Perceptive Travel Book Reviews May/June 2007
By Susan Griffith

In this issue: Magic Bus: On the hippie trail from Istanbul to India, Tony Wheeler's Bad Lands: A Tourist on the Axis of Evil, and Welcome to Pyongyang.

Magic Bus: On the hippie trail from Istanbul to India
by Rory MacLean

Rory MacLean's Magic Bus transports its readers magically to the heady 1960s and ends up enchanting them. The book is partly an elegy for the lost decades when border guards napped in hammocks as decrepit vehicles conveyed blissed–out penniless hippies from London to India via Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan. The famous Pudding Shop near Istanbul's Blue Mosque was already in steep decline when I first visited circa 1980 and is now a run–of–the–mill backpackers' café. But its glory days are captured unerringly through the reminiscences of the family that founded it. This became the launchpad for an eccentric variety of vehicles including "born–again hearses spurred east by seekers in sandals".

Yet this is not a dewy–eyed account of the questing travelers (christened here "Intrepids") of a pre–Lonely Planet, pre–mobile phone world. The author is perfectly aware that the Istanbul–to–Kathmandu route was also the "hash–and–hepatitis trail". The youthful impulse to pursue freedom and self–fulfillment is both celebrated and given a context. MacLean gives a wonderfully synoptic account of the international events and social changes that collided in the 1960s to propel those hippie travelers eastwards. He is good at juxtaposing world events and the travel experiences of individuals. Like the swallows he describes in Doğubeyazit, Eastern Turkey, whose flight connects many opposing worlds, Magic Bus encourages an appreciation of the contiguities of the mundane and the mystical.

As befits a man who borrows 1960s songs to serve as chapter titles, MacLean has a gift for the music and poetry of language. His descriptions of places sing to the imagination (and to the memory of those of us who made this journey). He is also very good on character. Hetty the aging hippie whom he links up with in Turkey and meets again, by amazing coincidence, in Nepal ("Good karma" is Hetty's explanation) becomes the author's Beatrice for part of his journey, though it is not clear if he is being guided to a paradise or inferno of memory. His encounters with both locals and former overlanders are always penetrating and insightful. The sometimes bizarre cast of characters he meets––the wise–cracking British Muslim comedian chanced upon in Rawalpindi train station, the impotent taxi driver who invites him home in Tabriz––prompts him to meditate on the human condition, not just on the politics and social changes in the countries through which he gently passes.

Primarily he is a superb storyteller. The tragic tale of Sahar is unbearably vivid. Son of an Iranian farmer, he was only 16 when his family in the 1990s paid for him and his younger brother to be smuggled to a better life in the west. Sahar was the only one of ten to survive a slow and agonizing death by suffocation in the back of a lorry. Later on his journey the heartrending story is narrated, as recounted to him by an elderly American woman, of the smashing of all the treasures in the Kabul Museum by the mullahs. As someone recently back from spending a year in Afghanistan just emailed me said, "You can't drink as much water as you want to cry over there."

Unfailingly, MacLean engages the reader's emotions in his stories because his own sympathies are so readily roused. His journey represents a personal quest, not just a journalistic project. Once in India, he begins to share his predecessors' sense of regeneration. His tolerance of places and peoples that have been demonized in recent times underlines his humanity. As he says of a meeting with a modern–day young traveler, one of those who expects the globe to be packaged––a million miles from Jack Kerouac's "Rucksack Revolution"––MacLean tries to ease his cynicism. Perhaps he accomplishes this with all his readers.

Tony Wheeler's Bad Lands: A Tourist on the Axis of Evil
by Tony Wheeler

Iran and Afghanistan also loom large in Bad Lands. As the founder and still active director of Lonely Planet, Tony Wheeler is a household name in the field of travel publishing. Arguably, he has played a key role in revolutionizing the way we all travel. He has contributed to and continues to write for many of the hundreds of guidebooks his company has published since he founded it in 1973 with the first stapled–together edition of Across Asia on the Cheap. This book is a new departure in which Tony diversifies into travel writing. This is a potentially risky move, comparable to a Hollywood director who decides to play a leading part in one of his movies.

Wheeler's project is an intriguing one, of visiting, describing and comparing a number of pariah states, arranged alphabetically from Afghanistan to Saudi Arabia. The child–like spondee of the title belies an ambitious and complex undertaking, to take the measure of the countries on and beyond George Bush's axis of evil. Unsurprisingly, he does not encounter terror and menace wherever his goes. Instead he finds a warm welcome from people met in Iran, much to amuse in North Korea, and almost nothing evil about present–day Albania.

Perhaps spoiled by Rory Maclean, the prose here is often workmanlike with occasional lapses into plodding travel–journal speak (endless cups of tea, haircuts, souvenir purchases). Yet there are many felicities, for example a riff on Colonel Gaddafi as Peter Pan and a description of the building braggadocio of Pyongyang as intended to "hide the fact that the emperor is really naked". Some countries inspire better writing than others. He is at his most pedestrian in Cuba, a country he ends up disliking because of the discrepancy between what is available to dollar–toting tourists and to locals. The chapter on North Korea is especially good, bringing vividly to life the absurdities of that mysterious land (in which he is not allowed to use a stamp depicting the Great Leader for fear that it will be cancelled) and recounting as background some fascinating news stories of abductions and suicides.

For travelers who have grown up relying on the budget recommendations of Lonely Planet guides, it is perhaps a little dispiriting to learn that Tony the free–wheelering traveler of 1972 has turned into the "tourist" of the title who chucks money at SIM cards and fancy hotels (and I heard him once confess that, unlike the publisher of Rough Guides, he normally flies first class). But this is a minor quibble, for often he has no choice but to cheerfully rough it, as he has always done. We might be permitted a touch of Schadenfreude (malicious delight) when the godfather of the guidebook finds himself spending a night in a slimy dive in the obscure Saudi city of Khamis Mushait, having been led astray by his guidebook.

