Book: Walking the Himalayas with Levison Wood

Walking the Himalayas
by Levison Wood 

Hodder & Houghton (2016)

So long as you’re not armed and come in peace, you’re willing to adopt local customs with sensitivity to culture and tradition and try not to judge too much – however tempting – you’ll generally be fine.

This is the second published expedition from former Parachute Regiment officer, Levison Wood.  His first, Walking the Nile, which was inspired by 19th century explorers such as Burton, Speke, Livingston, recounted his 2013/4 expedition walking the entire length of the Nile of 4,250 miles from from Rwanda to the Mediterranean and was commissioned as a documentary for Channel 4 in the UK.

In 2015, after a restless period in London, Wood decided its was time for another expedition and in 2015 he set out to walk over 1700 miles traversing the Himalayas, beginning in June in the west in the Wakhan Corridor, a finger of land separating Tajikistan from Pakistan in north eastern Afghanistan, and ending in the east in the kingdom of Bhutan in November.

This expedition was again commissioned as a documentary for television and the whole series is available to watch here on Channel 4.

The book however makes more than just an excellent companion and captures much more of the experience of Wood’s epic journey than a few short TV episodes ever could (good as the series is).  

It has more background and takes three or so chapters before the walk begins proper.  But, that enables Wood to relive a youthful backpacking trip during which he met one of his guides, Binod and also time to talk us through his frustration at finding himself back in London after walking the Nile.   We learn a bit more abut him and what motivates and inspires him and he sufficiently conveys his boredom as he reorganises his extensive travel library thematically and whiles away his time in Gordon’s wine bar in Charing Cross.

Having fixed on the region, Wood decides that, rather than breaking records or climbing mountains, he will use the opportunity to explore on foot the foothills and lower mountains of the Himalayas: 

For me it was the people I encountered that attracted me to travel.  And travelling on foot is the only way to explore the backcountry and villages that are hidden from the main trails and roads.  it is also the way people have travelled in these regions for millennia and there seems to be a common bond between pedestrians everywhere. The physical hardships, the risks, the user vulnerability mean that on the whole you will be looked upon as a fellow human being rather than a foreigner or, worse, a tourist.”

Wood is a great travel companion.  He is knowledgeable and informative on the region and its history having visited most of the places previously but is unpretentious with an easy manner.   He takes the journey’s difficulties in his stride (and despite being at relatively lower altitudes for the Himalayas, there were plenty.)  

Its about the journey, its about the people that you meet and its about sharing those experiences.

The personal, whether the characters he meets, people who join him for parts of the walk or about what Wood reveals of himself, are at the heart of this journey and make it one worth accompanying him on.  As you’d expect, he meets a wide variety of people and, while he approaches those he meets with openness, he has a healthy scepticism rather than a wide eyed naivety, which is refreshing.  

London’s travel bookshop, Stanford’s held an event with Levison Wood in February 2016 and is available as a podcast on iTunes via their blog on the Stanford’s website. (sorry, can’t figure out to how to embed it here.) Worth a listen (32 mins plus 15mins Q&A) to get a good sense both of Levison Wood and of the trip. 

Find out a bit more about Levinson Wood, his trek and explorer heartthrob status here in the Telegraph, here in Stuff magazine, here in the Stoke Sentinel, Wood’s local paper (as well as here and here).  You can also always try  Walking the Himalayas as an audiobook narrated by Levison Wood on a free trial from audible.com:

Video: The unexpected beauty of travelling solo (3m:o9s)

I always think when you’re somewhere by yourself you experience it so much more. It makes you more aware of what’s going on around you. 

From Turkish filmmaker Sertac Yuksel, a thoughtful and well executed short video which featured in National Geographic’s Short Film Showcase.

A last-minute change of plans triggers a solo journey, while those left behind can only imagine the sights, sounds and emotions being experienced.

Inspired by his own solo travels, Yuksel’s film, After the Tone, follows a traveller whose companion has cancelled and decides to go it alone anyway.  As we follow the solo traveller on his journey the images and sounds of the trip are overlayed with additional narration made up of answerphone messages from the person left behind.

A common element in travel writing is the inner journey and what Hulme has called “the spiritual dimension of travel and its capacity for renewal” (in The Cambridge Companion to Travel Writing).  Using the interesting technique of answerphone messages as a narrative, Yuksel introduces that element into this video.  In doing so, he alters a straightforward record of a round the world trip into something which explores the relationship between the two characters, the contrast between the traveller’s experiences and the corresponding ignorance and uncertainty of the person left behind as to what they are up to and the sensation of travelling alone. Loved it. 

