In Ulan Bator, with just five days to go

Ulan Bator

Sanbanor! We’re finding our feet in Ulan Bator, where we arrived on the Trans-Mongolian two days ago. It’s a surprising city, where dirt roads, ger slums and decrepit, Soviet-era apartment complexes are giving way to glass towers and traffic jams. In the first quarter of this year, the country’s economy grew by almost 17 percent, and Ulan Bator has an astonishing array of cuisines: at an Uzbek restaurant last night, we sampled some of the food that awaits us on the Silk Road.

The ways in which Asia’s skyrocketing demand for commodities has reconfigured the lives of a traditionally nomadic people is just one story we want to tell with Old World Wandering. We’ve also thought hard recently about how we can tell these stories best, beyond text, and whether or not our Kickstarter project succeeds, we’ve decided we’re going to explore all the possibilities of digital media to add another layer to our long-form dispatches. Expect our descriptions of Ulan Bator to include video, music, maps and local artwork on specially styled, immersive pages.

Our project has raised $10,645 so far, which is a substantial amount of money. We’re grateful for all the support – not just from Old World Wandering’s regular readers, but from many new readers too. Unfortunately, we only have 5 days left to reach our target of $34,500. If we fall short, none of our backers pay, or receive rewards. We, of course, don’t get paid anything either.

We know we only have a very slim chance of success – but we’re going to do all we can to finish as close to our target as possible. You are the people who believe in this project – who see the value of our storytelling and our journey – and we need you now more than ever. Please find five or ten minutes today to tell a few friends or colleagues about Old World Wandering. From the data we’ve collected so far, it seems like emails work best. (If you have any contacts in companies who might want to be Old World Wandering’s sole corporate sponsor, please get in touch with one of us by email.)

We’ve received a few comments and messages – some more skeptical than others – about why we need $34,500 to fund an 18 month overland journey, and the dispatches we’ll write along the way. Iain and I reached this figure after a lot of careful planning, and the rewards we’re offering are the main reason our target is so high. Fifty percent of it will cover our overheads, including Kickstarter’s 5% fee and Amazon’s 3-5% for processing payments. The remainder – approximately  $18,000 – will go towards transport, accommodation, food, entry fees and visas: all the basic costs of travelling for 18 months.

Iain and I have been travelling on a shoestring for several years now, so we know how to calculate a budget. We’re also more realistic than we were six years ago during our first overland trip, when we spent our last two months in India boiling water and eating nothing but vegetarian Tibetan soup and bread with peanut butter. We now factor in the cost of the occasional semi-private vehicle, for example, without which our freedom to explore would be drastically reduced. We also rely a lot on WiFi to maintain Old World Wandering, and usually have to pay slightly more for guesthouses that provide it. To give you some idea of how that $18,000 breaks down, our time in China, Mongolia and Central Asia will cost an average of $55 per day for the two of us, inclusive of everything except visas.

The point of this project is to cover our costs. We won’t be compensating ourselves at all for time spent writing, because Old World Wandering has become a part of who we are, with all the perfectionism and passion that implies. I hope we’ve conveyed how grateful we are to you for getting us this far. Let’s see how much further we can take this!

Where to for travel writing

Jodi EttenbergThe three interviews connected to our Kickstarter project started with Graham Boynton, a magazine and newspaper editor. My second subject was Rolf Potts, whose career has spanned both print and the upheaval of the internet, while most closely tracking – and shaping – the growing desire for long-term, experiential travel. My final interview, with Jodi Ettenberg, is focused on the future. Jodi curates long-form travel writing for Travelreads, tells the story of her own travels at Legal Nomads and has recently had a book published, called The Food Traveler’s Handbook. In a previous life, Jodi was a corporate lawyer in New York City.

IM: You’ve chosen to focus on the intersections between travel, culture and food. Why did you make that choice? And how do you think specialisation has contributed to your success?

JE: I don’t think I made the choice at all, actually. The choice made itself, by virtue of the things that fascinated me as I travelled. I always thought I’d enjoy the history behind the places I visited, but I never expected to find myself so intensely interested in the anthropology of food. As I continued my travels past the expected one year mark to two, and then three and then four years, my interests shifted and my site’s focus shifted too.

I started out with general posts about transportation misadventures (like my Bolivian bus ride from hell) but did not delve into food. As the years went on, food became the way I planned my travels (where to eat what, how it came to be, who made it and why) – though the misadventures getting from A to B never dissipated. As a result, I didn’t want to limit my site to just being about food, or travel or culture. It seemed appropriate that a Venn diagram of all three overlapping made the most sense.

IM: The phrase “location independent” is being used more and more often to describe people like you and I, who can work wherever they find an internet connection. That allows for new kinds of travel, but has its drawbacks. To what extent do you consider yourself “location independent”? And what are the drawbacks of a lifestyle that many people consider ideal?

JE: I am location independent because the work I do does not require a home base, but that does not mean that it is simple to move around and work. I try to find places with good WiFi, a reasonably quiet workspace and an apartment that feels safe but not too comfortable. As the site has progressed from a travelogue of my backpacking to a business of its own, and has led to other work opportunities, I’ve found myself staying longer and longer in one place before moving on. Staying put and renting an apartment allows me to explore the destination more, but also means that I can form a routine of work and eating, one that maximizes productivity.

