Among his followers, Rick Steves is more than a guru of international travel. He has attained the stature of political analyst, epicurean philosopher and sage.
Those characteristics were already bubbling in 1978, when Steves – then only 23 years old and fresh out of university – and travel companion Gene Openshaw commenced an epic six-country journey across a wide swath of Asia, starting in Turkey and ending in Nepal with stops in Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India in between, including a backtrack to India from Nepal. It was a 3,500-mile, two-month-long trek along what was called the Hippie Trail, a route that was once as popular among young travelers as visits to Europe are today.
During the trip, Steves wrote a 60,000-word journal that he recently released in book form with only minimal edits as On the Hippie Trail from Istanbul to Kathmandu. Now readers can join him in the bazaars and temples and on the elephant and rickshaw rides of Asia.
As Steves begins his trip, he already possesses the high of a long-time traveler who is seeking more adventure, enlightenment and knowledge.
In Nepal, he attains a Zen-like nirvana amid the lush mountains, valleys and rivers. The beauty and religious awe of Buddhist and Hindu mystics in Nepal awaken his wonder. The exotic overload generates his lust for new experiences.
Steves sees the Kumari Devi, the “living virgin goddess” at the Royal Palace in Kathmandu, whom with characteristic humor he describes as “a young girl without zits and blemishes.” The divinity locks eyes with pilgrim from Seattle before she vanishes.
Steves’ enthusiasm for Asia is infectious. Earlier in the trip, after he had crossed the Khyber Pass in Pakistan, Steves is overwhelmed with delight: “Words cannot explain my joy as I stepped across that happy tree-lined border.”
Steves is always moving. He paddles a canoe and rents bicycles in Nepal, goes to markets in India, visits a university in Afghanistan, hails rickshaws, wanders along side streets of big cities and ventures into small towns. Steves helps Afghan farmers thresh wheat and Indian women carry baskets of grass.
His well-known heartiness for travel is in full swing. He is frequently up before the dawn so that he has enough time to cram as many sites as possible. In Varanasi, India, he is up at 4:30 a.m. to tour the Ganges River, a pilgrimage site for the Hindu faithful. He gets on a boat, tours a market, visits several temples and witnesses cremations. The same day, he visits Sarnath, where Buddha gave his first sermon, to see a stupa (monument). He walks through a museum. Back in Varanasi, he visits a fort. And that night he has dinner with an Australian tourist studying Indian music.
The next morning, Steves is up at 4:30 a.m. again to take another boat ride on the Ganges, prowl the back streets and go to a bazaar.
The book also proves that Steves, the most avid of travelers, is as down to Earth as anyone. He resents Indian hotel staff “hopelessly and universally afflicted with dollar signs in their eyes”. In Srinagar, India, where Steves stays on a houseboat, he feels the effects of his ethnocentrism. His servants initially treat him as an honored guest, but the quality of their service evaporates as Steves prepares to depart.
“It’s funny, when you’re treated like a king you begin to expect it and when the servants let you down, t takes a little bit of adjusting,” he says.
It is a momentary lapse as Steves goes to Asia as the journeyman traveler and emerges as the master he is today.
“Good trip – that’s all I got to say,” he says.
Sadly, the overland trail in Asia came to an end not long after Steves took his trip mostly because events the year following his trip. In 1979, the Iranian Revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan put an end to westerners traveling the Hippie Trail.
Always the optimist, Steves urges young and old travelers alike to find new Hippie Trails. They’re always beckoning.