Europe to India via Tehran and Kabul: the Lost World of the Hippie Trail

"Ladies, take special notice. Afghanistan is a heavy duty male chauvinist trip, so try to remember what your dear old Grandmother said about acting like a lady"

Hippiedom was dealt a devastating double blow in 1979. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Islamist revolution in Iran closed off large segments of the so-called Hippie Trail. Bereft of its major route of pilgrimage, the once-dominant counterculture of the West fizzled out, its remnants ridiculed by a new wave of youth rebellions replacing it. 


Using older trade routes as a template, the Hippie Trail had been the favoured grand tour for members of the beat and hippie subculture from the 1950s onwards. It consisted of several starting points in Europe (often London, Athens or Istanbul) and a handful of termini in the Indian subcontinent (Goa, Delhi, Kathmandu) or beyond (Bangkok). From Istanbul, a northern route branched out via Tehran, Kabul and Lahore into India, a southern route passed through Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Iran and southern Pakistan. 

In 1957, the pioneering Indiaman bus made the first of many round trips between London and Calcutta (image taken here from the AEC Gazette, as quoted by The Hippie Trail)

 

A network of hostels, cafes and shops frequented by like-minded travellers was essential to keep the trip as cheap and as 'real' as possible. That network was irreparably breached in 1979.

The hippie philosophy that embraces peace, love and an understanding of various types of hallucinogenics hasn't completely gone out of fashion. Nor has its taste for the exotic. But for today's bohemians, it's all about the destination, not the journey. The sensual and the spiritual dimensions of destinations like Goa, Thailand or Bali are just a plane ride away.

What sounds exotic now is that the Hippie Trail, a.k.a. the Overland, once existed at all: given the current state of the world, it's hard to imagine a constant stream of hedonistic twentysomethings hitching rides from London to Kathmandu, scoring dope in Tehran and Kabul, and generally exhibiting lascivious behaviour with the wild abandon that gets you in trouble with the locals faster than you can say 'angry flash mob'.

London to Delhi via Istanbul and Tehran. With time to spare for a short walk in the Hindu Kush. (taken here from The Hippie Trail)

 

Attitudes have hardened, with permissiveness and tolerance towards alternative lifestyles increasingly rare, in East and West. To quote The Big Lebowski, a film about the frustrations of a group of Sixties holdouts marooned in the Nineties: “Your revolution is over, Mr. Lebowski! The bums lost!”

Even more of a problem is the fact that at no point since 1979 has the entire trail been safe to travel. Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India have all been suffering from varying degrees of violence, from simmering rebellions through civil strife to outright war.

Add to that the deleterious effects of cannabis on memory, and these reasons might explain why, to quote Nick Danforth, “[i]t's proved surprisingly hard to find good maps of the hippie trail, which I'm sure must have existed”. On The Afternoon Map (his excellent cartography blog), he offers a few options, some of which we reproduce here.

The Trail, embellished with some herbal symbols of dubious provenance (image taken here from David Lansing's website)

 

His post also quotes from Head East!, a 1973 travel guide covering the Istanbul to Kathmandu part of the Hippie Trail. For insight into the strange lost world travelled by these hippies, below are some quotes from the book (which is partially reproduced in Mr. Danforth's post).

From the foreword:

People of the East, for the most part, have a much better perspective on life, time, people, drugs and living in general than do those of us who come from the West.”

You might think that backsheeshing the policeman who finds your dope stash is not going to work. But if you're cool, it does.”

When you 'split' from this 'civilized' and constrained Western thought which has not taught you to seize the time, to live each moment, to let yourself feel the real world going on around you and despite you, you will surely draw your first real breath of life.”

On travel costs:

You can live on $2 a day or less throughout the East […] If you have as much as $100 a month, you can afford la grande tour.”

The cost of living [in Europe] is almost as high as it is in the States, so every day spent in Europe means about five lost in the East.”

The Hippie Trail (here from Wikimedia Commons)

On dope:

You'll be following in the footprints of Marco Polo on what is now known as the 'pot trail' and whether you like it or not you are going to see a lot of good, cheap dope around. And it's going to get better and cheaper as you travel. Just one word of warning, be cool and careful, especially in Iran and turkey. Here the police are heavy and the jails are terrible. In very country of the East except Nepal and parts of India dope is illegal. But, east of Iran it is so widely used that there is little or no law enforcement by the authorities. So don't be paranoid, just cool!”

On crossing into Turkey:

Beware of the head customs officer at the Greco/Turkish border. He loves to throw a black rubber snake into the laps of unsuspecting females.”

On finding connections:

As soon as you get a room [in Istanbul], locate the Pudding Shop. The food is overpriced; it's the bulletin board you want to see, not the menu. On [it] are notices for rides and riders wanted, overland buses, [etc.] Put up a notice if you are looking for a ride East.”

