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Move over, Th­er­oux and Bryson. Our con­trib­u­tors present their choices of the best travel books (al­most) never read

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

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

Check­list

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.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Igor Sak­tor

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