In the late 1960s through to the end of the 1970s, hundreds of thousands of counter-culture youth embarked on a voyage along the now-legendary Hippie Trail. The overland route loosely traced the footsteps of both Alexander the Great and the Silk Road. Starting at the edge of the European continent in Istanbul, Turkey, the Hippie Trail meandered through Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and Nepal, where it reached its conclusion in Kathmandu.
Winding across Asia, these mercurial vagabonds abandoned the materialistic Cold War mindsets of the United States, Western Europe, and Australia. They hoped to be transformed by the foreign cultures of the region; to discover something spiritually palpable in an era wrought with war and civil unrest.
In their travels, the trail’s eccentric pioneers infused their deep mistrust for the establishment with a sense of adventure, writes Agnieszka Sobocinska in her article “Following the Hippie Sahibs.” It gave birth to the contemporary notion of “alternative travel,” which was grounded in ideals of culturally genuine travel experiences.
In their attempts to experience the locales of the Hippie Trail more holistically than with traditional traveling, voyagers toured about on a tight budget and absorbed all they needed from local people along the way.
Perhaps the most common social cord between these starry-eyed youth and the populaces of western Asia came in the form of marijuana use. Not surprisingly, as Boštjan Kravanja writes in his review of the book Thai Stick: Surfers, Scammers, and the Untold Story of the Marijuana Trade, the term “hippie trail” is often used synonymously with the term “hash route”.
A large reason for the association of cannabis and the hippie trail is the fact that areas along the route—most notably in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India—provide exceptional environments for growing cannabis plants. These regions of the Himalayan foothills feature hot, dry summers with an abundance of sunshine.
West Asian Cannabis and 1960s Psychedelia
The rise in popularity of the Hippie Trail in the 1960s came in conjunction with a mainstream fascination with the Orient, coupled with the utopian fantasies of psychedelic America. In the US, young people were drawn to psychedelic pioneers like Timothy Leary and Ken Kesey, whom promoted the use of substances including cannabis and hashish.
In Britain, a trip to an Indian guru and ashram in Rishikesh in February of 1968 further brought the idea of Asia as a stylish locale into the mainstream. Even more, notions of exotic travel and Eastern mysticism blended seamlessly with a semi-naïve fascination with consciousness expansion and new-age spirituality.
For Leary’s part, in his book The Psychedelic Experience, he attempts to find congruencies between Buddhism’s the Tibetan Book of the Dead and the hallucinogenic experience, writes Sobocinska.
Afghanistan: The Garden of Eden for Cannabis Indica
While the current political state of affairs in Afghanistan makes its significance on the hippie trail rather counterintuitive, the country has long possessed an extremely rich cultural heritage. The populace was also far more welcoming to outsiders in the pre-Soviet years before 1979.
In fact, according to Christian Caryl in “When Afghanistan Was Just a Stop on the ‘Hippie Trail’”, Afghanistan was one of the most anticipated stops on their great pilgrimage to the otherworldly and ancient.
The New Statesman’s article “Dark Side of the Hippie Trail” describes how youth came “traveling in ancient Austins, rainbow-colored double-deckers, and fried-out VW Kombis”, hoping that their “great journey would lead to a better world”. As one traveler recalls: “You could easily linger for weeks [in Afghanistan], getting high, feasting on cheap kebab or venturing out to the fantastic archaeological sites that dotted the city [of Kabul] and its environs.”
More importantly, a large portion of the Hippie Trail’s Afghanistan leg passes along a portion of the Himalayan Mountains known as the Hindu Kush. The importance of this area of Afghanistan in cannabis culture cannot be overstated.
The famous Afghani strain and its subsequent phenotypes is sourced from the subspecies cannabis afghanica. The name Hindu Kush has reached mythological proportions in modern cannabis culture; it lends its name to some of the most popular strains in the world.
In a similar vein, the ancient Greeks referred to the Hindu Kush region as Caucasus Indicus, which may be the root source of the term ‘indica’.
India: Mythological Cannabis and the Inheritance of Ritual
The travelers of the Hippie Trail entered India with anticipatory eyes, in which “the West’s greyness and dullness were juxtaposed to the color and chaos of the imagined East,” writes Sobocinska. It was here that young Hippie Trail travelers encountered perhaps the most influential element of Oriental culture: the cannabis smoking practices of Hindu holy men, or sādhus, writes Theodore M. Godlaski in the article “Shiva, Lord of Bhang”.
In India, followers of the Hindu religion have been using cannabis—which they call bhang—for almost 3,500 years. According to Godlaski, sacred doctrines of Hinduism known as the Rig Vedas describe the genesis of the marijuana species as a place where amarita, or sacred nectar, fell to the earth and “sprouted the first cannabis plant”.
Indian sādhus smoke buds or hashish out of pipes called chillums, and pass the chillum clockwise in a circular fashion “in rituals or worship, meditation, or yogic practice,” writes Godlaski.
While outsiders cannot easily enter into a sacred smoking ritual with Hindu sādhus—nor is the notion of passing a pipe in a circular fashion indigenous to India—it is worth noting that Western, modern cannabis smoking also functions in a ritualistic fashion.
Likewise, it is safe to assume that in using cannabis in a similar communal manner, travelers of the hippie trail and contemporary smokers alike have devised a collective social ritual that blurs and overcomes cultural boundaries.
Perhaps this is one element of Western drug culture that is long since forgotten or just plain ignored: hippie trail participants infused their own curiosity about the East with consciousness expansion—and stumbled into something larger than themselves.
It’s evident that no matter how naïve or idealistic these kids were, the mysterious instillations of exotic lands and cannabis smoking manifested an elixir of the sacred, which had to have been instructive.
These cross-cultural immersions in the mystical resurface today with the ritualized sharing of cannabis in a circle of friends, where, as on the hippie trail, the ceremony exposes something far older, and far stranger, than oneself.