Twenty years ago, as frustrations with a painfully boring cubicle job festered, I mysteriously found myself in possession of a guidebook to Pakistan's Karakoram Highway. For the life of me, I can't remember where it came from, which is odd, considering how dramatically that book shaped my future.
The highway, connecting China's high deserts with the plains of Pakistan, had only recently opened to travellers, and the small paperback was a sort of how-to guide for budget travellers, offering both practical details and regional background. Cutting through the Karakoram, Hindu Kush and Himalayan ranges, the dizzying road offered, according to the guidebook, "some of the most mind-bending mountain scenery anywhere on the planet." A few months later, I clumsily attached brand-new panniers to a shiny mountain bike outside Islamabad airport and started pedalling north.
I pulled the book from my shelves recently, and thumbed though its faded pages, many stained with grimy fingerprints and spills of what could be coffee, blood or chicken curry. Vast sections have been underlined and highlighted. Notes are scrawled throughout; local words, phone numbers and post-office hours (still the age of poste restante and telegrams). Inside the front cover, someone has written key phrases in both Urdu and Mandarin: May I camp here? Toilet paper please! Addresses of Pakistani and Chinese herders I met along the road remain meticulously engraved on the book's soft paper with a hard-pressed pen. The sentences, which I read and reread countless times, resonate with the comfort and familiarity of a childhood poem.
At the time, I had no idea that the little paperback was part of an extensive guidebook family, covering every conceivable corner of the globe. Bit by bit, and trip by trip, my familiarity with Lonely Planet grew, until it became my go-to reference when considering a foreign trip. Alongside my passport, visas, immunizations and a credit card, Lonely Planet is one thing I never (okay, rarely) leave home without.
Which is not a particularly popular view to espouse these days. Love of L.P. is at an all-time low. There are grumblings from a growing segment of the independent traveller crowd who complain Lonely Planet is so pervasive that they meet the same travellers time and again, all drawn to guest houses and restaurants mentioned in the must-have book. This is a lame and lazy complaint. For every village featured in the book, an inquisitive traveller can easily find 10 others that are never mentioned.
More serious are the claims these guides are making once-quaint and quiet destinations too accessible, enabling a mindless, conveyor-belt style of tourism that inundates remote locales with flip-flop-clad, bandana-wearing travellers on their requisite year abroad.
There is no doubt the world has witnessed a revolution in travel over the past decades. But in fairness Lonely Planet has neither created nor fuelled this uprising. The foot soldiers of change, arriving in wave after wave on foreign shores, are from the young Western middle class, and their abundance is primarily due to a relative affluence that enables such wanderings. While Lonely Planet points these hordes in the direction of the nearest banana pancake and fruit smoothie, it also routinely advocates responsible travel ethics, and it could be argued the publisher has done more to plant seeds of awareness than it has to destroy hidden gems.
Tony and Maureen Wheeler launched Lonely Planet after their 1973 honeymoon on the "hippie trail," a popular overland route leading from Europe to India and eventually Singapore. That travel guide, Across Asia on the Cheap, was a photocopied, hand-stapled affair that rocketed to instant popularity. Its jaune cover was soon so ubiquitous in hostels and airports that it was nicknamed the Yellow Bible. Two years and another journey later, Southeast Asia on a Shoestring became the second in a line of books that would eventually cover every last country on the planet, all 191 of them. (For years, it was my goal to explore Comoros, the final country without a Lonely Planet guidebook, but they beat me to it in 2004, adding Comoros to the Madagascar edition.)
There are plenty of other guidebook publishers out there. Many are good, but for me, none has been able to replace the familiar tone and feel of Lonely Planet. Reading an entire book, cover to cover, feels like having a conversation with a knowledgeable friend who has lived for years, perhaps a lifetime, in the country. The writing is also entertaining, which makes the guides pleasurable to read, again and again - a good thing on long trips.
But the bottom line is that each and every Lonely Planet book is imbued with a simple but powerful message: The world is a big and wonderful place, and you don't have to break the bank to see it. Take the time to read about each country you visit and meet the locals whenever you can - you'll come home with a greater understanding of our planet and its many citizens who are really not all that different from ourselves.
Not a bad reminder to carry tucked beside your passport as you step out the front door, ticket in hand.
Special to The Globe and Mail