Book: What the Traveller Saw by Eric Newby

What the Traveller Saw
by Eric Newby

(Collins, 1989; Flamingo, 1993)
 
Much more important to me than cameras..were my journals; because all that I have ever really needed to record what I needed to record has been in a notebook.
 
Eric Newby is one of the most celebrated English travel writers.  Growing up between the wars close to the River Thames in south-west London, Newby was inspired to travel in part by hearing Apsley Cherry-Garrard (one of Scott’s party and the author of The Worst Journey In The World) speak at his school and by a set of books belonging to his father, the Children’s Colour Book of Lands and Peoples.
 

Newby began his travels in 1938 when he joined the crew of a four-masted Finnish barque which was still engaged in the Australian grain trade.

During the Second World War, Newby served in The Black Watch and the Special Boat Service.  On operations with the latter in 1942, he gained his first experience of Europe, landing by dinghy on Sicily where he was captured and sent to a POW camp in the Po valley.
 
He subsequently escaped and during a period of hiding met his wife. He was recaptured and was detained until the end of the war when he returned to Italy and married, Wanda, the girl he had met while in hiding.   He recorded his wartime experiences in Love and War in the Apennines, published in 1971.
 
Following the war, Newby embarked on careers in the fashion industry (in his father’s business and with John Lewis) and publishing.  In 1956, his first book, about his experience in the last Grain Race, was published.
 
His most famous book, A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush was published in 1958.  Evelyn Waugh was sufficiently impressed by Newby’s writing to contribute a preface for no fee.
 
A Short Walk contains what the Telegraph called “the most celebrated meeting between travellers since that of Livingstone and Stanley”, when Newby encountered explorer Wilfred Thesiger.  
Contrasting his own amateurism with that of Thesiger’s professionalism, Newby recalls Thesiger watching him and his companion inflate their camping mattresses, an act prompting Thesiger to comment: “God, you must be a couple of pansies.”
 
In 1963 he travelled the length of the Ganges by boat with his wife, Wanda, his account of which was published in 1966 as Slowly Down the Ganges.
 After that trip, he became travel editor of the Observer, a post he held for 10 years from 1964 to 1973.
 
The chapters in What the Traveller Saw are largely made up of journeys from that period.  However, the book serves as an excellent sampler of those, as well as more famous journeys Newby undertook and which later became books in their own right.
 
The book begins with chapters on his last Grain Race experience and his wartime experiences in Italy.  It also contains a chapter on his journey back to Europe after walking in the Hindu Kush and another on his Ganges journey with Wanda.
 
There is a great deal more to What the Traveller Saw.  Newby, it seems, was fortunate enough to have been in the right place at the right time, whether visiting Kenya in the years soon after its independence from Britain or China at a time when it was relatively closed to tourism.
 
Newby was obviously someone who relished travel in all its forms, demonstrated in What the Traveller Saw by the wide range of travel experiences from places evoking the edge of the world (Lisbon, Scilly Isles, Ireland), the desolation of the Australian outback, the dense urbanisation of Japan and Hong Kong and the tropical comfort of Bali and Fiji.
 
His journeys always seem to open up possibilities; more walks and trips for which the present journey permits no time.  His horizons are always expanding, the world becoming larger the more he travels.
 
However he travels, whether by sailing boat, ocean liner, train, canoe, plane or rowing boat Newby is an enthusiastic traveller and always appears to be enjoying himself.
 
Despite his taste for adventurous travel (see for example the chapter on the first descent by a European of the Wakwayowkastic, a tributary of the Moose River in Ontario), Newby is also cheerful visiting places well known to tourism.
 
Although not in thrall to the development of tourist amenities at Petra, he does not allow that to dampen his exhilaration at visiting somewhere he had been inspired to visit reading the Children’s Book of Lands and Peoples at the age of 8:
 

The Siq went on and on, down and down, a journey I wished could be prolonged indefinitely.  Merely to go through it was worth the journey from Amman […] nothing can compare with that first vision of El Khazna, seen as one emerges from the darkness of the Siq.

No matter to Newby that he was not Burckhardt re-discovering Petra, surrounded only by Bedouin.  His good cheer is a good example to bear in mind whenever the temptation to bemoan the presence of other tourists rises.
To Newby’s eye for detail, gentle humour and Englishness, this volume also adds a good selection of Newby’s own photography, a skill he developed while at The Observer.  
In his introduction, Newby notes that many of the photos were taken during that period, which he describes of one of the happiest of his life, noting:
 
As a result, What the Traveller Saw essentially commemorates the past, and, in may cases, a world that has changed beyond all recognition.
It is fitting, therefore, that he ends this collection where it began, in Italy, with a 1988 piece written about Sicily, the place where his European travels began some 45 years previously.
 
