The Travels – Marco Polo

When he cast his eyes over this astonishing treasure, Hulegu was amazed, and had the caliph brought before him. ‘Caliph,’ he said to him, ‘why did you hoard so much treasure? What did you intend to do with it? And were you not aware that I was your enemy and that I was coming against you with a huge army to dispossess you? When you realized this, why did you not take your treasure and give it to the knights and mercenaries to defend you and your city? The caliph gave no answer, because he did not know what to say. And then Hulegu said to him: ‘Caliph, since I can see how dearly you love treasure, I will give you your own to eat.’ Then he had the caliph taken and put in the treasure tower, and he ordered that nothing be given to him to eat or drink.

“You see Marco, You’ve really had a wonderful life..”
That’s what I imagine Marco being told after he departed this world in January 1324, or maybe by Rustichello da Pisa when the two were imprisoned with one another in Genoa, and Marco related some of his travels to his fellow inmate.

It was during this time in captivity that Polo dictated his travels to Rustichello, who, many believe, embellished them with fanciful tales and anecdotes of his own, in a style similar to his own previous works. Marco’s travels, some with his father and uncle, had taken Polo about 15,000 miles in 24 years, through central Asia and China and included time in the service of Kublai Khan.

There has been debate on the veracity of some, if not all, of the book since the middle ages, and in his preface Nigel Cliff discusses some of these, as well as where he has taken the travels from, as numerous versions exist, in place of the original manuscript by Rustichello.

It is likely that Polo included places that he only had second hand information on, or hearsay of places near to where he did travel, it is also likely that some of the directions and distances are wrong, recalling from memory every step of a 15,000 mile journey can be no easy task, and Rustichello would surely have allowed himself some novel flourishes in amongst the litany of people who are idolators, subjects of the great Khan and who use paper money, but why write off the whole of the travels as fanciful story telling? I reckon you would be hard pushed to find any travel book that did not contain second hand experiences and fanciful storytelling. Indeed Polo is one person in all of the world in all of time I would love to meet, to sit down and listen to. An early traveller who recorded much of the mundane of the world he witnessed as well as the fanciful so that people would start to have an understanding of a place an people who, with a different history could have swept through Europe and ruled them in Genghis’s time. He travelled through eastern Europe, central Asia and the eastern China and touched Myanmar and India in a route that would be difficult to follow today, and in a time where he would have had no preconceptions of what he would see and experience.

I do admit the book in some ways can get monotonous, and Rustichello’s conversational style throughout does get tiring but it is the substance that interests me, not the style, and there is plenty of that. The Penguin Classics edition comes with an introduction, a timeline, maps, an appendix and notes and it didn’t feel like a chore to slip back and forth between them all when reading to better understand the experiences.

To focus on the debate is to miss the point for me, Marco did travel, and I personally believe, for the most part did experience the peoples and customs he writes about, and his book expanded the horizons of western readers. This is why I could sit and listen, question and marvel at his experiences, experiences which, ultimately, he had no need to share, yet did so in order to let others read about people and places they could only imagine.
I expect some of the early criticism came because the Travels inadvertently paints the christian west as backward compared to the opulent and civilised east, and as we are witnessing today, the ignorant are not taken to receiving criticism kindly.

First, though, we will tell you about their battle tactics. You should know that every soldier is under orders to carry sixty arrows into battle: thirty smaller ones for piercing and thirty larger ones with broad heads, which they use for shooting at close quarters, aiming for the face and arms or cutting through bowstrings and inflicting heavy losses. And I can also tell you that when they have shot all their arrows they lay hold of swords and clubs and deal mighty blows with them. Now I have told you how they go into battle, so we will return to the matter at hand.




I’ve been busy moving into my new flat but I’m slowly managing to sort everything out but right before I moved in I had to go to Madrid for work, and so I took a day off and extended the trip over the weekend and went to Toledo.


Elephant Complex – John Gimlette

Of all the sudden, unexpected spaces, my favourite was Galle Face Green. It was slap next door to the ocean, and was so long that the far end often vanished into the spray. Although never quite the hub of Colombo (nowhere is), it’s always been through of as the natural place to fly a kit, display an army, or walk off a dish of mulligatawny. In the evening, half the city would be here, crunching up roasted crabs, or tottering into the waves, saris hoiked up to the waist. Alice would have loved it. One of the gypsy’s monkeys was always dressed as an Englishman, and, up by the lighthouse, all the anti-aircraft guns wore little quilted jackets.

