In 1961 a small group of youth hostel members went east, aiming to promote youth hostels, travel, and better relations between east and west.
They went along the overland route to India, later known as the hippie trail but they were not hippies. They were more earnest. They had official backing and they were a little too early for the hippie trail.
They left in January 1961 aiming to be back by Christmas.
A year before they had taken a van to Spain for a trial run and a final selection of their members. Edwin Wheeler led the expedition.
He was a teacher and a Liberal Party candidate for the St Marylebone constituency. His wife, also a teacher, and his young son, Rupert, aged nine were part of the group of three men and four women that made the final selection.
Travel and understanding
They aimed to promote travel, understanding and better relations between the peoples of western Asia and Europe. UNESCO, the United Nations cultural organisation, sponsored the expedition and the Horlicks company supplied their eponymous drink.
They also wanted to further the idea of youth hostels in India and Pakistan and along the overland route through Iran, Turkey and the Lebanon. They were following the footsteps of Jack Catchpool, former national secretary of the Youth Hostels Association.
An overland way
In 1954 he had travelled overland from India to England. But political difficulties had forced him to avoid Iran. He had been pioneering what he hoped would become a youth hostel trail from Europe to India. He travelled alone, using public transport.
Wheeler, his wife, son and friends travelled in a pale blue Commer van with the Indo-European Youth Hostelling Expedition logo painted on its side. They went from Europe through Turkey, Iran and Pakistan to India.
The road offered “considerable challenge to temper, pocket and constitution through dust and poverty…”
They filmed as they travelled and gave talks, official and unofficial. Everywhere they went they drew attention and crowds. The Shah of Iran met them and gave his support to the idea of youth hostels in Iran.
Change and back
In India they visited Simla, Delhi, the Rajastan desert, the Ganges valley, Poona and Bombay.
Wheeler’s wife, discovering she was pregnant, and his son, who was due back at school, returned to England by plane. Two young Indian men took their places for the return trip.
They took the minibus by boat from Bombay to Basra. On board Wheeler and the other Europeans had to travel first class while the two Indians could travel by the cheaper third class. Europeans were not permitted to travel third class and had to pay more expensive fares.
Snowbound and frozen
On the 5,000 mile return journey they were snowbound and frozen every night from November, keeping the van warm by lighting petrol stoves beneath it.
They drove through Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Austria, Switzerland and France to England. They made it back to England in time for Christmas.
The expedition, according to The Times newspaper, did much to further the idea of youth hostels not only in India and Pakistan but also along the overland route by way of Iran, Turkey and the Lebanon.
Wheeler produced a youth hostel guide to western Asia but, apart from India and Pakistan where youth hostels were thriving, little came of the aim to develop youth hostels along the way.
As the 1960s unfolded, others followed despite a lack of hostels. They became a flood on what came to be called the hippie trail to India. Those on the route were unlikely to call themselves hippies neither did they refer to their route as the hippie trail.
They called themselves freaks and they called it “going to India”.
The route blossomed until, by the 1970s, conflict and politics got in the way. The Yom Kippur war of 1973 made Syria and Lebanon difficult to visit and the Iranian revolution and Russia’s war in Afghanistan finally closed the way down.