by Tony Wheeler – Newsweek
With 6 billion people and counting, our planet is more crowded than ever—but hidden corners still exist.
In late 1972, my wife and I had spent six months traveling through Asia when we landed in Bangkok from Calcutta. We’d bought an old car in London, driven it all the way to Kabul, sold it for a small profit, and carried on east by whatever transport came our way. We didn’t realize it at the time, but a travel revolution was about to take place in the region. In the next 40 years, travel was going to be on a dramatic growth curve everywhere in the world, but nowhere would the change be as great as in Southeast Asia.
Four decades ago, Bangkok was still winding down from its role as a Vietnam R&R escape. The movies of The Beach and The Hangover, Part 2 were still many years away. My wife and I continued south: we hitchhiked from Bangkok to Singapore, took a ship to Jakarta, and thumbed a ride on a New Zealand yacht sailing from Bali down to Australia. Sure, there were other tourists around—we certainly weren’t first-time pioneers—but compared with today’s numbers, they were minuscule.
A host of factors came together around that time. The baby boomers—I was one of them—were stretching their travel wings and going farther afield than their parents had ever dreamed. Europe was just the jumping-off point, whether we were planning on riding the Marrakesh Express or following the Beatles all the way to India. The first 747s had taken passengers on board just two years earlier, and soon a host of new airlines would become familiar names, flying us to undiscovered places and doing it at delightfully low prices. Plus, the world was opening up. Over the next 10 years, Southeast Asia would make the transition from war zone to fun zone—and in the subsequent decade China, almost totally closed off since the communist takeover in the late ’40s, would open its doors.
A generational shift, aviation developments, and dramatic political changes kicked off that travel revolution, but it was technology that really pushed it along. Suddenly we could book cheap flights, find comfortable hotels, research our sightseeing, and tell the folks back home about it, all more or less instantly.
So in many ways the world has become a much less lonely place in the four decades since the first Lonely Planet guidebook. Yet I never forget that if you want to get away from the crowds, the empty places are still out there.
Recently, with a group of friends, I trekked from Simikot in the far west of Nepal up to the Tibetan border. We’d arranged for a Chinese truck to meet us there and transport us to Mount Kailash. All it takes is one circuit of the holy mountain, the Tibetans say, and you’ve wiped the slate clean of all your sins. All your sins from this lifetime, that is—more circuits are required if you want the cleanup job to extend to earlier lifetimes.
We were feeling pretty pleased with ourselves at the Mount Kailash campsite, until a few hours later two cyclists turned up and put us firmly in our places.
“Where have you come from?” we asked them. After our mountain walk, it would take us a week to drive to Lhasa—and the other alternative, Kashgar in far western China, was equally daunting. Wherever they’d come from, it was a long ride.
“Oh, we bought the bicycles in the bazaar in Lahore,” one of the weather-beaten riders replied.
“Then we rode up the Karakoram Highway through northern Pakistan,” his companion continued. “And over the Khunjerab Pass into China.”
These guys had crossed the Himalayas! We were nonstarters. The walk and truck ride we’d been so satisfied with a few minutes earlier was a mere stroll in the park. Suddenly the world seemed a much larger place and the opportunities to find a lonely, uncrowded corner much wider.
Earlier this year I was kicking around the Solomon Islands and ended up one day at a small resort just south of the port of Gizo. I took a resort kayak and paddled out into the bay to an island a mile offshore. I pulled the kayak onto the sand and there I was, on the same sandy beach where a young JFK had stumbled out of the water, his patrol torpedo boat sunk after a collision with a Japanese destroyer nearly 70 years ago. How many people get to do that? Tourist numbers to the Solomons are still tiny despite superb scuba diving, comfortable places to stay, and fine local beers, such as the one I sampled with lunch.
I’m a lucky traveler. I get that thrill of experiencing something by myself, far from the crowds, on a regular basis. You don’t have to walk to the remote corners of Tibet or kayak the backblocks of the Pacific to find your own place. Surprisingly, in our jampacked world, it’s still remarkably easy to escape the congestion. Could you find a more crowded European destination than Venice in the summer? Well, go there, walk a few blocks away from the swarms in St. Mark’s Square, choose any one of a dozen beautiful old churches, sit down in a pew, and look around. Chances are you’ll be by yourself.
The world is a more crowded place, the check-in lines are longer, the planes are bigger, the tourist numbers larger, but if you want a lonely place you can still find it.May 15, 2011
*After growing up in England, Pakistan, the Bahamas, and the U.S., Wheeler cofounded the bestselling Lonely Planet Travel Series in 1973. The company now publishes about 500 titles.