I’m going to say it, John Gimlette is now officially my number one travel author. Sorry Paul Theroux, you held on for a good while. But while Mr Gimlette will no doubt revel in his new found glory, I will concede that for me, Elephant Complex was not as enjoyable as his romp around Paraguay or the Guyana’s and Suriname. Why did I bother reading it I hear you mumble, as you flick onto the next blog. For those of you who stay, I want to say I was hoping my love of Gimlette would pull Sri Lanka into the orbit of my interest.

Travel Writing can’t just be about the author, which sounds obvious, but reading this drove the lingering doubt out of my mind. It seems I’m not much of an armchair traveller, I have to have an interest in the place, almost care about it, and while I thought I might have an interest in Sri Lanka, I don’t.

Gimlette’s own interest in Sri Lanka came from local Tamil’s who lived near him in London, and after months of planning he dives headfirst into this complex land drenched in the history of racial violence, incursions from Portuguese, Dutch and the stubborn buffoons of England. Gimlette travels this history, meeting all types of Sri Lankans, both native and historical interlopers as he traces the story of this remarkable and historically important island and detailing the savagery both past and more recently present of the foreign powers who coveted Sri Lanka and the natives who despised each other enough to drown it in blood.

He meets people from all sides, as he marvels at the native Elephants, the gigantic reservoirs, the mysterious kingdom of Kandy, the awesome passion for cricket and the wildmen of the east.  All the while Gimlette observes characteristics of the people, flora and fauna, and how they are coming to terms of a recent peace after decades of brutal civil war, which somehow left the country’s tourism unscathed. Using a mix of local transport and hired drivers there is little of the land that he does not scrabble around in. He treks in the wild with guides and stays in dilapidated hotels, all the while poking under stones and into matters and issues that form the strata of this complex country.

It is a credit to Gimlette that he stays objective in his retelling of the history, despite his friendship of Tamil exiles in London. He recounts the atrocities and absurdities from both sides in the civil war that barely bumped into the news around the world except very occasionally, before sinking without a trace. The episode of India stepping in, which eventually ends up uniting the two enemies is something I was completely unaware of. It’s not all warfare though, although after such a long, horrific and recent period of conflict it is always there, just bubbling under the surface. Gimlette’s family come out to spend some time with him during his three months on the island, and he visits the tea plantations and the more hidden locations to properly inject himself into this physically beautiful island.

Sri Lanka was somewhere I was thinking of visiting a few years ago, and indeed a friend of mine had been recently and commented on how amazing it is. However, Gimlette’s thorough exploration has sated any lingering interest I had. Maybe I am an armchair traveller after all.

Sanath never got to inspect the half-eaten man, and was unfazed by this brush with eternity. He still drove like a fighter pilot and blamed the English whenever the road wasn’t there.
In a sense he was right. A lot of these roads were English, many of them engineered by a single man: Thomas Skinner. He began building highways in 1820 at the age of sixteen. ‘Ceylon,’ the governor had said, ‘needs firstly roads, secondly roads and thirdly roads.’ For the next forty-seven years, Skinner worked to this brief, covering the island in over three thousand miles of road.


Shadow of the Silk Road – Colin Thubron

You wander through courtyards interlocked like those of a Ming palace, where the stelae are carved alternately in Arabic or Mandarin, and a minaret rises out of a porcelain-tiled pagoda. Stone dragons and tortoises coil and slumber here and there, ignorant of the Muslim ban on living images. The roofs tilt and swing above their high-coloured eaves, and across the lintels Chinese birds and flowers flock round Koranic inscriptions. An imam’s sermon booms over the loudspeakers from a prayer-hall  strung with neon lights. The voice is emphatic, overamplified, but I can barely comprehend a word.

Starting in Xian in China, Colin Thubron charts as much of the old Silk road as he can, traversing what must be some of the least travelled parts of the world as he skirts the Taklamakan desert (Its name perhaps means ‘abandoned place’. but in local parlance ‘You go in and you never return.’ In it’s heart, unlike the Sahara, nothing lives.) through to central Asia, following the mix of people, philosophies, religion and of course, goods between East and West, finally looking out of the Mediterranean Sea at Antioch.

