Magic Bus : On the Hippie Trail from Istanbul to India


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"MacLean's ardent eye for detail is lovely, as is the way he sets his more visually descriptive prose against the sturdier explanations of the names and places in his travels....His prose is guided by an informed curiosity about what the trail must have been like 40 years ago and how a Western presence there has ...

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"There's no denying that the stoned rovers were present at the beginning of a cataclysmic period in history, whose legacy Magic Bus describes in exquisite detail."—The New York Times Book Review

"MacLean's ardent eye for detail is lovely, as is the way he sets his more visually descriptive prose against the sturdier explanations of the names and places in his travels....His prose is guided by an informed curiosity about what the trail must have been like 40 years ago and how a Western presence there has contributed to its present state."—Boston Globe

"Most impressively, MacLean has a genuine understanding of the mystical and spiritual elements at play. His engaging traveler’s voice and descriptive gifts offer a wholly different view of the tortured region from what is currently available via the mainstream media."—Foreword Magazine

"MacLean does a fine job finding journalists and local people who remember the hippies and their impact on both the economy and the sensibility of the places they passed through...Travelers of all kinds, including the armchair variety, will relish the work and love MacLean has put into his latest."—Publisher's Weekly

"MacLean’s vivid writing shows how much the Hippie Trail changed not only the way we travel, but also the places it passed through and the people who traveled on it."—Utne

“A magic journey—lyrical, sympathetic, but gently skeptical.”—Colin Thubron

“An exciting and lively account of how the ideals of Kerouac metamorphosed into back-packer travel: organized by Lonely Planet guides, fed with banana pancakes, and connected by hotmail from Peru to Phnom Penh.”—Rory Stewart

In the 1960s and 1970s, hundreds of thousands of young westerners in search of enlightenment blazed the “hippie trail” that ran through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and Nepal. Forty years later, Rory MacLean revisits the trail, where he encounters the tie-dyed veterans who never made it home, meets locals reaping the rewards and regrets of westernization, and crashes up against Taliban fighters and Islamic extremism, which has turned the hippie trail into a path of dust and danger.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Travel writer MacLean (Stalin's Nose, Falling for Icarus) retraces the infamous hippie trail trod by fun seekers, drug seekers and seekers of fulfillment and enlightenment in the 1960s and '70s, when Afghanistan was unknown except maybe to readers of Kipling, the Shah ruled Iran and the Khyber Pass was, well, passable. Dubbing these travelers "The Intrepids", MacLean tracks the history of the trail. Starting out in Istanbul, MacLean meets Penny, one of the original travelers, who, pushing seventy, is still floating about the east in beads and feathers, spewing memories of her sex life and speaking of karma. MacLean does a fine job finding journalists and local people who remember the hippies and their impact on both the economy and the sensibility of the places they passed through. His sometimes romantic vision of the seekers aside, MacLean makes a sincere effort to understand why the trip was so seductive and important historically. Interactions with people along the way and his references to the music of the trail are delightful, and while the writing can seem overly sentimental in the early pages, MacLean hits his stride quickly; making his way through dangerous and hostile Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan brings out his finest writing. Travelers of all kinds, including the armchair variety, will relish the work and love MacLean has put into his latest.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

Nearly 40 years after the first pioneering hippies of the 1960s traveled the overland route to India and Nepal via Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, travel writer Mac-Lean (Falling for Icarus) follows in their footsteps. These countries have changed in the intervening years, and MacLean's descriptions of the locals and their present circumstances are vivid and compelling. Contrasting the past with the present, MacLean ruminates on how the hippies perceived travel as a means to transformation rather than simply a change of scene. According to MacLean, today a hippie in Afghanistan would probably end up dead. While MacLean romanticizes the past-the ghosts of the Beatles, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg linger over the narrative-he also provides information about the first budget-minded travel guides introduced by Lonely Planet and other publishers back in the Sixties. This book is an outsider's account, but, especially considering the paucity of travel narratives that include Iran and Afghanistan, it is recommended for armchair travelers at all public libraries.
—Ravi Shenoy

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780141015958
  • Publisher: Gardners Books
  • Publication date: 7/5/2007

Meet the Author

Rory MacLean is the a leading travel writer, and author of five books, including Stalin's Nose and Falling for Icarus. A fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and a member of the Executive Committee of English PEN, Rory's work has been nominated for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.

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Read an Excerpt



Ig Publishing
Copyright © 2009

Rory MacLean
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-9788431-9-9

Chapter One I Get Around

My wonder at that first step moves me still, that stride into the unknown, that grasping for stars; the open road before me, the Blue Mosque at my back, the Beach Boys in my ear. Ahead stretched six thousand miles, six countries, three world religions spanning West and East along the world's wildest and oldest trail. I was leaving ordered Europe, crossing Turkey and chameleon Iran, reaching through reopened Afghanistan, falling into the ferment of India and lifting myself toward the pure, clean Himalayas, to Nepal and the trail's end.

