“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
It’s a strange time to be alive. We are living in moments that are more relatable to fiction than reality. Isn’t it ironic that I open this article with a quote from a fiction novel when I intend to talk about places that exist in real life?
But what these lines infer is more relevant today than ever before.
These are times that everyone hoped they’d never have to face in their lives. But here we are navigating this uncertainty in the best way we can.
We are busy finding ways to keep ourselves engaged in doing things that we have either wanted to do all our lives or have never done before. Reading, for most of us, falls in the former category.
Although that feeling of wanderlust has come to a standstill, in reality, the mind has no such restrictions. With the help of books, we can let it soar, explore, and meet people that, at least for now, can satiate our desire to travel.
So, here is a list of five must-read travel books that can help you get past the mundaneness of everyday life by introducing you to remarkable offbeat destinations and memorable journeys.
Black Lamb and Grey Falcons by Rebecca West
Formerly known as Yugoslavia and now divided into many independent countries, the Balkans have been seeing ethnic tension in some form even today. This book, first published in 2007, is a vast but magnificent blend of history, travel journal, and cultural commentary on the region.
The author, at most times, objectively illustrates the people and the landscape of the region, which was, at that time, on the brink of World War II. It is a journey that you undertake with her and her companion as you traverse the breathtaking landscape of the Balkans.
I admit it does not give all the answers. But it will arm you with keys. Keys that will help you unlock doors to people’s hearts and minds when you finally visit this region.
Rings of Season: Iceland, Its Culture and History by Terry G Lacy
The land of ‘fire and ice’ has gained a lot of fan following recently. Magnificent is an understatement to describe its natural beauty. Its dramatic landscapes remain the main draw for most visitors. But a trip here remains incomplete without an understanding of its people and culture.
Written by an American author who has lived in Iceland for twenty-four years, Rings of Season will add a new dimension to your views of the country. It brings a perspective of a local as well as an outsider. Terry explores how Iceland’s history and the raw landscape have shaped the people of this wealthy society, which reveres this land and conserves the resources it provides them.
Originally published in 2000, the book does seem a little outdated, but most of the information is so reliable it stays relevant even today. It lucidly brings together the history, geology, and culture of one of the oldest democracies in the world whilst transporting the reader to a land where nature makes the rules.
Vietnam: Rising Dragon by Bill Hayton
With its eastern borders kissing the South China Sea (called the Eastern Sea by the Vietnamese), this tiny nation, shaped like a dragon, packs in quite a punch. With about 92 million people packed in an area that is 1/10th the size of India, some of its cities tend to get quite crowded. But the country’s famed natural beauty isn’t too far outside of its main cities
Describing contemporary times with a historical context, Rising Dragon illustrates the dichotomy that Vietnam faces. It brings forth an anomaly of a nation that is looking toward a capitalist market under Communalism.
The book serves you well before and during your travels. Many of the scenarios described can be experienced first-hand, given that the impressions of the writer are recent and fresh. Being a journalist and an ex-pat in Vietnam has given Bill a ringside view of the changing political and cultural climate in the country, which he pertinently illustrates in his writing.
Beyond the Sky and the Earth: A Journey Into Bhutan by Jamie Zeppa
This remote and unspoiled landlocked country has been a land of intrigue for many. Sandwiched between China and India, it has very recently opened its border to allow tourists a glimpse of its natural treasures. Though the access still is restricted and controlled.
In this book, which is more than a travel memoir, Jamie Zeppa takes the reader on a journey that not only navigates Bhutan’s landscape but also the rocky ride of self-realization. Through her adventures over three years, which she spent teaching in Bhutan, Jamie brings you closer to this wondrous country and its people.
It probably isn’t a unique story, but the writing and setting add a touch of exotic charm to it. After all, a book set in a country that measures its Gross National Happiness Index is worth every minute you spend uncovering its treasures.
The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux
This final suggestion is not about a destination but the journey. A journey that we all undertake to a destination but rarely sit back to enjoy it. With the world drawing closer and distances becoming shorter with faster means of transport, a lot is lost in the transition between one destination and the other.
In this 1975 classic, the author journals his travels by train from London to Tokyo and back. His observations sometimes are lopsided but paint a fascinating picture of the charm that train travel holds, something that is relevant even today.
The Great Railway Bazaar is about trains, a lot of adventure, and a bit of nostalgia. It is a journey that takes you on a grand continental tour bringing you closer to the people that make the trip worthwhile.
Travel books can, therefore, become a window to the world and have the power to change your view of it. With them, you can embark on a journey to distant lands without ever leaving your armchair.