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….



Mongolia Monday- “Required” Reading, Part 2

Last week, we started with personal accounts by people who had lived in Mongolia as journalists or as a teacher. This week, it’s three selections from one of my favorite genres- travel writing. I’ve had some fun and “interesting” times on my travels and folks back home here in northern California think I’m very brave and adventurous. That’s as may be, but let me tell you, these books will put my travels into perspective in a hurry.

The first two, written about ten years apart, are the result of actually doing what a fair number of adventure travelers have probably considered or wish they had done: follow in the “hoofsteps” of Chinggis Khan’s Horde and travel across Mongolia by horse.

First up. Tim Severin:

severinTim Severin has made a name for himself re-creating famous journeys of the past and then writing compelling, informative and sometimes humorous¬† books about what happened. I first found some of them on a remainder table in an English bookstore and have since read as many as I can get my hands on. A few examples: his first foray was to cross the Atlantic in the same kind of small leather boat that St. Brendan used when he supposedly made the same trip (The Brendan Voyage). Another was to have a traditional wooden Arabic ship called a “dhow” constructed so he could retrace the voyages of Sinbad (The Sinbad Voyage). He has also traced the route of the Crusaders from Bouillon in France to Jerusalem. In 1987-88. On horseback. By which time there were somewhat different obstacles to overcome than the ones the original Crusaders faced.

Severin’s journey across Mongolia took place in 1991, when the country was in dire economic straits from the withdrawal of the Soviets and was beginning to create a new government and civil society from ground zero after 70 years of socialism. He had been asked to help a group of Mongols travel the route of the Mongol Empire’s amazing overland communication system that made it possible for messages to cross 2/3s of the known world, from Mongolia to the Danube in about two weeks. The grand plan for this journey involved riding, in stages, a distance equivalent to that between Hong Kong and London, around 6,000 miles. He jumped at the chance because “Here was the most wonderful opportunity for me to travel freely inside Mongolia, not just as an outsider following his own program, but in the company of Mongols who were committed to rediscovering their own history. It was an opening no Westerner had ever been offered before.”

After trip preparations that became a small saga in themselves, the expedition was on its way. “At first the ride was exciting and spectacular. There was the constant rumble of 100 sets of hooves, the shouts of the herdsmen, the mob of horses surging forward….and the sheer exhilaration of riding at a fast pace across unspoiled countryside…..Sure enough, after three or four hours, the well-remembered riding aches and pains set in…The hammering, jarring flat run of the Mongol horses was as excruciating as ever….I understood why the Mongol dispatch riders had found it necessary to strap up their bodies in tight bandages…..”

The account of the trip then moves forward, interspersed with lots of information about Mongolian history and culture. Obviously, highly recommended, as are the next two.

In Search of Genghis Khan, Cooper Square Press, 2003


Stanley Stewart caught the Mongolia bug and nurtured the idea of going there for 25 years. In his 2002 book, In the Empire of Genghis Khan, Stewart, having made his way from Istanbul through Kazakhstan, finally finds himself being served dinner in a ger near the town of Bayan-Olgii in far western Mongolia. “Sated with sheep guts, we settled into after-dinner chat. Bold explained that I intended to ride across Mongolia to Qaraqorum, the ancient capital, then beyond to Dadal, the birthplace of Genghis Khan. Batur looked for me a long time without speaking. The plan was obviously too outlandish to merit comment…Batur saw no reason to try to dissuade me. Events would soon take care of that.”

As you might imagine, I really liked this description of the horses: “The relationship of Mongolian horses to the wild Przhevalsky’s horse of these regions has yet to be conclusively established (it has since been demonstrated that the domestic and wild horses diverged about 500,000 years ago) but presumably they share the same parole officer. They looked like the outlaws of the equine world….What they lacked in stature they made up for with attitude. They had carried the hordes of Genghis Khan to the gates of Vienna….Now they milled about on the slope below the ger, snorting and pawing the ground, a rabble looking for excitement and hostages. ”

Interestingly, both Severin and Stewart describe the morning process of saddling the horses as “a rodeo”.

