Population & Society

The Mindful Traveler: Analog Journeys in a Digital World

Monday, June 26, 2023

As people take to the roads, rails, skies and seas again – with a vengeance – after three years of Covid-enforced immobility, photographer Chris Stowers, author of the travel memoir Bugis Nightspublished in July 2023, reflects on society’s transition from the analog to the digital – how this has led to changing travel habits and expectations and how the less frantic and accelerated modes of transport of his youth always seemed to result in adventure and to the greater appreciation of a destination.

The Mindful Traveler: Analog Journeys in a Digital World

Slow boat to Singapore: In 1988, the author joined French adventurers on a 3,000-km voyage, sailing on the Kurnia Ilahi (pictured here moored off the coast of Flores Island), a traditional Bugis perahu or unmotorized wooden sloop used for spice trading across the Indonesian archipelago

“The trouble about journeys nowadays is that they are easy to make but difficult to justify.” 

Travel has only become less justifiable since the adventurer and journalist Peter Fleming wrote this in his 1936 book News from Tartary when setting off from Peking to Kashmir, transported largely by camel and mule, and provisioned with a typewriter, a pea-shooter rifle and a bottle of Worcestershire sauce for emergencies. Back then, the general inaccessibility of a “Kathmandu” or “Kazakhstan”, to all but the most determined explorer or banished diplomat amplified their already exotic allure as destinations.

The great pre-war travel writers such as Fleming (James Bond creator Ian’s elder brother), Robert Byron, Somerset Maugham and Paddy Leigh-Fermor – like the Great Gamers before them – were all cool-headed, minor aristocrats, educated to drip distain upon tedious officials and unruly servants alike. Exploration was undertaken as a geographical safari, the aim of which was to drop as many obscure place names as possible and recount endless tales of derring-do to clubmates.

With the end of the Cold War in the late 1980s came an explosion of new travel writing, as the doors to vast swathes of China, Central Asia and the Soviet Union (which broke into pieces at the end of 1991) were flung open. In rushed a literary era dominated by a more vulnerable and reflective generation of traveling storytellers – characterized best perhaps by the likes of Paul Theroux, Bruce Chatwin, Colin Thubron and Jan Morris. Theroux was not British, and Morris (by that stage) not even a bloke. Heady times of change, indeed!

Riding the Iron Rooster on the way from Beijing to Wulumuqi in Xinjiang: In the 1980s and 90s, China opened to the world and offered affordable adventure travel to far-flung destinations

Riding the Iron Rooster on the way from Beijing to Wulumuqi in Xinjiang: In the 1980s and 90s, China opened to the world and offered affordable adventure travel to far-flung destinations

Fresh out of secondary school, I found all these glamorous-sounding new destinations overwhelming. Why commute in Kent when I could be riding the Iron Rooster to Kunming? I sold my motorbike for a beat-up Nikon camera and a one-way ticket to Karachi. I made it as far as Peshawar.

The capital of Pakistan’s unruly North-West Frontier Province was at that time a hotbed of intrigue, a pressure-cooker rife with refugees from neighboring Afghanistan, Mujahedeen freedom fighters (then the West’s friends and allies), freelance photographers, doctors, NGO workers, spies and other assorted adventurers – all fired-up by fear and fury, idealism and deadlines.

At the rather impressionable age of 20, I had found my métier. All I had to do was work out how to make a living at it. In the meantime, I was stuck teaching English. The father of one of my students was a Mujahedeen commander. That secured an ill-advised trip “across the border”. But I felt like a fraud: I had nowhere to sell my photos or tell their story.

Back then – not so very long ago – communications were slow. We were not yet bound by the worldwide web. “Social media” meant giving away your copy of Newsweek after you had finished reading it. There were no mobile phones, no texting. An overseas call or sending a telegram or telex involved taking a taxi to the government telecommunications center and cost half a week’s wages. Faxes, if they were even possible, were routinely scrutinized by the censors.

