Epic Words

Travel to read.

Books and literature are often cited as a way of travelling afar without leaving the armchair. Our imagination can whisk us to summits, snowfields and crashing reefs in an instant. We can live through adventures, misfortunes and epic tales of endurance from the comfort of our seat. They let us understand actions of historic importance and political undercurrents that we would find hard to determine without spending years of study. If we can agree that books are a way to travel, I will go so far as saying they are a necessity for it to happen. They are intimately tied to the desire, expectations and curiosity that actually make us want to go out there in the first place. And once there, we need them to delve in and paint a deeper, more colourful picture. Having just read Yuval Noah’s book Sapiens, this fits in perfectly with his thesis that the stories we create and believe in are the one’s that determine our actions and thoughts. By reading, we can tap into these myths and histories which will change the objective reality to create a richer experience.

Otherwise we may see but lack the knowledge to understand. We risk visiting but not traveling. Snapping a picture and moving on without second thoughts of what we have presenced is the epitome of this behaviour.  

We need tales to bring reality to life.

Finally, actually re-living the stories where they take place makes them more tangible. Sitting on a small cold beach in the Lofoten Islands thinking of Captain Nemo’s fabled submarine, the Nautilus, sinking in the maelstrom just off the coast, or reading about Przhevalsky’s real travels and exploration through central Asia after finishing our own stint of discovery and find out we were staying in the very city named after him, brings it all the more to life.

Literature for learning

For preparing for travels, to better understand the region or build up expectations for a trip or route, there are several types of books that will help.

To begin with are the first-hand accounts of past expeditions and travels. Often autobiographical, they tell it how it happened, with the author’s emotions and insight. In some cases the sheer determination and thirst for adventure make them heroes to be emulated and start the spark that will light up the next adventure. It is often tales of hardship that awaken our curiosity to go and really discover what it’s like out there. An example of this is Shackleton’s South, recounting his two year stint on the Artic and how the crew manage to survive. On a different approach, some texts let us discover a country through the eyes of the writer. This is the case of Country Driving, an enjoyable read about traveling and living in China which gives much insight into the countries constant change.

The second group are pure academic texts that explain the history, geopolitics and customs of the region of interest. Sometimes less exciting to read, they are notwithstanding a necessary part to really understanding a foreign country. This type of narrative can mix copious amounts of historical and political information with an exciting yarn, by chronicling particular episodes and weaving them into the grand account. This is artfully done in The Great Game, by Peter Hopkirk which tells the tales of daring soldiers and spies in the context of the power struggle between Tsarist Russia and Victorian Britain in Central Asia. Although this drama took place over a hundred years ago, their consequences and legacy are still playing out today. Another is the White Spider, perhaps the most famous book about the Eiger’s north face, which captures both the excitement of the first ascent as well as chronicling all the other attempts.

Finally, some fiction based in the period or country of interest, if well researched, can add depth and colour to the surroundings we discover. By plunging into a parallel universe which feels and looks like the one we are in, we can not only learn interesting facts, but have a great time too. Recommended for unwinding after a hard day! The first example that springs to mind is James Clavell’s Shogun, which is loosely based on the first Tokugawa to rise to power and paints a detailed picture of the samurai hierarchy and the differences between western and Nippon worlds.

Digital Nomad

A word on weight. When traveling weight is an issue, especially during itinerant expeditions where we are pulling, paddling or pedalling all our gear along. Although there is a beautiful pleasure in curling up with a paper book smelling of damp and mildew, slowly turning the pages, this limits the amount of literature we can carry. A great solution is the use of e-readers. Being able to carry an entire library, including guides and dictionaries is something that past travellers would have loved. Sitting in a tent with a dozen books ready means it can rain as much as it wants and still be a great day. The long battery life and agreeable texture of the surface mean they don’t tire the eyes. A very important feature is back-lighting, especially if you will be outside a lot, as it saves headlamp batteries.

