Swedes on the way to India. Photo: Hans Sandberg, 1974.
There I was, waiting for the bus that was to take me on a 7,000-mile ride from Stockholm to New Delhi. It was September 3rd, 1974 and I was three months shy of 21. With me was my friend Elisabeth and 39 other young travelers, half of which were women. Around us were parents and friends who were there to see us off on our three-and-a-half month adventure. Eventually, Bill and Bull – two blue weathered Scania buses – arrived and parked on the railway overpass by the northern entrance of Stockholm’s Central Station.
We said our goodbyes, picked up our luggage and stepped onto our bus. There were seats in the front, but those in the back had been replaced with particle boards topped with thin foam mattresses. Elisabeth and I chose a bed on the left side of Bill and made ourselves as comfortable as possible in what was to become our home for the next six weeks.
I brought a large, light-blue and ultra-light Fjällräven backpack that had my red sleeping bag strapped to the bottom of the frame. I had strategically packed the bare minimum of clothes and personal items, a couple of books, notebooks, a thermos flask, a water bottle of metal, malaria pills and charcoal tablets for diarrhea. A burlap bag from an army surplus store held my two cameras, a Rollei 35 and a Nikon F with a flash and two lenses, 35 and 200 mm. The side pockets of my backpack were stuffed with 55 rolls of film – 30 Kodak Tri-X, 10 Kodak Plus-X and 15 Kodachrome II for slides. My passport and $400 U.S. dollars in the form of American Express traveler’s cheques rested in a thin nylon pouch under my shirt along with $100 dollars in cash.
That was it.
I didn’t own a credit card, and we had no mobile phones in those days – not to mention no email, no World Wide Web, no Wi-Fi, no Skype and no Facebook. MP3s were not around yet, nor were portable Walkman cassette players, so we had to make do with the radio in the bus – that is if the signal allowed it.
Back then, the world was analog.
Our 1974 journey to and in India.
The first morning on the road. Photo: Hans Sandberg, 1974.
Somewhere in Eastern Turkey. Photo: Hans Sandberg, 1974.
Forty years have passed since I stepped onto that bus, and
as I look back, I ask myself: What was I thinking?
The truth is that I didn't
think. I was young and naïve and so were we all. I had heard of a guy who took people to India for a very good price. Let's go, we said.
Now that I’m a parent of two sons, ages 23 and 20 I also
reflect on my parents' role in this adventure. What were they thinking? I can’t
recall any words of caution or doubt. The only plausible explanation I can come
up with today is that they thought it was a good idea for us to see the world,
and that they probably took comfort in the fact that the journey to and from
New Delhi was an arranged tour, and not just us hitchhiking to Asia.
This was not my first trip. I learned to walk in
France on my family’s first car trip to Bretagne and southern France when I was
less than a year old. Along with my parents and older brother, we road
in a Citroën B11 that pulled a small red and yellow caravan. That was 1954. Four years later my family, which now also included a younger brother, set out on a camping trip
through Europe in a Volkswagen Beetle, which somehow or another fit two adults,
three young children, a tent – and a sandbag under the hood to prevent the car
from blowing off the autobahn if the winds got too strong. And in 1967, they
took us on a seven-week journey in an Opel hatchback pulling a new caravan that
my father had traded a painting for. We drove through Germany to Paris and
then across the Alps on Route Napoleon to the city of Menton on the
In the spring of 1948, my parents boarded a small freighter
for a two week sea voyage from Sweden’s west coast to Paris, via Rouen. It was
only two and a half years after the end of World War II, and Europe still lay
smoldering. My father wrote in his diary about the eerie view of rusty and
blown-up wrecks in the River Seine as they approached Rouen. After a month
studying and exploring the art scene in Paris, they continued by train to
Switzerland and then Italy.
My grandparents had pulled up their roots several times to
start over in new places. My maternal grandmother, whose husband had
abandoned her and their eight children, encouraged two of her seven surviving
children to move to America in 1946. My mom told me that grandma didn't want
her only son to be enlisted in case there was another war. And then there were
the million Swedes who left for America in the late 19th and early 20th
century. They may have been afraid, but they didn't let fear stop them. What
were they thinking? Maybe they didn't think much about it at all, like me when
I was 20. They just did it.
Taking a bus from Europe to India was one of those things
you could do in the mid-seventies.
