“Dad, what are you reading,” goes my teen son, passing accidentally under the golden sunset light beaming through the windows of our provincial house.
“A book on hippies, man,” I murmur, obviously meaning to say: “Leave me alone in some of my free time indulgence.”
“May I take a look?” the teen keeps pounding on the boundaries of my patience with the battle ram of his curiosity.
“Yes, there you go. A photo of an early hippie or a beatnik in Calcutta, the end of 1950s.”
“Gosh! Is this what a hippie looks like? Mine, he looks like an IT specialist!”
A few roars of laughter later on [oh, yeah, let’s do this rapid semi-structured field interview of the respondent] we have benchmarked some of the enduring stereotypes of the cultural symbol hippies have come to be: uncontrollably grown beard, greasy loose hair, nonchalantly defiant attitude, lots of forbidden substances intake, baggy clothing. To some they bear a striking resemblance to IT specialists, obviously.
And yet, long before this arbitrary associative twist was ever conceived in our small talk, in the decades of my X generation, hippies had already acquired a cultural-icon status, veiled in the thick fog of a not so distant, but very different past. We didn’t catch much of the realities of the Cold War, nor when the Vietnamese one was knocking on the doorstep with its boots. The beatniks of the 1960s seemed like a prehistoric generation, Woodstock steeped into the euphoric mud of the ecstatic late 1960s, haunted by the alluring image of unrestrained sexual promiscuity. Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” was standing almost on one and the same historical plane as the much earlier Herman Hesse, construed by some to be an inspirer of the German Wandervogel (“Wandering Bird”) movement.
And yes, already in the time of our teen years in the early 1990s, hippies had grown into an imagined rebellious symbol within the layers of the urban counterculture movement, an embodiment of an inclusion criteria. Accidentally confessing to not reading Kerouac’s “On the Road”, Kesey’s “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, not knowing what mescaline is, was considered simply gross. Or being ignorant of the entangled walk of the “doors of perception” phrase from William Blake down through Aldous Huxley to Jim Morrison’s “Doors” had already been considered enough to doom one to be left to wallow in the shallow waters of mainstream pop culture. Yes, the generation of the 1980s and the 1990s was already building its imagined, historicized and romantic image of hippies.
But hippies were having their imagined obsessions, too.
Fantasizing about the East turned to be among one the staunchest
Browsing through the formidably entitled “Hippie dictionary: a cultural encyclopedia (and phraseicon) of the 1960s and 1970s”, by John B. McCleary, one feels like doing a university major in history of religions, albeit in its crash course form. Along with expected entries such ‘amphetamines’, MDMA, ‘anal’, ‘jacking off’, one has a chance for a deeper dive into the prominent figures of the movement. References on James Elmore, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix find a natural home. But then the Oriental and religious obsession!
Allah. Kabala. Jainism. Jehovah. Mecca. Medical astrology. Meditation. Paranormal, telekinesis, divination, clairvoyance. All was mingled in a gigantic New Age melting pot in the form of an anti- status quo conceptualization, backing off from the ‘here-and-now’ in favour of a ‘there-and-then’, with the fantasy of the Orient turning into but a natural embodiment.
And movement towards the East, as a form of counterculture, logically grew into more than a conceptual shift
It is an anthropological truism that an ideological or a religious framework originates not only as a movement of ideas. It also has all the power to induce a physical transition. The Kumbh Mela in Hinduism, the Jerusalem pilgrimage of Christians, the Wailing Wall (Kotel) visitations in Orthodox Judaism, the Meccan hajj of Muslims, the exemplary “travel in search of knowledge” (rihla fi talab al-‘ilm) of medieval Muslim theologians, the Catholic – now more and more driven by mere tourist passion – the Santiago de Compostela route in Spain.
And there hippies went on their own pilgrimage from the West – mainly from the UK, France, the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany, Italy, down through Europe and the Middle East and finally into India, Nepal, occasionally Thailand and that came to be notably labelled as the ‘Hippie Trail’. As part of the culture, travel needed to be cheap and dirty. Hitchhiking was the king of all travel methods, occasionally small private buses as the legendary VW Type 2 were jumped onto, trains were available. Making it to Istanbul was an arrival at a fork road at the entry point of the Middle East. From there, the trail divided into two. The northern path looked more straightforward: Tehran in Iran, then Herat and Kabul in Afghanistan, Peshawar and Lahore in Pakistan, and then India, through Delhi down to Goa, or up to Kathmandu in Nepal.
The second option is a bit of a more surprising twist of a planning: from Istanbul to the south, through Syria, Jordan, Iran and then Afghanistan again.
“Travelling light” was the enduring motto
Spontaneous forming communities of travelers around emblematic places came up to be the usual way of exchanging information on the challenges ahead. The legendary “Pudding Shop” – the Lale Restaurant in Istanbul, opened in 1957, is still here and still boasts about its past meetings with “pilgrims, often driving old cars or Volkswagen vans” (yes, they were religious pilgrims in a sense!) travelling East, and hosting a bulletin board for the messages of people offering hitchhiking rides to the Far East or back. Kathmandu in Nepal still has its Jhochhen Tole (‘Freaks’) street in Durbar Square where hashish and marijuana were freely distributed under legazied government control.
