The Road to Oxiana – Robert Byron

Again, another book it’s taken me years to pick up, principally because for a long time I thought – incorrectly – that the author was Lord Byron, the 18th century poet. My mistake, my loss.

The Road to Oxiana is an account by Robert Byron, a distant descendant, of his travels through the Middle East to Central Asia in 1933/1934 – close enough in time to Empire for the Great Game still be living memory, and for the key geopolitical units to include Persia and Sinkiang.

Whilst Byron’s privileged background means that his accounts of the people he meets is coloured by the social norms of the time (which isn’t always bad – there are some fantastic encounters with Governors and Ambassadors), he did get to see and explore some amazing locations and architectural gems that are now either lost or out of reach. That said, I see that Wild Frontiers are running trips to Afghanistan, so perhaps, one day, I too will get to visit Herat.

There are wonderful photos too, some of places I have been lucky enough to visit and it’s fascinating to see what has changed in the intervening 80 years, for example in Soltaniyeh Yazd and Isfahan.

For accounts of travels in the region in the last 20th/early 21st century, read:

* Shadow of the Silk Road – Colin Thubron
* The Carpet Wars – Christopher Kremmer
* The Places in Between – Rory Stewart
* Neither East Nor West: One Woman’s Journey Through the Islamic Republic of Iran – Christiane Bird

Amazon.co.uk link: The Road to Oxiana – Robert Byron

Korea: A Walk Through the Land of Miracles – Simon Winchester

A spur of the moment purchase at the St Giles Cripplegate summer fete, this book is a gem.

I must confess a general ignorance about Korea, other than random facts such as “It’s the sticky out bit between China/Russia and Japan”, “It is split into North Korea (“baddies”) and South Korea (“goodies”)” and “M*A*S*H was set in the Korean War (and not the Vietnam War as a lot of people assume)”. Having read Simon Winchester’s account of his walk from the island of Cheju in the far south to Panmunjom in the demilitarised zone that forms the frontier between North and South Korea, I feel rather more enlightened, and wondering how best to get my head around developments since 1988 when this book was written.

The route was inspired by the journey made by shipwrecked Dutch sailors in 1688, who became the first Westerners to enter and leave the Kingdom of Korea. As he travels, Winchester provides details of the history, culture and beliefs of the people of Korea since then, and develops insights into how these enabled them to survive the 20th century events of invasion, international, cold and then civil war and to create a thriving economy (Daewoo, Hyundai, Samsung), in the South at least.

Winchester is quite clear that he would have loved to have continued his walk all the way through the demilitarised zone and gained comparable exposure to the people and places of the North. For my part, reading his account has given me the idea of adding another destination(s) to my list (as Catherine observed: going for another country in the Axis of Evil).

Amazon.co.uk link: Korea: A Walk Through the Land of Miracles – Simon Winchester

The 8.55 to Baghdad – Andrew Eames

Back to history-based travel writing after my recent detours into mediaeval and (almost) modern history, with Andrew Eames’ account of the mid-life Middle Eastern travels of Agatha Christie managing to mirror Colm Toibin’s biography of a famous author theme.

I thoroughly enjoyed this account of Andrew Eames’ journey from Berkshire to Baghdad. Tracing Agatha Christie’s own travels on the Orient Express in its heyday (and minus murders), Eames takes us on an increasingly adventurous itinery from British suburbia through continental Europe into the Balkans through Turkey to Syria and finally across the desert and into pre-war Iraq. I realised that his trip to Iraq was with Hinterland Travel – run by a knowledgable and reassuring chap called Geoff, with whom I had an interesting chat at a Destinations travel exhibition years ago.

At the same time he tells the fascinating story of Agatha Christie’s life, from her failed first marriage to her happier second marriage and archaeological digs in the then British Mandate of Mesopotamia. I swiftly revised my Miss Marple image ….

Amazon.co.uk link: The 8.55 to Baghdad – Andrew Eames

The Master – Colm Toibin

I wasn’t too sure I was in the mood for an erudite biography of Henry James, particularly as I’ve never read any of his novels (although I watched the film version of The Portriat of a Lady, I was not inspired to read the novel), but Colm Toibin’s lightly fictionalised account of Henry James’ life during the final years of the 19th century was a joy to read.

This novel brings to life James’ family and friendships, his American upbringing at the time of the Civil War and the ways he used his novels to provide alternate lives for the people he loved, and for his relationships with them. I put down this book with a feeling of immense sadness arising from James’ inability to allow himself to recognise or accept the love he felt for others and they for him.

Amazon.co.uk link: The Master – Colm Toibin

The Prester Quest – Nicholas Jubber

A hefty hardback which contains a great tale of two chaps on the trail of Prester John, the mythical and mystical mediaeval priest-king who, legend had it, ruled over a Christian kingdom located somewhere in the mysterious orient, beyond the muslim-controlled lands of the Middle East and North Africa, and with wealth beyond compare.

In 2000 Nicholas Jubber persuaded his mate Mike to accompany him on a mission to follow in the footsteps of Master Philip, a mediaeval physician, who in 1177 was instructed by Pope Alexander III to carry a letter to Prester John asking for help in Christendom’s Crusade in the Holy Land.

We follow Nick and Mike’s journey from Venice around the Eastern Mediterranean and the still-troubled lands of the Middle East and thence into North Africa and south, through the Sudan and into Ethiopia. En route we learn how history, religion and current affairs continue to combine in much the same way as they did over 800 years ago when Master Philip and Pope Alexander were exchanging letters and progress reports.

A very readable book that ticks the boxes for travel writing and mediaeval+modern history. If you like William Dalrymple, you’ll like this (and vice versa).

Buy it: Amazon link