In Xanadu: A Quest – William Dalrymple

In Xanadu turned out to be an excellent choice as my sole LHR departure lounge purchase. Having finished In the Company of Cheerful Ladies in Peshawar, I moved on to William Dalrymple’s account of his journey from Cambridge to China, accompanied by the no nonsense Laura as far as Lahore, and subsequently by ex-girlfriend Louisa.

Following as far as possible in the footsteps of Marco Polo, William and his ladies travelled from Cyprus to Israel to Syria to Turkey to Iran to Pakistan and thence across China to Beijing. Fascinating, with history and architecture interwoven with pen portraits of people they meet en route – and interesting to see/hear the young William Dalrymple. My undergraduate summer holiday activities were nowhere near so adventurous.

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To Catch a Tartar: Notes from the Caucasus – Chris Bird

Another great book about another culture and another part of the world. Chris Bird’s book tells the twin tales of his family’s experiences of living in the Caucasus and his experiences reporting on current affairs in the region over the course of 3 (4?) years at the end of the 20th century – notably the various wars in and about Chechnya. The personal descriptions are supplemented by Chris Bird’s own account and analysis of the region’s history, and the complexities of Chechnya, the Caucasus, and indeed many of the republics that formed the USSR, Russia in particular.

I’d love to know how Chris Bird is getting on with his career change – the book says that he was studying medicine in London at the time of publication.

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From the Holy Mountain: A Journey in the Shadow of Byzantium – William Dalrymple

I thoroughly enjoyed this account of the various Christian communities that live(d) in the Middle East. It’s fascinating to learn how many of the regions we think of as muslim have older Christian cultures (plural), and for how long these societies have lived together in the Middle East. William Dalrymple does not shy away from looking at why many of the Christian cultures are slowly but surely disappearing, but neither does he lay blame in an indiscriminate fashion as he travels around the countries that form the eastern and southern borders of the Mediterranean Sea.

A bit strange reading it on a small island in the middle of the South Atlantic.

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The Black Sea – Neal Ascherson

I chanced upon this in one of Hereford’s second hand bookshops (Hay doesn’t have them all!!) and took it with me to Yalta, which is in the Crimea where Neal Ascherson’s excellent anthropological, historical and politcal account of the Black Sea begins.

As Hazel and I visited the greek ruins at Chersonesus (now a seaside surburb of Sevastopol), the Khan’s Palace at Bakchisarai, and the Genoese fortress and Soviet submarine base at Balaclava, and the harbours and hills of Sevastopol, the book offered additional backstory to the excellent information provided by Voyages Jules Verne‘s local guides.

The book is broader in the context than simply the Crimea; Neal Ascherson considers the majority of the Black Sea coast, and it is a fascinating part of the world, a real melting pot of peoples for millennia, and only in very recent history has it become perceived as a frontier between ‘east’ and ‘west’, ‘barbarian’ and ‘civilisation’.

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Travels with a Tangerine – Tim Mackintosh-Smith

The first of my post-holiday reading (so watch the rate of consumption drop off!), and I decided to continue the travel theme. I’ve long been interested in the life, times and travels of Ibn Battutah, but I was put off by the rather dry academic texts which were all I could find……. until I discovered Tim Mackintosh-Smith’s tales his own 20th century travels in the footsteps of this travel-bug from Tangiers.

Starting from IB’s Moroccan homeland, in the far west of the arabian, muslim lands, Tim follows his trail to Mecca, with a short excursion to the Crimea. This sidetrip within the then muslim world made for interesting reading as H and I head off to Yalta at the end of September. In particular it highlighted the fact that the Crimea spent a substantial chunk of time as a Khanate, having been settled by a segment of the Mongol Hordes that converted to Islam. Not what you expect of part of the Ukraine….

Fascinating stuff, told with human insight by Yemen-based Tim Mackintosh-Smith. I’m very glad I’ve got Norton Rose’s leaving gift, Hall of a Thousand Columns: Hindustan to Malabar with Ibn Battutah , ready and waiting on the bookshelf to provide coverage of further voyages, ever eastwards.

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