Aided by a succession of patient interpreters, who changed out at each stage of the trip, Stewart makes his way across the vast empty interior of Mongolia. Well, not quite. “In Outer Mongolia, my social calendar was packed. Lunch invitations, drinks parties and dinner engagements came thick and fast. There were times when crossing the Mongolian steppe felt like a royal tour of which I was the unlikely focus.” All to say that, after a thousand years, the traditional customs of Mongolian hospitality are alive and well. I can personally vouch for that.

In The Empire of Genghis Khan, The Lyons Press, 2002, 2000


In their 2004 book, Long Way Round, Ewan McGregor (yes, that Ewan McGregor) and his good friend Charley Boorman decide that their lives will not be complete unless they ride their motorcyles from London to New York – by way of Europe and Central Asia. A four month jaunt of 20,000 miles, as it turned out. The reason I include their book on this list is that not only did they travel through Mongolia, but that out of all the countries they visited it was the one that grabbed McGregor and hung on.

Having finally made it to and through a border crossing in the far west that was normally only open to Russian and Mongolian goods vehicles “we rode into Mongolia, turned a corner and ran straight into a herd of yaks….” And a few minutes later, “We pulled into a clearing, where our local fixer, Karina, had been waiting for four days. She was very excited to see us and tied blue ribbons (actually blue scarves called “khadak”) to our bikes, a Mongolian shaman tradition used to bestow good luck on babies and vehicles”.

The book is largely excerpts from the diaries they both kept and, as many of you know, they were also accompanied by a small film crew. Ewan and Charley quickly find out that in most of Mongolia the word “road” doesn’t mean the same thing as it does in the west. Mongolia is not a country where you fly in, grab a rental car and head off into the countryside. Unless you have a GPS and are willing to spend a lot of time trying to puzzle out which of the endless braid of dirt tracks is the one you want, because there are no road signs. None. Not that you are all alone out there on the steppe. “At the top of the first pass, we came across a nomad on horseback with three camels and a couple of dogs. He was a stunning man, fine-featured and handsome, proudly sitting bolt upright on his horse. In the traditional garb of pointed leather herdsman’s boots, a Mongolian hat and several layers of heavy woolen clothing, he was grazing his camels at the top of the mountain. He looked so perfect and so at home in his surroundings that it could have been a hallucination.”

They do, of course, make their way to Ulaanbaatar, where they had made arrangements with UNICEF to visit some of the street children and also a center that has been set up to help them. “The conditions in which these children lived, even in a proper centre, hit me like a sledgehammer. A four-year-old girl was lying on the floor with her head against the wall. Her legs were withered and weak and she was trembling. It broke my heart to see her in such distress, so in need of love and attention, but so alone. I spent quite a lot of time with her, stroking her hair, touching her face and playing peek-a-boo with her. And then we had to leave. I hugged as many of them as I could, said goodbye and got into a car”. (Spoiler alert: I believe that after the trip, McGregor went back to Mongolia, adopted the girl and took her home to England with him, may great blessings be upon him.)

Finally, their journey took them north out of Mongolia and into Russia and Charley observed, “…I’d come to love Mongolia. It had been hell at times (Did I say that this isn’t the easiest place to travel?), but some part of me had actually relished the misery. I’d enjoyed meeting people along the road and I’d been blown away by the helpfulness of complete strangers. We couldn’t have done it without them.”

McGregor noted that “Riding across Mongolia had been incredibly demanding, but it had offered everything I’d been looking for on the trip, a pastoral paradise full of curious, open-hearted people who welcomed me into their homes because I was a passing traveler, not because I was Obi-Wan Kenobi on a bike…It had been like riding through the pages of National Geographic.”

Long Way Round, Atria Books, 2004


If you are interested in learning more about the street children and how they are being helped, visit the website of the Christina Noble Children’s Foundation at www.cncf.org.


Next week: More books about the land and people of Mongolia.