Mountains of Heaven: Travel in the Tian Shan Mountains, 1913 – Charles Howard-Bury, edited by Marian Keaney

Bought second hand yonks ago (so long ago I can’t even recall where), this relatively slim travelogue has sat languishing on my bookshelf alongside other books about places and eras I wished I’d been able to visit and record myself.

On the face of Mountains of Heaven looks as though it’s going to be an annoying account, in the style of Eric Newby’s A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, of a scion of the British Empire’s boy’s own adventure through the lands on the edge of empires.

But it’s not. Half comprised of Charles Howard-Bury own edited version of his travel journals, with the remainder of the editing carried out by Marian Keane, Charles Howard-Bury does come across as an explorer-adventurer but one who is interested in the people, culture and wild life of the region; particularly the huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’ opportunities on offer.

A man after my own “circular route” heart, his outbound journey took him from London to Russian Omsk, on a “cruise” along the river Irtish to Semipalatinsk and via the post roads of Siberia and the steppe, crossing from the Russian side to the Chinese side of the Tian Shan. He returned to London by way of Russian Turkestan and the Silk Road, taking in Tashkent, Samarkand (fascinating accounts of the Registan, Bibi Khanum mosque and Shah Zinda mausoleum) and Bokhara before crossing the Caspian, the Caucasus and finally the Black Sea before taking the train home from Constantinople.

He’s in Central Asia at a tipping point. The British Empire is still going strong to the south, the pre-revolutionary Russian Tsars have expanded into the ‘Stans of Central Asia and the nomadic Kazakh and Kyrgyz inhabitants of the steppe are shifting eastwards, into modern day Xinjiang only a year after the demise of the Qing dynasty and the province acceding in name to the Republic of China.

Less than 100 years later, my Central Asia experience was vastly different.

Isabella Bird’s A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains and The Yangtze Valley and Beyond are still sitting on my bookshelf of travelogues to read, but Mountains of Heaven has finally (finally!) prompted me to pick up Tim Macintosh-Smith‘s The Hall of a Thousand Columns, which is proving to be another fantastic read. It’s 1349 and Ibn Battuta is just about to head off to China….. link: Mountains of Heaven: Travel in the Tian Shan Mountains, 1913 – Charles Howard-Bury, edited by Marian Keaney

The Island of Lost Maps: A Story of Cartographic Crime – Miles Harvey

A bit heavy going if I’m honest, The Island of Lost Maps felt like it would have made a great magazine article, but had to be stretched too thin to make a book.

The two themes that run through the book are the history of maps and cartographic kleptomaniac Gilbert Bland who stole an unknown number of maps from university and city library collections across North America. There were a few points of interest: how tempting it is for collectors to break bound books because they can make more by selling off the individual maps than they can the whole; how some of the institutions that had maps stolen were/are reluctant to admit this for fear of highlighting how lax their security is (and how low on their list of expenditure library collections have sunk); but the main thrust is Harvey’s own quest to find Gilbert Bland, which just wasn’t that interesting to me. link: The Island of Lost Maps: A Story of Cartographic Crime

The Crossing Place: A Journey Among the Armenians – Philip Marsden

A fascinating account of the Armenian people – their history, language and lands.

Philip Marsden’s personal quest to understand the Armenian dispora takes him from the Near/Middle Eastern lands of Turkey, Lebanon and Syria, along to the Eastern European lands of the Black Sea and finally into the Caucasus and modern-day Armenia.

Sounds a dry as dust? It isn’t. The Crossing Place: Journey Among the Armenians – Philip Marsden

In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs: A Memoir of Iran – Christopher de Bellaigue

Another book by a Western chap recounting experiences and encounters from his time living in a muslim country – this time Christopher de Bellaigue in Iran. It’s a less engaging read than On the Road to Kandahar, but Christopher de Bellaigue still provides interesting insights into the day to day lives of a range of Iranians he has met.

Published in 2004, the book felt a little bit dated now. That said, it would have been good to read before my trip to Iran last year as the book provides easily digestible background on key figures such as Imam Husain, and 20th century events, ranging from the Russian and British influence, to the Islamic Revolution, to the Iran-Iraq war. In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs: A Memoir of Iran – Christopher de Bellaigue

News from Tartary – Peter Fleming

A two stage read, but one I’m glad I persevered with – especially once Peter Fleming and Ella Maillart’s journey reached the far west of China, and headed over into the Hunza valley and into what is now Pakistan, what was then British India.

It’s a fascinating account of China and the North West Frontier in the mid 1930s, complete with what now read as antiquated spellings and opinions/perspectives. The book tell of the seven months Fleming and Kini spent on the 3500 mile journey from Peking to Kashmir, travelling by camel, donkey, horse and foot during a wartorn time for the far flung provinces of the Chinese world – and with the final rumblings of the Great Game still sounding loudly in this remote part of the world where Russian, British and Chinese empires met. As the intrepid explorers travel further west, they travel through a desert region populated mainly by nomads and warlords who view themselves as having more in common with their fellow Tatar tribes of Central Asia than the Chinese holding power in Peking.

Next: tracking down Forbidden Journey for Ella Maillart’s version! Maybe a read for this autumn’s Central Asia Overland trip….. link: News from Tartary – Peter Fleming