From Sea to Shining Sea: Present-day Journey into America’s Past – Gavin Young

I’ve only recently discovered Gavin Young, but he’s fast become one of my favourite “travel” writers. “Travel” because by and large he’s not an explorer or a visitor passing through the places he writes about. Rather, he describes people and places that he has met during spells as a foreign correspondent, giving you a far deeper insight into all three.

From Sea to Shining Sea is the first of his books I’ve read where he does travel around, but the book does not suffer from the “brief glances from the moving train” approach. In it, Gavin Young focuses on a selection of places in the US which have drawn him due to their historical, literary or geographical significance. Starting in New York, he travels from east to west, from the eastern seaboard’s whaling past, through Altanta and the Civil War, to the Alamo and San Antonio and the cession of Texas from Mexico to a Republic, to LA in the era of Philip Marlowe, Private Eye, ending up in the Yukon, drawn by Jack London‘s tales of the wilderness and the gold rush, and many more places, and people past and present, in between.

Buy it: Amazon link

Worlds Apart – Gavin Young

I wasn’t too sure about reading a collection of travelogues whilst lazing on the beach in India – I thought that Gavin Young’s collection might make me miss our more usual exploratory-type holidays. Fortunately, my fears proved unfulfilled. This collection provides insights into countries and peoples far and wide, over many years, and most of which were originally published as pieces in The Observer. For me, the section covering the 20 or so years Young spent in Vietnam, and his friendship with a vietnamese family in Hue was the most memorable – and the most heart-rending.

One of my favourite travel books and travel writers – and in looking up The Observer link, I’ve discovered he died in 2001.

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In the Empire of Genghis Khan: A Journey among Nomads – Stanley Stewart

Stanley Stewart tells of his travels from London to Dadal in Outer Mongolia (and Ghengis Khan’s birthplace) by way of Istanbul, Sevastapol, Volvograd, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Olgii, Qaraqorum and Ulan Batur. Starting off by boat, moving on to train and jeep, but predominantly on horseback, he travels in the footsteps of William of Rubruck, a 13th century franciscan friar who travelled west to the court of the emperor of the Mongol Horde, the infamous Genghis Khan.

But the book is much more than the journey of a 13th century friar told by a 21st century travel writer. As well as evocative descriptions of the steppe, Stanley Stewart provides insights and understanding of the worlds of Central Asia past and present, and the people, infamous and less well known, who populate(d) them.


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An Unexpected Light: Travels in Afghanistan – Jason Elliot

As the number 48 bus drew up alongside Tescos on Bishopsgate, Jason Elliot ended his second visit to Afghanistan, weeping by the side of the railway tracks in Pashawar. I’ve raced through this book that tells the tales of his two trips to Afghanistan, separated by 10 years, and many changes both in his life and for the people of the country he comea across as loving so much.

The book describes the adventures and trials of travelling to Afghanistan and around the worn torn country, which comes across as more of a collection of ethnic groupings than a nation. We meet the Afghans and Europeans Jason encounters during his trips, and he makes no bones of the physical and emotional hardship he faces. Throughout the book he shares the things he learns and his impressions of the things he sees. Although a million miles from the time Hazel and I spent in Laos, some of the stories brought a smile of nostalgia – negotiating for transport and cramming 10 people, and their possessions into a space designed for 4.

Having read the book, I am caught between the ever-present desire to visit places and people that put my current London lifestyle into sharp focus, and the knolwedge that now is still not the time for a female westerner to explore Afghanistan. Hopefully one day, that will change.

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The Bookseller of Kabul – Asne Seierstad

An inspired birthday present from Karen, read in a flash. I’d been put off from buying it by the later reivews, which emphasised the misogynic aspects of Afghan society. I’m glad Karen got it for me – it’s a good read and provides insights into history, society, culture and personal relationships, told through tales from a family’s life over the past 20 odd years. It’s an uncomfortable read at times – but then the Khan clan live in a very different world from mine.

Buy it: Amazon link