Istanbul to New Delhi overland
This itinerary describes the overland route from Istanbul, to New Delhi. Also known as the Hippie Trail, this has been a legendary route since the 1960s and was followed by thousands of travellers until the Islamic Revolution in Iran and the beginning of the civil war in Afghanistan, both in 1979.
Today it is a bigger challenge than it was before these political events and depending on the local political situation it may be possible or not. Visas can be hard to arrange, some borders may be closed at times, and some places are no longer accessible for ordinary travellers without great risks for their safety. Details vary with the many political complications in the region; no trip should be planned without seeking current information.
The route overlaps somewhat with the Silk Road, the great trade route connecting China to the Mediterranean since ancient times, with the route Alexander the Great took as he conquered his way from Macedonia to northern India, and with the routes of the great medieval travellers Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta. It does not cover any of those completely, but does include important parts of all of them. The linked articles are probably worth a look when you are planning your journey.
This route involves crossing three countries from one extremity to the other, namely Turkey, Iran and Pakistan, and some parts of India. Going through Afghanistan may be possible or not depending on the changing political situation there and your evaluation of your personal safety and comfort.
Only information specific to this itinerary is available here. For details on places to visit along the way, see the specific pages. See also carpets for some of the most popular purchases on the route.
Avoid going during Ramadan, unless you are prepared to fast.
Police and officials in Eastern Turkey, Iran and Pakistan are quite touchy. Keep a low profile while dealing with them.
Avoid reaching a place in the middle of the night.
Western Turkey is visited by tourists from all over the world, so you will find all usual facilities here. But the further east you go, the fewer travellers you will meet, especially if you go away from the main transport facilities. So people there won't be so accustomed to tourists. However, this should not prevent you from visiting those places.
Iran is not much visited by tourists, and that is one of the main reasons to go there. People are eager to meet foreigners and if you get used to the local way of life you will enjoy your trip.
Due to the decades-long civil war and on-going unrest, almost nobody goes to Afghanistan unless they have a really good reason. The Taliban were removed from power by the US-led invasion of 2001, but retook power in 2021. As of September their intended visa policy is not yet clear.
There have always been tourists in Pakistan, although many fewer at times when the country is making news. The land borders have been closed at times during the Afghan war and when diplomatic relations with India were suspended.
Lahore is often described as the country's cultural capital, and has many fine buildings from the Mughal Empire period and an excellent museum. It is near the only road crossing to India and is a rail hub as well so you are quite likely to pass through it. It is definitely worth a stop.
India is a favourite with travellers, so in most cities you will get all the facilities you expect as a tourist.
Iran, Pakistan and India require a visa for most travellers, so you have to get that beforehand. The embassy of Iran in Ankara and the consulate in Istanbul now refuse to deliver visas if you are not a resident in the country (when?). There are no problems getting Indian visas in Asia or anywhere else (June 2015). The only difference is that some consulates may only give a maximum of 3 month visas. Pakistan is very hard unless you apply in your country of residence. (They are not giving overland visas in the northern pass to China in the Karakoram highway - June 2015). Reports from Iran indicate that there is no problem to apply for visa pickup in a third country (an agency must do the paperwork for you, you just choose where you pick up the visa). So the only real visa problem would be Pakistan, and also the only one you should really pre-arrange.
Getting Iranian visas can be a frustrating process for applicants from western countries. Residents of most western countries must have a "visa reference number" issued by the Iranian Foreign Ministry in Tehran.
Reference numbers can be obtained through contacts in Iran, who have to apply to the Foreign Ministry, or through some travel agencies. Some of them, like IranianVisa.com, accept payment over the Internet (roughly €/US$30 for a normal reference number) and make sure that reference numbers are sent to your embassy within approximately 14 days of application. The costs of obtaining a reference number are in addition to the embassy's visa fees.
