From the late 1950s to the mid-1970s, hundreds of thousands of hippies traveled to the Far East in search of adventure, enlightenment, and the world’s best hashish, along what was known as the Hashish or Hippie Trail.
After World War II, the U.S. experienced an economic and cultural boom – leading many well-to-do Westerners to begin vacationing along the old Silk Road (also known as the “overland route”) and later publishing accounts of their adventures.
These tales, along with beatnik Jack Kerouac’s groundbreaking novel “On the Road” – which glorified a Zen, vagabond lifestyle – incited a wanderlust in America’s youth. In 1957 (the same year that “On the Road” was published), Kerouac himself visited Tangiers, Morocco, alongside fellow beat writer William Burroughs, who spent a few years there. As the ‘50s ended and the Beats evolved into Hippies, more counterculture icons began heading East: Beat poet Allen Ginsberg moved to India in the early ‘60s, and in 1967 the Beatles also headed there for a meditation retreat at an ashram.
As a result of these cultural influences, hundreds of thousands of young Americans disillusioned with capitalist consumerism and Cold War paranoia began a decade-long exodus to the East – seeking a freer, simpler life and the ultimate mystical high. Though they didn’t actually call themselves “hippies” – reportedly preferring the terms “intrepids” or “freaks” – this pot-smoking pilgrimage to the hashish capitals of the Old World became widely known as the “Hippie Trail” or “Hashish Trail.”
On The Road
Following in the footsteps of legendary explorers like Alexander the Great and Marco Polo, countless counterculture vagabonds undertook the nearly 6,000-mile overland journey across Eurasia.
Typically starting off from a European city such as London or Amsterdam, these “intrepids” would often travel by train, car, motorcycle or “Kombi” (often garishly painted Volkswagen minivans). But the cheapest, most common modes of transportation along the Trail were either hitchhiking or via the several bargain bus lines that emerged to serve the ever-growing influx of hippie hash seekers, such as the Indiaman Bus Company (who offered rides from London to Bombay for around $45), Amsterdam’s Magic Bus, Budget Bus and Swagman Tours (a.k.a. the “Asian Greyhound”). These companies marketed inexpensive fares to the hippie crowd via underground publications and bulletin boards at various Hippie Trail hotspots.
While there was no formal or definitive trail, these journeys typically followed one of two main paths: a Northern route, which passed through Tehran, Kandahar, Kabul and Lahore en route to India and Nepal, and a Southern route, which instead passed through Syria, Jordan, Iraq and Pakistan. Regardless of the specific route, however, almost all of these pilgrimages (which would take several weeks or even months to complete) passed through certain hubs that offered travelers access to rest, restaurants, resources, connection with fellow Cannabis-loving compatriots and of course, killer hand-made hashish.
The Pudding Shop
As the only metropolitan city to straddle Europe and Asia, Istanbul, Turkey (a.k.a. the “Gateway to the East”) was where all routes converged. And for any freaks passing through Istanbul, there was one essential stop: The Pudding Shop.
Opened in 1957, the Lale Pastanesi (Turkish for “Tulip Pastry Shop”) was a small restaurant/dessert shop on the city’s imperial avenue (Divan Yolu) that was nicknamed “The Pudding Shop” by Western visitors who frequented it due to its variety of cheap and delicious Turkish puddings.
Before long, The Pudding Shop became the hub for all Hippie Trail activity in the city – a phenomenon the owners encouraged. To capitalize on the increased patronage and publicity, they actually had a sign made of the new nickname and hung it in front of the shop. They also installed a bulletin board where travelers could leave messages, post travel tips, and solicit or offer rides. Remarkably, this message board became the only place in the city where information about inexpensive transportation to Asia was available to Western tourists.
Kabul & the Hindu Kush
Long before the U.S. or Soviet invasions, or the Islamic Revolution, Afghanistan was actually a pretty progressive place that was warm and welcoming to Westerners. Various accounts from that time – including those of future travel gurus like Rick Steves and Lonely Planet founders Maureen and Tony Wheeler – tell of bus drivers, hotel managers, and even customs agents smoking hookahs with travelers and offering them gifts of free hashish. According to the Wheelers, by the early 1970s, Kabul was actually “in danger of becoming a tourist trap” – with an average of around 5,000 hippies in the city at any given time.
