For many travellers in the late 1960s and early 1970s the journey east really began in Istanbul. Though the hippy trail may have begun in a New York bucket shop or cross Channel ferry and ended in several places on the sub-continent, such as Kathmandu or Kabul, the route’s choke point was Istanbul.
Arriving in clapped out cars and VW vans or on cheap buses, word of mouth led travellers to the Lale Restaurant in Sultanahmet where they exchanged ideas and experiences and hooked up for the next stage of the trip east.
The Pudding Shop got its nickname from forgetful hippies passing on the recommendation to other travellers. Though they couldn’t always remember the name of the place, they could remember the puddings served up there.
Opened in 1957 by brothers Idris and Namik Çolpan, the Pudding Shop became a focus for the counter culture as broke travellers could hook up over reasonably priced Turkish food, use the message board and find out more about travelling in Turkey or further afield. Western comforts were also available as Idris is said to be the first man in Turkey to import Nescafe.
Tom Brosnahan, editor of the excellent Turkey Travel Planner, visited in 1968 and recalls when the nearby Hippodrome was ‘parked solid with Volkswagen microbuses heading east.’ He counts the Pudding Shop as the most famous restaurant on the entire trail from Istanbul to Kathmandu and recalls a story by Lale’s owner of ‘one microbus driver who didn’t have enough seats for all the young people who wanted to share the ride to Kathmandu. He said “Here, take a chair from the restaurant. Drop it off on your way back through Istanbul.”’
Today Lale is still in the hands of the same family but the restaurant is no longer so special. Like the hippies, the place has grown up, got commercial and is far removed from the place where, in Midnight Express, Billy Hayes led the police to his taxi driver supplier.
When we visited a couple of years ago, I would be generous in saying the food was no better than anywhere else of a comparable price in the area. Though the lighting and wood panelled décor adorned with black and white photos gave Lale a pleasant atmosphere.
There will probably never be a modern equivalent of the Pudding Shop. Though Istanbul remains a choke point on the overland route east, the route itself has largely gone. Other travellers are just one way to get information about the road ahead in the TripAdvisor age and social media and smartphones have outdone the need for physical message boards.
Today most travellers looking for the cheapest way to India or southeast Asia fly. Cheap air tickets, bureaucracy and conflict have made the idea of trying to drive your own vehicle across Asia as archaic as the hippies themselves and those that do want an overland adventure can opt for the easier, packaged choices offered by commercial overland companies.