In the 1960’s, a group of intrepid travellers coined the term the ‘hippie trail’ for the classic overland route from Istanbul to India, crossing Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Lured by tales of the impossibly empty white beaches of Goa, a cheap cost of living, and the promise of an amazing adventure this route became a rite of passage for those coming of age in the counterculture. Brilliantly explored by travel writer Rory Mclean in his book Magic Bus: On the Hippie Trail from Istanbul to India, this route was often undertaken in that most seminal hippy vehicle: the VW Bus.
Alas, major historical events such as the Iranian Revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan put a stop to the hippy trail for a period in the late 1970’s. By the time things were safe enough for the route to reopen, air travel had become cheap enough to make most forgo the long, arduous route through Western Europe, Istanbul, Tehran, Herat, Kandahar, Kabul, Peshawar and Lahore on to India. In the early years of the 21st century, however, people began to return to well travelled route to India, lured by the promise of real adventure,and the chance to travel through places rarely seen by contemporary tourists.
India these days remains a great place to travel by VW Bus. With a high level of mechanical expertise, a still reasonable cost of living, and immense array of cultural wonders, exploring the country in your Kombi gives you the advantage of home comforts wherever you are, while travelling on your own schedule. Here are some indiaphile top tips to make most of your trip.
(1) Make sure your Van is well serviced before you leave the country. Seven thousand miles plus is tough on any vehicle and you’ll be going over some roads which will put a severe strain your beloved Kombi. Stock up on classic VW spare parts from someone like VW Heritage
(2) Road tolls: If you hit a road toll in India, politely ask to see a receipt before paying: fees are often doubled for tourists.
(3) Getting Lost: Coming into a big city like Mumbai can be seriously intimidating, even for a driver that’s done many thousand miles to get there. Pay a rickshaw wallah to guide you to your hotel and learn the back routes in the process.
(4) Keep a first Aid Kit in the Van: You’ll have this anyway if you’re on a long trip but, with Indian road accidents more frequent than anywhere else in the world you’ll want to drive cautiously and defensively at all times and, should you get into a ding, be prepared.
(5) Never get into an argument with another road user: No matter how sure you may be that you’re in the right, our suggestion is that you seek third party advice, ideally from the police, as soon as you find yourself in an altercation with another road user. Tempers can be quick to flare and its best to just keep calm and wait for them to arrive.
(6) Respect non human traffic: Remember that there are all sorts of vehicles on Indian roads such as bullock carts, buffalo, dogs and the occasional elephant, etc. There are no separate lanes for slower moving vehicles so be prepared to drive slowly using brakes very often
(7) Be prepared for marriage parties or religious processions Don’t be shy in taking alternative routes in such situations, like driving on the side unpaved road (if it’s there) or cutting the traffic like others.
(8) There are no campsites: There are no western style campsites in India. You can camp in most areas where you are not causing damage or a nusiance. But it’s always worth checking. In you’re in a village, ask who the head man is and be respectful. Usually, you’ll be welcomed with incredible hospitality.
(9) Sound Horn: In many places in India comercial vehicles, such as trucks and buses, will have signs that read “Sound Horn”. This means that if you honk they will move over slightly so that you may pass. Honk only once and do it politely, if they do not move simply stay behind them. Although they may move to the side, make sure to check for oncoming traffic before you pass.
(10) Respect the rickshaw, they could do anything!: It is not uncommon that drivers of auto-rickshaws will “play chicken” with oncoming traffic while honking their horns, only veering off to avoid a head-on collision at the last possible moment. For that reason alone, driving in India is sometimes considered the ultimate automotive challenge.
The Legal Aspects to foreigners driving in India
- Blood alcohol content limit is 0.3‰ and punishment for going over is severe: First offense may include imprisonment for up to six months and/or a fine of up to 2,000 rupees. A second offense within three years of the first will be two years of imprisonment and a fine of up to 3,000 rupees.
- You may not use a handheld mobile phone while driving in India.
- The only mandatory vehicle insurance in India is third party liability insurance. You have the choice of adding a full-coverage policy, which includes liability against theft and damages by fire, flooding, or earthquakes. Taking into account the road conditions and general living conditions in India, this is probably not a bad idea.
The Hippie Trail
Route: England, the Netherlands, Greece, Bulgaria, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Nepal, India
Best time of year: Any time you feel the need to get away from it all
Ideal time commitment: Two to three months
Essential tip: Check the latest security warnings before travelling to Afghanistan and Pakistan (fco.gov.uk)