Magic Bus: On the Hippie Trail from Istanbul to India by Rory MacLean

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Magic Bus: On the Hippie Trail from Istanbul to India by Rory MacLean

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Category: Travel
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Travelling overland so far as it is possible and/or safe, Maclean follows the route of the Intrepids in search of spirituality and another way of life. Along the way he meets a few relics of those days, but more importantly assessed just how much has changed since and largely because the Hippies trod these paths.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 304 Date: July 2007
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
ISBN: 978-0141015958

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If I'd been the right age, back in the 60's, I wonder if I would have been a hippie...

What do you mean, would have been?!

Not a quote from Maclean's book tracing the original hippie trail, but one from a conversation I had with my partner, who - being older than me by nearly two decades - was old enough in the summer of love to be taking notice.

But you didn't appreciate it! I lament.

No. We didn't... because we thought it was what the world had become; we didn't know how soon it was going to end.

End it did, and in trying to retrace the original trail, the overland route from Europe via Turkey to India, on into Nepal (with the winter flight out to the beaches of Goa), Maclean discovers not just how magical it must have been at the time but also how fully and finally it ended.

Travel books are almost by definition about what has been lost; adventurers wander among ancient sites seeking lost civilisations and we wonder at what once was. Somehow it is a lot sadder when you know that some of those who were there are still here to witness the downfall.

The old adage holds true: never judge a book by its cover. The Magic Bus cover is bright and breezy: against a submarine yellow background thunders a VW Bus, peace symbol in place, Hindus and Buddhists, Kali and winged sitar players, birds and flowers and purple elephants escaping into the wide blueness beyond its windows. Fun, frivolity, psychedelia and the search for spiritual enlightenment as a road to happiness personified.

Such was the dream.

And for some the dream was realised... but even for some them, life went on afterwards, the final meeting with one of the originals that inspired others on their way: Geoff Crowther is particularly salutary.

The route: by road overland from Istanbul via Ankara, Antalya, Olympus, Konya, Cappadocia, Kayseri, Erzincanm Erzurum and Dogubeyazit, Mkau, Tabriz and Tehran (with a side-step to the legendary Isfahan) in Iran and over the border into Afghanistan. There things get a little too dangerous and so it's by air (on a wing and a lie) from Heart to Kabul, but back onto the road for the trip to Bamiyan & back, thence across into Pakistan. Still by road through Peshawar to Islamabad, thence by rail through Rawalpindi, Lahore and into India to Amritsar. Diversions to Delhi and Rishikesh, thence to Varanasi, Sunauli into Nepal and back on the road to Pokhara and Kathmandu. Before the flight out back to Goa... and the leaving behind of the past.

For anyone around at the time, those names must echo with patchouli oil and jasmine smoke, hope and wistfulness. This is the route taken by the original "Intrepids" - kids in their late teens, early twenties, who simply ditched the home life for the search for paradise and/or themselves. Inspired by Kerouac and Ginsberg, led by the early pamphlets from Crowther and the Wheelers (think Lonely Planet and Rough Guide precursors) and the simple notes left at hostels and doss-houses and tea-rooms along the way, they simply mooched their way around the planet - either working or bumming their rice and their drugs. Finding spirituality and missing the point of it. These are places that became really famous when really famous people joined in... most notably the Beatles, Marianne Faithful, the Stones.

Celebrity is not what Maclean is after however, although he doesn't pass up the chance to seek it out. His mission is to see what remains of the original long and winding road.

He finds that paradise has not only been paved, it has often subsequently been bombed back into dust of less entrancing kind.

Along the way he meets Penny, escapee from a sheltered housing complex with a whim to light candles at the scenes of mystical sexual encounters nearly half a century ago... but willing to settle for a few more nights in the remote cave, feasting on simple fare and amazing sunrises.

And the Welshman Jonathan still in India all these years later, still travelling, still playing the Sitar... and trying to justify himself to subcontinental businessmen.

He also meets the modern travellers, and the American soldiers.

The aid workers, and the British historian finally leaving the ruins of the museum of Kabul.

e meets the locals. There are the Iranians and Afghans and Indians and Pakistanis who weep for the passing of the country as it was, a passing that began when the Intrepids brought the gods of tourism and dollars into Shangri-la... but who still exude the joy of their heritage and seek to partake of the pleasures of the westernisation they condemn. There are those who desperately want to leave, and those who wouldn't dream of doing so.

Maclean talks to them all and bluntly asks all the questions most of us would shy away from... all of the why's and how's. How did you get here, why did you let it happen? Were the kids really to blame? None of the answers are easy... and some of the questions are left hanging.

He meets those who knew it was dream that wouldn't last and cashed in while they could, and those for whom the dream continues. The disillusionment seems to lie the heavier in the scales.

Maclean has a wonderfully picturesque turn of phrase on occasions, of "narrow pathways snake between sleepers lying on the concrete" or of "wave whispering secrets like lovers", he can capture beauty while ducking cliché but this is no tale romantic's wanderings. He is a travel writer, setting out on this journey specifically to write the book. Which in itself speaks volumes of the ways in which the world has turned since the days of Kerouac, and Carla Grissman who travelled for the travelling and thought to tell of it afterwards.

On the other hand it is a book which rests on the encounters and the details and the interviews... all of which are researched and many of them orchestrated, even if they don't necessarily go according to plan. The telling of the history requires that level of planning and forethought, so no criticism for doing the job well.

No criticism at all in fact. Just a confession that I was captivated by the route and wished I could have been with him and at the same time found it a deeply depressing read. I have always thought of myself as a free spirit, and always known that compared to these people I really haven't got a clue. I've always wished I could have been there then, and I continue to follow less intrepidly in their footsteps, but when I see what they started... and how that road is intrinsically linked with the events that led to current war zones and the destruction of the Baniyam Buddhas, I wonder if maybe I shouldn't just stay home.

But then the grey-haired, still skinny-dipping Penny shakes her purple bangles and quotes her Spanish grandmother: La esperanza muere ultima. Hope dies last.

Which is why when the dust settles a little on the pages, I'll forget some of the social, political and economic ramifications and remember the beauty of the remote places Maclean captures, and the hippie in me will reach out for her boots and book another ticket to ride.

If you were there then, or if you're even thinking of going now... read this.

Travellers might also like Zbigniew Herbert's Barbarian in the Garden or for another take on the sixties there's always Light My Fire by Ray Manzarek.

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