We were a mix of university students, nurses, workers,
teachers, and young people in search of self, or simply curious about the
world. We were not hippies, even though a few of us talked about smoking pot
while sitting on a roof somewhere in Nepal. The trip was just a trip, an
opportunity that had presented itself to us and one that we took, but we were
also part of a growing stream of European and American overland travelers
heading for Afghanistan, India and Nepal. The Canadian travel writer Rory
MacLean wrote in his "Magic Bus – On the Hippie Trail from Istanbul to India"
(2006) that 90,000 visitors arrived in Afghanistan every year by the
mid-seventies. Most of them would continue on to India and Nepal.
The name Hippie Trail evokes images of the fabled Silk Road,
which had attracted adventurers, spies and explorers in the early 20th century,
but was actually neither a road nor mainly about silk. It was the German
geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen who in 1877 came up with the German name “Seidenstraße” as
he explored a possible path for a railway between Germany and China. There was
however, never a road stretching from Istanbul to China or India, but a series of trade routes over land or over water, where merchants,
diplomats, explorers, bandits, warriors and pilgrims had travelled for two,
maybe three thousand years. Marco Polo knew of no Silk Road, and neither did
the Nestorian monk and diplomat Rabban Bar Sauma who also travelled in the 13th
century, but in the opposite direction, from Beijing (then called Khanbalik) to
Jerusalem, Baghdad, Sicily, Rome, Paris, Bordeaux and Genoa before settling in
The land routes from Europe to Asia lost their importance
when the Ming Dynasty closed the doors on foreign trade and with the European
discoveries of new sea routes to Asia in the 16th century. However, geopolitics
and the growing interest in oil and natural gas made the area hot again in the
19th century, although not so much for trade as for imperial rivalries like the
British and Russian “Great Game” over Persia and Afghanistan.
When the British adventurer and writer Robert Byron traveled
through Persia and Afghanistan in 1933-34, he found the “Silk Road” in a sorry
state (“The Road to Oxiana,” 1937) with vanishing roads and collapsed bridges.
Jan Myrdal, the Swedish writer, painted a similar picture a quarter century
later in “Kulturers korsväg: en bok om Afghanistan” (1960) and then in “Gates
to Asia – A Diary from a Long Journey” (1972), two books based on a series of
journeys he did with his wife Gun Kessle in a Citroën 2CV.
Many in the first postwar wave of overland travelers to India were
inspired by the Existentialists, Beat poets and writers like Allen Ginsberg and
Jack Kerouac, but this was only a trickle compared to the second wave, which
started in the late 1960s and peaked around the time we drove East through
Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan. This wave was broader and more diverse,
consisting of young people who had come of age in the wake of the social and
cultural uproars of the 1960s and early 1970s, the age of rock & roll,
sexual liberation, the Vietnam War, May 68 in France and the Soviet occupation
of Czechoslovakia in August 1968. And everything was televised.
Underneath it all – at least in Western Europe and North
America – was a search for something else, a rebellion against the parental
generation’s nervous conformism and materialism. Many young people had joined
political and anti-war movements, while others turned inwards, exploring drugs,
new religions and meditation. The Beatles discovered transcendental meditation in
1966-67 and visited Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in India in February, 1968. Before
long, India was swarming with youth from Europe and America.
I doubt that any of us riding Bill and Bull had heard of the
Beat generation, although we were familiar with the hippie movement. For me,
India was a social and political challenge rather than an existential problem. It is
true that I too had walked around in Jesus sandals in ninth grade, considering
myself a “Mod,” a Swedish term for long-haired young men who liked rock music.
But I never saw myself as a hippie, a term that I associated with an apolitical
lifestyle of drugs and navel gazing. I was politically active on the left and
saw India as a poor country with extreme social and economic contrasts; a
country that had been plundered by the British colonialists and now was held
back by Western imperialism, religions and the caste system.
We were lucky to take the trip when we did, because the
Hippie Trail would soon be shut down, or at least very dangerous following a
pro-Soviet coup in Kabul in April 1978 and the 1979 fundamentalist Islamic
revolution in Iran. When we traveled through Afghanistan, things were
relatively calm under Mohammad Daoud, who in July, 1973 had toppled his cousin and
brother-in-law Mohammad Zahir Shah, who had been king of Afghanistan since
Before Inter-Rail, kids hitch-hiked across Europe. I myself hitchhiked 300 miles to visit a girl I had met in March, 1972
on a homeward-bound ferry from Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) and in the summer
of 1973, I hitchhiked from the city of Kalmar on Sweden’s Southeast coast to
Copenhagen, Denmark, which was the starting point for a month-long solo journey
across Europe by train. My dad gave me a ride to a drop-off point on the
European Highway E4, where I subsequently stuck out my thumb.