All my life I have wandered. When I was a boy, I rambled away from home after school, straying along unfamiliar streets, roaming off into parks and meadows to climb trees, build camps and talk to strangers. The world felt vast, diverse and safe. I was as free as a leaf in the wind, as long as I came back in time for supper. Day after day I discovered the wonder in my neighborhood, in the streets and fields beyond, spiralling ever further away from the familiar.

My father, too, loved to roam. Night after night, he came into my room and told me to get dressed. We climbed into the car and started out for Florida, California, even Mexico, with me aged eight or nine driving on his lap. He cranked up the radio and hurtled us on our way with "I Get Around", "Magic Carpet Ride", "Gates of Eden". Together we sang along to Dylan, the Stones, ten dozen Golden Oldie stations along the endless dark Interstates. The next morning, when I awoke, we found ourselves blinking in the sharp daylight of Times Square or the Eire shore, hundreds of miles from home.

As I grew older, the world changed. People became suspicious of unfamiliar streets and lonely parks. We no longer trusted in the kindness of strangers. We eyed our fellow man warily rather than looked out for him. We divided society into "them" and "us", our optimistic innocence lost as we exiled ourselves from Eden at home and abroad. Those dazzling, high volume night flights with my father had left me both enchanted by and wary of spontaneity. But I hungered for the perfect destination that he and I had never reached. I still wandered along the trail of wonders, believing in a family of man, yearning to complete the greatest journey bopping to the best songs of all time.

I knew of the historical importance of the Asia overland route: part Silk Road, part web of desert caravan tracks, above all, a critical cultural highway. For over 1,700 years the trail had been the principal link between Europe and Asia, before it was closed by sea trade and the Ming dynasty. Alexander the Great, the Persians, Mohammed and Marco Polo had all trekked along its dusty path. Last winter, I read about them and the trail's role in the interchange of ideas, spices and faith. I considered how a dozen religions - including Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism-had coexisted along the route until the coming of Islam. I pored over diligent tomes on British colonialism and the stupid lines drawn on maps which divide the Middle East.

Those hard, old journeys then carried me forward to the Now, or Nearly Now, to the original independent travellers, the Beats, hippies and Intrepids, the kids who adopted the trail in the 1960s. They were the ones whose freedom I envied, whose spontaneity attracted and haunted me, whose bewitching optimism today seems as lost as my once-safe world. I wanted to know why this route became the journey of their age. I needed to put my finger on the triggering events which shot them-and so us all-along the road. I had to understand how that decade affected the countries traversed, sweeping the region through extraordinary changes, casting such long shadows over our own fearful and protective era.

Then spring came, the great time of traveling, and I flew to Istanbul. I stood before the Blue Mosque and the Milion, the lone stone Roman pillar, worn and fragmented, from which all road distances were once measured. I took that first step. I didn't realize this Journey to the East would be my Pilgrim's Progress "from this World to that which is to come". I couldn't see yet that I was Goldmund cutting free of Narziss. Sal Paradise running down the razor-edge of time. A Merry Prankster on the bus, tootling the multitudes, rolling up for the real Magical Mystery Tour. I simply trusted that my hidden somewhere lay on the road ahead; the perfect place somehow always known to us. All I had to do was reach out for it, to outrun life, to follow one great red line across Asia to the wild beating of my heart.

I looked up at the blue sky into which the swallows were rising and thought: Here it began. Here I begin.


The Bosphorus surges between the tail of Europe and toe of Asia, dipping, rising, rushing from the Black Sea to a silver-mirrored Marmara. Dancing ferries defy the noon-hot current, cutting between churning tankers, skeins of shearwater and two continents. Their almond-eyed passengers wash ashore, over decaying sea-walls caked with moss and mussels, around bobbing skiffs of fishermen flogging fried-fish sandwiches, into the great, jumbled capital of three empires.

Istanbul is among the oldest inhabited cities, a metropolis founded on the advice of Apollo's oracle, the western gateway of the Silk Road since the sixth century. Its pivotal location, astride the Bosphorus, flanking the scimitar-shaped Golden Horn, was the most strategic in the ancient world. In its time, "the City" was occupied by Persia, Alexander and Rome, rising to Christian glory after Constantine, defying Muslim invaders for almost a thousand years. Under the Ottomans it held sway over territories stretching from Hungary to the Persian Gulf, from North Africa to the Caucasus. Today, this is where the modern world's fault lines meet: between rich and poor, democracy and the authoritarian, Islam and the West.

