Even among hard core readers, travel is considered a niche genre – and liking travel has nothing to do with liking or disliking the genre. I love to travel and enjoy nature destinations as much as cultural ones. But for the ordinary ‘traveler’ today, the experience is of a well wheeled tour to a well visited destination and the visual recording (with eyes and camera) of the ‘must see’ and ‘must do’ items related to that destination. And we keep ticking each destination off from this list we have in our head! Oh yes, with this trip I have visited all the (visiteable) continents, this is my fifth Ancient Wonder of the World, that is my third Modern Wonder of the World and so on.The airlines take us to every possible part of the world, there are hotels that promise to be ‘home away from home’ and where is it that you cannot get Coke and a big Mac? Obviously, recounting such travel may not bring in a readership.
The great travelers of yore were true adventurers, who set out from home for the sheer challenge of it and were stimulated by the unknown and the possibility of danger. The iconic travellers who would be in any list of great travelers would include Xuanzang (travelled from Central Asia to India in the 7th century in search of the home of Buddhism), Ibn Battuta (a Moroccon who traveled 120,000 km in the 14th century visiting India twice), Christopher Columbus (made 4 voyages across the Atlantic in the 15th century), Captain Cook (who circumnavigated the globe twice and visited all 7 continents in the 18th century). They did not write travel books, but accounts of their experiences are the few and rare sources of information of those times.
The modern day travel books are written for what they actually are – accounts of planned travels for an audience that are interested in their stories. So, it is not just a magazine article on a place for an armchair traveler with “How to get there” and “Where to stay” – but a transmission of the excitement of travel and discovery of new lands by a passionate traveler, through his/her writings. Of the many travel writers I have read, those that come to mind are Bruce Chatwin (Patagonia, Australia), Mackintosh-Smith (Travels of Ibn-Battutah), Paul Thoeaux (The great railway bazaar), Bill Bryson (many destinations, always entertaining), Eric Newby (The Ganges, The Hindukush). These books take you through the history, the politics, the romance and most of all the color, smell and flavor of the lands that are described.
I just finished reading “Shadow of the Silk Road” by Colin Thubron. I just picked it up at the book shop as I found the blurb interesting and later learnt that he is a well recognized travel writer – although this particular book is not rated by critics among his best. The book describes his travels from Xian in Central China through Central China skirting the Taklamakan desert, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Kazhakstan, Afghanistan, Iran to Antioch in Turkey tracing the old Silk route. I found it fascinating, since these are regions and cultures we know so little about. The journey was in 2002, the year of the SARS outbreak. Except for the early days in Central China, the route was entirely through Islamic regions. But Buddhism flourished in Central Asia for many centuries prior to Islam and Thubron went hunting for the few stupas and caves that remain in these hostile, sparsely populated regions.
At the age of 60+ (he is 8 years older than I am), with only some Mandarin to help him,travel through such hostile climates, terrains, peoples and politics is nothing but admirable. The pace of the writing lags at times, but on the whole it kept me awake and interested through out the journey. This may not be among the best – but a real travel book for the lovers of this genre.