Tag: Top 30 Travel Books

No. 20: “River Town” by Peter Hessler

To mark our five-year anniversary,
we’re counting down the top 30 travel books of all time, adding a new title each day this month.
Published: 2001
Territory covered: China
In 1996, Peace Corps volunteer Peter Hessler was sent to the town of Fuling, in Sichuan Province, to teach English. During the two years he spent there, he got to know his students, their culture, their language and the imperious and strange communist state better than most outsiders. Today, China is arguably the second most important country in the world, and its influence can be felt on every level—economic, military, cultural. The rise of China only makes River Town more essential reading as a window into the culture. Many China analysts can add up the sum of China’s productivity increase, but can’t tell you why the Nanjing Massacre still rankles people so deeply, or what the average young Chinese person’s hopes for the future are. “River Town” is a textured look at a culture. It is also an important and moving account no one should miss.

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No. 21: “Road Fever” by Tim Cahill

To mark our five-year anniversary, we’re counting down the top 30 travel books of all time, adding a new title each day this month.
Published: 1991
Territory covered: Tierra del Fuego to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska
A founding editor of Outside magazine, Cahill has been credited with revitalizing adventure writing—a genre that had previously been confined to breathless, semi-fictional tales of danger in the pages of low-culture men’s magazines. The tongue-in-cheek titles of Cahill’s early essay collections—“Jaguars Ripped My Flesh”; “A Wolverine is Eating My Leg”; “Pecked to Death by Ducks”—are a nod to his pulpy precursors, but his writing is the opposite of pulp: informed, nuanced, self-deprecating, and frequently laugh-out-loud funny. Road Fever, Cahill’s only book-length travel narrative, chronicles a 15,000-mile dash to set a world record by driving overland across the Americas in less than 24 days. In many ways, it’s an anti-adventure book, since a large portion of the tale documents the process of making plans and procuring corporate sponsorship—but this says a lot about the competitive, publicity-driven, and weirdly postmodern state of post-Exploration Age adventure. The author’s partner in the journey is professional endurance driver Gary Sowerby, and together the duo deal with fatigue, dangerous roads, stubborn bureaucrats—and an overabundance of sponsor-supplied pudding—as they race north into the pages of the “Guinness Book of World Records.” As the miles speed by, Cahill’s exuberant reporting and eye for the absurd make for an amusing and exhilarating ride.

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No. 22: “When the Going was Good” by Evelyn Waugh

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To mark our five-year anniversary, we’re counting down the top 30 travel books of all time, adding a new title each day this month.
Published: 1947
Territory covered: Ethiopia, Yemen, East Africa, Guyana and Brazil
In the first part of the 20th century, Evelyn Waugh was one of a handful of bright young writers who headed off into the wild world to propel the genre of travel writing forward. “We turned our backs on civilization,” Waugh wrote of himself, Peter Fleming and Robert Byron, whose early death Waugh mourned. “From 1928 to 1937,” he wrote, “I had no fixed home and no possessions which would not conveniently go on a porter’s barrow. I traveled continuously, in England and abroad.” Armed with trunkloads of wit, an eye for characters and the cocksure attitude of the imperialist he was, Waugh headed to Ethiopia, Yemen, East Africa, Guyana and Brazil. The result was several travel books that went out of print. But the author pulled long excerpts from them, which were reprinted in When the Going was Good. Each is essentially a short travel book itself, including one about the coronation of Haile Selassie and Waugh’s attempt to travel from Guyana to Brazil. It all has a carefree feeling, as Waugh himself admitted. “I never aspired to be a great traveler,” he wrote, “I was simply a young man, typical of my age; we traveled as a matter of course. I rejoice that I went when the going was good.”

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No. 23: “Behind the Wall” by Colin Thubron

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To mark our five-year anniversary, we’re counting down the top 30 travel books of all time, adding a new title each day this month.
Published: 1989
Territory covered: China
As usual, Thubron studied the language before the trip and arrived with his customary grasp of history and notebook of contacts. His encounters with people—beginning with his seatmate on the plane over, who believes he says “smile” when he asks her if the Chinese think Westerners “smell”—have the openness and the authenticity (and in this case the humor) of a great travelogue. But Thubron raises the bar with his physical descriptions, employing language that often verges on pyrotechnic, and his analytical thrusts. He is one of those rare writers who possess both the intellectual capacity to interpret and the emotional ability to connect. As a result, his writing upgrades frequently from informative and entertaining to profound and moving. This is perhaps the best book by the best travel writer working today.

