Perceptive Travel Book Reviews May 2012
by William Caverlee

In this issue: An updated edition of the most detailed round-the-world travel book, a travel box set for the 1 percenters, and a family's personal story of escaping Chinese oppression in Tibet.

The Practical Nomad: How to Travel Around the World (5th Edition)
By Edward Hasbrouck

The chapter on air transportation in Edward Hasbrouck's The Practical Nomad takes up 148 pages—about a fifth—of this exhaustively researched handbook for around-the-world travelers. As everyone knows, trying to decipher modern-day airfares is to be trapped in a waking nightmare—one almost as unpleasant as the flight itself. For example, in today's brave new world of deregulation:

Many people think that travel websites are designed to help them get the best deals and find the lowest prices, but that's not true. With rare exceptions, they are designed to maximize the profits of airlines and travel agents by getting you to pay as much as possible for your tickets.

There are several million different published fares in effect at any given time just between points within the United States.

If you want to fly from A to C, with a stopover in B, the obvious (although not necessarily the only) choice is an airline based in B. An airline in B probably flies between A and B, and between B and C. Flying the airline of B between A and C probably requires a change of planes in B anyway, and some of the fares of the airline of B probably permit a stopover there. Distance permitting, the airlines of A and C probably fly nonstop between A and C, not stopping in B or anywhere else.

Probably, there are times in every traveler's life, snowbound, say, for thirty-six hours in an airport in Bulgaria or New Jersey, that you'd sell the souls of your children to be back home upon a Barcalounger, watching reruns of Two and a Half Men. Hasbrouck, however, doesn't have the liberty to opt out in such ways in his 712-page handbook (fifth edition); indeed, The Practical Nomad is a stunning achievement of data gathering and travel lore. Chapters on rail, road, and water transportation adjoin the section on air travel. Next comes an overview of documents: passports, visas, etc. Take heed: "In 1993, an entire tour group from Malaysia was arrested on arrival in Boston by immigration officials who couldn't believe that they were really tourists on a US$6,000 per person around-the-world package tour, rather than illegal immigrants . . ."

Then there's baggage, border crossings, safety, and cameras.

The Practical Nomad includes a hundred-page appendix with names of books, magazines, and websites geared to RTW travelers. Here are guidebooks and links on every imaginable topic: Hostelling International; Go Girl! The Black Woman's Book of Travel Adventure; Cruise & Freighter Travel Association; even this webzine.

Regarding U.S. Department of State publications, Hasbrouck advises, "Don't count on too much from the U.S. government."

TASCHEN 4 Cities
By Angelika Taschen

Boxed sets of books used to be humble affairs: three or four mass-market paperbacks of All Creatures Great and Small or The Lord of the Rings, given as Christmas presents to your aunt in Des Moines or your nephew at Southern Methodist University. Leave it to TASCHEN publishers to re-invent the genre as a glossy art object.

The cube-like box for 4 Cities is as colorful as a museum-gift-shop Matisse: designer blue, purple, pink, and pea-green motifs, matching the slender spines of the slender books within. Three books per city (New York, Paris, London, Berlin) for a total of twelve volumes—each about 4¾ by 6¾ inches—booklets almost. Inside are mainly photographs, with text limited to a paragraph or two of breezy description (in English, German, and French—the triple translations beef things up a bit.) Still, a handsome enough gift-set with excellent photography, design, bindings, etc.

Author Angelika Taschen has chosen three themes: "Hotels," "Shops," and "Restaurants, Bars & Cafés," thus insuring that 4 Cities will resemble the print version of an infomercial. Targeted readership? That familiar shambling herd of the rich and super-rich that keeps Tiffany & Co., Claridge's, and La Maison Guerlain in business. To be fair, 4 Cities includes a number of small shops and cafés plausible to non-millionaires. But for the most part, the boxed set feels like a wish-book for fashionistas, American stockbrokers, and displaced Mittel-European nobility. The next time you're in Paris, for example, don't forget to book a three-bedroom Imperial suite at the Hôtel Ritz—for only 13,900 euros per night.

