Book: RL Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes

Travels With a Donkey in the Cevennes

by Robert Louis Stevenson (1879)

But we are all travellers in what John Bunyan calls the wilderness of this world—all, too, travellers with a donkey: and the best that we find in our travels is an honest friend. He is a fortunate voyager who finds many. We travel, indeed, to find them. They are the end and the reward of life. They keep us worthy of ourselves; and when we are alone, we are only nearer to the absent.

Robert Louis Stevenson’s account of his journey through the Cevennes is a classic travelogue.

Undertaken in 1878 when Stevenson was a young man and before he had found fame as a writer, Travels was published in 1879 and was one of Stevenson’s first published works.

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The journey itself was a 12 day, 120 mile, self-supported hike through tough, sparsely populated terrain in an area of south-central France that had seen a protestant uprising during the reign of Louis XIV.

An often remarked feature of the journey is Stevenson’s love for occasionally sleeping out of doors, preferring to use a bespoke sack, rather than using a tent or finding an inn.

A tent, above all for a solitary traveller, is troublesome to pitch, and troublesome to strike again…A sleeping-sack, on the other hand…does not advertise your intention of camping out to every curious passer-by. This is a huge point. If a camp is not secret, it is but a troubled resting-place.

From his description, what he refers to as a sleeping-sack sounds like a setup akin to a bivvy bag and improvised basha.

I decided on a sleeping-sack….and….in case of heavy rain I proposed to make myself a little tent, or tentlet, with my waterproof coat, three stones, and a bent branch.

With his love for informal and makeshift outdoor sleeping, Stevenson would have a great deal in common with modern day adventurers Alastair Humphreys and Anna McNuff.

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Stevenson writes evocatively about being outdoors at night, sitting smoking and drinking brandy (these two items seem to have sustained him on his journey) while looking at the silhouettes of trees around him, appreciating the silence and beauty of the night sky.

I…sat upright to make a cigarette. The stars were clear, coloured, and jewel-like, but not frosty. A faint silvery vapour stood for the Milky Way. All around me the black fir-points stood upright and stock-still…I lay lazily smoking and studying the colour of the sky, as we call the void of space, from where it showed a reddish grey behind the pines to where it showed a glossy blue-black between the stars.

Communing with nature and being self sufficient is a large part of Stevenson’s quest in Travels.

He writes about his yearning for pure adventure and the thrill of waking and finding himself in completely unfamiliar surroundings.

He has no high purpose beyond that of travelling “for travel’s sake”, “to move”“to feel the needs and hitches of our life more nearly” and “come down off this feather-bed of civilisation.”

He yearns to be ‘in the moment’, an “exacting present” that occupies and composes the mind and he delights in travel’s non-conformity, feeling “independent of material aids”, and thinking that he had “rediscovered one of those truths which are revealed to savages and hid from political economists.”

Unable to carry his heavy sleeping sack and equipment, Stevenson purchases himself a donkey at the start of his journey.

It is through his relationship with the donkey, Modestine, that Stevenson highlights the second theme of Travels.

From the preface and throughout, Stevenson continually returns to notions of friendship and companionship. This creates a tension with his desire for occasional solitude rather than a “close and noisy ale-house”, although ultimately he reconciles them.

He writes of the “partial intimacies” formed when travelling and enjoys the easy camaraderie of travelling, setting the world to rights with strangers, meeting Trappist monks or expressing his “hearty admiration” to the waitress Clarisse which she took “like milk, without embarrassment or wonder.”

As is also true for many travellers, Stevenson found that the parting of company was accompanied by a mixture of regret and glee as the traveller “shakes off the dust of one stage before hurrying forth upon another.”

If he doesn’t quite anthropomorphise Modestine, he gives her real personality and humanises their relationship when he writes of the agony he feels at causing her pain, her virtues, faults and the loss he feels when they part company which it is difficult not to share.

A charming and personal travelogue, Travels is an absorbing, short read containing a great deal for modern travellers to identify with.

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It is still possible to follow Stevenson’s route and a small tourist industry has grown up around visitors who want to retrace his steps along what is now walking route GR70, either with or without a donkey.

Examples of writers who have done so are here and here.