Instead, we wrote aerograms, played cards and huddled around a shortwave radio set at 7 pm for the news on the BBC World Service. Conversation with fellow travelers provided all the up-to-date information necessary about visa extensions, where to find the tastiest lassi in town, or the best black-market exchange rate for dollars and FECs (foreign exchange certificates, issued in the past in China, Burma and Vietnam, among other countries).

Border crossing: Thanks to one of his English language students whose father was a commander in the National Islamic Front of Afghanistan (NIFA) Mujahedeen, Stowers joined a band of fighters entering from Pakistan

In the essay “On Running After One’s Hat” from his book All Things Considered, the writer and philosopher GK Chesterton wrote: “An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered.” Now, I have never deliberately sought out thrills. I just never had any money and roughing-it offered the most affordable way to reach a destination.

Two formative adventures in those early years helped chart the course of events my life has followed ever since. Both were made at a snail’s pace – and arduously; both in a spirit of youthful enthusiasm, totally ignorant of risk, and both involved some pretty alluring place names.

The first of these odysseys was in the summer of 1987, shortly after leaving Pakistan by way of the Khunjerab Pass to Kashgar. There followed a month of hitching rides in lumbering Jiefang trucks on prohibited roads from Lhasa to Chengdu. Days without food and nights, sleeping in caves – assaulted by dysentery, fleas and multiple, airless 5,000-metre-high passes – encouraged profound mental inquisition.

The serenity of this new life of basics was obvious and attractive. One simply had to find food and water, shelter for the night, and keep moving forwards. Surely, we would all be a lot happier paring our lives to these basic parameters, rather than continuously complicating them?

Accommodation not reviewed on Tripadvisor: In the summer of 1987, the author set off on a month-long trek from Lhasa in Tibet to Chengdu in Sichuan

All the greed and consumption of the modern world was just a substitute. People bought junk because they were, to varying degrees, unhappy, bored and insecure. News and advertising existed to confirm and increase those fears, desires and feelings of inadequacy.

Only by dropping out did the truth appear: How little one need consume to survive.

The most extreme geographical locations always seem to attract two nationalities, and two alone: the British and the French. Disparate personalities in almost every way, yet united in their own separate concepts of romantic travel.

In Tibet, for instance, the only westerner I encountered in a month-long trek was, unsurprisingly, French. And a year later – the summer of 1988 – in the shimmering far east of the Indonesian archipelago, I stumbled upon a bunch of explorers from Normandy, engaged in buying a perahu wooden spice ship off the local Bugis people. Destination: Singapore – 3,000 kilometers away. After that, back to France in time to celebrate the bicentennial of the storming of the Bastille. They needed an extra crew member to help raise the sail, and I needed to get to the Lion City for cheap. What could well have been a deal with the devil turned out to be a match made in heaven.

That extraordinary voyage taught me, through daily mounting emergencies, how to splice ropes, prepare chickens for the pot, weather storms and navigate by the stars. Arrival in Singapore was miraculous, given the sparsity of our charts and navigational equipment. Nowadays, all vessels are tracked by built-in automated information system (AIS) transponders: We did not even have an engine. It was three days before we remembered to head to Finger Pier and let immigration know we had arrived.

The photos I shot evolved into the first story I ever sold. Finally, I could think about giving up English teaching.

From Bugis Nights

There are so many stars. Popular mythology has it we are all constituted of their dust. I’ve always been skeptical of that saccharine and rather Hallmark sentiment. Yet somehow, when you find yourself alone and floating in the middle of a vast black ocean, with no visible horizon or earthly point of reference, it is impossible not to gaze towards the astral vault and become absorbed in its infinite detail and precision. Like a compass needle, being tugged to north by the faintest resonance of magnetic matter, so we who came from the stars turn our heads irresistibly towards them. The possibility begs to be considered that what we are dreaming of as yielding to these celestial urgings—what we are yearning for—is to find our way back home.

“Everything begins in mystery and ends in politics,” the French poet and philosopher Charles Péguy argued at the end of the 19th century. He might as well have been commenting on the state of travel at the start of the 21st. These days, we live in an age of instant gratification; conditioned to feel naked when deprived of our security blanket of digital information. Practically every corner of the world has been conquered and explored, settled, exploited, measured, mapped, built over, fought over, flown over, plowed up, cleared up, blown up, upgraded, updated and uploaded.