Epic Words

When reading, I try to string books together so that there is an underlying relationship between them. For example, citing some of those already mentioned, the White Spider, which tells of Harrer’s adventures on the Eiger, gives way to the author’s second autobiography Seven Years in Tibet. Once on the high plateau we can follow through with the Russian Przevalski’s adventures to try and reach the forbidden city of Lhasa from the north in Dreams of Lhasa. This is encompassed in The Great Game, where all is at stake to protect British interests in India against Russian expansion. Again this is the background where Rudyard Kipling’s Kim is starting his mischievous journeys, a vivid narrative of colonial life. The sub-continent is also the scenario for The Great Arc which tells of the quest to measure precise distances across the country. The entire arc would allow the exact shape of the world to be determined. This project was led by Everest, whose name has since been synonymous with the highest peak of the Himalaya’s. This of course opens up an immense field of mountaineering literature, but the perfect choice would be The Lost Explorer, which recounts of Mallory’s rediscovery and personal quest. Did he make it?

Over the years I have enjoyed and learned much from many gripping books. Here is a non-exhaustive list of some of my favourites in case you are looking for some inspiration. Be warned, you might want to leave your armchair afterwards!

Alone on the Ice – David Roberts  [Polar Exploration, Historical] Perhaps one of the lesser known, but most epic tales of polar exploration is that of the Australian team lead by Douglas Mawson. Having lost a team member and all the food provisions, the return journey was one of the hardest ever recorded on the ice. ★★★

Before the Quagmire: American Intervention in Laos, 1954-1961.- William J. Rust [ Laos, Politics, Historical ] Interesting account of the political manœuvres of the United States, Laotian government and communist forces running up to what would be the secret war,  a covert arena of the Vietnam debacle. This particular game of chess built up slowly, full of coups, political brinkmanship and misunderstandings. Perfect for understanding how the pieces stood (and why) before the war commenced.  ★★

Captain Scott – Ranulph Fiennes [Polar Exploration, Historical] Written by Ranulph Fiennes, himself a polar explorarer this account retells the unfortunate story of Scott’s last journey to the Arctic. It defends the explorer against recent criticism, explaining the worth of their scientific exploration and the misfortunes that struck the brave adventurers low. ★★★

China in Ten Words – Yu Hua [China, Social] A succinct and interesting study of Chinese psyche that helps to explain the country’s economic evolution. Through some representative words such as  “Disparities” or “Copycat” we learn of the past revolutions, economic divide and rule bending that have given way to a new world power   ★★

Conquering the ImpossibleMike Horn [Polar Exploration, Autobiography] Relive the 27 months it took Horn to circumnavigate the world through the Antarctic regions using only his body power. An incredible feat of survival agains the cold. ★★

Country Driving – Peter Hessler [China, Autobiography, Social] Drive around China with Hessler, an American journalist who portrays the country with detail, great anecdotes and a lot of social commentary. A great book to read on the road. ★★★

Inside Central Asia –  Dilip Hiro [Central Asia, Geopolitics, Historical]. A synthetic account of the politics and recent history up to the present day of the central Asian countries after the break-up of the Soviet Union. Includes Turkey and Iran too. Very interesting to learn about the countries, which echo multiple conflicts between nationalism and religion.  ★★

Japan, a reinterpretation – Patrick Smith [Japan, Social]. A critical and authorative dissertation on modern day Japan. Starts explaining the influence of American policy and interference in Japanese politics, touches on the countries propensity to adopt other cultural heritages and make them their own and gives some hopeful predictions of the next steps for the country. ★★

Made in Japan – Akio Morita [Japan, Autobiography, Social]. The account of how the author grew up and founded the Sony coporation in the post-war years and its growth over the last century. Interesting read about creative and marketive techniques as well as insight into the corporative Japanese outlook.  ★★★

Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know – Ranulph Fiennes [Exploration, Autobiography] This books goes through Ranulph’s adventures, expeditions and madcap tales from youth to present day. It briefly goes through his most important trips, is easy to read and needs completing with more. ★★

On the map. Why the world looks the way it does. – Simon Garfield. [Cartography, History]
If you like maps, a healthy dose of history and some obscure facts then this one is for you. It covers an expansive range of topics from the development of world maps, their naming and mistakes, to the changing of how we have modified our view of the continents. There are also interesting subjects such as how the brain understands directions and the future paths and implications of digital cartography. An informative and interesting read. ★★

