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MC Travel Special | Reading about travellers while travelling

A pick of new travel books that are the perfect companions to accompany you on your own travels.

July 09, 2022 / 08:45 AM IST
'The Travelling Companions' (1862), by Augustus Leopold Egg. (Image: 
Birmingham Museums Trust via Unsplash)

'The Travelling Companions' (1862), by Augustus Leopold Egg. (Image: Birmingham Museums Trust via Unsplash)

The writer Thomas Swick once identified seven joys of travel. In no particular order, these are: anticipation, movement, a break from routine, novelty, discovery, emotional connection, and a heightened appreciation of home.

In that spirit, here’s a selection of seven recently-published travel and destination-related books. The writers lounge in parks, bicycle through countries, follow migratory birds, sail upriver, and more. The perfect companions to accompany your own travels.

The Best British Travel Writing of the 21st Century edited by Levison Wood, Monisha Rajesh, Jessica Vincent and Simon Willmore

71GAnrIEhpLAn anthology with diverse themes and voices, chosen from print and digital UK publications between 2000 and 2021. The result, as Jessica Vincent writes in her introduction, is a collection of stories not just about travel but also racism, religion and identity.

In these pages, Leon McCarron takes the night train from Baghdad to Basra; Ash Bhardwaj arrives in Haridwar with his father’s ashes; Jack Palfrey plays chess in Kerala’s Marottichal; Lola Akinmade Åkerström writes about travelling as a Black woman; and Douglas Rogers visits some of New York’s best restaurants with Tim Zagat.

That’s a small sample from a large platter. Each piece shows, in the words of Levison Wood, how travel writing can disregard “the fast news cycle [to] become a personal response to a place”.

Park Life: Around the World in 50 Parks by Tom Chesshyre

An anthology of a different kind, in which Chesshyre shrugs off concerns over the present and future of travel writing and dwells instead on his past expeditions to the world’s parks and gardens.

He recalls visits to such spots in every continent, starting with his local Richmond Park in south-west London during a Covid lockdown. New York’s Central Park, San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, and Berlin’s Tiergarten are among the better known, but there are several others such as Shevchenko Park in Odessa, the Green Square in Libya, and the French Gardens in Alexandria.

Park LifeIn India, he visits Rani Jhansi Park in Shimla, where the “thin mountain air smells of pine needles and forest herbs, with just a faint whiff of diesel”. He even finds a verdant patch in waterborne Venice, the Giardini Papadopoli facing the Grand Canal.

“We should celebrate, save, promote and create more of these precious green spaces,” he writes. We should, indeed.

The Amur River by Colin Thubron

Now in his 80s, Colin Thubron is still afflicted by wanderlust. His latest book recounts a trip to follow the course of the Amur River, which flows through south-east Siberia to China and into the Pacific.

The Amur River by Colin ThubronThubron starts in the Mongolian heartland once lorded over by Genghis Khan and continues on foot, horse, boat and automobile, with a journey on the Trans-Siberian express to boot. In chiselled and elegiac prose, he describes the stark landscapes between Russia and China and relates conversations with traders, pilgrims, monks and petty officials.

Stoically, he survives injuries, missed connections, and flea-bitten hotels. The outcome is a travelogue that brings to life the magnetic pull of the Amur, from the “near-mystic allure” of its origins to the oceanic end.

A World on the Wing by Scott Weidensaul

Nomads who cover immense spaces can’t hold a candle to the odysseys of migratory birds. That is what naturalist Scott Weidensaul vividly demonstrates during his journeys to track these feathered wayfarers in a time of environmental degradation and climate change.

A World on the Wing by Scott WeidensaulHe braves trappers in the Mediterranean, where the slaughter of songbirds goes on out of sight. He visits China, where rampant development threatens spoon-billed sandpipers. In Nagaland, he watches Amur falcons on their epic migration and writes of local campaigns to draw attention to their plight.