The obvious downside is the lack of consistency, and of course, missing my friends and family at home. (Though I do get longer visits with friends and family than I would have been afforded as a lawyer with four week’s vacation a year.) Also, I made the decision to see where this business of writing and photographing took me, and so being as Type A as I am (once a lawyer, always a lawyer?) I’m giving it my all. That means far less time to see and explore and far more time in front of my computer. As with any project, building a business out takes hard work. Whether you are location independent or not, the hard work part doesn’t change. I just pick places with good views and good food.

While balance is important, I’m the first to admit it’s been lacking in the last year or so, where I changed my course from round-the-world traveller to writer and curator and other hats, including writing my first book. On one hand, it seems foolish to be location independent when I don’t take as much time as I’d like to explore the location I’m in. But on the other, it’s exciting and satisfying to be working on projects I truly care about, and to do so in places I love.

IM: You’ve invested years in not just Legal Nomads but your whole online presence. When you look at the future of your own site and the media in general, how optimistic are you? And how clear about what comes next? It must be a stark contrast to the clearly defined career paths of law.

Yes, that’s very true. I read an interview with Anthony Bourdain recently where someone asked if he thought he would end up with the career he has now. And he said he never anticipated any of this, and never really had a plan. It was instead a matter of looking at the opportunities that presented themselves, making good decisions and then working through the bad decisions. And that’s what I’ve done too. Whatever I put online, I believe in 100% – else I wouldn’t do it. I don’t post anything I don’t care about, and I love sharing links to learn from. The social media presence isn’t an obligation, it’s actually enjoyable!

As to the future, I’m not sure where it will lead. It’s an adventure for all of us in this new digital age. I will keep doing what I am doing – exploring the things in life that I am passionate about, food figuring prominently I’m sure. Taking it day by day – or, as Bourdain said, opportunity by opportunity – has worked thus far, and it’s likely what I will keep doing, while also trying to learn as much as I can.

IM: Roughly six months ago, you started curating Travelreads for Longreads. It’s a job that involves reading a wide-range of travel-related writing, from Hemingway’s Spanish dispatches to interviews like these, with the provision that everything be over 1,500 words long. How much of the long-form travel writing that is published now comes out of people working for magazines and newspapers, compared to people publishing independently? And have you noticed any emerging trends? How are people bending the rules of travel writing by publishing online, for example, if they are at all?

Many of the articles are smaller magazines and publications – the Barnstormer, the excellent Roads and Kingdoms, Maisonneuve Mag in Canada, and the recently launched LA Review of Books, among many others. Not many come from travel blogs themselves, which speaks in part to the attention span of our respective audiences. My readers are used to longer form pieces as I’ve always produced them, but for most of my travel blogging columns, 500 words is the norm. If your readers are accustomed to reading 500 word pieces or less, a 2,000 post is out of place. That said, it’s a shame because I think it’s always great to delve into the history of a place and long-form allows more context for doing so. I do wish more travel bloggers combined their pieces into a longer missive rather than splitting them up into parts.

I don’t know if “bending the rules” is the right question. It’s more of “which sites are making great use of the technology they have available to them.” Yes, that might differ from print, but it’s not a rule-breaker, just a creative shift. For example, in technology, The Verge has some beautiful longer form pieces about technology mixing multimedia and prose, with stark font changes to delineate sections and very thorough research in the piece itself. I wish that more travel sites were willing to do this (or had the budget to – of course that factors in), and build out creative and beautiful photography and text, all woven into one piece of art.

That some pubs or people (bloggers or writers or columnists) are writing long-form pieces on the web isn’t surprising. The magazines (Nat Geo or Conde Nast Traveler) have those pieces in their print editions too. I’ve very much enjoyed discovering new, smaller magazines and publications, however, and of course I’ve loved the suggestions from our reading community who tag their tweets with #travelreads when they find a travel piece that makes them smile.

Where to for travel writing?

Rolf PottsAs part of Old World Wandering’s Kickstarter project, I’m interviewing three people about travel, writing and how they intersect in the topsy-turvy present. Last week I spoke to Graham Boynton who was an editor at Conde Nast Traveler for ten years and Group Travel Editor at the Daily and Sunday Telegraph. He spoke about how the travel industry and travel media have evolved side by side since the early 80s, when people suddenly “regarded travel as a right rather than a privilege.” According to Boynton, “the greatest crisis facing travel writing” is “the dumbing down of the genre.”

Today, I’m talking to Rolf Potts, author of Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel and Marco Polo Didn’t Go There: Stories and Revelations from One Decade as a Postmodern Travel Writer

IM: Tell me about your first book, Vagabonding, and why you wrote it.

RP: Vagabonding is a practical and philosophical primer for long-term travel. It details how a longer, slower-paced journey can be accomplished with a minimum of expense. But it also explains why, in the context of one’s life-journey, long-term travel is an important and rewarding endeavour. The core philosophy of Vagabonding is that one’s truest form of wealth in life is time and experience – not money or “things” – and that travel is a way to actualize that wealth in a meaningful way.

