I have been pretty busy reading some great travel books. From the Greek to the sub-Antarctic islands and from Timbuktu to Tibet, here are eight books to add to your adventure travel reading list.
The Amur River, between Russia and China - Colin Thubron
The Amur River is almost unknown. Yet it is the tenth longest river in the world, rising in the Mongolian mountains and flowing through Siberia to the Pacific. For 1,100 miles it forms the tense border between Russia and China. Simmering with the memory of land-grabs and unequal treaties, this is the most densely fortified frontier on earth.
In his eightieth year, Colin Thubron takes a journey from the Amur’s secret source to its giant mouth, covering almost 3,000 miles. Harassed by injury and by arrest from the local police, he makes his way along both the Russian and Chinese shores, starting out by Mongolian horse, then hitchhiking, sailing on poacher’s sloops or travelling the Trans-Siberian Express.
The Amur River is a shining masterpiece by the acknowledged laureate of travel writing, an urgent lesson in history and the culmination of an astonishing career.
Adventure Coordinators review - I love Colin Thubron's writing and this is no exception. He is prescient as he writes in 2021 when looking at a war memorial where thousands of Russiandeaths are commemorated, ordered by conflict: WW2, Afghanistan, the Caucasus, Syria. “I wonder bleakly if these scrupulous slabs will one day confess to casualties in Ukraine.” 8.5 out of 10
Wild Abandon: A Journey to the Deserted Places of the Dodecanese
‘There's something about abandoned places which moves me and captures the imagination.' So says seasoned travel writer Jennifer Barclay as she walks with her dog and her backpack through the deserted spaces of the Dodecanese, islands that were once bustling but are now half forgotten and reclaimed by the wild due to a mix of misfortune and the lure of opportunity elsewhere. Join her on a journey through abandoned villages and farms, cave-houses and captains' mansions, the homes of displaced Muslim fishermen and poets, as she discovers beauty in the ruins, emptiness and silence, and inspiration in the stories of people's lives. Wild Abandon is an elegy in praise of abandoned places and a search for lost knowledge through the wildest and most deserted locations.
Adventure Coordinators review - nicely written intimate narrative of so many people's lives. 8 out of 10
The Alps: A Human History from Hannibal to Heidi and Beyond - Stephen O'Shea
For centuries the Alps have seen the march of armies, the flow of pilgrims and Crusaders, the feats of mountaineers, and the dreams of engineers--and some 14 million people live among their peaks today. In The Alps, Stephen O’Shea takes readers up and down these majestic mountains, battling his own fear of heights to journey through a 500-mile arc across France, Italy, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Germany, Austria, and Slovenia.
O’Shea whisks readers along more than 2,000 years of Alpine history. As he travels pass-by-pass through the mountains, he tells great stories of those (real and imagined) who have passed before him, from Hannibal to Hitler, Frankenstein’s monster to Sherlock Holmes, Napoleon to Nietzsche, William Tell to James Bond. O’Shea delves into Alpine myths and legends, such as the lopsided legs of the dahu, the fictitious goatlike creature of the mountains, and reveals why the beloved St. Bernard dog is so often depicted with a cask hanging below its neck. Throughout, he immerses himself in the communities he visits, engagingly recounting his adventures with contemporary road trippers, watchmakers, salt miners, cable-car operators, and yodelers.
Adventure Coordinators review - travel writing should be more than driving up and down mountain passes and regurgitating bits of encyclopaedic knowledge. 6.5 out of 10
Island of the lost - Joan Druett
Hundreds of miles from civilization, two ships wreck on opposite ends of the same deserted island in this true story of human nature at its best—and at its worst.
It is 1864, and Captain Thomas Musgrave’s schooner, the Grafton, has just wrecked on Auckland Island, a forbidding piece of land 285 miles south of New Zealand. Battered by year-round freezing rain and constant winds, it is one of the most inhospitable places on earth. To be shipwrecked there means almost certain death.
Incredibly, at the same time on the opposite end of the island, another ship runs aground during a storm. Separated by only twenty miles and the island’s treacherous, impassable cliffs, the crews of the Grafton and the Invercauld face the same fate. And yet where the Invercauld’s crew turns inward on itself, fighting, starving, and even turning to cannibalism, Musgrave’s crew bands together to build a cabin and a forge—and eventually, to find a way to escape.
