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TraveLit--A blog about travel literature. 

     Even with the best of maps and instruments, we can never fully chart our journeys.

Review: Bones of the Master: A Journey to Secret Mongolia

Bones of the Master: A Journey to Secret Mongolia
By George Crane. Bantam, 2000, 293 pp.

Bones of the Master, an engrossing story of a pilgrimage, revolves around Tsung Tsai, an extraordinary Buddhist monk, who fled Mongolia in 1959, when Chinese communists were destroying monasteries and killing monks. In 1995, now living in upstate New York, he decides he must return to his homeland, find the bones of his teacher, and properly cremate and build a stupa for them in the cave where his teacher lived.

For this journey, he recruits his good friend and neighbor George Crane, who raises the necessary funds for the journey by selling a book proposal, and in 1996, the two set off.

While establishing the background for the journey, Crane introduces us to the two main characters, who form an improbable couple. Tsung Tsai is a true Ch’an monk, dedicated to meditation, solitude, reading, celibacy. Though when the two first meet in Crane’s backyard in 1987, Crane doesn’t know—and wouldn’t guess from the rags that Tsung Tsai is wearing—the man is a Buddhist and Sanskrit scholar, whose paintings are collected in Hong Kong. And as we see throughout the Mongolian journey, he is a well-known and highly respected monk.

Crane, on the other hand, a poet in his 40s, describes himself as “a cerebral ne'er-do-well with a love of books, women, and travel and a distaste for long-term employment.”  Read More 
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Counting the Cats in Zanzibar: Travel Quotation

Thinking about Thoreau, after reviewing Walking towards Walden (below), I decided this was a good time to quote his famous passage from Walden itself:

It is not worth the while to go round the world to count the cats in Zanzibar. Yet do this even till you can do better, and you may perhaps find some "Symmes' Hole" by which to get at the inside at last. England and France, Spain and Portugal, Gold Coast and Slave Coast, all front on this private sea; but no bark from them has ventured out of sight of land, though it is without doubt the direct way to India. If you would learn to speak all tongues and conform to the customs of all nations, if you would travel farther than all travellers, be naturalized in all climes, and cause the Sphinx to dash her head against a stone, even obey the precept of the old philosopher, and Explore thyself. Herein are demanded the eye and the nerve. Only the defeated and deserters go to the wars, cowards that run away and enlist. Start now on that farthest western way, which does not pause at the Mississippi or the Pacific, nor conduct toward a wornout China or Japan, but leads on direct, a tangent to this sphere, summer and winter, day and night, sun down, moon down, and at last earth down too.
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Review: Walking towards Walden: A Pilgrimage in Search of Place

Walking towards Walden: A Pilgrimage in Search of Place
By John Hanson Mitchell. Addison-Wesley, 1995, 301 pp.

“There never was a more passionate pilgrim, a deeper explorer of the wilderness of the nearby than Henry Thoreau,” says John Hanson Mitchell in this delightful account of a “saunter,” as he calls his hike from Westford, Massachusetts to Concord. Mitchell, a naturalist, is himself an “explorer of the wilderness of the nearby”—three of his books explore one square mile in eastern Massachusetts—and in this excursion he pays homage to Thoreau and the other “luminaries” of Concord as well as to Concord itself.

Mitchell believes strongly in the significance of place, and Concord, he argues, is a special place in America: a place where for five thousand years Native Americans would congregate, where the American war of independence started, where American literature first flourished, and where the first book “devoted entirely to the exploration of the idea of place” was written.

The pilgrimage Mitchell undertakes, accompanied by two adventurous friends he has traveled with before, consists of a 16 mile hike that avoids all roads. The trio’s aim is to reach their destination through a 17th-century landscape, bushwhacking their way “through woodlots, old fields, farms, backyards, swamps, and streambeds.”  Read More 

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Review: The Bird Man and the Lap Dancer: Close Encounters with Strangers

The Bird Man and the Lap Dancer: Close Encounters with Strangers
By Eric Hansen. Vintage Departures, 2004, 228 pp.

Some travel writers recount trips that are accessible, doable: they describe places we might visit and inspire us to take similar trips ourselves.