That trip in 1973 was a journey without a purpose and I set
out alone as my friends all bailed on me. Like tens of thousands of other kids,
I took advantage of the new InterRail Pass, which made the European railway
system accessible to so many young people. All I had with me was my passport,
my $70 Inter-Rail ticket, traveler’s cheques, my backpack and my Nikon. The
trip would take me to Rome and Venice, and then back north and west along
France’s South coast to La Rochelle on the Atlantic coast, where I took a ferry
to Île de Ré, and then spent a week hitchhiking to seven small towns on the
island hoping to meet the girl I had met on the boat from Leningrad. She had
dumped me over the phone while I was in the army, but kept teasing me and
before I set out on the journey, she suggested that I meet her on Île de Ré.
She never showed, but that was as well. I befriended an entire chamber
orchestra after they gave me a lift and they invited me to join them for a family
dinner. From La Rochelle, I headed to Paris and then Calais, where I took a
ferry to Dover and spent a week looping around England and Scotland before
heading back to Sweden. I traveled with the wantonness of youth,
letting the road show me the way.
Originally, I had planned for a second InterRail trip that
summer, but didn't have enough money to go through with it, so I took a job as
a laborer at Standard Radio, an American-owned manufacturer, dipping electronic
circuit boards in a series of acid baths. The pay was good, but the monotonous
job hurt my back and so I quit after a couple of months and decided to study.
My friend from high school, Radja, suggested that we go to Uppsala University,
because he thought it was nicer than Stockholm University, which was housed in
six famously ice-blue office-like buildings. I signed up for Political Science
and managed to get a dorm room at Rackarbergsgatan 44, just five minutes’ walk
from the university. My friend Radja, whose dad by the way was from India,
ended up signing up at Stockholm University.
It was during the new student introduction that I spotted Elisabeth. We were shown
around the University and Skytteanum, the 18th Century building with oak beams
in the ceiling that was home to the political science department. She had a
pretty face, long dark brown hair – and most importantly, she returned
my looks. It didn’t take long before we were an item, although she never really
acknowledged it. By April we had decided to take a bus to India.
The tickets were cheap – 2,300 Swedish kronor (about $400)
per person – and the fact that we would sleep on the bus saved us the cost of
staying at hotels, but we still had to prepare for the journey, purchase film
and other supplies, have enough money for food, plus local travel and
accommodations after being dropped-off in in India. And that was money that we
didn’t have, so we visited the local government employment office in Uppsala
and checked out their lists. There were a number of jobs in the hospital sector
but they paid badly and we only had the summer to save, but then we discovered
a job at Farmek, a coop meat processor. They had a large slaughter house and
offered better pay than the hospitals, so we visited the factory and were hired
after each of us had been put through a two-hour long interview. For the next
three months we earned a piece work rate of about 17 kronor ($3.00) per hour.
It was hard work, but we persisted and earned the money we needed.
Me in 1974.
There is at least one more reason why we ventured out on
such an adventure. I can’t remember being afraid of many things as I grew up in
Sweden. I felt safe, and that was true for most of the world. The only place
that was kind of scary was America, which seemed to be a very violent place
where people and presidents got shot in the street. Once I moved to America,
most of that fear dissipated, but on some level I still feel safer in Europe.
Sweden was a small, relatively homogeneous society during the 1960s and 1970s,
and Swedes tended to be “open” to exploring the world. The relatively
egalitarian Swedish society also made it less important for parents to control
who their children played with or dated. When I compare my experience from
almost three decades in the United States with that of my old friends, I have
noticed that they let their children venture out on their own much earlier
without worrying too much, compared to American parents. Teenage sons and
daughters take off on long journeys to Australia, California, Brazil and Spain as
if it were nothing. Is it because they live in a small and fairly safe place or that their parents belong to my generation, which came of age after 1968, an era where our parents
had lost track of whatever sense of time they had been able to rebuild after
I’m not sure.
