Back in the mid-1950s to the late 1970s, Afghanistan was, in fact, a major tourism destination. A variety of folks would be found in the plethora of hotels and tourism agencies in Kabul and other cities. The “hippie trail,” as it was known in Europe, crossed a multitude of Muslim countries, causing a boom in tourism industries and providing economic opportunities for the locals.
Indeed, some of our elderly Muslims’ conversions have roots in this trail. A one-on-one, authentic experience with the art, culture, and religion of the Muslim world led to the ocasional shahada.
As Betty tells us, many people came to Afghanistan back then, which had a booming tourism industry:
Before the trail grew cold, you could once catch a bus from London to Delhi with just $45, and for a little extra, you could take the scenic route into the Indian subcontinent via Turkey, Lebanon, Kashmir, Iran and Afghanistan, stopping at hotels, restaurants and cafés along the way that catered almost exclusively to cannabis-smoking Westerners.
They were known as the overlanders; mainly young Europeans, North Americans and Australians in search of alternative tourism, who traveled as cheaply as possible from the late 1950s to the 1970s, networking with other adventurers and hippies as they traversed the off-beat routes by bus, rail or thumb. The roads were also shared by the overlanders who chose to make their own way across the foreign landscapes in banged up second-hand cars, VW vans and motorcycles, many of which would never make it back west (vehicle or perpetual traveler).
In the late 1960s, more and more students in search of an escape and hippies in search of enlightenment, began to sell their record collections and save up for the voyage of a lifetime to the “mystic east”. The Beatles had just been on a highly publicised visit to India in 1968, and with no internet or Lonely Planet guides, cheap tickets and tour operators were hotly advertised in the underground press and music magazines.
Overlanders were not in search of luxury accommodation; wealthy or not, the goal was to rough it and “go native”. Overlanders on the hippie trail often adopted the native style of dress and spent a lot more time interacting with the locals than traditional tourists in other parts of the world.
Granted, a big reason these regions were so magnetic was the natural marijuana that grew all over the mountains (which some less-pious Afghans still smoke today, almost like professionals at it).
Where the European rail routes ended in Turkey is where the hippie trail essentially began. Overlanders could catch cheap local transport from Istanbul or meet other western travellers with vans and talk their way into hitching a ride with them. This usually went down at the infamous hippie spot in Istanbul, the Pudding Shop, the nickname of the Lâle Restaurant that served cheap but excellent Turkish pudding. It was just about the only place in the city where tourist information about transportation to Asia was readily available.
While some overlanders were rumoured to have made it from Damascus to New Delhi on $6 and spent months traveling the east, others would eventually run out of money, occasionally get into trouble and land themselves in jail, or even worse, have to be flown home by their parents! A determined few found ways to support themselves and still live there today, mostly in India.
But in the late 1970s came the end of the road for the overlanders. 1979 was the year Russia invaded Afghanistan, plunging the country into years of armed conflict, and that same year the American puppet in Iran was finally ousted by the Iranian Revolution. After years of oppression by the West, the Iranians finally closed their doors.
There’s a group on Flickr of a collection of photos from that time. Amazing…