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Books of the Marvels of the World – My Top 21 Best Travel Books of All Time (17-21)

First up, some apologies. This post was due way back in June but as my trips to Haiti and then to Finland came and went I got caught up in a million other things. So, sorry about that.

But here they are! The final additions to My Top 21 Best Travel Books of All Time

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

17.  Across Asia from West to East in 1906-1908. Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim.

A Russian spy at the time of his journey, Mannerheim would later lead the Finnish fight against the Soviet Union in the Winter War of 1939-40 and serve as President of Finland. Quite a life.

This extremely aesthetically pleasing account details his journey by horse from Central Asia through North China to Beijing. His job was to gather detailed information about China’s military forces and their training. He was also scoping Chinese political and economic reform and they ways that would impact military capacity.

Being the brilliant man he was, though, Mannerheim made detailed scientific observations of geographic, ethnologic and archaeological interests. A great introduction to the linguistic and cultural details of the area, its history and how life in Central Asia passed in the days before World War I.

18. The Road to Oxiana. Robert Byron.

A combination of the lyric, the dissertation and the comic, this is one of the most beautiful books every written (Have I made that claim before in this series? Probably. I make no apologies. These are my favorite books!). Chatwin called it “beyond criticism”. I agree. This is a book that allows you to taste the tea, smell the leaves and the dust and feel the cool air of the oasis… AND to experience a by-gone world lost in the wars of the past thirty years.The Road to Oxiana
For nearly a year (1933-34), young Robert Byron traveled from Venice to Cyprus to Syria Iraq, Iran and into Afganistan. He ended his journey at the Qabus Tower in Peshwar – a place he affixed with the name Oxiana, the country of the Oxus, ancient name of the Amu Darya.

He and his travel companion Christopher Sykes were architecture-bound, exploring many of the great structures that are now listed as World Heritage sites. Byron at once comes off as one of the pretentious pricks Waugh seemed to adore, a touchingly empathetic observer, a master of architecture and hater of the typical tourist (the railing against both Venice and the Taj Majal are quite fun). It is not until he reaches Iran that we start to see Byron at his most joyful, taking us from mosque to mosque and describing them in rich and lyrical detail.

If Byron had not been lost in a U-Boat attack during World War II, one wonders what other great books he would have produced.

19. A Time of Gifts. Patrick Leigh Fermor.

At the same time that Byron was travelling across Central Asia, 18-year old Patrick Leigh Fermor set out from the Hook of Holland and walked all the way to Constantinople. This book takes him to the middle Danube. The second volume in the series, “Between the Woods and the Water” didn’t appear until 1986. The final installment has never shown up. Fermor died just this past June at the ripe old age of 96. And yes, this is the Fermor who, ten years later, parachuted into Crete, disguised himself as a shepherd, captured General Kreipe and trundled him off to England.

Along the way, Fermor slept in barns and under bridges, in monasteries and as the guest of old-world landed gentry. The characters he meets are nearly circus-like and much of the prose quite picaresque. He saw a Europe now completely lost. A Europe destroyed by Hitler and the war.

Apparently, this book was not written until forty years after the journey. It seems that (and this could be apocryphal) Fermor lost his journal in Romania (after falling in love with a Greek princess and living in a windmill….). It was found and returned to him twenty some years later. The book that he wrote at the age of 58 instead of 18 was then full of reflection, erudite discussions of art, architecture, archaeology and history (real and not), his masterful use of the English language and a life of rich learning. It makes for a stunning read.

Another beautiful book.

20. A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush. Eric Newby.

Surprisingly, even though I am a lover of mountains and trekking and, to be quite honest, would go just about anywhere, the Hindu Kush hasn’t really topped my Bucket List. I’m glad it did for Eric Newby however.

A former SBS officer, Newby, middle-aged, well-off and sick to death of his job in the fashion industry leaves (companion in tow) to scale a never-conquered mountain (Mir Samir) in one of the most remote regions of the planet. And they know nothing of climbing.

In 1958 it had already been over twenty years since Byron had passed by the area and, as far as we know, Newby was the first European to set his foot in the area since. So it makes for a nice follow up to Oxiana. This is a hilarious book, but also one of stark and powerful observation. Two or three sentences often suffice for a satisfying snapshot of place.

Thankfully, although Waugh wrote the introduction to the book, Newby avoids the childishly acidic and solipsistic qualities of Waugh and his ilk. Newby is self-effacing, humble and brilliantly observant. The climbing sections will have experienced climbers shaking their heads and the rest of us sweating.
Blue Highways: A Journey into America21. Blue Highways: A Journey into America. William Least Heat-Moon.

In 1978, at 38 years old, Least Heat-Moon lost both his job and his wife and so, taking the route of many a man gone astray, he set out on the road. Outfitting an old van with some simple comforts and a stack of books, he set off on a three-month, 13,000-mile journey around America on the “Blue Highways”, the out-of-the-way roads marked blue in the old Rand-McNally Atlas.

A literary feast of description, “Blue Highways” is well-researched and informative. Least Heat-Moon also has an uncanny ability to find or run-into people just like him…people who have lost themselves. Thankfully, he finds himself. The self-acceptance he gains along the way is immensely satisfying because it is so honest. So is the fact that Least Heat-Moon doesn’t come off at the most likeable fella. He seemed to me angry and bitter and critical – and also less-than forthcoming about his literary intentions when he meets people on the way. He hates cities and crowds and bemoans the McChanges coming to the America at that time. While troubling at times, there is a thick authenticity about it all. The guy has an opinion. There is nothing wrong with that.

I was fortunate to meet Bill Trogdon (aka William Least Heat-Moon) several years ago. Lively and engaging, we had a great conversation about another of his masterful works “River Horse”. He was not the slight jerk I might have imagined from the book. And the book, you will find, is not less relevant today…almost 40 years later…than is was when it appeared in the stores when I was twelve years old.

As time allows I’d like to develop, with my readers, an extensive list of travel literature organized by destination. Something useful for those of us with an addiction to moving about.  Take a look for that in the near future and I hope you join in!

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