Three Travelogues to Read This Fall

With summer travels winding down, autumn is a good time to turn to travelogues to satisfy one’s wanderlust. I have always been a fan of this genre, being a traveler myself, and recent releases promise to take us to far-flung locations. My favorite travelogues combine explorations of culture with history and provide a way to understand how the past influences the present.

A good traveler arrives at a place without strong preconceived notions and allows it to take them in–or reject them, as sometimes happens. This sensitivity is what distinguishes modern travel writing from classical examples, but all excellent travelogues share the same trait in that they transport the reader to another place. When our world feels narrower due to travel restrictions and cumbersome rules, opening a book is the easiest way to break down walls.

Erica Fatland, The Border: A Journey Around Russia Through North Korea, China, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Poland, Latvia, Estonia, Finland, Norway, and the Northeast Passage.

The premise of The Border is ambitious–to travel through the countries along Russia’s long border and to understand the way the powerful neighbor influences other countries. Fatland has already written about travel in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia in her book Sovietistan, but her new journey covers many more miles, starting from North Korea, through China and Mongolia and then continuing through Central Asia into Ukraine and Belarus. Finally, the trip encompasses the Baltic states and ends in Scandinavia and Fatland’s native Norway.

Russia has always been an imposing neighbor, and many lands found themselves absorbed into its empire. With the war in Ukraine continuing, the question of how the neighbors of Russia fare is a relevant one. Moreover, places along the borders are the most sensitive zones. On the one hand, they see a vibrant exchange of ideas and influences, and on the other, conflict and strife. Fatland’s journey captures the complex and often tragic history of the countries and borderlands that she visits, and she readily shares her discoveries with the reader.

The book combines history with the personal experiences of the author as she meets different characters along her journey and explores dozens of new landscapes. My favorites parts are the encounters with people, because Fatland has a good eye for detail and captures people’s personal histories through the prism of larger events. Whether she talks to the reindeer herders on the border of Russia and Mongolia or settlers in Kazakhstan, she allows her interlocutors to share their stories and make us part of the conversation. Without entering Russia itself, Fatland gives a complex portrait of the country and a rich tapestry of its neighbors’ experiences.

Colin Thubron, The Amur River: Between Russia and China.

Another book that concerns Russia, The Amur River follows Colin Thubron as he travels along the world’s tenth-largest river, starting from its origins in northeastern Mongolia and continuing all the way to the Sea of Okhotsk. The Amur River also forms a natural frontier between Russia and China.

Thubron has a marvelous talent for making the landscape become a character in its own right, and since much of the journey is through wild frontier, such passages are compelling. We learn how the author travels on horseback, experience his pain and frustration as he struggles with injuries, and feel helpless as he’s thwarted by the police and border guards. As in Fatland’s book, the borderland is a dangerous place, and the traveler needs to be determined, clever, and courageous to continue their journey.

The fascinating aspect of The Amur River is how Thubron captures the simmering enmity between China and Russia along its border. The contrast between the two sides is also striking, with the Chinese side dotted with modern cities and the Russian with abandoned villages. After the EU and USA placed sanctions on Russia after the annexation of Crimea in 2014, it turned towards China to reinforce their economic ties. The partnership, however, has been unequal, and China took advantage of it. Without making the book too much about economics or politics, Thubron nevertheless presents a compelling analysis of the situation through his travels and encounters.

Alev Scott, Ottoman Odyssey: Travels Through a Lost Empire.

Ottoman Odyssey was published in 2019, so it doesn’t qualify as a new release, but I enjoyed it so much that I felt compelled to include it on my list. The idea for the book was to write about the legacy of the Ottoman Empire, but Scott was denied entry into Turkey because of her criticism of the regime. Not being able to return to the place where she had previously lived and visited on numerous occasions, the author was forced to explore the countries on Turkey’s borders as well as the lands where the Ottoman Empire was in control–Cyprus, Bosnia, Kosovo, Bulgaria, Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Greece, and Armenia.

Scott’s family is originally from Cyprus, and as a result, the book has a personal angle that I very much enjoyed. The author is a talented reporter, who finds unusual stories and meets fascinating characters, including those from marginalized communities, but when she makes her own story part of the narrative, the book becomes irresistible. There are moving moments such as the story of her great-great grandfather who as a doctor left Egypt to fight malaria in Cyprus. Or a mention of the longing as she sees Turkey across the water at the Greek island of Lesbos. This same longing for denied land is what makes her grandmother in London conserve the dried olive leaves from her native Cyprus and burn them on special occasions to banish dark spirits.

Like Fatland’s The Border, the book is about exploring the influence of a country from the outside, except that in Scott’s case, the search is for the ghosts of the empire. Through her peregrinations, she lets us understand how old history retains a hold over the present and how the past has the potential to shape the future. Beyond these larger topics, Ottoman Odyssey is an enjoyable book with unforgettable characters. I envision reading it more than once to experience the thrill of discovery and to inspire my own travels.

