From the mid 1950s to the late 1970s, hundreds of thousands of young adventurers made an easterly pilgrimage in search of enlightenment and excitement. Following an overland route that took in Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Nepal, before arriving in Kathmandu this pared-back travel experience usually included roadside camping and overnight stays in huts, with plenty of time getting to know the local culture.
Labelled the ‘Hippie Trail’ – or ‘Hashish Trail’ – by the US media, the route took travellers through some of the world’s best cannabis growing regions at a time when President Nixon’s ‘War on Drugs’ was just beginning. This youth rebellion led to dramatic media reports of increased drug smuggling and widespread youth laziness.
Similar to modern hysteria, newspapers were full of unconfirmed news stories of young people “ending up on ‘death row’ along the beaches of Goa”, with right-wing journalists – notoriously – proclaiming that “to get money to buy the hashish, both girls and boys sell themselves [sexually]…”
These sensationalist media reports did nothing to deter the hippies, who already held a deep mistrust of the establishment and its efforts to create a moral panic around drugs. The trekkers often met up and began their Asian travels at a café called the Istanbul Pudding Shop. They’d walk, hitch-hike and drive old Volkswagen vans across the remote countryside to Tehran and Kabul, stopping for months at a time if they fell in love with a certain place.
leafie spoke to some of the travellers who abandoned conventional dreams of lucrative jobs and wedded bliss in favour of a quest for spiritual enlightenment, cultural exploration and plant medicine.
According to Lonely Planet, there were usually an average of 5,000 hippies – from across the globe – in Kabul in the early seventies. Adrian Lipscomb, who visited the city in 1972, recalls a warm welcome to Afghanistan from customs officials. He says, “We stopped for customs formalities while crossing the border from Iran to Afghanistan. As the bus took off again, the customs man ran after us, holding something out in his hand. He was offering a gift of hashish.”
Jon Handelsman travelled by bus through Afghanistan in the same year. He says, “There was a hotel in the buffer zone between Iran and Afghanistan. As soon as we stopped, the hotel manager and another man climbed on board. The manager was effusive and welcoming, walking up and down the aisle shaking hands with everyone.”
“After the manager got off, the other guy asked if anyone wanted to smoke hashish. The bus shook with a roar of enthusiasm, then we all piled off and followed him into a room with a large hookah in the middle. Ten minutes later, there was a stoned silence broken only by occasional bouts of helpless giggling. Welcome to Afghanistan,” he says.
There was a hotel in the buffer zone between Iran and Afghanistan. As soon as we stopped, the hotel manager and another man climbed on board… after the manager got off, the other guy asked if anyone wanted to smoke hashish.
Countless travellers from the 1950s to 70s remember Kabul as a peaceful city where women walked the streets in T-shirts and no face coverings. Enterprising travellers bought locally produced goods to send back home, from brightly-coloured rugs and Afghani coats to cannabis and opium. One male trekker, who spent two months living and socialising in downtown Kabul, says, “You could get a local to seal hashish inside a jam jar – or better still, a tin – before going home.”
Hippies spent most of their time around the famous Chicken Street, where there were restaurants, cafés and market stalls catering to foreigners. One former trekker, from the UK, says, “Instead of being a chore, the hunt for cannabis helped us get to know the local culture and interact with people. We learned phrases in different languages; wandered down dark alleys and went into dealers’ houses. I can’t imagine my kids doing those things today… I’d be terrified for their safety.”
In 1973, Lonely Planet complained that Kabul had become a “tourist trap”. Adrian recalls his time in the city and says, “I was exploring Kabul with two female friends from France and we stumbled across an unassuming doorway with a sign advertising a chai shop. The place looked mysterious, so we climbed a narrow stairwell to the first floor.”
“It resembled a scene from Arabian nights with Afghani and western patrons sitting on scatter cushions and carpets. We asked for chai and local sweet cakes. And the waiter made a show of pouring the tea from a great height,” he explains.