1974. It was the year when ABBA won the Eurovision Song
Contest, an event that most people remember much better than a more important,
but less flashy event, which occurred at a supermarket in Troy, Ohio, namely
the first scanning of a barcode. In May, India detonated its first nuclear
weapon, the "Smiling Buddha." The military junta in Greece (which had grabbed
power 1967 in a coup d’état and was backed by the United States despite its
systematic use of torture) staged a coup on Cyprus in July, which triggered a
Turkish invasion of the island; causing a fiasco for the generals that quickly
ended the dictatorship. In the United States, President Nixon resigned to avoid
impeachment for Watergate. The Vietnam War was still raging and we had no idea
that it would soon be over. Meanwhile China was preoccupied with an intense
ideological struggle between two 2,000 year old schools of thought, the
Confucian and the Legalist, a campaign that actually was a cover for a power
struggle initiated by Mao’s wife Jiang Qing and her three radical partners in
the "Gang of Four."
It is now August, 2014 and I am trying to channel my younger
self; a task that requires a fair amount of intellectual, emotional and factual
digging – an archaeology of a mind that was once me. This is hard work as I
simply don’t remember as much as I would like to remember. I can’t rewind the
movie and watch it again. There are certain things and events that I do
remember, as they have latched on to some mental structure, or were dramatic or
exceptional enough to reinforce enough synaptic connections. But most things
you do and see seem to be stored in places where the next wave, or the one
after that, washes them away. This is why I had to rely on documents and artifacts
like historians and archaeologists do.
My digging began with a search for three large maps, one of
Europe, one of the Middle East, and one of India. I had marked the bus route on
them with a marker, but I only found the map of Europe. Next I re-read the two
black notebooks where I had taken notes from books and magazines, and kept a
diary, but like many diaries they were filled in inverse proportion to how much
was happening and how good I felt. Add to that a couple of my letters home that
my mom had saved and gave to me after my father's death in 1983.
My main tool for remembering would be the photos I had taken
during the trip, but I would have to scan them into my computer, so
I invested in a new flatbed scanner that had advanced software and could scan
prints, negatives and slides. It was still a laborious process since my color
positives were mounted between two pieces of thin glass, but this new machine
made it a bit easier. I had once read in a photography magazine that glass
frames protected the pictures from dust and scratches. I can tell you this is
true. What it didn't say however, was that the glass itself would collect dust
and oil over the decades, forcing me to take each frame apart, remove the positive one by one, and mount them again in frames without glass.
Next it was time to do a rough sort and enumerate the
digitized pictures. Every photo had then to be reviewed and retouched, dust
removed, scratches fixed, shadows lightened, highlights darkened, and colors
corrected. One of the hardest tasks was to organize the digitized photos. I had
marked the color slides with small stick-on numbers, but this didn't tell me
where the pictures were taken. This was less of a problem for the first part of
the journey as it was easy to tell whether a photo was from Dubrovnik,
Istanbul, or Herat, but that was not the case with the slides from India.
There were frustrating instances where I couldn't figure out
where I had taken a certain picture. For example, I had a series of photos of a
caravan passing in front of an old fortress. I knew that I had shot the photos
between Kabul and Kandahar, but I couldn't locate the fort. I visited my local
library and bookstores searching for picture books, or at least a guidebook,
but they didn't have any. I searched the web for images from Afghanistan, and used
Google Earth to hover over the road while looking in all directions, but as
amazing as it was to retrace my trip virtually, I could not find the fort. I
posted pictures on Facebook, hoping that my friends who had been to Afghanistan
more recently would recognize it, but they said that they had taken planes as
these roads were not safe.
I also tried the Facebook page "The Afghanistan I
Know," where a man suggested the fort in Ghazni, and posted a photo he had
taken in the 1960s. But my photos didn't match Google's satellite images of
that fort. However, a few weeks later I got a message from a Swedish friend who
lives across the Delaware River in Pennsylvania. “It is Qalat in the Zabul
Province,” he wrote. He knew because his American wife's son had been stationed
there, and had immediately recognized the fort from the photos.
My first memory of the trip, which I only recovered thanks to my photos, was from the first morning on the road. The buses were parked along a highway in Denmark and we used water from the water tanks to brush our teeth and wash our faces. We must have bought some breakfast before we continued into Germany. The German autobahn was certainly efficient, but left few traces in my mind. My next memory, also triggered by a photo, is from inside a large beer hall, probably in Munich, and the next is from the Austrian town Villach, where I fought valiantly in broken German complaining about an undercooked chicken dish that Elisabeth had been served.
The next stop after Villach was Ljubljana, which
today lies in Slovenia, but this was fifteen years before the collapse of the
Soviet Union and the subsequent breakup of Yugoslavia. Josip Broz Tito, who had
led the resistance against the Nazi occupation, and then fought off Stalin’s
agents and military threats a few years later, was still in charge. I
complained in my notebook that it was hard to keep up with politics as I only
occasionally could find English language newspapers, but I did learn of a
conspiracy against Tito, with Soviet maneuvering in the background hoping to
get a more “friendly” government.