Yuksel’s other videos are also well worth a look.  Find them at www.sertacyuksel.com

Article: Ostrava – steel heart of the Czech Republic

And that’s Ostrava, the Czech Republic’s ‘third city’. A strange mixture of ambition, history, culture, militarism, and industrial wasteland, sitting at the heart of Europe, not hiding from its troubled past, but embracing it and using it as a means to draw you in.

From Geographical magazine, an article about Ostrava, the Czech Republic’s third largest city, only a few kilometres from the Polish border and about 50km from Krakow.

Ostrava is a former industrial town where its location at the confluence of four rivers and vast deposits of anthracite under the ground made it a perfect iron smelting location.

With iron smelting now part of Ostrava’s past, the city is making the most of its heritage and showcases its industrial architecture along with social realist buildings from the Soviet era to draw tourists.  The former blast furnace in the Lower Vítkovice area of the city centre is now a viewing platform and cafe, the former gasometer now converted to an auditorium and every year the protected former ironworks, mine and steelworks plays host to the annual multi genre Colours of Ostrava music festival.

c-ostrava-vitkovice-1

Meanwhile, the city embraces its proximity to Poland and Russia with its annual NATO days airshow showing off all aspects of security and military.  Free for the public, the event’s motto is “Our security is not given and there is no prosperity without security.

With the Janáček May International Music Festival (classical and jazz), a fine art museum as well as ethnographical and a science museum, With two universities a brewery and a lively pub and club scene on Stodolní Street, Ostrava definitely seems worth a visit.   

 

 

Book: A Few Perfect Hours, Josh Neufeld

A Few Perfect Hours
by Josh Neufeld (Alternative Comics, 2004)

Home-keeping youth have ever homely wits…
I rather would entreat thy company
To see the wonders of he world abroad
Than, living dully sluggardized at home
Wear out thy youth with shapeless idleness

Heeding Shakespeare’s words, Josh Neufeld and his girlfriend Sari, left the United States and went travelling together.  Over the course of a year and half they backpacked from Hong Kong, through South East Asia and the Balkans before stopping in Prague.

As Sari explains in her foreward:

The challenge of the backpacking odyssey is unique. Stripped of the normal scaffolding of life, we must narrate our own adventures to die them weight and to give ourselves form.  When we travel, we become both actor and storyteller, hero and scribe.

Neufeld narrates their story (with additional words from Sari) in the form of the graphic novel.  While A Few Perfect Hours covers some well trodden backpacker countries and experiences, Neufeld does so with warmth, originality and honesty.  

Along the way, the pair work as extras in a Singapore soap opera, confront their fears in a Thai cave, visit an off the beaten track organic farm, get an unexpected religious experience at a Buddhist festival, have an, almost, encounter with an ice cream salesman in Serbia and travel by train through Belgrade during 1993.

Screen Shot 2016-02-02 at 22.04.35

While Neufeld may be the hero of his tales, he is not afraid to lay bare and share his own fears, misgivings and reactions which bring the stories to life, tinge them with reality and bring the personal to the insights he gains from his travelling experiences.  Part of A Few Perfect Hours‘ charm lies in the insights gained from the ‘small’ or everyday in the stories and also the travellers’ tips interspersed among them.  Meanwhile, the illustrations keep the tales fresh, bringing humour and immediacy to the scenes and adding detail and elements of fantasy.

Comics or graphic novels are not everyone but this is a nice collection, well complemented by Sari’s foreward.  A Few Perfect Hours is part of a growing body of graphic travel writing, a form which lends itself well to the genre.  As Eddie Campbell (author of From Hell) sums it up on the back cover:

The travel book has a tradition both grand and frivolous.  It’s a literary form that continues to welcome the embellishment of illustration long after fiction has expunged them, whether through photographs or the author’s own sketches of the sights seen. It has always looks to me, therefore, like a waiting challenge for the so-called comic book.   

A Few Perfect Hours was self-published with a grant from the Xeric Foundation.   Learn more about Neufeld and his work at www.joshcomix.com.

 

Video & essay: Nomads of Mongolia (6m27s)

Two views of Mongolia. 

First, a beautifully shot and edited film of traditional nomadic life in western Mongolia from Brandon Li.  Nomads riding horses, training eagles to hunt, herding yaks, wrestling and herding Bactrian camels all against a backdrop of stunning scenery and wide open space…lots of wide open space. 

See more of Brandon Li’s videos at www.unscripted.com.

Second, the excellent Roads & Kingdoms takes a look at Nomads on the Grid and how traditional nomadic life is being affected by modern technology in the wake of Mongolia’s commodities boom. The availability of solar panels is fuelling a market in small electrical appliances as electricity becomes cheaper and more reliable, making TV and mobile phone use more widespread and changing the ways Mongolia’s nomads go about their traditional activities such as herding, even if mobile coverage is not complete.  (And, in case should you find yourself in Mongolia any time soon, you may also want to see R&Ks Know Before You Go guide to Ulaanbaatar.)

