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Armchair Travel

Armchair Travel

Posted by Ken on March 2, 2022

Many of us are waiting for a day when it will be possible to travel safely again, but in the meantime, we can still take wonderful journeys through books.  If you have already read Eat, Pray, Love, or A Year in Provence or Wild or Under the Tuscan Sun, here are a few books that you might have overlooked, some older but definitely worth revisiting.

Heinrich Harrer. Seven Years in Tibet. In the early days of the Second World War, young Austrian climber, Harrer, finds himself a prisoner-of-war in northern India and determines to escape. After several failed attempts, he and a companion finally succeed and decide to climb over the Himalayas into Tibet, where he will remain for the next seven years. Arriving in Lhasa after a grueling journey, he becomes a tutor to the young Dalai Lama.  A moving and riveting adventure tale, where Harrer, once a member of the Nazi party, learns to become a better man.

Rory Stewart. The Places in Between. In January 2002, shortly after the fall of the Taliban, Stewart decides to walk across central Afghanistan from Herat to Kabul. He is warned repeatedly that what he is about to attempt is dangerous, impossible, and that only a fool would try, especially in the winter. But he goes anyway. He is threatened by ill-health, trigger-happy young soldiers, blizzards, bandits, and snow-covered passes, but somehow, against all the odds, he succeeds in reaching his goal. Along the way he picks up an elderly, toothless fighting mastiff that he names Babur, after the fifteenth-century Moghul Emperor whose footsteps he’s following. Recent events in Afghanistan make this a book worth revisiting.

Kate Harris. Lands of Lost Borders.  In her youth, Kate Harris dreamt of being an explorer. She even took part in a university experiment where volunteers pretended to be living on Mars in preparation for a real Martian landing. Finding the exercise absurd, she decides instead to cycle across Asia, from Turkey to Leh, following the old silk road, with her friend Mel Yule. It’s a difficult journey. The two women face extremes in the weather, hurdles with visas, and danger from humans as well. And the whole time Harris is asking herself the question: Is it still possible to be an explorer when everything has already been explored? She concludes that it is, that being an explorer is more a state of mind, an attitude to life, than anything else. 

Colin Thubron. To a Mountain in Tibet.  Shortly after his mother’s death (making him the last surviving member of his family), Thubron decides to do the pilgrimage circuit around the holy mountain of Kailas in western Tibet, seeking consolation. Starting in Nepal, he makes the difficult climb over the high passes into Tibet to the shores of Lake Manasarovar. Here, he joins many other pilgrims from India and Tibet, and begins the arduous perambulation around the pyramid-shaped peak held to be sacred by one-fifth of the world’s population.

Joan Bodger. How the Heather Looks: A Joyous Journey to the British Sources of Children’s Books. In 1958, Bodger and her family—husband John, son Ian (age eight), and daughter Lucy (age two)—come into a modest windfall and decide to take a summer holiday in Britain and track down the settings of their favourite British children’s stories. Together, the family seeks out the country of King Arthur and Robin Hood; they walk into the illustrations of Randolph Caldecott, L. Leslie Brooke, and Beatrix Potter; they go “messing about in boats” on the Thames in search of the world of The Wind in the Willows. They have tea with Daphne Milne in the house where Christopher Robin lived, and play “Pooh Sticks” on the very bridge where Winnie the Pooh invented the game. They seek out the “secret garden” of Frances Hodgson Burnett and the “child’s garden” of Robert Louis Stevenson. The high point is Bodger’s interview with the reclusive and grumpy Arthur Ransome, author of the “Swallows and Amazons” series of books.

Paul Theroux. Dark Star Safari.  Theroux decides to travel the length of Africa from Cairo to Cape Town, travelling by train, cattle truck, “chicken bus” and dugout canoe, and along the way he revisits the settings of some of his youthful adventures as a teacher in the Peace Corps in Malawi and as a young university instructor in Uganda. A clear-eyed look at the many challenges facing African nations today.

Eric Newby. A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush. Surely one of the funniest travel books ever written. Newby abandons the fashion trade to hike to remote Nuristan in northwestern Afghanistan with fellow traveler Hugh Carless of Her Majesty’s Foreign Service. The goal is to climb Mir Samir (19,880 ft.), although Newby’s climbing experience is limited to a three-day climbing boot camp in Wales prior to the trip. Newby plays straight man to his eccentric friend and their three grumpy and unhelpful Afghan guides. In other hands, this would have been a whining epic of blisters, mountaineering accidents, gastrointestinal complaints, hostile tribesman, biting insects and altitude sickness, but in Newby’s hands it is a delight because he never loses his sense of the absurd.

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