21 tales, of the famous, not-so-famous and the once-famous-and-now-forgotten. 21 stories of travel, in the days before maps, GPS, before international health insurance, before UN safe zones.
21 very different men and women, who undertook their journeys for a myriad of different reasons. Some were planned, some thrust upon them. Some of the travellers survived, some did not. Eight women are featured, mainly Western women (presumably because in those times they had greater access and freedom to travel than their Eastern sisters), and their stories are more remarkable as it was then relatively unheard of that a woman would undertake the kinds of challenges that these women did.
The author groups her tales to each of the land masses (e.g. Africa), and then tries to keep the various related tales within a historical timeline. Starting with the exodus from Africa in pre-history, for example, the author moves to the “father of history” Herodotus in the 5th century BC and his Egyptian adventures, then to the Portuguese slavers, and European explorers.
Eurasia and Scandinavia “begin” with the travels of the cultured Arab ibn Fadlan, and his invaluable (to us) eye-witness account of the early Rus/Vikings/Varangians as they fought and traded in tenth century Byzantium. Women travellers feature prominently here, having two of the eight female heroine stories. I shall forever have the image of Gladys Aylward walking the Trans-Siberian railroad, surrounded by howling wolves. Different generation indeed….
The Med and the Middle East stories are of two men I had never heard of, Daniel and Rabban, and one I have, Montaigne. Daniel wanted to travel to the Holy Land from Ukraine, and had to rediscover the routes himself, as no-one previously had written down their experiences (or else the writings were lost). There was no communication network, so he had to forge his own. Rivers were his main mode of transport, and travellers were exposed to various bandits and natural barricades. Rabban Sauma, a monk under Kublai Khan, left Mongolia also to find the Holy Land. However, his journey proved to be more convoluted and eventful, lasting a full twelve years, and is worthy of a book in its own right.
Central Asia and India are seen through three sets of eyes, two female and one male. The male was an ascetic monk, the women a born rebel in Belgian Alexandra David-Neel [First foreign woman to enter Lhasa] and also an author of numerous books, and a British woman who chose evangelisation in 1901 China [Boxer Rebellion!] over marriage.
South East Asia and the Pacific introduced me to 17th century Matsuo Basho, possibly the greatest of all Japanese Haiku poets. (His story inspired me to look up his verse on PoemHunter – some is just sublime). There is also the sneaked-in story of the female poet Abutsu-ni, who lived 400 or so years earlier. The inspiring Isabella Bird travels to reclusive Japan in the late 19th Century – an impressive feat for a woman suffering with a painful spinal defect, and the impetuous Marianne North began her famous world collection of flowers and other botanical species, as well as her paintings. We finish with the Scot Robert Louis Stevenson, as he travelled across the Pacific, not knowing if he ever would return to Scotland.
Finally, the Americas. South and North are represented, with voyages through the Amazon, Latin America and the crossing of the continental US on a penny farthing bike.
What I Liked:
- The variety. There were a lot of stories and people I had never heard of, and I loved getting to travel with them. These people were, mostly unknowingly, living history, and giving us a view of a vanished world, and a more personal slant on what we would know as general historical fact (e.g. 19th century China).
- The research was excellent, and I thought the author made the structure of the book very easy to read. It can be read straight through, as I did, or the reader can dip in and out, as I plan to do many times in the future.
- The sense of the world being bigger then than now, fresher and more full of marvel, compared to the jaded tourist traps of today. For me, these books just drive home again how different our ancestors were to us, even those living a bare 100 years ago. I feel that, if they had had the technology available to them that we have, they would have long since colonised the stars!
What I Didn’t Like:
- Not enough stories!!! The author could, I’m sure, have put in another 100 narratives, and each would be different.
It is always humbling to read of such ordinary people doing such extraordinary things, without the means and support available that we have. The pace of life is inevitably quicker now, but the richness of experience that some of these people had cannot be bought. Who today would travel by cart across the Gobi desert? Could we really aspire to twice circumnavigating the world like Ida Pfeiffer, and collecting over 2,000 specimens each time?
The author brings the characters to life, and has drawn on numerous sources to ensure historical accuracy, as far as possible. This is a truly fantastic read, which gives colour to every period of history it covers. I really liked this, and thoroughly recommend it.
Thanks to the author who gave me a pdf of this book, in return for an honest and objective review.