Back then you could take a bus from London all the way to India for very little money and people were realizing you could get to places that previously took expedition level funds to reach. I remember taking an overnight bus from India to Kathmandu. That bus was probably not more than $5. I remember that morning, after traveling all night, rolling down the Kathmandu Valley and seeing the Himalayas, and a whole city with zero cars. It was like taking a spaceship to another planet for five dollars.
The way things would often happen is you would meet another traveler in, say, Japan and they would say, "You can take an overnight ferry to Korea, and you know, Korea is kind of cool."
So I would think, Hmmm, my visa is running out and I need to go somewhere else, and then I could come back. And it's only a few hundred dollars. I've got that much... Then when you're in Thailand, you find out it's easy to get to Burma. It's almost like you're walking out to the end of the plank and the platform keeps extending below you. You keep meeting people who have come from somewhere else and their tales would convince you that you have to go there-and you can.
There were a few jobs you could do along the way, mostly teaching English. But I calculated that I could make more money working for a few months in the USA and saving money, then taking off again. I did that twice, coming home for about six months or so. So that was my solution, except when I got to Iran and I got a "real job" with a driver and everything. But then that kind of blew up in my face when the revolution in 1979 came...
Most of the time I was traveling alone, though you really couldn't avoid traveling along with other people because the routes were so parallel. One of my brothers came with me twice for a while. While on one of those trips across Afghanistan, there was a coup by the Soviets. We actually got arrested and exported out of the country.
I was photographing with 35mm film. I left home with 500 rolls of film in my backpack. I had 500 rolls of cellophane-wrapped boxes of film, worth a lot of money in those parts back then, and yet over 10 years, no one ever looked inside my backpack, incuding coming back to the US.
I would send home maybe 20 or 30 rolls of film at a time in a box. I asked my mom to put them in a freezer when she got them. The first thing I would do when I was back home and earning money was to start getting my rolls of film developed. It was close to $5 a photo in today's money just to develop and print the photos. So I had to really think about it each time I pressed that shutter. It was almost too expensive to experiment. It sounds crazy now, but I often didn't see my pictures until years after taking them! So as you could imagine, there was this really long feedback loop between when I took the picture and when I got to actually see what it looked like. That's a horrible way to do photography where you never see your images. To make it worse, I only had a manual camera, not automatic, so my exposure and focusing could be off and I wouldn't know it. Every few months I would buy a roll of black and white film and get it developed locally just to make sure my cameras were working.
I was shooting two rolls of film a day while traveling, about 70 photos. When I was growing up, my family would shoot a roll of 24 photos in a year, which was pretty typical. You'd have three holidays on one roll. It was considered radical, extreme to be shooting as many photos as I was. When I would tell people I shot 70 per day their jaws would drop. They couldn't imagine how you could find 70 things to take a photo of in one day! That many pictures in a day was considered insane.
There were great shots I missed because the settings weren't automatic. There are great shots that are gone forever. But the interesting thing is, I never lost a roll of film. Some rolls of Kodachrome got heat stroke when I stored them in Delhi, which affected the color, but I never lost anything. Now I back up digital photos three times, so I still haven't lost any over 40 years.
Apart from my camera gear (two camera bodies, 4 lenses) and film, I only had one change of clothes. One pair of pants, a down jacket, a sleeping bag, maybe a sweater. When I went to Sri Lanka with my brother, we left our backpacks somewhere and just brought daypacks. That was fun because we could jump off buses anywhere and stop quickly. My pants were in shreds by the end. I was a total disgrace to hosts. We were obviously not poor, but we looked poor, which was very perplexing to the locals. I was patching my own jeans, not to be cool, but because I was short on money.
Sickness was a real risk in Asia. You didn't need a prescription to get any medicine at all though. I went to the library to do research on what I was experiencing in India and I figured out I had giardia. I went and got the right medicine and treated it. Another time I got hepatitus in Nepal. The remedy for that is rest and I ended up spending a whole month in a hostel in Calcutta recovering. Wherever locals drank the water, I drank the water. I think that keeps my microbiology robust. Outside of those two cases I stayed pretty healthy. I still drink local water if the locals do.
There were certainly the encroachments of modern life happening, even at that time. But there were places like northern Afghanistan or Kathmandu that hadn't changed in centuries. Now those "unchanged" areas have become much smaller, like tiny corners. In places like China, they have almost disappeared entirely. Other countries like Myanmar still hold the old. Most of the world doesn't look much like the images I captured then at all. My recorded views are increasingly rare views. My first book of pictures from that time—Asia Grace—was published by the German art book publisher Taschen. I'm working on photos now for a second photo book called Vanishing Asia that I hope Taschen will also publish. There will be lots more images of the culture that is rapidly disappearing from Asia.
In every culture the native costume is the first thing to go, native architecture is next. Food is one of the last to go, even in modern places where people are wearing blue jeans. So these days I like to go to places where there is still native costume and native architecture. Unfortunately these areas are shrinking. I'm not nostalgic about it; I understand the reasons behind the changes, and it's a net improvement, but someday they will be gone and I want to capture them.
After 10 years, when I was hitting 30, I made a switch from being a poor nomad and I started a business. I started to write about travel and was importing and selling travel books by mail order that were hard to find, you know, guidebooks from unknown-at-that-time writers like Maureen and Tony Wheeler (Lonely Planet), Bill Dalton (Moon), and Rick Steves. I started a mail order catalog in 1981 called Nomadic Books selling their self-published guides. That led to other things, like computers, and I quickly graduated to a new class. I stopped traveling so much, had a family, and for a decade and a half in the 1980s and early 1990s I was able to resist that desire to document those disappearing wonders. Now, once my kids left home, I'm covering almost as much territory photographing as I was back then. Again, I am mostly in Asia, returning to the same original assignment, but with more money than time, rather than more time than money. I'm still trying to document these disappearing pockets of timeless places.
There was definitely an isolationist aspect of Asia then that is no longer around. These were often societies that were willingly closing themselves off from the rest of the world, economically and culturally. Clearly that is no longer the case. Almost two thirds of the people on the planet live in Asia, so Asia is going to become the cultural and economic leader of the world, which is going to be a big blow to the West. That will be a huge adjustment to make. I keep returning to Asia to both record what is vanishing and to see the future that they have in store for us.
Hear the full interview between Rolf Potts and Kevin Kelly on the Deviate podcast.
Kevin Kelly is the co-founder of Wired magazine and one of the world's best-known authorities on where technology is headed. He is the author of several popular books including The Inevitable and the Taschen coffee table book Asia Grace. See more at KK.org.
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Walkabout Love in China - Dustin Grinnell
Dueling Smiles in Muzzled Myanmar - Bruce Northam
See more Asia traveling stories from the archives
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