British, Canadian and American citizens can only obtain a visa by booking through a tour company for the duration of their stay in Iran (a one- or two-day extension beyond that period may be allowed). (Nov 2018)
Plan from 15 days to several months for a trip, depending on the time you spend at each place. Theoretically, by jumping from one bus to another it can be done in 11 or 12 days, but it would mean never stopping on the way. The length of the whole journey is 7000 to 8000 km.
The actual timing is something like this:
- Istanbul to Teheran: 3 days
- Teheran to Zahedan: 30 hours
- Zahedan to Quetta: 30 hours
- Quetta to Lahore: 24 hours
- Lahore to New Delhi: 2 days
Take your time. Avoid rushing from one place to the other.
In the 1990s it used to cost much less than the air trip, even including all hotels and food on the way. It mainly depends on the currency rates of Turkey, Iran and Pakistan. In 1992 the whole trip could be done in 5 weeks for about US$350.
As of Nov 2018, a one-way flight Istanbul-Delhi/Mumbai can cost as little as €280, so going by land is now more expensive than the air trip. A few hours in a plane, however, have nothing to compare with a few weeks/months travelling through and visiting these 3 countries.
The route can be done in almost all seasons except winter, when there is heavy snow, especially in Turkey and in adjacent regions of Iran, and the roads are sometimes not passable. A big part of the route in Turkey, Iran and Pakistan is at an altitude of over 1,000 m, so the temperatures there are comfortable even in the midst of summer and cold but dry in winter. However, most of Turkey, especially east of Ankara, is very cold and very snowy in winter, and the Indus Valley in Pakistan is very hot in summer (May to July). Summers can be really hot in New Delhi, and chilly winters may greet you in December and January.
The book to read before leaving to go on the road is Danziger's travels: Beyond Forbidden Frontiers. It is the story of a hair-raising 18-month overland trip from London to Beijing in 1984 by Nick Danziger (ISBN 0586087060). Another great read is The Wrong Way Home: London to Sydney the Hard Way by Australian writer Peter Moore (ISBN 0553817000), in which he travels along the "Hippie Trail". He made his trip in the late 1990s, covering 25 countries in 8 months, even venturing into war-torn former Yugoslavia and Afghanistan.
Istanbul is the biggest city in Turkey, historically it was the endpoint of the original Paris-Istanbul Orient Express. Starting from there you have the choice of at least three modes of transport to Iran.
The distance from Istanbul to Tehran is about 3,000 km.
By bus: First there are direct buses to Tehran run by Iranian companies. Straight, cheap, no hassle, but where's the fun? And staying two days in a bus is not the most comfortable way of transportation. Then there are Turkish buses going to Erzurum which are probably more comfortable than the Iranian buses.
By train: While direct trains from Istanbul to the far east of the country have been discontinued, frequent high speed trains connect to Ankara, from where another train to Erzurum can be caught. Another option is to take the trains to Tatvan, and then cross the lake by a ferry to Van, from where trains into Iran depart.
By ferry: There are also boats across the Black Sea to Trabzon. From there, it is a fairly short bus trip to Erzurum.
Erzurum is the hub for visiting eastern Turkey. If you didn't get the direct bus to Teheran, you will have to change means of transport here. There are buses going to Dogubayazit (4 hours).
Dogubeyazit is the last town before the border. It is mainly a garrison town, but it is also the point of departure for the climbing of Mount Ararat and visiting Ishak Pacha palace (İshak Paşa Sarayı). There are taxis going to the border.
See the Iran article for warnings about the dangers of travelling there.
The Turkey-Iran border is at an altitude of 2,600 m, at the foot of Mount Ararat where, according to the Bible, Noah ended up with his Ark.
Tabriz is the first major Iranian city you reach on this route.
Going to Kerman, you have choice of buses or a railway line. There are buses twice a day, which take a full day or a night (about 15 hours). Trains are certainly more comfortable, but run only three times a week. There are even direct buses to Zahedan (22 hours).
If you are not in a hurry, going to Isfahan is worth the trouble. It is probably the most beautiful city of Iran. A bit further in the same direction is another interesting city, Shiraz, and near it are the ruins of Persepolis.
