Ask most folks what their ideal jobs would be, and they would say, ‘I wish someone would pay me to just travel!’ We’ve always been explorers, curious about the world we live in, keen to know more about unknown lands and unknown people. Wanderlust is what makes us human. Travel is not just visiting a new place, but understanding different cultures, foods, fashions, lives, and sometimes, your own place in the world. The best travel books do that too – they make us imagine a place from the comfort of our chairs, or our bedrooms. They make us wish we were out there, on the road.
This week, we bring you our selection of the best travel writing from across the world:
The Road to Oxiana (Robert Byron): Byron’s Road to Oxiana brings alive, through brilliant descriptions of people and places, a region now largely rendered inhospitable by war. in 1933, Byron travelled through Iran and on to Oxiana – the land of the Oxus, or the river Amu Darya – which forms the border between Afghanistan and Central Asia.Weaving together history, architecture, adventure and mis-adventure with scholarship worn lightly and humour , this book makes the reader want to set off at once to explore great cities like Isfahan, Meshed, and Herat in Afghanistan, the latter now almost destroyed after years of war, but its magnificent ruined monuments brought to life again through his words. .
The Snow Leopard [Peter Matthiessen]: In the 1970s, two foreigners – writer Peter Matthiessen and naturalist George Schaller – trekked into the high Himalayas of Nepal; the former, grieving after the loss of his wife, and the latter, to study the Tibetan Blue Sheep. The Snow Leopard is as much a meditation on human emotions and loss as it is a travel diary, as much an observation on one of the most inhospitable yet pristine places known to man as it is a naturalist’s vision. Profound, deeply moving, this is a book all those who love the mountains must read.
Travels with Herodotus (Ryszard Kapuscinski): Herodotus is erroneously called the ‘father of history’, but he is truly one of the world’s first chroniclers of travels across Asia. His descriptions of the riches that India held fuelled all great empires who looked towards the Orient – and there is no one better than Kapuscinski to take us down the path Herodotus took millennia ago. Kapuscinski is known more for his political reportage, but this book marked him as a truly observant writer.
City of Djinns (William Dalrymple): With our offices near Alauddin Khilji’s old city of Siri, we couldn’t help but be partial to Dalrymple’s fascinating chronicle of India’s capital city, and its many reincarnations over the centuries. From being the Indraprastha of the Pandavas to the Shahjahanabad of the Mughals, and ultimately the New Delhi of the Brits, City of Djinns is a lively, often moving account of a city constantly being reinvented through history.
From Heaven Lake (Vikram Seth): Seth is known for his novels, but this is the book that marked him as a writer to watch out for:Hitchhiking through the fabled oasis cities of Sinkiang and across the vast Tibetan plateau, he presents a beautifully observed picture of a harsh land beset by political oppression. This book symbolizes wanderlust like few others
Chasing the Monsoon (Alexander Frater): The Indian monsoon has long fascinated travellers, and Frater’s chronicles take him across the Indian landmass into South East Asia. The rains are only a symbol for the various cultures it envelops, and the romanticism that is associated with travel comes out in his impeccable prose.
Empires of the Indus (Alice Albinia): The Indus is one of the world’s great rivers, and its fertile plains fed some of the greatest empiresmankind has seen. Alice Albinia’s book takes this great history and mixes it with modern-day reportage to give us a book that is unparalleled in its scope: she travels right up to the source of the Indus, a small stream just west of the Kailasa peak in Tibet.
If It’s Monday, It Must Be Madurai (Srinath Perur): A ‘conducted tour’ is antithetical to the idea of travel, but Srinath Perur regales us in this extremely funny book of ‘tours’ across the country, and outside, while revealing deep insights into how Indian travellers behave on the road – don’t miss the ‘sex tour’ to a Central Asian republic.
Among the Believers (V.S. Naipaul): Naipaul’s travel writings – apart from his India trilogy – has never received the same amount of attention his novels have, but Among the Believers is that truly great travel book, a book that explores ideas before its time across countries. Travelling in four great Islamic countries – Iran, Pakistan, Indonesia and Malaysia – Naipaul writes about the people he meets and the places he visits in prose that can only be called extraordinarily observant, hoping to understand what it is that drives the believers in these countries to their faith.
A Time of Gifts (Patrick Leigh Fermor): Among the greatest travel writers of our time, Leigh Fermor set off from London at the age of 18 to fulfill a dream: to walk to Constantinople. Along the way,the diary of his travels was lost, and then miraculously returned to him several years later. A Time of Gifts is the first of a trilogy covering his epic journey, and what makes this book exceptional is the way it combines a young man’s zest and energy with a mature and brilliant prose writer’s perceptions. Written at a time when Hitler had just come to power, this book hauntingly captures the cultures and landscapes of a Europe that was about to change irrevocably.
How many of these have you read? Tell us…