I’ve seen Thubron’s books on the shelf before, but have always passed him over, heading straight instead to Theroux, or more recently Gimlette or Jacobs. A novelist, like Theroux, the difference seemed that Theroux seemed to go to places that I wanted to read about, but Thubron didn’t. However I have had a slow burning interest in central Asia for a while, although I couldn’t say where it comes from, and a trip along the old Silk Road is something that appeals to the wanderlust in me.

Starting along with Thubron was a struggle, his China seemed impenetrable, conversation with locals muffled and difficult to understand, they being as inscrutable to the outsider as the country itself. It seemed Thubron himself was suffering, his conversation with the Sogdian trader indicating a descent into madness. The air clears some though as he reaches western China and skirts the Taklamakan desert along it’s southern route to Kashgar, before passing deep into Central Asia, an area that in my mental map is marked by here be dragons, so little do I know about it. Thubron fills the book with history, his interactions with the locals and officials, but it is prose that slowly seeps into your conscious, his descriptions of the places he ghosts through. It is beautiful, his descriptions at once evocative but distant, not immediately recognisable. As he filled out my geographical and historical black hole, winding down through to Afghanistan and Iran I took in the history but enjoyed it as if it was fiction, such was his elegant pen. Thubron has a natural curiosity that draws him deep into the history and nuances of a place. Even his trespassing in Meshed, something that for some reason I disagreed with, was something that was done our of pure curiosity, rather than a malicious incursion into forbidden territory. From the buried stoicism of the Uighur people to the state of Islam in Iran there is a melancholic yet piercing glance at the places and people of this historically critical part of the world, and it’s a trip I would love to take at some point myself, although I’m pretty sure I couldn’t write about it quite like this.

For more than half the year the sky above the sky above the town was opaque muslin, dense with unseen sand, and the sun only a white coin discarded there. From the invisible Kun Lun mountains, the twin Black and White Jade rivers cam winding out of mist between banks of silt and pebbles, flowing through the oasis to the desert. The Kun Lun seem to retreat forever into a cold elusiveness. here, in the Chinese mind, bloomed the orchards of immortality and the white land of death, where the Queen Mother of the West ruled from her jade mountain at the gate of heaven.


The Old Patagonian Express – Paul Theroux

Neither an explorer nor a hitch-hiker; no rucksack, no compass. Just a tidy little suitcase and small gold-rimmed glasses covered with dust, an empty Pepsi bottle and a sandwich wrapper, sitting with Teutonic uprightness through the tumbling hinterland of Chiapas. His map was small, he had no other book, he did not drink beer. In a word, a skinflint.

Paul Theroux, author, traveller, grumpy old man. Even though he made this trip in 1978, when he wasn’t so old. It’s what I love about him, he judges fellow passengers with acerbic wit yet at the same time tempers his complaints about the grind of travel with the the enjoyment he gets from it’s many pleasures.

Another re-read to tide me over until some fresh words, the whole premise of The Old Patagonian Express was to track a train in his native Boston and to travel as far south as he could. There was no set itinerary, just a world train timetable and an ultimate destination of as far south as possible. Starting in a freezing Boston buried in snow, Theroux boards a commuter train and just keeps going. He passes through pretty much everywhere, never staying for more than a couple of days, unless waiting for a connection, this is Theroux travelling on his love of train journeys. The simple relaxing pleasures, even when stuck on a train in Mexico for hours on end, a simple beer stretched out on the empty benches of his car as the sun goes down makes up for the hours of interminable boredom, the realisation that at times the drudgery of the journey has taken his enjoyment of the scenery away, yet at others he finds it uplifting:

It is not often that one gets a view like this in a train and it was so beautiful that I could forget the heat and the dust, the broken seats, and was uplifted by the sight of the hills way down and the nearer hills of coffee and bamboo. For the next half-hour of this descent, it was an aerial railway diving across hills of purest green.

As usual he talks to as many people as he can, finding the Guatemalans taciturn yet the Salvadorean’s more open and friendly. The football match in San Salvador between El Salvador and Mexico is a highlight, as it descends into farce and violence. More often than not it seems the train is abhorred, the quicker, more comfortable bus a preferable alternative to all those that can afford it’s modernity. Unfortunately that doesn’t include Mr Thornberry, one of the more famous travelling companions Theroux has met. Despite his clear loathing of Thornberry, it is this old man that rescues Theroux when he has nowhere to sleep, even if it means turning in at nine pm.