Book: Brave New Burma by Nic Dunlop

Brave New Burma, by Nic Dunlop

Dewi Lewis Publishing (2013) 

I understood so little about Burma and I felt the only way to really get to grips with it was not only to read about it but to travel. . . It grew out of a quest to really understand how a deeply unpopular regime could hold on to power.  

This is how Nic Dunlop explained his interest in Burma to BBC journalist Fergal Keane at the May 2013 launch of Brave New Burma at the Frontline Club in London.

A significant challenge for Dunlop in undertaking his quest was the difficulty of capturing life in Burma under a totalitarian regime:

For most visitors to Burma at that time, stories of slave labour and repression seemed at odds with the images they encountered: smiling people, exotic festivals and gleaming temples.  Burma was a mature totalitarian state, its operations to subtle for the casual observer to perceive… The regime was so ubiquitous there was no need for troops on the streets.  The vey absence of the army was proof of its power.

How then does one capture the brutality of a military dictatorship when the army is not visible on the street?  Or record something so pervasive that it is almost imperceptible?

Dunlop did, through 20 years’ patient travel and photography.  The result is an impressive combination of photography and written journalism which, steering clear of cliches, lifts the lid on a secretive country where another reality lies beyond the sight of most observers.  Brave New Burma documents not only the country and its struggles but Dunlop’s own journey as a photographer and journalist as he seeks to uncover hidden stories about the reality of life in Burma.    
 

Dunlop tracks down those who have been forced from their homes, tortured and forced into labour before penetrating the military heart of the regime to observe the leaders up close shortly before protests by buddhist monks were brutally put down by the Tatmadaw in 2007.  

Brave New Burma is structured as a series of essays accompanied by photos, dealing in turn with Burma’s internal conflicts, the invisibility of the totalitarian regime, imprisonment, torture and forced labour and the military regime.  Brave New Burma is gripping, chilling and unflinching in its examination of the ethnic divisions and conflicts that have riven Burma and been exploited by the dictatorship, the plight of refugees and the humiliations, rapes, mutilations, psychological scars and privations inflicted on the country’s population.  

What makes Brave New Burma particularly powerful is its mixture of political and historical background interwoven with portraits and personal accounts from those he has interviewed, which make it an intimate and compassionate portrait of the country’s people.    

Brave New Burma is not just a record of a repressive regime that will hopefully soon be consigned to history books but also an excellent introduction to Burma and valuable for anyone wanting to gain an insight following last November’s historic elections. 

In the final chapter, Dunlop examines the possibility of change and potential freedom from the fear that pervades both civilian and military life.  Dunlop seems more hopeful than optimistic.  Avoiding the simplistic view of freedom versus a totalitarian regime, his view is nuanced and highlights the difficulties that will accompany real change in the country from ethnic tensions, the weight of expectation on Aung Sang Suu Kyi, to the risk of future exploitation as external forces eye economic opportunities in Burma.  It is perhaps for that reason that the last photo bears the cautious caption, ‘No end in sight’.

Nic Dunlop is a Bangkok-based, award winning photographer with photo agency Panos Pictures.  Panos specialises in global social issues, “recognising that photography is more than pictures on a page” and believing “in the photography of ideas…with the aim of interpreting rather than simply recording.” 

Watch Nic Dunlop introduce Brave New Burma at the Frontline Club launch in May 2013: 

Alternatively, listen to the event on Soundcloud or preview Brave New Burma on Panos Pictures’ website:

You can read some earlier articles and view some of Nic Dunlop’s photos at Prospect magazine, here, here and here

Book: Fado, by Andrzej Stasiuk

Fado
by Andrzej Stasiuk (translated by Bill Johnston)

Published by Dalkey Archive, (2006, trans 2009)

“To travel is to live.  Or in any case to live doubly, triply, multiple times.”

Andrjez Stasiuk was born in Poland in 1960.  After being expelled from school and joining the peace movement, Stasiuk was imprisoned for deserting from the army. 

After his release from prison, Stasiuk began writing, has authored more than 15 books of fiction, essays and travel writing.  In 2005 was awarded the NIKE award (an annual literary prize for the best book published in Polish) for his travel book On the Road to Babadag which was published in English in 2011. He lives away from Warsaw in a mountain village near the Polish border with Slovakia. 

Although translated into English before On the Road to Babadag, Fado was actually published in Polish afterwards.  