The philosophical component came from my own life experiences. I didn’t grow up in a wealthy or cosmopolitan setting, where international travel is seen as a reflexive lifestyle option for young people; I grew up in an industrial city on the Great Plains, an environment where traditional work ethic was practically a religion. I longed to travel the world, but few people I knew owned passports, and I assumed that international travel was for retired people, folks who’d worked and saved for decades. My grandfather was a Kansas farmer who’d been tilling and harvesting full time since he was 15, but when he was ready to retire – around the time I was a teenager – he was in no position to enjoy his newfound free time, since his health was failing and my grandmother was regressing into Alzheimer’s. I realized at a young age that a life of hard work doesn’t automatically reward you with time to live your dreams.

I was reading a lot of Walt Whitman at the time, as well as Henry David Thoreau, who noted in Walden that most people spend “the best part of life earning money in order to enjoy a questionable liberty during the least valuable part of it.” I began to realize that my own life concerns were part of a much larger philosophical conversation, one that stretched back to the Bible and the Upanishads. I decided to live my life ambitions rather than postpone them; I saved up money from eight months of landscaping work and used it to travel North America for eight months. In the process, I learned that long-term travel was cheaper, easier, and safer than I’d expected. I was hooked. I moved to Korea, where two years of teaching English earned me enough money to travel Asia for two years.

Around that time I started freelancing for Salon.com, and in 1999 I became their “Vagabonding” travel columnist, writing biweekly dispatches about my ongoing adventures. Salon readers began to email me with questions about my travels, and the two most common queries were “How are you able to travel for so long?” and “How does one become a travel writer?” I’d been running an author website, RolfPotts.com, since 1998, so I decided to address those questions online. I wasn’t sure how one becomes a travel writer – I only knew my own experience – so each month I began to pose basic travel-writing career questions to different literary and guidebook professionals. I’m still doing that, and to date I’ve interviewed over one hundred people, including some of the biggest names in travel writing.

As for the “How do you travel for so long?” question, I decided to address it in big-picture terms. I wrote up a ten-point “Vagabonding Suggestifesto” (“manifesto” seemed too presumptuous), which detailed the kind of life-attitude that can enable meaningful long-term travel. This online text found its way to an editor at Random House, who suggested I expand this philosophy into a book. The ten points of my “suggestifesto” became chapter topics, and the book was written over the course of eight months in a little rented room in southern Thailand. It contained lots of practical advice, but at its core was the philosophical argument I’d confronted as a teenager – how long-term travel can deepen one’s life journey, and how this is an experience that shouldn’t be postponed to a seemingly more appropriate time of life.

IM: How do you think travel as an industry constructs our ideas about travel as an experience?

RP: The travel industry has always influenced our ideas about the travel experience – in part because the travel industry has always played a nuts-and-bolts role in making the act of travel possible. Two thousand years ago, the travel industry dovetailed with cross-cultural trade. There was no such thing as a passenger ship, so travellers bought passage on merchant vessels – and they were expected to bring their own supplies and help out with onboard tasks. Most improved roads existed to expedite government business, most inns doubled as brothels, and few people travelled for travel’s sake. Travel was thus perceived to be as difficult and utilitarian as the services and technologies that enabled it.

This didn’t begin to change on a wide scale until the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when an emergent European middle class created a self-contained travel industry that focused on leisure and self-education. As with any middle-class endeavour, the notion of “tourism” came to carry pejorative implications. The funniest travel book of the 19th century, Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad, finds its satire at the expense of an American tour-group visiting the Mediterranean region. Since Twain’s day, the travel industry has grown in tandem with mass culture, hitting its tipping point in the 1980s, when – as Graham Boynton pointed out in last week’s interview – consumers in industrialized nations came to see travel as a right rather than a privilege. Some folks have claimed that this is when the language of travel writing began to blur with the language of advertising – but travel writing (and the expectations of travellers) has always been mixed up with a fantasy vision of what is to be found in faraway lands. In the classic 1976 craft primer On Writing Well, journalist William Zinsser’s was already using the term “travelese” to describe the trite tropes of travel tales. “Nowhere else in nonfiction do writers use such syrupy words and groaning platitudes,” Zinsser noted. “It is a style of soft words which under hard examination mean nothing.”

The term “travel industry” still has a somewhat dodgy connotation for travel purists, and it’s easy to disparage the phony expectations created by tourism marketers. But most people these days are savvy enough to see through the illusions of advertising – if nothing else because we tend to tout the same travel idealizations and half-truths on our Facebook feeds. Regardless of how travel is mediated, it’s not that hard to wander off the beaten path. Moreover, I’d reckon the travel industry offers more benefits than drawbacks for serious travellers. The world has become accessible in ways we could scarcely dream of a few generations ago, and the travel industry has done a lot to enable this. This can lead to certain economic and environmental complexities, of course, but I’d wager the world is better off for the mass exchange of people and ideas.

IM: What do you think about the explosion of amateur travel media online? I’m mostly referring to the thousands of travel blogs that have appeared in the last few years, but there are other examples. What are their strengths and weaknesses?

RP: Travel blogs have become so widespread and diverse in recent years that it’s hard to make a generalization, good or bad, without getting something wrong in the process. A conventional criticism is that travel blogs are poorly written and riddled with verbal and visual clichés – but there are plenty of blogs out there that feature smart, innovative content. On that same token, blogs have been celebrated as an independent, populist alternative to what the travel industry feeds us through mainstream publications – but from what I’ve seen bloggers are as likely as anyone to trot out hackneyed narratives about a given destination.