At Topkapi Palace, I'm scribbling descriptions of the rushing faces of the city. Silver sunlight flashes off the dark waters. The muezzin calls the faithful to prayer. I'm deep in thought, minding my own business, when an astoundingly beautiful woman limps out of the crowd and says to me, "There should be a candle ..." Radiant green eyes. Purple tie-dyed blouse. Ebony walking-stick. "... an eternal flame burning where a desiccated girl first popped her cork."

"Popped her cork?" I ask, stopped in mid-sentence. The sign says no open fires are permitted near the pavilions of the Imperial Terrace, but the luminous stranger seems to spark with pyrotechnic energy.

"Use your imagination, Jack," she snorts, turning away her hoary head and letting loose a raunchy laugh.

She's pushing seventy. Her thick grey hair is the color of a seal's coat. Her long, soft features seem to have been cast in wet clay by a Cubist sculptor during a monsoon. Her gravelly London accent has been smoothed by Californian surf and sand.

"At night we'd steal over that wall, sneak through the harem garden and make love here," she coos, stroking the sultan's divan with a lingering touch, grasping hold of one of the domed canopy's slim bronze pillars. "So the first eternal flame goes here."

I look away from her love-nest iftariye, dazzled by opulent sweeps of marble so white that I have to screw up my eyes, but the bright old bird points across the shallow mirror pools to the Baghdad Kiosk and goes on, "We made love there too." The Terrace of the Favorites. "And there." Sünnet Odasi, or the Circumcision Room, built for Sultan Ibrahim in 1642 to celebrate the circumcision rites of his first son, the future Mehmet IV. "And there." I hope at least the Pavilion of the Holy Mantle-with its relics of the Prophet (Peace be upon Him) and Moses' walking stick-had been spared her enthusiasm.

"I'm working," I tell her, trying to revive my train of thought.

"There must also be lights in the park," she insists, her iridescent eyes changing color as she steadies herself on the carved balustrade. Jade green. Liquid turquoise. "As well as at the Gülhane, up the Maiden's Tower, in Cappadocia, on Mount Ararat ..."

With wheeling gestures, she flings imaginary candles off the palace walls. The flames, fiery points of passion burnt in time, trace a line between the needle minarets and golden domes, over the plane trees and the fast-flowing sea, up the low stone hills of the Asian shore and away to the East.

"Everywhere," she says, excited by her memories, pulling off her feathered felt hat, embracing the vista in slender arms and pivoting on her toes.

"We named our positions after the cities of Asia: riding the Kabul, up the Khyber, doing the Bam-bam-bamiyan. Check it out, Jack; you have to figure out which one was which."

I ask her, "When was this?"

"My Summer of Love."

And she starts to cry. Great, crystal raindrop tears glinting in the sun, collecting in little pools where her spectacles rest against her cheeks, ruining her mascara, hissing on the searing white marble. I look down at my notes to cover my surprise as much as her embarrassment. Then I smell smoke. I turn back to the woman. "My name isn't Jack," I say.

But she's gone, leaving a single tea-light twinkling on the divan.

In the early sixties, the first Intrepids began arriving in Istanbul in small numbers, finding a sweet, melancholy city of ramshackle wooden houses and crumbling city walls, without tourists or touts. Old men in baggy trousers idled away afternoons in backstreet coffeehouses. Taxi drivers wore ill-cut Western suits, chewed gum and drank opiate wine. Fearsome razor-sellers worked the piers. Diesel smoke rose from weathered freighters. The oily air smelt of charcoal and mackerel. Along the cobblestone pavements, peddlers stirred steaming cauldrons of sweet corn cobs. Tailors slithered on the heels of their slippers, bent under the weight of dozens of leather jackets. The bazaar-where public letter-writers typed on Coronas-wasn't yet a gift-shop warehouse. Sultanahmet hadn't become a sightseers' ghetto. The neighboring slopes and hills were still bare of buildings. With rainbow patches on their jeans or maple leaves on their backpacks, the travelers hung out at the first hostels, played guitars together on the steps of the Blue Mosque, smoked hubble-bubbles under the cypress trees before driving their battered VW Campers and Morris Minors on to the rusty Bosphorus ferry.

To catch a clearer glimpse of those years, I take a city bus along the Golden Horn, past shattered remnants of Byzantine sea palaces and fragments of yali boathouses. Ships' whistles and nasal love songs echo off the few remaining timber buildings, their blackened "gingerbread" lattices pressed and cracked between new concrete tenements.

Ersin Kalkan is a lean, fifty-five-year-old journalist with deep-set brown eyes, rough porous skin and fleshy boxer's lips. In the dusk, we sit in his compact walled garden of orange trees and damp old stones, drinking coffee beneath the darting swallows.

