A recent article in The Telegraph asked: ‘When will we be able to travel again?’ Trips for UK holidaymakers to Spain, it concluded, would not begin again until June or July at the earliest, and travel to New Zealand might not recommence until 2021.
As the UK lockdown continues in its amended form, you might find yourself turning to a good book. If you’re longing for the freedom of the outdoors and dreaming of that next holiday, why not escape the lockdown with these five great travel books.
1. In Xanadu: A Quest, by William Dalrymple
William Dalrymple is the author of eleven historical travel books including From the Holy Mountain, The Age of Kali, and recent Radio 4 ‘Book of the Week’ The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company.
In Xanadu is his first book. Written at the age of 22, Dalrymple set out to track the 13th Century journey of Marco Polo – as documented in The Travels – from Jerusalem to Kubla Khan’s palace in Xanadu.
He took with him a £700 grant from Cambridge University and two travelling companions – for the first half of the trip, Laura, whom he met at a dinner party two weeks before beginning his journey; for the second half, Louisa, his ex-girlfriend.
Travelling through Syria, Iran, Pakistan, and into China the adventurers take public buses, the backs of flatbed trucks, and begging and bartering passage when – as it often did – their journey threatens to come to halt or cease entirely. In Xanadu is not only an accomplished first book but an instant classic of adventure travel.
2. Blood River: A Journey to Africa’s Broken Heart, by Tim Butcher
Another debut, this 2007 adventure travel book finds Butcher following in the footsteps of Sir Henry Morton Stanley, of “Dr Livingstone, I presume” fame.
The journey documented here began three years after Stanley tracked down the missing Scottish explorer David Livingstone when the former set out on a three-year expedition to map the Congo.
Butcher first travelled to the region as a Daily Telegraph reporter in 2001, covering the assassination of Laurent Kabila, President of the Democratic Republic of Congo (following the assassination of former president Mobutu three years earlier).
Instantly fascinated by the area, Butcher resolved to follow Stanley’s route along the Congo despite the war raging in the region since 1998 and that – at its height – was claiming 1,000 lives a day.
He sets out in 2004 on a 44-day journey on motorbikes and dugout canoes along the river that inspired Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, aided by local leaders and missionary aid workers, uncovering the troubled history of the region as he goes.
Blood River was shortlisted for the 2008 Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-fiction.
3. The Old Patagonian Express: By Train Through the Americas, by Paul Theroux
The ultimate escapist travel experience, prize-winning novelist and travel writer Theroux begins his journey on a cold Boston commuter train – ‘snow lay deep… and there were frozen footprints across the yard’ – and ends in Patagonia, on the southernmost tip of South America.
Taking every kind of ‘southbound train’, across all manner of terrain, Theroux makes the escapist fantasy a reality, heading through Central America, and on to Brazil and Argentina.
Along the way, he documents the flea-bitten hotels and dockside dumps of the Mosquito Coast and lines up a cast of fellow travellers and local characters to knock down in his inimitable and curmudgeonly style.
Theroux gives pre-arranged lectures along the way and halts in Buenos Aires, where he spends his nights reading to the Argentinian short-story writer Jorge Luis Borges who, by that time, had lost his sight.
Serious and honest, though not without humour, The Old Patagonian Express is a richly observed and complicated account of South America’s history and its future.
4. The Worst Journey in the World, by Apsley Cherry-Garrard
One of the youngest members of Captain Scott’s South Pole expedition, Cherry-Garrard’s travel memoir is a meticulous account of Arctic exploration. It is also a story of courage, resilience, and friendship.
The Terra Nova set out from Cardiff in June 1910 and returned there three years later without its most famous passengers. Cherry-Garrard was amongst the rescuers who set out to find Scott and his men and recovered their frozen bodies.
And yet the ‘Worst Journey in the World‘ of the title actually relates to an expedition mounted in 1911 when he, Henry Bowers, and Bill Wilson set out to collect the eggs of emperor penguins.
The 35-day journey would see the three men battling blizzards and temperatures of -60C across crevasse-scarred terrain, returning on the brink of death. Two of the three men would later set out on Scott’s final push for the South Pole.
Rich in scientific detail, and honest in its account of the problems and shortcomings of planning the mission, The Worst Journey in the World is ultimately a fascinating and inspiring testament to heroism and self-sacrifice.
5. Red Dust: A Path through China, by Ma Jian
In 1983, recently divorced and wanted by the Communist Party on the charge of ‘spiritual pollution’ – a charge that then carried the death penalty – dissident artist Ma Jian sets out on a three-year journey to the remotest parts of China.
He takes with him a ‘change of clothes, two bars of soap… and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass’ and passes through the bustle of smog-filled cities to mountain villages, providing an insider’s view on the country in the years following the end of Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution.
Described as ‘the Chinese equivalent of On the Road’ and an ‘absorbing tour of China’s Beat Generation’ Ma Jian was described by The New York Times as ‘someone who could rank amongst the great travel writers’ and he has gone on to write several critically-acclaimed novels.