I’d posit that travel blogs are at their best when they present a straightforward, unpolished, epistolary recounting of a personal journey, since this can capture a place or experience with an unguarded honesty you won’t find in more formal publications. A professional photographer named Peter DiCampo recently created a buzz with “Everyday Africa,” an exhibition of informal iPhone photos that depict the continent not through its media extremes (Africa as strife-torn wasteland; Africa as uplifting human-interest parable), but through the same offhand banality one might see in Hipstamatic app photos of family and friends. Look at DiCampo’s photos, and they feel similar to what you can find on any of thousands of amateur travel blogs. This incidental micro-narrative is important. The only audience for some of these amateur blog posts is a handful of friends or family members – but this enables, say, Grandma Mildred, or your old pal Bob from high school, to see how most Africans (or Arabs, Chinese, Cubans, or any other culture that might be considered “exotic”) are living quiet, “normal” lives that we all can identify with. Amid the alarmist din of mainstream media reporting, these types of blogs offer an important counter-narrative that can make the Other feel more familiar and relatable.

Interestingly, I’ve found that a key weakness in travel blogging emerges when a given blogger becomes more professional and seeks to widen his blog audience. At a certain level this results in better photos and more compelling text, but it also requires that the blogger sink more travel time into the task of content creation and self-promotion. Instead of living one’s journey in the open-ended, organic manner that allows for serendipity and unexpected discovery, the blogger winds up “performing” her travels for her audience; the act of experiencing one’s travels thus becomes hard to separate from the act of recording, editing, posting, and promoting one’s travels. I can attest to this first-hand, since my most intensive experience in from-the-field travel blogging came in 2010, when I travelled around the world with no luggage for six weeks.

The “stunt” at the heart of the journey was an experiment in extreme minimalism, but travelling with no bags was easy compared to the task of trying to portray those travels in near-real time. For every minute of lighthearted travel depicted in my blog posts and videos, I sank three minutes of travel time into conceptualizing, writing, and editing those posts and videos. I had a lot of fun in the process, and I’m proud of how the content turned out, but – despite the large audience and positive publicity – the journey itself wasn’t very affecting on a personal level. It was closer to what historian Daniel Boorstin defined as a “pseudo-event” – a visible activity that is done for the primary purpose of being seen. That’s the recurring shortcoming of any professionalized travel blog, I think: The constant process of feeding content into one’s blog blurs the line between travel and travel-performance.

I prefer to travel in relative anonymity for longer periods of time, and capture my experiences in more reflective, long-form narratives. I prefer to read this kind of travel writing as well – but the short-cycle demands of professionalized, social-media-driven blog posts favour shorter, more frequent, less-digested travel narratives. That’s fine if you aim to share consumer service information or document a short-term event in real-time, but the resulting content is far less likely to convey much personal or literary depth.

IM: What do you think separates travel writing from journalism?

RP: Travel writing is typically considered to be a sub-category of journalism – which is interesting, since travel writing existed before journalism, and has done a lot to influence the way journalism works. These days it’s hard to draw a clear line between the two labels. Is international reporting a kind of travel writing? Sometimes it is. Is the content in glossy travel magazines a kind of journalism? Sometimes it is, too. And some types of travel writing – service, news, many destination features – take on the information-driven form and structure of traditional news journalism.

Travel writing deviates from journalism when it takes a more personal, memoiristic slant, and tackles deeper human themes. Instead of taking on a pose of objectivity, this kind of travel writing acknowledges the specificity (and limitations) of one person’s point of view, and this self-awareness becomes a part of the story. Long-form narrative journalism has actually borrowed a lot from travel writing in this sense, in that it acknowledges the conceit of reportorial objectivity and places the writer and her subject in a finite world. Travel writing is particularly good at this approach, since by its very nature travel forces the writer into a position of humility and vulnerability. In this kind of writing, you have a sense for who is telling the story, and this personal sensibility informs the way you understand that story. When done well, this kind of writing resonates on several levels at once, in a way that goes beyond standard journalism.

IM: Since its beginnings, with epics like Gilgamesh and Homer’s Odyssey, travel writing has by its nature been a reflection of an interconnected world. New sorts of travel literature emerge when new sorts of travel become possible, from Marco Polo’s journey along the Silk Road to Pico Iyer’s reflections on global – but mostly American – pop culture. What do you think travel writing will take from the internet, with its unprecedented freedom from physicality that is also a constant connection to home?

RP: That’s an interesting way to frame the question, since Gilgamesh is in many ways a metaphorical tale about mortality, and The Odyssey is as much about Greek self-definition as it is cross-cultural reflection. I guess travel literature has always served multiple tasks at once – and it will certainly continue to do so in the 21st century. At a certain level the Internet has turned the task of reporting on faraway places and cultures – a task that used to be the central mission of travel writing – into a somewhat redundant endeavour. These days we can go online and view simultaneous perspectives on a single place – and more than ever we are hearing the voices of the people who live in these places. That’s a good thing, I think, since as travellers we’re less prone to fall back on the postcard preconceptions and pat conclusions that once defined so much travel writing.

