Travel companions for people who miss the road – nutcases, artists, poets, soldiers…the voice at your side shapes the world around you, whether it’s in a book or in real life. This is a selection of books to be read when the travel bug bites hard and you can’t follow the itch but only, feebly, scratch it.
Colin Thubron – pretty much anything from the somber and poetic Englishman, offspring of a Poet Laureate. Thubron travels to the timeworn city of Damascus, through the forbidding snow-wastes of Siberia or follows the Silk Route from China into Russia. His voice is the voice of the solitary traveler, the person who becomes his surroundings and transforms them with clear melancholy. The people he meets speak clearly of loss and joy, frozen in time, ephemeral…beautiful. The closest he came to India was a journey to Mount Kailash, and it is hard to imagine his perception in the maelstrom of quotidian India, but one can imagine him crossing the Himalayas and the Hindukush or walking through the jungle valleys and hillsides of tea of Sikkim.
Tahir Shah – son of Idries Shah, the late Sufi grandmaster who lived in Britain, Tahir has inherited the flavor of language from his father. His writings mix observations and fantasies, deliberately blurring the line. I like the idea of not knowing at what point the writer decides to walk into his own head, although purists of “realistic” or observational travel writing might disapprove (although of what is not so clear to me, unless it is their own inability to separate fact from fiction). The descriptions of India and how it appears to a bemused outsider (one can find them in Sorcerer’s Apprentice) are recognizable and hilarious. His books mystify those who have no sense of the mystical and lie to those who cannot separate truth from fiction, a perfectly regular Sufi behavior, I’d say. He goes to India to become a sorcerer or rather his apprentice, so that should give you a hint to the level of humour, detachment and fantasy you should expect…as well as the level of self-importance of the author (fair warning if you’re sensitive that way).
Helena Drysdale – she moves us away from India (although she has written a book on her solitary travels in Nepal and Tibet, which I haven’t yet read), but her book Mother Tongues is a excellent account of her search for tribal communities in Europe. In a time where the Euro and maybe the European Union itself are about to scatter, this is a timely reminder of cultural uniqueness, personal identity, diversity in a continent that finds it just cannot pretend equality for too long. Drysdale travels with her husband and her two young daughters, so this becomes a family account as much as a travel book or an anthropological study. It’s fascinating and personal and leads the mind far away from the trappings of globalization and corporate identity.
Simon Allix – after the death of his brother during an accident on a road in Kashmir, Simon Allix, a graphic designer by trade, decided to create a memorial to his sibling. Mandala Mountain or Rivers of the Mandala, a beautiful picture book (for grown-ups, if you need that disclaimer) about the two brothers’ multiple journeys to and around Mount Kailash is the result. It is filled with snapshots, memorabilia, sketches and drawings taken from their travel notebooks and put together in a wonderful zany way that evokes both a bande-dessiné and a travelogue.
Olivier Föllmi – a Swiss photographer (one of my favourite photographers) who founded a vast project called Sagesse de l’humanité. He travels the world photographing people, cities, places. Having lived for several years in Tibet and the Middle East, he understands the worlds he moves through better than an outsider would and his photographs are vast and personal, calm and assured. You can pick them up in beautiful oversized hardcover books and travel through them for a few hours…or days…or months…