No. 2: “The Road to Oxiana” by Robert Byron
Travel Blog • Tom Bissell • 05.30.06 | 7:51 PM ET
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.
Territory covered: Persia (Iran) and Afghanistan
A few have called The Road to Oxiana the “Ulysses” of travel writing, which implies a zenith. No. More properly it is the “Don Quixote” of travel writing—ground zero of an entire genre. People wrote travel literature before Byron, of course, but few wrote it the same way after him. The persona he created—fussy, funny, patient (except when he is not), respectful of others but always ready to pounce—can be seen in much of the great travel literature of the latter half of the 20th century. It is a book that makes you laugh harder than you thought possible. It is a book whose beautiful prose can make you cry. Most important, it is a book that will get you out of your house, your city, your country, in search of your own Oxiana.
Outtake from The Road to Oxiana:
We also have with us a work by Sir Thomas Holdich called The Gates of India, which gives a summary of Afghan exploration up to 1910 and describes the journey of Moorcroft, who died at Andkhoi in 1825. In this I find, on page 440: “Moorcroft’s books (thirty volumes) were recovered, and the list of them would surprise any modern traveller who believes in a light and handy equipment.” What surprises me is that considering he was away five years, there should have been so few. A light and handy equipment! One knows these modern travelers, these over-grown prefects and pseudo-scientific bores dispatched by congregations of extinguished officials to see if sand-dunes sing and snow is cold. Unlimited money, every kind of official influence support them; they penetrate the furthest recesses of the globe; and beyond ascertaining that sand dunes do sing and snow is cold, what do they observe to enlarge the human mind?
Is it surprising? Their physical health is cared for; they go into training; they obey rules to keep them hard, and are laden with medicines to restore them when, as a result of the hardening process, they break down. But no one thinks of their mental health, and of its possible importance to a journey of supposed observation. Their light and handy equipment contains food for a skyscraper, instruments for a battleship and weapons for an army. But it musn’t contain a book. I wish I were rich enough to endow a prize for the sensible traveller: ₤10,000 for the first man to cover Marco Polo’s outward route reading three fresh books a week, and another ₤10,000 if he drinks a bottle of wine a day as well. That man might tell one something about the journey. He might or might not be naturally observant. But at least he would use what eyes he had, and would not think it necessary to dress up the result in thrills that never happened, and science no deeper than its own jargon.