Like in Istanbul, there was a specific part of town that catered to the influx of hippie tourists. In Kabul, that place was called Chicken Street – a narrow, two-block-long marketplace crammed with eateries, hotels and various shops selling clothing, rugs and trinkets. Oh … and you could buy hashish and opium there, too.
Leaving Kabul, the route continues along the southern edge of the Himalayan Mountains in a region known as the Hindu Kush (or, as the Greeks called it, Caucasus Indicus), where the potent, portly “indica” variety of Cannabis first originated. It was Hippie Trail travelers who first brought seeds of these strains (such as Afghani and Kush) back with them to Europe and North America – and it was those genetics that then laid the foundation for most of the popular cultivars we enjoy today.
Gaga for Goa
Next, the Trail traverses the infamous Khyber Pass into Pakistan and India. At that point, travelers had a choice: either turn south into India, or continue southeast along the Himalayan foothills and up into Nepal.
In the winter, many would head down to the town of Goa on India’s west coast for its warm weather and water. Originally a Portuguese colony before being annexed by India in 1961, Goa retained many of its European sensibilities and famously welcomed foreigners. In fact, Goans have a trademark term for their indolent, indulgent lifestyle: susegad, from the Portuguese word sossegado, meaning “quiet.” That philosophy, along with its beautiful beaches, lack of police presence and accessibility to drugs (particularly hashish and LSD), made Goa what has been described as “a counterculture Nirvana.” Indeed, Anjuna Beach’s legendary full moon parties have attracted many hash icons over the years, including Mila Jansen and Frenchy Cannoli.
K, K, K, K, K, K, Kathmandu
During the warmer months, however, the most popular terminus of the Trail was Nepal’s fabled capital of Kathmandu.
Boasting one of the oldest hashish-making traditions in the world, Nepal is renowned for its hand-collected, hand-pressed hash known as “charas.” Charas is typically rolled into what is called Temple Balls, which were sold legally at cafes and hashish shops all around the country. And just like Chicken Street in Kabul and The Pudding Shop in Istanbul, there was one particular section of town that the hippies all gravitated to: in this case, Jochen Tole Street in Kathmandu Durbar Square, better known by the nickname Freak Street.
Freak Street became the epicenter of the counterculture in Nepal thanks to its concentration of hotels, eateries, tattoo parlors and most importantly, its three dozen government-licensed hash shops – the most famous of which was the legendary Eden Hashish Center. Opened in around 1970 by owner Devi Dhatta Sharma (nicknamed the “Ganja Raja”), Eden was a five-story Cannabis dispensary catering exclusively to tourists that featured a warehouse floor, a showroom floor, and a consumption lounge floor loaded with comfy couches and beds.
Sharma brilliantly marketed the shop to Westerners with a series of calendar posters featuring images of Hindu gods and goddesses and English writing that served as perfect souvenirs – and later, as sought-after collectors’ items. The business became so successful that in 1973, Sharma opened the Eden Hotel: a nine-story luxury hotel one block south of Freak Street, whose “Heavenly Pleasure Room” served a selection of hash-infused foods and drinks.
Unfortunately for him, the flow of tourists was about to dry up.
The End of the Trail
Sadly, during the mid to late ’70s, several wars erupted that would spell doom for the Hippie Trail – including America’s War on Drugs. In 1973, the Nixon Administration reportedly paid a $47-million bribe to King Zahir Shah to have him declare Cannabis and hashish illegal in Afghanistan. Three years later, bowing to U.S. pressure, Nepal also banned Cannabis products. Then, a series of military conflicts across the Middle East and Asia – including the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979 – quickly made many nations along the Trail inhospitable and dangerous to Western travelers, effectively ending tourism in the region.
Today, few remnants remain of the old Hippie Trail. The Pudding Shop is still open, but other than some old photos and clippings on the wall, it’s essentially just a tourist trap. The hash shops on Freak Street were long ago replaced by conventional businesses, and tragically much of the neighborhood was destroyed or heavily damaged by an earthquake in 2015.
But hey – I hear Goa is still pretty chill, at least…
To hear one hippie’s tales from the trail, listen to Episode 23 of our Cannthropology podcast at worldofcannabis.com/cannthropology or wherever you get your podcasts.