Gourmands may find it odd that only a few of the photographs of restaurants contain pictures of food—even the Paris volume—most are interior shots of table settings and dining rooms. That's like a book on Marilyn Monroe consisting of pictures of her clothes closet. At least the New York volume contains a magnificent corned beef on rye, next to an equally awe-inspiring pastrami on rye, from Katz's Delicatessen, a famous Lower East Side sandwich joint, which, as it happens, is the most democratic and appealing institution in the entire set.

To my surprise, the "Shops" section of all four cities featured local TASCHEN bookstores. This seemed egregious, like the editor of a poetry anthology including a dozen of his own poems, especially for an enterprise of so-called international hauteur. Then I remembered that TASCHEN is the publisher of The Big Book of Breasts, The Big Butt Book, The Big Book of Pussy, and a trove of other literary classics. Well, hurrah for naked people, I say, and saying that, I decide to quit worrying about an over-cooked confection like 4 Cities. Best just to lean back and enjoy the pictures.

Across Many Mountains: A Tibetan Family's Epic Journey from Oppression to Freedom
By Yangzom Brauen

In the 1997 Martin Scorsese film, Kundun, the twenty-two-year-old Dalai Lama flees Tibet for refuge in India, after his country's take-over and depredation by the People's Republic of China. It is 1959. That same year, thousands of other Tibetans fled into India, including Yangzom Brauen's grandmother, grandfather, her then six-year-old mother and her mother's younger sister.

They planned to cross the Himalayas on foot, despite having little money and no idea of the trials and tribulations they would meet along the way. They were equipped with nothing but homemade leather shoes, woolen blankets, a large sack of tsampa—ground, roasted barley—and the certainty that escaping to the country that had taken in the Dalai Lama was their only chance of survival.

Across Many Mountains is a family memoir, a highly cinematic adventure story (the author is an actress), and a timely polemic (the Dalai Lama submitted a blurb for the front cover and the book's appendix lists Tibetan support agencies). Born of a Tibetan mother and a patrician Swiss father, Brauen grew up in a cultured Swiss enclave but has embraced her mother's heritage, serving as president of the Tibetan Youth Association in Europe and once getting herself arrested while protesting in Moscow.

As I write these words in the spring of 2012, the latest in a series of Tibetan protesters against the Chinese has just set himself on fire in New Delhi, India. Graphic, horrific photographs of flame-engulfed Jampa Yeshi, 26, have instantly spread across the internet, not to mention YouTube. Much of Across Many Mountains is set in the first half of the twentieth century, yet, clearly, it is a story with acute relevance to present-day Tibet. Still, Across Many Mountains isn't simply a political tract; if anything, it is a document of fidelity, courage, and love across three generations: Brauen, her mother, and her grandmother.

In 2008, the author was in Los Angeles, watching television images of the pre-Olympics demonstrations in Tibet, initiated by monks of the Sera monastery in Lhasa. For those of us with short memories, she recounts that not-so-distant history:

The Chinese security forces didn't intervene until monks from other monasteries joined in the demonstrations and the protest spread to central Lhasa. Young people took to the streets, looting stores owned by Han Chinese, setting cars alight and defending themselves with violence against the police. When the first pictures of the uprising went around the world, the Chinese security forces took a tough stand. Shots were fired at monks and Tibetan civilians, killing at least eighty people, most of them Buddhist monks. Only the Chinese authorities know the exact number of deaths; they imposed a news blackout on Tibet. Western journalists were not allowed in, and those who were already there had to leave the country immediately.

Four years later, in 2012, as the terrible pictures of Jampa Yeshi's self-immolation spread across the globe, Chinese authorities blamed it on the Dalai Lama.

William Caverlee is a contributing writer for the Oxford American magazine, and the author of Amid the Swirling Ghosts and Other Essays, from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press, His articles have appeared in numerous magazines and literary journals, and in the anthology, The Writer's Presence (Bedford/St. Martins, 2012).

See the last round of book reviews from William Caverlee

Also in this issue:

The Practical Nomad

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

international travel

TASCHEN 4 Cities

Buy TASCHEN 4 Cities in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Fishpond (Australia)

Across Many Mountains

Buy Across Many Mountains in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Fishpond (Australia)

Sign Up