"Newby . . . recounts a mountain-side encounter with the adventurer Wilfred Thesiger: We started to blow up our air-beds. ‘God, you must be a couple of pansies,’ said Thesiger.’ "
Seeking to escape the trivialities of London’s high-fashion scene, Eric Newby went on a mountain-climbing trip to north-eastern Afghanistan’s remote Hindu Kush:
The view was colossal. Below us on every side mountain surged away it seemed forever; we looked down on glaciers and snow-covered peaks that perhaps no one has ever seen before, except from the air.
An unorthodox selection from the Telegraph of “the 20 best travel books of all time”:
1.On the Road by Jack Kerouac
2. As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning by Laurie Lee
3. Naples ‘44 by Norman Lewis
4. Coasting by Jonathan Raban
5. Travels with Charley: In Search of America by John Steinbeck
6. Notes From a Small Island by Bill Bryson
7. Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell
8. The Beach by Alex Garland
9. The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux
10. The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron
11. Venice by Jan Morris
12. In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin
13. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
14. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
15. A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby
16. Arabian Sands by Wilfred Thesiger
17. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson
18. Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene
19. The Journals of Captain Cook
20. Among the Russians by Colin Thubron
On the Road by Jack Kerouac
This book should come with a health warning aimed particularly at those in their formative years: proceed with caution, you may never be able to settle in one place again. And you might take up hitch-hiking. On The Road features a series of trips made by Kerouac and his Beat Generation friends across America in the years after the Second World War. Through the eyes of narrator Sal Paradise (Kerouac himself) the reader is transported from New York to Denver to San Francisco and LA. Along the way there’s jazz, poetry and drugs. And there’s Dean Moriarty, whose incredible thirst for life (and women) gives the book its extraordinary momentum. “The only people in life for me are the mad ones… the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles,” says Sal of his explosive travelling companion. And with those words, a thousand trips were launched…
As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning by Laurie Lee
Laurie Lee’s lyrical account of his voyages as a young man in the 1930s is a masterpiece in English travel writing. Lee, who also wrote Cider with Rosie, describes his departure from a sleepy part of the Cotswolds, to London then Spain, armed with little more than an adventurous spirit and a violin. Exhilarating, whimsical and poetic, it captures a fascinating moment in time.
Naples ’44 by Norman Lewis
Lewis arrived in war-torn Naples as an intelligence officer in 1944, ostensibly employed by the army to liaise with the locals. The year-long diary he kept is a sublime portrait of the city and its people; a starving population that has devoured all the tropical fish in the aquarium; a place where respectable women have been driven to prostitution; where he meets an extraordinary collection of characters such as the gynaecologist who "specializes in the restoration of lost virginity" and the widowed housewife who times her British lover against the clock. "Were I given the chance to be born again," writes Lewis, "Italy would be the country of my choice."
Coasting by Jonathan Raban
Coasting tells the story of the author’s 4,000-mile journey around Britain in a 32-foot ketch, using only a compass for navigation. The story, like the voyage, digresses into personal memories, while the book is a metaphor for Raban’s own life. "For years I coasted from job to job, place to place, person to person. At the first hint of adverse weather I hauled up my anchor and moved on with the tide," he said.
Travels with Charley: In Search of America by John Steinbeck
In 1960 John Steinbeck and his gregarious French poodle Charley set out in a converted pick up truck to tour the USA. The result is Travels with Charley: In Search of America, an absorbing and beautifully written account of the landscapes and people he encounters along the way. His bleak evocation of events and attitudes in the deep south reveal just how much America has changed in the past 49 years.
Notes From a Small Island by Bill Bryson
Bill Bryson’s farewell journey across the length and breadth of Britain is delivered with a combination of irreverent humour and touching nostalgia, while offering insights into our modern society. The list of Britain’s more bizarre place names and Bryson’s unerring antipathy towards some of the country’s less glamourous outposts are particularly amusing.
Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell
Part political history, part autobiography, part travelogue, George Orwell’s description of the role he played in the Spanish Civil War gives one of the most vivid English-language accounts of Barcelona at that turbulent time. It also proved agonisingly prophetic. After a being hit by a bullet (of which Orwell gives a searing account), the author returns home, where he says the inhabitants are “sleeping the deep, deep sleep of England, from which I sometimes fear we shall never wake till we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs”. The book was first published in 1938.
The Beach by Alex Garland
Alex Garland’s tale of a British backpackers’ search for paradise on earth – and the novel’s subsequent film adaptation – helped inspire a generation of gap year students to head to the Far East and is symbolic of the all-consuming escapism that travel can provide.