Paradise with Serpents – Robert Carver [Paraguay, Autobiography, Travel] A travel journal of the authors travels in Paraguay, where he manages to transmit the fear and danger of moving around this dangerous country he calls the Albania of south America. Not sure if I want to go there or not! ★★

Red Azalea – Anchee Min [China, Autobiography, Historical] The author takes you on a autobiographical journey through the misery, hardship and sometimes heart wrenching injustice of growing up in communist China during the 60s and 70s. From being sent to work in an agrarian community to trying to become a patriotic actress it is a beautiful story full of love, self-discovery and perseverance in the face of the odds. It gives a taste of the horrors of a society where individuals are mere cogs ground down by the machinery of the state. ★★★

Sea Kayaking: A manual for long distance touring – John Dowd [Kayak, Travel]  This guide teaches a lot about touring and kayak expeditions, as well as the basics of the sport. It gives tips on a whole range of topics, including navigation and planning. To be kept at hand during an expedition, to be re-read as many times as necessary. ★★★

Seven Years in Tibet – Heinrich Harrer [Tibet, Autobiography]. This incredible story is based on the author’s adventures in Tibet after already having climbed the Eiger and escaped from a prison camp! The tales of Tibet are truly astounding and a must read. ★★★

Shogun – James Clavell [Japan, Fiction, Historical]. Epic tale loosely based around the first Dutch and British sailors to reach Japan, their interaction with the court and rise of Tokugawa shogun. Great depiction of the era, good fun to imagine samurai legends. ★★★

South – Ernest Shackleton [Polar Exploration, Autobiography] This book recounts one of the most harrowing tales of polar survival ever recorded. Follow in Shackletons footsteos as they are trapped for years in the ice and their desperate attempts to escape. Epic. ★★★

South of the Clouds Exploring the Hidden Realms of China – Seth Faison [China, Autobiography, Social]. An autobiographical account of a journalist’s life in China from student to foreign correspondent. Very readable and  full of small details. ★★★

South of the Clouds: Travels in Southwest China – Bill Porter [China, Autobiography, Travel]. Follow in the writers footsteps through the villages of ethnic minorities in southern China. Simply written, the most interesting part is the legends and tales gathered from the natives.  ★

Street Without Joy. The French Debacle in Indochina. – Bernard B. Fall. [Vietnam, Military History] A history of the conflict between the French forces and the Viet Minh, who successfully employed guerilla tactics against a conventional and outdated army, much to their advantage. It can be confusing as it jumps from one theatre to another but still manages to convey the raw calamities of war, among them the French commandoes abandoned for ever behind enemy lines. The author gives his opinion on the new style of warfare and the necessity to change tactics, before the American failures that followed. Of interest for those wanting to understand more of the region’s history, much of which has disappeared back into the jungle. ★

That Untravelled World. An autobiography. – Eric Shipton [Mountaineering, Exploration, Autobiography] This narrative takes us though the exciting life of the author, from farmer in Kenya to consul-general in Central Asia. This is the backdrop for a man striving to explore an undiscovered world, persuing journeys into the Karakorum, the Himalayas and further affield. Doing it all on shoe string just adds to the excitement! On top of the tales and inspiring anecdotes (dreams or central Asia and Patagonia are not so much rekindled as fanned into a burning desire) his down to earth opinions and appreciation of nature make it an appealing read. His thoughts on ecology, personal choices and especially his passion to explore and enjoy remote ranges rather technical challenges for their competitive nature resonate with my own convictions. ★★★

The Dream of Lhasa – Donald Rayfield [Central Asia, Exploration, Historical].  Nikolay Przhevalsky was a Russian explorer who embarked on multiple trips into central Asia and northern China, his ultimate goal the city of Lhasa. This biographical book describes his travels, including his discovery and shooting of multiple animals until his death in modern day Kirgizstsan.   ★★

The Great Game – Peter Hopkirk [Central Asia, Geopolitics, Historical] Discover the complexities of the political machinations from Afghanistan to the Khanates of Bukhara and Khiva during the fight for power between Russia and Britain. Extremely easy to read it opens a world of historical heroic deeds, cunning plans and helps understand present day turmoil in a region still affected by strife. ★★★

