Perceptive Travel Book Reviews October 2019
by Susan Griffith

In this issue: a daring trip along the Indus River through Pakistan, a slickly produced photographic book of the earth's 100 best places to visit, and a valuable repository of tips on where travel budgets stretch the furthest.

From the Lion's Mouth: A Journey Along the Indus
By Iain Campbell

One of the great rivers of Asia, rising in Tibet and flowing through Ladakh and (mainly) Pakistan, is the Indus, said to have its source in a Tibetan lion, and its mouth 2,250 miles away in a huge delta on the Arabian Sea. Between the two, it flows through forbidding mountains and inhospitable terrain, which a 24-year-old Iain Campbell set out to explore in 2004. He rejected his first idea of traversing the river by canoe on the grounds of tricky logistics and possible monotony. He plumps instead to travel by bus and on foot. Months later in Baltistan he sees the river forced through a narrow chasm, and realizes that the journey by boat would have been impossible, as practical as "trying to hose a peanut through a sieve."

Pakistan is considered by many a pariah state and off the radar of most travelers. Kashmir has been much in the news recently, for the wrong reasons. This negative publicity is partly what motivated the author to write the book 15 years after his expedition. I should declare an interest: it was my own trip to the Swat Valley and along Pakistan's Karakoram Highway not long after it opened (he spells it Karakorum for some reason) that cemented my love of wild and little-visited places. Of course I could never have undertaken his journey, largely because I lacked his accomplishments as a mountaineer and his ability to assimilate as a speaker of Urdu and a smoker.

Young as he is, he has reliable instincts when hiring local guides to undertake grueling hikes such as a 13-hour day trip to see the possible fragmentary remnants of a fort left by Alexander the Great in 326BC and a ten-day circuit of Nanga Parbat. On one terrifying occasion, his party meets Zangoti tribesmen who threaten them with violence unless they employ their less equipped, less knowledgeable porters. Campbell describes his adventures with impressive modesty. Often his journey was dangerous, but he doesn't draw attention to this.

He is a careful observer and a good listener, especially to local legends that he retells to good effect. Many of the people with whom he interacts are deeply superstitious, but he never mocks. In fact he finds himself wondering whether fairies can exist when a stone is thrown at him from a desolate mountainside where no human could be. The contrast is stark between these remote mysterious tracts and heavily touristed Leh in Ladakh with its eight German bakeries. He can't help but feel a "hypocritical distaste" for all these over-equipped westerners after his solo travels.

In the epilogue he reminds us that this journey took place before the era of GPS. Parts of this book read like a real throwback to the age of exploration. Some of the wondrous sights he saw—of Sufi shrines, of ancient rituals, of marginal fishermen—have been dealt terrible blows by Islamic fundamentalism or modernization. Another danger comes from the melting of glaciers which means that one day, perhaps by 2070, the Indus will run dry. Even if this particular destination does not appeal to all readers, From the Lion's Mouth is an enthralling account of venturing into uncharted territories.

The Rough Guide to the 100 Best Places on Earth 2020
Edited by Helen Fanthorpe

Clear a place on your coffee table for the new large-format guide to 100 of the Best Places on Earth. The photography is uniformly outstanding, of natural and man-made wonders, of people and food. A page showing the gleaming Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem precedes a perfect shot of a leopard draped over a tree in the Maasai Mara. Flipping through this book will persuade you that the world is a beautiful and colorful place, that indigenous Amazonian women beam smiles, that the coral of the Great Barrier Reef is as plentiful as ever and that sunsets always glow golden.

How many "ultimate bucket list" travel books have we seen in recent years? The Introduction to this one refers to emerging destinations—the year 2020 appears in the title—and even mentions the word "underrated". But a list of the 100 best places on earth necessarily includes places that are already mega-hyped—from the Taj Mahal to Venice, Red Square to Niagara Falls. Inevitably, books like this see the world through rose-tinted spectacles. Dubrovnik and Venice look supremely picturesque, of course, and convey no hint that the mayors of these cities have been tearing their hair out at how to deal with the overwhelming number of tourists. Perhaps a different editorial policy might have favored alternative gems like Zadar in Croatia, or Arezzo in Italy. But then readers would question how it is possible for Venice to be left out of a compendium of the earth's 100 best places. Editors can't win.

