For a certain breed of independent travelers in the 1960s and '70s, Asia was the Promised Land. For nearly 20 years during those iconic decades, flower children, beat philosophers, and Western wanderers took to the road for the roughly 6,000-mile journey from Turkey to India. Hundreds of thousands may have made the trek, though no one has an exact count. For years after, the trip was nearly impossible to make through this war-torn area - especially for Westerners. So after parts of the trail reopened in 2002, UK-based Canadian travel writer Rory MacLean set his sights east.
In MacLean's sixth book, "Magic Bus: On the Hippie Trail From Istanbul to India," he recounts his eight-month journey along this epic route. The book strings together a series of vignettes from his trip that en masse form a well-rounded and insightful look into the region. 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. "Magic Bus" meanders as much as the author did on his trip: There's an intended plan but it's open to serendipitous detours. The book's form reflects the content - and it works.
During his sojourn MacLean discovered a Middle East vastly changed since the days of the hashish-fueled magic buses the hippies rode. With acute observation, he describes the area, which is at once both scarred and beautiful.
Of Pakistan, MacLean writes, "I'm at the frontier, swept up in a Koranic scene, pressed between praying refugees, tired-eyed traders and half-starved dogs, herded by soldiers through a propitious gate."
The author's descriptions and personal observations are interlaced with historical asides, putting the trail in both its past and present contexts. Pedestrian travel guide this is not -- but that seems to be MacLean's point.
"In the sixties, there were no guidebooks to Asia, at least none that suited young shoestring travelers. No one on the hippie highway carried a copy of Fodor's 'Islamic Asia.' The route to spiritual enlightenment wasn't revealed in the pages of the latest Baedeker. Intrepids were on a journey of spontaneity and reinvention," writes MacLean.
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. MacLean's journey wasn't all parties and patchouli. On a train ride in India, he meets Arun, an Indian businessman who works at a call center for the travel agency Tecnovat Data. To Arun, the Westerners' use of his country for their own spiritual enlightenment was exploitation.
But for many, the overland trail was an escape route from the West that left them broke and blitzed from months of hallucinogen use rather than self-realized.
At times MacLean's path feels dreamlike and guided by chance. Penny, the "original flower child" he first meets in Istanbul and parts with in a cave in Cappadocia, Turkey, turns up more than 100 pages later in Nepal. But while some meetings seem too opportune, there are also encounters that snap him back to the present, like getting marooned at Bagram, a US military base in Afghanistan, because a plane was shot down above an airstrip in Kabul.
After "Magic Bus" was published in the United Kingdom, more than 100 people reached out to MacLean to tell their own "hippie trail" stories, enough that he now devotes a section of his website, www.rorymaclean.com, to the exchange of these tales four decades on.
The hippies went east and caused people in countries like Turkey, India, and Iran to shift their gaze to the West. A Pizza Hut faces the Taj Mahal, and neon signs for Virgin Blended Scotch flash in Kathmandu. There's an entire industry built on providing an arguably "authentic" experience to tourists while still catering to Western commercialism. MacLean seems to say that while a "pure" travel experience is hard to find - and that we only have ourselves to blame for this - it doesn't mean there isn't a path out there still waiting for those eager explorers.
Nicole Cammorata is a member of the Globe staff.