Bad Lands is a salutary read for those who need their Bushite view of the threatening East challenged. He draws out his moral explicitly while staying in Yazd: "These people are so energetic, so cheerful, so unlike what the media would have us believe about Iranians." The backdrop–painting and potted histories of conflicts through the ages are clearly presented and undoubtedly useful. Wheeler is fairly even–handed, attempting to present a balanced account which not infrequently impugns the actions and motives of the US as well as the patriae non grata he visits, to show that badness is never one–sided.

He even applies his "Evil–Meter™" to the USA. Tacked on as an Appendix, the meter attempts to calibrate the relative "evil" of his subject countries. This may be motivated by the male obsession with ranking and listing or, worse, as a cynical gimmick to catch the eye of reviewers in the popular press. I was a little uncomfortable with what could be seen as a distasteful trivializing of barbarity and inhumanity. Burma scores a modest 2.5 points (out of a possible 7 for North Korea); three sentences after stating "Burma is really nowhere when it comes to evil on my meter" he enumerates the government's notorious atrocities (slaughtered students, Nobel Prize winner imprisoned, minority groups devastated….) Later he compares Israel and Palestine to Tom and Jerry (not Jewry) and on another occasion calls international terrorists "ne'er–do–wells". Aside from the dubious Evil–Meter, this book presents some intriguing snapshots of countries most of us have never and may never visit.

Welcome to Pyongyang
by Charlie Crane, Introduction by Nicholas Bonner

On Tony Wheeler's tour of North Korea, the most frequently heard instruction by the guide is "Cameras away". In Welcome to Pyongyang, British photographer Charlie Crane has dutifully put away his camera until there is an official photo opportunity, fully approved by the authorities. No hidden camera reveals a worker with a crooked tooth or hair out of place, let alone the after–effects of desperate famine and an isolationist economy crippled by the collapse and withdrawal of support by the USSR. This is the secretive country of North Korea as seen through its own eyes, not so much a book of photography about the Democratic People's Republic as a virtual tour with an official tour guide.

The interest of the book is not primarily pictorial: there is a finite number of concrete monoliths (all buildings in the North Korean capital appear to be nasty, brutish and tall), empty six–lane highways, statues of the much–venerated late President Kim Il Sung and workers stiffly posed, that can be enjoyed at a sitting. But the captions are riveting. Although not enclosed in quotation marks, they are all first–person commentaries by official city guides and bespeak a heart–breakingly naive level of trust in the propaganda. One suspects that the guide who describes the 30–million book Grand People's Study House as "probably the best library in the world" may never have heard of the Library of Congress or Oxford's Bodleian.

Numerous workers stand to rigid unsmiling attention for the camera: Mrs. Hong the Senior Chambermaid, student Gong Hyon U who is proud to join the army, Miss Mun the zookeeper, Mr. Hoe the tour bus driver who has never had an accident (not surprising when all the roads depicted are completely deserted, presumably because almost no one owns a car). The captions speak volumes, hinting at aspiration and disappointment. Take Miss Pak who works at a brand new petrol station: "Miss Pak says she really did not expect to do this type of work after finishing her studies, but her father said it would be a good job" And in case we might not be familiar with the job of a petrol attendant, "Her responsibility is to fill the vehicles (what vehicles?) with petrol or diesel in a safe way. She also tells the customers that they must not smoke."

Unlike Tony Wheeler and his party, we readers need not muffle our giggles when we are shown the choice of haircuts on offer at the Changgwang Health Complex barber shop: all 13 are slight variations on the Kim Il Sung swept–back look. And we are at liberty to laugh out loud at the absurdly heroic status ascribed to the late Glorious Leader and Eternal President Kim Il Sung. Of course not all the captions need to be doubted, as in the text accompanying a full–page photo of a coupling bolt for a lathe: "this may not be the most exciting exhibit in Pyongyang" or, less frivolously, "My grandparents were killed in the US bombing of our capital". Pyongyang was indeed flattened by American bombs and people were burnt by napalm in the Korean War in 1951.

The book may serve a more far–reaching purpose. The extent to which the people of this country have been psychologically controlled and infantilized should give us pause. How much of our own mental furniture has been fashioned by propaganda––the interpretation of history as taught in schools, political assumptions about democracy versus the axis of evil, and so on? The credulous captions point up how cynical and debunking our culture has become, which may be at least partly a product of our conditioning.

After studying the photos and reading the comments, you will feel as though you have joined an official tour of the country, which saves you having to stump up $2,500 for an actual week–long tour as offered by the book's collaborator, Nicholas Bonner, who owns Beijing–based Koryo Tours. Or it might just persuade you that you want to experience this surreal country for yourself.

Susan Griffith is a Canadian travel writer and editor based in Cambridge England, who writes books and articles for adventurous working travelers. Starting with the classic Work Your Way Around the World (personally updated by her over its twelve editions) and Teaching English Abroad, she has recently turned her attention to gap years and has written definitive guides for the young and the not-so-young: Taking a Gap Year and Gap Years for Grown-ups. She has also been a contributing editor to Transitions Abroad magazine since the early days of its publication and contributes to the travel pages of the Independent, a British daily newspaper.

Ms. Griffith last appeared in Perceptive Travel with "The Art of Finding Spots."

Also in this issue:

Magic Bus

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Tony Wheeler's Bad Lands

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Welcome to Pyongyang

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