The Hippie Highway: Istanbul to Kathmandu on a BMW R75/5

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The Hippie Highway: Istanbul to Kathmandu by BMW R75/5 in 1973
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Starting in Istanbul, Clement worked his way east to India on his BMW R75/5.
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Mt. Ararat in eastern Turkey.
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The ruins of Balkh.
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Along all the trade routes in Afghanistan the local chieftains would build fortresses and collect taxes from merchants — this one is between Kabul and Jalalabad.
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The Khyber Pass connects Afghanistan with Pakistan.
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Camel caravans still in use crossing the plains of northern Afghanistan.
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The only convenient place to change a flat along the narrow road near the Banihal Tunnel.
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North of Pokhara, the BMW posed with the Annapurna Range of the Himalayans; that is 26,500ft Annapurna I over the tank.
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Our houseboat for a week, the New Golden Hind.
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Carolina Cass and the BMW, taking a break in India.
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Clem met this young New Zealand couple at the Taj Mahal. They were riding a BMW too!
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Fording the river between Lumbini and Bhairahawa was easy, as the ford was actually demarcated and cement surface had been laid when the river was dry; Kenny is staying within the markers.

In 1973, I was a diplomat working at the American embassy in Italy. The State Department was going to reassign me to Washington, D.C., and although I didn’t like my job, I said I would stay on if I was sent to Afghanistan, which was an interesting place back then.

Sorry, came the reply, no slots open. All right, I decided, I’ll resign and go there myself. I sold my Fiat Spyder 1500, bought a pair of military backpacks to sling over the saddle of my 1972 BMW R75/5, took the ferry to Greece, and made my way to Istanbul — undoubtedly the most romantic city in Europe.

After locating a cheap hotel with safe parking, I left the bike and walked over to the Pudding Shop in Sultan Ahmet Square, a café and restaurant where overland travelers from Asia, Europe and Africa crossed paths, and where one could sit for hours over a tiny cup of Turkish coffee. The Pudding Shop was where you could find up-to-the-moment information about wherever it was you wanted to visit; had the CIA any sense, it would have had a hippily dressed agent there at all times.

What a long strange trip …

This was the starting point of the Hippie Highway. Nobody knows quite when the expression was first used, but it was in the Sixties when hippiedom flourished in Europe and America. Many of these flower children felt that mystical Asia held the answers to their questions about the meaning of life, whether that involved finding spiritual enlightenment or cheap hashish. Just head east …

I knew what visas I would need, but what documentation was required for a motorcycle to get to Nepal? Pakistan was the only country that required a carnet (a financial guarantee that you will not illegally sell your vehicle in the host country, and thereby deprive that country of some tax revenue), and that could be obtained in Tehran from the Royal Iranian Automobile Club (RIAC).

Leaving Istanbul, sunny weather had given way to drizzle. The bridge across the Bosphorus strait had not been completed, so the only way to get from Europe to Asia was via a short ferry ride. I clattered up a metal ramp onto a barge and found two English fellows also aboard, with a Triumph TR6 Trophy. We decided to ride together. Soon the drizzle turned to rain. After a couple of hours we came into a small town where police had put up a barricade. Sorry, landslide, road ahead is closed.

It was Ramadan, when Muslims forsake food and drink between dawn and dusk, so no cafés were open. We found a building under construction where we could park under shelter, brew up a cup of tea and ponder our options. We could not go forward, and the road we had just come along was now closed because of another landslide. Stuck. The town was too small to have a hotel, but a local, demonstrating the best of Muslim hospitality, invited us to his home.

Though we spoke no common language we had a delightful evening and a good sleep, and in the sunny morning headed toward the landslide. A footpath had been dug through the landslide’s muck, and the workers waved us through. A passenger train had been stuck in this little town as well, but it would be some time before that got moving.

Diverging paths

Approaching Ankara in central Turkey, the Brits and I split up. They were taking the most direct route east, whereas I was off to the southeast to see the Göreme Valley. I never did see or hear about them again.

Göreme is famous for houses built entirely by carving the rooms — and doors and windows — from cliffs of soft stone. There were several underground towns, where a single entrance concealed several thousand people, all done in the 10th century when the Muslims were cheerfully conquering much of the Mediterranean world.

From Göreme I decided to continue south to Syria, then ride across Iraq and into Iran. Except as I approached the Syrian border I saw a very long line of fancy cars with diplomatic plates pulled over by the side of the road. Stopping to ask what the occasion was, I was told Israel had just gone to war with Egypt and Syria the day before, and the embassies were pulling out. Change of plans. I turned around and headed northeast to Erzurum in Turkish Kurdistan, along the Hippie Highway.

After crossing the border into Iran east of Erzurum it was a beautiful solo ride across the open, empty desert to Tabriz, where a campground recommended by the travelers’ network offered me a plush Persian tent for the night. Sumptuous, with carpets and pillows. And then Carolina Cass showed up, a young American woman hitchhiking her way to India where, she hoped, all her spiritual questions would be answered. I had a passenger.

The next day we were on the road to Tehran when the Beemer began to wobble. Flat? No such luck. The final drive had overheated, welding the inner races of the bearings to the axle. Ah, well. Since I had no schedule, this was merely an inconvenience. A truck came along and we loaded the bike in the back, off-loaded it at the nearest railroad station, put it and ourselves on a train to Tehran, and then called the BMW agency, which came and took it away upon our arrival. For about $3 a night, Cass and I settled into the Amir Kabir Hotel. We explored the city, and I bought my carnet from the RIAC. We also met Detroit Ken, who was tootling around the world on a 1973 BMW R60/5. Ken would meet up with us in Herat, Afghanistan.

