5 Classic Travel Books You Shouldn’t Miss

These underrated narratives—by intrepid travelers who explored the world on horseback, foot, and bicycle—should snag a spot on your reading list.

5 Classic Travel Books You Shouldn’t Miss

Ever heard of Dervla Murphy (bottom right)? Her travel story may be among the ones contemporary readers have overlooked.

Images courtesy of istockphoto; Dervla Murphy image courtesy of Eland

The next time you bemoan the miseries of flying today, consider the challenges that earlier travelers faced, exploring the world without such conveniences as cell phones, ride-sharing apps, and air-conditioning. In the following five accounts, notable traveler-writers provide compelling insight into other times and places. If you’ve missed reading these classic travel books, you can make up for it now.

Full Tilt: Ireland to India With a Bicycle by Dervla Murphy, 1965

The first of many travel books by this Irish writer recounts her solo bicycle journey across Europe and Asia to India.
Birthday gifts of an atlas and bike at age 10 fire Murphy’s imagination. Two decades later, she set off from Dunkirk to Delhi: “The preparations had been simple; one of the advantages of cycling is that it automatically prevents a journey from becoming an Expedition.” She is undeterred by record cold in Europe, which is glossed over in a few pages. The book focuses on her time in Asia. This is budget travel; she spent 75 pounds for a trip of 3,000 miles and six months (less than $2,000 in today’s terms).

Roads so rough she has to walk her bike, people aghast that she is traveling alone (she refuses a Jeep ride from an American engineer, who declares her “a goddamn nut-case”), a cracked rib: such obstacles don’t discourage her. They are offset by locals who welcome her. Especially interesting are her comments on Russian and American efforts she encounters to “modernize” Afghanistan.

Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, 1939

Although the author is best known for The Little Prince, he also wrote several travel books. This one focuses on his experience as a pilot, conveying mail, not passengers, between France and Africa in the 1920s, a pioneering time of international aviation.

He also recounts flying through a cyclone in the southern Andes, nights alone in the Sahara because of weather or mechanical problems, and in his longest chapter, a disastrous flight from Paris to Saigon in 1935. In preparing for that trip, he packs maps and a bag containing a razor and a spare shirt, noting, “He who would travel happily must travel light.”

This philosopher/poet/romantic offers lyrical descriptions of flying at night and understanding the desert: “One of the miracles of the airplane is that it plunges a man directly into the heart of mystery.” His adventures as a pilot are vivid reminders of a time when flying was novel and dangerous.

Renowned writers like George Orwell and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry didn’t just write fiction—their travel writing is also worth a read.

Renowned writers like George Orwell and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry didn’t just write fiction—their travel writing is also worth a read.

Clockwise from top left: courtesy of Eland; Penguin Random House; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; Lyons Press, an imprint of The Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group All Rights Reserved

The Valleys of the Assassins and Other Persian Travels by Freya Stark, 1934

Chapter one opens: “In the wastes of civilization, Luristan is still an enchanted name.” Luristan? Welcome to Stark’s exotic world. A childhood reading of The Arabian Nights launched an interest in Arabic that led her in the early 1930s to remote western Iran, where no known Englishwoman had visited before. She ventures into a land where an eclipse of the moon upsets locals and her flashlight impresses impoverished tent dwellers.

Journeying by horseback with frequently inept guides, she brings letters of introduction, canned sheep’s tongue and sardines, a Burberry—and curiosity. Besides being intrepid, she’s observant: a young tribesman “rode his wild little pony like a centaur”; a stream is “bright as a bird’s eye.”

Although she hunts for treasure in graves and maps unexplored territory, Stark declared that she had no sense of responsibility or purpose: “I traveled single-mindedly for fun.” She also despairs of the “disease to be doing something always, as if one could never sit quietly and let the puppet show unroll itself before one.” Stark is as interesting as her journeys; try the biography of her, Passionate Nomad, by Jane Fletcher Geniesse.

The Long Walk by Slavomir Rawicz, 1956

The title is an epic understatement, but its subtitle notes a key point: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom. For Rawicz, “Freedom is like oxygen” to be treasured. In this account of his escape from a Soviet labor camp in 1941, he walks under dire conditions to India.

This young Polish cavalry officer, accused of espionage, is sentenced to 25 years of hard labor. After weeks of marching in winter to a Siberian prison camp a few hundred miles south of the Arctic Circle, he is eager to escape. By spring, he and five other prisoners get out and head south, traveling at night initially. No maps, little food, and sore feet are constant issues. By June, they have reached Mongolia, an oasis of friendly locals, before striking across the Gobi Desert. Later, they journey across Tibet. Not all reach safety in British-occupied India.

After his ordeal, Rawicz settled in England and in the early 1950s dictated his story to British journalist Ronald Downing. Some critics have claimed his journey—4,000 miles in hostile territory over a year—is too fantastic to be true.

Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell, 1933

Published when he was 30, this book is urban travel, a gritty tale of adventure among the poor, from tramps to cocaine smugglers. It is a blend of memoir and highly autobiographical fiction.
Orwell is living very modestly in Paris when a robbery reduces him to poverty, of which he writes: “You thought it would be simple; it is extraordinarily complicated. You thought it would be terrible; it is merely squalid and boring.”

After reading his behind-the scenes descriptions of his life as a plongeur, a sort of dishwasher/kitchen slave, at an expensive Paris hotel, you may hesitate to dine out again. Orwell has only disdain for his employer and the guests, mostly American: “One customer, from Pittsburgh, dined every night in his room on grape-nuts, scrambled eggs and cocoa. Perhaps it hardly matters whether such people are swindled or not.”

When he returns to London, to find a promised job will not start for another month, he is reduced to a vagabond existence. “Colorful” is one word for the people he encounters. He also includes a section on London slang and swearing. The future master of the essay and coiner of such terms as “Big Brother,” “newspeak,” and “crimethink” is evident in this, his first book.

Pat Tompkins has written for AFAR about books, art, UNESCO World Heritage sites, and other topics.
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