Strange Bewildering Time:
Istanbul to Kathmandu
Montreal journalist Mark Abley recounts his 1978 journey along the Hippie Trail
By Irwin Rapoport
February 2, 2023
The famed Hippie Trail allowed travellers to reach India overland via a route that started in Istanbul, Turkey, and to India and Nepal by bus and van through Iran and Afghanistan in more peaceful and tranquil times. For those who undertook the journey, the experience was legendary and awesome, and became seared in their minds.
Well-known Montreal journalist, author and poet Mark Abley, with his friend Clare, took the Hippie Trail in the Spring of 1978 at the age of 22. His new book, Strange Bewildering Time: Istanbul to Kathmandu in the Last Year of the Hippie Trail, gives readers a taste of what the trek was like.
In fact, you can ask Abley about his journey on February 5 at the official book launch taking place at the Paragraphe Bookstore (2220 McGill College Avenue), which starts at 2 pm.
“I like to think the book also offers a visceral feeling of the year in which I travelled, 1978,” said Abley. “I refer, often obliquely, to more than thirty songs from the late 60s and 70s; the title is a phrase from a Cat Stevens song about Nepal.”
Mark Abley put aside his studies at Oxford and set off with his friend Clare on a three-month trek across the celebrated Hippie Trail – a sprawling route between Europe and South Asia, peppered with Western bohemians and vagabonds. It was a time when the Shah of Iran still reigned supreme, Afghanistan lay at peace, and city streets from Turkey to India teemed with unrest. Within a year, many of the places he visited would become inaccessible to foreign travellers.
Though looking back on the 70s, issues in Strange Bewildering Time reflect current disconcerting topics. At points, the book touches on extreme nationalism, climate change, Islamic and Hindu fundamentalism, and the impacts of Western colonialism. Abley does all this in a personal, non-academic way.
…all of us shared a mutual challenge: how to retain our idealism while discarding our illusions. Many of the travellers were keen to change the world. We would discover, sooner or later, that the world was changing us.
– From Strange Bewildering Time: Istanbul to Kathmandu in the Last Year of the Hippie Trail
Drawing from the tattered notebooks he filled as a youthful wanderer, Abley brings his kaleidoscope of experiences back to life with vivid detail, like clambering across a glacier in Kashmir and travelling by train among Baluchi tribesmen who smuggled kitchen appliances over international borders. He also reflects on the impact of the Hippie Trail and the illusions of those who journeyed along it.
“Very few readers will ever have had the good fortune to visit Isfahan, Shiraz, Srinagar, or many of the other cities I describe. I hope they’ll come away from the book with a richer appreciation of the incredible cultures of south and west Asia,” said Abley. “I also like to think the book offers a visceral feeling of the year in which I travelled, 1978.”
When I visited India, Nepal, and Bangladesh in the spring and summer of 1992, I used Lonely Planet guidebooks, which were recognized as the bible of backpackers for the region and were indispensable. Just about every traveller that I met had Lonely Planets for India and Nepal. I followed in the footsteps of Abley, seeing many of the places he wrote about. I thought that getting around in India was rough, but having read parts of the book, I had nothing to complain about.
One of my all-time highlights from the trip was being in downtown Srinagar on Indian Independence Day where I met the Kashmiri guerrillas, who posed with me for a photo. There were no Indian police or soldiers around and while walking the streets that day, I fled to safety along with others when machine guns were fired by the guerrillas who wanted to have the former Princely State with a Muslim majority handed to Pakistan.
Mark and Clare, for their travels, depended on David Jenkins’ Student Guide to Asia, and it served them well.
Abley, a Rhodes Scholar, was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2004. His many books include The Organist: Fugues, Fatherhood, and a Fragile Mind, a memoir of his father; Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages and The Prodigal Tongue: Dispatches from the Future of English, among other books on language; Conversations with a Dead Man: The Legacy of Duncan Campbell Scott, an unconventional look at Canada’s colonial history; and several poetry collections and children’s books. His work has won international praise and has been translated into five languages.
Here is a Q&A with Abley on the book and his experience along the Hippie Trail:
WM: Was taking the famed Hippie Trail a spur-of-the-moment decision, or was it a case of extensive planning? Did you speak with people who undertook the journey in previous years?
