Move over, Theroux and Bryson. Our contributors present their choices of the best travel books (almost) never read
THE Light Garden of the Angel King by Peter Levi (Pallas Athene): This is an account of a journey through Afghanistan in the early 1970s in search of Hellenic influences, of the remnants of Alexander the Great at the farthest reaches of his empire. When I first read it years ago, it had all the glamour of a revelation. Levi reminds me that travel writing is a capacious genre, that it need have no boundaries.
He moves seamlessly between its different elements, writing about Persian history, an elderly shepherd in the passes of Nuristan, the ruined tomb of Shah Rukh’s mother, and a visit to the Kabul zoo as if they are all aspects of the same thing, which of course they are. No one writes about landscape with such exquisite restraint. A curiosity of The Light Garden of the Angel King is that it is one of the first appearances of Bruce Chatwin in a travel book; he was Levi’s companion in Afghanistan.
But this book is far greater than anything Chatwin produced. Former Jesuit, novelist, biographer, archeologist and classical scholar, Levi brings the sensibilities of all these disciplines. But above all he is a poet, and this master work has the lyricism and metaphorical resonance of poetry. Stanley Stewart The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides by James Boswell (Penguin Classics): This book will take you where you have never been and can never go. For years, James Boswell had been urging Samuel Johnson, his idol, mentor and friend, to tour the Western Isles of Boswell’s homeland of Scotland. In 1773 the great man relented, and this journal is a wonderful record of their days on the road.
Boswell was keen to show him how civilised his countrymen were, but what Johnson wanted to see were ‘‘ wild objects’’: primitive, clannish Scotland. And while Johnson was observing these remote and romantic islands, Boswell was observing him: ‘‘ We found but a sorry inn, where a waiter put a lump of sugar into Dr Johnson’s lemonade with his fingers, for which he called him ‘ Rascal’!’’
The famous sage, a bear of a man under a bushy grey wig, loved winning arguments, and demolishes one Scottish worthy after another. ‘‘ In such houses,’’ says one, pointing to his country seat, ‘‘ our ancestors lived, who were better men than we.’’
‘‘ No, no, my lord, we are as strong as they, and a great deal wiser.’’ Though the hardship of the journey sometimes put Johnson in a bad humour, and he was relieved to get back to London, he later acknowledged they were the most pleasant days of his life. And the reader will feel the same way. Barry Oakley BlueHighways:AJourneyintoAmerica by William Least Heat Moon (Houghton Mifflin): To lose wife and job in the same year would drive many a man to drink; instead it impelled William Least Heat Moon to drive around the US. ‘‘ A man who couldn’t make things go right could at least go,’’ he wrote. And so he went, via the backroads and the flyspeck towns that no tourist sees, to live, he says, ‘‘ the real jeopardy of circumstance’’.
Driving through New England, I heard his tale serialised on National Public Radio, and pulled off the road every midday so as not to miss the next instalment. In his journey of self-discovery, his Indian genes and teacher training combined to draw out the soul of his country, often in minutiae. He found the Shakers invented the wooden clothes peg and that turnpike derived from a pivoting pole barring the first toll roads. He learned how the invention of barbed wire killed off the old west, and the cowboy. He ate in those ‘‘ where you from buddy?’’ restaurants, sagely observing that the more calendars on the wall, the better the food.
And he certainly turned many a neat phrase: meeting an old man ‘‘ hanging on the drop edge of yonder’’. The author’s journey was a generation ago, but his philosophy I take everywhere with me: ‘‘ A rule of the blue road: be careful going in search of adventure; it’s ridiculously easy to find.’’ Geoffrey Luck OfftheRails:MemoirsofaTrainAddict by Lisa St Aubin de Teran (Sceptre): Journeying from page to page in this book is fraught with incident. I can’t think of another narrative that so enacts the experience of travelling, that moment-by-moment likelihood of being confronted with the unexpected.
Off the Rails instantly fuelled my already ingrained passion for obscure, long-haul train journeys and for turning up in odd places in general. The author’s journey through life begins with her mother’s serial houses and husbands, ‘‘ a rusty tricycle’’ and long walks, but she does not linger, first discovering trains ‘‘ as a means of truancy’’, then at 16 marrying a Venezuelan exile she meets on a London street corner (wanted for his ‘‘ involvement in the civil uprising in Venezuela in the 1960s’’), who seduces her with the only two words of his conversation she understands: ‘‘ Italy’’ and ‘‘ Venezuela’’.
St Aubin de Teran also ends up in Patagonia, Mexico, Leningrad, Corfu and the Norfolk Fens, among other places. She is highly opinionated and deeply eccentric. The lure of this memoir is the author’s utterly unconsidered focus on being the centre of her own romantic narrative. She lives for nothing but the poetic: ‘‘ To cross over the causeway into Venice has all the sensual thrill of love with the foreknowledge of gratification . . . The city fills one with awe to such an extent that even to leave it is memorable, such is the pleasure of knowing that it exists.’’ Judith Elen Dust on My Shoes by Peter Pinney (Angus & Robertson): ‘‘ In a cobbled lane with a pompous name there was a well appointed tavern . . .’’ From Mozambique to Martinique and almost everywhere in between, the author, Australian Peter Patrick Pinney (1922-92), often found the door to adventure’s tavern temptingly ajar. He rarely failed to push it open and step across its fateful threshold. Whether among headhunters in upper Burma or minstrels in the lower Sahara, Pinney lived his life all the way up.