Fado (the titles refers to a melancholy style of Portuguese song), is a melancholy mediation on the themes of modernity and memory set against the parts of Europe bordering Poland.  Fado is lyrical and powerful and commands the attention from its  opening paragraphs which are reminiscent of the opening of Lynch’s Lost Highway:

“Best of all is night in a foreign country on the highway, because at those times foreignness extends across the entire earth and sweeps everyone up indiscriminately in its flow”

A series of essays rather than a continuing narrative travelogue (possibly because although Stasiuk likes to travel, he does not like to be away from for longer than three or so weeks), Fado is better read as a whole.

His themes are modernity, the past and memory and describes places where the past co-exists with the present and contrasting the lives played out in those places with the time in which those lives are lived.

He and a photographer friend stop take pictures of Romanian gypsies who “come from long ago when people needed much less” but were trying to live in the present and after they exact a price for the photos paid in cigarettes he observes “we had reduced their humanity to an exotic image, they limited ours to the economy of their own survival.”

The places Stasiuk takes us to or not ones we are familiar with:  Belgrade, the Carpathian Mountains, Pogradec and the Accursed Mountains in Albania, Montenegro, Slovakia, Slovenia and of course Poland.  

Stasiuk is drawn to places in the margins, places that seem like the end of he world or have dream like qualities, their reality “a little dulled at the edges, a little rounded”.   He shifts from Montenegrin resorts and their “tawdry imitation of the modern” Stasiuk to places where the past still exists and “only the cars moving along the highway remind us that it is the twenty-first century.”

There is at times an ethereal quality to Fado.  Driving through lands “inhabited by forgotten people leading inconspicuous lives” the countryside passes in a blur outside Stasiuk’s car window until he stops to fix his gaze on something and then his descriptions are vivid and his images potent.  From the Dante-es que description of gypsies living in an abandoned mine to describing the beauty in the colours and scenes of autumn in remote parts of Poland.

Written at a time when Central and Eastern European countries were joining the EU, Stasiuk’ examination of this mixing of East and West Europe and what each may mean to the other is captivating (“Yes, indeed, two hundred million new Europeans is a real challenge.  It ought to drive the sleep from people’s eyes and fill them with anxiety and joy, because what will happen next will resemble the discovery of a new continent.” and “Is it possible to merge two streams of history that have flowed separately alongside one another for so long.”).  Given current debates about immigration in Europe his observations still resonate.

Stasis is often compared to Jack Kerouac.   That is unsurprising given Stasiuk seems to invite such comparisons (“So then, all of this reminding myself, this sitting on my backside in the semi-darkness and constantly travelling backwards, this staring into memory’s rear view mirror, this lyric of loss, this Slavic On the Road that I’m knocking out on my typewriter – at three-fifteen A.M”) but there is much more to him than that.

Despite his themes of memory, loss  and modernity, Stasiuk is examines the current situations of the countries he visits and also considers were they are going in terms of culture and identity.   In that sense, his work is vital and therefore indispensable to helping to understand countries with which many of us are only just becoming familiar. 

There is a biography of Stasiuk and his work at www.culture.pl.

 

 

 

 

 

Book: Andrew Eames on the trail of Agatha Christie

The 8.55 to Baghdad
by Andrew Eames

Published by Corgi (2005)

“She used to come here to do her shopping.
And to get her hair done.
From Nineveh.  With Max.”

It was this nugget about Agatha Christie, made to Andrew Eames while he was visiting Aleppo, that led him on his literary journey to find out what Agatha Christie was doing in the Middle East and to retrace her steps and to declare:

I had no idea that this doyenne of the drawing-room mystery had first traveled out to Iraq, alone, by train, as a thirty-something single mother.  And that thereafter she’d spent thirty winter seasons living in testing conditions 3,000 miles from home, in a land of Kurds, Armenians and Palestinians, doling out laxatives to help the sheikh’s wives with their constipation.

The result is this book which mixes part travelogue, part history and part biography.

Eames sets out from London to retrace Agatha Christie’s journey.  He travels on the Orient Express across Europe from London to Venice.  He continues by train through the Balkans, across Turkey and through Syria to Damascus  where the train line ends.

Orient express map

The onward journey to Baghdad in Christie’s day and when Eames repeated the journey was by bus across the desert.  This was the only way to avoid the time consuming trip through the Suez canal and around the Arabian peninsula.

When Christie made the journey, she travelled by ‘Nairn bus’ named after the New Zealand Nairn brothers who stayed on in the Middle East after the First World War to form a successful company that revolutionised transport between Damascus and Baghdad for 30 years.  By the time Christie made the journey, the cross desert service had only been running for a few years and had reduced the journey time to just 20 hours (for more on the Nairn brothers and their company see here and here).

