving munchies"; the rose-scented, bug-infested Crown hotel in Delhi; pipes of Mustang at the Eden Hash Centre in Kathmandu; embroidered jeans, ankle bells, karma, peace and love.
Yet "Magic Bus" is more than a series of travel anecdotes; it raises questions about how the hippies influenced the places they visited. In Turkey, the author learns how their rejection of materialism spurred their host's material prosperity. In Iran, he asks if their "casual morality" stirred the "stern Islamic reawakening".
The popularity of the overland route declined when Iran's borders closed in 1979. Yet the trail gave birth to an industry which has packaged the globe. Independent travel is fashionable, students' gap years are becoming the norm, and guide books--the route was the starting point for the Lonely Planet empire--sell in huge numbers. Sadly, however, politics has, in one way or another, put the brakes on the magic bus.