Rory MacLean is not a hippie. And he's too young to remember the Summer of Love. But he is a consummate wanderer who is fast be-coming one of Britain's most expressive and adventurous travel writers. His new book, Magic Bus, takes him along the old "hippie trail", travelling some 6,000 miles from Istanbul to Kathmandu to find out what happened to the spiritual seekers who blazed it. In the end, did they find Nirvana?
Magic Bus is a rambling journey in the footsteps of these "Intrepids". It is filled with nostalgia for their ideals, but it is also an account of the counter-cultural debris they left behind. Brimming with heart and wit, it chronicles how travel changed the hippies, how they changed travel, and how the trail changed the countries it touched - for better or worse.
The characters MacLean tracks down are astonishing: the original flower child; the "Indiaman" who plied his battered coach for a decade from King's Cross to Calcutta; the Beatles' personal Indian physician (who still complains of Ringo's flatulence); and the first western child to become a Tibetan lama. These children of Aquarius travelled before the age of Lonely Planet (indeed, they created Lonely Planet). Revolutionaries in paisley waistcoats, strumming guitars and in search of large quantities of Class A drugs, they mapped out the globe for a new generation.
Their road map was, as MacLean puts it, simple: "eastwards towards mysticism, inwards to creative expression, and out of this world with the recreational use of drugs". He picks up the trail at Istanbul's "Pudding Shop", a Turkish pastry place that became the first hippie pit stop. To his amazement, he encounters Hetty, the original flower child, who earned the moniker for handing out daisies to strangers in Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco. Now in her seventies and alone, Hetty, who once named her sexual positions after the cities of Asia - she was particularly fond of the "bam-bam Bamiyan" - has burned her possessions and escaped a nursing home in Britain to relive her youthful memories.
In Cappadocia, Hetty and MacLean camp out in a cave and eat at Flintstone's Bar, run by - who else? - a guy named Fred. They part company and MacLean heads to Iran, where the hippie trail goes cold. The guest houses, tearooms and hangouts were all shut down during Ayatollah Khomeini's Islamic revolution. MacLean finds the only echo of the Sixties at the Holy Shrine in Mashhad. He meets Nazzer, who spied on naked hippies as a young man and, inspired, ran off to a nudist commune in Yorkshire.
In Afghanistan and Pakistan, MacLean finds two committed wanderers who have been true to the ideal of those who travelled "to be colonised rather than to colonise". Carla Grissman and John Butt found fulfilment by eschewing the easy lay and the easy life. Grissman has devoted her life to quietly and painstakingly cataloguing several millennia of Afghanistan's cultural heritage. Butt, who started off as a "dope-smoking, rock'n'roll-loving Intrepid", converted to Islam and stayed in Pakistan, becoming a scholar and a farmer.
As the author falls "into the ferment of India", he reaches the main attraction on the hippie trail, a spiritual Disney World. Rama Tiwari, a jolly bookseller who made a fortune selling spiritual claptrap to hundreds of hippies, reveals why the majority failed to find happiness: "They didn't see we can only live in happiness if we conquer the restless dream that paradise is in a world other than our own," he says.
In Nepal, MacLean is reunited with Hetty, who has returned there to die. Having spent a lifetime opting out, living on the fringes of any society that would indulge her whims, she hasn't found any real answers. But she and her kind have had a profound effect on the country. MacLean describes Nepal as "a vulnerable Hima layan theme park", overrun by seekers greedy for their own self-gratification.
One of MacLean's gifts is his ability to illuminate ordinary details that point to something more fundamental. In Mashhad, he writes of "hotel cleaners in full black chador and yellow Marigold rubber gloves". In the Indian city of Haridwar, he describes how "beggars ring their alms bowls with - depending on their age - the high rattle of youthful exuberance, a persistent, middle-aged tick-tick or a single, sombre death knell". In the end, he concludes that the generation which brought us some of the era's most iconic music, yoga and spirituality-on-demand also blazed a trail so well worn that its effect has been to cheapen travel. MacLean ponders this paradox, noting how "more and more, travel became entertainment not travail, a change of scene not life change".
And he deconstructs the myth perpetuated by well-meaning, ignorant travellers that people in the east want to remain poor spiritualists, sur viving on rice and prayers. "You - with your dollars - were content to bum around this 'desperate' place," a young Indian businessman says, confronting a hippie who never left. "Your lofty ideals were never much appreciated . . . we had survived long enough on curd and bananas." Geoff Crowther, author of the first traveller's guidebook to Asia, printed on a Gestetner at a squat in Notting Hill, agrees. MacLean tracks him down to a beach in Goa, at the end of his own psychedelic rainbow, washed up, broke and permanently sozzled. "Forty years ago, we put on kaftans and headed east," he says, bewildered by the changes he has helped bring about. "Now the east is coming back at us dressed in DKNY."
Tarquin Hall is the author of "Salaam Brick Lane: a year in the new East End" (John Murray)