Geographical curiosity in the age of the internet and Google Earth seems an irrelevant passion. Aimless wandering is fast becoming an indefensible occupation, its proponents viewed with suspicion.

Now that every destination in the world – outdoors and indoors – is merely a screen-click away, each minute must be accounted for, route researched in advance, venue pre-booked, eating place peer-reviewed and experience boasted about on Instagram. Emptying your mind so as to soak up random experience and enjoy freedom of thought now borders on heresy.

I came of age in an analog world, one that welcomed the visitor as an individual, trusting in the arrival’s good intent and character, not as representative of some broader, faceless and privileged civilization – a threat. Yes, travel was often primitive and awkward but so was the flow of information. People could not yearn for or envy what they did not know they did not have.

On the dusty road, 1987: Jiefang trucks crossing the Qinghai Plateau on the way to Lhasa, captured by the author on cheap Hungarian film purchased in Peshawar, Pakistan

On the dusty road, 1987: Jiefang trucks crossing the Qinghai Plateau on the way to Lhasa, captured by the author on cheap Hungarian film purchased in Peshawar, Pakistan

By contrast, the digital traveler is bombarded by apps and forced to scan QR codes. He moves at speed through an aware world – one that hides the true intention of technological control behind an alluring mask of convenience. Three years of Covid-enforced inertia have been enough to knock the confidence out of even the most seasoned traveler. Sometimes, I doubt I will take off blindly for a “Kyrgyzstan” or a “Kyzyl” ever again.

Yet, we must be mindful to avoid grasping at technology – as at aspects of religion before it – merely to assuage our fears of the unknown. So, keep your designer bathtubs and artisan baristas, your super-fast broadband and piles of stylishly arranged pillows (chosen from a portfolio of styles and stuffings that the smartest establishments now offer). The criteria for a hotel room should be only that it is cheap, located close to – though not on top of – a major public transport terminal, and have a solid lockable door and bedsheets not discolored by bloodstains.

One ventures to a new destination to encounter a different lived reality and to enjoy genuine experiences with its inhabitants – not to sleep. The less frantic the mode of transport – the less emphasis placed on arrival – then the greater becomes our suspension from time and place.

Destinations, it turns out, are just the alibis we tell people so they will let us go.

From Bugis Nights

At two o’clock, and with final assistance from a couple of members of the Kurnia’s original crew, we raised the mainsail halfway and pulled up the big anchor. Kurnia Ilahi, sensing her moment of freedom, strained lightly, starting to drag her remaining two anchors through the sand. The good people of Jampea scrambled back into their various canoes and launches; the men and boys waving, many of the women sobbing through their smiles.

A couple of the more brazen girls pretended to drag Fredy back with them. And for a moment his expression looked so set and serious I was certain he was going to jump ship. The urge to experience Paradise is great; but the idyll is ruined the moment we set foot on it. I felt a lump in my throat, and waved back furiously at the shrinking mass of arms, shouting out the lie that I’ll come back soon! 

I know I never will.

Opinions expressed in articles published by AsiaGlobal Online reflect only those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of AsiaGlobal Online or the Asia Global Institute


Chris Stowers

Chris Stowers


Chris Stowers is a professional photographer and writer, based in Taiwan, from where he travels to cover news events and feature stories across Asia and the Middle East. He specializes in architecture and portraits and is represented by the prestigious Panos Pictures Photo Agency in London. His work has appeared in most major international publications including Newsweek, Time, Forbes, The Economist, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Le Monde, The Independent, Businessweek and National Geographic Traveler. He has shot photos for many Insight Guides and Dorling Kindersley (DK) travel guidebooks. He is a co-author of Travel Photography: How to Take Striking Images produced by Insight Guides. His series of autobiographical travel adventures is being published by Earnshaw Books, with the first installment Bugis Nights released in July 2023.

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