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

01.30.09 | 10:28 AM ET

No one knows exactly how many people in the 1960s and ‘70s set out on the hippie trail from Istanbul through Iran, Pakistan and India, and on to Kathmandu. Some think as many as 2 million seekers traveled the route in search of some kind of enlightenment. Regardless, beginning in 1962, when Allen Ginsberg landed in India, and ending in 1979, when the Iranian revolution shut down a big swath of it, the hippie trail was dotted with young Western travelers. They were, as Rory MacLean puts it, “the first movement of people in history traveling to be colonized rather than to colonize.” In other words, they were traveling to have their minds blown and their lives transformed. A few years ago, MacLean set out on the trail to see what had become of it and to explore the history of a movement that forever altered the travel world. The result is his fantastic account, Magic Bus, just released in the U.S. I asked him via email about the Beatles, Middle Earth and how to find a trail of one’s own.

World Hum: You write that the hippies, or Intrepids, as you call them, followed in the footsteps of the Grand Tourists of the 1800s and before. How do the two groups compare?

Rory MacLean: After the Napoleonic Wars young Englishmen, for the most part wealthy Romantics, traveled in their numbers to Rome and Greece, then the crossroads of Classical and contemporary culture. On horseback, by bone-rattling carriages and in the shadow of the Pantheon, their experiences established the concept of travel as a means of gathering knowledge, as well as an adventure of the Self. Like the hippies who followed them a century and a half later, the Grand Tourists looked abroad for models for political reform and a free-love alternative to Christianity. Both groups aimed to learn and extract pleasure from the Foreign. Most of all they traveled to be transformed.

It seems that one of the things that pushed people out on the hippie trail was a desire to embrace life in the fullest possible way. Would you say that’s true?

Absolutely. In the ‘60s kids grew up with the world. It was the era of Kennedy, civil rights marches and the pill. Most of all it was an age of amazing technological progress. Everything seemed possible. All of which convinced young people that by changing themselves they could change the world. That lucky post-war generation had the chance to imagine a world without boundaries. They abandoned their parents’ Kingdom Come of postponed pleasure to catch hold of the living, transient world. 

I was surprised that you met so many people along the way who were on the original hippie trail—travelers either trying to track down memories, or who never really left.

Magic Bus book coverFor most Intrepids, the trip was the journey of their life—the experience of their life. Just consider how they traveled. A few flew directly to India, but the majority drove east from Europe. War-surplus Jeeps, retired Royal Mail vans, fried-out VW campers, rainbow-colored London double deckers, clapped-out Turkish coaches. I even heard of a Scotsman who drove a Messerschmidt bubble car to India. It was the weirdest procession of unroadworthy vehicles ever to roll and rock across the face of the earth.

I was lucky when researching “Magic Bus.” In Istanbul I met the original Flower Child. In Pakistan I broke bread with a one-time dope-smoking Catholic who converted to Islam and became an imam—because of Bob Dylan. In Rishikesh I met the Beatles’ doctor. But last year when the book was published in Britain, and the first reviews appeared in the press, something even more amazing happened. Trail “veterans” started writing to me by the dozen. They’d headed east in the ‘60s or ‘70s and—motivated by reading the book—now embarked on a new trek, up the stairs to the attic to unearth old boxes and dusty journals.

Within a couple of months I’d been sent over 500 photographs, and enough new material to write the book all over again. With their permission I started relaying those stories, along with those I’d already collected, in articles and talks. I even built the website—with a Flickr page—to create a meeting place for this community of Intrepid travelers.

A couple of those people mention Middle Earth and “The Hobbit” in the book. I’m wondering how influential those books were as far as inspiring people to set off on their own adventures.

In the ‘60s, books—and song lyrics—were central to communicating ideas. Lyrics inspired, guided—or in some cases misguided—the search for a new way of living, expressing genuine concern for the state of the world.

On the road, books were passed freely between travelers, in keeping with the ‘60s’ openness to new experiences. Top reads included More’s Utopia, Kafka’s The Metamorphosis and Huxley’s Brave New World. Dog-eared copies of the novels of Hermann Hesse and Tolkien went back and forth from West to East countless times, as did Ginsberg’s “Howl,” Kerouac’s On the Road and especially Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. “I went into the woods,” he wrote of 19th-century Massachusetts, “because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” The same spirit of discovery—including self-discovery—defined many ‘60s travelers’ quests.

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.