A novel approach to travel

In 1998 I became interested in the Silk Road, so a friend lent me a book, “The Silk Road — A Novel of Eighth Century CHINA” by Jeanne Larsen. It was interesting for the places, the place of women and a bit of magical realism.

Shortly thereafter the catalog from Elderhostel (Boston, MA; 877/426-8056 or www.elderhostel.org) came and while I was leafing through it a program called “The Silk Road” jumped out at me (similar program still being offered – Editor). I read the notes and discovered the trip was going to most of the places in the book. I told my husband, “We have to do this.”

It was a wonderful trip from Beijing out to Dunhuang, which is a very interesting town sitting between the Gobi and Takla Makan deserts. Having grown up with, in school, movies of Roy Chapman Andrews’ treks across the Gobi, that was one of the romantic places on Earth I thought I would never see.

We spent time in Lanzhou, where there is a large university, and saw what China is trying to do to stop desertification. They also are trying to develop wheat and other crops that will grow in desert soil. We saw the end of the Great Wall outside Jiayuguan, took a side trip down to Tibet and, of course, went to Xi’an, the early capital of the country and the starting point of the Silk Road.

Elderhostel had another Silk Road trip beginning in Dunhuang and going west to Urumqi and the border of China, and they talked about combining the trips, but that would have been very long and expensive. Our trip was three weeks and we did just half of the Chinese part of the Silk Road.

Nashville, TN

The idea of sharing favorite novels with international settings really appeals to me. I have found many destinations through my reading. I will try to keep the authors in groups, according to the countries they have written about.

The first is Martin Cruz Smith for “Gorky Park,” “Red Square,” “Polar Star” and “Wolves Eat Dogs,” all with a setting in RUSSIA. (He also has “December 6,” set in JAPAN, and “Havana Bay,” in CUBA.)

For EGYPT, readers should try Lawrence Durrell’s “Alexandria Quartet” as well as “Palace Walk” by Naguib Mahfouz. Both of these authors are superb.

On the same continent but way down in BOTSWANA is the wonderful Alexander McCall Smith’s “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” and the five sequels. I recently discovered these little gems and read them rapidly, one after the other.

In SOUTH AFRICA there are many, many authors to chose from. I also recently discovered Lynn Freed and read her novel “The Bungalow.” She has written several other novels, all entertaining.

Hilary Mantel wrote “Eight Months on Ghazzah Street,” with a SAUDI ARABIA setting. This book was my first experience in reading about the difficulties for Western women in a Moslem country.

In 2004 I read “The Beach” by Alex Garland, which took place in THAILAND. Also in Southeast Asia are Tim O’Brien’s award-winning “Going After Cacciato” and Graham Greene’s “The Quiet American.”

On to AUSTRALIA and NEW ZEALAND for “A Town Like Alice” by Nevil Shute and “The Potato Factory” by Bryce Courtenay. If you like mysteries, try Arthur Upfield, who wrote over a dozen books with an Australian background.

Although not a novel but a memoir, Vera Brittain’s “Testament of Youth” made me decide to visit MALTA. Her description of the little island stayed with me long after I finished her book!

For some destinations I read James Michener to get as much info as possible before I leave. It is a grind trying to get through his tomes, but one does gain some useful material.

For SCOTLAND you only have to read Ian Rankin’s mysteries. He is the number-one mystery writer in Great Britain. Rankin recommended Denise Mina, so I tried her mysteries and learned even more about Scotland.

John Farrow writes about Montreal, CANADA, in “City of Ice.” Newfoundland has a great writer named Donna Morrissey, who created the novel “Kit’s Law.”

EUROPE is represented by Peter Hoeg’s “Smilla’s Sense of Snow” and Joseph Kanon’s “The Good German.” Paris is described beautifully in Sarah Smith’s “The Knowledge of Water.”

My favorite books using ENGLISH cities as settings are Jane Austen’s “Persuasion” (Bath) and Dorothy L Sayers’ “Gaudy Night” (Oxford).

As you can see, reading is my passion, but travel is close behind!

Charleston, SC

Before we ever thought we’d go to INDIA, we listened to the tape of John Irving’s “A Son of the Circus.” Perhaps it was his tenderly humorous tale that first made us think of India as not so foreign, after all. Once there, in November ’04, we quickly found touchstones from his story in the horrendous traffic, the emphasis on personal relations and the syntax of Indian English (as in “That man is being dead”).

