Getting lost in an unknown location is central to my approach to travel.  If you have a sense of faith (“everything’s going to be okay”) and are not liable to panic, getting lost can result in discovering wonderful things and meeting new people.

There’s also a delicious irony in the fact that after all that planning, saving and struggling to get away the best thing you can do when you arrive is get lost. This is what management gurus would say is “counter-intuitive” (i.e. it doesn’t make sense) and I’d like to explain.

I called this article The Beauty of Getting Lost because, in my experience, the most incredible places I found on my travels were by chance, often the result of wandering aimlessly or being lost. In my book 9 Months in Tibet I describe various places I came across by chance. When I stumbled across an incredible building or landscape that I didn’t know about I would feel as if I had personally discovered it, resulting in a great sense of achievement.

I used to feel sorry for those poor souls who would turn up at an ancient monument with their guidebooks and a pencil, ticking off the location on their checklist. Many travelers never feel that wonderful sense of mystery and surprise that is, for me, the best part of travel, by researching too much and making lists of places to visit – and then feeling frustrated that they couldn’t visit everywhere on their list. I like to arrive in a location in a state of ignorance and I don’t want to know what the main sites are – I plan to get lost, ask around and see where fate takes me.

But getting lost is actually a lot harder than you might think. On the one hand all you have to do is wander aimlessly in a new city, without a map, and – hey presto – you’re lost. The problem is that we tend to cling to our plans, our maps, our checklists and above all our fears – of getting lost, being alone, getting robbed – and it’s very hard to let go of these props.

After all we’ve grown up in a society where good planning is one of the highest attributes – surely an essential requirement for independent travel. Any long journey does require these skills, especially for the first part – getting away – but once you get to where you’re going you can “let go” as the Buddhists say and go out without a map.

The best way to practice the art of getting lost is to wander aimlessly in your own city: just head out in a particular direction and walk until you get lost. If you walk for an hour in your city you will surely come across some interesting places. I remember doing this in Romania and finding a vast rubbish dump the size of a hill and a monastery that that had been built 500 years ago and immediately destroyed by the Turks who considered it too much like a fortress. You can see a picture of my discovery here.

I’d be really interested to know your experiences of getting lost. Please add a comment below.

Photo Credit: The Three Stooges (film)