Travels with a Donkey is available as a free ebook from the Internet Archive and also Project Gutenburg

Book: Gertrude Bell’s Persian Pictures

Persian Pictures
by Gertrude Bell 

(1894, 1928 & in 2014 by I.B. Tauris)

All the earth is seamed with roads, and all the sea is furrowed with the tracks of ships, and over all the roads and all the waters a continuous stream of people passes up and down travelling, as they say, for their pleasure. What is it, I wonder, that they go out for to see?

Throughout an impressive career that encompassed writing, travelling, political administration and diplomacy, archaeology and espionage, Gertrude Bell travelled extensively throughout Syria, Mesopotamia, Asia Minor and Arabia. 

Bell’s traveling career divides roughly into three periods – tourist, student and scholarly/political.  This trip falls within the first, some time before the most famous part of her career when she was helping to shape British policy in the Middle East and Iraq as a contemporary of TE Lawrence.

Bell made this journey to Persia in her mid-20s following her studies at Oxford.  Her uncle, Sir Franck Lascelles, had recently been appointed British minister in Tehran and Bell accompanied her aunt to visit him in 1892.   

After this trip to Persia, Bell’s focus shifted to the Arab world and later to what became the Hashemite kingdoms of Jordan and Iraq in the period following the First World War.

 

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Gertrude Bell in Egypt with Churchill, TE Lawrence and others

The basis of Persian Pictures were the letters that Bell sent home during her trip.  The book was originally published anonymously and was not published again and under Bell’s name until 1928, two years after her death.  

Persian Pictures is, as expected, a series of sketches each covering different topics.

Tehran street life is described in rich detail with wry observations and her thoughts about the bazaar could be true of many others (“though little of really beautiful or precious is to be found, the thronging of Oriental life is in itself an endless source of delight“).

There is a visit to a Persian princess, camping with nomads in wild mountains, an inspection of the dazzling jewel laden objects in the Shah’s treasury and also a rest stop at a caravanserai on a journey to the Caspian Sea, where the loaves of bread for sale were thin flaps and resembled “flour mixed in equal parts with sand and fashioned into the semblance of brown paper”.  Bell and her companions are invited to join a stranger for lunch and so are spared the unappetising bread and ride away having experienced the hospitality and courtesy of the East.

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In another episode, spending the night on a stranger’s floor Bell describes the traveller’s delight of sleeping in unexpected places and of experiencing shared humanity in the simple and basic things.  Throughout, Bell tries to get beneath the surface to uncover Persia’s secrets and closely observes the characters and manners of the people she meets including at a religious festival and in response to an outbreak of cholera.  

Persian Pictures is a short book but full of evocative and tantalising depictions of aspects of a country that has long since changed.  Poetic at times, Persian Pictures is rich in quotable descriptive passages and thoughts about the experience of travel, including an excellent section on the art of bargaining with merchants and another about travel companions and the true pleasure and purpose of travel.  

Bell is joyful and exuberant in Persian Pictures.  Like a rebirth, flowers bloom with just a little water from dead desert landscapes and, from the silent, extinct world of some ancient ruins, overnight rain brings forth the freshness of damp earth and desert flowers in the morning sun (“For us the wide plain and limitless world, for us the beauty and the freshness of the morning, for us youth and the joy of living!”

The sketches in Persian Pictures give a very real sense of someone who is in thrall to the intoxicating pleasure of travel and who is being seduced by the sights and sounds of the place they are in despite all the challenges and differences.  You know, reading Persian Pictures, that Gertrude Bell will be heading east again as soon as she can. 

We cling regretfully to the close, but the beginning is what is worth having the beginning with all its freshness, all its enthusiasm, all its unexpected charm, Hercules for strength, Atlanta for speed, Gabriel for fair promise. Say what you will, the end is sad. Do not linger over the possibilities to which (all unfulfilled) it sets a term, but remember the glorious energy which spurred you forward at first, and which lies ready to spring forth anew. 
Persian Pictures is available at Gutenberg.org or at the Internet Archive:

There is a renewed interest in Bell and her life. This is possibly due to the two wars in Iraq and also the re-shaping of the political landscape in much of the Middle East.   In 2015, Werner Herzog’s biopic of Bell’s life starring Nicole Kidman, Damian Lewis and Robert Pattinson was released and Bell has also been the subject of several biographies in recent years:

Article: RL Stevenson on enjoying unpleasant places

It is a difficult matter to make the most of any given place, and we have much in our own power.  Things looked at patiently from one side after another generally end by showing a side that is beautiful. (RL Stevenson)

Enjoying unpleasant places is not as odd as it first sounds.

