The hippie trail

It was the fashionable thing for young people to do in the 1970s: to head off east on what became known  as "the hippie trail" - overland to Asia.  With the passing of the hippie movement, the fad died away, but there were other contributing factors: the increased availability of low-cost flights and the tightening of border restrictions.  Whilst the cost of air travel continues to fall in real terms, border controls are slowly but surely easing to allow the possibility of the overland trail re-establishing itself as a passage to India or further east for those with time on their hands.  Whether a new hippie trail will emerge will depend on social trends but the possibility is now there again.

Over the last twenty or so years there have been a number of obstacles preventing or at least hindering travel across Asia.  Political unrest, isolationist regimes and war put such useful links as Iran, Afghanistan, Laos, Vietnam and Tibet off limits.

Not so long ago the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc, as they then were, were difficult too.  Now it is simple to travel across Eastern Europe or through the Baltic States to Moscow, from where the Trans-Siberian express train can carry you either to Nakhodka for an onward boat to Japan, or more commonly to Beijing either through or around Mongolia.  An adventure to organise in the past, numerous specialist travel agencies can now organise your transport to China or Japan.  The trip may still throw up its own adventures, but the planning has never been easier.

That is the most straightforward way of reaching the Far East without leaving the planet's surface, but there are one or two more adventurous alternatives.  A new rail link between China and Central Asia has opened up the possibility of varying the above route by turning right at Moscow and travelling by train through Kazakhstan and Xinjiang (Chinese Turkestan) - fascinating regions in themselves but with rail and road connections to China and to the rest of Central Asia (Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan are highlights).  There is also a legal but less convenient border crossing between Kyrgyzstan and Kashgar in the same region of China.  These journeys are a lot more difficult to organise as regards ticketing and especially visas but should become easier as they become more popular.

Once you've reached Asia, you'll doubtless be looking for a different route on your way back to Europe.  Once you've got yourself to India (and I'll tell you how to do that shortly) it's not difficult, depending on your nationality and your government's relationship with Iran, to travel across through Pakistan to Quetta in the south, from there to Iran if you've been lucky with your visa application and onward to Turkey.  From there the Middle East and Europe are your oysters.  A few foolhardy travellers choose to vary this route by taking a short cut from northern Pakistan through Afghanistan to north-eastern Iran (which can also be accessed from Turkmenistan if that's any help to you) but the Afghan route is not recommended until that country stabilises.

If getting to Asia used to be difficult, travelling around by land within the continent was harder still.  Assuming that you've got yourself to China following the above instructions, where can you go from there?  Nepal and India lie a fascinating and epic journey away to the west but in the way stand the Himalayas.  Thankfully there are two ways across.

Over the last fifteen years or so, Tibet has opened and closed almost as many times as the camera shutters of those who have made it there.  These days it tends to be permanently open, at least in summer when the high passes are clear, but travel restrictions in Tibet can vary from one week to the next and make life for the independent traveller difficult at times.  If you arrive in Chinese Turkestan from Central Asia, you could always try the illegal route south and east from Kashgar to central Tibet.  Otherwise, entry to the "Tibetan Autonomous Region" by land from China has to be via Golmud in Gansu province, by a ridiculously expensive bus journey or illegal hitch-hiking.

From Lhasa, a well-trodden path by Toyota Landcruiser leads you to the border with Nepal, from where there are simple connections with Kathmandu and, of course, onward to India if, like your hippie predecessors, that is your final destination.  An alternative and almost as scenic route from China to the Indian subcontinent is via the high-altitude Karakoram Highway from Kashgar, previously mentioned, to Gilgit and Rawalpindi in Pakistan.  It should be noted, however, that the border crossing between China and Pakistan is only open to foreigners in summer months, and cannot be crossed at all when the Khunjerab Pass is snowbound.  Passage to India from Pakistan is via the only legal border crossing between Lahore and Amritsar.

