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Back in the 1970s, before Afghanistan imploded and the shah still sat on the throne in Iran, apart from a short flight into Rangoon and out the other side, you could travel from Singapore to London by land. Britain still held powerful allure, a couple of years squashed into a flat in Hammersmith a rite of passage, but the getting there had changed.
Instead of four weeks on a P&O Cruise ship it was six months on the hippie trail, at about the same price. Dropping out was cool and ideologically correct, but really, taking the overland route was all a great lark, a putting-off of mortgages and the 9-to-5 straitjacket.
It was a pilgrimage, with shrines along the way. Chicken Street in Kabul, the Pudding Shop in Istanbul, the Chai and Pie in Kathmandu. For some it was a quest. Lives were changed, and you learned a few things on the hippie trail that no backpacker today ever has to grapple with.
The bible was Across Asia on the Cheap, a slender blue paperback with a cover price of $1.80, published in 1973 by Tony Wheeler, the first in a series of globe-spanning guidebooks that would become the Lonely Planet empire. After preliminary forays to cover the essentials â€“ Money, Food, Vaccinations, Dope, where to get a fake student card, Maps â€“ “you really don’t need maps at all” â€“ the serious travelling began with Indonesia on page 35, and 59 pages later you were in Istanbul.
The highlights of India were wrapped up in two pages. Leafing through its pages now reveals just how different the world was then.
“You can ship a motorcycle from Fremantle to Singapore for $30.”
“You could hitch all the way to Europe.”
On “money”, it suggested a bare minimum of $US500 would finance three or four months of travel.
“Embassies? They’re really very little use, they won’t bail you out of trouble.”
“Playing the black market isn’t as risky as it sounds.”
â€‹See also:Â 10 things travellers probably shouldn’t be doing
There were places where blood could be monetised. As a blood owner you could sell yours, and unloading an armful was fairly lucrative. I did it in Tehran and the proceeds got us to Turkey. There was even a coupon for a free meal for two at the nearest cafe. Blood was even more valuable in the Gulf States, so much so that some were prepared to travel to Kuwait for the express purpose of selling theirs.
Hard currency and consumer goods were scarce in many Asian countries, and this could be worked to your advantage. Myanmar,Â for example, was only slightly more accessible than North Korea is today. The Burmese, therefore, had a zesty appetite for consumer goods.
To exploit this deficit, all you had to do was purchase a duty-free bottle of Johnny Walker and a carton of 555 cigarettes, sell them to a taxi driver when you arrived in Rangoon and the profit would enable you to travel for a week, which was all that your visa allowed.
India was only slightly less restricted and aÂ SLR camera or a battery-powered calculator could yield a huge profit. In Laos, where the Pathet Lao had just taken possession, you could change Â $US20 on the black market for a brick-sized wad of cash. Myanmar, by the way, was completely mad, and nothing worked.
Magic Bus began shunting the happy wanderers on the hippie trail between London and Kathmandu in the 1970s, or was it the 1960s? Everything was a bit hazy back then. It promised a magic carpet ride to exotic realms, but it was all a bit of a con.
Low on funds, and in the middle of a freezing winter, my girlfriend and I took a Magic Bus from Istanbul to Amsterdam via Athens. It was an eventful trip. Several times the bus caught fire. One of our fellow passengers was the sister of a British boy imprisoned for transporting hashish in Turkey, put there by his mother who used him as her personal drug mule, figuring his youth removed him from suspicion.
Crossing the border from Austria to Germany, our driver was told he wasn’t licensed to travel with passengers. In the middle of the night we were dropped off short of the crossing and trooped across one by one while the driver took the bus across â€“ and drove off into the night, with all our belongings. After about an hour the bus came screaming back down the autobahn, executed a tyre-screeching U-turn in front of the customs post, pulled up and in some haste we piled in.
French hippies were hardcore. They had even less cash than we did. They tended to coagulate in India because they could scrape by on next to nothing and their bargaining skills were razor sharp. French hippies would haggle over the price of a boiled egg but they were incredibly cool and sophisticated. Also easily identified because they wore scarves in a way no oneÂ else could ever imitate. What is it with the French, do they take kindergarten classes in scarf knotting?
Today you can buy purified water in plastic bottles anywhere from Almaty to Zanzibar. Not so back in the 1970s. Apart from Singapore and major cities in Malaysia where the water was clean, tap water was a high risk commodity fromÂ Bali toÂ Athens. What you drank instead wasÂ carbonated beverages. Coke, Pepsi, Limca in India and tea anywhere west of Thailand, but milk was tempting fate. By today’s medical standards we were probably severely dehydrated.
In Peshawar in western Pakistan, a stronghold of the Pashtun people, you could buy a pistol or an AK-47 assault rifle on the street. Pashtun men strolled about with rifles and shotguns slung over their shoulders. That was a prelude to the Khyber Pass, and Afghanistan. People disappeared in Afghanistan, just evaporated without trace. In Kabul I was asked how much I paid for my girlfriend, with the suggestion there could be a profit in it were she to change hands. The Afghans played the game of life by different rules. Nobody who ever went there in the 1970s would have been dumb enough to send troops to fight in Afghanistan.
We wrote and received letters from friends and family. It was haphazard, but you discovered that being incommunicado is wonderfully liberating. Your loved ones wrote to you c/o poste restante and the central post office would hold letters for collection, at least in theory. Sometimes your mail would be filed under your Christian name but surprisingly it worked, most of the time. In some places you were advised to take your letter to the post office and watch them stamp the postmark, thus avoiding the possibility that the stamps could be peeled off and re-sold.