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No. 24: “Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere” by Jan Morris

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To mark our five-year anniversary, we’re counting down the top 30 travel books of all time, adding a new title each day this month.
Published: 2001
Territory covered: Trieste, Italy (and Jan Morris’ imagination)
A student at a writing seminar once asked Welsh author Jan Morris when she planned on writing her autobiography. She smiled and said that every one of her books about place was autobiographical, none more so than her “final” book, written on the eve of the millennium, Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere. Morris said that she saw herself in Trieste, in its melancholy and moodiness, and its isolation. Once a major port city in the Austro-Hungarian empire, Trieste in the 20th century, as a consequence of war, became part of Italy. But some 70 percent of Italians aren’t aware that its a part of their country, according to a 1999 poll. It’s this sense of displacement that resonates with Morris, born James Morris to a Welsh father and English mother. Morris never felt at home in her male body and culminated her transition to a woman in Casablanca in the early 1970s. She has traveled the world for half a century, enraptured by great cities and penning classic works about them. Morris visited Trieste as a soldier at the end of World War II. Revisiting in the 1990s, she sees in Trieste, which sounds much like the Italian word for sadness, the ideal city on which to project her memories, hopes, and disillusionments. She comes across an open-air concert in a piazza where a few hundred Trieste elders are assembled. “They were singing their own songs, in their own language, out of their own past,” she writes. “I noticed that some of their eyes were full of tears, and I almost wept a little myself: because of their age, because of mine, because of the hard times they had lived through…because of the sweet songs, because I feared nobody would be singing them much longer…and because—well, because of the Trieste effect.” Ultimately, Morris evokes hiraeth, the Welsh idea of longing for something but not knowing what. But “Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere” is far from depressing. It sparkles with insights and universal truths, always infused with Morris’s trademark charm, more like a wink than a smile. And as she does in every city, Morris finds hope, and cause for celebration.

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No. 25: “A Time of Gifts” by Patrick Leigh Fermor

To mark our five-year anniversary, we’re counting down the top 30 travel books of all time, adding a new title each day this month.
Published: 1977
Territory covered: Europe

This is a glorious feast, the account of a walk in 1934 from the Hook of Holland to what was then Constantinople. The 18-year-old Fermor began by sleeping in barns but, after meeting some landowners early on, got occasional introductions to castles. So he experienced life from both sides, and with all the senses, absorbing everything: flora and fauna, art and architecture, geography, clothing, music, foods, religions, languages. Writing the book decades after the fact, in a baroque style that is always rigorous, never flowery, he was able to inject historical depth while still retaining the feeling of boyish enthusiasm and boundless curiosity.

This is the first of a still uncompleted trilogy; the second volume, “Between the Woods and the Water,” takes him through Hungary and Romania; together they capture better than any books I know the remedial, intoxicating joy of travel.

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No. 26: “Baghdad Without a Map” by Tony Horwitz

To mark our five-year anniversary, we’re counting down the top 30 travel books of all time, adding a new title each day this month.
Published: 1991
Territory covered: The Middle East
The Middle East is a region that is constantly in the news, though amidst all the headlines and analysis coming from the area, it is rare that we ever learn about the lives of the people who dwell there. Published shortly after the beginning (and rapid end) of the first Gulf War, Baghdad Without a Map collects Horwitz’s dispatches from places like Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq, Iran and Sudan to paint a multi-faceted human face on a region that is too often obscured by crisis-driven news stories. Indeed, the reader can’t help but consider the contradictions of the Middle East when Horwitz chats with an Iranian protester who—in-between chants of “Death to America!”—claims that his dream has always been to visit Disneyland and “take my children on the tea-cup ride.”  Serious, funny and empathetic at the same time, Horwitz uses simple tales (shopping for a popular stimulant in Yemen, for instance, or attending a belly-dancing gig in Egypt) to introduce us to hospitable people whose lives are being shaped by old social forces (religion, politics, poverty) as well as new ones (modernity, media, globalization).