The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux
Paul Theroux’s first and arguably finest book, The Great Railway Bazaar recounts a four-month journey through Europe, Asia and the Middle East. An essential for any enthusiast of train travel, the book features some of the world’s greatest lines, including the Trans-Siberian and India’s Grand Trunk Express.
The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron
The Road to Oxiana, written in the form of a diary, is considered by many to be the first example of great modern travel writing (indeed some even describe it as the Ulysses of travel writing). Its subject matter is a journey made by the author in 1933/34 through the Middle East via Beirut, Jerusalem, Baghdad, and Teheran to Oxiana – the country of the Oxus, the ancient name for the river Amu Darya which forms part of the border between Afghanistan and what was then the Soviet Union. The book is a gripping, humorous account of Byron’s adventures, of the people he met along the way and of the architectural treasures of a region now only visited by the most intrepid of Western travellers.
Venice by Jan Morris
Few novels get under the skin of a city as well as Jan Morris’s Venice. The book offers a wealth of information on the city’s past and contains exquisite description. "Venice is a cheek-by-jowl, back-of-the-hand, under-the-counter, higgledy-piggledy, anecdotal city, and she is rich in piquant wrinkled things, like an assortment of bric-a-brac in the house of a wayward connoisseur, or parasites on an oyster-shell," writes Morris.
In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin
Described as a "little masterpiece of travel, history, and adventure", In Patagonia charts a six-month journey made by Bruce Chatwin in 1972 from the Rio Negro to the world’s southernmost city, Ushuaia.
The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
Widely thought to be one of Hemingway’s finest novels, The Sun Also Rises portrays the colourful ebb and flow of group of mainly 1920s American expatriates as they immerse themselves in the lives and loves of Paris and Spain. It is perhaps most memorable for the pulsating bull-fighting sequences set in Pamplona. It may also change your perception of the word ‘utilise’ forever.
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
“May in Ayemenem is a hot, brooding month. The days are long and humid. The river shrinks and black crows gorge on bright mangoes in still, dustgreen trees.” From the first page of Arundhati Roy’s atmospheric and Booker Award-winning novel, The God of Small Things, you are immersed in the heat, the sounds and the colours of the southern Indian state of Kerala.
A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby
With humour, Newby describes an ill-thought-out attempt to scale one of Afghanistan’s most challenging peaks. His inexperience gets the better of him, but readers of the much-loved book are recompensed with a hillarious segment that recounts a mountain-side encounter with the adventurer Wilfred Thesiger: "We started to blow up our air-beds. ‘God, you must be a couple of pansies,’ said Thesiger."
Arabian Sands by Wilfred Thesiger
Published in 1959, Thesiger’s account of a dangerous journey through the Arabian deserts has met with condsiderable critical acclaim since. Over the course of five years, the early explorer recorded the lives of the remote tribes he met in an often hostile land. His tales of hardships, unlikely friends and an age now passed have a timeless appeal for all travellers.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson
Surreal, sharp and consistently funny, Hunter S. Thompson’s "Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream" follows Raoul Duke and his attorney Dr Gonzo on a drug-addled trip to Las Vegas. The novel is said to owe its origins to two genuine journeys to Sin City made by Hunter S. Thompson while covering stories for Rolling Stone magazine.
Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene
Few authors give as succinct and evocative a sense of place as Graham Greene, who also wrote several straight travelogues. In the fictional Our Man in Havana, the hapless central character James Wormold becomes embroiled in a web of intrigue and espionage over which he has little control. Seen by many as a satire on the Bautista regime that preceded Fidel Castro, this manages to be both a spoof and a reflection of Cuba as it used to be.
The Journals of Captain Cook
Captain James Cook went far, far beyond his humble origins in north Yorkshire to become, arguably, the most innovative and forward-thinking of all the many explorers of the 18th century. He also kept a vivid first-hand record of his ground-breaking voyages, in which he describes new territory in the southern hemisphere, and gives colourful accounts of his time in the islands of the Pacific. This is still in publication – and an original copy of the journals can be seen in the Sir John Ritblat Gallery in the British Library in London.
Among the Russians by Colin Thubron
Colin Thubron’s contribution to the travel writing genre over the last 40 years can only be described as immense. “Among the Russians” is a vivid account of a journey he made by car from St Petersburg (then Leningrad) and the Baltic States south to Georgia and Armenia towards the end of the Brezhnev era. It brilliantly portrays the lives of ordinary Russians trapped in what was then still a very harsh Communist regime, but the characters delineated can easily be recognised in the Russia of today. Thubron’s writings on communist China, Siberia, and, more recently, the Silk Road, are equally compelling.