Every few years he would pull up a beach and write a rattling great account of his peregrinations; one time he even played Marlon Brando’s double in Mutiny on the Bounty. His first book, DustonMyShoes, a classic of travel writing published when he was 28, tells of his 1948-1950 journey from Greece to Burma via Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.
This excursion — toxic, terrifying and hilarious — later became the Overland Route or the Dope Trail for trippers in the ’ 60s and ’ 70s. For the broke but everresourceful Pinney and his Dutch travelling companion, Robert Marchand, it was a continuous frontier of extreme experiences, all the way out to, and including, death. I first came across Dust On My Shoes in the late ’ 60s. Having all but lifted the print from its pages (such was my enthusiasm to absorb it) I went on to read everything else Pinney wrote. Credit or blame, but certainly thanks, are due to him for having presented me with the idea of vagabondage-with-pen as a perfectly sensible career option. John Borthwick John Borthwick is the compiler of TheRoad toAnywhere:TheTravelWritingsof PeterPinney (UQP). Golden Earth by Norman Lewis (Jonathan Cape; Eland): It was Burma that got me writing and with Golden Earth Norman Lewis provided my personal stem cells. In 1951, fearing that Burma was about to be swallowed by the rising tide of communism, Lewis sets out to travel the country’s length. By river steamer, plane, Jeep, truck, train and ox cart, he travels through a country teetering on the brink of chaos, where the Burmese maintain a stoic resignation to the wheel of fate, absorbed with music, dancing, theatre and Buddhist ritual.
Lewis brings to the task forensic qualities of observation, coupled with a masterly fluidity of style. He is a writer’s writer, elegant, restrained and precise. He is also a connoisseur of decrepitude, never distracted by the omnipresent Burmese superficialities of heat, decay and cockroaches (as was Paul Theroux, for example).
No privation upsets him. His favourite colour is rust. Bitten by a dog, he sterilises the wound with Fire-Tank Brand Mandalay Whisky. Stricken with malaria, he sets off on horseback with an armed posse to confront Chinese Nationalist soldiers. Golden Earth remains the one essential volume for the Burma traveller, as relevant today as it was in the ’ 50s. Burma is still the shambolic, superstitious, addictive, Bertie Woosterish world that Lewis describes (with the notable exception of its military government, which has mutated into a cabal of malignant and self-serving old monsters). Michael Gebicki The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Matsuo Basho (Penguin Classics): This book, which has inspired my travels in remote parts of Japan, was written more than 300 years ago. Matsuo Basho perfected the haiku poetic form of three lines and precisely 17 syllables to capture a thought. Basho was a passionate wanderer; in 1689, he left Edo (today’s Tokyo), walking 2500km in five months to the wild places of northern Honshu, recording his experiences in poetry and prose. He completed the log of this northern journey in 1694, the year he died.
Today, the southern end of the Basho trail is buried beneath Tokyo’s dormitory suburbs, but further north it’s possible to follow the poet’s route through the mountains and forested valleys of Tohoku. His incisive observations in haiku form capture the contemplative pleasures and timeless trials of solo travelling. On the stone steps that climb through cedars to the temple high on Yamadera, for example, cicadas still sing as Basho heard them: In this hush profound Deep into the rocks it seeps The cicada sound While the landscapes are still recognisable, these days the poetry is likely to be in Japlish on the back of T-shirts, like the one I followed down from the summit of the sacred peak, Tateyama: I want to bind you My glossy lip cigarette With jewels named kiss Basho would have picked it right away but it took me ages to realise this was a haiku. Chris Viney Trespassers on the Roof of the World: The Race for Lhasa by Peter Hopkirk (Oxford University Press): Although primarily a history, Hopkirk’s is also a travel book and a thrilling adventure story.
The ‘‘ often bizarre, sometimes tragic, frequently hair-raising’’ account of the Western world’s forcing open of Tibet is the best thing I have read on the country.
‘‘ Inhabited by a people whose only wheel was a prayer wheel . . . Tibet has always been the stuff of travellers’ dreams,’’ Hopkirk writes. The former Times correspondent’s book vividly describes the stark, sterile landscape and ‘‘ squalid, filthy’’ Lhasa. He depicts Tibetans sympathetically but without the fawning glamorising of this Shangri-la.
Hopkirk’s account of Francis Younghusband’s 1904 military invasion inspired me to journey beyond Lhasa and the normal tourist trails. With a driver and a guide, I travelled south to follow, in reverse, the British army’s invasion route. Just south of the town of Gyantse, where the road branches south to Sikkim, it is even more stark than around the capital. Ten kilometres away, at a small monastery, my Tibetan guide refused to take me any further. The road is closed, he insisted. A short distance from here, in the village of Guru, the fateful battle between British troops and Tibet’s medieval army was fought. But I was turned away before reaching my destination, like so many others in Hopkirk’s book. Garry Marchant
Editions listed are intended as guidelines; earlier volumes or reprints, and those in different formats and imprints, may be available at antiquarian or specialty travel bookshops or via websites such as amazon.com. Publishers that have released previously out-of-date travel books in new series include Picador Travel Classics and Eland London, which has a recent collection of stalwarts, including titles by Norman Lewis and Martha Gellhorn. More: www.travelbooks.co.uk.