“Across the room, some Italian hippies talked animatedly and shared a chillum. Their jeans and floral shirts seemed tailor-made… even their long hair was fashionable. The smell of hashish and the tinkle of laughter permeated the air.”
“I noticed a guy meditating while standing on his head, with a copy of Carlos Castaneda’s ‘The Teachings of Don Juan’ next to him. Clearly, an American. Suddenly – from nowhere – the sound of loud music filled the room. A loudspeaker blared ‘We Gotta Get out of this Place’ by the British rock group ‘The Animals’. Any suggestion that the chai shop typified Afghan culture instantly disappeared,” he laughs.
Long before Amsterdam developed its coffee shop culture, cannabis was available in roadside cafés across Asia. Neil Hedge from Grimsby recalled, “You could get free hash samples in Nepal in the 1970s when the plant was still legal. It was the best time to travel the world.”
J.P. Kempkes from San Francisco says, “When I arrived in Kathmandu, I went into a café and bought a large piece of cake. I didn’t realise it was loaded with hash. But I did spot the café owner and his son staring at me as I happily ate it. The whole experience lasted about 12 hours and I was in wonderland, before sleeping solidly for 12 more hours.”
Cannabis was illegal in some countries on the route, but tolerated – or legal – in others. US citizen, Jerome Koenigsfeld, spent five years on the Hippie Trail. He says, “In 1968 or 1969, a policeman in India would ask visiting westerners if they smoked ganja. He’d make a chillum if someone said yes. While passing it around, he’d casually say ‘I’m a good policeman, but that guy over there’s a bad policeman, so don’t smoke by him’.”
Parents, children and the elderly joined the young adults on the Hippie Trail too. Piers Newbury from the south west of England travelled the route as a teen. He says, “There was a good reason for me eating a quarter-ounce of fresh, black hashish – I was an idiot 16-year-old. It took me three days to walk again, all I remember is a dark whirlpool.”
“My brother took me with him for a few weeks. I was definitely in culture shock for a good while and probably too young. When I was 17, I went hitchhiking through a few countries in Africa though, so it was good prep for that trip.”
But Piers was far from the youngest on the trek. Kokila Maryann Byrne from New Jersey says, “I stayed in India and then Kathmandu with my five-year-old son in the seventies. We ran out of money after three years, but lived in the region for a decade.”
Kokila spent four-years in the spiritual town of Pune, now best-known as the home of the Osho Ashram. “I even gave birth to my daughter there,” she says, “It was beautiful. I was at a small medical office with friends from the ashram including a hypnotist friend who had run a couple of sessions with me saying that childbirth was painless. And it was. I didn’t need meds.”
“My son stayed with me for the three days I was there. Friends visited every day and they brought him food too. The room was filled with tuberoses and smelled wonderful!” she recounts.
Like many of the hippie generation, Kokila and her children explored spirituality while in India. She says, “I lived as a Sannyasin back then.” In the 1970s, this lifestyle involved detaching from modern life and materialistic activities, in favour of peaceful, spiritual pursuits.
The hippie trail drew to a close in the late 1970s, as the journey across Asia became more difficult. There was an anti-western government in Iran following the country’s revolution in 1979. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan – in the same year – closed this route to western travellers for a decade. With a military dictatorship in Pakistan and ongoing tension in Kashmir, hopeful trekkers struggled to find a readily-available alternative route.
There was also the disappointing fact that Nepal had banned the cultivation, trade and use of cannabis – in 1976 – following US pressure. For many hippies, this new legislation made the country much less appealing.
But the travellers brought more than just memories home, with their haul often including cannabis seeds and plants. Twenty-first century cannabis growers note that these seeds were the foundations for some of the most popular indica strains grown in the west today. It’s ironic that the hippies sought to drop out of western society – and capitalism more generally – yet inadvertently made a contribution to cannabis culture that far outlives Richard Nixon’s ‘War on Drugs’.