Nairn_Transport_Co._luggage_label

Eames then continues on to Iraq’s archaeological sites and eventually to Ur where Agatha Christie met her second husband, Max Mallowan.    

If, like me, you know little of Agatha Christie’s life, this book is an interesting introduction to certain aspects of it,and particularly her divorce and second marriage.  Eames succeeds in re-creating an aura of by gone travel and those aspects will appeal to anyone with an interest in travel between the wars.  He is a pleasant enough travelling companion bringing his travelling companions and the places he visits to life with a wry sense of humour.  He characterises his adventure as a journey back to sources; the source of Christie’s second marriage and from modern Europe to Ur, the site of one of the earliest known cities and to the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates.

Reading this book not only reminds us how much as changed since Agatha Christie made her journey.  It is also a reminder of how much has changed since Eames made his journey and how quickly those changes can take place.  At the end of his book he realises that his “interest in Agatha and her crips pieces of fiction had finally been overhauled by a far bigger story”, the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which began three months after his trip ended.  His sadness at recalling Lt Col Tim Collins’ entreaty to his troops to “tread lightly” is now compounded by the knowledge that other places in his adventure, Damascus, Aleppo and Palmyra, have now also been ravaged by conflict.  

Sadly, it is commonplace to read travel books and reflect on how travel to the place has changed since they were written, perhaps because of political changes or dangers; it is a truism of travel that as some places become safe to visit others become less so.  But it is particularly tragic when these changes involve such loss of life and the wanton destruction of sites which have survived the centuries.     

Read reviews of The 8.55 to Baghdad from the Independent, here, the Telegraph, here and the Chicago Tribune, here.

One of the UK’s top travel writers, Andrew Eames website is here.  It contains links to some of his published work.  Its sections ‘blog’ and ‘mags and rags’ also give an insight into the life of a travel writer and some interesting reflections on the publishing industry.

Agatha Christie’s own accounts of her travels in Syria and Iraq were published as Come Tell Me How You Live and earlier volume of travel writing about her travels to South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and America as part of the British trade mission for the 1924 Empire Exhibition was published as The Grand Tour:

 

Book: Art of Travel by Alain de Botton

The Art of Travel
by Alain de Botton

Published by Penguin (2002)

“We are inundated with advice on where to travel to; we hear little of why and how we should go” 

Alain de Botton is not everyone’s cup of tea.  

Philip Marsden’s Observer review called this book “playful and erudite self-help”.  Meanwhile, Charlie Brooker in the Guardian dismissed the book as the “Little Book of Comforting Dribble” and its author as “an absolute pair-of-aching-balls of a man – a slapheaded, ruby-lipped pop philosopher who’s forged a lucrative career stating the bleeding obvious in a series of poncey, lighter-than-air books aimed at smug Sunday supplement pseuds looking for something clever-looking to read on the plane”.  

The Art of Travel is a philosophical and psychological examination of the anticipation of travel, travelling places, motives for travel and ideas of the exotic and the dangers of guidebooks; how we should decide what to see in a place once we have arrived.  

It also considers landscapes and sublime places, the effect of art on our ability relate to places around us and also our use cameras, our need to possess beauty and the importance of really seeing places.  Finally, he considers what we ought to bring home with us from travel; the “travelling mindset” which we should apply to our own locales.

De Botton covers all of these subjects impressively.  He relates each topic to his own travel experiences and chooses an eclectic array of guides to help him illustrate his points including Charles Baudelaire, Edward Hopper, Gustave Flaubert, Alexander von Humboldt, William Wordsworth, John Ruskin, Job and Vincent van Gogh.  In his Observer review, Philip Marsden noted:

His prescriptions are unarguable: remain curious, remain aware, nature and the sublime can help correct our psychological imbalances. His ability to draw quick pen portraits of his chosen writers and painters is impressive, his command of their work masterful.

If de Botton appears to some as less than enthusiastic about travel, that may be because he is as comfortable being an armchair traveller.  You get the sense that he identifies with Huysman and de Maistre and prefers an ordered, quiet existence, which is not necessarily consistent with travel abroad.  It is also possible that de Botton’s sense of curiosity may be better suited to libraries and museums rather than travelling in light of his apparent frustration that “travel twists our curiosity” by presenting sights that are linked only by their geographical location.     

Alain de Botton may be ambivalent towards travel and may worry a bit too much about what he is doing and why he is doing it.  The anecdotes he uses when applying philosophy to the everyday may at times seem ordinary and the antithesis of exciting travel, although that is part of his approach.  Yes, his style can sometimes be a bit irritating and is heavy on aphorisms.  And, yes, as Philip Marsden noted, de Botton omits “one of abroad’s most fulfilling aspects – people”.  But this is an introspective book and so may not appeal to everyone.   

