Word for Word: a different Planet

“Air of progress”? Followers of Ayatollah Khomeini march in Tehran during the 1979 revolution in Iran. Photograph: Saris/AP

“Air of progress”? Followers of Ayatollah Khomeini march in Tehran during the 1979 revolution in Iran. Photograph: Saris/AP


Among my vintage guidebooks is a 1979 edition of one of the first Lonely Planet titles, Across Asia on the Cheap, by Tony Wheeler. I found it in a charity shop, and I bought it because it reminded me of the year-long journey I’d made in 1994 from Nepal through India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey and eastern Europe.

The Asia I travelled through almost 20 years ago doesn’t exist any more. No place ever stays still. But the attitude to Asia and its customs, religions and cultures as described in my western 1970s guidebook now seems so far away it makes for fascinating, if frequently uncomfortable, reading.

In the introductory section headed Religion there’s a dismissive description of the main religion of India: “The Hindu religion seems such a comic-book, Disneyland setup it is almost difficult to take it seriously.”

Afghanistan is a “vastly appealing country”, although, we’re told, “observers think another revolution may arrive soon”. Kabul is described as “a bit of a tourist trap, packed with souvenir and instant- antique shops”. We learn that there were “two ways of getting to the great Buddhas of Bamiyan from Kabul”, Buddhas that the Taliban were to destroy in 2001.

We’re also informed that although “much of Iran is as primitive as anywhere else in the east there is an unmistakable air of progress. Considerably accelerated by the current price of oil!” Ah, oil. A year later the shah had departed Iran forever.

Kathmandu is cheerfully described as one of the “dirtiest cities in Asia, but it is cheap and fascinating and that can make up for a lot”. It was also a place where “freaks” – the 1970s word for backpackers – could buy cannabis, as pointed out helpfully in the book’s Health section, under the heading Dope. “Dope is still readily available and so long as you have only small quantities there is unlikely to be trouble.”

The entry on Pakistan has a cautionary note for female travellers. “It is a ‘heavy’ Moslem country where western women can expect to be hassled and annoyed by men who suffer from that weird Moslem sexual segregation . . . It is going to be a thousand years before Women’s Lib arrives in Pakistan, and trying to buck their outlook is just going to mean that you are going to get molested that much more often.” However, “if you can get beyond this traditional Moslem hospitality”, the guidebook assures the reader that you “will find the Pakistanis interesting and friendly people. Ever ready to tell you how much better things were under the Raj or what a pack of bastards the Indians are”.

Such a remark in a contemporary guidebook would almost certainly cause a diplomatic incident. Yet this was written, approved by an editor and sent for publication in 1979.

This is why old guidebooks may be of no practical use but are invaluable chronicles of a particular time in history.

Rosita Boland is an Irish Times journalist.

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