Fried Out Kombi’s: A History of the Hippie Trail

Photo by Vasilios Muselimis on Unsplash

The Hippie Trail, or “The Overland” is one of those pieces of traveller lore that a lot of people have heard of, but no one really seems to know a lot about. The Hippie Trail followed a general route that started somewhere in Europe (Typically London, Amsterdam, Paris, or Berlin) and ended somewhere in India or Southeast Asia. Now, if you pull out a map, you’ll see that this route passes through some countries that are virtually impossible to travel in, much less road trip through in a painted VW van. Despite our modern perceptions, countries like Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan were largely safe and stable in the 60’s and 70’s. The route first started to come into being in the 1950’s, and unfortunately ended almost overnight in 1979 due to the Iranian Revolution and the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan. Hippies were largely drawn to the region because of how “exotic” these cultures were perceived to be, and how prevalent hash and marijuana were through much of the region.

The route worked something like this: you and some peace-loving friends pool some cash together and buy a sweet ride. Then, you hop in and start driving. Rinse and repeat for several months (or years…) until you wind up in Delhi, Kathmandu, or even Bangkok. There wasn’t a whole lot of rules or regulation in how you went about it. Travellers on the Hippie Trail often tried to spend as little money as possible, camping or staying in budget guest houses and eating at restaurants meant for locals. They also made a focused effort to interact with the locals, something which was less common among the more luxurious tours in the region.

Photo by Kerensa Pickett on Unsplash

Like it or not, modern backpacking was virtually invented on the Hippie Trail. Travelling light, cheap, and among the locals is something we take as standard fare today, but was a novel idea at the time. Even Tony and Maureen Wheeler, the inventors of Lonely Planet, did the Hippie Trail and wrote a guide called Across Asia on The Cheap about it. It was also common to see families taking an extended vacation and doing the route. Can you imagine? A family of four from Wisconsin cutting through the Khyber Pass in a hippie van? It’s almost mythically ridiculous to us today.

Fortunately for the adventurous-minded traveller, things are slowly improving along the route. While independent travel in Iran is still largely impossible for Americans, tour operators make seeing a large part of the country possible and relatively affordable. Afghanistan, while still dangerous, has a few cities that can be seen with caution. Pakistan’s security situation has also improved greatly (and was blown out of proportion to begin with). While it’s theoretically possible to follow the old route, it’s almost impossible to follow the complete route overland as an American, Canadian, or Brit.

Photo by Bethany Randall on Unsplash

The Hippie Trail is something I’ve recently become fascinated with because it’s a deeply interesting part of travel history. One of these days, I’d love to repeat the route, or at least as close as possible. In a way, the Hippie Trail is still the crazy adventure it once was, only for different reasons. There’s many other routes that travel from Europe to Asia overland, often going through Russia and Central Asia. Don’t be afraid to look for new adventures in the past stories of other travellers!

I am an international affairs journalist and travel writer, with a focus on South Asia and the Middle East.

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