After all, who ever said that travel was only ever about finding that perfect place where everything was just as we would wish it?   Not Pico Iyer, who in an essay for Salon, Why We Travel (published in 2000) noted that “never more than on the road are we shown how proportional our blessings are to the difficulty that precedes them”, or Lawrence Durrell, who said: 

Let the tourist be cushioned against misadventure; but your true traveller will not feel that he has had his money’s worth unless he brings back a few scars…No, the mishaps and disappointments only lend relief to the splendours of the voyage. (from Reflections on Travel in Spirit of Place).

So Stevenson, in his 1874 essay On the Enjoyment of Unpleasant Places considers what travellers can gain from unpleasant places, how their state of mind can also affect their reaction to a place and how, with the right frame of mind, there is enjoyment to be had in almost any place. 

Robert_Louis_Stevenson_by_SargentStevenson’s view is that we learn to live with the unpleasantness and “dwell lovingly on what is good, and shut our eyes against all that is bleak or inharmonious.”  For Stevenson, spending time in unpleasant places can be satisfying and, once we stop for long enough in a place and bring our imaginations to bear on it, “we forget to some degree the superior loveliness of other places, and fall into a tolerant and sympathetic spirit which is its own reward and justification.”  He notes, by way of example, that several weeks in unpleasant countryside did more to quicken his sensibilities than much longer periods in places he would have found more obviously attractive. 

Stevenson also observes that in visiting unpleasant places, we learn “to come to each place in the right spirit”.  That our own state of mind is an important factor in our reaction to any place is something Alain de Botton reflects on in his book, The Art of Travel (“[my] eyes were intimately tied to a body and mind which would travel with me wherever I went and that might…negate the purpose of of what the eyes had come there to see.”).  

As Stevenson expressed it:  

Nor does the scenery any more affect the thoughts than the thoughts affect the scenery.  We see places through our humours as through differently coloured glasses.  We are ourselves a term in the equation, a note of the chord, and make discord or harmony almost at will. 

Stevenson notes the important effect that unpleasant places will have on the writer, who “weaves something out of all that he sees and suffers by the way” and takes “their tone greatly from the varying character of the scene; a sharp ascent brings different thoughts from a level road; and the man’s fancies grow lighter as he comes out of the wood into a clearing.”  

However, he considers that “wherever a man is, he will find something to please and pacify him”, provided he looks for it in the “right spirit”.  

Ultimately therefore, Stevenson forms the paradoxical view that one can live almost anywhere, even if it is not possible to spend a few pleasurable hours there.  And, to prove his point, he describes a time he spent on rugged, wind battered coastline and the pleasure he derived from being in a physically tough environment, the contrast of finding shelter from the wind and the strong impression of peace he received while there.

So, travel to unpleasant places can be satisfying, rewarding and even pleasurable or, to put it another way:

Travel works best when you’re forced to come to terms with the place you’re in.  (Paul Theroux in The Atlantic)  

Stevenson’s On the Enjoyment of Unpleasant Places can be found online at Project Gutenberg or is available to download as a free Kindle ebook:

 

Book: Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad

The Innocents Abroad, or the new Pilgrims’ Progress
by Mark Twain

Published in 1869

The gentle reader will never, never know what a consummate ass he can become, until he goes abroad.

Innocents Abroad was Mark Twain’s first travel book and also his best-selling book during his life time.   A travel writing classic, it features in Conde Nast Traveler’s 86 Greatest Travel Books of All Time and World Hum’s list of 100 Most Celebrated Travel Books.   

