It seems like physical travel may be on hold for the time being, but there’s nothing to stop you discovering the world from the comfort of your own sofa. Here’s a selection of adventure-stimulating titles, documenting some of the best globetrotting adventures that took place back when freedom of movement was still something we all took very much for granted. In each book the authors often learned more about themselves than the places they visited …
”Things I Learned from Falling,” by Claire Nelson. On a sweltering day in California’s Joshua Tree Park, the New Zealand author set out on a solitary holiday hike that leads to a devastating, life-changing event. Falling 30 feet into a gully, she shattered her pelvis. Way off the trail, she has no phone reception and realizes no one will miss her for days. Trapped with only her thoughts to support her, she hopes for rescue before the rising temperature and lack of water claim her life. The narrative is split across different timelines – the excruciating four days she spends in the desert and flashbacks to the seemingly perfect life she led in London as a young journalist, a life actually so depressing she took to the road in search of change. More than just an adventure memoir, Claire’s story is comparable to “Into the Wild,” by Jon Krakauer, and “Wild,” by Cheryl Strayed and it will stay with you long after you finish the book. Despite the severe injuries Claire suffered, this gripping read may compel you to find those hiking boots and hit a trail to savor the glory of nature.
While Claire loves to walk, Monisha Rajesh has a passion for rail travel, and in 2015 she and her finance took a seven-month journey on many, many trains of patchy comfort, reliability and safety. Traveling some 45,000 miles, her aim was to discover whether, in (what was) the age of bullet trains and cut-price air travel, the romance of the railways still exists.
Her book, “Around the World in 80 Trains: A 45,000-Mile Adventure,” details the trip. The couple begin with a quick tour of Europe, ending up in Moscow, where they take some nightmarish taxi journeys to find Patriot Park, a “military Disneyland” recently opened by President Putin. They then catch the Trans-Mongolian Railway to Beijing, an 11-day journey, ending in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, which turns out to be something of a disappointment: “The city’s old culture … had collapsed under the might of … KFCs and an Imax.” Then it’s on through China, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore (“a starchy, characterless city”) and Japan, a nation that has truly “mastered utopian travel.” After flying to Vancouver they head east to Toronto, and go down to New Orleans before looping up to Seattle and back to Canada. Although observing that “most people drawn to the Amtrak trains were unhinged to varying degrees,” the author concludes “Americans who have never ridden on their railways have no idea what they are missing.” After flying into North Korea for “a trip of a lifetime,” they catch a train to Lhasa, Tibet, where Monisha struggles with altitude sickness and finds that the city has been turned into “an Orwellian nightmare of CCTV, road blockades and pop-up police stations.” Then it’s homeward bound through northwest China, Kazakhstan and Russia, before heading through Poland and Germany to Italy, where they catch the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, traveling in well-earned luxury to London. For the author, the romance of train travel does indeed live on, “in the passengers who would always tell their story to strangers, offer advice, share their food, and give up their seats.” This is a wonderful look at the best and worst of humanity set to the gentle backdrop of locomotion.
Another modern day explorer is Kate Harris, a Rhodes Scholar and MIT doctoral student. She’d always dreamed of going to Mars but quenched her adventurous soul with journeys on this planet.
Her book, “Lands of Lost Borders: Out of Bounds on the Silk Road,” recounts her cycle trip – with best pal Mel – to some of the most remote places on Earth. From Istanbul to India, passing through Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, China, Tibet, and Nepal on the way, Kate sets out to demonstrate the borders we are used to seeing on maps are artificial. Human-drawn borders disrupt, but cannot entirely eliminate the natural flow of rivers, glaciers, forests, and even nomadic people, who continue to defy them. On traveling to South Korea she visited the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between the Koreas and was amazed to find that this 160-mile long, 2.5-mile wide strip of land without human touch has returned to wilderness. Animals and plants that can no longer be found to the north or south, at least not to any large degree, thrive in the DMZ. Kate’s story is extremely reflective of life and our connection to nature, and it tackles the boundaries that we set ourselves and the importance of finding new paths, just like Marco Polo and Magellan did.
A few older travel books that stand the test of time are “Worldwalk,” by Steven Newman, and “In a Sunburned Country,” by Bill Bryson. Newman, a newspaper writer and journalist, was only 28 when, in 1983, he decided to pack his bags and explore the world on foot. Over a span of 4 years, he visited 22 countries across 5 continents. He writes about the stories told by mankind and for mankind – tales of love, loss, compassion, bravery, courage, kindness and every other emotion that makes us who we really are. All these years later, Newman’s book is one of the best travel books that will inspire readers to set out on a search for the essence of humanity, nature, universe and how all the three elements are interconnected in a marvelous manner.
Bill Bryson is, to me, one of the top travel writers of all time. A prolific author, his books are very informative, but also quirky and humorous. One of my favorites is “Sunburned Country,” an often hysterical account about his adventures in Australia several decades ago. Bryson gives us a feel for Australia’s enormity as he crosses it by train and automobile. Instead of singing “Ninety-nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall,” he handles the bleak Outback by making up “approximately forty-seven” new verses to Australia’s unofficial national anthem, “Waltzing Matilda.” The book is loaded with descriptions of unusual characters and odd meals encountered along the way. The oddities he focuses on provide a fuller sense of where he has been, such as the little Australian town that has a combination pet-supply-and-pornography store. He is fascinated by the fact that in December 1967, Prime Minister Harold Holt went for a dip in the ocean and was never seen again. Bryson even visits the site of what he calls the Swim That Needs No Towel, where a guide tells him that Australia has built a memorial to Holt – a municipal swimming pool.