Eric Newby died in 2006.  Obituaries giving an overview of his career and life can be found in The Guardian and Telegraph.  Eric Newby appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs in 1982, which can be heard online here, (or using the embedded player below). 



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:

Book: New Great Game, Kleveman

The New Great Game by Lutz Kleveman
Atlantic Books, 2004

Kleveman is a German born journalist who from 1997 to 2007 reported on conflicts in places such as the Balkans, West AfricaCentral Asia and the Caucasus.

Kleveman’s book updates and explores the ‘Great Game’, played by Russia and the British in the mountains and deserts of Central Asia in pursuit of their respective imperial goals in the 19th century and immortalised by Rudyard Kipling in his novel, Kim.

Russia still features as a main player in the New Great Game and is joined by the US, Iran, China and the countries of Central Asia and the Causcasus.  The prizes in this game are the oil and gas reserves of the Caspian Sea.

The New Great Game is a compelling piece of reportage.  Having driven round the Balkans in 1999-2000 in an old Citroen CX25 reporting on the ongoing ethnic conflict and the revolution against the Milosevic regime and also reporting on blood diamonds, child soldiers and oil in West Africa, Kleveman’s attention turned to the Caucasus.  So, in August 2001, Kleveman set out from Berlin on a road trp to Baku in Azerbaijan (again in a Citroen CX25).

Prevented from entering Chechnya by Russian security services, Kleveman was “after five days of interrogation (and heavy vodka-drinking) […] expelled from Russia on the fateful day of September 11, 2011.”  He eventually managed to reach Baku by train where he became increasingly interested in Caucasus oil politics.

Shortly afterwards, after a visit to Uzbekistan during the US led Afghan war, Kleveman became “hooked” on Central Asia.

According to his website, he then spent most of 2002 “zigzagging the region and meeting with the principal actors of the New Great Game about oil and pipelines: Kazakh oil barons, US generals, Russian diplomats, Afghan warlords.”  His travels and research took him through Azerbaijan, Chechnya, Georgia, Iran and arose the Caspian Sea to Turkmenistan, the deserts and steppe of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan before heading to the Pamir mountains in Tajikistan and Krygystan and finally to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In the New Great Game, Kleveman argues (for summaries see here…and here) that the Caucasus and Central Asia are the focus of a struggle for the gas and oil reserves of the Caspian Sea.  As known reserves of fossil fuels elsewhere in the world dwindle while demand for them soars, the prospect of new reserves outside of OPEC’s influence area a truly valuable prize.  The break up of the Soviet Union, coupled with the discovery of vast reserves of oil and gas in the Caspian region has therefore given the US an unprecedented opportunity to court the former Soviet republics to attempt to secure access to these reserves and so lessen its dependence on OPEC oil supplies.

As the Caspian is landlocked, transporting the oil and gas to the sea so that it can be shipped to markets around the world is a major challenge.  This requires the construction of thousand mile pipelines to the Mediterranean or Indian Ocean if a route through Russia is to be avoided.  As any pipeline must therefore go though either Iran or former Soviet republics (regarded by Russia as still being within its sphere of influence), Kleveman reports that the various countries of the region are jostling to accommodate the pipelines and to reap the rewards of the transit fees and to guarantee their independence from Russia.  Add to this mix the oil thirsty countries vying to secure access to the reserves and it becomes apparent that the competition in this game is fierce and the stakes high as the players make their moves and countermoves.

Kleveman’s book sweeps across the region providing a masterly overview of the ‘New Great Game’ and its complexities.  Kleveman puts himself at considerable risk to obtain his interviews and is often than not rewarded for those risks.  The characters he meets are larger than life with extraordinary stories to tell that bring to life the region, its history and its turbulent present.  More reportage rather than a ‘classic’ travel narrative, it is nonetheless Kleveman’s travel throughout the region and the on the spot interviews which the give the book its detail and immediacy and prevent it from being simply a book about oil and gas geopolitics (examples of photos taken on his travels are on his website).

Now several years old, it would be interesting to know what the current state of play in the New Great Game is.  However, although the pieces may have moved, The New Great Game is still a fascinating portrait of a region and a snapshot of how the board looked at the time the book was written.