Three days later the BMW agency called up: All fixed. The next morning we headed east to Mashhad, the second holiest city for the Shiite Muslims and our entryway to Afghanistan. Across the next desert, the border formalities in Afghanistan included an interesting scam requiring me to purchase a $10 insurance policy; glad I never had to call on it. We rode through a long valley to the beautiful city of Herat. The hotel of choice was a large, court-yarded house, where Ken’s bike was already parked. Herat was a dream, with cheap lodging and excellent, inexpensive food — and all the hashish and opium one could imagine.

Three roads

There were three roads from Herat to Kabul. The northern route along the Soviet border to Balkh, where Alexander the Great stayed for a while, was closed. The middle route, which a Land Rover group said was a very rough dirt road requiring 300 miles worth of gas, was a no-go, so Ken and Cass and I took the newly paved highway across the Dashti Margo — or Desert of Death, where a lack of water had caused many deaths in centuries past — to Kandahar and then Kabul.

Kabul was hippie heaven, with everything a low-bucks traveler could hope for, including $2 rooms at the Khyber Hotel, a splendid old mansion with several acres of untended gardens all around. Sigi’s on Chicken Street was the Kabulian equivalent of the Pudding Shop in Istanbul, with information on everywhere and everything. Ken and I took off to visit Balkh, which had fascinated me since I had read my ancient history. One of the oldest cities in the world, all that remained were some crumbling walls from circa 330 B.C. On our return to Kabul we debated going out of our way to see the huge Buddha statues at Bamiyan, but decided not to … for which I have always been regretful.

I could have stayed on for much longer but I wanted to see Kashmir, and winter was not far off. At our hotel we picked up a third motorcyclist, a Kiwi named Barry on another BMW, and our three bikes rumbled over the Khyber Pass and into Pakistan — where I did indeed need my carnet, as did Ken and Barry, who had gotten theirs in Germany. A mile east of the pass we met an entrepreneur by the side of the road selling 5-gallon cans of 100-octane aviation fuel. Since the Afghan octane rating had been about 77, we were happy to pay his somewhat inflated price. And our engines were even happier.

The Pakistanis and Indians were squabbling as usual, but the border crossing between Lahore, Pakistan, and Amritsar in India, was open to foreigners — just not locals. In Amritsar we went to the Golden Temple, a memorable building set in the middle of a man-made lake in the middle of the city, and the holiest of holy sites for Sikhs.

Then it was north to Kashmir over the 9,200-foot Banihal Pass for a week on a houseboat on Dal Lake in the capital city of Srinagar. Our motorcycles had secure parking on the far side of the lake, and little taxi-boats would take us across to the New Golden Hind, a three-bedroom, two-bath houseboat with dining and living rooms where the owner provided breakfast and dinner on a semi-American plan. A sybaritic life, indeed. I asked our host how his boat had come to be named after the ship that Sir Francis Drake had sailed around the world in the 1570s. English conceit, he said. When he had the money, he would build a new houseboat and give it a proper Kashmiri name.

Time to move on the Hippie Highway

That evening, our houseboat host told us that while he hated to lose customers, a storm was headed our way, and if the pass was closed we might be spending the winter there. We left via the Banihal Tunnel, a rough-hewn hole in the rock that extends for about an unlit muddy mile and a half some 2,300 feet below the pass. The pitch-black tunnel was about one-truck wide, with a couple of pull-outs should two trucks meet. Not fun.

Staying along the southern slope of the Himalayas we made a turn at Dharamsala, climbing the mountain to where the Tibetan government-in-exile was located at McLeod Ganj. It was very pleasant, very friendly, with rustic accommodations for a few foreigners. Half a dozen of us travelers had a cheerful interview with the Dalai Lama, and Kenny asked him just how he had gotten out of Tibet in 1959. His Holiness chuckled and said Kenny should buy his memoir, which just happened to be available at the gift shop, where all the proceeds went to support the refugees. We admired his good business sense.

Then it was down to the plains to do a little business in Delhi, where Cass decided that her spiritual goals were not being met hanging out with earthy bikers. Kenny and I motored on to Agra to get a look at the Taj Mahal, then headed for Nepal. My chat with the Dalai Lama had me thinking about Buddhism, so we headed for Lumbini in southern Nepal, where the Buddha was born. Only trouble was, there was no road connecting Lumbini with the rest of Nepal. Unless we wanted to ford several shallow rivers, tributaries of the mighty Ganges, we would have to go back to India. Even though the Kanchan River was about 100 feet wide and more than a few feet deep we charged in, one at a time, and when the engine died a couple of locals would push us the rest of the way. A little drying out and all was fine.

We headed up to Pokhara. The most impressive town in Nepal, it lies in the shadow of 26,500-foot Annapurna 1. To walk out of a restaurant on a full-moon night and see Annapurna peaking 20,000 feet above me was a spectacular sight! And then it was off to Kathmandu for a delightful week-long recuperation, with jam-covered pancakes for breakfast and vegetable-covered buffalo steaks for dinner.

After a side-trip up to the Tibetan border (where the Chinese guards were pointedly not interested in having a couple of American motorcyclists roaming about), we returned to India. We spent Christmas Day at Benares on the Ganges River, then Kenny went off to Madras to catch a boat to Malaysia while I went to Bombay for a boat to Kenya. Suddenly, months of travel came to an end.

Kenny ended up marrying an Australian girl and became chief brewmaster at the Swan Brewery in Perth; we are still in touch. Cass? Who knows. Perhaps she found enlightenment, perhaps not. Barry sold his bike in Delhi and headed for New Zealand, while I spent three months in Kenya before heading to South Africa. I’m glad I traded my job to ride the Hippy Highway — 40 years later, the ride continues. MC

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