It’s often been said that, historically, travel writing held up a mirror to the ideals of home. From Herodotus to the imperial-era Brits, travel accounts examined other cultures in part to answer the question, “Who, as a people, are we?” The information age has shifted this question so that it now asks, “Who, as a person, am I?” Pico Iyer manages to address this question while still being reportorial, but for the most part I think travel writing will drift more and more into a memoiristic direction, to the point that it will, at times, scarcely feel like travel writing. I remember reading Eat, Pray, Love for the first time six years ago, and feeling frustrated by how little time the author spent engaging the cultures she was visiting. Her travels were so sequestered that they felt like background scenery to a story that had almost nothing to do with travel.

Half a decade later, our electronic connection to home is such a foregone conclusion as we travel that the concerns of a given journey begin to blur with the concerns of home. I’ve been reading Andrew McCarthy’s The Longest Way Home, and it’s interesting to see how much of the story hinges on Skyping his wife from the wastelands of Patagonia, or sending satellite-phone dispatches to his family from the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro. I remember how, in Jon Krakauer’s 1997 book Into Thin Air, the socialite who sends sat-phone dispatches from Everest is seen as this kind of vulgar figure, but when McCarthy uses a similar technology in 2012 the gesture feels heartfelt and normal.

I think this direct dialogue between travel and home is going to figure even larger in 21st century travel writing, to the point that some travel-themed stories and books will scarcely feel like travel writing as we have traditionally understood it. The key, I think, will be how well these stories are rendered, how well the writing draws human insights from this way of living and travelling.

Where to for travel writing?

Graham Boynton in the MatoposTravel writing has grown up alongside the travel industry. The word tourist entered the English language in 1772, just three years before Samuel Johnson’s A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland was first published. Thomas Cook founded the company that was to issue the world’s first traveller’s cheques in 1841, less than five years before Dickens wrote Pictures from Italy. Both Johnson and Dickens were writers of a new ilk. They were among the first professionals, with a living that the printing press and copyright laws had made possible, and for better or worse developments in these two industries – travel and publishing – have dictated the shape of travel writing ever since.

The internet has shaken both industries up immeasurably. Independent travel and self-publishing are just a few clicks away, after all, and professionals are being crowded out. It’s not yet clear where they will find a place. As part of Old World Wandering’s Kickstarter project, I’m interviewing three people about travel, writing and how they intersect in the topsy-turvy present. The first is Graham Boynton, author of Last Days in Cloud Cuckooland. He was an editor at Conde Nast Traveler for ten years and Group Travel Editor at the Daily and Sunday Telegraph. Next Monday, I’m speaking to Rolf Potts, author of Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel. In two weeks’ time, I’ll publish the final interview in this series, with Jodi Ettenberg, Legal Nomad and curator of Travelreads.

IM: You started your career as a reporter in South Africa. How and why did you move from that to travel journalism?

GB: I was a journalist who covered politics in South Africa, mainly the student movements and the burgeoning black trade union movement. That got me into trouble with the authorities and I was declared an “undesirable alien” in 1976 and deported to the UK. For the next few years I wrote general interest features for magazines internationally and started writing the occasional travel article.

By the early 1980s I was working for a Fleet Street magazine called Business Traveller that had among its regular contributors Eric Newby, Auberon Waugh, Geoffrey Wheatcroft and other distinguished writers. That was when I began to read Newby’s Short Walk in Hindu Kush, Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia and Paul Theroux’s Great Railway Bazaar. I then became the editor of Business Traveller, a job I held until I moved to America at the end of 1987.

IM: What was the state of travel journalism when you started?

GB: I would say that travel journalism was beginning to thrive in the 1980s in line with the growth of the travel industry. Britain’s national newspapers began to attract more advertising and thus the travel sections expanded. Similarly in America specialist magazines such as Travel and Leisure and Conde Nast Traveler flourished. The launch of Conde Nast Traveler, under the editorship of Sir Harold Evans was a significant moment in travel publishing. Formerly editor of London’s Sunday Times, Evans was an iconic figure in British publishing, and his involvement in a travel magazine gave the genre credibility. I was lucky enough to be recruited by Sir Harold as the magazine was being launched and spent 10 years as a senior editor there.

IM: You say that travel journalism began to thrive in the 1980s, and names like Newby, Chatwin and Theroux – as well as the credibility you say Sir Harold Evans lent to Conde Nast – all indicate how well things were going. What characterised that period? How much editorial freedom did writers have, for example? Are there any stories that you remember particularly well, that might be a good example of something that could be published then but not now? And how did the relationship between the travel industry and travel magazines affect editorial decisions?

GB: Conde Nast Traveler made a virtue of its editorial independence and the “investigative” journalism that established its reputation. I was in charge of investigative journalism and remember most vividly my editorial team doing a big expose on the lack of airport security at America’s airports. This was long before 9/11. We also did major pieces of elephant poaching and the state of African wildlife conservation, a subject that was not common in travel magazines of the time. However, the reason such stories might not be covered now is more to do with the cost of such investigations. In those days we had big budgets and could put writers and researchers on stories such as these for significant periods of time. These days budgets are much tighter. As for the relationship with the travel industry, Conde Nast Traveler has always paid its way and not accepted hospitality – it’s part of the American magazine’s DNA. All other travel publications in the UK, Europe and the rest of world are forced to accept hospitality for budgetary reasons and thus have an entirely different relationship with the industry.