Kerman is a station on the railway line to Zahedan and a hub of southern Iran. Buses to Zahedan take seven hours, but there also was a direct sleeper from Tehran as of January 2012.
Zahedan is the last town before the border with Pakistan. There are buses that run up to the border and some that cross the border and terminate at Quetta, but the taxi drivers will tell you there's no bus.
If you decide to take a taxi to the border, set the cost of the journey beforehand, which shouldn't exceed US$20. It best to bring food and water with you for a day as there is no proper restaurant before Quetta, 700 km across the desert.
Alternatively, one can take international economy class train "Zahidan Mixed Passenger" which runs twice a month (3rd and 17th of every month) between Zahedan and Quetta, though it is much slower, thus making the journey inconvenient.
There could be food issues in the middle of Zahedan and border town of Mirjave. In Mirjave (just after the border), there is a chai shop and in the village there are little markets.
See the Pakistan article for warnings about the dangers of travelling there.
The Iran-Pakistan border post, called Mirjave, is in the Kavir-e Loot desert, which is in the middle of nowhere. This is the real border between the East and the West.
The border closes in the early afternoon, and you can't stay there because there is no accommodation available. You will have to go back to Zahedan if you reach the border too late. You might be able to find accommodation in the town of Mirjave, some 10 km from the border post.
Once you cross the border, you have to wait for a bus. From here driving is on the left.
Don't change money directly at the border, it's better to do it in a shop at the main square of Taftan. They change rials and US dollars at an acceptable rate.
Alternatively, there is another border crossing, called the Kuhak Border Crossing, six hours south of Zahedan. Once here, you can reasonably make it across into Pakistan, and make it to Hyderabad in another 12 hours (as a stop, you should use Larkana).
There could be food issues until Quetta. In Taftan, there is a little market and a motel run by PTDC as well as numerous checkpoints on the route to Quetta where the buses stops about every few hours.
Quetta, depending on the route, is the first place you reach when entering Pakistan coming from Iran.
From here, there are direct trains to Lahore.
There are buses and taxis going to the border. The Lahore-New Delhi train is probably more comfortable than the bus, but slower, as it used to stop at the border for hours while the police checked people and luggage. Also trains are much less frequent.
The Pakistan-India border has been closed and reopened many times since Partition, so check beforehand.
The town of Amritsar, with the holiest temple of Sikhism, is near the route from the border to Delhi. So is Kurukshetra, site of the battle recounted in the Bhagavad Gita and a pilgrimage destination for Hindus.
New Delhi is the capital of India, the largest democracy and the most populous country in the world. Old Delhi was the capital of several empires before the British Raj built New Delhi in the 19th century. Together the two are one huge densely populated city. Old Delhi has many fine buildings from the Mughal Empire and is a good place to visit for shopping and spicy Indian cuisine. It also has most of the backpacker-class hotels.
Alternative route through Georgia and Armenia
An easy alternative route from Erzurum in Turkey which will take you to Tabriz in Iran without adding too many kilometers to the route is to head from Erzurum to Georgia to Armenia to Tabriz. This adds two countries to the list, and from most Europeans and Americans, no visas are required for either Georgia or Armenia.
This route would involve going from Erzurum to Kars, with a requisite visit to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Ani Ruins. This was an ancient capital of Armenia, and highlight of Eastern Turkey. From Kars northeast into Georgia's capital of Tbilisi. From Tbilisi you head down into Armenia via the sights in Lori region, including the UNESCO sites of Haghpat and Sanahin, then down to Yerevan, and from there down to Tabriz.
Kars in northeast Turkey is the nearest city to the UNESCO ruins of Ani and a convenient stepping stone to Tbilisi.
Tbilisi is the capital of Georgia. It is near the town of UNESCO site Mtskheta.
Yerevan is the capital of Armenia. It is near the UNESCO sites of Echmiadzin, Garni and Geghard. On your way south to Iran, stops at Noravank Monastery and especially UNESCO nominated Tatev Monastery (with the longest cable car in the world) are well worth stops.
