Why I wrote ‘Magic Bus’

Only 30 years ago Western travellers breezed through Afghanistan. English girls hitchhiked alone across Anatolia with flowers in their hair. Free-spirited teenagers from London and Los Angeles were welcomed as honoured guests in Baghdad. Now a Western passport, once respected, is a liability in much of the Middle East. No sane tourist visits Mosul or Kandahar. Visitors to the Hindu Kush often fear for their lives. So what went wrong? How did we squander the promise and trust of the Sixties and Seventies?

I missed out on the Summer of Love. I was born too late to join a San Francisco co-op, to score at Woodstock, to man the barricades in Paris. Instead I grew up on the periphery of those diverse and idealistic years; making movies with Ken Russell and David Hemmings in London, singing a duet with David Bowie in Berlin, hearing the gun shots which killed John Lennon. Although forever beyond reach, the Sixties moulded my whole life, in their irreverent creativity, cultural curiosity and soaring optimism.

The greatest journey of that time – the real Magical Mystery Tour — was the Asia Overland hippie trail to India. Between 1961 and 1979 hundreds of thousands of Western kids headed east in search of experience, enlightenment and a better world. Inspired by Kerouac and the Beatles, these intrepid pioneers travelled in the weirdest procession of unroadworthy vehicles ever to rattle and rock across the face of the earth: rainbow-coloured double-deckers, clapped-out VW Campers, decrepit Post Office vans and war surplus Jeeps. Their wide-eyed adventure transformed their lives and the countries they traversed, unleashing forces which changed forever the way we travel the world. Lonely Planet, gap years, even the Turkish tourist industry all date from that time. The young travellers may even have contributed — according to Bruce Chatwin and others — to the collapse of Afghanistan and the Iranian Revolution.

In 2003, after the fall of the Taliban, the trail reopened for the first time in a generation. I saw an opportunity not only to capture the spirit and stories of those heady years, and to compare youthful idealism then and now, but to understand why the Sixties cast such long shadows over our own fearful and protective era.

Over five months, on foot and by bus, I travelled through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. In Istanbul I met the original Flower Child. In Tehran, capital of revolution, I encountered two Iranian boys whose dream of wealth in the West ended in tragedy. In Kabul I picked through the smashed statues which are now Afghanistan’s history. At Bamiyan, site of the sixth century Buddhas destroyed by the Taliban, I found an Afghan child singing — phonetically — Sesame Street. In Pakistan I broke bread with a one-time dope-smoking Catholic who converted to Islam and became an imam — because of Bob Dylan. And in Nepal – once considered the paradise at the end of the road – my bus was burnt out by Maoist guerrillas and martial law declared.

One of the most poignant – and moving — experiences happened to me in Afghanistan. I had decided to fly over a dangerous stretch of the trail after a UN aid worker was killed by ‘remnant Taliban elements’. Unexpectedly our aircraft was diverted to Bagram, a central hub in the US military’s five global commands. Because of security concerns I – and my fellow passengers — were forced to spend the night at the sprawling air base, along with 15,000 of the one million Americans maintained at arms in 137 countries on four continents. As the sun set beyond the Hindu Kush we were fed Whoppers and Personal Pan Pizzas. Then for a night-cap we were ushered into the Cat’s Meow MWR tent, an ersatz Cheers bar with a glowing Michelob sign, dance floor and the acrid smell of spilt beer and dank fries.

I began talking about my journey, and the Sixties’ dream of building a better world, when the bartender let on that a ‘hippie evening’ had been held there the previous month. He produced a cardboard box of beads, bells and Beatles wigs. One aid worker stretched a plastic flower headband over her head. A helicopter engineer pulled a leopard-spot miniskirt up over her work overalls. Someone put Aquarius on the Wurlitzer. Suddenly everyone was dancing, wearing buckskin, paisley shirts and John Lennon granny glasses. Do-gooders and door gunners spun on tiptoes. Aid managers and Sergeants First Class sang along to the music. A US Special Forces commando held a single plastic flower in his fist. We were intoxicated, relaxed, letting down our hair – at least those of us who still had hair – and for one exquisite moment we allowed wide-eyed, youthful exuberance to sweep aside our rational scepticism. Then, four minutes and 48 seconds after it began, the song ended. The music stopped. We stood self-consciously at the centre of the tent. We slipped off the wigs and rose-tinted glasses and retreated to our tables. Beyond the door the 455th Air Expeditionary Group launched an A-10 Thunderbolt II patrol into the dusk.

In the Sixties young Westerners grew up with the world. They came of age during a period of political and social revolution, in parallel with the space race, in step with the banishing of borders by Boeing and pregnancy by the Pill. The concurrence of historical events and individual lives convinced them that by changing themselves they could change the planet. But their sense of shared destiny didn’t open the gates to nirvana.

In my journey and book, I searched for links between the Beats and the Beatles, karma and Coca-Cola, transcendence and terrorism. I may have missed out on the Summer of Love. I may mourn the passing of an easier, more trusting age. But the breezy unorthodoxy of those optimistic years has helped me to find my way onto a new road, living both in the moment and in the mind, striving to understand – and to express – how it feels to be alive today.

Now click the hippie trail link above to relive the journey…