Abley: I began to think about the journey in the fall of 1977, five or six months before I set off, but I didn’t know if it would be financially possible. I talked to a few people who had made the journey before me, but not in any depth.
WM: How did one book a ticket, and what type of preparations did you have to take? What were some of the concerns?
Abley: We needed to book one-way tickets from Delhi back to London and one-way train tickets from London to Istanbul. No other advance bookings because we weren’t travelling by Magic Bus or any of the other tour companies. We went for some vaccinations and inoculations, and my travelling companion Clare bought one of the very few guidebooks that were available at the time.
WM: Throughout your travels, did you feel that change was in the air, and did you see any signs of it?
Abley: Change was constantly in the air! We were on a bus that drove into a Turkish city under martial law after the murder of its Kurdish mayor. We happened to see the Shah of Iran go by in a motorcade. We couldn’t get to Afghanistan because the borders were closed after a Marxist coup. In Pakistan, the former prime minister (Zulfikar Ali Bhutto) was on death row, and the country felt very tense. And in India, we happened to meet Indira Gandhi in person – she was then the opposition leader, having lost the election a year earlier.
WM: Kathmandu is an amazing place. I was there in the summer of 1992 and I hung out in Durbar Square, having gotten there by bus from Varanasi. What was Kathmandu like in 1978, and how would you describe the vibe of the city?
Abley: We arrived in Nepal when it was still a destination on the Hippie Trail, but also when it was opening itself up to “adventure tourism” – much more lucrative for Nepal in terms of the money that came into the country. As I wrote in the book, “The regime was tired of welcoming frugal rebels who arrived in a battered van or a coughing bus, intending to ‘keep on truckin’; now it sought affluent professionals who would fly into Kathmandu, stay a few days, and head out trekking.”
I loved Kathmandu: it was an incredibly relaxed place to stay after some very difficult experiences in the previous weeks. But I also recognize why the sudden influx of young Westerners was often problematic and disturbing for Nepali people themselves.
‘The regime was tired of welcoming frugal rebels who arrived in a battered van or a coughing bus, intending to ‘keep on truckin’; now it sought affluent professionals who would fly into Kathmandu, stay a few days, and head out trekking.’
WM: Did you get a chance to meet the locals, especially in Iran?
Abley: Yes, especially in Iran – Iran more than anywhere else, in fact. We met with tremendous kindness and hospitality. I wouldn’t have presumed to write this book except for the many encounters with local people along the way.
WM: What was the journey like – was it travelling most of the day and night by bus?
Abley: Long-distance buses through Turkey and Iran. Trains and buses in Pakistan and India. Buses in Nepal. Some overnight journeys. A few very difficult journeys (e.g. a 37-hour train trip, perched on a wooden seat, to get from south-eastern Iran into south-western Pakistan).
WM: What were the roads like, and did you worry about the drivers in other countries?
Abley: Some good roads, some bad roads, but I wasn’t at the wheel. Yes, occasionally, we had scary experiences on the road – e.g. being driven back to a youth hostel after an evening of “disco folklore” by a drunken young Turkish man who wanted to show us what a brilliant driver he was. Of course, many of the drivers in those countries were terrific. When our bus broke down in Nepal near the Tibetan border, and we began to walk along an empty highway as a monsoon approached, that was also an alarming experience – but it had nothing to do with the competence of the bus driver.
WM: In many ways, the world you experienced on the journey is a lost one. Looking back, are you glad that you undertook it? Since 1978, have you had a chance to return to Turkey, Nepal, and India?
Abley: Delighted that I undertook the journey. Graham Greene wrote a novel by the name of England Made Me. I can say, with only slight exaggeration, “Travelling in Asia made me.” I’m incredibly grateful that I had the chance to make the journey.
I thought I would go back to India and probably also to Istanbul and Kathmandu. But I never did.
WM: Are you still in touch with Clare?
Abley: Yes. I was scarcely in touch with her for a long time – she lives in England – and I haven’t seen her in person for decades. But I emailed her when I was writing the book to tell her what I was doing and to ask her if she’d be willing to have me use her real name. Somewhat to my surprise, she readily agreed. Clare read a draft of the manuscript, and made many useful suggestions and a few corrections. She also kept our copy of the Student Guide to Asia, and she mailed it to me – this was extremely helpful as I was writing.
Irwin Rapoport is a freelance journalist with Bachelor degrees in History and Political Science from Concordia University.