However, de Botton’s ability to apply his erudition to the everyday on a wide range of topics using a variety of sources makes his approach fresh so that this is a book which may end up twisting our own curiosity in a way that may give us new insights into why we travel.   

At the risk, therefore, of being one of Charlie Brooker’s ‘Sunday supplement pseuds’, I like this book and it is one I have been back to.  

For further reading see the New York Times reviews of Mel Gussow, here, and Alan Riding, here, read Lynn Barber’s interview with de Botton here or John Preston’s review for the Telegraph, here.   

If you want to see the TV programme that provoked Charlie Brooker’s reaction it is below.  After watching it, you can see Brooker has a point.  Personally, it makes my toes curl, but don’t let it put you off the book.  

 

Video: Flower Man of Calcutta (3m)

Danish photographer Ken Hermann’s video essay about the flower sellers at Kolkata’s Malik Ghat market.

Lovingly put together with commentary, the video is great. But to fully appreciate Ken’s work, be sure to catch his portraits of the flower men on his website www.kenhermann.com or his photo essay at www.maptia.com.

Book: The Bridge by Geert Mak

The Bridge: A Journey between Orient and Occident by Geert Mak

Published by Vintage (2009) 

Without the bridge you cannot know the city

At less than 200 pages, the Bridge is not a long read, but then there are few travel books which cover such a short distance; in the case of The Bridge, the span of Istanbul’s Galata Bridge (“a journey covering no more than five hundred meters”, according to Mak’s website).

Geert Mak is a Dutch journalist and historian and the author of several books including Amsterdam, In Europe and most recently, In America, Travels with John Steinbeck.

Mak wrote The Bridge for Boekenweek (Dutch Book Week), an event celebrating Dutch literature and held annually since the 1930s.  As part of the event, well known authors are invited to write a book, a ‘Boekenweekgeschenk’ (book week gift), which is then given away at libraries and to those purchasing Dutch language books.

As research, Geert Mak explains on his website that he spent several weeks getting to know the bridge and those who use it.  The product is a book which describes the lives of the bridge’s booksellers, pickpockets umbrella salesmen, beggars, lottery ticket sellers, roasters of chestnuts, porters with rolls and baskets, shoe shine boys, gamblers, lovers and of course the fishermen. All their stories are here and they make a captivating portrait of the Galata Bridge which is melancholy but also full of life.

Reviewing The Bridge for The Telegraph newspaper, Jeremy Seal, author of Fez of the Heart and Meander: East to West Along a Turkish River, called Mak’s book “a sombre narrative […] stalked by multiple instances of yearning, failure and tragedy.” 

However, in a limited number of pages, Mak somehow manages to squeeze in much more than just observation and individual tales into The Bridge.

As its subtitle declares, The Bridge is ‘a journey between Orient and Occident’.  So, in between getting to know those who frequent the bridge, Mak invokes chroniclers of Istanbul (such as De Amicis, Joseph Brodsky, Orhan Pamuk, Pierre Loti) to examine Istanbul’s history and its position as a geographical and cultural crossroads; a “remarkable corner of the globe.”

Keeping the bridge as the focal point Mak mixes past and present and explores its role as meeting point and boundary for the “two spirits living within this city”; the eastward looking southern shore, home to the Hagia Sophia, Topkapi palace and Blue Mosque and the more modern northern shore with its skyscrapers, shopping malls and more Western outlook and mentality.  Mak skilfully weaves the stories of migration, family, community, culture, poverty, hatred, honour, hope and fear with the events of Istanbul’s past as Ottoman capital through its transformation into a modern city.

Mak therefore explores the role of the Galata Bridge not only in Istanbul’s history but as a microcosm of Turkey and as a metaphor for the East’s relationship with the West.  In doing so and, unusually for a travel book, he confronts the humiliation and desperation felt by a large proportion of the world’s population resulting in what Seal writing in the Telegraph called an “anti-travelogue”.

The Bridge is full of contrasts and apparent contradictions to and the effect is a poignant portrait of a city looking towards the future with a mixture of confidence, potential and uncertainty but not cowed by past misfortunes: 

no one gets to determine his own fate. The most important thing is your dignity, that’s one thing you must never give up.

A book worth loitering around as much as the bridge itself.

Further reading: Alex Adil’s review for the Independent is here and Jeremy Seal’s review for the Telegraph is here.

Video: Move, Eat, Learn

Great video threesome from Australian filmmaker Rick Mereki.

3 guys, 44 days, 11 countries, 18 flights, 38 thousand miles, an exploding volcano, 2 cameras and almost a terabyte of footage… all to turn 3 ambitious linear concepts based on movement, learning and food ….into 3 beautiful and hopefully compelling short films…..