Istanbul, he tells me, marks the point where Asia and Europe both be gin and end. The city was founded in 660 BC by colonists from Megara and Athens, he says. In ad 326 the Emperor Constantine shifted the capital of the Roman Empire here from Italy. In 1265, Princess Maria Palaeologina was sent from the church next door to Persia to wed the Great Khan of the Mongols, whom she converted to Christianity. In the 1920s, Atatürk founded the Republic out of the devastated Ottoman Empire and decreed that Turkish would henceforth be written in a modified Latin, not Arabic, script. He inaugurated an era of fervent nationalism which frustrated the cause of the caliphate until the close of the twentieth century.

In return, I tell Kalkan that the city's tangled marriage of East and West has already moved me: in Byzantium's ruins overlaid by Mehmet's serene mosques, along the narrow, cobbled streets where Janissaries once walked and now flashy European Union kiosks stand, in my fleeting, time-warp encounter on the Imperial Terrace.

"Are you sure she wasn't a ghost?" he asks me with a sudden smile. "There are many ghosts in Istanbul: Trojans, Crusaders, Californians."

I shake my head. "We didn't dwell on the spiritual. Her main interest seemed to be fornication."

Kalkan tips back his head and stares for a long moment into the sky. Then, he says in a voice filled with feeling, "To us, hippies were the fireworks of freedom. They were ... exotic."

"As you would have been to them."

"Every night I went to Sultanahmet to meet them."

"To practice your English?" I ask.

"To see what they were reading," he says, surprising me, lighting another Marlboro. "Ginsberg, for example, who had the courage to put up his head and insult the American system, a system which to us was Protestantism and God."

Allen Ginsberg was the bearded Beat poet whose enduring anti-authoritarianism made him a spokesman for the generation. His prophetic work-like the hippie trail itself-would come to link the Beats to the Beatles, On the Road to "The Long and Winding Road", karma to Coca-Cola, transcendence to terrorism.

"'America I'm putting my queer shoulder to the wheel,'" Kalkan quotes from memory, nodding with new enthusiasm.

"I didn't know young Turks had even heard of the Beats," I say with sharp delight.

"Come on. Ginsberg's poetry emboldened dozens of our best writers: Can Yücel, Ece Ayhan, Cemal Süreyya. Dylan inspired Erkin Koray, the father of Turkish protest music. Joan Baez played a concert here. Their example gave us courage to voice our dissent," he insists, thinking of Turkey's decade of rapacious military dictatorship. "In those hard years, words and lyrics were a vital social and intellectual resource."

"As they were in the West," I say, leaning forward and shifting my chair on the stones, indulging our shared passion. "People really believed that music could change the world."

"At times, dreams are as important as bread."

Over salted slivers of anchovy flecked with garlic and thyme, I tell Kalkan about the Grand Tourists, precursors of the Intrepids. After the Napoleonic Wars, young Englishmen, for the most part wealthy Romantics, travelled in their numbers to Rome and Greece, then the crossroads of classical and contemporary culture. On horseback, by bone-rattling carriage and in the shadow of the Pantheon, their formative experiences established the concept of travel as an adventure of the self as well as a means of gathering knowledge. 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 travelled to be transformed.

"The Grand Tourists changed Regency society like the sixties changed the West," I tell him. 'The counterculture searched for a meaning of life outside the old institutions. Are you saying the travelers changed Turkey too?"

This is my first chance to examine the effect of the Intrepids on the peoples along the trail.

"We saw hippies as revolutionaries," replies Kalkan. "They traveled without money, rejected materialism, cut their relationship with career and government. Their objective was to know themselves."

"But most critics think they were naive and cultish," I say, at once envious and wary of their search for themselves. "Flower Power can be seen as sentimental Romanticism." "Their liberal values were innocent," he tells me, "and they spread in a soft way throughout Turkish society. Our women began to feel they had the freedom to act as they wished. Young villagers re-evaluated their culture because of hippies' love of native clothing. They showed that there was a way of finding peaceful solutions to problems. They helped us to see that the world belongs to the people: wherever you put your feet is home."

"Many of them were stoned out of their heads."

'But all of them had flowers in their hair. Philosophical flowers,' he nods, lifting his hands as he talks, as if balancing ideas. "And their greatest effect was after their journey."

"On America and Europe?"

"Europe used to be just one color: white. It used to have one religion: Christianity. The West believed that world history began with Greece and Rome. As you say, the hippies were curious for different cultures. From us, they learnt that Mesopotamia - here in Turkey and the Middle East - was the mother of all civilization. They carried home with them a kilim woven from different beliefs: threads of Islam, sky-blue of Buddhist prayer flags, silver from Hindu temple bells."


Excerpted from MAGIC BUS by RORY MACLEAN Copyright © 2009 by Rory MacLean. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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