Other travel writers—like Eric Hansen—describe journeys most of us will never take. We read their work from a different perspective, glad that they have taken these journeys for us and shared the experience.

Hansen is an adventurer, a lifelong traveler with a keen interest in places, cultures, and—as the subtitle of this book suggests—people. In these nine absorbing essays, we join him in Calcutta, Thursday Island, Vanuatu, and Borneo, and meet an intriguing cast of characters that includes a lap dancer who discusses Aristotle and an elderly Russian emigre—an expert chef—who is protected in her rough Washington Heights neighborhood by the local drug dealer.

Hansen’s openness, compassion, and skill at moving deftly between the comic and the serious give depth to his essays.  Read More 

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Review: Dispatches from the Ends of the Earth

Road Less Traveled: Dispatches from the Ends of the Earth
By Catherine Watson. Syren Book Company, 2005, 282 pp.

Catherine Watson sensed her vocation early. “By high school,” she writes in her author’s note, “I thought of myself as a ‘tourist in life,’ someone whose actual earthly purpose was going away. Only later, when I’d become a journalist, did I comprehend the rest of the assignment: coming back and telling about it.” In Roads Less Traveled, she conveys her enthusiasm both for the traveling and for the telling.

The 40 short essays in the book cover a wide territory, from North Dakota to Turkey, from Newfoundland to Lebanon. Drawn from the pages of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, where Watson was travel editor for 30 years, most of the pieces are, as you’d expect, upbeat. In Borneo, she enjoys working with Earthwatch at Camp Leakey, where she and other volunteers “follow” orangutans.  Read More 

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Making Trails: Travel Books for Kids and Young Adults

New travel books for kids in the Longitude Newsletter November (Scroll down to Section 4 in the newsletter for the children's books.)
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Travel Quotations

From The Tao of Travel by Paul Theroux, a book of commentary on travel that includes interesting quotations, many from Theroux's own work:

Literature is made out of the misfortunes of others. A large number of travel books fail simply because of the monotonous good luck of their authors.
―V. S. Pritchett, Complete Essays

On that trip it was my good fortune to be wrong; being mistaken is the essence of the traveler’s tale.
― Paul Theroux, Riding the Iron Rooster Read More 

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Review: Down the Nile: Alone in a Fisherman's Skiff

Down the Nile: Alone in a Fisherman’s Skiff
By Rosemary Mahoney. Little, Brown, 2007, 268 pp.

Walking the length of Japan, bicycling through Ireland’s nasty winter, following in the frigid tracks of great Arctic explorers: the things travelers do for the sake of adventure—or perhaps for the sake of writing a travel book.

Rosemary Mahoney’s quest was to row on the Nile. Not the length of it, of course, just from Elephantine Island to Qena, in Egypt, “enough to feel that I had traveled, enough to see the river up close.”

In itself, when she finally gets to do it, this isn’t much of a challenge. Mahoney is an experienced rower—back home, near Narragansett Bay, she rows often—and the river does not offer insurmountable difficulties. The challenge is cultural.  Read More 

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Piazza Navona

"Piazza Navona is not only the most exquisitely beautiful square in Rome, it's also the beating heart of the city."
―William Murray, City of the Soul: A Walk in Rome (Crown), not an essential book for the visitor, but an engaging, informative stroll through the city, written by someone who has lived there, as a child and an adult.
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Scott Expedition at the Pole

Robert Falcon ("Con")Scott, Dr. Edward ("Uncle Bill") Wilson, Henry Robertson ("Birdie") Bowers, Lawrence Edward ("Titus") Oates, and Edgar ("Taff") Evans reach the South Pole in March 1912 to find that the Norwegian Roald Amundsen has beaten them to it.

A painful photo, illuminated by Beryl Bainbridge's novel, The Birthday Boys, which I've reviewed below.

And while I'm on the topic of the Scott expedition, another book I'd recommend is The Worst Journey in the World, by Apsley Cherry-Garrard. "Cherry," only 24 at the time of Scott's Terra Nova Expedition, was not along on the final run and lived to write this excellent work, with its account of the side-trip he made with Wilson and Bowers to visit the Emperor penguin rookery at Cape Crozier--an extraordinary journey so challenging they barely survived.  Read More 

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