There is a jump to South America, and indeed there are a few times when Theroux just appears in the next country seemingly without touching a rail. He settles into Quito and has to pull himself away from the parties and colonial churches as he treks through Peru and Bolivia down to Argentina. Another highlight is the time he spends with Borges, reading to the author and going to dinner with him before the final stretch of his journey to Esquel.

Despite it’s age, The Old Patagonian Express still reads well, Theroux is best when on the move and he writes this simple trip extended across a continent with wit and a keen eye, that leaves you wishing the line went just that bit further.

…it ought to be possible to make your way by road through Nicaragua, if only to judge how much reckless exaggeration there is in the commonly held view that Nicaragua is the worst eyesore in the world: the hottest, the poorest, the most savagely governed, with a murderous landscape and medieval laws and disgusting food. I had hoped to verify this. The inhospitable country, like the horrible train ride, has a way of bringing a heroic note to the traveller’s tale.


Andes – Michael Jacobs

I proceeded without much optimism to the store and found him exactly where he was said to be. But he hadn’t got the key. His wife had it. He helped me track her down. She had the key, but had no idea how much she had to charge me for a European call. One of the many bystanders said the schoolteacher would know. We went to the school and interrupted the teacher in the middle of a class. She had a long talk with me about Spain. She too didn’t know what the call would cost. A discussion ensued, in which some of the school children joined in. The outcome was that I was going to be charged 60 cents a minute. We moved on triumphantly to the office. The phone was not working.

So I’ll open with the statement that this is probably going to be a ridiculous review. In a unintentional best of three, Michael Jacobs has won me over with Andes. I loved Ghost Train through the Andes, but struggled with The Robber of Memories and Jacobs is not far behind John Gimlette as my favourite travel writer (both have currently passed Paul Theroux). Jacobs is extremely likeable and honest and like Gimlette, has clearly done extensive research into the history of his route, there is a lot of Bolivar and Humboldt throughout, but the book wears this lightly. Flying into Venezuela he skirts in and out of the mountains, into Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina as he hops down the spine of the great range.

What’s so ridiculous about that, I know you’re thinking. In Ghost Train, Jacobs was clearly on a train, in the Robber of Memories, Jacobs was clearly on the River Magdalena. In Andes, it didn’t feel like Jacobs was in the Andes.
Now you’re thinking, yes, this is ridiculous, he clearly was in the Andes, and he clearly writes about it, the book, is called Andes. But at the end of the book, it felt like he dipped in and out of the Andes, purely because they were in between where he wanted to go, but perhaps that is the problem with travelling down a mountain range, you can’t really do it properly unless you’re a bird, or some kind of goat, or in this case Alpaca.

My brain blip aside, this is a thoroughly enjoyable book if you love South America, Mountains or Humboldt. Jacobs seems to have an extensive range of friends and contacts, so has plenty of people to meet and places to explore with them. At one point genesis founder and author Chris Stewart joins him for a time as they tramp around Peru, sometimes riding on Stewart’s celebrity and other times keeping it hidden. There are plenty references to previous wanderers down this part of the world, aside from Humboldt, including Isherwood and fleetingly, Theroux.

Despite he’s almost whirlwind tour down the chain there are times when the impact of the mountains is plain, never more so than the in the lives of the bus drivers who plough up and over or round these massive road blocks. I have been over them a couple of times in Peru, thankfully it was either dark or I was sat at the rear of the bus, so was happily oblivious to the precariousness of my journey. Indeed Jacobs dedications at the beginning of the book include the bus drivers.

There are times when coincidences or events are almost too perfect to be real, Jacobs loves setting up an encounter or an incident that allows him to reflect, but there are too few to really affect the reading, he is less grumpy than Theroux, has much more interest in the history, but still enough curiosity about the present to make an interesting read. Given the size of the book it is perhaps more for someone who really likes Mountains, or Humboldt, or South America, or all three. At the same time, reading the book will be a lot quicker, and safer than trying to traverse the whole chain yourself, so, well done Michael, and thank you.

When, in 1838, Darwin finally published an account of his journey on the Beagle, with its enthralled description of the Andean crossing, he timidly sent a copy, with accompanying letter, to the man whose spirit runs through the whole book, Alexander von Humboldt. Humboldt’s approbation was the greatest praise he could hope to get. ‘You told me in your kind letter,’ wrote the great German, ‘that, when you were young, the manner in which I studied and depicted nature in the torrid zones contributed towards exciting in you the ardour and desire to travel in distant lands. Considering the importance of your work, Sir, this may be the greatest success that my humble work could bring.’