Yugoslavia’s economic system was an unorthodox mix of
capitalism and socialism. It was a poor country where workers were allowed to seek
work in other countries. It was also relatively open to
the West and welcomed tourism. I noted in my diary that they sold Coca Cola and pornographic papers
in the newspaper kiosks, and that a movie theater in Ljubljana played
Opatija, a small town just north of Rijeka, was our first
stop at the Adriatic Sea. It was morning and customers were inspecting crates
full of fish that the fishermen had unloaded from their boats. A little later
we were back on the buses heading south on a road that was winding its way
through a rocky landscape that at times looked completely dead. In the distant,
the Dinaric Alps seemed to be floating in a blue haze. The thermometer in the
bus read 100° F.
The landscape became more green and lush as we approached
Dubrovnik. We entered through the Pile Gate and fell in love with the
old city as we explored its narrow alleys. In the evening we
happened upon a discotheque located in the ramparts facing the harbor. The
place was crowded with young people. Cool guys in tight-fitting clothes were
shaking to disco strobe lights in narrow, smoky and dark rooms. The heavily
made-up girls were trying hard to fulfill their roles as subservient sex
objects. Most couldn't find a place on the dance floor, or dared not go, but
instead sat there half-drunk and staring. Just like home, I wrote in my diary.
The buses left the shore just north of Albania, and took us
inland to Titograd and Skopje, the latter an ancient city that had been devastated in the 1963 earthquake. We only made short stops in the area, which is now part of the Republic of Macedonia. As we crossed the border to Greece, we were
welcomed by bouzouki music coming in over the bus radio.
Our next stop was Thessaloniki, the second largest city in
Greece. We parked next to a street market where a hefty butcher in a white
apron slammed his meat cleaver so hard that one could almost feel the thuds in the air when the steel hit the
chopping board. Chunks of meat, turkeys and chickens
were hanging in front of the small shop. A cacophony of sounds bounced off the
walls as the sellers advertised their products and prices. Men of all ages, but
only men, sat at a café as an old woman dressed in black hurried by with a loaf
of bread in her hand. People were generally friendly and asked where we were
from, and where we were going. They smiled when they heard that we were Swedes
and not Americans, but their smiles vanished when I told them that we were on
the way to Istanbul. One butcher made a
sign with his hand signaling that the Turks would cut off our heads. Istanbul
was a dangerous place, they said.
Driving east from Thessaloniki meant another step down the
socio-economic ladder. Instead of asphalt, the roads were now covered with
gravel. We passed through small villages with covered women, donkey carts and
minarets. Here people were looking curiously at our buses which by now had
climbed in status and did not look bad at all.
It so happened that I revisited Istanbul in the summer of
2014, but this time I arrived on a luxury cruise ship. We had passed the narrow
strait of the Dardanelles and sailed across the Sea of Marmara when we began to
notice a vast city landscape on Istanbul’s European and Asian side. It took a
long time before we got close enough to see the old Istanbul with its mosques and
What a stark contrast to the first time I arrived in this
Back in 1974, we were sitting in front of the bus, as the
road climbed and descended one soft hill after another revealing only a
thickening city landscape, and then the sensation when we passed a hill that
finally revealed the enormous city laid out in front of us. I still remember
the final approach as if we were sucked into a maelstrom of traffic that got
more and more intense. I also remember that there were lots and lots of large
American cars. As we saw Istanbul from a street level, we didn't quite know
where we were, just that we had parked near the Hippodrome a few steps from the
Blue Mosque. But when I in 2014 overlooked the city from the ninth deck of our
ship, which had docked at Karaköy near the Galata Bridge, I could calmly take
in the whole.
Street scene from Istanbul. Photo: Hans Sandberg, 1974.
Istanbul's old town seen from the ship. Photo: Hans Sandberg, 2014.
Topkapi, Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. Photo: Hans Sandberg, 2014.
Note. The text above is an excerpt from a book that I am writing about my 1974 overland journey to India.
Here is a link to my photo book An Overland Journey from Sweden to India (1974) that I have published online.
All texts and photos on my blog (except for reader feedback, YouTube clips, and photos of Currents magazine) are produced by me. Feel free to quote from my texts, and link to this blog, but if you would like to use the texts, or photos, please ask first.