The Hippie Trail by someone who's been there and back (taken here from Flickr)

On Turkish food:

Turkish food is good and cheap. Stuff yourself. The food is going to get progressively worse as you go East – or at least until you reach Kabul.”

On Istanbul:

Istanbul is the Turkish version of San Francisco – a wild non-stop mind blowing show. Winding ancient streets, dancing bears, meandering fog, and honking '57 Chevy taxis all conspire to entertain you.”

On hotels in Tabriz:

A good hotel is right on the main circle – the bus stops in front of it – but the name eludes us. (At least we are honest).”

On Islam:

The people of Islam, or Moslems, believe that they are the 'chosen people' of Allah (God). In keeping with their tenets and customs, the women are considered the property of their men-folk. This chattel is subject to prearranged marriages and other such non-liberated customs.”

On VW buses:

The highway [into Teheran] is fairly narrow and with the shoulder a four foot drop and you doing upwards of 90 kms/hr., if you go off for any reason you will surely be injured. V.W. buses beware! Your center of gravity is very high, so carry your load lower and don't make any high-speed sharp turns or swerves.”

On the modernity of Tehran:

Tehran is a gigantic new city with all the traffic congestion and high-rises of the West. The driving in the city is absolutely absurd. The people of the city are very much into becoming modernized, consequently they are rather standoffisch and at times can be very uptight.”

On homes away from home:

The manager [of the Amir Kabir hotel in Teheran] is a very cantankerous guy, but he appreciates freaks.”

On crossing into Pakistan:

In Tai-bad [the first Pakistani town past the border] there is a definite change. Things get even more wild-looking and pushed back in time. This border town is funky.”

On crossing into Afghanistan:

As you are leaving the border station area [at Islam Qala] the guard will probably try to sell you some hash. Don't get paranoid; he is only trying to make a buck. (However, dope is illegal in Afghanistan). If you can't wait until Herat where the hash will be better and cheaper, buy only enough for a couple of joints and don't pay the guard more than 1/3 of what he asks.”

On buying camels (not the cigarettes):

Three German guys, thinking it would be a romantic way of travelling, bought four camels, three to ride and one pack camel. The first night they camped, they hobbled the camels, so they wouldn't wander during the night. In the morning the camels were gone. They had dragged themselves 20 miles, through the desert with their legs tied, back to their former Afghani owner. It turned out that it wasn't the first time that these loyal creatures had returned to their master; he must have sold them many times.”

On ladylike behaviour in Afghanistan:

Ladies, take special notice. Afghanistan is a heavy duty male chauvinist trip, so try to remember what your dear old Grandmother said about acting like a lady. Don't go wandering the back streets at night unescorted. If you are invited to an Afghan home, go only if you are escorted by one or two western males, preferably with one of them claiming he is your husband or brother. […] Above all NEVER call an Afghan a pig no matter how much he might piss you off.”

Why tough hippies are yellow hippies:

DO NOT DRINK THE WATER in Afghanistan unless it has been chemically purified or boiled. You'll meet some 'tough' hippies who will say that they drink the water everywhere. Six weeks later, in Kathmandu, you'll meet the same hippies frantically swallowing iodide tablets rapidly turning a rich shade of yellow, wondering where and how they got infectious hepatitis.”

Some souvenir-buying advice:

Small brass water pipes at 15-20 Afs. and bigger hubbly-bubblies are better and cheaper here than in Kabul. Don't buy shirts in Herat. Wait until Kandahar […] the shirt capital of Afghanistan.”

How to collect hashish in Herat:

Herat features a pancake style hashish. It is hand pressed (often with a little water added), locally grown and unusually grey-green to grey-brown in color. […] A more romantic – but slightly less practical – method for collecting the pollen is to run in a loincloth through the fields and then scrape the pollen from your body and press it, preferably against the warm sweating body of a fellow field nymph or satyr.”

What constitutes exotic cuisine in Kabul:

There are also several German restaurants in Kabul: Siggi's is the cheapest at 30 Afgs. for a dinner.”

Jean Harlow in the bazaar:

The Nixon Bazaar (Old Clothes market) with outrageous thirties to fifties Western clothes is in the main bazaar behind the Mosque. Such items as a 1930's flesh-colored Jean Harlow dress are occasionally up for grabs.”

On where to get stoned:

Things used to be really loose [in Kabul] but 'the times they are a changing'. […] Get stoned, but don't make a public affair of it. The purchasing of large amounts of dope in Kabul is not advisable for two reasons: it's more expensive and there is much more heat.”

Strange Maps #644

Got a strange map? Let me know at strangemaps@gmail.com.

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Maps show how CNN lost America to Fox News

Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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