Saturday, February 7, 2009

My Top 10 Travel Books Read in 2007 and 2008

After learning that I had read a number of travel books, a friend and ex-colleague, DH, asked if I could send her a list of my top 10 favorite travel books. I created a list of my recent favorites and decided to post it here as well.

This is Part 1 of 3 linked posts.
Part 1: Books 1 through 5; Part 2: Books 6 through 10; Part 3: Recap, honorable mentions and future reading.

I have included only the books that I read in 2007 or 2008 though many were published much earlier.

1. Title: Ghost Train to the Eastern Star
Author: Paul Theroux

To me, Theroux is the quintessential travel writer and so I start with one of his books. I could have picked one of many, but I chose this one, his latest. Most people either love or hate Theroux. I happen to love his writing. His writing is so honest that I am ready to cut him a lot of slack. Also, where others find him curmudgeonly, I am amused by how he says things to elicit a reaction.

In any case, his The Great Railway Bazaar purportedly kick-started the whole genre of travel literature and if that is true, then I am truly grateful. In this book, he revisits that journey alone 32 years later (he is now past 60) and covers over 28,000 miles mostly by train. You have to admire a man just for doing that. I liked this book because it is so much more mellow that Railway Bazaar. His sections on India I read avidly, because one can learn so much about one’s own culture when seen through the eyes of others.

This is a big book (over 400 pages) but one that I think is well worth the time investment. Even those who are absolutely pressed for time should borrow the book from a library and try out the chapters on countries and places that catch their fancy.

Addendum: I found this very recent interview of Paul Theroux in The Independent.

2. Title: Hearing Birds Fly: A nomadic year in Mongolia
Author: Louisa Waugh

A gem of a book by a British writer who writes about spending a whole year in a remote village in Mongolia. The only reason I found this book was that I was going to visit Ulan Bataar in 2008. Mine was just a short touristy trip, the kind that only permits a small glimpse into a fascinating country. I could visit Mongolia for months and still not get an experience even remotely like what Louisa experiences in her year there. The details, the incidents about the people in her remote village Tsengel in western Mongolia (by the Kazakh border) are wonderfully told in this book. This book won the Ondaatje Literary prize in 2004 for ‘the book which best evokes the spirit of a particular place.’ I was very fortunate that I read it, and am surprised that this book is not better known.

If you want to vicariously experience Mongolia without ever getting bored, read Hearing Birds Fly.

Aside: Louisa Waugh is now residing in the Gaza strip and writing what will be her third book and she posts regularly in her The Gaza Blog

3. Title: The Best Travel Writing 2008: True Stories from Around the World (Paperback)
Authors: James O'Reilly (Editor), Larry Habegger (Editor), Sean O'Reilly (Editor)

It is a very safe bet that you won’t go wrong reading any book in the Traveler’s Tales series. Starting from 2006, they have been bringing out a collection of travel stories every year. The true stories are about places that span the entire globe. There is a great variety in the places being written about, and also in the styles of the writers.

Please note that this series is different from the “Best American Travel Writing” series that Houghton Mifflin brings out every year. That too is a great collection, but it is much weightier and a lot more literary. The essays there are much longer.

In contrast, the Best Travel Writing is considerably lighter, and therefore fun and easy to read even when on the move. What I particularly like about this collection is that it is a paperback, and so I can take it with me everywhere and read individual stories whenever I get a few minutes. It is also a great for reading one or two stories in bed, just before falling asleep. I love the variety that is present in each collection. From their stories in this collection, I’ve discovered several writers whose books I hope to read.

I have promised myself to not ever miss a single year of Best Travel Writing that gets published in the future. That’s how much I like this collection.

4. Title: River At the Center of the World: A Journey Up the Yangtze, and Back in Chinese Time
Author: Simon Winchester

Simon Winchester has written a number of great books about many places and his work is always very well researched. And his writing is so good that in his case, the research actually helps rather than slowing down the narrative.

I loved the structure he chose for this book. He starts in Shanghai, and travels upriver, his journey paralleling the unfurling of a famous scroll about the Yangtze. Over the course of several months, traveling with his Chinese companion Lily, he covers the entire length of the river, crossing Nanjing, the Three Gorges dam area, Kunming, Dali, Lijiang and eventually ending up in the Tibetan plateau.

In the hands of a lesser writer, the book could have been written as an adventure trip. However, Simon Winchester makes this a series of lessons in history, geography and Chinese politics and so much more.

If there is a right way to read and learn about a country, this book is it.

5. Title: Apples are from Kazakhstan
Author: Christopher Robbins

The definitive book about a country that most people don’t know much about. Yes, it was a former Soviet republic, but it is now a huge country in its own right and this book is one interesting way to learn about it. (Sasha Cohen’s movie Borat, didn’t do Kazakhstan any favors whatsoever with its portrayal.)

The author meets an airplane companion who’s off to Almaty, and realizing that he doesn’t know anything about the place, Robbins starts to research it. This research turns practically into an obsession about the country, leading to multiple visits over two years and this book is the result.

This book greatly benefits from the fact that the author gets practically unlimited access to interview and chat with the president of the country – Nursultan Nazarbayev. I also enjoyed the many sketches that the author has included. Kazakhstan is a very newly independent country that is trying to get it right, and the book is a fascinating read.

I haven’t been to Central Asia (to any of the ‘Stans) but thanks to this book, Kazakhstan is high on my list of places to be visited.

Related Posts:
Apples are from Kazakhstan
Ghost Train to the Eastern Star


  1. I am lying here in bed in Pucallpa, Peru watching television when I come up this post. I nose around your site, find at least another Blog, and I subscribed to both of them. I am a perpetual traveler, I am homeless, I relate to travel. It is interesting to read you post, most people who travel cannot see what is in front of them, however you appear to read and see what the writer saw. I am intrigued by your ability to reason and separate the wheat from the chaff. Thanks, I will be following along with your adventure whether at home or abroad. Thanks from Andy of Travel Blog

  2. Thank you, Andy.

    I hope you find something useful/interesting now and then. I will keep an eye on your blog.

    Happy vagabonding.

  3. And I have not read a single one of them! Let us see which one I can pick up first.

  4. Thanks Ram, Andy of flying to Lima, Peru today.

  5. Mridula,

    In a way we are fortunate because there are lots and lots of great travel books that we haven't even heard about.

    I actively seek out books in this genre, and still find whole lists that I haven't even heard of.

    If you are pressed for time, I'd suggest starting with an anthology.

  6. I have interacted with you om Indiblogger but for some (strange reason) this is the first time I read your bog. My misfortune. You have a cracker of a blog. FANTASTIC. I have subscribed to your post.