Perceptive Travel Book Reviews May 2019
by William Caverlee

In this issue: Strange quasi-countries you didn't know existed, the golden age of crazy explorers, and a guide to living in China as an English teacher.

Beyond the Map
Edited by Alastair Bonnett

Alastair Bonnett's collection of short essays takes us on a world tour, but Beyond the Map is no travelogue. It's a witty, brisk, thought-provoking survey of places around the world that you might never have heard of.

Bonnett gets things started with islands: like Les Minquiers, south of the Channel Islands in the English Channel, whose ownership has been the subject of considerable bickering over the years between France and Great Britain. Next, we learn about the United States Minor Outlying Islands, nine tiny dots in the ocean with a total area of thirteen square miles. In a way, all the chapters in Beyond the Map remind you of islands—distinct outcroppings of knowledge that you may be encountering for the first time.

Bonnett's tour of the world is unpredictable, almost zany. He introduces us to the Ferghana Valley, home to Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Behind a door in Rome Bonnett finds the Order of Malta, recognized as a state by some countries; in others, not. Then, there's a tract of land in the middle of Copenhagen called Christiania, "the most fully realised city-based experiment in libertarian and cooperative organisation in the world." The author describes the Dau movie set in Kharkov in the Ukraine, where director Ilya Khrzhanovsky built a movie version of Moscow and populated it with actors who were ordered to remain in character around the clock:

He was adamant that his cast and staff must fully inhabit the drab routines of 1950s Moscow. They had to live on site, and immerse themselves in the period and the place. The set wasn't merely a backdrop but a functioning place. Each 'actor' carried on with his or her character's role whether on camera or off. It was a place of food shortages and ill-fitting clothes...

Beyond the Map continues in this intriguing and unusual vein with Bonnett writing about the Yulin Underground Naval Base in China; and Shinjuku Station in Tokyo with its stories of disappearing commuters; and other unique outposts around the world—thirty-nine in all.

Most of Bonnett's places survive today and you could probably undertake a fanciful world tour by visiting them, but Bonnett doesn't recommend it. In an epilogue, he offers a wise, if somewhat unexpected, bit of advice from someone who has just written 296 pages about the wide, wide world:

Set off on foot from your own front door and head in a new direction. Don't walk quickly or have your head down, and don't give up after half an hour. Let it happen and give it time. I'm increasingly convinced that walking is the only real form of travel: everything else is just speeding past.

To the Edges of the Earth

To the Edges of the Earth
By Edward J. Larson

The next time your flight is canceled or your luggage lost, consider that it could be a lot worse:

Sharp blue ice was the worst for sledging, shredding runners and bruising men, but hidden crevasses spawned the greatest dread. "To find oneself suddenly standing on nothing, then to be brought up with a painful jerk & looking down into a pitch black nothing is distinctly disturbing, & there is the additional fear that the rope may break," Wild wrote of the sensation.

This is an ominous moment during Ernest Shackleton's trek to reach the geographic South Pole in 1909, an attempt which fell about a hundred miles short of its goal. Shackleton's exploit is one of four international feats of exploration that took place in 1909, as described by historian Edward J. Larson in To the Edges of the Earth.

The other adventurers were Australia's Douglas Mawson, who, in Antarctica with Shackleton, set out to discover the magnetic South Pole; Italy's Prince Luigi Amedeo, Duke of the Abruzzi, who set an altitude record for climbing to 24,600 feet in the Himalayas; and American Robert Peary, who claimed to have found the North Pole.

Larson holds that the year 1909 was a magical year in a golden age of exploration, a year in which newspaper readers closely followed the exploits of national heroes and fêted them grandly when (and if) they returned home with their tales of discovery and derring-do.

From chapter to chapter, Larson interweaves his principal stories—North Pole, South Pole, Himalayas—as he recounts the travails of his heroes, and their many assault teams, transport ships, and complicated logistics. I found it helpful that Larson included three sets of photographs in three different sections of the book, a section for each of the wintry, icy, terrifying locales.

Among the photos is a shot of K2, taken in 1909, by the Duke of the Abruzzi—a black-and-white stunner of a landscape. In the North Pole section, an invincible Robert Peary peers from his furry snowsuit, all mustache and valor. The shots of his dog teams and sledges struggling over some impossible icy crag will have you forswearing all ski vacations and booking your next flight to Hawaii. In the final batch of photos, the South Pole easily matches the North in invoking terror. In one shot, the three discoverers of the magnetic pole—victors, standing beside their flag in the snow—confront the camera with bedraggled beards and thousand-yard stares.

To the Edges of the Earth is an engrossing narrative, filled with human resolution, suffering, and courage. We find ourselves dealing with imperious, never-say-die heroes; European royalty; Teddy Roosevelt; accidents and death; sled dogs that had to be eaten for food; bottomless crevasses; failure; disputation; acrimony; and on occasion, triumph.

The China Option: A Guide for Millennials
By Sophia Erickson

The China Option is a detailed, up-to-the-moment guide for Westerners who are considering a stint in China as a foreign worker—more often than not, as an English teacher.

Yet there is still one golden ticket into China—teaching English, a career which must have the most favorable ratio in the world when it comes to skill vs. salary.

Erickson was in her twenties when she traveled to Beijing for a two-year sojourn, and when she obtained employment there and learned first-hand many of the pieces of knowledge she is passing on to us in this book. True to its subtitle, The China Option maintains a considerable slant towards youthful travelers. Thus, the author devotes many pages to the internet, life in the digital age, dating apps, smartphones, bank accounts...

There are dozens of useful links to websites on subjects like health insurance, airlines, railway tickets, apartment brokers, virtual private networks (for circumventing Chinese censorship), religious organizations, Mandarin language programs, employment, etc.

The author has written her guide with flair and humor. She has included numerous sidebars—one seems to pop up every few pages, like "Chinese Supermarkets," "Chinese Compliments," "Chinese Names" Also, a number of black-and-white photos are sprinkled throughout. In short, there are plenty of tips, lists, "pros and cons," and personal anecdotes from the author's own time in China—including the mishaps she experienced, the mistakes she made. All in all, here is a useful guide to spending a season or two in a foreign country.

William Caverlee is a freelance writer who has been published in numerous magazines and literary journals, including The Oxford American, Cimarron Review, Flight Journal, The Florida Review, and Louisiana Cultural Vistas. His work appears in The Writer’s Presence: A Pool of Readings, and he's the author of Amid the Swirling Ghosts and Other Essays.

See the last round of book reviews from William Caverlee

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To the Edges of the Earth

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The China Option: A Guide for Millennials

Buy The China Option: A Guide for Millennials at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
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Amazon UK