Alternative route through Afghanistan
From Teheran to Lahore, there are two main routes.
The usual route today is as shown above. Swing southeast from Tehran to enter Pakistan at its extreme Western edge, bypassing Afghanistan. This is safer. Travellers with any caution at all should avoid Afghanistan.
The main overland route of the 1960s and 70s went east to the Iranian city of Mashad, then to Herat, Khandahar, and Kabul in Afghanistan and down through the Khyber Pass to Pakistan. This is described below, but is generally considered too dangerous today.
Afghanistan was scary even in the 1970s; most of the men carried rifles and they all had knives. However, nearly all the guns were single-shot, mostly muzzle loaders with quite a few 19th-century British army Martini-Henrys with lever action. Then in 1979, the USSR invaded the country. Soon many Afghans had AK-47s. Today nearly every Afghan man has an automatic weapon.
Of course, not all Afghans are likely to take potshots at tourists, or to kidnap one. Most are friendly, helpful and hospitable. However, as the only country to have been invaded by both the Soviet Union and the US, they do have some reason to resent light-skinned foreigners. With everything still, as of early 2016, somewhat chaotic, going there is spectacularly risky, though details of the dangers change from time to time.
If you do decide to risk Afghanistan, see our article on War zone safety.
Mashad is the largest city of Eastern Iran and the capital of its province.
There are daily trains to and from Tehran. Buses take 14 hours to Teheran. Buses from Mashad to the border town Taybad take about four hours.
There are minibuses and taxis to the border, called Eslam Ghale, 11 km away.
From the Afghan side, there are buses to Herat.
Herat is a big, rich Afghan city, influenced by Iranian culture. It is well-developed because of trade with Iran and in a good shape compared to other Afghan cities. The people are very friendly and hospitable to foreigners and are also more religious than people in Kabul.
There is no tourism in Herat, but there is a small community of foreign workers from Europe or other Western countries. They are easy to find by asking in the German or Indian consulate or hanging around in the Marco Polo Hotel.
Most Afghan roads are very poor. You need a four-wheel drive vehicle with a winch to even consider driving on them.
An important exception is the main highway from Herat in the west to Kabul in the East. This swings widely south via Kandahar; the centre of the country is filled with impassable mountains. The highway from Kabul across the Khyber Pass into Pakistan is also good, though steep and winding. These two highways together were the main route for overland travellers in days of yore and might be possible for anyone choosing (against all advice) to risk Afghanistan today.
There is also a good highway from Kabul north through the Hindu Kush mountains to Mazar-e Sharif and the border of Tajikistan in Central Asia. This road contains the Salang Tunnel, which is the longest in the world. It was built with Russian aid and then used for the Russian invasion.
Kandahar is the main city of Southern Afghanistan.
From late-1996 to 2001, it was a major stronghold of and served as the de facto capital of the Taliban government until the Taliban were overthrown by US-led NATO forces in late-2001.
The way from Kabul to Peshawar takes at least a day and often involves an overnight stop in Jalalabad. As of mid-2016, most Western governments have travel advisories warning against travel to either Peshawar or Jalalabad; both are quite dangerous. The area between them is even more dangerous, right off the scale.
From Kabul to the border
Buses start early and need about eight hours to reach the border. The road is not in a very good shape so don't expect a very comfortable ride. The price is between 200 and 250 Af (below €4) if you pick up a mini van bus with ten to twenty other people together. Tall people will be more comfortable in the front seats. These vans are sometimes a little more expensive.
Taxis are faster and more expensive.
Jalalabad is a moderate-sized city between Kabul and the border. If the political and security situation permits, unlikely as of early 2018, consider spending a night there. Starting from Jalabad in the morning lets you avoid the crowd by getting to the border ahead of people coming from Kabul.
The border closes at lunchtime.
