In the late sixties – early seventies, the “Hippie Trail” started in Europe, crossed over to Istanbul, ventured into Iran and Afghanistan and, for many adventurous souls, ended in Nepal. It was an era of experimentation, reflection and free love. Sandal-clad hippies with backpacks from throughout the world sought enlightenment amid the fumes of cannabis and charms of Kathmandu. Classic rocker Bob Seger had a 1975 hit song about escaping to kkkkkk-Kathmandu.
The hippies even developed their own vernacular for their newly-adopted city: the ancient Buddhist shrine Swayambhunath was called “The Monkey Temple” and Jhochhen lane, in the heart of the capital city, was known as “Freak Street.” Freak Street was considered hippie heaven, where marijuana and hashish were legal and sold openly in government-licensed shops.
But the higher you get, the harder you may crash, and those serving at the U.S. Embassy were often called on to help Americans who got into trouble in paradise. Edward W. (Skip) Gnehm provided firsthand tales as a young Consular Officer in Nepal from December 1969 to June of 1971. Charles Stuart Kennedy interviewed Gnehm beginning in May 2014. Please follow the links to read more about South Central Asia, consular assistance and adventures with animals.
“Most of these hippies arrived on the back of trucks from India”
Edward W. Gnehm, Consular Officer, U.S. Embassy Nepal, 1969-1971
Gnehm: The main road to India was the only way out of Kathmandu in those days. Kathmandu was truly the end of the road. You know, in those days, the hippies would start their travels in Europe, work their way through Iran, which was a monarchy, of course, and then into Afghanistan. When they got tired of Afghanistan and Pakistan, they moved on to India and ultimately to Nepal.
Most of these hippies arrived on the back of trucks from India. It was a cheap way to travel — only costing a few rupees to ride the truck up to Kathmandu. The hippies arrived with very few possessions — just whatever they had in their backpacks.
There were sorts of colonies around Kathmandu Valley. Some of their clusters were at Swayambhunath, which is a Buddhist temple up on a hill overlooking Kathmandu. Some were out at Boudhanath, which is another big Buddhist stupa (a mound-shaped building used as a place for meditation) that’s slightly east of the center of town.
The Nepali government basically didn’t interest themselves in these groups unless individuals in the groups caused problems, such as getting into fights or causing disorder. In these situations the Nepali Government tended simply to arrest them, throw them on the back of trucks, and deport them to India.
Of course, the hippies got off the trucks at the border and walked toward the Indian checkpoint; but before you get to the Indian checkpoint, there’s a little path across the fields to the next road. The hippies would take that path over to the next road where the same truck that had just dropped them off was ready to take them back up to Kathmandu! So the only problem the hippies had was getting sick on the truck, on the curving mountain roads.
“Someone had abandoned the baby in my office”
One day, about 5:15 or 5:30 in the afternoon after the consular section had closed, I came out of my office and pushed through the swinging door in the barrier. I stepped past the counter into the waiting area and was shocked to see a baby wrapped in a blanket on the floor up against the counter. Someone had abandoned the baby in my office!
I was in my suit, coat, and tie as usual. I waited for about an hour until it got dark. I thought it would be much more effective after dark. I went up the Swayambhunath, where I knew a particular group of hippies met in what I would call a “smokehouse.” It was a long narrow building with a fire in the middle and seats around the two of its sides.
The head honcho who sort of ruled the group sat at the far end. When I got there, I stood in front of the closed door then hit it as hard as I could, making it go ka-wham when it hit the wall. That got everybody’s attention!
I walked in and I stood just inside the door. I addressed the leader at the opposite end of the long room and I said to him: “Someone left a baby in my office. I want to know who the mother is and I want that mother to come pick up that baby. And if that baby isn’t picked up by open of business in the morning, I’m going to have every one of your asses thrown out of this country and make sure you never get back.” And I turned and I stalked out.
The mother came and picked up the baby.
“They wanted money or to go home”
Nepal is really prone to intestinal diseases; well, quite a lot actually. It’s not a healthy environment. There are no sewers; sewage runs in the street, and there is a lot of tuberculosis in the country. So yes, most of the hippies wanted nothing to do with the U.S. Government until they really got sick and were out of money and destitute and sometimes even starving. Then they would come, of course, and want help; they wanted money or to go home.
We had a process to deal with their requests. We would try to reach their families and facilitate the transfer of money. We also had the authority to assist their return to the U.S., but on a cost-recoverable basis. But there were many people in the embassy who chipped in on a completely voluntary basis to help someone who was really sick or to provide a place to stay for a while.
“There in my garden was an elephant”
I had a vegetable garden next to my house. I came home one day, plodding my way down the little street. It was mostly mud. I turned into my street and noticed that there were huge turds in the street. At the time I didn’t know enough to know what they belonged to or where they’d come from, but as I turned into my compound, I noticed the turds did too.
When I got to my house, my cook was standing at the back door beating on a pan. There in my garden was an elephant devouring one cabbage after another. So I didn’t get any cabbages that year. That elephant wasn’t afraid of that gonging either. It must have sounded too much like a temple gong.