Some of the selections are entire countries: Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, Bolivia, Cuba...Great cities like London, Rome, Prague and New York are featured as well as more specific places like single buildings (e.g. the Sagrada Família in Barcelona) or statues (Genghis Khan in Ulaanbaatar). Pity the hacks who had to pen a mere 200 words to sum up the glories of Iceland or Uluru, Petra or the Sahara, without resorting to cliché. On the whole, they have made a valiant attempt. The pages I gazed at with most interest spotlighted more unfamiliar places like "Saxon Switzerland," an area of rock pinnacles in southeastern Germany as featured on the book's cover, Uvita beach on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica shaped like a whale's tail, and the Wynwood Walls in Miami. One I'd never heard of—Penwith—turns out to be an area of west Cornwall that I visited in June without realizing that it isn't always referred to as the "Land's End Peninsula."

cheapest destinations

The World's Cheapest Destinations: 26 Countries Where Your Travel Money is Worth a Fortune (5th edition)
By Tim Leffel

Turning away from an idealized and exotic image of travel, we turn to a more realistic approach whose watchword is affordability. This book is not for bucket-listers who dream of seeing Paris in the springtime nor for those who aim to tick off the Taj Mahal, Terracotta Army and Copacabana from their wish list. There are books and blogs aplenty that cover the greatest hits. But if your mind is more open than your wallet, lesser-known travel destinations may seem more appealing. Who knew that an all-day ski lift ticket at some minor resorts in the Transylvanian Alps can cost less than 10 euros? Or that you can buy a two-liter pitcher of beer for as little as 60¢ at a sidewalk stall in Vietnam? I defy anyone to cast their eyes over some of these meticulously researched sample costings and not be convinced that perhaps they can afford to travel to distant parts of the world after all.

The author (and esteemed editor of Perceptive Travel) performs a very useful service to readers by updating this title at intervals. His first edition appeared 17 years ago, and he is in a unique position to track trends and identify shifts in which areas of the world are the most rewarding while being the most affordable for travelers. The good news is that some of the best bargains are still available.

One of the themes is that couples or pairs of travelers tend to get better deals than singletons, which might be a bit discouraging for those who prefer to travel alone or who have no ready travel partner. Not surprisingly, the information for mid-range travelers is stronger than it is for backpackers, because this is the way the author (sometimes with his family) travels. He is open about this bias, and puts his personal experiences to excellent use. He describes a "splurge meal" that cost less than $50 in Cambodia for his wife's birthday. Anecdotes bring the factual information to life. For example he confesses that once in Jyrgalan, a dry village in Kyrgyzstan (one of his favorite countries), he hired a local to fetch a big stash of beer for their group from the next town.

Occasionally he presumes too much knowledge in the reader, for example when he drops in references to the Schengen visas without clear explanation. There is the odd cop-out: prices in India vary according to season, without specifying. Intriguing references are sometimes left dangling, for example to the ruin pubs of Budapest which not every reader will know refer to derelict industrial buildings turned into hip drinking establishments. But these are minor quibbles. I like the fact that this book endorses the Slow Travel trend: a constant theme is that moving quickly will double your daily budget.

Susan Griffith is a Canadian travel writer and editor based in Cambridge England, who writes books and articles for adventurous working travelers. Starting with the classic Work Your Way Around the World and Teaching English Abroad, she has also turned her attention to gap years and has written definitive guides for the young and the not-so-young: Your Gap Year and Gap Years for Grown-ups. She also contributes hotel reviews to the Daily Telegraph, a British daily newspaper.

See the last round of book reviews from Susan Griffith

Also in this issue:

From the Lion's Mouth: A Journey Along the Indus

Buy From the Lion's Mouth: A Journey Along the Indus at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Amazon UK

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The Rough Guide to the 100 Best Places on Earth 2020

Buy The Rough Guide to the 100 Best Places on Earth 2020 at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Amazon UK

The World's Cheapest Destinations: 26 Countries Where Your Travel Money is Worth a Fortune

Buy The World's Cheapest Destinations: 26 Countries Where Your Travel Money is Worth a Fortune at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Buy on Amazon
Amazon UK