From the border to Peshawar
Buses and taxis end at the border. People need to cross the border on foot and take a second bus or taxi. Foreigners (non-Pakistani or non-Afghani) have to get a permission to cross the tribal areas, which are located between the border and Peshawar and are controlled by tribes and not by the Pakistan government. The permission is free but a soldier will take you with him in a taxi. The soldier will cost about 100 Pakistani rupiah (€1.4) and the taxi twice that.
The way goes through the legendary Khyber Pass.
The travel seems to be secure for travellers who know what they are doing. The traffic is the biggest danger thus it could be recommended to travel on a Friday when the traffic is lighter than the other days. If possible take a good driver you know already. Buses may drive safer than taxis because they are slower.
Peshawar is a huge city in Pakistan. The city has a lot of traffic and seems to have a good economic situation.
There are many hotels and guest houses with western standards. Especially in the "University Town" district and in the city centre.
- The old city centre with the bazaar and an old mosque is worth a visit.
- In the summer, hiking tours to the mountains are offered. Ask at Green Tours in front of the Greens Hotel.
- The Khyber pass is one hour away and can be visited by taking a taxi. It is located in the tribal area, and easy to find. Permission is needed for foreigners to enter this area.
- Peshawar Museum and the University of Peshawar's museums are worth visiting for ancient cultural artifacts.
Other places to visit along the way
Some other places are worth a visit, but you don't necessarily have to pass through them on this journey.
- Ankara (capital of Turkey)
- Ruins of Ani, ancient capital of Armenia and known as City of 1001 Churches
- The Armenian Monastery on Aktamar Island in Lake Van - one of the most impressive sites in Eastern Turkey.
- The Mediterranean coast of Southern Turkey is a resort area, reportedly much like the Greek islands but cheaper.
- Isfahan (capital of Persia during the Safavih dynasty)
- Shiraz (Persepolis)
- Bam (2500-year-old citadel from the Parthian Empire, almost destroyed in an earthquake December 2003)
- Karachi (the largest city in Pakistan)
- Multan (the city is home to Sufi shrines)
- Islamabad (capital of Pakistan; all embassies are there)
- Rawalpindi (hub of Northern Pakistan; stay here if you want / need to go to Islamabad)
- Taxila (Buddhist archeological site from emperor Ashoka)
- Amritsar is a city in Punjab near the India-Pakistan border. It has the Golden Temple, is the centre of the Sikh religion and has some museums and memorials.
- Shimla is a hill town North of Delhi and was the summer capital of the British Raj. It has a pleasant climate and interesting old colonial buildings.
- Mumbai is the most advanced city in India nurturing almost 2% of entire India's population. South Mumbai is an interesting place to watch old colonial buildings of the British Empire which concluded in 1947. The city harbours the entertainment industry Bollywood, which is 2nd largest film industry in the world following Hollywood. The city has a cosmopolitan culture with decent nightlife. This city is made up of 7 islands that are bridged together.
- Ahmedabad is the largest city in Gujarat, the fastest-growing state in India as of 2013. This city has a rich history of the Mughal Emperor Ahmad Shah. On the footprints of Mumbai, this city is expected to be the next Manchester of India.
- Though this would involve a trip north from Iran, if the Armenian churches and monasteries you see all over Turkey and Iran whet your appetite, you should certainly head into Armenia. Alternatively, you can make a detour from the original route and head from eastern Turkey into Georgia and via Batumi and Akhaltsikhe or Tbilisi to Armenia and continue to Iran (or vice versa).
Back in the day, those who trampled down this route seldom ended their journey in New Delhi, and there is no reason why you should. Some headed north towards the Himalayas, into the (then) Kingdom of Nepal; a road named Freak Street in the national capital Kathmandu recalls those days. Many others sought enlightenment along the extensive beaches of Goa in the south instead. Continuing onwards to Southeast Asia, where a similar scene around the Banana Pancake Trail exists, was also quite popular, although an overland passage through Burma (Myanmar) was just as restricted as it is today. Some even headed all the way down to Australia, which would however usually require a short flight to cross the Timor Sea.