The details of the trip are well known.  In 1967, just two years after the end of the American Civil War, Twain joined a group of 60 or so other passengers on a tour of the Mediterranean (“a pleasure excursion” and “picnic on a grand scale”).  The voyage was to be undertaken on the paddle steamship, the Quaker City.  Decommissioned following service in the Civil War, the Quaker City had been refitted “with every necessary comfort” including a library, musical instruments and even a printing press so that the passengers could print their own newsletter.  

Innocents ABroad USS_Quaker_City

The trip lasted about 5 months.  It took a fortnight to reach Gibraltar from the US and Twain reports (not without apprehension at the anticipated boredom) that it would take several weeks to steam back to the US from the Eastern Mediterranean; a long time to spend on a boat about 75 metres in length.   

In the remaining four or less months, the ‘Pilgrims’ packed in an impressive amount, taking in (among other places) Tangiers, Paris, Milan, the Italian lakes, Florence and Rome, the Black Sea ports of Sebastopol (for some Crimea battlefield tourism), Yalta and Odessa before heading to the Holy Land which was the ultimate goal of the trip.  

The only thing more impressive than the number of places visited by the Pilgrims was Twain’s output.  Twain’s $1,250 fare for the voyage was paid by The Daily Alto California.  In return, he sent the San Francisco paper over 50 letters which it published and which later formed the basis of the 600 plus page book Twain wrote after his return in 1868.    

Twain Innocents Abroad

From the outset Twain makes it clear that he is not writing an earnest and reverent travel book, calling it a “record of a pleasure trip” and he proceeds to rail against travellers, travel pretences, foreigners and foreign places and also travel writers.

Twain is unsparing of Parisian barbers, tour guides, European use of soap, Turkish baths and, of course, ‘our friends the Bermudians’ as well as a great many other things he encounters.  He professes to be sated by walls of paintings and is sceptical of tourists who express wonder at the Last Supper and instead claims to be more interested in turnpikes, depots and boulevards of uniform houses because he understands them and is not competent to act as a guide to Europe’s art treasures for his readers (“I make small pretense of showing anyone how he ought to look at objects of interest beyond the sea—other books do that, and therefore, even if I were competent to do it, there is no need.”)  Twain’s humour is, for the most part, gentle and aimed at deserving targets.  Only occasionally is he biting or more cruel but his wit is invariably delivered with perfect timing.  

The innocents abroad: or, The new Pilgrim's progress. By Mark Twain. Uniform title: Prospectus Publication info: Hartford, Conn. : American Publishing Co., [1869] Special Collections Copies Material Location PS1312 .A1 1869ca RAREBOOK Special Collections SC-BARR-STThrough his observations and humour, Twain encourages the traveller to look for things which interest him rather than simply those things noted in guidebooks or travel books.  

Twain mocks different traveller types, from the Oracle who bores his fellow travellers with knowledge gleaned from guidebooks and passed off as learned, the Old Travellers who brag and “prate and drivel and lie”, the consummate ass who dresses in local fashion and feigns a foreign accent and the Vandal who inscribes his name on monuments.  He makes fun of their insularity, ignorance and innocence.  While his own innocence may be feigned, Twain also turns his pen on himself, confessing to be variously, a “consummate” and “egregious” ass.

He reserves special mention for travel writers who “heated their fancies and biased their judgment”, turning out “pleasant falsities” either to be popular or to deceive or who slavishly emulate other authors.  Twain is critical of his fellow Pilgrims who ‘smouch’ their opinions about places from those books so that they “will tell of Palestine, when they get home, not as it appeared to them”, but as it appeared to writers of travel books.

Innocents Abroad is therefore an exercise in suggesting to the reader “how he would be likely to see Europe and the East if he looked at them with his own eyes instead of the eyes of those who traveled in those countries before him.”   

Although referred as a travel writing classic, in its railing against traveller types, travel pretences, foreigners and foreign places as well as travel writers, Innocents Abroad could in some ways be considered an anti-travel writing classic. With his repeated comparison of foreign sights with the US, Twain also gives the impression of someone who would almost have rather remained at home. Nevertheless, it is clear he is ‘pricking bubbles’ and ‘exploding humbugs’ of travel, not least those who slavishly adhere to guidebooks and express wonder and delight on cue. 