The Latehomecomer, A Hmong family memoir – Lao Kalia Yang. [Laos, Autobiography, Social] This is a beautiful and touching book. It is about family, hardship and so much more. The author candidly tells her tale, that if the Hmong refugees fleeing the secret war. From her parents escaping their homeland in Laos to the camps in Thailand and the difficult integration in American Society. These are real people with a real desire for happiness albeit the horrors imposed on them. A great insight into the human consequences of the war and people’s strength to keep going. ★★★

The Lost Explorer – Conrad Anker [Mountaineering, Historical] Written by the climber that discovered Malory’s body on Everest, it argues about the possibility that the first expedition was successful or not. ★★

The Beckoning Silence  – Joe Simpson  [Mountaineering, Autobiography] This books explores the fear and danger associated to mountain climbing which is in itself a great topic, as well as telling of the authors attempts to climb the Eiger’s north face. ★★

The Last Man in Russia – Oliver Bullough [Russia, Social, Historical] Russia has a problem. Its life expectancy has dropped and the population is shrinking. But why? Alcoholism, loss of hope? Trying to answer these question the book tracks the life of father Dimitry,the priest that defied the Soviet Union and the Orthodox church by preaching hope and trust among his followers. We will follow in his foot steps, from the gulag to the parishes where he preached,  trying understand the psyche of a nation. ★★

The Mountains of My Life – Walter Bonatti [Mountaineering, Autobiography] Bonatti is a mountaineering legend, and here he describes his life work, from expeditions on the K2 to opening up the Drus and Chamonix climbing. He preaches his desire for clean, unadulterated climbs, but often seens bitter with the unfair treatment he received from the climbing community. This being said, who wouldn’t? ★★

The Ravens: The Men Who Flew in America’s Secret War in Laos – Christopher Robbins  [Laos, Military history] . This is the real story of a swashbuckling band of fighter pirates that flew the skies of the secret war. The forward aerial controllers were pilots that guided the bombers onto small, localised targets during the guerrilla combat. Volunteers, they flew out of the the secret base hidden in the karst hills run by the CIA, supporting the valiant Hmong tribesmen as they battled against the onslaught of the communist supported armies. Built from personal interviews and declassified documents it tells the exciting, sometimes chilling tales of the daring pilots as they fought and died over the jungle.  ★★★

The Sabres of Paradise – Lesley Blanch [Caucassus, Historical]. Tale of the muslim chieftain Imam Shamyl, the “Lion of Daghestan,” who faught against the imperial Russian army in his native mountains of Daghestan and Chechnya. A relatively obscure part of history that helps understands the region, if rather slow to real. ★

The White Spider – Heinrich Harrer  [Mountaineering, Historical, Autobiography]. Perhaps the most famous account of the Eigers north face, the Mordwand or “murderwall”. It chronicles the first attempts, misfortunes and failures before narrating the authors succesfull climb up this epic route in the presence of the three other climbers. Riveting, it created the legend of this famous place. ★★★

Tide, feather, snow. A life in Alaska. – Miranda Weiss. [North America, Autobiography] Poetically written, this account of a woman moving to Alaska with her partner paints a calm yet colourful picture of life in the north. It is interesting to see their adventures through her eyes and how she copes, strives and becomes more confident in a self sufficient world. She manages to convey both the eccentricity of the Alaskan society and the allure or the place she has decided to call home. ★★

To the Diamond Mountains – Tessa Morris-Suzuki [Korea, Travel, Historical] Follow the author in her steps in her quest to the Diamond Mountains, a range in current North Korea. She herself is tracing past explorations and to do so she must enter one of the most isolated countries in the world as well as travelling through its developed neighbour. During her trip she engages the reader with a wealth of history and culture of the region. ★

Touching the Void – Joe Simpson  [Mountaineering, Autobiography] Simpson’s most famous book, it tells of his accident and near death experience in the Andes. Left for dead at the bottom of a crevasse and severely injured, he managed to drag himself back to life and tell the tale. ★★★

Water – Steven Salomon [Geopolitics, Current Affairs] Extremely informative and unique book that chronicles the use, abuse and importance of water by civilisations through time.  Explains how this resource underlines many geopolitical conflicts, its increasing scarcity and some optimistic solutions. ★★★

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