I learned recently that in the 60s and 70s there were a lot of hippies or freaks, as at least some of them preferred to call themselves, who took a trip overland from Istanbul to Kathmandu, a route you really wouldn’t want to take today: Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India. There is a street in Kathmandu still referred to as Freak Street because that’s where a lot of them spent their time. The ones who made it. Most of them had very little money and took cheap buses and hitched. Patrick Marnham’s book describes his own journey in 1968 in such unsentimental detail that I don’t understand why anyone who read it would want to recreate it, except, of course, if you really wanted hashish. Back then, once you hit Afghanistan, the drugs were cheap, plentiful and no one cared if you did them. This changed in the 70s along with great political upheaval in much of the region. How big a factor the unknown thousands of freaks were in what followed is not known. How many went? How many died? Or got sick and went home? Who knows? If you Google hippie overland trail, you’ll find a number of websites which share the stories of some people who went back then. There aren’t too many books on the subject and some of them are written the way you’d think a freak who’d been stoned a lot would write. Marnham is clear-eyed and interesting although his style is so reporter-like that it is hard at first to figure out that most of the way there’s only him and his friend John Perkins, which I wouldn’t have known without the intro to the 2005 edition. He fictionalized it so there’s no knowing how much is true, but it doesn’t read like fiction.
I can think of few things I want to do less than hitchhike through the desert in a truck in danger of breaking down any minute not knowing when or what your next meal might be. This is a level of freedom I’m not comfortable with. Presumably the hash made it tolerable, but there are so many things bad things that can and did happen: extortionate fares, broken down vehicles, washed out roads, scorpions, sexual advances, miscommunication, theft, jail, freezing, broiling heat, no water, the list is almost endless and the joys seem few and far between. There don’t seem to be any remarkable sites, beautiful buildings, there is, I guess some scenery, but the book has no pictures, so again, Google is your friend. There are a lot of great pictures out there which will give you a good idea of what it was like. Marnham describes many days, but how many he does not say. He also spends little time in Kathmandu, which was one of the reasons I picked the book. Knowing a bit about what it used to be like was one of the things I was hoping to learn. Instead he describes how Rat spent his time there – Rat, the fictional character. He also describes some of the people who wound up in the hospital and one who died. As I said earlier, he doesn’t sugarcoat it and apparently lots of people still wanted to do this. As he says in the foreword to the 2005 edition, “Can people who eat so badly they cannot sell their own blood be held responsible for anything?” Probably not. But I’m not sure what it would mean to hold them responsible. If you’re interested in Kathmandu, I’d give this one a miss, but if you’re interested in what it was like to travel the hippie trail East, it’s a good choice.
This fulfills the far-flung location book for the Wild Goose Chase and is my sixth (ack!) of the increasingly unlikely #20booksofsummer.