A milieu-matching restaurant on Freak Street from Desmond Doig’s book My Kind of Kathmandu.
Perhaps it’s the reflective, introspective mood brought on by the lockdown, or the re-examination of history as we seek to define Nepal’s border limits, but the media has recently seen considerable nostalgic chatter about the distant days when Kathmandu was a hippie haven.
The freedom of the well-worn Hippie Trail of the early 1970s, overland from Istanbul to Kathmandu, seems unimaginable in today’s world of COVID-19 travel restrictions – during this pandemic we can only dream of the joys of the open road.
From the mid-1960s, hordes of hippies in search of Shangri-La bussed or hitchhiked through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India before culminating in our Valley paradise, the end of the road. They came in tens of thousands pursuing enlightenment, preaching peace, finding themselves, escaping conformity, defying convention or fleeing the Draft, packed into gaudily-painted combis, busses and trucks resonating with Bob Dylan and Van Morrison.
Constrained by centuries of insecurity and conflict, the turbulent regimes along their overland route learned little from their legacy, persisting in more war than peace, more hate than love. Coinciding with the Haight-Ashbury movement, the respite in hostilities presented a brief window of opportunity. Seldom has this section of the Silk Road been safe for travelers to transit since Marco Polo passed this way, protected by the Mongol Khan’s engraved tablet laissez passez.
Back in London, the ebullient Tony Jones was one of the first to capitalize on the trend, organizing truckloads of punters to drive to Kathmandu in his specially converted Encounter Overland vehicles. Keen to know more, one spring morning over a decade ago, I sat on a yellow cushioned cane chair in the garden of a dilapidated homestead just outside Nuwakot. The neat rows of vegetables and ranks of blossoming fruit trees in the orchard reflected Tony’s British army background.
Long since settled in Pokhara, Tony was in the process of rebuilding what became the Famous Farm, twinned with his game-changing Old Inn which he had cleverly and carefully restored in the center of Bandipur, the original inspiration of the tourist rehabilitation of that by-passed Newar trading town. Tony and his team pioneered rural heritage accommodation in historic village houses.
“There’s a good chap, do get a move on, chito chito!” Tony Jones was hanging off a carved balcony of the rambling Newar farmhouse, waving his hammer and yelling at Laxman who laboured up the narrow staircase under a pile of wooden planks. Grinning, Laxman dumped them noisily on the exposed beams at Tony’s feet. Together, they laid and nailed them into place. Puffing with exertion, Tony continued to mutter in Nepali interspersed with English cockney expletives.
Distracted by the hammering but enjoying the banter, his wife and I shared a companionable pot of tea. I wanted to know more about managing the logistics of those unique overland operations, plus Rinchen was planning a big drive from the UK to Mongolia in a beat-up old car.
“Two pieces of advice for your son driving to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. First is be careful not to cross the Thames too many times as you leave London – most of my drivers got lost on their way to Folkstone before even reaching the English Channel!” Tony has a deep deprecating laugh, his eyes glazing as he remembered those far-off days despatching truckloads of eager overlanders.
“And never be the last in a convoy of vehicles! Fatal.” Which is exactly what happened to Rinchen when his engine flooded going through a river on the edge of the Gobi Desert and he sat powerless and increasingly desperate whilst his mates disappeared over the sandy horizon – but that’s another story.
The Hippie Trail’s terminus was Jhochen, Freak Street and I arrived there from the opposite direction towards the end of their era in March 1974. Have travelled from Bali by train through Malaysia and Thailand, my first glimpse of the then-emerald Valley was through the grimy windows of a United Burma Airways plane from Yangon. As we circled over the rice terraces, the afternoon sun glinted off the golden spires of Swayambhu and the white dome of Bodnath flashed beneath us.
The long-haired, beaded, colourfully-clad, chillum-toting hippies thronging the medieval streets of Basantapur when I first arrived in Kathmandu were no doubt free spirits, dropping out and hanging loose. Joints were rolled openly on table tops, ganja was legal and hashish-laced cookies featured on menus in the cafes, restaurants, and pie shops blaring western music that had flourished to cater to their alternative needs.
More interested in getting high and higher trekking than tripping, I soon grew impatient with the smoke-blurred far-out cross-legged posturing, checked out of my six-rupee a night City Lodge, and headed for the hills.
But it is simplistic and misleading to say hippies came to Nepal only for the dope. They were also tuned in to the chilled Himalayan hospitality, timeless culture, spiritual vibes, temple bells, chanting monks, and exotic mountain mystery that the remote Kingdom offered in spades. They perched picturesquely on the pyramid steps to witness Newar festivals and religious ceremonies, admired rooftop sunsets on the pink peaks, and pottered the streets amidst the ancient rituals of daily worship.
Between the cycle rickshaws, tiger taxis, lounging bulls and grazing goats, their dusty decorated vans parked on palace cobbles or unmade bazaar lanes – the few other vehicles of the 1970s were UN-emblazoned SUVs, black palace limos with tinted windows, and the occasional vintage car carried in for the Ranas.
The demise of Kathmandu’s hippie scene was not only precipitated by President Nixon’s global crusade against drugs that leveraged Nepal’s leaders to ban cannabis, marijuana, and the harder stuff but more that King Birendra wanted the Valley tidied up prior to the arrival of royal guests and world dignitaries for his lavish state coronation. By the time he and the Queen swayed down a spotless Durbar Marg on their jewel-encrusted elephant on the auspicious date of 4 February 1975, their death knell had sounded, visitor visas had evaporated and the hippies had departed.
When I came back in late 1975, only the hard-core were still to be found in Nepal – explorers, entrepreneurs, art dealers, dreamers, poets and devout students of Hindu and Buddhist philosophy. Many returned later in life with respectable friends and families to holiday in the ultimate destination of their errant youth. Thus the hippie subculture usefully kick-started Nepal’s nascent tourism with both American dollars and an enduring flower-power image.
And some are still here to this day, including Tony Jones and myself, although neither of us would consider ourselves successful hippies. We just happened to be around at the time.