Perceptive Travel Book Reviews July 2011
by William Caverlee

In this issue:Colin Thubron's new Tibet book, a long journey by container ship, and a 19,000-mile trip to hit all the lower 48 U.S. states.

To a Mountain in Tibet
By Colin Thubron

Around 2009, the redoubtable travel writer, Colin Thubron, trekked from Nepal into Tibet in order to circumambulate Mount Kailas, a dome-shaped Himalayan pinnacle, sacred to millions. I say "around 2009" since nowhere in Thubron's To a Mountain in Tibet could I find the exact dates his travelogue covers. I had to decipher scattered, sidelong clues like "It is over a year since the pre-Olympics riots in Lhasa." Nor does he tell us the number of days he walked, from when to when, or even his age. I learned from Wikipedia that he was born in 1939. If that is so and if my other detective work is correct, then surely to have hiked (for weeks? months?) in the Himalayan plateau is an exploit to boast about, not hide under a bushel.

Mount Kailas (22,000 ft.) is located in remote western Tibet, hundreds of miles from the glamorous peaks of Everest and Annapurna. To four religions—Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, and Bon—it is a holy place, the home of gods. It is the source of four major rivers. It has never been climbed.

This last astonishing fact, according to Thubron, is due partly to its technical difficulty and partly to its religious/cultural significance. A couple of attempts have been made, one in 1926, another in the 1980s, but today, it would be considered extreme bad form to attempt an assault.

While no one ascends Kailas, thousands make the circular trek around its base—a walk known as a kora. Kailas may be at the end of the world, but large numbers of believers make their way there every year:

The pilgrim prays for disease to leave his cattle, for a higher price for his butter, for luck in sex or gambling. She wants a radio, and a child. Such matters belong to the Buddhas and tutelary spirits of a place. In the lonely hermitages, the gompas, around Kailas, they will offer the spirits incense to smell, a little rice to eat, a bowl of pure water. And somewhere in these wilds they may whisper to the fierce mountain gods to bring back the Dalai Lama to Lhasa, and drive the Chinese out.

For the most part, To a Mountain in Tibet is straightforward travel-writing—Thubron's long grueling ascent from Nepal to the base of Kailas—except where he intersperses a family narrative, one which he suggests is the motivation for this journey: his grief for his dead father, mother, and sister. Fortunately, Thubron's taciturnity prevents these passages from falling into an Oprah confessional. The second half of the book is the actual circumnavigation of Kailas—a stalwart bit of high altitude trekking. Many physically unfit pilgrims have to turn back; some die. At times in To a Mountain in Tibet, I found myself learning more than I wanted about the esoterica of Eastern religion, but Thubron's ever alert eye offers us one memorable scene after another:

Close by the village, to my astonishment, we cross a stream whose waters flow warm against our hands, and bluish smoke drifts in the gully above. Curious, we follow the path up, and soon the stink of sulphur rises above green-tinted rocks. A young woman is bathing in the strange river, naked to the waist, and turns from us unperturbed. We reach a clearing where the stream is boiling hot to the touch. . . . In January, a farmer tells us, villagers come out and sleep for nights on end above the vaporous river—it boosts their health in winter, they say—then bathe each morning in the freezing springs nearby.

Time Zones, Containers and Three Square Meals a Day
By Maria Staal

In 2003, when she was thirty-three, Maria Staal traveled as a passenger on the German-owned container ship, Serenity River. The trip took her from Italy to Singapore to Korea, then back to Singapore and Italy, then across the Atlantic to the United States, finally returning to La Spezia.

Staal, a Dutch native who writes in English, rode free in exchange for compiling a guidebook for future passengers aboard the ships of the Ariel Rügen Shipping Company: she more or less invented the job. Countless backpackers are no doubt kicking themselves this very minute for not dreaming up such a plum gig.