No one can really say how many people traveled along this route, traversing vast swathes of distance both physically and spiritually. And yet, it is certain that around Allen Ginsberg’s arrival in India in 1962, the trail had already enjoyed the steady attention of the flower children – first the beatniks and then their successors, the hippies. Ginsberg himself was exemplary of the romantic fascination with the image of a constructed Far East, penning his “Indian Journals” in the 1962-63 period. Ginsberg, travelling with his lover, Peter Orlovsky, was also exemplary in the search for a guru. Mentions of his frequent illnesses, his abuse of substances and mixing with locals were coloured by generalizations of relation between East and West with the spiritual supremacy of the first over the latter, and musings on the reality of the acceptance of death steeped through the layers of Hindu culture.
“The West was impermanent”
Ginsberg wrote with a mixture of disappointment and chagrin: “The entire Western rationalistic, Aristotelean mind was causing chaos, and I was interested in Eastern thought, all summed up in that gesture — the very Indian gesture — when you ask, ‘Are you enjoying yourself?’, and an Indian will shake his head… It could be either yes or no, depending on the context, and I was interested in that context with its subtlety of expression rather than in a Western context.”
It took the Journals half a decade to be transcribed, edited and then published. When this happened in the 1970’s first edition, it added up to the layers of phantasmagorical attraction already shrouding the East. The text, in its own turn, catalyzed large masses of young Western pilgrims to dive into exploring the Orient and its spiritual landscape.
Yet, the spiritual and physical transition across the ideological and geographical boundaries had one striking characteristic. As Rory MacLean has termed it in his “Magic Bus” memoirs on experiencing the route, it appeared to be “the first movement of people in history traveling to be colonized rather than to colonize.” The goal of the travelers appeared to be not so much the observation and meticulous analysis of other cultures through pulling them towards the observer. It seemed rather to be pulling themselves in towards being absorbed in, what appeared at first sight, a vast well of experiencing the depth of a spiritual realm standing in opposition to allegedly material mainstream.
Travelling across cashless produced its subculture guides as well
The journals of Ginsburg could make an inspirational call to endeavour into the fathomless Orient in search of the perfect inspiration, but could not tell you whether it was safe to hitchhike from Herat to Kabul, or how much it would cost you, or whether you could take a dope dose with you on the way in Delhi. Thus, the first Lonely Planet guide was born under the benevolent shadow of the hippie trail. “Across Asia on the Cheap” originated to fill in the gap and made a stunningly popular appearance on the underground stage in 1973, and has already grown up to be a fascinating historical record of the age. Using organized travel, own vehicle of hitchhiking. Paperwork needed. Health. When and how long. With whom. People, theft, books, maps, and yes!, the all-permeating magnet for hippies which they hardly understood in detail, but craved for and were ready to mingle with – religion. Dope, a pragmatic praise of it.
“If that’s what you want, then you are going to the right places! Some people seem to see the overland route as an excuse for a long term high.” And then, the evergreen BIT guides, a bundled bunch of photocopied paper sheets containing references on bus prices, places to stay at, or ways to get the best cheap meals in the Middle East. It was self-advertised through an anti-capitalist rhetoric which glorifies the anti-status quo of self-made education; dubious to the extent to which its terms would now be deemed anticolonial: “There are places where living is cheap, averaging 50p per day, and people are friendlier than in Europe.” “A year in Asia is probably worth ten years’ formal education.” “The hardest part is making the decision to leave – the rest is easy.” The BIT appeared crammed with practical advice with almost aphoristic nature. Two is the ideal number to travel, although a single person could also make it. You’d better have no definite plans. Border crossing is easy if you don’t look too freaky. Travel as lightly as possible. You’ll be adding things to your pack all the way. Be willing to adjust to local food, customs and conditions. Language is no real problem. Wherever there are people, there is food.
The irony of ends
Somehow ironically, the hippie trail lost the battle with the changing of the very status quo it rebelled against, and the occasional advent of the anti-systemic players, as well as a larger shift on the geopolitical scene. From the late 1970s on, global and regional realities came to a point when it became no longer safe to travel the route from West to East, as previously welcoming countries faced a change of regimes. In 1979 the Iranian revolution ended the regime of the Shah, termed tyrannical by some, but otherwise friendly towards the West, and installed in power the Shi‘a theocracy headed by the ayatollah. The Soviet incursion into Afghanistan closed the route for travelers. The Kashmir area became tense with political unrest, the Yom Kippur war of 1973 brought additional instability to the great Levant, the Lebanese military actions in the war of 1975 had an additional devastating effect on the peace of travel within the Middle East.
It seemed like the hippie trail was doomed to remain a piece of a romantic historical past; or on another level, if we look at it from the spiritualized point of view, it returned back where it has ever belonged – to the realm of spiritual fantasy rather than to the domain of rude pragmatism and physical reality. The Silk Road of fascination with the East has only remained to inspire, and for few adventurous enthusiasts, to reenact.