 

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25 Comments

  • Filomena: I am traveling now in Northern Italy. There are so many places in the world I would like to see, but I don’t have enough time or money left. September 12, 2022 at 9:07am Reply

    • Victoria: There are definitely so many places I want to visit. September 13, 2022 at 8:10am Reply

  • Elizabeth Ryan: Thanks so much for these recommendations. I’ve really enjoyed “Shadow of the Silk Road” by Thubron, have hoped to read more and this more timely one seems a good start. I can recommend it to my neighbor from Belarus too, possibly. Will check out the other too as well. September 12, 2022 at 9:18am Reply

    • Victoria: I was planning to read this book next. He’s a talented writer. September 13, 2022 at 8:06am Reply

  • Cezarina Mindru: Thank you for sharing. I learn so much from you. September 12, 2022 at 9:47am Reply

    • Victoria: My pleasure to share! September 13, 2022 at 8:07am Reply

  • eva g: You might be interested in Emma Fick’s recently published “Border Crossings,” which, in words and paintings, chronicles a trip on the Trans-Siberian railroad. Published by Harper Collins.

    Full disclosure: i am related to the author/artist. September 12, 2022 at 10:33am Reply

    • Victoria: Definitely adding it to my list. Thank you. September 13, 2022 at 8:07am Reply

  • Tara C: I love travel writing. Authors I have enjoyed are Sylvain Tesson, Alexandra David-Neel, Paul Theroux, Redmond O’Hanlon, Colin Thubron, and Nicolas Bouvier, author of the magnificent L’Usage du Monde. September 12, 2022 at 11:07am Reply

    • Victoria: This is a great list! September 13, 2022 at 8:07am Reply

  • Farran: Loved this review, Victoria. I may have to get all three books. I love good travel writing but someone never seem to have any on my radar. September 12, 2022 at 11:25am Reply

    • Zazie: I love your posts about books and reading everyone’s recommendations.
      Must comb through all suggestions and add to my reading list.
      I love armchair travels, and I’ve always used books to wander about, in space and time.
      The experience is very different from actual travel, but nevertheless I find it enriching and exciting in its own way.
      However, I seem to be very ignorant in the travelogue genre, and you are giving me a perfect hint on where to start!
      Thank you as always for your inspiring posts. September 12, 2022 at 12:24pm Reply

      • Victoria: I also enjoy reading everyone’s recommendations here. I already have two more books on my list. September 13, 2022 at 8:09am Reply

    • Victoria: All three are very interesting, and I think that you will enjoy them. The Amur River is probably my favorite of the three. September 13, 2022 at 8:08am Reply

      • Farran: Thanks, making a note! September 13, 2022 at 3:17pm Reply

  • Toni: What great recommendations to help us ride out the Southern California heat wave. I can’t wait to read all three books and the listing for the Trans Siberian rail I always wanted to take from Eva g. September 12, 2022 at 12:32pm Reply

    • Victoria: Please let me know what you think if you end up reading them. September 13, 2022 at 8:09am Reply

  • Galen: Oh, your descriptions were so evocative, I just put these on hold at my library. Thanks for the recommendations! September 12, 2022 at 12:54pm Reply

  • Aurora: You make those books sound marvellous, I am traveling now, I am in Drôme Provençale enjoying gorgeous weather and reading Lermontov, his descriptions of the Caucasus make me dream of going there and his stories are spellbinding. September 12, 2022 at 1:44pm Reply

    • Victoria: Reading while traveling is another pleasure altogether. Enjoy your time in Provence. September 13, 2022 at 8:10am Reply

  • Karen A: Carolyn Eden’s books, Samarkand, The Black Sea, and Red Sands are three of my favorite travel books. Plus she has great recipes in the books!( And hats off to the person who designed the covers) I’m anxiously waiting for a book she mentions in Red Sands to arrive, Through Khiva to Golden Samarkand by Ella Christie. She was the first western woman to go to Samarkand. September 13, 2022 at 9:26am Reply

    • Victoria: I’m going to add this book to my list. It sounds fascinating. September 14, 2022 at 4:05am Reply

      • Karen A: There are some great photos – especially one of her in a cart with her hat on. Also ordered Erica Fatland’s book, thought it might have been a book you wrote about a while ago then realized it is a different Border book! September 14, 2022 at 4:51pm Reply

  • My1stGradeTeacher: Thank you for sharing your travel book recommendations! I especially will seek out “The Border” travelogue. This is of particular interest bc according to my DNA I have ancestry from “North” Korea, China, Mongolia, among other Asian countries, and I’m 2% Finnish, 1% Russian. Explains my wanderlust lol. September 20, 2022 at 10:12pm Reply

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