Serenity River had quarters for four or five passengers, in addition to a crew of twenty (German and Filipino). During several legs of the journey, Staal was the only passenger aboard—the only woman as well—and her account deals chiefly with ordinary life on ship. About herself, Staal is reticent to the point of secretive: we learn that she's a vegetarian, hates smoking, studied construction engineering, has a married brother and parents in the Netherlands—and that's about it. On the other hand, perhaps a travelogue by an author who keeps her own counsel is a salutary change from all those travel books which are actually autobiographies or psychological tell-alls.

The author walks us through most of the 225-meter Serenity River, from fo'c'sle to engine room to galley to bridge: she includes a number of helpful maps and several dozen black-and-white photographs. There are storms at sea, threats of piracy, and endless mind-numbing days of oceanic lint-gathering. While, overall, I admired Staal's authorial aloofness, questions kept coming to my mind about her travels as a solitary woman in a predominately man's world. Also, about navigation, pilotage, the contents of all those steel containers (laptops? livestock? lampshades?), the intricacies of maritime shipping, commerce and logistics, engines and romance. . . . The author answered few of these questions.

As a prose stylist, Staal writes in what I'll call International-English Opaque, and she employs a straightforward diarist's form:

I joined in the next game and the guys soon realised that indeed I knew how to play tong-its. After about half-a-dozen games I had enough.

"It is getting a bit late," I said looking at my watch. "I'm going to bed." I stood up and grabbed my laptop from the table. "I will see you guys tomorrow. Thanks for letting me play."

"You're welcome, and don't forget you can always join us for cards again."

"I will remember. Goodnight."

Well, not every travel-writer is a John McPhee, but the limitations of Staal's prose will disappoint many readers. Still, in numerous human interactions, such as her unaffected, relaxed, platonic friendship with the Filipino crew members above, Staal proves herself to be that rarest of international tourists: a model traveler, modest, open-minded, decent.

States of Confusion: My 19,000-Mile Detour to Find Direction
By Paul Jury

Jack Kerouac published On the Road in 1957. John Steinbeck published Travels with Charley in 1962. Soon came TV's Route 66, then Easy Rider, Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters, Arlo Guthrie's VW microbus, Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, William Least Heat-Moon's Blue Highways, and on and on. Twenty-three-year-old Paul Jury set off on his own road tour in 2003—partly as a stunt; partly as the hopeful exploit of a recent college graduate wondering what to do with his life; and partly, as the song goes, to look for America.

Jury's specific goal was to drive through all forty-eight contiguous states in forty-eight days (he didn't succeed). His map looks like a 19,000-mile placemat doodle. Or one of those puzzles with nine squares that you have to pass your pencil through without ever lifting from the page.

As a book reviewer, I'm grateful that Jury plainly states the year his trip took place, the starting and ending days, his age and stage of life. After so many travel books where I feel like a CIA analyst sifting for clues, I want to buy this author a cup of coffee for offering his readers a few straightforward facts.

Jury's misadventures are written in a young man's casual, offhand style, full of colloquialisms and slang—he sounds like a cross between a blogger and a slightly hung-over dorm-room raconteur. Little chance that States of Confusion will have the lasting power of Mark Twain's Innocents Abroad, or Steinbeck's Travels with Charley, or one of Paul Theroux's more acidulous train trips, but I was often charmed with Jury's hijinks and mild calamities: drinking beer with a pair of ex-cons in Arkansas, panicking in a corn maze in Kansas. To his credit, he writes in the time-honored tradition of comic self-deprecation, and he never shies from portraying himself as the butt of the joke. States of Confusion is a jaunty, talky, funny, low-impact spin through the several states.

William Caverlee is a contributing writer to The Oxford American Magazine, and the author of Amid the Swirling Ghosts and Other Essays, from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press, His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Louisiana Cultural Vistas, Flight Journal, Aviation History, World War II Quarterly, and The Writer's Presence. His fiction has appeared in Cimarron Review, The Florida Review, and other literary quarterlies.

Also in this issue:

To a Mountain in Tibet

Buy To a Mountain in Tibet in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK

Time Zones, Containers and Three Square Meals a Day

Buy Time Zones, Containers and Three Square Meals a Day in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK

States of Confusion

Buy States of Confusion in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK

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