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No. 27: “The Size of the World” by Jeff Greenwald

To mark our five-year anniversary, we’re counting down the top 30 travel books of all time, adding a new title each day this month.
Published: 1997
Territory covered: Latin America, Asia, Africa
In 1994, to commemorate his 40th birthday, Jeff Greenwald decides to travel around the world without getting on an airplane. As the date approaches, he wonders if he should cancel the trip and focus on his magazine writing. But then he realizes that freelancing has become a “dead end” where “once-celebrated word wranglers on dark corners moon about their Precambrian cover stories for Esquire while they suck Night Train from brown paper bags.” So he places a personal ad seeking a female companion for the trip. He meets eight candidates, one at a time, at a Chinese restaurant, “a bow to the old Jewish proverb that you can learn everything you need to know about someone by ordering Chinese food with them.” One candidate looks promising till she blows her nose into the last mu-shu pancake. Then an old flame of Greenwald’s agrees to go. The couple moves by bus, boat and train, and after his companion has to leave, Greenwald completes the nine-month journey on his own. He has riveting encounters with the famous, such as Paul Bowles in Tangier, and with ordinary people, including Tibetans struggling for basic rights. Greenwald’s New York upbringing is evident in his savvy maneuvering at border crossings and in his sharp-edged humor. Included in the book are dispatches he filed for Global Network Navigator, an early online magazine that published Greenwald’s essays just hours after he wrote them. In a 1996 interview, Greenwald told me: “I had this sense of being almost on fire, that the excitement and heat of my journey was something I could broadcast in no time at all. It was a very giddy feeling.” Fortunately for readers, the heat of the journey still resonates on the printed page.

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No. 28: “Facing the Congo” by Jeffrey Tayler

To mark our five-year anniversary, we’re counting down the top 30 travel books of all time, adding a new title each day this month.
Published: 2000
Territory covered: Democratic Republic of the Congo, Central Africa

Though “adventure” travel writing has come to the point where it often blurs with extreme sports coverage, Tayler’s chronicle of his 1995 pirogue trip down the Congo River proves that the most engrossing adventure tales don’t involve corporate sponsors and television crews. Frustrated with a dead-end life as a Moscow-based expatriate, the author travels to what was then Zaire to re-create British explorer Henry Stanley’s trip down the legendary Central African river in a dugout canoe. Tayler’s underlying impetus for the journey is to find meaning in his life by testing its limits—which proves to be no problem, as the author continually faces smothering heat, corrupt soldiers, lawlessness, hunger, swarms of insects, and a creeping sense of fear. Though Tayler occasionally illuminates moments of natural beauty, he never glosses over the reality of his journey, which is marked by an uncertain relationship with his guide, Desi, and ongoing suspicion from locals who, perhaps understandably, can’t understand why an outsider would want to submit himself to such a dangerous adventure. Drawn into Tayler’s heart of darkness, the reader feels the dread (and slaps at the mosquitoes) as the harrowing journey plays out.

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No. 29: “Venture to the Interior” by Laurens van der Post

To mark our five-year anniversary, we’re counting down the top 30 travel books of all time, adding a new title each day this month.
Published: 1952
Territory covered: Malawi
In 1949, while the world was still licking its war wounds, Laurens van der Post set off for the British colony of Nyasaland (now Malawi) to map two mountains still unknown to cartographers. But his account of the trip is no mere expedition tale. Van der Post’s voice is devoid of machismo, even when one of his party members dies. Instead, his venture to the interior is more existential, and he isn’t afraid to muse in the manner of St. Exupery—a refreshing break from much of today’s vapid extreme outdoor culture. “I have always bought as little and made as few arrangements as possible,” he writes. The book has a resonance beyond its clean, quiet prose—a kind of melancholy self-reflection. In one instance, he asks, “Has there been another age that, knowing so clearly the right things to do, has so consistently done the wrong ones?” Reading this book is certainly one of the right ones.

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No. 30: “A Turn in the South” by V.S. Naipaul

To mark our five-year anniversary, we’re counting down the top 30 travel books of all time, adding a new title each day this month.
Published: 1989
Territory covered: The American South
In deceptively simple prose conveying complex insights, the great novelist and travel writer V.S. Naipaul penetrates what may be the most impenetrable region of the United States. And he would seem to be the perfect chronicler of the place: a man who feels he doesn’t belong anywhere amidst people who feel they don’t belong anywhere else. Each of the seven chapters is devoted to a city or town—Atlanta, Charleston, Tallahassee, Tuskegee—and Naipaul is often helped in his understanding of each by a long-time resident who patiently, sagely, shows him around. Telling observations from the author are interspersed with long passages of reported speech. His almost ornithological fascination with spotting a “redneck” is balanced by his steadfast determination to look beyond the stereotypes. The last chapter, on North Carolina tobacco culture, is a masterpiece of meticulous reporting and illuminating reflection.

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