Book reviews

5 Epic Travel Accounts + 1 Book About Not-So-Epic Trips

A week of rough travel and a little short on drinking water, but to crawl out one's tent to see this...

A week of rough travel and we were a little short on drinking water, but to look out of one’s tent to see this… (Eej Hairhan Uul at sunrise, one of the most sacred mountains in Mongolia, where all mountains are sacred)

I’m in the fortunate position of getting to travel to Mongolia every year and spend most of my time there traveling in the countryside. I think of it as “sane” adventure travel. I know my limits and stay within them. Here’s five of my personal favorite travel books by people who took it to the limit and maybe a little, well, in some cases A LOT, more.

1. THE WORST JOURNEY IN THE WORLD by Apsley Cherry-Garrard: Defines “epic” when applied to travel and exploration books since it’s a page-turner stay-up-late first-person account of Scott’s Last Expediion to Antarctica and the South Pole (and I’m not that into Polar exploration). The title is an understatement, really, since Cherry-Garrard survived the most appalling conditions imaginable on a side trip to become one of the first humans to see the main nesting site of emperor penguins. And, of course, Scott and his party died on their way back from his “race” to the South Pole (they got there only to find that Roald Amunsen had already been and gone). Avaliable for free online through a variety of sources. More about the author here.

2. LONG WAY ROUND by Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman: Around the world on motorbikes, starting from London. While filled with, shall we say, incident. my favorite part, of course, is when they went through Mongolia. And McGregor came within a whisper of saying the hell with this and heading north to Russia. He and Charlie were really schooled by Mongolia, but at the end it was his favorite, and most memorable, country they passed through. I knew I liked the young Obi Wan. Available from the usual places. There’s also a DVD set of the tv series. On YouTube, you may still be able to find Mongolian legendary rock band Haranga’s version of the Long Way Round theme song. More about Long Way Round here.

3. THE SINDBAD VOYAGE by Tim Severin: This one is more or less a stand-in for all his books, which started with “The Brendan Voyage”, in which he crossed the Atlantic in a coracle to prove that the Irish could have sailed to North America. In “The Sindbad Voyage” he sails a dhow, made in the traditional way from Malabar timbers sewn together, from Sohar in Oman to Hong Kong, a recreation of the Seven Voyages of Sindbad. He has also recreated the voyages of Jason and Ulysses, along with riding Ardennes Heavy Horses from France to Jerusalem to retrace the route of the Crusaders as recounted in “Crusader: By Horse to Jerusalem”. In 1991 “In Search of Genghis Khan: An Exhilarating Journey on Horseback Across the Steppes of Mongolia” was published, in which he describes the daily saddling of the horses as a “rodeo”. More about Tim here.

4. DANZIGER’S TRAVELS; BEYOND FORBIDDEN FRONTIERS by Nick Danziger: He’s not kidding. Easily the most intense “travel” account I’ve read. Eighteen months. No visas. Disguised as an itinerant Muslim. On foot or by donkey, camel, cart, truck, whatever was available, he traveled through Iran, Afghanistan, Xinxiang (home of the Uigher people in far western China), Tibet and China itself. Total cost: $1500 in the mid-1980s. No way he should have survived this, particularly in Afganistan where there was an actual war in progress, but he literally lived to tell the tale with wit and intelligence. I’ve read a lot of travel writing. This one stands alone. More about Nick here.

5. WALKING THE GOBI by Helen Thayer: New Zealanders Helen and her husband Bill walked the length of the Gobi from west to east at ages 63 and 74, respectively, something she’d dreamed of doing for 50 years. With two camels…Tom and Jerry. 1600 miles through 126F heat, sandstorms, dehydration, drug smugglers and scorpions (saw my first one ever in Mongolia on last year’s trip at, in fact, our camp by the mountain in the photo at the top)  This woman is indomitable, having skied to the magnetic North Pole unsupported (rare for any polar expedition these days), been the first woman to walk 4000 miles across the Sahara and travel 2200 miles of the Amazon River by kayak. She’s been awarded the Vancouver Award for Excellence in Exploration by The Explorers Club, among her many honors. More about Helen here.

Finally, on the *much* lighter side, at least for the reader….

6. I SHOULD HAVE STAYED AT HOME-THE WORST TRIPS OF GREAT WRITERS edited by Roger Rapaport and Margaret Castanera: I love this book. They did it so we don’t have to. We have only to read and laugh and groan and cringe. “Rick Steves on a beat-up Afghani bus with a speeding driver who appeared to be stoned”. “Jeff Greenwald dunked into an electric bath in Tokyo”. “Mary Mackay in a hotel room in Guatemala on the ‘Night of the Army Ants’ “. I think you get the idea….

 

 

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