Perceptive Travel Book Reviews March 2013
by William Caverlee

In this issue: The dark side of central Asia's mysterious 'Stan country, a collection of pre-celebrity writings from Agatha Christie, and a detailed look at the past and present of the Appalachian Trail.

Tearing up the Silk Road
By Tom Coote

Quick, what's the difference between Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan? It doesn't say much for my education to admit that I haven't the foggiest. In fact, most of my knowledge of the area comes via Trff Bmzklfrpz, the former president of the Republic of Berserkistan in Doonesbury.

All the more reason to read Tom Coote's travelogue, an account of a gritty, overland, nine-week journey he made across Asia in 2010. Coote, rare among present-day travel writers, is not working out some deep-seated psychological problem nor seeking spiritual enlightenment, just rapidly moving onward, by bus, train, and taxi, across an often repellent landscape and letting us tag along for the ride. We may learn a thing or two about the ancient trade route linking China and Istanbul, but mostly, we're there for the sadistic fun of it all, cozy in our armchairs, while Tom Coote suffers the actual traveler's woes. Among his deadpan notes and observations:

Timur is reckoned to have killed more people than Hitler and Stalin combined; when he wasn't stacking up towers of skulls he was cementing together even more gruesome towers made of still-writhing prisoners.


This part of Almaty seemed more like the Central Asia I had expected to find. There was rubbish and people everywhere, with stalls of all sorts lining the broken, muddy pavements surrounding the enclosed bazaar. I edged past a tray of fly-ridden goats' heads and into the Turkistan Hotel.


This all came to something of a head with the Andijon Massacre. When local businessmen from the eastern city of Andijon were arrested and charged with being members of a local Islamic movement, their allies stormed the prison, leading to a massive but largely peaceful demonstration in Andijon's main square. The National Security Service troops then started to fire indiscriminately into the crowd.

This last is just one example of the post-Soviet thuggery Coote runs across in Central Asia. Plus larcenous cabdrivers, squat-hole latrines, questionable foodstuffs, and Iran's "3.5 million heroin addicts—the highest rate of any country in the world." One doesn't know whether to salute the author for blazing this daunting trail or to offer condolences.

There's an index, but no photographs in my review copy. In addition, not a single map—a glaring omission in an otherwise engaging travelogue, that seems less routine publisher's miserliness than outright spite.

The Grand Tour: Around the World with the Queen of Mystery
By Agatha Christie. Edited by Mathew Prichard

In 1922, when she was thirty-two, Agatha Christie and her first husband, Archie, joined a small group of business types in a high-flown travel junket, promoting the upcoming British Empire Exhibition, a kind of world's fair to be held in London in 1924. At the time, Christie had published three books, and, while she could certainly view herself as an author, she was far from the superstar she would later become—four billion books sold, with supposedly only Shakespeare and the Bible ahead of her in the world rankings.

Since she wasn't yet the Bill Gates of publishing, Christie was eager to sign on for a mostly free round-the-world trip, with stops in South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, Canada, and United States. The editor of the present volume, Mathew Prichard, is Christie's grandson; he has put together a collection of letters, postcards, maps, and newspaper articles, plus photographs taken by Christie and excerpts from her autobiography. All of which makes for a portrait of upper-class Europeans traveling abroad in the early twentieth century.

In one sense, Christie's photos and dispatches are precursors of blog posts, although I wonder if the travel bloggers on this webzine are as blasé as Christie when hobnobbing with the quality.

Lunch at Government House today. We arrived there and were received in the hall by a little A.D.C. who showed us a plan of the luncheon table and where we were to sit. Then we were announced and went into the drawing room where the Prince and Princess and a lot of other people were assembled.

The Grand Tour is filled with garden parties and receptions and ladies in summery dresses, but Christie also had her share of seasickness, overland treks, nasty sunburns, illness, and atrocious travel companions.

The most astonishing image is that of Christie . . . surfing! She and Archie had tried the sport in South Africa, and now, on a lengthy stay in Honolulu, she became a 1920s beach bum, even succeeding in standing up—just like the famed Hawaiian surfer, Duke Kohanamoku, whose photo I think I spotted on page 264. Christie writes:

At the word 'now' off you went, and oh, it was heaven! Nothing like it. Nothing like that rushing through the water at what seems to you a speed of about two hundred miles an hour; all the way in from the far distant raft, until you arrived, gently slowing down, on the beach, and foundered among the soft flowing waves. It is one of the most perfect physical pleasures that I have known.

Miss Marple, we never dreamed. . . .

The Appalachian Trail: Celebrating America's Hiking Trail
By Brian B. King

Much more than a coffee table book, The Appalachian Trail recounts the making of the 2,180-mile American hiking wonder that winds through fourteen eastern states, from Maine to Georgia.

With its origins in the 1920s, the trail is a singular American environmental success story—today administered by an affiliation of government agencies and private volunteer groups, all headed—wisely and benevolently, it appears—by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, the publishers of this book.

Author Brian King is a long-time staff member of the conservancy, and, accordingly, The Appalachian Trail at times reads like an in-house history, along the lines of, say, Delta: the History of an Airline or someone's memoir of the early days at PayPal. Still, King's tale is cogent, engrossing, and has its moments of drama, as when describing the conflicts between the trail's visionary founder, Benton MacKaye, and the charismatic activist, Myron Avery, who supplanted him.

Today, the conservancy staffs an office in Harper's Ferry, West Virginia, and maintains a website filled with how-to articles and lists of regulations for hikers. The trail passes through numerous state and federal parks, each with its own snarl of red tape. But both in its original formation and its present-day management, the trail is largely overseen by amateurs—local-based hiking clubs with excellent names like the Dartmouth Outing Club (New Hampshire) and the Blue Mountain Eagle Climbing Club (Pennsylvania). Think of retired firemen, Boy Scouts, and ultra-fit female radiologists clearing tree falls and repairing signposts on their own small segment of the trail, and you've got a good sense of the enterprise.

The continued existence of the Appalachian Trail, which is located in the very midst of America's most heavily populated region, lifts the spirit—especially in the face of today's global climate crisis, so blithely denied by the flat-earthers and moronic Republicans on "Science" committees in the U.S. Congress.

The Appalachian Trail isn't a guidebook; it is one-third history, two-thirds stunning photographic collection. Mountain vistas, valleys, dales, waterfalls, flora, and fauna. There's no index, but it includes an excellent, sturdy, removable map.

William Caverlee is an American freelancer who has written for numerous journals, such as The Oxford American, The Christian Science Monitor, Aviation History, Flight Journal, and Louisiana Cultural Vistas. He's the author of a collection of essays, Amid the Swirling Ghosts and Other Essays. One of his articles, on Flannery O'Connor, was reprinted in The Writer's Presence, 7th Edition.

See the last round of book reviews from William Caverlee

Also in this issue:

Tearing up the Silk Road

Buy Tearing up the Silk Road in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Fishpond (Australia)

international travel

The Grand Tour

Buy The Grand Tour in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Fishpond (Australia)

The Appalachian Trail

Buy The Appalachian Trail in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Fishpond (Australia)

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