Asia had long been a source of inspiration and fascination for Allen Ginsberg by the time he finally set foot on the continent. As a precocious child, he had been curious about the great ancient kingdoms of India and China, and equally delighted in reading about the contemporary political climate of the region as he moved into his teenage years. Walt Whitman, one of his major literary inspirations, had impressed him deeply with a poem called “Passage to India.” His friendship with William S. Burroughs, begun at Columbia in 1944, pushed him to believe in Oswald Spengler’s theory of western decline, with Asia rising in the east to supplant the falling empires of the west, and later Jack Kerouac introduced Allen to Buddhism, which friends like Gary Snyder and Phillip Whalen subsequently nurtured t as it grew in the late fifties. In 1953, he developed an obsession with Asian art that grew into a belief that the ancient East possessed an unrivalled sophistication.
Ginsberg’s own travels began in 1945 with trips to sea as a merchant mariner, and in 1947 he crossed the Atlantic to French West Africa (now Senegal). In the early fifties, he travelled through Mexico and Cuba, and then in the second half of the decade, following his sudden rise to fame with “Howl,” he embarked upon longer journeys to further afield, including Europe and North Africa. In 1960, he spent six months exploring South America, returning to the US a thoroughly well-travelled man. But his extensive travelling (he had now visited 19 countries) had not sated his appetite by any means; on the contrary, he was planning his longest trip yet – one that would take him somewhere he had been itching to go for many years. Throughout his travels in Mexico and Europe, no matter how impressed he was with the culture, he continued to dream of Asia.
On 23rd March, 1961, Ginsberg and his lover, Peter Orlovsky, set off on a trip that would last more than two years. After revisiting North Africa and Europe, they explored Israel. Although not culturally a part of Asia, it is geographically on the continent, and so technically marks Allen’s first footsteps in Asia. He was not impressed, however. Israel was “an interesting drag” and, although Jewish himself, Allen despaired of the Israeli people and politics, instead referring to India as his “promised land.” They spent a difficult two months essentially just trying to get out of the country, but Israel was then at odds with so many of its neighbors that escape was seemingly impossible without incurring great expense. Thankfully, they did manage to leave, sailing down the Red Sea – the dividing line between Asia and Africa – to Kenya, and from there to India.
Actually, prior to India they stopped off in Karachi, Pakistan, but it was just a brief stopover en route to Bombay. They had long planned to visit Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) but the problems they encountered scuppered that notion and Allen never did get to visit. Instead, they embarked upon the most important voyage of Allen’s life: his famed exploration of India. Allen and Peter soon met up with Gary Snyder and Joanne Kyger, and together the four Beat poets headed into the foothills of the Himalayas to seek out wise men. They found an incredible array of gurus willing to share their wisdom, and Allen even came to learn that the charlatans also had something valuable to teach. For two months, they explored the historical sites across northern India, and even managed to schedule a meeting with the Dalai Lama. Although Kyger viewed his intentions as fraudulent, and Snyder was often irritated by him, Ginsberg was on the most important spiritual quest of his life, and he underwent massive change during this time.
After two months, Snyder and Kyger returned to Japan. Ginsberg and Orlovsky travelled across the country to Calcutta, and from there explored the northeast. Allen even ventured by himself into the tiny mountain kingdom of Sikkim, which later became a part of India. He found the locals to be “the most interesting people on the face of the earth” and very nearly converted to Buddhism (something that instead occurred many years later). Unfortunately, he had lost some important papers and could only get a three-day pass to visit the little mountainous country.
In India, Allen Ginsberg slowly metamorphosed into the version of himself that became emblematic of the 1960s counterculture – politicized hippie activist with beard, beads, and long hair. He learned many important lessons, from letting go of his fixation with visions to ending his fear of death. He picked up a lot from the various local religions, including breathing techniques that would profoundly influence his poetry, and developed an obsession with Indian music. When his time in India came to an end in 1963, he headed home via Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Japan. Each of these countries left its mark, but it was in Japan, on a bullet train, that all he had learned over the two years of travel came to a head – every lesson suddenly took hold as he wept and wrote, the result one of his most important poems, “The Change.” It was the watershed mark in his life.
Ginsberg returned to India in 1971 to visit the refugee camps outside Calcutta, and wrote “Jessore Road,” but it was only a short trip. By this point, his travels were seldom of the nature they were in the fifties and early sixties. He now travelled for poetry readings and conferences, and did so on a schedule. He found time to sightsee and meet up with old friends, but he no longer could take six months or two years to just travel for the sake of travelling. Yet his letters and journals remained filled with places he still wanted to visit – chief among them were Tibet and China, but he also longed to see other sites of historical significance that he had read about.
Despite having held an interest in China throughout most of his life, and having adored Chinese food, poetry, and painting, Allen didn’t manage to visit until 1984, when he was invited as part of a US delegation of writers. By now his health was failing and China’s pollution caused him no end of suffering. Yet he still enjoyed his trip, which he managed to expand from several weeks into several months. After the other delegates left, he travelled China by himself. Or rather, almost by himself. Being a paranoid communist nation, he was usually accompanied by some sort of guide. Allen visited Beijing, Shanghai, Nanjing, and Suzhou on the east coast, as well as the Three Gorges near Wuhan and a few places in the western provinces of Sichuan and Yunnan.
In 1988, he returned to Israel and Japan, and two years later he visited his last new Asian country, South Korea. He found this a rather boring place to see, but he was always keen to visit new places, and in a short stay he managed to see much of the little country, including a visit to the Sea of Japan. He’d looked across the sea from Japan almost thirty years earlier.
Ginsberg never managed to return to Asia. Poor health didn’t permit it. When he died in 1997, he left behind a final poem, “Things I’ll Not Do.” It listed places he wanted to see but never had the chance to, and places he desperately wanted to revisit. In fifty years of travel, he had managed to set foot in sixty-five different countries and visited every continent except Antarctica. He found inspiration everywhere he went, yet Asia always had a special place in his heart. It was, after all, the place where he’d become Allen Ginsberg.
In the late spring of 1939, Weldon Kees, his wife Ann, and his parents, John…