In common with other serialised Nineteenth Century books, at times Innocents Abroad seems a little lengthy, but is almost always enjoyable.  Twain meanders at some points of the Holy Land excursion when recalling his bible history, but even those chapters contain some excellent passages and anecdotes.

Some contemporary reviews of Innocents Abroad are available on line here and include WD Howells’ review for the Atlantic, and also a spoof review written by Twain himself.  

Innocents Abroad is available download for free in a variety of electronic formats at Amazon, Project Gutenberg, or the Internet Archive.

If you like the sound of this, you might also be interested in Labels by Evelyn Waugh.

 

 

Book: Hopkirk – Foreign Devils on the Silk Road

Foreign Devils on the Silk Road by Peter Hopkirk John Murray

Among the oasis dwellers of the Taklamakan, strange legends of ancient towns lying buried beneath the sands had been passed down from grandfather to grandson for as long as anyone could remember.

Peter Hopkirk wrote several books about Central Asia, focussing on what Richard Bernstein of the New York Times called “the confrontation of Eastern exoticism with Western Imperial ambition” and has “made a career out of the historical adventures of Europeans in Central and South Asia.”

Hopkirk passed away last year, age 83, and in its obituary (reproduced on the Marlburian Club website), The Times newspaper paid tribute by noting that “Hopkirk was no armchair historian. He was an intrepid traveler who adeptly shrugged off the region’s ever-watchful authorities to piece together his rip-roaring histories.”  So, even though Foreign Devils is strictly more history than travel it nonetheless deserves inclusion; Hopkirk travelled widely in the regions about which he writes and brings the tales to life using contemporary travel narratives.

Foreign Devils was published in 1980 and was the first of Hopkirk’s six books about Central Asia. It recounts the explorations and adventures of British, Swedish German, French, American and Japanese archaeologists in Chinese Turkestan (Xinjiang province in modern China) at the end of the 19th and first part of the 20th century.

These archaeologists were searching for the cities, monasteries, grottos and stupas which had grown up along the Silk Road during its first 800 or so years from the time of the Han dynasty.  An immense network of trade routes stretching thousands of miles between the Mediterranean and China along which precious goods such as silk, gold and ivory were carried, the Silk Road gave birth to many oasis towns.  Ideas, as well as goods were carried along the Silk Road, including Buddhism which spread along the trade routes from North West India, over the mountain passes and into Central Asia where it flourished and with it, art and learning.

However, as trade along the Silk Road declined, so too did its oasis cities and over the years, they fell into obscurity and ruin.

Their imagination fired by the accounts of Chinese travellers such as Fu-Hsien in the 5th century and 7th century monk Hsuan-tsang, these predominantly European archaeologists and explorers set off to re-discover cities which had been lost for centuries and lay buried in Central Asia’s desert sands.  Hopkirk traces the passions, obsessions and adventures adventures of Sven Hedin, Sir Aurel Stein, Albert Von Le Coq, Paul Pelliott, Langdon Lownes and Japan’s Count Otani as they set out at great personal risk and raced one another to redicover hidden Buddhist cities.  

The focus of their efforts was the vast Taklamakan desert which Sven Hedin called “the worst and most dangerous desert in the world” and access to which access is restricted on three sides by mountains (Tian Shan to the north, the Pamir to the west, and the Karakoram and Kun Lun to the south) and by the Lop and Gobi deserts on the fourth. 

In an engaging, exciting and interesting read, Hopkirk tells of the treasures that they found and how literally tonnes of manuscripts, frescoes and statues were removed before the Chinese authorities finally put a stop to the removal of antiquities.
This books is the perfect introduction to a remote and difficult to visit area and Hopkirk includes general introductions to the Silk Road and the cities of the Taklamakan; which is useful, if like me, you have no previous knowledge and the region is a bit of a blank on the map.   This book brings the region to life.

Foreign Devils left me longing to drop everything and head straight out of the door in Hopkirk’s footsteps to see the region for myself and wanting to read more about the area and its history.  Fortunately, many of the first hand accounts on which Hopkirk’s book is based are available online for free in a variety of formats, for example, those by Sven Hedin (Through Asia, volume 1 and volume 2) and Sir Aurel Stein (Sand Buried Ruins of Khotan).