If your interest lies instead in south-east Asia, you still won't be disappointed.  Less than a decade ago, Vietnam was a destination only for the rich.  Now it has witnessed the huge income tourism has brought to nearby Thailand and has opened its doors wide to the inevitable hordes of independent travellers.  Visas are not cheap, and are even more costly (for no apparent reason) if you want to arrive and/or leave overland.  In February 1996, the warming of relations between Vietnam and China, formerly hostile neighbours, resulted in the reopening of the railway line linking Beijing and Hanoi: a mammoth journey of two and a half days in total that is not recommended in its entirety, but the section from Nanning in southern China to Vietnam's capital will doubtless prove to be popular.  In truth, this border crossing (and another on the railway line linking Hanoi to Kunming and the many other attractions of Yunnan province, south-west China) had before been, and still remains, open but not for more than a year or so.  One simply had to change trains at the border and walk for a short stretch.  These developments, together with the easing of visa regulations in neighbouring Laos, have really opened up fascinating new possibilities for overland travel in Asia.

Continuing west, then, one can now cross by land from Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in the south of Vietnam to Cambodia and the undoubted attractions of Phnom Penh and Angkor - relatively safe at the time of writing but check on the security position before you go.  Onward travel from Cambodia into Laos or Thailand is not at all recommended or even possible much of the time, because of the security problems in the north of Cambodia.  Crossing to Thailand around the coast by boat from Sihanoukville is often possible, but this is not a legal entry point, so one has to grovel to the Thai immigration authorities and hope for the best.  Crossing the other way is also illegal and is harder to ratify.  You can, however, go back to Vietnam the way you came and from there to Laos and on to Thailand.

Alternatively, you can miss out on what Vietnam and Cambodia have to offer but see the best of Laos by, instead of all this, crossing between the minority Xishuangbanna region of Yunnan Province, China and Nam Tha in northern Laos.  Laos will surely be the next country to be hit by the backpacker boom.  It was closed to tourists for many years, the socialist regime fearing the negative effects of mass tourism on culture and morals, and doubtless on its own secure position.  The last country in the region to open its doors to foreigners, at first it was accessible only by expensive escorted tour groups, but tourist visas are now easy, if expensive, to obtain independently.  Crossing by land is straightforward between Hué (central Vietnam) and Savannakhet (south Laos) through the area of the Ho Chi Minh trail used by the Viet Cong army to transport supplies to its forces around the demarcation line and the inaccurately titled De-militarised Zone.  Doubtless as both Laos and Vietnam open their doors more widely, other more convenient border crossings will become possible.

From Laos there are numerous border crossings with Thailand, mostly across the Mekong river.  Just pick your spot, but to name a few that I've tried and tested myself: Nong Khai to Vientiane, Ubon Ratchathani to Pakse and Chiang Khong to Houay Xai.  Once you've made it to Thailand, the possibilities for onward travel are well established.  To your south by train or bus are Malaysia and Singapore.  From Malaysia it's a short boat ride to Sumatra, Indonesia.  Travelling part way through the Indonesian archipelago to Bali, you can even find the occasional boat destined for the north of Australia.

So we find ourselves on the other side of the world in less time than Jules Verne could ever have imagined, and it's been so fast that our feet have hardly touched the ground, except that of course they've never left it, or at least never been far from it.  I have often wondered if my preoccupation with overland travel is just to be able to take out a map of the world and trace a long continuous line across it.  That always feels like an achievement, and it's certainly something to impress your friends with when you get home.  The real rewards, however, are reaped on the road.  Borders are often formed by natural obstacles: wide rivers, tall mountains, dense forests - all very picturesque areas to travel through.  More than this, however, the people that live in border regions are so often a unique and fascinating blend or clash of cultures or ideologies, whether it be the friction between Tibetan or Uighur with Chinese, the Lao customs of north-east Thailand, Afghan refugees in north-west Pakistan, or the minority peoples of Thailand, Laos, Burma, Vietnam and China who are unconcerned with national borders.  The benefit is certainly not in the saving of an air fare: it is significantly more expensive to reach Asia by surface than by air, but you miss so much from thirty thousand feet.

In case you were wondering, there's still one missing link in the chain.  The circle would be complete if you could cross from Thailand to Burma and from there into Bangladesh or India.  All Burmese land borders are currently closed to foreigners, however, often because of the suppression of minority and rebel groups in those regions.  So we must hope that the Union of Myanmar (Burma's official title) will soon be truly united under democratic leadership.  When this happens, land borders may well open soon afterwards and when they do, I'll see you there.

© Nicholas White 1997

This article was published in Globe, the magazine of the Globetrotters Club, UK