IM: You say that in the 1980s the travel industry was growing. Can you give me some idea of what you mean by that? And how has the growth of the travel industry shaped travel writing over the course of your career?

GB: It was the commercial boom years for international travel. Suddenly people regarded travel as a right rather than a privilege. Advertising across newspapers and magazines grew, paginations increased and staff were hired to fill the pages. Significantly, the travelling public were also looking for advice on increasingly far-flung places they wanted to travel to, so public response to the travel magazines and newspaper travel supplements also grew.

IM: Could you outline your career from then on, until you were appointed Group Travel Editor at the Telegraph?

GB: In my 10 years at Conde Nast Traveler I was lucky enough to be able to travel, write and edit. The editing was the bread and butter that paid the mortgage and the travel writing was the bonus. During this period I concentrated on African conservation issues and the magazine became a champion of community conservation programmes, not a widely supported idea in the US at the time. At the same time I launched a series of conservation awards that in the years since have become the World Traveler Awards.

IM: What is the role of travel desks at large newspapers? And travel magazines within a large publisher like Conde Nast? How important is the part they play in overall revenue? And how much respect do they command within the company?

GB: This is a complicated question and not one that I feel I can express my true feelings. What I do know is that at the Telegraph Media Group travel is/was a major revenue earner. Whether or not the newspapers’ executives believe that this has anything to do with the quality of editorial content or whether they regard this as merely part of the larger commercial picture I cannot say. Equally, it is for the newspapers’ executives to say whether or not they had any respect for the editorial product I was responsible for producing over 12 years at the Telegraph. One thing I can say is that both the readers and the travel industry held Telegraph Travel content in high regard.

IM: Let me rephrase that. Travel is an unusual combination of engagement with the world in the broadest sense of the word and close engagement with an industry. It is not always clear to me what separates a travel story from general correspondence, and I imagine this is something you’ve given a lot of thought. The job travel writers do is also not always clear. Do they help consumers navigate an industry, confining themselves to the ways in which the vast majority of people travel, or do they undertake exceptional journeys and write about them in ways that some might call elitist. How have you navigated these contradictions?

GB: Firstly, the sudden storm that is the internet revolution has changed newspaper travel coverage profoundly and glossy magazines such as Conde Nast Traveler and Travel and Leisure rather less so. Assuming, probably rightly, that their readers can find information on travel anywhere online the newspapers now see their role more as utilitarian guides than sources of inspiration. Newspaper readerships are falling dramatically so travel sections are also trying to make up for concomitant advertising losses by selling holidays alongside editorial content. Of course, this changes the nature of newspaper travel journalism completely. So, fewer travel writers are commissioned to write great sprawling old-fashioned features about remote destinations and undiscovered primitive tribes in the way that the Newbys and the Chatwins once were. Newspaper executives have chosen a more prosaic approach to travel which is why you will now see acres of coverage on cruising, which some purists do not regard as travel at all. The American magazines still carry stories that might be regarded as exceptional journeys that are of only minority interest but certainly less than in previous years.

IM: The internet has upended few industries as thoroughly as the media and travel industries. It makes sense that it has also had an enormous effect on travel media. Can you give me some idea of what it’s been like to watch that unfold from the very beginning to the present?

GB: You have to adapt. I have no doubt that travel websites, blogs, and tweets are rapidly replacing conventional print travel journalism, but the problem is there is not enough money in it for the journalists to earn a decent living. If writers who want to specialise in travel lose the financial incentive to do so, then the gene pool of travel literature will be diminished. That, to my mind, is the greatest crisis facing travel writing – the dumbing down of the genre.

Reinventing the travelogue

Yesterday morning, Claire and I stepped groggily off a bus after 25 hours of travelling feet first through Laos and China. The bus had flame-licked Chinese characters down its sides; inside, there were three rows of narrow bunk beds upholstered in faux velvet. I had to fold up my two-metre frame like a concertina to get into my top bunk, where I slept in fits and starts, terrified I’d crash down into bed with a scowling Russian woman. We don’t normally make such big jumps in a single journey, and the transition from Luang Prabang to a Chinese provincial capital has given us both a jolt.

As a number of you already know, our crowd-funding project went live last week. Time on a bus drags by painfully when you’ve spent the last few days online, with blurred vision, watching yourself progress slowly towards an ambitious target. Our target of $34,500 is ambitious, we know, but not wildly so: we believe we’re offering the best possible rewards, at fair prices, and roughly half that total will only cover our overheads. We’ll need all of the $17,000 or so we’ll have left to tell the story of our journey across two continents.

Kickstarter is unlike other crowd-funding platforms in one crucial, hair-raising respect: once you set a goal for your project, you have to reach it or you get nothing. Not a cent. That makes sense for backers, because a well funded project is more likely to deliver quality products, be they pocket-sized solar panels, jeans for tall women, ghouls playing baseball or the story of a journey from Shanghai to Cape Town, uniquely told.