Adventure Coordinators review - a must read for anyone interested in polar history. 7.5 out of 10
To a mountain in Tibet - Colin Thubron
The mountain path is the road of the dead, writes Thubron (Shadow of the Silk Road) in this engrossing and affecting travel memoir that transcends the mere physical journey. In the wake of his mother's death, Thubron sets off to Mount Kailas in Tibet, a peak sacred to one-fifth of the world's population and the source of four of India's great rivers. Kailas has never been climbed: the slopes are important to Tibetan Buddhists who say the mountain's guardian is Demchog (a tantric variant of Shiva). Along with two guides, Thubron embarks on a pilgrimage that begins in Nepal and crosses into Tibet, recounting not only his arduous journey but also the political and cultural history of Tibet and the West's continued fascination with its mysticism. Along the way, he observes pilgrims of various religions converging on Kailas and the myriad monasteries, most of which were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution and rebuilt decades later. It is the poignant evocations of his mother and sister (who died at 21), interwoven with his profound respect for the Tibetan culture and landscape that make Thubron's memoir an utterly moving read.
Adventure Coordinators review - not one of Thubron's strongest books. As he did in The Hills of Adonis he gets lost in myriad detail about local deities and religion at the expense of the journey. Still an engaging read. 7 out of 10
The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu - Joshua Hammer
To save ancient Arabic texts from Al Qaeda, a band of librarians pulls off a brazen heist worthy of Ocean’s Eleven.
In the 1980s, a young adventurer and collector for a government library, Abdel Kader Haidara, journeyed across the Sahara Desert and along the Niger River, tracking down and salvaging tens of thousands of ancient Islamic and secular manuscripts that were crumbling in the trunks of desert shepherds. His goal: to preserve this crucial part of the world’s patrimony in a gorgeous library.
But then Al Qaeda showed up at the door.
Haidara organized a dangerous operation to sneak all 350,000 volumes out of the city to the safety of southern Mali. This is the story of a man who, through extreme circumstances, discovered his higher calling and was forever changed by it.
Adventure Coordinators review - a thrilling read, upsetting at times when one reads about the destruction and violence visited upon a country by extremists. But the book did make me want to visit Mali. 8 out of 10.
The Country of Larks: A Chiltern Journey in the footsteps of Robert Louis Stevenson and the footprint of HS2 - Gail Simmons
In the autumn of 1874 a young, unknown travel writer called Robert Louis Stevenson walked from High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire to Tring in Hertfordshire. He wrote up his three-day journey across the Chiltern Hills in an essay titled "In the Beechwoods", penned a decade before he found fame as the author of Treasure Island. In it, Stevenson reflects on the experience of walking across this landscape at a time when England was still largely agrarian.
Almost 150 years later Simmons walks across the same landscape, observing the loss of flora, fauna and the whole rural way of life, replaced by commuters and dormitory villages. Simmons traces not only the changes in the landscape of the last 150 years but also those yet to come with the imminent arrival of the controversial HS2, the high-speed railway from London to Birmingham. Just as Stevenson spoke to people he met along the way, Simmons encounters those whose lives will be affected by HS2: a tenant farmer, a retired businessman-turned-campaigner, a landscape historian and a conservationist.
Adventure Coordinators review - walking across England is always a joy and reading about it almost as much. Reading about the destruction of an age-old landscape in the name of progress is saddening. (Even when the construction comes with unexpected benefits) 7.5 out of 10.
Continental Drifter – Tim Moore
They stuck their coaches on ride-on, ride off ferries, whisked through France and Italy moaning about garlic and rudeness, then bored the neighbours to death by having them all round to look at their holiday watercolours'
Many people associate the Grand Tour with the baggy shirted Byrons of its 19th century heyday, but someone had to do it first and Thomas Coryate, author of arguably the first piece of pure travel writing, CRUDITIES, was that man. Tim Moore travels through 45 cities in the steps of a larger-than-life Jacobean hero incidentally responsible for introducing forks to England and thus ending forever the days of the finger-lickin'-good drumstick hurlers of courts gone by. Coryate's early 17th century bawdy anecdotes include being pelted with eggs, pursued by a knife wielding man in a turban and, finally, being vomited on copiously by a topless woman with a beer barrel on her head:- For once, Tim Moore has no trouble keeping up the modern-day side. And his authentic method of travel to replicate these adventures? A clapped-out pink Rolls Royce, of course.
Adventure Coordinators review - if you don't mind the continuous stream of sarcasm and scatological humor you may just find a few gems in this book. 6 out of 10.