Along the way, there are fascinating nuggets about avian long-distance flights. Many birds can detect the earth’s magnetic field to keep on course. Some travel for days without food, water or rest, at a metabolism almost nine times their basal rate.

These are our imperilled sentinels, says Weidensaul. If we are heedful of their needs, they can be “guides to a more sustainable future for ourselves as well”. Amen.

Imagine A City by Mark Vanhoenacker

Flights of a different kind are to be found in airline pilot Mark Vanhoenacker’s ode to “real cities that are each a thousand times more fascinating than anything I imagined as a child”.

Imagine A City by Mark VanhoenackerHe categorises cities based on aspects he finds meaningful. London, San Francisco, and Jeddah are cities of gates; Copenhagen, Nairobi, Petrópolis, and Kuwait are cities of air; and Fargo, Venice, and Delhi are cities of poetry. These journeys also help him understand his love for Pittsfield, the hometown to which he keeps circling back.

Vanhoenacker’s prose is both sweeping and intimate, braiding first impressions and familiar sights with memories of boyhood and youth. He often recalls first glimpses of landscapes from the air: the border between Pakistan and India, for instance, “is illuminated like no other I’ve ever seen”.

Among the pleasures is its literary quality, with references ranging from Calvino to Ghalib to Murakami to William Carlos Williams. A book to take off with.

The Slow Road to Tehran by Rebecca Lowe

When Rebecca Lowe told her friends and family about her plan to cycle from London to Tehran, she was confronted with words such as “dangerous”, “reckless”, and “risking life and limb”. She went ahead anyway and a year later, saddle-sore but unbowed, arrived at Azadi Tower in the heart of Tehran.

The Slow Road to Tehran, by Rebecca LoweHer book is an enlightening and self-deprecating report of an 11,000-kilometre bicycle ride across twenty countries, from Europe to the Middle East. She couchsurfs and stays in seedy hostelries; wards off predatory advances with vim; accepts hospitality with grace; and soldiers on despite bad roads, inclement weather and periodic punctures.

Lowe has a keen eye for the unequal fallout of East-West encounters and writes illuminatingly about the histories and culture of the regions she passes through. Without Muslim commerce, she notes at one point, “Venice is unlikely ever to have developed beyond a fishing village”.

Her account is a pleasure to read, a necessary reminder that “almost everyone, everywhere, was human, with all their flaws and whimsical variation – doing what human beings do”.

The Atlas of Imagined Places by Matt Brown and Rhys B. Davies

Cumbersome to carry around but full of delights, the places in this atlas exist only in the imagination. It’s a cartographic compendium of invented cities, countries, seas, deserts, mountains, forests, and more.

The Atlas of Imagined Places by Matt Brown and Rhys B. DaviesThe maps feature mythical locations such as El Dorado, Atlantis, and Camelot, as well as Eliot’s Middlemarch, Proust’s Combray and Márquez’s Macondo. You’ll also find Gotham City, Hogwarts, Schitt’s Creek, and Asterix’s indomitable village. The majority are from English works and those translated into English; thus, of the 18 territories into which the book is divided, the West is the most densely populated.

Kipling’s jungle and Indiana Jones’s temple are among the Orientalist elements in the Indian subcontinent, as is the Kingdom of Howduyustan, next to the Principality of Gaipajama. Homegrown locations include Mahasweta Devi’s Hesadi and Anita Desai’s village by the sea.

Forster’s Marabar Caves can also be spotted, along with Rushdie’s Alifbay, Vikram Seth’s Brahmpur, Khushwant Singh’s Mano Manjra and, of course, R.K. Narayan’s Malgudi. These exist cheek by jowl with Ishaqzaade’s Almore and Sholay’s Ramgarh.

These maps won’t help you find your way in the outside world. They will instead charmingly orient you with the landscapes of fiction.

Also read: MC Travel Special | Holiday reading list - Part 1
Sanjay Sipahimalani is a Mumbai-based writer and reviewer.
first published: Jul 9, 2022 08:34 am