We chose Kickstarter because it makes supporting a project easy. You can choose rewards worth between $4 and $1,200 – between a short story, a postcard from the Silk Road, a professionally printed photo set, signed copies of our books and a long weekend in Istanbul – and be done in just a few clicks. Everything goes through Amazon, which makes the process secure and simple. You also won’t be charged anything until our deadline, on October 11, if – and only if – we reach our goal.

The good news is that thirty six people have backed us so far, pledging a total of $2,777. Hundreds of others have helped out by sharing the project by email, Facebook and Twitter. South Africa’s Getaway magazine published our appeal for support and one total stranger both wrote about and backed our effort to reinvent the travelogue. If you did any one of those things, thank you! Altogether, it’s not a bad start, but we have a long, long way to go.

$2,777 is only 8% of our goal. According to the projection service Kicktraq, we’ll only reach $17,455 if we carry on at the same rate, but whether we’re $10,000 or $1 short of our $34,500 goal, the result will be the same: we’ll have to shelve Old World Wandering for the time being. We’re running this campaign so we don’t have to, because we believe that with time and your help our travelogue can fill some of the holes 24-hour news cycles and commercial travel journalism leave open. For now, we’re working towards reaching $10,350. That’s 30% of our target, and 90% of the projects that make it that far are successful in the end.

If you haven’t already, take a look at the rewards we’re offering, choose something you like and help us to tell new stories about an Old World.

A journey across the road

The Erawan Shrine in Bangkok, dedicated to Brahma

In his novel Travels with My Aunt, Graham Greene tells the story of a bookmaker who has spent his entire working life at a racetrack, watching horses run endlessly along a circuit, like hamsters spinning a wheel. When he retires, the bookie plans to travel perpetually, by train and boat. He believes constant movement will slow time down, stretching out the last part of his life.

When he leaves England, the bookie is a wealthy man. He boards the Orient Express in Paris, but at Venice he has a debilitating stroke. Stuck, he strikes on a workable alternative: the bookie asks the novel’s Aunt to find him a house with 365 rooms, which will allow him to sleep somewhere new every night. The Aunt scours Italy, but can only track down a crumbling mansion with 52 rooms, including bathrooms. The bookie buys it and every week he carefully packs his suitcase and embarks for the room next door. Near the end of the 51st week, he has a single bathroom left, where a comfortable armchair will substitute for a bed, but a day before his final move the bookie has another stroke and is confined to bed.

Doctors instruct him to stay there, where he can expect to live for another few years. The bookie ignores their advice. Left unsupervised, he packs and drags himself along the floor to the bathroom, where the Aunt finds him dying at the door. “It felt like a lifetime,” are his last words.

Greene’s story is interesting apropos of nothing, but for the past few days Claire and I have been repeating the bookie’s experiment. We’re in Bangkok, staying in an area loosely called Khao San. It is the hub of Southeast Asia’s Banana Pancake Trail, with as much English and Japanese on its signboards as Thai. Khao San is “a new sort of place,” writes Susan Orleans, “not really Thai anymore, barely Asian, overwhelmingly young, palpably transient, and anchored in the world by the Internet, where there is no actual time and no actual location.”

People appear on Khao San just long enough to disappear. It is, to quote the Khao San Road Business Association’s motto, “Gateway to Southeast Asia,” provided that you are travelling on the cheap and have a backpack fused to your shoulders. From here you can embark on Welcome Travel’s escorted tour of Chiang Mai, which guarantees contact with four different hill tribes, or the Cheap and Smile Tour to Koh Samui, or a minibus trip to Phuket or Penang or Kota Baharu, or an overland journey by open-bed pickup truck to Phnom Penh or Saigon, or a trip via some rough conveyance to India or Indonesia or Nepal or Tibet or Myanmar or anywhere you can think of—or couldn’t think of, probably, until you saw it named on a travel-agency kiosk on Khao San Road and decided that was the place you needed to see. Everything you need to stay afloat for months of travelling—tickets, visas, laundry, guidebooks, American movies, Internet access, phone service, luggage storage—is available on Khao San Road.

My father and stepmother were in Bangkok with us, for a few nights. We stayed together at the New Siam Riverside, on the Chao Phraya. It is a new, three star hotel with a small swimming pool, flat screens in every room, malfunctioning WiFi and buffet breakfasts where guests can pile up reconstituted bacon but no cheese. Our room, which faced the street instead of the river, cost 1,600 Thai baht per night – roughly $50. When my father left, we moved just across the road to a sister hotel called New Siam II. It has a smaller pool, which is in the shade of the hotel building for most of the day. Breakfast is à la carte, beers are cheap and the TVs are badly tuned boxes. That room, at 790 baht a night, cost half as much as New Siam Riverside, just across the road, run by the same company. Two nights later, we moved next door, to Peachy Guesthouse, which has the marked neglect, tropical decay and shrill signs – No shoes! No prostitutes! No noise! – of a Khao San original.