= a trip of a lifetime.

Not much else to say.  Clever editing and an original soundtrack for each video from Kelsey James (available on Spotify) left a smile on my face and a longing to pack my bag…

Move:

Eat:

Learn:

Video: Allo allo mon petit chou!

To cure the soul by means of the sense
and the senses by means of the soul.

Two  Americans visit Paris and the result is this energetic video postcard.  

Beautifully shot and edited by House of Nod with an infectious soundtrack by Les Sans Culottes, this video makes me want to hop on the Eurostar…now.

Ahh, oui. J’aime la Gauloise. 

Book: Back in the USSR, Maclean & Danziger

Back in the USSR, Heroic Adventures in Transnistria by Rory Maclean (with photographs by Nick Danziger)

Published by Unbound (2014)

“Friends! Comrades! Come and join us on a journey into the heart of the new age Russian Revolution.

I admit I had never heard of Transnistria until Russian troops annexed Crimea in 2014.  The region, also known as Transdniestra is an area on the east of the River Dniester between Moldova and Ukraine.  

After Moldova was annexed by the Soviets in 1940, Russsians and Ukrainians settled in the area.  Its population is split between ethnic Moldovans, Russians and Ukranians.    Following Moldova’s independenece in 1991, Transnistria seceded and fought against, and defeated, Moldovan forces with the assistance of Russian troops, who remain there as a ‘peace-keeping force’. 

Transnistria is then, in MacLean’s words, “a breakaway republic of a breakaway republic of the old Soviet Union”; unique in that it has not recognised (or at least does not appear to have accepted) the collapse of the Soviet Union and is itself unrecognised by any other country.

Rory Maclean is author of several travel books including Berlin, Stalin’s Nose, Under the Dragon: A Journey through Burma and Magic Bus: On the Hippie Trail from Istanbul to India.  Nick Danziger is a photojournalist and documentary filmmaker who has also written two travel books (Danziger’s Travels and Danziger’s Adventures).

Continuing a search he began in Stalin’s Nose, MacLean was inspired to visit Transnistria partly to look for “for the real end of Europe”.  It was also inspired by a desire to find out what happened to the archetype Soviet man following the fall of the Soviet Union.

Transnistria maybe a ‘nowhereland’ but it lies on a geopolitical faultline between NATO and the EU and Russia of historical and current importance.   MacLean and Danziger’s account of Transnistria and its Russian links was timely.  Their visit to the country took place not long before the annexation of Crimea by Russia, an event reflected in the text (MacLean had an article on Transnistria published in The Times (£) in January 2014; the annexation took place the following month). 

Back in the USSR is self-consciously tongue in cheek which will not be for everyone.  Viv Groskop, reviewing the book for the Spectator, found it pushing the book into “awkward territory between reportage and mockumentary”.   Back in the USSR already contains sufficient satire and outlandish facts and anecdotes to make it humorous, so it isn’t really necessary, even if it does add to Transnistria’s slightly Alice in Wonderland feel.  

While the tongue in cheek style didn’t distract from the narrative (or Nick Danziger’s photographs), it did sit a bit uneasily with the dark side of Transnistria the book revealed.  

On the surface, are bright, sharply drawn and obviously comic portraits of Communist party officials who espouse the party line under the watchful gaze of busts and statues of Lenin while they the check time on Patek Philiipe watches and drive Mercedes and Lexus cars (or is that ‘Lexi’?).  Meanwhile, in the shadows, we learn that former KGB men control most of the country’s profitable business and, probably, the presidency, state funds disappear, that arms deals and smuggling are commonplace and that fear pervades Transnistria’s citizens.  Soviet-era aspirations of equality have, for many, given birth to uncertainty about the future:  “freedom for the pike means death for the minnows”

MacLean and Danziger’s month long tour of Transnistria takes them round a factory, winery, orphanage and sanatorium, and also to the fantastically wealthy and successful FC Sherrif Tiraspol football club which was founded by two former KGB men.  It also has them visiting the Che Guevara High School of Political Leadership whose head cum guru has been connected in the past to arms sales but admires Gandhi and meeting ‘Shev’s chicks’, President’s Shevchuk’s young, female and Facebook-friendly ministers.     

“Vodka is best drunk in threes”, MacLean and Danziger are told, “If you drink alone, you are an alcoholic.  If two people drink, a man and a woman, it’s romance. But with three drinkers, you have the perfect number of companions”.  It seems three is the magic number for producing a book as well; the three companions in this case being the writer, the photographer and ‘New Soviet Man’, their host who along the way reveals his taste for Pierre Marcolini chocolates, bespoke cologne, expensive watches  and Bentleys.  And, like New Soviet Man, alcohol is also always present (along with fear and Vladimir Putin). 