Best of all was the turbaned cashier at our hotel in Agra. His accent was right off the tape, and his repertoire of facial expressions, hand-wringing and head wagging as he apologized for the lack of service was a perfect example of life imitating art.

Newcastle, WA

What a wonderfully intriguing question posed by David Glass. I often have traveled “by the book” but have never compiled more than a mental list. I read several of the older books before it ever occurred to me that I could travel. My dreams were just fantasies. The following list is not all books but includes movies and photographs.

“The Egyptian” by Mika Waltari — EGYPT. I read this in junior high and it was my first book from the adult section of the library.

“Logbook for Grace” by Robert Cushman Murphy — PATAGONIA. I read this account of the last whaling trip by a sailing ship in my little ivory tower, a Vail lift-ticket booth, in the ’70s. I thought then that going to Mexico was a scary adventure.

“Log of the Sea of Cortez” by Steinbeck — MEXICO. The Baja was the first place I visited because of a book and it remains my favorite part of the world; seven trips have not changed my mind.

“Sands of Kalahari” by William Mulvihill — BOTSWANA. This country delivered all that the book promised and more.

“Into the Heart of Borneo” by Redmond O’Hanlon — BORNEO. This was another fantasy that became a trip, one that I just completed. The headhunters are gone, but the leeches and stunning rainforest remain.

“Under the Tuscan Sun” by Frances Mayes — ITALY. Who could not want to visit Tuscany after reading this book? I have been to Cortona and have even seen Marisol.

The original “Flight of the Phoenix” (filmed in Arizona and California), along with “The English Patient,” a movie filled with splendid scenery of desert in Tunisia, inspired me to want to visit MOROCCO, about the closest I could get to the sand and dunes.

“Fitzcarraldo” — AMAZON. This marvelous movie, directed by Werner Herzog and starring Klaus Kinski and Claudia Cardinale, prompted an enduring interest in the Amazon. I watch this movie at least once a year to get my Amazon fix.

“Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” — JORDAN. As I watched Harrison Ford and Sean Connery race by the rock-carved façade in Petra, I knew I had to find out where this exquisite place was. The credits led me to Jordan and the Rose Red City.

In 1997 in Ushuaia, Argentina, I stumbled upon the original Frank Hurley photographs of the Shackleton voyage* in a display in the lobby of Los Glacieres Hotel and I knew I had to go to the ANTARCTIC. When I saw these splendid photos, I did not even know who Shackleton was.

Sometimes I’m afraid to read a new international book because then I want to go there. My newest book is “Colors” by Victoria Finlay, who travels the world looking for the origins of paints and their colors.

Littleton, CO

*The book “South With Endurance” contains Frank Hurley’s photographs, some of which can be found in Alfred Lansing’s account of Shackleton’s adventure, “Endurance.”

I have a passion for horses, and so when public television had a special on Julia Roberts visiting MONGOLIA, I not only watched it but taped it. Many winter evenings I would watch Julia as she stayed in a ger with a Mongolian family and taught me about life in Mongolia. My dream was to travel there and see the Naadam Festival, sleep in a ger and see the taki (horses) in their natural habitat.

Four years after seeing the show, in July ’04, I did go to Mongolia. Now, I know I don’t look like Julia Roberts, but I did feel like her as I rode a Mongolian horse on the steppes, slept in a ger and walked three times around an ovoo (a pyramid-shaped collection of stones, wood, etc., used as a traditional offering to the gods). I even drank mare’s milk! The trip was truly awesome.

Just before I left on my trip I saw a movie in the theater called “The Weeping Camel,” showing life in the Gobi Desert. Right about that time a new book was published, “Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World” by Jack Weatherford, adding to my knowledge of Mongolia. I would love to visit Mongolia again, and maybe someday I will.

New Hope, MN

I can tell you about two writers who fed my budding passion and lifelong romance with travel to exotic shores. As a teenager and young adult, I read the novels and short stories of W. Somerset Maugham and Graham Greene. Both writers transported me to far-off places and introduced me to wonderful people.

One of the things that attracted me to these two writers in particular was their ability to create ordinary characters who just happen to be in extraordinary situations or settings, such as in Maugham’s classic story “The Letter,” set on a rubber tree plantation in MALAYSIA.

These marvelous stories implanted in me the idea that travel abroad was accessible to anyone, even a kid from California’s Mojave Desert. I still keep collections of their work in my library.

Stuart, FL