Interview With Rory MacLean: ‘Magic Bus’ on the Hippie Trail

Travel Interviews: Frank Bures asks him about the classic journey from Istanbul's pudding shop to Kathmandu

A surprising number of 1960s icons had transformative times on the hippie trail, like Allen Ginsberg and the Beatles. Can you tell me about that? Were there others?

Ginsberg turned Dylan and then the Beatles on to the mystical East. In 1968 the Fab Four’s five-week stay in Rishikesh changed forever the trail, Western fashion and our perception of India. Almost all the songs that would appear on the “White Album” and “Abbey Road” were composed during that time beside the Ganges. The phenomenal success of their music conjured India and Nepal into the hip destination.

That in turn transformed young travelers, unleashing forces which changed forever the way we travel the world. Lonely Planet, gap years, world music, even the Turkish tourism industry all date from that time. Most of all, it changed the limited attitudes of white Westerners. As a Turkish friend told me, “The hippies’ travels made America and Europe aware of color, of our common heritage. For Turks it was because of the hippies—not Silk Road traders or colonists—that most Westerners discovered the East. In a way humanity was reborn.”

In “Magic Bus,” you make the case that the hippie trail (and those on it) essentially gave us the first budget guidebooks, which spawned the whole budget travel/backpacker industry.

Until the early 1970s there were no independent, shoestring travel guidebooks. That changed almost overnight. In the same month that Tony Wheeler—future founder of Lonely Planet—started out on the trail, a French student, Philippe Gloaguen, began to hitchhike to India. His Guide du routard—today the best indie guidebook in French—was printed within days of American Bill Dalton’s first Moon Publication handbook. Stefan Loose returned home from Kathmandu determined to encourage his fellow Germans to question their values by writing the Südostasien Handbuch. Mik Schultz’s Asia for the Hitchhiker came out in Copenhagen just as Douglas Brown’s Overland to India appeared in Canada. Each guide was distinct, and their authors were on individual quests, yet the synchronicity of their visions was extraordinary, as if a single ideal had been plucked out of the air. Their work taught a generation to move through the world alone and with confidence.

How has the trail changed since the heyday of hippie travel?

Four decades on, the Asia Overland route remains one of the most rewarding, challenging and diverse journeys in the world, reaching from the edge of Europe to the rooftop of the world, stretching across 6,000 miles, six countries and three world religions.

Many experienced travelers still regard Nepal—the end of the road—as their favorite destination. Even though visitors are unlikely to find paradise there, the snow-capped mountain kingdom hasn’t lost its spiritual, other-worldly quality. But the other countries along the route have changed almost beyond recognition. Equally importantly, we have changed as well. Back then travelers lit sticks of incense, strummed their guitars and read another chapter of “Siddhartha,” then stepped off their Magic Bus to help push the decrepit vehicle over the Hindu Kush. No one had travel insurance. No one had heard of AIDS. Nobody worried if the radiator blew out in Anatolia. No one had a schedule or was in a hurry, not least because most bus drivers passed around a chillum pipe before breakfast. On some days the coaches seemed to levitate across border posts. A generation’s wide-eyed adventures transformed both their lives and the countries they traversed, unleashing forces that changed forever the way we travel—and view—the world. We still live with the consequences of those journeys.

Any advice for those souls still interested in travel as something more than a consumable good, or who actually want to find their own path, as Hesse’s Siddhartha said we should? Or has the world changed so much that that’s not possible any more?

Much of the travel market has become aspirational, rather than inspirational, meaning travelers aspire to do as others have done: to walk alone in the Hindu Kush, to find a forgotten house in Provence, to discover that secret, deserted Thai beach. No one dares to point out that there are no more undiscovered beaches. That the world has been mapped. That every country on the planet is described in one or another book. Despite this, every generation discovers the world anew. Its young men and women redefine the foreign and so come to know themselves better. Any traveler can still find his or her own path, as long as he or she rejoices in humanity. The great ‘60s travel writer Nicolas Bouvier once wrote, “Traveling outgrows its motives. It soon proves sufficient in itself. You think you are making a trip, but soon it is making you—or unmaking you.” That will never change.



Frank Bures is a contributing editor at World Hum, where his stories have won several awards. More of his work can be found at frankbures.com.


2 Comments for Interview With Rory MacLean: ‘Magic Bus’ on the Hippie Trail

M O Regan 02.01.09 | 1:29 PM ET

I think there is a need to guard against nostalgia about this period. Many of the grand tour ‘individuals’ were under educational obligation to travel across Europe, and spend much of the time pursuing hedonistic pursuits. They were a privileged elite that traversed a world unavailable to the majority. The hippies, imagined a world without boundaries and made it so through travel, but it was their privilege as middle class, primarily male, heterosexual, white westerners that provided the access and means to get to Nepal, with locals no more than local colour.

Their movement was imbued with power and practices which many cultures they moved through found disdainful, such as drugs in Nepal, nudity in the Sinai and Goa, lack of hygiene in S.E Asia. They were a product of their times, their resistant to their society during a time of war, nuclear fear a noble pursuit but the hippie ideals died in the early 70s, when the counterculture died. After 69, 70, they were nothing more than tourists. As a character in the recent Dylan inspired movie ‘(I’m not there), said “Live your own time, child, sing about your own time,” so today’s travellers should only read this book to learn about a lifestyle that no longer exists. excpt in the Hippie Masala hippies that have made their home in Goa!  Was their travel world, their bubble in objective reality any better than the way today travellers move. Maybe, there is an argument that today’s travelers are far more aware of the impact of their movement (ethics, environmentalism).while travelers of that period was the longer term traces and consequences of their travel.

Tim Patterson 02.01.09 | 7:33 PM ET

I absolutely loved this interview - well done.

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