Back in the USSR is not a long book and Danziger’s atmospheric and stunning photographs make up a significant proportion of the content.  Nevertheless, the blend of visual and text feels right, leaving the reader curious and wanting more.  

Rather than straight reportage,  Back in the USSR is a journey in the company of two people revelling in the people and contradictions they encounter among the former Communist archetypes of Transnistria “who got real” following the fall of the Soviet Union.  At the same time, the text and photographs ensure that Back in the USSR does not overlook the human stories caught up amongst the slogans and posturing of the elite.  

Some of Nick Danziger’s photos of Transnistria can be seen on his website

See Rory MacLean and Nick Danziger introduce Back in the USSR here:

 

The book itself is as different as its subject matter.  Back in the USSR is crowd sourced by publisher Unbound which is a bit like Kickstarter but for books.  Authors pitch their book ideas directly to readers in the hope that prospective readers will pledge money, allowing titles to be published which mainstream publishers might overlook.  In return, would be readers receive different tiers of rewards depending on the amount they pledge and their name appears in the published book. Check out Unbound here

Book: Longest Way Home

81-ogRfl5lL._SL1500_The Longest Way Home, by Andrew McCarthy

To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world.  Freya Stark
In The Longest Way Home, McCarthy explores what travel means for him and why it is that he feels more at home in himself, the farther away from home that he is.
 
McCarthy says that he got his break in travel writing after meeting Keith Bellows, editor of National Geographic Traveler magazine at a party and telling Bellows that he should let him write for his magazine.  When Bellows asked “why?”, McCarthy responded “I travel a lot and I know how to tell a story”.   McCarthy was right on both counts.
 
Part memoir, part travelogue, Andrew McCarthy begins with his 80s fame (remember Pretty in Pink and St Elmoes Fire?) and charts his love of travel and his personal life which, at the time the book is set, has reached a cross roads.
 
McCarthy journeys around the world and, as he weaves stories about Patagonia, a boat trip in the Peruvian Amazon, the remote Peninsual Osa in Costa Rica and climbing Kilimanjaro, the thread of a personal journey to reconcile his desire for solitude with staying in one place, commitment and a settled home life runs through them all.  In making this journey, McCarthy examines what travel means for him and why he does it:
 
For me, travel has rarely been about escape; it’s often not even about a particular destination. The motivation is to go—to meet life, and myself, head-on along the road. There’s something in the act of setting out that renews me, that fills me with a feeling of possibility. On the road, I’m forced to rely on instinct and intuition, on the kindness of strangers, in ways that illuminate who I am, ways that shed light on my motivations, my fears.
 
McCarthy explains how Paul Theroux was an early influence on his choice to travel alone – “Only in the “lucidity of loneliness,” as he calls it, can we see what we came to see and learn what it is we came to this spot to learn.”  From his solitary voyages, McCarthy understands that travel “creates space that allows thoughts and memories to intrude and assert themselves with impunity. Smells and sights, the quality of light, the honk of a horn—can all act as touchstones when least expected.”
 
If “aimless drifting” has always been at the centre of McCarthy’s travelling, there is nothing aimless about the choice of destinations in The Longest Way Home.   The individual travel pieces that make up the book are thoughtfully chosen and underscore McCarthy’s internal journey.
 
He travels to remote and desolate places where no-one is from and to which people have been transplanted; places where people are solitary but find community.  Places like Patagonia (“I hope you like to be alone”; “Isn’t everyone here from somewhere else?”) and Peninsula Osa in Costa Rica (which “is largely off the grid”).  When travelling on a boat on the Amazon with a group, McCarthy is a reluctant group member and expresses his discomfort at the enforced intimacy of group meals and craves solitude.
 
It is in such places when he is alone and far from him that McCarthy has the luxury of indulging in “a melancholy feeling isolation and separateness” which allows him to recapture and hold on to a place within him which is his own and understand the paradox that his desire to travel is driven not by a desire for impermanence but “to feel at home” in himself.
 
In the process, McCarthy captures the “uncomplicated joy” of solo travelling, “meeting a new day with no past, with no plan, and with no one in the world knowing where I am” and compares it to the excitement he felt as a child waking up on Christmas morning.  His enthusiasm and passion for the act of travelling and the places he describes is infectious.
 
Watch McCarthy in conversation with travel writer Don George for NG Live! here:
Also see McCarthy interviewed by abcnews and Wall Street Journal.
Read reviews of The Longest Way Home in Wanderlust, New York Times, LA Times, the Guardian and Slate. Listen to the NRP Books interview (audio; transcript).  See McCarthy talking about how travel helped him confront his fears, here.