In 1982, Bangkok celebrated its bicentennial, which coincided with the auspicious Buddhist year of 2525. To draw in tourists, the city filled its calendar with processions and festivals, centred on the Royal Palace just south of Khao San. It worked: Bangkok was overrun with farang, and people who couldn’t find accommodation talked the residents of the neighbourhood into renting out their spare rooms. Peachy’s name marks it as a part of the Khao San old guard: other, equally ramshackle guest houses in the neighbourhood have names like Rainbow, Sweety, Live Good and Merry. Peachy takes up the whole of a three storey building. The wooden floors creak, eliciting loud shushes from long term guests. Its courtyard is shaded by trees bent over like battered drunks, where the Moonshine Bar sells Thai rotgut. The rooms are bigger that any of New Siam’s and have scarified couches and desks, but no TVs. They cost 230 baht a night with air-conditioning and 400 baht with an en suite bathroom.

Travelling between these three neighbours – New Siam Riverside, New Siam II and Peachy – was like travelling back in time, through the progressive ambitions of Khao San’s landowners. It has also drawn out our time in Bangkok, giving it three distinct seasons: sundowners beside the river; disjointed days spent hunting down WiFi, strong coffee and the will to work; late nights under a towelling blanket, with music from the Moonshine Bar seeping through Peachy’s walls.

We couldn’t bring ourselves to go straight to Peachy when my father left. New Siam II had most of its more luxurious sister’s comforts and was a useful halfway house, but once we had checked out and moved next door, it was hard to imagine why we had prevaricated. What had justified the price of our other two rooms? Most obviously, it didn’t seem like other people had slept in New Siam’s spotless hotels, with their towels carefully folded to resemble flowers or Southeast Asian animals, whereas Peachy wore its past guests like a badge of honour. Were we paying for the comforting lie that the room was ours alone? How much more fun – how much more like travel – to have a guest book in every room, so that you would know Reinhard from Germany had spent a night in your room alone before you arrived, or that Abass and Nsedu from Nigeria had shared this room with you, separated only by time, on their way to “anywhere you can think of – or couldn’t think of, probably, until you saw it named on a travel-agency kiosk on Khao San Road.”

Nong Khai’s exceptional sculpture park

Salakaewkoo Sculpture Park

Nong Khai is a place most people pass through briskly, on their way from Thailand into Laos. It is  modestly-sized, but the town’s infrastructure makes clear the difference between Thailand and its neighbour, just across the Mekong. The roads are clean and well laid out. When Claire and I cycled out of town, through nearby villages, there were well-stocked shops, public phones and power lines, which are all rare in rural Laos. Nong Khai also has expatriates. Some of them are teachers or small business owners, others are pensioners, but the majority are dishevelled men of a certain age, who spend their days in bars beside the Mekong, drinking and whoring. Border runs to Laos are easy, I suppose.

Nong Khai is a town without pretences, with one exception: the Salakaewkoo Sculpture Park, a garden filled with cement colossi on its outskirts, made at the inspiration of a single man. Claire and I spent most of our time in Nong Khai at Mut Mee Gueshouse, writing in its garden. We were doing work for a Hong Kong magazine, but found time for a few stories of our own. We did not find time for the tale of the sculpture park. I’ve borrowed it instead, from the owner of Mut Mee,  Julian Wright.

Buddha seated beneath the Naga: The largest statue at Salakaewkoo Sculpture ParkClaire with her bicycle gives a sense of Salakaewkoo's scale

Salakaewkoo was built by the mystic shaman Luang Poo Boun Leua Sourirat, who passed away in 1996, after constructing it, with the help of devotees, for more than twenty years.

Luang Poo Boun Leua Sourirat loved snakes, so much so that he believed in the ‘coming of the age of the snake’. Seeing them as the purest of all animals, having no arms or legs with which to destroy the world, he described himself as being half man, half snake.

He claimed that in his youth he had fallen into a hole in the forest where upon he met the acetic ‘Kaewkoo’ who lived at the bottom of it. ‘Kaewkoo’ taught him all secrets of the underworld, not least about snakes which were the principal inhabitants of that realm. Later, he trained as a Hindu Rishi in Vietnam and mixed Hinduism into his system of beliefs.

As a Lao national, he first started to produce sculpture on the riverbank on the Lao side of the Maekong river. But as the communists became more powerful, he became concerned that they may not accept his unorthodox views and so fled to Nong Khai in 1974, where he embarked on the creation of Salakaewkoo; his grandest artistic vision. The name means the ‘Pavilion of Kaewkoo’.

The black moss that gives colour and depth to the cement sculptures is endemic to Northern Thailand and parts of Laos

A statue representing the sense of taste at Salakaewkoo. The object in the foreground is a tongue.A statue representing adultery at Salakaewkoo Sculpture Park, with another statue - representing the death of love - in the background

Today his mummified body can be seen on the third floor of the main building, under a glass hemisphere…He always claimed that his followers, who built all the statues, were entirely untrained, but their skill came to them from a divine source. Moreover, he frequently warned that anyone who drank even a sip of water in the park would eventually give to it all their money!

In the years following his death Salakaewkoo became more and more run down and untidy… until the local government stepped in and decided that his legacy should not be allowed to deteriorate further, so now it is being repaired and restored to its former grandeur.

There are more than one hundred sculptures in the park some of them reaching seven stories up into the sky. Some depict snakes, others images taken from either Theravada or Mahayana Buddhism. Hinduism is well represented too, with images of Shiva and Pavati, Brahma and Vishnu.

A business woman inside the Wheel of Life at Salakaewkoo Sculpture Park

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